Apart from Wenger’s pre-Ozil smirk, and the mad trolley dash after the 8-2 debacle at Old Trafford, Arsenal invariably seem determined to disappoint whichever poor sod from Sky Sports pulls the straw of standing outside Emirates stadium on his/her own attempting to feign enthusiasm at a total lack of rumours and 10 kids from the local estate giving them grief.
This year is even more pronounced, with not even a single rumour of a rogue loan signing or French 16-year-old to keep news ticker watchers entertained.
With Elneny’s arrival confirmed all bar the work permit since before the new year, and the signing of stalwarts of the U17 World Cup winning Nigerian team Kelechi Nwakali and Samuel Chukwueze also a long time coming, even January’s speculation about Arsenal incoming transfers has smacked of journalistic desperation. With the amount of global column inches dedicated to the potential re-call and re-loan of youngster Serge Gnabry (who has barely played in eighteen months), and the blindfolded darts approach to Debuchy’s impending loan deal, it’s been a month of barrel-scraping for click-bait gossip columnists.
Probably the greatest excitement in this arena has been the brief internet explosion off the back of a relatively disreputable Ukrainian site suggesting that Arsenal were in negotiations to sign Andriy Yarmolenko in the summer transfer window, despite him just signing a new contract. Desperate times and all that…
There is good reason that those desperate to generate column inches have had little to write about in north London. With Arsenal three points off the top of the table despite an awful month after another spectacular collection of injuries, and with a number of the legions of the fallen rising from their treatment room graves, we have a heady mix of a lack of ‘Arsenal in crisis’ headlines combined with a whole host of ‘like a new signing’ action between now and May.
Naturally, anyone familiar with this squad will be preaching caution at this stage. Despite Wenger’s scotching of rumours of a further setback for Jack Wilshere, the fact remains that he, Danny Welbeck and Santi Cazorla will all have been out for a considerable amount of time. Experience has taught us that lengthy injuries often lead to a succession of smaller ones as the player regains full fitness, as we were eloquently reminded of by the thigh injury sustained by Tomas Rosicky in his weekend comeback cameo. Equally, we’ve all seen the physio room door revolving before, with the Football Gods seemingly operating a one-in one-out policy with Arsenal injuries.
Optimism remains, however, due to the emergence and re-emergence of players over the last couple of months.
Although Flamini’s limitations have been exposed in big games over the last fortnight or so, he has shown himself a surprisingly viable option to be called upon in duress, as long as he isn’t pressed into too much regular action. Certainly as Coquelin returns to full fitness, I’d expect to see our elder Frenchman be rotated into games against lesser fancied opponents in order to keep others fresh. He will remain a useful option off the bench, with his versatility always useful.
Callum Chambers has also demonstrated a slightly greater first team viability than may have appeared the case in previous months, particularly with the slightly Swiss army knife nature of his recent deployment. While still a long way off challenging for a starting spot in any particular role, recent appearances at centre back, full-back and in midfield, have shown enough to suggest that he can be pressed into service when needed.
Joel Campbell’s transformation from the forgotten man to a significant contributor has understandably received a lot of attention, in part because it has taken everyone by surprise. Having looked rather out of his depth in his first appearances for the club, in recent weeks he has not only out-shone Theo Walcott, but crucially demonstrated the mentality for the big occasion. With impressive levels of work-rate matching the skill that had previously only been seen by fans of Olympiakos, the Costa Rican’s comparative rawness is now a cause for optimism regarding future development rather than just frustration and disappointment. Key to this has been his development of effective partnerships with Giroud, Ramsey and Bellerin.
In Wenger-ball, cohesion and effective teamwork are placed at a higher premium than individual skill, and this, combined with his ability to cover both wide positions and, at a push, up front, mean that we have gained a very valuable squad member, seemingly from nowhere.
In a similar vein, recent cameos from Alex Iwobi, building on his pre-season showings, suggest that Arsenal have another previously unheralded option, capable of making an impact on the squad. Although it is early days, and he hasn’t made an impact on the score sheet as of yet, he has had a key part in goals in both his cup appearances for the club in the number 10 role, as well showing promise in his brief appearance up at Stoke.
As Arsene Wenger said after the game at the weekend:
“His decision-making is spot on and his awareness is very interesting. He’s very clever. I like the timing and the quality of his decision-making. He always turns where you want him to turn and he plays the ball where you want him to play the ball.”
As I commented on the Daily Cannon Podcast, he is in many ways the antithesis of the usual headline-grabbing youngster. While undoubtedly skilled, he doesn’t grab the eye with outrageous moments a la flash in the pan Gunners David Bentley, J-E-T and Quincy. He is not lightning quick or incredibly physical. He is just an incredibly well rounded player with extremely well developed decision making, which of course is perfect for a Wenger team.
His emergence is particularly interesting for two reasons. Firstly, he is extremely versatile, having looked comfortable in the reserves up front, on either flank, behind the striker and even in central midfield. To the degree that no-one appears sure which position is his best. This is aided by his calm distribution off either foot.
Secondly, his development has been dramatic, absorbing from training with the first team at an extraordinary rate. As the manager commented, two years ago very few would have earmarked him for more than maybe a Carling Cup game or two in his Arsenal career;
“He’s one who, when he was a kid, could pass you by if you don’t watch well in training but I personally like this game.”
As such, it’s hard to predict a ceiling for Jay-Jay’s nephew, but crucially, his performances seem to improve up to the level of his team-mates, and although in no danger of being first choice for a good while, I think most Gooners have seen enough to feel comfortable if and when he has to be drafted into the side. And with the noisy neighbours down the road enjoying the unlikely emergence of their slack-jawed hit-man, it’s nice that we may also be witnessing the surprise rise of ‘one of our own’.
Lastly, but possibly more important than any of the above, the one first team signing the club has made could well be a crucial one. On debut against Burnley, Mohammed Elneny demonstrated all the qualities that the odd Basle fixture and scouting reports had told us to expect. Mobile, determined, calm in possession and in favour of a long range shot, while he still has much to learn about the physicality of the English game, he looks a player who can step in and contribute immediately. Alongside the returning Coquelin (probably more important than any of the above!), our Egyptian had more of a roaming role, and with more touches than anyone else, and a heat map that seemed to cover all the space between the two penalty areas, he certainly took that brief to heart. His ability to cover ground, and willingness to play in whatever space of the pitch he is needed will be a valuable addition to a midfield too often characterised by a lack of defensive mobility, and his willingness to shoot from range will surely yield some results before it is coached out of him. Indeed, on more than one occasion he was close to the debut goal I predicted for him.
And again, like all the aforementioned, he is a multi-purpose footballer who can fulfil either role in a midfield two, and showed enough at the weekend to suggest he could be effectively pressed into action elsewhere if need be.
With the re-discovery of Flamini and Chambers and the effective additions of Campbell, Iwobi and Elneny, Arsenal have returned to the point we hoped we would be in over the summer before the injuries kicked in. We now have a full squad (at least until the likely summer departures of Flamini, Arteta and Rosicky), and actually don’t have any more space within EPL squad size limitations for any more senior pros. The upshot of this is that we essentially have cover for every position, and this is only likely to get better as others return. Not to mention the promise shown (albeit inconsistently) by our loanees. Akpom, Toral, Hayden, Maitland-Niles, Zelalem and of course Szczesny have all shown that they may be worth another peek in pre-season 16/17.
Which takes us back to the lack of transfer window activity. With it no longer being a numbers game, Arsenal are back in the position that Wenger likes to be. That is, only looking at bringing in the most promising youngsters or focusing on ‘top, top’ players. And, of course, we all know how rarely they move in January, particularly before a major tournament. Not even Real Madrid do their annual discarding of one shiny toy for another in January, and accordingly Wenger has said repeatedly that although he was open to brining one more man in (presumably to coincide with Debuchy going somewhere), he didn’t expect any more signings after Elneny. Although his parting shot on the subject at Monday’s press conference suggests that he is always open to doing business;
“If Messi knocks on my door I won’t send him back…”