As someone who writes a weekly column about club football, the early summer months are often a talking point dead zone.
Hours of trying to work out if there is a worthwhile angle on the pitch being relayed or wondering whether stories from click bait articles with no quotes, links or named sources mean we really will be signing Pogba.
Not so this time.
So far it’s been as un-Arsenal-at-the-Emirates-like as there has been. Last day comedy and implausible miracle elsewhere making us feel better about under-achievement? Check. Ageing players with fitness issues allowed/encouraged to leave? Check. Quality upgrade to an already fairly well catered position? Check. Advanced stages of second probable high profile signing within a couple of weeks of season’s end? Check. Steady and continuous links to the same few other players who are all plausible, all upgrades to the squad and all want to come to Arsenal it seems? Check. Manager apparently prioritising short-term success as much as long-term planning? Check.
It’s like the anti-Arsenal tick box system, and it’s almost slightly confusing.
What is even more surprising, is that the completed signing of Xhaka, the seemingly imminent signing of Vardy, and the player encouraged rumours of Ricardo Ridriguez, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Vincent Jansen all point towards a tactical shift towards greater bite, directness and tactical flexibility.
It may yet turn out that Vardy wants to stay with his mates in the Midlands (very unlikely, but not totally implausible), and that the aforementioned linked players may be blowing smoke where there is no fire, but it feels like there is a shift in the wind.
It would appear that the manager is sufficiently fed up with under-achievement and abuse to have undertaken the kind of critical analysis that he has always claimed to, despite fan skepticism.
It also feels like he recognises that despite his love of harmony and hatred of conflict, he realises that the squad of the last couple of years is just too nice on the pitch.
Xhaka and Vardy alone would significantly upgrade our leadership and spikiness on the pitch, and both add an element of ‘street-fighting-man’ that hasn’t been seen in these parts in some time.
Looking at Vardy specifically, he seems an unusually short-term transfer target, and at 29, is nearer the end of the road than the start, despite being a late bloomer. But this makes perfect sense on a lot of levels.
He’s ready to contribute now, which is what the club needs most. Sure, it would be better to find the next TH14 and get seven years top class service, but when people are talking £50m for Alvaro Morata (who I like a lot but is still very inconsistent and has a significantly worse statistical record at every level than Nicklas Bendtner at the same age), it’s not hard to see why Wenger is looking at short-term value.
This becomes more obvious when looking longer-term. For a start, Danny Welbeck will hopefully be back in seven-to-nine months, and we have already seen evidence of his ability to return from long term injury better than before. Indeed, he was starting to show signs of being the player we hoped we’d signed until his other freak injury. Beyond that, as I explored in detail last week, the youth set up currently has the best selection of strikers seen at the age group levels in quite some time. The club must be hoping that at least one reaches the level of being able to contribute.
There is also another factor. Intriguingly, in his recent interview where he let the Vardy cat a little further out of the bag, Olivier Giroud suggested the boss wanted to sign ‘one or two strikers’. So if the Vardy deal comes off, we may yet see the introduction of another, younger front man to boost the squad options. So far, all we’ve seen on this front has been reports in the express of agreed personal terms with Antonio Colak, who, apart from showing promise both centrally and wide for Lechia Gdansk on loan in 2014/15, is an almost total unknown. Well that and Vincent Janssen flashing his bloomers in our direction following his wonderful season for AZ.
As for why Vardy makes sense for the here and now, I think we can dismiss most critics concerns about tactical compatibility. The signing of Xhaka was already an indication of a desire to mould to a more vertical counter-attacking style, which has worked to great effect in the last 18 months when Welbeck has been fit and Theo Walcott hasn’t been s@#t. Even Giroud can flourish in this set up if pacy runners can get close enough to him.
Perhaps this shift reflects a realisation that trying to emulate Barcelona when you don’t have three or four of the world’s top 10 players is rather trickier than anticipated. Or perhaps the manager has remembered that we played a more solid and explosive style.
Vardy would also be an exception to the issues outlined by Wenger in September when discussing difficulties in the acquisition of front men, “The strikers are South American today. Europe doesn’t produce strikers any more.”
It would appear that Vardy is a fairly archetypal antidote to what the manager perceives to be a large part of the problem. Modern European front men often have all the skill but not enough battling qualities or nous.
“What we produce now are good technical players because there are nice pitches out there – before you played in the park where you had to kick the ball up front and you had to fight. A boy of 12 who played against a boy of 16 had to be shrewd and push to get the ball. All those kind of things have gone.”
Certainly, no one can accuse Vardy of a lack of fight or shrewdness, and both have been praised and criticised plenty this season, not least on Daily Cannon.
Interestingly, Wenger perceived the modern academy system as being part of the problem,
“What I am convinced of is that in the academies we have to specialise the players,” Wenger said. “There is an age from five to 12 where you have the acquisition of the technical skills; at 12-14 you start to develop the speed and physical qualities; but from 14 onwards, when you start to position the players for their careers, maybe you have to work with specificity of a position again. Maybe we have to rethink completely the education and specialise earlier.”
There is something in all this that reiterates the long established broader sense that unless you are a sporting genius or innately pathologically driven, the school of hard knocks is as potent as any other if you have the strength to come through it. We all know Vardy’s story. We all know that despite any unpleasant character traits he may have demonstrated (which will be under a LOT more scrutiny if he turns out in red and white next season), his route to where he is now has instilled him with the qualities that we all have complained about this team lacking.
With Wenger praising Vardy’s goalscoring, value and ‘lion’-like qualities as far back as November, its clear that the manager has been keeping an eye on him, and now hopes he can fulfill the role that had been earmarked for Theo Walcott (who despite similar tactical and technical profiles, are like chalk and cheese in terms of character), after our number 14 largely failed his much delayed audition at centre-forward last year. We saw glimpses, particularly in the home game against Manchester United of what Theo playing with a Vardy-like attitude could achieve, and if he stays at the club this summer, lets hope our number 14 can take the lesson to heart now the competition is on the verge of being more direct than ever. If not, he could find himself on the outside looking in, or relocated to another club with more modest aspirations.
Vardy as a potential signing undoubtedly divides opinions, and certainly he has baggage. But that’s almost the point.
Among the fanbase, both the comparatively silent grumbling majority, and the very vocal angry minority have put the message fairly clearly across that they want change. And while one swallow (so far) doesn’t make a summer, there are enough signs of addressing immediate needs, increased ruthlessness and a desire to adjust tactically that changes are afoot, and hopefully, for the better.