Arsenal’s Best Options this Transfer Window
Mikel Arteta has steadied the ship at Arsenal since his recent appointment, but Saturday’s performance against Crystal Palace proved that Arsenal still have a long way to go to return to the top table of European football. The January transfer window offers the first major chance to begin this journey, and in this article, I will look at Arsenal’s best options during this month’s footballing frenzy.
Where do Arsenal need to strengthen?
Most clearly, Arsenal need to bring in a centre back and a central midfielder in order to really compete for a top-four spot. Lucas Torreira’s form has improved considerably- although improvements when he is returned to his natural position instead of a no.10, are not surprising. He is the only defensive presence that Arsenal have in midfield however, a fact which Saturday’s game at Selhurst Park demonstrated.
Although the Uruguayan didn’t have the best first half, his absence after the break was a key reason that Crystal Palace regained a foothold in the game. Matteo Guendouzi, who replaced him, is simply not of the same defensive level as Torreira.
Defensively too, Arsenal have issues. Calum Chambers, Arsenal’s best performer in this area so far this season, will not be available again for at least nine months after tearing his ACL against Chelsea.
Rob Holding is still finding his feet again after his own ACL injury, whilst Shkodran Mustafi is once again seemingly for sale. Unfortunately, the transfer budget won’t stretch to paying someone to take him off the club’s hands.
This leaves David Luiz and Sokratis as the only established centre-backs, a terrifying prospect even though they have both markedly improved under Arteta. To be fair to the pair of them, they could not have got much worse. Whilst Arsenal have got better defensively, conceding far fewer shots per game than they did under Emery, they need reinforcements.
Who solves these issues?
Of course, there are a huge number of players who solve the issues outlined above, but for the sake of this article, I am going to stick to the players who Arsenal have been linked with already by the press. I will be looking at both at centre backs who are comfortable on the ball, and also versatile midfielders who can occupy both the no.6 position as well as the further forward no.8 role.
We begin with the man most regularly linked with the Gunners. Dayot Upamecano is a 21-year-old centre back who currently plies his trade for RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga. Arsenal supposedly had a £40 million bid rejected in the summer, and Upamecano has since been a key part of Leipzig’s fantastic beginning to the season, which sees them top the Bundesliga.
The Centre-back has made over 70 passes a game on average this season, more than Harry Maguire and John Stones, two of the better ball-playing centre-backs in the league. Even more impressively, the Frenchman averages four tackles and interceptions, which is the same levels as both David Luiz and Sokratis combined.
Clearly, Upamecano would be a fantastic signing based on ability, but reservations that I have are based on his injury record. He has missed 27 games due to knee injuries in his three seasons Leipzig. Combining him with Arsenal’s poor injury record (Three ACL injuries to defenders in 12 months cannot be a coincidence) seems to be a disaster waiting to happen. He would also probably not be able to play every game, which would leave Arsenal back at square one.
I have already made my opinion on Jerome Boateng very clear in a previous article, which can be found here. In short, however, I think that a short-term move for an expensive, ageing and unfit centre back goes against everything which Arsenal are supposedly trying to build, and would be an issue in the longer-term, even if it were to allay some defensive woes for the rest of the season.
Merih Demiral was signed by Juventus for a mere £16 million in the summer transfer window, but thanks to the old lady’s simultaneous acquisition of Europe’s golden boy Mathjis De Ligt, has found playing time hard to come by. He has featured four times in the League for Juventus, conceding three times. A loan move for the Turkish international had been mooted by various outlets, as well as the rumours which linked us with his team-mate, Daniele Rugani, again.
In his limited playing time for the Italian champions, he averages 2.6 tackles and interceptions, as well as over three clearances, with a very respectable match rating of 7.23. A more detailed scout report of the defender can be found here , but his domineering profile is one which Arsenal’s defence hugely lacks. He only averages 56 passes a game, fewer than other targets, which would suggest that he is not being looked at as a ball-playing centre back. Having already signed William Saliba, who has very low passing numbers, it may be that Arsenal look for a centre-half more comfortable on the ball to partner the teenager.
The 20-year-old Lille midfielder has enjoyed a strong first half of the season in Ligue 1, racking up nearly 1600 minutes across league and cups. Primarily a defensive midfielder, the Frenchman also possesses the ability and athleticism to play further up the pitch. At Lille however, he is a no.6, as his relatively low passing numbers (just over 40 per game), show. Much like Torreira, his role is to break up play and move the ball forward without a fuss.
Arsenal already have ties with Lille, having signed Nicolas Pepe from the French club in the summer window. This history may allow them to jump to the front of a not insubstantial queue of suitors who will surely seek to prise him out of France. He fits Arsenal’s desire for young hungry players who can grow together perfectly, and would not break the bank. The club hierarchy may feel that he is too similar to Lucas Torreira to be signed unless the Uruguayan moves on however, which is looking increasingly unlikely.
Staying in Ligue 1, another player Arsenal have shown interest in is Toulouse midfielder Sangare. Also a no.6 primarily, he offers more offensively than Soumare, completing 1.2 dribbles a game, which is also more than Lucas Torreira’s 0.8. His 18 games in the league have seen him contribute zero goals and just one assist, although this is no doubt a reflection of his defensive position.
Standing at over 6ft2, he offers much greater physicality than anyone else in midfield, as well as fitting Arsenal’s aim of a tall, athletic central midfielder, something which the club has lacked since Patrick Vieira. Being just 22 years old, he also has plenty of time to reach his full potential, and would be an important part of the clubs ongoing overhaul.
A 19-year-old currently playing at RB Salzburg, Szoboszlai operates fundamentally on the left-hand-side but has the potential to be equally adept as a no.8. The Hungarian has provided two goals and three assists in his 13 games so far this season. As is to be expected, his defensive contributions are significantly lower than other names on this list, but his 2.4 shots and 1 key pass per 90mins show that there is a great deal of attacking talent in the youngster. A deal worth pursuing maybe, but unlikely to add much in January.
Arsenal are once again linked with a Swiss international from Borussia Monchengladbach for a fee in excess of £30m. Fortunately for the Gunners, that is where the similarities end.
In his 15 appearances in the Bundesliga so far this season, Zakaria has produced 2 goals and 1 assist from defensive midfield, whilst also completing 4.1 tackles and interceptions. He is a key reason that Borussia Monchengladbach find themselves 2nd in the league, having conceded just 18 goals in their 17 games, the joint best defence in Germany. Once again, he perfectly fits the mould of the player Arsenal are crying out for in their midfield, like Sangare standing at 6ft2 and being incredibly athletic.
Unfortunately for Arsenal, they are likely to be priced out of a move for the 23-year-old, with any club probably going to have to stump up over £50m in order to tempt him away from the Bundesliga. Such is his skill set, he would be a fantastic signing for any top team.
Adrien Rabiot/Emre Can
I have banded the two of these together since they would not be signed together, meaning that Arsenal would only be able to loan one or the other this January. Emre Can is a well-known character in the Premier League, having completed four seasons with prospective champions Liverpool, largely as a defensive midfielder. He is very versatile, having also filled in at Centre-half, which in of itself increases his value to Arsenal this window.
Having been signed on a free transfer, Can has been left with largely cameo roles, racking up just 279 minutes across 8 appearances for Italian giants Juventus this season. Also left out of the Turin side’s Champions League squad, it seems likely he will move on soon.
Adrien Rabiot profiles very similarly to players already in North London, and was a player Arsenal looked at signing in the summer before they ultimately loaned in Dani Ceballos from Real Madrid. Also finding game-time restricted, with just 11 appearances to his name and his path to the first team blocked by Aaron Ramsey and Miralem Pjanic, he may be reconsidering his options ahead of Euro 2020. He would definitely be a good short term solution for the Gunners.
The Bigger Question
Although a time once existed where Arsenal could lure any player at virtually any time, this era sadly no longer exists. In the process of a significant rebuild and unlikely to qualify for the Champions League once again, the Gunners no longer have the pulling power they once had.
This leaves perhaps the more fundamental question- who on this list would come to Arsenal in January? Dayot Upamecano and Denis Zakaria are both in title challenges in Germany, and would surely rather see those out than move to North London at this stage. Juventus and Bayern’s own injury problems at centre back surely rules out Demiral, Rugani and Boateng as well, especially since the European giants are both in close title races in their respective domestic leagues.
This leaves Soumare, Sangare, Can, Szoboszlai, and Adrien Rabiot. Of these, Soumare and Sangare offer the most promise but are probably not the type of midfielder to come in and be an instant hit due to their relative experience. Equally, the January window is a notoriously difficult time to sign players, and the clubs would probably ask for fees reflecting this. Szoboszlai is mainly a left-hand side player, and having lost Takumi Minamino and Erling Braut Haland to Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund respectively already this window, RB Salzburg would likely command a hefty fee.
Adrien Rabiot is a fantastic player, but is little different to Dani Ceballos, who is yet to fully recover from injury. A good passer of the ball, he is perhaps not as defensively aware as Arsenal would like, and would also command significant wages if he were to join on loan. Emre Can is by far the best option, having significant Premier League experience, as well as being able to play in a variety of positions, specifically centre-back and defensive midfield.
In my opinion, Arsenal would be best keeping their powder dry in January, when prices are high and value for money low. However, they do need reinforcements, that much is clear. Emre Can offers the best option of those who the club have been linked with, and can also be brought in for a relatively low amount of money, allowing the club to focus on acquiring their targets, such as Denis Zakaria and Dayot Upamecano, in the summer. Mikel Arteta will be given the rest of the season to “bed-in” anyway, and it is imperative that Arsenal do not once again jump to short term fixes that significantly hamper the club.
We all remember Denis Suarez.