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In Search of More Arsenal Deals

This transfer period has brought just one newcomer into the Arsenal team that finished the 2014-15 season. That’s goalkeeper Petr Cech, who arrived from Chelsea on June 29.

The only other developments have been one-year contract extensions for veteran midfielders Mikel Arteta and Tomas Rosicky and the departure of the loaned-out forward Lukas Podolski.

The noise you’ll hear is coming from the critics and the fantasists, perpetually clamoring for the perfect deep-lying midfielder and center forward. Meanwhile, those of us who want to understand the club’s football strategy, priorities, decisions, and actions remain calm and look for clues in statements and documented activities.

Although the evidence isn’t plentiful, we can draw three conclusions thus far and identify several implications for the shape of the 2015-16 squad.

1. The timeworn transfer narrative is moot

The theme of financial restrictions has dominated the story of Arsenal’s work in player transfers. Call Arsenal a selling club, because every year from 2004 to 2012 it sold at least one of its stars and rarely acquired a high-profile player. The self-sustaining financial model demanded it.

That blunt and clumsy characterization, which didn’t always capture the net transfer activity, is certainly invalid now. Thanks to increasing commercial and television revenues, a sizable cash stake, and easing stadium debt, the financials no longer require player sales to fund acquisitions or other operations. As a result, manager Arsène Wenger can keep the players he values rather than see them leave (Arteta, Rosicky), and “project” players–young, out-of-favor, or undiscovered–no longer dominate the acquisitions.

These new dynamics were made flesh in the last two off-seasons. Recognized stars Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez joined Arsenal, while no major contributors left. Just as telling, the club paid £11 million, potentially £16 million, to acquire the unproven Southampton defender Calum Chambers. As I wrote on my personal blog last July (“Suddenly, This Summer“), the Chambers deal signaled the club’s renewed willingness to assume significant transfer risk.

This does not mean that Arsenal can compete with Europe’s big spenders for every world-class player. The point is that the club possesses the financial, cultural, and personal resources to attract a top talent or two a year, as well as accomplished or promising supporting players.

2. The professed priority for 2015 is goals

Wenger indicated toward the close of the last campaign that he was seeking additional firepower. “We need another player who gets 10 or 15 goals, but we have a good mentality and good cohesion in the team.” Maintaining that chemistry while increasing the production seem to be the imperatives for this summer’s activity, considering how the players comments have echoed Wenger’s. (See “Arsenal’s Title Ambitions.”)

The most straightforward approach to achieving both the production and chemistry objectives would be for current players to score more goals. The prime candidates are Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Danny Welbeck, and Theo Walcott. Oxlade-Chamberlain had just one goal in 23 league appearances in 2014-15, while Welbeck scored four times in 25 league matches.

Walcott is the most interesting case. He did not return to action until mid-season, then started just four league contests among his 14 league appearances. Despite this limited action, he netted five goals in the league, opened the scoring in the FA Cup final, and was productive on a per-90-minute basis. This output led some observers, notably @PoznanInMyPants in “FEEEEEEOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!,” to suggest that Walcott is the goalscorer Arsenal craves.

There’s evidence for this proposition in Walcott’s returns last season and in his production in 32 league appearances in 2012-13. According to FourFourTwo’s StatsZone app, Walcott converted 50 percent of his “big chances” that year, had 40 key passes, and delivered 10 assists. These numbers are comparable to the 2014-15 statistics of the center forwards on many fans’ wish lists, including Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema and Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette. (See 7AMKickoff’s analysis “Lacazette, Higuain, Benzema, Griezmann; Does Arsenal Need an Upgrade on Giroud?“)

If Walcott stays for the next campaign, as the lack of contract drama suggests he will, my guess is that any attacking addition to the squad would have to bring something different. The most convincing argument points to a wide playmaker. Tim Stillman makes that case in his Arseblog column “What Does Wenger Want to Add to his Front Three?

But the quality of Arsenal’s existing forward line and the team’s overall cohesion mean that a newcomer would have to be a top talent with the right mindset. Wenger and his colleagues will be vigilant for opportunities that meet these standards, but they won’t see an addition as a necessity. The same thinking will, I expect, shape decisions about the deep midfield role–open to improvement with the right deal, but no urgency.

3. Arsenal will not traffic in wish fulfillment

Fantasy is the genre most suited to the transfer season. Supporters want their wishes fulfilled or their theories justified. They’re led to believe those possibilities by the incomplete, manipulative, and misleading public statements of many managers, players, family members, agents, and observers.

Arsenal’s representatives try to avoid this fantasy realm. They typically shoot down or refuse to answer leading questions and seem conservative in their statements’ depth and timing. These are unsatisfying stances in the make-believe land of transfers.

The club’s authorities don’t seem the least bit concerned. They’ll continue to seek ways to improve the team, taking a much longer view than most supporters do, and deciding based on realities and not fantasies. This might mean no more acquisitions this summer; or it could produce a deal that no one expects.

If you enjoy flights of fancy and can keep them in perspective, follow the rumors. If their consummation affects your support or interest, though, I’d counsel you to reassess your pastimes or choose another club to follow.

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