Thrifty Arsenal preserves financial flexibility for summer
Had we listened to Raul Sanllehi, we might not have been so surprised. The former Barcelona executive and current Head of Football Operations at Arsenal told fans what to expect when his promotion in the wake of CEO Ivan Gazidis’ defection to AC Milan was announced in September. The club, Sanllehi explained, would focus on efficient squad building, and the January transfer window is no place to find good value.
Given its truncated nature compared to the summer window and placement smack dab in the middle of the season, the January window is not a place where a club commits significant resources to a squad overhaul. Certainly there are exceptions, as Barcelona’s £130 million bid last year successfully pried Philippe Coutinho away from Liverpool and the Gunners also got in on the action by swapping Alexis Sanchez to Manchester United for Henrikh Mkhitaryan and sealing a deadline day club record move for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. But generally speaking, if a club has significant work to do on the January market, it does so with tacit acknowledgement that the previous summer’s business was lacklustre or that an injury situation has put the season in danger.
It is this final point that had Arsenal fans getting their hopes up in the final days of January, as the injuries to key players have piled up. With Rob Holding, Danny Welbeck and Hector Bellerin all set to miss the rest of the season, and with the majority of the squad seeming to miss time here or there with niggling ailments, it looked as if the club might be forced to wade into the market in multiple positions, with centre back, winger and fullback high on the perceived list of priorities.
However, the results were far from enthralling for those hoping that Arsenal would make a big splash this winter, and despite numerous links to some well known players that could have been tempted into a move, the Gunners ultimately came away with just one of their targets in Barcelona’s Denis Suarez.
Suarez might have been the name most associated with Arsenal throughout the month of January, but he was far from the only one that had fans excited by the possibilities. Despite the obvious concerns about the porous defence, only made worse by the injury situation, a loan move Chelsea’s Gary Cahill was the only report that seemed to gather any steam. The 32 year old Chelsea captain has been very much on the periphery of the starting XI since Maurizio Sarri took over in West London, and it was reported throughout the month that he might leave in search of game time elsewhere.
Ultimately, nothing ever materialised between the two clubs, and the Gunners never seemed to escalate their pursuit. In spite of the moans this has caused, it was absolutely the right decision in the end. It has been apparent from the start that the aging Cahill, who was never what could be called “fleet of foot” throughout his career, simply does not possess the requisite pace nor the ability on the ball to thrive in Sarri’s system. Much like a Unai Emery, Sarri favours a high defensive line to squeeze the pitch as the forwards press high, and he likes his centre halves to play out from the back with precision and pace. While Cahill would certainly be a diligent defender in his own box, his style is simply not what Arsenal need at present, especially on the high wages he currently draws from Chelsea.
Apart from Cahill, there seemed to be a few constant themes running through the rest of the Gunners’ most cited transfer targets: positional versatility, specifically with the ability to play out wide, a familiarity with head coach Unai Emery, and availability on loan versus on a permanent basis. Denis Suarez fit into this profile nicely, but he was far from the only one that Arsenal targeted. Ivan Perisic, a 29 year old winger with Inter Milan who has seem a sharp decrease in opportunities this year, looked a likely candidate in the final weeks of the window. The Croatian, who played a large part in his country’s outstanding run to the World Cup final this summer, is a high energy player who can contribute goals, assists and commitment to the high press in equal measure. However, the Gunners interest was never formalised into a serious offer, with Inter rubbishing claims that they had received a loan offer with a £35 million option to make the deal permanent.
Apart from Perisic, another player thought to be on his way to Arsenal at times in January was PSG’s 21 year old Christopher Nkunku. The young Frenchman had worked with Emery in the manager’s time in the French capital, and appealed to the Gunners due to his versatility, which could have seen him line up on the wing, in the midfield, or even at fullback had he ultimately come to North London. However, in a twist sure to make fans cringe, Arsenal’s pursuit of Nkunku was reportedly derailed by the presence of Sven Mislintat, whose bitter dispute with PSG manager Thomas Tuchel while both were still at Dortmund ultimately lead to both leaving the Westfalenstadion in the following year. To make matters worse, Mislintat will be departing the club in early February following disagreements over his role in the club hierarchy, thus leaving fans to wonder what might have been if Mislintat had left already. Still, it is said that Arsenal’s interest in Nkunku could well continue into the summer, when the presence of Mislintat will no longer be a stumbling block.
Germany Becoming Hotspot for English Talent
As has been extensively covered over the past year, the Bundesliga is rapidly become the favourite finishing school for some of the most promising young British talent. It started with Jadon Sancho’s surprise move from Manchester City to Borussia Dortmund, and Arsenal followed suit in the summer by sending Reiss Nelson to Hoffenheim to work under the tutelage of Julian Nagelsmann. Impressed with the results of that move, the Gunners looked to send a pair of youngsters, Emile Smith Rowe and Eddie Nketiah to German clubs as well, with Smith Rowe ultimately completing a move to RB Leipzig before the window slammed shut. The move is potentially a fascinating one for the highly touted academy graduate, who will finish his recovery from a hip injury in Germany before hopefully earning valuable minutes in one of Europe’s most exciting sides. Nketiah, however, ultimately stayed put after being linked to Augsburg, either due to a poor fit in their one striker system or because the club failed to find a second player after the Suarez deal was completed.
Smith Rowe was not the only outgoing player this January as third choice goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez departed this past week to join Championship side Reading for the remainder of the season. The 26 year old is due to become the second choice keeper next season following Petr Cech’s retirement at the end of the season, and he will hopefully gain valuable match sharpness and confidence to carry over into next season. This loan was fairly standard fare for the club, but did include one interesting fact: fans may recall that it was Martinez in goal for the infamous October 2012 7-5 Arsenal victory over Reading in the League Cup. The Gunners had gone down 4-0 before the half only to come storming back to take the win, starting with a Theo Walcott goal just before the half.
Suarez Beats A Familiar Path
In the end, Denis Suarez became the only new addition to the squad, and the Gunners were ultimately able to land him on favourable terms. The deal includes a modest £2.5 million loan fee and gives the club the option to make the move permanent at the end of the loan for a very reasonable £20 million. Given that there was much talk about Barcelona preferring to make the purchase clause obligatory, this allows Arsenal to maintain maximum flexibility heading into a summer window where they are expected to have a tidy budget to work with. This practically eliminates all risk from the equation, with the club able to simply send him back if he doesn’t perform well in England. If he does, Arsenal will be getting a supremely talented (if inconsistent) player for a very reasonable price.
So what exactly are Arsenal getting in Suarez? The Galicia born Suarez followed a more circuitous path to the Barcelona first team than most young talented Spaniards, as his journey included stops at Celta Vigo, Manchester City and Villareal in addition to his extended loan to Sevilla during his first brief spell with the Catalan giants. Suarez is an extremely technical player who uses his intelligent movement and eye for a pass to combine effectively with his teammates, either from the midfield or cutting in off the left flank. Not an out and out finisher or a player who racks up the assists, Suarez is a player whose best work comes between the boxes where he has space to play through the opposition. Not particularly fast at the top end, Suarez instead excels in tight spaces, with good burst and deceptive dribbling ability.
In spite of his immense talent, Suarez is far from the complete product. As Ernesto Valverde has favoured more physical players in the midfield to provide a better defensive shield for the high octane attack, Suarez saw his opportunities dry up over the last year. Not particularly imposing or strong in the tackle, he does still give good effort in the press and is familiar with Unai Emery from their previous work together at Sevilla. Though this connection has been exaggerated slightly, given Suarez was increasingly scarce in the starting XI for Emery in their run to the Europa League trophy in 2015. However, given the Gunners’ struggles in tying the defence to attack, his skillset is one Emery should have little trouble finding a place for in his side, be it on either wing or in the midfield.
In the end, the Gunners’ January transfer window hardly ended up stealing the headlines, but their one piece of incoming business represents a smart convergence of value and need. Denis Suarez has the pedigree to excite fans heading into the final leg of the league season. Perhaps even more importantly, Arsenal have preserved their summer financial flexibility by not extending for players that may have only provided a temporary bandage to a long term issue. With new sponsorship deals kicking off this summer, along with multiple hefty contracts set to come off the books, the Gunners could well have a sizeable chunk of change to play with when the window opens once again. With no more chances to improve the squad through external means for the rest of the season, the job now falls squarely on the shoulders of Unai Emery to push Arsenal on to a strong finish in the Premier League and Europa League, with both competitions providing potential avenues back into the Champions League.