RBM: Arsenal’s winter transfer window was preposterously busy. How do fans feel about the business that’s been done? On the whole, it seems from afar that the transactions were a net positive in terms of on-pitch stuff, but it also seems that there’s a risk of being overly short-sighted.
TSF: First, I have to say that not every answer will be this long. Buckle up, there’s a lot to unpack in your question:
I think “guardedly optimistic” is the prevailing mood. But to understand that mood, you have to know that “relentlessly negative” has been the average Arsenal fan’s attitude towards their club for the last few seasons. Arsenal have been performing the football equivalent of Groundhog Day for the past few seasons - underachieving relative to (maybe unrealistic) fan expectations, not doing a ton of big business in the transfer windows (again relative to expectation), and just generally not giving fans much of a reason to care about any of it.
Heading into January, we were all dreading the departures of Alexis and Mesut Özil, and it turns out those two were minor storylines in what was a furiously busy January for a team and a manager who famously don’t like the January window at all most years. The three arrivals - young CB Konstantinos Mavropanos, United misfit Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang - were accompanied by nine (!) departures, ranging in emotional intensity from the Peanuts happy dance of Francis Coquelin’s leaving, through to the graduation-from-college-hope-for-the-best-for-you-son of Theo heading up your way, to the resigned shrug of Alexis going to United, culminating in the ugly crying jag that accompanied the realization that the transcendent dreamboat who is Olivier Giroud will no longer be in Arsenal colors.
As for the short-sightedness, I can see where you’d get that impression, but I think we’re choosing to look at it a little differently. Most Arsenal fans have wanted a significant teardown/rebuild for a few seasons now, and this is, in no small part, what that looks like. But while a team of Arsenal’s size and stated ambition is tearing down, it can’t tear all the way down to the studs; they have to give fans something to cheer for, something to latch on to, while the real work of a rebuild gets done. A team can’t completely remake itself in any one window, and that’s especially true in January. That’s why Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan aren’t bad signings - they’re in no way long term solutions, but they’re not supposed to be. They’re the bridge to the long term, and they’ll be fun to watch in the meantime.
And in a broader sense, both signings, but Auba particularly are a big break from Arsene Wenger’s past transfer strategy. For all his strengths, Arsene is and always has been very dogmatic about his player valuations. That was fine when the market wasn’t awash in stupid amounts of TV money, but now that it is, Arsene’s “a player is worth this and not a penny more or we walk” strategy hasn’t been working. Arsenal have a new back office setup, with new negotiators and an essential Director of Football, even if he’s not carrying that title, and it seems that they have taken over recruitment and player acquisition, which is all to the good.
RBM: What’s going on with Alexandre Lacazette? Is he close to the “bust” tag, and how in the world are Ozil, Lacazette, Mkhitaryan, and Aubameyang all going to get the minutes they want?
TSF: If I had an answer for the “What’s going on with Alexandre Lacazette” question, I’d probably start a blog just about that. I honestly don’t know - he seems to fit in well with the squad and in Arsenal’s system, but for whatever reason, he’s not producing as we’d all hoped he would. He doesn’t seem to play 90 min very often, and nobody really knows why - he appears fit, there’s no visible reason he should be struggling, but for whatever reason, he just is.
It’s kind of hoped that Aubameyang will take some pressure off him, but I honestly don’t see Lacazette staying past this summer if his game doesn’t improve. I don’t wish him ill, but he needs to produce or move on.
RBM: We need to talk about Arsenal’s midfield. Jack Wilshere can’t play every game, right? Right? Granit Xhaka has been inconsistent, and Santi Cazorla is broken. Is this an area that needs revamping in the summer?
TSF: “Revamping” is generous. Arsenal’s midfield is a hot mess, and as with Lacazette, nobody’s quite sure why. I mean, we do know on some level - Granit Xhaka has the positional sense of a wet bag of flour, Jack Wilshere’s main quality as a player is that he’s English, and if I keep thinking about Santi I may ugly cry again.
Seriously, have you read what’s going on with him? He almost lost his foot. He’s just had ANOTHER surgery, too, which I believe makes it 10. I don’t think, at 33, he’ll ever play again - and that’s fully OK, given what he’s been through. I want him back for one game as an 89th minute sub so the Emirates can give him the send off he deserves.
But to your question: Yes, Arsenal’s midfield needs a lot of work, primarily on the defensive side. Arsenal have given up as many goals as 20th place West Brom, and while an ancient Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker are a worry at the back, there’s no one in the midfield to protect that back, so that magnifies all the problems.
RBM: What kind of legacy did Theo Walcott leave at the Emirates when he moved to Everton?
TSF: Unfulfilled awesomeness, mostly. Theo’s the guy we were all pulling for, the kid who loved Arsenal and who would do anything for the club. He was also the kid who couldn’t stay healthy, and when he did stay healthy, would tend to get in his own way more often than not. He demanded to be moved to the central striker role, where he was a disaster, he had a long, drawn-out “will he or won’t he” contract renewal a few seasons back, and it’s stuff like that that made people OK with him departing this year.
I do hope Everton treats him well and he develops into the player he never consistently could be at Arsenal.
RBM: Other than Walcott, is there anything about this current Everton side that scares you ahead of Saturday’s match?
TSF: Arsenal just lost to Swansea City, so everything about Everton terrifies me right now. They’re a team that is set up to give Arsenal fits - if Wayne Rooney, Theo, and the rest of Everton’s attack can exploit the space that Arsenal’s midfield and defense will inevitably/inexplicably give them, it could be another really good day for young Mr. Walcott and another rough day for his former employer.
Predicted Score & Projected XI:
TSF: Oh man I’m terrible at these. Arsenal are at home, where they’ve only lost once, but I look at that defense and get really nervous. This game has 3-2 Arsenal written all over it. And those two goals will come very late which ensures I won’t enjoy the end of the match at all.
As for a probable XI, it really depends on the new guys. It’ll probably look something like:
Cech; Bellerin, Mustafi, Koscielny; Monreal Elneny, Xhaka, Ramsey; Iwobi, Özil; Lacazette
But, having played 30 min on Tuesday, Mkhitaryan might start in place of Elneny or Xhaka, and it remains to be seen whether Aubameyang will play a part up front. I’d be surprised if he started, but he could well do what Mkhitaryan did and come in for 30-35 min.