After its heart sawed through its own ribcage in its desperation to escape, Arsenal’s forward line was an area that was next-to certain to suffer through a few difficulties this year. The replacements for him had a monumental of a task on their hands and it was one with which they have dealt fairly well. That being said, they have been far from a total replacement for the not-so-dearly departed one.
Without signing a direct replacement of similar quality, replacing the Dutchman would have to be a collective effort, needing at least 10-15 goals from each of the front four to make up just for him, in the league. While all of Theo Walcott (14), Santi Cazorla (12), Olivier Giroud (11) and Lukas Podolski (11) achieved this, some of those figures are boosted by bigger contributions in higher scoring games against weaker opposition. They were often lacking and self-inhibiting in bigger games, without ideas as to how to break down better-organised defences. This was partially on account of their malcoordination as a collective, and partially on account of some of the players’ limitations. One sought to exacerbate the other.
The Walcott-Giroud-Podolski triumvirate, with Cazorla behind them was the main one used until January. Its main flaw was that with none of the three being creative nor particularly prone to dribbling, they needed to be given an huge amount of space to ‘click’. The big-scoring results against Fulham (3-3), West Ham (5-1) and Spurs (5-2), were the only ones in which they mustred more than two goals in games in which the three started together.
Variations were attempted, mostly during the early days of Walcott’s contract ‘issues’, involving Gervinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (and occasionally Aaron Ramsey). With the former there, mostly up front, they were less static and were a lot less predictable, in terms of movement. But just as unpredictable as Gervinho’s off the ball work is what he will do on the ball. His total absence of composure negated his better work and consigned the tactic to the scrapheap. Chamberlain’s performances deemed him unworthy of selection in the early season, and Ramsey’s time on the wing followed the path of Gervinho’s time up front.
With no Tomáš Rosický and Jack Wilshere just returning (and hence even less ready to be a number 10), the front four pretty much picked themselves until January. Ahead of the FA Cup replay against Swansea, injuries in midfield saw Wilshere moved forward. His fantastic performance gave Arsène Wenger the idea to try him there more, with Cazorla on the left.
Cazorla on the left is just as free as he was centrally, and that freedom dictates that he spends most of his time fairly far infield. Of the 8 games they have failed to score this season, only two have come with Cazorla playing wide: Everton and Manchester City at home, the latter of which is a bit anomalous anyway, on account of Laurent Koscielny’s 10th minute red card. Having a wide playmaker enabled them to break through defences they had been unable to do so in the first half of the season: namely Norwich, Swansea Sunderland, Aston Villa and Stoke. It makes for a more balanced and more threatening unit.
The unfortunate party in this shift was Lukas Podolski. His first season has been unspectacular but there has been much by which to be encouraged, especially considering the scrambled nature of the side and his own long-term ankle problem, which will hopefully be sorted this summer. His inconsistency and tendency to disappear for spells in some games is a cause for concern, (I must say I don’t quite understand the ‘lazy’ jibes), but a solid start. The hope now is that he can excel in a system or style more suited to accentuating his strengths.
He was unimpressive at centre forward, but understandably so: it is a completely new role for him. Like Wilshere as a 10, he does not quite know the movement required to impose himself. He is no long-term solution there, but a potential alternative option, depending on who Arsenal buy this summer. He still also holds a lot of value on the left side, as long as the front line has a creative figure in it.
Like Podolski, Giroud has had a decent yet unremarkable season, though his limitations and his not being Robin van Persie have led to him receiving some disproportionate criticism from some areas. He is a good player, but should not be first choice next year. Unless he usurps any new option with a strong run of form, that is.
So who should Arsenal buy? The optimal would be a centre forward capable of creating chances for himself and others, solving two problems in one turn. Of the ready-made players who fit that description, only two would even theoretically be anything close to realistic: Robert Lewandowski and Edinson Cavani. And they are, well, really not realistic. There are alternative avenues: either to develop that kind of complete striker; change styles somewhat and buy to accommodate a more limited striker or the most preferable yet least likely option: both.
Stevan Jovetić has been oft-mentioned in the press. As said in this, he has everything to be moulded into the perfect creative centre forward. The problem is that he is not that player yet. Although it is certainly conceivable that he could adapt quickly, asking a player to move leagues and start quickly in a position that is still new to him is a lot of pressure, and pretty unfair, at that. I have little to no doubt that he can become supreme in that position, given time, but patience may be of the essence with Jovetić. For the fee he would command (probably around £25million), it would be nicer to pick up a readier player, but for the potential Jovetić has, it may be taking that gamble and paying a little more. If it were to happen, of course.
Jovetić would be a fantastic signing and ideal for Arsenal if it came off, but he should not be the only addition to the front four. The next section is somewhat Jovetić-heavy, so it partly rendered pointless should he sign elsewhere, but in this instance, he is interchangeable with another of his position and skill-set. (Though they will need good luck finding an attainable one of those outside of him.)
There are four options: signing only Jovetić, which could work but could too be a short-term risk if they want instant propulsion to the grand heights of old. If he were deployed as more of a false nine than with the duty of being primary goalscorer, with strong penalty box finishers Walcott and Podolski ahead of him on the wings, they could all thrive. The increased creativity would allow those wingers to make up for the potential shortfall in goals from the striker. The comfort of each member both wide and centrally would make for the fluidity that has been so potently lacking in the front three this year. Should he arrive as the only major front four addition, this could be the best way to bed him into the club and their way of playing.
Then there is the idea of buying Jovetić and another striker, which would give the Montenegrin time to learn the position and would allow for greater tactical versatility. Gonzalo Higuaín is another who has been mentioned in the press, and would fit well, but the idea of signing both he and Jovetić for around or over £20million each is far from likely. A cheaper alternative – perhaps David Villa (but preferably someone quicker) – would probably be more likely than that pair, or any two of that level, price and age.
Another possibility is Jovetić and a new winger – one who provides the width that Walcott, Podolski and Cazorla do not – who would take Gervinho’s place. The apparent interest in the Ivorian from Ligue Un would represent a move that suits all parties. It just has not worked out for him here, and the derision from the fans has gone too far for him to turn it around. A ‘touchline hugging’ winger would add the dimension that Gervinho does, stretching teams and opening the pitch up, only hopefully with greater effectiveness. There is the possibility that Gervinho will have a storming next season and become that player… it’s low, but still there. Just. Maybe. The greater variety among the three behind would also make Walcott and Podolski more viable alternatives up front, overriding the need for a new number 9.
The last option comes around if Jovetić either stays at Fiorentina or, much to theirs and Arsenal’s chagrin, ends up at Juventus. Short of discovering another player with the ability to become a ‘9.5’, the easiest way of going about things would be to simply buy a high level, but more basic number 9 like Higuaín, or another of that ilk and another winger to support them, and move to a more direct method. Fundamentally, they need goals and creativity. Jovetić would provide both, but asking that of him instantly could be too much (or could be an inspired move), so two players are needed, unless they are prepared to take that gamble with Jovetić.
Nothing is certain with Arsenal transfers. Even when the player himself thinks they have signed. Centre forward is by far the highest priority for the summer; not just because they are in dire need of another striker and more goals, but because it will shape the rest of their summer business. Jovetić could be the perfect signing, but may require patience from the club and fans, depending on how they plan to use him, and it is still more than possible he will choose Juventus. A different player would probably need them to make some style adjustment, but however they go about things, the chance to rebuild properly is here.