This was first published on TheShortFuse.com (link).
With every passing week and every win that comes with them, we have been subjected to a wide variety of different reason as to why Arsenal cannot and will not be able to win the league. First the defence was too weak, and now it suddenly isn’t anymore. Then it was just a good, lucky run of form, but after they gained their 91st point in their last 38 league games, that one lost its hold. Then there is the argument that no God will allow them to win the league while Arsène Wenger persists with that coat. That one remains to be seen.
Of all the reasons put forward, the lack of an adequate backup striker has been the most commonly thrown up and the one with most veracity. Olivier Giroud has been remarkably durable so far, and they have needed it to be. With him they have put together a formula that works. He is not as complete as the man he replaced but he is a monstrous physical presence and is sensationally good in the air. His link-up play on the ground with his midfielders and wingers is impressive, and invaluable to Arsenal’s style, just are his work rate and offering of a ‘Plan B’, as an out-ball from the defence and in goal-seeking, with his aerial ability.
That all being said, he is not the greatest of finishers and his first touch, although vastly improved, is inconsistent. His one touch play is fantastic, but he can be somewhat slow to bring the ball down with his feet and move play along swiftly. The overall point is that despite his flaws, Arsenal and Giroud very much have a good thing going. Without Giroud, Arsenal have significantly less of a good thing going.
The alternative options at the moment are Nicklas Bendtner, Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott. Bendtner is an odd case. He is not nearly as bad as many would have you believe – indeed, if Arsenal had the 09/10 form of Bendtner at the moment there would be no issue to discuss – but he has diminished since then and he has started three professional club games since last March. He is in a fairly similar mould to Giroud: strong in the air and of physique and able to link play well. He has a better first touch, but is worse in pretty much every other department.
Bendtner was set to be discarded this summer but after Podolski’s injury and the failure to sign anyone else, he was kept. He has done nothing to warrant being maintained beyond the summer, but mildly impressive substitute appearances in some league games and good performances in starts against West Brom in the League Cup and Hull last week have given some cause for thought. While better remains in many places, how viable is he as an option for just 6 more months?
If nothing else, the encouraging game against Hull showed that he can still offer something in games against the Premier League’s lesser sides (and there are quite a few), enabling rests for Giroud, gambling that the Frenchman will remain fit through the rest of the season. It’s not the most preferable option but Bendtner is still a decent striker, and far safer than some of the potential alternatives.
Neither Podolski, nor Walcott contribute enough to the team’s buildup play, while neither offers an outball from the back given neither top 6” or are particularly good in the air. That would be negated if they were of a high enough technical level for Arsenal to play a more possession-based attacking game with them in the side, but they aren’t. Both can play up front, with the creativity that Arsenal now have, but it would require them looking to play on the counter far more than they do. Hopefully it won’t come to either being used there.
While Bendtner remains, they are firmly the third and fourth choice options, anyway. An alternative to all of this is signing someone. In an ideal world, Arsenal sign, say, Edinson Cavani and glory follows. But Cavani, like all strikers of his ilk or anything approaching it, will not move in January. And if he or they did, it would be for the kind of money that could cause Wenger to have palpitations. So it would end up being more likely to find someone of far less ability at a non-Champions League club, for a stupidly inflated fee. Think Christian Benteke. Then they would be stuck with him beyond the season’s, restricting their ability to go for a real centre forward in the summer. Is that a significant enough upgrade for the trouble that would come with it? In almost all cases at hand, no.
One possible route is a permanent move, on a six (or perhaps eighteen) month contract for an older player who would not be adverse to such a deal. Miroslav Klose and Dimitar Berbatov have both been mentioned here and would perhaps be the best way to go about things – however, facilitating that is difficult. Berbatov is probably unlikely to go to Arsenal and Klose’s situation remains hazy.
The most likely avenue for any kind of move is a loan of some description. Alvaro Morata has been mentioned and under the circumstances he would be near-ideal for 6 months. Alexandre Pato has also been discussed as both a potential loan and permanent move, but he is very much an ‘avoid’ for reasons better elaborated here.
My expectation is that they will keep with Bendtner for the remainder of the season before signing a better striker. That said, I don’t think a loan is at all unlikely, depending on who is possible. Then there is the question of what kind of centre forward to chase in the summer. Someone similar or different to Giroud.
For me, the most important question is whether they can match Giroud’s back to goal work, or at least provide an alternative to it. The need for a striker with ‘super, top, top quality’ is overstated. Cavani would, of course, be the best of all worlds in that respect, but it’s not going to happen. As Wenger lamented a few weeks ago, there really are very few attainable top level centre forwards in Europe at the moment.
Diego Costa would be intriguing. He certainly has the all-round game, but disciplinary would be a severe concern. He does not exactly fit the description of a ‘Wenger player’ as a person, but he certainly does in talent. And he has an affordable release clause. The other possibilities are: signing a player who isn’t a striker but moving him there in the same way he did with Robin van Persie, or signing a striker who doesn’t have that ‘super quality’, but is enough, like Giroud.
Julian Draxler could work successfully in the former category. He has all he needs physically, bar perhaps the aerial prowess, which would hopefully be made up for by his technique, but would come at a heavy price. (Sidebar: Stephan El Shaarawy and Ezequiel Lavezzi would not fit into this category as neither could play as a number 9 for Arsenal. Please stop suggesting them.) Then into the latter set falls Mario Mandžukić. He and Giroud are similar in terms of basic style. Both hard workers, dominant in the air and able bring their players into play very effectively. Mandžukić is more mobile and a better finisher, but is not quite as adept with his back to goal, nor with his one-touch play. They would be fantastic competition for each other, while fitting into the system perfectly.
What lies ahead in the summer is a mystery. January is a lot easier to make out. As stated above, my expectation is that it will probably be nothing, but a loan would be in no way surprising or unwelcome. They have a hit at the moment – there is no need to rewrite it. Not right now, anyway. Attempting evolution of that style mid-season would be an huge risk.
As much as I defend Bendtner, is he enough if Giroud does get injured or suspended? It’s highly questionable. The logic that signing an admittedly not-good-enough-long-term centre forward could be enough to secure this year’s title is like Manchester United believing any central midfielder is better than none, then signing Marouane Fellaini for £27million. Whatever happens, if Arsenal can be lucky with Giroud as they were last year, the problems barely exist.