Sprinting to stand still: Arsenal's summer transfer window (part 2)

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© Getty Images

Sprinting to stand still: Arsenal's summer transfer window (part 2)

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Abhishek Iyer


In part 1 of this review, we looked at the gaps Arsenal needed to plug in their squad, and ran the scanner on their three major summer signings. Click here to read part 1.

In this part, we look at wild card Rob Holding, talk about some low-profile departures and high-profile loans, and discuss an underlying theme running through Arsenal’s summer purchases.

Rob Holding

While the transfers of Xhaka, Perez, and Mustafi dominated the headlines and thickened the newspaper column inches, Arsenal’s most under-the-radar signing started all three league games, first out of necessity and then out of merit. Rob Holding was bought from Bolton for a paltry £2.5million, a sum which hinted at a signing made for the future more than the present. But injuries to Arsenal’s first choicecenter backs, Koscielny’s extended post-Euros break, and the delay over the Mustafi deal meant that the 20-year old Englishman was called upon for the Gunners’ league opener against Liverpool.

Holding couldn’t have had a more chastening first game: his pairing with Chambers was run ragged in a lethal 20-minute spell after half-time as Liverpool raced into a 4-1 lead. But it said something about Holding’s relative composure in that chaos (or perhaps Chambers’ more visibly calamitous moments) that Arsene Wenger chose Holding to partner Koscielny in the game against Leicester. Benefiting from an experienced partner, Holding immediately looked more assured and contributed to his team’s first clean sheet of the season. As the table below shows (taken from Adrian Clarke’s The Breakdown), Holding has improved in confidence with each passing game.

 © Adrian Clarke's The Breakdown

Arsenal have the first signs of evidence that their unheralded defensive signing is a quick learner and is adapting quickly to his teammates’ moods and mores.

What Arsenal let go

Jack Wilshere

The loan move that commanded more air time than many permanent signings. As the sun set on the transfer window, patrons were greeted with the surprising sight of Jack Wilshere disappearing over the horizon on a limping steed to join Eddie Howe’s men at Bournemouth. Wilshere’s Arsenal career has transformed over the years from one of magical potential to one of prosaic indifference. One of the mainstays in the team at the turn of the decade, Wilshere now finds himself a squad player, often injured, occasionally starting, and rarely starting in his preferred position.

Reports suggest that the player initiated the discussion of a possible loan move after he was dropped from the England squad owing to lack of playing time. The club’s acquiescence of his demands is surprising but understandable in hindsight. Arsene Wenger rarely keeps an unhappy player in the squad and privileges player development over squad depth. He must also find it difficult to unquestionably rely upon Wilshere – given his horrible fitness record – and probably thinks that the change of scenery, guaranteed game time, and elevated responsibility Wilshere will enjoy at Bournemouth can kick-start his ailing Arsenal career.

Arsenal fans who have grown up watching Wilshere will want this loan move to put him back where he belongs: in the top pantheon of English midfielders playing today. The author is hopeful that Wilshere gallops back to the Arsenal fold – fitter and more confident than ever – as the sun dawns on the transfer window again.

Also read: The unfulfilled promise of Jack Wilshere

Calum Chambers

Calum Chambers’ journey down the Arsenal pecking order is a tale largely of a player being played in a surfeit of positions, not nailing down any one position conclusively, and losing confidence as a result. Chambers was impressive in his opening games, putting in solid performances at center back (much like Holding is doing now), but then played at right back and defensive midfield over a personally chaotic fifteen-month period. Playing in different positions begot the necessity to focus on different skills and an existential conundrum that benefited neither player nor club.

Once the Mustafi purchase was confirmed, Chambers’ loan move to Middlesbrough gathered pace and was soon completed. One hopes that the 21-year old Englishman will play mostly at center back, affording him a consistency in mentality and playing style that should settle him down. Boro manager Aitor Karanka was a seasoned central defender in his time, and playing under his tutelage should introduce Chambers to the nuance and fine-print needed for progress.

Koscielny and Mertesacker aren’t getting any younger, and Gabriel has been shaky in recent months as well. If Chambers has a solid season with Middlesbrough, he can be confident of knocking hard on that first-team door come next year.

Joel Campbell

Joel Campbell quickly turned from barely-mentioned pariah to fan-favorite last season, as his sweat, sprint, and soul won many hearts in the terraces. The Costa Rican had spent most of his Arsenal career on loan, but took his opportunity last season as injuries struck the Gunners’ wings. His willingness to track back, comfort on the ball, and underrated vision were assets during tough times, best encapsulated by a stellar showing in the 0-3 victory over Olympiakos.

The fact that Arsene Wenger froze him out during the latter half of the season has been a source of much fan consternation. Although Chamberlain has more potential and Walcott has more seniority, Campbell had a better season than both of them last year, and can feel rightly aggrieved at being ignored by the manager. After a good pre-season, Campbell was left on the fringes again as the league matches kicked on; this time, one assumes, player disquiet reached breaking point and he requested a loan move to get the minutes he felt he deserved.

There were reports that he signed a new Arsenal deal before heading off to Sporting. However, if this loan deal has a purchase option, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Arsenal sanction Campbell’s sale if the player and the buying club so desired. A tale of unfinished business and jilted love that football produces en masse and sans mercy.

Serge Gnabry

One line of reasoning when Joel Campbell went out on loan was that Arsene Wenger was making space in the squad for talented German youngster Serge Gnabry. Having burst on to the scene in 2013-14, Gnabry’s rise had since been curtailed by a spate of injuries and an ill-thought loan spell under Tony Pulis at West Bromwich Albion. But the 21-year old had started the pre-season with Arsenal before going to Rio for the Olympics and lighting up the tournament with his pace, power, and goals. As Campbell departed, it was time for Serge to surge.

Cold water was quickly poured on that fan flame as rumors emerged of Gnabry wanting to move back to Germany. Bayern were reportedly interested, then Werder Bremen were interested, and Gnabry finally ended up going to Bremen with some alleged creativity leaving the door open for Bayern. From having impressive depth on the wings, Arsenal had lost two squad options in one fell swoop.

Like Campbell, Gnabry’s case seems to have been pushed through by the player, and Arsenal have decided to extract some value from the deal rather than losing him for free next year. One suspects that Arsenal could have kept Gnabry if they really wanted too, but with Chamberlain, Iwobi, and Reine-Adelaide occupying the same zone of ‘present inconsistency with future potential’, the club sanctioned Gnabry’s departure without too much guilty chewing of the lip.

The common theme of Arsenal’s signings

Arsenal ended up buying two center halves, a deep lying midfielder, and a mobile attacker this transfer window. While these players are expectedly diverse with respect to skill-set and ability, a common undercurrent of sacrifice, storm-weathering, and finding opportunity in adversity runs through all of them.

Granit Xhaka grew up playing football in the streets of Switzerland as a Kosovan immigrant and outsider, and still faces resistance for his decision to play for the Swiss national team. Lucas Perez couldn’t cut it at Deportivo, so he went halfway across Europe in playing stints both good and bad before landing up at his boyhood club and emerging a hero. Skhodran Mustafi almost gave up football after failing to break into the Evertonteam, but persevered and now returns to England after successful spells in Italy and Spain under his belt. Rob Holding started in the Bolton academy when he was seven years old, his footballing growth stemming from street smarts more than cossetted coaching. He was their lotus in the mud last season, playing at both right back and center back and being named their player of the season in what was otherwise a horrendous campaign.

None of these players were fed with silver spoons; instead, they were hastily handed wooden paddles and told to row their way out of whatever storm loomed ahead.

Arsene Wenger made some comments about Leicester last season that are very revealing when viewed against the signings he has made:

“There is a theory that says to go to the absolute utmost of your talent you need to suffer in life. When you look at the Leicester team, not one career of all these players was obvious, like starting on the red carpet at 18 years of age in the Champions League. These players had a dream that was not easy to obtain, but when they are in a position to reach it, they are ready for the fight.”

He has certainly signed four fighters.

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