You know those times, in sports and in life, where you’re watching events unfold and you can’t help thinking “I’ve seen this before”? I’d wager a guess that many Arsenal supporters have felt this way about the Robin van Persie transfer saga, feeling that they just went through this with Cesc last summer, and while that has merit, I see it differently. You see, in addition to being somewhat Arsenal-obsessed, I also love my hometown St. Louis Cardinals, and these days, when my team’s best player spurns the club and fans who supported him for years in favor of bigger money (though under the name of “trophies” or “respect”), I can’t help but think of recent Cardinals deserter and St. Louis pariah, Albert Pujols.
While it’s painful for me to open up the Pujols wound and talk about it again, I think it’s worthwhile, because in addition to being a LeBron-esque story of hometown betrayal, the story of the Pujols-less 2012 St. Louis Cardinals offers hope for a van Persie-less Arsenal.
Let me start by coming right out and saying that I don’t buy the whole “van Persie’s goals can’t be replaced” argument. I heard it just this morning on my way to work when Charlie Stillitano proclaimed on The Football Show (broadcast on the SiriusXM Soccer channel) that goal scorers were special, and Arsenal couldn’t possibly hope to replace the goals they would lose if van Persie does go. In addition to being factually wrong by going on to say that Arsenal doesn’t have any proven goal scorers to step in for van Persie (I guess he missed the fact that Giroud scored 33 goals in Ligue 1 last season, and that Podolski netted 18 in the Bundesliga), he was also conceptually wrong in asserting that a group of players can’t collectively elevate their play to absorb the loss of a star’s production. I am a firm believer that when a quality team doesn’t have one primary goal scorer to rely on, the rest of the squad will pick up the slack, and I fully expect that to be the case for Arsenal this year if van Persie does leave. For the explanation of why I believe this, it’s time to go back to baseball.
When Albert Pujols decided to throw away his chance at being a beloved figure in St. Louis until the day he dies, a la Stan Musial, and instead chose to dive head-first into Arte Moreno’s $254 million mountain of cash as if he were a 7 year-old diving into a pile of leaves, many in St. Louis, myself included, wondered how the Cardinals would ever replace the middle of the order production that Pujols had provided for the first 10 years of his career. To that end, the Cardinals brought in one proven hitter, Carlos Beltran, but beyond that largely relied on the rest of the team picking up their own production in order to fill the fat-headed Pujols-size hole. And the craziest thing has happened this summer… it worked. Beltran has had a resurgent year, which has certainly helped, but the rest of the team has stepped up as well, and the Cardinals are still in the top 5 of all major team offensive statistics in the National League despite not having big #5 in the heart of their lineup.
I think you can see my point now: I believe that Podolski, Giroud, & Cazorla will be Arsenal’s Carlos Beltran and then some, and that Gervinho, Walcott, Chamberlain, Arteta, & Song can step up just like Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, David Freese, & Allen Craig have for the Cardinals. I guess if you wanted to extend the analogy Wilshere would probably be Chris Carpenter & Rosicky would be Lance Berkman, but I digress.
All that being said, here’s a final word of warning: I would still like to see the team get deeper at right back, and in the midfield. The need at right back is glaring, as the depth chart behind Sagna (consisting of Jenkinson and Yennaris) is, at best, young and unproven, and at worst, not ready for prime time. In the midfield need, however, is more subtle. One might look at the depth chart and be pretty content, what with Cazorla, Arteta, Song, Ramsey, Rosicky, Diaby, Coquelin, and the promise of Jack Wilshere’s return, but I warn you: take a closer look. Ramsey is still unproven at this level, Diaby has yet to show he can stay healthy, Rosicky is coming off an injury, Coquelin is promising but unproven, and we all are far too familiar with Jack’s health struggles this past year. So, when you break it down, it’s Cazorla, Arteta, Song, and a bunch of question marks. Somebody else needs to be brought in to provide reliable depth and more flexibility for the manager. Nuri Sahin would fit this bill, as would a revival of the interest in Yann M’Vila. Victor Wanyama of Celtic is another name that has been thrown around, as has Malaga’s Isco Alarcón. I’m not going to pretend I’m a scouting expert or even that I’ve seen much of these players in action (save M’Vila, who I have watched a fair bit), but I believe Arsene needs to being in one of these guys or someone else of similar talent, as midfield depth could quickly become a problem.