Arsenal may be struggling at the back, but it is the Lille winger who is best placed to bring back their characteristic attacking flair. This week has exposed quite how much dysfunction there is in the management of Arsenal Football Club. First, there was the horrid defeat to West Ham United, making out to a record of just two wins in their last six Premier League games. Now, the reported departure of star scout Sven Mislintat, soon to be confirmed apparently, has exposed a rift off the pitch as well. The latter situation is, of course, linked tightly to the former. It has been the remit of ‘Diamond Eyes’ to stock the squad in line with the Gunners’ new frugality and direction in the transfer market, and the result against the Hammers brought to the fore the biggest deficiency present in the profile of the playing staff at Colney.
There have been many column inches offered up in diagnosis, the opinions split between the defensive brittleness that has been Arsenal’s bane for so long, and the continued excommunication of Mesut Ozil, the vicar of the through ball. There is merit to both sides of the argument, but beyond buying better defenders – anyone with a pair of eyes can see that – there is no consensus as to a prescription.
There has been some mooted interest in Manchester United’s Eric Bailly, but that is a recommendation based on the convenience of availability, the sort of short-term quick fix that has so recently dogged Arsenal. It is also worth pointing out that, for all that the underbelly is soft, the lack of forward thrust and invention is the greater concern…and that bring the focus neatly to Ozil. Simply plugging Ozil back into the team ignores two things.
First, there is the stance of Head Coach Unai Emery, who reportedly has sought to use ‘friction’ to spark a reaction in his mercurial number 10, but has so far failed to see an uptick in performance. Then there is the more tactical concern: where, in the Spaniard’s conception of football, does Ozil fit?
Emery has favoured the use of two inside-forwards in the half-space to provide the creativity, and it is entirely conceivable that it is from that zone that he wants fantasy. Ozil has, of course, publicly eschewed a wide role, and so it is perhaps more a case that he doesn’t fit anywhere.
As such, the strongest legacy of the outgoing Mislintat will be to impress upon the suits (however many of them are left at this point) at Arsenal the pertinence of pulling the checkbook out for Nicolas Pepe, either now or in the summer. The Ivorian forward is having a storming season in the North of France, powering Lille to second place with 13 goals and seven assists in Ligue 1. He has all of Europe at his beck and call, and will no doubt command a huge fee.
When Les Dogues eventually cash in on him. Irrespective, Arsenal must ensure that it is them at the front of that queue when the time comes. There may be nothing in the till to wave around in January, as the club has publicly proclaimed (and, for that matter, Lille are adamant they will not sell until the summer at the earliest).
However, with the squad set to divest itself of a number of senior first team players, a mini-rebuild is necessary. If the Gunners are to cure the malaise of one-paced predictability that now afflicts their attack, a different profile is required. Pepe, loose of limb, quick as a bolt and off the dribble, and with a reasonable weight of pass, is the sort of all-action playmaker that Emery’s Arsenal needs to truly fire.
There may be a lack of security at the back, but there are mitigating circumstances in the form of injuries: Rob Holding was definitely on the up before rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament against Manchester United in November, while the promising
Konstantinos Mavropanos (another Mislintat gem in the rough) is only just recovering from a long spell out. There is talent back there. However, in order to forge a true identity, it is upfront that Arsenal most urgently need to reinforce.