This piece originally appeared on The Bottom Corner.
Arsenal’s imminent signing of Real Madrid’s Gonzalo Higuaín is a huge step forward and make no mistake about it. Should a deal be completed in the coming hours or days, it would be the most exciting development in the red half of North London since Sol Campbell made his switch from Spurs in 2001. Not since that most infamous of transfers have the Gunners signed a world-class player at or approaching his peak.
Beating the likes of Juventus to the Argentine striker’s signature would represent a significant coup for Arsène Wenger, regardless of the fee involved. Since his 2007 move from River Plate, only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have scored more La Liga goals than Higuaín.
The twenty-five year-old’s conversion rate of 33.333% is a massive improvement on Olivier Giroud’s rather dismal figure of 12.5% but whether having a world-class finisher is enough to fire Arsenal to silverware is another matter entirely. The Gunners still have important obstacles to overcome before they can again count themselves among the big boys.
After all, it is only a year since Robin Van Persie’s departure (apologies for bringing that up) and while his last season at the Emirates was remarkable on a personal level, the team’s shortcomings ensured that, Champions League qualification aside, Van Persie’s efforts were for nought.
In terms of personnel, Arsenal are undoubtedly a lot stronger than they were a year ago. Santi Cazorla is better than any teammate Van Persie had in 2011/12. Mikel Arteta has grown into his role as the midfield anchor and his distribution and calming presence were significant reasons for the turnaround last season. Nacho Monreal is a significant upgrade on André Santos.
The oft-criticised youth policy is slowly but surely bearing fruit. Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey have matured and become genuinely assured and effective players. Wojciech Szczęsny will never be in the same league as Gianluigi Buffon but with each passing year he becomes a better goalkeeper. Even Carl Jenkinson does not look constantly on the verge of making a mistake so catastrophic that the future of the human race is endangered.
However, Higuaín’s first campaign at Arsenal will be almost certainly be as anticlimactic as Van Persie’s last. At a time of relative optimism among most Gooners, this will be an unpopular sentiment to express but there are two good reasons for doing so.
The first is that Arsenal’s big leap forward in the transfer market only sees them reach the level that Manchester City and Chelsea were already at in 2012-13. The sugar daddy clubs underachieved last season and have already upgraded their assets this summer, on and off the pitch. There is more to come from the Premier League’s FFP-dodgers and it would be a major surprise if they were not the clubs placed first and second in the table in May 2014.
Only intervention from Alisher Usmanov can see Arsenal close the gap on Mansour’s Manchester City and Abramovich’s Chelsea, but personally, I would rather finish third doing things the right way than first or second due to blatant financial doping. Other observers may disagree.
The second problem Arsenal have, the more important of the two, is that they are simply not good enough tactically. Everyone knows what Arsenal are going to do in every game but the Gunners seem to know nothing about their opponents. It is an age-old criticism but one that remains valid. Shutting them down has for too long been too easy for their supposed rivals in England and in Europe.
Since Arsenal last won the title we have seen numerous tactical advances: Greece won Euro 2004 with the most reactive 4-4-2 imaginable; José Mourinho took the Premier League by storm with his 4-1-4-1/4-3-3; four-band formations like Rafa Benítez’s 4-2-3-1 became the norm across Europe; tiki-taka came into being and dominated the world while threatening to make the number nine extinct; most of the world’s top teams have adopted hyper-aggressive pressing as the best form of defence.
All the while, Arsenal have changed only slightly. There was some tactical variation towards the end of 2012-13 – indeed, for a brief period it looked as though Arsène Wenger had borrowed George Graham’s How To Grind Out Miserable 1-0 Wins coaching manual – but there is little to suggest that Wenger will ditch the tried-and-tested idea that if you simply dominate possession and trust in your ability, the rest will follow.
Such an approach is fine as a basis but at the top level it must be complimented by more specific preparation, such as identifying and rehearsing offensive plays that will be effective in coming games, practicing a way of containing a particularly threatening player on the other team or, as is particularly relevant to Arsenal, rehearsing player moves at transitions.
During Euro 2008 Cesc Fàbregas gave an interview to the BBC in which he said that playing with Spain was an educational experience because for the first time ever he was being given videos of the opposition to study and a significant part of training was based around scenarios they would face in upcoming games.
That Fàbregas had played for so many years at Arsenal without ever being given a single piece of information about an upcoming opponent – let alone practicing ways of beating one – was and remains staggering, but at the same time totally believable. It explains the naïve capitulations that became routine in the years in which football came to be dominated by coaches whose methods were more up-to-date than Wenger’s.
Having said all of that, Arsenal’s manager is anything but stupid. He will surely have taken notice of the recent exploits of sides like Borussia Dortmund, Montpellier and Norway’s Strømsgodset and realised that budget need not dictate final standing. Innovation has a habit of trumping investment.
For all his faults, no-one can stand toe-to-toe with Arsène Wenger when it comes to getting value for money. We are all familiar with his net spend figures and all of us have, at one point or another, said something like “just imagine how good he’d be with Man City’s budget.” Signing players like Gonzalo Higuaín is a statement of intent.
If Wenger puts as much into modernising his training and tactics as he appears to be putting into signing readymade superstars, I may be proved wrong: Arsenal really may lift the Premier League trophy in May 2014.