How will the Gunner’s cope with the loss of their Arsenal?

This has to go down as one of the most difficult weeks in the recent history of Arsenal football club. Cesc Fabregas, their talismanic skipper has gone and their strongest performer from last season, Samir Nasri, appears to be on his way out of the exit door. So where next for Arsenal? Surely now is the time that Arsene Wenger needs to spend big, because if he doesn’t then the Gunners will quite simply be a much weaker team than they have been in recent seasons, and even that hasn’t been enough for most of their fans.

I believe that if Nasri does leave in this transfer window and sufficient replacements aren’t brought in to replace him and Fabregas that the current Arsenal squad will be left short of the mark in all areas. Before now the attacking midfield positions are where Arsenal have excelled in recent years, but the loss of their two key playmakers would mean that they are playing catch up to match their rivals in this area too.

I think that Arsenal still need to make major signings in goal, in their central defence, in holding midfield and up front in addition to re-stocking the attacking midfield void if they are to keep pace with the three sides that finished above them in last year’s Premier League. Serious investment will be required if they are to come even vaguely close to competing with the best the Premier League has to offer and maybe the more urgent problem for the Gunners to face will be holding on to a place in the top four.

Here is my analysis of Arsenal’s current shortcomings and my suggested transfer targets for Mr.Wenger:

Goalkeeper:

I think that Wojciech Szczesny is a real prospect in goal for Arsenal, but here in lies the problem. He is a talent, a young and inexperienced keeper in need of serious guidance and not a proven performer over a decent stretch of time. I think that in order to get the best out of him that Arsenal need to sign a more experienced keeper who can aid his development and perhaps teach him a trick or two. If, and it is a big ‘If’, Wenger assembles a top class central defensive partnership then this may be enough to protect the vulnerable youngster, but at the moment this must be considered a potential area of weakness. It is a similar case to that unfolding at Manchester United where big money summer signing David De Gea appears to be struggling for confidence in goal. He too is a young and talented keeper who needs some serious guidance, difference is he is playing behing Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic so he is unlikely to be anywhere near as exposed as Szczesny.

In not signing Shay Given I think that Arsenal have missed a major opportunity. He is a top quality keeper with an abundance of experience including over a hundred caps for his country and a taste of Champions League football at Newcastle and he was available at a very reasonable price. As it turns out Aston Villa were the lucky side to secure his services, but I am utterly convinced that he would have moved to Arsenal if given the chance.

Defence:

Arsenal desperately need a top class centre-back and it seems that Wenger has identified Phil Jagielka as his major target. This would be a decent buy if he can pull it off but it seems that Arsenal will have to part with around twenty million if they want to get their man. For me this is way over the odds and Gary Cahill would be a far better alternative at around the same price. Cahill’s added height and pace would be a great asset for the Gunners and Bolton boss Owen Coyle has as good as said that the club would have to consider a healthy offer for their star man if it came along.

Holding Midfield:

In Alex Song Arsenal already have a promising player in this position but a bit of extra support and experience wouldn’t go amiss. One option, and I accept this would be a huge punt, could be Owen Hargreaves. The England international is currently a free agent having endured an agonising few years of injury woe at United, but he is determined to prove that his time hasn’t yet passed and that he is still a world class performer. I accept that a move for a man who justifiably has his critics regarding his fitness levels could come across a little desperate and perhaps a little lacking in ambition, but Wenger would love his work ethic and ultimately he is available on a free transfer. If they did take him in and show faith in his undoubted ability then maybe Hargreaves’ body would hold out and if it did then they could have an absolute steal on their hands. In spite of the obvious risk involved in signing a player with his injury record I am still a little surprised that nobody seems tempted to take a chance on him, particularly a club like Arsenal which has just come into a bit of money after the Fabregas sale.

Another option that might be of interest is Raul Meireles of Liverpool. After a slow start last season he began to find his feet in English football but it seems that the likes of Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam and Lucas Leiva might be ahead of him in the pecking order. If this is the case then maybe his services are available for a reasonable price.

Attacking midfield:

If Nasri goes then Arsenal desperately need to bolster their options here. One man persistently being linked with the club is Juan Mata of Valencia and I think he would be a signing of real quality and intent, but he may prove to be pricy amidst the clamouring to secure his services. Another good option which would also be in-keeping with Wenger’s apparent youth only policy would be Marek Hamsik. He like Mata would be a real coup for the club as it seems their are plenty of potential suitors out there waiting to make their move for the talented Slovak. Again he is likely to cost a fair bit but Arsenal and Arsene Wenger must be willing to spend big if they are to lose their two best players.

Striker:

Robin Van Persie is World Class but who have they got to support him? It appears that Wenger has given up on Nicklas Bendtner coming good and Marouane Chamakh has failed to stake his claim really so what are their options?

An unlikely but tantalising prospect could be Carlos Tevez who might just hate the City of Manchester so much that he might consider a move back to London where his Premier League career began at West Ham. I can’t think of many players in world football who Arsenal would benefit more greatly from than Tevez but it is incredibly unlikely that City would allow him to make a move to a rival club even if it did mean that Nasri went the other way. This sadly is just the dreamers option.

Maybe Germany could provide  more realistic option for Arsenal in this position. A Wenger-type option would be young Thomas Mueller of Bayern Munich but this could be hard to pull off given German footballer’s tendency to believe that there could be no greater club honour than playing for Bayern. Another option could be Cologne’s Lukas Podolski who has proven himself to be a major threat at the peak of club and international football. He is quick, strong and versatile and is one of those players who is much younger than you might think. He is only 26 years of age but seems to have been around for an eternity, and recently his club have conceded that they may have to sell their star player.

Porto could also prove a good feeding ground for Arsenal where the likes of Falcao and Hulk are rumoured to be available at the ‘right price’. This price is likely to be a very costly one but if Arsenal bought in either of these two then the fans would be likely to feel much more optimistic about their chances this season.

If Arsenal fail to tackle their weaknesses right the way through their squad then I think that this could be their year to drop out of the top four. For years now they have been the best side to watch but even that could be in jeopardy in light of recent losses and potential losses. I think the next two weeks could make or break their season.

My World Cup Countdown.. My England XV

With under a month to go until the World Cup this is the start of my run down to the big kick off, and just in case you were wondering… I can’t wait!

I like many will be glued to my television at various ungodly hours the follow the fortunes of all the many gathered nations in Kiwi land, and hopefully I will be presiding over another nerve jangling but ultimately successful campaign for England. The men in white have done their country more than proud in the previous two gatherings of rugby world and more of the same would be very much appreciated.

If their two warm-up matches are anything to go by though then this campaign could be rather painful to watch. I must say I derived very little pleasure from casting an eye over the back-to-back clashes with the Welsh, but ever the optimist I will be putting this down to the fielding of unfamiliar and experimental line-ups that contained some players who won’t even be making the trip around the world.

Anyway, here is my starting England XV that I would take into the World Cup, enjoy and feel free to have your say.

Front Row:

Andrew Sheridan

Solid as a rock. Come scrum-time Sheridan comes into his own. I think the Wallabies pack are still piecing together their vertebral columns after the memorable shunt and grind dealt out this time four years ago in the Quarter Finals. His name on the team sheet might well be enough to put the them off their breakfast if they come face-to-face in the Semis (might be getting a little ahead of myself here..)

Dylan Hartley

On the field he is relentlessly nasty, naughty and a lot of fun to watch. The beauty of Hartley is his will to win which at times does boil over, but England need some mean machines amongst their ranks if they are to intimidate the Southern Hemisphere sides and Hartley is wired up for this challenge.

Dan Cole

The man is a work-horse. Strong, snarling and prepared to put his neck on the line, he really is formed of the ideal Prop-making ingredients. I don’t for a second profess to be a front-row expert but he seems to have the mental and physical strength to tough it out against the world’s strongest front rows.

Second Row:

Tom Palmer:

The Stade Francais man has blossomed over the past couple of years and has turned in some consistently commanding performances. He is a good option in the line-out and provides great stability in the scrum. One of the easiest selection for me.

Courtney Lawes:

He has started well as an International player and I think he is worth his place. Along with club mate Hartley he provides a menacing presence in the English pack and his mobility is hard to find amongst the world’s elite group of locks.

Back Row:

Tom Croft:

If Croft and James Haskell are present in England’s back row then it is likely that England will carry a major scoring threat in the forwards. Both men have an eye for the try-line and Croft excels as a suport runner and line-out target. His pace is outstanding and provides a potentially match-winning edge at times.

Lewis Moody (if fit): (C)

When he is fit and at his best he can be utterly immense. He is a great character and when on top of his game he is one of those players who can carry a team even through the most adverse of circumstances. More committed Test match performers are very much few and far between and I think that if his fitness remains an issue that England could struggle to demonstrate the grittiness and mental strength that strikes fear into the Saffers, Kiwi’s and Aussies.

James Haskell:

I am a big fan of Nick Easter and think he offers a great deal, but with physicality and athleticism more important than ever before I think it is time for a change. James Haskell got the chance to show what he can do at 8 in the first warm-up against Wales and he made a strong impression. He seems to have a real edge about his character and I think he is the man to counter the big, bad, back-rowers of the Southern Hemisphere.

Half Backs:

Danny Care:

Big call this one. After the year he had in 2010 it seemed impossible that aything other than injury could come between Ben Youngs and a clear path to the number 9 shirt in the 2011 World Cup, but for me he has slipped back to second choice. After an outstanding start to last season and a strong showing in the autumn internationals Youngs was well on course, but his 6 nations showing was of concern to me. I think that after a bright performance on the opening day against Wales that his form became progressively less impressive and maybe just maybe he has played himself out of what was his place to lose. On the other hand Danny Care used the back end of last season to inspire club side Harlequins to an against the odds triumph in the European Challenge Cup. He followed this up more recently with a good performance in the first warm-up game against the Welsh, for me he starts at 9.

Jonny Wilkinson:

If you need a big stage player then look no further. He has been there, done that and kicked a “dead-duck” of a World Cup stealing drop-goal. He called it that, not me… His form since a change of scene in club rugby has been impressive and it finally seems that the worst of his injury demons are behind him. In 2003 he was our star, in 2007 his return seemed to galvanise an apparently hapless England side and in 2011 I believe he should regain the right to be first-choice at 10.

He seems very happy in his own skin again and has such control over his emotions, I think he remains the cool head that England need to make them tick. Toby Flood has on the whole been impressive since usurping Wilkinson a couple of years ago but has a tendency to lose his battle when the going gets tough, Jonny is a safe choice, but for me the right choice.

Centres:

Manu Tuilagi:

For me he is a must. Purists might play the ‘he isn’t actually English’ card but the young Pacific Islander could provide a much needed spark in England’s otherwise rather robust back line. Recent England gambles on hot-headed and inexperienced young players seem to working out well in the form of Northampton’s Dylan Hartley and Chris Ashton and maybe now is the time for Manu to set the world alight with his combination of pace, strength and sheer athleticism. If he does get his chance from the off then he could make a massive impression.

Mike Tindall:

Thought long and hard about this one but Tindall just about gets it. I have to admit that I’m a little disappointed that England haven’t managed to produce a player of similar qualities to Tindall but with greater speed and imagination rather than having to resort to a player about seven years past his prime, but that is just the way it is. The fact that he is a captaincy option supports his claim for a starting berth and if Tuilagi plays then the newest member of the Royal Family could well be the man to keep the young dynamo in-check.

Back Three:

Mark Cueto:

Solid, reliable and experienced. These are three words you can certainly attribute to Mr.Cueto but ‘prolific try scorer’ is a three word title that doesn’t quite match up. He may be short of tries in recent appearances for England but he is strong in defence and possesses a pretty strong kicking game. As such he is a nice compliment to the more exciting and dangerous Chris Ashton on the other wing, and World Cup purists would love to see Cueto exact revenge for being denied the infamous ‘try that wasn’t’ four years ago against the Saffers in the final.

Chris Ashton:

Whether he is ‘Swallow-Diving’ his way over the line or touching down in more conservative fashion, one thing you can be sure of is Ashton’s unrelenting hunger for try scoring. His penchant for superb on the shoulder support runs has seen him explode on to the scene since switching codes and has driven him to be considered one of the best finishers in the world.

His form in the red rose has been just about as outstanding as his domestic form with Northampton since he made his debut. He simply hasn’t looked back since given his start in international rugby and if he is fit then he is probably the easiest selection of the lot.

Ben Foden:

Given their contrasting fortunes over the past eighteen months it seemed improbable that Delon Armitage could make a stab at ousting Ben Foden who in the aforementioned period was simply irrepressible. Whilst his form surged in the right direction Armitage’s career took a mini slump which resulted in disciplinary shortcomings, injury problems and ultimately just a lack of game time and form. However, the two recent games have highlighted a potential readiness for Armitage to return to Test match rugby and a somewhat indifferent performance from Foden on his return to the fold.

In spite of Armitage’s late surge, I think that Foden has done too much over the past two years and Armitage too little for selection. Ben Foden gets the 15 shirt, but keep your eyes on this one as Armitage is likely to get the chance in the group’s ‘easier’ games and may well impress.

Area of Concern:

One area of real concern for England must be the centres. Though Tindall was once world class he now lacks the pace and subtlety of the world’s elite in his position, sadly though there doesn’t seem to be a host of other options. As I see it we can’t continue with Tindall and Hape as our first choice in midfield as they are far too similar. As such Tuilagi got the nod alongside Tindall for me as the combination of these two blends excitement and freshness with familiarity and experience.

One interesting alternative though could be to select Wilkinson and Flood together in the same side, meaning that one of the two fills the inside centre role. In reality it seems unlikely that Martin Johnson will switch to this mindset so close to the World Cup and that is why I didn’t stump for it in my selection, but if given time I believe that it could work. Flood has experience at 12 for England alongside the likes of Wilkinson so it wouldn’t be an entirely alien concept, and it is one which people more in the know than myself are in support of. Aussie legend Michael Lynagh has gone public in his belief that England should use the time they have left to try this option out, but Johnson is perhaps too wary of introducing this at such a late stage.