Why Arsenal Should Attempt to Break the Bank on Mateo Kovacic

After four summers of persistent fan calls for a new striker, Arsene Wenger finally delivered a new first choice number nine with the signing of Alexandre Lacazette in June. While the exact extent of the Frenchman’s quality has been hotly debated, what is almost certain is that as far as this summer goes, Arsenal’s search for a new centre forward has been fulfilled. With Sead Kolasinac also coming in and offering fresh competition for Nacho Monreal at LB, another potential problem area in the squad has seemingly been solved.

After that, the most obvious place to look to strengthen the Arsenal squad is in central midfield. The midfield has been a recurring problem for the Gunners and last season was no different, with arguably no solution being found until April, when the league season was by then unsalvageable. Arsenal finished the season with a midfield pairing of Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey in the 3-4-2-1 formation, which performed fine in the run of games they had in April and May. As hoped in November [ http://fanscorners.com/arsenal-must-give-xhaka-ramsey-run-games-midfield/ ], the Xhaka-Ramsey pivot proved the best of the midfields Arsenal have tried without Santi Cazorla in the last three years, with their chemistry and understanding of each other’s roles growing throughout the season. On the face of it, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for the coming season to plan for the pair to be the first choice midfield, particularly if the 3-4-2-1 formation is retained, which provides extra protection behind the midfield in the form of a 3rd centre back.

The reality is, however, that it would be incredibly dangerous and even naive to plan the season around the pair playing 30+ games together. Due to recurring muscle injuries that have affected his last four seasons, Ramsey started just 13 Premier League games last season. What more, it wasn’t till the last six or so of those starts that he started playing anything like his best football, with the lack of constant game time completely preventing him from finding any rhythm in the first two thirds of the season. Xhaka didn’t miss any games through injury last season, but did suffer two suspensions for straight red cards. Though at least one was unfortunate on the Swiss’ part, it’s not far-fetched to suggest he could be missing matches through suspension next season as well.

If Arsenal had able replacements of similar quality one could perhaps argue the aforementioned problems don’t matter, and that it would be worth hoping the pair could nail down midfield for most of the season. However, with Santi Cazorla’s footballing future uncertain and Jack Wilshere being even more prone to lengthy absences, to the extent he may even leave the club this summer in a bid to revive his career, the alternatives are underwhelming. With Wenger seemingly preferring Francis Coquelin to Mohammed Elneny for both the holding midfield and box-to-box positions, he is the de facto backup to both Xhaka and Ramsey in this system. For this reason, he started more games than not in the Premier League last season.

Coquelin divides opinion somewhat amongst the Arsenal fanbase, but it’s probably not controversial to suggest he’s not a top draw CM option for a club hoping to win the Premier League. Certainly his previous games with Xhaka and Ramsey have suggested it’s a midfield not even capable of getting top four. This presents two options for Arsenal; either look to bring in another squad player who is perhaps better than our current options, or try and sign a new first choice option and relegate Ramsey to a role not too dissimilar to what Cesc Fabregas played for Chelsea last season – where he’s capable of starting in a couple of positions when needed and always a strong option off the bench.

If Arsenal want to make the leap from 5th place last season to title contenders next year, in my humble opinion, they should almost certainly be looking at the latter option. The midfield has been a significant stumbling block in Arsenal not achieving their targets in the last two seasons and now more than ever is the time to try and solve the problem for good. If that is the plan, what are we looking for in a new central midfielder? Presumably they would be predominantly starting next to Xhaka, while in an ideal world they could also do that and play as an alternative to him, next to Ramsey or another CM option, as right now, there’s no one who can quite do what Xhaka can do from the deepest midfield position.

Source: realmadrid.com

Source: realmadrid.com

Xhaka himself represents a very clear profile to build around in midfield. A high touch player who likes to be the focus of build up play. From there he can play every pass you’d want from the defensive or middle third of the pitch. Despite not being a brilliant defender, Xhaka does offer some ball winning capabilities and can put a foot in to good effect when necessary. He also has the height and physicality to be a presence in the middle of the park.   What he primarily lacks is mobility, which hinders his ability to carry the ball forward and holds him back in the defensive phase. On top of that, he rarely impacts the game in the final third, bar passes in behind to fullbacks and wide players. For that reason, his ideal partner would be someone who is a good athlete, capable of covering the ground in reasonably quick time and able to apply that with some basic defensive prowess. After that the ability to dribble with the ball would represent an alternative way of progressing the ball to Xhaka’s passing and make Arsenal that much harder to contain. Furthermore, any attacking output in the form of creative passes or goals would be more than welcome.

Ruling out regular starters for any of the Premier League top six, the Spanish big two, Bayern Munich, Juventus and PSG trims most of the elite, but still leaves a lot of appealing options. By far the most exciting of those to me, is Mateo Kovacic, the current heir to Luka Modric for club and country. Just 23 years old, the Croatian is undoubtably one of the best young players in Europe, but, stuck behind two of the best central midfielders in the world at Real Madrid, has found relevant game time hard to come by. He made just 19 league starts last season – which was actually a significant jump from the previous season where he made only eight – but tellingly, he made just two appearances in the Champions League knockouts, both from the bench in stoppage time, as Madrid became the first side to retain the trophy in it’s modern form. He benefited from Zidane’s heavy rotation in the league, which wasn’t there in European competition.

Remarkably quick for a central midfielder, Kovacic uses his pace and agility to burst away from players on the ball and close others down off it. His dribbling numbers (3.2 per 90) were only bettered by Mousa Dembélé among central midfielders last season, while he averaged 5.73 tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes when adjusting for team possession. He also regularly displayed his creative passing with eye catching through balls in particular, all while completing over 91% of the passes he played. He even played deepest in midfield on a few occasions.

Prising him away from Madrid will obviously be extremely difficult, but there is little harm in trying. An astronomical fee, wage and the promise of being a star player will at least provide reason to think. It’s arguably underestimated how much Arsenal still have left to spend this summer. £100m net was spent last year, with that figure only at £40m so far this term. With more sales almost certain, it’s likely Arsenal will have at least £80m or £90m to spend if not more, and depth is not a requirement for this window.

There are others who fit the profile, such as Adrien Rabiot, Piotr Zielinski and Kevin Kampl. It’s interesting that despite the clear desire for a CM signing amongst fans, there has been a shortage of links for the position. Jean Michael Seri has been reported the most, though he profiles more like a 2nd passer than an all-round mobile midfielder.

Either way, most are in agreement that a midfielder of sorts is necessary. After finally filling the striker hole after many seasons, it’s imperative Wenger doesn’t start the the season with a fresh blind spot in the squad that the rest of the world has seemingly identified.

Oscar Wood

Oscar Wood

18 year old Londoner and Arsenal fan of over 10 years, who, has been obsessing over Arsenal and European football for the last two years after a brief lull in interest. Fluctuating between Arsene Wenger being the ideal man for Arsenal and thinking the FA Cup victory was the perfect time to call it a day. Prone to periods of severe pessimism but generally optimistic about AFC's future.
Oscar Wood