Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger will be one of the most interested and eager spectators as arguably the most crucial game so far of this fascinating and tantalising Premier League season takes place at the Etihad stadium tonight.
The Gunners returned to the top of the table by beating Crystal Palace 2-0 on Sunday. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s goal-scoring return was a timely boost for the French manager because despite the routine victory against rivals from the capital, Wenger’s stock has once again fallen in the eyes of a not unnoticeable number of Arsenal fans.
Misery. Dejection. Anger. Call it what you will, but despite a so far fantastic season on the field you get the feeling that the harmony surrounding the red half of North London isn’t what it could be. The tension relates to the passing of the January transfer window and specifically the bizarre-looking decision to sign Swedish international midfielder Kim Kallstrom on loan from Spartak Moscow. In other circumstances many would argue that the 31 year old Kallstrom would bring experience, grit, a touch of flair and an eye for goal to the already well positioned and strong Arsenal side Of course, as various media sources have established over the weekend, it is nowhere near that simple. Kallstrom is currently injured and out of action for around six weeks after taking a knock to his back whilst Moscow were training in the much more favourable climate of Dubai. What makes this worse, to the point of disbelief to many of the fans, is that Wenger and the Arsenal hierarchy were aware of his injury. When speaking after the victory over Palace Wenger said "He arrived and had fallen on his back two days before…I wouldn't have signed him if we had another two or three days, but it was on Friday at 5pm."
For such an astute, successful and meticulous manager like Wenger, it is completely out of character to go wading into the transfer window at such a late stage and make what could easily be considered as a pointless signing. Once Kallstrom returns from injury it is possible that three other Arsenal midfielders currently absent from the side - Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and the suspended Mathieu Flamini - will be match fit and ready to play. This is without mentioning Oxlade-Chamberlain, the club’s vice-captain Mikel Arteta, Tomas Rosicky, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski and Serge Gnabry who are all enjoying runs in a successful side. Where does a player with no Premier League experience break into this midfield?
Furthermore, to claim that he wouldn’t have signed Kallstrom with more time to think begs the question as to why he needed to make the deal at the very end of the window, literally hours before it shut. Many of the Arsenal faithful were previously excited during January as links with the raw talent of young attacking midfielder Julian Draxler - currently playing for Schalke in Germany - got stronger and stronger. Wenger finally admitted defeat shortly before the deal to sign Kallstrom gathered pace, but with the disappointment of missing out on a player recognised as one of Europe’s most promising talents, and the subsequent rumours that suggest Bayern Munich had made a bid for Draxler and will look again in the summer, fans surely have the right to feel disheartened at what looks like a panic buy.
Even if Draxler had signed, most of the footballing world would agree that as good a player he undoubtedly is, he shouldn’t have been considered Arsenal’s main priority. The burden on the impressive Olivier Giroud is massive, and should the French striker suffer an injury it leaves the title challengers very, very light up front. Theo Walcott will miss the rest of the season and Nicklas Bendtner remains ill received and off the pace, and too much can’t be asked of the untried Yaya Sanogo. Instead, the rumoured £37 million that Arsenal could have paid for Draxler may have been enough to tempt European hotshots Diego Costa or Karim Benzema to the Emirates. Former Tottenham strikers Jermain Defoe and Dimitar Berbatov were seemingly also available for a much cheaper outlay. Instead, Arsenal were knocked back in their attempts to loan Miroslav Klose, former Chelsea forward Salomon Kalou and even Papiss Cisse from Newcastle. With the former having lost all sense of pace and the latter two hardly considered top level Premiership strikers, you have to wonder at the sense of such a transfer policy.
The undoubted silver lining is that if Manchester City fail to beat Chelsea tonight then Wenger will begin a tough looking run of fixtures looking down at his two realistic title rivals from the top. They are as it stands the best team in the country, but general consensus suggests that the two giants in sky and royal blue battling for points tonight hold an overall better chance of obtaining the Premier League trophy. How different the feel might have been with a top class striker on Arsenal’s books instead of Kallstrom.