If the summer of 2013 was notable for the fact that Arsenal smashed their transfer record with a £42.5m deal for Real Madrid’s Mesut Ozil, the weeks leading up to that event saw huge pressure put on the club and Arsene Wenger to improve the squad.
However, it didn’t just come from fans who desperately wanted arrivals to make the team more competitive; it also came from inside the squad. Then-captain Mikel Arteta responded to claims by chief executive Ivan Gazidis that Arsenal could “do some things which would excite you,” by saying it was “about time.”
“That is what we want — a better team, better players to compete and win trophies,” the Spaniard said in August 2013, and he wasn’t alone in making his feelings public. Experienced first-team players including Olivier Giroud, Bacary Sagna, Wojciech Szczesny, Lukas Podolski and Jack Wilshere all went on record saying new arrivals would give the team a much-needed boost. It was almost a concerted effort from the Arsenal players to shake the club out of its transfer torpor.
We haven’t yet reached that stage this summer, but there was perhaps the first hint of restlessness over the weekend from Per Mertesacker. The German made a point of referencing how other clubs are strengthening, referring to the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea, and Manchester City, who all finished below Arsenal and had disappointing campaigns by their standards.
“Of course those big clubs will be stronger this time,” Mertesacker said. “A lot of transfer business has already been done, and it won’t be easy for us this time, especially with all the signings going to the other clubs.”
He then seemed to urge his own club to keep up, adding: “So we also need to be stronger, and I am looking forward to seeing how well we compete for the title with not a lot of signings and a lot of young players.”
The big central defender is a straight talker, but there was undoubtedly a hint of frustration and/or sarcasm in there, too. Players know as well as anyone else what their team needs to compete, and although Arsenal finished second in 2015-16, they once again failed to properly challenge for the Premier League title.
That second-place finish was earned with five points fewer than they totaled in the third place campaign of 2014-15, and it’s obvious to almost everyone the Gunners need additions in attack and defence.
Speaking to ESPN last week, Gazidis rather ludicrously suggested the squad is in good shape. “We’ve got a squad now that we believe is capable of competing to win the Premier League,” he said, ignoring the fact that this very same squad — with only Granit Xhaka and 21-year-old rookie Takuma Asano added to it — singularly failed to do exactly that last season. Arsenal are a squad that now has to cope without key players returning late from their summer exertions and one that is still without the added firepower it so badly needs.
Gazidis was contradicted almost straight away by Wenger almost directly contradicted Gazidis when he said the club are still “very active” in the market and that he was ready to spend big.
Arsenal fans are already worried the season might begin without the players they need, and this kind of confusion will only stress them further. It is concerning that such mixed messages are emerging when there really ought to be a cohesive plan.
The importance of new signings isn’t just to keep fans happy; they’re made primarily to make the team better, but also to show the club’s best players that their ambitions can be realised in London. Arsenal still haven’t convinced Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil to sign new deals, and it wouldn’t be any surprise if both of them were holding out to see what happens in the transfer market before recommitting to the club.
As they head into the final two years of their contracts — a crucial time period for renewals — the club would be well-advised to act in a way that will ensure their best players remain tied down. Winning is hard enough as it is; without them, or with them seeking a departure through frustration, it becomes even more difficult.
Mertesacker’s comments aren’t exactly words of warning, but they are a stark reminder that there’s still work for Arsenal do this summer. The clock is ticking.