On the face of it, Arsenal have an easy addition to make to their squad: a veteran center half who can be relied upon more confidently than Calum Chambers to back up the Mertescielny pairing in the critical central defense. On closer examination, however, this will actually be no easy matter, and the truth of it is that an anemic center half transfer market, the realities of center back pairings, and Calum Chambers himself in an ironic way are to blame.
Arsenal have proven to be skilled opportunists in the transfer market. In three consecutive summer transfer windows, they have bought Cazorla, Ozil and now Chambers, respectively, on short notice and seemingly out of the blue when it unexpectedly came to their attention that those three players were available. While those players represent different strata of the transfer market, all were quality surprise purchases, and even the relatively unproven and even unknown, teenager Chambers would already seem to represent good long term value for his fee.
Chambers is the rare 19-year old who "should" be a Premier League starter and would be for any but a club in the top third of the league. He has the athleticism and technical skill to play in the midfield or at full back, and yet also the physique (still developing), knowledge of the game, mentality and discipline to be entrusted with half of the central defensive pairing. He's been the captain of the Three Lions U-20's in that same center half role, a suggestion of leadership qualities on his CV which history has long shown Arsene Wenger values.
Wenger appears to have bought him to play him centrally, though long term it is unclear whether that means as a center back or a holding midfielder (either? both?). The point, however, is that Calum Chambers, however young he is, was not purchased for £16m to sit on the bench for all but 5 League Cup matches and a smattering of late game substitutions; with fond regards to our wounded Hammer, Chambers is not another Carl Jenkinson-esque flier of a prospect.
Indeed if one listens to any number of chagrined Southampton fans, they believe Chambers is the sort of player who can captain Arsenal Football Club for many years once he establishes himself in the team. Nothing I've seen of either his game or his personality in these early days has me dismissing that notion. We have, in short, acquired an exciting young player who might one day become this generation's Tony Adams. That is the sort of player you play as much as possible with the first team.
The only problem here is Chambers' age and the notion that Arsenal, contending seriously for a league title for the first time in a nervy, frustrating decade, can't risk one point here, two points there, in the league table to the learning curve of a 19-year old center back, much less when we've already got an excellent first choice pairing in that position for the first time in years. At 19 years a center half has only experienced a relatively small number of game situations at full speed with the first team in which to hone those critical instincts that have him feeling rather than thinking his way through a match. Better, the thinking goes, to entrust that critical backup role to an old head.
The dilemma there, however, is no less thorny. There seems to be little taste for acquiring a CB in his mid-30's career dotage, someone who may have seen it all twice but who at this point can only keep up with half of it. Rightly so; the Rio Ferdinands of the world are better earmarked for final contracts with newly promoted clubs. How, then, does one attract a veteran center half, more worthy of Arsenal's starting lineup than is Chambers, into a team with one of the best CB pairings in the league?
In short, if Chambers is not good enough to be the third center half, Arsenal have to find a center half who fits ALL of the following criteria:
1) is a veteran player with established starting credentials and experience in a major European football league if not the Premier League;
2) can be counted upon to be better/more reliable this season than Chambers;
3) is willing to accept at the outset that he will not start more than 10-15 games (all competitions), though is physically able to effectively start as many as 35-40 games if Mertesacker or Koscielny suffer a serious injury;
4) can be purchased for a fee and paid a salary that makes sense for Arsenal.
Taken together, those criteria define an extremely small sliver of the total population of center backs. How many such players can there be in a transfer market in which Barcelona gleefully purchased a now-merely-pretty good Thomas Vermaelen for £5m more than he was purchased for five years ago, despite him not having been the first choice for Arsenal for 18+ injury-niggled months?
I've seen in recent days hopeful references to Mats Hummels, perhaps in response to Luis Van Gaal's overtures to him for United. Hummels, however, points out the problem. Even assuming Dortmund would sell him, it's one thing to attempt to convince Hummels to move to a guaranteed starting spot for Manchester United (who by the way appear to be set to start three center backs), but another entirely to suggest to him that he's needed for squad depth at Arsenal. Arsene, it is well established, is loathe to do much rotating with his center backs.
On the other hand, even if Arsenal purchased such a player to outright replace now-vice captain Mertesacker or Koscielny in the lineup, that in itself would represent disruption to arguably the most critical and most difficultly-developed partnership in this or any team. Does Arsenal really desire to disrupt that pairing at the eleventh hour before this crucial season?
The only remotely possible candidate I can think of is Gary Medel, recently sold by Cardiff to Inter Milan for £10m. I don't know, however, that he'd meet criteria #3 and besides, would a 5'7" center half, however tenacious and established at the international level, inspire sufficient confidence as the primary center half backup in any event? Does he have the technical skill that Arsene likes for even his center backs to have?
Little wonder, then, that Arsene has already conceded that he's looking more for a versatile player who can double as a holding midfielder rather than for a center back specialist. Necessity, it seems, is mothering such inventiveness.
There is not a league winner in history that has lacked any gaps whatsoever in its squad. I'm not even convinced that Chambers can correctly be labeled a "gap", mindful though I am of the old adage that "you can't win with youth". Chambers seems to be one of the rare young players with whom you risk some points in the league table with him in the lineup in order to see if he might become a top class player. Contrary to the desperate, fanatical and wholly unrealistic belief that you spend every last pound to win now, there is time for even serious title contenders to think of the future too.
Chambers may surprise us, and we may have no choice but to give him that chance. Any player, even the best player, is unproven until he actually plays.
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