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Monday, 6 January 2014

Arsenal's striker shortage and Wenger's January options

At the start of the season many of us were thinking it. Though Mesut Özil was a surprising and extremely welcome gift to the Arsenal fans, there was no denying that this dazzling addition to an already star-studded midfield masked Arsène Wenger's failure to sign a new striker.

Olivier Giroud had had a promising first season in the Premier League, with Wenger's other two striking options: Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott also chipping in plenty of goals. The youngster Yaya Sanogo arrived over the summer as backup along with Nicklas Bendtner who returned from loan. Yet since the beginning of the season, all four of these deputies have suffered from unfortunate and overlapping injuries. With Giroud himself now succumbing to a combination of injury and illness (most likely caused by fatigue), Podolski, himself only recently back from injury, is currently Arsenal's only available striker.

Giroud made a positive start to 2013/14 with seven goals and four assists by the start of December helping Arsenal streak ahead at the top of the league. In his past six league appearances however, he has struggled to find the net, scoring just once more, whilst the teams immediately behind Arsenal have ominously closed up the gap.

The main reason behind Giroud's dip in form is almost certainly that he has been overplayed. The seasonal fixture pile-up has resulted in the team having to play five games in twelve days. Before being ruled out of last week's game against Cardiff, Giroud had missed just one of Arsenal's twenty-seven Premier League and European fixtures this season. As the table below confirms, no striker has played more minutes in the Premier League since August.

The reason for this is that Wenger has not had at his disposal a match-fit and reliable replacement for his French talisman all season. With Bendtner unavailable for a month and Walcott now ruled out for the rest of the season, it is imperative that if Arsenal want to retain their now diminished lead over Man City and Chelsea, Wenger must buy in January.

True, this Arsenal squad has enviable depth in most other positions on the pitch. Perhaps Ramsey and Mertesacker could do with a rest but the team now has the strength to allow for this when playing the smaller teams without drastically weakening the starting eleven. Yet to compete with City, who boast the most prolific strike-force in the league, Arsenal badly need that extra man to bring in when Giroud is overtired and under-performing.

More potential names have been thrown around than can be listed here, and I won't add to the speculation by reeling them off. It does look increasingly like Wenger will be forced into the transfer market, though he and several other managers have already stressed that options are more limited than in previous years. At this stage, the priority should be finding a proven goalscorer that can match or better Giroud's strength, shooting, and ability to hold up the ball. There are a few such players currently playing at England's elite clubs, though I don't expect any of the top teams to be as naïve as to sell to their rivals (as we were a season ago). None of them need the money, so there would be nothing in it for them. Another option would be a raid on a mid-table Premier League club. There you can find a lot of experienced pros, though we would probably be held to ransom over the asking price for many of them.

Then you can look abroad. There is a whole world of players out there, many of whom would relish the chance to link up with Arsenal in what is becoming their most exciting season for years. Abroad too though, prices are high for proven scorers, and young inexperienced players, however promising, are not the most suitable acquisitions when guaranteed goals are paramount.

In my view, the best option would be a short-term loan deal. There are a few players out there who, whilst probably not available to buy (at a reasonable price at least), could be permitted to join until the end of the season. Someone with experience in a top league and a hunger for success would be a perfect fit.

If Wenger abstains from January window-shopping however, he does have another option. Whilst reserve forwards Ju-Young Park and Ryo Miyaichi appear to be out of favour with the boss, the eighteen year-old Chuba Akpom, whose goals impressed during Arsenal's pre-season tour, netted a hattrick in a match for the under-18s earlier tonight. With another eighteen year-old, Serge Gnabry causing the Tottenham defence serious problems at the weekend, why not also give Akpom a chance in the cup or against the lower Premier League teams? Something needs to change in order for Giroud to get back to scoring ways, and the prospect of being usurped by a player ten years his junior might be just the trick.

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