As the new season approached, a collective mood of optimism could be detected amongst fans of Arsenal Football Club.
They were the best team in the Premier League in 2015, culminating in an improved 3rd placed finish and the lifting of a second consecutive FA Cup.
Key players had returned from prolonged spells on the sidelines and performed well in pre-season, the team going unbeaten against teams of the calibre of Lyon, Wolfsburg and Everton.
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Then came the Community Shield, and victory over reigning Premier League champions, Chelsea. It was a performance marked not only by an increased hunger from Wenger’s side, but also a promising defensive savvy that ran throughout the team, enabling them to protect an early one-goal lead right up to the final whistle.
In the process, Arsenal broke significant hoodoos, scoring against the Blues for the first time since Mourinho returned, and earning Wenger the first win over the Portuguese of his career, 11 years on from their first encounter.
What’s more, the club’s major piece of business fixed their most glaring weakness, pulling off a huge coup in bringing in a world class goalkeeper in the form of Petr Cech.
Then come the difficulties
But then came the opening day of the season, and all that good feeling came crashing down around fans with Arsenal’s shock 2-0 defeat at home to a West Ham team that fielded a 16-year-old, still awaiting the results of his GCSE’s, at the base of their midfield.
Fast forward a week, and Arsenal travelled to Crystal Palace, and whilst they came away with a 2-1 win, it was far from a fait accompli, with Palace left-back Joel Ward being allowed to level up Olivier Giroud’s spectacular early finish with a low 30-yard shot that somehow bypassed the entire defence and their much-feted new goalkeeper on its way into the bottom left hand corner.
In the end it was an own goal, forced by imposing play from Arsenal’s own answer to the energiser bunny, Alexis Sanchez, that meant the Gunners returned north of the river with all three points.
Boasting a £13m record signing in France international Yohan Cabaye, Crystal Palace are hardly pushovers, and leaving the cauldron that is Selhurst Park with a win is always a creditable result, but it was the manner of the victory that will have left Arsenal fans with concerns over the viability of a title challenge this season.
The problem (and solution)
Ruud Gullit highlighted Arsenal’s main issue from his MOTD swivel chair that night; just as in previous seasons, they still struggle immensely with controlling the overall tempo of a match, even against lesser opposition.
Several times Palace broke dangerously, and better decision-making from their opponents could easily have seen Arsenal come away with less than three points.
Enter Grzegorz Krychowiak.
The powerful 25-year-old defensive-midfielder currently plies his trade for Europa League holders Sevilla, but in recent weeks rumours have mounted linking him with a move away, especially considering his relatively modest buyout clause of £22million.
One of the most important factors in Arsenal’s form over the second half of last season was the recall of Francis Coquelin, and his emergence as a Premier League-class defensive-midfielder; the type that Arsenal have been crying out for, and that Wenger has refused to sign, since the days of Gilberto Silva.
Coquelin needs help
The Frenchman, on loan at Charlton in the Championship as recently as the start of last season, has become integral to the way Arsenal play in his relatively short time as a starter.
The problem comes should Coquelin find himself ruled out for any length of time. Arsenal would be back to square one, and all talk of a challenge for the Premier League title would reasonably go with it; the fact remains that the club have no acceptable alternative for the role, and neither Mikel Arteta nor Mathieu Flamini are anything approaching an answer.
Whilst Santi Cazorla has performed with great credit alongside him, there are still serious concerns over his suitability for the position over the course of an entire season.
The right man for the job
Krychowiak, who has only been at Sevilla for a year having transferred from Ligue 1 side Reims in the summer of 2014, would be that answer; providing both cover and competition for Coquelin.
Despite featuring in a league ultimately won by what many see as one of the best club sides of all time, dominant both domestically and in Europe, Krychowiak’s performances saw him earn a place in UEFA’s La Liga team of the season ahead of several of Barcelona’s treble-winning midfielders, including Sergio Busquets.
His influence in the middle of the park played a huge part in Sevilla clinching a fourth Europa League title in 10 years, including scoring his side's opening goal in the final against Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in Warsaw in May.
One of the hallmarks of a side challenging for the title is the possession of options across the park, and that is exactly what he would provide Wenger with: a fresh option, one that could solve that fundamental problem with control; a problem not shared by title rivals Chelsea and Manchester City.
Extremely highly rated by followers of Spanish football, the Sevilla player is in a similar mould to Coquelin, a metronomic presence in the middle of the park, with perhaps even more emphasis on physicality and the dark arts of defensive-midfield.
His style was in evidence when Sevilla hosted Barcelona in the league. Chasing down a breaking Lionel Messi over 40-yards, the player outpaced and dispossessed him with a perfectly timed wrap-around tackle as the Argentine magician bore down on goal. The clip of the incident went viral.
Bringing in a player of Krychowiak’s style would open up the possibility for Wenger to field him alongside Coquelin.
He may not come close to Cazorla in terms of creativity, but what he would bring in its place is the kind of ultra-solid midfield base from which Arsenal’s banquet of creative attackers could operate with implicit freedom.
It IS what Arsenal need
Some argue that another dedicated defensive-midfielder is not what Arsenal need, amidst concern that opponents have begun to isolate Cazorla as a means of severing the creative link between defence and attack, exploiting Coquelin’s limited attacking vision.
But this is to discount what it really takes to win a championship. Chelsea, as reigning champions, are renowned for managing games.
Should they want to slow the tempo of a match and effectively nullify their opposition, Mourinho will often bring on John Obi Mikel, a player whose overall game is severely limited, but who is an expert at that one specific role, to provide a screen that opponents have great difficulty bypassing.
In matches against his direct competitors, the Chelsea manager frequently starts by replacing a creative central midfielder with Mikel or Ramires, pushing Cesc Fabregas up into attacking midfield, with the aim of dominating the middle of the park and providing an initial line of defence against the toughest opposition.
Manchester City employ similar tactics: Yaya Toure is often pushed forward into a freer role in attack whilst a second defence-minded player completes the midfield pair, usually in the form of the two Brazilians, Fernando and Fernandinho.
Krychowiak is already on record as saying that there are certain clubs in Europe that he simply could not turn down should they come calling, and his current buyout clause shouldn’t prove any significant impediment to a team of Arsenal’s financial muscle.
Wenger has often proved reluctant to open the club’s chequebook and spend big to bring in a player, but the explosive impact of Alexis Sanchez in his debut season, having arriving from Barcelona last summer, provides a ready-made example to the Frenchman of what bringing in a player of the highest calibre can do for his team.
Pundits are extremely fond of reminding us all of the ‘one or two players’ that they believe Arsenal require to be considered seriously capable of challenging for the title.
If Kyrchowiak does arrive at the Emirates, the Gunners will have found one of those fabled players, and Arsenal fans will be able to resurrect that collective spirit of optimism with some justification.
Arsenal fans, should Wenger bite the bullet and meet Krychowiak's release clause? Let us know your thoughts in the comments box below.
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