x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Three is the magic number for Arsene Wenger

With two high-profile and highly productive departures, Wenger has struck right balance with his reinforcements in Giroud, Podolski and Cazorla, writes Richard Jolly.

Wenger hopes new signings Podolski, left, and Giroud will supply the goals, while Cazorla will provide the ammunition. Olly Greenwood / AFP; Stuart MacFarlane / Getty Images; Jon Super / AP Photo
Wenger hopes new signings Podolski, left, and Giroud will supply the goals, while Cazorla will provide the ammunition. Olly Greenwood / AFP; Stuart MacFarlane / Getty Images; Jon Super / AP Photo

It was the problem that spawned a theory, a book, a movie and an addition to the sporting vocabulary: moneyball. In 2002, the Oakland Athletics had lost three members of the side that propelled them to the play-offs, often to richer outfits and seeing a player, Jason Giambi, many felt was the league's best, join a giant of the sport, the New York Yankees.

How do you replace the irreplaceable? Billy Beane, the Oakland general manager, decided he couldn't. Not directly, anyway. He concentrated on finding three players, whether from other franchises or within Oakland, whose combined output matched that of a trio leaving his batting line-up. And he did it on the cheap.

Last year, Arsenal's major shareholder was reflecting upon the achievement.

"Billy Beane is a very famous guy in America," Stan Kroenke said. "And do you know who his idol is? Arsene Wenger. No kidding." A decade on, Wenger finds himself with the footballing equivalent of Beane's conundrum.

For Giambi, read Robin van Persie, RVP the MVP, who has decamped to Manchester United. Factor in the loss of Alex Song to Barcelona - not quite the same as Johnny Damon joining the Boston Red Sox, but with certain similarities - and Wenger's difficulties are apparent.

Van Persie contributed 30 goals and nine assists in the Premier League alone. Individuals capable of replicating that are few and far between, not to mention incredibly expensive. Confounding expectations, Song was among his chief suppliers.

Indeed, for a supposed defensive midfielder, Song proved more creative and less defensive than expected. Indeed one of those assists, a chipped pass, was volleyed in by Van Persie for a winner against Liverpool at Anfield.

But the money the departed duo brought Arsenal has paid for three players: Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla. The Spaniard is more technical and less physical than Song, the new playmaker, charged with shaping the side and, in his own way, of making more goals than the Cameroon international did.

Podolski should start on the left wing at Anfield today. Giroud, as an out-and-out centre forward, has the misfortune to be burdened with comparisons to Van Persie.

Yet while the Frenchman is also left-footed, he is a different type of striker. He is a target man, a comparative rarity in Wenger's teams. While Nicklas Bendtner and Marouane Chamakh have led the line when Van Persie has been injured, Arsenal have not had a prolific physical presence since Emmanuel Adebayor.

While helping Montpellier win Ligue 1 last season, Giroud was the top scorer in France. His embryonic Arsenal career is notable for a miss, costing the Gunners victory against Sunderland in a 0-0 draw, and adding to the pressure on the 25 year old.

A second successive stalemate came at Stoke City last Sunday, with the home fans eager to remind Arsenal what they have missed.

"Robin van Persie, he would have scored that," came the chorus whenever a Gunner fired blanks.

It rather reinforces the argument that Arsenal are wounded and weakened by the Dutchman's departure except for one inconvenient detail. At this stage of last season, Arsenal were also goalless (and one point worse off). They went on to strike 74 times and finish third.

And yet, if it is unfair to expect Giroud to find the net 30 times, Podolski becomes the pivotal player. Left wing was Arsenal's problem position last season, a spot occupied by footballers as different as Thierry Henry and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Andre Santos and Aaron Ramsey.

Along with Gervinho, who was far too profligate during his debut campaign in England, the German is the potential answer. Scoring 18 times last season for Cologne and 44 times in his international career, Podolski could provide greater productivity on the flank.

He is the speedster, Cazorla the stylist who, two games into his time in England, already looks a quintessential Arsenal player. Wenger's fondness for the aesthetic is well known. His brand of football has purists purring. Yet he is a trained economist who, in his financial dealings, has shown a head for figures. Typically, he is in the black again with his summer transfer dealings. Few have a greater understanding of the numbers on the balance sheet, but the maths on the football field could add up.

Between them, Giroud, Podolski and Cazorla scored 54 times last season. While Song was signed for £1 million (Dh5.8m) and sold for £16m and Van Persie, bought for £2.75m and released for £24m, those are the statistics that are significant now. As Wenger's enduring ability to achieve results despite departures indicates, he is not just a bean counter. He is Beane's hero for a reason.


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