There’s not much festive cheer around the Emirates this year as Arsenal made their worst start to a league season for over 40 years before a crushing 4-1 defeat to Manchester City in the Carabao Cup on Tuesday (stream the replay on ESPN+ in the U.S.) piled more pressure on manager Mikel Arteta.
With only 12 goals in the Premier League this season (leaders Liverpool have 36), the Gunners are crying out for creativity and leadership on the pitch. Though Arsenal’s problems run deeper than just one player, they’re clearly not creating enough in the last third and an inspirational playmaker could have the same sort of galvanising effect on the team as Bruno Fernandes had on a struggling Manchester United last January.
While it’s rare that January signings have such an instant impact as the Portuguese had at Old Trafford, a strong character with the right mentality and experience could help to revitalise the undoubted ability in the Arsenal squad, especially as it would allow €50m summer signing Thomas Partey to shine in his deeper role once he returns from injury.
The obvious candidate, Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish, would cost too much at around £80m, while it seems that Mesut Ozil isn’t going be coming out of his exile in the Arsenal reserves any time soon, despite his £350,000-a-week wages. So here are five players who Arsenal could realistically land this window.
Christian Eriksen, 28, Inter Milan
Perhaps on paper the most obvious match, the Denmark midfielder has plenty of big club experience, has proven himself consistently at the very highest level, has 103 caps for his country, knows the craft of a playmaker inside out and is undeniably more than familiar with the demands of the Premier League, having made over 200 league appearances for North London rivals, Spurs. Moreover, after a year in Serie A he’s yet to win the trust of manager Antonio Conte and is available for around €15m.
But while Eriksen may desire a move, his Spurs past might make joining Arsenal complicated. As much as supporters will forgive former allegiances as long as the player makes an immediate impact, there’s nothing in the Dane’s recent play to suggest he’d necessarily hit the ground running at the Emirates.
– Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
– Don’t have ESPN? Get instant access
The fresh start
Isco, 28, Real Madrid
Like Eriksen, Isco has also seen his star fall in recent months and his impact on the Real Madrid side has dropped to the point where he has become a peripheral figure, with Zinedine Zidane preferring to opt for youth and giving him only three league starts.
On his day there are few players more capable of making telling contributions — in the shape of goals, neatly executed assists and general ball retention in the final third — and if Arteta can reignite the spark in one of Europe’s potentially most creative midfielders, the return could be huge. However, despite Isco’s status at Real Madrid this season, the Spanish giants will still be holding out for a substantial transfer fee, which could present a problem.
Rodrigo De Paul, 26, Udinese
Though the Argentina international is more of an all-round central midfielder than a playmaker, his skillset would certainly improve and speed up an occasionally slow Arsenal midfield. He is at his best when he is able to carry the ball forward with pace, slide past his markers with brilliant close control and display his creativity. Furthermore, he has excellent leadership qualities, mentality and consistency which has been so lacking at Arsenal this season.
De Paul’s 27 goals and 25 assists in 158 games for Udinese — who have not finished higher than 12th in the past four years — are an impressive return given the limitations of his surroundings. He is also versatile, as he has been utilised as a wide right midfielder for his country, and boasts an exquisite right foot for a defence-splitting pass or a well-struck set-piece.
The short-term fix
Alejandro “Papu” Gomez, 32, Atalanta
Signing a veteran is hardly the “Moneyball” choice, but sometimes needs must. The 5-foot-6 Argentinian is likely to leave Atalanta in January following a well-documented half-time fight with head coach Gian Piero Gasperini during the Champions League game against FC Midtjylland earlier this month. Although the player has since apologised for his part in the confrontation and has been reintegrated into the team, a departure looks increasingly likely.
While loose cannons are the last thing Arsenal need, there’s little to suggest that Gomez is guilty of anything more than having an “edge” — the Atalanta club captain has a fairly gentle disciplinary record over recent seasons and that extra commitment and will to win would come in handy for the North London side.
In addition to being one of Serie A’s most productive attacking midfielders over the past few seasons, Gomez has a powerful shot, a low centre of gravity and is always looking to get on the ball. A short-term solution, maybe, but one that could see an immediate impact. And while Juventus, Inter and Milan are reportedly interested in Gomez, Atalanta would probably favour allowing him to move abroad rather than to any Serie A rivals.
The impossible dream?
Houssem Aouar, 22, Lyon
One of Arsenal’s top targets in the summer, the Arsenal hierarchy are likely to return for Aouar again in January. But while the France midfielder was reportedly keen on joining the Gunners a few months ago, his appetite for a move to the Emirates probably hasn’t been helped by their fading hopes of playing in the Champions League next season — especially since Lyon missed out on Europe altogether this season — and there’ll be strong resistance from his club to selling in the winter window.
One of Europe’s most promising (and already high-performing) attacking midfielders, at 22-years-old Aouar might not yet have the experience required, but his performances in the Champions League against the likes of Manchester City last season show he is perfectly capable of taking the step up and he wouldn’t be phased by taking on another challenge in his career — even such a tough one as Arsenal pose.
From a technical and tactical viewpoint, the midfielder possesses the quality to create and organise a team’s attacking flow in the last third. He’s nimble, good at escaping with the ball while under pressure, constantly wants the ball and has the collective mindset to help out his teammates. Technically brilliant with great intuition, Aouar has an excellent understanding of the game and the ability to play in a variety of roles behind the striker, which Arsenal have sorely missed this season.