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May 19, 2014

Assessing Arsenal: The need to strengthen

Transfer windows for Arsenal fans are like opening a Christmas present from your grandmother -- you just don't know what to expect. Arsene Wenger pulled off a real coup when he landed Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid before demonstrating his familiar January stubbornness by only adding Spartak Moscow midfielder Kim Kallstrom to his injury-ravaged squad -- an odd signing given the Swede was injured at the time as well.

Having led the Premier League standings for 128 days this season, Arsenal witnessed their title challenge collapse following a series of humiliating performances on the road and untimely injuries to Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott and Ozil. A comeback FA Cup win over Hull showed the squad have some fight in them, but changes are still required. So, what does Wenger need to do in order to close the gap on their rivals and end Arsenal's 11-year wait for the league title?

Striking the balance

"To be completely honest, a team like [Manchester] City has scored 100 goals. So you have to say their offensive potential has been absolutely brutal and fantastic," said Wenger, speaking before the final league game of the season. "Liverpool as well. We have scored 66 at the moment and that is certainly where we have room for improvement."

Arsenal's lack of striking options have been well documented this season, with Olivier Giroud carrying the burden for Wenger's failure to add another established forward to his ranks. While the Frenchman's record against the top sides is anything but spectacular -- he had three goals in 23 league games against the current top seven -- he is a key part of Arsenal's system with his intelligent linkup play and aerial prowess.

Replacing Giroud is not the solution for Wenger; rather, he needs to consider who he can buy to give Arsenal more depth and an extra dimension in attack. From the current squad, the options are limited: The raw Yaya Sanogo has shown promise but little else, and with Nicklas Bendtner sure to depart this summer, at least another body is needed.

While Wenger was unsuccessful in bids for Luis Suarez and Gonzalo Higuain last summer, Arsenal fans can take some comfort from the fact that their manager at least recognised the need for a prolific, natural finisher. Arsenal's lack of pace in the second half of the season made it easier for teams to deploy a high line and press them into errors high up the pitch. Signing a pacey striker who can play off the shoulder of the last defender would force opposition teams to rethink their tactics while also giving the Gunners a different form of ammunition in attack.

Bayern Munich's Mario Mandzukic finished as the second-highest goalscorer in the Bundesliga with 18 goals, but despite the fact he may well be available this summer, he offers too similar a threat to Giroud. Meanwhile, Chelsea look to be the most likely destination for Diego Costa should he decide to leave La Liga champions Atletico Madrid, while any deal for Karim Benzema could hinge on whether Real Madrid pursue their interest in Suarez.

Christian Benteke and Wilfried Bony perhaps offer a more realistic option, and both strikers have proved tried-and-tested solutions within the Premier League with Aston Villa and Swansea, respectively. But Benteke's Achilles injury means he will not play again until well into next season, making him a non-starter.

Queens Park Rangers striker Loic Remy -- who was recently spotted at the Emirates -- could prove a shrewd piece of business should his 10 million pound release clause be activated after a productive season on loan at Newcastle United.

Bayer Leverkusen pipped Arsenal to the signing of Nuernberg's Swiss talent Josip Drmic, so if Wenger plumps for youth, he could be tempted to once again explore a deal for Real Madrid's Alvaro Morata or Schalke's Julian Draxler, who recently became the youngest player to make a century of Bundesliga appearances.

With Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Serge Gnabry likely to contest a place on the right wing next season and Ozil, Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski on the left, another wide forward appears an unlikely addition. However, Wenger could be enticed by the four million-euro clause to bring Mexican Carlos Vela back to the club after yet another prosperous campaign for Real Sociedad. The La Liga club's failure to qualify for the Champions League could even tempt Wenger to make a move for Vela's teammate, French international Antoine Griezmann, who has been receiving rave reviews.

{C}Right track at the back

The probable departure of Bacary Sagna on a free transfer serves up another conundrum. With Arsenal's reluctance to offer the player the wage he feels he deserves, even though they are reported to have put a three-year deal on the table, Sagna is tempted by a big payday elsewhere and may choose to leave on a high after picking up his first trophy in North London. Carl Jenkinson has shown encouraging signs of improvement over the past year, but it would represent an unpopular gamble on Wenger's part should the 22-year-old be handed the starting right-back slot next season.

Toulouse defender Serge Aurier was recently selected in the Ligue 1 Team of the Season and the 21-year-old seems prepared to swim across the channel if it means securing a deal with his boyhood club Arsenal. The Ivory Coast international has emerged as one of the most promising defenders in European football with his pace and power, and will be hoping to impress Arsenal scouts at the World Cup. However, he could miss a significant chunk of next season if he plays at the African Cup of Nations as expected in January 2015.

Everton demonstrated their resolve last summer by keeping hold of Leighton Baines and negotiating a 27.5 million-pound deal with Manchester United for Marouane Fellaini, so any potential deal for the 2013-14 Premier League's best right-back, Seamus Coleman, seems unlikely. Danilo and Sime Vrsaljko have both enjoyed promising seasons with Porto and Genoa, respectively, while Arsenal have long been linked with Bundesliga duo Sebastian Jung of Freiburg and Japan's Atsuto Uchida of Schalke.

{C}Defensive core in midfield

However, perhaps the most urgent position for Wenger to address in the summer is defensive midfield, where Arsenal were ruthlessly exposed on their trips to the Etihad, Anfield and Stamford Bridge. Mikel Arteta has proved a fine servant over the years but question marks are beginning to arise over his mobility and long-term fitness. Wenger's capture of free agent Mathieu Flamini last summer also proved an astute swoop, but the Frenchman's quality on the ball unfortunately does not parallel his tenacity and admirable work rate.

Bayer Leverkusen's Lars Bender had been touted as Arsenal's No. 1 target, but the Germany international told Bild recently that he was happy to stay at the Bundesliga club, having recently signed a contract extension until 2019.

With Mauricio Pochettino's future uncertain at Southampton, Wenger could be tempted to test Saints' resolve with a bid for France World Cup hopeful Morgan Schneiderlin although Bayern Munich's Javi Martinez would prove the ideal candidate should Pep Guardiola deem the Spaniard surplus to requirements in the middle of the Bavarians' star-studded midfield.

Nemanja Matic's impact at Chelsea epitomises what Arsenal's midfield is missing, and Wenger could decide to cast his gaze toward the Portuguese league, where the likes of Sporting Lisbon's 20-year-old powerhouse William Carvalho and Porto's Fernando have impressed.

{C}Backup to Wojciech Szczesny

Goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski is another player who looks set for the Emirates exit after a season where he has finally justified Wenger's long-held and oft-criticised faith. The Polish goalkeeper has been inspirational in Arsenal's FA Cup run and, despite conceding twice, helped his side to glory, but has announced his intention to leave the club when his contract runs out in the summer.

Szczesny has enjoyed a flawless season between the sticks to establish himself as the No. 1, but Wenger now needs a reliable deputy. The loan signing of Emiliano Viviano from Palermo has been one of the most obscure in Wenger's era, with club mascot Gunnersaurus seeing more time on the pitch than the Italian stopper.

Cardiff City's relegation could see Wenger make an approach for the club's 29-year-old Player of the Year, David Marshall, while Reading's agonising failure to make the Championship playoffs could pave the exit for 24-year-old Alex McCarthy.

Wenger's frequent forays into the French market have often proved fruitful, and Nancy talent Paul Nardi has emerged as a potential target after a series of impressive performances from the France under-20 international in Ligue 2.

Need for speed

One thing is for certain: Wenger, should he decide to stay, cannot afford to dawdle in the transfer market as he has done in the past. Wenger's determination to drive a hard bargain often means his new signings miss the crucial adaptation and team-building period during preseason, making their eventual easing into the side all the more difficult.

While the Frenchman is bound to give his customary offseason smirk and welcome back Theo Walcott and Abou Diaby as "new signings," there is a desperate need for Arsenal to strengthen this summer, and quickly, too, as the push for the title next season could prove to be their most competitive in the last decade.