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Top 5: First XI costs in Premier League

Transfers 11 hours ago
Read
Aug 14, 2006

Focus on the defence

Quite literally, Ashley Cole is not in the picture at Arsenal. When the Gunners convened for their annual pre-season photograph, the left-back was nowhere to be seen. Even Jose Antonio Reyes, despite umpteen hints of his imminent transfer to Real Madrid, was included. Cole, however, was not.

Rewind three months and there was an English half to the Arsenal defence in the Champions League final. Since then, Sol Campbell has departed, looking for challenges abroad and ending up on an island further south, even if his choice of Portsmouth suggests geography was not his finest subject at school. Though Chelsea and Arsenal differ on their valuations of Cole, he will follow.

It is a novel concept for Chelsea to describe a player as overpriced but, the resolution of an interminable transfer saga that has already cost Cole and Jose Mourinho personally will come shortly, if only because the defender and the Premiership champions need it to be. If Cole's bridges are not yet burned at Arsenal, the matches are lit; at Stamford Bridge, another Bridge - Wayne - received another slight when Mourinho selected the right-footed right-back Paulo Ferreira ahead of him in the Community Shield.

And it leaves Arsenal with a feeling of déjà vu. Twelve months on from Patrick Vieira's exit, Thierry Henry has pleaded with Cole to stay and voiced his fears that Arsenal will be regarded as a selling club (in one sense, they always have been: the sales of Nicolas Anelka, Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars have financed much of Arsene Wenger's spending).

And hark back three years to another summer spent waiting for Wenger to strengthen his defence. After Martin Keown left for Leicester and with proof of Pascal Cygan's fallibility, Campbell appeared his only trustworthy centre-half. The expected signing never materialised; instead Kolo Toure, the multi-purpose substitute partnered Campbell in the Community Shield. Initially, he appeared a stop-gap. Three years on, he has matured into one of the world's most coveted defenders.

It is a reason why Arsenal need not panic. Wenger's record of unearthing bargains, many of them not registering on the radar of his counterparts at other Premiership clubs, is unrivalled. Toure also provides proof of his ability to reinvent the players at his disposal according to his needs. The recruits are ever younger: Emmanuel Eboue is only the latest of his signings to emerge with an assurance and an immediate aptitude for first-team football.

Arsenal's deficiency, then, may lie in quantity rather than quality of defenders. With a budget capped by the costs of Ashburton Grove, Wenger has shown a reluctance to spend for the sake of it. Curtis Davies, seemingly the sole Englishman to attract his attention, has been priced out of a move to the capital. It leaves him dependent upon a Swiss-Ivorian combination in the centre of defence.

And it was Philippe Senderos' incompatibility with Campbell, combined with evidence of the elder man's fading powers, that surely compelled Wenger to release the latter. In a conflict between the generations, a focus on the future ensures Wenger sides with the younger. Cesc Fabregas was preferred to Vieira, Senderos to Campbell; the latter is a closer comparison as both take a few strides to get their hulking frame up to maximum pace and need to be paired with a quicker centre-back.

The languid, assured Johan Djourou answers that description. Born in the Ivory Coast - like Toure - and now, alongside Senderos, a Switzerland international, he may render new acquisitions unnecessary. But with Senderos currently sidelined, alternatives to Djourou and Toure are hardly apparent.

However, with a new breed of speedier defenders, wither the traditional British centre-half, whose spiritual home was Highbury? George Graham accumulated four, in Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Andy Linighan and Keown; now the nearest Arsenal possess to a stopper is Senderos, and even he was unsettled by the physicality of Didier Drogba last season.

Nor, indeed, is there a modern-day Nigel Winterburn, an old-fashioned, unfussy left-back. In negotiations with Chelsea, Arsenal might describe Cole, a supercharged variant of Winterburn, as the world's best. Yet, of the eight left-backs used last season, the most impressive was Mathieu Flamini, the central midfielder subjected to a remarkable conversion by Wenger.

Meanwhile, there was a ninth left back in 12 months against Dynamo Zagreb last week, Justin Hoyte, who has the athletic background to endear himself to Wenger. A tenth was tried in pre-season; Armand Traore may only be 16 but he attracted rave reviews. Another Frenchman, Gael Clichy, is more likely to be first choice this season when he regains fitness.

Wenger could not be faulted if he attempts to involve William Gallas in part-exchange for Cole, even if the his compatriot's dislike for playing left-back is well known. Recent history, meanwhile, should provide Cole with a salutary warning; players of considerable accomplishments and outstanding attributes have, after being enticed away by wealthier clubs, come to look back on their days at Arsenal as the highlights of their career.

Wenger, meanwhile, has settled for unearthing cut-price replacements elsewhere. It is a reason why, though Arsenal look desperately short of fit defenders, the assumption should not be made that they need to make a high-profile venture into the transfer market. The successors to Cole and Campbell may already be at the Emirates Stadium; indeed, they may even be visible in the team photograph. Unlike Ashley Cole.

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