BREMEN – Per Mertesacker moving to Arsenal may not surprise the throngs who devour the daily transfer gossip. The big German has been linked with the Gunners for a year, though the thin strings from the Emirates to Werderstadion were never thought strong enough to carry that rumor home.
Now that the move appears a fait accompli, with the soon-to-be former Bremen man in line for a Wednesday unveiling, the transfer hints at a panic that's enveloping Arsenal.
In the years since Thierry Henry was sold to Barcelona and Arsenal's latest core started to take hold in the squad's bedrock, manager Arsene Wenger has been far more likely to rely on a quixotic signing than bringing in a big name. Even his biggest expenditure in that time, the acquisition of then-much sought after Russian Andrei Arshavin, caught some by surprise, Wenger having waited out a market that reportedly included the likes of Barcelona, Manchester United, and rival Spurs.
Thomas Vermalean, Laurent Koscielny, and Sebastien Squillaci all had an element of cleverness to them - an economist evaluating a market, making value buys, for better or worse. The only time Arsenal went the conventional route they went young, outbidding Manchester United for Aaron Ramsey with the same eye toward youth that landed Theo Walcott, Wojciech Szczesny and Cesc Fabregas. Recent acquisitions like Gervinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain persisted with the two-pronged policy of being both clever and prospective.
Conversely, Mertesacker's purchase is not clever.
It's blunt. It's obvious. It's by the book.
For some Gooners, this new found decisiveness may be comforting. While Mertesacker may prove to be a valuable addition, that fact that he's being brought in now, as opposed to two years ago, shows Arsenal is letting their most recent results dictate policy. This kind of result-driven reaction is never part of a good plan and only acknowledges a developing issue.
In a way, Wenger's Mertesacker purchase translates to "well, let's just do something."
It's the type of reaction we haven't seen from Arsenal's competition as they've sought to solve similar problems. When Chelsea identified a weakness in defense, they didn't just go and get anybody. They got David Luiz. Manchester United's acquisitions of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are exemplars of how to address need in the context of a plan, while Manchester City (Kompany, two seasons ago) and Liverpool (Sebastian Coates, two minutes ago) have also exhibited an awareness of the long-term while making moves today.
All of which intimates Per Mertesacker is somehow an inferior player. He's not, and for the reported $14.6 million signing fee, he's value, particularly considering his age. While he's slow of foot, he will be protected by Alex Song and covered for by Thomas Vermaelen, while his height will give Arsenal a needed dimension on set pieces. Just don't expect that height to translate into an overly physical presence in open play. Mertesacker's big, but he's not a bruiser.
Arsenal could very well have gotten Mertesacker last year, after Werder was routed out of Champions League and were in the middle of a season that saw them engage in a strangely surprising flirtation with relegation. Arsenal could have bought earlier this summer, but as has been the case with the Gunners for the last four years, there has been little agreement with conventional wisdom as to where the team was weak.
Now it appears Wenger is falling in line with convention, at least in some regard. While the acquisitions of Park Chu-young and Andre Dos Santos show hints of the cleverness that's defined Arsenal's recent transfer policy, the Mertesacker acquisition feels like a huge change in approach. Wenger didn't go out and raid the French league to speculate on Mamadou Sakho or Dejan Lovren. He's not looking to Belgium, hoping Ondrej Mazuch can be the next Thomas Vermaelen, nor is he waiting to see if the investment he's made in Johan Djourou will improve the health of his Swiss defender.
He's gone conventional. He's gone to a plan that's been on the drawing board for years, and in doing so, he's gone in a different direction. But rather than go out and get a David Luiz or even bet on tomorrow with a Phil Jones-esque wager, he's gone to "Plan B."
Last season, Bremen finished 15th out of 18 teams in goals allowed, and while they had the fourth-best prevention rate the year before, they were 11th in 2008-09. In Germany, Bremen's known as a team more likely to outscore you. While Mertesacker bares little responsibility for that reputation, he's also never been able to staunch the goals against his net.
For Germany, the story's been different, but transplanted to the Premier League, Mertesacker could struggle. When you look at the speed teams like Manchester United and Manchester City offer in attack, Mertesacker does not look like the man who will allow Wenger to take points from Arsenal's top four rivals. The prospect of somebody like Liverpool's Luis Suarez running at the big German has the makings of a Gooner's nightmare.
The Guardian in London is reporting Arsenal could make three more signings on Wednesday, with Clint Dempsey also being linked to a Gunners squad set to add Christopher Samba, Yann M'Vila and Marvin Martin. If even a couple of those players make their way to the Emirates, Plan B will have countered every Samir Nasri qualm published over the last 72 hours. Arsene Wenger will have forked over the cash to assemble a list of options that still have no chance of penetrating Manchester United, Manchester City, or Chelsea.
Arsenal clearly needed a change. They needed something new and bold and invigorating. Instead, they've gone back to a plan that headlined tabloids two years ago, an acquisition that gives nobody any impression they're ready to fight against Europe's elite.