An alarming feature of Arsenal’s football in the final quarter of last season was how stagnant it was. Despite having two excellent strikers, Arsenal were a not very good attacking side. There were moments of quality—the Valencia away leg of the Europa League semi-final—but there were also moments of excruciating boredom, scoring four goals in five games against Everton, Crystal Palace, Leicester, Wolves, and Brighton—all solid defensive teams, but not exactly stingy.
There are multiple reasons for Arsenal’s dullness. In part, Unai Emery’s conservatism plays a huge role; despite monopolizing possession, and the two excellent strikers, Arsenal created fewer shots this season than any other season that OPTA have data for. But it also has to do with profile. Once Aaron Ramsey was injured, there was a complete lack of dynamic movement. Multiple times in the Europa League final, for instance, Mesut Özil would collect possession, and have to wait for Ainsley Maitland-Niles or Sead Kolasinac to run up the pitch so he could have some forward movement ahead of him. Once teams worked out that the only dynamism was coming from the centre forwards, it was easier to mark them out of the game and stifle Arsenal that way.
Yet, this is not just Emery’s style of football, but also the profile of players at the club. Arsenal’s best—and indeed only—ball-carrying attacking player is Alex Iwobi. The last two years have seen the departure of Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Alexis Sánchez, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, all of whom offered some form of dynamic play, either through movement, like Ramsey, or through dribbling ability or pace. And in selling Theo Walcott, Arsenal moved on someone who, while not necessarily dynamic, offered pace and movement.
There are question marks over Zaha, though there really shouldn’t be. He is easily the best player outside of the top 6, and got 10 goals last year, and 9 the year before. This was usually playing as Crystal Palace’s main attacking threat, rather than having at least one striker of the quality of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Alexandre Lacazette. And, furthermore, Arsenal’s third highest scorer last season was a tie between four players on six goals: Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Mesut Özil, Alex Iwobi, and Aaron Ramsey. Of those four, the manager seems to be in a fight with one, one is no longer at the club, Mkhitaryan is over 30 and wildly inconsistent, and Iwobi’s final product still needs work.
Beyond that, though, Wilfried Zaha offers Arsenal something they don’t have. At the moment, Arsenal’s creative attacking options are Iwobi, Mkhitaryan, Özil, or Lacazette. All of those bring huge question marks; all of those options are fairly one-dimensional in how they create chances. There is no variety to Arsenal’s play, and while that might be in part because of Emery’s predilection to cutbacks, it is also because there is a very set type of attacking player at Arsenal. This is not something that can be improved internally necessarily. Reiss Nelson is a promising talent, someone who should get playing time, but he had a mixed season in the Bundesliga, and Arsenal are in a win-now (and by that I mean get back into the Champions League now) mode. Zaha fills a need that the club just doesn’t have; he can take multiple players on, quickly change the pace of an attack, and open up space for others. And, at a point where Arsenal are becoming predictable and sleep-inviting in attack, Zaha offers excitement and entertainment; he makes football fun to watch.
Of course, one can justifiably ask why Arsenal are seemingly doing this now. Arsenal haven’t been fun to watch for some time, and Arsenal lost most of their ball-carriers by January 2018, with only Jack Wilshere still at the club. In a summer where Arsenal’s transfer budget is limited, it seems odd to be doing this now, when they could’ve done this a year ago. In a sense, it exemplifies the lack of joined-up thinking at Arsenal, an institutional malaise that wasn’t magically fixed when Arsène Wenger left the club. That doesn’t mean, though, that Arsenal shouldn’t go for Wilfried Zaha now. In a season where Chelsea cannot sign anyone and have lost Eden Hazard, and Manchester United are being managed by a Sir Alex Ferguson tribute act, signing a player of Zaha’s quality may make the difference in getting into the top 4.