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Arsenal Transfer Rumor: Wilf Zaha on a free?

Sometimes you’ve gotta play the classics.

Crystal Palace v Leicester City - Premier League Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images

Wilfried Zaha has been linked with a move to Arsenal for what feels like the better part of a decade. In reality, it has not been quite that long, but the rumor mill is spinning up again with Zaha’s contract expiring this summer. Depending on where you look, the Gunners might be interested in signing the veteran attacker, but according to Fabrizio Romano, there haven’t been any concrete talks between the two camps.

There was a time where Zaha made no secret about his desire for a move to Arsenal, but that particular window of opportunity may have come and gone. Zaha is 30 years old and likely has one big contract left in his career. He’ll likely want as much term and money as he can get. Given Arsenal’s recent transfer and wage bill strategy, it doesn’t seem as if he’ll find what he’s looking for at the Emirates.

My guess is that Zaha will be looking for four or five years and somewhere north of £150K per week in wages. He might get those kind of wages from Arsenal, but even then, he’d be towards the top of the club’s payscale as a rotational / backup option, which makes it seem less likely Edu and Mikel Arteta would pull the trigger. And I highly doubt they’d offer anything longer a three-year deal and would probably stop at a two plus one year contract.

But Zaha provides an entree into an interesting conversation about where Arsenal are right now in their roster building and transfer strategy. The Gunners have done really good business the last three windows. They’ve targeted specific players for particular positions / roles in the formation and moved confidently for their targets, trusting their player evaluations even when others in the football world may not have agreed with the assessments. And they’ve made the roster younger while doing so. Don’t forget, Arsenal still have the youngest average starting lineup in the Premier League.

Arsenal have also added promising young talent like Fabio Vieira and Nuno Tavares who, while not ready to be full-time contributors at the time of purchase, look as if they’ll be important players in a year or two. And if they don’t work out in North London, the players Arsenal have recently bought are talented and young enough to be salable assets rather than players the club has to pay to go away.

The Gunners should not deviate too far from what their strategy has been in recent windows. Building a young roster that is able to self-sustain by filling gaps in the roster with talent developed at the club rather than having to make expensive purchases to fill holes is the best and only way they’ll be able to compete in the mid- to long-term with clubs like Manchester City that can significantly outspend them.

But at the same time, Arsenal aren’t playing Football Manager. It’s not all about stockpiling talent, shrewdly generating profit, and always building for the future. They’re a real club. They need to win football matches. And at some point, hopefully win some trophies, too. You don’t want to look up in a few years to find that the current young core of Bukayo Saka, Martin Ødegaard, Gabriel Martinelli, William Saliba, and [whoever else you want to include in “young core”] are in their late 20’s with no trophies to their name.

They may defy the odds this season and win an improbable Premier League title, but will they be able to repeat that next year? Almost certainly not without summer reinforcements. And I think the club need to start shifting their target profile for said reinforcements.

Next year, the club will be expected to make a run to at least the knockout stages of the Champions League while also challenging for the Premier League title. Right now, the roster is too thin to do that. We’ve already seen the effect of missing two starters in William Saliba and Alex Zinchenko on the quality of play. Champions League football means that the first choice players, who mostly didn’t play in the Europa League this year, are going to play more tough minutes next season. Without additional depth to allow for more rotation, key players are going to be more tired and at greater risk of injury.

And that’s where the small shift in transfer strategy comes in. If I were say it as simply as possible, Arsenal need to expand the top end of the age range for players they’re targeting. They may have already started doing that, see e.g. moving for Leandro Trossard and Jorginho, although those moves may have been more of a best available fit where there were immediate, pressing needs rather than an indicator of a larger shift.

They’ve got a window of opportunity opening now. All of the current key contributors in their early 20’s are at the start of or about to enter their prime seasons. Arsenal need to do all they can to squeeze as much success out of those years as they possibly can. One of the ways to do that is by adding quality depth that is ready to contribute right from the word go. The win now approach, if you will.

That’s where moving for players like Wilfried Zaha starts to make sense. Zaha in particular might not be the right fit for a variety of reasons, but players of his ilk could be. Players who are proven Premier League / top-level contributors that Mikel Arteta can trust to step in without risking lowering the overall level of the team much at all.

Of course, the gold standard is buying young players who are ready right now, like Gabriel Jesus and Alex Zinchenko. But those guys don’t come cheap. Arsenal made out like bandits on both of those transfers, I think, and moves like that won’t be easy to replicate. It seems as if Arsenal are in the running to sign Declan Rice, who certainly fits the young and ready right now bill. But he’s not going to come cheap. How much of the transfer budget will buying Rice or a similar player eat up?

Arsenal need more than just Declan Rice or Moises Caicedo this summer. They probably need more than both, if they could somehow swing signing the pair. It’s clear that Arsenal have upped the ante in terms of the transfer war chest, but even the Kroenke’s newfound willingness to splash the cash will have limits. The Gunners may need to get creative to continue to fill out the roster, and looking to more veteran players is one way to do that.

For me, an ideal summer window for Arsenal would add at least three Premier League ready players to the roster. What form that takes doesn’t much matter, but I don’t think that the club will be able to add three (or more) players who can be immediate contributors and are all in their early to mid 20’s. That doesn’t mean they should throw the current “buy young” strategy out the window, either.

The correct answer lies somewhere in the middle, as it so often does. I don’t envy the people having to figure out where that is and make the call. I’m sure the Arsenal braintrust is constantly re-evaluating and updating, well, pretty much everything they do — transfer targets, roster needs, assessments of where the squad currently stands, the two- and five-year roadmap, and so on. Given the way this season has gone, they’ve got even more on their plate than expected.

It seems like the squad may have skipped a year or two on the development timeline. The way most saw it, this season was for getting back into the Champions League. Then next season, with the additional resources from and allure of Champions League football, they might be able to mount a title challenge, maybe as a dark horse candidate. And then finally in 2024-25, they’d want to consider themselves among the favorites to win the Premier League. At least that’s what I think you’d find if you broke into London Colney and stole “The Road Map” for this squad’s progression.

I don’t think anybody at the club expected them to challenge for the league this season or to be considered a legitimate title threat next year. The future is now for Arsenal. It arrived sooner than expected. Mikel Arteta has said as much himself. That leap forward makes this summer a particularly important one and changes the calculus. Don’t get me wrong, Arsenal always had to “get it right” with their spending. They don’t really have the resources to miss on big purchases.

But it can’t be all about building for a few years down the road anymore. Arsenal need to re-balance the transfer priorities, even if only a little bit, to account for this wonderful, unexpected opportunity and the added pressure of being among the titles favorites on an accelerated timeline.