It’s a fairly clear sign that you’ve got the title sewn up when the press spends almost the entirety of the March international break discussing your potential summer transfer targets (as opposed to your actual league campaign). Saturday’s defeat to Crystal Palace briefly reminded everyone that the season isn’t quite over yet, until Wednesday’s impressive display against Man City once again ended the conversation.
Whilst not wanting to take anything for granted, I feel quite safe in the knowledge that Antonio Conte has never taken anything for granted in his entire life, and therefore more inclined to relax and ruminate happily on what glorious things might be in store for us next season.
As far as I can see there are essentially six questions which will form the narrative of our off-season this summer. The following is brief look at them all, in order of priority…
- A new centre forward – Priority number one of course is contingent on Diego Costa and whether or not (as expected) he decides to move to China. The Spaniard has dropped off noticeably since he was courted in January by a ludicrous offer to join Shanghai SIPG. Despite his outstanding contributions to both our league winning campaigns over the last three years, I think most are in agreement that an offer in the region of the expected £70/80m would be one worth accepting. The question then remains of how to re-invest.
If the newspapers are to be believed, the most likely outcome right now is the re-signing of Romelu Lukaku – a decision which is likely to divide opinion. The Belgian’s goal return this year has been impressive but I am not at all certain that his stats reflect his true value or talent. Of his 21 goals only three have come against top sides (two against Man City and an injury time consolation in a defeat to Spurs). Meanwhile he has scored four against Sunderland, four against Bournemouth and most recently two against Hull City (in injury time, in a game which was already won).
Whilst this is fine for a side like Everton, with simple upper-mid table ambitions, a side competing for the league title needs a striker who can take a stagnant game and managed to fashion a goal from virtually nothing (the best recent example of which being Costa’s fantastic goal against West Brom back in December) – which is something I can’t remember Lukaku ever showing himself capable of. As of now, if he is to replace Diego next year then he needs to improve his overall game drastically and quickly, otherwise I think we could struggle.
- We need new wing backs – Both Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso have been superb this season but both have also been fortunate with injuries and obviously aided by a fixture list which promises to be far more demanding next season. Cesar Azpilicueta, Pedro and Nathan Ake have all shown themselves capable of deputising (if all offering slightly different qualities). At least one, probably two new players should be our second priority this summer. Rumours regarding David Alaba and Alex Sandro seem completely unfounded. Valencia’s young and versatile Joao Cancelo seems like a more feasible, yet still excellent option.
- A new central midfielder – Probably the clearest frustration Conte has had with his squad this year has been the lack of preferable options to play in central midfield, as demonstrated by his perennial reluctance to use Cesc Fabregas. As such, the purchase of a tall, dynamic box to box runner can be considered a near certainty this summer. Monaco’s 22 year old Tiemoue Bakayoko appears to be the first choice.
I won’t pretend to have watched him enough to explain how the Frenchman would be an improvement on Nemanja Matic, but even from very limited viewings, one can see clearly he has both the profile and the physical attributes to operate well in our 3-4-3 shape, or potentially in a 3-5-2. Manchester Utd are also rumoured to be interested, which makes sense given their clear need to replace 35-year-old Michael Carrick. The papers seem to make Chelsea the slight favourites for his signature at the moment, with the opportunity to play in London, for the league winners and alongside his phenomenal, diminutive countryman, representing a better offer than the one being presented currently from Old Trafford.
- We need to replace Asmir Begovic. The Bosnian wanted to leave in January but his move was blocked when we couldn’t agree a deal to sign Craig Gordon in time. Begovic will certainly force a move through this summer and top class back up is essential. If, with more time, a deal can be worked out, I think the Scot would be a good choice.
- Alexis Sanchez – The story already destined to become the main saga in England this summer. Keeping things simple, this story simply boils down to two questions. 1) Does he want to stay in London enough to potentially see out his contract and wait another year? And 2) Are Arsenal prepared to lose him on a free?
I feel more confident answering the second question with a ‘no’ than I am with the former. Regardless of what anyone says, Arsenal won’t ultimately refuse £50m for a player who will only leave in 12 months to join a rival anyway. Which means if Alexis is fully decided on the move, then I think it will happen. It’ll be a fascinating game of chicken to observe. Sadly I think a more straightforward transfer to either Paris or Juventus looks more likely at the moment.
- A new centre half? – Finally, the least concern for us this summer, in my opinion, is the recruitment of an elite level centre half. Rumours regarding Virgil Van Dijk continue to circle and it’s logical that they should. The Dutchman seems to want to leave Southampton and would admittedly be a perfect fit for the LCB role in our back three; his superior speed, strength and composure on the ball would make him an instant upgrade on Gary Cahill, despite the Englishman having had a very strong season overall.
However, it’s worth bearing in mind that our defence is clearly already of a league winning standard – improvement is not a necessity in that sense. More importantly, in Kurt Zouma and Andreas Christensen we have two outstanding young talents, both of whom, in my view, have the potential to surpass Vin Dijk over the course of the next two years and it would be a great shame to see them leave, for want of first team opportunities. Nathan Ake also has proven himself more than capable of operating comfortably in a back three. This seems to me like £50m which could clearly be better spent elsewhere.
So then, it seems the following four questions are the ones which will shape the narrative of our summer transfer window. Share you answers to them in the comments section – we’ll see if we can get a debate going…
- Will the club receive/accept an extortionate Chinese offer for Costa and would you be happy to invest the funds in Lukaku?
- Is Tiemoue Bakayoko the clear choice for our midfield and does he have the quality to instantly displace Matic?
- Will Alexis Sanchez be stubborn enough to force Arsenal’s hand?
- Would a £50m outlay on Virgil Van Dijk be money well spent, or would you rather see Zouma/Christensen given the chance to progress?