When Arsenal fans asked for change, signing Marouane Fellaini probably wasn’t exactly what they had in mind. Manchester United’s Belgian battering ram has been linked with a free transfer move to the Emirates Stadium, and it’s fair to say the reports haven’t exactly got the Arsenal fans dancing in the streets. Arsenal suffered from poor attendances throughout 2017-18, and it’s difficult to envisage the stands full of fans itching to see Fellaini in full flight.
A significant proportion of supporters might be wondering what exactly Sven Mislintat is playing at. Arsenal’s new head of recruitment was brought in because of his capacity to identify promising players of the cusp of stardom. However, thus far he has predominantly bought or been linked with players who are arguably past the peak of their careers. Young Greek centre-half Konstantinos Mavropanos looks increasingly like an anomaly.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan joined in January, and will both be 29 by the start of next season. Rumoured target Sokratis Papastathopoulos is the same age, while possible free transfer signing Stephan Lichtsteiner is 34. An Arsenal squad in need of rejuvenation appears to be getting older.
The 30-year-old Fellaini would not exactly be one for the future either. However, at least the likes of Aubameyang are quality players who have a clear role to play in the Arsenal team. It’s difficult to decipher precisely where Arsenal’s executive team see the big Belgian fitting in. The club’s signings from Manchester United have not always proved particularly successful — and this feels a little bit more “Mikael Silvestre” than “Mkhitaryan.”
After all, United have not exactly moved heaven and earth to keep Fellaini. Ultimately, this is a player who started just five Premier League games all season long. The Gunners are not in a position to be offering big wages to an occasional substitute — the idea of him starting more regularly at the Emirates Stadium will not be a particularly palatable one for Arsenal fans.
If there’s concern in North London, this news has presumably prompted hysterics in Manchester. For several seasons now, United fans have lamented Jose Mourinho’s reliance on Fellaini’s cameos. He has become emblematic of United’s utilitarian approach — a player with significantly more physicality than flair to his game.
Fellaini can, of course, be effective — Arsenal felt as much when he flicked home a late winner against them back in April. Perhaps that ability to influence games late on is at the core of Arsenal’s thinking. When they sold Olivier Giroud to Chelsea, they lost their “Plan B.” Fellaini would give the Gunners a chance to go long.
However, Arsenal don’t have an Ashley Young or Antonio Valencia to drive crosses into the box from wide. This is a team bereft of wingers, while full-backs Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin are more inclined to look for a diagonal cut-back than a deep flighted cross.
Arsenal do need a central midfielder this summer, but it’s a long time since Fellaini was truly a regular in that role. More often than not, he’s deployed to cause havoc in the penalty box. His sheer size and strength can make him a handful, but without the service he requires he’d effectively be a waste of a squad member — and, crucially, of £70,000 a week.
Arsenal need to be wary of tying themselves into too many deals with players who have no residual value. They should be looking to follow the example of Liverpool, who’ve speculated to accumulate, selling on purchases like Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho for enormous fees. Two sales at Anfield have effectively funded a reboot of the entire club. That shows the value in signing players whose career trajectories are on the rise.
Much has been made of Arsenal’s limited budget this summer, and a move for Fellaini simply feels like a way of getting a body in without paying a transfer fee. If Lichtsteiner and Fellaini arrive for nothing, Mislintat and company may consider it a job well done. However, they’ll never recoup anything for either player — and if their form fades away as they suffer a physical decline, they may well be stuck with them on the wage bill.
For their part, United are reportedly on the verge of completing a deal for Shakhtar Donetsk’s Fred: an all-action central midfielder, capable of transitioning from defence to attack in the blink of an eye. The Brazilian is someone with the skill and power to re-energise the ailing United midfield. By contrast, Arsenal fans are being forced to contemplate signing a United castoff who’s far better with his head than his feet. Surely Mislintat has something better up his sleeve than this.
Tom is one of ESPN FC’s Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @tomEurosport