Arsenal's pursuit of Julian Draxler is reassuring – here's a man who'd rather have a dozen languid creators than sign a striker
As an Englishman currently hoofing it around Australia – land of beachwear, cardboard skyscrapers and vast untapped underground reserves of high-end fusion cuisine – there was something comforting this week in the news that Arsenal may or may not be about to sign Julian Draxler from Schalke. This seems to be the plan for Arsène Wenger. Not a centre-forward, or a poacher or some seasoned gun for hire. But Julian Draxler of Schalke: subtle, languid and – as it turns out – now also injured for the next three months.
Just the idea that Wenger has thought about this long and hard, listened to the arguments on all sides, and decided: "Yes, what we really need here is someone to play between the lines of the spaces between the lines," was enough to make the heart swell with a sense of all being right with the world, like hearing distant news of cancelled trains or snow chaos on the A40. It really doesn't matter if Arsenal have any chance of signing Draxler or not. What matters is that life keeps rolling along, there is indeed still honey for tea, and Wenger's desire to paint the world a shade of attacking midfielder continues to rage on regardless.
There is, in fairness, some variation here. Arsenal have tended to go for short, bouncy attacking midfielders. Whereas Draxler is something different, a tall, gangly attacking midfielder.
Plus he would be a great addition to the Premier League, a languid and incisive creator in the first bloom of a precocious talent with an excellent name, which makes him sound like a glazed high society drug dealer in a Bret Easton Ellis novel. And he is just a lovely player to watch, with a habit of appearing in the right place without ever seeming to be heading off anywhere in a particular hurry, like a footballing version of the ideal country house Butler, always popping up behind you with an umbrella, a pot of marmalade, the perfectly cushioned nudge-volley assist.
Not that this is the big thing about Draxler to Arsenal. The real point is that he isn't a striker. Such has been the chorus of complaint, the barking sense of absolute conviction that Wenger must, must buy a striker that, as the transfer window flutters by, one thing above all seems patently clear. He isn't going to buy a striker. It is best just to get used to this fact, to acknowledge that this is a man who would rather die on his feet in the throes of a soft-shoed sideways dink, than live on his knees if that means being obliged to perform a series of hopeful diving headers.
There has been some talk about Wenger wanting to turn Draxler into the new Robin van Persie. This sounds unlikely, if only because this isn't an oversight or a coincidence but a distinct and consistent plan. In the past four years Arsenal have spent £13m on functioning centre-forwards. In the same period Wenger has spent £120m on attacking midfielders – not to mention £15m on left-backs, including £6m on the now-departed "false three" André Santos. There is a sustained plan here, the entirely logical behaviour of a man for whom there is only one answer to every question – when he has a burst pipe Wenger doesn't call a plumber: he calls an attacking midfielder – and a coherent tactic in its own right. Arsenal have certain strengths – ball retention, short triangulated passing, attacking through swift transitions from defence – and it is these strengths Wenger is always seeking to feed. Diversifying into other kinds of strength would, in his opinion, be dilution not addition. To improve the current team is simply to try to do the same thing even better.
Not that this is anything new: the age of the all‑purpose midfielder has been dawning for some time across Europe. Plus there is also variety even within Arsenal's repetitions. Alex Oxlade‑Chamberlain offers barrel‑chested incision, Santi Cazorla will keep the ball tenderly, tiptoeing around in possession like a love‑struck chihuahua in a Disney cartoon spectacular, a single crumpled rose clutched between his teeth. Mesut Özil can look like the most beautiful of ornate midfield follies. As for Lukas Podolski, I have a theory there is some terrible misunderstanding here, that he hasn't actually mustered up the courage to "come out" as a striker at Arsenal, that he turned up at training and just joined in with what everyone else was doing, like arriving in the office canteen on your first day at work and on a whim pretending to have a broad Mexican accent, and somehow finding yourself still doing it three years later.
For the neutral the most fascinating part is watching Wenger become more entrenched with age, more absolute in his hair shirt adherence to the basic tenets of Wengerball, that dream of football as a fluid, frictionless, thrillingly homogenised property, and stalking the touchline in his quilted floor-length gown with an expression of fond, tolerant disapproval. He doesn't even really seem to say much any more, he just opens his mouth and allows gobbets of fully formed Wenger-speak to come out as he nods and smiles and seems to be enjoying at one remove the absolute Wengerism of his own performance. A journalist in Australia told me Wenger went to South Africa not long ago and was asked, among other things, how he'd fancy managing Fifa's world XI for the year. Wenger paused and frowned and scratched his chin and eventually said: "Well, it would be hard to balance the books."
Draxler or no Draxler, there is a self-propelling majesty to Wenger's refusal to bend. He might have given in, rushed out in his overcoat and come back looking flushed 20 minutes later with a parcel containing Demba Ba, Loïc Rémy and a small angry dog. But he has instead remained pointedly steadfast. Arsenal may or may not win the league from here, but should they get there it would be a peculiarly absorbing kind of triumph for English football's own zealot of the mobile midfield.