Vlahovic, Arsenal and the fine line between ambition and fantasy

Will Ford
Dusan Vlahovic celebrates

Arsenal have chased Dusan Vlahovic for a year and have come unstuck. Should we praise the ambition or criticise the delusion?


Arsenal have been chasing their tail searching for a new striker. Dusan Vlahovic was the man they wanted; rumours of their interest in the Serbia international surfaced nearly a year ago. Arsenal were reported to be willing to meet Fiorentina’s €80million asking price, but Vlahovic has never been interested.

That should have been pretty clear through his agent’s refusal to pick up his phone – with the Champions League anthem as its ringtone – back in November, as Edu’s number appeared. Undeterred, Arsenal kept calling, entering further pointless negotiations with Fiorentina, right up until Vlahovic did the inevitable and agreed to join Juventus, a side in the European Cup.

Arsenal need a striker and, assuming the reports are accurate, have wasted a huge amount of time and effort chasing one that was never going to join them. If only they had some self-awareness.

“Historically, this club has targeted the best players in the world and the best players have always been attracted to Arsenal. That situation hasn’t changed. It is a big advantage for us.”

Admitting Arsenal are in fact shopping below the top level wouldn’t have been the best ploy to lure one of those best strikers in the world to the club; Mikel Arteta may have been playing games. If he wasn’t, he’s deluded.

The last players Arsenal signed that could be considered among ‘the best in the world’ were Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, who both joined in in the space of six months from summer 2017 to January 2018 for more than £100m combined. It could be argued Thomas Partey also belongs in that category, but even so, that would be one top-class signing in four-and-a-half seasons.

They’ve made some very good buys and arguably Won The Transfer Window in the summer. Ben White, Aaron Ramsdale, Martin Odegaard and Takehiro Tomiyasu have all improved the Arsenal first team. But they didn’t exactly face stiff competition for them; most have simply proven to be far better signings than the majority first thought.

It was not a transfer window in which Arsenal tried to sign ‘the best players in the world’, presumably because they realised they had no chance of doing so. It was a window in which Arsenal knew their place in the transfer market and bought players accordingly; it worked brilliantly. So why the sudden change of tack?

Aaron Ramsdale and Ben White

There are signs of progress under Arteta and they have a chance of qualifying for the Champions League, but no more than a chance – Manchester United are the favourites to land that coveted fourth spot. Vlahovic wanted a sure thing and Arsenal are a long way from being that, in a league in which four teams are vying for that last position. To be sure of playing Champions League football in England, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City are the only guaranteed options.

Arsenal do represent a higher level than Fiorentina – the Serie A side finished 13th last season. But rather than diminishing Vlahovic’s returns, that lowly finish highlights just how outstanding he was. He scored 21 league goals – 20 in a 24-game spurt – for a team that finished just seven points above the relegation zone. The equivalent would have been Neal Maupay scoring 21 for Brighton.

He scored one fewer than Mohamed Salah, two fewer than Harry Kane and three fewer than Romelu Lukaku, who joined the European champions for £100m. Arsenal were a step up, but Vlahovic had earned a jump. It was an Arsenal fantasy dressed up as ambition.

So who do they turn to? Alexander Isak is another player consistently mentioned, but reports suggest they will have to wait until the summer to sign him. A short loan move to tide them over until he is open to negotiation is an option, or there’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin.

A move for the Everton striker would be met with sniffiness from some Arsenal quarters – he’s not a marquee signing. But 19 Premier League goals in 38 starts since the start of the 2020-21 season is a very good return in a struggling side. Given the number of chances Arsenal create in comparison, they would likely be signing a 20-goal-a-season striker.

And he’s the right calibre of player. Similar to White and Ramsdale, he plays for a what is currently a lesser Premier League club and has designs on Champions League football without being quite ready for it. He can grow with a young Arsenal team and become a much better player with the rest of them.

Arsenal can be praised for their ambition when it comes to the Vlahovic chase, but deserve criticism if that pursuit means they end up with no-one.