Arguably since the exit of Gilberto Silva in 2008, Arsenal have been crying out for a defensive midfielder to reinforce the side and help the Gunners re-establish the former domestic dominance they previously enjoyed.
Alex Song came close to replacing the Brazilian, but even then both pale in comparison to the legendary Patrick Vieira.
Not that a defensive midfielder would cure all of Arsene Wenger’s side’s problems, but it is the position that has long been viewed as the weakest of the North London side’s weak links.
Wenger’s peerless talent spotting when it comes to French players might have finally come up with a solution to that problem.
No, it is not Sevilla’s Geoffrey Kondogbia, although the former Lens man would be a fantastic acquisition should the 63-year-old elect to follow up his reported (via ESPNFC) interest in the youngster.
Instead it is the largely unheralded Gilbert "Gianelli" Imbula of Guingamp, who is currently making waves with his Breton employers in Ligue 2.
The provincial outfit are bidding to make their first return to the top-flight since their relegation in 2004. Their Franco-Congolese midfielder has been a vital component in their incredible rise from France’s third tier to the cusp of the top in just three seasons.
Like Song, who was snatched from then-second tier Bastia, Wenger appears to be plundering France’s vast selection of talent again by identifying Imbula as a sound potential investment (via Sky Sports). At a reported €9.5 million (via French Football Weekly), half of Kondogbia’s touted €17 million price tag (The Sun), there is no doubt Imbula could prove better value over time.
But what sort of player is he, and can he replace Song, Silva and ultimately Vieira in the long run?
The short answer is "yes."
Imbula is an exceptional talent. The fact that he made his debut for Guingamp at just 17 years old in 2009 (the youngest player in Ligue 2 history) tells how highly his club rate him. Watching him on the field, though, it is no surprise.
The 20-year-old is a brutally strong defensive midfielder, a future general at the heart of whichever team he plays for. His physicality is impressive, and he has a highly competitive streak that is formidable when combined with his rare blend of power and pace. He is also surprisingly technical, though, and is a skillful player considering his large build.
The left-footed midfielder is the same brand of box-to-box midfielder that Vieira was for Arsenal in his prime. His attacking play needs some work as he rarely scores goals, but when he does they are often memorable. His stunning strike against Le Havre (one minute and 27 seconds into this video) is testament to his potential goalscoring prowess, but it was only his third career goal.
Undoubtedly he has to ability to influence games going forward as we have seen Moussa Sissoko do for Newcastle United this season, but that along with his heading and prowess from set pieces leave something to be desired.
Wenger though, specialises in nurturing raw talent into top players and Imbula looks like another one of those gems.
The Gunners boss is renowned for his ability to cherry-pick the best French talent and to identify future internationals, but little known about the Guingamp man is that he was actually born in Belgium. Imbula could yet play for Belgium if the Belgian FA see fit to call him up, but they will face competition from the Democratic Republic of Congo and France themselves for a player who amazingly has not yet even experienced under-21 level international football.
Unlike Guingamp’s last export to England, Leicester City’s Anthony Knockaert, the Breton club were able to hold onto Imbula for longer than they would have thought. In that time, the young midfielder has gained some vital experience and put the club in a position to make the jump to Le Championnat, which could in turn help them keep him for an extra season.
The small club with only one notable trophy to their name, the 2009 French Cup, has been a launching pad for the likes of Chelsea’s Florent Malouda and former player Didier Drogba, as well as former players in Newcastle’s Stephane Guivarc’h and Bolton’s Vincent Candela in the past, so their nurturing skills are beyond reproach.
Imbula though, on current form, looks like the heir to Vieira’s throne that the Arsenal fans have been longing for. However, he can’t be expected to fill that role immediately. Jumping from Ligue 2 to the English Premier league is a tough step, just ask Aston Villa’s Yacouba Sylla who joined Paul Lambert’s side from Clermont Foot in January.
Arsenal and Imbula could benefit from a loan deal next season that would see the youngster stay in France. An immediate year-long lease to either his current club or Breton rivals FC Lorient (Arsenal’s French feeder club) should EAG ultimately fail in their promotion bid would make sense. But if Wenger and Arsenal want him, they will have to make their move quickly, this is one talent that won’t be on the market for long.
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