Arsenal have defied expectation to make a January signing. However, even those who did think Arsene Wenger might enter the market could never have called this particular acquisition: the Gunners have moved to sign 20-year-old Hednesford Town left-back Cohen Bramall.
The youngster, who has jumped from the non-league to the Champions League, is highly unlikely to feature for the first team anytime soon. But his arrival illustrates the dearth of left-back options and the fact that the position will surely figure highly on Wenger's agenda this summer.
Bramall has been signed largely due to a dearth of left-backs at youth level. Marc Bola has featured regularly there for the under-23s, but there are limited options beyond him. Arsenal are a club with a fine tradition of producing home-schooled left-backs -- Ashley Cole, Gael Clichy and Kieran Gibbs to name but three -- but the well appears to have run dry. The situation is so alarming that Wenger has opted to pluck Bramall from obscurity.
It's a remarkable story. Until recently, the full-back was playing in the Evo Stick Premier League -- the seventh tier of English football. He had trials with Crystal Palace and Sheffield Wednesday earlier this season, but neither club was prepared to offer him a permanent deal. It was scout Brian McDermott who brought Bramall to Wenger's attention. After sharing tapes of him with the Gunners boss, Bramall was invited to join sessions at London Colney. He impressed with his speed and confidence on the ball and before long moves were being made to sign him up.
Although Bramall will go into the U23 squad, he'll doubtless have his eyes set on breaking into the senior side -- especially having already trained with the first-team during his trial. That may prove difficult. Even playing for the academy side will represent a huge step up for him. Jamie Vardy has become the poster boy for non-league success stories, but it's worth considering that the Leicester player rose steadily through the divisions.
Nevertheless, Bramall has a chance, simply because left-back is an area that Wenger will be looking to address come the summer. At present, he has Gibbs and Nacho Monreal on his books, with the Spaniard the clear first-choice. In fact, so pronounced is Wenger's preference for Monreal that Gibbs appeared certain to leave the club last summer. Arsenal were linked with a couple of replacements, with the names of Monaco's Djibril Sidibe and VfL Wolfsburg's Ricardo Rodriguez both mentioned. Ultimately, it was something of a surprise when Gibbs chose to stay.
It's unlikely he'll make the same choice in 2017. Gibbs has made just two Premier League starts this season. At 27, it's surely imperative he finds a club where he can play regular football. As for Monreal, the former Malaga man has been decidedly less consistent this season than last. As yet, it's unclear whether that's due to the constant rotation at left-wing leaving him exposed or whether he has entered physical decline.
Either way, Monreal will be 32 before the season is out. Look around Europe and you do not find too many first-class full-backs excelling at that age. As Hector Bellerin has proved on the opposite flank, it's a young man's game.
Arsenal will almost certainly be on the look-out for a new left-back. Perhaps they'll return with a serious bid for Rodriguez. The 24-year-old has joked publicly about the prospect of joining his Swiss international teammate Granit Xhaka in north London, and would certainly fit the bill in terms of Arsenal's requirements. He's athletic, technically accomplished and a threat going forward -- and he even delivers a mean set piece.
A left-back could be one of the positions earmarked for significant expenditure come the summer. For Bramall, signing for Arsenal has already been a miracle, but he may need an even bigger one to be considered part of the first team next season.