A month ago, as the expectant chimes of a new year gave way once more to the humdrum tedium of daily existence, Arsenal found themselves in a most familiar condition. There’s an old journalistic truism that states, “Dog bites a man”—that is not news. “Man bites a dog”—that is news. Such a template can likewise be co-opted for the purposes of capturing the late-Wenger era: “Arsenal in crisis”—that is not news…
The sinking of the Arsenal?
Yet, while North London has recently produced enough harbingers of doom to form a Red Army (equal in scope to the one that defended the Eastern Front during WWII), this time their anxieties felt acuter. Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez were both running down their contracts and suitors were circling around the latter. His departure threatened to have a domino effect…nudging the German to jump ship before the water started to pool around his feet.
The thing about the ‘Wenger Out’ phenomenon is that it swells in the divide between two entities. There’s a fan base who sees the club’s natural footing as consistently competing for the Premier League title and a hierarchy for whom Champions League football represents cause for celebration. The Frenchman is merely the figure standing uneasily between these two poles. He’s the last live link to what the present should look like and the living embodiment of the stale inertia that exists in its absence.
While the fans scream for a team stuffed with players from the Sánchez/Ozil talent bracket, the board only delivers these individuals at the minimum rate required to preserve their more modest ambitions. Wenger just gets on with the impossible task at hand. It was essentially a squabble over where the ceiling should be, but with their two stars suddenly on the point of departure, it was the floor that was giving way.
The wind changes direction
And then it all just kind of happened. Manchester City, who’d been on the verge of signing Sánchez for what (in the modern market) amounts to the small change down the back of your sofa, abruptly found themselves outflanked by their crosstown rivals.
From nowhere, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, a prototypical Wenger player—and indeed one he’d tried to sign before the Armenian chose United—became the makeweight of the deal. The kind of player Arsenal could no longer convince to sign for them was exactly the player they were signing. This was, to boot, in exchange for a player they’d been resigned to losing for (at best) next to nothing. José Mourinho, a man who would rather gouge out both of his eyeballs with a rusty spoon than do Arsène Wenger a favor, was presenting him with the gift of a lifetime.
Unexpected good weather
Then it got even better. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, a genuinely elite center-forward (who again would typically be beyond the ambitions of the Gunners in an open tussle) found himself desperate for a move away from Borussia Dortmund. But all the usual contenders for such a player’s services were either well-stocked in the striking department or looking for a different kind of option.
Olivier Giroud was offloaded to fill Chelsea’s target-man-shaped hole. Michy Batshuayi completed the circle by going from the blues to fill the hole left by Aubameyang at Dortmund. And inexplicably, Arsenal found themselves getting the best player by far in a three-way transfer chain that involved two of Europe’s heavyweights. Mesut Özil, seemingly as amazed as the rest of us, signed a bumper new contract.
If the rosiness of this new reality sounds great on paper, it gets even better when you consider the constituent parts more deeply and in combination with one another.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the attacker
Let’s start with Mkhitaryan. Mourinho’s willingness to let go of the forward for Sánchez is a no-brainer, but that says more about the demands the Portuguese makes of his attacking players than it does about the respective difference in individual quality between the two. In recent years, Mourinho cast aside a plethora of highly skilled attacking players who, he believed, lacked the taste for team sacrifice he deemed inviolable. Among those are Mohamed Salah and Kevin De Bruyne—the two best players in English football so far this season. Mourinho sees such players as incomplete. To him they are unmistakably talented individuals who, nonetheless, lack the doggedness he attempted to graft onto their souls to complete their footballing attainment. Wenger, on the other hand, is a purist. He prefers to accentuate an individual’s existing qualities rather than mold them into something they’re not.
While Mkhitaryan never really acclimatized to United’s enforced style, Arsenal are a club at which he can indulge his attacking instincts to his heart’s content. This is a player who, lest we forget, was among the sharpest creative forces in Europe (before pitching up at Old Trafford). The Mkhitaryan of Dortmund was voted the best player in Germany in his final season. A free-roaming, highly intelligent inside-forward, who fashioned and finished chances with as great a flair as frequency (and most of those chances were for his then teammate, Aubameyang).
Aubameyang, the ruthless
The Gabonese striker’s arrival is even more exciting. Not since Thierry Henry has Wenger had a striker with such a purity of pace, combined with a deadliness in front of goal to work with. One of the more interesting proposed transfers in recent years was Arsenal’s attempt to prise Jamie Vardy away from the newly crowned champions, Leicester City (an implied recognition of those qualities they lacked). In Aubameyang, they’ve signed a far superior version of the same player. The striker is graceful but ruthless. He’s skilled enough to engage in all the trademark Arsenal interplay, yet promises a step-up in finishing class. The results should be borne out in the scoring charts by the end of the season. Even as he was falling out with everyone at Dortmund, Aubameyang was still scoring goals with remarkable consistency.
A cord of three strands…
The other aspect in all this is how both new men fit in with Ozil. While Sánchez is clearly a huge loss, one of the uncomfortable truths about Arsenal is that these two star players never quite suited one another. Ozil is a player who loves to feed others…who thrives on runs beyond the ball (both to play passes into and to free up space in which he can operate). The Chilean, meanwhile, is someone who likes to come short for the ball, face-up a defender and interrogate him by cutting in from the left. For all his undoubted effectiveness at it, Sánchez’s style means intruding into the central space in which Ozil likes to operate most. By contrast, Aubameyang’s willingness to run in behind, and stretch the defense, will open up space for both Ozil and Mkhitaryan (who can also act as decoys for one another). It is a beautifully balanced attacking trio that boasts one out-and-out goalscorer, one pure creator and one who, if he returns to top form, offers a potent balance of both.
Admittedly, it has only been one game and, even more admittedly, it was against Everton, but the potential these combinations offer can already be evidenced. Within six minutes on the pitch together, Ozil fed Aubameyang, who clipped it around the corner to Mkhitaryan, who picked out Aaron Ramsey for the opener. Ozil then sprung the striker for a one-on-one with a masterful, probing through ball before the two ex-Dortmund men combined for Aubameyang to get his goalscoring tally up and running.
A month ago, all looked lost for Arsenal. Now Alexandre Lacazette can’t find a place in their starting eleven. It may have been more by luck than judgment, but Arsenal appear to have stumbled into possessing their most fluent attacking threesome since the days when their manager, fans, and board were all in harmony.