A month ago, as the expectant chimes of a new year gave way to the humdrum tedium of daily existence once more, Arsenal found themselves in a most familiar condition. There’s an old journalistic truism that states “dog bites man is not news, man bites dog is” and such a template can be co-opted for the purposes of capturing the late-Wenger era: “Arsenal in crisis is not news…” etc.
Yet, while north London has in the recent past produced enough harbingers of doom to form a Red Army equal to the size of the one which saw off the Nazis on the Eastern Front, this time their anxieties felt more acute. Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez were both running down their contracts. Suitors were circling around the latter and his departure promised to be the domino that would push the German, too, into thinking this was a ship worth stepping off before the water started to pool around his feet.
The thing about the ‘Wenger Out’ phenomenon is that it swells in the divide between a fanbase who see 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; 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 Sanchez/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 is 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.
And then it all just kind of happened. Manchester City, who’d been on the verge of signing Sanchez 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 in exchange for a player they’d been resigned to losing for, at best, next to nothing. Jose Mourinho, a man who would rather gouge out both of his eyeballs with a rusty spoon than do Arsene Wenger a favour, was presenting him with the gift of a lifetime.
Then it got even better. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, a genuinely elite centre 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 with all the usual contenders for such a player’s services 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 Arsenal inexplicably found themselves getting by far the best player in a three-way transfer chain that involved two of Europe’s heavyweights. Mesut Ozil, seemingly as amazed as the rest of us, signed a bumper new contract. Alexis who?
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.
Let’s start with Mkhitaryan. Mourinho’s willingness to let go of the forward for Sanchez 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 has cast aside a plethora of highly skilled attacking players who he believed lack the taste for team sacrifice he deems inviolable. Among these are Mohamed Salah and Kevin De Bruyne, the two best players in English football so far this season. While Mourinho sees such players as incomplete, as unmistakably talented individuals who nonetheless lack the doggedness he attempted to graft onto their souls to complete their footballing attainment, Wenger is a purist who prefers to accentuate an individual’s existing qualities rather than mould them into something they’re not. While Mkhitaryan never really acclimatised 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, lest we forget, who before pitching up at Old Trafford was among the sharpest creative forces in Europe. 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 chance’s were for his then teammate, Aubameyang.
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, a tacit 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, skilled enough to engage in all the trademark Arsenal interplay yet promising a step up in finishing class which 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.
The other aspect in all this is how both new men fit in with Ozil. While Sanchez is clearly a huge loss, one of the uncomfortable truths about Arsenal in the time the two were together was that they 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, Sanchez’s style means intruding into the central space in which Ozil most likes to operate. By contrast, Aubameyang’s willingness to run in behind and stretch the defence 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 round 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 judgement, but Arsenal appear to have stumbled into possessing their most fluent attacking threesome since the days when their manager, fans and board were in similar harmony.