Disappointment and frustrated hope, the constant cycle of false dawn dissipating in the gloom of cruel reality, are so much part of life at Arsenal these days that it never pays to give too much credence to mumblings of optimism emanating from the Emirates. But after picking up Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang this January, it’s at least true that Arsenal enters February in a far, far stronger position than ever seemed possible at the beginning of the transfer window.
That Arsenal no longer wins the league seems now to be generally accepted. Slowly, for all the sound and fury of Arsenal Fan TV and the apoplexy on social media, expectations have lowered. Failing to qualify for this season’s Champions League should have felt like a major decline, but it didn’t: it was just the continuation of a trend. But just before Christmas, there came a realization of how bad things had become. Could it be that Arsene Wenger had not merely led Arsenal away from the peaks he had once conquered, but that he might end up leaving the club in a worse situation than it had been in when he found it?
Arsenal has a bright new stadium now, of course, and that will be Wenger’s ultimate legacy–but then every top club other than Manchester United, which did its building work two decades ago, now has either recently moved into a new stadium, renovated their existing facilities or is planning to do so. The issue, rather, was the squad–and for all the nonsense that swirls around the modern game, the players are still the most important element.
When Wenger took over the club late in 1997, he inherited David Seaman and the fabled back of Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Martin Keown and Nigel Winterburn, plus Ray Parlour, Dennis Bergkamp and Ian Wright. The nucleus of an extremely good side was already there. But at the start of this transfer window, it was legitimate to ask whether Wenger would leave his successor similar foundations.
Alexis Sanchez has left and, a month ago, it seemed as though Mesut Ozil, whose contract expires in June, would also go–though he reportedly renewed that deal following Aubameyang's signing. Jack Wilshere’s contract is also up in the summer, while there has been enough interest in Hector Bellerin to suggest that trying to retain him was a lost cause beyond the end of the season. Which left what, exactly? A superannuated Petr Cech, the chronically injured Laurent Koscielny, the unreliable Granit Xhaka and the misfiring Alexandre Lacazette. And Aaron Ramsey, who still hasn’t quite returned to the heights he attained in 2013-14. Even with the most benevolent eye, that is not a squad two or three signings from winning the double, as Arsenal did in Wenger’s first full season in charge.
And as many clubs have found, rebuilding is significantly complicated when a team does not have Champions League football to offer. Arsenal, sixth in the league, is five points off fourth and its best chance of making it into the Champions League next season is probably by winning this season’s Europa League.
Given Sanchez’s contract had run down, getting Mkhitaryan in exchange represented smart business for Arsenal, exchanging a player it would have lost for nothing in the summer for a player who would have cost them at least £40 million and probably more. Even better, Arsenal has now managed to add a player who combined well with him at Borussia Dortmund in Aubameyang. The £55.5 million fee is not cheap, but for a proven center forward–he’s scored 98 Bundesliga goals over the past four and a half seasons–even one who has been sulking for most of the past six months, it probably represents value in the current market. Offset against it is the £17.5 million Arsenal will receive for Olivier Giroud, a forward three years older than Aubameyang in whom Wenger has seemingly lost faith.
The issue then is where he will fit. It’s hard to imagine a lineup that features all four of Ozil, Mkhitrayan, Lacazette and Aubameyang. Perhaps Lacazette, who has shown flickers of form but hasn’t yet settled, is already being sidelined. Aubameyang is a physically more imposing presence, and has some experience of playing wide, but they are essentially similar forwards, both quick and effective in the box–both, in fact, should benefit from through balls played by Ozil and/or Mkhitaryan.
There’s also the game being played out behind the scenes to consider. Wenger has seemed dismissive of Arsenal’s head of recruitment Sven Mislintat, who joined the club from Borussia Dortmund last month, but it’s hard not to see significance in the fact that Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang both played for Dortmund. This, perhaps, is the beginning of a future Arsenal after Wenger has gone.
At the very least, there is at least now some substance to the squad. It remains unbalanced, and the void at the back of midfield remains unfilled, but where there had threatened to be only the scattered remnants of a squad, there is at least now something on which to build.