Arsenal are approaching a period of deep transition, a time when perhaps they have to say goodbye to some of the methods that have served them so well over the past two decades and embrace the brave new world. With their recent transfer policy, it appears plans are already afoot for change.
Arsene Wenger has revolutionised English football since his arrival in 1995. He arguably brought the first true world superstar to the English game, Dennis Bergkamp and he’s since built a legacy for which he will be remembered for a lifetime.
Sadly, Arsenal are set to finish further away from the top four than at any point since 1995/96, something that must be addressed. Or has it already been addressed?
Dortmund influence could help Arsenal
Enter Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, two big-name signings arriving at the Emirates this January. Arsenal, never normally extravagant or decadent in the transfer market, suddenly pulled out all the stops. Mkhitaryan came in a swap for want-away Alexis Sanchez, a booby prize of sorts, but Aubameyang cost money — a significant amount.
Both deals raised eyebrows for distinct reasons, but together the sense is evident. These guys work together perfectly.
Whilst one has guile and skill out wide — the creativity and crafting that befits an Arsenal side — the other is labelled as a pacey forward, a world-class big name which has been the one type of player Wenger hasn’t had since Thierry Henry left.
To define Aubameyang as a speed merchant alone isn’t doing him absolute justice. He does have buckets of raw pace, the sort of attribute that could dictate how Arsenal approach the attacking phases of play. However, he also has incredible awareness and can peel off the last defender with uncanny timing. He is likely to feature in the Premier League highest scorer market for the duration of his Arsenal tenure.
With his former teammate on the flank, those runs can be utilised to maximum effect. One would feel that the often-sublime Mesut Özil will pick up the chemistry incredibly quickly too, forming a trinity of talent. It is a dynamic that Arsenal have been chasing for some time.
Better late than never for Wenger
In 2016 Wenger realised the need for change. He coveted Jamie Vardy, an Englishman with pace, but he chose to remain with Leicester City. Instead, the great Frenchman had to make do with Lucas Perez. 11 Premiership outings and just a solitary goal to show for it was scant justification for his arrival and he was never the answer to the questions being asked of Wenger.
This summer, Wenger got his man, or rather he got a man and then decided he wanted another. Lacazette cost just over £50m, but it seems even he wasn’t the answer. Instead, cometh the transfer window, cometh the star prize. Aubameyang — all £60m of him.
Arsenal have never been ones to spend big and to do so twice in quick succession raised eyebrows across the football world. Is this the master plan, or the signs of panic — an early departure forcing big money purchases that ultimately don’t sort out the root cause of the issues at the club. Will a big-money striker stop primary school defending, a lack of a midfield general or want-away superstars eyeing moves to Manchester?
Maybe, if the purchases were simply Lacazette and Aubameyang they could be classed as panics, but discounting the Frenchman, the January signings were inspired genius. It was as if Wenger had bought the bread, then the butter. He paired Ant with Dec, Simon with Garfunkel and Zig with Zag.
A reunion of old friends
In the last campaign that Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan played together at Dortmund, they were simply unstoppable, building up a rapport that came to define them both. They shared 59 goals and 31 assists, a staggering total for two players. They thrived under the watchful eye of Thomas Tuchel, who is now amongst the favourites to eventually replace Wenger at the Emirates.
The Armenian was more of a provider, teeing up tantalising crosses or delicious through balls for his partner to feed upon. For his part, Aubameyang was lethal in front of goal, showing every inch of the class that prompted Wenger to get the chequebook out.
The question of whether they can fire Arsenal to the top four and European qualification is complex and, sadly for Arsenal fans, cannot be answered simply. The payoff may not come today or tomorrow, but with six months of the ‘Arsenal way’ under their belts, they can prove a fruitful combination. Along with the craft of the gifted German playmaker behind them, Arsenal should once again be an attacking force. That is assuming that Mkhitaryan is going to be out on the left flank. After all, that might not be the case.
Though some have already concluded that Mkhitaryan will be a direct replacement for Sanchez, that may not be the case. He can play centrally, behind the striker in an ‘eight’ or ‘ten’ role, or even work the channels either side of a traditional nine. He might not be there to complement Özil; he could well be his long-term successor. Let’s not forget, the German could still be a high-profile exit in the summer — the situation has been masked by the Sanchez saga, but it hasn’t gone away.
Back to the Arsenal way?
Whether the top four is reachable or not depends on variables far wider than two attacking players, but it does increase the chances significantly. For too long, Arsenal have relied on the brute strength of Oliver Giroud as a master plan, a tactic so unlike the pass orientated Frenchman at the helm. Perhaps he felt some special connection of his own to the robust forward currently warming the Chelsea bench.
The main factor in another top-four finish may well be a change off the field, as Arsene Wenger approaches the end of his managerial reign. He’s been magnificent over the years, cementing Arsenal as a top-four force and building title-chasing teams time and again.
His legend will live on, and the impact he has on the English game will never be forgotten, but one of his finest acts might have been his last foray into the transfer market, giving the side he so clearly loves a valuable leg up in their bid to re-establish themselves as a title-challenging side, by signing two players who dance to each other’s tune.