It’s happening again.
Like Samir Nasri, Robin van Persie, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain before him, Alexis Sanchez becoming the next Arsenal player to move to a rival Premier League club seems an inevitability. Whether he goes to Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City, or another English outfit is a moot point for fans; each of the five teams above Arsenal trump it for ambition and, in a vast revision of its identity from the Thierry Henry days, seduction.
What the Chilean’s impending departure does present is an opportunity. Arsene Wenger is nearing the end of his tenure at the club, and scaffolding is being erected around him so, rather than a collapse, Arsenal can rebuild when he’s gone. Former Barcelona director Raul Sanllehi is poised to take over as head of football relations in February, and scouting virtuoso Sven Mislintat’s arrival garnered plenty of attention after he spotted Robert Lewandowski, Ousmane Dembele, Shinji Kagawa, and many other standouts for Borussia Dortmund. There is a chance to bring in young players that can improve for Wenger’s eventual successor, and to immediately refurbish areas that have been susceptible in recent limp showings against West Bromwich Albion, Nottingham Forest, and Bournemouth.
Except this is Arsenal, and currently the boardroom are treating the transfer window like a toddler dropping the shiniest items in the trolley when a parent isn’t looking. There is minimum foresight, and the issues that have plagued the Gunners for years will prevail.
No doubt augmented with glowing references from Mislintat, two of the scout’s Dortmund discoveries, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, are rumoured replacements for Sanchez and Everton target Theo Walcott. Reinvestment is key to keep supporters on board, but is signing players nearing their 29th birthdays and during a period of upheaval conducive to a long-term plan of re-establishing Arsenal as a Premier League title challenger?
Aubameyang has been ruthless in the Bundesliga, scoring 25 and 31 in the past two full campaigns, but it’s a signing that only works for a brief time. His powers are at their peak or, given that his strongest attribute is pace, are already on a downward trajectory, and his stay at the Westfalenstadion has been soured by increasingly frequent disciplinary problems. It would be a gamble, and could prompt yet another change in system from Wenger as he tries to accommodate Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, a club-record £46.5-million signing last summer.
Mkhitaryan was similarly impressive in Germany, but the fragility he has shown at Manchester United is discouraging. He was an important piece of the weaponry in Dortmund’s counter-attack – the team chased upfield punts and gambled on second balls in packs – but in possession or against physical opponents, he has cowered in England. That’s not a shortcoming Arsenal should be bringing into its attack, especially considering the criticism Mesut Ozil has shouldered. The instant popularity of left-back Sead Kolasinac demonstrates Arsenal fans’ appreciation for some graft and brawn in the lineup, rather than another who apparently shirks the dirty work.
The alleged interest in Malcom makes sense. The Brazilian has had a hand in over half of Bordeaux‘s Ligue 1 goals this season (seven strikes, five assists) from the right wing, and his manager Jocelyn Gourvennec praised his maturity despite the burgeoning hype. Malcom’s capable of lacing long-range beauties when he cuts inside onto his stronger left foot and, although he often explores channels down the right, he’s capable of floating behind Lacazette and cropping up on the left. At 20, can be the face of a new and more positive generation at Arsenal.
But the reported pursuits of Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan need to be reconsidered. It smacks of a club seeking headlines with marquee buys rather than exercising common sense, and those decisions will only obscure the team’s limitations until a long ball floats over a sleeping back-three once again.
The Jonny Evans link has surprisingly gone quiet, and there are little hints that other players are being identified to take pressure off dawdling defenders Per Mertesacker, Laurent Koscielny, and Shkodran Mustafi; and Calum Chambers and Rob Holding would’ve been cast off by any other Premier League team with aspirations of Champions League football in 2018-19.
Then there’s the defensive midfield worry. Since the provocative play of Henry & Co., there have been a string of inadequate replacements for Patrick Vieira. Following Abou Diaby, Denilson, and Francis Coquelin is Granit Xhaka, who presently boasts a stranglehold over the position. He’s a purveyor of ambling mediocrity and, as long as there’s derisory competition for his place and no backline recruits in the starting XI, Arsenal will be derided for lacking a backbone, being prone to calamity, and having fans that dilute the meaning of “crisis” through careless overuse.
Simply put, little will change at Arsenal.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)