It might be easy to forget now, but there was a time, toward the end of 2017, when it looked like January could be a catastrophic month for Arsenal Football Club. The Gunners’ form was starting to fall apart around the holiday season as the busy schedule and niggling injuries threatened to derail the campaign more irreparably than last season’s tumble down the table and eventual 6th place finish. Mid-table teams looked confident, not intimidated, when facing the Gunners in December, and the fans were starting to focus their intense ire at Arsene Wenger once again as his side looked poised to fall well back from their rivals and top 4 contention.
To make matters even worse, the club’s biggest stars of the post-austerity era, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, were both being linked with moves away from Arsenal as soon as January, with pre-contract agreements to leave in the summer also floated as possibilities. The club’s record signing, Alexandre Lacazette, had a hot start to the season as he kept pace with the other frontline strikers in the Premier League, but hit a barren spell at the beginning of December from which he has yet to recover. Shkodran Mustafi and Granit Xhaka, at the time the only other £30+ million signings in Arsenal history, were receiving criticism from fans and pundits for their inconsistent performances and fundamental mistakes on an almost weekly basis, leading to further questions about the club’s recent scouting and recruitment practices on the transfer market. The defence, which Arsene Wenger was forced to correct late last season with a switch to a 3-4-2-1, resumed its status as a liability to the team this season, no matter how the Frenchman tried to align his side.
In truth, the runaway success of Manchester City this season created a steep, unflattering curve for the rest of the Premier League’s richest clubs to be graded on, but Arsenal were barely keeping within striking distance of a Champions League place as the new year arrived. Much was made of the Gunners being just as near a relegation place, on points, as they were first place, but this might have been unfair given the outlier performance of Pep Guardiola’s City side. Fan confidence was almost non-existent, and former players in the media from Thierry Henry to Ian Wright were taking full-throated shots at the club that still counts them amongst their legends with little pushback from their fellow talking heads. Even typically optimistic fans were finding it hard to mount a defence of the product on the pitch, as well as some of the decisions that were being made off it.
Behind the Perceived Stagnation and Chaos, An Emerging Plan
Before Ivan Gazidis’ talk of a “catalyst for change” was seen as a legitimate directive for the future, it was widely mocked from most corners of the football press as an empty statement from a man whose role with Arsenal has never been clear to most fans. To many, only replacing Arsene Wenger with a new manager would constitute the change they craved, and at the beginning of April 2017, when Gazidis was attributed the quote, there was confusion over what it even meant. When Arsene Wenger signed a new contract for 2 more seasons after an FA Cup victory gave him just enough leverage to justify returning, Gazidis’ statement was all but consigned to the annals of lies told by Premier League executives. Then Arsenal announced the hiring of a new contracts expert Huss Fahmy from Team Sky. The club then announced a new fitness guru, Darren Burgess, who would assume his role full-time in the autumn. Changes, perhaps, but nothing that would truly excite the fans.
Alexandre Lacazette might have been Arsenal’s new record transfer signing in the summer, but the club did not buy any other players during the window, with the exception of Sead Kolasinac, who came on a free transfer from Schalke. The Gunners ended up turning a profit during the summer window, which annoyed supporters, but that quickly turned into anger as the first half of the season saw tepid form, lacklustre results, and disgruntled stars. It was with this turmoil as the backdrop that the club then made its 2 biggest moves in Gazidis’ “catalyst for change” campaign: the hirings of Sven Mislintat and Raul Sanllehi (who finally joined February 1). Though there were some writers in the football press (including from your humble author) that touted the moves when they happened in the autumn, supporters and pundits alike had difficulty imagining a scenario in which Arsene Wenger would cede control of his transfer dealings to outside executive hires. The majority of Gooners wouldn’t start to see the club’s plan until the January transfer window was a couple weeks old.
A Team Effort Rescues Potentially Disastrous Situation
For those that knew of Sven Mislintat’s exploits at Borussia Dortmund, the signing of 19-year-old Konstantinos Mavropanos from Greek club PAS Giannina was totally in character. The Dortmund native was just as adept at finding those unknown young players as he was for signing some of Europe’s most coveted young talents (like Ousmane Dembele) when scouting for his old club. That Mavropanos surprised his coaches when he arrived with how good he was is also not atypical of a Mislintat-recruited player. However, it wasn’t until the Alexis Sanchez situation reached a boiling point that Mislintat would become a focus of the fans’ interest. His fingerprints were all over the search for the Chilean’s replacement, with players such as Christian Pavon from Boca Juniors and Bordeaux’s Malcom both becoming targets during the search. In the end, when the Gunners managed to capture Henrikh Mkhitaryan from Manchester United in the much publicised Sanchez swap deal, Mislintat’s familiarity with the player played a big part in his agreeing to the switch.
While the Sanchez saga was going on, the club was displaying a surprisingly pragmatic approach to selling players that have been some of Wenger’s favourites through the years, including Francis Coquelin and club centennial goalscorer Theo Walcott, which brought some badly needed wage bill relief. With good reason, as it turned out, when reports started flying in that the Gunners were in hot pursuit of disgruntled Dortmund striker, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Supporters erupted with excitement when Mislintat, Fahmy and Gazidis were pictured in Dortmund to work on the transfer, and after one of the most over-reported transfer negotiations in memory, Arsenal managed to land the Gabonese striker for a club record £56 million fee. Not even the necessary sale of Olivier Giroud to London rivals Chelsea could dissuade the club from acting with haste to get their man. Arsenal had now spent over £100 million on 2 strikers since the beginning of the summer, and fans could hardly believe their luck. ..that is until Mesut Ozil signed a new 3-year extension to stay at Arsenal until 2021, sending supporters into the stratosphere with their jubilation.
Making The Pieces Fit
With the uncharacteristic wave of positive Arsenal news sweeping through the country, it was only a matter of time before there were questions being asked of the club’s January business. Alexis Sanchez may have been adequately replaced, but what of the leaky defence? Or the lack of a true defensive midfielder, particularly after the sale of Francis Coquelin to Valencia. The Swansea match last week was an infuriating affair for all associated with the club, but Saturday’s dismantling of a hapless Everton side offered a glimpse into how Arsene Wenger is going to incorporate his new firepower, while also improving his struggling defence.
As he mentioned in his press conference last week, Wenger may well try and get his two star strikers, Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette on the pitch at the same time, but for now it appears that he will stick with a single striker and pack the midfield behind him with creativity. Arsenal went with a 4-2-3-1 against the Toffees, and Aubameyang was supported by a roaming trio of Mesut Ozil, Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Iwobi and Mkhitaryan will likely be supplying the majority of the width in midfield in the future while Ozil floats in the half spaces, and Aaron Ramsey arrives from deep into the space the attackers create. Aubameyang’s world-class pace is a totally new dimension for other teams to have to respect, and if they sit deeper to account for it, even more space will open up for the midfielders to play through the lines. However, if the opponent favours a high line to counter Arsenal’s slick passing moves in the midfield, Aubameyang will happily slip in behind, skipping away from less athletic centre halves pursuing in vain. If Arsenal are chasing the match and need a goal late, Iwobi could easily make way for Lacazette, adding another lethal finisher to the mix in the most important part of the match. All of a sudden, Arsene Wenger seems flush with attacking possibilities, even after losing his most prolific scorer from last season.
Of course, how successful this campaign ultimately is for Arsenal will be determined by how much they can improve the defence. The Gunners have allowed an inexcusable 35 goals in 26 Premier League matches this season, nearly double that of the Manchester clubs in 1st and 2nd place. Whether they have used a back 3 or a back 4, Arsenal have left their defenders far too exposed this season. They have occasionally pressed with success against their top 6 rivals, but they have not managed to do so in a consistent manner. Last week, Wenger spoke of the importance of improving the defence and striking a balance between attacking aggression and defensive responsibility, particularly since the club were unable to add another veteran defender in January.
The Everton match pointed to a return to basics in the Arsenal defensive strategy, as they showed an organised 4-4-2 shape when defending in their own half. Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick stayed higher when out of possession, closing down the Everton backline in an unhurried fashion while the rest of the team formed up in 2 banks of 4 behind them. The centre backs were disciplined and stayed mostly at home, while Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal made sure they were there to sink into the backline at first sign of danger from the Everton attack. Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were tasked with dropping into line with Ramsey and Xhaka in defence, and collectively they appeared to offer far more than Ozil and Alexis did when tracking back from similar positions in the 3-4-2-1 earlier this season. It was only one match, and the Gunners did end up conceding in the second half, but the display was as assured as we have seen from the defence since blanking Tottenham earlier this season at the Emirates.
Busy January Enough To Crack The Top 4?
The first look at this reworked Arsenal squad was certainly a positive, but the Gunners were able to handily beat Everton earlier in the year, with little momentum to come from it, and it is consistency, not isolated performances, that they need most of all. The flurry of activity in January has given a much-needed boost to the supporters, who had been suffering from the pessimistic effects of consecutive disappointing transfer windows, and getting rid of the Sanchez distraction will surely pay dividends for team unity. Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea have all looked vulnerable in recent matches, so if Arsenal can string together a few quality wins (including the North London Derby this weekend), then they have an excellent chance of sneaking into the top 4 by the end of the season, with the Europa League and Carabao Cup Final still to play for. At last Gooners, there are reasons for genuine excitement again this season!