When the window slammed shut on a record January Transfer window in the Premier League (to be broken next January), it’s hard to argue any team was more active than Arsenal. Frankly, they needed to be, with the current iteration of the club featuring wantaway stars, floundering performances and a place firmly in the backseat of the Top Six. With the league title long long gone, 2018/19 Champions League hopes slipping away, and not a lot of hope for the future, they were the big team most in need of a massive rebuild. Despite such rebuilds been next to impossible in January, Arsenal took a huge step forward buying and selling in an effort to begin remaking the team.
The reviews, however, are lukewarm. Few pundits have any idea what Arsenal’s plan is and see the purchases as a team desperate for any sort of shot in the arm. A team making wild gambles rather than building for the future. A team who is putting band-aids over a gaping wound.
Honestly, for all the talent of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan possess, they kind of are band-aids. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It might, in fact, be the whole point.
Regardless of what you thought of Arsenal before the deadline, it was abundantly clear the team was not working. Having already fallen far off the pace, the team felt old and shallow. The team relied heavily on the first XI and, if the handful of uninspiring Europa matches were any indication, few players in the supporting cast appeared to be able to step into the side and provide the anything approaching the same quality. It was a team that would go to pieces when a few key players were out.
The team needed a restart and so this happened:
Arsenal brought Aubameyang, Mkhitaryan and Konstantinos Mavropanos in and sold Francis Coquelin, Theo Walcott, Alexis Sanchez, Olivier Giroud and Matthieu Debuchy. Couple that with summer exits of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gabriel Paulista, Lucas Perez, Kieran Gibbs and Wojciech Szczęsny and it’s an impressive list. Practically half a team has been expunged from the books. Not all these moves were good, but if you’re going to rebuild a new team, it is something that has to happen.
Which led to the confusion from those outside looking in: if Arsenal are rebuilding, why spend big money on the 28-year-old Aubameyang and 29-year-old Mkhitaryan. Moreover, why re-sign the 29-year-old Mesut Ozil as well? These are “old” players and the team needs to move onto the next step. Has Wenger and Company lost their mind?
Maybe. But the better answer to those questions is that a club cannot survive a “strip it to the bare bones” rebuild. Even though there is a gap in the current top teams and mid-table ones that feels insurmountable without a great season from lesser teams, an Arsenal stripped to youth players would suddenly become very vulnerable to slipping into the mid-table. This would not only hurt them financially but also hinder chance of their recruitment abilities. Despite the price, buying some established attacking names (or defensive names, should they get around to it) will provide stability to keep the team “competitive”, if not winning trophies.
As well, the types of youth players that could feasibly transform a team, the likes of Kylian Mbappe who Wenger famously tried to lure in a likely futile effort, are firmly priced out of Arsenal’s range for the moment. As expensive as Aubameyang was, spending €145 million (and add-ons) for Mbappe, no matter how transforming he may have been for the squad, would not leave a lot in the coffers for more additions.
Instead, Arsenal took the mass exodus in contracts and added the £56 million Aubameyang, Mkhitaryan on a free, and then re-signed Ozil, looking to pay them in the area of £700,000/wk combined before tax. Or roughly in the same ballpark as one extended Alexis and one Walcott. It’s expensive, but it makes sense with TV and stadium revenues shooting through the roof, enough to keep Arsenal very profitable for years to come. Signed for the next three and a half years, they provide the stability and leadership for the side and give fans something to cheer for in justification of ticket prices. Moreover, with the likes of Ozil, they also provide the draw for other players who would want to play with one of the sports premier playmakers.
It also sets the clock for the rebuild. The obvious path forward is to take that stability and begin to add youth to compliment and hopefully replace the current stars. If Arsenal can scout well enough and find the young men that will set this team on the path to contending again, then the price paid for this window will long be forgotten. It’s already started with the addition of Mavropanos and one would suspect that it’ll continue over the next few transfer windows. The rebuild becomes a “Tottenham but with more money” styled plan.
It’s not without risk. Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan may not ever find their feet, and Arsenal may slip up. Further flagellation in the standings might lead to another exodus in players required to keep the team afloat. It also heavily revolves around the future of Arsene Wenger and whether he is on the way out this summer, or still sees the next season as his last year for glory. There are a lot of ifs and maybes going forward for a rebuild; just ask Liverpool.
But Arsenal, with their relative stasis over the last few seasons, haven’t left themselves much in the way of options, and the sheer number of long time Wenger players moved out suggests it is a team on the cusp of change. Played right, the band-aids added this transfer window will do exactly what band-aids are meant to do: stop the bleeding until the wound is healed. Which is a far cry better than continuing to bleed.