The continuity club are undergoing radical change. Arsene Wenger spent Thursday morning wading a blizzard of names. Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal’s best player since Robin van Persie, is on the brink of joining Manchester United. Henrikh Mkhitaryan – “a possibility because I like the player” – could make the opposite journey. Bordeaux’s Brazilian Malcom is less likely to join. He offered nothing illuminating on Jonny Evans and was deliberately obtuse about Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. “This kind of thing is better when it’s secret,” the Arsenal manager said.
Secrecy matters in delicate negotiations. Given the mood of the Arsenal support, part febrile, part depressed, Wenger nonetheless needs to make a statement by the time the window closes. He has rarely made major moves in January. He was once the ultimate long-term manager. Now there is an enforced short-termism. Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan are 28 – the Armenian turns 29 on Sunday – and they would not come with huge resale value. But they might reverse perceptions and rejuvenate a club that has gone stale.
There has been the sense that Arsenal, in Wenger’s never-ending reign, have entered a phase of managed decline. Whereas they were long the exceptions to the rule that those who stood still were actually going backwards, they are now actually regressing: from finishing in the top four every year, to fifth last season and sixth now, to becoming ever more distanced from the Uefa Champions League places, to being weakened every window.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain went in August, Sanchez should depart in January. Mesut Ozil could follow in the summer. Perhaps Aaron Ramsey, out of contract in 2019, will be next. The expectation was that replacements would be inferior.
Perhaps not. Aubameyang has been one of the top few strikers in the world in the last 30 months. Since the start of the 2015/16 season, he has scored 100 goals in 108 games for Borussia Dortmund. There was a feeling that if he left Germany it would be for Madrid, not London. That has changed with disciplinary issues which have brought a breakdown in his relationship with Dortmund but if Aubameyang’s temperament is in doubt, his talent and dynamism are not.
His arrival would put the misfiring club record Alexandre Lacazette's place in question. It would also represent a test of Wenger's man-management. So, too, Mkhitaryan's: either the gifted Armenian has failed Jose Mourinho or vice versa. There is a theory, fuelled by Oxlade-Chamberlain's recent excellence for Liverpool and soon to be examined by Theo Walcott at Everton, that other managers now get more from players than Wenger. It offers another area where change is required.
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Some has begun. Two constants have been cast aside. Arsenal have banked £32 million (Dh163m) for Walcott and Francis Coquelin, who made a combined one league start this season. They are freeing up some of the equity in an oversized squad. If it provides a sign that a culture of continuity with diminishing returns is being addressed, that is welcome.
There is invariably a greater focus on incomings, however, and not least because they could be charged with replacing Sanchez. Should Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan be reunited in London, it will seem a Dortmundification of Arsenal; unsurprisingly, given the new head of recruitment Sven Mislintat came from the Westfalenstadion. Excitingly, too, given how the Bundesliga club played some of the most thrilling attacking football in Europe in 2015/16, when Mkhitaryan was named Germany’s Player of the Year.
Perhaps it will prompt talk that Thomas Tuchel, their former manager, will emerge as Wenger’s eventual successor. Because, as the Sanchez era ends at the Emirates Stadium, it is a question of who defines the next few years, how and why.