They could be called coups. They could be called cast-offs. If and when Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are reunited at Arsenal, the Gunners will have players of pedigree. They will also have two that their previous employers were willing to jettison.
Mkhitaryan was voted Germany’s Footballer of the Year in 2015-16 and a scorer in the Europa League final in May. Aubameyang finished as the Bundesliga’s top scorer last season. Yet the Armenian also fell out of favour under Jose Mourinho: whereas Arsenal lost arguably their best player, Alexis Sanchez, in a swap deal, Manchester United parted company with one who completed 90 minutes in just six of the 60 Premier League games in his time at Old Trafford. The Gabonese is seemingly being sold for disciplinary reasons after being suspended by Borussia Dortmund again.
Given their talent, they could change the narrative of Sanchez’s departure being part of Arsenal’s gradual decline. Or, at 29 and 28, they may be examples of short-termist thinking at a club where an economist of a manager used to have a long-term strategy.
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Their ages mean they can seem unusual signings by Arsene Wenger. He could be accused of a lack of imagination. Certainly there is the sense that Bordeaux’s young Brazilian Malcom would have been a more typical recruit.
Wenger is a byword for bringing in young players and finding footballers in the French league. That reputation is justified. But it is also the case that some of Arsenal’s premier signings and, often, their best buys, are unearthed in the most obvious locations, at the biggest, wealthiest and most successful of clubs.
Sometimes Wenger’s buys have not been discovered as much as revived, flourishing because they were given an opportunity to play, or play in a preferred position, which they had been denied elsewhere. There is a tradition of Arsenal bringing in men who were marginalised in glamorous surroundings or sacrificed to raise funds or to pave way for a seemingly exciting arrival; Mkhitaryan is certainly not alone.
Dennis Bergkamp arrived before Wenger, but nevertheless feels a trademark Wenger signing. He was at Inter Milan, as was Kanu. Wenger did not have to go off the beaten track to find Patrick Vieira at AC Milan or Thierry Henry at Juventus. Tomas Rosicky, like Aubameyang now, came direct from Dortmund. Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas were at Barcelona, Mesut Ozil and Davor Suker at Real Madrid. Throw in Petr Cech, William Gallas and Lassana Diarra, acquisitions from Chelsea, Danny Welbeck and Mikael Silvestre, trailblazers for Mkhitaryan in moving from Manchester United and, apart from when austerity permitted, Wenger has often gone around Europe’s superclubs in search of players.
Perhaps Paris Saint-Germain were not one when Nicolas Anelka decamped for London; perhaps Ajax and Monaco were when Marc Overmars and Emmanuel Petit made a similar decision two years earlier.
But the common denominator among the finest pieces of business is that they came with a point to prove and that Wenger gave them a platform to play. He liberated and unleashed them, often alongside likeminded souls. It is worth remembering Henry played on the left, sometimes even as a wing-back, for Juventus; as a striker, he became Arsenal’s record scorer and arguably the Premier League’s greatest player. Kanu only scored one goal for Inter; Bergkamp got 22 but it was still an underwhelming return for a player deemed a failure in Italy. Vieira’s outings were limited in a time when AC Milan had six foreigners, only three could play and the Ballon d’Or winner George Weah was guaranteed a spot.
Anelka and Fabregas were fast-tracked to the first team in a way that certainly would not have happened for the Catalan had he not moved. Sanchez derived a different benefit from leaving the Nou Camp: he did not have to live in Lionel Messi’s shadow anymore and became the main man.
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All of which, like the proven chemistry between Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang, ought to offer encouragement for Arsenal. In the Armenian’s case, there is a sense that his potential was not fully realised under the critical Mourinho at Old Trafford: a repeat of his 23-goal, 32-assist final campaign at Dortmund might alter perceptions that United have got the better of the swap deal. In the African’s, a repeat of the return of 100 goals in his last 118 games for Dortmund would surpass even Henry in the potency stakes.
So if the moves for both owe something to Sven Mislintat, the head of recruitment Arsenal recruited from Dortmund, they nonetheless bring echoes of the Gunners’ past. The question is if history can repeat itself.
Arsenal used to provide an environment to excel for talents in need of a home, a sense of belonging and a strong support network. Many a gifted player has produced the best form of his career for Wenger. The next challenge is to ensure two more do.