Well, well, would you look at that. Ol’ Arsène had an ace up his sleeve after all, and Arsenal have locked in two players on this transfer deadline day who will give Gooners everywhere something to cheer for once and, even more importantly, some much needed hope.
This time a week ago Arsenal were in their more familiar place as big-time transfer window losers. They’d given Alexis Sánchez over to Manchester United in a move that made them look very dumb. Yesterday, the club appeared to be on the cusp of some redemption by spending big to bring in a replacement forward, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but there remained the agonizing possibility that the three-team Mexican standoff at the center of the deal would scupper the signing and once again making Arsenal the league’s laughingstocks. But today brings good news on two fronts—one expected, and one a happy surprise.
First, Arsenal have in fact sealed the Auba deal, paying Borussia Dortmund about £56 million for the Gabonese striker’s services. In Aubameyang Arsenal get a truly elite striker, one of the few legitimately world-class forwards who didn’t already play for one of the world’s biggest clubs, and someone who will bring the searing speed and space-attacking movement the squad has been in desperate need of.
It remains to be seen exactly how Wenger plans on using Aubameyang, mainly because the club just spent big money on a fancy new striker last summer and it’s unclear if the manager will try to play the two together or move one to the bench. But because Auba will immediately become the Gunners’ second-best player, it was a no brainer for them to bring him in. Auba is the truth, and he shouldn’t need much time to prove it on the pitch.
The even bigger news came a little after Arsenal confirmed the Aubameyang transfer. To go along with their new second-best player, the club has reportedly extended the contract of their best overall player by getting Mesut Özil’s signature on an enormous new contract. Özil’s pre-existing contract was set to expire at the end of this season, which would’ve allowed him to move to a new club in the summer on a free transfer. This obviously would’ve been a disaster.
By stumping up the eye-popping salary required to keep Özil—reports say, including the signing fee, the German is set to take home something like £350,000 per week, which is enough to make him the Premier League’s highest paid player—Arsenal saved themselves from another Sánchez-like humiliation and ensured the continued presence of one of the very best creators on the planet. Arsenal fans who saw Özil’s genius pass that met teammate Nacho Monreal’s brilliant run for a goal in Arsenal’s game yesterday should be watering at the mouth when considering the kinds of balls Özil will be able to ping out to Auba’s runs in the near future.
Even more than what the Auba transfer and Özil contract mean for Arsenal’s prospects on the pitch now, both deals could possibly signify a new dawn for the club. For so long Wenger has stuck to justifications about why Arsenal can’t really compete with the rest of the Premier League’s big six clubs that centered on his club’s lack of economic muscle. This is in part justified, since Arsenal really can’t compete with the funny money that backs Manchester City and Chelsea, nor with the mint Manchester United have running all day in Ed Woodward’s office.
However, Arsenal are bigger than Wenger likes to pretend, and the chief thing holding them back from competing with their economic betters for elite players has been the club’s reluctance to dole out the massive transfer fees and contracts the world’s best players command. If Arsenal had been more willing to give Sánchez and Özil star player money back a couple years ago when it would’ve been easier to lock both of them down, it’s highly unlikely that either player would’ve run down their contracts as far as they did this season. Wenger can only get so far with promises of free-flowing attacks and regular Champions League play when it comes to convincing world-class players to come to and, crucially, stay at Arsenal. Money talks at the end of the day, and it’s possible that by blowing up their wage structure with the Özil deal and the apparently increasing willingness to pay big fees for players of the highest quality, Arsenal have finally learned that lesson.
In that sense, it might’ve been the Gunners’ less heralded moves that proved as important to this surprisingly optimism-inspiring deadline day. This season Arsenal have moved out Kieran Gibbs, Theo Walcott, and Francis Coquelin, with Olivier Giroud likely to join them out the exit door today. These are the kinds of underperforming rotation players the club has wasted far too much money on over the years by handing them cushy contracts that few other teams in the league would’ve matched. This is why Arsenal’s salary budget tends to rank pretty high while their best players tend to be underpaid relative to their peers. And this is what Arsenal need to change if they want to sign and hang onto the next Özil and Sánchez and Nasri and van Persie and Sagna and so on.
Maybe Auba’s fee and Özil’s salary do augur a brighter future. Maybe they’re simply one-offs and Wenger will go back to his spread-the-wealth philosophy for however long the powers that be allow him to stay on and underachieve. But between those two potential futures is the possibility of genuine hope, for new great players and success and titles, and that belief that the best might be yet to come is something that’s been in short supply at Arsenal for far too long.