Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos (Getty Images)

When Arsenal lost in the Europa League final, it felt like the Gunners were well and truly fucked. That defeat, coupled with a third-consecutive Premier League finish outside the top four, consigned Arsenal to life outside the Champions League for the third year running, presumably a massive setback in the club’s attempt to once again assume its rightful place as one of the (though never the absolute) best teams in England and Europe. And though, at that moment, gloomy prognostications of an extended exile from the Champions League felt justified and still may prove accurate, Arsenal have not-so-quietly had a tremendous summer transfer window that should set them up well for their push to regain entry to Europe’s elite competition.

The most impressive of the Gunners’ summer acquisitions has been the signing of Lille winger Nicolas Pépé for €80 million, a new club record. The 24-year-old Ivorian is coming off the best season of his career—22 goals and 11 assists—for the French side that finished second in Ligue 1. Besides Kylian Mbappé, Pépé was the best player in France last season, and he was the only player in Europe’s top five leagues to complete over 100 take-ons, win 100-plus fouls, and take more than 100 shots last season.

Pépé’s arrival in North London is a boon for an Arsenal team that can now credibly claim to possess the third-best attack in the Premier League, behind only Liverpool and Manchester City. It’ll take a little experimentation to figure how best to line up a team with goal-getters like Pépé (who’s a lock for a spot on the right wing), Alexandre Lacazette, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but once manager Unai Emery does settle on a formation and starting lineup he likes, Arsenal should be terrifying in attack.

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Regardless of any possible fit-related wonkiness that might emerge, simply signing a talent like Pépé is a huge coup. This is a player who has demonstrated proficiency at the two most crucial skills in the sport (scoring and assisting goals), and who does those things from one of the most difficult places to find goals and assists (the right wing). Pépé was credibly linked to much bigger clubs like Liverpool and Atlético Madrid and Bayern Munich, and he absolutely has the talent to start for a Champions League contender. It’s an incredibly encouraging sign about the club’s enduring cachet that Pépé ultimately chose to snub interest from everywhere else and sign with Europa League–dwelling Arsenal.

And Pépé isn’t the only example of this. Arsenal have also managed to sign two other young and highly coveted players this summer in central defender William Saliba from Saint-Étienne and midfielder Dani Ceballos from Real Madrid. Arsenal reportedly bested rivals Tottenham to both those players’ signatures, which surely makes the moves all the sweeter. True, the Gunners were probably able to bring Ceballos into the fold because of their willingness to accept Madrid’s demand that the move be a pure one-year loan, whereas Tottenham wanted to buy the budding star outright, but that Ceballos himself saw Emery’s Arsenal as the best opportunity for him to grow is yet another testament to the club’s status.

Missing out on the Champions League for even one season can jump-start a self-reinforcing cycle of misery that can be awfully difficult to break out of. Failing to qualify for the UCL makes it harder to sign and retain UCL-caliber players, which in turn makes it harder to fight your way back into the Champions League, and so on. By ponying up for and convincing a player like Pépé—and to a lesser extent Ceballos and Saliba—to join Arsenal, the club has proven its ability to assemble a Champions League–quality roster without offering Champions League play.

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With these moves and fewer brain-farts down the stretch, and with Manchester United not really improving and Chelsea getting much worse, it looks like the last remaining spot in the top four behind Man City, Liverpool, and Spurs is Arsenal’s for the taking. The road back to the Champions League was always going to be long and expensive, and Arsenal have taken a huge, pricey step along the path this summer.