If you had to pick a single image to represent Arsenal’s enduring subjugation in English soccer’s hierarchy, you could do a lot worse than one showing Robin van Persie lifting the Premier League trophy. van Persie famously pined for that title after failing to win it with Arsenal after nearly a decade of trying, and following his best individual season with the Gunners, his status as a superstar confirmed with a fully healthy year and a league-leading 30 goals, he forced his way out of losersville and joined Manchester United, a club actually known for winning things. The Dutchman was vindicated for his decision to leave after winning the title his first year in Manchester.
Arsenal has lost plenty of star players during the historically successful but now overlong Arsène Wenger era, but there was something about van Persie jumping ship when he did and immediately winning the league that particularly stung. This was toward the end of the club’s infamous austerity era, when the promise of an expensive, new and improved stadium led the club to tighten the purse-strings in order to save money to complete the new grounds, which, when completed, would, by the club’s telling, unleash such a deluge of money that Arsenal would finally be able to challenge the Uniteds and Chelseas and Man Citys of the league economically. The story the club sold was that short-term sacrifice would reap major benefits in the long run.
Presumably, van Persie was just the kind of player the club would want to build their fancy new juggernaut around. A genius striker getting a little long in the tooth but not too much, who loved the club and had been there for a long time and would truly understand what it would mean should Arsenal eventually win that long-elusive EPL title. Rather than locking him down with a fat contract and surrounding him with an expensively assembled squad capable of winning trophies, Arsenal couldn’t give van Persie the money nor the teammates to convince him to stay.
Where van Persie knew he could win titles with was United, and despite knowing how crucial a piece their star striker could prove for the impending title race, Arsenal were forced to assent to van Persie’s transfer demand by selling him to the club he had chosen. Not only could Arsenal not win trophies, not only could they not keep hold of their best players, but they couldn’t even keep their best players from joining their biggest rivals, in essence gifting the serious teams the title-winning stars their betters lacked. That image of a jubulant van Persie hoisting the title in the shirt of the Red Devils is pure, distilled humiliation for Arsenal fans.
And today, the poor Gunners faithful have yet another darkly iconic image of the sorry state of the club: that of Alexis Sánchez making the same move van Persie did by joining United.
Of course, you can’t discuss the transfer without talking about the context behind it. Alexis was in the final six months of his contract with Arsenal and made no secret about his plans to leave the club on a free transfer once his contract was up. Arsenal had a choice: either sell Sánchez in the winter window for some kind of return, or see him leave for nothing in the summer. On paper, then, the transfer of Sánchez in exchange for United’s out-of-favor attacker Henrikh Mkhitaryan is a pretty solid consolation prize. But this too ignores some crucial context about the club Arsenal claim to be.
Most directly, it’s just incredibly embarrassing to allow your best or second-best player to join a rival. Of all the big Premier League clubs, United have probably the worst set of attacking players. Even relatively lowly Arsenal’s Sánchez-Mesut Özil-Alexandre Lacazette trio was better than any starting bunch of forwards United could put out. Thus if Arsenal were to have hopes of finishing above United in the table in the near future—you know, the thing you have to do to every other team in a league in order to win it, which allegedly is Arsenal’s goal—it would probably be by sustaining their attacking advantage while shoring up their deficits in midfield and defense. Instead, Arsenal gifted United a huge upgrade in the form of Sánchez, and in return took an admittedly talented player who nonetheless could rarely crack United’s bench, let alone their starting lineup. It’s a move that screams “selling club,” which is exactly the phrase Arsenal should be most desperate to never again be associated with.
A smart, ambitious Arsenal would’ve ponied up the cash it would’ve taken to get Sánchez’s signature on a new contract back a season or two ago, when his salary demands were high but realistic. (By the time Alexis had made it clear he planned on leaving for free in the summer of 2018, the Gunners had no chance of matching his requested salary even if they’d wanted to. Hell, even Manchester City blanched at the crazy money United were willing to throw around. Still, Arsenal definitely could’ve signed Sánchez up for a couple more years had they been more willing to expand their salary structure for him when they had the opportunity.) A proud Arsenal would’ve stuck to their guns, making Sánchez play out the entirety of his contract, in the process retaining their best hopes of securing Champions League soccer next season through either a top-four finish or a Europa League title, and demonstrating to fans and the rest of the league that the days of them being bullied by the bigger clubs were over. Rather than that, Arsenal revealed themselves to be just as cowardly and money-conscious as ever, accepting a United castoff in exchange for one of their own crown jewels.
Still, the deal is done now and Arsenal must move on. From their perspective, the Mkhitaryan trade is the best they could’ve hoped for. Mkhitaryan is only a year and a half removed from being the best player in the Bundesliga, and if Wenger can coax the Armenian back into a state of confidence with promises of attacking freedom and beautiful interplay with Özil and Lacazette and Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey, there are perfectly good odds that Mkhitaryan comes good. That said, their new attacker isn’t quite a natural fit. For one, Mkhitaryan is 29 (though how old is 29 really?), and in an already aging squad with at best a couple players you could realistically imagine winning an EPL title, it’s difficult to see why the club would clog up so much money in a key attacking position for an older player who doesn’t seem to advance the squad’s needed rebuild. (It’s important to remember that Arsenal’s biggest economic constraint remains salary-related, not transfer fees, since the team has long had lots of money in their transfer kitty but much less flexibility in terms of how to fit high-earners into the wage budget.)
On top of that, a front line of Mkhi, Özil, and Lacazette lacks speed and running in behind, since all three prefer to receive the ball into feet and make something happen that way. Arsenal need a player who can open up space for their ball-playing types by attacking the space behind the opposing defense, not another guy who wants to drop in and prance about with the ball himself. Arsenal reportedly are pretty close to bringing in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from Borussia Dortmund, and he’d be a much more sensible fit for this needed role (even if he too is a little older than the Gunners should prefer). But even then, it’s not easy to see how or in what formation/tactical setup Wenger would fit all these players into. We’d probably have more confidence about Wenger’s ability to get the best out of all these talents were he the genius Wenger of old and not the indecisive, tactically muddled version of today. And probably worst of all is that the Mkhitaryan deal and the allegedly impending Aubameyang ones have ended Arsenal’s interest in Bordeaux’s 20-year-old Brazilian winger, Malcom, who is exactly the kind of young potential superstar the club should be prioritizing over an older player with limited upside like Mkhi.
For Man United and Sánchez himself, the logic of the move is much clearer. United got the star attacking talent they desperately needed, and if they can afford the monstrous salary he’s purportedly on (and the in-house agitations that kind of salary may inspire amongst United’s other players), then they’ve certainly made the right decision to sign him up. Sánchez too made a good decision, leaving a perennial also-ran in favor of a club with at least a real possibility of winning big things in the near future, and will be racking up lots of minutes and truly insane amounts of money while doing so. (Both of those things—minutes and money—wouldn’t have been in such steady supply had he joined his other suitors in Man City, though his chances for trophies would’ve been much better.) Mkhitaryan had been more or less completely erased from José Mourinho’s plans, and so trading him for a much, much better player—and one who was very close to further enriching United’s biggest rival for titles, Man City—is a coup.
For Arsenal, though, the transfer only creates more uncertainty and unrest. A club as big as Arsenal should not be losing their best players in such fashion, and especially not to a direct rival. A top-tier club with dreams of winning the title should not be locking older players into big contracts, especially not players for whom there exists persuasive evidence that they just might not be good enough anymore. But this has long been Arsenal’s problem during the latter stages of the Wenger era. Who exactly are Arsenal? What kind of club do they aspire to be? For all the talk about Arsenal are now something more than what they have been over the past decade or so—the kind of club that would find a legit star like a van Persie or a Sánchez only to let them go win titles elsewhere in England—moves like this latest transfer seem to say that Arsenal remain who they’ve long been, and they don’t have much interest in changing that.