After a year of contract sagas and want-away stars, have Arsenal finally turned the negative tide with their winter recruits?
The Alexis Sanchez saga finally came to a close last month when Arsenal succumbed to the Chilean’s expiring contract and brokered a swap deal with Manchester United playmaker Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Days later, the Armenian’s former Dortmund team-mate Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang secured a £60m move to the Emirates, reuniting the formidable partnership that scored 36 goals and created 20 assists in the Bundesliga during 2015/16. That season, they were also the only combination in the league to provide three assists for each other’s goals.
Goal involvement, Bundesliga 2015/16
The pair started together for the first time in nearly two years against Everton last weekend and rekindled their devastating link-up play, with Mkhitaryan threading the pass for Aubameyang to deftly chip Jordan Pickford to net his debut goal among a hat-trick of assists during the 5-1 rout.
After the emphatic victory, the positive vibes surrounding the club were all the more magnified following a shock 3-1 defeat at Swansea four days earlier.
But, besides the scoreline at the Emirates, the injection of positivity surrounding Wenger’s winter acquisitions cannot be understated after a year of headlines dominated by potential want-away stars on expiring contracts.
Among those stars was Mesut Ozil, who finally committed to the club with a new three-year contract – days after Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang joined the club – leaving only Jack Wilshere with a deal to extend before it expires this summer.
After a period of squad division, togetherness is key at Arsenal – if the Arsenal boss is to prevent a fresh wave of ‘Wenger Out’ banners. Indeed, Aubameyang has revealed his decision to join Arsenal was influenced heavily by Mkhitaryan joining the club.
Speaking on the Arsenal Weekly Podcast, the Gabon international said: “It’s like [being reunited with] a brother, a good friend. We played together in the past and I’m really happy to see him again.
“He called me a few times. He asked, ‘Will you come or not?’ I said, ‘First you have to tell me if you sign or not’.
“He told me all was done and of course it was a big factor in coming here. We understand each other on and off the pitch, that’s why it’s easier on the pitch.”
However, how the two players ended up at Arsenal is polarised. While Arsenal prised a red-hot Aubameyang from Dortmund, they welcomed Mkhitaryan from the cold. For the latter, both club and player will appreciate reciprocal stability after recent events.
Mkhitaryan’s United exile
Having joined United for £30m from Dortmund in 2016, the Armenian’s 18-month spell at Old Trafford fizzled out rapidly after a promising start to life in the Premier League.
United started this season in blistering goal-scoring form, during which Mkhitaryan had scored once and registered five assists. But he was dropped after the 1-0 defeat to Chelsea in November last year – which proved to be his penultimate league start at the club.
The United boss has applied a tough-love approach to his players in the past, having criticised left-back Luke Shaw during his time at United – but his explanation for Mkhitaryan’s omission from the squad for a fourth successive game against Bournemouth in December spoke volumes.
Mourinho told reporters: “I can only have six players on the bench and I try to have some balance on the bench. To have Mkhi means I don’t have one of them and, in this moment, I believe the other ones deserve [to be there instead].”
But why did Mkhitaryan fall out of favour so quickly at United? And why has his arrival finally sparked optimism at the Emirates – even before the Everton result?
Speaking on Monday Night Football, former United captain Wayne Rooney suggested the Armenian wasn’t given the creative freedom to fulfil his potential at Old Trafford.
When asked whether he now can thrive at Arsenal, Rooney replied: “I think he is. I’ve seen it last season in training a lot, he’s a very talented player.
“I think at Manchester United he didn’t get the freedom he really wanted to go and perform which he had at Dortmund. It was a different style of play to what Dortmund played.
“At Arsenal I think he will have players around him running off the ball, taking the ball, and he will create goals and he will score goals. So I really do think he will kick on.”
Mkhitaryan should also benefit from playing in a team that probes opponents with passing. The Gunners have attempted 16,595 passes in the Premier League this season, of which 10,248 have been in the opposition’s half – numbers bettered only by Manchester City. In contrast, United rank bottom for number of passes out of the big-six clubs.
Against Everton, Wenger started Mkhitaryan on the left of a midfield trio in a 4-2-3-1 formation, alongside Ozil and Alex Iwobi. However, the trio played with the creative freedom Rooney referred to – the style he excelled in with Dortmund.
Aaron Ramsey roamed forward to form a fluid quartet – scoring his first career hat-trick – while Aubameyang sank deeper to link with the midfield.
At United, Mkhitaryan appeared to benefit from playing between Marcus Rashford and Juan Mata on the flanks and in front of Paul Pogba – who also offered creative, forward-thinking flair from midfield. But Pogba was sidelined for two months from September this season – before picking up a three-game suspension in December.
With Pogba absent for the Chelsea game in November, Mkhitaryan played ahead of defensive midfielders Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera and only managed 20 passes during his 62 minutes on the pitch – a considerable difference to his 42 during the Everton game on Saturday.
In terms of overall activity on the pitch, the graphic below shows the stark contrast between Mkhitaryan’s performance with United against Chelsea and his first start with Arsenal against Everton – and how his three assists in the latter shows he is most effective when patrolling the edge of the opposition’s box within a fluid, creative system.
Arsenal now have an abundance of creative talent in midfield, with Mkhitaryan, Ozil and Wilshere at their disposal. All three can play intricate passing combinations, but the graphic below shows how each offer variations in range.
But after a goal-studded inauguration at the Emirates, will Mkhitaryan pull the strings against north London rivals Tottenham at Wembley on Saturday? A convincing win against big-six opposition will add weight to the claim that Arsenal have turned the tide.