Tuesday 23 October 2018

Ozil deal lifts Arsenal but major gap remains to Premier League elite

Ozil: Set to sign new contract. Photo: PA Wire
Ozil: Set to sign new contract. Photo: PA Wire

Jeremy Wilson

When Ivan Gazidis addressed supporters at The Emirates last April, his famous promise that such a disappointing league season would represent "a catalyst for change" was hardly met with universal optimism.

Manager Arsene Wenger would soon sign a new contract, all of his key lieutenants were kept on and the importance of "stability" was still being preached and largely practised in the summer transfer market. Fast forward another eight months and, while the one big overarching constant remains in Wenger himself, the reality of the upheaval has actually opened Gazidis to the charge of understatement.

The biggest off-field overhaul in Wenger's entire 21-year tenure has already taken place, most obviously with the arrivals of head of recruitment Sven Mislintant, contract negotiator Huss Fahmy, director of high performance Darren Burgess and head of football relations Raul Sanllehi, but also with a wave of lower profile backroom additions.

On the pitch and we have now also just witnessed the most radical two weeks of Wenger's reign. Alexis Sanchez, Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott have been the club's top three scorers in each of the past two seasons. In the five completed campaigns since Robin van Persie departed in 2012, one of them has been the leading scorer.

To lose any of those players would be significant; to see all three depart in the space of 14 days is extraordinary. To offset all this by breaking your transfer record in the summer for Alexandre Lacazette, doing that again with the signing of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and then also convincing Mesut Ozil to sign a new contract to become the club's highest paid player in history amounts to the most un-Arsenal like transfer activity imaginable. Especially striking is how huge resources have been committed to players in Ozil, Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan who will be 32 and of limited transfer value when their contracts expire in 2021.

It prompts an inevitable question about the extent to which Wenger has been the driving force, even if a focus on the attacking positions rather than more obvious defensive deficiencies might seem to have the Frenchman's fingerprints across it. What it definitely says is that Arsenal's decision-makers have recognised that their current status outside the Champions League is not good enough and that they can no longer rely so heavily on continuity to compete with the very best.

A point must sometimes simply be reached at which you judge whether a player will ever propel you forward and, if the answer is negative - as presumably it was with Giroud, Walcott and Francis Coquelin - then the biggest risk is to do nothing. That would be the path towards complacency on which Arsenal have often flirted and it is refreshing to see them being proactive in backing their judgement on potential upgrades.

It is exactly what United did to them in allowing Mkhitaryan to leave so that they got Sanchez and, having not started Giroud in the Premier League this season, there was no reason to let his Chelsea move derail landing Aubameyang. The Ozil deal was equally critical for the certainty it now brings. Having stuttered so far through this season with key players not committing their futures, Arsenal can now begin what feels like a fifth distinct cycle under Wenger.

The league table provides a sobering starting point. A 26-point gap to Manchester City is chastening enough but of even greater concern will be how Liverpool have established an eight-point cushion in fourth. It is not insurmountable - especially if the Champions League provides a lengthy distraction Jurgen Klopp - but the Europa League might soon by Arsenal's priority.

In the longer term, and despite all their spending records, this transfer window has still underlined a challenging fiscal reality. Further signings in defence or midfield were not deemed financially possible - even though there was a late, failed move for Jonny Evans - and, in paying for Ozil's upgrade as well as Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang, the departures of Giroud, Walcott, Sanchez and Coquelin are understood to have been necessary.

Not just in the context of Premier League rules which cap wage increases but also in respect of an annual turnover that, while growing, has been falling further behind the two Manchester clubs. That is due to a commercial income which, according to financial analysts Vysyble, was respectively £127.1m and £184.6m behind City and United last year. To put that into perspective, Arsenal were £10.9m ahead of City and £31.7m behind United in 2009.

It is simplistic, then, to only look at Arsenal's struggle to keep pace with football's elite in the narrow context of Wenger. He now also needs the commercial operation to deliver if the 'catalyst for change' represents life-changing surgery rather than a sticking plaster for a deep-rooted weaknesses. (© Daily Telegraph, London)


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