Selling Ashley Cole in 2006 showed Arsenal were a selling club - losing Alexis Sanchez suggests that is still the case
Alexis Sanchez for Henrikh Mkhitaryan is the biggest ‘swap’ deal in English football since Ashley Cole quit Arsenal to join Chelsea in August 2006 with William Gallas going in the opposite direction. Even though Arsenal got £5million cash on top it was, indisputably, Chelsea who received the better the deal with Cole winning everything at Stamford Bridge and Gallas ending his career at the Emirates with nothing.
In fact the enduring image of Gallas in an Arsenal shirt was of him sitting on the pitch “like a sulky child” as Jens Lehmann, the former goalkeeper, now the club’s assistant manager, put it during the infamous draw away to Birmingham City in 2008.
Gallas was a good player. Cole was a great one. Similarly Sanchez is a great while, despite his talent, despite not being deployed properly at Manchester United, which begs the enduring question as to why Jose Mourinho bought him in the first place, it is hard to argue that Mkhitaryan is a great. Given he is also, at 29, only a month younger than Sanchez then it is not as if Arsenal are buying potential. Mkhitaryan can be better for Arsenal than he was for United but there is not a lot of time for significant improvement.
So Arsenal are making the best of a bad situation. No more. And that is never a comfortable situation. They may well come out of this January transfer window with Mkhitaryan and with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang but they cannot dress that up as any kind of thought-through strategy given a priority this month was a central defender. And if those deals are done they will probably not have the money to bid for West Bromwich Albion’s Jonny Evans.
So it is not planned. It has been forced upon them. And they should have sold Sanchez last summer to Manchester City. It was a sign of weakness, as some of us said at the time, not strength, to keep him when he so clearly wanted out. They should have bought his replacement first and set a deadline for City to hit before August 31. Not wait and wait, ostrich-like, to see if they could get away with it.
It was an open secret that Sanchez would force his way out in January. There was no way the Chilean would countenance seeing out the season at Arsenal and while arguments are constructed that it is good he is going the fact is there are very few Arsenal fans - none I would venture to claim – who would rather have Mkhitaryan in their team on February 1 than Sanchez.
Obviously that statement comes with a big qualification: it would have to be a contented and fully-focussed Sanchez, which he has not been for some time. So maybe Arsenal have got a face-saving deal. Or the best deal they could have hoped for. The thumping win at home to Crystal Palace offered a glimmer; an indication that the pressure has been released and players may respond and feel liberated.
Arsenal will hope that extends to Mkhitaryan who has been beaten down at United and had to get out to rekindle his career. But he is far less of a sure-fire certainty than Sanchez. There is more risk attached. It is not an upgrade which United will feel they have got even if they have paid a premium.
One of the odder, if inevitable, aspects of the whole saga is the financial argument. Football fans appear to have turned into accountants as they construct cases to claim that such-and-such is not worth £xmillion. Or that their club has got the better of the deal in terms of money. But if it falls within budget, if it can be paid for, then that is a spurious approach. The balance sheet is important but fans of United and Arsenal, where a lot of cash is generated, where the clubs are run soundly, should only worry about the team-sheet.
Sanchez has also been accused of being a mercenary given he has gone for the money at United ahead of the football and trophies at Manchester City. That is true, right now, although it is hardly as if he has jumped to the Chinese Super League while the irritation at City centres more on the fact that the player had indicated he would join them.
United will feel they had to win this transfer battle. They won the last head-to-head also involving Arsenal and City when they bought Robin van Persie back in 2012. So, given they are behind on the pitch, they could not lose out on Sanchez once they entered the bidding. And because their need was far greater they were prepared to go further while it is sign of City’s strength that they walked away.
Whether it works out, whether it is value for money - whatever that means in the multi-millions of modern football - remains to be seen. Hopefully it will be a good deal for everyone. It can be. However the manner of Arsenal’s sale of Cole 12 years ago felt like the moment when they became a selling club. Losing Sanchez in this way suggests that is still the case, whatever argument is constructed.