The manner in which Serge Gnabry escaped Arsenal’s clutches is well known. Gnabry had verbally agreed a new contract before travelling to the 2016 Olympics with Germany, but instead signed for Werder Bremen and the rest is painful modern history. But it is less well documented that Kingsley Coman could have been an Arsenal player, too. Coman was leaving Paris Saint-Germain when he and his agent visited Arsenal’s training ground in 2014, with the club willing to pay a compensation fee in the low hundred-thousands and a seven-figure salary. But the transfer did not get over the line; instead Coman and Gnabry were fundamental to the outcome of this year’s Champions League and one figure close to both missed deals is only half-joking when he says he has to switch channels within five minutes when Bayern Munich pop up on his television.
The point of the story? It is that, for all the recriminations of the last half-decade, a couple of relatively minor deviations might have seen Arsenal’s recent past look decidedly different. They need these things to start going their way and that is why the vision and clarity shown during Arteta’s first eight months are tantalising. Arteta’s intention to become a top coach was well trailed but, as many others have found, walking the talk can be rather more difficult. So if he is for real, as seems increasingly certain, the possibilities begin to appear limitless.
Arteta could thank Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for Arsenal’s FA Cup win, given the captain’s doubles against Manchester City and Chelsea, but could also reflect on tactics that had deservedly outdone superior sides. The troubled squad he inherited has been treated with varying levels of light and shade. Matteo Guendouzi and Mesut Özil were left in no doubt about what happens to anyone Arteta feels has not nailed their colours to the cause, but he has seemingly persuaded a previously sceptical Aubameyang to see out his top-level playing career at the club. Granit Xhaka was also convinced to reverse from the exit door while Willian, who should be an excellent addition even if a three-year contract makes the eyes water, has admitted to being enamoured of Arteta’s plans.
It appears Arteta has an uncanny ability to bring others with him. While Aubameyang’s chip at Wembley ensured Arteta’s Arsenal won a major trophy ahead of schedule, the coming season will show whether the vessel is a hydrofoil or a paddle steamer. Arteta has no interest in seeing Arsenal become accustomed to playing like underdogs, as they did so successfully in those big wins – Liverpool were another scalp – at the end of 2019-20. He wants to see them dominate the ball and be aggressive with it; to pass and probe as forcefully as, in the weeks after the Covid-19 shutdown, his forwards pressed defenders when out of possession.
That will take time and Arteta is likely to find one transfer window is not enough. He has, in theory at least, the hands-on role in recruitment that he wanted, with Raul Sanllehi taken out of the picture. Willian’s versatility and fluid movements will help an attack that, with Özil requiring a truly Lazarus-like comeback to regain favour, otherwise sorely lacks guile. Gabriel Magalhães looks sure to arrive from Lille and, with William Saliba now available, Arsenal have the kind of young, dominant, athletic centre-back options an often chaotic backline has sorely lacked. But players will have to depart if a troubled midfield is to be supplemented with top-level talent. It is hard to see their longstanding pursuit of Atlético Madrid’s Thomas Partey bearing fruit, for example, unless at least one of Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira departs. The summer has been expensive and Arsenal, who recently made 55 redundancies in non-football areas, have to start bringing money back in. Continue reading