New-look Arsenal just the tonic for Wenger
Just days after Arsenal were lurching towards another crisis, Arsene Wenger can suddenly look to a brighter future thanks to a revitalised attack spearheaded by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
An error-strewn 3-1 defeat at struggling Swansea last Tuesday was the latest low-point of a troubled season for Arsenal.
Coming just days after Alexis Sanchez finally got his wish to leave Arsenal in a blockbuster move to Manchester United, Wenger was once again under fire from angry fans frustrated by the club’s failure to win the Premier League since 2004.
But a week is a long time in the frenzied world of English football and by the final whistle at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday, the Arsenal manager was all smiles as he reflected on the speed at which perceptions can change.
It was little wonder Wenger was in such an upbeat mood as he had just watched Gabon striker Aubameyang, a £56 million ($78 million) club-record signing from Borussia Dortmund, and Armenia midfielder Mkhitaryan produce superb first appearances at their new club’s stadium in a 5-1 demolition of Everton.
Aubameyang’s pace and movement tormented the Everton defence as he netted with a composed first-half finish, while Mkhitaryan’s range of passing provided three assists as he linked up with fellow playmaker Mesut Ozil to devastating effect.
A blur of one-touch passing, with Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Alex Iwobi switching positions behind Aubameyang, Arsenal’s effervescent performance was by far their most encouraging of a season that sees them engaged in a draining battle to qualify for the Champions League.
Before kick-off in north London even that target seemed further away than ever.
Not only was Arsenal’s malaise a cause for concern, but there were also doubts over Wenger’s moves for former Dortmund team-mates Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan.
After a disappointing spell at United, Mkhitaryan was dismissed in some quarters as a fading force and nothing more than a makeweight in the deal that sent Sanchez to Old Trafford.
Aubameyang’s goal record with Dortmund was exemplary but there were questions about his volatile personality. Even he described himself as a “crazy kid” — a trait that led him to him clashing with his Bundesliga club on several occasions.
Those issues may yet resurface, but for now Wenger is keen to accentuate the positives after the eye-catching elan with which Mkhitaryan, making his first Arsenal start, and Aubameyang, on his debut, stole the show against Everton.
“When you have new players it gives always a little positive swing, and it wakes everybody up as well, because there’s suddenly competition so they have to live with that as well,” said Wenger, who now faces the conundrum of how to use previous record signing Alexandre Lacazette.
“Overall, I think as well we have a game based on team spirit so that kind of acceptance is very important and when they show on a football field that they accept our game, they are even easier to integrate into the team.
“Your main target is just to get the players to enjoy the game they play, to share it with the fans, so when you have that positive experience it’s great for you.”
Aubameyang’s impact was even more impressive given he had only two 45-minute training sessions and was battling an illness ahead of his debut.
But it was Mkhitaryan, so assured in possession, who caught Wenger’s eye, drawing comparisons with Santi Cazorla, whose metronomic passing was such a key for Arsenal before his injury problems took hold.
“There are similarities there. Santi was an exceptional football player. But he for sure has the technical level to play in our team,” Wenger said.
“I met Mkhitaryan before, before he came here, because I always liked his game but he’s a player completely focused on football, dedicated totally to the game.
“He looks happy to play football because he just loves it.”
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