The K before the H should have been the clue… It’s this guy, Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
The dream of simple solutions to complex problems seems endemic to the Goonersphere. It all starts with “Wenger Out,” of course, as if lopping off the head will somehow cause the body to flourish. At various points in Arsene Wenger’s disappointing “second decade” (now stretching into a disappointing dozen seasons) the issue of austerity–the fact that Arsenal has not been willing to spend at the levels of the money-down-a-hole–clubs has been used as an excuse for lowered expectations. Wenger delivering Champions League football and “lesser” trophies (three out of the last four FA cups) has been seen as too little and too late. If only we could rid ourselves of our figurehead (somehow) Arsenal would simply float back up to the heights where we belong.
So, “Spend some Money” is simple solution number two. If only it were so easy maybe Manchester United, luring Alexis Sanchez with a club record salary–and exchanging him for “failed” Henrikh Mkhitaryan–would have seen off Sevilla in the recently completed Champions League Round of 16. Oops.
That being said, Arsenal ARE starting to spend some money. Mhki’s salary, in line with other new signings and contracts, most notably Mesut Ozil’s huge new package, might suggest that there could be some reasons for Gooners to hold out just a bit more hope that we’re in it to win it…Or at least that we haven’t quite given up on the “race to the bottom” (Ivan Gazidis’ famous term) when it comes to improving the team by way of spending.
A 3rd simple solution is the search for a Patrick Vieira-esque “Beast of a Defensive Midfielder.” So many names have been mooted down the years. If you were big (and of African descent) and played in anybody’s midfield (and could maybe get around the pitch a bit better than Alexandre Song–or be able to stay on it longer than Abou Diaby) a link to Arsenal was in the offing. William Carvalho is still at it at Sporting Lisbon but the “big” leagues have yet to grab him up. Victor Wanyama and Moussa Dembele have done well enough up the road at Spurs but aren’t seen by most as essential elements in that club’s great glory of these recent seasons and certainly aren’t known for their rampaging forward runs. And now, Paul Pogba, clearly a dominant athlete rounding into a footballer who commanded an English record transfer fee back to the club that rejected him, looks like he might be the “big Mkhi,” Jose Mourinho’s latest player who will take the blame when ManU’s manager won’t.
The fact of the matter is that a physically dominant defensive midfielder is less of a factor at the top of world (and English) football though run-all-day and orchestrate-from-the-center-of-the-pitch players might be. N’golo Kante, it could be said, won back to back Premier League titles, first with Leicester City, then with Chelsea. It could also be argued that Kante was able to anchor last season’s title tilt (and win PFA player of the season) because he was freed up to actually be a midfielder after Antonio Conte switched to a three-at-the-back set up, a move that Wenger copied late on in our season, pulling us to within a point of the top four AND seeing off both Manchester City and Conte’s team en-route to his record seventh FA Cup trophy. Yeah, sack the guy, brilliant…
But, I digress…
In the rush to assign blame and find simple solutions to Arsenal’s troubles we often overlook our own misfortune. Calls go against us and cost us results and it’s our (well, Wenger’s) fault. Balls bounce off posts or opposing goal-keepers play blinders but the conclusion is always the same: That. We’re. Just. Not. Good. Enough (or at least that the manager isn’t). Important players–and ones who make their teammates better–go down to injury–career ending injuries, in fact–and, again, it’s more than just misfortune. There’s but one Santi Cazorla (as the song goes) but it’s management’s fault that we don’t have three more waiting in the wings.
A real manager (like ME!!–Just look, my fantasy team is in the top Million!!!) would just buy a new Santi, why can’t Arsene?
Again, I’m off track. Back in the real world…
Can we please take a moment to acknowledge that Cazorla is one of the great footballing talents to be cut down prematurely by injury. Even if he did make it past his 30th birthday, he was the sort of player who might have played on and on given that his tiny stature meant that his game was reliant upon his skills and footballing intelligence rather than his innate athletic gifts. Let’s be clear. Santi disappointed many a Gooner when he was brought in to help bring us back after the departures of players like Robin Van Persie, Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and (even) Alex Song. In fact, the hope that he could be a magical #10 (the man to carry on from Dennis Bergkamp where Fabregas perhaps fell short) was pushed aside when Mesut Ozil was bought from Real Madrid. Instead, Santi remade himself as part of the most unlikely two-man midfield pivot in tandem with Francis Coquelin. In recent years that partnership was probably the most successful in terms of balancing Arsenal’s generally potent attack with our always iffy defense. I want to have a little cry about Santi’s fate, but the joy in the little man’s game makes me take a page from the defining match of his contribution to our club. So, let’s have ourselves a little Santi-dance…
From my early scrutiny of his game at Arsenal, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, already 29, could be a Santi-esque player. He’s no Alexis, a player who firmly believes he is the very best when he steps onto the pitch and thus demands the ball and goes to great lengths to express his disappointment when he doesn’t receive it from his teammates–or when they let him down if they misuse it. Nope. Instead, like Santi before him, Mkhi will contribute by working with his teammates, taking his chances when they come to him but also being sure to work to make the team function better, taking passes when they present themselves and working with others to keep positioning and pitch balance as big a priority as individual shows of skill and bravado. It’s (very) early days, but nine matches as an Arsenal starter with two goals and five assists is not a bad statistical return. Moreover, with Mkhi on the pitch, our other midfielders–especially rear of the line guys like Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny–look more confident undertaking their duties.
Further forward, it’s just a different look. Instead of Alexis “standing and demanding” (the ball) with his individualistic body-language, Mhki looks to stay in constant motion, filling spaces and allowing others to take the ones he vacates. Again, however, it’s early days, and such a dynamic approach to the game will take time. His former teammate, Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang, perhaps has a leg up having played with Mkhitaryan at Borrusia Dortmund, while our other “heads-up” players, most notably, Mesut Ozil, already look enlivened by his presence on the pitch.
It’s a work in progress, however, and hard to say if we’re a better team after the player switch.
Naturally, I’d like to hear what others think. Our fearless leader (Total Arsenal) has labeled the Alexis-Mkhitaryan swap as the best of the decade he’s also noted that our new guy isn’t one who dives into 50-50 challenges. Personally, I don’t mind that sort of thing and if it was a 50-50 that ended Santi’s career, I’ll (retroactively) wish that our little guy had pulled out of it. Yes, we need to win those challenges but we also need to keep our best players on the pitch. As I hinted above, for better or worse, we aren’t stockpiling Santis (and Mhkis) and unlike Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger won’t want to pile players of such quality on a scrap-heap even if the average fan gets just as excited playing a similar blame game and going after the next exciting name in the transfer market. Surely, if you clicked on this headline hoping for a “new Santi” (from another club) you can’t be reading. If you are, please sign up and join us here at Bergkampesque. Welcome!
To me, it’s too early to suggest that Alexis won’t do well enough at Manchester United. I’m betting that he gives his all to try and win the FA Cup this season–and give a beat down to Arsenal when his former club visit Old Trafford on 29 April. With the failure of another of his teams (Chile) to qualify for the World Cup, I expect him to hit the ground running when the PL season starts up in August and to pad out a decent enough goal/assist tally to see him through the next season. By contrast, Mhkitaryan will be trying to work in with his team–and, likely, as the turmoil at our club continues–new teammates–and maybe even a new manager. To me, team play–by team players–is a much more difficult craft, but one which, if done correctly, yields the greater rewards, both aesthetically and with points on the table. Like Santi before him, I have a hopeful feeling that Mkhi could be that sort of player. What say you, fine fellow Gooners? Team play > individual glory? Mkhi > Alexis? Mkhi = (or >) Santi. Or should we just stay with the familiar? Wenger Out, Buy, Buy, Buy and the pitch is always greener on the other side?
Thanks for reading and tell us what you really think.
Go on then…