It has taken just five games of the new Premier League season for an impressive result to staggeringly contradict a summer transfer policy that saw Arsene Wenger fight tooth and nail to keep hold of three players that continuously refused to sign contract extensions at Arsenal.
Indeed, the Gunners travelled to Stamford Bridge on Sunday and produced their most convincing and resolute performance on the road against a top six rival since beating Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium more than two years ago without any of the trio in the starting line-up; Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain completed a move to Liverpool on Deadline Day, Mesut Ozil was ruled out with injury and Alexis Sanchez began the afternoon on the bench.
Pretty much ever since that 2-0 win in Manchester, much of Arsenal’s efforts have been focused on convincing Ozil and Sanchez to sign new deals and keeping them from the clutches of domestic and European rivals, while Oxlade-Chamberlain’s situation had become only of true significance a few months before his departure after unexpectedly impressing in the right wing-back role during the tail-end of last season.
Yet, a scoreless draw with reigning champions Chelsea last weekend provided a textbook example of how no player should ever be viewed as bigger than the club, or for that matter the starting XI. Without their two talismanic talents, Arsenal finally produced the kind of away performance against high-quality opposition that is essential to a strong season in the Premier League as Wenger’s 3-4-3 cancelled out Antonio Conte’s and the Gunners ground the often machine-like Blues to a halt.
While that owed much to resolute performances at the back, particularly from Shkodran Mustafi who coped well while being under pressure for much of the 90 minutes, and a refreshing sense of balance in the middle of the park as Aaron Rasmey and Granit Xhaka both injected much-needed discipline into their games, the biggest difference was in the final third.
Danny Welbeck and Alex Iwobi, taking the two wide forward positions usually occupied by Sanchez and Ozil, worked tirelessly to stop Chelsea building from the back and the results speak for themselves. Last season, Chelsea’s back three had an average passing accuracy of 87%; on Sunday, it dropped to less than 81% as Arsenal’s wide attackers continually closed down space and harried the defenders, particularly Gary Cahill, when on the ball.
The Blues struggled to get the ball into the midfield and tested Petr Cech just four times – a far cry from their 3-1 obliteration of the Gunners in the same fixture last season or for that matter, the hammering dealt out at Anfield before the international break. During that match, Ozil and Sanchez both started and offered minimal protection in front of a glaringly open midfield.
Of course, it would be naïve to suggest Arsenal could go the whole season without Sanchez or Ozil in the side and expect to re-establish themselves amongst the top four. Both have been the instrumental difference for the Gunners against lesser opposition on countless occasions during their spells in north London and losing both during the summer without replacing them would have made the atmosphere surrounding the club even more toxic than it seemed at the end of deadline day.
Yet, we also know closing down defenders isn’t a part of Ozil’s game and while Sanchez’s work-rate can’t be faulted, his attitude certainly can – those stroppy gestures and facial expressions defying the supposed mediocrity around him have a knack of being infectious, inspiring laziness in others and disrupting the mood in the dressing room.
They may not be as special talents as Ozil and Sanchez, but there was no chance of Welbeck and Iwobi mimicking the egotistical portions of their team-mates’ games on Sunday, in a match Wenger simply couldn’t afford to lose. Just as Ozil and Sanchez often seem to set the tone in a negative sense on big occasions, Welbeck and Iwobi’s industriousness from the front undoubtedly lifted the spirts of those operating behind them.
“There has been so much fear at Arsenal of losing Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil. This excellent performance at Chelsea without them made you wonder what all the fuss was about. Without these two, Arsenal were much better defensively. Arsenal put them under such pressure they made Gary Cahill look like he could not pass. For this Arsenal team, it was a chance to step up and prove that they did not need Sanchez and Ozil to perform. I am not saying that these two should be frozen out. Sanchez did well when he came on and both men still have a part to play. But from now on, every player must adopt this level of organisation in tricky away games. This showed the strength of their XI is better than any individual.”
Which makes you wonder, to directly quote Martin Keown, what all the fuss was about. While Welbeck and Iwobi may not be the long-term answer to Arsenal’s attack, Ozil and Sanchez surely can’t be either when the team perform so much better against direct divisional rivals during their absences from the starting XI. Why fight tooth and nail to keep them, when Arsenal could have sold both and bought players of similar ability who function much better as part of a team? Why focus so relentlessly on the futures of two individuals who don’t even want to be at the club, when those behind them in the pecking order are so desperate to the fulfil thankless tasks needed to get the right results?
As much as Sunday’s result was a huge positive for a team that have so consistently struggled on the road against the rest of the top six, it also highlighted the obvious flaws in Arsenal’s transfer policy – and why no club should ever treat any talents, no matter how precious, special or lauded, as be-all-and-end-all. Forget about Sanchez and Ozil as individuals – it’s Arsenal who should have moved on from them this summer.