Boasting 359 appearances between them and having both worn the captain’s armband for extended periods, there’s no question Mikel Arteta and Per Mertesacker have been fantastic servants to Arsenal Football Club.
Yet, ever-stuck just outside the Premier League’s ultimate bracket of truly top-end talents in their respective positions, Arteta and Mertesacker’s last-minute arrivals in summer 2011 went on to underpin the malaise that manifested in the Gunners failing to qualify for the Champions League for the first time under Arsene Wenger last season.
Summer 2011 was the most chaotic transfer window in Arsenal’s history. Arsene Wenger’s squad was quite simply ransacked by European and divisional rivals; Cesc Fabregas making way for Barcelona and Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy trading north London for the incredible riches on offer at Manchester City. If those deals weren’t a sign of the times, Arsenal beginning to fade away from European football’s elite, an incredible 8-2 battering at Old Trafford in the absence of the departing trio certainly was.
It was one of the first occasions in which Wenger’s long-term vision of a team he’d once lead to the Premier League title undefeated and a club he’d moved into a new stadium at the sacrifice of investing in the first team truly moved from being quietly questioned to being seriously doubted. Nasri, Fabregas and Robin van Persie were seen as the next generation of potential Invincibles after seven years in the title-less wilderness, but two had just removed themselves from the master-plan seemingly convinced trophies would come quicker elsewhere. RVP would follow suit twelve months later.
After that humbling loss to Manchester United, Wenger knew had to act quickly, leading to four arrivals in the last two days of the summer window, Park Chu-Young on August 30th followed by Mertesacker, Arteta and Andre Santos on Deadline Day.
The former and the latter proved to be spectacular flops, the South Korean making just one Premier League appearance during his three years on the books at Arsenal and the Brazilian shipped off to his homeland after just 18 months. Arteta and Mertesacker, on the other hand, slowly but surely established themselves in the first team, becoming key parts in the sides that ended Arsenal’s silverware barren spell by winning back-to-back FA Cups in 2014 and 2015 – and perhaps more crucially, becoming two leaders amongst a largely passive dressing room.
Yet, neither truly replaced the quality that had been taken away from Arsenal that summer and both highlighted Wenger’s fanciful, after-thought approach to ensuring the quality of the defensive spine of his team; Arteta a playmaking, technical midfielder asked to operate as anchorman and provide the protection in front of defence, Mertesacker a talented and experienced centre-back, but one always plagued by fatal flaws that became particularly evident in Arsenal’s high line.
Tellingly, they were last-minute signings and stop-gap solutions that became near-permanent fixtures of the starting XI and inevitably, they maintained the soft underbelly that saw Arsenal constantly fall short of their divisional rivals. That’s as much a criticism of Wenger as a recruiter and a manager, his lack of ruthlessness and often blind faith in second-best, as it is the quality of the two players in question.
Fast forward to summer 2017 and Arsenal find themselves in an eerily similar scenario. They enter the final days of the transfer window on the backdrop of a 4-0 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield, one of their most abject, disorganised and pathetic performances in Premier League history, encircled by divisional rivals looking to capitalise on the wantaway status of the Gunners’ key players. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain appears to be leaving for Liverpool, while Manchester City are honing in on Alexis Sanchez. Then there’s Mesut Ozil, another who would seemingly prefer to move on in the next few days should the right offer come along.
If all three leave, Wenger will be compelled to grab what replacements he can at the last minute. But just as Arteta and Mertesacker sustained Arsenal’s status as underperforming giants and resident fourth-placers, you have to wonder what effect their 2017 equivalents could have. With limited options on the horizon and confidence around the club seemingly hitting an all-time low, Wenger’s Deadline day gambles this time around could be what compels Arsenal to the bottom of the Premier League’s big-seven mini-league for the coming years.