Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang Give New-Look Arsenal Cause for Optimism

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistFebruary 5, 2018

Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang: A partnership sent from heaven for Arsenal?
Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang: A partnership sent from heaven for Arsenal?Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

The new-model Arsenal needed less than 20 minutes against Everton to dissipate the age-old, all-pervading sense of ennui at the Emirates Stadium. More than that, they will have had even the most hard-nosed sceptic wondering whether this could be the rebirth of a club previously so comfortable in its mediocrity it may as well have replaced its cannon emblem with a pipe and slippers.

Just as in the final throes of the January transfer window, when the club shed its conservative image to play the market as though a gambler out in Vegas for a good time, not a long time, Arsene Wenger was equally swept along by the sense of anticipation here. He started both record signing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and fellow new boy Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

Aware that he and his side had been let off the midweek 3-1 aberration at Swansea City on the grounds the club's supporters were still drunk on the allure of new signings and Mesut Ozil's contract extension, Wenger for once knew better than to push his luck. 

On the day, it was Arsenal supporters who felt lucky, reinvigorated to the point that for 90 minutes it wasn't about what had passed or what may follow. It was about the here and the now. Everton played the part of the fall guy to a tee, but given genuine hope has been rationed of late, it ultimately mattered little that Arsenal started the day in sixth place in the Premier League and ended it there too.

With Alexis Sanchez having marked his Old Trafford bow for Manchester United earlier on Saturday with a goal and a lauded performance against Huddersfield Town in a 2-0 win, the pressure was on Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan to prove they were adequate replacements for the Chilean.

United supporters had picked at the scab of a messy divorce by hanging a banner immortalising Sanchez's dogs, Atom and Humber, from the East Stand, just as their Arsenal counterparts had done before them. If that was a below-the-belt shot (there's no need to bring the dogs into it), Arsenal's counterpunch will have taken Jose Mourinho's breath, if not quite floored him. 

The Man Utd Way @TheManUtdWay

New banner at Old Trafford for Alexis Sanchez. https://t.co/tfPKd7r9nl

In laying on three goals, Mkhitaryan could not have looked more at home as an Arsenal player had he borrowed a pair of Ozil's silk pyjamas to play in.

Aaron Ramsey must be the first player to score a hat-trick (a first of his career) that garnered fewer headlines than a trio of assists. The Welshman took the match ball, the Armenian the knowledge he might just have found a home in England after a wet and windy holiday in Manchester.

Aubameyang, who had defied a fever to start, produced a finish so cool for a debut goal it's unlikely doctors would have been able to locate a pulse.

The caveat, of course, is the Everton side they dismantled 5-1 on Saturday evening put in a defensive shift of such rank ineptitude Sam Allardyce will have spent the journey back to Merseyside pondering whether he had overseen a worse one in his previous 499 matches as a Premier League manager. That the 500th, a worrying fifth defeat in seven matches for the Toffees, was so wretched will invariably, and rightly so, bring into question the verisimilitude of getting too excited by Arsenal's performance.

After all, it's not their home form that is the issue. To date this season, Arsenal have beaten every side that has visited the Emirates below them in the table. In all competitions their home record reads 16 wins, four draws, one defeat.

Take them out of the capital, though, and just three wins on the road all term is testimony to how much Wenger's side craves home comforts. With a record like that, it's a wonder their umbilical cord isn't still attached.

B/R Football @brfootball

Auba is a Gunner 🔴 https://t.co/zseCGqgNCo

Saturday's north London derby at Tottenham is the acid test after last weekend's dummy run, with Everton's back line playing the part of mannequins perfectly, but it would be churlish not to have been at least slightly smitten by a performance of such decadent attacking chutzpah.

Allardyce's pre-match needle about Arsenal always being "defensively weak" proved an act of unnecessary self-flagellation that will have amused Wenger no end (h/t Sky Sports). "The whole team played crap," was the Everton manager's salty assessment after the game, per The Independent

Earlier in the week, Wenger had tried to explain the frenetic final few days of the January transfer window that saw Arsenal overhaul their attacking roster. Out went Sanchez, Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott, an attacking triumvirate responsible for 65 goals last season. Quite the clear-out for a manager who probably thinks he can still get a tune out of Christopher Wreh. 

Especially when allied to the fact it is blindingly obvious the other end of the pitch is where they have real problems. Arsenal have now conceded 35 league goals, the same as Brighton & Hove Albion, and are on course to rack up a half-century in the deficit column before the season is out.

They have needed a commanding centre-half and disciplined holding midfielder for so long now it's likely they were on Herbert Chapman's wish list in the 1930s.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan @HenrikhMkh

Special home debut in front of the amazing @Arsenal fans👏🏼 Delighted with a hattrick of assists🅰🅰🅰⚽️👊🏼 #COYG #micki #mickimagic #mkhitaryan https://t.co/ktihDD7vOb

In summary, the Frenchman nipped out in the final days of the window for a pint of milk and a loaf of bread and came back with a pair of chocolate eclairs. He was only a trampoline short of metamorphosing into Mario Balotelli.

It's taken Wenger over two decades to finally spend the club's money as though it's not coming directly out of his personal bank account. At 68, and maybe in his swan-song season at the helm, it's hard to begrudge him a little fun. In consecutive windows he has broken the club's transfer record in signing strikers. The next Yaya Sanogo may be waiting some time for a shot at the Emirates.

In his assessment of the situation, Wenger discussed the club's attacking "DNA" and lamented the escalating cost of decent defenders, per John Cross of the Mirror. In the autumn of his career, he was never likely to deviate from a lifelong view that attack is the best form of defence. It's not done Manchester City any harm, though spending £280 million on defenders and goalkeepers over the past 18 months probably helps. 

From the moment Aubameyang agreed to the move, the numbers of his and Mkhitaryan's final season together at Borussia Dortmund in 2015-16 became ubiquitous, inescapable even. It was as if Arsenal's PR team had planted the stats in every thinkpiece, playing Orwellian mind games in the hope what the pair did together in Germany could somehow become a self-fulfilling prophecy in England. In fairness, given the 59 goals and 31 assists they shared between them, it's a wonder they haven't got back into the studio sooner. 

On just six minutes, the pair acted as twin architects for Arsenal's opener. After Ozil dropped deep to play a pass into Aubameyang, the Gabon international showed he has an underrated cuteness with his back to goal as he clipped a pass down the outside to Mkhitaryan.

From the Armenian's low delivery, Ramsey made a trademark run from deep to settle any early butterflies for an Arsenal side that, for all the excitement over new signings, went into the game in dreadful form and eight points behind fourth-place Chelsea. They started the day closer in points to bottom club West Bromwich Albion than Manchester City.

Football on BT Sport @btsportfootball

Aaron Ramsey: Hat-trick hero ⚽️⚽️⚽️ Henrikh Mkhitaryan: Hat-trick of assists 🅰️🅰️🅰️ Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang: Debut goal ⚽️ @DesKellyBTS spoke to the trio after Arsenal beat Everton 5-1 at the Emirates. https://t.co/iFw3LlhpFk

With Ozil alongside him showing a lightness of touch that suggested if you threw a nickel to him from the top of the Empire State Building he'd catch it on his instep, Mkhitaryan began to enjoy himself.

Reservations they might be too similar proved ill-founded as they dovetailed superbly, though whether an attacking midfielder being similar to Ozil is a problem is a moot point. 

Having crossed from the right for Ramsey's goal, Mkhitaryan then popped up on the left to cut inside and just fail to register with a thumping 25-yard drive.

When Ozil is in this type of mood, Arsenal's players collectively feed off him, luxuriating in his complete control of the situation, just as Manchester City's do with David Silva. While he'll never be an alpha male, with Sanchez now departed, the Germany international may yet become the leader no one, least of all himself, ever expected. Even at £350,000 a week, all Wenger asks is he becomes a "technical" leader, via David Hytner of the Guardian.  

Mkhitaryan might have brought Manchester's weather with him on the night, but a Mourinho-shaped cloud slowly began to part with each sure touch. In terms of a man enjoying his freedom again, this was Nelson Mandela leaving Robben Island stuff.

As a regular captor of No. 10s, Mourinho usually relies on Stockholm syndrome kicking in to convince his victims to curb artistic inclinations for the greater good. It never quite worked with Mkhitaryan. Instead he spent a fair amount of his time in Manchester looking as though he was daydreaming of being anywhere else, possibly even Stockholm.

If Sanchez usually turns his thousand-yard stare in the direction of his team-mates, Mkhitaryan seems to turn it on himself. It hardly takes a doctorate in Freudian studies to surmise Wenger's carrot may get more out of him than Mourinho's stick.

When he laid on Ramsey's third goal for a unique hat-trick of his own, the faint sound of Juan Mata, Kevin De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah clinking their chains together in solidarity could just about be made out over the cheers.

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Mkhi caught up with Alexis in one afternoon ⏳ https://t.co/p8TvOGI0vj

Aubameyang's goal will have video assistant referee bores/advocates frothing rabidly at the mouth, but for those of us who can enjoy the Leaning Tower of Pisa for what it is rather than what it's not, the striker's finish was a thing of real beauty.

Mkhitaryan meandered into space centrally, with all the urgency of a tourist weighing up whether to stop for coffee or an ice cream, before slipping in his team-mate with a pass made in London but designed in Dortmund.

If there was a hint of Robert Pires about Mkhitaryan's predilection to drift infield, Ian Wright would have been proud of Aubameyang's left-footed dink—so gloriously sure of itself.

Prior to his goal, he had shown four Everton defenders a clean pair of heels driving on to a precision Ozil through ball. It looks as though he'll be the first Arsenal No. 9 since Thierry Henry to enjoy playing on the shoulder of the last defender rather than dropping deep. All evening his movement suggested opponents playing with a high line really shouldn't.

"Once he is in front it is very difficult to catch him, and he is always looking to move into spaces that are very difficult for defenders to cover," Wenger purred, via Miguel Delaney of The Independent. "I like the quality of his movement, I must say."

In the BT studio, Steven Gerrard was similarly bursting with enthusiasm. Given he could make a recital of the complete works of William Shakespeare sound like he was reading a telephone book aloud, it was quite the measure of Aubameyang's quality.

Closer to the action, unfortunate fall guy Alexandre Lacazette sunk so far in his seat he had to be dug out of the ground at full-time. The France international hasn't done an awful lot wrong during his time at Arsenal. Perhaps it's more a case of he hasn't quite done enough right. Either way, it's not ideal in a World Cup year.

Football on BT Sport @btsportfootball

"It seemed from the outside it was toxic in the changing room. Sánchez going creates a clean slate..." "It's been hanging over the club. The Arsenal fans realise now they have a top quality centre-forward." Martin Keown and Steven Gerrard discuss Aubameyang and Sánchez. https://t.co/3E099dbrLy

If Aubameyang has started as he means to go on, Arsenal could be the team to watch in the season's final furlong. Lacazette may feel hard done to, but then for over a decade, this is exactly what we have all been crying out for.

A ruthless Arsenal team.