Arsenal wouldn’t be Arsenal these days without a continuing “is he staying or going” narrative to dominate headlines, news conferences and fan-forum chatter.
Arsene Wenger, himself the main subject of that narrative last season, made sure that this season’s ongoing saga concerning Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil will only pick up speed in the next few months after acknowledging that Arsenal might cash in on the duo in January.
It was an unusual admission from Wenger, who spent all summer vehemently insisting that Ozil and Sanchez would stay at the club, only to try to offload Sanchez on transfer deadline day.
And it raises a whole boatload of questions about the decision to keep the star duo at the Emirates this summer in the first place.
Here’s an attempt to sort out why Arsenal should — or shouldn’t — entertain a January sale, and how things might play out:
Didn’t Wenger spend all summer saying Arsenal would rather lose the pair on free transfers next summer instead of selling them to a direct rival? Why entertain the idea of selling them at a cut-rate price months later?
Yes he did, although it was never clear why it was better to see Sanchez, hypothetically, join Manchester City for free in 2018 rather than for £60 million in 2017. Perhaps Wenger was still hoping to convince both players to sign a contract extension before their current deals run out next year. But it now seems clear that Sanchez at least has no intention of doing so. And if he’s going to end up at City anyway, then Arsenal may as well get what they can for him. The same could be said for Ozil, if he has his heart set on going to Manchester United, although there is still a realistic chance of him signing a new Arsenal deal.
But financially, it seems like a massive own-goal by Arsenal. Had Manchester City been given the option of paying £60m for Sanchez in August (which they tried) or less than half that in January, there’s no question they would have opted for the latter.
What about the sporting aspect of selling your two best players halfway through the season? How can you justify that?
You can’t. It’s hard enough to envision Arsenal mounting a serious title challenge this season with their star duo playing the full campaign, so most people will probably write off their chances entirely if even one of them leaves. Arsenal have gone to extreme lengths recently to prove to the world that they’re not a selling club any longer, so it would be quite humiliating to have to cave in at this point.
Had they made a decision to sell in the summer (before transfer deadline day), they would have had a chance at bringing in decent replacements. In January, that will be very difficult. Perhaps the best they could hope for is a straight swap with Paris Saint-Germain of Sanchez for Julian Draxler. If they manage that sort of deal, they could still come out of this looking like winners.
But haven’t Arsenal done quite well without Ozil and Sanchez this season? Do they even need them anymore?
The Gunners have managed quite well in recent games where the duo didn’t play, but it’s worth bearing in mind that Chelsea was the only quality opponent they faced in that span. And while that 0-0 draw was a fine result, it’s worth bearing in mind that it was Ozil and Sanchez who masterminded the 3-0 win over the Blues at the Emirates last season. And the FA Cup final win over them in May. So it would be silly to think their absence wouldn’t be felt. A fully fit Jack Wilshere would certainly make Ozil’s departure easier to deal with, but how likely is it really that he will remain fully fit? And while there’s a chance that Sanchez’s heart just won’t be in the game after Chile’s failure to reach the World Cup, he’s still by far the best player on this team.
If Arsenal are in the top four going into January but fall out of the Champions League places after selling their biggest star, it will go down as a terrible decision. Even if they manage to get £30m for him, they would still end up losing money by missing out on the Champions League — which would also make it harder to attract top players next summer.
However, there have been reports that other Arsenal players have started viewing both Ozil and Sanchez as distractions, while questioning their work ethic and commitment. If that’s the case, then the team as a whole could actually benefit from a January sale.
Of course it’s impossible to say for sure what the best decision will be for Arsenal come January. But it’s clear they have no one to blame for this situation but themselves.
Mattias is ESPN FC’s Arsenal correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @MattiasKaren.