12 March 2018

Man U's Mkhi, Arsenal's Alexis—who's made the better deal?

It's been roughly six weeks now since Henrikh Mkhitarayan and Alexis Sánchez swapped squads. That's time enough, isn't it, to assess the early returns? Risky rhetorical questions rarely require actual responses, so we're plowing ahead regardless. At first blush, the notion that Arsenal would again sell a talismanic goal-scorer to its own rival would seem ludicrous. Having already sold van Persie to Man U, how could we at Arsenal suffer seeing such a scorer succeed elsewhere? This time though, however, we at least extracted a player in return, one who might just make us all forget the sexiness that was Sánchez. Henrikh Mkhitaryan has, in the short term at least, more than picked up the slack that Alexis left.

Let's get a few ideas out of the way from the get-go. Although this was a swap, we all agree that this was not a like-for-like deal. Alexis, after all, played for Arsenal as something more like a forward, striker, or false nine. His primary role was to score goals, and, by hook or by crook or by sharply cutting to his right, Alexis did that often enough to earn some admiration from the Arsenal faithful. Mkhitaryan, by contrast, is more of a creator, one who is more likely to pick out a teammate with a perfectly-weighted pass than he is to seize the moment for himself. On the early returns, Mkhitaryan—Mkhi, we'll refer to him henceforth, if only to save your correspondent a few thousand keystrokes—has placed his thumb firmly on the scales in Arsenal's favor.

As you should see in the nifty little graphic above, Mkhi has delivered twice the goals and more than twice the assists that Alexis has added at Man U. The Armenian has done so in fewer minutes, at half the transfer-fee, and at less than half the weekly wages that have been reported. Of course, none of this really matters until we assess motive. Alexis indicated that he was bound and determined to leave Arsenal in the summer, with all indications that he would join Man City on a Bosman after his contract expired. Arsène, for better or for worse, decided to keep him rather than sell him in the summer of 2017, hoping that we would win our way back into the Champions League. As that hope faded, the likelihood of resigning the Chilean collapsed, and we were faced with the prospect of losing a prolific goal-scorer, falling out of the top-four, and failing to win the Europa League.

Here's where we set aside the dismal science. Alexis's value can to some degree be assessed in financial terms, it's true, but that's only part of the story. That part of the story didn't add up. Keeping him didn't keep us in the top-four chase and wasn't helping much in winning the Europa League. His impact on the squad had, by many accounts, become toxic both on the pitch and in the dressing room. I don't fault his desire to win. I do fault his method—which consisted largely of keeping the ball to himself and hoping to score goals. When it worked, regardless of whether Arsenal won or lost, he seemed content. When it didn't, again, regardless of whether Arsenal won or lost, he gesticulated and pouted and sulked. As such, almost price is worth paying to move such a pill elsewhere.

By contrast, Mkhi, who had found himself to be Mourinho's scapegoat du jour, seems rejuvenated. Not only has he been more prolific, he's bedded in far more quickly, elevating his play and that of his new mates. The chemistry (remember, we are talking science) that Mkhi brings has helped to revitalize Arsenal's fortunes. It's not just reconnecting with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, although that could very well prove a deciding factor in the long-run. By disposition as well as by performance, Mkhi looks far more likely than Alexis to continue to improve the squad for which he plays.

That may not be enough to affect outcomes in the Prem, but it may very well be enough to achieve our goal for the campaign—a return to relevance in the Prem and qualification for Champions League play. For all of his glitz, glamour, and—yes, greed—that's something that Alexis couldn't quite help us achieve for this campaign or the one to follow.