“There is always life,” answered Arsene Wenger. “Arsenal Football Club is 130 years old and many big players have left. Will it go a bit less good? We will see. But there is always life afterwards.”
Wenger had been asked whether or not this victory over Crystal Palace had proved there is life after Alexis Sanchez. Of course it hadn’t, but the Frenchman’s answer lay bare just what has been happening at Arsenal over the past 14 years since they last won the Premier League title.
With every big player that leaves, it goes “a bit less good” for the Gunners. Not always in the short-term, but there has been a gradual decline that has seen the club go from one that was expected to win titles under Wenger, to one that blew them, to one that finished in the top four, to one that last season missed out.
And now, without Sanchez, Arsenal would no doubt deem a top-four finish as a big success, just as comfortable victories over relegation-threatened teams are treated by some as a cause for optimism.
Patrick Vieira, Ashley Cole, Thierry Henry, Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie wanted more than to play the Palaces of this world off the park while Manchester City, United and Chelsea fight for the real honours.
Despite Wenger suggesting his move is money motivated, Sanchez, who will earn £14million-a-year after tax at Old Trafford, would no doubt argue he has a better chance of realising his ambitions away from Arsenal.
“I cannot understand anybody wanting to leave Arsenal,” said Wenger. “But in 30 years of doing transfers, you learn a lot about human beings. As a professional, it was perhaps his last contract at the top level and an important contract.
“We did what we tried to do and went as far as we could (with money). Even Manchester City moved out of it in the end. That tells you we had no chance to give him a contract.”
Other than losing their star players, Arsenal’s problem has often been that their replacements have been of a lesser quality.
Gael Clichy was a good left-back, but he was no Cole. Henry’s boots were impossible to fill, but Emmanuel Adebayor was not the answer. Gervinho was a step or two down from Nasri. Mikel Arteta was a good signing, but he was not of the quality of Fabregas, who himself had taken Vieira’s place, and Lukas Podolski was better at social media than trying to emulate Van Persie.
Which brings us on to the player Arsenal have swapped Sanchez for, Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The Armenian is undoubtedly talented, but there is a feeling that, following 18 uneventful months at United, his best days may be behind him.
It seemed clear which club Wenger believes is getting the best deal out of the Sanchez-Mkhitarayan swap, when the Arsenal manager said: “We have tried to find the best possible solution and the best possible solution is that we lose a world class player – I don’t deny that at all – but we did not lose him without getting somebody after. The future will tell if it was the right decision or not.
“It is not that we are only losing a player, we are gaining a player as well. And we are still active in the transfer market and trying to bring players in.”
One of them is Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who Arsenal will make a second bid for after having an initial £44million offer turned down. The striker will help soften the blow of losing Sanchez, but there are big doubts over his temperament.
With or without Aubameyang, Wenger believes Arsenal’s dressing-room will be a happier environment now the Sanchez saga has been resolved.
Asked if the uncertainty over Sanchez had destabilised some of his players, Wenger replied: “yes.”
He added: “There are periods when the atmosphere is less enjoyable than others. It is the lack of clarity. It is not losing players – teams are used to losing players. But it is the fact that you have uncertainty in the group – that they don’t know if he will be here or not. Once it is clear, the team gets used to it.”
Four goals in the opening 22 minutes, from Nacho Monreal, Alex Iwobi, Laurent Koscielny and Alexandre Lacazette, stunned a Palace team that has been decimated by injuries.
Yohan Cabaye was the latest victim, as the midfielder left the pitch on a stretcher in the second half, and manager Roy Hodgson is busy trying to boost his squad with new signings. Polish central defender Jaroslaw Jach has joined and should be followed by Swedish midfielder Erdal Rakip.
Other than his injury list and transfers, Hodgson is also worried that Wilfried Zaha is suffering at the hands of referees because of the debate over whether or not he dives.
Zaha went down on several occasions against Arsenal without being given a free-kick and became visibly frustrated as the Emirates crowd goaded him.
“Of course we’re concerned about it, but there’s been such a…I won’t call it a campaign, but so much written and said, people discussing, in particular after the Man City game where we got a late penalty,” said Hodgson. “Unfortunately, that does seem to be the buzzword of the day, and I’m afraid that we have to live with that. I think it’s unfair, of course – I thought there were several occasions today when he was fouled and unbalanced, and we didn’t get the free-kicks,
“He has to block it out and he knows that as well. But it’s human nature as well: if you know you are not cheating in any way and you are actually being fouled or unbalanced in an unfair way, it’s all very well for me to stand here and say, ‘You’ve got to put up with that,’ but it’s very difficult when you are on the field – people are emotional beings.”