It is the day many an Arsenal fan thought would never arrive. The day when, finally, proof is provided that Arsenal are no longer a selling club. The day when it is apparent Arsene Wenger has abandoned the policy of prudence he has pursued for a decade and has bought big. The day of Mesut Ozil’s debut.
The £42.5 million (Dh246.9m) midfielder will be unleashed against Sunderland. It promises to be a landmark occasion. Wenger has long described finishing fourth as being like a trophy – and has attracted mockery for saying so. But perhaps Ozil’s capture is the closest Arsenal have come to a prize since winning the FA Cup in 2005.
The last time an Arsenal debut was as eagerly anticipated was August 20, 1995, when Dennis Bergkamp made his debut against Middlesbrough. The Dutchman was the last superstar signed by the Gunners. Wenger has taken the organic approach, making his own, turning potential into proven brilliance.
Bergkamp was Arsenal’s previous statement signing, bought by the club rather than Bruch Rioch, the manager in 1995. He put North London on the European football map. Since then, Wenger has used annual participation in the Champions League, rather than expenditure, to keep them there.
And then Ozil arrived, rebranding Arsenal at a stroke. He fee was greater than those paid in sum for their two next-most-expensive players, Andrey Arshavin and Jose Antonio Reyes. Or to put it in terms of those who flourished, the combined cost of Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robin van Persie, Marc Overmars, Emmanuel Petit and Gilberto Silva was still significantly less than Ozil’s price tag.
Given the clarion call ringing around the Emirates Stadium during the Week 1 defeat to Aston Villa was “spend some … money”, it is undeniable Wenger has responded. Only Chelsea, when paying £50m for Fernando Torres, and Manchester City, when they acquired Carlos Tevez for £47m, have spent more on one player in the history of English football.
And both joined clubs with reputations for spending. Arsenal are very different, which helps explain the euphoric reception to Ozil’s arrival.
“I fight for the teams to spend the money they have made, not the money they have artificially earned,” Wenger said.
For years, though, he has not spent: not in net terms, and not however the money was acquired. So pessimism has become ingrained in the supporters’ psyche; as the summer dragged on, many feared the transfer window would close without the flagship recruit Wenger had targeted.
Instead, Ozil represents emphatic proof of Wenger’s pulling power. A CV featuring Real Madrid and Germany offers hints of his quality. So does a record of providing the most goals in Europe’s top five leagues since 2008. Cristiano Ronaldo, scorer of some of them, is a high-profile fan and is reported to have said: “I am very unhappy with the sale.”
Santi Cazorla, a new teammate, definitely did remark: “I don’t know why” Real sold him. “He is a unique player.” Cesc Fabregas, formerly Wenger’s playmaker said: “He will nail it at Arsenal. He is a player who can kill you with space.”
Arsenal’s delight with the deal, however, deflected attention from the reality their original target was a striker, whether Luis Suarez or Gonzalo Higuain. The criticism of Wenger’s teams has long been that they featured too many passers and not enough finishers. Now that has been exacerbated. His squad seems overloaded with suppliers and short of specialist scorers; with Lukas Podolski injured and Theo Walcott playing on the right, Olivier Giroud is the only real centre-forward. In contrast, the competition for the No 10 role is altogether fiercer: Ozil should displace the injured Tomas Rosicky, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain also injured, with Santi Cazorla exiled to the left wing, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere playing behind the newcomer.
“Jack Wilshere is more comfortable in deeper positions and Ozil more in a higher position, that is why I don’t think they conflict,” Wenger said. Whether kindred spirits or competing creators, it amounts to an unrivalled accumulation of inventive types. Arsenal, those models of prudence, have a luxury of riches.