TO month rarely laden with certainties has one sure thing for arsenal. When January ends they will be top of the Premier League, with a game in hand over their rivals and the likelihood of a significant points cushion. They are currently the best team in the division by some distance and, when everything is working this smoothly, momentum can feel entirely self-sustaining.
The manner of their win at Spurs, which included a first-half showing as capable as anyone will produce all year, reinforced the view that Mikel Arteta is under little pressure to make changes for the campaign’s second half. Arsenal’s consistency of performance is remarkable; results are following and their squad depth is such that the medium-term absence of their centre-forward star, Gabriel Jesus, is barely felt.
The latter point is a far cry from May, when Arsenal lost their grip on a Champions League spot after capitulating at Spurs and Newcastle. Injuries had bitten, three inexperienced academy products making up their numbers on the bench at St James’ Park, and they could not cope. Arteta’s resources, particularly in defense and up front, look better set now but eyes will still turn to the remaining fortnight of the transfer window. What is required to turn an increasingly likely thing into a sure thing?
The easiest answer is a clean bill of health. Should Bukayo Saka, Thomas Partey, Martin Ødegaard, Gabriel Martinelli and perhaps the increasingly influential Oleksandr Zinchenko stay fit for the next four months it is hard to imagine Arsenal not purring home. But none of that is nailed on and, with as many as seven Europa League ties in prospect from early March, Arteta knows it would be best to enlist some help.
Quality competition in wide areas would alleviate certain concerns and the same goes for central midfield. Emile Smith Rowe’s return from injury, and the hope his long-term complaints were solved during four months out, certainly helps the former but Arsenal remain in the market for reinforcements. They have been frustrated in this transfer window but the pill becomes easier to swallow when you are so far ahead of the competition.
Alternatives will be sought for Mykhaylo Mudryk, who Arsenal had been confident of landing from a stubborn Shakhtar Donetsk until Chelsea blew them away with terms the player and selling club could not resist. Arsenal had already shown this month that they were willing to walk away from a deal: they were in for João Félix at a late stage but bowed out when it became clear he would cost a loan fee of more than £9m from Atlético Madrid. Chelsea showed no such inhibitionalthough it may do them limited immediate good now that the forward is lumbered with a three-game suspension.
Arsenal’s restraint, as much as anything can be described that way in the modern transfer market, speaks of the lessons learned institutionally since Arteta’s arrival. They do not intend to be burned again as they were in paying £72m for Nicolas Pépé. Planning and patience, particularly in sticking with Arteta when others might have knee-jerked, have borne spectacular fruit.
They had spent months working on a deal for Mudryk, which was always going to be pricey given the fee Manchester United paid for a player of similar age and position in Antony, and had priced in Shakhtar’s intransigence, so it was galling for them to see Chelsea steal in. Ultimately, Chelsea received enough assurances that Mudryk would put aside his publicly stated preference to join Arsenal and move to west London if they were the only show in town. It was another example of the clanging nuisance Todd Boehly and company have made of themselves in the market: they have shaken things up to their liking, in the short term at least, but Arsenal are among those who would rather avoid being dragged into the maelstrom . After all it is currently their modus operandi, not that of Chelsea’s new regime, bringing results.
That is why it is unlikely they will react to missing out on Mudryk by splurging indiscriminately on the next available equivalent. Nonetheless Arteta is now left with something of a dilemma. Mudryk was an attractive option because of his age and exciting potential, but how hard should he pursue other possibilities that do not leap out as readily? Perhaps Raphinha, a former target who may be obtainable from Barcelona, would fit the bill. Arsenal would kick themselves if the ultimate prize escaped them because the drop down from Saka or Martinelli was too severe; they could also regret doing the wrong deals at a time when there is little standing between them and a near-perfect season’s work.
At least Arsenal can ask themselves such questions. In the recent past “winning the transfer window” has become an obsession among some sections of fans but it takes second billing this time. They are winning the contest that matters. Beating Manchester United, who will become an unexpected title rival should they take three points at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday, would strengthen an already imposing position significantly. Perhaps Arsenal, for all the nagging concerns about what may or may not lie in reserve, will be able to stay the distance as they are.