When Mykhailo Mudryk decided to join Chelsea in the middle of the last transfer window, the joke was squarely on Arsenal. The league leaders had been left at the altar in January and opposition fans were reveling in it.
But who’s laughing now?
Add the doomed bid for Moises Caicedo and Arsenal failed to land their two main targets in the window. It was undeniably a blow. There is an alternate timeline, bearing unfortunate parallels to last season in which this could have become the defining narrative of the second half of their campaign.
But instead, Arsenal responded in a practical and proactive way. As soon as it became clear that they wouldn’t sign either Mudryk or Caicedo, they moved decisively to bring in Leandro Trossard and Jorginho. This pair was a big part of Arsenal’s last win, a 1-0 win over Leicester.
In his post-match press conference, manager Mikel Arteta admitted he was “very happy” with how quickly Arsenal’s January pivot paid off. “We were very clear about what we wanted to do, we couldn’t do it and we had to adapt. You have to do it in the window. Let’s not feel sorry for ourselves. Everyone on the board – Edu in particular with (director of football operations) Richard Garlick – was really good at doing what we had to do, and we were the first there to get what we wanted.
Mudryk could well become a star and Caicedo will have suitors again this summer – Arsenal potentially among them. But the advantage of signing Trossard and Jorginho is that they arrived as ready-made, plug-and-play Premier League players.
“They are two players who already have experience in our league and are really well suited to the way we play,” added Arteta. “Really smart to understand what we require to execute certain things and they have the personality to play the way we have played. This is what is needed at this level.
Football intelligence is a key factor. Arsenal’s playing model is complex and took years to perfect at Arteta. Trossard and Jorginho seem to have fitted in there in no time.
The ultimate compliment to Trossard is that, against Leicester, he was given one of the most sophisticated aspects of forward play: operating as a false nine. Arteta experimented with Emile Smith Rowe and Willian in this position, but this was by far his most successful iteration.
Trossard knows the role well having played in midfield on several occasions for Brighton. “We knew what the intention was probably because we like to push forward,” Brendan Rodgers said. “Mikel probably put him in that No. 9 position to go under, so he’s giving you that extra man in there.”
That’s partly true, but this tactical change was more about what he was adding to Arsenal than what he was taking away from Leicester. Playing Trossard in the middle is what Arteta can do to replicate the role of Gabriel Jesus. Eddie Nketiah tends to stay in central attacking spaces, but Jesus frequently falls deep and wide.
Gabriel Martinelli suffered from not having his fellow Brazilian to combine with on the left flank. In that match, a positional swap between Trossard and Martinelli ultimately won the game – with the Belgian taking the ball down the left wing before slipping a neat pass to Martinelli to score.
It could have been an even better day for Trossard. A superb strike from the edge of the box was ruled out for a foul by Ben White and he was also involved in setting up a Bukayo Saka goal that was narrowly flagged offside.
“He was really good,” Arteta said. “He got involved in a lot of situations that could have led to a lot of other great opportunities. He’s so good in tight spaces with that creativity to open people up. I’m really glad we have him.
Perhaps in previous seasons Arteta would have felt compelled to throw Thomas Partey into the fray again. Instead, Jorginho’s form meant he could name Partey on the bench.
Considering how Arsenal dominated possession, it’s no surprise that Jorginho took more touches than any player on the pitch. He completed 68 passes – more than Leicester’s three starting midfielders, Wilfred Ndidi, Kieran Dewsbury-Hall and Dennis Praet combined. Jorginho is known for his ability to hold onto the ball, but it wasn’t all side passes – 21 of those 68 completions were in the final third.
There’s another side to his game too. The Italy international won possession 10 times during the game – again the highest tally on the pitch. He managed seven duels – only Saka won in more one-on-one battles for Arsenal.
Mudryk and Caicedo are 22 and 21 years old and have limited experience at the highest level. Trossard and Jorginho, at 28 and 31, brought streetwise advantage to a young side.
The global pool of elite players is relatively small and it is inevitable that there will be intense competition for their signatures. Arsenal discovered as much with their attempts to sign Mudryk, Lisandro Martinez, Raphinha and others. In this type of landscape, it is all the more important to be flexible and reactive in your planning, to have other targets and to react accordingly.
When Mudryk chose Chelsea, there were a few dark days in Arsenal’s recruitment department. They loved the player, had spent months following him and believed he would be theirs. But there was no sulking, no panic. As has been the case for several years now, Arsenal behaved like a smart club.
We have to go back to 2020 and the signing of Willian for the last time that Arsenal seemed to make an obvious mistake in the market. It was some time ago. Since then the club have spent more money than most – but few have spent it better. The idea of Arsenal being more of a scattergun than a strategic one is outdated. It belongs to another era.
In January, Arsenal were mocked for their failure to execute plan A. But they are to be applauded for how quickly and cleverly they moved on to plan B. This was key to maintaining their title challenge.
(Top photo: Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images)