Are Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan the New Kiwomya and Helder?

Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan
ST ALBANS, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 02: (L-R) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan of Arsenal during a training session at London Colney on February 2, 2018 in St Albans, England. (Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Few Arsenal fans under the age of 30 will have even heard of Chris Kiwomya and Glenn Helder, let alone remember them. However, their names may have come back to mind this week as Arsenal completed their transfer activity for the season. Although the acquisition of Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan looks like good business, there remains the nagging feeling that they might ultimately prove the modern-day equivalents of Kiwomya and Helder.

That is, last-minute, even desperate, signings that did not really address the team’s fundamental problems.

Are Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan the Right Answer for Arsenal?

A Short History Lesson

Chris Kiwomya and Glenn Helder were signed, alongside John Hartson, in early 1995, in what would prove to be the last days of George Graham’s reign as Arsenal manager. Since joining Arsenal in 1986, Graham had enjoyed eight seasons of almost continual success, including the winning of two league titles and a European trophy (the Cup-Winners’ Cup).

However, by 1995 he had begun to lose his previously golden touch and that was most evident in Arsenal’s league form. They had been champions in 1989 and 1991, but since that second title success, the Gunners gradually began to slide further and further down the league and by 1995 they were no longer really competing for the title.

Ultimately, of course, Graham would be sacked by Arsenal because he had taken a “bung” (put simply, a bribe) as part of a transfer deal. Before that happened, however, he made one last major effort to try and reinvigorate the team by signing no fewer than three attacking players.

There was Kiwomya, a small, fast striker from Ipswich, Helder, a supposedly tricky winger from Vitesse Arnhem in Holland and Hartson, a big, physical centre-forward from Luton. It is fair to say that not one of them was an unqualified success. Indeed, Hartson was the only one who was even a qualified success, providing some much-needed physical presence up front alongside Ian Wright as Arsenal somehow fought their way through to another Cup-Winners’ Cup final in 1995.

The other two players, Kiwomya and Helder, barely figured in Arsenal’s first team at all, and even Hartson was soon jettisoned by Arsene Wenger when he arrived at the club in September 1996.

A Gulf in Class

There are obvious differences between the pairing of Kiwomya and Helder and that of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The first and most important one is that Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan are simply much better players than Kiwomya and Helder. The former Dortmund players are potentially world-class, whereas it is questionable whether Kiwomya and Helder were ever even Premiership-class.

However, there is also an important point of comparison, namely that neither set of players is, or was, really what Arsenal needed.

Of course, the fabled Arsenal defence of the 1990s, including goalkeeper David Seaman, was infinitely better than the current backline. That was proved again this week at Swansea, when, amid all the other errors, Petr Cech confirmed the growing suspicion that he is not the new Pat Jennings but the new Almunia. Nevertheless, by 1995 that great backline was still in need of reinvigoration as, by its own high standards, it had begun to wane.

However, rather than attempting to reinforce it by buying new defenders or defensive midfielders, or even by adopting new defensive tactics, George Graham spent all his available time, money and energy in reinforcing what was already a reasonably strong attack, especially with Ian Wright in his goal-scoring pomp.

Similarly, the events at Swansea on Tuesday confirmed that what the 2018 Arsenal team really needs is not reinforcement in attack but a complete rebuild in defence, including in goal. Currently, the defensive players available to Wenger are either visibly ageing before our eyes (Cech and Koscielny), still too young and inexperienced (Chambers and Holding) or, simply, not good enough (Mustafi).

However, like George Graham nearly a quarter of a century ago, rather than shoring up the defence, Wenger, or perhaps the newly appointed “transfer team” at Arsenal, has put all his eggs in the attacking basket.

An Uncertain Future

Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan, particularly the former (because of his obvious goal-scoring talent), may yet prove to be successful acquisitions by Arsenal, especially given the entirely unexpected news that Mesut Özil has signed a new deal to play alongside them. However, the fear persists that, just like his famous predecessor, all of the good work that Wenger has done in supplementing his attack will ultimately be undone by his apparent blindness to the team’s defensive deficiencies.

If that proves to be the case, Arsenal fans may end up remembering January 2018 not as the transfer window in which they acquired “Auba and Mickey” but as the one in which they failed to buy Johnny Evans and other no-nonsense defenders like him.

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