Evidently, Arsenal’s deep and doleful job losses have not blunted the club’s gift for going viral. Never mind that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s three-year contract extension had been trailed for a month: his commitment to the cause this week drew a level of hyperbolic build-up normally reserved only for Tim Cook’s iPhone launches. As the website teased a live feed of an egg-timer, pen and paper, it added a captain’s armband and a Black Panther mask before bringing final confirmation from the man himself. Even as football’s longest summer gives way to a potentially nuclear winter, there is little false modesty on the marketing front.
It seems to be the same everywhere this month. No sooner did the enigmatic Ricardo Quaresma herald his arrival at Vitoria de Guimaraes with a video of a horse, a Mustang and a map of Hogwarts than Istanbul Basaksehir, the project of Turkey’s President Erdogan, paraded their signing of Rafael by trussing him up as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. It was quite the fanfare, all told, for a largely-forgotten Manchester United right-back last spotted on the bench at Lyon.
How reassuring, then, to discover that Jack Grealish still prefers the old-fashioned approach, unveiling his five-year deal at Aston Villa with a standard-issue, pens-at-the-ready photograph alongside the chief executive. And yet, for all the contrasts in presentation styles, there is one crucial parallel between his announcement and that of Aubameyang, with both players ultimately deciding that their futures are best served by staying loyal.
For weeks, Aubameyang had been the subject of more overtures than a Rossini opera. Would it be Barcelona who prised him away, or Inter Milan? Instead, two trophies in 30 days under Mikel Arteta convinced him to remain, a moment of genuine rapture for Ian Wright, filmed indulging in plenty of “you’re the legend now” badinage with his successor as Arsenal’s centre-forward. It was a similar story for Grealish, who looked imploringly for an approach from Old Trafford, only for manager Dean Smith to work his persuasive magic over drinks as they toasted Villa’s Premier League survival.
There are several ways of analysing this latest trend of club superstars realising that the grass is not always greener elsewhere. Once, the temptation would be to rebuke them for a lack of ambition, to ask what Grealish expects to win at Villa by 2025 when he could have held out for a switch to the top six. Fashions have evolved, though. In 2020, there is wisdom in clubs and players learning to value what they already have. True, Aubameyang was tempted by the blandishments of Barcelona, but Philippe Coutinho had shown how quickly you could turn from Premier League prodigy into Nou Camp pariah. At Arsenal, there is no such ambiguity, in that every facet of the club’s strategy for the next three seasons will coalesce around him.
The economics of the arrangement do deserve some scrutiny. Aubameyang is being paid £250,000 a week: a steal, perhaps, when team-mate Mesut Ozil receives more just to sit in the stands, but still a huge outlay given the prospect of his reduced resale value at 34. This cannot, however, be perceived solely as a monetary transaction. In their Gabonese striker, Arsenal have what they have so long lacked: an icon, a hero, a proven inspiration in major finals and a worthy heir to Thierry Henry’s No 14 shirt.
The alternative of losing him did not bear thinking about for Arsenal fans. In the past decade, they have dared to invest hope and affection in Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie, Alexis Sanchez, Samir Nasri, only for every one of them to leave once the price was right. In Aubameyang, they at last have a figure who has reciprocated their trust. Such a gesture matters all the more in what could soon be a post-apocalyptic wilderness for the game. The longer supporters are shut out of stadiums, the more uncertainty breeds. Arsenal have been far from immune, shedding 55 jobs due to the pandemic. Aubameyang’s signature restores a sense of equilibrium, offering a statement of faith in the club’s strength in a post-Covid world.
Grealish, in his own parish, is producing the same effect, providing Villa fans with cause for optimism when all other certainties are crumbling. The power of his connection to a club that he has served since the age of eight gives supporters a chance to catch a glimpse of themselves in Villa Park, even when they cannot be physically present. Tottenham’s move for Gareth Bale could yet generate the same electricity. Forget the fact that he has not appeared in club colours for 7½ years: his mere presence, coupled with all the shirts he can shift, promises to deliver a shot of pure back-where-he-belongs nostalgia.
Such is the existential angst triggered by Covid, even the greatest clubs are grappling with questions of identity. You can see it in the shirt designs: where Everton have unfurled an amber away strip redolent of the days of Alan Ball, Manchester City have gone with a jagged patterning that, according to the PR spiel, represents a “nod to the city’s Northern Quarter mosaics”. When everything else is in flux, there is a premium on creating a feeling of permanence. It is a message that has clearly filtered through to the players. Where once they would scarcely think twice about bouncing the highest bidders off against each other, they recognise today that the most potent weapon in their armoury is their loyalty.