Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta has been following Houssem Aouar for a while. Not just since the conclusion of the 2020 Champions League, where the Frenchman was outstanding with Lyon, especially in their 3-1 win against Manchester City in the quarterfinals. Not even just from earlier in the season or even the previous campaign, where the 22-year-old midfielder established himself as one of Ligue 1’s best players and one of Europe’s most promising youngsters.
No — the Arsenal manager has been a fan for much longer than that. When he was Pep Guardiola’s assistant at Manchester City, he followed Aouar’s breakthrough season in 2017-18. Then, in Sept. 2018, he got to see him up close with own eyes. With Guardiola suspended, Arteta served as City’s manager against Lyon in the Champions League group stage. Aouar shone, Lyon won 2-1 at the Etihad and Arteta has been under his charm ever since.
All of this can explain why Aouar is now Arsenal’s and Arteta’s priority this transfer window. There are still some negotiations ahead, of course, before the transfer can be completed, and obviously anything could still happen. The player wants to come to Arsenal, but the Gunners’ first offer of €35 million made to Lyon and their president Jean-Michel Aulas was rejected on Friday. The Gunners will come back this week with another offer and are quite confident the deal will happen, but they are not there yet.
Still, they will push for it because in Arteta’s mind, Aouar is the missing piece to his current jigsaw puzzle. He would not solve all the Londoners’ issues, but he would certainly improve the journey Arteta and the club are on at the moment. Like the Spaniard repeatedly said after his side’s 3-1 defeat at Liverpool on Monday night, his team is on a journey and it has not even been a full year since Arteta took charge. Well-oiled Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp, in comparison, are already five years into theirs.
Arteta wants Aouar to be part of the journey because he will be the one to lead it. As a source close to the situation puts it, the Lyon man would be to Arteta what Kevin De Bruyne is to Pep Guardiola. He is enamoured with the Frenchman’s profile who, like the Belgian, is very versatile. Aouar is a playmaker who can play as a No. 10 behind one or two strikers, as a No. 8 in a midfield two or three, and even as a wide player on the left if needed. Where he is most influential, though, is in the middle, where he can possess the ball the most and use his vision, passing range and technical ability to create chances for teammates. He takes set pieces, too.
Aouar is seven years younger than De Bruyne, who was 24 when he joined Manchester City after previous spells at Genk, Werder Bremen, Chelsea and Wolfsburg, and already a full international. Aouar’s path is much different, as he’s only played three seasons in Lyon’s first team and has just the one call-up for France, which he could not even attend because he tested positive for COVID-19 just before joining the squad in Paris! Nevertheless, some similarities are there to see.
Like in Manchester, where De Bruyne is at the heart of everything going forward and is the player everyone else looks for when on the ball, Aouar would be Arsenal’s main creative force. His ability to receive the ball under pressure and still advance it to help the team is also very important for what Arteta is trying to do with his team. Aouar could be a key component in the Spaniard’s desire to play out from the back, with a clear pattern of play built around him. He can press intensely, can run and play on the counter or in a possession game. He is very intelligent tactically, too, having played in so many formations this early in a young career.
Aouar is exactly what Arsenal and Arteta need right now. There is no doubt that Lyon will play hard ball to get as much money as they can for their latest academy jewel, but this would be the right move for him. Other big European clubs were interested, but no other official offers were made, apart from Arsenal.
Playing at the Emirates and in the Premier League would represent a step up in his career and if he rises to it, which he and the people around him believe he can and will, it would certainly bring him even closer to the national team and the 2021 Euros, while also giving him a much bigger platform to shine on. It could also be the piece of the puzzle that speeds up Arsenal’s efforts to get back into the Premier League’s top four.