It was a stark admission from Arsène Wenger, one which in itself can be viewed as ultimately courageous and foolhardy because it begs so many questions that are imponderable. Amy Lawrence’s piece in The Guardian surrounding the departure of Robin van Persie is an exercise in self-flagellation by the manager, one that lays Arsenal and himself open to criticism for last Summer’s activity. Crucial to this is the admission,
But what is painful is to see United so far in front of us. We knew when we sold him to United that would be the case.
The obvious question is why put yourself in that position? My own stated preference was to retain the Dutchman for the final year of his contract. Selling him to a close rival now was folly in pure footballing terms. The money swayed the decision; the transfer fee was too good to turn down but the fundamental problem with the whole situation was that the decision was not made in an instant, it dragged on for months. Arsène knew the eventuality was coming; Gilles Grimandi admitted that both Podolski and Giroud were signed as replacements for the Dutchman. His apparent softening towards the club once training had started was ignored although I have doubts over the veracity of these claims.
It begs the question of why further strengthening did not take place. If the manager knew selling van Persie would put United further ahead, he had to make the signings to change that, to address the weaknesses. He had the budget to use but failed to do so. Yet it is not always that clear cut, that simple a choice. Identifying the players has to happen, I am sure that they have those files. Making the deals happen is an altogether different matter. It is fair to say some clubs would not sell, simplying saying “No”. It’s no use pretending that scenario does not occur, making out that spending money is easy in the People’s Supermarket.
A stark contrast emerges between Manchester United and Arsenal, between the managers of the two clubs. Ferguson is more willing to pay more than his valuation if he believes a vital difference will be made. He was willing to pay a lot for a player with a limited career span remaining because he knew the difference would be worth it in that time,
It was a lot of money but you either want him or you don’t, and you have to pay the price that the club is sticking out for. We wanted him badly.
I don’t think the same applies to Arsenal, there is a different ethic in place. There are different finances as well, United’s wealth enables them to spend more freely, take more of a chance. Their adherence to the ‘traditional’ wage structure too. It’s a combination of things, both clubs sustaining themselves as they see believe is right. Arsenal are dependent upon FFP having the teeth to bring about equality in the financial sphere. Few share that optimism, with rival clubs moving to comply. Chelsea’s most recent accounts showed the lengths that they were willing to go to meet the requirements, converting investment from loans to satisfy edicts.
On its own FFP will not be enough, the combination of Arsenal mirroring their rivals in terms in wage structure will be the catalyst. They need to become more willing to take the risk but act more decisively. The perception is that Arsenal procrastinate at crucial times. Whether that is true or not is almost a moot point. Signings take time, for Arsenal longer than most. Again that is the perception. It is amusing to hear that Arsenal never do their business in public. The club might not overtly do so but their targets are leaked to the media long before a deal is completed. Look at recent seasons, how many of the signings were genuine left-field, unknown.
Going back five or six years, I struggle beyond Arteta and Mertesacker. Their surprise came in the swiftness of decision in the Summer of Love. Too many transfers seem to sit on someone’s desk for a while, a task being put off because they don’t like completing the paperwork and signings then take a long time to complete. Look at Henry’s loan last Winter; it was mooted weeks before the end of December, the decision taken and spoken of by the manager before then yet paperwork was not finalised until the second week of January. Discretion or indecision.
But the real contrast has always been there. I don’t think Arsène has ever been willing to go beyond his valuation of a player. It’s ingrained, his upbringing, education; he wants his money to be well-spent. He has his failures – Richard Wright, Francis Jeffers, spring to mind – that cost money but they are no worse than Ferguson’s, just less expensive. Wenger is more cautious since the stadium move and that is understandable but the sale of van Persie was a decision too far by the collective. The manager did not take it on his own, the board were involved as well. The obsession with money looks like one based on opportunity cost rather than cold, hard cash. What if we lose out of £24m rather than what if we miss out of the top three or four?
What if is a powerful question, one that can never be answered.