Arsène Wenger said yesterday that he is less able to take a risk on signing unknown players who may flourish into stars because fans "want to see Lionel Messi", conceding that it is increasingly difficult for Arsenal to uncover potential in the transfer market.
Wenger's side play Swansea City on Saturday in the FA Cup third round, and Wenger was forced to admit that Michu, third in the Premier League goalscorers' table with 13, was one of those players who was never really on Arsenal's radar. The Spanish striker scored both goals in Swansea's shock 2-0 Premier League victory at the Emirates on 1 December.
It was Wenger who revolutionised the way in which English clubs scouted the international market when he arrived in London in 1996, especially in the French players he bought, including Patrick Vieira, Nicolas Anelka, Thierry Henry and Robert Pires. Today Wenger said that the decline in quality of young French players had forced Arsenal to re-examine their priorities.
On Michu, signed by Michael Laudrup for just £2m from Rayo Vallecano, Wenger was asked if he had ever been a consideration for Arsenal. "Honestly, no," he said. "You needed to know really deeply the market in Spain to do that. Laudrup worked in Spain and he has connections there. We have quite good connections in Spain as well but he is one who never came to my attention."
Wenger admitted that he asked questions of his scouts every time a good player was missed. "We have some other clubs who are doing very well [in the transfer market] and sometimes when you are in a big club your scouts are a bit more cautious. They think, 'Oh, it is Arsenal it has to be a top-four player'. So naturally they are looking less at players who play at smaller clubs. Which Swansea can afford to do. The scouts are always scared that if a player does not do well, they are responsible.
"We had heard of Michu. He was a guy who disappeared a little bit. He was in clubs where he was bombed out and so you think, 'OK, he doesn't make it there, why should he make it here?' But he has done extremely well. It looks what he is doing is not accidental and that he is a really good player."
Most recently, the likes of Marouane Chamakh, Gervinho and Sébastien Squillaci, a France international bought from Seville, have failed to get anywhere near the heights of Arsenal's previous signings from France. Wenger said that the profile of new players was a consideration. "People want to see Lionel Messi. They don't want to see a promising guy. First of all the name gives hope. When a guy has no name people are already sceptical. So it's much more difficult for us.
"The competition is higher on the scouting front, that is for sure. The countries where we were really, really competitive was France. They produce less players than they did 10, 15 years ago at top, top, top level in France. The emerging countries now to produce players look to be Germany and Spain."
The Arsenal manager said that he believed Theo Walcott, whose contract runs out at the end of the season, would sign a new deal and that the player's decision would not ultimately be influenced by money. Wenger said: "I don't think he is only interested by money. I don't believe that." He said that Walcott signing a long-term deal would change the mood at the club. "It is a positive message for us to keep Theo, of course. Will it have an effect on the morale of the team? Yes, I am convinced it will have a positive effect if we manage to sign him."
Wenger said that Squillaci would be likely to leave during this window, "if he can find a club". Johan Djourou and Andrei Arshavin could also leave.