Signs that Wenger's sums may not add up
"Arsene Knows". The banner declaring this simple tenet has been part of the decor at Highbury, then the Emirates Stadium, for the best part of a decade. Now, though, the question is being pondered: Does he?
The departure of Mathieu Flamini, the possibility that Alexander Hleb will follow him and the refusal to countenance serious spending on a par with the rest of the "Big Four" has left Arsenal fans feeling like heretics. What if "Le Professeur" has got his calculations wrong?
Wenger yesterday admitted the club, which implicitly means himself since the departure of vice-chairman David Dein last year, got it wrong with Flamini, who has joined Milan with a reported £4m signing-on fee. The Arsenal manager refused to break his wage cap for the midfielder, who is believed to have turned down £55,000-a-week to remain in London.
The salaries offered by other clubs are, Wenger conceded to a forum for Arsenal shareholders, "a problem". He added: "We did not master this situation. I am disappointed that he [left] but legally he can do it. When a player is out of contract he can sign where he wants."
Leaving aside the fact that this criticism is a bit rich coming from the man who lured Flamini away from Marseilles four year ago without paying a fee, it does not, on the surface, reflect well on Arsenal's player-management. Manchester United make it a policy to secure players 18 months in advance of their contract expiring. So, however, do Arsenal – for under 30-year-olds, at least. Cesc Fabregas, for instance, has been signed up until 2012.
The reason Flamini's contract was left to run down is that he did not, a year ago, seem a crucial part of the team. Indeed, he was told last summer he could leave. He stayed because Birmingham City were the only club to come in for him. Then Gilberto Silva's delayed start to the Premier League season following the Copa America gave Flamini a chance in the first team and he shone.
By the time his worth was obvious, it was too late, other clubs were interested, ones with a more flexible wage policy than Arsenal. Wenger has said the Gunners must respect their tight wage structure or "go bust" and certainly no player at the club earns anything remotely close to the six-figure weekly salaries of Michael Ballack, Andrei Shevchenko, Frank Lampard and John Terry at Chelsea.
Now Hleb is being lined up by Internazionale, and Real Madrid are again casting covetous glances at Fabregas. The Spaniard is expected to stay, for the time being, but Hleb, being 27, is tempted. It has been suggested the Belarusian could invoke the Fifa rule which allows players to leave a club after three years of a long-term contract, provided they do not move to a club in the same country. Wenger claimed to be unconcerned. "What people say about the buy-out clause, it is not as simple as it looks," he said. "It is much more difficult and the [buying] clubs are reluctant to do that. We want to keep Hleb, we want him to be part of our team next year. It is as simple as that. We have lost one player, we do not want to lose more."
They already have. Jens Lehmann has been allowed to leave and Gilberto and Philippe Senderos have been linked with transfers. Wenger, having said his ambition for the summer was to keep his squad together and add one, now two, players, could be facing something of a rebuilding job.
He will not, however, splash the cash. This may be because there is not as much of it available as was first claimed. The "war chest" could be up to £50m, or maybe just £10m. No one at Arsenal seems sure. Even were it the latter, however, Wenger is more likely to give Denilson, Nicklas Bendtner and other youngsters a chance than challenge Liverpool for Gareth Barry's signature.
They, and he, will be given the time. Although, as Jose Mourinho is fond of pointing out, few other managers of clubs of Arsenal's stature would be permitted three trophyless seasons, Wenger is granted extra leeway because of the elegant brilliance of the football his team plays. Only Manchester United, who can spend £17m on a promising squad player like Nani, have been able to produce winning, attractive, football. Wenger's Arsenal can currently manage only the second part of the equation. Even so, few expected them to lead the League as long as they did this season; what might be expected next season, when the colts are a year older?
Wenger, as usual, expects a lot. He said: "I hope that 95 per cent of the team, the core of the team, says 'come on, we have only just lost'. We were close this year, but we did not win and what I expect from my team is that, if you are a winner, you say 'let's come back next year and win'. If our players are not capable of doing that and just want to walk out for bigger contracts, for me, that would be the biggest disappointment."
Do they fit the bill, Arsène? Two players who may interest Arsenal
'The big defender'
At 19, Micah Richards is one of the best young players in the Premier League and an Arsenal fan. He has also recently signed a long-term contract at Manchester City
'The creative player'
Portsmouth's Croatian Niko Kranjcar would seem to be Wenger's type of player: skilful, clever, mobile and, at 23, with his best years still in front of him getty images