In the summer of 2012, after several tense telephone conversations between Wenger, the Arsenal manager, and his longstanding rival, Alex Ferguson of Manchester United, Wenger agreed to sell his club’s prized asset, the Dutch striker Robin van Persie, to Ferguson’s team. The deal cost Ferguson $34 million. It would cost Wenger substantially more.
The transfer proved a masterstroke for Ferguson, in the short term, at least. The previous season, a goal from Sergio Agüero in the final minute of the final game had handed Manchester City the Premier League title, snatching it out of Ferguson’s hands on goal difference. Ferguson had decided van Persie’s presence would ensure that did not happen again.
He was right. Van Persie scored 26 goals in 38 Premier League games. United, in what would prove to be Ferguson’s final season, cruised to a valedictory title. Arsenal finished fourth, 16 points adrift.
For Wenger, seeing a former protégé flourish was just about bearable. But watching van Persie, and United, leave Arsenal so definitively in their wake was too much. That pain was all the more acute because Wenger could have foreseen precisely what effect van Persie would have on Manchester United. As he said, in what is in hindsight a remarkable admission: “We knew when we sold him to United that would be the case.”
Five years later, through a mixture of institutional complacency, administrative inertia and willful myopia, history is repeating itself. Arsenal, once again, has allowed itself to be maneuvered into selling its crown jewel — this time Alexis Sánchez — to Manchester United.
The circumstances, in Wenger’s eyes, are not exactly parallel. Arsenal is expected to receive midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan in exchange, as well as a fee of $35 million or so; it is not “one-way traffic,” as Wenger has put it.
Sánchez’s relationship with Arsenal, too, is different from van Persie’s. Sánchez, a Chilean, arrived fully formed; the bond is not quite as strong as it was with van Persie, a Dutchman who was signed as a prodigy and blossomed into a star. “We made a long work with him,” Wenger said. “When you get them there, to that level, and then they leave — of course that is the most painful.”
There are sufficient similarities, however, that Wenger could hardly ignore them. Both van Persie and Sánchez had been allowed to enter the final years of their contracts, diminishing Arsenal’s bargaining power and enabling United to sign them for relatively small fees, if not insignificant wages. Both will have departed the Emirates for Old Trafford in search of trophies, of greater glory. And both will have done so having rejected, in some way, the chance to sign for Manchester City.
Like all transfers, Sánchez’s move to Manchester United is about money. At 29, he will become the highest-paid player in the Premier League, earning somewhere in the region of $555,000 a week, an amount Wenger acknowledged Arsenal simply could not match.
It is also, like most transfers, about ambition. Sánchez has grown increasingly — and increasingly visibly — frustrated by Arsenal’s inability to deliver tangible success, beyond broadly biennial victories in the F.A. Cup. Time is no longer on his side. He is not content to scrap around with Liverpool and Tottenham, hoping for a place in the Champions League.
What marks this move out as different is that it is also — more than most transfers — about hierarchy, about establishing a place in the pecking order, about power.
It is impossible to avoid the suspicion that catching and overtaking City will take more than that.
Mourinho’s opportunism — edging his way into a deal that City seemed to have tied up — is to be praised, but it is telling that both United and Arsenal, likely to replace Sánchez by signing both Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, now out of favor at Borussia Dortmund, will end the January transfer window having invested in hugely expensive players available only by chance.
It does not suggest there is much long-term planning in place at either club, any overarching vision (though Arsenal’s recent front office appointments, including a director of football operations, Raul Sanllehi, and a new chief scout, Sven Mislintat, suggest one may be forthcoming in London).
The same can be said of Chelsea, currently scouring England for any forward of reasonable height, and reportedly considering an offer for Peter Crouch, 36. These clubs can all afford to indulge such whims, such is the money swilling around the Premier League. Some or all of these deals may prove noteworthy successes.
But it is hard to imagine they will be enough to claw back Manchester City; certainly not this season, possibly not for some time. It is all very well winning battles, but only if you have some plan in place to finish.