Arsene Wenger has between £70 million and £100 million to spend. Arsenal need to produce a £24 million surplus every year to repay the loan required to build the Emirates Stadium. The former managing director Keith Edelman, speaking last year, and Arsenal's long-serving manager, talking last week, have delivered wildly different interpretations of the club's finances.
What is apparent is that Wenger is not about to part with £70 million this summer; £100 million may be Chelsea's average annual expenditure on transfers in the Abramovich era but for the Frenchman, it is wasteful in the extreme. Having acquired a palatial new home, the decorations Wenger supplies will be rather cheaper, if no less illuminating. As he has already committed £17 million to the signings of Samir Nasri and Aaron Ramsey, poverty is relative (though the word is not in such need of a radical change of definition as slavery, if Sepp Blatter's comments are to be heeded). Yet if - or when - Alexander Hleb and Emmanuel Adebayor depart, Wenger could have a second successive summer transfer profit.
It would also endorse his analysis of the club's bank balance. For the next two decades, Arsenal may be a selling club. That may bring a perverse pleasure to Wenger. With a kind of inverse snobbery, some prefer to deem themselves poor; certainly if the alternative is being nouveau riche, like Chelsea. The Arsenal manager takes pride in his husbandry. Yet, while he often appears too cerebral to involve himself in the murky world of commerce, he has long adopted the salesman's mantra of 'buy low, sell high'. Arsenal could get a 400 percent, or even a 500 percent, return on their investment in Adebayor, barely six months after Wenger made a quick profit on Lassana Diarra.
Moreover, a change of status may suit the Frenchman's style. Wenger enjoys more autonomy and popularity than most managers but such criticisms that have been aired recently concern Arsenal's three successive seasons without silverware. Yet a public admission that they are operating on a very different scale to Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool means the parameters change; success becomes continued qualification for the Champions League and the development of players who become assets on the balance sheet and in the transfer market.
Given Wenger's obstinacy and his faith in his discoveries, that may permit him more leeway: with less expectation of an arrival to reinforce his defence, he could permit Alexander Song more opportunities there; rather than a big-money replacement for the departed Mathieu Flamini, he could move Abou Diaby infield; only in attack, where the loss of Adebayor and Eduardo's long-term absence would leave a void, would he need to buy.
It also makes the club's long-term strategy still more dependent upon Wenger. Perhaps silverware becomes a secondary consideration to balancing the books, but it is hard to think of a comparable manager who would willingly forego a transfer budget and continue to deliver top-four finishes. While Chelsea experienced a rare summer in the black last year, January was more costly with the £24 million paid for Nicolas Anelka and Branislav Ivanovic already looking misspent and a greater outlay can be anticipated this summer.
Manchester United may produce a seemingly healthy profit this summer, but that would involve Cristiano Ronaldo's departure; their only recent summer when income exceeded expenditure came courtesy of John Obi Mikel's complicated choice of Chelsea. In comparison and largely because of Thierry Henry, Arsenal took in more than they paid out last summer. It is starting to look like a pattern.
There are contrasts in the capital. Peter Kenyon's much-quoted comments about Chelsea's intention to break even by 2009 continue to look wildly optimistic. Tottenham, habitual big spenders, have exceeded £100 million in outgoing transfer fees in the last 14 months. West Ham are experimenting with frugality now; their problem is that the players bought over the three previous transfer windows are almost entirely in the second half of their careers. Their values will decrease as those of Arsenal's youthful collective increase. As the arrival of the 17-year-old Ramsey shows, Wenger's focus on potential has never wavered.
While Arsenal possess the carrot of Champions League football to help them compete with bigger buyers beneath them in the league, so does their style of play. Listening to Wenger and eager converts such as Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas on the playing staff, there can be an evangelical element to their faith in Arsenal, even if some attempts to claim the moral high ground are misguided.
But when such an ethos produces a constant stream of talent and enables Arsenal to challenge the large spenders who covet their status, eschewing short-termism is justified. The question is often posed of what Arsenal could achieve if Wenger possessed more of a pragmatic streak, but perhaps the idealist is proving the best businessman of them all.
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