Arsene Wenger knows what it is like to lose his star players, as it’s happened too often in the past six years. This year, the Arsenal manager’s summer is being overshadowed by Alexis Sanchez’s refusal to sign a new contract at the Emirates. The Chile international is the latest world-class player to lose faith in Arsenal’s ability to compete with Europe’s best.
Sanchez’s dissatisfaction was heightened when the Gunners failed to finish in the Premier League’s top four, though his doubts go beyond a single season’s absence from the Champions League. With just a year left on his deal, Sanchez has reservations about Arsenal’s ability to fulfill his ambitions and the club’s willingness to meet his financial demands.
Wenger insists the forward will not depart during this transfer window. The club, Wenger suggests, would rather let Sanchez run down his contract and leave for nothing next summer. The manager is particularly keen that his star player does not sign for a rival Premier League team. Even though Arsenal could probably double the £31.7 million they paid Barcelona for Sanchez three years ago, Wenger is maintaining that the 28-year-old is not for sale. Sadly, the 67-year-old has a history of denying that his unhappy players will leave only to see them depart in embarrassing circumstances.
The summer of 2011 was particularly grim for Wenger. The manager insisted repeatedly that Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri would remain in north London. He even suggested that a double departure would undermine Arsenal’s reputation as a big club.
“Imagine the worst situation, that we lose Fabregas and Nasri,” Wenger said. “You cannot convince people that you are ambitious after that.”
Fabregas was determined to sign for Barcelona. Both the player and the Catalan club were saying the deal was effectively done, but even then, Wenger refused to countenance the possibility. Almost up until the point that the £35m transaction was forged, the Frenchman declared the transfer would not happen.
The stance made Wenger look silly; he appeared to be a manager in denial, and that image was reinforced over the days that followed. Nasri was patently unhappy at the Emirates, was being courted heavily by Manchester City and, like Sanchez, had just a year left on his contract. Still, Wenger was emphatic that Nasri would stay at Arsenal. He ended up moving to City for £25m and Wenger was left with a huge vacuum in midfield. As such, the 2011 summer transfer window ended with an unseemly scramble as Yossi Benayoun (on loan) and Mikel Arteta joined the club on the final day of trading.
Losing two high-class midfield players in this manner over the space of nine days and replacing them in a panic did little to demonstrate the club’s ambition to Arsenal striker Robin van Persie, and his unhappiness grew over the subsequent season. By the time the summer of 2012 arrived, Van Persie had made it clear that he would not sign a new deal at the Emirates.
Like Sanchez, van Persie was in the final year of his agreement with Arsenal. The club were left with the option of cashing in on the striker or holding him to the contract. Despite Wenger’s repeated assertions that the Dutchman would stay, Arsenal traded van Persie to Manchester United for £24m in mid-August. At least this time, the club were more prepared. The previous month, Wenger had signed Olivier Giroud from Montpellier, but the impression that the manager put his head in the sand when one of his top players expressed a desire to play elsewhere was reinforced.
Wenger can be stubborn and staggeringly myopic. Regarding Fabregas, Nasri and Van Persie, it was clear that Wenger he believed they would stay at Arsenal. The same conviction is evident when he discusses Sanchez’s future. It is a mistake.
The uproar amid the Arsenal fan base that followed Van Persie’s departure to Old Trafford will have an impact on the decision-making at the Emirates. If Sanchez leaves for City or — worse — Chelsea, there will be fury. Yet even in the era of huge television income, Arsenal cannot afford to take a £50m or £60m hit on Sanchez. If he leaves for nothing next summer, it will be doubly expensive, as it would cost Wenger at least that amount to effectively replace him.
Of course, there is always the possibility that a successful season for Arsenal will make Sanchez change his mind and sign a new contract, but this is an unlikely scenario. Beginning in January, the striker will be able to negotiate with foreign clubs. Even if Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain are unwilling or unable to sign Sanchez now, they are likely to come calling in the new year. Because no transfer fee would be necessary, Sanchez would be able to negotiate mind-boggling wages and signing-on fees for his new club.
Arsenal may be willing to take that risk, determining that Sanchez and Alexandre Lacazette, their £53.7m summer signing from Lyon, will fire the team back into the top four. This strategy is fraught with danger. If Sanchez agrees to move in January, he could spend the second half of the season with one eye on his new club. Sanchez will probably be looking forward to participation in the World Cup, too. In those circumstances, even a player as committed as Sanchez could be forgiven for being distracted.
If Sanchez is determined to go, it makes sense for Arsenal to deal sooner rather than later. After all, his body language at the tail end of last season signalled his unhappiness.
Wenger cannot afford to make the same mistake he made with Fabregas, Nasri and van Persie. The manager needs to be prepared for any departure and have a plan to deal with the consequences. Living in denial will only lead to another humiliation.