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Familiar sting in the tale for Arsenal

Rory Smith, New York Times News Service Jan 28 2018, 0:38 IST
Soccer Football - FA Cup Fourth Round - Yeovil Town vs Manchester United - Huish Park, Yeovil, Britain - January 26, 2018 Manchester United's Alexis Sanchez before the match Action Images via Reuters/Paul Childs

Soccer Football - FA Cup Fourth Round - Yeovil Town vs Manchester United - Huish Park, Yeovil, Britain - January 26, 2018 Manchester United's Alexis Sanchez before the match Action Images via Reuters/Paul Childs

Arsène Wenger knew what would happen, and he knew it would hurt.

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, 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 received 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 FA 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.

By stripping Arsenal of its best player, again, United proves that it possesses a clout that one of its traditional peers does not; it demonstrates that it sits above Arsenal in the food chain.

More important, at a time when United seems unable to beat Manchester City on the field - Pep Guardiola's team leads José Mourinho's by 12 points - securing a victory off it offers a little boost to the ego, a little balm for wounded pride.

Just as signing van Persie in 2012 sent a message, a few weeks after City had finally claimed a first championship in four decades, United's capturing Sánchez now serves as a little reminder that City's hegemony - in Manchester, in the Premier League - is not yet complete.

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