FOOTBALL: Wenger keeps faith despite trophy drought
LONDON: Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and now Robin van Persie -- for the third time in a year, Arsene Wenger has been forced to engage in a transfer struggle that threatens to wreck the Arsenal manager's plans for the new campaign and deliver another blow to his managerial philosophy.
Fabregas and Nasri delivered damning verdicts on the decline of Wenger's Arsenal when they engineered moves to Barcelona and Manchester City last year despite the Frenchman's public insistence that both would remain at the Emirates Stadium.
Fast forward 12 months and Wenger is once again battling to persuade his team's star player -- this time Dutch forward van Persie -- that Arsenal can still compete for major trophies without resorting to the kind of big-spending that has brought the Premier League title to both Manchester City and Chelsea since the Gunners were last crowned English champions in 2004.
While even Wenger's staunchest critic knows it is impossible for Arsenal to match the resources of billionaire-backed Chelsea and City, he still has cash to invest and, until this summer, chosen to spend most of it on potential rather than proven talent.
Even Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson is unable to compete with Chelsea and City in the transfer market, but he has still been able to build teams capable of winning both the Premier League and Champions League during the same period that Arsenal have failed to land a single trophy.
So it is hardly surprising that van Persie -- the scorer of 37 goals for Arsenal last season -- should have his head turned when United, City and Juventus, all champions within the last two years, come calling.
After all, van Persie's reward for his heroics last season was two Footballer of the Year awards and nothing more. Praise rather than prizes is the currency of Wenger's crumbling empire.
Although van Persie is still an Arsenal player at present, his announcement last month that he wouldn't be signing a new contract -- his current deal expires at the end of this season -- left Wenger with no option but to consider offers from his captain.
Yet, even after such a turbulent close-season, Wenger remains blinkered to the possibility of changing his philosophy.
Signing Germany forward Lukas Podolski from Cologne and French striker Olivier Giroud from Montpellier will add depth to his squad, while Spanish winger Santi Carzola is an exciting addition.
But it is hard to imagine, even if those three can adequately replace van Persie's contribution, that Arsenal will do any better than finish in the top four again.
For a club that won the Premier League three times in Wenger's first seven seasons that is a shocking decline.
Wenger appears sanguine about his club's position on the fringes of the title race, saying: "I find the situation very exciting.
"I was very, very worried last year for a long part of the season and very anxious for a long time because we faced such a tough competition.
"Now I am excited because we have learned from last year, we have a new start and a new opportunity.
"Hopefully we can be the surprise of the season because we have stability and stability is important."
Wenger pays lip service to the fans' desire for silverware, but the reality is he knows securing a place in the lucrative Champions League keeps the board happy and allows him to attract enough good players to at least keep Arsenal competitive.
And that appears to be Wenger's only aim now. Trophies seem a bonus rather than a priority.
"We are now 15 years on the trot in the Champions League and I believe that shows that our (business) model works," Wenger said.
"On the other hand we are very ambitious, we want as well to win trophies.
"It's not enough just to be in the Champions League and we are focused on that of course.
"I am confident that we have to be faithful to what we believe is right in football and in the game -- the way we play football." AFP