By Richard Jolly
Frank Lampard was very much an integral part of the Chelsea team when Arsene Wenger coined one of his most famous phrases to describe events at Stamford Bridge. “Financial doping,” he called it. As far back as 2009, he argued Manchester City were guilty of the same sin, of distorting sport with bottomless pits of money.
This week, without using the same phrase, he wondered publicly if City were attempting the same crime using underhand methods and Lampard. The Arsenal manager questioned the loan deal that took the 36-year-old to the Etihad Stadium, asking who is paying his wages – City say they are – and whether it is fair that they can use their global family of clubs to bolster their squad. “If you look at a map, the shortest way from Chelsea to Manchester City is not to fly to New York first,” he added, mischievously if accurately, on Thursday.
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And money is the constant in any discussion involving the FA Cup winner Wenger and the Premier League champions. As a rivalry is renewed in the Community Shield, it is with an old ally on the other side. Bacary Sagna won one trophy in seven seasons as an Arsenal player. He could equal that total in one game in City colours.
Sagna is the first player to swap the Emirates for the Etihad Stadium on a free transfer. He has done so with a hefty pay rise - Wenger has been left counting the cost. Having lost a right-back without receiving a fee, he has spent €35 million on two others, Mathieu Debuchy and Calum Chambers.
Normally, however, Wenger is in the black. Among other things, he is the best businessman to manage in the Premier League. He banked €89m from City for the sale of four players. Despite his misgivings about the source of their wealth, it doesn’t make him a hypocrite. Instead, he is simply a savvy seller. Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri only had a year left on their Arsenal contracts when he accepted City’s offers. Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure, who cost a combined €50m, were overpriced and Arsenal had seen the best of them. The Togolese striker’s City career never recovered after he stamped on Robin van Persie in his first reunion with his former club.
Such deals helped Wenger live within his means. It remains one of the great feats of Premier League management that he financed the building of a new stadium while finishing in the top four every season. It is tempting to wonder how much more silverware he would have secured but for the emergence of ambitious clubs with very different business models.
Wenger’s reign divides into two halves, before and after billionaires funded title challenges elsewhere. Since his Invincibles were displaced as champions by Jose Mourinho’s first Chelsea team, Arsenal have not won the league.
They went nine years without any honour until the drought was ended by a prime example of 'Wengernomics'. Aaron Ramsey was recruited as a teenager. He was worth many times his €6.25m fee even before his FA Cup final winner against Hull. He is not an example of buying success, but of bringing in and developing potential.
This year, City are restricted to a €61m net spend after failing Uefa’s Financial Fair Play test. They have a free transfer (Sagna) and a loan (Lampard) among their newcomers. In contrast, Arsenal have been more extravagant. Wenger’s outlay for the summer is a club record €82.5m and could get bigger. He has already signed a superstar, Alexis Sanchez. Go back a few years and the Etihad Stadium was a likelier destination for players of the Chilean’s calibre. Arsenal didn’t buy the finished article then.
They can afford to now. Wenger isn’t spending his owners’ millions, but funds Arsenal have generated through gate receipts, prize money, television revenue, merchandising and commercial and sponsorship deals. But City are adamant that, after years of artificial injections of finances, that they will balance the books. Chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak believes they will break even this year.
As Arsenal are back in contention for major honours and City are becoming more fiscally responsible, they have growing similarities. But they have taken radically different routes and it isn’t just Wenger who believes his is the purer path.