By Oliver Platt
There was a time when leaving Arsenal usually meant the beginning of the end for a player. As the 'Invincibles' of 2003-04 aged, Arsene Wenger wisely chose to cash in on his stars while they still held value and in their place came the fresh faces of a new generation to take the Gunners forward.
Thierry Henry hoarded medals after joining Barcelona but was never in the Uefa Team of the Year during his time in Catalonia, an accolade he had earned five times with Arsenal. Injuries troubled Patrick Vieira at Juventus and Inter. Robert Pires enjoyed a successful spell with Villarreal, but never threatened to repeat the brilliant goalscoring heights he had achieved in north London.
The way that has changed in recent years is a problem for Arsenal and stopping it is the single biggest challenge Arsene Wenger faces in preserving his legacy as not only the most successful manager in the club's history but as one of English football's most iconic and brilliant coaches.
It began with Ashley Cole and the lure of Europe's new mega-rich elite has continued to trouble Wenger, with Cesc Fabregas attracted by the prospect of returning home to one of the greatest clubs in history and Samir Nasri, Gael Clichy and Robin van Persie all desperate to win league titles that have looked some way out of Arsenal's reach.
Through it all, Wenger has stuck to his principles and his belief that a football club should not be detached from society as a whole. The current levels of spending, he believes, are not sustainable and when that situation is regulated and rectified, Arsenal will rise again.
"Financial Fair Play will come through because big clubs who have been spending a lot are worrying now," Wenger said recently. "They ignored it until now, but finally we see that they are getting concerned.
"We are run in a very responsible way. We make a profit every year and I think that's where nearly everybody is struggling in Europe. We find ourselves in the situation of Germany in Europe.
"I'm convinced that society will force football to become more reasonable. The standard of living is dropping, and you cannot imagine that will happen in society while football continues to push up with inflation. That can't work together."
|IN ARSENE WE TRUST
| WENGER'S ROLL OF HONOUR
The signs on the pitch, too, are encouraging. Concerns quickly arose when, without Van Persie, Arsenal failed to score in their first two matches but their counter-attacking potential was there for all to see when Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla helped them to a 2-0 victory over Liverpool. Still, even in this world of outlandish spending, Wenger continues to find value in the market.
His ability to spot and develop young players also remains unmatched. Injury is the only thing that looks like stopping Abou Diaby from ensuring that the disappointment of losing Alex Song to Barcelona is quickly forgotten, while Jack Wilshere – finally – seems to be edging closer to a return. Much has been made, meanwhile, of the 'Steve Bould effect' on the Arsenal defence and it is true that they look a more organised and, importantly, more physical team this season, which their flawless defensive record has so far reflected.
There may be opportunity, too, for Wenger to stretch the purse strings further in the coming years, although there is no doubt that he will remain faithful to his doctrine of sustainability. In his spirited backing of the manager Ivan Gazidis claimed that the club would receive a significant boost to its coffers when they re-negotiate commercial contracts that were agreed in 2004 in two years' time.
"In terms of the financial impact, it will be as significant a step forward as the stadium was in 2005," Gazidis told the Telegraph. "It does kick us into the top five clubs in the world with separation from the rest. The overall journey that the club embarked on was to make it one of the leading clubs in the world and to do it in a way that would be sustainable."
"I am an Arsenal man," Wenger said when discussing a possible new contract. "I think I have always shown that. I have to consider if I do well or not. If I don't do well, I have to consider my future."
It has been a difficult few years for the Arsenal man but his unshakeable belief in his own principles might just be about to pay off. Now, more than ever, Arsene Wenger is the man for the job.
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