A few seasons ago Arsene Wenger was asked if he would ever pay as much as £30million for a footballer. He paused and his brow wrinkled into a furrow almost deep enough to grow a row of potatoes before he replied:
"Yes, but I would need to be really, really, really sure."
And that is the problem at Arsenal. If you are buying a Ferrari FF it will cost, give or take a couple of thousand here or there, £227,000. It will come with a manufacturer's guarantee. It will do what it says in the manual. In football there are no such guarantees. You can buy Fernando Torres for £50million when he is touted as the best striker in the world and barely get a goal out of him for almost two years. Ask Chelsea's Roman Abramovich. You can pay £35million for Andy Carroll and then conclude, actually, he doesn't really fit into the system. Ask Liverpool. Wenger is not prepared to take those gambles even though, according to the Arsenal Supporters Trust, the club's chief executive Ivan Gazidis has told them "significant funds" are available for transfers. Significant is thought to be in the region of £70million. A tidy sum, but that is not going to land a Lionel Messi or a Cristiano Ronaldo.
It is not going to prise away top players from top clubs such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United or Manchester City. And, anyway, Wenger needs four or five players of note to bridge the growing gap between the Gunners and football's really big boys. No, Arsenal have a decision to make. Do they want to support the cautious and prudent approach of Wenger, which has brought them the reputation of being one of the best-run clubs in the world but no trophies for more than seven years? Do they want to call time on Wenger's 16 years at Arsenal? Or do they want to embark on an expensive, if uncertain, quest for silverware? One thing they cannot do is nothing. Arsenal are going backwards. That is obvious.
Over the last few years they have sold their best players - Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas, Gael Clichy, Robin van Persie - to their biggest rivals. They have bought badly. Marouane Chamakh, Olivier Giroud, Gervinho, Sebastien Squillaci, Laurent Koscielny to name but a few of the current squad. They have turned decent players such as Andrey Arshavin, a vibrant force when he arrived, into a diffident shadow of the player he once was. On top of that they might well lose Theo Walcott in the January transfer window. There is nothing wrong with Wenger's ethos to nurture young talent and build teams based on possession football and attacking intent. And when he was identifying and picking up the likes of Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Fabregas, Nicolas Anelka, Freddie Ljungberg and Kolo Toure for next to nothing, all was fine. But the world has changed. The shimmering talents gravitate to the big-money clubs with a real chance of winning major trophies. It is no coincidence the drain from Arsenal has quickened each season over the past seven years. The Arsenal shortcomings are obvious. They need a top-class goalkeeper and a central defender to partner the impressive Thomas Vermaelen.
They need a new Vieira, a midfield enforcer. Utilising Mikel Arteta, an essentially creative player, in that role simply brings square pegs and round holes to mind. They also need the Premier League's most precious commodity, a consistent striker, this season having proved so far that neither Giroud nor Lukas Podolski fulfil that role. Perhaps most of all Wenger needs to open his eyes to the fact that while he wants his team to play like Barcelona, they have to train like Barcelona. The Spanish club's most important daily focus is not attack, but defence. Defence which revolves around pressing and harrying when the opposition have the ball, winning possession high up the pitch.
Messi's most admirable quality is not his ball control, but his phenomenal work ethic. Could the same be said of Giroud or Podolski? And all the while the touchline demeanour of Wenger has become more manic by the month in direct relation to his own frustration and the increasing calls for his head on the phone-ins and forums. Yet surely Wenger has done too much for Arsenal to be jettisoned. Gazidis should not be telling the supporters there is money to spend. He should be telling Wenger to spend it. Not recklessly, but boldly. Of course, there are no guarantees, but Arsenal are 15 points off the pace in the Premier League. Prudence and caution are no longer options for Wenger. By Frank Malley, PA Sport