Arsene Wenger (extreme right) during Arsenal's first team training session on Thursday. Photo: AFP
Arsenal's "vulnerability" has ended, Arsene Wenger promises as his team warm up to face the Premier League champions in Sunday's Community Shield. No longer he says will the Gunners be a nursery for richer clubs or weeds in the transfer market.
Manchester City, who caned Wenger's men 6-3 last season, have added Bacary Sagna to the list of players seized from Arsenal but Wenger insists the exodus is over. He also sees the contradiction in his club playing the victim when Arsenal have taken Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and now Calum Chambers from Southampton.
"We are less vulnerable for sure," Wenger says, reflecting on a phase in which he lost Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Adebayor, Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri to City. "In the last two years we have bought [Mesut] Ozil and [Alexis] Sanchez. Five years ago we would have lost Ozil and Sanchez."
If City have capitalised on Arsenal's developmental work Wenger is no longer asking for sympathy. "Look, Southampton could say that today," he says. "The team they had last year, if they had Chamberlain, Walcott and Gareth Bale, we see the quality of the work they have done. They could say they are in a position today that we were in years before with the other clubs who had superior financial power."
Wenger's cheeriness reflects the catharsis of the 2014 FA Cup final win and the sense that the Emirates construction bill is no longer restricting first-team finance. Seasoned Arsenal watchers think he still needs an A-list deep midfielder, another striker and a centre-half to replace Thomas Vermaelen, who looks sure to leave.
The mood, though, is noticeably brighter as Sanchez works on his English. "We're lots [he meant lost]," the club's new Chilean striker said as he marched through the Arsenal press room looking for the exit. There are more 'ins' than 'outs' these days, even if Sagna's departure still needles Wenger. "Always, because he came here unknown and he made his career and became a French international," he said.
"I respect Sagna because until the last day of his contract he was super professional. After, OK, he decided to go somewhere else, but he was ready to die on the football pitch to fulfil his contract and I respect that. I made him a proposal to stay for three years and he chose City. Had he chosen that a long time ago? Maybe. Has he made an early decision? Maybe. It looks to me like he agreed it a long time before."
The identity of Sunday's opponents was bound to stir memories of last season's crushing defeats at City, Liverpool and Chelsea, but Wenger places the Manchester result in a separate category. He says the damage was "honestly not so much because we finished with 10 men and when we looked at the game again we had six or seven chances to score. I took a gamble at 10 against 11 like I always do to have a chance to come back, but when you look at the chances we missed, that was not damaging.
"For us what was damaging was the two games at Liverpool and at Chelsea. With City we came home and felt that we played Wednesday night in Naples and then Saturday morning at Man City and we had plenty of chances. We were not outplayed, we lost the game in the last 20 minutes really."
Recalling the Liverpool (5-1) and Chelsea (6-0) games he says: "I was concerned. I was concerned and shocked by the number of goals we conceded. Of course we were Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde defensively. We had 18 clean sheets but when we did not keep a clean sheet we let them score. I think it was confidence. But overall we were quite sound defensively. We have a good opportunity to improve that."
Arsenal's World Cup-winning players, Ozil, Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski, return on Monday but will not be considered for the opening Premier League game against Crystal Palace. "The final was July 13. They lost a few days for celebrations," Wenger said. "They played seven games at the World Cup plus a whole English season. You can bring them back quickly and lose them in October. Or bring them back more slowly."
Wenger claimed to have no interest in another German weltmeister, Sami Khedira: "We were never close to signing him because Jack [Wilshere] was just back fit and we have quite a few box to box players." Walcott, on the other hand, will be "back in the group on Aug 31. He's doing well but is not completely ready."
Another Southampton old boy, Chambers, a right-back at Southampton, is spoken of as a possible defensive midfielder.
When Wenger's mind turns to the title race he sees no certainties: "I think today even the most intelligent football people cannot predict who will win the Premier League. That makes it interesting. If a team had won by 10 or 15 points we would say yes. But if we analyse, Chelsea were so close, Liverpool were so close. We were over 100 days top of the league. Man United were not there but will come back." You can tell he fancies Arsenal's chances too.