A bad case of deja vu for Arsenal as the latest round of stars depart.
The imminent departures of Cesc Fábregas and Samir Nasri are an inevitable consequence of Arsenal's refusal to raise wages
Cesc Fábregas expects to be allowed to return to Barcelona this summer after Arsenal refused a bid last year.
Robin van Persie was digesting the imminent prospect of two influential midfielders departing the Emirates Stadium when his thoughts, inevitably, focused in on the crux. "Arsenal have a policy where they will not go over a specific amount of money when agreeing a salary of a player," the Dutchman said. "They won't pay enormous amounts of money. I think they should go to a higher level of salary. If you are 27 or 28 I can understand that you would make the decision to go elsewhere if you can earn three or four times as much. If that sort of money was also paid at Arsenal I'm sure that person would stay."
That assessment was delivered towards the end of May 2008, with Mathieu Flamini en route to Milan under the Bosman ruling and Alexander Hleb attracting persistent interest from Barcelona. The fear was of an exodus of senior talent, though Arsène Wenger had already earmarked a compatriot by the name of Samir Nasri, capped eight times by France at the time, as an eight-figure signing to buck the trend.
Fast forward three years and history is repeating itself: now the flight involves Cesc Fábregas to his beloved Barcelona, Gaël Clichy to a money-flushed Manchester City and, most pertinently of all, Nasri to one of a queue of suitors. The Frenchman has been offered £90,000 a week, flush up against the wage ceiling at the Emirates, but will earn more elsewhere: the salary structure remains this club's self-imposed handicap.
The pragmatist in Wenger will consider the coming weeks just another challenge to be confronted. His players returned fleetingly to London Colney on Monday for medical assessments and tests ahead of the start of pre-season training on Tuesday, but there will be lengthier meetings to come with those seeking a move before his squad depart on what will be, for this club, a ground-breaking commercially driven tour to the far east. Clichy passed a medical at City on Monday and was no longer in Wenger's thinking, but Fábregas will want to know that his return to the Camp Nou is to be realised this time around. The manager will have anticipated, albeit reluctantly, that the Spaniard's time at the club was finally drawing to a close, but Nasri's potential departure is an unpleasant shock.
Wenger will speak to the 24-year-old wanting to hear confirmation that he is rejecting the five-year deal on offer. Nasri is into the final 12 months of his contract and the club, stung by Flamini's departure to Milan, will not want to lose him for nothing. Yet, as Van Persie stated so honestly three years ago, Arsenal cannot be shocked if a player chooses to be better rewarded financially with a rival.
Some lessons have not been learned. There is reason to admire Arsenal's desire to keep salaries in check, to pursue the "self-sustaining model" so favoured by their new principal owner, Stan Kroenke, and maintain wages at around 50% of turnover. But, while that almost sets them apart, it also renders them horribly uncompetitive. Back in 2008, Manchester City were not the force they are now. Even Tottenham Hotspur hardly felt like credible regular challengers for the top four. These days, Arsenal are the top flight's fifth-highest payers.
There are funds there for Wenger to recruit – £30m went unspent last season, and there will be significant money brought in if Fábregas and Nicklas Bendtner are sold – and to pay the fees this club's supporters so crave as a show of ambition. The manager could spend £20m on Juan Mata from Valencia, for instance. But would Arsenal be able to offer wages to match those on offer elsewhere should they be rivalled for a target's services?
Nasri could earn up to £150,000 a week with either Manchester club or, potentially, at Chelsea. Footballers are not always swayed by the basic finances on offer but it would be naïve to suppose that the little details in cementing such transfers are anything but the considerable sums proposed.
Furthermore, so committed have Arsenal been to sticking with their wage structure, all thoughts of ripping it up and starting again are surely now unthinkable. Offer Nasri even £120,000 a week to stay and, within minutes, others would be demanding their own pay hikes. Van Persie and Theo Walcott have two years to run on their deals. Jack Wilshere, already a fixture in the England team, is on around £40,000 a week and could argue that, so talismanic would he become to his club side once Fábregas moves on, he deserves considerably more.
Nasri, of course, has claimed that his motivation remains trophies rather than money. Back in 2008, when Van Persie spoke, Arsenal had endured only three years without silverware. That has since become a six-year drought to fuel the dissatisfaction among the support. Season ticket prices have risen by 6.5% this year, with the club well aware that a coherent challenge is essential to keep the Emirates Stadium full and maintain the vital match-day revenue streams generated by their plush arena. Wenger must still put out a team to compete with United, Chelsea and City at the top, as well as stave off the re-emergence of Spurs and Liverpool at his back. Yet, given the reluctance to abandon the wage structure in place, the players to come in will inevitably have to be similar to those so often favoured by the manager: young and hungry, talented but eager to improve, and not asking for the world.
The first to arrive, the £11m Ivory Coast forward Gervinho from Lille, falls neatly into that category. Ricardo Alvarez, sought for a similar fee from Vélez Sársfield, may eventually be the one to fill the central creative role vacated by Fábregas and, presumably, about to be passed up by Nasri.
There is a paradox that Andrey Arshavin, who was expected to leave this summer, could yet find himself feeling pivotal to this team. When one considers that the central defensive options primarily under consideration are understood to be Gary Cahill (who finished 14th with Bolton Wanderers last season), Christopher Samba (15th with Blackburn Rovers) or Everton's veteran Sylvain Distin, and that no replacement left-back may be recruited given Kieran Gibbs's availability and Thomas Vermaelen's ability to fill in wide, then it does not feel as if the management is inclined to shift its outlook just yet.
Yet these are the players who must maintain Arsenal's presence as contenders. Wenger's philosophy is entrenched and so, potentially, should be an acceptance at the Emirates Stadium that, once a rival comes knocking for one of the club's players, there is no resisting if a decision boils down to basic finances.
The Nasri situation is likely to be revisited in the years to come. Arsenal competed up to a point on the pitch last season. They can compete up to a point in the market, too. Whether that satisfies the masses is very much open to question.