North London Derby: Arsène Wenger won't confront reality of today's prices
Arsenal manager says his squad is stronger than Tottenham's
Asked simply whether he still believed that his squad was as strong as that of Tottenham Hotspur, Arsène Wenger sought to add the caveat that he did not spend his time comparing the relative strengths of the two clubs. But his answer was to the point nonetheless: yes, he did believe his squad was better.
Sunday will be Wenger's 41st north London derby, and he has won 18 so far, a record which caused a flicker of a smile when he was reminded of it. Everyone knows that under his management, Arsenal have never finished below Tottenham in the Premier League and last season's fightback that ended with Wenger's team finishing fourth began after defeat at White Hart Lane on 3 March.
Spurs have tried hard to recapture the Champions League place that they have earned just once in their recent history, and this summer they have gone for broke. Selling Gareth Bale in exchange for buying seven new players, including midfielder Christian Eriksen signing for €13.5m (£11.5m) from Ajax, has been the most aggressive play of any Premier League team.
Meanwhile, Arsenal have behaved as if no one is good enough for them, raising the possibility that by Monday afternoon pretty much anyone available will be good enough.
Asked about the possibility of signing the Real Madrid three of Karim Benzema, Mesut Ozil and Angel di Maria, Wenger said: "I don't know, it's not like a supermarket where if you buy two you get one free."
All good fun, although you do wonder if he is taking the whole thing seriously. When he suggested that Spurs might have bought too many players – "you unbalance a little bit the stability of your squad" – it was as if he had gone beyond parody. But that is how Wenger is approaching the last three days of the window, dismissive of the prices being quoted him and adamant that he will not "panic buy".
"If someone can find players who can strengthen our team, we will do it. But we have 20 people working on that, and if we can't find them, we can't do anything." That was Wenger after the 8-2 defeat to Manchester United at Old Trafford, two years and two days ago, that precipitated the signing of Mikel Arteta, Per Mertesacker, Andre Santos and Park Chu-young in the last two days of the window.
"If we can add players who can integrate that style of play we will do it. We will work hard on that and if we can't do it, we will not do anything stupid for the sake of saying we have done something. We do what makes sense, not what's simple." That was Wenger, three days from the end of a transfer window in which he has signed just the free agents Yaya Sanogo and Mathieu Flamini.
In 2011, Wenger had already committed around £20m on the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gervinho before he embarked on his final round of signings after that sobering defeat to United. This time he has spent even less by the equivalent stage, in spite of all the promises from the club's chief executive, Ivan Gazidis, and, as ever, it is Wenger's obsession with value rather than quality of player that carries all before it.
If it is not housing market/transfer market analogies that are playing on Wenger's mind, it is the motives of certain billionaires spending money for fun at clubs with smaller stadiums than the Emirates. "You could be in the position to buy a house that is worth £2m but if you like it and you have £4m, you can buy it for £4m," he said. "But that doesn't mean you can re-sell it for £4m, just that you have £4m and you can buy it. It is exactly the same with players. Monaco buy [Radamel] Falcao aged 27 for £60m. They have a 17,000-capacity stadium, they know it doesn't make sense but the guy who owns the club has the money so he decides to buy him.
"There is no transfer market any more where you can say, OK, this player is a right-back, a left-back or whatever. It just depends on the financial potential of the buyer. We have financial potential – I wouldn't deny that. But we will decide still to pay the right price."
The right price. It is a concept that no longer exists in football, although Wenger is defiantly clinging on to the dream. The market is absurd, but it is the market nonetheless and once again Arsenal, for all their bravado, have so far refused to engage.
Spurs, who confirmed the signing of Erik Lamela from Roma, may simply be reinvesting the money they will earn for Bale but they have embraced one truth: a club has to be prepared to spend to sign sought-after players.
It is not a reality that Wenger wants to confront. Not yet anyway. Asked about the prospective £86m fee Real Madrid will pay for Bale, he replied: "They are very generous." When he found himself pushed on the quality of Spurs' signings he simply decided to change the argument.
"There is a big debate in England at the moment that the Premier League is an obstacle for the national team. I was accused many times of that [signing non-English players] – but now I have many players who play for the England side. And you push me to buy foreign players? That cannot be right somewhere because we have plenty who can play for England. We have Carl Jenkinson, Kieran Gibbs, Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere."
Two years ago it required defeat on an industrial scale to convince Wenger to sign more players, and not all those signings were successful.
Today he was talking about the possibility of Nicklas Bendtner coming back into the squad, two days before a game against the ambitiously rebuilt Spurs. Will he sign anyone before Monday? Does he want to? Could he actually be happy with what he has?
"Look, if you had looked at Chelsea's squad at the start of last year, would you have said they had a squad to fight for the Premier League?" he asked, rhetorically. "Yes? They finished two points ahead of us and it was decided in the last game.
"So I let people talk and I try to analyse the quality of the game we have. I just can say one thing: in the last six months we have lost one game."
Sam Wallace's north London XI
It's the traditional "best of both sides" north London derby team. The basic rule is that it includes non-injured players only. The tough calls? Koscielny over Dawson, especially given how badly the Arsenal man has started the season, but I think the Frenchman edges it. Then there is Soldado or Giroud. Both have scored goals this season but in the long-term Soldado looks the better bet. Otherwise why would Wenger have tried to sign a new striker?
The team in full Lloris; Walker, Vertonghen, Koscielny, Rose; Paulinho, Wilshere, Cazorla, Dembele, Walcott, Soldado
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