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Soccer-Pioneer Wenger set transfer trend at Arsenal

Reuters

By Patrick Johnston

March 20 (Reuters) - While Arsenal fans bemoan Arsene Wenger's failure to buy a new striker for their title bid, they also reminisce with frustration at his early transfer success and ability to turn unheralded players into world class talents.

Wenger scoured the planet for quick, powerful, technically sharp recruits who were keen to improve under his guidance after he arrived in England in September 1996 to join Arsenal and a league still not fully awake to the talents beyond their shores.

After Newcastle United spent a world record 15 million pounds ($24.86 million) on England striker Alan Shearer, Wenger built a superior team of foreign unknowns that matched his required attributes at a fraction of the cost.

His expertise in the French market allowed him to snap up Nicolas Anelka, Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit at half the cost of Shearer.

That trio were instrumental as he signed off the 1997-98 season with a first league and FA Cup double.

He sold Anelka, making more than 20 million pounds profit, and then used less than half the money to buy struggling Juventus winger Thierry Henry, who became the club's record scorer after Wenger spotted his potential as a central striker.

Dutch winger Marc Overmars was bought for seven million pounds and then allowed to join Barcelona a few years later for 25 million after gifted Frenchman Robert Pires was acquired for around a fifth of that amount.

Freddie Ljungberg was plucked from Sweden for three million, Dutch striker Robin van Persie for 2,75 million, French defender Gael Clichy for 250,000, Ivorian Kolo Toure for 150,000.

They all combined to make "boring, boring Arsenal", as they were known under former manager George Graham, one of the most enjoyable and exciting sides to watch.

Cesc Fabregas was among the last of Wenger's truly great recruits when he was snapped up on a free transfer from the Barcelona academy in September 2003.

Yet by the time the Spanish teenager had established himself as a first-team regular three years later, the outlook had begun to change.

Many fans point to the departure of Wenger's trusted boardroom lieutenant David Dein in 2007 for the club's subsequent transfer woes but the Frenchman was hamstrung elsewhere.

Wenger's transfer policy radically changed after the club moved into their new Emirates Stadium home in 2006 at a cost of 390 million pounds.

"I went for a challenge that I knew would be difficult because we had to fight with clubs who lose 150 million pounds per year when we had to make 30 million per year," Wenger said of the austerity period brought about by the new stadium.

"If I ask you tomorrow to race with Usain Bolt and win the race, you will realise quickly it is difficult."

Wenger's ability to buy cheap and sell high during his early trophy-laden days in north London made it a challenge he and the board thought was achievable.

But when Fabregas eventually returned to Barcelona in August 2011, Wenger was at his lowest ebb.

He struggled to find quality recruits in a market over which he used to enjoy a free reign, but now found crowded with buyers flush with the cash of foreign owners and blockbuster television deals.

Newcastle mimicked his skills in France by picking up numerous Ligue 1 players, signing Yohan Cabaye before Fabregas' departure, with the north east club then rebuffing Wenger's advances for the player two years later.

Swansea City had begun taking cut price players from Spain, Wigan Athletic those from South America, German clubs snapped up the best young players from Japan and South Korea, while Premier League rivals such as Chelsea and Manchester United priced Wenger out of other deals time and again.

The Frenchman's original transfer blueprint had long been forgotten, and the policy of only offering one-year contracts to players in their 30s that had resulted in the premature exit of Pires had been broken for expensive defensive flop Sebastian Squillaci in August 2010.

When Samir Nasri followed Fabregas through the exit door, Wenger punted on two of the worst signings of his Arsenal tenure in Andre Santos and Park Chu-young.

The pair followed Denilson, Andrei Arshavin, Marouane Chamakh, Gervinho and Mikael Silvestre as players who were signed despite falling short of Wenger's early requirements of youth, pace and skill.

When Vieira was sold to Juventus in 2005, Wenger told fans to "trust us and support us". By late 2011, many had turned.

His previous success allowed the determined Frenchman to battle on and somehow he maintained the club's position in the lucrative Champions League with inferior players as his rivals backed by billionaire owners kicked on.

He signed Germany playmaker Mesut Ozil for a club record 42.5 million pounds in August, and declared the austerity era over, eyeing a new period of success for the 13-times English champions who are currently challenging for an unlikely double.

A contract extension is expected and the signing of a new striker in the same 'galactico' transfer mould of Ozil might just reassure fans that once again Arsene knows best.

($1 = 0.6034 British Pounds) (Reporting by Patrick Johnston; editing by Toby Davis)

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