The circumstances, in Wenger’s eyes, are not exactly parallel. Arsenal is expected to receive midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan in exchange, as well as a fee of $35 million or so; it is not “one-way traffic,” as Wenger has put it.
Sánchez’s relationship with Arsenal, too, is different from van Persie’s. Sánchez, a Chilean, arrived fully formed; the bond is not quite as strong as it was with van Persie, a Dutchman who was signed as a prodigy and blossomed into a star. “We made a long work with him,” Wenger said. “When you get them there, to that level, and then they leave — of course that is the most painful.”
There are sufficient similarities, however, that Wenger could hardly ignore them. Both van Persie and Sánchez had been allowed to enter the final years of their contracts, diminishing Arsenal’s bargaining power and enabling United to sign them for relatively small fees, if not insignificant wages. Both will have departed the Emirates for Old Trafford in search of trophies, of greater glory. And both will have done so having rejected, in some way, the chance to sign for Manchester City.
Like all transfers, Sánchez’s move to Manchester United is about money. At 29, he will become the highest-paid player in the Premier League, earning somewhere in the region of $555,000 a week, an amount Wenger acknowledged Arsenal simply could not match.
It is also, like most transfers, about ambition. Sánchez has grown increasingly — and increasingly visibly — frustrated by Arsenal’s inability to deliver tangible success, beyond broadly biennial victories in the F.A. Cup. Time is no longer on his side. He is not content to scrap around with Liverpool and Tottenham, hoping for a place in the Champions League.
What marks this move out as different is that it is also — more than most transfers — about hierarchy, about establishing a place in the pecking order, about power.
By stripping Arsenal of its best player, again, United proves that it possesses a clout that one of its traditional peers does not; it demonstrates that it sits above Arsenal in the food chain.
More important, at a time when United seems unable to beat Manchester City on the field — Pep Guardiola’s team leads José Mourinho’s by 12 points — securing a victory off it offers a little boost to the ego, a little balm for wounded pride.
United, on the surface, has snatched one of the best players in the Premier League from under City’s nose; it has been able to overcome Sánchez’s desire to work, once more, with Guardiola, his coach for a year at Barcelona; it has been able financially to outmuscle a team backed, as Wenger hinted, by a state. It has seized a “fantastic opportunity,” as Mourinho described it.
Just as signing van Persie in 2012 sent a message, a few weeks after City had finally claimed a first championship in four decades, United’s capturing Sánchez now serves as a little reminder that City’s hegemony — in Manchester, in the Premier League — is not yet complete.
Here too, however, the parallel is imperfect. Van Persie did, indeed, reject City in favor of United, the team he had supported as a child in Holland. The same cannot be said of Sánchez.
This time, it was City who decided not to press ahead with the deal. It had been prepared to pay $83 million for Sánchez last summer, plus his salary demands, but balked at the idea of spending $34 million now.
If that seems curious, consider the circumstances: City was not decisively the best team in England, and perhaps Europe, in the summer. Raheem Sterling had not scored 18 goals in 33 games. Put simply, Sánchez was worth more to City six months ago than he is now. City missed out on van Persie because of its weakness and United’s strength. If anything, the converse is true of Sánchez.
In 2012, United’s paying $34 million for a 29-year-old in the final year of his contract was considered the height of decadence. Ferguson pressed for it, for once, because he did not care about resale value, or the club’s policy of bringing in younger players. He wanted someone who would make an immediate impact, deliver instant success. He wanted to go out at the top. It was a short-term solution to a short-term problem.
Sánchez is a short-term solution, too, but the nature of the problem United faces has changed. City is no longer a rising force; it is the league’s dominant team. No champion has retained its crown in the Premier League since 2009, but so far ahead of its rivals is City currently that it is difficult to see how it will be overhauled in the space of a single season. Adding Sánchez is both a show of force and a sign of, if not desperation, then certainly urgency.
It is impossible to avoid the suspicion that catching and overtaking City will take more than that.
Mourinho’s opportunism — edging his way into a deal that City seemed to have tied up — is to be praised, but it is telling that both United and Arsenal, likely to replace Sánchez by signing both Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, now out of favor at Borussia Dortmund, will end the January transfer window having invested in hugely expensive players available only by chance.
It does not suggest there is much long-term planning in place at either club, any overarching vision (though Arsenal’s recent front office appointments, including a director of football operations, Raul Sanllehi, and a new chief scout, Sven Mislintat, suggest one may be forthcoming in London).
The same can be said of Chelsea, currently scouring England for any forward of reasonable height, and reportedly considering an offer for Peter Crouch, 36. These clubs can all afford to indulge such whims, such is the money swilling around the Premier League. Some or all of these deals may prove noteworthy successes.
But it is hard to imagine they will be enough to claw back Manchester City; certainly not this season, possibly not for some time. It is all very well winning battles, but only if you have some plan in place to finish the war.