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Jul 25, 2014

Arsenal's focus now on the present

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger speaks on his squad's consistency over the past decade.

Toiling away on the wing in Turin, Thierry Henry was saved by Arsene Wenger in 1999 and turned into one of the greatest players of his generation. Juventus clearly did not see the raw talent the Frenchman possessed, but the Arsenal boss did. In fact, Wenger made a habit of plucking players out of obscurity and turning them into world-beaters.

Wenger's vision was key in the Henry transformation that eventually saw him net 174 goals in 254 games to become the club's record scorer -- the Gunners' boss claiming upon his arrival that "I would like to move him into the centre either as the second striker or the main target man" -- but that kind of signing was something the manager made his name from in his formative years in English football. Patrick Vieira at 3.5 million pounds was plucked from AC Milan and turned into one of the best midfielders in the game; Nicolas Anelka's pace had seen him arrive for just 500,000 pounds from Paris St-Germain before he moved on for a 23 million pound profit to Real Madrid and made way for Henry.

At 11 million pounds, Henry's signing was something of a gamble. 15 years on, what is clear currently is that Wenger does not have look for players who need work anymore. He can target the finished product with money seemingly not an issue.

The 40 million euro signing of Alexis Sanchez this summer was hailed by Henry on Twitter, and no doubt he would have had similar feelings about the 50 million euros spent on Mesut Ozil in 2013 had he been on the social network back then. For years Arsenal have struggled to attract these kinds of players at these kinds of fees so, as Henry suggested, the capture of truly world-class individuals does feel something worthy of congratulations now.

But it's not a familiar feeling for Arsenal fans. After so many years of prudency, of building from within, the change in philosophy is somewhat alien. The replacement of Bacary Sagna (who left on a free transfer to join Manchester City this summer) is a great example of how Wenger now views his squad. A few years back, when money was tighter and the focus was more on the future, the manager may well have taken a gamble on Toulouse defender Serge Aurier -- now at big-spending PSG. At 21, he has plenty of time to develop and enjoyed a fine World Cup with Ivory Coast, while also nailing his colours to the mast in no uncertain terms in many glowing tributes about the London club and his love for the Premier League.

However, Wenger chose the 28-year-old (soon to be 29) Mathieu Debuchy -- at a cost of 12 million pounds from Newcastle -- to step in instead; a player with Premier League and international experience who is at the required level already and will need very little moulding for the future.

With Wenger's insistence on offering any player over the age of 30 a one-year contract, Debuchy has only a few years to impress at the Emirates. Aurier would have offered long-term solution but Carl Jenkinson will certainly learn more from the French international than the Ivorian and, rather than having to build for another time, Arsenal are keen to ensure that they have a strong squad now -- not in five years' time.

With money now seemingly no object, the focus is now on the present and not the future; 2014 is a special year for the Gunners. The financial burden of the Emirates Stadium has been lifted somewhat under a new series of commercial deals that have allowed the club to maximise their potential. The Puma kit deal alone -- at a cool 150 million pounds over five years -- can pay for a new signing of between 22 and 26 million each year and the club are flush with cash at a time when everyone around them is looking to mind the pennies.

A new wave of financial incentives have set the club on new financial footing. Granted, it is never going to be the same as having a billionaire in your corner, but in the brave new world of Financial Fair Play you will struggle to find a club as well run as Arsenal behind the scenes.

Indeed as Ivan Gazidis, the chief executive, insisted at a news conference at the turn of year: "I think it is a validation of the things we are doing right. Our club has walked an independent path, standing on our own two feet, and thinking long term about that progression."

The rewards are certainly beginning to be seen. The arrival of world-class players like Ozil and Sanchez puts the Gunners on a similar footing to their rivals this year and, with a good balance of experience and youth, the side will be well placed to mount a title challenge.

As the global reach of football has made signing unknown players and turning them into superstars harder and harder, Wenger's newfound riches have come at the perfect time. Now, he has the stability to build a side of established players ready to compete in the present, all the while looking for the next Henry behind the scenes.