LONDON (AFP) - Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger believes that his club have lost the vulnerability that once made their players easy prey for Sunday's Community Shield opponents Manchester City.
Bacary Sagna became the third player to join City from Arsenal in recent seasons when he swapped the Emirates Stadium for the Etihad Stadium in June, but Wenger's side are now operating on something approaching an equal footing in the transfer market.
Having signed Mesut Ozil in a club-record deal a year ago, Arsenal bought Alexis Sanchez from Barcelona in a move reportedly worth around £30 million ($50.5 million, 37.8 million euros) last month, and Wenger feels they can no longer be considered the poor relations among the Premier League's leading sides.
"It looks like we are a bit closer," he told journalists at the Emirates on Thursday.
"We are less vulnerable, that's for sure. Because in the last two years we bought Ozil and Sanchez. Five years ago we would have lost Ozil and Sanchez!" Wenger saw Sagna's fellow France internationals Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy leave Arsenal for City in 2011, while Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie also made high-profile exits around the same time.
While Wenger admitted that it was painful to see his best players leave, he said that the identity of the buying club made no difference.
"What is tiring is to lose the players. To Manchester City or to somebody else, for me it is the same," he said.
But Wenger did admit that he was disappointed by Sagna's decision to leave the club after seven years in north London.
Asked why the 31-year-old former Auxerre player had elected to seek pastures new, Wenger replied: "You should ask him that question. I made him a proposal to stay for three years, and he chose City.
"Had he chosen that a long time ago? Maybe. Has he made an early decision? Maybe. It looks to me like he has signed (for City) a long time before, or agreed, because he couldn't sign."
- 'Jekyll and Hyde' -
Wenger rejected suggestions, however, that City had 'bullied' Arsenal into acquiring their best players.
"What you call 'bullying', I don't call that bullying," he said.
"You pay the price. Usually the transfer is an agreement between three parties and for years we were not in a position where we could say 'no'. Like Southampton this season.
"At the end of the day, the players finish at the richest clubs. Man United did that as well for years. But they just had superior financial power. They still have." Arsenal crashed to a 6-3 defeat at City last season and also fell to heavy losses at Liverpool (5-1) and Chelsea (6-0).
Wenger said that there mitigating factors behind the loss at the Etihad - such as fatigue after a mid-week trip to Naples in the Champions League - but he admitted that his side's record against their fellow title contenders was a worry.
Asked if he was shocked by Arsenal's record against the other heavyweights in the Premier League, Wenger replied: "Concerned. Shocked by the number of goals we conceded.
"Because we had Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde defensively. We had 18 clean sheets, but when we didn't have a clean sheet, we really let them score.
"I think it was a loss of confidence. Overall we looked quite sound defensively. We have a good opportunity to improve that."