So that’s it then, it’s official, Robin van Persie is on his way.
It’s a pity it’s ended this way, with van Persie (prompted by his agents, Kees Vos and Darren Dein) having forced his way out of the club by publicly undermining the club of which he was captain. It was clear when he came on as a sub against Cologne at the weekend, when the Arsenal fans in the house gave our erstwhile hero the most tepid of welcomes, that his statement had hit home; his hero status had evaporated.
But for all our frustration that we’ve lost our best player to our principal rival, and the sense of betrayal at the way that move was engineered, despite the time and money invested in a player who has had the worst of injury records and who was an under-achiever for years, we should remember the good times. His final Arsenal stats are more than respectable: in 278 competitive appearances (67 as sub), he scored 132 goals (at a rate of 0.47 goals per game) and provided 62 assists. But it should also be recalled that he has only surpassed 11 league goals in a season twice, last season (30) and the one before that (18). And he started more than half the league games only twice in his eight-year career with us.
He joined from Feyenoord for just £2.75m on 17 May 2004, arriving with a reputation as a trouble maker, his relationship with manager, Bert van Marwijk, having long since deteriorated into a feud. After a shaky disciplinary start with us (remember the silly red card he got, playing against Southampton, which prompted that rarest of things, the public Wenger rebuke), van Persie settled into his new position in the front line and began knocking in goals on a regular basis. And what beauties they often were: volleys, sweeping shots to the far post, little dinks over the oncoming keeper, pinpoint shots to the corner, his repertoire included all of them. Scuffers weren’t much of a feature. His cool head and intelligence were obvious. Yes, he is arrogant, but his talent justifies that arrogance. Thierry Henry said of van Persie: “Without going too far he has everything a footballer would dream to have. He can play anywhere he wants. I am not joking, it is up to him and his desire.” And in January 2006, he signed a new long contract, saying “I am very happy with my team-mates and the boss. In fact a lot of my progress is down to him and his faith in me.” As we can see from his “I want to move” statement from a few weeks ago, six years is a long time in football.
Here’s a link to a compilation of his Arsenal goals (be warned, the vid is 26 minutes long): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AVzsSNDWRig. There are some real beauties (I’m especially fond of the double at the Bridge last season, the equaliser in the 5-2 against Spurs, a howitzer of a free kick against Sunderland a few seasons back, that near post equaliser in the 2-1 win over Barca and the amazing midair volley against Charlton years back). But looking back through that compilation, it’s noticeable that the last two seasons take up almost half the video. And in a sense, that underlines some of the disappointment about van Persie’s career: he’s been with us for years, Wenger took a rough young diamond and polished him into a real gem, but we never really got a full return from him. Injury after injury robbed van Persie and us of continuity until two seasons ago.
And just when we thought we might be able to have him lead us back to the top, he’s off.
There will be plenty of bitterness expressed about his departure for Man United, and his return to the Home of Football on 27 April 2013 is likely to be a feisty affair. Whatever happens between now and then, it is almost impossible to think that van Persie will return with any of the positivity that came with the return in enemy colours of Henry, Vieira, Pires and Fabregas. He forced his move and has joined one of our main rivals. But personally, I won’t have a go at him when he comes back to Ashburton Grove, I might even applaud him. Our bitterness won’t really have a lot to do with his selfish, disloyal statement, that will be long gone by then; the root of the bitterness will be the helplessness we feel at seeing yet another star that Wenger has created turn tail and join a direct rival. But can we really blame van Persie for that? After all, we exploit other the ambitions of other clubs’ players, so why should we criticise a player who sees a chance to guarantee himself a four-year contract worth at least £40m?
Van Persie’s departure underlines a few things: players, now more than ever, and whatever they say about loving the club and the fans, do not have anything close to the feeling for a club that fans do. I’m sure most players look on us as the over-emotional patsies who fund their gargantuan incomes but even those who have some feeling for the clubs they’re with (and I include van Persie in that group) in the end, and quite rationally, follow their self-interest. Even the big one-club players around usually wanted to leave at some point (Adams and Vieira wanted to go to United, Terry wanted to go to City and Gerrard wanted to go to Chelsea). Gary Nevilles are truly rare things. If we were just to accept that players are not and never will be like us, we’d probably feel a lot calmer about things.
Van Persie has also shown us that we will continue to lose quality players for so long as we don’t win silverware; it’s a chicken and egg thing, since if we still had the likes of van Persie, Fabregas, Nasri, Adebayor, Hleb, Clichy, Cole, Flamini, Diarra and Toure, chances are we’d have been top of the pile by now. But let’s face it, the reality of the Abramovich-Abu Dhabi age is that we’re just going to carry on losing these players until somehow we start winning trophies – just as van Persie learnt from Nasri, so the younger players in the squad (Song, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wilshere) will learn from van Persie. This will go on until the cycle is broken. But in the circumstances, for the club to get £22m to £24m for a player with only one year on his contract and who has publicly declared he won’t renew really is great on the business side. I still wish he’d stayed though.
The transfer is, as many have observed, a weird one for Ferguson. Every United fan I know says this deal doesn’t make sense. They only have two full backs, no defensive midfielders, ageing central midfielders, poor goalkeepers and centre backs who are ageing or flawed. The only departments in which they are well served are on the wings and up front. And yet the want to blow more than £60m on a 29-year old striker with only two decent seasons behind him and lots of injuries. No matter how good he is, that is very odd. I’m sure van Persie will be a success next season, but after that? I doubt it. It does make sense for van Persie though, it is the best route to the pot of gold at the end of his career. I don’t mean that in a bitter way, he’s entitled to pursue his career as he sees fit, he just didn’t need to do it quite like this. Perhaps there will be some after-the-fact PR efforts at appeasing us in the coming weeks.
What now? Well, the first thing for players, coach and fans alike is to dig in: the first game can’t come soon enough now, we need to get going and start showing why we believe in this squad, even without van Persie. And it is a very good squad, capable of taking the fight to our rivals – we’ll be written off by the know-nothing pundits of course, we are every year, but with Cazorla, Podolski and Giroud, as well as the quality players we have, we can compete. One advantage of having gone through these experiences so often in the past six years or so is that we are used to it, we know how to cope.
Will there be a signing to make good the gap left by van Persie? I think so, but I very much doubt it will be a star like Fernando Llorente. More likely Poldi will get the starting slot up-front, with Giroud being a tactical option, and a quality squad player like Clint Dempsey being recruited to provide depth. An interesting rumour that hit newsnow tonight (love those rumours!) was that Javier Hernandez might come our way, having been bumped down to fourth choice at Old Trafford. I really can’t see that happening, but if it did, great, the Little Pea is a proper striker.
So long, Robin van Persie. You promised much, delivered some of it, and spoiled it at the end. I hope your move to Manchester is a disaster on the pitch, but that you get every penny you wanted.
Written by 26may1989