by Matthew Wade
Now Robin van Persie has been banished to Turkey, is it time to reassess his time at Arsenal and his move to Manchester United?
Just three years after forcing a move to Manchester United, Robin van Persie has been discarded, shunted unceremoniously to the comparative backwater of Turkish football.
In the end, he got what he wanted most in his first season in Manchester, but from then on the decline in his form and his status has been rapid and seemingly terminal.
For many Gooners, this turn of events has been viewed as a cause for celebration, the comeuppance of a traitor, as it were.
But is this opinion fair? And even if it is, is it right to rejoice?
Reading some of his more recent comments about his time in England, it’s clear that he now recognises what he had in North London and perhaps could have cherished rather more in than he did in the summer of 2012.
“I’m still talking to Arsene regularly now. He is a world class coach and manager and above all, a classy man. “ – RvP
Make no bones about it, he signed for Manchester United for one simple reason. Alex Ferguson. Sure, the money didn’t hurt, and he was obviously remunerated in accordance with the stick he knew he’d get for making the move, but he would have been startlingly well paid wherever he ended up.
As is par for the course, following their initial contact, Man U had been tapping him up for months before the move happened, and for a player at the height of their powers (and the height of their frustration levels), the attentions of the most successful club manager of all time must be hard to resist.
Particularly when, by this stage, van Persie was clearly unhappy with the outcome of whatever conversation took place with Arsene Wenger at the end of the 2011/12 season. There are suggestions that the player over-stepped the mark with regards to his desire to influence transfer policy, but it’s equally likely that he was told the club wasn’t going to invest heavily until the new shirt sponsor deal with Emirates (and later the shirt manufacturer deal with Puma) came through. Of course, by this stage, he had probably already been told that Man United wanted to make him their main man, and would pay him accordingly, so the playing field had already shifted. It was no longer a question of should I stay or go, but rather why shouldn’t I go to Manchester United?
So desperate was the ‘little boy inside’ to have a better shot at winning the league and get some Fergie love, that he (or his agent?) issued THAT public statement on his website, destroying his relationship with the Arsenal fans for evermore. So he duly moved up the M6, with Wenger’s wistful words to Ferguson (as reported by the Scot in his autobiography) following him:
“You don’t realise what a good player you’re getting.”
The great irony of course, is that despite the first season vindication his forcing a path to Manchester, from almost exactly that point onwards, Arsenal’s transfer strategy has gone in a direction that probably would have suited the Dutchman. There were even rumours that he was more open to staying in London once it became clear that Santi Cazorla’s arrival was imminent, but the damage had already been done.
The now infamous public statement was a calculated action to make his position at the club untenable, undermining team-mates, manager and the board, despite its conciliatory tone towards the fans. It helped to achieve a short term goal, but it would be interesting to find out what Robin and his family (essentially made to look stupid when moved to Utd) think of it in retrospect.
It is perfectly possible for a player to leave for a rival without burning too many bridges, with the door always ajar for a return. Kolo Toure and Gael Clichy still get great receptions when they return, and even Cesc received as much love as loathing on his return in Chelsea blue, despite all the rumours surrounding his conduct immediately before his departure. Sol managed to be welcomed back despite a mid-match breakdown, lying about his next destination to get a free transfer, and slowly exhibiting signs of the embarrassing mentalist that he has become since retirement, and we all liked seeing Flamster again despite him buggering off to Milan on a free just after we sold all his rivals in the squad. And all the Invincibles that returned with new clubs were cheered from the rafters.
Of course, the blow to fans will always be greater and harder to overcome when a star player leaves for a rival, but van Persie chose to slam the door behind him on the way out. Were he a less intelligent individual I could buy the idea that he (though not the agent) might have believed that explaining his reasons to the fans might be the right thing to do, but he’s nobody’s fool. There are ways to leave a football club, and it takes more than just very self-consciously non-celebrating once when scoring, to make up for the disappointment of those who had idolised him. No-one enjoys being the jilted lover, and it’s even harder when your ex leaves you for someone you intensely dislike and are in direct competition with, but sending an email to everyone on your contact list explaining why when you are still sharing a flat is a bit much. He knew the game he was playing:
“If you’re Arsenal captain and top scorer and move to United, fans will be upset. I wanted to win the Premier League” – RvP
We all know what happened next. United won the league, almost exclusively due to Van Persie’s goals. Without him, they would have in all likelihood finished behind Arsenal, even with the struggles of Giroud and Podolski (who had clearly been bought to play WITH RvP) and their adjustment to English football.
But then for the ‘hero’ of this piece, karma struck. Ferguson, knowing every last drop was squeezed from his squad, retired out of the blue, and suddenly for Robin the primary reason for doing the dirty on Arsenal was no longer there. The new king of Old Trafford had one year on his throne before a combination of Moyes, injuries and a declining and aging squad, suddenly had his royal position under threat. It’s pretty clear that he was suddenly the one jilted, and left with a rather worse situation than before. His motivation visibly ebbed away.
And to make matters worse for him, his old club, flush with the long awaited cash influx, bought Mesut Ozil, along with generally strengthening the squad. He suddenly found himself having to do the donkey work up front ahead of a turgid midfield, and the one player who could have done more for his game than almost any other had turned up at the old place.
Another year passes, and despite the arrival of another triple initialed Dutchman, things get worse rather than better. United barely make the top four, largely playing awful football, and Robin is marginalised, as Arsenal retain the FA Cup and establish a tactical set up that make them look like credible title challengers once more. The final insult comes when van Persie is forced to train alone in full view of all his team-mates. The message is clear…you’re not worth the money we are paying you, and we will humiliate you until you leave.
“Fighting to get back in the team wasn’t given to me as an option. I know Louis as a national team coach and now I get to know him as a club coach. And there is a difference“ – RvP on LvG
Despite being the spearhead and hero in Manchester red in their 2012/13 title triumph, he has since found out why all ex players speak so highly about Arsenal (well…apart from Stewart Robson), and agree it was the best club they played for. As a player, if you pull your weight and do well, the fans and management will back you to the hilt, as they did with Robin when accused of rape, and throughout his multiple injuries (often picked up playing for Holland). And if you do well enough, they’ll sing your name when you come back playing for another team, as long as you conduct yourself respectfully when you go.
Other big clubs, not so much.
Ferguson was loyal to his players when they starred in his team or bent all to his will. Even that was more than most. Man Utd have always seen themselves as the biggest club in Britain, and have historically discarded players pretty quickly when things go sour, regardless of former success. It’s a function of their arrogance and their financial strength. The Spanish and Italian super-clubs are infamous for buying and selling players for reasons of presidential ego, and the fans turn on players at alarming rates. At Bayern you are always in danger of being replaced by whoever is currently the star player for any domestic rival, for reasons of Bundesliga power games. The less said about the player hoarding of Chelsea and Man City the better. Even Liverpool seem to be abandoning their traditional principles in terms of a merry-go-round approach to player recruitment.
It is for this reason why I don’t think Arsenal fans should waste any more energy on mocking van Persie’s downward career trajectory. We aren’t some two-bit small club with one great player every few years. Equally we aren’t a small-minded big club who treat players as chattel. We are THE ARSENAL. We support our players as much as we can, and stay loyal to them as long as they make the effort. We enjoy the kids that don’t make it here doing well elsewhere. We cheer our old heroes, and eventually most end up working at the club in some capacity. We are a family club of corporate size, not some soulless beast.
On a personal level, I still find the Van Persie story sad. He just gave up a year too early. I sympathise with his frustration at our stagnation and perennial 4th spot in the league (even if better finishes were often missed out on due to his dodgy knees), and can understand why he was flattered by Fergie.
But despite his title winners medal at Old Trafford, the only winner from that deal was Ferguson. As the Scot said in his autobiography;
“Arsène was right…It took us a while to understand just how good Robin van Persie is. The quality of his runs was not immediately apparent to even our cleverest players. Even Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick, two of the best passers I ever had, had trouble at first picking up the speed of his movements. Robin’s movement and the timing of runs were mesmerising. He was also blessed with a formidable physique.”
Van Persie, at the peak of his powers, dragged a bang average Man U team to the title that year. This allowed Fergie his last glorious hurrah, before leaving a mess of an aging first team and a largely empty youth system behind him as he strolled off into the sunset.
The physical effort of that season took a lot from RVP, and he hasn’t been able to stay fit since. This is in part due to the paucity of the midfield and wide players around him. At Arsenal he could conserve his energy a lot more, as the fluidity and pace of the supporting cast could move the ball up the pitch without him having to grind himself into the dust endlessly running the channels, as was necessary at Old Trafford. Despite so-called fitness guru Raymond Verheijen endlessly taking pops at Arsenal, he only got stronger, quicker and more effective in London, whereas, the trajectory in Manchester has been the opposite on all counts. At times last year, he looked a busted flush. And now he’s already in one of the planet’s retirement homes for footballing greats. And in the annals of Man Utd history, he’ll be just another hired gun who had a good year.
But the main reason for my sadness, is that I am an Arsenal fan. Van Persie had arrived as a talented but troubled kid, rejected by his hometown club. He joined one of the best teams in Europe and watched it slowly break up without adequate reinforcement due to money issues, and then suffered serious injury every time the club threatened to challenge for major honours. But eventually he came good. He stayed fit, found his role, and became the player we all hoped. The gifted problem child with the dodgy knees had become the best striker in the country and one of the best in Europe. He was on the path to becoming a club legend, and possibly one of the top goalscorers in club history.
“I had a very special time at Arsenal. Some might want to erase me from their history but no one can change the facts. I did score 132 goals for Arsenal, I did play close to 300 games. One year as captain.” – RvP on his Arsenal career.
But he walked. He gave up. He wouldn’t wait any longer. For the last two years, we’ve had a team better other than that first Arsenal squad he played in, and certainly better than any Man Utd squad he played in. And the one player we have missed is a clinical centre-forward who can finish chances and create them for others. I don’t think it’s outlandish to say that a fit Robin Van Persie would score 30 goals a season in this team, and probably would have made us genuine title contenders for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons.
But he walked. And stuck the boot in when he did. And so became just another footballing mercenary, when he could have been a legend for the club he supported as a kid.
So I don’t rejoice in his downfall. I just find it sad, as it reminds me of what SHOULD have been.