Manchester United yesterday confirmed that they had agreed a fee for the transfer of Robin Van Persie from Arsenal – subject to the Dutchman agreeing personal terms and passing a medical. The fee is believed to be a substantial £24m – a considerable amount of cash for a player with only 12 months remaining on his contract.
The sale of Van Persie, to rivals United, will no doubt anger Arsenal fans. The last time a major sale occurred between the two clubs was during the same year that ex-captain Cesc Fabregas was born. The two clubs have been fierce foes since the early 1990s, with both sides largely sharing title-winning battles for the first 15 years of the Premier League. Managers Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson developed an intense rivalry and, on the pitch, the battles of Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane were savoured by fans up and down the country.
Times have changed for Arsenal. It began in May 2005. They faced off against United in the FA Cup final and Patrick Vieira won it from the spot with the last penalty-kick in the shootout – his last kick in an Arsenal shirt. This coincided with the Gunners’ last trophy after a spell of 11 major trophies in 15 seasons. Vieira departure (to Juventus) proved to be a catalyst for other high-calibre players to leave the club with alarming regularity in the years to come. The first post-Vieira season, 2005/06, saw Arsenal finished fourth in the league – their lowest league position in ten years. They did reach the Champions League final but then, talisman Thierry Henry, left for the glamour of Barcelona. The departure of these two French superstars was certainly felt by the club but it was deemed financially prudent when both were arguably past their best.
The real blow was Ashley Cole, a world-class left-back, who was tempted with a contract offering him over £2m per year more at Chelsea. Once Cole’s wallet had made up his mind, Arsenal cut their losses and sold a player that had come up through their own academy system for £5m, in stark contrast to the £25m which they were reportedly holding out for. Cole’s defection across London represented a new problem. Money. Chelsea had bags of it and Arsenal, by comparison, could not compete. Manager Arsene Wenger did not envisage losing players whose best years were ahead of them.
The exodus stopped briefly in 2008 and Arsenal grew in the confidence that the new generation led by Fabregas, Van Persie et al, would lead to another dynasty. However, this ideal was rocked when Mathieu Flamini (another 25 year-old) rejected a new contract and walked away from Arsenal, as a free agent, to Milan in the summer of 2009. It was this transfer that really rocked the boat internally. Players looked around and were not convinced that the talent being brought in matched their own lofty ambitions. Soon enough Barcelona made it public knowledge that they wanted their own La Masia academy product Cesc Fabregas back at the Camp Nou. Arsenal held firm but eventually he went home. Before this, Manchester City joined Chelsea in becoming filthy rich and off went mercenaries Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure. Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri followed suit just last year.
Back to the present day topic. Van Persie is one of Europe’s most coveted strikers and, at 29, is at his peak. Meanwhile, Wenger’s Arsenal of 2012 is a pale shadow of 2004’s Invincibles. In their defence, Arsenal have had their hands tied. “It’s sad to lose a player of his quality. He had a year left on his contract so we didn’t have the choice, ” said Wenger to French channel TF1. £24m for a 29 year-old with one year left on his existing deal represents excellent value but it does ensure that the gap between Arsenal and both Manchester clubs becomes even greater.
There will be those who argue that they should have sold him outside the Premiership. However, Van Persie himself was not too keen on playing in Serie A and there was no interest from La Liga. So then it came down to a straight choice between City and United. Apparently Van Persie prefers United due to their tradition and rich history but honestly, who knows. Arsenal’s alternative would have been to keep Van Persie next season, making him honour the final year of his contract, knowing that he would have walked away for nothing the following summer. They have prepared as well they could have for this day, with Lucas Poldolski and Olivier Giroud both completing pre-season with their new club and could yet forge a potent partnership at the Emirates next season.
Surely though, Wenger and the fans, must have had enough of watching quality player after quality player leave the Emirates. At some point, something has to give. If Arsenal have a poor start to the season, expect those grumbling about the seven trophyless years to get on their backs and then we will see just how badly Wenger is committed to creating another Arsenal dynasty.
For United, the signing represents both a massive coup but also a risk. Van Persie teaming up with Wayne Rooney is a mouth-watering prospect for United fans and a daunting one for defenders across the Premier League and Champions League. Contrary to some comments, Van Persie is not a one-season wonder and certainly is not over-rated. 89 goals in 144 Arsenal appearances during the last four seasons is testament to that. Admittedly, his injury record is a sticky point but United needed to be bold otherwise City would have beaten them to the signature of another quality player. With Tom Cleverley back from injury (after missing most of the last campaign), United will be a force to reckon with and it may well be Ferguson who is celebrating next May. Fortune favours the brave.