This piece was first published in February. It is timely again today.
Last summer Fabregas left and Nasri left. Next summer, Robin van Persie will go. In truth, he probably would have been off earlier if it weren’t for those much lamented, injury-enforced sabbaticals. If last season’s high profile departures weren’t evidence enough, Wednesday night’s Arsenal performance – in which van Persie wasn’t so much head and shoulders as nipples, navel and nads above his teammates – surely was. And so in the summer, Arsenal (after almost twenty years under Tony Adams) will name their sixth captain this decade.
Partly a result of Wenger’s apparent penchant for using the captain’s armband as a ‘stay, pleeeeeze, please stay’ device, the Arsenal captaincy has served, in recent years, as a period of notice, a sort of elongated testimonial for the club’s outstanding player. (Gallas, of course, is an exception; his regime lacked even this flimsy justification).
Perhaps this has been successful and maybe Vieira, Henry, Fabregas would have departed the club earlier were it not for their latter elevations. On the other hand, the final seasons of both Henry and Fabregas were tainted by the perpetual frustration of a captain so consciously superior to his teammates (witness Thierry’s apparent bullying of Walcott, or Fabregas’s disgusted reaction to Eboue’s concession of a late penalty at home to Liverpool). Maybe the captaincy endorsed an otherwise unspoken attitude: you guys work for me. Increasingly, van Persie, flabbergasted last night by the wayward finishing of, especially Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, looks like a man labouring under the same impression.
Van Persie’s situation is different, though, because of the incredible extent to which he is superior to his teammates/subjects. In Henry’s last season, Fabregas had become established, so too Adebayor, while van Persie himself was maturing into a quality player. Even last year, the presence of Nasri and van Persie (plus the strong form of Theo Walcott and the still occasional quality of Andrey Arshavin) meant that quality was spread through the squad. This season, however, that is not the case. Van Persie scores or creates all of Arsenal’s goals. The entire team plays to that effect. Arsenal’s previously feted ‘short, quick passing game’ has been replaced by the give it to van Persie game.
He may find this gratifying. It probably rubs his ego in a way that feels good and so he might like it. But, he will know that it is not going to lead to professional success. And so he will leave.
Quite simply, if Arsenal had another three or four players at his level, they would be three or four times more likely to win the trophies that van Persie, now in his late twenties, is entitled to crave. Other clubs – Manchester City, the Milan clubs, Madrid and Barcelona – do possess the distributed quality absent at Arsenal; they have players capable of playing like van Persie so he’ll go and play for one of them.
All of which (as with Nasri’s deservedly unpopular parting comments) is to ignore the elephant in the room; the elephant, in fact, in the Emirates stadium. Money. Van Persie, when he leaves Arsenal in the summer, will probably double his wages.
This isn’t to say that he is vindicated on personal, financial grounds (the ninety-odd grand that Arsenal must pay him is more than comfortable), rather that his move exposes the duplicity of the Arsenal business model, which, as John Cross pithily summarises, requires fans to pay Harrods prices for a Primark product.
Due later this month, Arsenal will again reveal strong financial results. These will probably open with a few words about property sales (because this is a business) and end with some remarks on the club’s position in advance of Financial Fair Play (FFP) and a pledge that ‘on-field’ performance remains the board’s priority.
Arsenal have a unique understanding of FFP: desperate, like the witnesses of Jehovah, for the restorative rapture, arresting the spendthriftery of their sinful rivals. In a strange way (and there is a whiff of Jehovah about this too) Arsenal (and sections of their fans) seem to regard FFP as something at which they can beat their rivals. Whereas other clubs calculate how much they can spend and still be allowed into Europe, Arsenal’s calculation works the other way round: how little can we spend, while still qualifying for ‘European Competition’ (which means, of course, the Champions League). In practical terms, this has effectively meant the annual shedding of one world class player and that is why the club finds itself at its current critical balance: there is only one world class player left.
There is no way that van Persie (especially with his injury record and now in his late-twenties) is going to accept this situation for another season. And so he will leave.