So, this is it. He’s shown his hand, we’ve swallowed the bitter pill, and Arsenal are now in the unenviable position of having to decide what to do with Robin Van Persie in what now appears certain to be the final year of his contract.
Both in practice and in theory, there are two options available to the Gunners’ management at this stage: they can hold Van Persie to the terms of his contract and insist that he sees out the remaining year (forgoing a sizable transfer fee in the process) in order to set a precedent, that we will not be seen by our own players as a club that will be held to ransom.
Or they can cut their losses, embrace the reality of the situation, cash up and move on, albeit reluctantly, to a future of uncertainty wherein the only surety is the conspicuous absence of a certain enigmatic Dutchman.
Well, here’s two cents for you: it would be silly for Wenger to hold onto Van Persie for the final year of his contract. It might be a noble principle, but nobility is without a doubt the poorer half-brother to pragmatism and ignores the sad reality of the situation: there is literally no good that can come from keeping RVP at Arsenal.
The benefits that Van Persie would bring Arsenal in the short-term – mere goals and assists – are far outweighed by the repercussions of living in the past.
The man is leaving, bar some unforeseen miracle. And the sooner Arsenal accepts this, the better.
Now, Van Persie’s departure will have a significant and dramatic effect on Arsenal as a football team. We know this.
But the affect that such an action will have on the fans of the club is both less certain and, bizarrely, less speculated on.
The fans, we hear all too often, are the life-blood of the club. Yet ironically enough they are the ones who know least about the internal goings-on.
The fans are always the last to find out. And so we are asked, on an unprofessionally regular basis, to deal with the shock and the anguish and the crushing disappointment of waking up one morning to discover that, yet again, someone important is leaving, and that institution that we emotionally invest in so much has, once again, let us down.
We’ve lived through some terrible things in our time, we Arsenal fans. Some of them (I’m looking at you, Cesc) have been slow, drawn-out, and ultimately heartbreaking, but we’ve always soldiered through.
Even in spite of this, if ever a straw could break the camel’s back, that straw is Robin Van Persie.
Thankfully, to extend the above metaphor, the camel happens to be the collective fans of Arsenal, and thusly, we’ll live. We’ll move on. We’ll have to adjust, of course, but we will. It’s what we do.
Here, then, are some of the most pronounced effects that Van Persie’s departure will have on the Arsenal fanbase.
To retain, or not to retain?
My first reaction to the news that Van Persie would not be extending his contract was shock and anguish, and I imagine that most Arsenal fans responded in a similar way.
But there is a contingent of fans (and a rather large one at that) who would have seen RVP’s impending exit as a solid vindication of what the fans have been pleading Arsenal to do for some years now: to bite the bullet, hand over a blank cheque, and sign some top-quality players.
It is an unavoidable fact that at least some of Van Persie’s reasoning for leaving stems from the lack of real quality around him on the pitch.
His statement says as much: he doesn’t consider the Arsenal squad to be at a level where it can compete for major trophies, and this stems, at least partially, from Wenger’s at times infuriating frugality in the transfer market.
Those fans who cried out for new players will surely feel a certain masochistic satisfaction at the idea that they managed to identify an area which could jeopardise the future success of the Gunners, and take solace in the idea that, even if Wenger failed to take heed, they penned the writing that is now on the wall.
It’s unfair, of course, to blame Wenger for this.
It is very easy to criticize and belittle Arsenal for their lack of gall in refusing to splurge out huge sums of money on individual players, particularly in an era where Liverpool (Liverpool!) can afford to shell out £35 million on a player like Andy Carroll.
But the fact remains that a club simply cannot build an entirely new, state-of-the-art stadium (the financing plan of which placed great emphasis on investing profits made on players) and still afford to provide their manager with an eight-figure transfer budget. Not unless, of course, that club happens to be bankrolled by God.
Wenger has done what I would argue no other manager in the world is capable of, in maintaining a squad with the quality of a perennial top-four place by buying sensibly, utilizing players from the club’s youth academy, and, clichéd though it might sound, focusing on building for a future which is not bankrolled by some shady investor, but self-sustained via possibly the most desirable football stadium in the world.
Of course, all of this is irrelevant, as the anticipated re-establishment of Arsenal as a major force will take place in the unforeseeable future, while we are stuck in the limbo of 2012, where there is direct, provable evidence that all of our best players of the past five years have been sold.
Even so, one must remember that Arsenal’s fans are tried and true. We know what Wenger is capable of, and they know the circumstances surrounding the Emirates, and we are neither fickle, nor fake.
Arsenal has not been successful enough to have acquired many bandwagon fans over the past decade, which is to say that those of us who’ve stuck around are in it for the long haul. We are not a whimsical bunch.
Vindicated we may stand, those of us (though, admittedly, I am not one of them) who begged Wenger for substantive signings.
But I’m sure those fans would swap that righteous smugness in a heartbeat for Wenger to have finally taken the hint, and if any event could open the Frenchman’s eyes to the reality of the transfer market in 2012, it is this one.
The fans will certainly stand justified in their criticisms of the club should RVP walk out the door tomorrow. And that feeling of justification, and the management’s sheepish acknowledgement of inadequacy, could be the tipping point, where the board and the manager realize that the opinions of the fans matter; they always have, they always will. And they must be placated.
The Selection of a New “Star Player”
If you look at the top clubs in the top leagues in the world, one of the many features that make these clubs stick out above the others is the presence of a “star” player, a “marquee” player, if you will.
Forgive me for applying basketball vernacular to football, but this is a truth less acknowledged than it should be.
Manchester United, for example, has Wayne Rooney. City has Sergio Aguero. Chelsea, until recently, had Drogba, and before him one would probably say Lampard, and next year, who knows...Torres? Liverpool has Gerrard. Barca, Messi, Real, Ronaldo, Bayern, Gomez, Milan, Ibrahimovic, and so on, so forth, ad nauseum.
Now, the star player needn’t be the best player, per se, though, I suppose, it does no harm if he is. What they have in common is that this unofficial title of “star player” is wordlessly bestowed upon them by the fans.
These players are very rarely criticized for their on-field exploits by the followers of their respective clubs. They are brilliant, on a consistent basis, and generally play the game with a drive and fervour and desire to succeed which exceeds that of a normal player.
They step up to the plate when they need to the most, and they do it with astonishing regularity.
Most importantly, they seem to play with a fierce, almost manic devotion to their club. One which transcends football as entertainment or football as sport, which cultivates an idea of football as being closer to religion than anything else.
In Robin Van Persie, Arsenal had one of the best star players in the business.
And in his absence, the fans will be unwittingly obliged to select a successor.
Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, for a variety of reasons: Arsenal still has a wealth of potentially-exceptional attacking players, and those who could potentially fill this newly-vacated role are young and proven in carrying teams.
Olivier Giroud, for example, carried Montpellier last year. His 25 goals in all competitions are not to be sniffed at, even if they came in Ligue 1.
Similarly, Lukas Podolski has filled this role with FC Koln every season he played with them. He directly had a hand in more than 50 percent of Koln’s goals last season, and his inexperience in the more physically demanding English league is offset by his excellence and experience for Germany at international level.
But in my opinion the man to fill Van Persie’s boots in the symbolic sense is Theo Walcott.
Walcott has been at Arsenal for a long time now, remember...coming up to six years. The club’s style of play is familiar to him, he is used to playing with the players around him, and, importantly, he is English, one of the very few English players with the means and time to become a world superstar.
Unimportant though a player’s nationality might be in the greater scheme of things, possessing a star player who has been nurtured from an early age by Arsenal, with whom the largely British fanbase can identify and cultivate a patriotic emotional bond, can only bring good to the club.
Regardless as to whom this “title” is passed by the fans, one thing is certain: that player will come to represent a fresh and bright future for Arsenal, and it is likely that an increase in consistency and performance will almost certainly parallel their heightened responsibility.
Walcott’s development has been unintentionally stifled, in my view, by Van Persie, whose role as the perennial spearhead of Arsenal’s attack has diluted the influence that Walcott can have on a game.
He now has the means, as well as the ability, to step up and seize the stardom he has always threatened to embody.
When the fans decide upon their new marquee, that decision will place a great deal of pressure and anticipation on that player’s shoulders.
By very definition, however, star players have big-game temperaments. They have egos which are buoyed by the aura of importance, personalities which thrive under the thrill of expectation.
Think back to Rooney’s phenomenal bicycle kick in the Manchester Derby, Aguero’s last-gasp goal to seal the title for City in the final minute of the season...painful though it may be, think of Messi’s four-goal performance against Arsenal in the Champions League.
The Star Player comes to symbolize, for a season at least, the hopes and dreams of the club at large. They are vital to the success of the team, from a symbolic perspective, if nothing else.
Arsenal’s fans will have to appoint someone in the team to fill this role. And when we do so, we can only await that player’s response with eagerness, excitement and the resolute optimism of a talented team with a fresh start.
A New Dawn, A New Day, A New Life
Speaking of fresh starts, with Van Persie’s departure comes the end of an era for Arsenal: all of the meaningful members of the first team in 2007-08, with the exception of the evergreen Sagna and the then-unproven Walcott, have disbanded from the club.
This tells us two things: firstly, that the last four years for the club have been tumultuous, to say the very least, for Arsenal. Such a rapid dismemberment of a first team is, to my admittedly non-exhaustive memory, almost unprecedented.
But it also tells us the extent of Arsene Wenger’s ability, and Arsenal’s character, in a time of trial.
I know we all get sick of hearing how well Arsenal has done in the past few years to stay in the top four, because it has come to resemble a perceived lack of ambition.
But the thing is, you can’t win the championship every year. There are peaks and troughs for every club at some stage. This is absolutely without exception, and unless you’re Amish or happen to be the main character of the film “Oldboy," I will not forgive your ignorance if you challenge this.
Hollow though the solace may be, Arsenal has done phenomenally well to maintain their status as a consistent title contender in this period of time.
If the preceding four years was Arsenal’s trough, and, even by the face value quality and depth of our first-team now as compared to 2009, you would say that it was, then the corresponding peak has the potential to take us to really rather dizzying heights.
You see, the difference between Arsene Wenger and most of the other “big” football managers around the world is that Wenger doesn’t need a team of stars to succeed. He doesn’t like the egos, he doesn’t like the dependence.
He likes a free-flowing, deep first team with squad players who can come in and perform, in adherence to his tactics, to a high level.
The style and method that Wenger cultivates (and the players’ knowledge of and effectiveness within that style) is, paradoxically, more important than a substance of uneven overall quality, in Wenger’s model.
And the Frenchman has proven that when his model is executed to his satisfaction, he is head and shoulders above every other manager in the world.
Van Persie will be missed, hugely. His goals, his assists, his influence, should not be underestimated.
But saying goodbye may be a good thing for Arsenal in the long run.
It means we can also say goodbye to this period of strife and unbalance. That we can start afresh from a new foundation, and create a new legacy, burying the Van Persie Saga in the same bitter back cabinet as the Legacy of Fabregas, the Adventures of Adebayor, the Betrayal of Nasri.
All that we can do is just back on the horse and hope that this generation of players can deliver.
There is no reason why it can’t. A very good, still-developing young goalkeeper; three excellent centre-backs; the best right-back in the world; a playmaking midfield which can afford to rotate Arteta, Wilshere and Ramsey; the delicious anomaly that is where on earth Alex Song is most effective; five, even six, wingers/strikers, all of whom are capable of turning a game on its head in an instant; and the promise of further strengthening.
It’s easy to look at Van Persie’s exit as being a regrettable end to what could have been a fairy-tale relationship.
But, to a true fan, to a fan who, on seeing a cloud perceives only the silver lining, this move could be the start of something beautiful in the new generation.
Could, would, should, might: I hate these words as much as you do. But if we don’t look forward with hope, we may as well stop caring altogether.
And, even though at points such as these, which have been altogether too commonplace these last few years, we might wish we could stop caring, we can’t.
We never will. We’re Arsenal.
Finally, and briefly, you’ll be glad to hear, losing Van Persie now would mean one more, vitally important thing to Arsenal fans: closure.
Because particularly after the Wayne Rooney debacle, every day that Van Persie is retained by the club with that statement hanging over his head, I, as an Arsenal fan, will hope.
I will hope against hope that, suddenly, someone will realize that a terrible mistake has been made.
That I will wake up one morning to find a statement from Van Persie claiming that he had...oh I don’t know. Been under the control of the imperius spell from Harry Potter when he’d said he wouldn’t sign a new contract.
That he had written his post in a holding cell in Siberia with a henchman from the Russian Mafia (or Man City...would you put it past them?) encouraging him to do so.
Until he signs the dotted line on a piece of paper bearing the crest of a club other than Arsenal, I will believe that he will stay, because football is a religion, and in a religion you have to have faith.
I know that in this instance my faith is misplaced. That the chances of it being repaid are slim to none.
But it is as uncontrollable and inherent as the passing of time.
For my sake, as a fan, I hope the club sells Van Persie. I don’t want to live in false hope, watching the Dutchman blast in goals in the 2012-13 season, every day signalling another tiptoe closer to a Bosman. I would rather be put out of my misery, and focus on the bright side.
Having an elephant in the room does nobody any good.
The longer Van Persie stays, the longer the club management naively idealizes the situation or attempts to hijack it as a power play, the more disenchanted I will become.
Give us Van Persie. And give us trophies. But if you can give us neither, at least give us something we can be sure of.
Football is too serious for make-believe.
And keeping Van Persie until his contract runs out, believing that his loyalty and nobility will shine through. That’s make-believe of the most unbelievable order, and it’s cruel to us, the fans. Give us closure, and we’ll set about adjusting to what this transfer will mean...not just to the club, not just to the team.
But to us.
We’re important, too.