It is the rivalry that defines the Premier League era. Two sides, two red kits, geographically removed, but with a rivalry and grudging respect that transcends boundaries. Manchester United and Arsenal, the two most successful teams of the past two decades. Each team has its legends, icons, standard bearers of London and Manchester.
From Thierry Henry and Patrick Viera to Cristiano Ronaldo and Eric Cantona; quite an alumni. One thing the sides have in common, however, is that players rarely cross the divide, and when they do it is almost always as they have become expendable to their current club. The last, Mikele Silvestre moved from United to Arsenal in 2008, but only racked up 25 appearances for the Gunners in two seasons at the club.
The current situation in which the two adversaries are embroiled is a misnomer, flying in the face of convention. Robin van Persie is neither a spent force nor expendable to Arsenal, and yet he looks set to bridge the divide nonetheless.
Built up in impressively frugal fashion the Arsenal that has been constructed by the maverick Arsene Wenger is a blueprint for successful football longevity. Constructed upon a transfer policy that puts the onus on value, Wenger’s genius has maintained Arsenal’s stature against applied pressure from a sequence of higher spending adversaries. Yet in recent years the empire has begun to show worrying signs of decline. First Thierry Henry, then Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri and now Van Persie, Arsenal have continually had to adapt, shorn of the fulcrum of their side.
In reality though a van Persie deal would resonate more than all of the aforementioned trio. It would signal a séance, an end of an era, the last of the clubs batch of truly world class international stars, disillusioned with the restrictive transfer policy castrating the clubs progression. Van Persie would not be jumping ship to try his hand in another league either, nor tempted a’ la Nasri, by the bright cash of the Etihad, van Persie would be moving to Old Trafford, to Manchester United. A metaphorical slap in the face that rankles far more than any physical action, another leader of this once invincible side would be lost.
The length of the transfer saga has facilitated a fair amount of reflection upon the ramifications the prospective deal would have. Even in my permanently induced pro United stupor I am surprised. Surprised that Juventus didn’t make more of a concerted effort to implement RVP as the undisputed figurehead of their side. Surprised that Man City didn’t throw shed-fulls of gold bullion at van Persie to add him to their burgeoning collection of overpaid strikers. Surprised even that that van Persie had the temerity to resist such overzealous advances. Yet above all this I am struck by a certain sense of disquiet, of doubt that van Persie and the undoubted king of Old Trafford Wayne Rooney will be able to share star billing.
Since the departure of Cristaino Ronaldo from Old Trafford, Rooney has become indispensable to United as he admirably stepped into the Portuguese’s humongous shoes. Such is the iconic status now afforded to Rooney at Old Trafford that, save a Ronaldo return he will always remain as the pinnacle and focus of the team. Van Persie, 30 league goals last season and all would have to satisfy himself with a supporting role.
Admittedly, with the arrival of RVP, Rooney would be facilitated the opportunity of dropping back into a more withdrawn role, in the hole, allowing the Dutchman the play the target man position. This may, and with out the benefit of irrefutable foresight I can only speak in the figurative, play out superbly and prove a match made in heaven. Yet even then, what of Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez. Two young, very exciting players that were given opportunities at United as Rooney’s understudies would suddenly see a large omnipotent blockade placed in front of them. Such is the stature of both Rooney and van Persie that neither could be expected to endure any sort of sustained period on the bench.
On the wing too, a position Welbeck has played before there is unparalleled competition, with new recruit Shinji Kagawa battling Nani, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young.
At 29 years of age Robin van Persie is not the future of Manchester United. At 21 Danny Welbeck quite possibly is. For the next three, maybe four years van Persie would most likely prove himself as an excellent if rather expensive addition for a player with just a year left on his contract. And please don’t get me wrong I am not against a deal to bring the Dutchman to United, although I am slightly dubious whether a club like Juventus were not a more appropriate destination.
My grievance is with the ramifications the deal could spawn, and the legacy it could leave with Manchester United’s next generation. If handled sensitively, van Persie could be utilised as a tool to aid the development of the club’s younger generation, whilst also proving a massive boost to United’s short term results on the pitch. However, if his presence in the side will be at the expense of youth, a move that could cause players like Welbeck and Hernandez to stagnate…
The way that Sir Alex Ferguson manages a Robin van Persie transfer deal could go a long way to defining Manchester United’s immediate future both under his stewardship and beyond.