Arsenal fans were crowing last night as Robin van Persie’s Manchester United went out of the Champions League against Real Madrid. Arsenal will now be in European competition a week longer than United, albeit only due to a quirk of the fixture list.
The jibes of the Arsenal fans barely mask their pain. The loss of Van Persie to such a close rival in the summer was an enormous blow to Arsenal’s self-esteem. It forced the club into a period of gloomy introspection from which they have not yet recovered.
At Old Trafford, Van Persie has flourished. Some have been surprised by just how big an impact the Dutchman has made at his new club. Arsenal fans expected nothing less. They saw last season just what a consistent, reliable performer the once enigmatic Van Persie had become.
In his absence, Arsenal’s star has faded somewhat. As United soar towards a record Premier League points total, Arsenal languish in fifth place, outside the Champions League qualification spots.
It’s familiar position for the Gunners; they faced a similar uphill task last year. However, in that period they were able to call on Van Persie’s talents to help them climb back up the table. No longer.
From a purely statistical point of view, Arsenal have coped relatively well with Van Persie’s loss. Arsene Wenger replaced the Dutchman not with one star signing, but with three players of international calibre: Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla. That trio have already provided 38 goals between them, one more than Van Persie managed in his final Arsenal season.
However, the stats don’t tell the whole story. Those 38 goals, particularly those of Olivier Giroud, have tended to come in gluts. Van Persie’s goals were spread evenly across the season. When the Gunners needed an equaliser or winning goal, he invariably provided it. Giroud has now not scored in his last six games. It’s a run which has seen Arsenal suffer two crushing cup defeats and lose a North London derby.
Arsenal have managed to spread the goals around the team, but in order to genuinely improve they needed to do that and keep their world-class centre-forward. Giroud would fall behind Van Persie and Rooney in the pecking order at Manchester United and would be on the Manchester City bench behind Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez and perhaps even Edin Dzeko.
Van Persie’s gift was that he could produce extraordinary moments out of nothing. From his final season alone one remembers the invaluable match-winning volley against Everton or the game-turning curled effort against Tottenham.
Van Persie combined artistry with application. He was a grafter but also a genius. He gave absolute commitment for 90 minutes, but it was the moments of individual brilliance that made him stand out.
Arsenal lost a goalscorer, a talisman and a leader. Only at the end of the season will the true cost of his departure become clear.