For Arsenal fans, Manchester United's visit to the Emirates Stadium on Sunday will serve as a depressingly timely reminder of the distance that currently separates the two Premier League clubs. With Robin van Persie returning to his former club, Gooners will have a physical form to take on their frustrations.
A widely accepted view holds that Arsenal have lagged behind United in large part because of the lost productivity of van Persie, who leads the league with 24 goals this term for United. No doubt Arsenal have missed van Persie's goals—he scored a Premier League-best 30 last season—but a look at the stats suggests Arsenal's problems have deeper roots than the loss of a single striker.
Several factors have contributed to United's title-winning campaign, but it's impossible to ignore the extent to which van Persie, a Dutch international striker, played a part. And yet, as Arsenal prepare to hold an honor guard for the newly crowned champions, including former captain van Persie, United's own stats also suggest that RvP has been only one of many factors.
(Graphic via InstantPieChart.com)
Above is a pie chart illustrating the percentage of goals scored by various Arsenal players last season. Van Persie's 30 goals dominate the total of 74, with Theo Walcott the next-highest scorer at eight.
Midfielder Mikel Arteta and defender Thomas Vermaelen contributed six goals each, and Gervinho and Yossi Benayoun had four apiece. Various other players contributed one or two goals.
The next graphic illustrates Arsenal's total of 65 goals so far this season.
(Graphic via InstantPieChart.com)
There is both good news and bad here. The good news is that Arsenal's attack has become more varied this season, relying on more than one player. Midfielder Santi Cazorla leads with 12 goals, while Walcott and Olivier Giroud have 11 each. Lukas Podolski currently has nine.
With four matches remaining, Walcott's contribution has increased by three goals, a welcome (if modest) improvement. Arteta has remained steady with six goals and Gervinho has added one to his total of four last season.
The bad news is that neither Giroud nor Podolski, the players signed to fill the void left by van Persie, have been unable to match van Persie's production, either individually or collectively. Together, they have scored 20 league goals, 10 fewer than van Persie's total of 30 last season—though they have four matches left.
But placing all the blame on Giroud and Podolski would be harsh. All players go through a settling-in phase at a new club, especially one in a new country, and both Podolski and Giroud have so far played decently in their first seasons in England.
The problem here seems to be one of foresight. As van Persie left the club last summer, Arsenal were unprepared to replace him without a drop in production from the striker position. In other words, when van Persie left, Arsenal did not have a player ready to fill his position immediately. Instead, a transition period was needed.
But as the next two graphics will show, Arsenal's overall production remains almost the same as last season. First is the table with four matches remaining in the 2011-12 Premier League season.
At that point in the season, Arsenal had scored 67 goals and conceded 43 while collecting 64 points. Manchester United had scored 82 goals, conceded 28 and collected 82 points.
Next is the current table from the 2012-13 season. Both clubs currently have four matches left.
So far this season, Arsenal have scored 65 goals and conceded 35 for a total of 63 points. Despite the loss of van Persie, the Gunners have scored only two fewer goals at this point of the season than last. And despite long periods of negativity surrounding the club this season, Arsenal are only one point off their pace from 2011-12. The defense has improved by eight goals.
With van Persie in the squad, United have actually scored four fewer goals—78 compared to 82 last season at the same point—but collected two more points. The defense has allowed seven more goals.
So what are we to make of these numbers? Has van Persie's contribution meant little to United's successful title challenge?
Simply put, of course not. Van Persie's hat-trick clinched the title Monday night, and his 24 goals, as noted above, lead the league.
But he hasn't scored in every match, and he only recently ended a five-match scoring drought in the league. And even without him, Arsenal have scored almost as many goals, albeit with more help from midfielders.
Instead, the two teams' scoring outputs from last season to this one suggest that United's success—and Arsenal's relative lack of it—can be best explained as a product of the teams as whole entities.
In the offseason, United manager Sir Alex Ferguson strengthened his squad by signing van Persie for the attack and Shinji Kagawa for the attacking midfield. The central midfield remains something of an issue, but it was not enough of a problem to matter in the Premier League race.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, meanwhile, sold both van Persie and key midfielder Alex Song. In the former case, Wenger reportedly told Ferguson that van Persie is "better than you think" (per BBC Sport). Podolski and Giroud were signed to help refresh the attack, and they have seen limited success. Song was not replaced.
This is hardly a new development for Arsenal, following the departures of players like Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri in recent seasons. As David Hytner writes for The Guardian: "Cashing in on key personnel and failing to sign replacements that are better is nothing new and it has raised questions about the club's ambition, glass ceilings and transfer market policy."
One difference between the clubs, then, could be interpreted in terms of continuity, long-term team-building and even ambition. Van Persie's arrival at United was important, but it fit within Ferguson's framework of team-building.
Whether the policy is Wenger's or the board's is a topic for another article. It's clear, though, that such a policy has contributed to the continuation of Arsenal's status as a Premier League also-ran. With it in place, the Gunners have more or less performed to expectations, which is almost a compliment considering the damage done by the loss of a player of van Persie's importance.