Arsenal fans have gone through a lot but the amount of hate directed to former Arsenal player Robin Van Persie is unprecedented. I admit that as a fan, I was unhappy about his transfer to United especially considering the seasons we spent time and money to nurture him from a petulant (and often injured) raw gem to an all round striker. But the move made sense if you were following Arsenal closely and if you would, I hope, take an objective view of the past decade or so.
Now that the season is very much over and that United have deservedly won the title. I think it is the right time to pen my thoughts on the rather tiring Van Persie debacle that has lasted throughout the season. There is a long series of unhappy events that have brought so much hate and anger to the table.
Angst 1: Selling Players for Sustainability
Arsenal have been selling off their stars for as long as I can remember as a fan. We used to sell them after their prime and to non English clubs. Seeing players like Vieira, Pires and Henry leave was tough. These were players that came to embody the club. The player that left which hurt the most is Vieira. Vieira represented many things at Arsenal that were the core reasons for the sudden rise to success. Yes, there was the vision of Bergkamp (my favourite player), the guile of Pires and many other team players who have been marked as legends. But Vieira was the heart and soul of the club. He embodied the team in his aggression, physicality and ability to galvanize the team when the odds were against us. He didn’t sulk the way Henry did. His leadership was amazing. I still miss Vieira and still feel that his post player appointment at Man City was a massive missed opportunity for Arsenal.
Vieira embodied the team in his aggression, physicality and ability to galvanize the team when the odds were against us.
Name after name was sold in the years to come but all of these were logical deals. Bergkamp was an outlier having been retained till his twilight years and being one of the very few to retire as an Arsenal player. From the 1998 Double winners to the Invincibles, players were sold to ensure the club had sufficient funds to renew and to maintain the books. But there are sales that irked the fans more so than the rest.
These sales were that of players sold to clubs that at some point in time directly competed with us. This began with the sale of Ashley Cole to Chelsea in a saga so protracted most fans were relieved it was over. The blue revolution continued as Manchester City splashed newfound wealth on multiple Arsenal players including Toure, Adebayor, Clichy and Nasri. The last of a growing names being transferred to local opponents is Van Persie.
The entire story above has spanned more than a decade but two changes were clear. First, we stopped selling players after their prime to recoup funds. Fabregas and Nasri are very clear representations of this. Second, the players we sold began to become more successful at their new clubs. The prime candidate for this is Fabregas again. Arguments can be made that he left and rejoined the finest team in history but the same can be said about Nasri, Clichy and now Van Persie. We sold them to clubs that were in stronger footballing and financial positions than us.
This is a change that left many Arsenal fans reeling but this change is not one that should catch an observer of the game by surprise.
Angst 2: An Increase in Enforced Thrift & Long Term Injuries to Critical Players
Moving to the Emirates is big decision made on the back of trophy laden years to ensure a steady stream of funds. It was built and financed by debt, a normal circumstance that had important implications. It robbed us of expenditures that could have been made in the present with the promise of savings for a better future.
We replaced the Invincibles with Rosicky, Edurado, Diaby and Van Persie. All of them turned out to be long term injury cases.
We replaced Pires with Rosicky, Henry was replaced by an assortment of players including Edurado. Van Persie was originally marked to be a replacement for Bergkamp. That role was than filled by both Cesc and Robin. Rosicky, Edurado, Diaby, Van Persie turned out to be all long term injury cases. Vieira was initially replaced by Cesc, a definite non 1 for 1 replacement which made critical changes to our tactical setup. To fit youthful players and the purchase of available young talents, the team switched its strategy from an aggressive, pacey and physical team into one built on technical football. We changed from a team better known for blistering counter attacks and direct penetrating passes to one that could ping the ball with ease and plenty of possession but were less effective winning games.
Many of these changes were caused by a large stadium debt and the inevitable influence of Barcelona’s success. Senior players in the club were made to fit into the new system. Van Persie took two seasons to learn how to play as an all round center forward, originally being preferred as a winger or a withdrawn ‘in-the-hole’ striker. Cesc took the same time to learn the trade at the peak of a newfound midfield triangle that was never present in the early 2000s and late 1990s.
Angst 3: Influx of Oil Money
What the strategic planners of the Emirates stadium did not account for was the rise of Chelsea and City with immense amount of wealth being pumped into the league. The wages and transfer sums were inflated. We were trying to tone down our expenditures just as the prices shot through the roof. It was and continues to be a nightmare. Have you ever tried to save more with a pay cut, under inflation? Wenger’s constant murmurs and outrages were borne out of this unfortunate series of events.
Arsenal fans had to deal with an increase in success of clubs we that we had comfortably dealt with in the past.
Due to this relative positioning of events, the club found it hard to compete and retain talent or procure new ones. Fans had to deal with an increase in success of clubs we that we had comfortably dealt with in the past. It was a decade ago that games against Chelsea and City were deemed as winnable without much difficulty. Only fixtures against United were games that fans were willing to take a point off, every other team was a 3 pointer.
You can see what I am driving at here. Having to save and scrimp while seeing your opponents get increasingly rich from exogenous sources and watching teams we comfortably put away in the past build stronger teams than us was very difficult for any Arsenal fan to take. It is not just Arsenal. I saw bitter United fans that absolutely abhorred Chelsea’s dominance and City’s title victory last season. These fans felt that success of the other clubs were undeserved. They didn’t make their own money. That did not matter in the end.
Angst 4: A Quick Double Blow
The sale of Nasri and Clichy to City and their eventual title triumph left a very sour note for many Arsenal fans. That was partially eased by a 3rd place finished and the emergence of Van Persie as one of the best strikers in the world. We cheered his Golden Boot and Player of the Year awards. That quickly turned south.
What rubbed salt on the wounds of the Arsenal faithful was the decision to sell Van Persie to former rivals United. Note that I write ‘former rivals’. Ever since the 2005 season, we were never game in the title race bar 2008/9. Making sure of a CL spot became more of a focus and title clashes were between United and Chelsea not us and them. It is at this juncture that I must remind non Arsenal fans reading this that most Arsenal fans felt that 2008/9’s failure was mainly caused by Van Persie’s long term injury in the second half of the season. You can see why the fans are seething. We stuck though plenty of thin with him.
The hate generated against Van Persie and United fans and players who berate Arsenal supporters have been unprecedented. Having been trodden by foreign blue wealth, the fans felt that their new star player was sold and then used to gouge on wounds that had barely healed. The Arsenal fan feels violated. I think this fairly captures the sentiments of the past few years.
The Arsenal fan feels violated. I think this fairly captures the sentiments of the past few years.
In many ways, Arsenal fans can be seen as a family living in a poor house that is constantly raided by richer neighbours. After they get raided, their once prized jewels are constantly paraded to be now enjoying life in the homes of these richer neighbours. It is not just Van Persie. There is Nasri, Fabregas and the like.
These feelings have resulted in anger, name calling and have been borne not just by the constant sale of players but by the fact that there is a large financial divide between those who took what we had. This is a situation that no United, City or Chelsea fan can claim to understand at least in the past decade.
Angst 5: Yet Another Success for an Ex Player
Arsenal fans in general do not begrudge United the title. They have been a consistent successful side built on good commercial deals and an outstanding global presence. Even though their title challenge has been aided significantly by City’s and Chelsea’s terribly inconsistent form, the number of points they have taken so far speak for themselves. What Arsenal fans abhor is the complete turnaround of Van Persie’s words. The Dutchman had proudly claimed, while at Arsenal that winning trophies anywhere else was hollow and has obviously done a 180 on it. Those words were uttered in 2011, two years before he made the switch.
Van Persie’s change in words are not surprising considering how little footballing words mean but his decision to leave was not caused by money. It was caused by what his former team mates achieved in colours of blue at the end of the 2011/2012 season.
After seeing what his former team mates were enjoying, he felt that he absolutely deserved it as well. The success of City in the league the season prior and Chelsea’s Champions League success are clear indicators that foreshadowed his decision. He saw his former team mates go on to win, even if ‘ugly’ and ‘undeserved’. Cole, Nasri, Clichy and Fabregas were obviously going to win trophies moving to already highly successful sides. Their additions to the teams ensured that.
If his former team mates could ride on the success of new, already successful clubs, why couldn’t he? And so Robin did.
The same goes with Van Persie, United was neck and neck and have only themselves to blame for failing to pick up the title last season (after leading by 8 points at the final stages). Van Persie knew that United could have very well won the league even without him but that did not matter. If his former team mates could ride on the success of new, already successful clubs, why couldn’t he? And so he did.
Manchester United fans see Van Persie as a talent caged in a non title winning side while Arsenal fans regard him as a player they toiled to produce that ended up leaving to win things elsewhere. Both views are valid. Bitter Arsenal fans must comprehend the situation from different perspectives and other fans should understand the Arsenal situation as well.
Looking at the long decade of events, blaming the manager for not building a title winning squad with a minute amount of funds can be seen as unfair in some ways. Blaming Van Persie for moving to win things elsewhere is as blind as saying the same for Fabregas, Nasri and many others. All of these players owed us their development. Football has changed with financial standings highly correlated with success. Every team buys success. The question is just whether the funds are self earned.
Every team buys success.
United, City and Chelsea are the financially rich clubs that are dominating the league. The vindication for Arsenal fans will be felt only if the sacrifices made for the new stadium come to fruition. A stronger commercial push has already been made and the club has to extend such to find success in its self sustaining model.
As the United team travels to the Emirates this weekend, I expect a classy display from our fans. Although we have never been in a financial position to poach and outright buy their stars, money talks and we have to deal with it.
Because class is permanent.
P.S. I understand that there is a great value in fan rivalry, banter and emotions surrounding football. I simply wanted to present a logical case in this piece.
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