So ends one of the more drawn out and anticlimactic transfer sagas of the summer: another former club hero gets set to begin the new season in a different jersey. Once again, a sucker punch in the form of an outgoing star player serves to remind the average Gooner of the team’s current position as a wannabe elite club that tries to join the Manchester clubs, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and now PSG at the top level of the world soccer hierarchy; unfortunately the selection of the few players to join the top-flight clubs typically damns the rest of the club to first-class purgatory.
What made this summer different from past transfer periods was that Arsene Wenger was ready before disaster struck, and not just with another crafty acquisition of a French league player. Lukas Podolski was as good as signed by March and, even though Olivier Giroud could be viewed as a typical Wenger signing, the lanky Frenchman’s body of work last season in Ligue 1 appeared to surpass that of Marouane Chamakh or Gervinho during their respective times in the French league.
Most impressively, the Arsenal manager secured the signature of top playmaker Santi Cazorla, formerly employed by Villareal and Malaga. While the team still has very questionable quality at either fullback position (at least until Bacary Sagna is fully recovered), the team has much more depth and quality in its midfield and attacking positions than it had 12 months ago.
Even though captain Robin van Persie reportedly had a change of heart upon hearing about and seeing the team’s upgrades firsthand in Germany, it was always just a report. His scathing statement in June, which condemned the Gunner brass for a lack of ambition and announced his decision to not sign an extension with Arsenal, only set up for one conclusion – regardless of a change of heart. Wayne Rooney requested a transfer a couple of seasons ago, but his worries about the club were ultimately assuaged by a talk with team boss Sir Alex Ferguson and an even more lucrative contract extension. From what we know, money was not the issue with van Persie, but nor could it have been the solution.
Henry had already accomplished almost everything in the Arsenal colors, Fabregas wanted a return home, but van Persie was supposed to be the captain who stayed. If you will, he was envisioned in the same light as LeBron James was in Cleveland. Van Persie elevated last season’s team more than almost any other single player would have. For that reason, he seemingly had to stay and help propel the team back to its former title-winning heights. Yet once again, a star player proved the masses wrong and revealed a different plan.
What bothers me, more than anything, is the ultimate destination. While the player typically does not have a voice in the subject of transfers, van Persie clearly had the final choice of whether to stay or go. I hoped that he would choose the lesser Serie A, or even Manchester City, but for reasons of team fit, current squads, and money, it was always going to be Old Trafford, home to former rivals Manchester United, where van Persie would make his new home. Rivalries hold as little weight as ever in the new money-centric world of football, and I mistakenly held the captain to a different standard.
The fans’ reactions to van Persie’s decision to look elsewhere in his future have understandably been very divided over the past couple of months. While the occasion is sad by almost all fan accounts, there has been overwhelming feelings of bitterness toward the former captain, and even anger. While his report in June frustrated and disappointed me, I wasn’t particularly surprised – in part due to the signings, but mostly due to his delayed response to the speculation. Arsene Wenger, whether he admits it or not, always acknowledged the possibility and, as a result, did his best to keep the ship upright and progressively moving.
Unlike the other aforementioned players that left North London for greener and/or more trophy-laden pastures, van Persie’s legacy at the Emirates spans no further than a single season. As magical as last season was for all affiliated with the club, it was still one season. One injury-free season, where everything went right for the Dutch center-forward, that almost single-handedly delivered Arsenal to its 17th straight top-four finish. Despite all those seasons before, on the field and off (due to injuries), the 38 games of the 2011-12 Premier League season will almost exclusively define his legacy, as an Arsenal player and possibly as a professional footballer.
I will always appreciate Robin van Persie for his star role in my favorite period of Arsenal football in the past several seasons; however, that same personal success only compounded the disappointment of Gooners everywhere that accompanied his statement and his inevitable departure from London. It didn’t have to end this way, it shouldn’t have ended this way, and it’s a shame for both parties that it does. As fans of many lower to mid-level clubs could vouch, the money that the team ultimately receives, regardless of amount, is so often only a consolation for what could have been.