Another summer off-season has brought on another crisis for the Premiere League’s Arsenal FC. In 2009 the red and white lost power talents Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor to rivals Manchester City in summer transfers. In 2011, they lost world class midfielder Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona and playmaker Samir Nasri, along with defender Gael Clichy, to Manchester City. The club has mostly replaced such lost talents with cheaper, younger players, many of whom have not stepped up to fill the lost Gunners’ boots. This year, as the Gunners ruthlessly climbed the table after an awful start to the 2011 campaign, striker and captain Robin Van Persie emerged as the massive talent that the club’s fans suspected he was, but which a string of injuries had prevented from full revelation. He scored when he wanted in the 2011 season, it seemed, banging in 37 goals in all competitions and netting the Premiere League’s Golden Boot and both Player of the Year awards. At times Van Persie carried the Gunners on his back.
But throughout Van Persie’s incredible campaign, there was a nagging doubt that he would not return for another season. He was in the penultimate year of his contract, and had put off any extension talks until the end of the season. Arsenal finished third in the table, and RVP joined his countrymen at the Euro 2012 championships, no new contract inked. On Wednesday, he declared that he would not sign an extension.
His announcement has sparked condemnation and a raging debate: Should Arsenal sell him and buy other players to replace him, or should they hold him to that final year?
Van Persie is no youngster by soccer standards; he turns 29 in August. He has been injury-plagued throughout his time at Arsenal, and was once accused of rape. That charge was false, and the club stood patiently by him during that ordeal and the many months he has spent off the pitch and on the doctor’s table. One great and complete season later, though, he questions the club’s ambition and says that he will not extend his contract. Here is how he framed his decision to leave in his statement to the club’s fans:
I personally have had a great season but my goal has been to win trophies with the team and to bring the club back to its glory days.
Out of my huge respect for Mr Wenger, the players and the fans I don’t want to go into any details, but unfortunately in this meeting it has again become clear to me that we in many aspects disagree on the way Arsenal should move forward.
I’ve thought long and hard about it, but I have decided not to extend my contract. You guys, the fans, have of course the right to disagree with my view and decision and I will always respect your opinions.
I love the club and the fans, no matter what happens. I have grown up and became a man during my time with Arsenal. Everybody at the club and the fans have always supported me over the years and I have always given my all (and more) on and off the pitch.
The timing is interesting: Arsenal have already bought two world-class strikers in Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud before the summer transfer window has even officially opened, and are said to be chasing the signatures of a new goalkeeper and one or more established midfielders including American Clint Dempsey, who is coming off his best season at Premiere League stalwart Fulham. They are also in the hunt for Belgian defender Jan Vertonghen. Podolski carried his German club last season, and Giroud led the French league in scoring on the way to his club winning the title. None of Arsenal’s moves to sign them and other players show any lack of ambition. Despite his protestation that he has “huge respect” for club manager Arsene Wenger, Van Persie’s statement says otherwise: The player is questioning the manager’s and the board’s vision for the club. His public statement caught the club off guard. It was designed to damage the club going into its transfer window, and may reduce the price it could have gotten for him had he stayed quiet. That’s disrespect, and the club and its fans expected and deserved better from him.
If Van Persie’s decision were a one-off it would probably not have caused the likes of megafan Piers Morgan to go on a Twitter tirade, and it would not have caused the burgeoning civil war on the club’s board, but it’s no one-off: Gunners captains seem to set their minds to leave the club as soon as they put on the armband. Other clubs now know that once an Arsenal talisman nears his final contract year, he will not be loyal to the club and will chase higher wages and more “ambition.” Arsenal is a top class team boasting an attractive style, have won more than a dozen championships, and under Wenger went undefeated in the 2003 campaign, a feat probably never to be repeated by any other Premiere League club. But that’s the past; the club has not won a trophy since 2005. Last year’s defectors, Nasir and Clichy, did end up with fatter paychecks and the Premiere League title at City while Arsenal finished third, so the evidence is with them until they are proven wrong. It’s becoming impossible for the storied Arsenal club and its professorial manager to hang onto the talent that it spots before anyone else and develops to levels that the likes of City cannot even dream to develop its own young talent. Van Persie, for instance, came to Arsenal as an unknown hot-tempered 20-year-old winger on a cheap transfer. Wenger molded him into an intelligent and lethal world class striker. City or some other club may benefit from Van Persie’s eight-year finishing school in the London red and white. If Van Persie is sold this summer, other players, including speedy 23-year-old winger Theo Walcott, may agree that the club lacks ambition and hit the exits too, repeating last summer’s fire sale fiasco.
Arsenal, so far, says they expect Van Persie to fulfill his duties and play out the final year of his contract. They may be saying this while looking for a buyer, as several former club legends are urging them to do, but this would be a mistake. Arsenal risks finalizing its image as nothing more than a feeder club to “bigger” clubs that want to win championships. This image will damage its global brand and scare off top talent from signing with the club in the future. Selling Van Persie at this point may in fact prove him right: What ambitious club sells its marquee talent year in and year out? What ambitious club develops talent for its rivals to buy up and use against it?
Arsenal has to break its sellout cycle, now. The club should take the risk and keep Van Persie to his contract, at least for the first half of the 2012 campaign up to the January transfer window. The player says he “grew up and became a man” at Arsenal; let him prove it by keeping his word for one more campaign. The club’s new players will need time to adjust to their new league. Walcott has long coveted Van Persie’s central striker role, and he should be given the chance to compete for it with his new teammates. Van Persie should relinquish the captain’s arm band but be given as much play time as he can handle, as Arsenal step up and challenge for cups and titles. Van Persie may be sold in January or stay through the season and leave as a free agent, but by staying he may earn the club more money than it can get for selling a wantaway 29 year old with a long history of injuries. A final successful campaign will help him repair the image he had built with the fans over eight years, but destroyed in one ill-conceived message to them. Arsenal can begin to regain the control it has squandered by selling off its top players without replacing them, year after year.
Arsenal should prove its true ambition to its best player, by keeping that player to his word and keeping him for his final contract year.