It’s been three months since the end of the Premier League, when last minute drama secured for Arsenal Champions League football (and with it vital revenue and exposure, as well as the pride of qualifying for the top club tournament in the world) and the title switched at literally the last moment of the Manchester City – QPR game to the blue half of Manchester. Since then we’ve had the European Championship and the Olympics drowning out lots of the usual transfer gossip and making the elation of Koscielny’s 54th minute winner feel even further away.
The international distractions were fiercely pierced by van Persie’s open letter to the management that ‘serious disagreements’ with the way the club was run and the ambitions it was showing lead to him wanting out. Most saw this as the typical PR guff of a player wanting out but a hopeful few saw it as the captain, idol, top goalscorer, best player (by far) and man who’d declared “he’d always be a Gunner” forcing the club’s hand in the transfer market to mount a genuine title challenge. Sadly, the former turned out true. Arsenal had already signed Lukas Podolski (sadly given the dreaded number 9 shirt), have since added Olivier Giroud and the awesome Santi Cazorla, are expecting to make further additions (notably Nuri Sahin) and have mooted interest in Yann M’Vila.
Call me a dreamer, an idealist, even a football fan, but an attacking line up of van Persie, Giroud, Podolski, Walcott, Oxlade–Chamberlain, Wilshere, Arteta, Cazorla, Rosicky, Gervinho, all a year more settled and experienced, would have been something to be savoured, and definitely capable of trophies. The burden on van Persie’s shoulders spread more evenly across a technically improved squad would have given Arsenal a team to at least equal the Manchester sides and strike fear, and goals, across the division and in Europe. Van Persie, knowing this, watching the club’s ambition, and with a better insight than most into the rivalry between Arsenal and Manchester United, even if it has cooled in recent seasons, decided to throw the chance to go down in Arsenal folklore, like an Henry or Brady before him, for a pay day.
When van Persie released his transfer request in July I honestly believe that this is not how or where he imagined moving. After an absolutely blistering season he and his agent would have expected to have had their pick of the best and richest clubs in Europe, including new boys PSG. Instead, no one showed interest except a Juventus side unable to offer both Arsenal and van Persie the financial terms they desired and then hit by the turmoil of manager Conte’s 10-month suspension for match fixing. Neither of the Milan sides, nor Barcelona or Real were tempted. City were put off by their array of unmovable strikers which left only United at the table, forcing Arsenal to sell to them despite their reluctance.
In recent seasons the club has been criticised for selling too easily, and failing to land players (Alonso and Mata particularly come to mind). This summer, however, credit must be given. Securing £24m for a player in the last year of their contract determined not to re-sign, is good business, even if that player is as good as van Persie was last season. It could also be argued that getting a rival to shell out £70m on a player (combined wages and fees over his four year contract) with van Persie’s injury record in a position where strengthening is not overly needed is not bad either.
The truth, however, remains that Arsenal have sold a world class player on the back of his best ever season to one of their fiercest rivals and title competitors. The sad thing about this transfer is that he’s gone from potential legend status to just another player who played some (very) good football here before moving on. Whatever the impression from recent acrimonious transfers, Arsenal fans are not usually a bitter or hostile bunch to ex-players. Liam Brady (Juventus) and Thierry Henry (Barcelona) both left as legends and remain legends, Cesc Fabregas does not reach those heights but there remains a place in the heart of all Gooners for him. If van Persie had moved abroad a similar space, in time, would have been his. Instead, he’s chosen United, and until I see him actually in a United shirt it’s sadness at the loss of a potential legend, rather than anger or resentment, that I feel.
The other major player to want out this summer has the club deal with him swiftly and efficiently. Rumoured Barcelona interest in Song and the player telling the manager he was considering his options, despite having two or three years left on his contract, has led to the club seeking to transfer him immediately. Sick of being buffeted by transfer winds, uncommitted players and summer sagas, Wenger has acted swiftly to tell Song (a player he put seven years of hard work into) to get lost. Barcelona’s sporting director has been in London and it is more than likely that a sale of £15m or more is going to be done in the next week.
If the millions raised go back into the football team, preferably in the form of some midfielders and some defenders, with full backs a necessity, then Arsenal may well have got rid of two uncommitted players and improved the squad. Their best football (and the closest title challenge) recently came in the 2008-09 season after Henry had been sold and it seemed a weight had been lifted from other players.
Perverse as it may sound, there do come occasions when selling a world class player can benefit the team; it forces other players to step up and multiplies focal points. England suffered for years trying to fit Gerrard and Lampard into the same formation and Arsenal seemed to wilt towards the end of Henry’s first stint. Hopefully this will generate a similar new lease of life.
As for expectations going into the new season, the top four and qualifying for the Champions League is once again the bare minimum. The club suffered permanent embarrassment when Chelsea became the first London club to win the European Cup and another trophy-less season would take us to eight, which is quite frankly unacceptable. Looking at the business done, and continued scouting, this is not a club content with the top four. The finances are improving, the stadium less of a drain and more the cash cow it was designed to be with new sponsorship deals to be negotiated (for vastly increased sums) in the coming seasons. Money is becoming less of a constraint each season, giving the club greater, as demonstrated, manoeuvrability in the market.
Pre-season optimism is as yet unbroken and in the excitement of real football match at a proper Saturday 3 pm kick off time, genuine challenges for the league title and the FA Cup are musts, if for nothing else then to simply prove that Arsenal is a place that players can play and win trophies at. A trophy would be a much appreciated bonus. The quarter or semi finals of the Champions League is likely; Barcelona still must be the favourites, although the random nature of cup football and the vast amount of football played by their Spanish internationals means that the Cup remains open to a number of clubs, and Arsenal should count themselves among this number. This does, however, rely upon the new boys bedding in early and hitting the ground running – a tough ask of any new signing, particularly in the physically enduring Premier League.