Van Persie will be painfully applauded in his return to Arsenal
It was difficult to read Robin van Persie's expression on Monday evening. He had just scored a hat trick to secure a 20th top-flight title for Manchester United and spent a while dancing around the pitch at Old Trafford chanting "Champi-oooo-nes!" with his teammates before being collared by the TV cameras. Could he put into words how he felt at that moment, they wondered.
"Well, very happy," he said, a smile breaking across his face, "but it's weird, you know. I had to wait for so long for my first title."
The smile did not disappear, but there was a moment's pause -- maybe just a nano-moment, but noticeable nonetheless -- as he surveyed the stands.
Perhaps he was simply trying to take it all in, to commit to memory every sight and sound of this evening that he had waited so long for. But perhaps there was a brief pang of sadness at the knowledge that he could not have feasted on these treats at Arsenal. When he spoke again, he seemed to reiterate the reasoning behind his move last summer; here, he was part of a team calibrated to win.
"It's just fantastic, with a fantastic team, fantastic players," he said, gesturing around him. "It's a championship for every single one of them. This is our 20th title, and I think deserved."
As fate would have it, United's first match as champions is at Arsenal on Sunday. Before kickoff the Arsenal players will line up to form a guard of honor to applaud United's players, among them now Van Persie, onto the pitch. Inevitably the question came. How much was he looking forward to returning to the Emirates as a champion?
"Let me first enjoy this moment," he said diplomatically, accepting the match ball and the man of the match trophy before rejoining the celebrations away from the cameras.
The Emirates is surely the last ground that Van Persie would have wanted to visit this weekend. Though the statement announcing his decision not to extend the contract that would have run out this summer suggested some long-running frustrations -- "It has again become clear to me that we in many aspects disagree on the way Arsenal FC should move forward" -- it also made obvious how strongly Van Persie felt about Arsenal. "I love the club and the fans, no matter what happens."
These were not hollow platitudes. Van Persie was just about to turn 26 when he signed a new contract at the end of the 2008-09 season, his second as Arsenal's top scorer.
"I just can't picture myself in a different shirt," he said, as the club announced a deal to keep him there until at least his 30th birthday.
While on holiday that summer he reflected on the decision.
"If you look at other players who can make a difference, their best years are always from roundabout 25 to 30-ish," he said. "I gave my best years to Arsenal, basically, and this is how I want it."
How a sentence of such pride must have come to hurt over the years that we -- soccer fans, the press, broadcasters -- counted Arsenal's trophyless years ever louder. In 2009 he was growing into Thierry Henry's shoes, increasingly the embodiment of the best of Arsenal under Arsene Wenger; by last summer he must have felt increasingly like he was all that was left of it. Team building? The high-profile moves of Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor to Manchester City in 2009 were repeated in 2011 with the sales of Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri. Cesc Fabregas finally went to Barcelona, to be joined by Alex Song a few days after Van Persie signed at Old Trafford.
The choice of Manchester United was painful for Arsenal supporters, who had at least been able to sneer at their alumni at the Etihad and chastise them for being money-grabbers. In choosing United, Van Persie made things more difficult. It was so obviously a choice motivated by winning trophies while he was still in his prime that to criticize him was also, and probably more severely, to criticize their own club. Van Persie had reached the conclusion that the last of his "best years" would be wasted on Arsenal.
After the shock and disappointment, the anger and the resentment, Arsenal fans had the team left behind to worry about. Without Van Persie's 30 league goals in 2011-12, they calculated, Arsenal would have been more than 25 points worse off, languishing somewhere around 15th place. Though Arsenal had coped without Van Persie at regular intervals when he was injured in the past, these sums seemed to signal catastrophe.
Yet Arsenal has coped again. None of Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla, who all arrived last summer, is in the same class as Van Persie, but between them they have more than accounted for the Dutchman's goals. Arsenal is only two strikes worse off than at this point last season, Van Persie's most prolific. Cazorla's 12 goals and seven assists, as well as his understanding with Jack Wilshere, bode well.
Mikel Arteta has not scored more goals than last season, but he has scored goals of greater significance, producing winners on three occasions, and with his latest, a penalty taken under huge pressure against Norwich City, helped restore Arsenal's advantage in the chase for Champions League places (3. Arsenal (63), 4. Chelsea (62), 5. Spurs (61)). Theo Walcott still seems short of the player people imagined he would be by now, but only Chelsea's Juan Mata can better his 11 goals and 10 assists this season.
How much of this is a comfort to Arsenal fans is uncertain, because there is already so much frustration at the club's transfer policies. The question of "what if Van Persie had stayed?" is moot because that would almost certainly have precluded at least one of last summer's signings. The question of "what if Arsenal was spending $30 million-plus on individual players, instead of simply selling them at that price?" nags, too. Could Arsenal do more than tread water in the Premier League, always in the Champions League but rarely in danger of winning it, with that kind of investment?
(Optimism for this summer may shrivel at Wenger's admission that Chelsea's potential spending under a new manager frightens him.)
That is part of why applauding United onto the pitch at the Emirates will hurt. It had been a while since anyone had spoken of United as a vintage Alex Ferguson side, but his team only missed out on defending the title last season in the final minutes of the final day, on goal difference. From that position Ferguson signed Van Persie for $37 million, plus Shinji Kagawa, a double-winner with Borussia Dortmund, for another $18.5 million as well as others, and has this season won the title with four games to spare -- 16 points clear of City, 21 ahead of Arsenal, and with a goal difference fantastically superior to everyone else's. And the manager is crediting van Persie.
"He's been unbelievable," said Ferguson, who also described Monday's volley, a trademark over-the-shoulder-and-bam! strike, as "goal of the century." "I think that he has to take a lot of the credit. I think his goals tell you that, his performance levels told you that. In terms of impact, he has made as big an impact as any player I can imagine," Ferguson said, mentioning Eric Cantona, who helped United from mid-table to the title in the 1992-93 season.
"But I'm sure Robin would be saying what a great bunch of players he's had with him," said the United manager. Whether or not he intended a slight on the players Van Persie left behind, the words scattered like salt sprinkled over an open wound.