Robin van Persie’s transfer from Arsenal to Manchester United in August 2012 was thought by many to reinforce a pecking order in English football, where Manchester United would always be at or near the top of the table while the Gunners would not compete for honors anytime soon.
On an episode of World Soccer Radio in August 2012, Nick Geber and I both voiced a minority opinion that Arsenal getting £22m for a player that at the time was 29 years-old and had a terrible injury record could help revitalize Arsenal. I also voiced the opinion that Van Persie’s personal volatility could have negatively impacted the development of younger players in Arsenal’s plans and thus getting him out of the Emirates for a hefty sum of cash was probably always going to be a good deal. For those opinions, we were endlessly mocked on social media. And after a year, who could blame those mocking us?
A year and a half later, we sit knowing Manchester United won the title in 2012-13 thanks largely to RVP. But perhaps also feeling they would have won the title with or without him, given the margin by which they won the league. His transfer set Danny Welbeck’s development back at least a season, and perhaps created the last rupture between Sir Alex Ferguson and Wayne Rooney.
This season, Arsenal has been at the top or near the top of the table since August, while the Red Devils have been moving from one crisis to another thanks in large part to Van Persie’s unavailability due to injury. The Dutch striker is injured again now without anyone really knowing when he will be back.
Manchester United manager Moyes conceded on Saturday that he would not want to put a date on Van Persie’s return to action. Much like his time at Arsenal, the Dutchman is facing a long lay off just at the time his team needs results the most. The Gunners reliance on Van Persie often times led to rough patches in the winter that became a common media narrative about Arsene Wenger’s failings. Long-term injuries and other fitness issues would repeatedly deem Van Persie unavailable at key moments for the Gunners.
Each and every year Arsenal would somehow find its way into the top four and a Champions League spot. While Manchester United could conceivably cut into the lead at the top of the table and still chase down the title, like Arsenal in those years, the only realistic possibility is to make the top four.
Meanwhile in North London, having jettisoned Van Persie, the Gunners are chasing a title, having last sat behind Van Persie’s men in the table in August, after the second matchday of the season.
No question can exist that Van Persie was very solid last season for Manchester United with the exception of a rough patch of about ten games in February and March. It is also true that Arsenal struggled to finish fourth in the league. But this season, the transfer seems to have bogged Manchester United down while giving Arsene Wenger the opportunity to develop more options and a team spirit that had eluded the Gunners in recent years.