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Jul 4, 2012

Van Persie leaves Arsenal at crossroads

For Arsenal, this is 2005, 2007 and 2011. It is wearily, depressingly, predictably familiar. For Arsene Wenger, the man who converted the insular English to become Francophiles, it is deja vu all over again. It is the sound of his captain declaring that the adulation of all at Arsenal is no longer enough. It is time for him to move on.

And yet it is worse than before. Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry began to wane soon after leaving North London; Arsenal actually sold at the right time. The emotional pull of his native Barcelona was too great for Cesc Fabregas to resist; he had special circumstances. Robin van Persie is a different case. He is at the peak of his powers. He needs not just to join another club, but to leave Arsenal. His annus mirabilis served to persuade him he was too good for them.

"My goal has been to win trophies with the team," he said in his statement confirming that he will not seek or sign a new contract. And so he did, ending Arsenal's seven-year wait for silverware. But his honours were individual. His colleagues rarely threatened to win anything. His league campaign yielded 30 goals and nine assists and made him the double Footballer of the Year. He rescued an imploding Arsenal and propelled them out of crisis talk and back into the Champions League. That, should he go now, is his legacy.

While he received assistance from men such as Wojciech Szczesny, Laurent Koscielny, Thomas Vermaelen, Alex Song, Mikel Arteta and Theo Walcott, it is implausible that Arsenal would have finished third had Van Persie not developed, as Wenger predicted, into a hybrid of Henry and Dennis Bergkamp. Now a side that was branded a one-man team is losing the one man.

Perhaps it is now, perhaps next summer. That is Arsenal's decision. The sounder financial move would be to take the money before a prized asset departs for free. The footballing considerations include whether Wenger can replace Van Persie - or indeed, if he already has with Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski - and the implications of the Dutchman's determination to go on his performances should he be forced to see out his current contract. There is a precedent of unhappy captains delivering - Gareth Southgate was on the transfer list for a year at Aston Villa while leading the team - but such characters are few and far between.

Van Persie is a more outspoken individual. He was astonishingly eloquent on the field last season on what appeared a personal mission to prevent Arsenal entering decline. There is something pure about Wenger's methods, both in his brand of football and his economic model. More than most, Van Persie seemed a believer. But now his crusading days are over.

He insisted money is not his consideration but money - Chelsea and Manchester City's money, in particular - has altered the footballing landscape. Meanwhile, it is increasingly apparent that Wenger's business plan appeals more to owners and investors than fans and, more pertinently, footballers. In Arsene they no longer trust. Not to deliver silverware. Not to keep their most talented team-mates out of the clutches of slavering suitors.

Arsenal are left looking a deluxe finishing school, one of the greatest managers in history seeming hamstrung. Even as he starts to spend, it was too little, too late for Van Persie. "We in many aspects disagree on the way Arsenal should move forward," said the possessor of the finest left foot the Gunners have seen since Liam Brady.

Perhaps that is a vote of no confidence in Podolski, winner of a century of caps for Germany by the age of 27, and Giroud, the top scorer in Ligue 1. Yet even they, while a significant step up on Marouane Chamakh and Park Chu-young, the pygmies that made Van Persie seem still bigger in stature, are not the game's superstars. Wenger competes in different markets from City and Chelsea; partly through choice, partly because Emirates Stadium is not the destination of choice for the footballer who can go anywhere.

Wenger has funds. Few are better at generating them. Even after signing Giroud and Podolski and before selling Van Persie - or, at the other extreme, the deadwood weighing his squad down - he is thought to have £50 million to spend. That sum could be swelled, Arsenal's annual expenditure becoming the greatest in their history, without shaking off the feeling that their relegation to the second rank of clubs has been rubber-stamped.

Footballers being footballers, status counts. Ultimately, rather than any of his players, Wenger is the great loyalist, the one who stayed when Real Madrid and Barcelona and however many others came calling. He is the modern-day Tony Adams, the symbol of the club.

And now, should Van Persie join the Arsenal exiles at the Etihad or the galaxy of talent at Spain's top two clubs, he has the hardest question of all: how to replace the irreplaceable? Giroud and Podolski, rather than supporting Van Persie, may have to succeed him. There could be a reprieve for Nicklas Bendtner, who actually outscored Van Persie at Euro 2012, but another forward ought to be signed.

But the reality is that Arsenal cannot recruit an individual to emulate RVP the MVP. A collective effort is required. It could take several contributors to chip in to match those 30 goals and nine assists, others to bring about an improvement in Arsenal's defensive record so that they no longer need to score so many.

Centre-forward, top scorer, penalty and free-kick taker, creator and captain, flair player and figurehead, Van Persie's responsibilities have been many and varied. No one can inherit all. Indeed, one duty perhaps ought to go to the least suitable. Because, judging by recent history, the Arsenal armband exerts special powers, rendering its wearer irresistible to would-be buyers. So here is a strategy for Wenger: when he loses his best player, make his worst one skipper.

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