Two minutes, 34 seconds. That’s all it took for Robin van Persie to score in his first match against Arsenal and, in doing so, prove how ridiculous it is to imagine that his former team somehow struck a canny deal in selling him.
Arsenal is said to have got 24 million pounds (US$ 38 million) from Manchester United for its former captain this August. At the time, it seemed like potentially good business for the London club, given Van Persie’s age, 29, and history of injury that meant only the last of his eight seasons at Arsenal was truly superlative. But now, all that money looks like fool’s gold, certainly not enough to compensate for Arsenal’s loss.
Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Gael Clichy, Alex Song, Van Persie – the list of former Arsenal players sold off to teams that can deliver trophies, which Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger hasn’t done since 2005, has grown so long that it now reads like a guilty verdict. Guilty, your honor, of arrogantly believing that it’s possible for a team to habitually cash-in its best assets and still be a contender in the English Premier League.
Arsenal’s early season promise, when Gervinho was scoring and the defense appeared to have papered over its cracks, was a mere mirage. After just 10 games, it is clear that Arsenal again won’t be competing for the Premier League title this year, not if it produces many more aimless performances like Saturday’s 2-1 loss at United. The Arsenal attack, if it can be called that, was as toothless as a grandparent who misplaced their dentures.
Proving that devotion is blind, the fans who traveled from the capital to England’s surprisingly sunny northwest repeatedly sang, “We love you Arsenal, we do.” But some of them perhaps traveled back wondering why.
Olivier Giroud, the new Arsenal striker brought from France’s Ligue 1 to replace Van Persie, still doesn’t look as though he believes that he actually deserves to be playing in England’s faster, more physical top division. In the 38th minute, the France international made space for himself to pounce on Santi Cazorla’s neatly delivered corner-kick. But Giroud then ballooned his header into the crowd, nowhere near the United goal. That squandered chance to cancel out Van Persie’s opening goal for United suggested Giroud isn’t yet worthy of shining his predecessor’s boots, let alone filling them.
How sorely do the Gunners miss Van Persie? So much that Arsenal left-back Andre Santos got his former teammate to give him his United jersey as a keep-sake after just 45 minutes, instead of waiting for full-time. Only more embarrassing would have been if Santos had asked Van Persie to autograph it for him, too. How bad was Arsenal? Bad enough to surely make Van Persie thankful that he left and that he listened to the voice of “that little boy inside of me” he said told him he must move to United.
In buying Van Persie, manager Alex Ferguson didn’t just acquire a seasoned campaigner who has slotted seamlessly into his team. He didn’t just get a foxy, gifted scorer who has already given him 10 goals in 13 games, including Van Persie’s quick strike against Arsenal, scored with his weaker right foot, the one he has called his “chocolate” leg.
In Van Persie, Ferguson also got a partner for Wayne Rooney. Wayne-man and Robin. They are quickly becoming a dynamic duo, developing a penetrating understanding of each other’s complimentary styles and skills.
When Rooney has the ball, Van Persie runs into space. Rooney looks up, searching for him. Then he delivers the pass that allows Van Persie to create a scoring opportunity. That happened in the 17th minute and again three minutes later. In this match, neither of those link-ups produced a goal. But they will in future. They’re bound to, given the almost telepathic way the two forwards are finding each other and reading each other’s intentions.
“It seems to work very well,” Van Persie said post-match of their partnership, looking Rooney in the eye and getting a nod and a grin in return.
“I’m very happy with this man,” Van Persie added, giving his new teammate a hearty slap on the shoulder.
With Van Persie up front, Rooney is dropping back, playing more from the midfield against Arsenal. If having more of a supporting role than a starring one with Van Persie leading the attack somehow offends Rooney, then, to his credit, he doesn’t show it.
Rooney missed a penalty that would have given United a 2-0 lead after 45 minutes. But for the full 90 minutes, he was utterly devoted to United’s cause, not his own. Importantly, Rooney smothered Mikel Arteta to the point where one had to actually check whether Arsenal’s Spanish midfielder was still on the pitch. He was but, largely obscured and frustrated by Rooney’s shadow, Arteta made no significant impact.
For old time’s sake, Van Persie gave his former Arsenal chums handshakes and hugs before they ran out onto the pitch at Old Trafford.
Then, 2:34 after referee Mike Dean got the game started, in went Van Persie’s goal. Patrice Evra scored United’s second. Cazorla’s injury-time consolation for Arsenal made the score look better than its performance deserved.
Van Persie’s departure from Arsenal was just football business. Players come, players go, money changes hands. All those millions in August seemed like a hefty pile.
But only United got a good deal.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester