In the summer of 2012 Arsenal sold Golden Boot winner, captain and star striker to Manchester United for £24.5 million.
The Dutchman went on to win his first Premier League title with the Red Devils after eight years in North London with the Gunners but now, just over a year on, Arsenal sit top of the table after a 9-game unbeaten run in the Premier League whilst United sit uncomfortably in 8th place after a tough start for new boss David Moyes.
The season of 2011/12 was all about one man – Van Persie took all the plaudits for his 37 goals scored across all competitions and, in much the same way, last term was all about Van Persie as United recorded their 20th league title win to send Sir Alex Ferguson off in style after 26 years in charge at Old Trafford.
The first thing Arsene Wenger did was to bring in three new players – Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla arrived at the Emirates and finished out the season with no less than 45 goals between them scored in all competitions. They have become three of the most influential, important and key players in the squad.
The new signings, however, weren’t the only players scoring goals last term for the Gunners – Arsenal’s 105 goals in all competitions were scored by 18 different scorers last term. The three new summer signings accounted for 42.8% of Arsenal’s total goals. Theo Walcott alone scored 20% of Arsenal’s total. Midfielders combined scored 53.3% and defenders combined scored 10.4% of their total goals. Olivier Giroud scored just 16.1% of all Arsenal goals.
In 2011/12, their 94 goals were scored by 18 different players but 39.3% of their goals came from Van Persie alone. Their midfielders scored 41.4% of their goals and their defence scored 14.8% but by far the reliance was on the star striker.
Meanwhile, Arsenal improved defensively last term and, from January of this year, even more so. The Gunners conceded 37 goals in the Premier League last season, which is way down on the 49 goals they conceded in the league the season before.
From the New Year this year, Arsenal have conceded just 25 goals to date – in the same period from January 2011 to November of that year, the Gunners had conceded 31 goals – I would suggest that perhaps Van Persie’s departure made the Gunners more focused defensively because they could not rely so heavily on him to save the day up front.
We saw especially from March onwards this year (following the North London derby defeat at White Hart Lane and the trip to Bayern Munich) that Arsenal were prepared to defend as a team and concentrate on keeping it tight at the back before trying to score goals themselves. Since then there has been a concerted effort from all eleven players on the pitch, not just the back five, but you see the way Olivier Giroud operates as the first line of defence. Losing Van Persie forced them to tighten it up and they’ve gotten better with more practice.
You can see the evidence of this in their 1-0 win over Borussia Dortmund in midweek. They kept their focus and were resilient – the clean sheet was the most important thing – and then when they got their chance to attack, they did. It was a mature and complete performance from Arsenal.
One big reason for this development has been a slight formational shift – Arsene Wenger would deploy a 4-3-3 or perhaps a 4-5-1 with Van Persie as the focal point around which everything and everyone else rotated.
He was like the conductor – everything went through him. Now Arsenal are more flexible, adaptable and structurally resistant with their 4-2-3-1 system – it gives them greater protection at the back, more domination in midfield and more supporting players busting their gut to get in the box. Before, you’d ordinarily only really see Van Persie or the two wide-forwards getting in the box on a regular basis.
Now you see Aaron Ramsey (a box-to-box midfielder) in the box as often as you see Giroud. You even see Kieran Gibbs and Nacho Monreal given the licence to get forward in those areas – because they know there are bodies that can cover them in behind.
With the foundations of a very strong team developing throughout 2013 at the Emirates, Arsene Wenger was still under intense pressure to spend some money and, at long last, he did – he smashed the club’s transfer record to bring in probably the best number 10 in Europe. Mesut Ozil wasn’t just a signing – it was statement of intent from the club.
When Van Persie left he claimed it was because Arsenal weren’t showing enough ambition and at that time he might have had a decent point but, if it hadn’t have been for his departure, it’s likely Mesut Ozil would not be at Arsenal.
Van Persie’s sale to a domestic rival was push coming to shove in many ways – it was the straw that broke the camel’s back for the fans. It was hard to swallow and all the anger and frustration and arguing that came to boiling point over the season and the summer was what forced the club and the boss to make it right. The contentment the fans have with the operating and transfer policy at the club
image: © Ronnie Macdonald