In the middle of last season I was at the Emirates to watch Arsenal take on Everton. With the game drifting towards inconsequence, Alex Song lobbed the ball forward into the visitors' penalty area. Running on to it with Rolex timing, Robin van Persie leapt off the ground and, connecting on the volley with his left foot, hammered home the sweetest of winners.
The response from the home fans to the goal of the season strike was instructive about where Arsenal stand these days. It was a wonder effort, magnificent in its daring and execution. But for many of those who pay their money to watch regularly at the ground, it was one filled with nuance and poignancy. What worried so many in the ground that day was this: what happens when RVP is not around? What happens if he gets injured or worse fed up and disappears elsewhere? We had just seen how he was the man who made the difference, the player who turned nondescript draws into memorable wins. Where would the club be without him?
Well, the worst pessimistic fears of those who found their moment of celebration compromised have just been realised. In the modern way of things, Van Persie has announced on his website that he will not be signing the new contract proffered by Arsene Wenger. He had some waspish things to say about the set up at Arsenal, about the block on ambition caused by the club's financial management. Clearly he wants to be elsewhere, drawn not so much for the money that is on offer at Manchester City or Barcelona.
But by the prospect of being surrounded by sufficient talent to ensure that the rest of his career is not as free of trophies as it has been up until now. Whether he stays around to see out the final year of his contract remains to be seen. Though it has to be said that the gap between what Arsenal publicly insist when discussing such matters and what eventually transpires, has been blown ever further apart by the history of players like Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri (both of whom, incidentally, have shown RVP the way by winning plenty since they departed north London).
For Arsenal, Van Persie's defection marks the final arrival of the crisis many have been predicting for years. The slow drip drip leakage of talent has reached its nadir. The second most significant shareholder (and a man regarded as poison to the current board) Alisher Usmanov, has made plain his thoughts in an open letter.
His belief is that the club's insistence on placing financial responsibility on the manager by demanding that he sticks to the kind of budget that would barely cover the valeting bill in the Etihad players' car park is undermining the chances of success. Usmanov would like to see the current debt wiped out by a new rights issue. That such an instrument would also strengthen his position is surely just a coincidence.
Arsenal's problem, however, is not theirs alone. What this summer is proving is that, in the Premier League, being properly financed, sensibly administered and self-sustained is nowhere near enough to compete with the bottomless moneypits at City and Chelsea. Wenger's conjuring trick ability to secure Champions League qualification year after year may well represent the apex of possibility when every player on his roster is only a couple of good seasons away from disappearing elsewhere.
The disappointing news for the Emirates regulars is that the way in which Van Persie was unsettled by the promise of fulfilment will not be the last. Theo Walcott, Alex Song, Tottenham's Luka Modric: really anyone who fits the requirements is a reachable target. Even Wayne Rooney. Wenger has bought very well this summer. Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski are both excellent players. How long they hang around in Islington is another matter.
Usmanov's solution is one of refinancing. Remove the debt incurred by building the Emirates and thus release the biggest matchday receipts in league into the transfer kitty. It seems a simple solution, and one which might well appeal to those who could not wholly enjoy Van Persie's goal for fear of what lay ahead. But given it requires the existing board to put their hands deep into their pockets, it is unlikely to find voting favour any time soon.
Until it does, Arsenal, like Spurs, Liverpool, even Manchester United, will find that their assumptions about where they stand in the hierarchy have been distorted. There is nothing new in this. The game has always been about money. It is just that these days, for Arsenal, even being in a financial position way beyond any that could have been dreamed of a decade ago is simply not enough.
- Sports & Recreation