It has, by and large, been a successful summer thus far for Arsenal and Arsene Wenger. The Gunners’ lack of striking depth appears to have been solved by the additions of vastly experienced international forwards Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud, while almost everyone appears in agreement that the signing of Spanish midfield schemer Santi Cazorla is a superb one. Behind the scenes, there is quiet confidence that the arrival of Steve Bould, he of the watertight George Graham era, is beginning to have an effect as the new assistant manager as he attempts to shore up the Gunners’ previously leaky backline. With further signings seemingly on the horizon, even the inevitably departure of contract-rebel Robin Van Persie does not lend itself to the mass panic it did a few weeks ago. Indeed, with the signings of Podolski and Giroud, the Dutchman’s replacements appear to already be in place.
However, with news breaking this week of Van Persie moving closer to a switch to Manchester United, the mood for some fans has darkened considerably. But why? Surely a move to Old Trafford would at least justify Van Persie’s motivations for leaving Arsenal in order to win trophies, rather than for the financial benefits that a move to Manchester City would bring. Indeed, after all the “Man City feeder clubs” jibes thrown at Arsenal following the departures of messrs Toure, Adebayor, Clichy and Nasri to Eastlands, surely Van Persie’s decision to join United rather than City should be applauded rather than criticised? However, the uneasy truth, one that is obvious to all Arsenal fans, is that were Van Persie to move to Manchester United, it would be the biggest sign in recent years that Arsenal’s position at the top table of English football is well and truly over. Forget losing Ashley Cole to Chelsea or Nasri to Man City Losing their best player to Man Utd of all teams would represent a hammer blow to the Gunners faithful.
Simply, Manchester United represent Arsenal’s biggest rivals in recent history and in the Arsene Wenger era particularly, Alex Ferguson represents one half of what was up until only a few seasons ago, the biggest grudge match in English football. We all remember the titanic tussles when the two sides ruled the roost in the late 90s and early parts of the century: Arsenal coming back from 13 points behind to win the 1998 double, Dennis Bergkamp’s missed penalty in the cup replay at Villa Park the following season as United went on to secure the Treble, the embarrassment of United’s 6-1 home romp at home to Arsenal, the Gunners coming back to take the title and double at Old Trafford in 2002, the Battle of Old Trafford a year later which saw Martin Keown’s famous tirade against Ruud Van Nistelrooy, United’s controversial and 49-game unbeaten run ending victory over Arsenal in 2004 that infamously led to “Pizzagate”, the many, many, many battles of Patrick Vieira v Roy Keane, culminating in their “I’ll see you out there” encounter in the Highbury tunnel in 2005. Of course, with the arrival of Chelsea and Man City in recent years, particularly as Arsenal slid away from the top of the Premier League, the rivalry has dimmed somewhat and remarkably, the two managers who once used to speak with such venom at each other, have become friends. However, the lingering ill-feeling between the two clubs remains and one only needs to attend a match between the two sides to realise that the crackling atmosphere of old, though diminished somewhat, is still alive and kicking. Thus, the idea of Van Persie, Arsenal’s talisman and captain joining the Red Devils is unthinkable to Arsenal fans who still see Man Utd as a direct rival to them. To simply hand them over the double player of the year, scorer of 37 goals last season would simply be an admission that Arsenal’s time competing with the men from Manchester is over.
Of course, some might say that this is exactly the case. Arsenal are no longer in touch with Man Utd and that if they deem it acceptable to let players go to Man City (who are of course seemingly a better guarantee for trophies than their near neighbours), then why should it be so wrong to sell to United?. Are the Arsenal fans not naive, deluded enough to still believe that the old days of Wenger v Ferguson can be resurrected? The truth is of course somewhere in the middle. Of course Arsenal are no longer at the level they once were, when the mere sight of them evoked fear in Ferguson’s eyes and words, but to sell Van Persie to them would for the fans simply degrade their club to the status of Tottenham Hotspur, regular sellers of their best players to United in recent years. The fans, particularly buoyed by their summer acquisitions, still believe that a route back to the top is not out of reach; any decision to sell Van Persie to Man Utd however, would simply be an admission that it is.
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