The scale of the defeat suffered by Arsenal in the San-Siro was hard to take for their supporters. Those who have seen Arsene Wenger’s side grow over the last 15 years from a physically strong, tough, uncompromising side, into one with a more fluid philosophy, revolving around possession, passing, technique and movement, will have been distraught at the non-performance their side gave as AC Milan ran rampant. Wednesday night’s performance showed just how far the Gunners have fallen from their perch. And it’s a great shame.
Disappointments have been par for the course for Gunners fans in the past seven years, ever since Patrick Vieira’s winning penalty in the dourest of FA Cup finals in 2005 secured the trophy, beating Manchester United in a penalty shoot-out. They’ve seen title challenges wilt almost as annually as spring arrives, and their best players – Vieira, Henry, Fabregas, Nasri – all head for pastures new. Now, following the 4-0 hammering in Italy, they may be about to see another vacate the mantle as the Emirates Stadium darling.
At 28, Robin van Persie is the lynchpin of this Gunners side. He’s the club captain who has matured from a precocious talent with a volatile temper into a truly world-class performer. His goals record speaks for himself, as do the countless assists. He’s reverred across the continent for his technique, vision, skill and finishing prowess and is sought after by the biggest clubs in Italy, Spain and England.
Yet, now is the time when van Persie will be looking at himself and his team-mates and thinking ‘do I need another season of this?’ The 4-0 decimation by Massimo Allegri’s Serie A champions, and the ease at which it was achieved, will surely have told him that his time at the Emirates needs to end, for the good of his own legacy.
The Dutch international has 16 months left on his contract at Ashburton Grove. Last summer he saw his most creative contemporaries – Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas – leave the club in similar circumstances to his own, as they looked to further their careers with the kind of trophies that simply aren’t on offer with Arsene Wenger’s side anymore. Now van Persie owes it to himself to do likewise.
As he struggled against the Milan defensive duo of Thiago Silva and Phillipe Mexes, van Persie must have looked at his team-mates inefficencies and wondered what more can he give to this team. He’s certainly not getting the help from his manager in the transfer market that he deserves.
Tomas Rosicky was no more than a back-up player two seasons ago. Now, following departures, he’s a first-team regular. Aaron Ramsey’s development has stalled. Theo Walcott did his invisible man routine in the San Siro. Mikel Arteta went sideways and backwards, but failed to penetrate Milan’s defence with a pass throughout the 90 minutes. Help was short on the ground for van Persie, and this time he couldn’t do it alone, no matter how hard he tried – despite feeding on scraps, he still forced Christian Abbiati into two decent saves, and one which was truly outstanding from a left-foot volley.
This summer, with 12 months left on his deal, Europe’s big clubs will come calling. Manchester City, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, both Milan clubs. All are title contenders. Van Persie can have his pick.
There will be those who says van Persie owes Arsenal a debt of gratitude, the club having stood by him during a rape allegation in his younger years and a number of recurring injury problems. But that debt has been greatly repaid over the last 18 months or so. Now van Persie has to take care of himself. He needs to be in a position to compete for honours. Staying with the Gunners doesn’t put him in such a situation. Moving on certainly would.
Great players, who define eras, are judged on the things they win, the medals and trophies they collect through their careers, and are looked back upon after their playing days have ended.
If Robin van Persie’s career ended today, in ten years time he’d be an afterthought across Europe.
And for a player of his talents, that would be the biggest shame of all.