Arsenal, Robin van Persie and the small matter of an unsigned contract
Can you enjoy watching the Dutchman’s goals knowing he may be the next to leave the Emirates?
The clue was in the celebration. A shouting, angry, rip your shirt off reaction to a winning goal. If everything was rosy between Robin van Persie and Arsenal right now, it surely would have been different.
Despite what the Dutchman said afterwards, despite what was written in his programme notes, he cannot pretend that all is well between him and the club at the moment.
He is the new captain, top scorer and, by some distance so far this season, the best player. He has scored an incredible 28 goals in 34 games so far in 2011. Only Lionel Messi has a better strike rate in the European game.
Understandably Arsenal want him to sign a new contract. Want may be slightly underselling it. Arsenal are desperate for him to sign a new contract.
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If he doesn’t do so by the end of the season, it is clear he will leave, either for big money next summer, or for no money the summer after. It seems an unpalatable prospect, but it is undeniably where this story is heading, no matter what the leading protagonists say.
Arsene Wenger went for the pragmatic view. “People speak about the length of contracts but what you want from a player, as long as he is at the club, is to give absolutely 100 per cent,” said Wenger. “On that front you cannot fault Robin. He is committed, every day he is focused in training, and I am pleased that he got two goals again.”
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Van Persie had chosen his programme notes to ‘set the record straight’, but he really did nothing of the sort.
Yes, he is in his eighth season at Arsenal and yes, his performances in the past year have been phenomenal. But just because he has bought another house in London does not mean he is staying here.
The contract situation is the elephant in the room. With every goal, and every moment like his chip on Sunday that came back off a post and denied him one of the goals of the season, Van Persie is becoming the world-class striker he has always threatened to be.
Injury has nearly always curtailed goalscoring runs like the one he is currently on, but he is approaching a year of full fitness. At 28, he is indisputably in his prime. And he knows it.
Which is why he will think long and hard about signing his next contract, knowing it is likely to be his last major one. Does he want to complete more than a decade at Arsenal, to be a living legend like his compatriot and fellow 100-goal Dutchman Dennis Bergkamp?
Or does he feel that, rather more like Cesc Fabregas or Thierry Henry or Patrick Vieira, that he has put his time in at Arsenal, shown his commitment, but that one last shot at major honours with a real heavyweight club is the way to sign off his career?
The latter would appear to currently be the plan. Ever since Van Persie admitted after the win over Bolton last month that he was ‘happy with his contract’ it has been clear the opposite is the case: he is not happy to stay at Arsenal.
“He knows we are ready to talk about it,” said Wenger on Sunday, already weary of a saga he knows he is now powerless to stop from running all the way to next summer and beyond. “But the most important thing is today and how much you are committed to the cause as long as you are at the club,” he reiterated.
Wenger does have a point, in that given Arsenal’s current malaise, the long-term future of a player is not as important as the short-term goal of winning matches and climbing the table. Van Persie will not be leaving Arsenal this season, and that is all Wenger is concerned with at the moment.
There is also a big difference between Van Persie’s situation and that of Samir Nasri, mainly concerning the age of the player and the investment made in him.
Nasri had cost Arsenal �15.8m and had just turned 24, whereas Van Persie cost �2.75m seven years ago, and will be almost 30 and spent nine years at the club by the time his contract expires in the summer of 2013.
If Arsenal allow Van Persie to run down his contract, they will not count the cost as they would have done with Nasri, who was sold at a healthy profit to an overspending Manchester City.
What they will lose, however, is a player who is currently carrying the team on his own. It is hard to wonder where Arsenal would be without his seven goals so far this season, but the bottom six and the Europa League come to mind.
“Don’t believe everything you read,” Van Persie wrote in his programme notes. “I am committed to Arsenal and that’s how it is.”
But until Arsenal fans read that Van Persie has extended his contract, they will believe the only thing it is currently logical to – that performances and goals like the ones on Sunday should be enjoyed for the moment, because there may not be too many more of those days to come.