How Arsène Wenger made Robin van Persie a perfect fit for Manchester United
As Arsenal prepare to face their former captain at Old Trafford today, Ian Herbert explains the extraordinary lengths Wenger went to mould the player and then the strange willingness he showed in letting him join rivals
Robin van Persie might have been a Manchester United player at the age of 16, had the club only displayed a little of that quality which Arsène Wenger possesses in more abundance than arguably any other manager in football.
It is patience – a willingness to see a player's potential and be prepared to see it through – and it was required before Cesc Fabregas, Gaël Clichy, Kolo Touré, Thierry Henry and others eventually came to serve Arsenal so richly. It was certainly a requirement where Van Persie was concerned, too, as Sir Alex Ferguson served only to illustrate yesterday, when he related the story of how United dispatched their chief talent spotter Jim Ryan to Rotterdam to watch the boy from the Kralingen neighbourhood of Rotterdam play for Feyenoord, 12 years ago.
The striker, 16 or 17 at the time, was sent off in the game Ryan attended – and that was pretty much that, Ferguson explained. "Our assessment of young players is always based on the potential that you see in them," he said. "Jim said he was a fantastic talent, but felt that he was a little immature. At 16, we are all immature, but we didn't progress it."
Wenger saw things differently. The Feyenoord coach, Bert van Marwijk, had railed against Van Persie's immaturity and dropped him before Arsenal moved for the player, four years later. But Robert Pires, a component part of Wenger's midfield at the time, understood why the manager felt the way he did, from the moment he saw the young Dutchman on the London Colney training ground. A rough but precious diamond, is how Pires first viewed Van Persie: a player too often inclined simply to take up the ball and dribble, without looking up and delivering the best available pass, but one with a left foot surpassing anything the French midfielder had seen.
When we consider Van Persie's extraordinary consistency – which makes it seem almost inevitable that he will make a decisive contribution against his old side at Old Trafford today – bear in mind what a vast investment of patience was required on Wenger's part, across the course of eight years, to bring him to this point.
There could have been many reasons to give up on him over the years – from the 2005 rape allegations while he was with the Dutch team for a World Cup qualifier [all charges were later dropped and his name was cleared] to the litany of injuries until last season, which meant that 2011-2012 was the striker's only truly great season for Arsenal – but Wenger stuck by him.
Wenger is a man of few words with his young players, but those individuals all revere him because what he chooses to say so often reinforces their self-worth. That much was as evident during Van Persie's often painful emergence as a world-class player as it was on Tuesday night in Wenger's half-time team talk at the Madjeski Stadium, when his young players trailed 4-1. Wenger, not one of life's shouters, apparently chose only to encourage them for the goal they had pulled back and to keep their momentum. Some very wise French football journalists believe that Paul Pogba, one of the nation's fledgling hopes, would never have left these shores for Juventus had Wenger had been his manager, rather than Ferguson.
The hard yards which Wenger put in with Van Persie makes his equanimity in allowing United to take the player away all the more extraordinary.
One of the great revelations of the Old Trafford manager's discussion of Van Persie yesterday was that Wenger had taken several telephone calls from Ferguson in the process. "We just started working hard with Arsène and myself. I phoned him quite a few times, and we eventually came to an agreement," he said.
The notion of Ferguson even giving Wenger the time of day would have been unthinkable in the years when Arsenal represented a threat to United. Yet here he was, aware that the Dutchman's contractual position tied Wenger's hands, asking for help. Wenger's most ardent admirers will all acknowledge that he has weaknesses – like the inability, at times, to concoct a back-up plan and the absence of great tactical appreciation.
But his willingness to allow Van Persie, whose departure became more inevitable as he yearned for Fabregas's presence, to join rivals who have left Arsenal behind in the dust reflects humanity and pragmatism. "It was very amicable," Ferguson related. "The next stage, once Arsène accepted that he had to let him go, was to make sure we paid him the money. Arsène has always done a phenomenal job getting top dollar for players."
Wenger's loss has certainly been Ferguson's gain. The United manager declared this summer that Van Persie could be the catalyst that Eric Cantona had proved in the winter of 1992 – United then seeking deliverance from the loss of the championship to Leeds, the enemy from across the Pennines – and that has not been an inflated expectation. The Dutchman's impact has been certainly been as immediate as Cantona's – arguably even greater, with his five goals in his first four games, to Cantona's three in three, which lifted a United who had drifted beneath Aston Villa and Blackburn Rovers in the autumn of 1992.
"I can't say that he is better than I thought he would be because that's why we bought him. His goals tally last season was tremendous," Ferguson reflected. "But he has settled in well. He is a mature player and his start to the season has been fantastic. Hopefully, [last season's goals] continue here [because] if you get a couple of strikers who score 25 goals, you are in the ballpark to win something."
The only favour the 29-year-old did for Wenger was to spare him the ignominy of losing yet another player to the Abu Dhabi wealth of Manchester City, for which he has such disdain. "You need to ask the player that, but I never put City in the equation," Ferguson reflected of the player's decision to reject City, who were offering higher wages. It was just about us trying to persuade Robin to come to us." In truth, competition for places from Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez at the Etihad might have been the decisive factor.
Wenger has asked his supporters to respect Van Persie at Old Trafford today and there certainly will be warmth between the two of them. Yet victory for Arsenal would be immeasurably sweet for a manager left to pick up the pieces and rebuild again. The United manager knows that this incentive exists.
"Arsène worked hard to keep him this summer," Ferguson reflected. "He wanted him to stay, without contradiction. There is no doubt about that."
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