Van Persie gave Arsenal fans moments that money can’t buy
Arsenal fans may cling to the optimistic implications of the Ewing Theory but it’s been a season of bleak anonymity
Liverpool’s 6-0 destruction of Newcastle was considered by some to be more surprising for the absence of Luis Suarez. Without the man who had scored or assisted 46 per cent of their league goals, they achieved their biggest win of the season.
Philippe Coutinho, apparently capable of pinpoint passes with any part of his foot, lived up to Michael Owen’s recent comparison of him with Pablo Aimar. Daniel Sturridge showed remarkable intelligence and awareness for a man who has been accused of playing as though goals by team-mates didn’t count.
Those familiar with the work of the US sportswriter Bill Simmons will have recognised Liverpool’s performance as a textbook example of the Ewing Theory in action. Simmons popularised the idea in the late 1990s, after his friend Dave Cirilli noticed that NBA star Patrick Ewing’s teams mysteriously played better whenever Ewing was missing.
Observing that many other teams who had lost their star player had gone on to outperform expectations, Simmons and Cirilli developed two criteria that were usually present when the Ewing Theory came into play.
First, during his time with the team, the star received disproportionate attention and praise from media and fans without actually winning anything important. Second, once the star had moved on permanently, media and fans immediately wrote off the team’s prospects.
Nine months ago, a lot of Arsenal fans were clinging to the optimistic implications of the Ewing Theory, since the baseline criteria could not have described more perfectly their own club’s situation regarding Robin van Persie.
Along these lines
Arsene Wenger revealed that he was thinking along these lines back in September, when it was still difficult for Arsenal fans to imagine Van Persie in a Manchester United shirt.
“Sometimes an individual grows up and becomes the main charisma and carrier of the team and then people notice only him,” Wenger said. “Robin van Persie scored 30 goals and when you score 30 goals everyone gives you the ball. That’s as simple as that. Our game at the moment is a little bit more diversified. The vibes coming out are that we look like a real team.”
With the season almost over we can compare it with last to assess the impact of Van Persie’s departure. After 35 games last year Arsenal had scored 67 goals; this year they have 66. They had 65 points; now they have 64. They are in the same position in the table. They went out of the League Cup in the same round, and got one round further in the FA Cup. They went out of the Champions League at the same stage, in exactly the same way: losing the first leg heavily, then not quite completing a dramatic comeback in the second leg. Selling their 37-goal striker seems to have made no discernible difference.
And yet you suspect most Arsenal supporters would agree that subjectively, emotionally, this season has felt much worse than last.
Some of the more Moneyball-minded members of the Arsenal board might be tempted to question whether the emotional experience of fans is all that important, when what really counts is surely whether Arsenal qualify again for the Champions League. They might listen to the Borussia Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp, who was last week hailed across Europe as the new Jose Mourinho.
Speaking to El Pais in February, Klopp explained how subjective feeling is key to his whole concept of football. “You have to link people to the club. The matches should have an effect that goes further than the result. The whole world knows that you won 3-1 but what they feel is the shot, the goal, the save: that’s what you have inside you all week long.”
Klopp understands that he is in the entertainment business. Unless you are making people feel something, you’re wasting everyone’s time. The crowd turns up to be thrilled and the capacity to do that is what sets players like Van Persie and Suarez above the rest. Such players do not necessarily win you titles or even matches, but they do win you hearts and minds.
Van Persie was worth more than 37 goals to Arsenal last season. He gave their supporters moments they will never forget. Ask Arsenal fans what they remember about that campaign, and most of them will mention Van Persie’s volley against Everton, his winner at Anfield, his glorious equaliser against Tottenham, his destruction of John Terry at Stamford Bridge. There were disasters like the 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford, but Van Persie was always a light in the darkness. While he played for Arsenal, the supporters knew that an ordinary team had at least one extraordinary dimension.
Since selling Van Persie, Arsenal have slogged their way back to fourth in the league by beating most of the teams they should beat, while struggling against the stronger sides. Save the 5-2 win against Spurs in November there has been almost nothing worth remembering. It’s been a season of bleak anonymity, made more bitter by having to watch their former star light up someone else’s sky.
Wenger insisted last week that Manchester United have won the title because “Manchester City have dropped off”. He would say that. Everyone else knows that if van Persie hadn’t been playing for United, City might have got away with it.