The conventional wisdom would be to say that Robin van Persie’s departure from Arsenal to Manchester United benefited the Premier League leaders more than the North Londoners. Certainly few have even questioned such a line of thought. Yet a closer glance at the statistics, six months on, reveals that actually, the opposite may be true.
Arsenal have actually scored more goals at this stage of the season than last when they had van Persie, and although the same is now true of United, it is only just. United have scored 57 this season, compared to 56 last year. Given the fine margins involved in football, where the difference between a goal, a cup or league title, can be the width of a post, a one goal improvement is not sufficient to judge any real improvement.
What does this reveal? For one thing it shows that Arsenal have been able to spread the goals around more evenly, and can rely on a greater number of goalscorers than they did last season. Arséne Wenger admitted his team were too reliant on the Dutchman. This year Theo Walcott is their top scorer in the Premier League with 10, less than half van Persie’s tally this year. Then is Olivier Giroud with eight and Santi Cazorla with the same number. Lukas Podolski has seven. It is a far healthier picture of all round goalscoring being shared around the team.
With United, the opposite has happened. Where they were last year able to rely on a broader range of goalscorers, with Wayne Rooney, Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia and Danny Welbeck all chipping in with more, this year the picture is far more skewed towards van Persie. Their second top goalscorer is Javier Hernandez, who has barely been a first team regular.
What has happened with United is that they have simply shifted the burden for goalscoring predominantly onto van Persie, but they are still creating a similar number of chances and converting a figure comparable to last year. There has been no real net increase in their goalscoring. The main benefit for United, which it would be naive to ignore, is the benefit of having Wayne Rooney operating deeper. With Rooney taking a bigger part in build up play, United have more control of games, their passing and ability to keep the ball is improved and they are therefore less vulnerable.
Of course you’d rather be in the shoes of United than of Arsenal, given the vast gulf between the two sides at present, but in terms of this particular transfer, van Persie seems to have benefited the Gunners more than it has the league leaders. Some may say that his departure unsettled the team at the start of the campaign, but the reality is that Arsenal actually started the season very well. It has been since October that things have gone wrong for Wenger’s side - and that has been to do with a lack of squad depth and rotation rather than a consistent goalscorer. For United, yes van Persie is scoring crucial goals, but they were also scoring those goals last season as well. It was just that someone else was. For a £20 million signing, you would hope that you would get a more noticeable and tangible benefit from such a purchase, particularly when the player is 30. So a transfer that on the face of it seemed to herald a major blow for Arsenal, may actually have benefited them more than the team they sold him to.