Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Should Robin van Persie Get a New Contract? Remember Thierry Henry.
Not so long ago, in a stadium not so far away....
Arsenal have had a hard season. On the final day of the campaign they've leap-frogged their rivals into fourth spot and secured Champions League qualification. Yet another worry has not quite disappeared. Their captain and best player has still not signed a new contract. His goals, more than anything else, have kept Arsenal in contention all year, and his hat-trick in the season's final game has secured their spot in Europe. Yet rumours surrounding his departure in the summer's transfer window have persisted, and Arsenal fans continue to worry about the future of their captain as they go into the biggest game in the club's history.
Arsenal lose that game, but keep their captain. Just two days after losing to Barcelona in Paris, Thierry Henry signed a new deal. He stated: "I've never played in Spain and never will. This is my last contract". Arsene Wenger placed Henry's decision to agree a new deal on the same level as winning the European Cup: "I had two aims at the start of the week: to win the European Cup and then to make Thierry stay".
So how did that work out?
In the following season, Henry scored about a dozen goals in a year that was marred by injuries. He was rushed back for a Champions League game in February against PSV, aggravated old wounds, and was ruled out for the rest of the campaign.
Then, in late-June, Henry left. He signed for Barcelona in a deal worth 24million euros, or about 17m pounds (following the 2007 conversion rate).
So, after all that stress and all that worry, Arsenal basically got one more year, and about ten more goals, out of a player who had already peaked, and whose body had started to lose its ability to withstand the rigours of regular, top-flight football.
Moreover, Arsenal also lost out on a huge amount of money. While we should perhaps be wary of taking David Dein's pronouncement at face value, the former director claimed that Arsenal had turned down two £50 million (about 70m euro) bids for Henry in the summer of 2006. Added to that was the size of Henry's final contract. The AST estimated that Arsenal paid Henry about £10 million during his last year at the club. Not only had he got a notable bump in wages in his new deal, Henry also received a signing-on fee of around £5 million in his new deal.
Arsenal had therefore paid Henry about £1 million per goal during his final season, and they had lost out on maybe £30 million in transfer fees.
Why have I taken this extended trip down memory lane? Because I feel it's relevant when discussing Robin van Persie's potential new deal. At present, there seems to be an agreement among Arsenal fans that Robin has to sign a new deal. If he were to leave, it would be a catastrophe. We would be losing our best player - perhaps our only world-class player.
There is a lot to be said for these fears. If Robin had not been at the club this season, we'd probably be languishing in mid-table. Indeed, if he was to be injured tomorrow, I very much doubt we'd end up in the Champions League spots.
But I feel we have to stand back and think about Robin's potential new deal rationally. Is it wise to give a new, bumper package to a player who, before 2011, had never managed to get through an entire season at the club without a serious injury? Indeed, it's worth noting that even until late 2010, many Arsenal fans would have depicted Robin as a player with tremendous ability, but one that could not be relied upon to get through the majority of a season intact. Now, most of the injuries he's suffered while at Arsenal were contact injuries, rather than inherent weaknesses in his body's physical make-up. But who knows what impact having so many serious injuries in his early career will have on Robin as he enters into his early thirties? With Arsene currently pushing Robin to play 90 minutes in almost every game he plays (even when 7-1 up against Blackburn), who knows what long-term effect that will have on his body?
So my concern is this - should we be giving a new, enormous contract to a player with a questionable injury record; who is, like Henry was, at his peak and who is only going to decline in the coming years; and who's value is only going to depreciate, if he were to leave after 2012?
In short, is there not a worry that we've already seen the best of van Persie? Should we cash-in on our asset at the peak of its value, rather than trying to squeeze potentially lower returns out of it, at a higher maintenance cost? If Robin's injury-problems were to resurface, we could be faced by a nightmare scenario where we do not have the potential funds of any RvP transfer to re-invest in the squad, and where his huge wages could become a burden to the club's ability to grow.
There is also the concern that Robin has become too important to the team. As Henry said, after Arsenal's much improved performance in the 2007/2008 season: "Because of my seniority, the fact that I was captain and my habit of screaming for the ball, they would sometimes give it to me even when I was not in the best position. So in that sense it was good for the team that I moved on". Football is a team sport, and it is always extremely damaging when one player becomes too central to a team's success. Arsenal were rejuvenated in 2007/2008 because the burden of expectation was shared more widely amongst the squad, rather than the team continually looking to one player to produce the magic.
The difficulty in this comparison is that the squad in 2007 was much stronger than that which we have today, and that the level of competition in the Premier League is also higher in 2012 than it was in 2007 due to the rise of teams like Man City and Spurs. I'm not convinced that we currently have the players who could step up in the manner that certain people did during the 07/08 campaign, but this could change with a few wise purchases. Especially if we continue the clearout of the dross in the squad that started last summer, Robin's transfer fee could help us in our efforts to rebuild the overall quality of the squad.
To conclude, I want to make one thing clear - Robin van Persie is a magnificent player and I think, on balance, it would be good for the club if he stayed. I would be, on an emotional level, gutted if he left. But, and this is the only 'but' I am trying to inject into this conversation, remember Thierry Henry. Giving star players in their late twenties huge contracts is not always a great idea. The club could lose out on a huge amount of money - in both fees and wages - that could be invested in bringing in new, younger talent. Players in their late twenties, especially those with Robin's track record, have injury concerns that cannot be ignored. There is no guarantee that Robin will be able to reproduce his current form in future seasons; indeed, even if he does stay, this will probably be his best season at the club.
My main concern is that the club would simply bank any transfer fee for Robin, as they have done in the last few years. If selling Robin is merely a means to pay-down the stadium debt a little bit faster, then we should resist selling him at all costs. But if Robin's sale was part of a long-term effort to renew a failed squad with better players, would it be so terrible to lose him now?