United and Arsenal could both claim victory over Van Persie transfer, but Ferguson the real winner
Remembering Arsene Wenger's words on the sale of his captain in 2012 allows us to identify who got the best reward out of the £24m deal
It was during direct negotiations with Sir Alex Ferguson over Robin van Persie that Arsène Wenger sensed, almost a year before any announcement was made, that his old nemesis was finally headed for retirement.
“I was not surprised and I told my staff a long time ago that I thought it would be Alex Ferguson's last year,” said Wenger. “I detected a few signs. There was already one before the season started.” Further detail, said the Arsenal manager, was being preserved for his own autobiography but the sub-text was clear enough.
In paying £24 million for Van Persie and then offering him a contract worth £200,000-a-week over four years, Ferguson had made a subtle shift in emphasis from managing for the moment rather than tomorrow.
Debates immediately raged about who had got the better end of a deeply controversial deal. History was quickly written and definite judgments were reached. As Van Persie inspired Manchester United to Ferguson’s historic 13th Premier League title, it felt like there could be only one answer.
Van Persie’s arrival was a masterstroke by Manchester United, a Cantona-esque moment of inspiration from Ferguson, that also amounted to Arsenal raising a white flag above the Emirates Stadium.
Three years on and it is interesting to recall how Wenger saw things even amid that storm of criticism. Asked who had got the best of the deal, he simply said: “Honestly, we will only know at the end of the contract.”
Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis also then revealed how situations like Van Persie’s had been the subject of intense internal analysis. “There is a massive amount of thought that goes into it by some very very smart and thoughtful people at the club including Harvard analysts and Arsène Wenger himself is a pretty smart mathematical guy,” he explained.
It was possible to calculate that, in doing the Van Persie deal with United rather than holding him to the final year of his contract, the net financial swing in Arsenal's favour, once the fee and wages were all paid, was actually around £80 million.
For Arsenal fans interested solely in who was holding the Premier League trophy at the end of the 2012-13 season, such clinical thinking only worsened a sick feeling at the pit of their stomachs.
What price do you put on winning the Premier League? What value on moments of undiluted genius, such as when Van Persie volleyed a 50-yard Wayne Rooney pass into the top corner against Aston Villa to effectively seal the title?
Ferguson’s departure is often cited as the pivotal moment in Van Persie’s decline but the statistics suggest the process may have begun a year earlier.
He had just turned 29 when he left Arsenal and, in his final season under Wenger, scored 37 goals in 48 games. He scored 30 in 48 in his first season at Old Trafford but the numbers were to nosedive to 18 in 28 and then 10 in 29 during two injury-prone seasons in which United respectively finished seventh and fourth.
Yes, they had that 20th league title but have since twice finished below Arsenal who, as well as gathering two FA Cups, ultimately used most of the Van Persie money to cover the signing last summer of Alexis Sánchez.
Van Persie’s cost to United, even allowing for the £4.7 million they have now recouped from Fenerbahce, has been almost exactly £50 million.
And so back to the original question.
Who did best out of the Van Persie deal? Both clubs can now claim a victory of sorts but, ultimately, there was only one unmitigated winner. It was Alex Ferguson.