London: “Talent on the field is better than money in the bank” is a saying as old as soccer’s transfer system. And sometimes, old is demonstrably true.
On Saturday, the first anniversary of Arsenal’s sale of Robin van Persie to Manchester United, the Dutchman scored a memorable pair of goals and helped set up Danny Welbeck to score another two in United’s 4-1 victory at Swansea.
That same day, Arsenal lost their opening match of a new season on home soil for the first time in 20 years.
The noise around Arsenal’s home ground, Emirates Stadium, after the 3-1 loss to Aston Villa is becoming a perennial: The supporters blame the manager, Arsene Wenger, for being too parsimonious with the club’s money to go out and buy players.
Arsenal’s mistake this summer was to announce that they had £70 million, or $110 million, to spend on new stars. Telling everyone how much you have in the bank has its drawbacks — namely, the fact that the price automatically rises the moment the Gunners show interest in a player.
The trading window still has two weeks to run, and so far Manchester United has been unable to secure the midfield general they seek, or to stop Chelsea from bidding again and again for their player Wayne Rooney.
A media obsessed with buying-and-selling intrigue keeps on insinuating that not only is Wenger too cautious with the cash, but that David Moyes, the new manager at United, is also slow out of the blocks.
Moyes’ answer is on the field. He has said how privileged he feels to have inherited Van Persie, how determined he is that Welbeck should score more often, and how he will not sell Rooney.
The Dutchman, Van Persie, plucked the opening goal out of thin air on Saturday, and his second was a trademark shot of venom and accuracy. Welbeck, born in a tough immigrant district of Manchester, has been with United since he was 8 years old, and if his first goal Saturday was opportunist, his second was feathered with the deft touch of an artist.
And Rooney? Still moody, but industrious the moment he came off the bench. For the final half hour, he made unselfish runs and gave decent passes for the final two goals.
There lies the truth of professional soccer. The wealth is not evenly distributed, the buying and selling of players has never been like the draft system in the United States, and by and large, you get what you pay for.
The dichotomy for Wenger is that he was so good, almost predatory, in finding young players to foster and train into great stars. Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabregas and Van Persie were three of his successes, and one by one, in search of more glamour and greater salaries, they left him for Barcelona and Manchester United.
Van Persie is at a loss to understand why bookmakers have decided United is ranked only third among the favourites to win the league this season, behind Chelsea and Manchester City. “I don’t want to be funny,” the Dutchman said last weekend, “but based on what?”
He was setting the questions, rather than trying to answer them Saturday. What on earth gives a man such movement, such intuition, such control of the ball and the air around him to strike the way that Van Persie did for his first goal at Swansea’s home, Liberty Stadium? He rose between the center-backs. He took down a pass from Welbeck on his chest, but when it bounced higher than expected, van Persie leaped off the ground. He turned in midair, adjusting his body in a corkscrew motion, and connected with his right foot to propel the ball over the line.
Magic. Sweet, inexplicable magic of time and space and movement. Two minutes after that, Van Persie guided the ball with the back of his head to Antonio Valencia, who volleyed it low across the six-yard box for Welbeck to tap in.
Van Persie himself is an admirer of the way that Swansea, under its Danish coach, Michael Laudrup, plays attractive soccer on a limited budget. “You could see at times they are a great team to watch,” Van Persie said. “But they are hard work to play against.”