x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Robin van Persie the fall guy for the despair of Arsenal fans

Home fans tried to give the Dutchman a hard time on his return to the Emirates Stadium but it felt forced, writes Jonathan Wilson.

Robin van Persie was given a hard time by Arsenal fans on his return to the Emirates Stadium.
Robin van Persie was given a hard time by Arsenal fans on his return to the Emirates Stadium.

They had predicted a crucible of fury, the outpouring of tides of anger from fans scorned, a gauntlet of condemnation for Robin van Persie, who left Arsenal for Manchester United last season and was thus supposedly perceived as having committed a despicable betrayal.

What they got was a moderately feisty game played out in an atmosphere that oscillated between grudging respect and mild disgruntlement.

After the final whistle, Van Persie even visited his former teammates in their dressing room. "The food is better there than in their dressing-room," joked the Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger.

As Van Persie nonchalantly warmed up to the morose indie stylings of Elbow over the public address system, it didn't seem much like a cauldron of hate.

His name was booed as the teams were read out and there were many unsavoury chants made at his expense.

As promised, Arsenal formed a guard of honour for the champions, and the vast majority of fans were respectful, applauding United's players.

There was isolated booing, but most of it was, presumably by accident rather than design, directed at Patrice Evra, who, as captain, led the United players out.

By the time Van Persie, last in line, emerged, there was little more than a distant grumbling.

Van Persie's first meaningful action could hardly have been better calculated to assuage the mob - if that is not too strong a word.

Losing his footing, he badly mis-hit a pass out to the right wing, allowing Kieron Gibbs to intercept. The ball arrived at Tomas Rosicky via Mikel Arteta and Lukas Podolski, and he slid through Theo Walcott, who was just offside as he ran on and beat David De Gea.

The booing of Van Persie continued every time he touched the ball in the first half, but it was a gentle booing, so lacking in venom it felt almost as though fans were going through the motions of hate towards a forward who was twice their player of the year.

"It's more disappointed love that you get when you come back than real aggression," said Wenger. Even when Van Persie lunged in on Per Mertesacker after 28 minutes and picked up a yellow card, there was little real vitriol.

If the whole furore surrounding the guard of honour had any effect, it seemed to be to inspire Arsenal's players, who were far more robust in the challenge than has been the case recently.

When they did get back into the game, Van Persie was pivotal. A neat clipped cross created a fine chance for Phil Jones.

A close-range header smacked the goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny in the face and bounced to safety. And then, two minutes before the break, Van Persie intercepted a weak Bacary Sagna back pass and was chopped down by the full-back.

Even then, there were no great howls of outrage; the offence so obvious as to be almost impossible to berate.

There were jeers as Van Persie stepped up, but he thumped in an excellent penalty.

Van Persie was frustrated for the same reason Arsenal fans are frustrated, because of the lack of investment and because the club keeps selling its best players.

He left. Fans, defining themselves by their commitment, do not have that option.

Their bitterness, forgotten for much of the second half, was recalled with more booing at the final whistle.

But this is not really about Van Persie, or about his supposed betrayal.

It is about what he represents, the club policies that have left Arsenal so far adrift of United that they end up feeling forced to sell their best player to them.

Van Persie drew the flak, but the fire was meant for the club hierarchy as a whole.

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