Given that the symbolic discarding of the captain’s armband is now a near annual ritual at Arsenal’s training ground in London Colney, Wednesday’s news that the club had agreed to sell Robin van Persie to Manchester United should in theory have been greeted with an emotion other than outright shock and horror.
After Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Cesc Fabregas had all come to the realisation that, with Arsenal’s ambitions receding after 2005, their career prospects would be better served elsewhere, supporters who probably should know better by now were consumed by a fresh wave of outrage upon learning that Van Persie had also sought to escape Arsene Wenger’s clutches.
To lose one captain could be considered unfortunate, but to lose four in seven years...
This, undoubtedly, is different. Arsenal can stomach losing players to Barcelona or to Manchester City – indeed they have become inoculated to it to a certain extent. Six players have made the trip to Catalunya and six have journeyed to the blue half of Manchester under Wenger, while Alex Song could yet join the Barca exodus.
Van Persie, though, is the first to make Old Trafford his destination. The only business Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger has done was the frankly bizarre deal that took Mikael Silvestre to Emirates Stadium.
Ferguson did have a sustained interest in Vieira at a time when the Frenchman was engaged in a prolonged war with Roy Keane, but the very thought of Arsenal selling their captain to United during those fractious, ultra-competitive years was unthinkable.
This, we must remember, was a time when even the police threatened to intervene as Ferguson and Wenger’s verbal sparring grew ever more embittered. Arsenal v United was English football’s primary rivalry, bar none.
It became all too apparent those days were gone when Wenger and Ferguson cosied up to each other on stage at an LMA dinner in 2008. With the fate of the two teams diverging on the pitch and in the Premier League table, Ferguson could allow his guard down.
Bitter hate turned to bonhomie. And rapprochement set the clubs down a path where Arsenal could agree to allow their captain, best player and top scorer to reinforce Ferguson’s ranks. There are some who never thought they would see the day.
And whatever spurned Arsenal fans may seek to claim about Van Persie's injury record, or the £24 million fee paid for a 29-year-old, there is no denying this is an epochal transfer. A monster. It entirely overshadowed England's friendly with Italy; commentators broke off from covering Puerto Rico v Spain to announce it to their viewers; it made the front page of the newspapers.
The fear of losing a world class player for free next summer no doubt weighed heavily on an Arsenal board who have a strong track record in operating in net profit, yet whilst it may be financially prudent to accept the £24 million on offer, allowing Van Persie to join Arsenal’s direct competitors for league position is entirely illogical in a sporting sense. A surrender of the strangest kind.
This deal rankles like no other for Arsenal. A transfer to Juventus could have been forgiven. A move to City understandable, and acceptable given Arsenal have absolutely no hope of competing with a side so enthusiastically engaged in what the North Londoners’ manager has termed ‘financial doping’.
But United, stymied by the debt loaded onto the club by the Glazers, were surely vulnerable, surely mortal. Or at least they were before securing what must be considered one of the most audacious transfers in the Premier League era.
With Chelsea spending a huge amount to reinforce again this summer, with players such as Eden Hazard and Oscar joining the club, there is a creeping feeling that Arsenal are already looking at a battle for third, and possibly fourth, as a best-case scenario at the start of the season.
In truth, Arsenal haven’t been close to United for some time – an 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford last season demonstrated that clearly enough – yet having finally spent significant sums on quality players in the shape of Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud, there was cause for some optimism that the gap between the clubs could have been significantly closed.
Seeing Van Persie hop over to the other side widens it to a chasm once again, irrespective of Arsenal’s transfer manoeuvres this summer.
There is some truth to the argument that in their three new men, Arsenal have already signed three very good replacements for one excellent player. But that misses the point. These are three signings, or perhaps two, that should have been made last summer, when Van Persie hadn’t set his heart on leaving the club. They were not necessarily mutually exclusive.
The key moment surely came 12 months ago when Arsenal witnessed a severe denudation of the quality of their playing staff. They dragged out the departures of Fabregas and Samir Nasri and brought in Mikel Arteta and Yossi Benayoun at the last minute. Arteta is a good player, yet he is no Fabregas, not by a long stretch.
Wenger should have signed players of the calibre of Cazorla and Podolski last summer if he had serious ambitious of convincing Van Persie to commit his future to the club. That he did so this summer was an admirable shift in his transfer policy, but it came far too late. Instead, the erosive effects of a disappointing 2011 in the transfer market exposed Arsenal’s inhibited ambition, and Van Persie no doubt took note.
Prior to the sale of both those talented midfielders last summer, Wenger let his guard down and, full of false confidence, memorably asserted that “If [Fabregas and Nasri leave] you cannot pretend you are a big club. Because a big club first of all holds onto its big players.”
It was a unambiguous statement, and one that Van Persie surely ingested uneasily as he cast his eyes to the side of him and saw Benayoun and Park Chu-young filling up their lockers. Approaching 30, Van Persie surely realised he couldn't wait any longer to start winning trophies, not with just one FA Cup winners' medal to show for his time at Arsenal.
Though the North London club finished third in the end last season, an improvement on the previous year, it was only thanks to Tottenham's implosion and Chelsea's horrid league campaign.
Arsenal even needed a rank performance from Marton Fulop to finish as high as that on the final day, but ultimately it was Van Persie's 30 goals that prevented Arsenal slipping out of the Champions League for the first time under Wenger.
The striker's statement announcing he would not sign a new contract in July was self-serving, ungracious and frankly downright disrespectful to Wenger. But concerns over the club’s “future strategy and their policy” were entirely legitimate. The signing of Cazorla appeared to be a riposte of sorts, but by that point Van Persie had reached the point of no return.
Ultimately, this was a transfer a year in the making. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. But for those who revelled in the Wenger-Ferguson duels for so many years, the reaction to Wednesday's news can be nothing but bemusement.