Everybody knows that Arsenal’s season will largely be defined by whether Robin Van Persie stays at the club. Despite Arsene Wenger’s early forays in the transfer market – bringing in Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud and, more recently, Santi Cazorla – the level of influence Van Persie has had on Arsenal’s results over the last couple of seasons make it difficult to see how the forward can be adequately replaced. Van Persie’s importance to the side isn’t merely his ability or his goals, but his effectiveness as mobile target-man in Wenger’s 4-3-3 system.
Such is Van Persie’s ability that Wenger changed the way Arsenal play to make the most of the Dutchman’s qualities. Wenger initially set Arsenal up in a 4-4-1-1 system, with split forwards in specific roles. Ian Wright, Nicolas Anelka and Thierry Henry were Arsenal’s centre-forwards supported by a creative ‘number 10’, most famously Dennis Bergkamp. Wenger identified Van Persie as having qualities that suited both of these roles, a mobile goalscorer with the ability to create opportunities for others. Possibly prompted by the loss of a Vieira figure and the need to strengthen the midfield, Arsenal shifted from a 4-4-1-1 to a 4-3-3 with Van Persie as the goalscorer and playmaker. This is not to say that he hasn’t had support, but Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri have supported from much deeper positions than a ‘number 10’ or second-striker.
Should Van Persie leave then Arsenal lack a player capable of fulfilling this role. In Giroud they have a player capable of leading the line, but he will need players much closer to him than the Dutchman. Cazorla can pick up the creative burden but should he be played further forward than Aaron Ramsey last season it may have a knock-on effect for the rest of the team. Could Arsenal’s midfielders adapt to a central pairing rather than the customary trio? Pre-season friendlies have suggested this may be the shape that the side adopts.
Whether Van Persie does leave before the start of the season, Wenger may seek a change in system anyway as the striker has already signalled his intention not to sign a new contract next summer. Should this be the case it would in effect be Wenger’s third phase of his Arsenal tenure. His first, using the 4-4-1-1/4-4-2 system from 1996-2008, was an almighty success, winning three Premier League titles, four FA Cups and reaching a Champion’s League final. His second phase, using a 4-3-3, was not. Time will tell if Van Persie’s exit may actually lead to a brighter future.