How might Arsenal have fared in 2012/13 if they had managed to hang onto Robin van Persie last summer?
The instinctive answer is, obviously, better. With 22 goals in all competitions so far, the Dutchman on current form is one of Europe's best strikers.
Significantly, he is also one of the most effective and influential. His contributions at Manchester United—not least in key matches against Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool—can plausibly be credited with winning the Premier League for an otherwise occasionally lacklustre side.
Yet how Van Persie's presence in the team might have affected Arsenal's season is a more complex issue.
Arsene Wenger has referred more than once to one of the ways the team has actually benefited from Van Persie's absence: by getting more players scoring.
As early as October, Wenger told The Sun that Van Persie's domination of the Arsenal scoresheet last season had hurt the team psychologically. "It’s a good thing having more goalscorers. When Van Persie was injured it wasn't just the fact we couldn't score goals any more. It was the psychological consequences on team morale."
More recently, he reiterated the point in his press conference ahead of the Reading match. As reported in the Guardian, Wenger denied that his team has been missing Van Persie, noting: "We have shared more than last year. We didn't score less goals."
Last season, the only Arsenal player other than Van Persie to hit double digits was Theo Walcott, scraping by with 11. This season, Walcott, Santi Cazorla, Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski have each already surpassed that number, an impressive tally, particularly considering the latter three are all Premier League first-years.
That certainly suggests not only less reliance on a single player, but also more expansive creative play that would arguably never have fully materialised with Van Persie in the side.
As can often be seen with Wayne Rooney in the England team, an over-prominent player can stifle his teammates' performances as they focus their efforts narrowly on supplying him.
But the second part of Wenger's press conference quote is less positive, and this is where, contrary to his assertion, Arsenal have perhaps missed the presence of Van Persie.
"Where we haven't done it this season is in the big games. This year we are bottom of the league with the big teams. It's difficult to know why. Not because we have been dominated. We were never inferior possession-wise, but just because after 20 minutes, we were chasing in every game."
Looking at some of Arsenal's key failures this season, it is easy to imagine different outcomes given Van Persie's uncanny reliability to provide goals when most needed.
And who would have been more likely than Van Persie to supply the crucial third goal that could have completed Arsenal's heroic come-back against Bayern Munich and put them through to the Champions League quarterfinals?
Likewise, could Van Persie possibly have failed to score against Bradford and Blackburn to keep Arsenal in the League Cup and FA Cup?
With Arsenal's season turning on such small margins, it is difficult to argue that they would not have benefited from Van Persie's contributions in specific situations.
But in a more profound way, his continued presence in 2012/13 may merely have had the effect of helping Arsenal win certain battles but lose the war.
For several years, Arsenal have grappled with a transitional phase that has dragged on longer than expected. Had they kept Van Persie, that would only have been prolonged.
The over-reliance on him would have deepened, and yet another toxic summer transfer drama would await a team that has continually been disrupted and left in need of frantic rebuilding as talismanic players depart.
Instead, despite struggling at times this season, the players have begun to jell as a team and provide a strong platform for the future.
The successful introduction of Podolski, Giroud and Cazorla, plus the long-term contract extensions for Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott, have fostered a stability that has been scarce at Arsenal in recent years.
Van Persie's presence could have disrupted that stability beyond his own future. Walcott would likely not have been given a chance at centre-forward with Van Persie still in the side, affecting his decision to renew his contract. And his dominance in the side would likely have hindered the new players' development.
In effect, Arsenal have progressed as a team this season in a way that would not have been possible with Van Persie.
An easier passage to the top four would have come at the cost of postponing progress.
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