LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 06: Robin van Persie of Arsenal is tackled by Mark van Bommel of AC Milan during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 second leg match between Arsenal and AC Milan at Emirates Stadium on March 6, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Arsenal will expect to, once again, lose their best player, with Robin van Persie all but certain to leave after releasing a very destructive statement. Unlike previous summers, though, when Arsenal seemed totally unprepared to lose Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, Arsenal have prepared for this moment, buying Lukas Podolski, a somewhat similar player to van Persie, and Olivier Giroud. Neither, though, will be direct replacements for van Persie; while his movement can, to an extent, be replicated by the pair (Giroud, in particular, has excellent movement), there are some aspects of his play that are almost irreplaceable by one single player.
Van Persie's transition to the role that he played for Arsenal last season, a nine and a half, has been well documented on this site. It was a good way of getting the best out of him; not only did it allow Arsenal to take advantage of his poaching instincts in the penalty box, but it also allowed him to drop deep and create, letting players like Gervinho, Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey to get into goal-scoring positions, to various degrees of success. Without Cesc Fabregas, van Persie's dual goal-scoring and creative role became even more important as Arsenal replaced Fabregas' play in the aggregate with the midfield trio of Ramsey, Arteta and Song, and with van Persie.
Mikel Arteta took over the controlling role that Fabregas enjoyed beforehand, with Alex Song given more freedom to play through-balls from deeper areas. Aaron Ramsey replaced Fabregas' energy and ability to get in goal-scoring positions, but it was van Persie who best replaced Fabregas' creative play in the final third, particularly around the penalty box, and it will be that play and skill that Arsenal will miss the most when van Persie leaves.
It's the type of play that Arsenal, even with the best efforts of van Persie, missed last season because of the absence of Fabregas, something that made them look uncomfortable when Aaron Ramsey struggled and before Tomas Rosicky came into his own. Without a creative player, whether it's Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere or a new signing, Arsenal will again struggle and will, without a playmaker, be a more functional team next season.
There is an argument, of course, that functionality may be the for the best, as it could give Arsenal solidity, with wide play showing that Arsenal do not always need creativity through the middle. Furthermore, none of Chelsea, Manchester United or Manchester City needed creativity through the middle, though, for the last two Champions, Wayne Rooney and David Silva have both come into a deeper and inside position to provide said creativity. Both teams, furthermore, were less reliant on possession than Arsenal are, because both were better built to defend without the ball than Arsenal are.
Arsenal, though, are still a possession-based team. Having two wingers in Theo Walcott and Gervinho hurt Arsenal's ability to retain possession and made them a weaker side, something that Wenger noted last season. When Yossi Benayoun came into the side, it coincided with Arsenal's run of 9 wins in 10 games, games where they looked increasingly like the Arsenal of old, and they also looked stronger defensively, able to control the game for large periods of time. It was that run of fixtures that made some Arsenal fans hope that a title challenge this season would be realistic. Without van Persie, though, Arsenal will lose some of that passing ability in the front areas, and it will lose the creative play that he excelled at.
Arsenal are going to have to re-create that ability in other positions besides striker. While both Giroud and Podolski can drop deep and create space, neither are as good as van Persie is at playing through-passes or one-twos. Between van Persie, Song and Rosicky Arsenal effectively recreated Cesc Fabregas' creative ability; now, they'll have to start all over again.
This is why Arsenal will need to deal with their playmaker problem. Van Persie was unique in that he could bring creativity into a position, striker, that isn't always noted for its creativity. Without van Persie, Arsenal will have a more traditional striker, a striker who will need players to provide him with goal-scoring chances. Theo Walcott and Gervinho (or Lukas Podolski) can do that from the wide areas, but, without van Persie's ability to create chances for midfield runners or for himself, Arsenal are going to need a midfield playmaker. In some ways, van Persie's departure may turn out to not be a bad thing; it can force Arsenal to buy a playmaker, and spread the goal-scoring burden.