London: Robin van Persie still remembers the warnings from his friends as he prepared to swap Arsenal for Manchester United. It was one of the Premier League’s more controversial transfers, a deal which prompted a bitterness that still lingers today, but Van Persie’s friends were more concerned about his lifestyle than about any of the anger that emanated from the red half of north London.
“When I was about to make the move, friends of mine said, ‘Ooh you are going to Manchester. It’s going to be raining, it’s going to be this, it’s going to be that’,” Van Persie says. “But we had a fantastic time. The people were so nice. In London, everything is so rushed and people don’t really have time for each other. In Manchester, everyone has time. Everyone is so polite. ‘You want to go for lunch? Yeah, why not?’ It was a very nice feeling.”
Seven years on, Van Persie is back in England. Not as a player, but as a pundit for BT Sport. Having retired at the end of last season, he can look back on his playing career - more than 270 goals from nearly 600 appearances for Feyenoord, Arsenal, United and Fenerbahce - from a different perspective and use those experiences to provide “honest and open” analysis of the Premier League and its biggest stars.
The Dutchman was not afraid to upset people in his playing career and he is unlikely to hold back in the TV studio either. He is reminiscing over that move to Manchester in 2012 because the conversation has turned to Alexis Sanchez, another big-money player to have swapped the Emirates for Old Trafford, and his assessment is forthright.
For Van Persie, who won the Premier League in his first season at United, it worked out wonderfully. For Sanchez, it has not. What’s the difference?
“It’s a different time,” says Van Persie. “Over the past couple of years a lot has changed. There are a lot of impressions from fans, from social media, he is constantly getting hit about his wages. It’s negative, so he starts negative, and maybe that is difficult.”
There is a more fundamental point to be made about their respective surroundings, too. Van Persie arrived into a United team managed by Sir Alex Ferguson and packed with senior, experienced professionals. Sanchez joined a United side clouded by the foggy gloom instilled by Jose Mourinho.
“For him it was difficult because he was coming into a defensive-playing team,” says Van Persie. “I came into a team with all the mature players there already: Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Michael Carrick. At Arsenal I was one of the older ones, captain, and here I could just come in and have fun, because the guys sorted all the other stuff beside it.
“Mentally, I was just having fun. I was happy, I was just enjoying it, really. I did not think about the consequences. I was not using social media back then, so I was not really bothered about what people said. When I went outside it was all positive so I was in my own little bubble of being happy.”
Sanchez’s struggles, of course, are reflective of a wider malaise at United that contrasts so sharply with Van Persie’s first season there, when he won the Golden Boot. Van Persie was attracted to United because of those attacking principles, that deeply ingrained sense of character and purpose, but now it is Manchester City and Liverpool who have the most dominant identities.
“When you play for a club like Manchester United, the fans are used to attacking football and risks,” Van Persie says.
“I don’t really think the fans were disappointed about not winning the league. You can miss out on winning the league because you have great teams in this league. It’s maybe the way they played that the fans were not really happy with.
“United is like a beast. In a positive way, when you are doing well. It is so huge. It is fantastic, a great place to be. But when it goes wrong, when you’re having a bad period as a player or a coach, it’s tough. It’s a tough place, lots of pressure, everyone demanding not only a win, but they are demanding attacking football - 77,000 people want to be enjoying it.”
- The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019