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Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Robin van Persie. Arsenal v. AZ Alkmaar. Champions League 2009. Arsenal v. AZ Alkmaar. Champions League 2009. Photo credit: Phil Cole/Getty Images Europe.

Here’s a stat: the last time Arsenal played a full season without Robin van Persie, they went undefeated in the league. 26 wins, 12 draws, 90 points, and a trophy.

Nice thought, that. “There’s hope yet,” it seems to say, “perhaps more hope than you ever imagined.” But as much as I’d like to be known as the pseudo-Nostradamus ITK, even I have to admit this is a facetious comparison. The Invincibles were a once-in-a-lifetime kind of team, and it would be hubristic to expect this current generation of Gunners to replicate that 2003/04 season, Van Persie or No Persie.

RvP’s only significance here is that with him leaves the last lynchpin of this post-Invincibles generation, the Johnny-come-latelies, the heirs who could never quite escape the long shadows of their deified predecessors. Disbanded, the team built around Cesc Fabregas. The team of frustrated talents and perennial disappointment. The team whose underachievements have been well-documented by all and sundry, and I don’t want to get into that here.

All I want to do is to pose a simple question: How will we remember them? When they write the history of Arsenal, one hundred years from now, will this silver generation be just another blip on the map? Will their names ring any bells? Will we tell the stories of the nearly-almost-theres?

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Forget about money for a second. Forget about Financial Fair Play, £24 million transfers, and oil barons’ bottomless coffers. Money doesn’t guarantee happiness. Money doesn’t guarantee success either (see: Liverpool).

The ball is round, Sepp Herberger famously said, and the game lasts 90 minutes. Anything can happen. Does happen. It’s football. It’s beautiful. And life isn’t always about sport, but sport so often is about life — and the unimpeachable humanity of the men who play this game. The grit and frailty of it all are part of what make sport so appealing. Because it’s real in a way that no carefully-produced TV show or movie could ever be. Sport turns on the hinges of spontaneity, skill, and sheer bloody-minded willpower in the face of adversity. Arsenal are a perfect example.

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