Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Friday May 25 2012
PFA Players Footballer of the Year, Football Writers` Player of the Year, Golden Boot Winner, Arsenal.com Player of the Month four times this season, Vital Arsenal Player of the Month three times, scorer of 41% of Arsenal`s goals this season and a League ever present along with Szczesny. It wasn`t really a contest at all was it? Robin van Persie gained 46% of votes from readers of Vital Arsenal. I suspect it was only as few as that because a) he began to run out of steam in the last 6 weeks of the season and b) the choice was simply so obvious that voters, understandably, felt the likes of Koscielny and Arteta should be recognised appropriately in the voting. Strikers often do take more credit, more of the spoils and enjoy the high life compared to some of their colleagues. But there can be no rational argument that Robin van Persie hasn't been Arsenal`s standout performer in 2011-12.
For many seasons now, Arsenal fans have asked "what if van Persie could stay fit for a whole season?" This was the season "if" happened. 37 goals and 10 assists in 48 appearances. He started all but 7 of Arsenal`s games this season. 3 of those were Carling Cup games for which he was rested, 1 an F.A. Cup tie against Leeds for which he was given a sabbatical, the Champions League dead rubber against Olympiacos and the first leg of the Champions League qualifier against Udinese for which he was (harshly suspended). Arsene only rested him to the bench for one league game against Stoke in October. He didn`t repeat the exercise. Van Persie came on and scored two goals in the last 15 minutes to secure the three points. The Dutchman started every single game after January 9th.
It`s not just the lack of injury that bucks a trend. It`s the lack of suspensions. The club captain has matured immeasurably since the talented, yet spiky young man who honed his skills in Rotterdam cage football turned up in some garish pinstripe trousers in 2004. Undoubtedly fatherhood and marriage to wife Bouchra at a young age have mellowed him as a character. But his maturity into a great footballer and a model captain has been a treat to see. Behind the scenes it`s said that van Persie takes his responsibilities very seriously. He often organises team bonding activities. For instance, when it was discovered that Yossi Benayoun`s 2 year old and Robin`s 4 year old had birthdays near to one another, van Persie arranged for one of the Club Level suites to be hired out for a joint birthday party so that the whole squad could attend and bring their children and significant others.
It seems amazing to think van Persie played principally as a winger prior to joining Arsenal. He`s been shunted about a bit in his Arsenal career too. Many assumed he`d undertake the number 10 role of his compatriot Bergkamp. He`s been shoehorned out on the left in a 4-5-1 (a position from which he scored a fulminating volley against Charlton). He never really hit it off with Henry, he never had much of a chance to play with Eduardo, but enjoyed a prolific season alongside Adebayor in 2008-09 (his previously best season in terms of appearances). But it was probably in this season that it dawned on Wenger that his best position was as a penalty box striker. His unerring touch and lethal finishing were obvious from the start- his first ever Premier League goal against Southampton is testament to that.
But he began to show a knack for finding pockets of space and his touch in tight spaces will have convinced the manager he was better served exploiting those attributes in the most dangerous area of the pitch. His goal at home to Liverpool in December 2008 may have marked the moment the penny dropped. He peeled diagonally away from Carragher, received a long, lofted pass from Nasri and showed beguiling skill and strength to control, shift away from Carragher and squeeze into the net. Three weeks later he hit a stoppage time equaliser at Goodison Park in similar fashion. It`s all very well being able to unleash a shot from 25-30 yards- which van Persie is well capable of- but his touch and ability to find space meant that his shooting was better utilised inside the area. So in 2009, with Adebayor sold, the Dutchman became the focal point of the team as a lone striker.
The acclimatisation was swift, but, as usual, injury prevented van Persie really making an imprint on the position until the turn of 2011. He ended the 2010-11 season with a quite incredible scoring record. He picked it up this season too. Even with the loss of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, van Persie was still able to find chances. When they came his way, he didn`t miss either. With Fabregas sold to Barcelona, van Persie became not just the central striker, but the focal point of the entire team. Wenger changed tack by playing Walcott and Gervinho- pacey, penetrative wide men. Ramsey- en energetic, box to box player; substituted Fabregas` craft and guile. Arsenal became more direct and put their play through van Persie. (He touched the ball every 1.9 minutes on average this season and took an average of 4.6 shots per game). Like other Arsenal giants before him- Vieira, Pires, Henry, Bergkamp, Fabregas- he is able to forge partnerships and combinations with his teammates simply because he is a good player.
Walcott`s powerful runs from the right have yielded many a tap in for van Persie this season which have probably massaged Walcott`s assist stats considerably. Van Persie stays alive in the area when defenders may have dropped off for only a split second. This is why he finds those tap ins so easy to come by and why Walcott finds it so simple to find him. The skipper has enjoyed finding a slither of space in the corridor between full back and centre half- a space in which Henry loved to roam. This is why Alex Song`s lofted, diagonal through pass has borne so much fruit. He gives Song a target with a subtle, peeling movement off the shoulder of his centre half. After which, he has the technique to produce finishes the likes of which few players are capable.
The side footed volley past Ruddy against Norwich, a similar effort from a more acute angle in the last minute at Anfield. Then there`s his coup de grace for the season. The winner at home to Everton. Song`s pass was everything you wanted it to be, it was lofted, it missed the head of Jagielka to find van Persie. From there, the technique was phenomenal. This image shows his body shape on connection. His pulls his shoulders inwards to make tramlines, which effectively acts as a guide for the ball in the same way a bowls player might. Then to connect with the ball with both feet off the ground is an unbelievably difficult skill. He catches it perfectly, his body shape is perfect, culminating in the ball following the "tramlines" set by his arms as it arrows into the bottom corner. To produce this level of forensic technique in a split second evidences a special, instinctive footballer. As he`s shown many times, this is a player capable of regular moments of inspiration that win football games. That volley against Everton won a tight game, as did his volley at Anfield. He can produce them under pressure.
It`s not just the quality or regularity of his goals. It`s the importance of them. Two against Bolton with the scores 0-0, two against Sunderland with the final score 2-1, a hat trick against Chelsea in a 5-3 win, two at Norwich in a 2-1 win, two against Dortmund in a 2-1 win, 1 against Dortmund in a 1-1 draw, the solitary goal at home to Everton and QPR, two in the 3-2 cup win at home to Villa, the equaliser in the 5-2 win over Spurs, two in a 2-1 win at Anfield, the equaliser in a 2-1 win over Newcastle, the equaliser against Stoke City in a 1-1 draw and two goals to both equaliser and put us 3-2 ahead in a 3-3 draw with Norwich. Before you consider anything else about his wider impact on the team dynamic, his role as captain, the nuances of his position, the goals he has created, that right there is your starting point. That`s a fair wedge of points that have emanated directly from his boot. The more his temples fleck with grey, the calmer and cooler his head has become under pressure.
Truly great players show hunger to improve. I read an article which, if memory serves, was written by fitness coach Tony Colbert, in which he says that van Persie is obsessive about his distance covered statistics. He sets himself a target for every game and immediately requests the data to see whether he has hit his target for ground covered during a game. He`s a team player, closing down opposition defenders and filling in to defend the flanks if Gervinho or Walcott are stranded centrally. Van Persie covered nearly 220 miles this season- an average of 5.7 miles per game. Only Clint Dempsey betters that in the Premier League. He both literally and figuratively puts in the hard yards for Arsenal. At the Arsenal museum, there is a quote on the walls from Arsene Wenger that simply says, "The best players realise that the team is the real star."
This is what makes van Persie a much better footballer. He realises his part in the totality of the team. That`s why he seeks out his distance covered statistics when most would just be happy to polish their golden boot. That`s why he organises team bonding activities as opposed to simply cruising Harvey Nicholls with his attractive young wife. As a captain, a goalscorer and as a team player, Robin van Persie has made even more out of the special talent which he undoubtedly possesses. It`s for those reasons he has been voted Vital Arsenal`s Player of the Season and it is almost genuinely questionable how that could be contested. It might not be the biggest individual gong he receives this summer, but it`s one he richly deserves nonetheless. LD.
Follow me on twitter @LittleDutchVA
Date:Friday May 25 2012
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