From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.34 :: NO.50 :: Dec. 15, 2011

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COVER STORY

Arsenal don't need Batman, they have Robin

With 14 goals from as many games, Robin van Persie is at the head of the strikers' list in the English Premier League. The Dutchman has been instrumental in giving the Gunners a fresh momentum. By Ayon Sengupta.

Football essentially is a game of 11 players, of a team where collective effort is always given precedence over individual opulence (of skills). Though the present day Barcelona side — which is believed to be the greatest of all time — boasts of the best player in the world in Lionel Messi, Barca or Messi would not be the same without team-men like Xavi, Andres Iniesta or Gerard Pique.

But there have been teams that have thrown this idea into the bin and unimaginably galloped to the finishing line, riding solely on the individual brilliance of one gifted player. Like the World Cup-winning Argentine side of 1986 (remember Diego Maradona), and possibly the Arsenal side of the current season.

Robin van Persie, like most Dutchmen, boasts of a sound technique and is often compared with other Orange legends such as Marco van Basten and Dennis Bergkamp for the fluidity of his movements. Deceptively quick over short distances and with a footballing brain that works a nanosecond faster than the others, van Persie's awareness and vision puts him in places (read goal-scoring positions) which ordinary strikers won't even think of. His positional play has been sublime of late with almost all his strikes coming from within the 18-yard box.

Van Persie's manager too acknowledges his effort. “Robin is on fire at the moment and his class means he is taking advantage of being in a team that wants to attack a lot and create chances. The intelligence of his movement and the accuracy of his finishing are exceptional,” says the Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger. “He is always in the right place at the right moment. He just understands the game so well.”

With Arsenal losing two of its other world-class stars, Cesc Fabregas (Barcelona) and Samir Nasri (Manchester City), at the start of the season, the onus of carrying on the Gunners' legacy has fallen on the fragile forward. As Wenger faced unprecedented pressure, the club looked like it had hit a trough, the 8-2 drubbing at Old Trafford signalling a horrific and painful season ahead. Arsenal looked doomed.

But 14 goals from as many games by van Persie, Arsenal's new captain, and suddenly the Gunners have gained a new momentum in the EPL. The team that was always low on confidence at the start looks almost unbeatable now.

The striker has notched up an incredible 32 goals in 31 EPL games in the 2011 calendar year. Only Alan Shearer with 36 goals in 1995 and Thierry Henry with 34 in 2005 stand ahead of him in the all-time list. The 28-year-old star from Rotterdam, however, still has five more games before the New Year to knock them of their perch.


Arsenal's revolution has been masterminded by van Persie who is on a new high. His every touch seems perfect, every run seems to find the space, every pass seems to find its man, every trick threatens to split open the defence and every shot almost finds its mark. For the Gunner, football now seems to be as easy as riding a tricycle.

Van Persie, whose both parents are artists, is by nature imaginative and obsessive, always keen to express himself and innovate. He enjoys pressure, every intense test and the fiercest of scrutiny. “I live on having a challenge when the line is really thin,” he explains. “I like it the most when you have no clue what is going to happen. Everyone is on top of their toes, totally excited. These situations get the maximum out of me.”

Over the past 10 years he has plied his trade as a playmaker, a marauder down the wings. Now, at last, he plays as an advanced target man. Each little experience has made him the compact player that he is. “If you look at really special players they can play everywhere. Look at Zidane,” he says. “He was the master of every aspect of the game. He could make the game, explore.”

Van Persie too, finally, is able to do that. He has carved a niche for himself in the team and is no longer compared to his predecessors at Arsenal, Henry and Bergkamp. “He is a mixture. He is less of a runner than Thierry Henry and he is not completely Dennis Bergkamp because he plays higher up the pitch,” Wenger correctly points out. “At the start they (Henry and van Persie) were not goal-scorers, they were footballers. You expect them to create and not to score too many goals. You have some players like Alan Shearer who was a goal-scorer but they are more link players, creative and not at the end of things. People ask why Robin plays at centre forward, because he is not a centre forward, but in the box he is clever and intelligent.”

No doubt the fans at the Emirates Stadium hail: “We don't need Batman… We have Robin.” His efforts to resurrect Arsenal this year have indeed been superhuman.

It is not just his strike-rate that makes van Persie the fulcrum of his team. The Dutchman has also become a leader of men. He values the armband and motivates his team-mates with words as well as deeds, something that is unimaginable now given his early penchant for run-ins with the authorities, fights during training and hot-headed outbursts on the field. But since moving over to Arsenal in 2004, he has knuckled down and become a more mature player. A lot of credit for this should deservedly go to Bergkamp, whose boots van Persie was slated to fill following his GBP2.75 million move from Feyenoord. The ageing statesman mentored his compatriot when their careers coincided in north London; Bergkamp's calm seems to have rubbed off on him.

Those who believe in fate would argue that van Persie deserves his time under the sun. His career had so often been wrecked by one injury after the other. In four out of the past five seasons he has been sidelined for prolonged periods, his body breaking down without a warning.

Since joining the Gunners, van Persie has only played 251 games, an average of just over 35 matches per season across all competitions. If we take only the EPL into account, he has featured only in 170 matches — a poor average of 21 games per season over the last seven-and-a-half summers (2011-12 is still far from over). Over the same period Wayne Rooney has played almost 100 games more and scored at least 50 more goals compared to him. That Rooney (nine goals) is trailing the Gunner so far this season is because of a change in fortunes. While van Persie has remained fresh and fit from the start of the season, the Manchester United forward has struggled with a hamstring injury which at times has confined him to the bench. Other high profile goal-scorers in the League — Andy Carroll (Liverpool) and Fernando Torres (Chelsea) — still don't look match-fit and hungry, blighted as they are by long injury layoffs from last season. Staying fit has been van Persie's key to success this year.


However, his detractors have ceaselessly wondered whether van Persie would ever have the chance to move freely, for long enough, to make the most of his extraordinary talent. His current injury-free run has been his longest and his resume, at last, is looking bright. But to be counted amongst the world-class players or for Arsenal to mount any serious challenge to any title whatsoever this season (the club is yet to win a trophy since the 2005 FA Cup) van Persie needs to be physically more enduring. He should continue to play long enough to make a lasting impact.

However, his contract situation is like an elephant in a room. At 28, the Dutchman is facing the biggest pay day of his career (he reportedly earns only GBP90,000 a week compared to the usual GBP1,50,000 earned by Rooney and other top players) but as of yet he has nothing to show as far as silverware is concerned. With his contract running out in a year's time and his steadfast refusal to hurry into a new one, Wenger and Arsenal are in a stroppy position — of seeing successive captains leave in real quick time.

As a player, van Persie, in his current form, will have no dearth of suitors. Petro-rich City has already made its intentions clear for a possible January transfer. Real, Barca are watching closely too.

No matter how much we revel in his first real long-running rich vein of form, it can be a scary few days ahead for the Arsenal fan.



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