Van Persie in the form of his life
Van Persie has matured from his days with poor discipline and coach squabbles
Van Persie's career has been hampered in the past by frequent injuries
Van Persie's goal-scoring form over the past year has been incredible
LONDON -- Robin van Persie is sitting next to a Dutch journalist in an otherwise deserted cinema, watching images of himself as a young boy flickering on the big screen. He looks pensive, then smiles as he sees each goal: at 13, dribbling past three defenders and rounding the goalkeeper for Excelsiorıs youth team; at 15, much taller, scoring in a Rotterdam youth game in a similar way; and then, three years later, playing for the Feyenoord first team.
As goals fly in, the comparisons are easy to make: the free-kick against Twente (December 2000), straight out of the Pierre van Hooijdonk school; the back-heel turn and shot from 25 yards against AZ (February 2001) like Thierry Henry in his pomp; the dribble past Twente (February 2003) similar to Lionel Messi today, and the chest-then-volley against Ajax (February 2003) reminiscent of Dennis Bergkamp against Argentina.
Watching these goals, as part of Dutch TV documentary Heilig Gras, it seems astonishing to think that Feyenoord ever wanted to sell Van Persie, but the goals donıt tell the whole story. The kid who dribbled everywhere round town with a ball -- "I drove the shopkeeper crazy, because when I was paying I would keep the ball up as well," he told Hard Gras, "and when somebody passed me I played him through the legs and continued playing" -- was arrogant, unruly and tough to manage back then.
He started the 2002 Uefa Cup final, in which Feyenoord beat Borussia Dortmund 3-2, but spent the game trying out tricks to humiliate his opponent Evanilson, and only lasted an hour. He has since admitted that he was more interested in himself than the team and his relationship with coach Bert van Marwijk was strained (Van Marwijk is now in charge of Van Persie with the Holland team, age has mellowed both of them and they now get on well).
Arsenal signed him for £4.5 million ($7M) in summer 2004, and every year, injuries notwithstanding, Van Persie, a thinker and, according to Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger, a football obsessive, has improved his game.
Nearly seven years later, Van Persie is at the peak of his career and, almost single-handedly, leading Arsenalıs revival after its rocky start led one British pundit to suggest it could be fighting relegation this season.
Van Persie is on the hottest scoring streak of his life: in 2011, he has scored 45 goals in 52 games, with 39 goals in 43 games for Arsenal; this season alone, 14 goals in 13 league starts.
This run coincides with Arsenal selling its two best passers over the summer, Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas, while its next best, Jack Wilshere, is out with a long-term injury. That has forced Arsenal to play a more direct attacking game, using the pace of Theo Walcott and the trickery of Gervinho to create chances for Van Persie. "The two wingers are creating waves while Van Persie dances and plays in the splashes that they make," David Winner, author of Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, told SI.com.
Van Persie is no longer scoring the glorious goals of his Feyenoord days but he is making scoring look easy, and that's something that Bergkamp, his hero and mentor for the two years they crossed at Arsenal, never managed. "Van Persie goes to where the ball will be, before anyone knows it will be there, and thatıs a mysterious gift to have," said Winner.
"Bergkamp never had that, and nor did Van Basten. It reminds me of Gerd Muller, the way he checks a run, finds space, and finishes so efficiently with that perfect technique. He always makes interesting runs, he still has the touch of a street player about him but his extraordinary movement is both cerebral and instinctive."
Van Persie has always had the habit of scoring important goals: his first league goal for Arsenal, in October 2004, was a last-minute equalizer against Southampton; at the end of that first season, he was a late substitute in the FA Cup semifinal against Blackburn, and scored two goals in the last four minutes; in the final, he took a penalty in the shootout against Manchester United (after Edu had decided not to take one) and, "though I nearly blacked out I was so nervous," scored in helping Arsenal win its last trophy.
Last season, he scored the goal he ranks as his best ever: the equalizer as Arsenal came from behind to beat Barcelona in the Champions League Round of 16 first leg. "It was against Barcelona, which in my opinion has the best squad from the past four decades," he told Heilig Gras. "It's a dream to measure yourself against the best so if you're the one that created the turning-point by scoring that goal, then to me, that's the best goal Iıve ever scored." The next day, Van Persie was moved when a 75-year-old Arsenal fan came up to him and thanked him for providing his most beautiful moment in soccer.
Winner is convinced that Van Persie could have reached this level two or more years ago had injuries not intervened. A broken metatarsal in 2007, and ankle ligament damage in 2009, kept Van Persie out for long spells, while repeated strains and pulls have meant he has yet to start 30 league games in a season for Arsenal. Wenger has admitted that Arsenal would be concerned if Van Persie did get injured, and that he "is on the edge [of getting injured]," so will be rotated in the next few weeks. He missed Tuesday's Carling Cup loss to Manchester City, and will sit out Tuesday's Champions League game at Olympiakos.
There is also the captaincy to consider: Van Persie's father, Bob, told Canal Plus that Robin's form is due to the increase in responsibility since Fabregas's departure. "He's no longer just playing for himself, he's playing for the team. He is very important in creating that team now: he is leading the team, not just by words but also by his actions on the field."
The Dutch journalist sitting with Van Persie in that cinema was Henk Spaan, the player's confidant and friend. "It's important to him to know that he's valued," Spaan told Mio Stadium. "Deep down he may still be an insecure figure. He is growing with his own importance."
That could mean there is more to come from Van Persie. Free from injuries at last, we may now find out just how good Van Persie really is."I wouldn't yet put him in the same category as Bergkamp, who was a mysterious and profound passer with a perfect technique, but Van Persie is certainly among the best of the current generation at the moment," said Winner. "What he is doing at the moment is genuinely astounding."
Ben Lyttleton has written about French football for various publications. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.