Robin Van Persie: Is Dutchman Arsene Wenger's Greatest Pupil Ever?

Matthew Snyder@schnides14Analyst IIINovember 7, 2011

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 05:  Robin van Persie of Arsenal celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and West Bromwich Albion at Emirates Stadium on November 5, 2011 in London, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Julian Finney/Getty Images

Who knows what first sold Arsene Wenger upon a certain Dutch prodigy back in 2004. Was he impressed that Robin van Persie had featured for Feyenoord as a 17-year-old back in the 2002 UEFA Cup final against a Borussia Dortmund side that featured Tomas Rosicky?

Was it the left foot that uncorked firecrackers on a frighteningly consistent basis? The uncanny technique and sublime skill? An inkling or premonition, however minute, that this raw talent might one day become one of the top strikers in the world?

Van Persie, then a starlet with a troubling propensity for clashing with his coaches and displaying a tempestuous temper during matches, was nonetheless hailed for his prowess on the wing. Perhaps Wenger believed the hot-headedness would slowly fade away with age.

The relationship with Feyenoord coach Bert van Marwijk—since repaired, as van Marwijk now coaches the Dutch national team—would prove an untenable one, with van Persie famously left out of the Feyenoord squad that would face Real Madrid in the 2002 UEFA Super Cup final because of a bust-up.

Within 18 months, the enigmatic winger was on a plane to London: destination Highbury.

You'd have to think Wenger might fashion himself a master sculptor—able to take rough-hewn building blocks that, after time and painstaking attention to detail, eventually become masterpieces.

Perhaps Wenger saw in van Persie potential to make the transition from winger to world-class center forward, a transformation the Frenchman had already seen achieved with Thierry Henry. Henry had been a floundering talent with Juventus, secluded on the flanks, before Wenger worked his tactical magic with the man who would become Arsenal's all-time goalscoring leader.

There are certainly other players outside Henry even who could make a case as Wenger's greatest-ever production. Cesc Fabregas—plucked from Barcelona's famed training center la Masia at age 16—is an easy one to point out. Or Emmanuel Petit, transformed from a center back to illustrious central midfielder.

Van Persie, like those two players, has always been able to make the spectacular look maddeningly easy. His crashing left-footed volley against Charlton in 2006 remains one of the greatest feats I have ever witnessed.

Without the injuries, which have been a constant thorn in his side ever since he first featured for Arsenal, who knows how many goals he'd have chalked up by now.

If his form from the past calendar year is any indication to that matter—the Dutchman has been on another planet with his production—he might have been close to 200 goals for the club (he currently sits at 167), ready to make a concerted push toward Henry's record, which sits at 226.

So, what's changed the most with the man who always looked certain to become the heir apparent to Gunners legend—and fellow Dutchman—Dennis Bergkamp.

LONDON - JULY 17:  Robin van Persie of Arsenal in action during the Pre-Season friendly match between Barnet and Arsenal at the Underhill Stadium, Barnet on July 17, 2004 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Clive Rose/Getty Images

The switch from No. 11 to 10 notwithstanding, van Persie's evolution as a striker cannot be over-discussed. It has been a fascinating transformation.

He has always possessed the talent to turn a match on its end—his last-gasp goal against Southampton at Highbury was just one example of what he was capable of—but he has become a true poacher as well, turning into a complete and comprehensive threat in front of goal.

His two goals against Stoke City, in which van Persie was the definition of a "supersub," were both cool finishes in the goal-mouth area while under pressure from onrushing defenders.

Wenger's 4-2-3-1 system requires a central striker who possesses the capacity to spread play and link-up with his fellow attackers.

While it is certainly far too early to judge Ju Young Park's performance against Olympique de Marseille, a rare start in van Persie's stead last week in the Champions League—after all, the Korean needs time to settle following his late-summer move from Monaco—it is true he did not provide anywhere near the same presence or production we've come to expect of the Dutchman.

That formation, utilized since the start of 2009-10—coincidentally with the departure of Emmanuel Adebayor to Manchester City, who had often paired up front with van Persie in a 4-4-2—may have been a ploy by Wenger to give Fabregas an unparalleled area in which to roam as an attacking midfielder, but it has also allowed the Dutchman free reign, particularly with the Spaniard now on the books of Barcelona.

In some ways, van Persie resembles Wayne Rooney or Diego Forlan with his propensity to drop deep into midfield to get touches on the ball and dictate play.

His distribution from that area is often well measured and accurate, and there are few sights more ominous for an opposing defense than van Persie running at a defender while preparing to line up a fierce left-footed drive.

While you never wish to see a club's top players leave, perhaps we've come to appreciate van Persie more (if that is even possible!) because of the absence of Fabregas and Samir Nasri—the latter having joined Fabregas out the door this summer.

It was the same case with Rooney at United once Cristiano Ronaldo left for Madrid in 2009 on that record transfer fee.

Rooney, who had often seen his production limited somewhat while playing with the Portuguese winger, surged into indomitable form in 2009-10, scoring 34 goals in all competitions.

Van Persie was still scoring at a high frequency with Fabregas and Nasri in the side in the first part of 2011, but we've seen him enter another realm entirely this season. The temper, once such a frequent cause for concern—remember his red card against Stoke back in 2008—has now abated, perhaps a byproduct of having become a family man (he has a wife and two children) as well as the club captain this season.

With 12 goals already to his name (all competitions) scored from a full spectrum—free kicks, run of play, etc.—you could say that we're watching the Dutch master, like Rembrandt hundreds of years before him, constructing his masterpiece.

Each goal peppered into the net might as well be a brushstroke on a canvas. And words can't describe how exciting it is to watch this creation take shape.


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