Winger turns winner


Arsenal’s Robin van Persie has switched from his preferred position to turn goal-poacher supreme

On the ball: Robin van Persie’s (right) delicate frame was deemed unsuitable for the central role but he has adapted to the change in remarkable fashion. APThe great goal scorers of this or any generation are most often men of singular minds within resilient bodies.  They are driven to put the ball into the net despite all the opponents who would bully them out of the firing line if they sensed any weakness of any kind.

Yet Robin van Persie, who is in dazzling form in the English Premier League, is robust neither of build nor, hitherto, of temperament.

He has matured, slowly, into Arsenal’s captain, and he has led the team through a season of transition after the departure last summer of its two most creative stars, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri. That in itself is remarkable testimony to van Persie’s strength of character.

A natural left winger, a player of stealth rather than force, he has converted to out-and-out striker because Arsenal needed that. Prior to the game against Queens Park on Saturday, he had scored 34 goals in the calendar year, equalling the club record set by Thierry Henry. Alan Shearer holds the Premier League record for maximum goals in a calendar year, 36 for Blackburn Rovers in 1995.

His club manager, Arsene Wenger, is an alchemist among football coaches. He works on players’ minds, and while they are resting or sleeping, he studies the data on their energy levels. He has, over the seasons, rested Van Persie for his own physical well-being. And he has worked at Arsenal with two goal scorers, Ian Wright and Henry, whose form became focused on pursuing records in the past.

“'Individual records are not vital for me,” Wenger said. “I believe great players know what is important, and what is the right decision for the team.”

But he saw Wright become obsessed with eclipsing the career record of 178 goals that Cliff Bastin had scored for Arsenal from 1929 to 1947. Wright was a predator who existed as a player solely to score goals. He eventually accumulated 185 goals from 1991 to 1998. But then Henry outscored Wright, finishing his eight-year span at Arsenal in 2007 with 226 goals.

Van Persie has more in common with Henry because both were signed by Wenger as artistic wingers who, over time, the manager coaxed into playing as central strikers.

In fact, Henry is on the verge of rejoining Arsenal on loan for two months as a temporary backup during the absence of Gervinho and Marouane Chamakh when they depart next month for the African Cup of Nations.

Wenger knows Henry inside out. He knows the quality of his former team leader, and quite possibly, from his medical charts, knows whether the player he helped to create is capable of one final, meaningful encore at Arsenal.

But it is not simply a physical evaluation. Before Henry left to join Barcelona, and then the Red Bulls, he had become at times a brooding presence in the dressing room, a player perhaps not suited to the leadership that came with being made captain.

Fabregas, his successor, was better. But when Fabregas left this year, going back to his boyhood team Barcelona, Van Persie was next in line.

Could that work? Van Persie, whose mother is a painter and whose father is a sculptor, acquired the artistic temperament in spades. He was a junior player with his local club in Rotterdam at 4 years of age, and when his parents divorced during his childhood, Van Persie was raised by his dad.

He can speak from experience of the artistic mind. “'I don’t see things the way my parents do,” he once said. “They can look at a tree and see something amazing. I just see a tree.”

Translate that into football, which consumed him through a difficult, disruptive childhood, and you have the recipe for trouble in a team environment. Van Persie’s coach when he played as a teenager for his home town team, Feyenoord, was the equally headstrong Bert van Marwijk.

Van Marwijk left Van Persie in the reserves. And Wenger, whose first signing for Arsenal had been Dennis Bergkamp, was able to buy Van Persie for half the 5 million pounds, or $7.8 million, Feyenoord wanted in 2004.

Van Persie is no Bergkamp.

Bergkamp was a one-off, a player who could create beautifully, artistically, as the shadow striker, a player who operates behind the main attacker.

Bergkamp’s easy elegance, his wonderful vision, gave him options of whether to make the pass that put another man through to score or to score almost at his own whim.

Van Persie has something of Bergkamp in his game, but more of Henry. Wenger nurtured the two of them through a similar process, keeping them on the wing until the manager judged their time to lead the attack.

With Van Persie, there was, seemingly until now, the need to protect slender limbs susceptible to injuries. His adaptation this season is the more remarkable, given the departures of Fabregas and Nasri, the loss of confidence of Andrej Arshavin, and the long-term injury to the emerging Jack Wilshere.

In all that turmoil, with all that artistic history, it is indeed remarkable the way Van Persie has timed his run toward the Premier League record.

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