Dutch football and those that hail from its shores are known to have little cutting edge, an extra spice to flavour the beautiful game. Former Arsenal talisman Robin van Persie certainly falls into this category, and the man who hails from Feyenoord has had quite the career. Persistent injury issues during the beginning of his tenure in North London, trouble with the authorities and a hugely controversial transfer to pair up with the Sir Alex Ferguson all add up to create what has been a bumpy, but at times brilliant, career path.
The wonderfully gifted centre-forward’s greatest achievement may just have been preserving one of his mentor’s priceless consistency levels. Arséne Wenger perhaps owes much of his continued employment and respect – though waning – at Arsenal Football Club to the Dutchman’s goalscoring prowess during one of the most prolific two years spells of striking ever seen on English soil.
A young van Persie arrived at the Gunners in the midst of what was the club’s most acclaimed year in its illustrious history. The all-conquering Invincibles side had just achieved the impossible and gone a whole season without defeat, and now a young Dutch striker, with an almost negative reputation, was set to slot into a squad of legends.
This reputation stemmed from several incidents while plying his trade in his native Netherlands with his hometown club, Feyenoord. The Rotterdam-born van Perise joined the club after falling out with his previous employers SBV Excelsior at just 16 over playing time and position.
Bert van Marwijk was the manager of the Dutch side back then and gave the fiery-mouthed talent his first real taste of professional football, in what was hailed at the time as the birth of a new Dutch Golden Generation. He even started in the 2002 UEFA Cup final, a game that Feyenoord won 3-2 against German giants Borussia Dortmund. It was the last time a Dutch side lifted a European trophy.
However the relationship between manager and the new kid on the block diminished rapidly. Being left out on the eve of the UEFA Super Cup final against Real Madrid represented the tip of the iceberg in what was almost a complete collapse in communication and trust. Banished to the reserves, van Persie looked set to join a Premier League side in the 2004 January transfer window, but a deal with what would be his future employers Arsenal could not be agreed.
Before his inevitable departure to English shores in the summer of the same year, the young talent experienced something that could have only enhanced his petulant attitude towards the game. It occurred during his time with the reserves, as Feyenoord took on bitter rivals Ajax.
The game itself was not a spectacle as it was only the equivalent of an under-21 matchup in English terms, but the hatred both sets of fans still had for each other still showed. Ajax fans invaded the Toekomst pitch and attacked van Perise among several other players: “We had to run for our lives. Back in the dressing room players were crying. Players of 18, 19 and 20 were beaten up, including myself,” said van Persie.
The heroic actions of Ajax youth coach Marco van Basten perhaps prevented even more severe injuries to what was a crop of kids. “There was massive panic and it was the worst thing I have ever experienced.” A daunting quote, which signalled to the rest of Europe that one of Holland’s brightest stars wanted out. Arsenal’s response was rapid.
His time in Holland was over, and the rising Dutch star joined fellow compatriots Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart in moving to more prestigious shores. The Golden Generation were set to embark on tougher challenges across Europe, although van Persie would endure perhaps the toughest start.
Arsenal had got their man, a seemingly native heir to the mercurial Dennis Bergkamp, but much like his legendary predecessor, things did not begin swimmingly. As many will remember, Bergkamp’s initial transition after his move from Inter Milan was met with scepticism and doubts over his ability at the very highest level.
• • • •
Read | The disputed genius of Arsène Wenger
• • • •
A year later all those thoughts were put to bed by his enigmatic performances, but for van Persie the transition to superstardom would be far more arduous. Indeed there were glimpses of the mercurial talent the Gunners had acquired in his first six seasons in the English capital, but consistency was not his forte early on.
Furthermore, in 2005 controversy once again showed its devilish face right at the start of his English career, with the striker accused of rape while with the Netherlands squad in Rotterdam. He was placed under police custody for 14 days after which he was allowed to leave without charge, however suspicion still surrounded the case.
In February 2006, just as he was settling into Premier League life, the allegations were dismissed. Van Persie did admit to being unfaithful to his wife in the matter, but no sexual contact with coercion occurred. The Dutchman was allowed to refocus on his trade, but his glory years in North London were still some years away.
Nevertheless, despite his proneness to injury and seeming inability to maintain a sustained spell in the starting line-up, the Dutchman still managed to show glimpses of how special he was. He was the club’s top scorer in the 2006-07 season – even with Thierry Henry still at the club – and in 2008-09 he recorded his first 20-goal haul and was named the club’s Player of the Season.
The next season saw the striker agree a new deal with the club but yet again injury plagued him on a constant basis throughout, and all the way into the middle of the 2010-11 season. This would, however, be the last time in an Arsenal shirt that the sidelines would silence the striking animal, and for the next season and a half van Persie’s brilliance would preserve his manager’s consistency record.
January 1, 2011: a date in his scrapbook that should be rigorously referred to as the start of a goalscoring spree rarely seen in the world’s most competitive league. The strike scored on this day came in a 3-0 victory over Birmingham City and, while not a goal of any particular class or importance, it perhaps served as an essential building block.
Records tumbled for him thereafter for the remainder of the season, scoring the most Premier League goals in the opening two months of a calendar year, becoming the first player to score in seven successive away games and equalling the record for most goals scored after the turn of the year – a staggering 18.
Despite only being available for a round half of the campaign, it was without question van Persie’s finest, with his seemingly impossible goal against Barcelona in the Champions League singled out as his proudest moment at the club. Sadly for the Dutchman, his controversial red card in the return leg made great headline,s but finally it seemed as if everything was clicking into motion.
The following season saw him become club captain and, with an inferior squad of players after the departure of Cesc Fàbregas, the onus was on their new talisman. The reality was that Gunners squad lacked quality throughout, with the defence a regular target for scrutiny and a general lack of true world-class talent.
Van Persie was the shining beacon of class that shone through the side and he was set to embark on a one-man mission to preserve the club’s stature. The opening stages of the campaign saw Arsenal stutter, an 8-2 hammering at the hands of Manchester United the ultimate humiliation.
The Dutchman did manage to get on the scoresheet during the game, but the credibility of the goal was well and truly worthless, with the Gunners’ ambitions and pride left in ruins. A turning point in both the fortunes of the club and their new talisman around this time came during yet another frustrating game at the Emirates – which seemed commonplace at the time – against a rugged Sunderland side.
Van Persie had netted inside 30 seconds to open the scoring, but a sensational Seb Larsson free-kick had levelled the match. Three points were essential, a game of some magnitude despite the inferiority of the opponents on paper, but a stubborn defence was proving to be the downfall once again for Arsenal.
As the game neared its end Arsenal received a free kick, which was tailor-made for a left footer – thankfully they had possibly the best one of those in the division. Van Persie whipped it over the wall and past the helpless goalkeeper, sending the crowd into raptures, in the process securing a priceless three points and an injection of revival for the depleted Gunners.
Following the win, the Dutchman placed Arsenal firmly on his prolific shoulders and carried them through the brutal battlefield that we often refer to as a Premier League season. Two goals against Stoke to secure three points, a match-winning hat-trick against Chelsea and a brace against Borussia Dortmund to secure European qualification almost became the norm for him. The rest of the side seemed to almost watch in awe as their leader bailed them out of the tightest spots; every time the ball arrived at their feet they would seek the quickest route to find their main man.
The calendar year 2011 saw him notch 35 league goals, the most for a player in a 38-game season and just one short of Alan Shearer’s 36-goal haul registered in a 42-game season – a feat which really doesn’t need to be described to highlight its brilliance. His memorable volley against Everton, the last of this astounding year, will be a goal the Emirates is never likely to forget.
• • • •
Read | Thierry Henry: the striking blueprint
• • • •
Alex Song picked the ball up in midfield and looped a pass over the Toffees defence. Van Persie watched the ball drop over his shoulder before unleashing what seemed almost like a laser-guided volley into the bottom corner. It was technique of the most outrageous variety, and he was beginning to show that not only could he carry this Arsenal side, he could do it with quality of the highest order.
The next year arrived with the Rotterdam native firmly in the Premier League spotlight. Singled out for critical acclaim up and down the country, he was slowly turning into an icon. The goals kept on coming in abundance; often they went to waste as the rest of the Arsenal side squandered the opportunity to feed off of his brilliance.
A one-man band of the highest order, his goals kept Arsenal in the battle to catch bitter rivals Tottenham Hotspur, but even he couldn’t prevent them seemingly edging closer to finally overcoming the Gunners in the Premier League era. Dropped points overshadowed the efficiency of van Persie at times that season, but on February 26 one of his Dutch sparks would ignite Arsène Wenger’s squad and give them the fuel they needed to rectify what had been a tepid season thus far.
Beleaguered at 2-0 down to their North London rivals – the team they simply had to usurp – their captain once again stood tall. After a brilliant Bacary Sagna header, the striker delivered what was possibly the most crucial strike of his Arsenal career. Turning elegantly on the edge of the box, he curled an unstoppable left-footed strike past a helpless Brad Friedel. 5-2 was the final score, in favour of the red half of North London, and it cannot be disputed that this moment of excellence was the catalyst.
A goal of sensational proportions propelled the Gunners to pip their arch enemies to Champions League football as they took the rest of the season by the scruff of the neck. Of course, it was van Persie himself at the forefront of this resurgence; his two goals at Anfield to secure a 2-1 victory a personal highlight.
Ending the season with an astonishing 30 league goals, Arsenal’s main man had without question dragged his adopted side over the finishing line. Without his brutal consistency over a season-and-a-half we may very well have seen a different Arsenal than the one we see today – most likely one that would have been Wenger-less.
A controversial move to bitter rivals Manchester United at the end of this spell was a sad way for his relationship with the club to end, but in hindsight he had fulfilled his duty and mended their fragile state. Ever since his departure Wenger’s side have taken significant steps forward and they owe a huge debt to the man who rescued them during what I believe to be their most fragile Premier League days in the noughties.
A league title in his maiden season at Old Trafford and another Golden Boot was just reward for a player who, while was never a consistent great, produced a spell of striking ability that should rightfully put him alongside the greatest Premier League strikers.
Van Persie’s goal to secure Ferguson’s last league title was eerily similar to the moment of magic he had produced in the latter stages of his Arsenal career against Everton, judging a looping pass so perfectly and then proceeding to expertly volley it past the stranded ‘keeper.
His first season would remain his only one of consistent productivity in the north of England, but his £24 million price tag was effectively paid off after his hugely successful first campaign. David Moyes struggled to give him the tools needed to further flourish, as did Louis van Gaal, despite coaching him at international level.
A move to Turkish club Fenerbahçe in the summer of 2015 signalled the end of one of the Premier League’s most memorable careers. Part of a Dutch generation that should have won a major trophy, Van Persie exorcised many of his past demons and injuries to become a striker of sheer enigmatic quality. His technique puts him at the very top of European talent.
His talent, frequency of goals, type of goal and overall leadership is unlikely to be seen at Arsenal anytime soon.
By Danny Ryan