The Arsenal Column

Arsenal Analysis and Tactics. All views expressed are those of Pat Rice. (Disclaimer: they are actually not his words).

The evolution of Robin van Persie

Not a week goes without a prelude to Robin van Persie but every time, he seems to justify it. This week, he single-handedly – well almost as he required wonderful goalkeeping from Wojciech Szczesny and some woeful finishing from Liverpool – earned Arsenal a 2-1 win at Anfield. And again he scored a technically perfect goal. There were some who criticised Pepe Reina for being beaten at the near post but such is his expert technique that he killed the ball dead from Alex Song’s lofted pass to volley pass Reina. His first, however, was a bit more banal but van Persie has made a habit of scoring such goals and that’s significant because a couple of seasons, such a transformation didn’t seem possible.

Van Persie has been crucial to Arsenal even as early as 2005 but his involvement was regularly curtailed by injury; he has only played more than forty games in two seasons. But back then, he was playing as a number 10, the role previously assumed by Dennis Bergkamp. He had the same swivel of the hips, the deliciously dinked passes and the ability to score spectacular goals but many question his maturity. Even so, considering that he was liable to miss matches, some would also question whether playing van Persie in such a crucial position was a wise idea. It needn’t matter because Arséne Wenger thought not to consign him to a number on the pitch. He’s a “football player,” said Wenger. “Who you expect to create something special. You do not think they have to score so many goals, they added that to their game.”

Wenger initially deployed van Persie in 2009, in a roaming capacity in a role nowadays referred to as the “false nine.” It worked a treat but no sooner had van Persie got the hang of it, he succumbed to injury. It wasn’t until 2011 when we saw the best of him again but he had refined his game and has since gone on a superb goalscoring run (currently on 43 league goals in 46 games). Indeed, that has been a rarely-talked about part of van Persie’s evolution: each time Wenger has implemented a series of tactical and strategic changes to their play, van Persie has adapted and yet consistently delivered the goals.

Playing as the false nine in 2009, van Persie brought others into play with his movement which, at the time, was crucial because it allowed those strikers vying with him for a central role to remain involved, Nicklas Bendtner and Eduardo could still play alongside him on the right and left of the attack, respectively. Just as significant, Arsenal no longer required such a tactically demanding player to play alongside Cesc Fábregas; the three man midfield that they used ensured that the multitude of creative players they possessed could be used. When he finally put his injury curse behind him midway through the 2010/11 season, his goalscoring came to the fore, necessary because Arsenal were shorn of their most creative player, Fábregas, and he constantly had to bail out the team out with his spontaneity. And this season, van Persie’s explosiveness typifies Arsenal’s new-found back-to-front directness but were it not for his goals, we’d probably be talking about how monumental a failure the tactic is. Either side of him, Gervinho and Theo Walcott haven’t nearly scored enough goals and as the captain, van Persie is right to deflect attention to their creative output but even Wenger would have expected his three-striker system to yield more goals beyond his talismanic forward. (Wenger: ”We have players who deliver fantastic numbers of assists – I think Gervinho and Walcott are among the best providers in the world if you look at the number of assists. But I know there are more goals in them and I am sure from midfield we need some goals as well. They will be welcome tomorrow.”)

The above reason also serves as another reason why van Persie is a perfect captain for this club, beyond his stature amongst the players, as van Persie’s leadership is also tactical. The Dutchman works so hard to get back into position when the team defends, acting as the reference point for their defensive structure (or the half press which they tend to use). He alludes to this example by action in an interview for Arsenal.com, stating the somewhat obsessive need to perfect his average of 11.5km covered per game. Which, on it’s own, is an extraordinary statistic but even more so because it comes from a striker; normally, you’d expect a midfielder to work as hard as van Persie does. (Van Persie covers the most distance of any player in the Premier League at 6.148 miles per game).

Talk of anyone being the most “complete striker” might seem a bit exaggerated but in van Persie’s case, it’s wholly justified (backed up by Arrigo Sacchi no less, the legendary coach who advocated a universalistic style made by universalistic players). Van Persie’s movement is superb, dragging defenders all over the pitch. Indeed, Jurgen Klopp, Borussia Dortmund’s manager, says he’s “rarely ever seen a player who plays so deep in midfield and then is such a danger in the box.” The coach, in the 3-1 defeat away to Arsenal, promised to stop the supply to van Persie to stop him from scoring but the nature of his play was an altogether unfamiliar threat. Van Persie constantly peels of his marker, whether playing on the shoulder or picking up possession. And if he does pick up the ball around the box, all manner of things can happen – he essentially made the second against Liverpool possible with his movement followed by his excellent technique – which highlights the joy of Robin van Persie at the moment and long may it continue because he’s deserved it.

Van Persie’s evolution can almost be seen as a journey; he has gone from number 11 from his time as a winger for Feyenoord, to a number 10, to a false 9 before making the final transition to where he is now as a number 9. But naturally of course, Robin van Persie says he’s neither; he’s a 9-and-a-half.

Robin Van Persie winner vs Liverpool from Arsenal Goals on Vimeo.

Filed under: Players

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15 Responses to “The evolution of Robin van Persie”

  1. jenikcarl says:

    I have long been waiting for one of you expert bloggers to put up an article about the joy that Van Persie has been this season. His understanding of the players feeding him and his positioning have been supreme. Roaming between the opposition back four and their midfield and creating doubt in either line about who’s to pick him and then make the right move at the right time is exemplary.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

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  2. Gunslinger says:

    Hi brillant article mate, love reading your player analysis more than the match ones…. Also do you have the link of the video where persie talks about running 11.5 kms ?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

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  3. Mani says:

    mate, you should consider proof reading your work before submitting it to the blog. Your articles are always fantastic, but all the spelling and grammatical errors take away from your analysis.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 6

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    The Brain Reply:

    @Mani, I think you’ve highlighted this before. I apologise for the hurt it might have given your brain – I’ve edited it now! Ta.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

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  4. Ahmad says:

    Recently, a lot of talk has been coming up about Podolski having practically agreed terms with Arsenal.

    How do you think he will fit into the side?

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    The Brain Reply:

    @Ahmad, It was said by Janusz Michalli of ESPN that Podolski would not be such a good signing without Robin van Persie; with him, he’d be superb. There’s still the fee to be agreed which will surely be the main stumbling block but he can easily play together with van Persie on the left. Otherwise, a competent back-up to van Persie as a striker – he has yet to convince there with a big club.

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  5. D says:

    Hi great article as always. Just wanted to post a comment again about the un-Song star of the Arsenal midfield, who just about redeemed his rubbish performance with a great pass at the death.

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  6. William says:

    I remember that Van Persie said (it was either early in this season, or late last season) that he wanted to add more assists to his game. It seems whenever I see him playing, his movement is incredibly good but it seems almost like he’s playing more of a poaching role than a creative one (even if he does move deep to pick up possession). Is this a result of his role being defined more that way, or because the players around him aren’t able to exploit that space well enough? My impression of his play this season is that his movement is not orthodox at all, but his end results are extremely orthodox for a number 9.

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    Arsenal Column Reply:

    @William, This quote might answer part of your question:

    Arshavin: “Watching the Udinese match (1-0 at home), I said to [Nicklas] Bendtner that now we have no one so comfortable with passing the ball to Robin van Persie or who ideally utilises the qualities of the other forwards.”

    As van Persie says, the possibility of Walcott and Gervinho crossing the ball into the box means he must be more alert and that limits the creative work he could do. There’s actually very little limitations on his role but the way he is playing now is an answer to the make-up of the side and the players we have. It must be admired the way he has selflessly adapted his game yet still as productive.

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  7. kaneprior says:

    I think the difference with Van persie has been down to Arsenal losing nasri and Fabregas. Last season, Van persie was much more involved with build up play, dropping deep and connecting with Fabregas and Nasri, with Walcott moving into space left behind. It was a shame Arsenal didnt get to play this way too much as one was always injured it seemed (they played there best football when all four were fit). Van persie’s passing, movement and skill meant Fab and walcott could get into great goal scoring positions.

    This season Arsenal havnt had that. Fab and Nasri left, which meant Arsenal started with two out and out wingers instead (with maybe Gervinho dropping slightly deeper). Wenger has therefore changed his team to being based around his old best player (fabregas) to his new one (van persie). Both wingers provide pace and delivery to Van persie, who still drops deep to help play, but mostly concentrates his movement higher up the pitch. It has meant Arsenal dont control games as much and tend to be too direct, which is a bad tactic against teams who drop deep (where arsenal have struggled this season). They have also missed someone to connect with van persie, him and Fab had a great understanding and it seemed Wenger wanted Ramsey to do a similar job, but he isnt ready yet and Arsenal have lacked a link from midfield and attack at times this season.

    In my opinion, I like him better dropping deep and acting as the playmaker, as the Arsenal team tends to look better, especially Walcott, who is able to get into central positions much easier. He might have got a lot of goals this season, but Arsenal have looked a much worse team for it.

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  8. kaneprior says:

    http://economicinterest.wordpress.com/ My blog if you are interested :)

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  9. Waleed says:

    The strange thing is, I expected him to play even more of a false 9 role, with our midfield being far less creative, and less good at keeping possession.

    He still isn’t an orthodox #9. He still floats quite a lot and gets involved in the build up play, but as you say, he needs to be in those #9 positions when the team needs him.

    What allowed him to play as a false 9 last season I think was Fabregas. He was the only midfielder we had (along with Diaby), who could play high up the pitch with their back to goal, almost like a CF.
    RvP could drop deep knowing Cesc was occupying the forward role. And often it would be Cesc arriving in those #9 positions to score goals.

    In this current midfield no one can really do that. Ramsey hasn’t been very comfortable playing as a #10, and Wenger has shifted the creative burden from the midfield to the wings, which means presence of players in the box, especially RvP, is paramount.
    Last season when the ball was out wide RvP wouldn’t even be anywhere near the box.

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  10. Tonio says:

    Your analysis and writing style is very impressive. However, simple grammatical errors are a let down. For instance,it should be, no sooner had ….. than … Otherwise, great work!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

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  11. sognatori says:

    Good column!! I’m happy to read yours.
    But, I have some question about a meaning of some words.
    First, I don’t understand this ‘new-found back-to-front directness’. This words mean like new weapon?
    Second, what is a ‘half press’? Is it rubbish media or inferior tabloid?
    Please, reply for my questions.

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    The Brain Reply:

    Hi sognatori,

    1) “Back-to-front directness” is essentially an empty term; it doesn’t mean much and it’s often used to dress up a quicker style of football. In this instance, Arsenal look to play the ball from defence to forward quicker than they have in previous seasons (as we’ve scored the most goals goals from fast breaks).

    2) There are essentially three types of press as former Dynamo Kyiv manager, Valeriy Lobanovskyi, documented. Firstly, there’s full-pressing – the one you’d expect a pressing side to use. (Contrary to common perception, there’s more to pressing than all charging at the opponent in their own half of the field although it’s still valid. You must back it by a certain structure and marking systems. But not to digress.)

    Then there’s half-pressing which is pressing once the ball comes to your own half thereby allowing the side to get a shape and get compact. Most teams tend to use this.

    And finally there’s false-pressing, where one player goes to press, giving the impression of pressing but the others don’t follow and rather, they sit off. Again, many teams use this if at least to not make it so easy for teams to pass the ball.

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