One Of Us Speaks: The Parable of Robin van Persie
Big Al’s back and talking Dutch Masters
After falling foul of a strict corrective regime under Bert van Marwijk at Feyenoord, Robin van Persie slowly found his feet with us in a supportive environment where great care was taken to ensure that he was happy and comfortable on and off the pitch. As soon as he was treated like a grown up, he started acting like one. On the cusp of a season in which he’ll likely play a more central role than ever, his story offers a welcome antidote to the idea that we’re too soft with our young, budding talents.
This is from November 2004:
The way Arsenal take care of young players is incredible; they look after your family, they make sure your house or flat is in the right area. They have special people who are looking after us all the time. At London Colney ’s training ground you get trained to live the life of a top sportsman
Eight years ago, van Persie was the enfant terrible of Dutch football. He left his boyhood club Excelsior Rotterdam at 16 after falling out with the coaching staff. Then after breaking into the first team at local rivals Feyenoord in 2001, he spent much of the following three seasons in trouble with authoritarian manager Bert van Marwijk. Much of the drama sprung from being forced to play on the left wing and adhere to the manager’s rigid tactics.
A trawl through the Feyenoord news archives from this time is like reading the school reports of a nascent supervillain. When he wasn’t lighting up De Kuip with moments of breathtaking skill, he was prone to bouts of on-pitch indiscipline. These included baiting the manager in his goal celebrations, refusing to warm up properly during a crucial Champions League qualifier with Fenerbahce, openly trashing the team system, and consequently kicking his heels on the bench or moping around for the youth team.
He was also a divisive figure outside the club. One of the most dramatic incidents came when he turned out for the reserves at Ajax’s training ground, De Toekomst on 15th April 2004 – a dark day for Dutch football. At the final whistle of a customarily heated encounter between the old rivals, scores of Ajax hooligans stormed the pitch, and you can guess who they singled out for special treatment.
As the mob closed in, teammate Jorge Acuña jumped to Van Persie’s aid and spent the next few days in hospital recovering from bruised ribs and concussion. Robin took a couple of blows, swung back, and was eventually shielded from the melee by Marco van Basten, his future Oranje coach. After the incident he thanked Acuña for intervening, the Chilean midfielder shrugged it off with, “You’d have done the same for me”.
Prior to that, Feyenoord had been trying to find a new home for their precocious but troubled talent, who now had just over a year left to run on his contract. Mysteriously there weren’t many foreign takers for this young tearaway. Steve Rowley had been watching him on and off since his breakthrough in 2001, was convinced that he could be set straight and advised Arsenal to bid. A £5 million offer was rejected. That appeared to be the end of it, and PSV emerged as new favourites.
Even more strangely, after the brawl at De Toekomst, even domestic interest ebbed away. Feyenoord’s asking price was slashed and a new £2.75 million bid from Arsenal was accepted in May 2004.
It’s interesting to read that certain physical aspects of a player at a young age, e.g. running stance, are identified as an indication of how they will develop in their playing career. Could the same apply to mental development? Were the aggression and cockiness of van Persie then, a precursor to the focus and self-belief of today? Was this what Rowley had in mind when he ignored the cloud hanging over Van Persie’s young career?
van Marwijk followed RvP out the door that summer. Despite winning the UEFA Cup with the club in 2002, his lack of success in nurturing Van Persie – regarded by many as a superior talent to the emergent Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben – was seen as one of his major failures.
When it came to filling that precast bad boy role, RvP was a bit of a disappointment in his early Arsenal years. There was a silly red card against Southampton, a harsh sending off in the Champions League against FC Thun, and not much else, despite plenty of provocation most memorably from Chris Morgan and Andy Todd.
On the technical side, RvP’s career has come full-circle. In Feyenoord’s youth teams he started out as a shadow-striker with freedom to roam, which is very similar to the role he now plays, after spending a number of years on the right for Arsenal and the Netherlands. The video below is from 2000:
The technique is familiar – that unbending posture and implausible sense of balance. The big difference is free-kicks; his efforts eleven years ago were a little less violent and a little more lofted. Even when you look back at many of his classic efforts for Arsenal, like at Fulham or at home to Wigan in the Carling Cup, he strikes the ball with a degree of power but didn’t bludgeon them the way he does today. What’s also interesting is that his prowess from dead-ball situations is inversely related to his development as a goal-scorer. Could there be a certain quality that he’s cultivated as an efficient finisher that might hinder his direct free-kick taking?
It’s a minor quibble, as RvP as shown that he’s more than just a goal machine, with 26 of his 25 PL career assists coming in the last three seasons. This campaign should see yet more creative and goal-scoring responsibility as he drops deep to pick out runs by two of the fastest wide forwards around, and finishes moves with characteristic speed of thought and immaculate technique.
And there you have it – a blog about Robin van Persie that didn’t once mention injuries. What? Oh damn.