Van Persie following Henry's footsteps
ESPN analyst Kevin Keegan is one of English football's most respected figures and he will be writing for ESPNsoccernet throughout the season. As a player, Kevin represented Liverpool with distinction, winning numerous titles in domestic and European football, and was twice named European Footballer of the Year during his time at Hamburg. Kevin has also managed England, Newcastle United, Manchester City and Fulham.
Five Premier League victories in a row, qualification for the Champions League knockout rounds with a game to spare, and the most in-form player in the country leading their forward line; suddenly, things aren't looking too bad for Arsenal. This Saturday, the Gunners take on Fulham at Emirates Stadium in front of the ESPN cameras, looking to continue what has been an impressive run of recent results.
After the hammering they received at Old Trafford back in August, many people feared for Arsenal and when they lost to Blackburn and Tottenham too, you wondered if the club were at risk of going into serious decline. In their defence, Arsenal had six players missing against Manchester United. There were a lot of square pegs in round holes that day and if you take six players out of any team they will struggle - maybe not to the tune of eight goals, but it makes life very tough.
Few people expected them to come back from those poor results, but they have responded fantastically. Arsene Wenger is a resilient manager - you don't stay at such a big club for as long as he has without being resilient - and he has shown that even though Arsenal have lost a few players, they've still got a lot of talent there. They are a well-managed club and even a faltering Arsenal are going to be capable of finishing in the top four. Yes, they've got a battle on their hands to do so, what with Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and even Newcastle at the moment all vying for the two places behind the Manchester clubs, but they can challenge.
Arsenal's return to form has, of course, been spearheaded by Robin van Persie. His goal record this year really is something else; 31 goals in 29 league games is an incredible return and puts him up with Thierry Henry, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Alan Shearer and Les Ferdinand as the only players to have claimed 30 or more Premier League goals in a calendar year.
I worked with two of the members of the 30+ club in Shearer and Ferdinand; in fact, Les came to us at Newcastle in the summer of 1995, which was the year he scored 30 goals in all. Les was more of your archetypal centre-forward - big, strong and excellent in the air; Van Persie is very different to that and of those names above he's more like Henry really - nimble, skilful and light on his feet.
To be honest, it's surprised me a bit just how many goals Van Persie has scored, not because I don't think he's a world-class player but because I've never really seen him as a typical striker; he has gone from being used out wide to playing in a central position. Many people forget that he was educated as a left-winger at Feyenoord and that it was Arsene Wenger who decided to encourage him to play up front.
His is a similar story to that of Thierry Henry, who also arrived at Arsenal as a wide player, from Juventus, before transforming into a devastating striker for the Gunners. It's exactly the same club and the same change. Everyone praised Henry for adapting to that position, and I feel Van Persie deserves the same credit. Henry obviously went on to become the club's all-time leading scorer under Arsene but I think it's important to note that, while he provided plenty of moments of individual brilliance, he also played in a more settled Arsenal side with a host of quality players, one that enjoyed plenty of success and didn't have as many disruptions as the present one. Van Persie is playing in an Arsenal side that isn't as good as ones of the past, a side that has struggled at times this year to get results. It's been no bed of roses for him and when you take that into account, what Van Persie is doing is every bit as good as Henry, if not better. It must be difficult for Arsenal fans to think of what might have been had Van Persie not suffered so badly with injuries during his time at the club. He's averaged just 16 starts a season since moving to Arsenal in 2004, which is a real blow when you consider he has been their first-choice striker since Henry left four years ago. Neither Wenger or the supporters will want to contemplate what would happen if he were to pick up another injury this season, it would be disastrous for them. Arsenal have scored 58 goals in 2011 and he has scored 32 of them; Van Persie's importance is clear for all to see. There are obviously concerns about his future fitness but just because a player has had his fair share of injuries, there's no reason why for the next three years he can't be injury free.
I think rather than injury, though, the biggest worry now is whether or not Van Persie will commit his long-term future to Arsenal. The club have said they'll wait until the end of the season to sort out his contract - which runs out in 2013 - and I think that's sensible; let him carry on scoring goals without any distractions and then sit down at the end of the year. Arsenal will have to accept that the ball will be in his court, though. He will weigh up exactly where he thinks the club are going and whether the powers-that-be are going to be willing to invest in new players or instead focus on finding bargains and selling the top names. If they promise to bring in players who he feels will help Arsenal win trophies and play in major finals he will probably stay. If the latter is the case then he's going to go because he's entering the prime of his career and will want to play at the very top.
This season is more about Arsenal impressing Van Persie than Van Persie impressing Arsenal. The clock is ticking and Arsene needs to try to keep him motivated at a time when, whether they like it or not, they've been perceived as a selling club. I don't know Van Persie well enough to know how he's thinking but it's a toss-up really between saying 'I want to stay here and be part of, and lead, a new era at Arsenal' or 'hold on, the club can't keep hold of their best players, why should I stay?' I think it will be a crucial time for Arsene Wenger and Arsenal at the end of the season because if Van Persie doesn't sign next summer, he won't sign at all. Comparisons with Henry, Nasri and Fabregas will be inevitable until he signs that contract, or the club announce that he won't. You won't be able to stop that speculation.
For now, though, it is clear that Van Persie is staying focused on his football. He's been made club captain and he's embraced it as an inspiration rather than let it burden him. You certainly wouldn't bet against him to continue his scoring streak against Fulham on Saturday, though Arsenal will know they can expect to come up against a gritty, organised and determined side. It is not a foregone conclusion that the Gunners will make it six league wins in a row as Fulham are a team packed with excellent pros like Danny Murphy, Clint Dempsey and Brede Haangeland and have managed to keep three clean sheets away from home this season. It won't be a stroll in the park for Arsene's players, but the irresistible form of Van Persie should be enough for them to emerge with all three points.