The Flying Dutchman lit up the Premier League for 11 seasons, first at Arsenal, then at Manchester United. One of the greatest forwards of the 21st century, his finishing prowess at its peak had almost no equal in world football.
Their squad was brimming with talent, from Sol Campbell, to Patrick Vieira, to Thierry Henry, all at their peak. Wise old heads like Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pires were anchors, both in the dressing room and on the pitch. Young players such as Cesc Fabregas and Gael Clichy were being touted as future stars. And who better to develop these young talents than Arsene Wenger, the man who had masterminded the revival of the club, changing their style from the archaic, boozy practices of the late eighties and early nineties, and transformed the side into a modern, sleek, powerful winning machine. They were quite literally, invincible.
Henry was coming off his second PFA Player of the Year award in a row, but his partner-in-crime for so many years, Bergkamp, was now 35, and approaching the end of his storied career. The summer after the title was won, Wenger decided to inject the forward line with another player from the Netherlands.
At the age of 20, Robin van Persie already had a bit of a reputation as a precocious talent with an attitude problem. His body language, motivation and petulance had been criticised by his coach at Feyenoord, Bert van Marwijk. It had gotten to the point that van Marwijk had dropped the talented youngster from his squad. After spending a large part of the 2003-04 season on the bench, van Persie decided to leave Feyenoord.
Promise and Pain
Feyenoord’s loss was Arsenal’s gain. Van Persie signed for £2.75 million in the summer of 2004, and made his debut in the Community Shield that year. His first season saw him make 41 appearances, and score ten goals. Wenger had begun the process of converting the young Dutchman from a left-winger to a striker, as he had done with Henry. The biggest stumbling point was still van Persie’s temperament. He picked up a red card against Southampton, and was subsequently dropped from this side for an extended period, only being reintroduced when Henry was sidelined by injury. Still, his first season ended with a trophy, as Arsenal lifted the FA Cup, with van Persie converting a penalty in the shootout.
Van Persie’s early years at Arsenal were dotted with injuries. Broken toes, metatarsal injuries, knee problems, the Dutchman could not catch a break. When he was not on the treatment table, he was hitting new heights.
First, he replaced Bergkamp as Henry’s main striker partner, then, when Henry left for Barcelona, he took over as the focal point of Arsenal’s attack. In 2006, he scored a ferocious, screaming volley against Charlton that Wenger described as “the goal of a lifetime”. Despite all the injuries, van Persie was developing into a frontline creative striker, chalking up both assists and goals. He was finally looking like the Bergkamp replacement Wenger had wanted.
As Arsenal began to stutter as a title challenging force, van Persie became more and more important to the side. He became the side’s main freekick, corner and penalty taker. He was now one of the more experienced players in the squad, and it showed in the maturity of his play. He became vice-captain, and then, in 2011, the captain of the team.
The responsibility suited van Persie. Despite continuing injury problems, his scoring rate kept inching upwards. His magical left foot continued to guide Arsenal to Champions League qualification, year after year. Even as players like Henry, Emmanuel Adebayor, Samir Nasri, and Cesc Fabregas left, van Persie grew from strength to strength.
In 2011-12, he finally played a full season for Arsenal. He appeared in every single Premier League game, in what was his zenith in North London. Van Persie won the Golden Boot that year, and finished the season with a fantastic 37 goals in 48 appearances. But under the surface, there was discontent. He was into the final year of his contract, and had not won a trophy since that FA Cup all those seasons ago. He was captain, but Arsenal were no longer title challengers. He had seen old teammates leave the club, and be rewarded with trophies.
At the end of the 2012 season, van Persie announced that he would not be signing a new Arsenal contract. The bidding war for the best striker in the Premier League was on.
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Van Persie’s transfer saga dragged throughout the summer. In the end, it came down to the two Manchester clubs, City and United. Man City were champions, the home to many a former Arsenal player. In the end though, van Persie elected to join the runners-up, United.
At his unveiling, van Persie claimed that he had listened to the little boy inside him. He also made it clear that he had come to win the Premier League. He even took the number 20 shirt, believing that he would help Manchester United secure their 20th league title.
City were the newly minted force in the Premier League. Sergio Aguero’s injury time goal had sealed their first league title since the sixties at United’s expense. Sir Alex Ferguson was determined to silence the noisy neighbours once more. He identified van Persie as the missing piece of the puzzle. For the relatively low price of £22.5 million, Ferguson essentially bought the league title.
Van Persie and Ferguson were brought together by an insatiable drive to win. For the Dutchman, it was the need to win his first title, for the Scot, his last. They could not have done it without each other. Van Persie played with a point to prove, and the season was littered with stunning moments.
A comeback hat+trick against Southampton. A late penalty against Liverpool. A goal against Chelsea. Another against his former club, Arsenal. Sweetest of all, an injury time free-kick to win the Manchester derby. Robin van Persie was the driving force behind United’s league performance, as the Red Devils surged to the top of the table.
Fittingly, van Persie was the man to seal the Premier League title, scoring a first half hat-trick against Aston Villa. This included a stunning volley, as van Persie, on the run at the edge of the box, made the sweetest connection with a ball launched over his shoulder by Wayne Rooney, playing in midfield. It was a goal that epitomised van Persie: Elegant, yet ferocious. Brilliant, yet effortless.
With his second Golden Boot award sealed, van Persie’s legend was complete. No one smiled wider than the Dutchman as United picked up their Premier League medals.
As Ferguson rode off into the sunset, the next couple of years were less kind to van Persie. His injury problems returned, and he never recaptured the form of his peak seasons. Neither David Moyes nor Louis van Gaal could harness the Flying Dutchman of old.
During his career, van Persie was a monumental part of the Dutch national team. His flying header against Spain in the 2014 World Cup will be remembered as one of the most iconic goals in the tournament’s history. With 50 goals, he is currently their all-time highest scorer, and played in the 2010 World Cup Final. Along with Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, he was one of the stars of the 2010s generation of the Oranje.
Though he only really had two full Premier League seasons without injury, van Persie showed that his technique and class were of the highest quality. His brain adjusted to the flight and pace of a ball quicker than anyone else. He could effortlessly produce finishes that other strikers could only dream of, but was a team player as well, finishing with 53 Premier League assists, to go with 144 goals. Despite his injury problems, he stills scored at an impressive 0.51 goals per game.
Though his time at Arsenal overlapped with a fallow period for trophies, he is still recognised as one of their best ever Premier League strikers. Despite only being there for three seasons, United fans still fondly remember him as the man who won them their 20th title. Whether in the red of Arsenal, or United, at his peak he was unparalleled in the Premier League in terms of sheer goalscoring technique.
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