Column: Is Van Persie too good for Arsenal?


As the crowd at the Emirates Stadium leapt to its feet enraptured by his 33rd goal of the season, Robin van Persie kept his serious game-face. He exchanged a quick slap of hands with Theo Walcott, thanking the winger for supplying the final pass, and then wheeled around and raced toward the center circle, waving his teammates back, too.

"Come on, don't let up, we've still got work to do," the Arsenal captain's body-language was saying. In that match this week, Van Persie also argued heatedly with Tim Krul, goading the goalkeeper for Newcastle after Thomas Vermaelen scored a late winner for Arsenal.

How good to see Van Persie so engaged. His passion, leadership and commitment are exactly what the doctor ordered for Arsene Wenger's team as it seeks to put a decent finish on a season that has had the consistency of mush.

But what's in this relationship for Van Persie? Does Arsenal deserve and can it afford to keep a player this good? At 28, Van Persie is in his prime. Should he spend any more of them at a club that hasn't won a trophy since 2005, be loyal like Steven Gerrard has been to Liverpool? Or is now, when Van Persie's star is highest, time for him to cash in and move to another team that might actually win something?

The answers the Dutchman and Arsenal provide over the coming months will be an acid test of character and ambition for both parties.

It will become harder to regard Arsenal as one of Europe's truly big clubs if it can't get Van Persie to sign a new contract, if it lets him wriggle free as it did midfielders Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri last summer. A club that consistently lets others entice away its best talents - and the list at Arsenal has grown long in recent years - should not be taken too seriously.

Manchester City is reportedly dangling an eye-wateringly rich deal at Van Persie. As they did with Nasri, disappointed Arsenal fans will accuse him of being mercenary if he takes it. But it would also be another sign that Arsenal either isn't able or willing to spend what is necessary to be competitive.

Van Persie is playing so well for Arsenal that he could probably move to any club he likes. With 26 goals in 28 league appearances this season, Van Persie is operating in the same rarified realm as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, both setting a blistering goal-scoring pace in Spain, and outstripping the Bundesliga's top scorer, Mario Gomez of Bayern Munich.

Few goals are better than the volleys, both from insightful Alex Song passes, that Van Persie scored against Everton in December and at Liverpool this month. Both showed fabulous technique, balance and eye-foot coordination from the player whose parents are artists and who once told an interviewer that the soccer field is "my canvas. I see solutions, possibilities, the space to express myself."

Both those goals also were match-winners. Time and again this season, it has been evident that without Van Persie, who has scored nearly half of Arsenal's 57 Premier League goals, Wenger's side would be nowhere, flailing around in the middle of the league table or worse. Instead, his players are now legitimately setting their sights on taking the league's third place from Tottenham, which would at least guarantee Champions League soccer for Arsenal next season.

"Without a doubt he has to be player of the year," Walcott said this week of Van Persie. "You just give him anything and he will just put it away - left foot, right foot, and he has scored a couple of headers as well."

But the fact remains that, in eight years, Van Persie has won only one trophy with Arsenal, the 2005 FA Cup. A player of his caliber could rightfully argue that he should have won more. In 2009, he told The Observer that merely competing for Champions League places wasn't good enough for him. "I want to be at a level where, as a club, we are winning things, not just every four or five years, but one or two trophies each year," the newspaper quoted him as saying.

Well, in that case, this year again was a dud. This time last year, Arsenal was ruining what had been a promising season by going weak-kneed toward the end, losing the League Cup final to Birmingham City and then winning just two of its last 11 league games. This season, Arsenal started horribly, losing four of its first seven league games, and then went on another losing streak in January, too.

Arsenal and Van Persie have put his contract talks on hold until the end of the season, saying he wants to concentrate on soccer.

That's professional of him. Wise, too. It gives Arsenal more time to prove that it's as ambitious as he is. His teammates can do that by ensuring that they finish the season in barnstorming style. And the club can do that by lining up more players to recruit this summer, especially a proven goal-scorer who could back up Van Persie.

Otherwise, he'll likely leave for greener pastures. Quite right, too. Because Van Persie is too good to be wasting his best years on also-rans.


John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at) or follow him at

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