“I just thought it was another lovely goal by Robin, nothing too unusual about that. It took me a few seconds to remember that he was no longer an Arsenal player”, said Arsène Wenger after his former protégé, Robin van Persie, struck his first goal for Manchester United on his home debut against Fulham.
Beauty has never shied away from Van Persie. A forward of utmost panache, he would score the most amazing goals time and again and surely has to be considered as one of the best forwards of this era. Even the Arsenal faithful, the ones that felt like they had a dagger run through them when the Dutchman revealed he wouldn’t be extending his stay at the club in 2012, cannot deny his quality as a footballer. They saw him go from boy to man to touching distance of a legend, but their loss was now the Red Devils’ gain, and that gain was the difference between nearly-men and champions.
It’s no surprise that Wenger took this excellent goal for Manchester United with no surprise. Stunning goals had become a trademark of his, and this was the first of many for his new employers. His time in England had certainly been action-packed, even including his days at Old Trafford, but had it not been for Wenger, perhaps those days may never have come, which is why his move away was met with such anger.
Van Persie arrived in London on the back of an eventful time for both club and player. Arsenal were going through an illustrious phase themselves, having just gone a whole season without defeat with the future looking bright. Van Persie, meanwhile, had a fiery reputation and was had been under the radar of the Gunners for a long time. He was supposed to be a part of the Invincibles, but a deal between his future employers and Feyenoord could not come to fruition in January 2004.
Instead, he moved in the summer, but his time in his homeland was certainly full of ups and downs. On the positive side, he was an up-and-coming forward who was part of a Dutch generation of whom great things were expected. There was hope that this era of players, a crop including the likes of Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart and Van Persie amongst others, could be the ones to bring and sustain an era of dominance for the national team.
His early years promised success. Under the guidance of his future national team manager, Bert van Marwijk, he showed glimpses of his talent that earned him a spot on the Feyenoord team that won the UEFA Cup in 2002. On the negative side, however, much of his early success was overshadowed by temperament issues and foul-mouthed tirades against his seniors. In his last season, with a move on the cards, he was part of a great scuffle initiated by Ajax fans in an U21 game that only added fuel to the fire that was his apparently sulky attitude, and there were questions upon his arrival.
With his arrival, there were assumptions made that he was the heir to the golden throne held by Dennis Bergkamp. His talent and talk made by those who watched him warranted such assumptions, but his actions suggested otherwise. He left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Feyenoord supporters when he departed, and that raised many questions: is there any substance to the good things many say about him? Is he going to be the player many say he will? Can he enhance this record-shattering team?
His early years suggested otherwise. Injury problems restricted his time on the pitch while his immaturity, the one thing so many were afraid of, showed. In a match against Southampton in his first season, he was sent off for a silly lunge and was seen arguing with Wenger. His actions were widely criticized, which only reduced his playing time and provided more questions than answers. Maybe he was heading towards the opposite direction as many had predicted. Maybe his path was set to follow the unfulfilled potential of Glenn Helder rather than the untouchable superiority of Bergkamp.
There were glimpses of his talent – but they were too few and too far in between – while his later years were much of the same. He was hardly given the platform to showcase his best form, largely due to persistent injury issues, but the faith put in and sustained over the years by his manager was imperative to his future growth.
Over the next few years, the situation would more or less be the same. There were some good moments, such as that incredible volley against Charlton Athletic, described as “a goal of a lifetime” by his manager, while he finished the 2006-07 season as the club’s top goalscorer, despite the presence of Thierry Henry in the team. After the Frenchman’s departure, there was hope that he would take up a more senior role in the team, but further injury problems only hampered his progress.
In the 2008-09 season, he would top the club’s goalscoring charts once again, raising expectations but failing to meet them due to his body letting him down, while further fine patches of form were in the pipeline. It wasn’t until the middle of the 2010-11 season that the true colours of Robin van Persie would show. He was now a far more matured person and footballer than the one that joined the club, and after about six years of glimpses, he would now go on a spree that would shatter records. He was one of the club’s more experienced players, and now it was on display.
After injury ruled him out for much of the first half of the season, he started 2011 with a bang, scoring against Birmingham City and starting a run that saw him score in nine consecutive away games. At home, his form was also great and that took his goal tally in the league to 18 – the third best goalscorer in the league and a personal record for him. That tally was all achieved since his return from injury which also meant that he levelled the record for most goals since the turn of the year. One can only imagine how far he could’ve gone had he not been on the treatment table for the first part of the season.
In the Champions League, he struck a stunning goal against Barcelona in the second round, but his controversial sending off in the second leg denied Arsenal of a place in the quarter-final. Nevertheless, this was Van Persie’s best season in North London, and there was a lot more to come over the next 12 months.
With the departure of Cesc Fàbregas, he took over the captain’s armband, but the club was in disarray. Poor transfer activity and a thumping 8-2 defeat to Manchester United early in the season saw a lot of disillusionment around the club, but Van Persie stepped up and Arsenal mainly had him to thank for their resurgence.
They finished in the Champions League places – a feat that was hardly believed to be possible at the start of the season – but what happened in between was incredible. A couple of key performances combined with a few stunning goals propelled the club. After the slaughter at Old Trafford, they would still stutter but their form would significantly pick up after a 2-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur at the start of October. The first match after the derby day defeat was a 2-1 win against Sunderland, where Van Persie scored both goals, including a late free-kick to win the match and raise some momentum.
Three weeks later came the famous 5-3 win at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea, where Van Persie scored a hat-trick in one of the best matches of his career. In December, he scored one of the best goals of his career against Everton – a stunning first-time volley to smash home a cross by Alex Song. There was a major confidence boost in player and club and every time the Dutchman stepped up, Arsenal did well. He would add more goals to his tally as the year went on, and at the end of 2011, he had scored 35 times in the league – one short of the calendar year record held by Alan Shearer.
The club’s form would stutter once again at the start of 2012, but Van Persie would once again play a key role in the revival. From February onwards, he scored a hat-trick against Blackburn Rovers, a brace in an away win against Liverpool and a solitary goal against Tottenham in a 5-2 win. The mistakes of the first half of the season were being overturned and there was hardly a player in the division who was more important to his team than Van Persie.
He finished the season as the top goalscorer in the league with 30 goals, becoming only the third player to reach that mark after Shearer and Cristiano Ronaldo. It’s worth identifying how different that season could have been and how different Arsenal would have been had it not been for Van Persie’s goals. The club were in a rut, but the captain stood strongest and put out his best form when his club needed him the most. They finished third in the league, were heavily reliant on the Dutchman, and with foundations now in place to go out and improve, there was hope that the future would be bright.
However, the lack of ambition shown by the club troubled the striker. That summer, he decided he wasn’t going to be extending his contract and would be on his way out – either that year or the year after on a free. Arsenal and their support felt betrayed. They had but faith in the idea of making Van Persie a legend, gave him time and resources to improve, stood by him in his toughest times and kept him on their wage bill so that they could reap the rewards of his talents one day.
In Van Persie’s eyes, he felt his talent and record deserved more silverware, while Arsenal were content with getting into Europe. With the cost of the Emirates Stadium still hanging over the club, there were often times when they were forced to sell their best players and rebuild and that frustrated the player. His reasoning was understandable, but perhaps his method of showing it and his eventual move to a rival club was what angered many. There was interest from both sides of Manchester and in the end, he chose red over blue.
“HE WAS ONE OF THE BEST I HAVE EVER MANAGED, A MAN WITH EXCEPTIONAL TECHNIQUE” – ARSÈNE WENGER
Having arrived at Arsenal with several questions over whether he could make it or not, he left with the question of what his status would be. He fulfilled his potential, even though it took a while to get there and only lasted quite briefly, but the manner of his exit raised questions about his legacy: was his form, importance and record worthy of being classified as the stuff of legends, or was he a mere traitor who left once he decided the idea of being content with very little was no longer good enough? Most Arsenal faithful pick the latter.
On the international scene, there was a fair bit to be proud of. Until his Manchester United move, he had been a part of two World Cup and two European Championships squads – making the final of the 2010 tournament in South Africa and while they underperformed at the other three tournaments, he was a frequent goalscorer for his country. He would score 50 times in 102 appearances for his country – a decent record and was an ever-present figure for them.
In Manchester, his first season was incredible. After making his debut in a 1-0 loss against Everton, he opened his account with that great volley against Fulham, which came after a cross from the left side. In the next match, away at newly-promoted Southampton, he scored a hat-trick, proving his worth to the club. After being 2-1 down, Van Persie netted the equalizer in the 87th minute and then three minutes later, scored with a header from a corner to seal a wonderful late win and make him a fan-favourite early in his stint at Old Trafford.
He would add to that with more crucial goals. A goal against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge helped United to a first win at the venue in a decade, while a week later, he scored the opening goal against Arsenal in his first match against his former club. The most important – and perhaps his best moment – came against Manchester City in his first derby. With the scores level at 2-2 at the Etihad Stadium, he struck a late goal from a deflected free-kick to give United the win and the lead in the league table. This was a turning point in the title-race, and they wouldn’t slow down from here.
December was a fine month for United and Van Persie. They won all but one of their games and the Dutchman scored five times, including in the derby win. Both carried their form into 2013 and Van Persie would add the scalps of Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Everton to his record, but soon hit a stale patch of not scoring in ten consecutive games after that. He broke his duck against Stoke City, and a week later, would score a hat-trick that won him his first and United’s 20th league title.
The hat-trick was impressive too, especially the second goal, which wasn’t too dissimilar to his strike against Everton in his final season at Arsenal. This time, it was a Wayne Rooney ball from the halfway line that met the hammer-esque left foot of Van Persie’s as the ball flew past Brad Guzan. It was a world class strike, worthy of winning any title and in his first season, he did what he set out to do when he left Arsenal: win trophies.
At that point, it seemed impossible to suggest that it would be the Dutchman’s only silverware at the club. Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure and David Moyes’ arrival reduced Van Persie’s role, and in the disastrous 2013-14 season, Van Persie’s talents were forcefully limited. A poor campaign overall saw him go to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil in poor form and low expectation. Despite that bad season, his hat-trick against Olympiacos to overturn a two-goal first-leg deficit in the second round of the Champions League was a major highlight, but that was arguably his last.
At the World Cup, however, he was doing well. A brace against Spain in the opening game – including a stunning header from outside the box, which was one of the goals of the tournament, was a great way to hit the ground running and the Netherlands only kicked on from there. They would finish third, despite having a young and fairly average squad, but the good relationship with him and his future club boss, Louis van Gaal, was a point to cherish for the Manchester United support.
Now, there was hope that United could get back to where they belong. With Van Gaal managing Van Persie and a busy transfer window, there was belief that United could show strength again, but while they achieved a return to the Champions League, the forward was once again average at best. Age and inconsistency caught up with him, and that would spell the end of his time at Old Trafford.
Most of Van Persie’s good moments came in his first season, but the Dutchman was one of the players most affected by Sir Alex Ferguson’s surprise departure. Although they only worked together for about ten months, he would prove to be one of the Scot’s most important signings in this century, ranking alongside the likes of Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand.
I REMEMBER ARSÈNE WENGER SAYING TO ME ‘HE’S BETTER THAN YOU THINK’ WHEN WE CONCLUDED THAT DEAL. HE WAS RIGHT. IN TERMS OF THE IMPACT, HE HAS HAD AS BIG AN IMPACT AS ANYONE I CAN IMAGINE – SIR ALEX FERGUSON
In his first press conference at the club, he spoke about the decision influenced by the “little boy inside him”, suggesting he wanted trophies at Manchester United over a legendary status at Arsenal, but when he left, it was the agent inside him suggesting he move to make fair bit of money as he approached the twilight of his career.
Fenerbahçe and Istanbul was his next destination, but that was largely forgetful. He did nothing of note over two-and-a-half years, except perhaps a goal at Old Trafford on his return to Manchester United in the Europa League, but that was probably it. There were 36 goals, which was fine considering his age, and no trophies and in January 2018, he was on the move again.
There was talk of him moving west to the United States and Major League Soccer, and that would probably have been a viable option. The glamour of New York, the glitz of Los Angeles or the charm of Chicago would probably have been enticing, but instead, he chose home. Feyenoord Rotterdam, the place where it all started, would be his next destination and that would prove to be an excellent deal.
His record so far for the club has been decent, and he’s a frequent name on the team sheet. Twenty-four goals in 42 appearances (and counting) is a fair return, while a 6-2 win against Ajax in January 2019, where he scored a brace, has undoubtedly been his best moment. He also added the KNVB Cup and the Johan Cruyff Shield to his honours list, and in the process, fixing a failed relationship when he first left the club in 2004.
Now, Robin van Persie is set to play in his final game as a professional footballer, and he has made some fascinating contributions to the sport. Having had the privilege of playing under the legends of both Arsène Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson – two of the greatest managers in the game – his career only got better with time. Injuries forced a brilliant footballer to be unearthed much later than planned, but when he was at his best, he was one of the finest in this era.
Whether it was the stunning volleys against Charlton, Everton or Aston Villa, or the goals of great suave such as the header against Spain at the World Cup, the strike against Fulham on his home debut at Manchester United or the one against Barcelona in the Champions League for Arsenal, Van Persie would prove to be the man for all occasions. It’s no surprise that the two aforementioned managers put such faith in him and there would likely have been different fates for both clubs had it not been for the Dutchman’s goals.
In 2011 and 2012, without Van Persie, perhaps Arsenal would not have had Champions League football and endured a different fate, one without the management of Wenger and maybe in 2012 and 2013, had it not been for the controversial transfer, maybe Manchester City would have started their dynasty earlier and given Ferguson a much greater mountain to climb. There are several ifs and buts when it comes to this talk, but one thing is for certain, at Van Persie’s peak, he was unstoppable and he was a game-changer.
As he prepares to call time on a magnificent career, he can go out with his head held high, knowing that he challenged early doubters and made a difference wherever he played.