By Joe Meloni
He wasn’t entirely invisible on Monday night. He dressed for the game, and I’m pretty sure he touched the ball once or twice. He must have – he played 76 minutes.
If you missed Robin van Persie in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over Chelsea, don’t worry about it. You weren’t the only one.
In the day-old afterglow of Arsenal’s improbable three points, Arsenal fans refuse to discuss anything even remotely negative. They’re not wrong to savor the Kool-aid as long as they can. Big wins haven’t come easy for Arsenal in recent years – especially those against Chelsea and Manchester United. No one really cares which player scored the clinching goal or made the decisive defensive play. Arsenal has three more points than it did when the game started. Moving on.
Still, one of Arsenal’s talismans, van Persie, faded into the background, while the new guys, Samir Nasri and Theo Walcott, led the Arsenal offense.
For years, Arsenal fans and their beloved boss, Arsene Wenger, spoke of van Persie’s health like a mythical creature. No one’s ever seen it for any extended period of time, and we go years without sightings. When we see it, though, it’s pretty amazing.
Without anything resembling a notable contribution from van Persie, Arsenal currently sits in third place behind Manchester United and Manchester City, the latter of which has a pair of games in hand over Arsenal. In his eight games this season, van Persie is yet to register a goal, while assisting on three. Hardly the impact Arsenal needs if it plans to win the Premiership for the first time since the 2004-05 season.
The contributions of Walcott and Nasri to this point, paired with the artful performances of Cesc Fabregas when he’s played, have deemed van Persie’s irrelevance moot for most the part. However, as the second half of the season begins, it’s time for van Persie to demonstrate he’s more than a great talent lost to injury. At times, though, it’s seemed like the constant ankle and other lower-leg injuries have left with more than just some rust to shake off.
Before Arsenal went ahead 2-0 and quickly made it a three-goal cushion on Monday, van Persie received a pass with his back to the net and Chelsea defender hanging on his left shoulder. Rather than turning the defender and moving the Arsenal attack forward, van Persie’s first touch skipped away harmlessly.
With fewer than 48 hours between games – Arsenal takes on Wigan Athletic Wednesday afternoon – don’t expect van Persie to break out in the Gunners next game. With three games in the next seven days, including a pivotal home fixture with Manchester City a week from tomorrow, van Persie will have opportunities to find his place once again.
For Wenger, van Persie’s most ardent supporter, the issue is whether or not his Dutch striker warrants a place in the first team any longer. Aside from Walcott and Nasri, new arrival Marouane Chamakh and the often-infuriating Andrei Arshavin have added dimensions previously missing from the Arsenal attack.
Given the contributions he managed when entirely healthy and confident, look for Wenger to stick with van Persie as long as he can. In other circumstances, a move away from North London may have been the best situation for van Persie. However, his commitment to the club and drive to earn his place among Arsenal’s best have proven enough to keep him at Emirates Stadium – for now.
Eight days ago, Arsenal fell 1-0 to Manchester United. On that day at Old Trafford, van Persie entered the match in the 64th minute along with Fabregas, as the Gunners tried to level the match. Twenty-six minutes passed without a goal from either side, which sent United to the top of the table – a place its occupied since. Expecting a cold player to penetrate Sir Alex’ fortress-like defense in the waning moments of a one-goal game may be a little too much to ask.
At some point, though, the reason van Persie fails to impact a game can no longer be someone else’s great play or rust or injury or fatigue. At some point, Arsenal fans and Wenger may have to accept he’s just not the player he once was. Similarly, he may never be that player we thought he could be.
Perhaps, he really hasn’t recovered fully and that transcendent performance Arsenal needs to win the league is coming. Until then, like I’ve said since the first time I saw the mythical impact from van Persie, I’ll believe it when he shows it.
Joe Meloni can be reached at Joe.Meloni@thesoccerguysonline.com.