Date: 5th June 2011 at 3:40pm
Written by:

The votes have been counted (unless you live in Florida, in which case your vote was, ahem, “misplaced”), the dye has been cast and democracy has had its say. I am of course, not talking about the FIFA elections, but Vital Arsenal`s Player of the Season for 2010-11, as voted for by your bad selves.

In 3rd place, with 10% of the vote, was rookie Polish goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny. The 20 year old came into the team in the New Year with Fabianski`s shoulder knacked and Almunia`s heart ripped into tiny pieces and won the supporters` acclaim with some solid goalkeeping displays that belied his years and, happily, appears to have solved our goalkeeping quandary in the long term too. The fact that he recovered so easily from a costly error in a Cup Final marks him out as a player that possesses the correct “mental strength” to win trophies for a club like Arsenal and his zest and self confidence earned him a place in supporters hearts. You know, those personality traits that Nicklas Bendtner has and everyone hates him for.

In 2nd place with 18% was another Arsenal starlet who twinkled his way into the team to become a bona fide first choice player. Jack Wilshere combines being combative (sometimes overly combative) with being gracile, which has seen him both stand up to the rigours of Premiership midfield, whilst also having the technique and awareness to deftly drop a shoulder and meander past opponents before picking the perfect pass. His left foot is both paintbrush and jackhammer. (His right foot, it must be said, is just for cosmetic purposes). Wilshere was Arsenal`s second most picked player after Laurent Koscielny, which tells you everything you need to know.

But with a Blatter busting 54% and, in electoral terms, a man with a mandate to rule Gooner hearts for the next 12 months, the Vital Arsenal Player of the Year for 2010-11 is none other than Robin van Persie. The fact that my curser too dragged over the Dutch striker`s name makes this piece somewhat easier to write. I think even as little as three weeks ago, Robin wouldn`t have got my vote. That privilege would have been reserved for the ultra consistent Bacary Sagna. The official website probably about had it correct when they said, “Samir Nasri was player of the year for the first half, Robin van Persie for the second.”

Of course, van Persie`s form is slightly fresher in our minds. However, the Dutch striker spent most of the first half of the season either injured or feeling his way back to full fitness. Whereas Nasri maintained full fitness, but his form faded quite badly. Basically, we haven`t seen anything other than an imperious van Persie. In fact, in his seven years at the club, we`ve only ever seen van Persie either producing out of this world displays, or else we haven`t seen him at all due to injury. Die to his World Cup exertions, we didn`t see van Persie start a game until late August at Blackburn. After less than 20 minutes, he twisted his ankle and was substituted. It all seemed so depressingly familiar.

He was reintroduced into the side slowly and surely, coming on as a substitute in the early November home defeat to Newcastle. A mixture of World Cup fatigue and past experience saw the manager use him sparingly and indeed, he only registered his first goal of the season from the penalty spot against Partizan Belgrade. His timing in coming into goal scoring form was well considered as Chamakh`s form began to drop and van Persie dutifully picked up the baton. Against Birmingham on New Year`s Day, one sensed that the true van Persie was back. Firing in shots from all angles, rabidly closing down defenders. He scored from a deflected free kick that day and hasn`t stopped scoring since. (Though one does feel the need to point out that his set piece delivery has gone backwards).

A right footed and a left footed strike at West Ham, followed by a diving header at Elland Road three days later showed the array of goals van Persie can deliver. For good measure, he hit a hat trick against Wigan Athletic (despite missing a penalty). He didn`t start Cup games against Huddersfield, Ipswich and Leeds and Arsenal struggled to score without him. The goals just kept on coming and in a myriad of different ways until possibly his piece de resistance for the season. Arsenal were toiling against Barcelona, unable to find a way through and looking unlikely to score. When Clichy clipped a hopeful ball forward to the by line, nothing looked on. This is where crowd reaction is instructive.

Usually just before a goal, there`s an expectant hum as the player shapes to shoot. There was no such audible buzz as van Persie chased down Clichy`s pass. Yet half a second later the stadium was euphoric, as van Persie saw Valdes inch slightly away from his post. In the blink of an eye the ball had been smashed through the eye of the needle and into the net. It wasn`t selfishness or speculation that resulted in the shot, he saw Valdes move in what must`ve constituted less than a half second when he`d already shaped to hit the ball. Being able to change your mind that quickly and get your accuracy so stupendously correct is something only certain players can do. It`s timing, players like van Persie have that ability to make you unconsciously draw breath.

As the business end of the season unfolded, Arsenal began to crumble like hob nobs in tea. But whatever it is that the Gunners lack, call it mental strength, maturity or any number of buzz terms, van Persie is not a player you could accuse of lacking it. A sumptuous volley pulled us kicking and screaming back into the ill fated Carling Cup Final. You`ve the feeling that day may have turned out differently had he not had to go off injured. He couldn`t start the next match against Sunderland and we drew 0-0. Something van Persie has shown an unlikely proclivity for in the second half of the season is Lazarus like recovery from injury. The knee injury sustained at Wembley was supposed to keep him out for 4-6 weeks, he was back in 10. He picked up a foot injury on international duty in March but was back for the next Arsenal game.

As Arsenal`s season tailed off into terminal decline, van Persie had a good crack at being a one man band- smashing a Premiership record by scoring in 9 consecutive away matches. A scrambled tap in at the Hawthorns to salvage a point, poacher`s goals against Spurs and Villa, sumptuous finishes at Fulham, Bolton and Stoke. Robin is a striker that only needs a glimpse of goal and he has the confidence to try. And the technique to execute. Van Persie`s hold up play is criminally under rated, he is brave in the area and adept with his back to goal. It`s hard to think of any strings that he could add to his bow. His temperament- once his hubris- has also improved immeasurably.

You can often tell a player`s class by how keen his team mates are to give him the ball and how well they gel with him. Witness the fine first goal against Wolves and the pinball strike at the Reebok to see the understanding he has with Fabregas. Walcott too has fed van Persie for a number of near post efforts this season. Think Wigan, Newcastle, West Ham and Blackpool. Van Persie is one of the leaders of the side and the pivot of our forward play. It will be interesting next season, if as expected we revert to 4-4-2, to see if van Persie can strike up a good strike force. It`s the one thing that has been conspicuous in its absence from his Arsenal career. Henry, Eduardo, Adebayor, Reyes, Bendtner. Nobody has ever really flourished alongside van Persie. Maybe the long spells he has spent in the treatment room denied him the chance to ferment that chemistry. I certainly think that he was very much an individual in his younger days. But his improvement and his attitude have developed so much that I wouldn`t bet against him managing it next season. He`s certainly a more altruistic character nowadays.

But that`s a quandary for next season. With Drogba ageing and Torres floundering, I believe we have the best central striker in Europe plying his trade in Arsenal`s red and white. He`s coming into his prime too and seems genuinely affectionate for the club. If he stays fit, don`t bet against him being Arsenal`s Player of the Season next year too.LD.

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