The Premier League has seen no shortage of great strikers since the time of its inception, and in the age of false nines and one-man striker formations, great strikers have become more of the exception rather than the rule. Gone were the days when the Premiership boasted a top scorer’s chart such as this: Thierry Henry, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Didier Drogba, Fernando Torres (lol), Nicolas Anelka. All world-class strikers. Let’s take a look at the top scorers chart of this season’s Premier League, and compare it with those of yesteryear:
Luis Suarez 22
Robin van Persie 19
Gareth Bale 16
Demba Ba 15
The first is a striker who leads the attack all on his own, and does the creating as well as the finishing. The second is a pure natural striker. Bale has benefitted from AVB’s successful revamping of Tottenham’s playing style, and is now a hybrid wide forward/second striker. Ba is a striker,and Michu another wide forward, but both could hardly be called great strikers. Four out of five are not strikers of the orthodox mould.
As the modern (lone) forward’s job becomes more about opening up space for his teammates to exploit rather than goalscoring, the traditional centre-forward sticks out like a sore thumb. Just as Luis Suarez, Mirko Vucinic and Giuseppe Rossi embody the creating centre-forward that is so in demand today, orthodox strikers such as Fernando Llorente and Mario Gomez are less in favour. If there is any doubt of this fact, a quick look across all goalscoring tables in the major European leagues point to the death of the orthodox, line-leading centre-forward.
In Spain’s top 5, only Roberto Soldado can count himself an orthodox centre-forward. That’s one in five, hardly a case for the traditional forward. Ditto Germany (Ibisevic). Even Italy, where the obsession with lone forwards is almost cultural, is not spared from the evolution of modern football.We have Cavani, Di Natale, and Pazzini, but the latter two have modified their game to such an extent that they are now effectively second strikers. Even David Villa, the one out-and-out forward of the Spanish national team, is required to be positionally-disciplined to the point of sacrificing his natural instinct for goal. The dearth of traditional centre-forwards is now pandemic.
So where does this leave Robin van Persie, a player whose game is centered so much around touch, instinct, and an explosive burst? It seems almost laughable for Manchester United that, having birthed one of the most flexible forward lines in recent history, would regress to the need for a traditional centre-forward. While many quoted goalscoring stats in van Persie’s case, a bigger tactical question loomed in the background. Where would United fit all their strikers?
The answer: the bench. Rooney and van Persie has played together most often this season, with Hernandez and Welbeck getting relatively less playing time, despite being at times fitter than Rooney. Why would Robin van Persie start ahead of those strikers who have been more established in the United team? What does he bring to a team who already seemed overstocked on strikers?
The answer lies in the analysis of van Persie’s game. In his teenage years, he started out playing as a second striker, before eventually graduating to the role of lone forward. Van Persie learned from the best, too. At Arsenal, often times it was Thierry Henry who played in front of him, but who van Persie really imitated and learned much of his game from was Dennis Bergkamp. Bergkamp was a master at finding space for his teammates, of knowing when to hold the ball and when to release it. When it was required of him to finish, Bergkamp was deadly. To top it off, Bergkamp had one hell of a first touch. Van Persie inherited all of it.
He is blessed with a first touch that is exquisite. While this is a skill which can be improved through practice, some footballers have a more natural affinity for the ball than others. He strikes the ball with great pace, and has perfect balance. For a striker whose left foot is much vaunted, it is often overlooked that van Persie scores nearly as many with his right foot as his left. Like his predecessors at Arsenal, van Persie is better with the ball at his feet than being on the end of aerial crosses. All of this points to a footballer with natural talent, a player who does not rely on pure physical attributes.
But it is not enough to rate a player on pure talent alone. A true measure of a striker’s worth is what he brings to the team from an attacking perspective. For some, it is the dribbling and the mazy runs. For some, it is the pure conversion rate of chances. For some, it is the ability to bring their teammates into play (cough Emile Heskey). But van Persie can be summed up in one word: decisive.
Watching him carefully, you would be tempted to think van Persie plays football two seconds into the future. He reads the movement of defenders and the goalkeeper like no other in football today. Because of this, he decides prematurely what he wants to do with the ball when he gets it. If he takes on the defender, he swivels one way before opening up space, and slamming the shot in. No hesitation. He analyzes the reaction time of the player marking him, and when the opportunity presents itself, van Persie moves one step ahead and, finding a good position, scores.
It is stunning just how many of van Persie’s goals come from volleys, which are born of pure instinct and timing. One of his best goals sums this up perfectly. Against Barcelona at home, Clichy lofts the ball into his path, heading into the box. Van Persie runs into space, and without touching the ball, checks to see which of his teammates are in position directly in front of goal. He then spots Valdes half a meter away from his near post, and slams the ball in through the narrow gap. Most strikers would’ve taken a touch to control the ball, and attempted to drive it straight across goal in the hope of a touch off a player. Not van Persie.
His goal against Chelsea for Arsenal two years ago was also of the same vein. Running onto the through ball, he takes a touch and seeing the defender closing in, he takes a stunning shot which curves away from Petr Cech’s outstretched hand. At 4-3 up, Arsenal up the pitch where Chelsea would’ve wanted the ball down the other end, the natural thing to do is to bring the ball to the corner and waste time. Not van Persie. He knew he could score, and score he did. Decisive.
It is this killer instinct, the ability to read the game, and to decide on the best course of action which separates good strikers from the great. In an interview shortly after his stunning overhead goal, Wayne Rooney talked about the moments in his head where the ball was up in the air, and that he had only seconds to note the position of Kompany, and to analyse if he should head it, control it, or hit it. Split seconds to react, and all this is calculated in the player’s head before execution. Deciding between so many choices and executing it is the difference between the Torres of Liverpool and the Torres of Chelsea.
Van Persie delivers when it matters, too. The statistics will show it, and more often than not, he is the one who breaks the deadlock. He brings with him the calm assurance that when the ball arrives, he knows exactly what to do with it. And most amazingly, van Persie is efficient. This is a player who does not need many chances to score, or for him to “get into the game”. 3rd minute, 94th minute, van Persie scores when he wants. He is a hybrid of that other Dutch United striker, van Nistelrooy, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who was unparalleled in his finishing. A born United striker, in other words.
A recent article on goal.com highlighted van Persie’s poor run of form. Just as in the case of Spain (to paraphrase Sid Lowe), where Spain has managed to convince the world that it is possible to win every single game, van Persie has also managed to convince the world that it is possible to score in every game. It is, in fact, a testament to how good he really is, that the impossible is actually demanded of him.
The phrase “class is permanent, form is temporary” is as cliched as it is true, but there is no better description for the striker that is Robin van Persie.