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)ap.org or follow

him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester