This has been a summer of painful upheaval for Arsenal, though there is reassurance to be gained from the identity of the new captain.
"Robin van Persie loves this club, he's attached to this club," Arsène Wenger said. "He's a technical leader on the pitch, and he's grown into a leader [off it]." The Dutchman strides out at the head of his team against Liverpool on Saturday lunchtime hoping to satisfy a support yearning for a talisman.
The side need him more than ever at present. The sale of Cesc Fábregas, while long having felt inevitable, and the imminent departure of Samir Nasri have left Arsenal feeling fragile. World-class experienced talents are in relatively short supply at the Emirates these days, with a greater burden thrust upon Van Persie and his deputy, Thomas Vermaelen, to guide a team the manager still considers youthful through such awkward times. Those few older heads who remain must stand up and assume responsibility. The captain, for one, is eager to oblige.
Van Persie was a picture of frustration at missing the Champions League play-off first-leg victory over Udinese through suspension, though the sense is that he will thrive wearing the armband. His slippery energy and burst of pace, allied with the whip of his left foot, have long terrorised opponents. A desire to emulate Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and, before his time, Tony Adams may now draw even more from the 28-year-old. "When you look at all those guys it's a massive honour for me to join their line," he said. "Everyone remembers them as captains and leaders. This makes me feel so proud."
They have also been inspirations, a role Van Persie can surely fulfil with this team, though there is a fragility to this arrangement that could leave Arsenal shuddering in apprehension. After all, the Holland forward has two years to run on his basic contract, which could leave him nextsummer in the same position as Nasri now: entering the final 12 months of his deal with a potential Bosman move looming. The thought of revisiting the sorry saga whipped up around the Frenchman feels unthinkable, but is not out of the question. Darren Dein, Fábregas's agent, has added the Dutchman to his client list. There would be no shortage of suitors.
While there remains time for Arsenal to convince Van Persie into staying beyond 2013, particularly should they add to the squad before the closure of the current window, the player's fitness remains a pressing issue. Arsenal revel in the Dutchman's undoubted quality, though they simply do not enjoy him enough. The striker has been cut down in his prime too often, his form checked and impact nullified from strains to ruptures. "The only bad thing about Robin in the last few seasons is that he has been injured," Wenger said. "What people forget is that last season, Fábregas started 22 games and Robin van Persie started 19 – and only a few of them together.
"Robin will be more vocal than Cesc – they are different personalities – and he speaks his mind with everybody, but without bad feelings. I think that's an interesting quality, and he's one of the players who can lead this group. Hopefully he looks more settled now and, if he can have a strong season with no injuries, he will be the perfect leader. I am convinced about that."
Yet that remains a big "if". The striker has only ever once completed more than 19 Premier League starts in a season – with 24 in 2008-09 – over his seven years in north London. The list of ailments that have condemned him to the treatment room for long periods vary from groin to knee problems, from achilles to ankle injuries. Arsenal have ached to have him fit and available on a more consistent basis. The hope is that this will be his year at last.
When he is healthy, he is unstoppable. A record of 66 goals in 113 league starts is phenomenal for a player who was more winger than conventional striker when he arrived at Highbury in 2004.His conversion from flank to forward is similar to that of Henry before him. "His goal ratio makes him world-class," the manager said. "He is world-class."
But, like this team's other talents over recent years, it is only natural that he should expect to revel in a side that is in contention. Almost unnoticed, the Dutchman has risen to become arguably this team's most important player. His elevation to the captaincy felt natural and utterly deserved. Unlike that of his predecessor, Arsenal will hope his tenure yields tangible rewards.
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