If the Premier League title was awarded on beauty rather than bounty, Arsenal would have monopolised it over the past few seasons. But while Arsene Wenger’s thrill machine has wowed neutrals with its football, it has frustrated its own followers with an inability to convert dominant displays into maximum points.
Take this season for example. Arsenal outplayed Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and managed 16 shots, yet headed back across the capital having lost 2-0; they failed to convert considerable territorial advantage into a goal during a 1-0 loss at home to Newcastle United; they saw more of the ball away to Manchester United but lost 1-0; and they had a whopping 61 per cent of possession in a one-sided goalless draw with Manchester City.
The old adage that goals win games reverberates irksomely in the Gooners’ ears. Four of the last five times Arsenal emerged as English champions, they boasted the top flight’s leading marksman: Alan Smith, with 23 in 1988/89 and one less two seasons later, and Thierry Henry, who hit 24 and 30 in 2001/02 and 2003/04 respectively.
Last term their top scorer was Cesc Fabregas, a midfielder, whose 15-goal return was bolstered by penalty-taking, while no other Arsenal player managed more than ten. By contrast, Didier Drogba netted 29 for champions Chelsea, with Wayne Rooney managing 26 in his 32 games for runners-up Manchester United.
But as the new year began, so too did the quest of one man to fill the void the Gunners have been missing since Henry’s departure to Barcelona in 2007. Robin van Persie, who played his first 90 minutes of the season – he sustained an injury in the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ Final - broke the deadlock in a 3-0 win at Birmingham City on the first day of 2011. The 27-year-old then scored two and set up the other in a 3-0 win away to West Ham United two weeks later, before rising from the bench to kill off Leeds United’s challenge in their FA Cup third-round replay.
The best, though, was still to come. Indeed, last weekend Van Persie masterfully bagged a hat-trick – his first since playing as a teenager for Feyenoord – as Arsenal beat Wigan Athletic 3-0. Seven goals in his last five outings – a persuading message that, perhaps, the Gunners, who are second in the Premier League, five points behind Manchester United, have finally found another striker who can fire them to the title.
“The injury has made him a lot stronger mentally because he had to fight against disappointments,” explained Wenger. “This is what makes you strong in life. He is now completely sharp and fit - and strong. He looks strong mentally. What he has gone through has been difficult. A player who is injured a lot is fragile. He feels useless and is without his job. He is without his happiness, of course.
“He can finish, provide [assists] and the understanding with our offensive players is very good, so of course he will be very important. Some players have played many games, but Van Persie has been out for a long time. We hope we can benefit from that. It’s the sharpest he has been for a long time.”
Van Persie is in agreement. “I feel really good,” he said. “It’s nice to be scoring goals but the most important thing is that we’re winning. The belief here is very big. We all believe. In my opinion, if you don’t believe you might as well stop playing. We have dreams and we believe we can achieve them. We want to win the Premier League.”