Top Gunner


Given that he has had a reputation down the years for being injury-prone and something of a ticking time bomb temperament-wise, it is refreshing to see Robin van Persie maturing in front of our very eyes.

There was a time when the Dutchman would throw his toys out of the pram and dislocate his shoulder in the process, but those days are gone and a new and improved frontman has emerged from the ashes of his former self.

Admittedly, age has a lot to do with Van Persie's transformation.

When Arsenal snapped him up from Feyenoord in 2004 for just £2.75m (what would that buy you now?), they acquired a 20-year-old who was still very much a work in progress.

The Gunners were prepared to be patient, though, and were happy with a return of 33 goals in his first four seasons in England.

Since then, Van Persie has netted 20 in 44 outings, 10 in 20 and 22 in 33.

He is well on course to surpass last season's goal return this time around, allowing him to continue on an upward curve that may take some stopping.

The Holland international is now 28 years of age, captain of his club and an integral figure for his national side.

Ever-increasing responsibility has been placed on his shoulders, especially at the Emirates, but Van Persie has taken it all in his stride.

Many critics were quick to sound Arsenal's death knell when they sold Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona over the summer, with the doom-mongers of the opinion that the Gunners would struggle to replace their talismanic skipper.

It could be argued that Fabregas' presence in the middle of the park has been sorely missed, but it was never going to be easy to cover the loss of a World Cup winner.

They have, however, seen Van Persie step up to the plate when it comes to leading by example, with the captain's armband helping to raise his game to a whole new level.

He is now much more than a sweet left foot and a player who is capable of producing sporadic moments of magic when he happens to be in the right frame of mind.

Arsenal's number 10 is now the leader of the new Arsenal.

He may have had that role thrust upon him, but his promotion to senior figurehead and on-field leader has come at just the right time.

There can be no doubting that 2011 has been a standout year for the deadly Dutchman, with his goal return over the course of the last 10 months making for mightily impressive reading.

Since the turn of the year, Van Persie has netted 28 times in 27 Premier League outings - with a hat-trick in Saturday's thrilling 5-3 victory over Chelsea seeing his strike ratio become better than a goal every game.

He already has 10 goals in 10 top flight outings this term, and 12 in all competitions, with his importance to the Arsenal cause underlined by the fact that Theo Walcott is currently the club's second top marksman with four.

Cotton wool
Gunners supporters dare not contemplate what would happen should the injury curse strike their skipper again, while Arsene Wenger will be desperate to keep his captain wrapped in cotton wool for the remainder of the campaign.

Should they be able to keep him clear of the treatment room, it is likely that Van Persie will set a new personal best for goals scored and should have Arsenal in the mix for a top-four finish.

If he continues to find the target at his current rate of knots, he could also rewrite the Premier League history books.

Former Blackburn and Newcastle striker Alan Shearer currently holds the record for most strikes in a calendar year, with the England ace having notched 36 times in 1995.

Van Persie still has two months in which to reach that target and has one more goal to his name at this point of the year than Shearer did when he set the top-flight benchmark.

You would be a brave man to bet against Arsenal's flying Dutchman as he has become virtually unplayable over recent weeks.

He also has nine Premier League fixtures still to take in this year - providing he steers clear of injury and suspension - with West Brom, Norwich, Fulham, Wigan, Everton, Manchester City, Aston Villa, Wolves and Queens Park Rangers charged with the task of trying to keep him quiet.

Van Persie should be looking at that list and licking his lips.

He may not want 2011 to end, given his fine form, but there is every chance he could enter the New Year in even better shape than he did the last one - and that is a frightening proposition for the rest of English football's elite and those setting their sights on Euro 2012 success.