Robin van Persie is now 29 years old, and whilst it has taken many injury filled years to get to where he currently is, it's safe to say he is a genuinely world class footballer. Definitely the league's best forward, van Persie is, now, probably the league's most influential player. That clearly hasn't always been the case. Injuries, both minor and major, seemed to hamper his ability to consistently feature in a run of games, this then affected his progress. His tangible success over the last two years may well mean it is fair to label him a late bloomer of sorts. A Drogba type, if you will, but in a very different way.
Arsenal fans always said the ability that Robin possessed was of the highest order, and that all he needed was fitness and playing time in order to show the world what he could actually achive. The irony, and a cruel one at that, is that Robin only found that much sought after health and consistent form in the same season he (probably) decided he was going to leave Arsenal.
We may never know the true reasons Robin left Arsenal: had his patience finally ran out with battling only for a top 4 spot? Even if Robin had decided to exhibit the patience of Jain monk and stick with Arsenal, his explosion of brilliant form in 2011/12 probably would have demanded that he test himself at one of the worlds top performing clubs in the then very near future. Man United came calling, and RvP was sold in a move that must have emotionally affected Arsene Wenger. Man United, once Arsenal's peer and great rival, cherry picked Wenger's captain and only world class player. Wenger was helpless, the world moves on, welcome to the new reality.
van Persie's form over the past 18 months or so has been almost as strange at is it has been sensational. Never before has Robin played as many minutes as he did in 2011/12, nor as many as he is projected to play in 2012/13. His recent health has been a rare thing indeed.
van Persie's League Career (2001-2013) By Starts, Subs And Minutes Played
Orange denotes Feyernoord, Red is Arsenal and Black is Man United. The more starts and fewer subs, the higher and further right the bubble will be. Bigger the bubble, bigger the total minutes played.
2011/12 was the clear outlier of RvP's career, 2012/13's number may well be pretty similar come the end of the season. 2008/09 was a relatively healthy season for van Persie, but it was still a season which saw the Dutchman start only 63% of the available 38 games.
van Persie's career has been one of injury and slow development in which he has started less than 20 league games in 9 of his 12 pro seasons. Looking at the above chart, Man United took one hell of a gamble, in wages and transfer spend, on a player who has never been fit enough to warrant such sums of money. His talent warranted the money, his health should have vetoed it.
van Persie's League Career by Shots, Shots on Target And Goals (per 90 minutes)
As seen in chart 1, van Persie has quite the spread of minutes played in each of his seasons, so comparing basic shot and goal totals was always going to be problematic, so how about we normalize all of his numbers into per 90 minutes categories.
Shots and SoT per 90
We see frequency listed on the vertical axis and age listed on the horizontal axis.
*No shot data was available for RvP's time in Holland
Taking Shots on Target first of all, if we exempt van Persie's age 21 and 22 seasons it looks as if he possessed a brilliant ability to get shots on target but it must be said the numbers for that season are an incredibly small sample, thus liable to weird an unusual variations.
If we exempt those small sample size seasons, it looks like van Persie has been getting better every year up until his 29 year old season but a couple of things may be going on this season, chiefly: Is Van Persie getting fewer shots on target as he is now part of a better squad where the offensive burden is spread more evenly? After all, he was the sole focal point of Arsenal's attack in recent years and so we expected Robin to be a high volume shooter.
As for total shots: van Persie had become a better shooter year on year which culminated in 5.46 shots per 90 in his 26 year old season. That year looks like an outlier, and what of the decline in his numbers since? Has RvP become a more selective, patient shooter as he has aged and become more experienced? Possible, for surely he is not declining as the years go by. I would opt for the selective shooter option, at least for the time being.
Goals per 90
Interesting. We have seen van Persie's total shots per 90 peak in his 26 year old season and then roll back, we have also seen his shots on target per 90 number steadily increase with age and whatever small doubts we have about his trending shots data, doesn't exist for his goals per 90 data. This graph is trending one way and that way is upwards.
van Persie's 23 and 26 year old seasons were succesful in terms of goals per 90 but he wasn't able to hold his fitness together long enough for what may have been a 20 goal season at either of those ages.
Robin's 27 year old season may have been a beauty (0.91 goals per 90 over a full 38 game season would mean 34 goals) but again his fitness broke down and Arsenal fans weren't able to see what bounty a full season of a health may have wrought.
We must focus on the last 3 years of van Persie's data. It is here that we see that better health and more game time which has led to a spike in his goals per 90 number. RvP's 27, 28 and 29 year old seasons have seen a a goals per 90 of 0.80 or above, simply put, this equates to 30 goals if a player were to play every minute of the season. These last two and a half years have been phenomenal. It is long term performance of a very high caliber from a player who's only red flags were injury history.
For the previous 2 seasons before transferring to Man United, RvP's goal scoring record has been strong and his historical injury record weak. In the Summer of 2012, when it was clear the player wanted out, potential suitors had a choice to make: Do we sign a player for a big fee and a bigger wage packet who has proved in the previous 2 seasons that his goals scoring record is strong and improving but had only been fully fit for just 1 of his 10 pro seasons?
Ferguson took a gamble on a massive, historic outlier season where the 28 year old stayed fit and continued to score at a rate within his talent range and north of 0.80 goals per 90, as he had done in his 27 year old season. It sure was a gamble, and it may still be a gamble over the life of his 4 year contract, but the trends in terms of goals, shots on target and, most importantly, health are all trending in a positive direction.