It's been a calendar year of records for Robin van Persie. Not only did he mark his century at Arsenal, but he also set the club record for Premier League goals in a calendar year, and he also set a Premier League record for consecutive away games scored in (9, in case you were asking). Oh, and along the way he's been the catalyst of Arsenal's revival, as they moved from 17th on the 18th of September to 4th on the last day of 2011.
Furthermore, almost every single goal has been important. There's the equaliser against Barcelona, Birmingham and West Brom; winners against Norwich, Chelsea and Borussia Dortmund. His goal scoring feats have been tremendous; only Cristiano Ronaldo has a better scoring rate this season in Europe (Yeah, what now!? Lionel Who?). In 2011, Robin van Persie has evolved from a scorer of great goals to a great goal scorer.
Along the way, van Persie has had to redefine his game. When he first arrived at Arsenal he was compared, perhaps lazily, Dennis Bergkamp, as both dropped off from the main striker. Certainly he did that with Emmanuel Adebayor, and then perfected the role as a false 9 in 2009/10, when van Persie was played on his own up front. With van Persie dropping off and Arsenal's midfield getting forward and their wide forwards moving inside, Arsenal were extremely fluid, and scored goals for fun. However, in 2010/11 and this season, van Persie has had a more functional role as Arsenal have become more in need of a traditional number 9. van Persie still drops deep, as Jurgen Klopp said of him in his performance against Borussia Dortmund in November:
Robin van Persie, wow, what a performance, what a player. He’s certainly one of the best in Europe. I’ve hardly ever seen a player who plays so deep in midfield and then is such a danger in the box.
Klopp defines van Persie's role perfectly; he is not a false 9, a tradtional 9 or a number 10. The French call this role neuf et demi; nine and a half, neither just a goal poacher nor just a creator. This works well with the Dutchman's statistics; not only does he take the most shots per game, but he also creates the second most chances, just behind Mikel Arteta. If anything, that should enhance the belief that Arsenal are a one man team, but it must be noted that only 63% of those chances are from open play; the rest from the corners and free kicks he takes.
The new style of play for van Persie, the nine and a half, has meant that he plays more as a traditional centre forward, coinciding with Arsenal's more direct play. He still has the ability to exchange positions with Theo Walcott, Gervinho and Aaron Ramsey, but he has added more predatory instincts to his play, perhaps best expressed by the poacher's goal he scored against West Bromwich Albion when Theo Walcott's initial shot was saved. Arsenal have evolved over the years of Arsene Wenger's reign to suit the style of their talisman; Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars early, then Bergkamp and Henry, then Cesc Fabregas and now Robin van Persie. van Persie takes the most shots per game at Arsenal; more than double the amount of the next top shooter, Theo Walcott (4.7 to 2.3). This indicates that most Arsenal moves end with van Persie, highlighting his importance to the team, but also highlighting the need for service, which is something Arsenal's creative players and wide men have done to great effect this season (perhaps why van Persie always thanks his assisters on Twitter). Indeed, that means that Arsenal are not a one man team, but the challenge for Arsene Wenger will be to find a way to get more shots out of his midfield and wide forward. They may have the creating aspect down, but until they have more shots and more chances at goal, Arsenal's goal scoring will still rely on Robin van Persie. That in turn highlights the brilliant form of van Persie; without him to finish off moves, Arsenal would not be in 4th place, even with the good service the midfield has provided. Arsenal will have to spread the goals more, and the return of full backs plus the continued integration of the newer players will help, but, if you're going to be reliant on a man for scoring your goals, it might as well be one the best of strikers in the world, and the best in 2011.