Van Persie as a lone striker? Why not?

If there was one element of our new 4-3-3 formation that nobody had predicted at the start of the season it was the use of Robin Van Persie as the central striker and Nicholas Bendtner as a right sided forward. I’m sure that for many gooners, like myself, this was unfathomable; it just literally never crossed my mind that Wenger might play like this. Prior to his departure, Adebayor would have been an easy pick for most fans for this central role. With the Togolese forward leaving for City, two possible candidates to assume these central responsibilities came to mind: Bendtner and Eduardo.
Bendtner had long been considered the alternative to Adebayor up front. Comparably tall and certainly dangerous in the air the similarities don’t stop there, as both have shown the ability to waste chances in front of goal. They are both physically strong players and Nicky B has always shown a great ability to link up play with other players and work selflessly for the benefit of the team. Despite giving away 5 inches in height to Bendtner, Eduardo is also a threat in the air and has featured heavily as a lone striker for a successful Croatian team. He has the pace to run the channels and he is so clinical in front of goal that he makes Robbie Fowler look fat and clumsy.
On top of the strengths of these two players you have those of Robin Van Persie. Robin is a very technical player with an exceptional first touch, he likes to beat an opponent to make space for a cross or shot. Although he has mainly been used as one of two centre forwards at Arsenal, Robin has played countless times in a wide forward role for the Netherlands and is comfortable cutting inside from either flank. When you look at all these points together then it is quite straightforward how we should be expected to line up. It would make sense for us to have Bendtner or Eduardo leading the line and Van Persie and Arshavin coming off of the flanks to support.
This is further evidence, as if any were needed, that Wenger knows the strengths of his squad far better than us fans. Arshavin coming off the left is an easy selection and even when everyone is fit he will likely still hold that position ahead of Nasri and Rosicky. On the right hand side we have additional options such as Eboue and Theo but if Nicky B performs consistently then he will make it difficult for others to get back into the team. As far as I can see, playing Bendtner on the right of an attacking three is a very smart move. He provides an outlet from the back that is lacking in the final third when he is not there as he is competitive in the air. His aerial strengths are enhanced by the fact that he is not competing against huge centre backs in the air now; he is up against relatively diminutive left backs. As a forward, he has a huge drive to join attacks and be in the box and he will benefit from the crosses that Clichy sends to the back post this season. He also switches effortlessly with Robin when the need arises and holds the ball up well in the central positions.
This all brings me back to Van Persie and whether we can really base our attacking shape around a player with his abilities. Despite the fact that he is quite tall, Van Persie is not much of a presence in the air. Instead, his game is all about keeping the ball on the floor, having a great first touch and turn and bringing the rest of his team mates into the game. For these reasons I think that picking Van Persie as a lone striker is a masterstroke.
Journeyman Peter Crouch comes under some unfair stick because when he plays for England the whole squad seems to take joy in kicking the ball up in the air just so that he can use his height and bring it down. The England team has tended to resort to a lower standard of football when he is on the pitch and I cannot blame Crouch one bit. His game is far better rounded than that gives him credit for but it seems like an almost natural style of play for the team to resort to when he is on the pitch. From what little we have seen so far this season, playing Van Persie as a lone striker has the opposite effect.
When Robin is up front there is very little reason to play the ball anywhere other than his feet so that he can closely control the ball. I feel that having him as a lone striker is going to dictate that this is our style of play in a similar way in which Crouch’s presence on the pitch guarantees a long ball tactic for England. This can only be a good thing because Van Persie can hold a ball up indefinitely if he gets control of it and we have seen so far this season that he brings people in to play very well. He is not trying to get up and win a header, which is something that requires support quickly, with teammates looking for the flick on or knock down. He is receiving the ball to feet and holding it up intelligently and patiently, giving other players the time to run off of him and making us extremely dangerous.
As yet, none of our strikers have really set the league alight with their striking, perhaps with the exception of Arshavin’s effort at Old Trafford. However, we have seen them all link play intelligently and work tirelessly for the team. I have no doubt though that the goals will come and I think we will probably have three or four players vying to be our top scorer this season. We have however, seen fluidity with the manner in which players can swap positions but also in the way that they support each other in the final third. It looks to me like the “Van Persie Effect”.
Can you imagine if Wenger had built a team with Bergkamp as the loan striker? (Before I get heckled for the comparison of the two Dutchmen let me say that I realise they are quite different players but I also think that they have some similar strengths too.) If you played Bergkamp up front on his own then playing the ball in the air, or even into the channels, would be a bit of a waste of time but if the team attacked by consistently looking to play the ball into his feet then beautiful things could come from it. The movement off of Dennis and beyond him would have been great, as people would have confidence in him keeping the ball and then finding them with it. I believe that the same will be said of Van Persie and if Wenger continues to use him in this manner then it will only benefit the team.
We may even be witnessing the writing of a new chapter in the way that Arsenal attacks as a team in the final third. Van Persie can hold the ball up and turn to face goal allowing his teammates to run beyond him into space to receive defence splitting passes such as that for Ramsey’s goal against Portsmouth. It reminds me of when Totti moved from a second striker role with Roma to a lone striker role. At the time it was a strange decision by Luciano Spalletti but ultimately it was a masterstroke. Totti’s tendency to drop off and pick the ball up in deep positions created space for the attacking midfielders at the club to exploit. The positional change even boosted Totti’s own scoring record as he finished as Serie A’s top scorer with 26 goals. He fired Roma into second place in the league and on to victory in the Coppa Italia final. This was Roma’s first taste of silverware since they last won the league six years earlier. I support Wenger’s tactical change and hope that it can help Arsenal to bring some silverware back to The Emirates for their patient fans.
The Brady Bunch

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