Robin van Persie's first ever Arsenal hat-trick against Wigan last weekend almost never happened. The striker had already declined the opportunity to get his mitts on the match ball when he sent his 70th-minute penalty high into the north London sky, but at the very moment he fired past Ali Al Habsi's for the third time, Arsene Wenger was preparing to replace him with Marouane Chamakh. The potential confidence boost from a Van Persie hat-trick didn't affect the Arsenal manager's thinking; he worried more about keeping his striker fit. "We have to use him in the right proportion," said Wenger afterwards.
His thought process is understandable. In Van Persie, he possesses a front-man of rare ability: a player as comfortable with his back to goal as he is facing towards it; someone capable of both passing the ball through a defence and dribbling his way around it; a striker who, in recent years, is as proficient in tapping the ball home from close range as curling one in from 20 yards. In short, the 27-year-old is as complete a centre-forward as there is in the English game. "He can finish, provide and his understanding with our offensive players is very good," says Wenger. Trouble is, such genius is rarely without blemish.
Van Persie's weakness is his propensity for picking up serious injuries. Wenger must go through a perennial dilemma, much like he did against Wigan last weekend, as to whether he should leave Van Persie on for a few minutes longer to guarantee victory, or replace him before full time and start wrapping the cotton wool around him. It must torment the manager, not least because you often get the sense from the Frenchman that however much he talks up his side's chances of winning the Premier League title some day soon, he only believes it's really possible when he has a fit Van Persie available for selection.
Arsenal's recent past backs up such an assertion. In the 2006/07 season, Van Persie broke the fifth metatarsal in his right foot while scoring an equaliser against Manchester United in January and missed the remainder of the season. After that game, Arsenal sat fourth in the table, 12 points behind United; by the season's end they remained fourth, but ended up trailing Alex Ferguson's side by 21 points. The following season the curse struck again. The striker suffered a knee ligament injury in October 2007 playing with Holland and although he returned after two months, he managed just 23 appearances all season as a series of niggles forced him to miss games on a regular basis. Arsenal finished third in the table, just four points behind eventual winners Manchester United. The Dutchman could have been the difference. Last season, the tale was repeated. Van Persie injured his right ankle on international duty in November and only returned to action when the title was effectively decided. Before his injury, Arsenal were second, five points behind leaders Chelsea but with a game in hand. They eventually finished third, 11 points behind their London rivals.
The correlation is not coincidence. Which is why Wenger must have despaired when Van Persie was ruled out for two-and-half months following an ankle injury picked up against Blackburn Rovers in August. Chamakh, to the naked eye at least, did a reasonable job in his place but in Van Persie's absence, Arsenal lost home games to West Brom and Newcastle and frequently stuttered about the place like an uncoordinated drunk. Since the player's return in November, however, Arsenal's particular brand of spectacular, if fussy, football has begun to operate at somewhere close to full effectiveness once again.
It's not just what Van Persie does himself, but how he helps those around him. Playing in the centre-forward position, he acts as much as a decoy as a target man. Last weekend against Wigan, Cesc Fabregas played directly behind Van Persie, almost like a second striker. With Samir Nasri on one wing and Theo Walcott the other, the home side effectively deployed four up-front but it was Van Persie's intelligence that made it work. When he dropped deep, Fabregas drifted into the space he had vacated. When he drifted to the left, the Spaniard pushed further forward and Nasri became the second striker. Over the course of his 85 minutes in action, Van Persie's movement created any number of different attacking permutations for the Gunners. Wigan's defenders didn't seem to know who they should be picking up. And it's not just against Wigan that Van Persie has shone. Since his return to action in early November, the player has built upon his form. In his six-and-half seasons at Arsenal, he has averaged a goal every 2.6 games; so far this season, he's banging in one every two.
If Van Persie stays fit, therefore, Arsenal's candidature for the title is not merely a figment of Wenger's utopian imagination. They currently sit five points behind Manchester United in the table, but their upcoming schedule looks particularly kind. Five of Arsenal's next seven Premier League games - Everton, Wolves, Stoke City, Sunderland and Blackburn – are at the Emirates; the club's away fixtures in this period, meanwhile, against Newcastle United and West Brom, hardly represent the most taxing commissions. Wenger's side, therefore, have the opportunity to put themselves in an extremely strong position. Presuming, that is, they don't get distracted by their exploits in the Champions League, FA Cup and League Cup. And that Arsenal's flow isn't disrupted by injury to the more crucial elements of their machinery. Like Van Persie.
If there is any genuine association between picking up an injury and a state of mind – a link that could be made empirically – Wenger reckons Van Persie is a much less brittle character than in seasons past. "What he has gone through has been difficult," he says. "On the other hand, it has made him a lot stronger mentally because he had to fight against disappointments. This is what makes you strong in life. He looks strong mentally."
As do Arsenal, with Van Persie in their side.