The best goal Robin van Persie scored in England isn’t the one you think. It isn’t that other one, either.
When reflecting on the Dutchman’s time in the Premier League, many will identify his title-winning goal for Manchester United against Aston Villa as his best. Others, depending on their allegiances, might point to another left-footed volley for Arsenal against Charlton Athletic.
Both are good, sure, but neither is quite as accomplished as a stoppage-time effort against West Ham United in January 2013.
There wasn’t a great deal of peril in Manchester United’s 2012-13 season, and a lot of that was down to Van Persie.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s team won 17 of their first 21 league games, with their shiny new striker hitting the 15 goal mark by New Year’s Day, while the Dutchman scored three times as United topped their Champions League group at a canter.
And so, when James Collins gave West Ham a come-from-behind lead in an FA Cup third-round meeting, something felt… well, wrong.
The equaliser didn’t need to just arrive, it needed to be momentous, the kind of goal whose quality was so self-evident you couldn’t even bring yourself to get angry about it. Something like this.
Goals this difficult should never appear this easy, even within the context of players who have a habit of making tough tasks look simple.
Yes, it’s always been refreshing to get a reminder that no, despite what we think, the idea that we “could have gone pro” is a horrible, horrible lie. It’s just, well, there’s no need to rub it in that much.
Ryan Giggs’ ball forward should be an impressive pass, not an assist. The idea of that kind of ball being brought down and tucked away without breaking stride is, if we’re being generous, preposterous. Honestly, it ought to be illegal.
We can’t do this, we never could and we never will. It doesn’t matter if we’re punters watching from our sofa or simply lesser Premier League players: those two categories are closer to each other in ability than they are to Van Persie in that moment.
Showing aspiring footballers clips of their heroes can be motivational, but in this case it’s just dispiriting: how many will have given up there and then, knowing such heights are challenging to the point of impossibility?
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When Van Persie brings the ball under his spell, he reminds us the version of football he is playing is not the same as the one we know.
He doesn’t even need team-mates to be on his level, because he knows his own strengths will make any concept of ‘levels’ entirely moot. Having carried Arsenal to a third-place finish the previous season, a reduction in outside reliance felt simple. Superhuman feats felt like second nature to the point that they became exactly that.
This wasn’t a great player putting in the extra mile to bail out his team-mates but rather someone for whom greatness had become quotidian. By the end, you’re so busy clapping you haven’t even stopped to realise he’s done it with next to no time left on the clock.
It’s as if he has a baseball mitt on the end of his left foot, removing any complication involved in trapping the ball and letting him think two, three, four steps ahead. The touch isn’t a reflex, it’s an entirely different kind of ‘without thinking’. There’s probably a name for it, but you probably have to be as good as Robin van Persie to find out what that name is. You might say having a secret code restricted to those who already have superhuman powers is unfair, but don’t take it up with us.
Of course, with all the focus on Van Persie taking the ball in his stride, it’s easy to forget the other way in which this goal differs from his other great finishes for United and Arsenal.
We were too busy marvelling at the first part that our minds switched off until we realised, after the fact, that the finish was with his right foot. Now that’s just showing off.
By Tom Victor