September 3, 2010 § 1 Comment
One of the sadder sights in football is the expression on the face of an injury-prone player as, slumped on the turf, they realise that it is happening again. The pain of the injury is shot through with a curious mix of resignation, frustration, and just a hint of a childish anger. And quite right too; after all, it really isn’t fair.
There’s plenty of them about. For example, I maintain that – but for liquorice hamstrings – Louis Saha would have become one of the greatest strikers in the world. Jonathan Woodgate waited fourteen months to make his Real Madrid debut (though it was a corker), and has just been left out of Tottenham’s 25-man squad. And the ongoing saga of Owen Hargreaves’ knees has, if you’ll excuse me a moment, taken on an almost Chekhovian aspect.
Owen looked down at his knee. The pallid skin seemed thin in the cold light of the hospital. He raised his eyes to his doctor, who stood at the foot of the bed.
“Doctor Steadman,” he said, in a soft, tremulous voice. “When will I get to Manchester?”
And then there’s Robin van Persie. You don’t need to be an Arsenal fan to recognise that when he’s fit, he’s bloody brilliant. But this is the beginning of his seventh season at Arsenal, in which time he’s started just 94 league games (out of a possible 231. He’s also made 40 appearances as a substitute). Of those, he’s completed just 45. While he may not have been an automatic first-choice for the first season or two, that’s a terrible return.
What’s interesting, to me at least, is that over the six full seasons van Persie’s been playing for Arsenal, they have, on average, tended to play better without him in the team. To be precise, Arsenal average 0.19 points per game more when van Persie doesn’t play than when he does. Which would mean seven extra points a season if he didn’t play at all.
There is, of course, significant season-by-season variation in that statistic. For instance, in 2006/07, Arsenal scored 0.28 fewer points without van Persie than with, meaning if he’d played no games they’d have missed out on 10 points. Conversely, Arsenal sans van Persie scored a whopping 0.82 points more per game in 2008/09 which, if expanded across the whole season, would have given them a record-breaking points total of 103.
Given that he’s an excellent footballer, what explains this? My theory is that the injuries are disruptive not only in terms of his own absence from the games, but also in terms of the team as a whole. To have a player who doesn’t play all the time, but acts the focal point of the attack when he does, necessarily implies that the team is undergoing constant reconfiguration. It’s indicative that in 2006/07, the one season when Arsenal did markedly better with van Persie than without him, he played nearly every game until breaking his metatarsal in January. Consistency of selection is what matters.
Less scientifically, my feeling is that van Persie not only gets injured a lot but also takes a while to get back to his best. Certainly he was extremely ineffective coming back from injury throughout the World Cup, as my fantasy football points tally will testify. An interesting contrast is with his teammate Arjen Robben, who sat out the whole of the group stage but looked instantly menacing once he returned. It may well be that van Persie, unlike Robben, is willing to play while not 100% fit, an attitude that, while admirable, might not always be of most benefit to the team. It’s arguably better to have an inferior striker at 100%, than a superior one at 90%.
Van Persie is Arsenal’s senior striker, and therefore he plays when available. (This status undoubtedly owes something to the relative ineffectiveness of Arsenal’s other strikers.) But getting injured a lot means coming back from injury a lot, and so it would not be unfair to conclude that for a significant number of his (already limited) appearances he is not at 100%. Given this, and the numbers above, it’s perhaps not unreasonable to propose that the frequency with which Arsenal have to attempt to reintegrate their star striker is affecting their performances. Van Persie, lauded throughout his spells in the treatment room as the solution to whatever ills Arsenal may be having, might in fact be part of the problem.
They still should have bought a goalkeeper though. Full data below.