So long, Robin Van Persie, and thanks for all the first touches

RVP has announced he is to retire at the end of the 2018-19 season. What a player he was in his heyday...

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Many people will remember Robin Van Persie primarily for his goals, whether due to their often-spectacular nature or the frequency with which he scored them. Which, of course, is understandable.

But for others it’ll always be his first touch that springs to mind when the Dutchman’s name crops up. Van Persie could trap a ping-pong ball while suspended upside-down from the handrail of a crowded public bus speeding down a cobbled street. Blindfolded. With both arms tied behind his back.

It was a rare situation from which RVP couldn’t extract himself with a flick of that left foot or a quick swivel of the hips. So often, you’d see him receive a pass with his back to goal, surrounded by defenders, only for him to twist his body a certain way and stop the ball dead in the only six square inches of grass devoid of opponents, before either finding a team-mate, shifting into Cruyff Turn Mode or ripping off a shot hit with the raspy power of a Tomahawk missile.

His ability to take a firmly hit pass on the half-turn in a tight space and beat a man (or two) simply with one movement was unrivalled in the Premier League for several years. Arsenal and then United team-mates knew they could give him the ball in almost any scenario and, somehow, he’d find a yard of room.

This was particularly useful at the Emirates, where he spent much of his time having to contend with passes blasted waywardly at shin-height in his general direction by the likes of Alex Song and Abou Diaby.

The amazing thing about Van Persie, however, was that he seemed to do so much with so little movement.

Ronaldinho had a similar ability to extricate himself with the ball at his feet from a densely populated area of the pitch, but he’d expend the energy of a combustion engine while doing so, arms and legs thrashing about like party-loving pistons. But RVP played football like a snooker player, almost robotically nudging the ball wherever he needed it be, setting up his next action with precision and, occasionally, as required, just smashing the middle out of the thing.

You got the impression that everything he did on the pitch was planned in advance, his motions repetitive, deliberate, practiced. There’s rarely been a footballer whose play looked so automated. When he hit the ball hard, he did so with the rigid perfection of a motion-captured player in a video game.

You know that nanosecond after you hit the ‘Shoot’ button when you see FIFA or Pro Evo’s CPU processing the command and setting the ‘smash-ball-into-net’ animation into action? That was what it was like when RVP lined up to strike a football.

Van Persie made exceptionally difficult things look easy, a trait reserved only for the finest technicians in the game. Injury robbed him, and us, of large portions of his prime years, but doesn’t half leave a legacy:

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