Fleming: Arsenal’s Van the man to stop
Craig Fleming believes if Norwich City stop Robin van Persie, they can stop Arsenal – and much more effectively than when Thierry Henry was the man to shackle seven seasons ago.
The Gunners' miserable start to the season has been turned around thanks to a run of five wins in six Premier League games, driven by Van Persie's 10 goals in that quintet.
But as Ars�ne Wenger's latest incarnation travel to Carrow Road for tomorrow's televised encounter (12.45pm), ex-Canaries centre-back Fleming feels that Arsenal do not represent as much of a threat as in previous years.
And that includes the last time the two sides met in Norfolk, when the defending Premier League champions booked a slick 4-1 win in August 2004 – and Fleming was given the job of marking France international and Gunners legend, Thierry Henry.
'Van Persie is on very good goalscoring form – I'm not belittling him, but I don't think he's in the same league as Tierry Henry if I'm being brutally honest with you,' said Fleming, currently director of football at Ryman Premier League leaders Lowestoft Town.
'Henry was probably like Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo now. But Van Persie is still very, very good and Arsenal look like they are hitting a bit of form – and he's hitting a ridiculous amount of goals.
'What Norwich have got to do is try and stop him getting the ball – it's as simple as that when somebody's on that much form like Van Persie and playing that well, because you know if he does get it in certain areas, he is going to hurt you – like with Herny when we played them.
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'That's the best way to deal with him – but we just couldn't do that in 2004 because there were other good players around Henry who would get him the ball.
'If you look at Arsenal's team now, they've lost Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri… they know they are a good outfit, but I don't think they are as strong as they've been in years gone by. You look at the teams when they had Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit, Dennis Bergkamp, Tony Adams. They had a full team of players that were world class. Now I think you look at that squad and think 'world class players?' I don't see that many of them to be honest. And I know that sounds harsh, but when you look at Manchester City or Barcelona…'
Fleming's memories of City's last home defeat to the Gunners – when Henry, Jose Reyes, Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp all got on the scoresheet – remain as clear as day.
'I remember it very well; Henry was, at the time, probably the best player in the world – and he was playing at the height of his game, as were Arsenal that year,' said Fleming, tasked with marking Arsenal's then-number 14.
'It was difficult, I'm not going to lie. He was almost unplayable. You'd get tight with him and he'd knock it over the top and out-pace you. So the next time you sit off him a little bit and then he gets it into feet and hurts you because he's turning and running.
'He was in such a good side as well, so it wasn't like he was not getting much of the football. He was getting lots of football and lots to feet.
'I remember he made their first goal down at Carrow Road where there was Damien Francis, Gary Holt and myself in a line and he just hit the accelerator button and left all three of us for dead – I think it was Damien by five yards, Gary 10 yards and probably me about 65 yards. He did all three of us.
'That was the thing. He was a peculiar blend of somebody who was very, very quick, but he also had unbelievable awareness both technically and spacial-wise, and very quick to move and react. He was a real one-off.'