Arsenal's Young Guns: Maturing Van Persie caught up in Walcott fever

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The Independent Football

In the short life of Theo Walcott it was a week to remember. Signing for Arsenal in January was a big deal, of course, as was his shock selection for England's World Cup squad in May. But he has spent the last eight months fidgeting like a child in the back of the car. "When am I going to get there?"

The 17-year-old striker made his England Under-21 debut and scored inside four minutes. He finally took his Premiership bow as a substitute last Saturday and set up the equaliser. Then he came on and laid on another assist against Dinamo Zagreb as Arsenal qualified for the Champions' League at the Emirates Stadium on Wednesday.

He had watched on the bench as the Gunners conquered Real Madrid and Juventus last year. By the final, he was already with England - preparing for more soul-searching on the sidelines.

The man he replaced in midweek, Robin van Persie, spent most of the last European campaign sitting next to Walcott after being sent off in the first match, against Thun. A year later, the 23-year-old's progress could be an object lesson for Walcott.

Like Walcott, Van Persie was pursued inexorably by Arsène Wenger two years ago. He played in all of Holland's World Cup games. Now, with the retirement of Dennis Bergkamp and doubts over Jose Antonio Reyes's future, he should be Thierry Henry's strike partner if he can stay ahead of Emmanuel Adebayor - and Walcott - in the picking order.

But Van Persie is not trying to stand in the way of the flying Englishman. "I started playing for Feyenoord when I was 18. When I was his age, I wasn't as good as he is now. That's what I am seeing with Cesc [Fabregas] as well. Cesc has played over 100 games for Arsenal and he's only 19. They're young but it doesn't matter, they're young and good.

"To me it's a joy to play with players like that. I think guys like Cesc and Theo, you follow them. You see these guys maybe once in 10 years at other clubs. It's really special. They are so young and so excited. We should be happy that they are at this level."

Strangely, after the departure of Bergkamp, Sol Campbell and Robert Pires, he finds himself a senior figure at the club already. "We all help each other," he says. "They come to us and I want to help. Theo's a very positive lad. He will just come and ask for something if he wants to."

But as befits a player who is still forging his own future, there is no sense of seniority. "We're not helping Theo because he's young and inexperienced, it's more like a natural flow. It's not like, 'Oh yes, Theo, you have to help him'. No, you have to respect him. It's fantastic what he shows."

Van Persie was hot-headed in his early days but he was cooled down by the ice man, his compatriot Bergkamp. "Dennis was the first one I went to when I had some problems. Every question that I wanted to ask him, he had an answer for it. He knows every bit of the game." But the idea of mentors simplifies Wenger's team ethic. "It's hard for me to point out one person and say he's the one," adds Van Persie. "For example, I had great conversations with Sol Campbell - diff-erent player, different position."

Wenger prefers to work with raw talent rather than established stars, and the whole environment nurtures young players rather than any gurus - surely the reason why Walcott chose Arsenal ahead of Chelsea. "When I first came here, I was young, I had to learn a few things," admits Van Persie. "I had to learn how to play the game properly. You're in a learning process. The boss and my team showed me how to play real football."

Wenger showed with Fabregas that if they are good enough, they are old enough. In giving Walcott a chance at last, he is saying that the boy is getting there. A return to the senior England squad may not be far away. "It's fantastic for the fans," says Van Persie. "We don't have many English players. Now they have a hero again, an English hero."