The frustrated and forlorn figure up front at The Hawthorns on Saturday afternoon did not remotely resemble the Robin van Persie of last season. A well-spoken, vibrant character and a joy to watch on the pitch, he was “undroppable” during Manchester United’s quest for title number 20. Things are different this campaign. A new manager, new coaching staff, new challenges, and a new RVP in some ways. Despite providing the assist for the visitors’ opener on the weekend, his overall performance was erratic. His lack of composure in front of goal in recent weeks, coupled with a few mistimed challenges which incensed the West Brom supporters, saw him replaced by Danny Welbeck. His shake of the head as he trudged off the pitch said it all: not good enough.
A player should be handed his place in the starting XI on merit, not reputation, and, contrary to the famous quote he uttered upon joining the Reds, the Dutchman is not “doing this” at the moment. It happens to the best – and worst – footballers and, as the old adage goes: “Form is temporary, class is permanent.” Technically brilliant, and unquestionably United’s star performer on his day, his movement, first touch and finishing are often wonderful to watch. Notwithstanding this, he has had very few of “his days” this season and, following his remarks after the defeat to Olympiacos at the end of February, it is clear that all is not well in the world of Robin van Persie.
Speaking to the press in Holland, the striker commented that his team mates are “sometimes occupying the spaces I want to play in.” He questioned the tactics employed by the manager, although did conclude, “It’s easy to point the finger at someone, but I’m not like that.” Van Persie does have a point. In other instances, however, he has all too often been isolated up front, crying out for service. This problem is exacerbated whenever Ferdinand and Vidic play together. Having both lost a yard of pace, the back line has to sit deeper, creating a chasm between midfield and the forwards and, as a consequence, link-up play is very limited. This results in the ball being hoofed up the pitch and, as talented as RVP is, not every ball lumped forward will see as exquisite a finish such as that goal against Aston Villa last April.
Of course, it is the manager who picks the matchday 18 and decides on the formation, so much of the responsibility lies with him. Perhaps the biggest issue surrounding the United squad is complacency; too few members of the current team are actually doing enough to win their places in the starting line-up, and too many of them have coasted along this season. There are, however, certain players whose individual performances have exceeded the expectations of even their most fervent detractors.
Welbeck, enjoying a good season up front for his boyhood club, has scored 10 goals in 25 appearances this campaign. Although he continues to split opinion amongst supporters, he was impressive as a substitute against West Brom on the weekend. His introduction immediately lifted the team, he once again linked up well with Rooney and his goal highlighted the improvements to his control and finishing. He might not be as technically gifted as his Dutch team mate, but his experience at international level alongside Rooney is evident in their United partnership. He looked far happier and more confident in his own ability – and that of the team – than van Persie did, and this transmitted to the rest of the players. To put it simply, United played better when Welbeck was introduced to the game on the hour mark on Saturday, and even more so when Shinji Kagawa joined the action 15 minutes later.
This is not to suggest that van Persie does not deserve a place in the starting XI, nor that he should be sold in the summer. An individual of his calibre would be welcome at any football club in the world. On the other hand, no player should be included on the team sheet purely for who they are. With crucial home games on the horizon against Liverpool, Olympiacos and Manchester City, unless van Persie can get his act together and David Moyes can implement a system that plays to his strengths, a change in attack is needed.
Every player in every team has a part to play over the course of a season, whether they are fighting for the title, languishing in mid-table, or swept up in a relegation battle. If certain members of the squad are underperforming, it is as good a time as any to give opportunities to the players who want to prove their worth. With rumours of Moyes’ job being on the line, it is difficult to imagine him straying too far from what he has done all season, but surely he will have been encouraged by the team’s display for the final half an hour on the weekend. The flair of Mata and Kagawa/Januzaj, combined with the work rate of Rooney and the efficiency of Carrick and Fellaini in the middle of the park could leave the starring role up front open for Welbeck. The Mancunian would relish the chance to lead the line, and putting some pressure on van Persie to win his place back could benefit the team in the long run.
It is easy for a footballer to “love” his club when things are going well, the team is winning and the fans are happy. However, it is the players who, when faced with a “crisis”, refuse to shy away from responsibility, would rather get on with the job than grumble and point fingers, and remain willing to take on anyone, that deserve the honour of pulling on a United shirt and stepping over that white line at Old Trafford.