A smirk spread across the face of a smug Robin van Persie. “Trust me, we will be back,” he insisted as Manchester United’s empire crumbled all around him after the sacking of David Moyes. “Trust me.”
Of course, the Dutch striker was well aware of who was next up on the managerial shortlist for United in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson age. The appointment of Louis van Gaal was a surprise to no-one, least of all van Persie.
But just a few months into van Persie’s happily ever after, serious questions are being asked of the striker and his future at Manchester United. At the World Cup van Persie was The Flying Dutchman, and yet under the same manager he has been grounded at United.
— RedMancunian (@RedMancunian) October 20, 2014
At 31 years old it could be the case that the striker is in natural decline, as he enters the final stretch of his career. It might be time for United to move on without van Persie. So often in the past van Persie’s fortunes have been determined by his fitness. The rule went that if he could stay injury free the goals would flow. Not on the basis of this season, though.
As quick as the grey is spreading across his head, van Persie’s powers are on the wane. The Dutchman has started seven of United’s eight Premier League games this term, yet only has two goals to his name.
That works out at a goal every 294 minutes, compared to 132 minutes per goal last season and 120 minutes the season before. His decline had been gradual until now, but this season it has verging on dramatic, maybe even terminal.
It was always unlikely that van Persie would replicate his debut season at United, when he scored 26 goals in 38 games to clinch the title in Ferguson’s final campaign. Even then, the Dutchman was scoring at a lesser rate than he had at Arsenal, but he re-energised the Old Trafford club when they needed to respond to Man City’s supremacy.
The fires that lit up his form that year will never burn that brightly again, but the concern for Van Gaal is that his spark has been extinguished completely. And it’s not just numbers that expose Van Persie’s deterioration. Stylistically Van Persie can appear somewhat languid. That has always been his approach, only making the effort when a reward is on offer at the end of it. It’s what once made him Europe’s most clinical finisher.
But when the rewards aren’t coming his way an apparent lack of desire leaves him wide open for scrutiny. Van Persie has his understanding with Van Gaal to credit for his place in United’s starting lineup at the moment, because on the basis of his form he should have been dropped long ago.
The relationship between van Persie and van Gaal was on full display at the World Cup, with their touchline high five after that goal against Spain providing one of the tournament’s enduring images. It has even been suggested that van Persie may well have played a part in selling van Gaal to the United board, with the striker almost certainly consulted on the appointment at the very least.
However, van Gaal now has a very pressing decision to make; one that could make an enemy out of a friend. Does van Persie truly warrant a place in the team he is building at United? There is plenty to suggest not. The next month isn’t just a pivotal period for United, but for van Persie too. Having taken just 12 points from their opening eight league games, Van Gaal’s side will now face Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal between now and the end of November.
In five games against top four opposition last season van Persie found the net just once (against Arsenal), compared with four goals in five such games the campaign before.
Van Persie must now prove that he can still perform at the very top end of the Premier League. Assuming, of course, that he hasn’t already blown his chance this season.
That could well be a possibility, given how Radamel Falcao has thus far played a secondary role to van Persie since arriving on transfer deadline day. Should van Persie falter United have a freescoring Colombian to take his place. Motivation won’t come any sharper for the Dutchman.
Van Gaal has restored a fury to Manchester United’s play, so in some sense English football’s most successful club might well be back, as Van Persie predicted. But the striker himself certainly isn’t. In fact, it’s time to ask whether he will ever be back.
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