“I think I’m on the way,” said an understated Robin van Persie after the striker bagged his sixth and seventh goals in a Manchester United against Romanians CFR Cluj on Tuesday night. Indeed, such has been the Dutchman’s immediate impact since a £24 million transfer from Arsenal during the summer that neither player, nor club, could have hoped for a better start to the striker’s time at Old Trafford.
Expensive luxury perhaps, especially with United is such desperate need in other areas of the squad, but van Persie’s goals have already contributed nine points in the Premier League alone. The striker’s double secured Champions League victory this week, with United seeking to qualify with games to spare.
Such has United’s reliance been on the 29-year-old’s goals that the somewhat ironic cry of ‘one man team’ now rumbles amid disaffected opposition supporters – particularly those from north London.
Leading the line in Wayne Rooney’s absence this season, van Persie scored his first in United’s victory over Fulham at Old Trafford in late August, hooking home a left-footed volley. Then came a hat-trick in a dramatic 3-2 win over Southampton at St Mary’s, with van Persie scoring twice as United came from behind to snatch a winner in injury time.
The variety of strikes has been stunning too; headers, those with the right, and that devastating left so honed at the Emirates over the past eight seasons. Frequently it is the quality of strike that has left the United support, home and away, breathless. Van Persie’s second against Cluj – latching onto a lofted Rooney pass – and steering home with a stunning finish is so typical of the man.
“The second one was maybe my best for United,” admitted van Persie.
“I have to look at it again, but it felt good when it came off. Everything starts with a good pass so I have to thank Wayne, because not many players can give a pass like that.
“It was good build-up play before the goal and, when it came to him, I knew he could see that pass and actually give it exactly the way I wanted, so credit to Wayne. I think it’s the first time we both started together and we’re both very pleased with that, but we’re all in it together.”
Even if van Persie’s quality has shone through at the business end of the pitch, there has been criticism of the Dutchman’s all-round contribution. Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to deploy the striker at the head of a 4-2-3-1 formation has limited the former Feyenoord striker to that of goal-getter and not provider.
The goal-a-game tally renders the debate moot, of course, although van Persie’s determination has always been prevalent.
“I’d like to make more assists,” adds the striker. “I have seven goals but for me, as I’ve said many times, it’s not only about goals. Of course it’s about winning, but I want to make more assists. Until now, I gave only one so I want that to improve a bit. I’m on a good run but I can always do better.”
While there is no question about van Persie’s permanence in Ferguson’s side, the 70-year-old must juggle up to nine attacking players into, at best, four roles. If van Persie retains the senior striking role for United’s most important games then Rooney, as on Tuesday in Romania, is likely to deployed in a far deeper position. Much as the former Evertonian performed last season.
This may suit the Englishman’s understanding of space and subtlety of pass, but others will now be deployed as square pegs in round holes, or not at all. Indeed, Shinji Kagawa – so impressive earlier this season – may increasingly be limited to the left side of midfield or, as on Tuesday, Ferguson’s bench.
Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernandez, Antonio Valencia, Nani and Ashley Young command no guarantees either – likely competing for just one place in Ferguson’s side for the biggest games.
Yet, for all the talk of van Persie’s contribution it is easy to understate Rooney’s continued importance to United’s cause. If not in terms of absolute goals – the striker bagged 34 in all competitions last year – then at least continuity of attacking play.
“A lot of people were talking when Robin was playing on his own, but people mustn’t forget what Wayne Rooney has done for this club,” said Patrice Evra.
“He showed that when he came on against Tottenham and he showed that against Cluj. Wayne is working very hard and he is showing that he loves the club, that he is prepared to fight. Like everyone at the club you have to fight to play every game.
“I am happy for Manchester United, Wayne and Robin. When a new player comes then everyone is talking about that. But the players who were already at the club have to show they will never die.
“When someone new comes, everyone is excited and forgets the old things. It’s why Wazza has to show everyone. Me too, and everyone has to play their best to play for this team now.
“Robin’s an amazing player and that’s good but everyone will want to show they can play with Robin or replace Robin. The star is the team not one player.”
In this Evra is, of course, right. And the Frenchman hits on Ferguson’s strategy this season in retaining so many attacking players. Where paucity of options limits the Scot’s choices in midfield, and injuries have hampered United’s back-four, Ferguson can have no such complaints up-front. In fact early season injury to Rooney, Valencia and Young has impacted little on Ferguson’s plethora of attacking options to date.
But it is luxury not the commodity Ferguson sought in his new Dutchman; the subtlety of finish that will bring goals against the very best at home and abroad. van Persie may never offer value, at least not in the Glazernomic sense, but the 29-year-0ld is already vitally important to the United cause.