When Sergio Aguero struck home at Eastlands to hand Manchester City the Premier League title back in May it was the first time Sir Alex Ferguson had conceded England’s football primacy on goal difference alone. This was a turn of events that Manchester United’s 70-year-old manager promised to correct. Indeed, United’s transfer strategy this summer has involved a considerable rethink of the squad’s attacking options; first Crewe Alexandra’s forward-cum-midfielder Nick Powell joined, then the Japanese playmaker Shinji Kagawa and finally – and most spectacularly – Robin van Persie.
Yet, prima facie United had few problems hitting the net last season, with Ferguson’s squad contributing 120 in 53 games; 71 from forwards alone, including more than 30 in all competitions by Wayne Rooney. Just nine goals either way took the Premier League crown from Old Trafford, to the noisy neighbours just a few miles east. “Trust me,” said a surprisingly tetchy Ferguson on Friday, “it’ll never happen again.”
And in the Dutchman United has acquired a talent of very rare breed – 30 goals in the Premier League alone last season – but so much more than a goalscorer. The man Arsène Wenger was moved to call “an exceptional player, a great player, a world-class player” last Friday.
van Persie will add both goals and nuanced experience in the final third, an area where, for all United’s talent, the Reds became predictable against the finest opposition too often. It’s an acquisition that Ferguson hopes will be a catalyst for regaining the Premier League, and ongoing success in what is rumoured to be the final two years of the Scot’s time at Old Trafford.
“He is what we have needed for the last couple of years,” Ferguson admitted.
“He’s got maturity to his game now – an authority, timing and understanding of the game – and I think we will benefit for the next four years and beyond. We needed a ‘finished’ player. Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs are coming to the end and I need mature top players to replace them.
“We have had several players who have been that sort of catalyst, starting with Cantona. I don’t think we’re short of all that, I think we were still capable of winning the title without Robin, but he gives us a sort of certainty for the future. He is a player that, every time I gave team talks, was a problem for us because he kept popping up in different positions, sometimes on the right, sometimes dropping off, sometimes in the middle.”
van Persie will also ease United’s reliance on Rooney, who contributed almost three times as many goals as any other Red last term. While much can be said for Danny Welbeck’s development, and there is sympathy for Javier Hernández after an injury-interrupted season, neither broke a dozen strikes in all competitions last season. Although neither Welbeck, nor Hernández, will rest easy with the Dutchman’s acquisition – after all neither is likely to start United’s premier games should both Rooney and van Persie remain fit.
Elsewhere, van Persie’s arrival could limit the introduction of Kagawa into the United side – at least in the Japanese player’s favoured position, in the hole behind a central striker. It is now likely to be Rooney who drops deep, with van Persie leading United’s line.
And despite already possessing attacking talent in abundance, Ferguson worked against considerable opposition, both from Arsenal and his own board, to secure a transfer that will cost United a reported £15 million fee up front, rising to £22 million with bonuses. That is to say nothing of the Rooney-esque wages van Persie will earn over a four-year contract with the club.
“Understandably, Arsène Wenger didn’t want to sell to Manchester United,” added Ferguson, who called his counterpart to seal the transfer last Thursday.
“The boy wanted to come to us and that’s important. That’s what swung it and what made it possible. If he hadn’t come out forcibly to Arsenal to tell them he wanted to go to Manchester United, it meant the negotiations were really over, the only negotiation left was agreeing a fee with Arsenal as there was no one else in the picture.
“I didn’t think it was possible we could get Van Persie but, when I heard he’d refused to sign a new contract and made it publicly known that he wanted to leave Arsenal, then we had to be interested, there’s no question about that. I spoke to David Gill and David spoke to the Glazer family and we got the ball rolling. It’s been a long haul and it’s not been an easy one.”
Yet, United’s investment in van Persie – a player who will command no serious sell-on fee in four year’s time – is both out of character with the parsimonious Glazer family regime, and bucks the internal policy of largely signing players under the age of 26.
That said, while many at United – David Gill included – questioned the ‘value’ attached to a deal for van Persie, the acquisition remains within the £40 million net spend that United’s vice chairman Edward Woodward guided investors on this summer’s IPO roadshow. This was a transfer that Sir Alex desperately wanted, even if there are more pressing needs in his squad.
Whether similar promises of forward spending – guided by Woodward at around £20 million net per season – enable United to compete with City, Chelsea, Paris Saint German and many others in the future is a moot question. It may not even be that generous – the family suggested a net spend of £25 million per season when conducting a highly leveraged buyout of the club in 2005. The real figure – including heavier spending in the past two summers – is just shy of £12 million net per season.
van Persie’s capture has left the few remaining Glazerites crowing, and the Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) in the odd position of releasing a statement on van Persie’s acquisition. Neither holds water. Supporting United over the past seven years is not a zero sum game; there are very many fans who remain hugely excited by van Persie’s arrival, yet reject the profit-oriented, highly-geared business model engaged by the club’s ownership.
That fans’ excitement is matched by van Persie, who followed the child within to reject reported offers from City and Juventus and move to Old Trafford, only adds to the spectacle.
“In these situations, when you have to make a hard decision in your life, I always listen to that little boy inside me. What does he want?” claimed the former Arsenal striker, who scored 132 in 277 for the Gunners.
“That boy was screaming for Manchester United. Everyone knows me by now. I love football. I am quite principled in that perspective. It is always difficult to find the perfect match but I do feel this is the perfect match for me. Manchester United breathes football.”
And van Persie will find a soul-mate in Ferguson; a manager who has bet big on the Dutchman he probably didn’t need. Perhaps it was the child within that called on United’s septuagenarian manager too.