Striking comforts in a burden shared
There is a temptation in familiarity; to paint large brush strokes, to pigeon-hole, to find a box of mutual convenience. This is true of football, a sport in which punditry of the vanilla so dominates; perhaps more so than in any other mass cultural event. In this there can be no surprise that Manchester United’s summer signing, Dutchman Robin van Persie, has brought inevitable comparison with a compatriot of yesteryear.
It shouldn’t take the former Arsenal striker long to break out of this metaphorical confinement though, not in fashion that van Persie has begun his United career, with 11 goals in 15 games. For the record, it took Ruud van Nistelrooy 19 games to reach the same tally.
van Persie may not have scored in United’s 3-2 victory over Aston Villa on Saturday evening, but the 29-year-old did almost everything short – striking the bar with a bullet header, and then again with a fierce long-range drive in the second period. Indeed, while Javier Hernández saved United’s considerable blushes at Villa Park with a second-half hat-trick – dubious goals panel pending – it is van Persie who remains central to the Reds’ success or failure in the months ahead.
Fortune is a little short of the ideal expression given United’s lavish expenditure on the Dutchman, but Sir Alex Ferguson will certainly feel capricious – van Persie has been pivotal in the Scot’s team securing 16 points from losing positions this season.
“His confidence is just sky-high at the moment,” observes United veteran Ryan Giggs.
“I read last week that a lot of the players think he’s similar to Ruud in the respect that Ruud used to get a chance and more often than not he’d put them away. That’s the case with Robin at the minute; his confidence is high, we’re creating chances for him and he’s putting them away.”
van Persie, together with Wayne Rooney, and Hernández, must continue the pattern, especially given United’s woeful defending this season. It takes not a cynic to observe that Ferguson’s call for his team to score 100 Premier League goals this season may be short if his team continues to play in a fashion that invites goals at the other end. Villa Park was no exception.
Despite the tragic-comic nature of United’s defending Ferguson will feel comfort in Chicharito’s return to form in recent weeks. van Persie’s rapid integration into the Old Trafford scene had begun feel like a dependent relationship – and not of the mutual kind.
Goals spread around the side offers comfort, with Ferguson expecting more than 60 strikes between his leading men this season, as United seek to win from the front whatever the consequences at the back.
“I don’t think it’s a problem relying on Robin,” adds Ferguson. “The way Javier has started this season, I’m certain he will get to 20 goals plus. Wazza will get there too, he’ll get 20 goals plus I’m sure. It’s a healthy combination we’ve got there.”
Yet, it is van Persie who is now expected to strike against the very best in the months ahead – a burden bestowed not by his manager, but from the striker’s peers at Old Trafford. The Dutchman is now a lionised figure in a United dressing room packed with seasoned internationals.
“I think he’s great for the whole team; he’s our talisman,” admits Rooney, who had previously held that particular moniker. “He has a calmness about him. We have to try and get players around him.”
In Birmingham, on Saturday night, van Persie once again led United’s forward line effectively, although with little personal luck. On this occasion it mattered little as United came from two goals down to secure a four-point Premier League lead, with Hernández bringing a stunning conclusion to the game late in the second period.
United should never have been so troubled by a mediocre Villa side, but such is the way this season, with the Reds seemingly content to play every match as a cup tie of folklore.
“It reminded us of a cup game here a few years ago when we were 2-0 down,” said Ferguson of United’s latest victory comeback.
“I think van Nistelrooy scored a couple and we won 3-2. We were disappointed with the first-half performance, it has to be said. You had to give credit to Aston Villa, they never gave us a minute’s peace on the ball. When they got the second goal we were up against it, but once we scored our first goal, you always felt they were going to do it.”
United’s won’t “always do it” of course, not against domestic and European opponents of a higher quality. In that there is a salutary lesson; admirable though Ferguson’s commitment to attacking football is this campaign, there has rarely – if ever – been a successful side whose basic defensive make-up is so lacking.
No wonder Ferguson is relying on United’s spirit where technique and tactics is sometimes wanting. “The tenacity of our performance,” lauded Ferguson on Saturday, “was really brilliant.”
In this van Persie has also become pivotal. At Braga, in midweek, van Persie’s introduction reshaped – and refocused – Ferguson’s side as United once again came from behind; during the second period at Villa the Dutchman’s movement proffered Hernández the space to fire the Reds back into the game.
There is a warning though. In Portugal United’s attacking play was blunt for an hour without the Dutchman. For all the inherent firepower, United may still need to find a way to score without the now talismanic forward.
Hernández’ impressive haul in the Midlands is certainly a positive start; the beginnings of a burden better shared.