Tag Robin van Persie

Tag Robin van Persie

Striking numbers

February 23, 2015 Tags: , , Opinion 11 comments
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So many riches earned, so little return delivered. Manchester United’s three premier strikers – Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao – cost the club some £60 million in transfer and loan fees combined. Old Trafford’s bean counters will add £43 million to that bill in the now very unlikely event that the Colombian signs permanently next summer. Factor in £830,000 per week – or more than £40 million per season – the club spends on wages between to the lavishly paid trio and United continues to make a stupendous outlay for a hugely disappointing campaign.

The raw numbers tell at least part of story behind United’s failed attack this season. Van Persie has 10 goals and two assists in 26 appearances across all competitions; Rooney nine and four in 25; and Falcao four and four in 19. If United’s ever-changing tactical shape is of little help to the trio, then nor does any  lay claim to personal excellence either. The Englishman’s shot accuracy, for example, is just 50 per cent this season, with Van Persie only three percentage points better and Falcao accurate from 63 per cent of shots taken. None compares favourably to Premier League top goalscorer Diego Costa, who has 17 league goals at a 71 per cent shooting accuracy.

Dig a little deeper and the trio has contributed too little to United’s attack beyond the combined 23 goals and 10 assists this season. Rooney has created a touch over 30 chances over the campaign, with the Englishman most frequently deployed at ’10’ or in an attacking central midfield role. It reflects even more poorly on Rooney that the 29-year-old fails to make the top 20 best passers by accuracy at United let alone in the country.

Van Persie and Falcao fare no better on the creative front. The Dutchman has fostered 23 opportunities this season and Falcao just 13. Neither is heavily involved in United’s build-up either – Van Persie averages just over 20 passes per game; Falcao less than that.

Beyond the numbers neither Van Persie and Falcao, nor Saturday’s pairing of the Dutchman and Rooney, have developed any real understanding. Rooney passed to Van Persie just six times during United’s 2-1 defeat in Wales; the former Arsenal forward returned the compliment on three occasions. Nine passes from a total of 581 United made on the day. It was just seven in total between Falcao and Van Persie when United beat Burnley 3-1 at Old Trafford last week. None of it speaks well of three supposedly world-class forwards that form the backbone of United’s broken strikeforce.

Of the trio only Rooney is guaranteed a place at the club next season – and that has far less to do with the Englishman’s performances over the past eight months than his perpetual status at the club. As a striker the Englishman’s output has declined in recent seasons. The former Evertonian scored 19 and made 17 assists under David Moyes; it was 16 and 13 two years ago; and 35 and five when Rooney was deployed up-front for the campaign in 2011/12.

In midfield Rooney has routinely disappointed, in part with average distribution, but mostly with an apparent inability to adapt to the ebb and flow of United’s game. It is not often, if ever, that United’s third highest record goalscorer controls a match from the centre of the park, with the player demonstrating an unnerving ability to resort to the ‘Hollywood Ball’ when in possession. It is an observation that is all-the-more frustrating for Ander Herrera’s frequent exclusion this season.

Van Persie, meanwhile, is in the midst of a 18-month-long slump. There was a short period over Christmas, a mini burst if you will, when the Dutchman scored five in four games. There have been just two goals in the past nine matches; one of those a penalty.

Indeed, the Dutchman’s performance in south Wales ranks among his least effective for the club. Of Van Persie’s seven attempts at goal only one hit the target, while the striker touched the ball on just 23 further occasions. The evidence suggests a permanent decline even if Van Persie recovers quickly from an ankle injury suffered at the Liberty Stadium.

Then there is Falcao. The Colombian remains a striker of rare pedigree, but one who is fundamentally struggling to recover from a second knee injury of the most devastating kind. Few begrudge the Colombian a little time in a season that has itself been disrupted by less serious injury, but eight months into a year-long loan at the club there is scant evidence that Falcao is the player of lore.

It is not even as if the 29-year-old’s goals this season – all four of them – have come against top class opposition either: Falcao scored against Everton, Aston Villa, Stoke City and Leicester City. His omission from Saturday’s line-up may well be the precursor to more frequent exclusion as the season winds down. The performances hardly merite special treatment. And whatever agent Jorge Mendes’ proclamation to the contrary, few of Europe’s top clubs will be prepared to pay the €55 million fee Monaco is seeking for the forward next summer.

Little wonder United ranks just fourth in the Premier League for goals scored this season despite the lavish expenditure on a clutch of strikers. It is, after all, some 12 goals behind rivals Chelsea and Manchester City. These are striking numbers.

Indeed, United’s failure at Swansea City on Saturday can be attributed, in part at least, to the profligacy of the team’s forward line. Van Gaal was moved to declare United unlucky in defeat, with the Reds securing a healthy proportion of possession, while the team created 18 chances. Perhaps the key statistic is this however: the visitors managed just three shots on target. It is the story of the season rather than a one-off observation. United ranks just eighth in the Premier League for shots-per-game and seventh for shots-on-target.

Yet, with a nod to those who have an eye for defending United’s errant forwards, Van Gaal’s team ranks just eighth in key-passes-per game, ninth in dribbles-per-game and 16th in fouls-against-per-game. If the forward line is under-performing then there is little attacking foundation elsewhere in the team. Angel di Maria suffered yet another anonymous game at the Liberty Stadium, while fellow creative talents Juan Mata and Adnan Januzaj started the game on the bench.

Yet, while United enjoyed a positive spell for 30 minutes after the break, and possession translated into chances created, none were taken. And when it came to the crux, with the Reds chasing an equaliser deep into the game, Van Gaal’s men resorted to agricultural tactics rather than trusting that creative talent might fashion a chance. The Reds launched 50 long passes forward against Swansea – 12 of them coming after Bafétimbi Gomis scored Swansea’s second. It was truly desperate stuff.

Crucially, in the short-term there is little sign that either Falcao or Van Persie will hit a run of form. If may well cost United a place in the Champions League next season. Neither is likely to benefit if United’s Dutch manager continues to rely on the long ball.

Over the longer piece few will brook argument with the observation that Van Gaal should enter the market for one, if not more, new strikers next summer.

Victory over Arsenal is Moyes’ opportunity and threat

November 12, 2013 Tags: , , , Opinion 12 comments
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Attrition. It was, at times, little more subtle than trench warfare; Manchester United’s ambition bent, it seemed, on the utter destruction of the visitor’s rhythm. The strategy worked, of course, negating the visitors’ superior technique to a series of personal physical duels and tactical battles at set pieces.

Indeed, United’s performance against Arsenal on Sunday was every bit an orchestrated David Moyes’ game plan; one borrowed, template and all, from so many Everton matches against superior opponents over the past decade.

In that Moyes will take much satisfaction. After all, the Scot has received plenty of criticism over the past four months, not least on these pages, where the manager’s conservative tactical approach, and seeming distrust of technical players, has frustrated. Now, with victory over the Premier League leaders to his name, Moyes can approach the coming months with renewed confidence and genuine belief.

Indeed, United’s win against the Gunners brings Moyes extra satisfaction, not least because of the considerable groundswell of media opinion that seemingly had Arsenal already crowed Premier League champions, and United destined to drop out of the Champions League places altogether.

Meanwhile, in the stands United supporters sang themselves hoarse, generating an atmosphere rarely matched in recent seasons. One inspired both by United’s predicament this season and the opponents. This was not, as some prominent Arsenal fans have blithely put it, ‘United’s cup final’, but it was certainly the biggest and most pivotal match of Moyes’ short reign in Manchester.

“We could have been 11 points behind, so now we’re in a good position. It was a big win, a real six-pointer,” admitted match-winner Robin van Persie.

“We are right in the mix, which is what we wanted. We knew what the other teams had done before us, and realised that it was a must-win game. It is different because of the way Arsenal play. They have a really specific way of playing, which I know of course, so you have to play a slightly different game to beat them. We did really well to close everyone down. It makes a big difference.”

Yet, there is also an unnerving sense of collective giddiness in a desperately needed victory. While the result fell United’s way, the performance was focused on work ethic, structure and spirit, and not the kind of attacking flair many Old Trafford regulars crave. Or, to put it another way: only a stepping stone to the level of performance expected.

The data provides some insight. On Sunday the Reds secured just 40 per cent possession in making 393 passes against Arsenal – around two hundred short of the same fixture last season. Meanwhile, Moyes’ side completed a criminally low 74 per cent of passes, driven in part by the deliberate predilection for simply gifting possession to the opposition in the latter stages. Little wonder the side created just chances in total, with two shots on target, including van Persie’s goal.

By the end, with Marouanne Fellaini on for the match winning Dutchman, United resorted to simply punting the ball long in the manner of a comatose pub side, still reeling after the night before the morning after. The 59 long-balls launched skyward represented 15 per cent of United’s total – coincidentally around the same amount played by ‘long-ball’ side Stoke City against Swansea City at the weekend.

To put some of the data in context, 12 months ago against the same opposition Sir Alex Ferguson’s side made 572 passes, at 86 per cent success rate, securing 48 per cent possession in the process. The result: Ferguson’s side created 14 chances, with six shots on target.

And while agricultural tactics might have been a specific plan for the Gunners’ visit – a highly successful one at that – much of the aforementioned antipathy to passing has become a pattern this season.

Still, Moyes was understandably jubilant in the aftermath. It was, after all, the biggest win during the manager’s short time in Manchester – potentially a campaign changing result at that. One which could proffer the Scot greater freedom to find his team.

“It’s another step in the right direction for us,” said the 50-year-old.

“We have got a lot of big steps to take here. It is going to take a while for me to get it all the way I’d like it to be. I don’t know if it puts out any statement. Everybody for years has known how good Manchester United have been. My job and the team’s job is to make sure that we do that again. We know that we are going to get a few bloody noses along the way.”

In fact momentum coming out of the Arsenal result should serve the Reds well in the months to come. True, United’s visit to Tottenham Hotspur in early December may prove disruptive, but as a general rule there are few terrors this side of the New Year. It is an opportunity for United to close the five-point gap to leaders Arsenal, before a January run that includes fixtures against Chelsea, Swansea City and Spurs again.

In that there should be little doubt about the impetus Sunday’s victory brings. Despite performances rarely sparkling this term United will surely be in contact with whomever is leading the Premier League by the turn of the year.

“We knew we had to win today at all costs,” said striker Wayne Rooney.

“It was the toughest we have been to play against and to break down. We defended really well and, thankfully, Robin got the goal for us. We could not afford to lose today. We knew a victory would put us right back in there and in a great position.

“It has given us a massive lift going into the international games. We’ll all go off to play for our countries and then come back as we’ve got a big push then until the New Year. That’s our aim.”

But in winning – “a marker” as defender Chris Smalling put it – there is also a risk. That the manner of victory, ground out through a defense-first approach, becomes the new normal.

After all, United’s propensity to throw away possession, to create fewer chances in past seasons, and to score less goals is significant and real. At the same stage last season the Reds had scored eight more goals and secured nine additional points, in winning nine of 11 fixtures.

And while the points total required to secure Premier League victory in May is likely to be less than the 89 United obtained in the past two campaigns, Moyes’ side is on course to top just 70. It is the genuine risk associated with a strategy that has often sought to contain first and attack second.

van Persie could benefit from new role

October 21, 2013 Tags: , , Opinion 18 comments
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Wayne Rooney’s recent declaration that he is happy at Manchester United now that he is playing as a striker under David Moyes has been interpreted in a number of ways. But setting aside the claim and its message for a moment it is good to remember that Rooney had his best season in 2009/10 during which the Scouser played primarily as a traditional number nine. Given that Rooney lacks the typical qualities of a real number 10, or a winger for that matter, Moyes can be excused for using the Englishman as a striker given the player’s history.

But Moyes system has provoke a number of tactical question, some of which might be alleviated by using Dutchman Robin van Persie in a new role.

Moyes’ system, in which full backs are encouraged to aggressively provide width, means that Old Trafford’s two central midfielders – Michael Carrick and Marouanne Fellaini as the first choice pair – cannot push forward without risk. Meanwhile, United’s wingers have been encouraged to cut inside with Rafael da Silva and Patrice Evra pushing high up the pitch.

Yet, in the system there is also a clear need for someone to occupy the space between the main striker – Javier Hernandez or van Persie – and central midfield. It was a role Sir Alex Ferguson asked Rooney to fulfill in the Scot’s last Premier League winning side, leaving the Reds with a variety of channels in which to attack.

Typically Moyes deploys a forward in the hole, but this nominal number 10 has looked to attack the box late more than providing an additional passing option in the attacking third.

Theoretically United’s wide man are required to link midfield with attack, while the full-backs crosses from wide areas – turning Moyes’ formation from a 4-4-1-1 into a 4-2-2-2 in the attacking phase. However, there are weaknesses in United’s team that inhibit the Scot’s plan. The lack of a spare man in defense and Evra’s poor positional awareness has limited United’s opportunities in the final third, for example.

Additionally in recent matches against Southampton and Liverpool the opposition pressed United’s midfield duo heavily, forcing the Reds to attack almost exclusively down the flanks. Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia were shown the byline at Anfield, while Adnan Januzaj and Nani were fouled into submission at Old Trafford. In each United’s attack was predictable and blunted.

Moyes attempted to introduce a holding midfielder in European competition, but the United squad is loaded with forwards, and deploying a number 10 that links midfield and attack is surely more of a priority. Without this additional passing option in the middle United is forced to into wide areas, as has been the case in recent games.

With Rooney seemingly preferring a more direct role, Shinji Kagawa is the one man in the United squad capable of providing the missing link. Yet, dropping van Persie for Kagawa is unthinkable, leaving the Japanese out of favour and questioning his future at the club.

Moyes has always been keen on keen on having a player arrive late into the opposition box, which offers two separate targets to aim at with balls from wide areas. At Everton Tim Cahill and latterly Fellaini fulfilled the role, while at Old Trafford Rooney’s aerial presence might be weighing heavily in the former Everton manager’s mind.

Meanwhile, van Persie appears to be increasingly isolated in a United shirt, with United’s system not bringing the best out of the record Netherlands’ goalscorer.

These challenges bring to mind the once radical concept of false nine – a forward who drops deep – which is now mainstream tactical thinking. It is a role that might suit United’s Dutchman – in fact van Persie often played the role for Arsenal to great effect, with the former Arsenal player and Cesc Fabregas often devastating as a pair.

In Catalonia Lionel Messi is Barcelona’s false nine and his heroics outshine the fact that Barça’s wingers benefit from the space created by the Argentinean. At Old Trafford, allowing van Persie to drop deep might force opposition defenders to choose between letting the Dutchman crowd midfield or following him and leaving a gap in the defensive line.

Rooney and United’s wingers might even benefit from the additional movement in forward areas. The fact that Rooney, Januzaj and van Persie can all play as false nine suggests that the seemingly easy tactical switch of encouraging a forward to drop deep could inject the flair that United is desperate for.

In the plan van Persie will benefit from more touches of the ball, while United’s possession game – with just 76 per cent of passes completed against Southampton – will improve. The Dutchman’s presence in the hole would also allow midfielders to attack and Fellaini to offer his physical presence in the attacking third.

Retaining the ball for longer is advantageous in most situations, but it is particularly useful for United since Evra is better in the attacking than the defensive third.

Moyes is well known for his conservatism, but the concept of false nine is well documented and field tested. Spain won Euro 2012 with Cesc Fabregas dropping off opposition defenders, and Sir Alex is one of the pioneers of false nine, having used both Cristiano Ronaldo and Rooney in the role.

It is a bold step, but using van Persie in a new role could both solve many of United’s attacking problems and negate the need to bring in new attacking players, of whom Moyes may have little trust in any case.

Reds call on blue tape to cure van Persie’s ills

January 20, 2013 Tags: Opinion 7 comments

Rather than wrap him in cotton wool, it seems Manchester United may need to cover Robin van Persie in blue tape to keep the Dutchman injury-free this season. The striker, who has become both vital and loved at United, was seen wearing the recognisable blue Kinesio Tape on his hamstrings at the back of both thighs during the game against Liverpool last weekend.

United fans hope, of course, that the Kinesio Tape (KT) was simply being used as a prophylactic, although many will be forgiven for thinking that van Persie may already be carrying a slight twinge and that it is only a matter of time before the striker is sidelined.

van Persie was notorious for being injury prone during his time at Arsenal; enough to earn the nickname “glass ankles” following persistent difficulties with both ankles. In addition, van Persie has also suffered hip, thigh, groin, hamstring, calf and metatarsal injuries throughout his career.

Although there is relatively little evidence to support KT, it has become increasingly popular with élite athletes and was particularly noticeable during Euro 2012 last year. A meta-analysis of KT’s effects (* Williams et al. 2012) suggests the tape may be beneficial for improving muscle strength and range of motion, however these results were not proven to be clinically significant, and with too few studies more research is still needed to be sure of its efficacy.

Despite this, many high-profile athletes have found KT to be useful, including Novak Djokovic, Mario Balotelli and Dwain Chambers. And although there is a lack of strong scientific evidence, anecdotal evidence from athletes is not being ignored by medical teams, often working under intense competitive and financial pressure to keep their stellar players in action.

van Persie is no stranger to experimentation with radical alternative therapies to stay fit. In summer 2009 he opted to have troublesome wisdom teeth removed, believing they could be linked to his recurrent injury problems. van Persie attended a clinic in Paris for the procedure and was seemingly injury free for several months afterwards.

“My osteopaths think there may be a connection between my teeth and the muscle injuries I suffer,” said the Dutchman. “Something like that is very difficult to prove. But if the operation makes just one per cent difference it’ll be worth it.”

However, in November 2009 the Dutch playmaker suffered yet another ankle injury in Holland’s friendly against Italy. He traveled to Serbia to try horse-placenta treatment, by having placental fluid massaged into his sprained ankle. Although little is known about how placenta therapy may work, the theory is that it by applying the fluid it will improve the healing processes by enhancing transport of nutrients to the injured area.

Manchester City’s Pablo Zabaleta and Vincent Kompany have both allegedly visited the same clinic for treatment.

“It cannot hurt. And if it helps, it helps” said van Persie, no doubt frustrated with persistent ankle trouble and willing to try an unproven treatment.

Initially expected to be out for six weeks, scans revealed that van Persie had actually torn rather than sprained the ankle ligaments and missed a further five months of the 2009-2010 season. The placenta therapy appeared to be fruitless when advice was sought from a leading ankle specialist, Niek van Dijk, who confirmed that more extensive damage had been suffered than was first diagnosed. van Persie required surgery on the damaged ligaments.

After being plagued by so many sprains, strains and tears, van Persie’s lengthy injury trouble appeared to ease in the 2011-2012 season in which the striker won PFA player of the year. His tenure with Arsenal ended and he joined United in August 2012 with many believing it a good deal for the Gunners, given van Persie’s age and injury record. £24 million for a 29-year-old prone to so many injuries seemed like good business at the time for Arsène Wenger.

Yet, van Persie’s transfer has so far appeared to be Sir Alex Ferguson’s bargain not Arsenal’s. The striker’s contribution has been spectacular, with 22 goals to date including a number of last-minute winners and equalisers, and an important goal against Tottenham Hotspur in difficult weather conditions on Sunday.

It is possible that the striker may have picked up a minor hamstring muscle strain during the busy festive period, and taping was being used to try and prevent a serious muscle strain from occurring. If van Persie feels even the slightest hint of an injury, Rob Swire and the United medical team will no doubt be trying everything possible to ensure van Persie stays fit for the title run-in and coming European campaign. Even if it means wrapping the Dutchman in blue tape.

Robin van Persie’s injury record whilst at Arsenal:

Groin Strain – – 2012 February 29th
Ankle/Foot Injury – – 2011 August 7th
Knee Injury – – 2011 February 28th
Hamstring Injury – – 2011 February 22nd
Flu – – 2011 February 8th
Ankle/Foot Injury – – 2010 August 28th
Ankle/Foot Injury – – 2010 June 1st
Sprained Ankle – – 2009 November 14th
Knee Injury – – 2009 September 13th
Groin Strain – – 2009 April 18th
Groin Strain – – 2009 March 30th
Hamstring Injury – – 2008 October 6th
Ankle/Foot Injury – – 2008 August 31st
Thigh Muscle Strain – – 2008 May 2nd
Thigh Muscle Strain – – 2008 April 4th
Thigh Muscle Strain – – 2008 January 11th
Thigh Muscle Strain – – 2007 December 24th
Knee Injury – – 2007 October 18th
Metatarsal Fracture – – 2007 January 22nd
Ankle/Foot Injury – – 2006 November 19th
Hip/Thigh Injury – – 2006 September 14th
Ankle/Foot Injury – – 2006 February 10th
Ankle/Foot Injury – – 2005 December 22nd
Knee Injury – – 2005 October 17th
Ankle/Foot Injury – – 2005 February 5th
Sprained Ankle – – 2004 November 26th
Sprained Ankle – – 2004 August 27th

(physioroom.com)

* Williams S, Whatman C, Hulme P, Sheerin K. Kinesio Taping in Treatment and Prevention of Sports Injuries: A Meta-Analysis of the Evidence for its Effectiveness. Sports Medicine. 2012; 42(2): 153 – 164

The goal

January 6, 2013 Tags: , Opinion 38 comments

Having spent the best part of a decade chasing an 12th FA Cup victory, Manchester United’s stars certainly did a fine job of nearly trashing this year’s attempt at overcoming the first obstacle. From a goal ahead at West Ham United on Saturday, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side was saved at the last by a strike of such quality it deserved to win the tournament itself.

Little wonder the Scot led the eulogies post-match, both for van Persie’s late late strike, and the man who has transformed United’s season. Indeed, while United leads the Premier League by a healthy seven points there are apparently few at Old Trafford who do not desire another successful trip to Wembley.

Certainly, those supporters traveling to east London seek a return better than United suffered in 2005 and 2007 when Ferguson’s men lost in finals at Cardiff and Wembley.

Yet, for more than half an hour United laboured after falling behind to an unlikely brace of headers by James Collins – a pair of crosses supplied by the returning Joe Cole.

Ferguson’s side, suffering for six changes and more than one player deployed out of position, struggled not only for cohesiveness in attacking areas, but a defensive uncertainty that has become the pattern for the campaign. Twice United failed to cut out delivery from wide areas; twice Chris Smalling and Nemanja Vidić lost their man.

Fortunate, then, that van Persie and Giggs should conjure up one of the finest strikes of the season to take these sides back to Old Trafford in 10 days time.

“When you’re 2-1 down with a couple of minutes left you just hope you get a break,” said Sir Alex Ferguson moments after Manchester United’s injury-time equaliser at Upton Park.

“But the manner of goal – the pass from Ryan Giggs and first touch from Robin van Persie and his finish – is absolutely world-class.”

Empty cliché it may be, but Ferguson’s blandishment to a goal made in Cardiff and finished, quite wonderfully, by Rotterdam’s finest, was every bit as “world-class” as it gets. From Giggs’ 50 yard pass, struck deliciously on the half-volley inch perfect into van Persie’s path, to the Dutchman’s sublime control, second touch and low finish past Jussi Jaaskelainen.

Yet, in six short months United fans have come to expect little else from van Persie, who now has 20 goals in 26 appearances this season. The comparison is inconsequential, of course, but by the same stage of the 2007/8 season, in which Cristiano Ronaldo went on to score 42, the Portuguese was a goal short of van Persie’s number.

It is a sign, says Ferguson, of a player who has “brought maturity to our front line.”

Captain Vidić is more effusive still, lionising the Dutchman as an example to all; a player far better than most United fans dared to believe before he arrived at Old Trafford this summer.

“His touch is magnificent and his finishing is top class,” said the Serbian.

“It is movement from the book, touch from the book, goal from the book. It is something they can show to kids, how to move and finish in the last third. He was magnificent for us, we just hope he is going to be in the same form in the end.”

The real surprise, however, is Giggs’ contribution, not just to van Persie’s goal, but over the extended festive period. A late Indian summer, perhaps, but a glorious one even if performances against Swansea City, Newcastle United, Wigan Athletic and now West Ham turn out to be the Welshman’s last hurrah in a United shirt.

But the real goal secured in United’s draw at Upton Park was not van Persie’s masterpiece per se, but a home draw with Fulham or Blackpool in round four – another shot at Wembley in the late spring.

“We want to stay in the competition and have a go at winning it,” Sir Alex told MUTV.

“We’ve had some terrible draws over the years and been knocked out early, we don’t enjoy that. For us to be losing 2-1 in that game was amazing given the chances we created and the football we played.

“But when you play West Ham you have got to defend your crosses from the set pieces because they are brilliant and the best team in the league at that, but we didn’t do it. When Ryan Giggs headed over the bar, Danny Welbeck hit another over, Tom Cleverley hit one more over and then Shinji Kagawa had one blocked near the line, I thought it wasn’t going to be our day.”

But it was, just about, and the sides will meet again in Manchester on 16 January, in what is now becoming a hugely crowded programme leading up to the Reds’ Champions League fixture with Real Madrid next month. Few in Ferguson’s camp are complaining though, not least the manager whose wild celebration at van Persie’s goal belies an enduring passion for the cup.

Sam Allardyce, who has not always enjoyed a positive relationship with West Ham supporters, declared himself “more than disappointed,” with the result. “We almost feel like we lost in that dressing room.”

That is the nature of conceding late, but the Hammers could hardly have done any more on the day.

After all, as Allardyce put it succinctly – “the finish was just unbelievable.” As the Centenary Stand erupted a little past the 90th minute, thousands of United supporters rose to concur.

Robin van Persie

How Fergie stole Mancini’s Christmas

December 24, 2012 Tags: , Opinion 36 comments

“Whoever controls the media, controls the mind.”
Jim Morrison

When referee Michael Oliver blew the final whistle to confirm Manchester United’s first draw of the season, it was not hard to imagine Roberto Mancini gleefully rubbing his hands. Manchester City’s last-minute winner the day previous proved to be even more valuable after United, in a forgiving Christmas spirit, failed to score a much-needed second goal in Swansea.

Despite Mancini’s rivals sitting comfortably on the top of the Premier League table as the weekend kicked off, the Italian was just one of many cheering United’s result, waiting for the pressure to increase on Sir Alex Ferguson’s team as the packed festive season began.

However, much of the post-mortem ado had little to do with game itself, or even the narrowing gap in the title race. United’s missed chances, questionable individual performances or the timing of Sir Alex’ substitutions are lost amid the ridicule and outrage caused by the United manager’s post-match interview. Even United’s dropped points have been lost amid the hysteria.

“Robin van Persie is lucky to be alive,” blasted the Glaswegian in his post-match interview. “It was a disgraceful act from their player and he should be banned by the FA. Robin could have had a broken neck.”

On the surface it looked like Ashley Williams intentionally slammed the ball into van Persie’s head from just yards away, although few people were as concerned about the Dutchman’s life as Sir Alex. Fan’s take on Ferguson’s interview differed, but whether supporters considered the manager’s words strange, funny or embarrassing, it takes a drama queen to second the manager’s fears.

Indeed, van Persie proved to be very much alive seconds after the ball struck the 29-year-old; a case could even be made that the striker is lucky a slip of the foot came between him, Williams and a certain lengthy ban. The avoidance of death seemed a very long way from the action in that moment.

While many have taken on board a glorious opportunity to ridicule Sir Alex, it is not difficult to spot the great Scot’s true intentions. It is, after all, Sir Alex all over – what he always does after a bad result. And what do you know, the great British press have gladly taken the bait.

The Daily Mail featured a match report and one, two, three articles connected with the van Persie incident and Ferguson’s reaction to it – each has attracted more than twice as many comments as the actual match review. SkySports went further, leading with four pieces on the controversy to date.

Meanwhile, many other outlets – ESPN, the Guardian, BBC included –  feature at least two articles dedicated to the affair, often simply commentary on the FA’s inaction. Cheap copy – after all, who really wants to see Williams banned? It’s what stands for a mainstream media article these days, diverting attention from far more important issues, in football and the wider world.

That is to say nothing of the legion of wannabe experts for whom Sir Alex has brought an opportunity at their fifteen minutes this Christmas – a river of anger, hate and and retweets only an army of ABUs can deliver.

Flash forward to Wednesday; another day, another game and whatever some supporters may claim, Ferguson can’t buy games. But the legendary manager is always able to buy himself time. As for the critics? Ferguson can take the slings and arrows. To keep the team out of the dramedy is result enough.

The irony is that our nation’s media, and the fans that read, revels in a swathe of “Fergie’s lost the plot!” headlines. Few can deny themselves the pleasure of composing yet another list of supposedly outrageous actions by United players, simply because the opportunity is present. “In your face, Sir!” comes the cry.

Yet, as opposition supporters indulge in a game of hate the real winner, as always, is Ferguson. Those who have cried the loudest since Saturday provide the most compelling evidence that Ferguson still owns the plot. And unlike the Scot’s method of dealing with media at his weekly press conferences, this time fans can make jokes without that feeling of embarrassment.

Ferguson’s media theatre won’t make United defend better, but it is nonetheless impressive. Press drowning self-righteousness; ABUs going wild; Piers Morgan outraged.

But of course the only plot that really matters has United four points clear on Christmas Day. Despite the hysteria, life for United’s supporters is good. Roll on Wednesday and Newcastle United at Old Trafford.

Striking comforts in a burden shared

November 11, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 11 comments

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.

Frustrated Fergie challenges Reds on van Persie’s special day

November 4, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 18 comments

Comfortable, then, was victory for Manchester United over Arsenal on Saturday afternoon, stretching a record against the London opponents to eight wins in the past 10 fixtures. Yet, the 2-1 scoreline at Old Trafford barely tells the full picture of United’s total dominance against an Arsenal so tepid that it is tempting to wonder whether Arsène Wenger still holds the tools to build a championship winning team. The only disappointment on a day that saw Manchester City and Chelsea drop points: United’s failure to demonstrate superiority on the scoreboard.

Indeed, such is Sir Alex Ferguson’s quest for goals this term that United’s open attacking style has heaped the pressure on the Reds’ rearguard – evidenced in just three clean sheets all season.

Still, with Ferguson insistent that United will “never again” lose the Premier League title on goal difference, the manager’s barely disguised irritation at considerable profligacy in front of goal was evident. United’s 13 attempts at goal should have brought far more than Robin van Persie’s smartly taken opener and Patrice Evra’s close range header. The irony in van Persie’s excellent right-footed third minute finish came in the wastefulness that followed.

Yet, Ferguson’s disappointment moved beyond the superficial, to the underlying cause of failure to capitalise on United’s domination – a casual approach that bordered on the complacent despite technical and tactical superiority.

“There was a lack of urgency in our game throughout – we were far too casual, ” admitted Ferguson.

“It was an unusual Manchester United – Arsenal game. There were a lot of bookings but it never really got anywhere near the Manchester United/Arsenal games of the past. I was just really disappointed in our ability to hammer home the advantage.”

Such was the paucity of intensity during the second period that United came far too close to dropping points at Old Trafford for the second time this season. Santi Carzorla’s outstanding injury-time goal brought Arsenal but a late consolation, yet only after Wayne Rooney shanked a second half penalty wide and van Persie missed a sitter just after the hour.

Rooney’s miss, incidentally, his seventh in 20 Premier League penalty attempts over the past decade, and United’s fourth in six this season.

“It looked as if it was going to be self destruction,” said Ferguson in the aftermath. “It only takes a second to lose a goal.”

“They had some possession without really threatening us, but thank god we got the second one because the fact they scored right on full-time it would have been an embarrassment. The chances we missed – well, we should have put the game to bed a long, long time ago.”

There were some positives though, not least United’s control of a match in which Arsenal never looked capable of mounting a challenge. Indeed, Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick bossed midfield while rarely rising above the mundane, while Rooney and van Persie continued to look threatening despite throwing away chances.  Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans were never in anything but total command at the back, without claiming the clean sheet the pair’s performance deserved.

It was van Persie’s day though, highlighted by an inevitable goal and accompanying low-key celebration. Hands reached skywards in apology, van Persie’s reaction was far more respectful of the travelling fans than the 3,000 were of their former hero.

“It was good for Robin to get the goal and he took it very well,” added Sir Alex.

“I thought he was fantastic today – his movement and his penetration were brilliant. He did the right thing [not celebrating]. He had eight great years at Arsenal and he respects that and I thought the Arsenal fans were fine too.”

That is, of course, a generous interpretation of visiting supporters’ repertoire of songs that compared van Persie to a “Dutch Jimmy Savile”, accused the striker of rape and repeatedly labelled the 29-year-old a “c*nt”. Such is the way of modern fandom; a performance that mocks years of north London outrage over abuse Wenger suffered at Old Trafford.

Still, the last laugh is with the Dutchman who was conveniently reminded just why he chose to force a move away from the Emirates this summer. Arsenal’s now seven-year-long search for a trophy will, on this evidence, not be concluded with the Premier League title next May.

United’s squad has its limitations, but Ferguson’s decision to invest so heavily in the – formerly – injury-prone Dutchman is already paying handsome reward.

“In the end it was quite a game, I think we played well,” added van Persie, who has 10 goals in all competitions this season.

“We were a bit sloppy with chances and should have scored two or three more. But in the end we are happy with three points because that is all that matters. It was the first time I have ever played against my former club. It was a special day but in the end it is about the game, which won so I am pleased with that.”

In that Ferguson will be happy too – the three points taking United top of the Premier League for the first time this season. It is November rather than May, but there is a sense of momentum building even if the Reds’ performances have plenty of headroom for improvement.

Ferguson was displeased at the late Arsenal goal, but seemingly more so at United’s placid comfort in a match that should have proffered a thumping victory.

“We should have scored five, six, even more,” added the 70-year-old. “I spoke to the players at the start of the season about the importance of goal difference. We lost the league last season on goal difference and I don’t want it to happen again. We had an opportunity to add to the goal tally today.”

But those are first-place problems compared to Arsenal’s, with Wenger’s side no closer to bringing an end to an extended barren run than at any point over the past seven years. Unrest at the club’s AGM last week, is spilling over into the stands – “we want our Arsenal back,” sangd the visitors at one stage.

It was a brief respite from van Persie’s abuse; anger that would have been so much more vitriolic had the Dutchman and his colleagues notched up the thumping win United’s performance largely deserved.

van Persie ‘on the way’ to United super-stardom

October 4, 2012 Tags: , Opinion 14 comments

“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.

On his way to super-stardom? van Persie may already be there.

Three into two for Kagawa, RvP and Roo

August 27, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 64 comments

There is more than one way to win a football match, it is often said, although at Manchester United leading from an attacking front has so often been the club’s purpose. Not always in recent times though, with manager Sir Alex Ferguson turning to more pragmatic ideals when, on occasion, faced with more limited resources at his disposal.

Yet, whether from a quixotic viewpoint or otherwise, Ferguson can have few reasons to retrench into a defensive mindset this season, with United blessed by the most dangerous attacking line-up since the Reds won the European Cup in 2008.

Two games into the new campaign and Ferguson’s summer decision to revamp his attacking resources has already impacted on United’s forward play, even if his side’s performances have been a little underwhelming to date. There is surely far more to come from an attacking eight that promises creativity, goals and more than a little thrill.

Indeed, new signings Shinji Kagawa and Robin van Persie have each impressed. While Kagawa has offered fluid movement and subtle creativity, van Persie’s promise of goals came to fruition in spectacular fashion against Fulham at Old Trafford on Saturday.

Each may positively affect the title race this season as Ferguson seeks to wrestle silverware and domestic supremacy away from Manchester City. Closer to home van Persie, and Kagawa even more so, will affect Wayne Rooney’s role and place in United’s side this season.

Ferguson’s team is taking time to knit – not least because defensive injuries have disrupted both the Scot’s back-four and midfield. But the most interesting area of change has been in attack, where Ferguson has rotated his resources and implemented a new tactical system. Indeed, while fans – and probably even the manager – figure out the best attacking combinations in a more fluid 4-2-3-1 this season, it seems unlikely that Ferguson will ever fit all his attacking resources into the same side so plentiful have they become.

United’s two games in the campaign to date are the case in point, with only Kagawa – of Ferguson’s attacking octet – starting both games. van Persie began his time with United on the bench, as did Ashley Young, while Ferguson dropped Nani from the Reds squad altogether for Saturday’s victory over Fulham after a hugely disappointing performance on the opening weekend. It remains to be seen whether the Portuguese remains at the club beyond Friday’s transfer deadline.

Rooney has started one, and failed to finish the other, while Antonio Valencia has switched between defence and attack. Danny Welbeck was picked to start against Everton, but came off the bench in the other, while Javier Hernández and Dimitar Berbatov are yet to appear in the first team.

Constant amid the flux has been the Japanese, whose ability to float between the lines has been the highlight of two contradictory team performances to date. Deployed in the space between midfield and attack, Kagawa could yet become the pivot around whom Ferguson builds a title-challenging side. And if that is so, then it is Rooney who may find his place in the Reds’ attack under threat.

Already there are signs of a blossoming relationship between Kagawa and van Persie, with the former providing the link between central midfield and an attacking triumvirate, whomever Ferguson selects to fill the roles.

“I was pleased with both of them,” beamed Sir Alex after United beat Fulham 3-2 at Old Trafford on Saturday.

“It’s early doors and they’ll have a better understanding as time goes on. It’s normal for us to play one up front with one in behind, whether it’s Wayne who plays in that role or Danny Welbeck. Ashley Young can play there too, Ryan Giggs can… we’ve got options that way.”

It was Rooney who so often dropped deep behind Welbeck last season, with many supporters presuming van Persie would slot into the young Englishman’s place this season. Instead, the former Evertonian is now under the greater pressure, with Kagawa influential between the lines in defeat to Everton, and then scoring against the Cottagers at Old Trafford.

Kagawa’s team-mates appreciate the selflessness of the 23-year-old Japanese internationals play too. It points towards a more flexible attacking unit than the 4-5-1/4-4-2 that United’s manager deployed in defeat last season.

“I love playing with him – one and two touch, high-energy football. We’re on the same wavelength,” effused midfielder Tom Cleverley of Kagawa’s rapid influence.

“He’s brilliant. He has settled in really well. He links defence with attack. He gets on the half-turn and creates chances. I can’t speak highly enough of him.”

Cleverley has taken a deeper role this season than performed for Great Britain at the Olympics this summer, or indeed in England’s victory over Italy earlier this month. But it is a challenge that could yet offer Kagawa the platform upon which the Japanese playmaker’s skills will truly flourish.

Whether an ageing Paul Scholes, perennially inconsistent Anderson or ill Darren Fletcher can give enough support is moot. More likely, United will again rely on Michael Carrick’s experience once Ferguson has enough central defenders at his disposal to move the Geordie forward.

But it is the attacking third on which the manager’s focus has locked this summer after City claimed the Premier League title on goal difference last summer. Only silverware will decide whether the manager’s decision not to strengthen in central midfield is a strategic error, or an inspired gamble.

“We have been low on goals from midfield in recent seasons,” Ferguson wrote in his programme notes this weekend.

“There was a time when Bryan Robson would give you a dozen through the centre of the park and Paul Scholes in his heyday was good for 10 or so but lately we haven’t seen that kind of tally. I believe that Kagawa will put that right, which should ensure that we don’t lose any more titles on goal difference.

“He is very much an attacking player, nominally from midfield but perfectly capable of taking a front role. One thing for sure is that he will add a scoring dimension if he plays central midfield, as he showed last season for Borussia Dortmund.”

Yet, Kagawa’s best work is done in and around the ‘D’, with the former Dortmund star unlikely to drop deeper unless further injuries strike. Sunday’s trip to Southampton is likely to pair van Persie and Kagawa together again, with any two from four deployed in wide areas.

The trip south is also the first of between six and eight matches Rooney will miss for the Reds while he recovers from a deep gash to the right thigh that required surgery under general anaesthetic in Manchester on Saturday night.

Then again, given the form of Ferguson’s new acquisitions, the £27 million Englishman may no longer be guaranteed a start for United when he recovers from the surgeon’s knife.