Throughout the remaining four games of Manchester United’s Premier League campaign, David Moyes has an incredibly important question to answer – does star striker Robin Van Persie have a future at Old Trafford?
On the face of it, that may seem like a rather absurd inquiry. The Dutchman is arguably one of the best strikers the Premier League has ever seen, currently sitting at tenth in the competition’s all-time top scorer charts, and of all the intrinsic flaws that have plighted Moyes’ first season at Carrington, Van Persie’s fire-power has not been one of them.
He’s netted 17 times from 25 outings in all competitions, and although eleven from 17 in the Premier League may not be up to the 30 year-old’s standard from the last few campaigns, that’s still the second-most league goals of any United player, and more than Alvaro Negredo, Emmanuel Adebayor and Samuel Eto’o. And lest we forget, the Netherlands international’s 26 goals last term fired Manchester United to their 13th Premier League title. Judging from the current campaign, without those goals, Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement would have ended on a much flatter note.
Upon the record-breaking arrival of Juan Mata in the January window however, David Moyes has inadvertently thrust onto himself a rather puzzling dilemma; without going against essentially every philosophical tradition at Manchester United, how can one fit two world-class strikers and a world-class playmaking No.10 into the same starting line-up?
At first, the United gaffer was prepared to experiment and venture down the tactical path that Jose Mourinho had refused to by fielding the Spaniard out wide. Indeed, as if to take a swipe at the Chelsea gaffer’s condemnation and isolation of his former player, both Moyes and Mata publicly declared with distinct smirks that they saw ‘no problem’ in the 25 year-old featuring on the wing.
But a matter of matches later and they were already eating their words. Perhaps the biggest example of Mata’s flaccid performances as a wide-man came during a 3-0 defeat to Liverpool at Old Trafford. Aimlessly drifting around on the left-hand side, the game passed Mata by. He made the same amount of touches as Patrice Evra, and was rarely allowed to venture into the centre of the pitch – an area that produced the vast majority of his 18 goals in 69 appearances during two full campaigns with Chelsea.
For the Blues, Mata was the lynch-pin, and a very good one at that, yet despite his £37million transfer fee being the largest in United’s history, for the Red Devils, he’s been nothing more than a luxuriously decadent sideshow when fielded on the flanks; impressive in patches, but lacking any efficiency to his overall performances. Why should Moyes have expected anything different? The blueprint for a United wideman has always been centred around explosive pace, natural penetration and endless stamina, yet Mata is amongst the slowest and most athletically limited midfielders I’ve ever seen in the Premier League.
Going forward against Liverpool, Mata’s abject presence was duly noted, yet it was in defense his inefficiencies became most prevalent. Not only did he allow for Patrice Evra to be continually exposed – the left-hand side has been an issue for the Red Devils all season, and resultantly, two of the three penalties United conceded against the Reds came down the left channel – but the Spaniard’s disdain for tracking back or providing deeper passing options left Marouane Fellaini and Michal Carrick virtually under siege in the middle of the park, with no adequate outlet to relieve the relentless pressure from Liverpool’s midfield.
These burdening issues have emerged prior and since the Reds’ romping in Manchester, which begs the question, how can Moyes fit the Red Devils’ three star performers – the only remaining players at Old Trafford who can steak an undisputed claim of belonging to the European elite – into the same starting line-up?
Well, the long and short of it is that he can’t, at least, not without sacrificing each individual’s ultimate utility and seriously endangering the team’s philosophical balance. Indeed, Mata’s plight is a similar conundrum to how to get best use out of United’s forgotten man, Shinji Kagawa, another goal-scoring playmaker.
Likewise, since losing Robin Van Persie to injury against Olympiacos in March, the Red Devils have enjoyed some of their most promising performances of the season, claiming wins against West Ham, Aston Villa and Newcastle from their last five Premier League outings. In that time period, with Mata and Rooney operating as an attacking duo, the Spaniard has found the first four goals of his Carrington career, whilst Wazza Roo has also claimed four strikes in the form of two braces, in turn earning him two Man of the Match awards.
It appears that, whilst Robin Van Persie publicly bemoans his team-mates for clogging up ‘his space’ in the final third, Mata and Rooney, through their shared footballing intellect and similar playmaking styles, are on a healthier, stronger wavelength. Even amid the Red Devils’ weekend defeat to Everton, they kept the ball better than I’ve seen them do all season, finishing the 2-0 contest with 61% possession and a pass success rate of 85%. That would not have been possible with Mata, RVP and Rooney all on the pitch.
If too many cooks spoil the broth, Manchester United’s is in danger becoming a herb-laden residue, lacking any pleasurable flavour or texture through it’s overuse of the spices. The kind of thing you conjure up in a student kitchen trying to replicate a Jamie Oliver recipe without any of the suggested ingredients.
One of the chefs needs to go, and from a business perspective, that can only be Robin Van Persie. Mata has been at Old Trafford just a matter of months, and Wayne Rooney was recently anointed the most lucratively-paid player in Premier League history in order to make him the poster boy of the new Manchester United era.
The Dutchman, on the other hand, has been sidelined through injury for significant portions of the current campaign. Being now 30 years of age and having spent much of his Arsenal career suffering similar, repetitive injury complaints, David Moyes must be wondering how much use he’ll get out of RVP between now and the expiration of his contract in 2016. Likewise, if the Mata and Rooney combination is to be the Scot’s ‘Plan A’ next season, there seems little point in having a (speculatively reported) £250k per-week earner dwindling and declining on the bench, especially when a goal-scoring substitute of the Javier Hernandez variety could perform the same duties for a significantly less offensive salary.
Sir Alex Ferguson was famed for his readiness to deconstruct winning teams and sell his leading stars – even amid their footballing peaks – for the sake of progress. Now, with Van Persie’s hair greying around the edges, his injury problems re-emerging and his mere presence causing further conundrums in a season that has already been plighted by selection headaches for David Moyes, the timing feels right for the current Old Trafford boss to replicate the cut-throat transfer policy of his predecessor.