Robin van Persie put in yet another goalless appearance at the weekend during the club’s narrow home win over Reading, meaning that the once prolific marksmen has now just hit the back of the net once in his last nine appearances – is it simply a storm in a tea cup or part of an otherwise larger problem?
While he may not have been quite as prolific as he was last season with Arsenal, by any estimation, van Persie has gone a long way to helping United to being in such a commanding position down the home straight, with the Premier League title seemingly in the bag. The 15-point gap that they currently hold over rivals Manchester City, and the psychological baggage that was clearly present during their weekend defeat away at Everton, was helped by their consistent early season form during which van Persie was a pivotal part with his form in front of goal.
The 29-year-old has 19 goals in 29 games in the league so far this term and 23 across 33 games in all competitions, not to mention eight domestic assists. As transitions go, considering the lack of full pre-season preparation he had while training on his own at Arsenal in an attempt to force through a move, the way he hit the ground running was nothing short of miraculous. The object of his £24m purchase was to give Sir Alex Ferguson more firepower to try and out-gun City and in that respect, the move has been a complete and total success that’s fully fulfilled the brief.
Nevertheless, his two disappointing showings against Real Madrid during their Champions League knockout exit couldn’t have come at a worse time for the side, in dire need of the ruthless talisman that they had leading the line earlier on in the campaign. In the first leg at the Santiago Bernabeu, one chance in particular, when played through one-on-one behind the back four, looked like a rare moment of invention during what was an otherwise cagey affair, but the Dutchman scuffed his effort past Diego Lopez only to see it hastily cleared off the line by the returning Xabi Alonso.
In the return leg at Old Trafford, with United once again proving difficult to break down, good service was in short supply and he cut an isolated figure up top, practically anonymous at times, but the air shot he had in the box in the second half, with the game more stretched, could have turned the tie back in their favour. Both misses, while their exit rests more on the laughable Nani red card than anything else, definitely proved pivotal in the final result. They were the sort of chances you would have wagered your mortgage on him scoring earlier on in the season.
The lack of a full pre-season appears to finally be catching up with van Persie, and he looks in dire need of a rest, clearly fatigued at having been involved in every one of the club’s 29 league fixtures so far this term, more than any other United player. However, with just one league assist against Norwich to show from his last six appearances, the case for him to be downgraded somewhat with the title in the bag looks a strong one. Europe may be gone but the club still have the sizeable FA Cup to challenge for, with a replay against a tired Chelsea side to look forward to and a fit and fresh van Persie could be enough to see them over the line in that tie.
After making 38 league appearances last year for the Gunners for the first time in his career, having averaged just 15.1 league starts in the 10 seasons preceding that (for both Feyenoord and Arsenal), he looks well on course to close again this season, the rigours of a full season look to be taking their toll on him still; he simply isn’t used to this much injury-free football.
He endured a similar slump for Arsenal last campaign, scoring just one goal in seven games between March 21 and April 21 which came in the form of a penalty in a 3-0 win over bottom-of-the-table Wolves. During that run, Arsene Wenger’s side won only three of the six games between March and April in which van Persie’s scoring touch evaded him, losing against both QPR and Wigan. Of course, in a far superior United squad, the onus on him to provide the majority of the goals is not as large, especially as they cruise to yet another league title with all of their main rivals imploding long before, but these barren runs are worthy drawing attention to.
As crises go, this isn’t the most shocking one and over the course of a long campaign during which he has been a key part of Ferguson’s plans, players will naturally peak and trough in terms of their form. Blips such as this are understandable, but as the Real Madrid games testify to, it’s when they directly effect the team’s chance of silverware that it becomes a larger problem.
In future, to ensure that he is ready to lead the side to silverware at this important stage of the season, he needs to be managed better and rested more when the occasion calls for it, because when he’s fully fit and on form, he’s quite rightly one of the most feared strikers in Europe, but the frustrating sense that he could do more than essentially win the league title for the club, which is no small thing in itself, continues to nag away.