Over the last few days, British tabloids have been flooded with reports that star striker Robin van Persie could be ousted from Manchester United at the end of the season – some even speculating a return to former club Arsenal, whom the Dutchman left on rather frosty terms for the Premier League champions in summer 2012. The latest instalments from the press claim the 30 year-old has an exit clause in his contract if United finish outside of the top four.
On the face of it, it seems absurd – the Netherlands forward has only been at Old Trafford for 18 months and in that time affirmed himself as one of the first team’s most influential players. He’s racked up a lethal return of 44 goals in 68 Red Devils appearances, and last term recorded a 26-goal haul to fire United to their 13th Premiership title.
Furthermore, of all the Carrington club’s failings this season, Van Persie’s strike-rate has not been one of them. Despite the torrid inaugural campaign David Moyes has endured in Manchester, the Dutchman is one of a few players that hasn’t decisively let him down, claiming 14 goals in 20 appearances, including eleven in the Premier League.
But rumours of a potential departure first circulated at the turn of 2014, and evidence to support that theory has been mounting ever since. First came the £37million arrival of Juan Mata, and the inevitable question of how to fit the Spaniard, the Dutchman and Wayne Rooney into the same starting line-up.
Then, and perhaps most tellingly, Van Persie was excluded from the club’s shortlist of replacements for Nemanja Vidic as skipper next season, despite wearing the armband for a number of seasons at Arsenal and regularly for the Netherlands national team.
The list is just a formality; after his £300k per-week contract, I’d be willing to place my mortgage on Wazza Roo getting the nod. But 22 year-old Phil Jones, a player yet to make a centenary of Premier League appearances, was included whilst an international captain was not – that’s an incredibly bold statement, especially considering the list was publicised on Manchester United’s official website.
Somewhere in between, Louis Van Gaal and Ronald De Boer have both claimed that Van Persie has grown disillusioned with his surroundings at Old Trafford, apparently due to the rather unattractive brand of football the Red Devils have adopted under David Moyes.
Scratch a little deeper and you can begin to understand it from United’s point of view. No one can doubt Van Persie is still one of the best finishers in world football, all the more so for proving it in the Premier League.
But the striker is now 30 years of age – a concern exacerbated by his hair greying around the edges at a furious rate – and heading towards the twilight of what has been an incredibly injury-stricken career. The fact is that Van Persie has managed just two full campaigns in his entire senior career to date, and the curse of the sidelines will undoubtedly plague him again in his later years – he’s already missed a significant portion of the current season.
And revisiting that tactical conundrum; how can David Moyes fit Van Persie, Rooney and Mata in the same starting line-up? Baring a change in formation that essentially goes against every philosophical tradition at Old Trafford, the answer is that he can’t – at least, not without compromising each individual’s ultimate utility.
United aren’t interested in make-shift starting XIs, they’ve been enduring them for too long as it is, and despite David Moyes insisting otherwise, they aren’t going to let the club’s record signing spend his entire Red Devils career squandering on the wing.
So with Mata arriving a matter (excuse the pun) of weeks ago, and Rooney now anointed via his £300k per-week deal – making him the Premier League’s most lucratively paid player of all time and the direct recipient of 3% of United’s overall revenue – as the poster boy of a new era at Old Trafford, by default and age, Van Persie becomes the Red Devils’ only realistically expendable star.
The only other option is that he’s bumped down the pecking order, but £200k per-week, according to the International Business Times, is a lot to pay a substitute – especially when Javier Hernandez is capable of doing the same job for significantly less – and you can’t imagine the 30 year-old being too happy about that situation either.
From the Dutch international’s perspective also, the summer represents the best time to move on. He joined Manchester United under the presumption that Sir Alex Ferguson’s Red Devils career would likely outlast his, and most importantly that he’d be given the opportunity to make up for lost time in regards to silverware – Van Persie left Arsenal with a solitary FA Cup on his CV, and through the emptiness of his transfer cabinet alone will probably not be represented as he should be in the Premier League’s history books.
Now however, the 30 year-old is working under David Moyes at a club that’s looking to go back to the drawing board. The likelihood is that this process of reinvention at Carrington will result in United being out of the Premier League title race for at least another season.
Resultantly, Van Persie has looked incredibly uncomfortable in recent weeks, particularly following the club’s decision to exclude him from the public shortlist of candidates for the captaincy.
After United’s 2-0 defeat to Olympiakos in the Champions League, the Dutchman complained; “Our fellow players are sometimes occupying the spaces I want to play in. And unfortunately, they’re often playing in my zones. I think that’s a shame.” He also spanked the Red Devils’ best chance of the match over the bar, in uncharacteristic wastefulness.
Against West Bromwich Albion at the weekend too, despite United coming away with a 3-0 win, the former Arsenal striker failed to turn up to the party. His frustrations almost resulted in a red card, after a splatter of ill-disciplined, and in some instances dangerous, fouls.
I’m not suggesting Van Persie has become by any means a worse player in just a handful of matches, but it’s quite clear that either his head, heart or both have been absent in recent weeks.
But perhaps the most deciding factor is that the coming summer window represents an incredibly unique crossroads for the Old Trafford side. Culls will take place – we already know Nemanja Vidic, and most likely Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand too, will be leaving on bosman moves at the end of the season – and new blood is expected to be brought in, with the view to progressively build a United side that can rival the quality of its predecessors.
Many would argue that Van Persie is a world-class striker capable of contributing to that, but at 30 years of age and his current contract set to expire in 2016, it’s unlikely the Oranje international will ever see the Red Devils’ next generation in its most finite form. With that in mind, United may as well begin investing in the future of their strike-force with immediate effect, in addition to the defence and midfield.
Therefore, the looming window seems like an ideal opportunity for both parties to move on – Van Persie to move onto one of the countless European clubs willing to take him where he can continue winning silverware, and the club to move onto rebuilding for the future without footballing and financial obligations to an ageing star.
When Czechoslovakia dissolved into two states in 1993, through a lack of bloodshed, violence or foul taste, it was labelled the Velvet divorce. For similar reasons, I would coin this a velvet departure – both parties benefit, with little need for resentment.