An intriguing sub-plot to Robin van Persie’s surprising move to Manchester United from Arsenal this summer is the potential impact that it could have on the positional future of last season’s top goalscorer at the club, Wayne Rooney – is his time as a striker coming to an end at Old Trafford, in the short-term at least?
Last term, Rooney was widely criticised for the nature of his overall performances, even if he managed to bag 27 goals in the Premier League, second only to the Dutchman on 30. It’s a theory that certainly carries some weight and Rooney appears to have forsaken a measure of his unpredictable, creative nature in favour of a more ruthless cutting edge in front of goal, which is no bad thing in itself, he’s just evolved as a player into a slightly different beast to the one we’ve become accustomed to seeing.
The trouble is now, though, having forked out £24m on a 29 year-old striker with a rotten record of injuries in the past is that Van Persie is likely to be given the mantle of leading the line, but whether that means in place of Rooney or beside him remains to be seen. The inevitable comparisons to the club’s treble-winning strike-force of 1999 – Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – have been made by plenty of people, even Ferguson himself, but will Van Persie’s arrival change the shape of the side?
Ferguson said after the former Arsenal man signed: “In 1999 I had Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the four best strikers in Europe. We are going towards that now. They (Rooney and Van Persie) are two fantastic players and it will be great to have both of them. It gives us more strength and more combinations up front. It is a fantastic collection of players and hopefully I pick the right combinations. It is great to have a player of Robin van Persie’s qualities to come into the squad. I am very pleased.”
When he talks about ‘combinations’, that intimates a partnership between Rooney and Van Persie which would effectively mean a 4-4-2 system or something very similar to it, which will only put even more strain on an increasingly weak and fragile centre-midfield area which has been overrun repeatedly in the past year by more energetic and combative opponents.
There’s also the fact that because the move came relatively out of the blue, with Ferguson admitting that he hadn’t planned for such a deal until the Dutch international stated he wasn’t going to sign another contract at the Emirates, is would they even have bought Shinji Kagawa this summer otherwise had they known?
The Japanese creative midfielder is capable of playing out wide on the wing but arrived from Borussia Dortmund for an absolute bargain £12m fee with the idea of playing in the hole behind the striker, with Rooney likely to be that man. Would you really play Kagawa in a two-man central midfield?
Probably not is the answer to that one, which leaves them then with four wingers into two spaces and while that’s some admirable strength in depth from the club’s and fan’s perspective, you suspect that keeping Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia, Nani and Kagawa all happy and with enough playing time will be a difficult task, which partly explains the speculation linking the Portuguese wide-man with an exit this summer, even if that would be an ill-advised move considering the sheer weight of his end product in terms of goals and assists.
There’s also the consideration that Rooney could be pushed out wide onto the left, a role he often occupied in Europe to great effect with Cristiano Ronaldo taking the lone central role a few years back. Van Persie has often played out wide for Holland in the past, but the physical demands of the Premier League and international football are two different kettles of fish entirely and Rooney’s energy and versatile nature make him more of an ideal candidate for the switch.
It’s certainly a bold move recruiting Van Persie and Ferguson appears to have allowed himself this one indulgence as he seeks to overhaul Manchester City this season, who also possess a frightening forward line in terms of both depth and quality.
United failed to score in just three separate games last season, less than City with five and they scored an impressive 89 goals, only marginally less than City’s 93, so recruiting a goalscorer, on the face of it at least, would not appear to be a pressing concern. However, Ferguson has clearly decided to try and fight fire with fire and this may allow Rooney to return to a deeper role than he’s played in previous seasons gone by and return to his creative best.
Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez are exceptionally strong third and fourth-choice strikers to have in your squad and they both bring different skills to the table, but the temptation with playing Rooney and Van Persie up front together has to be tempered with the sneaking suspicion that they may be a bit too similar to hit it off right away.
Of course, Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez are broadly similar players and they have a fabulous partnership together, so good players can often co-exist alongside one another in the same side as long as the support structure behind them is right. It is an interesting concept to see if Rooney will be pushed back, perhaps not as far as he was at times last season, but deeper than we have become accustomed to seeing him of late.
Shifting a man who has scored 64 league goals in his last three seasons and 85 across all competitions is an extremely risky strategy, but the rewards if it does come off are huge and it may just be a gamble worth taking that has the potential to benefit both players in the long-term and help the club impose themselves more on the top table of European competition this term.
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