It’s always a hard thing to make sense of: how a team can be better without one their best players. But the clue is in the word itself.
Teams are not just the sum of their individuals talents; the collective has the potential to be both much greater, and much worse, than this. And unfortunately for Manchester United, they find themselves a lot closer to the latter.
Teamwork aside, the idea that Man United could be better without Van Persie in their side would have been ludicrous this time last year. Then it seemed the striker could not help but score. He was being widely credited as the main factor in United winning their 20th Premier League title, and Arsene Wenger similarly castigated for gifting a rival with such riches.
But a year is a long time in football. And this last year will have felt a lot longer at Manchester United than elsewhere.
Man United are not the same team as they were last season. Well, in truth, they actually are much the same team, but a different man is picking them. The club that won the title by 11 points last year now find themselves 15 points off the lead with seven games left to play. Whatever happens between now and the end of the season, United are guaranteed to finish with their lowest ever points tally in the Premier League era.
The main problem for the team is one of balance. For the first half of the season, Man United’s sole focus of attack was down the channels. Moyes deployed traditional wingers and encouraged the full-backs to overlap.
Their play was predictable, but more importantly it was ineffective. The United strikers’ chances of goalscoring were mainly restricted to converting crosses, and they spent most of their time either with their arms aloft or fouling the opposition out of frustration.
Since signing Juan Mata, Moyes has experimented with playing three No. 10’s with similarly sterile results. Man United’s play now appeared to have the opposite problem of being too narrow. Rooney, Januzaj and Mata all looked to operate in the same space. They all wanted to be the one to thread balls through. But no one was making the runs to necessitate such passing.
The Man United of 2014 have been a team of square pegs. David Moyes’ attempts to fit Van Persie, Rooney and Mata into one team have so far been met with failure. But then there is nothing surprising about this. The only surprising thing is how long Moyes has persisted with a combination that is so clearly not working.
Mata was the first big buy of the Moyes rebuilding project. Well, actually, he was the second. Fellaini was the first big buy of the Moyes rebuilding project. But the problem with the Fellaini purchase was that it didn’t do a lot of rebuilding. United needed a central midfielder and Fellaini was available. It was a purchase made in desperation, not an insight into the shape of things to come for Man United.
The Mata transfer felt more like that. Here was a player who could be an integral part of the United team for years to come. The problem was, Man United already had an integral part who played in the same position.
Given the flirtations with Chelsea in the summer and the fact that Rooney was entering the last 18 months of his contract, many speculated that Mata’s arrival would see Rooney depart in the summer. Van Persie was United’s best striker, Mata the new No. 10, there no longer appeared to be any room for Wayne Rooney.
As it transpired, Manchester United offered Rooney a contract worth £85million to play for them until he’s 34. Unsurprisingly, the Englishman accepted.
When you’ve spent so much money on two players as United have, you have to see them as being part of your first-team. Anything else is madness. However, given that the team has yet to perform with any combination of Rooney, Mata and Van Persie, the long-term future of the club would appear to be one without the Dutchman.
This may be an uncomfortable conclusion, but it’s the only logical one given the decisions that have already been made. While Moyes will likely have deduced as much already, dropping Robin Van Persie may not have felt like an option that was available to the manager due to how disastrous his short tenure in charge has been thus far.
In this way, the news of the Dutchman’s month-long injury feels like a blessing in disguise for the Scot. David Moyes can now restore balance to the team without having to worry about the backlash if it doesn’t immediately work.
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