The Busby Babe continues with the nineteenth installment of our 2012-13 Manchester United player reviews. Next up is striker Robin van Persie.
I'm going to be dividing each of the player reviews into three categories: 'what was expected' will be a brief and general explanation of what the expectations were for the player prior to the season's start, 'what we got' will typically be the section with the most depth as this will be the heart of the review, and 'what's next?' will be an examination of the player's future at United.
What was expected
Despite having been linked with van Persie for much of last summer, it was a bit of a surprise when Sir Alex Ferguson suddenly left United's summer tour in order to close a deal for the striker in August. The club already had the likes of Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernadez (Chicharito), and Dimitar Berbatov in their strike force while summer signing Shinji Kagawa would also be competing for a spot in behind the lead striker. Rooney had preferred playing 'in the hole' the past few seasons, but with the signing of Borussia Dortmund's former No.10 (not to mention Rooney's own waning influence in that role), the thought was that the Englishman might push higher into the No.9 role -- a role that he excelled at in the 2009-10 season. With the signing of van Persie, though, a world-class No.9 and the best player in the Premier League since the beginning of the 2011 calendar year, it was uncertain how Ferguson would utilize Rooney and the tremendous array of attacking talent at his disposal. Could he satisfy the needs of all of these players?
One thing seemed certain, though -- the signing of van Persie was a statement of intent after losing the title to Manchester City last season in the most soul-crushing fashion possible. 'RvP', arguably the best No.9 in world football not named Lionel Messi, was going to be the lead striker and there were questions on how the remaining strike force would accommodate him. Because of United's attacking depth, the realistic expectation was that the Dutchman wouldn't be quite as prolific as he was with Arsenal in the previous campaign, however, the clear hope was that his sheer quality would ensure that United wouldn't lose the title on goal differential again to their 'noisy neighbours'*.
* Realistically, no manager should consider goal differential too much into their season's plans because the chances of it actually becoming a factor in regards to a side's final standing is relatively remote. RvP wasn't signed to beat City in goal differential, the world-class striker was brought in to make sure goal differential would never again decide the title.
What we got
What we got was arguably the greatest season by a United player since when Cristiano Ronaldo won the Ballon d'Or in 2008. What we got was akin to the impact that the legendary Eric Cantona had in his first season at the Theatre of Dreams. What we got was Robin van Persie blowing the door wide open and United essentially winning the title by February.
* GS: games started (substituted appearances),G = goals scored, A = assists, Min/G = minutes per goal, SH/gm = shot attempts per game, SOT % = shots on target %, Avg P = average passes per game, Pass % = passing accuracy percentage, FT % = final third passing accuracy percentage, KP = chances created per game, C = successful crosses per game, C% = successful crossing rate,TB = successful through balls per game, DRB = successful dribbles per game, FW = fouls won per game
Van Persie was a relatively late signing in the summer, however, it didn't take long for him to make an impact. In his first start in a United shirt, and in front of the Old Trafford faithful, it only took him minutes to score a wonderfully taken goal against Fulham from a Patrice Evra cross. And in the following weekend at Southampton, the Dutchman was the hat-trick hero while scoring two of those goals late in the match -- including this incredible winner deep into stoppage-time:
via Beautifully Red
As Autumn continued, van Persie couldn't stop scoring and this included 'big games' such as at Liverpool, at Chelsea, and against his old club and former title-contending rival Arsenal. After his non-stop goals in early November, former United captain Gary Neville had this to say about the new talisman in a column for the Daily Mail:
"He has taken two big games [Chelsea and Arsenal] by the scruff of the neck. If he does the same in the Manchester derby in a month's time, every United fan will know they have a special player on their hands... There is something about Manchester United, along with Barcelona and Real Madrid; if you do special things with those clubs, then it elevates you to a whole new level. If Van Persie can continue like this, he has not left it too late to attain that legendary status."
- Neville on van Perise
Well, 'in a month's time', van Persie won the Manchester derby at the death with this dramatic winner:
via Beautifully Red
Quite obviously, it's been a dream season for van Persie in his first title-winning season, but it's not without one major blemish: his lack of goals during a key stretch of matches from late-January until late-March, particularly in knock-out ties against Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League and versus Chelsea in the FA Cup. While the Dutchman was nearly faultless in the Premier League this past season, some of the chances that he failed to convert against Madrid and Chelsea were detrimental in United's pursuit of the treble. Perhaps that's harsh, but perhaps it's reality. Either way, it certainly doesn't take away from the fact that 'RvP' was sensational this season and arguably the spark that won back the title in Ferguson's last season at Old Trafford. Van Persie being the catalyst in the legendary manager fending off his last domestic challenge is perhaps the appropriate bookend to the way King Eric helped start Fergie's reign in England.
Van Persie, at this moment in time, appears to be at the peak of his powers as a complete No.9. He's had continual injury issues in the past and there was criticism of him in his mid 20s that he hadn't fulfilled his potential. Now, though, he's genuinely one of the best footballers in the world and he hasn't missed a single league game in over two seasons. And one could argue that he has no weaknesses: he's good with both feet, his ability in the air has massively improved in recent seasons, his movement is brilliant (he can work the channels, drop deep, or move wide in order to whip in dangerous crosses), he creates plenty of chances for his fellow attackers, he's dangerous on set-pieces (both on free-kicks and in taking corners), he can hold the ball up as a lone striker, and he scores a plethora of goals. His technique, too, is brilliant as evident by his goal of the season in the title-clincher versus Aston Villa:
via Beautifully Red
Van Persie turns 30-years-old in August so it's impossible to know how much longer he'll continue being a world-class player. There have been whispers as of late that United are interested in the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Edinson Cavani, however, logic would tell us that players of their ilk aren't coming to Old Trafford in the next few seasons and that 'RvP' will be the focal point of United's attack (unless Ronaldo returns home -- and if that happens, good luck England and Europe because you'd be f***** in trying to deal with both players).