What's wrong with Robin van Persie?

Richard Heathcote

The Dutch striker has, for much of the season, cut a frustrated and isolated figure up front, while rumours of his unhappiness and imminent departure have blossomed. Here are some of the possible reasons why ...

It's not the sort of thing Opta are really interested in, but it would be fascinating to find out what percentage of the time spent talking about football is devoted to unpicking the body language of players. An guess suggests that it's an awful lot, and lately for United fans, it's been the shape and speakings of Robin van Persie's body that have been causing vexation.

The Dutchman certainly hasn't looked as happy a figure this season as last. Nobody has, obviously, but where some footballers respond to setbacks by running twice as fast, and some by shouting twice as loud, others start to look withdrawn and uninterested. At the weekend against West Brom, as United turned in the kind of competent and assured performance that has been missing for most of the season, the Dutchman moped around up front, could have been sent off, and was eventually hooked by David Moyes for his own good. (He also put in a lovely cross for the first goal.) Join TBB, as we look at the possible reasons for his miserable and querulous aspect.

The little kid is having a strop

You know what kids are like. Give them what they want and they're all "yay, Daddy, you're the best"; take it away after a year and give them an inferior knock-off and they're all "boo, Daddy, I hate you, I miss my old Daddy, he was better than you". That's what she told the court, anyway, and of course they believed her side of the story ...

... er, sorry. Anyway, the point. What Van Persie meant when he said that he'd listened to the child inside was, presumably, that his move to United wasn't just motivated by the sudden realisation that trophies were more likely up there. It was also motivated by the thought that playing for United would be fun. Would be brilliant. Would be [insert word that kids actually use here God when did I get so old].

And he was right! He scored loads of goals, some fantastic; he won the league, finally; he was the apple of his genius manager's eye and the darling of the crowd and everybody loved him apart from Arsenal fans. All good. And now? Not so good. And you know what kids are like.

Or, come to think of it, the adult might be having one

Apart from the obvious stuff — the opinionated internal child, the increased likelihood of winning something, the doubtless handsome recompense, the chance to play alongside Rafael — the opportunity to work for and/or with Alex Ferguson was cited as a major factor. His retirement, reportedly, came as a shock to Van Persie, which certainly suggests that he was expecting at least another full season.

Van Persie is, after all, in a slightly different position to most other recent signings. Phil Jones, David de Gea, Shinji Kagawa, Wilfried Zaha; all will have known that their ages as compared to Alex Ferguson's meant that if they played well and established themselves at United, they'd likely see him off. For Van Persie, though, it would not have been unreasonable to suppose that he might get Ferguson for three years, which would take him to age 32, about the time that a striker can expect to find his career winding down.

A swansong overseen by Alex Ferguson is one thing; a swansong without him, in the distinct absence of him, quite another. And while footballers are of course supposed to know that it's that kind of business, get their heads down, work for the club whatever the circumstances, and so on and so forth, it would be a very special and peculiar (or, alternatively, dense and unthinking) player indeed who could let such a fundamental change in his environment and his expectations pass with simply a shrug.

Or Moyes might have broken him

"Speculation emanating from Holland" was how one national newspaper put it, rather wonderfully, as though the rumours about the Dutchman's unhappiness with David Moyes's super-intense training methods were in a noxious, gaseous form, and might overwhelm northern Europe. These emanations were reinforced by noted Twitter personality and maverick coach Raymond Verheijen, who called Moyes "prehistoric" and a "dinosaur", and who is not currently in the employ of any professional football club.

Van Persie denied it, of course — "I'm happy with the style of Moyes. He does his own training sessions; he's close with the players and prepares us with his staff very well for the next opponent. That keeps us in shape." — but then he would, wouldn't he? Anyway, it emerged in January that however Moyes was managing Van Persie at the beginning of the season, by the winter he was permitting the Dutchman the final say on whether he was able to perform. Which is either a sensible method of handling a difficult and peculiar situation, or an embarrassing abrogation of responsibility by a coach miles out of his depth, depending on you feel about the manager.

Or he might just be broken

For all that Van Persie is notoriously injury-prone, his last season at Arsenal and his first at United were almost entirely uninterrupted. What injuries there were, were minor, and more importantly his recovery and return from those injuries didn't stretch out from days to weeks to months in the manner of the perennially crocked.

This season, perhaps predictably, the niggles are back and are niggling away like they do, and like they always have done. In a sense, it doesn't matter if that's the fault of the manager and his training regime or just a reassertion of the natural way of things. It would again be an unusual footballer who could take in stride the sudden cessation of the fitness that underpinned his two most significant professional seasons.

Or Moyes might not have broken him but Van Persie might just think he's rubbish

This is a possibility. Some people do, after all. And if he's telling other players to play in Van Persie's spaces, well ...

Or Van Persie might just be a bit of a mardy pillock

This is also a possibility. Some people are, after all. Other players are playing in your spaces, indeed!

Or Van Persie might care so deeply about the fortunes of Manchester United that he cannot help but express his frustration with a patchy and inadequate season through the medium of slumped shoulders

Well, possibly.

Or some combination of the above, or something else entirely. This is the point about body language: it is exceptionally easy to tell when a footballer is not on their game. Their runs aren't quite as sparky, they flap their arms around and shout more than usual, their posture droops, their skills depreciate, they diminish as a player. But it is incredibly difficult as an outsider to move beyond that, and accurately divine the reasons.

A player upset at the crumbling of his childhood dreams looks much the same, from the outside, as one playing through injury, or one worrying that next Sunday's tabloids are going to be splashing his face alongside pictures of a woman who is neither overly clothed nor overly his wife. One can only imagine how many "Undermotivated Mesut Ozil looks like he doesn't give a toss" pieces were abandoned or hastily rewritten last night, when it turned out that he'd been substituted not for looking a bit sad but for having a seriously-damaged hamstring.

(Some were just published anyway, of course.)

At best it's informed guesswork; at worst, it's the simple projection of personal prejudice and opinion. It might not be that Van Persie hates Moyes; it might just be that you do. Barring some explosive interview, some careless leak, some on-field bust-up — barring something more concrete than "emanations" — we're all just making this stuff up. Moyes may not know. His teammates may not know. Even Van Persie himself may not know; motivation is a slippery, tricksy thing that can be lost in an unnoticed moment. And if they don't, what chance do we have?

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