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Why Manchester United must drop Robin van Persie

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There are some players who are able to help the team even when their own form is lacking. Robin van Persie is not one of them.

Laurence Griffiths

It's probably isn't the strongest way of opening an article, to tell the reader to immediately go and read something else, but here we are. The really rather wonderful Rob Smyth wrote this piece on Robin van Persie for Eurosport last week. Go and read it. TBB will still be here when you get back. Go on ...

There have surely been times in the last year when Robin van Persie has resented the constant focus on Wayne Rooney. Yet he must be glad of it now. The intense scrutiny of Rooney's mixed performances this season has obscured the fact that Van Persie has probably been even worse. And not just this season. For the last 18 months, Van Persie has done little of note for his club.

Good, wasn't it? And whether you agree with his wider points or not, whether you date the decline elsewhere or identify different factors, it's hard to argue that so far this season, the Flying Dutchman has looked thoroughly grounded.

This is a problem. It is a problem not just because a player playing badly is always bad, in both the sense that their individual contribution is lacking but also in the wider sense of team functionality. A football team is eleven individuals combining; if one of those individuals is off their game, then everything around them — every combination they partake in — also suffers.

But that's not the only issue. The other issue is to do with the kind of player Van Persie is and, as a result of that, how he deals with that poor form.

Van Persie is a striker. Van Persie is, or at least was and hopefully will be again, a very good striker. And Van Persie is a very focused striker. That last is a polite way of saying that he doesn't pass the ball very often, and certainly not when there's a shot on. Passing is for those servants whose job it is to give the ball to Van Persie; once he's got it, he's not usually one for giving it back.

Which is fine when the form's good and the goals are coming. When it's not and they're not, well, strikers tend to respond in two ways. Either they shy away from the actual shooting business, addressing their lack of form by trying to find other colleagues, by setting up other attacking players, by finding other ways of contributing. Or they keep shooting and shooting until it starts to work again. Round the problem or through the problem. And Van Persie, well, he's very much trying to batter straight through the issue.

Perhaps the most frustrating moment of his almost entirely frustrating performance against West Brom was his decision, late in the first half, to shoot from a tightish angle when an unmarked Juan Mata (and, beyond him, an unmarked Angel di Maria) waited across the penalty area. It wasn't a stupid decision — he wasn't at a ridiculous angle, the ball wasn't bouncing up at an odd angle — but it was the wrong decision, because he's in no kind of goalscoring form and other players were better positioned..

This approach — battering through the problem, shooting regardless — isn't necessarily a bad thing, since it speaks of self-confidence, of a desire to put things right, of a willingness to confront poor form head on. It's the sign of a player who isn't retreating into his shell. It's the sign of a player who isn't playing for Arsenal any more. But it's also undeniably a bad thing, since not passing to anybody else is fine when the ball's going into the net. When it isn't, it's not. It's costing United goals.

All of which is to say, in a roundabout way, that he needs dropping. He's probably not the only one of United's attacking unit that does, of course, but it was noticeable when Falcao came on against West Brom, and took up the most advanced striking role, how much more involved he was with those around him. (Including Van Persie, who dropped into the hole and promptly hit the post from twenty yards with his wrong foot.) Perhaps Van Persie and Falcao would have started together had the Colombian not been suffering the effects of the international break

The simple fact of the matter is that United are not playing well enough as a whole to be able to carry a striker who is working his way through a rough patch. If the defence was a tightly-knit goal-denying machine, if Di Maria and Mata and Falcao were rattling them, if everything was great, then yes. Stand up there and swing your boot until they start flying in again, Robin, if they ever do. Hopefully, things will click at some point this season, and he'll be able to try just that, though with each passing game and missed chance, Smyth's suggestion that he might have more in common with Dwight Yorke than Eric Cantona starts to look appropriate.

For the moment, however, chances are at a premium and goals are happening at the wrong end. And while Falcao's finishing hasn't been perfect, he has at least shown himself to be the kind of player who busies himself outside the box when things aren't going well inside. Maybe there's not much to choose between the two of them at their best, but off their games, the choice looks to be a simple one.