Daylight Savings Time began in the United Kingdom last Sunday. I don’t live in the UK but I knew this was happening because for the past two weeks the “Harry Kane will move Manchester United this summer” rumors have been dialed up to 1000. The same thing happened over the same weeks in 2021 just like it happened over the same weeks in 2020 with one Telegraph writer penning essentially the same article exactly 367 days apart. (I guess United having Cristiano Ronaldo let them take a year off last year). You could quite literally set your calendar to it.
Each year the merits of spending upwards of £100 million on Kane gets debated and each year it becomes even more ludicrous as Kane gets another year older. Two summers ago Kane looked almost ready to move to Manchester City - a club run far better than United is - until City balked at the £100 million price tag. To spend that money two years later would be even more foolish.
The position United are in this season isn’t all that different from where they were two years ago. They currently sit third in the table compared to second in 2021. At the end of that season the club decided they were just a striker away from competing at the top and signed Cristiano Ronaldo.
Narrator: “The club was not just a striker away from competing at the top.”
United have since shed themselves of that mistake and are doing much better because of it. They’re actually defying most people’s expectations from the start of the season, which may be giving a false sense of how far along they really are. Make no mistake, United do need a striker. They need someone in that front line who can shoulder the goal scoring burden alongside Marcus Rashford.
But Harry Kane is not the answer, and he would not be (as some have suggested) a second coming of Robin van Persie.
Heroes and hard truths: The Robin van Persie story
Let me just say, other than the 2007-08 campaign, the 2012-13 season was the most fun I’ve ever had watching Manchester United.
Other than Ronaldo in 2008, no player was more fun than Robin van Persie. I love Robin van Persie, last summer I bought a van Persie shirt from that season. I would not change a single thing about that season.
From a long term perspective, Robin van Persie was not a great signing.
He was 28 when he signed for United. It was an uncharacteristic signing from Sir Alex Ferguson who typically did not spend big money (at the time he was United’s fifth most expensive signing and the oldest in that top five) to sign players who wouldn’t have any resale value. That van Persie had a bad injury history only made the signing riskier.
The Dutchman signed a four year deal, gave United one great season before those injuries caught up to him. His goal tally more than halved in his second season and he only found the net nine times in this his third year. He left before the final year of his contract.
From a business perspective, spending almost £30 million in 2012 money and only getting one good season out of a player is not return on investment. Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t care about that though, he only cared about one thing: winning one last Premier League title before he retired. Whatever happened after that was not his concern.
Robin van Persie, deemed the missing piece for United to win their 20th league title scored 29 goals on the way to making that happen, and gave The Boss the glittering send-off he deserved.
Here’s the thing though, Robin van Persie did not make United all that much better.
We all know what happened. van Persie arrived at Old Trafford and hit the ground running. He set the narrative early with an August hat trick against Southampton to get United a 3-2 win from a game where they were 2-1 down. A month later he scored the winner from the penalty spot at Anfield. He scored early and he scored often - scoring 18 goals in United’s first 23 Premier League games.
Those goals helped United blow away challengers Manchester City and win the title with four games to spare - van Persie netting a hat-trick in the 3-0 win over Aston Villa that sealed the title was the perfect way to sum up the season.
But is that what actually happened?
United finished the previous season on 89 points with 89 goals scored, but lost the title on goal difference. The idea of adding van Persie was to score even more goals and thus win more games but at the very least prevent them from losing on goal difference again.
The last four games of the 2012-13 season turned into the Sir Alex retirement tour and saw United playing in cruise control so we should throw those out when making any comparison. If we just look at the first 34 games of the season we see that with the addition of van Persie United improved by all of, two points.
The fact that they won the title with four games to spare had less to do with van Persie coming and taking United up a level and much more to do with City scoring 25 fewer goals and winning six fewer points.
This isn’t to say that van Persie wasn’t very good or that he wasn’t directly responsible for United winning that title. van Persie’s contribution can’t be reduced to how many more points did United get or how many more goals did they score? Rather this demonstrates how different the situations are between then and now.
Between Robin van Persie and Harry Kane.
van Persie joined a very good United team. In the three years before Van Persie joined United averaged 76 points 76.67 goals scored after 34 Premier League matches. This was a team that featured world class players (on their last legs) in Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. They had Wayne Rooney who if he isn’t world class (and by Sir Alex’s definition he’s not) he’s as close as you could come to that level. They had Michael Carrick anchoring midfield with Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic - two of the best center backs to ever play for the club - in defense.
It is understandable how you can see van Persie being the missing piece.
Compare that to the current Manchester United team. Even if we write off last season (as we should) the year before United had just 70 points after 34 games and had only scored 67 goals. The year before they were at 58 points with 59 goals scored. This season they’re on pace to have just 65.28 points with 55 goals at the 34 game mark.
To say they are just a striker away from the top would in all likelihood be dooming yourself to the same mistake made just two years ago.
Squad Mixology and Aging
Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes may be stars but neither of them are Wayne Rooney. None of United’s midfielders have the passing ability that Giggs, Scholes, or Carrick had. Antony might be just as one footed as Antonio Valencia was but so far hasn’t shown any creativity. Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane may be the best two center backs since Ferdinand and Vidic but even when the two of them play United are conceding 1.25 goals per 90 - well above where they were a decade ago. This is team has holes.
The truth is the signing of van Persie is more of a cautionary tale then something you should be trying to emulate.
van Persie’s greatness in the 2012-13 season was essentially duct tape holding together a squad that collectively took a massive step back. Age was hitting them and tearing the squad apart.
The defense got worse - conceding 10 more goals than the year before - as Vidic and Ferdinand struggled to stay on the pitch. Behind them Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans, and Phil Jones struggled to live up to the expectations of being the next Ferdinand and Vidic because of course they would. No one was ever going to be as great as those guys.
Paul Scholes’ legs officially went. In a later interview he said it was after United’s 3-2 loss to Tottenham in September that he knew he couldn’t play at this level anymore. He made 16 appearances that season but only played 8.6 90s. Ryan Giggs was on the last of his last legs. He’d stick around another year but he only played 13 90s that season.
We didn’t know it yet but Wayne Rooney’s legs were going too. Fergie tried to tell us. He dropped him for a crucial Champions League knockout match because Rooney just couldn’t move the way he used to, and tried to move him on at the end of the season.
We’ve all heard Rio Ferdinand’s story that at the start of the season Fergie sat a few players down, pointed at van Persie and said “this guy will win you the league. If you can’t get him the ball, then you won’t play.”
The fact that only three outfield players finished that season without registering an assist (and two of them - Darren Fletcher and Nick Powell - combined to play less than 2.5 90s) is a testament to how much van Persie did on his own. However, the workload wore him down and the injuries started mounting. United were already a depleted squad only now a year older.
The demise of the Moyes era was rapidly accelerated without someone holding it all together, and the squad dropped down to seventh. A year later Louis van Gaal took over and while I’m forgetting the actual quote said something like this was the worst built squad or most imbalanced squad he’d ever seen. A massive rebuild was needed.
In hindsight, that United squad probably should have finished somewhere around 4th place in 2012-13 - that’s how much of a Herculean effort Van Persie put forth. Without him the following season, it’s not so surprising they fell so low.
United’s best players may not be a year away from retirement these days but the situation is not too dissimilar. The average age of United’s squad during the 2011-12 campaign was 26.2. The average age of the squad this season is 26.4.
One of the big differences between United now and the United team two years ago is their window. The squad is (naturally) older now, and players that were entering their prime two years ago are very much in their prime now. Other key players are at the tail end of their primes if not just past it. If United are only a striker away from winning then they don’t really have the time to develop a striker. They need someone who can score goals right away.
Harry Kane certainly fits that profile, and it’s easy to see why Kane would garner comparisons to van Persie.
But the thing is, those comparisons are wrong.
If nothing were to change in the summer - which obviously won’t be the case - the average age next season would go up to 27.4. Swap Kane in for the minutes Weghorst played and the few minutes Ronaldo played and it would drop a bit, but likely still above 27. Simply put, in today’s day and age, that is too old. Since the 2017-18 season the average age of the Premier League champions has been 26.42. Arsenal this season have an average age of 24.3 while City are at 26.7.
That’s not too big of a gap that you could completely write it off but if United were to think about Kane they should be looking at van Persie in terms of ‘what happened next?’
When van Persie joined United his decline had actually already begun. For all his heroics he still wasn’t scoring at the same rate as he did the previous two seasons with Arsenal.
As what happens attackers once they’ve been playing top flight football for 8-10 years, those numbers only continue to decline.
As was highlighted before, van Persie was added to a team where everyone else declined too. There’s a very real risk of that happening at United as well. Many of United’s key players are right at or past their primes. Bruno Fernandes is 28 and never takes a break, he’s going to start slowing down soon. Varane is 29 with an injury history. Casemiro, Christian Eriksen, and Fred will all be on the wrong side of 30. They may not deteriorate at all next season but in two or three years, the odds are very high that they will. These things don’t tend to happen gradually either, when players go, they go. Just look at Liverpool’s midfield. Last year they were very good. This year they’re suddenly way too old.
There’s a very real chance that in the next 2-3 years United will have to be replacing a lot of their current players if they want to stay at the top. Like United in 2013, the younger pieces that they’ve brought in just haven’t quite caught on. When this happened to Louis Van Gaal, United had a lot of money to undertake such a rebuild and they spent it laughably bad. This time around, United are carrying millions in transfer debt, sky high wages, and new stricter FFP laws. Even with a change of ownership there’s very little wiggle room.
Is Kane already declining?
Finally, there’s the legitimate question of whether Kane can actually carry United to a title the way van Persie did. You can argue the answer is yes based on nothing more than the carry job he’s currently doing this year with a Spurs team that shouldn’t be anywhere near the Champions League places. The counter argument is even when Spurs were a legitimate Champions League team, he was never able to elevate them to title contenders.
Kane’s numbers this year are better (for now) than his previous years but these numbers don’t touch what van Persie’s were when he arrived.
Kane’s best two goal scoring seasons came in 2016-17 and 2017-18 when playing in the high energy, high pressing system of Mauricio Pochettino. Kane was a younger man back then, and it’s unlikely he’d be able to play at such a fast pace over length of whatever his next contract would be.
Ultimately the Premier League is a different game now then it was 10 years ago. Hell, it’s different than it was in 2016-17. A striker’s job is so much more than just scoring goals. They have to exert effort in so many other areas that it’s nearly impossible for one man to do it all. A 30-goal scorer isn’t a the detriment to a team that some are trying to make it out to be but it’s not needed either. Arsenal’s main striker this season is scoring 0.36 goals per 90. City’s leading goal scorers their last two seasons had 15 and 13 goals respectively, and neither were a striker.
The two scenarios just couldn’t be more different. Robin van Persie arrived to reinforce an already strong United team that was just good enough for one man to tie everything together at a time where the league allowed you to do that. Kane would be joining a team that isn’t at that level, in a league that’s much tougher.
The only thing the two moves would have in common is likely the biggest red flag - the age of the squad. Using what little resources are left on Kane would be pushing all your chips into the “right now” basket and accepting that a crash will likely come in the next few years. Essentially you’d be betting on United winning in the next two years but writing off the back half of the decade as the club rebuilds.
Is that really what United want to do?