Robin van Persie: United build a fearsome arsenal
“Defend, defend … defend, defend, defend,” the Manchester United fans cry in unison, as the opposition launch a counter-attack, outnumbering the United defence by six to one. This is a re-working of the elaborate ”attack, attack, attack” chant that so often boomed out of the stands in the seasons before, now a humorous, yet slightly concerned response to the signings of Shinji Kagawa, some Chilean bloke and Robin van Persie from Arsenal. As the away side see their attempted break snuffed out by a gutsy lone defender named Danny Welbeck, there is an overwhelming sigh of relief, and then the fans switch to another new favourite: “we often score ten but we seldom score thirteen.”
A US war general, known for being a bit of a crank, is noted to have once said that “nobody ever defended anything successfully, [that] there is only attack and attack and attack some more.” This, of course, is simply an uttering of words in an order that doesn’t make sense and quite clearly an attempted soundbite (but it sounds believable enough — he was American after all). Only his fellow hotshots would consider this to be wise words; luckily, it would seem, one of those hotshots manages Manchester United.
There are things, yes, that still need to be addressed. United’s last home game to date against Blackburn Rovers is famous in internet terms for Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to play both Rafael da Silva and Park ji-Sung in central midfield, which even Paul Scholes admitted had concerned him (the quote is here, but — warning — it is a Sulia link). Old Trafford had witnessed a revolutionary new tactic — the ‘false central midfielder’ — that they had hoped, but not believed with full conviction, to never see again. There is also the situation at left-back, but first-choice Patrice Evra appears in more club games a season than United are even allowed to play to expose the lack of adequate cover — especially with Fabio da Silva wandering around aimlessly in Hammersmith. But, for the moment, it is worth delaying the thought. United have made a grand statement.
Some things never change. Political conflicts in the East, the author’s relationship status on a social networking site and Ferguson’s love affair with wingers and forwards, and it would appear he seems reluctant to change that. The Scot does things his own way and clearly favours the two-striker system even if the rest of Europe scoffs at it. He is not necessarily a tactician and tends not to overcomplicate things; but like everyone else, he is a lover of attacking play and sees such a signing — a marquee one not since Dimitar Berbatov — as one that would lift the club back on top. He is looking to build a fearsome arsenal similar to the one that had conquered the continent in 2007/08, and went so close a year later.
His best teams had a wealth of attacking options. Further to the side a few years back, there was, most famously, 1998/99. The assumption that he kept the four of Cole, Yorke, Sheringham and Solskjaer happy might have been greatly exaggerated, but they succeeded anyway and the manager might then take the view that such a set-up remains resistant to evolution. Having depth is better than no depth at all (this point stands if Berbatov and Macheda leave). As football has shown us several times, luxuries – that is, in this case, the gift of several options and great depth – can instantly disappear, and become crises. Just look at Manchester United’s defence: there are doubts over certain players’ fitness meaning that, ahead of their first game of the season at Everton, Michael Carrick may well partner Nemanja Vidic in central defence. When all fit, United possess five fine first-team centre-halves to choose from but they will be lucky to have even two on Monday. In the case of their strikers, more is more, not less.
Van Persie is also good for Wayne Rooney. The Dutch daily De Telegraaf ran with the headline “Fatman and Robin” on its sport page this morning but it may be the Englishman forced to play the role of sidekick. Rooney had his best goalscoring season last year but you’d find a very real reason for concern looking beyond the goals. He admitted as much. The Dutchman’s presence means Rooney is droppable — at last! — though it is key that United play both together, and be patient with the two as a partnership. United could try to cater for all by playing Van Persie on the left, or Rooney, like Welbeck had done a few times in the 2011/12 season. While Welbeck develops, Rooney could seek to put that particular partnership on hold, though flourishing, and start a new, better one with Van Persie until Welbeck becomes the player they all predict him to be.
Crucially, there is much to like about Robin van Persie. If you ignore the fact he’s filthy with Gunnersaurus’ paw-prints, he looks reassuringly like someone who could do the role of the red Power Ranger justice. He is also, amusingly, the very same thing as Nick Sobotka from The Wire. And not only is he quite good at kicking a football, he’s a specialist at manipulating it, too. David Winner once told Sports Illustrated that he “goes to where the ball will be, before anyone knows it will be there, and that’s a mysterious gift to have. Bergkamp never had that, and nor did Van Basten.” His age, 29, is important, but not as much as some say; after all, the club signed a much older Teddy Sheringham, the only difference being that was for peanuts. Realistically, Van Persie has another four years at the highest level — all fans have to hope for now is that the striker can liberate himself from the injuries that could have made him the player he is now, years ago.