Absence is supposed to make the heart grow fonder, but one would forgive Robin van Persie for doubting that maxim. The Manchester United striker has targeted the derby against Manchester City on April 12 as his return date from an ankle injury. Cue shifty looks between supporters who stare at the ground awkwardly. There is an elephant in the room: United are better off without Van Persie.
The striker’s ankle injury has coincided with United’s finest performances of the season, Marouane Fellaini excelling behind Wayne Rooney with Juan Mata and Ashley Young providing the width. With Van Persie in the side United have taken 1.83 points per game this season, without him 2.4. The latter figure is based on an admittedly small sample, but there has been a fluidity and verve to United’s play in Van Persie’s absence. That will be deeply concerning for a striker approaching his 32nd birthday.
In the age when everything must be judged as hot or not, top or flop, hit or s**t, there is no doubt that United have got their value from Van Persie. Bought in the summer of 2012 as an expensive set of earplugs, the Dutchman promptly silenced the noisy neighbours. This was a statement of intent from Alex Ferguson, who broke the mould to pay £24m for a 29-year-old. Pipe down, Roberto Mancini.
Given the momentous events towards the end of that season, it’s easy to overlook just how wonderful Van Persie was as United won the league. The club’s only league ever-present, his goalscoring surged Fergie’s side towards the title, an astonishing extended period of sumptuous finishing. Van Persie retained the Premier League Golden Boot, was named United’s Player of the Season and merited inclusion on UEFA’s ten-man shortlist for the Best Player in Europe award.
“He has had as big an impact as anyone I can imagine,” said Ferguson after the title was secured. Eric Cantona was an incredible impact player and I have been very, very lucky in that I have had some fantastic strikers right through, probably ten great strikers at the club. I remember Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger saying to me ‘he’s better than you think’ when we concluded the deal. He was right.”
It was always likely that there would be a lull in Van Persie’s form in the aftermath of Ferguson’s retirement and David Moyes’ subsequent tenure. “My decision to come to Manchester was partly because of the presence of Ferguson, or excuse me, Sir Alex,” the Dutchman said in November. “He told me he’d stay for another three years.” He sounds like a forlorn son, wrapped tightly in a duffle coat outside his school as the evening draws in, waiting on the promise of an absent father who will never turn up.
The stench of disappointment that enveloped Old Trafford last season affected Van Persie as much as anyone, but 2014/15 brought cause for meaningful optimism. The combination of Louis van Gaal and his international captain was labelled as a meeting of minds. “We have a very strong bond,” said Van Persie. “It has been good since day one.”
If anything, that undersold the connection between United’s new manager and his striker. After initially dropping Van Persie following his appointment after Euro 2012, Van Gaal then reinstated him as Netherlands captain and first-choice striker ahead of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. The pair attended Eredivisie matches together to study tactical systems. Upon his arrival at Old Trafford, Van Persie was mooted as a likely replacement for Patrice Evra as captain. It has not gone well since.
Van Persie’s form hasn’t been catastrophic, of course. The season started with injury, but by December the striker seemed to have regained his old swing. “Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been feeling very well physically,” Van Persie said after scoring twice against Southampton. “I feel like I can make more runs and keep things going up until the last bit of the game. I feel good and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the goals are flowing in much better now.” That night remains the high point of his season.
The contrast between Van Persie’s 2012/13 and 2014/15 seasons make for predictably unflattering reading. Under Ferguson, Van Persie averaged 47 touches, 3.4 shots and 1.9 shots on target per 90 minutes played. For this season those statistics are reduced to 35 touches, 2.6 shots and 1.4 shots on target, a drop of 26%, 24% and 26% respectively. Van Persie has become a quarter less involved in play in two years.
The nagging thought is that Van Persie is not just out of form, but starting an irrevocable wane. ‘Once you’re over the hill you begin to pick up speed’ may be a sugary inspirational quote, but is nonsensical in footballing terms. At 31, Van Persie is United’s second oldest appearance maker this season.
Van Persie’s issue is exacerbated by his environment. While he ages, the Premier League increasingly becomes a younger man’s game. Of the 21 players with eight or more goals this season, the Dutchman is the oldest by two years at least. Of the top 18 PL scorers this season, 12 are at least half a decade younger than Van Persie. To adapt the proverb, inside every old footballer is a young player wondering what happened. When did he become a veteran?
There is something incredibly melancholy about watching any footballer on the wane, desperate to match past achievements but with an irretrievably weaker hand. To watch as the leaves fall during the autumn of a career is to see something symbolic and sad, but uncontrollable. Time and tide wait for no man.
A declining striker raises more sympathy than most. Even a 5% loss of attributes and influence can convert the world-class to also-ran. Like an old singer still belting out the classics in an off-key croak, it is deeply uncomfortable to witness.
“When you hit 30, and you’re having a bad spell, everyone says it’s because you’re 30 or 31 and things might be over for you,” said Van Persie in December. “I don’t think it’s an age thing. I live a quiet life for my football and I’m almost convinced now that I will play for many years to come at the highest level.” If age is indeed an issue of mind over matter, he has nothing to fear. But it isn’t.
I’d love him to be right. But to watch Van Persie during United’s 2012/13 title-winning season was to witness something wonderful, the perfect blend of power, technique and desire to finally win the league. That now seems consigned to yesterday.
Elements of his splendour still exist. All the ingredients may briefly collide from time to time, an occasional flash of brilliance to make you stand up and applaud. But increasingly they become a reminder of what went before, rather than what might be again.
Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Dimitar Berbatov and Louis Saha were all sold by United at a younger age than Van Persie is now. While James Wilson offers an exciting glimpse of the future, Van Persie faces a battle to ensure that he does not become part of the past.