The fabric of Robin van Persie’s relationship with Manchester United frays a little more, day by day. On Sunday he garlanded the Dutch national coach Louis van Gaal with praise – “a fantastic manager” –and spoke of how age has made him “more sensitive to what my coaches are doing”. This on a weekend in which he was so surprised to have been removed by David Moyes after an hour’s football at West Bromwich Albion that referee Jon Moss had to point him from the field, which he left shaking his head.
This is one of football’s more self-absorbed players. With him, it’s all about Robin. The plain truth of Saturday’s 3-0 win was that United looked a more balanced, dangerous side when the Dutchman had gone and Danny Welbeck was on in his stead.
Welbeck will never be the finisher that Van Persie is but there is consistent evidence that he can bring out the best in Wayne Rooney. As Welbeck took up a far higher role at The Hawthorns, Rooney stepped upinto a more advanced No 10 position, from where he immediately scored and then provided Welbeck with a divine goal of his own.
“We like Danny a lot,” Moyes said in the aftermath. “[He’s] a really good player. He got one and maybe could have had two. I have seen him starting to look a lot sharper in the last week or so. He has done very well.”
The problem for Van Persie is the one examined on these pages on Saturday. United’s more cautious team, defending too deep, are not stretching defences in the way that creates the clear goalscoring chances he feeds on. It’s more muck and nettles for United and this 30-year-old striker, who is by no means the fastest, has been left to manufacture his own opportunities. He hasn’t fared well and that plainly frustrates him.
The question for Moyes after Saturday’s bold decision to remove Van Persie so prematurely is whether he is prepared to take the next step and keep him out of the starting line-up to face Liverpool on Sunday – United’s last chance to prevent the old enemy bumping them out of the Champions League. There are good grounds for doing so.
The options for change at Albion are far more slender, with the decision of the club to allow the now ousted Dave McDonough – a technical analyst who got above himself – to get Steve Clarke replaced by Pepe Mel, looking more astonishing by the day. Albion received no great recommendations from Spain about Mel.
Goalkeeper Ben Foster said that the players’ plea with Mel to abandon his high-energy pressing style was not behind the intensity drop against United. “You’re not going to be able to play this lovely touch football [against United] because they always press so high,” he said. But Mel’s philosophy was diluted and is irreparably damaged. Albion’s best option would be to return responsibilities to caretaker Keith Downing.
Moyes’s own grip on United is probably not strong enough for him to omit Van Persie on Sunday. The occasion is too great to move with the kind of boldness Sir Alex Ferguson displayed in dropping Rooney from the United side that faced Real Madrid at Old Trafford a year ago last Wednesday.
Moyes’s post-match optimism on Saturday was slightly overdone. The central defensive pairing of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones – operating together for the first time in the Premier League – hardly displayed a stability to bear out the manager’s suggestion that “the two boys today could easily be the two centre-backs for England in the World Cup”. He said: “We will play Liverpool like we would play any other side. We will have one or two people back, maybe Jonny Evans, maybe Rio [Ferdinand].”
But if he can get beyond the challenge on which his United future may depend – Liverpool, Olympiakos and Manchester City in nine days – then the options available to him in a world without Van Persie are greater than many might think. If Rooney behind Welbeck looked a good spectacle on Saturday, then Juan Mata behind Rooney could be a pairing made in heaven.
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