West Bromwich Albion v Manchester United: Is Wayne Rooney really in Robin van Persie’s way at United?
Complaints that his strike partner is cramping his style are prompted by growing evidence Dutchman is struggling to make his own luck
A throw-away moment amid Manchester United’s pursuit of a late winner at Arsenal three weeks ago provided a less than flattering commentary on Robin van Persie’s claim that his “fellow players” – namely Wayne Rooney – are occupying spaces on the field where he wants to play.
“When I see that, it makes it difficult for me to come to those spaces as well,” Van Persie said in the aftermath of the Champions League defeat to Olympiakos, which has shorn United of what little optimism they still possessed and left manager David Moyes delivering a desperate plea to fans for patience yesterday.
But Van Persie had all the space in the world to run into when, 10 minutes from time at the Emirates, Rooney seized the ball on the halfway line and led a charge into Arsenal’s half. United’s superior numbers – it was three on two, including Van Persie, who was level with Rooney when the break began – created a position Sir Alex Ferguson’s side would have expected to capitalise on. Yet when Rooney looked up for a means of converting the attack into a goal Van Persie lagged 10 yards behind him, United ran into a wall of defenders and the game petered out into a goalless draw.
That pretty much sums up the way the 30-year-old Dutchman, for all his qualities, lacks two attributes which most Premier League strikers are thought to be in need of: pace and the physical strength to wrestle off a knot of defenders in penalty area hand-to-hand combat. He knows that. The subsequent frustration, rather than any fault in his strike partner, best explains why he criticised Rooney for stealing into his space.
You would have dismissed the notion of Van Persie being anything less than imperious as risible in that first season at United, during which his work ethic and finishing technique – when clear-cut chances presented themselves – enabled United to surpass even their own executives’ expectations for 2012-13 – which, with the squad they had, was a third-placed finish. But that was a United side in possession of Ferguson’s old gambler’s instinct, compelled by him to be ambitious and drive at teams until the death, creating chance after chance for Van Persie the supreme finisher.
Moyes’ United – with Michael Carrick taking up fewer advanced positions and Tom Cleverley driving forward far less – is a very different animal. Consequently, fewer good opportunities are falling Van Persie’s way and so he finds himself plunged into the kind of activity your average striker faces every week: having to make his own luck.
Robin van Persie (right) obliquely criticised Wayne Rooney last week (Getty Images)
It is in the nature of modern football that the challenges of doing so are far greater than they were when Feyenoord, a club unconvinced that Van Persie would make it in the Premier League, were willing to sell him to Arsenal for £2.75m in 2004. Forwards will tell you that these days the “back four” for them is not the line of four strung out across the penalty area but the two central defenders and the two holding midfielders stationed in front of them. It is getting harder for the centre-forward to receive the ball there.
The fact that sides generally use only one striker compounds the challenge. The modern centre-forward needs a little bit of everything – guile, athleticism, explosive pace, finishing technique. You might say it’s a young man’s game. How many central strikers are older than Van Persie in the Premier League?
The heat maps of Van Persie’s and Rooney’s movement this season show that the younger man is straying into the Dutchman’s space far more. He is clearly the player Van Persie was alluding to in the Athens mixed zone. But even in those games when Rooney does not intrude – like United’s 2-0 win over Crystal Palace at Old Trafford back in September, when the 28-year-old confined himself to the left-hand channels – Van Persie struggled, despite opening the scoring with a penalty.
In the reverse game at Palace two weeks ago, Van Persie dropped deeper and deeper, as Scott Dann, Damien Delaney and the holding midfielders Mile Jedinak and Joe Ledley squeezed space. Frustration was written across his face. Contending with that is easier if the opposition attack you, leaving space behind, though that is unlikely against Pepe Mel’s pressing West Bromwich Albion side at The Hawthorns today. For Albion it will be the defending principles: defend and delay, cutting off the opposition midfielder’s forward pass and permitting the ball to be shipped only sideways and backwards.
Patience is imperative if Van Persie is to be restored to the force of nature Ferguson found him to be. Dropping deep to find the ball today will only bring Albion up the field, compressing the play. Staying high up, in anticipation of the ball, will keep the opposition stretched. Opportunities may be few and far between up there but that’s how it has to be. When it comes down to it, he will have to create the channels of space in which to receive the ball from others, rather than consider them his entitlement. Heat maps from last season show that Van Persie was far busier and energetic under Ferguson. Against Olympiakos, he made minimal attempts to vary his position and create problems for defenders Ivan Marcano or Kostas Manolas.
United do not sense that Van Persie wants to leave the club. When the BBC’s Mark Lawrenson stated before United’s home defeat to Newcastle in December that the Dutchman was deeply unhappy with Moyes’ training methods and wanted out, he texted club officials to express his bafflement at the story. But the notion of Rooney as the sole striker, displaying the physicality and space-creation qualities of the modern incarnation, with Juan Mata – naturally disposed to No 10 – tucked behind him may begin to seem an irresistibly better balance for Moyes. Especially in those more challenging fixtures when a fighting centre-forward is required and the opportunities which Van Persie’s game feeds upon are so scarce.
Where there is life there is hope – even for United, even now. Van Persie was also labouring this time last year, scoring a solitary goal in nearly three months from late January to late April, though his tally was 23 back then against 14 now. He subsequently scored seven in seven as United regained the title. That was 10 months ago, though it seems like a lifetime.
Moyes: United will come out stronger
The Manchester United manager, David Moyes, has thanked the club’s supporters for their loyalty this season amid the champions’ struggle for form.
“While I knew that this job would be a challenge,” he wrote in the 12th Man fanzine, “the difficult season we have experienced was not something I envisaged. My players and I are desperate to compensate for that.
“You are accustomed to seeing a successful United and the backing you have given has been incredible; the loyalty you have shown us has been magnificent.
“I have no doubt we will see great winning sides here again. In the long run, we will come out stronger for the experiences.”
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