Van Persie and Rooney have taken distinctly divergent paths this season. The latter began the campaign in scintillating style, notching up nine league goals by mid-September, while Van Persie struggled, finding the net just once domestically during the same time.
Their differing form represented that of their clubs, with Manchester United ascendant between August and October and Arsenal stuttering badly, never more strongly emphasised than when the two sides met in late August and United hammered Arsenal 8-2, with Rooney netting a hat-trick. Van Persie scored one of Arsenal’s consolations but it took another month for him to get on target again in the league.
Autumn turning to winter turned the tables. Rooney has not scored in the league since September 18, with his only goals coming in the Champions League against Otelul Galati. Van Persie, meanwhile, has been on a tear. The Dutch forward has hit 13 goals in the Premier League since Rooney scored his last in the competition and bagged a brace in the Champions League against Borussia Dortmund for good measure.
Much like earlier in the season the players are mirroring their teams. United as a whole has found the net far less often after Manchester City put six past them while Arsenal have rediscovered their form through van Persie’s inspiration. Since September 17, when Blackburn Rovers defeated Arsenal 4-3, Wenger’s side have lost just once in the league and once in Europe.
Van Persie has grown into his position as Arsenal’s leader. The players around him, particularly Theo Walcott, have responded in kind, while Gervinho has settled in at the Emirates Stadium to become the final part of a fearsome three-pronged attack. With a midfield offering ball-winning and ball-playing in equal measure, van Persie has the benefit of a solid backbone around him, geared towards helping him succeed. By releasing the pressure of carrying the side from van Persie, Walcott and company are in fact helping him do just that.
Rooney’s lack of goals is more a symptom of United’s changing approach in the wake of their derby defeat, and also the absence of Tom Cleverly which saw Rooney drop into midfield for a few games. Following City’s romp Ferguson put the brakes on his players and began to grind out results to the point where United’s score lines read like a coded binary message. Rooney has also at times been positioned as a midfield playmaker, leaving the England international too far from goal to trouble the scorers. It is a role he is clearly capable of, but not one that allows Rooney to grab the headlines. Van Persie has dominated the column inches but Rooney remains central to United’s Premier League future.