When Robin van Persie signed for Manchester United he was the difference that enabled the Old Trafford club to run away with the league title. A return to that kind of form this season would be massive for Louis van Gaal, and it is well within the striker’s capabilities.
After what his manager described as a ‘very bad game’ against Arsenal, which included just two touches of the ball in the first half and a total of 13, van Persie has got better and better. A brutal strike against Hull was followed by completing 90 minutes against Stoke. This was key to his quest for full fitness, and the benefits were clearly displayed on Monday night as the forward continued to show his class on the ball deep into the game, when most others around him had floundered their way through the clash.
Against Southampton van Persie was United’s best player by a country mile, perhaps aside from Michael Carrick, and the Dutchman looked like the player he was when he first signed from Arsenal. At 31, there have been concerns expressed in some quarters that he may have lost a yard of pace and has passed through his peak.
However, van Persie’s enduring sharpness was demonstrated firstly against Hull, and then again at St Mary’s. Despite the fact that he admitted earlier this year that he had been ‘playing with pain for the last six years every single game’, perhaps the striker’s body is not such a battle-worn 31 years of age. He has missed quite a lot of games through his career, and provided his body hasn’t become too ravaged with the pain he suffers, this could help prolong his time at the top level.
Van Persie has played in 540 games for club and country so far at the age of 29. Compare this to strike partner Wayne Rooney, two years his junior, who has been relatively lucky with injuries throughout his career, and has already racked up almost a hundred appearances more, at 630.
This longevity could be crucial in keeping Radamel Falcao out of the starting line-up, with the Colombian not even making it onto the pitch on Monday. There were mitigating circumstances in that Chris Smalling went off early on through injury, young Paddy McNair was withdrawn due to his struggles and the need to introduce some composure to the side, with Carrick dropping back and the introduction of Ander Herrera to the midfield, and then Darren Fletcher being brought on at the death to see the game out.
The upturn in United’s fortunes over the last five games is no coincidence to Carrick returning to fitness, although his importance to van Persie is less clear-cut. The Dutch captain has looked lost at times this season without the measured service that the Englishman provides, keeping possession ticking and control of the play, as opposed to the quicker incisions brought to the fold by the likes of Angel Di Maria.
The improvement since Carrick’s return is demonstrated in the statistics that show United to have completed the most passes per game, enjoyed the highest percentage of possession and with greatest accuracy, in addition to the threaded forward passes Carrick is so adept at, allowing van Persie to work the lines more and involve himself in the build-up.
Next up is Liverpool in a huge fixture at Old Trafford on Sunday, and United are hoping for a much improved performance against their arch-rivals. Van Persie will be looking to continue his run of form, which will be crucial to his team’s demand for a return to the Champions League next season.
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