Apart from the necessities of a medical and rubber-stamping personal terms, Robin van Persie will most likely be a Manchester United player by the end of Thursday. If you’d have said to me in April that Arsenal’s talismanic striker would be moving to Old Trafford in the summer, I would have laughed and then probably slapped you for toying with my emotions. But as it is, last season’s Player of the Year really is joining Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad for a reported £24million (depending on which sources you believe).
While the signing will strike fear into centre-backs across the land, and indeed, across Europe, there are question marks as to how the Dutchman will fit in to a forward line that is now brimming with talent. For instance, can Van Persie and Wayne Rooney strike up the lethal partnership that the Englishman failed to do so with Dimitar Berbatov, surely now the forgotten man? And what will the 29-year-old’s impending arrival mean for the likes of Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez, young talents who are eager to build on impressive starts to their United careers?
The deal seems to be down as much to circumstance as anything else; had Van Persie not stated that he would not be signing a new contract at the Emirates with just a year to run, a summer departure would have been inconceivable. Yet, with Arsenal struggling to fill their trophy cabinet with anything but dust in recent seasons, the man who hit 30 league goals last terms felt it was necessary to move on while he still had a chance of silverware to go with his increasingly silver hair.
Ferguson (and everybody else, we presume) has been a long-term admirer of the Dutchman, and after van Persie decided against joining Manchester City, and Juventus’ manager Antonio Conte was banned for 10 months in relation to a match-fixing allegation, a move abroad to a league still marred in controversy didn’t seem so appealing. Following Roberto Mancini’s frustrated statement that van Persie would be a United or Arsenal player, all that was left was hard negotiating.
The deal seems to suit all parties – while Arsene Wenger has lost his captain and top scorer, the Dutchman is 29, only had a year left on his current contract, and risked upsetting the dressing room if he stayed on. The fee (£24million) could now be spent on a young replacement, or given Arsenal’s usual policy, a few players that could be moulded into stars. United have another world-class striker in his prime, and Van Persie has a bumper contract (believed to be around the £220,000 mark) and a good chance of medals this season.
In terms of the United squad, Van Persie’s presence will create added competition in a role where opportunities are already limited. It’s safe to assume that despite Welbeck’s impressive debut season in the United first team – in which he ousted both Hernandez and Berbatov to become Rooney’s first-choice strike partner (for England as well as United) – that van Persie and Rooney will be the preferred combination. However, with United crashing out of European competitions remarkably early last season, the signature of Van Persie signals a desire to compete with the very best in Europe. Whatsmore, after poor showing in domestic cups of late, there will be plenty of opportunities for forward players to stake a claim for a regular starting berth in these competitions. Rooney, too, will not be allowed a free ride in the first team as he was afforded last year – despite his return of 35 goals last season, he will have to be sharp in each and every game to keep his place in the side, which is surely a good thing.
The transfer of Van Persie, along with the arrivals of Shinji Kagawa and Nick Powell, suggests a shift towards a more dynamic style of play, and with the likes of Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and Nani all comfortable in advanced positions around the opponents’ penalty area, the combination play will be a joy to watch. With Michael Owen and Park Ji-Sung departing, United have replaced these players with men who are more adept in possession, and as such, United’s play will be less predictable.
It is likely that if Van Persie and Rooney do indeed play together, then the Dutchman will be the more advanced; they will naturally swap positions, yet Rooney’s desire to drop deep and dictate the play can afford to be indulged a little more if you have a player like Robin Van Persie ahead of him. The central midfield will no doubt be a key area, and the emphasis will be on them to retain the ball and deliver the ball to the danger men. It’ll be interesting to see where Kagawa fits in as well – he may be stationed on the left as he has done for Japan in the past, and his defensive work rate will be needed in order to help out Patrice Evra, especially if no back-up signing is made for the Frenchman.
In this respect, while most United fans would say that an addition in the centre is vital, the return of Tom Cleverley, Anderson, and possibly Darren Fletcher could go a long way to negating these desires. The Englishman and Brazilian linked brilliantly in the early stages of last season, particularly in the 8-2 thrashing of Arsenal (sorry Robin), yet both had their seasons curtailed by injury. Either one of them – or perhaps Phil Jones – alongside Michael Carrick or Paul Scholes could provide the industry and drive needed that was so lacking last term.
While some players will undoubtedly be happier than others at the deal, Robin Van Persie is a brilliant (and relatively cheap) addition to the United squad.
Many people are asking just where he will fit into the starting line-up, but with the physical pressures modern footballers face, the idea of a starting XI is almost as antiquated as the 4-4-2 formation. With so many high-pressure league games, cup games, European trips and internationals to come, Ferguson has proved that squad rotation is the key to success over the course of a whole campaign. As proved with the ‘awesome foursome’ of Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, you can have four top forwards in the same squad and be successful. The key is in understanding players and specific circumstances, and Ferguson is a master in this regard.
For tough games, I’d expect something like below, with Clverley and the wing backs joining the front four, while Carrick sits deeper, as he did in England’s victory against Italy on Wednesday night.
One thing is for sure – when the deal does go through, we are going to see some exciting football at Old Trafford in the 2012/13 season.