As Manchester United transition under the leadership of Louis van Gaal, one of the key questions going forward into the new season is whether his fellow Dutchman Robin van Persie should be offered a contract extension and continue to ply his trade at Old Trafford. There have been arguments for and against him continuing his career in the red of United but in the main the arguments for him staying or leaving have centred on emotion or perception respectively. How can we not stand by the man who singlehandedly brought us our 20th league title? How can we give him a new contract when he is playing poorly and offering nothing to the team?
My intention here is to stay away from these arguments completely and just look at a) the raw facts of his performances, b) what he can offer the squad that a replacement couldn’t, and c) the financial cost. The difficulty comes in, in that these questions must be answered within the context of how Manchester United will be taken forward. If Louis van Gaal, as is recently evident and expected, implements his favoured 4-3-3 formation next season, we are looking at only needing one central striker (or number 9) in the team at any one time. Realistically that means having one first choice striker, a more than adequate backup, and an up and coming player. Wayne Rooney seems now to be the undisputed first choice number 9, and van Gaal seems invested in developing James Wilson in the long term. That leaves one slot open for Rooney’s backup.
The obvious choice to be made here is do you either keep one of Radamel Falcao or Robin van Persie, or let them both go and bring in somebody else, such as Edinson Cavani. With Rooney as an undisputed first choice, his backup would have to settle for a lower number of games, probably in the region of 25-30 starts (in all competitions). I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt, a player of Cavani’s stature would not settle for that. He has kicked up a fuss in Paris for playing out of position, even though he has been playing in nearly all of the games… playing in just a fraction of them for us would not be an option for him. Issues like this cause squad disharmony, something that would put a dent in the fantastic job that van Gaal has managed to achieve this year. Only twelve months ago leaks to the press were a weekly occurrence, with starting line-ups coming out before time, and reports of arguments and name calling between the players and the staff. This group is UNITED in both name and nature, and I would hate for all of this good work to go to waste.
Radamel Falcao has accepted a reduced role this season to some degree, mainly due to the serious knee injury he suffered last year; I am not sure he would settle for such a reduced role again next season. But for arguments sake, let us assume Falcao would be interested in continuing at United in a reduced capacity, has he shown he is good enough? In addition to being a willing squad player, a backup striker has to be incredibly efficient. His impact over a limited number of games and minutes has to be profound. That is what made the likes of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Chicharito (in his first couple of seasons) so effective as replacements.
The obvious thing to do is to compare Robin van Persie to Falcao statistically. Under regular circumstances this would be a difficult task because different strikers might have different team roles or play in different positions, however in this instance the comparison is both accurate and easy because the vast majority of their appearances came at a time when they were both playing together, performing identical roles as part of a two central striker combination in either a 4-4-2 diamond or a 3-5-2. So here goes…
Robin van Persie: 24 appearances; 1993 minutes played; 10 goals; 0.42 goals per game; 199 minutes per goal; 53% shot accuracy; 23 chances created; 85% pass accuracy; 15m average pass length; 39% average duels won; average 2 defensive actions per game.
Radamel Falcao: 20 appearances; 1033 minutes played; 4 goals; 0.2 goals per game; 276 minutes per goal; 58% shot accuracy; 14 chances created; 85% pass accuracy; 12m average pass length; 42% average duels won; average 1 defensive action per game.
In every statistic that matters Robin van Persie comes out either streets ahead or at least comparable to Radamel Falcao. As mentioned, a backup striker has to be incredibly efficient and in this regard there is only one winner between the two, as the Dutchman outdoes the Colombian in both goals per game (more than double!) and minutes per goal. The idea that spending a reported £43 million pounds for Falcao, rather than simply extending van Persie’s contract based on these irrefutable facts is frankly insane.
Now for the bit that will get peoples knickers in a twist… I actually feel that WHEN FIT van Persie is even a better alternative to Wayne Rooney as a first choice striker. Hear me out…
There can be no doubt that United’s form has coincided with Wayne Rooney being pushed up front where he belongs, but goals aside have his central striker performances been that good? Let’s look at the last 5 games where he has played up front and which we have won.
He scored a great goal against Aston Villa, but in truth for the majority of the game he was far from good, gaining a NEGATIVE stats based performance score from Squawka from the first whistle until the moment he scored.
Against Liverpool he was largely poor, again having a negative stats based performance score bar a 5 minute period in the first half, and let us not forget the missed penalty.
The game against Spurs was his best game of this stretch, scoring the goal and being instrumental in the rout of the Londoners, taking 5 shots, scoring 1 goal and creating 2 further goal scoring chances.
Against Newcastle he was far from decent. Two shots and one chance created is hardly anything to shout about.
During the victory against Sunderland he was again poor until the latter stages of the game when he scored a penalty followed by a goal in the 84th minute, his only shot on target from open play.
So although our good run of form has coincided with Rooney playing up front, the question that comes to my mind is, is it BECAUSE of Rooney being there or is it because the midfield is more efficient without him? The midfield combination of Carrick, Fellaini and Herrera, supported by Young and Mata has been one of the highlights of the season, and that has coincided with the beginning stages of Louis van Gaal implementing a settled 4-3-3.
Robin van Persie (due to injury of course) has not yet had the opportunity to play as the lone striker in a 4-3-3, and for that matter neither has Radamel Falcao. The assumption (because that is what it is) that van Persie cannot do it is quite frankly unfair and without foundation. Playing in a STAGNANT, defensive and offensively unambitious team/formation in the middle part of the season, a plan that van Gaal put into action due to our early season defensive frailties should not go against van Persie. And by the same token playing at the apex of a free-flowing, offensive minded, ambitious and creative team should not gloss over the indisputable facts that Wayne Rooney though good, has hardly set the world alight as our number 9.
So I go back to one of the original conceptions that van Persie is old and immobile. Is he?
One of the main reasons why people were calling for Rooney to play up front was because of his pace and athleticism. One of the main examples of the benefits of this pace is when he had the ability to capitalise on a defensive error by Tottenham and score…
What difference that to this by van Persie against Southampton? Hardly the mark of a slow, immobile striker, without sharp predatory instincts…
I would personally like to see van Persie given a chance to play at the apex of this free flowing, offensively minded team before I hang him out to dry. He has shown that even in the worst of times this season, playing in the most stagnant of teams he can score against a variety of teams ranging from the weak Leicester, Burnley and Hull City, through the middle of the road Newcastle and West Ham, right up to top of the table rivals in Liverpool, Southampton and Chelsea.
Add to all of these facts that he already has a relationship and a chemistry with his teammates, has a point to prove to the fans and the media who have given him immeasurable stick this season, and that due to injuries he probably won’t be demanding a starting berth over the captain every week and causing disharmony in the squad. Compare too the relatively low price of keeping a player we already have against paying a transfer fee as well as comparably high wages for a new player; knowing for a fact that we have a backup who can score a goal almost every second game, even in the most dire of team circumstances; and that we have a player we know rather than taking another risk on a superstar who may or may not acclimatise immediately to football in England.
It all points to one logical outcome – in my mind at least – and that is the extension of Robin van Persie’s Manchester United future beyond the summer.
Oh… and he singlehandedly won us a record 20th league title!
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