Louis van Gaal joined Manchester United knowing one of his most influential players at the World Cup in Brazil would be rejoining him in a new quest for silverware. Robin van Persie seemed delighted at the end of last season when David Moyes was sacked. The Dutch striker expressed his excitement about the future as he pledged that Manchester United would be back, jokingly telling the interviewer’s cameraman to save the interview as proof. Many speculated that van Persie knew who would replace the departing Scot and that he had a hand in the decision of the sacking – a rumour that was later squashed.
Since Louis van Gaal has taken over, United’s best football has arguably come in pre-season. Winning the International Champions Cup aside, United showcased some of the best football the club has played in a long time. They beat big European names comprehensively. There was free flowing football from left to right and from defence to attack. Wayne Rooney played as the main striker while Robin van Persie took an extended break from the game after a long, tiring World Cup campaign.
As the Premier League began and Radamel Falcao was signed, there was a lot of talk about who would play upfront out of the three world class strikers the club possessed. In terms of statistics, Radamel Falcao has disappointed while Rooney and van Persie have almost identical numbers. But the problem van Gaal faced was fitting all three in the starting eleven. Rooney was eventually moved into midfield and Robin van Persie had played every game after his return from holiday. United struggled to score goals though, as Angel Di Maria’s form dipped and Falcao was benched due to a minor injury. Robin van Persie seemed lost and couldn’t score regularly – also due to the lack of service from a midfield lacking in confidence.
In recent weeks, the Dutch striker has picked up another injury, to his ankle this time. With Falcao still struggling to hit form and reportedly still recovering from his major knee injury, Rooney has been playing as a lone striker with Marouane Fellaini in a supporting role. United’s previous two games have brought some great, free-flowing football. The return of Michael Carrick and Juan Mata has helped too. With Rooney up top, Fellaini has license to pick up the long balls and head them down for advancing midfielders – a tactic that would not be possible if Robin van Persie played. Even though it has taken a while, everything seems to have fallen in place at the right time for Louis van Gaal’s men. Defenders are defending well and have created a solid base to start attacks from, midfielders are creating chances and dominating possession, and strikers are making runs in behind the opposition backline and finishing clinically.
It may be harsh to put the blame on only one player or only the manager sometimes, but for United, the key to good football seems to be dropping Robin van Persie and giving Rooney the goal-scoring responsibilities. United have won all four of the league games they’ve played during Van Persie’s absence, and in the last two, they actually looked like a brilliant football team. There have been ample lackluster performances this season, with United lacking pace, incisive passing and efforts on goal. But since Van Persie’s injury, the team has looked sharp and confident, with a creative flair that hasn’t been seen in a competitive match since the era of Sir Alex Ferguson. It is also crucial that ball-playing midfielders like Herrera, Mata, Blind and Carrick are given starting spots to play together – which can only happen if Rooney is played up top – meaning Robin van Persie would have to settle for a place on the bench.
After wins over Spurs and Liverpool, Manchester United face Aston Villa and Manchester City at Old Trafford, and will look to get maximum points in order to cement a top 4 spot. Liverpool, Southampton and Spurs are not too far behind, while Arsenal and Manchester City are within reach ahead of them. With United still to face City, Chelsea and Arsenal, nothing is decided yet but they will look to continue their good form and finish as high as possible.