The striker has struggled for form and fitness since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement but must now up his game under Louis van Gaal in the Premier League.
Eric Cantona. There weren’t many times in his final seasons when Sir Alex Ferguson burdened his modern-day players with comparisons with his most catalytic, most iconic signing. Yet when he did, his target seemed carefully chosen.
“He has made as big an impact as any player I can imagine,” Ferguson said. “Cantona was a big impact player.” Robin van Persie had just made Manchester United the champion with a magnificent hat trick in a 3-0 win over Aston Villa. One volleyed goal was Van Basten-esque. But Ferguson reached deep into his own history to find a player of similar brilliance.
Perhaps Ferguson was feeling giddy – after all, he had only won 12 Premier League titles before – because soon after he suggested that Phil Jones could become the greatest player in United’s history, rather than simply a higher quality but more injury-prone alternative to Chris Smalling. Yet it felt apt. With his imperious authority, upright stance and technical brilliance, Van Persie had some of the hallmarks of Cantona. Most importantly, he delivered when it mattered.
Or he did then. Since then, Van Persie has scored three goals against the sides which finished in last season’s top seven. There are so few that it is simple to name them. One came six days later, at Arsenal. The second clinched David Moyes’s only significant league victory against elite opposition (again, inevitably, Van Persie’s former club). The third was the injury-time equalizer against Chelsea a couple of weeks ago. Tellingly, too, United only won one of those games.
The club stopped beating the best when Van Persie stopped deciding season-defining games. Consider his first eight months at Old Trafford. There were goals in wins at Anfield, Stamford Bridge and the Etihad Stadium, two of them the crucial last strike. He struck at home against Liverpool, Everton and (obviously) Arsenal. Subtract his goals in his debut year in Manchester and United would have had 27 fewer points.
Little wonder Ferguson was gushing. “Arsene [Wenger] said to me when we concluded the deal he is a better player than you think and he was right,” he said. “He has never disappointed us.”
He hadn’t then, anyway. Now Van Persie has disappointed himself. “Three goals in nine games is not enough,” he told De Volkskrant last week. It is now three in 10 after he failed to score against Crystal Palace. He has half as many Premier League goals as Nacer Chadli and fewer than Mohamed Diame. In all competitions, Danny Welbeck has chipped in with more for Arsenal. A couple of years ago, the notion that Welbeck, who scored two goals in 40 games in the same season when Van Persie was plundering 30 for United, would prove more prolific would have been absurd.
Welbeck has also created more goals. Less surprisingly, he seems to cover more ground. Now the debate about Van Persie is not one of where he stands in the United pantheon, of how he compares to Cantona or Cristiano Ronaldo, the previous player to come as close to winning a title single-handedly, as much as where he figures against a 19-year-old with two senior goals to his name, or a man with one fully-functioning knee.
It is Van Persie versus James Wilson and, when he is fit again, Radamel Falcao. Louis van Gaal admitted on Friday that he is struggling to play with two strikers. It left his team unbalanced.
Van Persie is his stand-in skipper, his confidant, the man he consulted about changing the system Netherlands played in the summer’s World Cup. But he is also the forward Van Gaal replaced when he was looking for an equalizer in the Manchester derby, the supposed scorer he shifted into a deeper position when Wilson came on against Palace.
If Falcao can return to the status of one of the world’s top five forwards, which he had before his cruciate ligament injury in January, Van Gaal has a decision to make about Van Persie. He has a strength of character, as his leveler against Chelsea showed, but it cannot always compensate for a downturn in performances and the loss of his reputation as the man for the major occasion.
His finest performances for Van Gaal, his most devastating displays of finishing, came in Brazil, not England. The Van Persie who struck twice in the 5-1 demolition of then-world champion Spain was the big-game player Ferguson loved, the audaciously brilliant finisher with the wand of a left foot and a footballing brain that seemed sharper than everyone else’s.
It transpired his feelings were more delicate than others, too. Rio Ferdinand said Van Persie was hurt more than any of his teammates when Ferguson announced his retirement. The Dutchman has not disputed that. But it is 18 months since Ferguson abdicated to become author, ambassador, Ryder Cup guru and bad luck omen for United.
Van Persie has another of his favorite managers in charge now. He still has a respectable goal return – 21 in 38 under David Moyes and Van Gaal – but it is not the same. The magic is gone. So, too, the sense he is United’s 21st-century Cantona.