Ever since rumours surfaced about United’s bid for last season’s Player of the Year and following Sir Alex’s subsequent acknowledgement of the same, there has been a debate among fans whether the club actually need the striker. While few doubt his abilities, van Persie’s recent behaviour at Arsenal and that United appear well-stocked up front do raise some questions over spending priorities.
Robin van Persie compared to United’s strikers
Stats do tell a story and comparing the Arsenal man with those leading the line for United provides some insight.
The Red Devils scored 15 goals more than Arsenal last season. While Rooney provided stiff competition for the Golden Boot honours which Van Persie eventually won, Welbeck, Berbatov, and Chicarito chipped in with a fair number between them. Looking at the raw stats it’s difficult to claim the Dutchman will be an obvious improvement over the players at Old Trafford.
There is little to choose between the players as far as shooting accuracy or chance conversion goes. Robin van Persie does have a better minutes to goals ratio than Welbeck and Chicarito. Berbatov leads this stat but you could argue his numbers are skewed by the limited number of minutes and the fact that he banged in five goals in two consecutive home games against Wigan and Blackburn. It’s interesting that Rooney managed to better the Arsenal man here despite playing, at least partly, as an attacking midfielder.
Furthermore, we can see that last season the Bulgarian and the Mexican scored a goal every 111 and 114 minutes respectively. They also had better chance conversion ratios than Van Persie had this time around and converted 21 of the 45 clear-cut chances that fell to them while Robin van Persie managed 21 from 46. Even then, clearly, Sir Alex wasn’t completely satisfied with their efforts as the selection of Welbeck ahead of the two indicates.
Similarly, if we look through other numbers in the chart, there are few that make the Dutchman stand out. Yes, he has more assists and has created a noticeably higher number of clear-cut chances. But we must also take into account that van Persie takes many of the set-pieces at Arsenal whereas United’s strikers don’t (leaving out direct free-kicks as we’re talking about assists). Van Persie has 5 assists from open play and 4 from set-pieces. His minutes per chance creation ratio would jump from an outstanding 36 to something more modestly impressive in the 50’s if we only look at chances created from open play. Of course, he would still be better than most strikers currently at United but it’d not be as massive an improvement as it currently looks.
Robin van Persie worth £20m?
At this point it’s worth asking if it’s worth paying a hefty transfer fee for a quality striker who would bring marginal improvement in chance creation and will probably attempt a great deal of through-balls? Are there more pressing gaps that can be filled by the limited transfer funds?
These are valid questions and the raw stats do back them up but most followers of the game know they don’t always tell the complete story. There are a number of subjective factors that are not captured in these numbers.
Let’s not forget the Dutchman was playing in a significantly weakened Arsenal side after the departures of Fabregas, Nasri, and Clichy last summer. Their new signings did help the Gunners to third place but there is little doubt, even in the minds of most Gooners, that there’s a big creative void in the squad. With that context, it would seem safe to say the stats Van Persie produced for Arsenal were a lot more impressive than similar numbers that others have achieved in United or City squads that ended 19 points above Arsenal.
Will Robin van Persie improve Manchester United?
Sir Alex Ferguson has two basic questions he needs to answer –
Can Van Persie do even better in a stronger squad?
And will the performance of the entire team improve with the addition of such a player?
Leaving aside his injury concerns, which are valid but also something Ferguson, Mancini, Conte, and Wenger are willing to risk, there is every reason to believe Robin van Persie can do even better than he did at Arsenal last season. Let’s not forget he’s still getting used to the role of a central striker. Those who’ve observed the Dutchman’s learning curve and work ethic will find it hard to say he’s reached the top of his game. At 29 most players would have peaked but Robin has missed a lot of playing time so he still has room for improvement. That’s a frightening prospect for opponents if he sustains fitness and all the top managers chasing his signature seem to recognize it.
There are a number of players who are excellent individual performers. At the highest level though, managers want stars who can also help the lesser lights shine brightly. Robin van Persie has proved his team work and leadership skills last season as he drove the Gunners forward. If he can click with Walcott and Song, why should he have a problem gelling with Valencia, Carrick, or Nani?
The Red Devils do have top quality strikers in their squad but each of them has certain weaknesses. The sublime technique and incisive vision of Berbatov is held back to a certain extent by his seemingly laidback style of play. Welbeck is an excellent worker and Chicarito seems like a born poacher but both have some technical limitations. Van Persie, on the other hand, could combine the genius of Berbatov with the workmanship of the younger strikers. Potentially, it could be akin to getting two strikers for the price of one. This sentiment was well captured by Jurgen Klopp after his side’s defeat against Arsenal in the Champions League group phase last November:
I’ve hardly ever seen a player who plays so deep in midfield and then is such a danger in the box. [Jurgen Klopp]
Sir Alex would also relish the prospect of having Kagawa, Rooney, and Robin van Persie in the same side. These players have the intelligence, technique, and movement to produce breathtaking combination play and could help the Red Devils breach almost any opposing defence. United could be unstoppable if they develop such a potent threat down the middle with the ability to play one-twos and through-balls in tight spaces to go with their already exceptional wing play.
On the back of this discussion it’s easy to see the interest many top managers have in securing Van Persie’s services. For United it might not be a priority area and even without signing a striker they’re likely to pose a serious challenge for the domestic titles, but acquiring van Persie could make them the favourites in England while significantly enhancing their hopes in Europe.