When Sir Alex Ferguson signed Robin van Persie for Manchester United from Arsenal in a £24 million deal he pulled a masterstroke. The Dutch hit-man will now provide so many new avenues of attack for the Red Devils that his addition immediately makes United one of the most feared teams on the planet.
On paper, van Persie's signing had many people questioning the wisdom of Ferguson.
With problems persisting in midfield and with the club linked with the likes of Wesley Sneijder, Luka Modric, Moussa Dembele and Eden Hazard, the questions had to be asked:
Why would the Scot pay so much for a 29-year-old that had, realistically, only produced only one outstanding season since making his debut for Feyenoord in 2001?
How would van Persie fit in with Wayne Rooney, United's main striker?
And, most importantly, what formation would Ferguson choose to suit his new striking force?
To answer those questions, we need to understand van Persie as a player and what he brings on and off the pitch.
Robin van Persie, now 29, made his debut for Feyenoord at 17 and was immediately hailed as the future of Dutch football.
However, he had a poor relationship with his then manager and future national team coach, Bert van Maarwijk, and after three relatively successful seasons he was snapped up by Arsene Wenger and Arsenal.
At Feyenoord, like most great central midfielders and strikers, van Persie was deployed as a winger in a traditional Dutch style 4-3-3 formation.
All Dutch players and football schools are based upon the Ajax model where TIPS (Technique, Insight, Personality and Speed) is the most important teaching tool for any young player.
Here at De club aan de Maas he learned the tools of his trade—positioning on and off the ball, the ability to read the game and to develop in-game intelligence, the importance of strength and conditioning and the ultra importance of a good first touch and technique.
He was a perfect signing for Wenger—inexperienced but with all the raw materials to make him a star player. Van Persie’s capture has many similarities to Arsenal’s recent addition of Santi Cazorla. In each case, Wenger exploited the player’s fractured relationship with his club to sign him for less than half his worth, for RvP that was just £2.75 million.
2004 was an amazing time to be joining Arsenal.
The Gunners were just coming off an unbeaten season—the first in top flight English football since 1938—and everyone wanted to be a part of the Invincibles. Van Persie was no different.
His signing was important, though, as he was being brought in as the successor to Thierry Henry.
Henry, like van Persie, had also started life as a left-sided winger before being converted into a centre forward of devastating effect by Wenger. It was with this in mind that Wenger basically made the Dutchman Thierry Henry's new apprentice.
And if truth be told, there was no better striker in world football to learn from between 2004 and 2007 when Henry left to join Barcelona.
Even today, you can still see the initial wing play from Feyenoord and his early years at Arsenal influence the way van Persie plays.
As a player, van Persie possesses superb technique as you would expect from any Dutch international. He has incredible awareness and vision which, combined with his superior technique, offer him the ability to pick out passes that other players would not even attempt. He is also deceptively quick over short distances and he has used his pace and intelligent positional play to score all but 10 of his Premier League goals inside the 18-yard-box.
Being a natural winger when he was younger and being predominately left-footed, the Dutchman tends to peel off towards the left when playing and especially when moving onto through balls.
Think of his amazing strike against Everton in 2011, when he spun off Phil Jagielka to score one of the goals of the season, as a perfect example of van Persie peeling off to the left.
Being left-footed, this gravitation towards the left hand side of the box immediately opens his body and the goal out to natural angles where every single section of the goal becomes available.
This natural movement also comes with the added bonus that if a shot on goal is not available, then an assist most definitely is.
This movement towards the left may seem like a very minor point, but it is probably the most important element of his outstanding style of play as far as Sir Alex Ferguson is concerned because it complements his team and, more importantly, it complements Wayne Rooney in particular.
Now that Ferguson has a player of the calibre of van Persie in his set-up, he is afforded multiple systems and formations to suit the opposition or players he has available.
In a 4-4-2 system, the Dutchman and Rooney would almost be perfect for each other as one tends to drift left while the other, Rooney, tends to drift right.
This would give Manchester United the tactical advantage of occupying an entire back-four with just two world class players.
In this system, both players would be required to split the gaps between the full-backs and the centre-backs while defending and, when attacking, they would also move into the similar positions to drag the defenders out of theirs.
The knock on effect to this movement and formation would be that the Red Devils' wide midfielders and full-backs would then get more room across the pitch to attack.
Defensively, this system would also allow for the pressurization of the opposition and for the squeezing and condensing of the playing area of the pitch. This condensing of play would make United’s counter-attacking skills absolutely lethal, and it would all stem from pairing two world class strikers together.
One other major factor that also has to be considered is van Persie's tactical discipline.
Since January 1, 2010 Robin van Persie has scored 73 goals in 86 games across club and country and at this very moment in time he is rightly mentioned in the same breath as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and his new strike partner, Wayne Rooney.
The fact that he holds his striking position so rigidly means that Ferguson now has a striker on his books that knows exactly what his job is—score goals and only score goals.
This knowledge will be perfectly exploited should Ferguson utilise a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1 formation with van Persie instead of Rooney at the pinnacle.
In years gone by when games have gone against United with Rooney and Arsenal with van Persie, the latter always had a better chance of settling the game, by himself, because of his superior positional awareness.
If the Red Devils are not playing well and Rooney is being starved of service, he drops deeper to look for the ball and can often be found on the edge of his own penalty box initialising attacks that he should realistically be at the end of to finish.
This, of course, is a double edged sword because with Rooney as his team’s best finisher, and creator, the chances he creates are less likely to be converted.
The opposite is true of van Persie; all you have to do is to look at this table to see his strike rate.
Total Games Played by Robin van Persie for Arsenal since 2004.
- 2004/05 - Played - 41 / Goals - 10 (average 1:4)
- 2005/06 - Played - 38 / Goals - 11 (average 1:3.4)
- 2006/07 - Played - 31 / Goals - 13 (average 1:2.3)
- 2007/08 - Played - 23 / Goals - 09 (average 1:2.5)
- 2008/09 - Played - 44 / Goals - 20 (average 1:2.2)
- 2009/10 - Played - 20 / Goals - 10 (average 1:2)
- 2010/11 - Played - 33 / Goals - 22 (average 1:1.5)
- 2011/12 - Played - 48 / Goals - 37 (average 1:1.2)
- Total - Played 277 / Goals 132
Total Games Played by Robin van Persie for Manchester United since 2012
- 2012/13 - Played - 03 / Goals - 04 (average 1:0.75)
The most obvious thing that stands out is the gradual improvement in van Persie's goals-to-games ratio over the last eight seasons.
At 29, the Dutchman is now at the peak of his powers, as is evident from his form over the last two years.
But when he joined from Feyenoord as a 20-year-old in 2004, he was far from the finished product. His progress is testament to Arsene Wenger's incredible vision and faith in the player and his phenomenal coaching ability.
Van Persie's gradual improvement since 2004 also shows that the player is extremely intelligent and that he not only works on his game, but that he also studies, analyses, and puts great thought into how his game can improve.
Now, having learned his trade at Feyenoord and perfected it at Arsenal, it is Manchester United who is going to reap all the benefits.
The 29-year-old is equally as creative as Rooney, yet he does not roam after the ball if he is being starved of service and, like any great predator that relies on stealth, he lies in wait, holding his position, to strike when the opportunity allows.
This difference in strikers now gives Manchester United a huge advantage over their rivals as when the duo gets used to each others' style of play, Ferguson will be able to get the very best out of each player.
Van Persie will ultimately claim the striker position with Rooney marauding just behind him—in his best position.
This simple tactical move makes Manchester United a very dangerous opponent for any team—Barcelona included.
The last two times the Red Devils have played Barca—the Champions League finals in 2009 and 2011—United have been utterly and totally outclassed and even though their problems in midfield persist, they now have a strike force that can beat any team.
Ultimately, winning the Champions League for a third time before he retires will be Sir Alex Ferguson's main goal and the capture of Robin van Persie from Arsenal just made that dream step a little bit closer to reality.
You can follow or find me on Twitter at @WillieGannon