Can Robin Van Persie Really Be Manchester United's New Eric Cantona?
Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images
The arrivals of Eric Cantona and Robin van Persie at Manchester United were in many ways very different, but their impact was similar in catalysing the club to success.
They are very different players and men, with different styles of play, but what they share is a capacity for genius and that overused footballing epithet "world class." In 10, let alone 20 years' time they will both be regarded as legends in the same breath as Ronaldo, Best, Law, Charlton, Giggs and the rest.
So this article will consider not only their comparative impact on Manchester United, but also their similarities and differences.
To call Robin van Persie the new Eric Cantona is both a compliment and unhelpful at the same time. The Dutchman has greatness in his own right and in many ways far exceeds the Frenchman as an out-and-out professional.
One was a flawed genius and the other a consummate footballer; both had or have sheer talent flowing through their very being.
The underlying premise in the title "Can Robin van Persie Really be Manchester United's New Eric Cantona?" is based on his potential impact on the club and its fortunes. We shall go further.
But the best place to start is the circumstances of their respective arrivals.
Similarities of Their Arrival
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
In its way, Robin van Persie's arrival at Old Trafford was extraordinarily similar to Eric Cantona's.
There are various tellings and re-tellings of the story of how Sir Alex signed the then-mercurial Frenchman. But as with Arsenal and van Persie, Leeds United were then one of United's great rivals.
There have been all sorts of suggestions and sub-texts as to why the previous season's Championship winning team would let possibly their most talented player leave for their major rivals. The fact remains that Howard Wilkinson in 1992 and Arsene Wenger 20 years later parted with their star players and watched them transform their major rivals' prospects.
One other possible similarity was that United immediately won the inaugural Premier League title.
They also had three established strikers in Hughes, McClair and Dublin (who unfortunately broke his leg); and they had the best center-back pairing in the league in Bruce and Pallister, for whom read Vidic and Ferdinand.
United were having a wretched season in 1992 when Cantona arrived, whereas in 2012 they were trying to recover from the shock of being pipped at the post by their "noisy neighbours."
Apart from Cantona arriving four months into the season, he also did not have an immediate impact. Robin van Persie on the other hand, despite being rusty through inactivity, scored in his first two matches, winning the Southampton match on his own.
Cantona stayed for almost five seasons, during which United won four EPL titles and did the league and cup double twice.
While it would be great to add the Champions League at least once more, if RVP replicated that success, United fans would be more than happy.
Differences in Style
Cantona was a peacock with a swagger; barrel-chested and upright; strong as an ox but with a bewitching first touch.
Typically, he played from deeper than van Persie and more of his goals came at the end of a mazy run.
He was a player who was equally at home as an out-and-out striker or as central attacking midfield. When he attacked the opposition defence he was very direct and, like Cristiano Ronaldo, probably scared the life out of defenders.
He also stayed on his feet when he could have gone down and in this respect he was similar to RVP.
But he also had a dark side, whether it was a sneaky stamp on a player or the infamous "kung fu" kick that saw him banned for eight months.
Now some might think that van Persie looks like a choirboy, but he had his own dark side as a young man, which is why Sir Alex didn't sign him years ago. He had had disciplinary issues while at Feyenoord, which is why Arsenal were able to get him at just over half the £5 million asking price.
In his first season, the "wild child" emerged again and Wenger may well have wondered whether he had made the right decision.
Interestingly, the Dutchman was a very different player in those days. He normally played on the left wing, but could also play either behind or as the main striker.
Like Cantona, van Persie is genuinely two-footed and an accomplished header of goals, although he favours his left. Both are highly intelligent and know when to strike the balance between being selfish or passing to a better placed teammate. They both have the capacity to see situations and read the game better than most.
Van Persie is also quite upright as a player but, being slimmer, is more lithe and supple. Both bring far more than one role to the team.
Striker or Creator
Although Robin van Persie didn't start life as an out-and-out striker, he is an even better goal scorer than Cantona.
Maybe that is because Cantona was often playing a bit deeper. Both are highly efficient at hitting the target.
Of the two, Cantona was more the creator and van Persie the striker, but the latter's history means that he is far more than a striker. He has Dimitar Berbatov's instinctive first touch but much better pace.
He already has six assists this season as well as 16 goals in the Premier League.
He also has no little ball skill and completes everything he does with a clinical precision, as opposed to Cantona's swagger and roll.
The Frenchman was the showman; the Dutchman is the axeman.
Comparative Playing Records
Eric Cantona, France
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Both players have had chequered records with their respective national sides.
Cantona played 45 times for France, with 20 goals. He might have had more caps but for two key factors: first he was indelicate in describing the French team manager as a "bag of s***."
Coming on the back of other indiscretions, this was not wise and earned him an indefinite ban from the French team.
Much later, having been restored to the side, his "kung fu" ban once again blighted his international career and he never played for France again after 1995.
His role was usurped by Zinedine Zidane, which gives an insight into how he played and what it took to displace him.
Robin van Persie for Holland
For a nation that appears usually so phlegmatic, Holland's footballers can be ill-tempered and disruptive. And that is without even considering how they tried to kick the Spanish off the park in the 2010 World Cup Final.
Van Persie would surely have had many more than his 71 caps and 51 goals if he had been English. The trouble was that in his early days he was competing with the likes of Wesley Sneijder, Rafael Van der Vaart and Arjen Robben in midfield.
As a striker he was up against first Ruud van Nistelrooy and latterly Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.
His international career is not over and his strike rate lags behind those of the above two at 0.44. This may seem somewhat surprising, but it reflects his late move to striker. In his last two club seasons his strike rate is twice as high.
So the two players are similar in this latter respect, but they could not be more different in where and how they played for the team.
We have previously alluded to how van Persie's role has changed for both club and country. Cantona also became more of a striker as his time at Old Trafford progressed.
The Frenchman's career club stats are 165 goals in 439 appearances; van Persie has 172 in 379 so far.
So, not surprisingly the latter is more productive. He now seems fitter than at any time in his career. If he gives United as many years as Cantona did, he will surely retire with well over 500 club appearances and maybe 300 goals.
Robin van Persie
Phil Cole/Getty Images
For a man with so much talent and so many individual awards, van Persie has virtually no trophies to show for it at 29, which is surely one of the main reasons he came to Old Trafford after seven barren years.
He won the UEFA Cup with Feyenoord in 2001/02 and the FA Cup at Arsenal.
He cannot take much credit for the win over United, as he only played for 34 minutes in the most mind-numbing encounter ever, where Arsenal disgracefully made no apparent attempt to score until they won on penalties.
Maybe that day the seeds were sown for his perception that "United breathe football."
Eric Cantona had only three trophies to show for eight seasons in the French Leagues before he won the First Division with Leeds United.
His trophy haul doubled in his five seasons at United. Surely van Persie can look forward to pretty much the same?
New Legend Van Persie
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Manchester United fans already knew a lot about Robin van Persie from watching him play for Arsenal.
They knew they were getting a consummate striker and leader who had almost single-handedly carried his former team for too long.
Nevertheless, the impact he has had on the team and its fortunes is pretty astonishing. If anything he is even better. His all-around play has improved another notch. He fits perfectly into United's out-and-out committed, attacking style.
And boy can he finish!
Cantona's style was much more laid back and phlegmatic, both on and off the pitch.
Van Persie is a talented out-and-out professional. Eric was the artist. Both have a touch of genius.
After four-and-a-half seasons, Cantona retired from United as a legend forever. He had earned that status long before.
Even if he only stayed one season and won United the Premier League title, van Persie has already earned a similar status in the hearts and minds of United supporters.
His name will be sung at the Stretford End for many years to come.