Robin Van Persie vs. Eric Cantona: Who Had the Better First Season at Man Utd?

Max TowleAnalyst IApril 15, 2013

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 10:  Robin van Persie of Manchester United celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Everton at Old Trafford on February 10, 2013 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

It was only a penalty, but it felt far more important.

Robin van Persie has had a torrid few months at Old Trafford; his sudden drop in form coincided with Manchester United's elimination from both the Champions League and FA Cup in a matter of weeks—two competitions fans genuinely believed were winnable for this current team.

Over six hours of goalless football had clearly taken its toll on the Dutchman, whether he would be willing to admit the fact or not.

Positive noises have emanated from the United camp—before the Stoke City game, Sir Alex Ferguson declared van Persie "fantastic," backing his star forward to deliver (via Yahoo).

On Sunday, he delivered.

His spot kick was calmly dispatched past Asmir Begovic, sparking a wild celebration that included a rather forceful hug with his 71-year-old manager and a multitude of high fives.

In context, Robin van Persie's debut season in Manchester has been terrific.

His immediate influence has drawn comparisons with Eric Cantona—an association that is considered the highest sort of praise in this part of the world.

The Frenchman was an inspirational figure whose first season at the club led to Premier League glory and ushered in a new era of domestic dominance.

This article will look at both player's debut campaigns, and try to determine whose was better.

The Difference?

Eric Cantona arrived at Old Trafford in November 1992 with the Red Devils trailing a number of clubs in the Premier League's inaugural season.

Sir Alex and chairman Martin Edwards had pulled off a coup persuading Leeds United to part with one of their star names for £1.2 million—a signing to replace injured striker Dion Dublin.

Despite a slow start, Cantona's influence on the pitch was obvious—but his impact on the team behind the scenes even more so.

According to former United captain Roy Keane, "The players loved him. I had never seen anybody finish like him and still haven't. He was different but bloody brilliant." (via Daily Mail)

Gary Neville recounts how the players were "in awe of him." (via Daily Mail)

Cantona's genius on the training ground and the example he set inspired his teammates to better things.

His swagger and outrageous style during games would also rouse the fans and give them a renewed sense of confidence—that the Red Devils were set to be the team of the decade.

Robin van Persie's arrival in Manchester this summer came off the back of a horrific campaign for United.

The team had suffered final day agony the previous May, losing the Premier League title in the dying seconds to rivals Manchester City.

Despite a defeat at the hands of Everton in their opening game, Sir Alex's side has been wholly dominant this term, winning games with a remarkable consistency.

The Dutchman was easily the team's best and most influential player through the first half of the season.

Despite a lack of quality in midfield and some shaky performances by the back line, van Persie's goals saw United win games by simply outscoring their opponents.

It's been a long time since Sir Alex bought an established world class player—like Cantona, van Persie's quality and example lifted his teammates in difficult spots.

Upon the completion of the £24 million transfer, Michael Carrick said "It is a great boost going into the new season. Can it make the difference between second and first?" (via Belfast Telegraph).

It doesn't take a genius to answer that one.

The Numbers

As Eric Cantona moved to Old Trafford halfway through the 1992/93 season, his goal return that campaign wasn't particularly pronounced.

Nine goals in 23 appearances isn't a poor strike rate by any means, but considering he bagged 25 the following term, his most prolific days lay ahead.

His performances simply served as the catalyst for the team's glory.

For a run of seven games between September 19 and November 7, United claimed a single victory, losing five. During that period, the team scored only four goals.

After Cantona's arrival, the Red Devils lost only one of 14 Premier League fixtures, scoring over two goals per game.

The Frenchman etched his name onto the scoresheet in six of these games.

By March 1993, Sir Alex's side had effectively accelerated into pole position to claim their first league title in 26 years.

Despite this long barren run that has just ended, Robin van Persie's goal scoring record remains highly impressive.

He has scored 24 goals in 42 appearances in all competitions—20 in the Premier League, one in the FA Cup and three in Europe.

The Dutchman is second in the league's race for top scorer, two behind Liverpool's Luis Suarez.

He's scored crucial late goals to defeat Southampton and Manchester City and struck a late equaliser to take West Ham to a replay in the FA Cup third round.

His creativity is also worth mentioning—he has eight assists to his name, only five players in the EPL have more.

In van Persie's first season at Old Trafford, the Red Devils are on track for a record Premier League points total.

For a run of 18 games, United went unbeaten, winning 16 and only dropping points against Swansea City and Tottenham.

Between November 28 and January 20, the Dutchman scored at least once in nine of 10 league games.

In answering the question posed at the top of the article, perhaps the numbers need to be thrown out the window.

Robin van Persie has scored more goals than Eric Cantona in his debut season, but this statistic shouldn't be the deciding factor.

The Dutchman has been world class for much of the season, but Cantona set the trend. Without him, United wouldn't be the dominant force they are today. Without him, van Persie may have chosen City.

His first season at Old Trafford was as significant and yielding as any in recent memory.

That's the thing about sequels—no matter how good the movie is, nothing beats the original.

Verdict: Eric Cantona 

Close call, but how can anyone pick against the King?


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