In August 2012, Manchester United performed one of the most important U-turns in their history.
Over the previous years, Sir Alex Ferguson had stuck to a rigid policy of buying young players to groom rather than established stars.
Last summer, Ferguson ditched that approach when he paid £24 million for a 29-year-old in the final year of his contract.
Robin van Persie was the most ambitious signing United had made since paying Lazio £28.1 million for Juan Sebastian Veron in 2001.
Before he had even kicked a ball, Van Persie had made a valuable contribution to United, for he was a statement of intent that United were prepared to compete with Manchester City, who had also been interested in signing him, and win back the Premier League title.
In hindsight, it also offered a clue that Ferguson might be considering retiring at the end of the season because he was now in a rush. He couldn’t wait for players to develop; he needed someone who came with a virtual guarantee of goals.
Van Persie did not disappoint. He promised goals and he delivered.
“He changed their situation, he was the difference between them and us,” former Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini told the BBC toward the end of last season.
That difference stood at 11 points after the final game, as United regained the title on the back of Van Persie’s goals.
In an exquisite piece of symbolism, Van Persie scored a hat-trick in a 3-0 win over Aston Villa to confirm the title as early as April.
The Dutchman enjoyed the most prolific debut season in Manchester United’s history, scoring 26 league goals (30 overall) to overtake Brian McClair’s haul of 24 goals in the 1987/88 season.
Van Persie scored after 10 minutes of his first start for United in a 3-2 win against Fulham at Old Trafford back in August and never looked back.
In that same game, Wayne Rooney picked up an injury that ruled him out for a month, which before the arrival of Van Persie, would have been treated as something of a minor crisis at Old Trafford. But with the Dutchman on the scene, it hardly mattered.
Van Persie went on a run of scoring a total of 18 goals in his next 22 Premier League games, which included a hat-trick and a last-minute winner in a 3-2 triumph at Southampton, converting a late penalty to win 2-1 at Liverpool, a winner in an incredible 4-3 victory at Reading and a crucial goal against Chelsea in a 3-2 win at Stamford Bridge.
Most importantly of all, Van Persie scored that free-kick in the final minute against Manchester City to win the game 3-2 and extend United’s lead at the top to six points over their neighbours.
City never made any serious inroads in to this lead, and by the end of the season, it had nearly doubled.
There was also a small drought, but no striker is immune to that.
Van Persie scored only once in eight Premier League games between the end of January and the middle of April.
But United’s No. 20 is more than just a goal scorer who is content to wait up front for a chance, for he is constantly moving, all across the forward line, drifting out wide to create space for others and send in his dipping and accurate crosses.
He finished the season eighth in the Premier League’s table of assist-makers with eight over the course of the season. Only Wayne Rooney (10) provided more at United.
During his relatively lean spell in the spring, Van Persie never sought a rest, believing that you play yourself back in to form. He would plead with Ferguson not to leave him in the stands or on the substitute bench. He relished being involved in every game.
Van Persie would feature in all 38 of United’s Premier League games, starting 35, to be United’s only ever-present last season.
At the end of the season, Van Persie rediscovered his form to guide United over the line, scoring seven goals in the final seven games to complete an incredibly successful debut season.
The last time a new signing made such a significant and immediate impact at United was Eric Cantona during the 1992-93 season
Despite arriving just before the halfway point of the season in December, Cantona scored a total of nine goals in 23 games (the best ratio in the side), contributed the most assists (13) and played a role in half of United’s goals. With Cantona in the side, United only lost once.
In the 17 league games United played in the 1992-93 season before Cantona’s arrival, they scored just 18 goals, but in the next 25 games with Cantona, they scored 49 goals.
After winning the title, Sir Alex Ferguson, as reported by the BBC, reflected upon Van Persie’s influence:
In terms of impact he has had as big an impact as anyone I can imagine. Eric Cantona was an incredible impact player and I have been very, very lucky in that I have had some fantastic strikers right through, probably 10 great strikers at the club.
I think we had an expectation of Robin because his performance last year for Arsenal was sensational. We saw him last year and knew he could gel into the way our team was, and he has never disappointed us.
I remember Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger saying to me 'he's better than you think' when we concluded the deal. He was right.
Van Persie brought with him goals, assists, real presence up front, and the hunger to win his first ever league title.
It proved to be a potent and successful combination for United.
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