The appointment of a new manager at a football club will always bring with it new ideas for players to take on board. At Manchester United this season David Moyes’ recent arrival has resulted in a change of role for striker Robin van Persie compared to how the Dutchman was utilised at Old Trafford under previous boss Sir Alex Ferguson in the last campaign, as we analyse fully here.
Ferguson caused more than a few raised eyebrows when splashing out an initial £22.5 million to sign Van Persie from arch-rivals Arsenal in August 2012, despite the stellar season the Netherlands international had just enjoyed in north London.
The overriding thoughts of both experts and United fans was: Do we really need another front man when there appear to be other areas of the side that are far more in need of strengthening?
Not only that, but Van Persie is not your average attacker in that he has been deployed with great success in a number of different forward roles throughout his career: starting off as a winger at Feyenoord do not forget, before then operating initially as a No. 10 at Arsenal and then flourishing as an out-and-out fox in the box in his memorable final three campaigns with the Gunners, scoring 89 goals in just 129 matches.
All of which begged the question: Which of Wayne Rooney or Van Persie would drop deeper to play as the No 10., and who would be the penalty-box predator at United? Keep in mind Ferguson had ceased sending his teams out in an old-school 4-4-2 formation a few years back following repeated losses to tactically superior European sides around the turn of the century.
But United supporters need not have worried, as the Dutchman had already proved during his stellar career for both club and country that he had the skills, technique and—more importantly—intelligence to adapt his game to different systems,. His experience of playing out wide during his three years at De Kuip also served him in good stead by moulding Van Persie into a more rounded player.
Some might say, the complete package, with the Reliant Robin even scoring with his very first effort on target for his new team in a 3-2 home win over Fulham in the Premier League in August 2012. However, in what was a clear indicator of things to come, Van Persie began the club’s opening fixture of last season at Goodison Park on the bench.
And following a brilliant hat-trick in the Red Devils’ next league fixture against Southampton, which produced another 3-2 win, the red-hot marksman had managed to net four goals in his first 202 minutes as a United player at a remarkable average of a strike every 50.5 minutes (see below table).
This all came to a head with his breathtaking campaign in the northwest last time out, a season in which Van Persie linked up beautifully up front with strike partner Rooney. This sometimes comprised of both attackers taking it in turns to drop in between the lines between the opposition’s back four and midfield, as witnessed by United’s third goal against Sunderland at Old Trafford in December 2012 that heavily involved both players (see video).
Meanwhile, United’s No. 20 was also given complete freedom by Ferguson to operate in a floating role in forward areas all over the pitch (see below graphic), culminating in Van Persie recording a stunning 30 goals and 15 assists in only 48 matches in all competitions for the Red Devils last time out.
And it was United’s 3-0 demolition of Aston Villa at Old Trafford last April, a match in which the club’s 20th top-flight title was sealed, that perhaps best illustrates Van Persie’s role in the side under Ferguson last season.
The 30-year-old netted a memorable first-half hat-trick of course, with his second strike winning many neutrals’ vote for Goal of the Season. However, it was the forward’s all-round play that really caught the eye on the night as the Dutchman continually dropped deep into the pockets of space in front of the visitors’ back four to wreak havoc (see below graphic), while also successfully completing 27 passes to team-mates in the process.
However, after the first 10 fixtures of the 2013/14 campaign with a new man at the helm, suddenly everything all seems so different for both the Premier League champions as a whole—United are languishing down in eighth place in the table—but also specifically Van Persie himself.
Much has been made of course about the recent pictures published in the Daily Mail which appeared to show the front man and Moyes engaged in a heated training-round debate at Carrington ahead of United’s UEFA Champions League clash with Real Sociedad on Wednesday night.
Meanwhile, there were also reports in the Daily Star that Van Persie had not been especially enamoured with the Scot’s overly-physical training regime since he arrived at the club back in July. The Dutchman, however, was quick to refute those claims in public.
And the forward’s actual attacking numbers are holding up just fine on paper when compared to his eye-catching debut campaign at the Theatre of Dreams, with the Oranje star having netted seven goals in just 10 fixtures in all competitions to date under Moyes.
However, as the well-known saying goes: lies, damn lies and statistics. What those figures are failing to show is the new role that Van Persie has clearly been asked to take on so far this season by his new manager does not appear to be getting the best out of the player’s vast array of attacking talents.
This new position that RvP appears to have taken up under the Scot has seen the forward pushed far closer to the opposition goal, back to where he was operating in his final few years at the Emirates. Arsenal tended to utilise their star man as a No. 9 due to a lack of alternative firepower up front.
This can clearly be seen in the below graphic showing the player’s action areas in United’s recent 1-1 draw with Southampton at Old Trafford in the Premier League—a match in which Van Persie remarkably scored his first league goal from open play since his brace at Swansea City on the opening day of the season.
And when compared to the earlier map above of Van Persie’s action areas against Villa last season, it is revealing to see just how much more time he spent in the penalty area against the Saints. He also completed only 14 passes in the match, 13 less than against Paul Lambert’s men in April, to further indicate a reduction in his link-up play as he became more isolated from his team-mates while operating as an out-and-out fox in the box.
Meanwhile, in United’s home league clash with Chelsea back in August, the prolific striker remarkably had a paltry three efforts on goal in the entire match. Worryingly for such an accurate marksman, not one of them was on target (see below graphic).
However, as the below table graphically illustrates, this is all just part of a general trend in Van Persie’s game under Moyes so far this season, which appears to have been brought about by this slight tweaking to his role up front.
Robin van Persie Statistical Comparison
|Chance conversion||Chances created per game||Passes per game||Tackles per game||Defensive actions per game|
|Van Persie 2013/14||18.2%||0.1||19||0.4||1|
|Van Persie 2012/13||22%||1.8||27||0.6||2|
The first thing to point out from the table is that the Dutchman is creating significantly less chances per game under Moyes than he did under his predecessor—incredibly the front man has created just one opening in the entire season so far. Secondly, it is noticeable that when those offerings do come alone, Van Persie is now far less clinical in putting them away than in the previous campaign, as we highlighted above against Chelsea.
All of which appears to point to a general malaise and loss of form by the player, despite his seemingly healthy goalscoring numbers so far this season. That can of course happen to any striker, with Van Persie himself even going over two months without a goal at one point last season. The Netherlands international has also been suffering from various small niggles of late.
But, what the above statistical comparison between the 2012/13 and 2013/14 seasons does clearly indicate is that RvP is now operating in a different role at United, with the attacker attempting on average less passes, while also making fewer tackles and half as many defensive contributions per game.
And those figures all serve to support the findings from the Saints game earlier this month that Van Persie has now been asked by Moyes to play closer to the opposition goal, while at the same time getting less involved with linking up with his team-mates by dropping deep outside the penalty area.
In conclusion, it is important to state that we are only two months into the season and so we are dealing with a far smaller sample size than in the previous campaign. While it must also be noted that with a new man at the helm, it will inevitably take time for Moyes’ ideas to be fully taken on board and assimilated by his players.
At the same time though, what cannot also be refuted is that Van Persie is clearly struggling for form in front of goal at present. Regardless of his recent injury problems, his chance-conversion, chances-created-per-game and recent two-month drought without a league goal in open play ably demonstrate a lack in form.
And those declining attacking numbers are clearly reflective of the striker’s new role in the team, higher up the field of play, a role that has appeared to have only served to isolate the Dutchman from the rest of his team-mates.
So perhaps Moyes should consider giving his star man the licence to roam deep once again and become more involved in the team’s build-up play, rather than restricting the parts of the pitch he can operate in.
As then maybe the Scot will see the striker back to creating on average nearly two chances in every game. If that were to happen, then both RvP’s and United’s so far stuttering campaign would definitely kick back into life.