When Louis van Gaal switched from his tried-and-trusted 4-3-3 formation to 5-3-2 shortly before the World Cup in Brazil started, it immediately became apparent that the Netherlands manager’s new tactical set-up was designed to perfectly accommodate the attacking prowess of star players Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie.
In the Netherlands' opening match, against Spain, Van Gaal’s decision was immediately vindicated. Robben and Van Persie ran riot against their opponents, taking the formerly invincible tiki-taka machine apart like an old, broken car at the garage.
Van Persie, who played as Oranje’s deepest striker, with Robben playing in a free role around him, scored twice against Spain and bagged another during the Netherlands’ second group-stage match, against Australia. Not only did things go well for Oranje: The World Cup was off to a flying start for the Dutch captain as well.
But later, during the Netherlands’ round-of-16 match against Mexico, and during the quarter-final against Costa Rica, Van Persie’s performances dropped significantly. He failed to score or assist his team-mates in his role as target man. Where had the world-class striker that scored so freely against reigning world champions Spain gone?
Worse still, Van Persie played an insignificant role during the semi-final against Argentina. When Oranje desperately needed one of their star players to step up and showcase their individual brilliance, Van Persie remained quiet.
Sometimes, World Cup campaigns are defined by star players taking things into their own hands. In 1974, Johan Cruyff fulfilled that role for the Netherlands. Diego Maradona did it for Argentina in 1986.
But arguably, it’s unfair to ask for the same from this generation of footballers. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, two players generally regarded as the best footballers in the world, have not done it for their respective countries. The truth is that football is a different game now.
What’s more, before the World Cup started, Van Persie had only recently returned to fitness. He had had a train wreck of a season at Manchester United and was personally plagued by injury. It was far from ideal preparation for the intensity of the World Cup.
In this regard, it’s difficult to argue Van Persie has disappointed during this World Cup. Granted, during the knockout stage, he wasn’t as influential as Oranje fans would have hoped. But he has scored four goals in total. With last season at his club in mind, that’s an impressive performance.
But perhaps most importantly: Is it possible to ever forget Van Persie’s “salmon dive” wonder goal against Spain? It was one of the most memorable moments of the World Cup in Brazil. That in itself is worthy of applause.
Ahead of Van Gaal’s debut season at their club, then, followers of Manchester United have reason to look back at this World Cup and feel satisfied. The tournament gave their new boss the opportunity to gain confidence for the task ahead of him, while Van Persie was given plenty of playing time. Undoubtedly, the striker will return to his club fully fit again.
Sometimes, it’s unfair to expect a player to win the World Cup single-handedly, and that’s especially the case with Robin van Persie. On the back of the horrible season he has had at his club, Van Persie must even be admired.
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