Robin van Persie: Is Manchester United's Striker Their Version of Lionel Messi?December 17, 2012
There were a few eyebrows raised in the summer when Manchester United forked out £24 million on former Arsenal forward Robin van Persie, not because his talent did not justify the amount, but because it seemed an excessive fee to pay for a 29-year-old with just one year left on his contract.
Seventeen Premier League games and 12 goals later, all the questions have been emphatically answered thus far, and van Persie added his latest strike at the weekend in helping United beat Sunderland by a scoreline of 3-1.
It prompted Sunderland boss Martin O'Neill to compare the Dutch forward to Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi, as per the Guardian:
Would, for instance, Barcelona have the same effect if Lionel Messi didn't play? The number of goals he has scored is incredible. They are a very talented team, but without him, you don't know because Messi is their talisman. United have paid close on £30m for a player [£24m] who had just one year left on his contract, so that might tell you how valuable they perceive him. But it's not just the perception, the reality is that he has been fantastic.
High praise indeed, but are such comparisons warranted?
O'Neill is, of course, not comparing Robin van Persie directly to Leo Messi in terms of his style of play and the way he can perform on the ball.
Messi is in a class of his own, and van Persie, while a mightily accomplished striker, takes nothing like the same approach to the game on the ball as the Argentine.
Even so, there are undoubted similarities which cannot be ignored.
Both teams, Manchester United and Barcelona, rely on their star forwards as the main focus in the attacking third.
While the Spanish side take a very patient build-up approach to attacking, constantly circulating the ball and maintaining possession, United are rather quicker in getting the ball forward after a transition.
In both cases, the main man—Messi for Barça, van Persie for United—is expected to contribute towards the build-up phases of play, but also work themselves into spaces to receive the ball with an opportunity to shoot.
It could be argued that in this particular asset, off-the-ball movement around the penalty area, van Persie actually outshines Messi because of his natural ability to work space with a single step away from a defender. Messi, on the other hand, is far more adept at picking up the ball with opponents in close attendance and shifting away from them with his close control and superior acceleration.
The rest of the team, both with and without the ball, is set up to provide chances for the centre forward and to allow him to not need to track back too far or too often, instead remaining where they are a danger to the opposition.
All this is pretty much par for the course for any team's main striker, you might argue—true, but many sides still ask their forwards to track back, or play in a way to suit two forwards equally or any other number of different ways.
United play to get the ball to van Persie in the penalty area, not dissimilar to Barcelona wanting the ball to reach Messi in the final third as often as possible.
No question here about the difference in players; while van Persie has come off the back of his best ever scoring season in the Premier League (30, Arsenal, 2011-12) Leo Messi is racking up close to 100 goals for the calender year.
Comparisons of numbers are immaterial and out of context for this argument, though.
The statistics do show, however, that both players are extremely reliable when it comes to hitting the back of the net. United are the highest scorers in the Premier League this season, and van Persie is responsible for 28 percent of those goals by himself. No other United player has yet reached double figures for the season in league play.
Messi has a higher proportion of goals for his side; his 25 goals in just 16 games account for 46 percent of Barcelona's strikes in the league, but again, nobody else has even more than five goals in the league.
The two forwards are the undoubted go-to men for their teams for goals, which ultimately win games. Messi has proven himself the ultimately reliable man for scoring consistently over the past few seasons, while van Persie has been non-stop for the past 18 months too.
Going back to Martin O'Neill's original quote, would Barcelona have the same effect if Lionel Messi didn't play?
Well, they'd sure still have somebody very talented playing the centre forward's role—be it David Villa, Alexis Sanchez or Cesc Fabregas perhaps—but they would all operate to slightly different methods.
Villa, the natural forward, would be reliant on his movement in the area and finishing ability, but after injury and age have taken their toll, might not be able to put in the consistency that Messi offers.
Cesc might drop deeper too often, looking to play the playmaking midfielder, as is his natural inclination, whilst Alexis might be tempted to utilise his pace off the shoulder of the defender, not getting involved in the build-up phases at all.
They'd all do a fine job, sure, but Messi has something of each of them, which, in turn, lets the rest of his teammates perform their jobs to such a high level that the team is made better.
Xavi knows where his runs will come from, Iniesta knows that a quick pass will be instantly controlled and returned and Dani Alves knows that a low cross from the flank will be attacked in the 6-yard box.
For United, van Persie offers his team mates much the same service, making their jobs easier and helping them play better.
Working the channels, he will link up well with the wingers for United, but he will also make sure he is around the penalty spot to give them a target to aim for with their crosses. Intelligent movement in the 6-yard box and an unerring ability to finish first time, even on the turn, means that even below-par crosses which go vaguely towards van Persie have a chance in culminating as an assist.
Wayne Rooney in particular is one who has benefited from van Persie's menacing presence in the penalty area, leaving the English forward to be free to roam as a creative force from the deeper zones as needed without fear of having nobody further forward to finish moves off.
United's team is set up to play towards van Persie, but he puts the effort in to make sure the work of his colleagues doesn't go to waste.
Not always something associated with van Persie until recently, but the Dutchman is now bordering on two years of consecutive football without a major injury, and with an international tournament thrown in mid-summer for good measure.
Messi's reliability both in terms of performances and resistance to injury cannot be questioned; he plays in the vast majority of Barcelona's games in each competition, totalling 73 appearances for club and country last season.
Van Persie has made great strides to improve in this area, and it might not be premature to suggest that United's success in the league this season could well depend on him maintaining his recent impressive consistency.
Having four forwards to choose from allows Manchester United the option to rest and rotate van Persie whenever need arises, though they will want him in the side as often as possible while his current rate of finding the net continues.
Messi is, well, Messi, and nobody can challenge him on a footballing or goalscoring level at this moment.
But United don't need to worry about imitating him—they only need to find their own match-winner who can elevate their side in the same way that the Barcelona No. 10 does for his team.
It cost them a lot of money, and it might only be an answer for the medium term—but in Robin van Persie, they look like they've got a forward who will do exactly that.
The price was £24 million, but the reward could be one Premier League title.
Statistical and financial data from WhoScored.com and TransferMarkt.co.uk