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Robin van Persie Returns to United, Where He Left Behind a Bubble

Tim Collins@@TimDCollinsFeatured ColumnistOctober 20, 2016

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 the goal that said it all and did it all. From between the central defenders, the league's leading figure peeled away to the left with that ominous curl in his run. The ball was still almost half-a-pitch length away, but that's why he was who he was, head and shoulders above, steps and seconds ahead.

The ball, inch perfect, came long and high, finding him in the pocket he'd created. From anyone else would have come an outstretched boot wanting to take a touch, but his foot wound back instead. Then: thump.

It was the exclamation mark to end them all. Robin van Persie's volley against Aston Villa at Old Trafford in April 2013 had delivered the Premier League title back to Manchester United. But not only that, it was the club's 20th title, delivered by the man wearing that exact number on his back.

It was a title ripped away from Manchester City. It was a title to give Sir Alex Ferguson the grand-daddy of send-offs. And it was a title victory in which the defining moment came from the guy, dripping with the cocktail of technique and swagger that was his very essence.

Now he's back. Van Persie returns to Old Trafford on Thursday with Fenerbahce in the Europa League. After that season, his time on Sir Matt Busby Way became a flame that burned too quickly, but it's clear that it remains a special place for him; like "home," he told MUTV

From a player who broke out at Feyenoord and spent almost a decade at Arsenal, it's a significant description, pointing not only at the impact Old Trafford had on him, but also he on it. 

Old Trafford is where Van Persie left behind one of the iconic individual seasons in Premier League history. It's where he left behind the flourish of his career, a historic title, an avalanche of goals and memories for thousands. But it's also where he left behind a season that, when looked back on now, appears like a bubble in the context of what's come around it. 

Van Persie strikes his iconic volley against Aston Villa in April 2013.
Van Persie strikes his iconic volley against Aston Villa in April 2013.Alex Livesey/Getty Images

On Thursday night, the Dutchman will return to a changed club, and he's changed, too. Now 33, his best years have passed him. At Fenerbahce, he's struggled since signing a lucrative contract, and he's only completed 90 minutes once this season, against Alanyaspor on Sunday. 

In a footballing sense, life post-United has been difficult. For United, life after the Van Persie year has been just the same. 

United are now into their fourth season since the Dutchman's explosion and are still looking for a lost lustre. Finishes of seventh, fourth and fifth have been the club's worst in the Premier League era, and in Jose Mourinho, they're on to their third boss in a hurry—for their standards at least.

United remain a behemoth of a club, but for now, they feel bigger off the pitch than on it. Since Ferguson's departure, the club steered by Ed Woodward have taken on some of the themes of Florentino Perez's Real Madrid. United have become a commercial monster, and signings have had that lacing of Galactico to them, often striking as part footballers, part statements and part business strategies. 

It's vastly different to what came just before it. Ferguson's final years were characterised by a certain restraint in the market and getting by with continuity and a lot of know-how.

When Cristiano Ronaldo left for Madrid in 2009, United's major signings were Antonio Valencia, Gabriel Obertan and Mame Diouf. The following year, Bebe and Chris Smalling headlined the arrivals; the year after that, it was Phil Jones, Ashley Young and a youthful David De Gea.  

In the middle of these two distinct periods is Van Persie, all on his own. Looking at it now, his signing is detached both from what went before and what's come after. He wasn't a project (Anthony Martial). He wasn't a cast-off (Juan Mata). He wasn't a gamble (Radamel Falcao). He wasn't a yesterday's man (Bastian Schweinsteiger). He wasn't a comfort blanket for a manager (Marouane Fellaini). 

He was just an established Premier League gun at his peak. It's easy to forget how rare that is. 

Manchester United @ManUtd

.@Persie_official is back at Old Trafford on Thursday - thanks for the memories, Robin! #MUFC https://t.co/lfb1yemveu

The avalanche of cash that has come into the Premier League has made signings like United's of Van Persie almost unfeasible now. Clubs don't need to sell and are in a better position to negotiate with their players. Buying Premier League talent has also become ludicrously expensive in comparison to buying from elsewhere. The rise of City has given United a challenger for the mantle of the league's alpha-dog, too.

Can you imagine United just being able to pluck Sergio Aguero from City now? Or Kevin De Bruyne? Or Diego Costa from Chelsea?  

That's what they did with Van Persie. In the summer of 2012, it was almost like the rules didn't apply, like the new realities and challenges of the landscape were temporarily turned off. After losing the league to City, United just went and got the best player in the country to do something about it, simple as that. 

It was the Van Persie bubble. Right from the beginning, the Dutchman made the league his. A slick, lethal strike against Fulham in his first start signalled what was to come, and the subsequent highlight reel was immense: the hat-trick against Southampton, the polished first-time finishes against Cluj, the killer blow against Arsenal, the winner in the derby against City, the curling blast against West Bromwich Albion, the quick feet against Wigan Athletic. And that volley. 

"He's been unbelievable," said Ferguson after the latter, as reported by the Guardian, putting him alongside Eric Cantona. "In terms of impact he has made as big an impact as any player I can imagine. [...] He was sensational last year, but Arsene [Wenger] said he was better than I'd think after I'd done the deal and he was right."

It was the line that summed it up. United had known he was good but not that he was that good. They couldn't quite believe what they'd been given. Van Persie was different to what had come in the couple of years before and different to what's followed. He and that season sit in a little pocket of the club's recent history that's detached from everything else around it. A bubble. 

On Thursday, he returns. He's changed, and United have changed, but no one has forgotten what it all looked like.  

                                

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