By Ewan Roberts
As referee Cuneyt Cakir brandished a red card to Nani, shock and rage swiftly rippled around Old Trafford. On the bench sat Wayne Rooney, surprisingly dropped by his manager. The headlines wrote themselves, but within the eye of this perfect storm of controversy lurked an increasing concern: Robin van Persie is no longer scoring when he wants.
Against Real Madrid on Tuesday night, the Manchester United striker was a peripheral figure. His influence on the game came only in brief, disappointing flashes – a scuffed cross-cum-shot volley easily blocked by Sergio Ramos followed soon after by a comedy overhead kick attempt.
The miskicks at Old Trafford were unfortunate, but not as costly as his miss in the first leg at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium. In behind the defence, the Dutchman expertly chested the ball down and cocked his trusty left foot – mortgages across the nation would have been wagered on the ball nestling in the far corner.
|ON THE SLIDE?
Van Persie's subdued run
|Man Utd 2-1 Southampton
January 30, no goal
|Fulham 0-1 Man Utd
February 2, no goal
|Man Utd 2-0 Everton
February 10, GOAL!
|Real Madrid 1-1 Man Utd
February 13, no goal
|Man Utd 2-1 Reading
February 18, no goal
|QPR 0-2 Man Utd
February 23, no goal
|Man Utd 4-0 Norwich
March 2, no goal
|Man Utd 1-2 Real Madrid
March 5, no goal
Instead he scuffed his volley into the ground. The ball bounced over the onrushing Diego Lopez and bobbled towards goal before being cleared off the line by Xabi Alonso. United were denied a second, invaluable away goal.
The 29-year-old’s misfiring outings against Los Blancos extended his worst run of form since the start of the 2010-11 season, when injury still plagued him (he didn’t play a full 90 minutes until December that year). He has scored just one goal in his last eight appearances, a period just shy of 50 days, and has failed to find the back of the net in his previous five games (his sole contribution being an assist against Norwich last Saturday).
Over that period in the league, Van Persie has averaged a shot on target only every 63.4 minutes. He has converted just one of the five clear-cut chances that have fallen his way, meaning his clear-cut chances conversion rate has dropped from 39% (his figure after scoring against Tottenham in January) to 20% - a significant drop-off.
Before the turn of the year, Van Persie was the finest of stallions in a one horse race to be crowned Player of the Year. Now, with his Midas touch having (for the moment) evaded him, he has been usurped at the top of the Premier League goalscoring charts by Luis Suarez, while Gareth Bale is the new bookie’s favourite to land the Player of the Year award.
Weariness has undoubtedly played its part. The Dutchman – who has appeared in all 28 of the Red Devils’ league matches this season, more than any other United player – looks visibly fatigued, his sharpness diminished. At times he was bullied by the Madrid centre-back duo of Raphael Varane and Ramos, something that would have been unimaginable earlier in the campaign.
But Van Persie is not used to the rigours of playing 38 league matches per season. He joined the “38 club” for the first time last year, having averaged just 15.1 league starts in the 10 seasons preceding that (for both Feyenoord and Arsenal).
He has suffered almost identical slumps before, with Lent having a peculiar effect on the Dutchman. Last season, while still with the Gunners, he scored just one goal in seven games between March 21 and April 21 – a penalty in a 3-0 win over bottom-of-the-table Wolves.
Not only does that hint at a player not fully acclimatised to playing so many games, it also touches upon how his talismanic powers can escape him when his team need them most. Locked in a battle for the top four last season, Arsenal won only three of the six games between March and April in which Van Persie’s scoring touch evaded him, losing against QPR and Wigan. The Gunners had Marton Fulop to thank for clinging on to third place.
United needed Van Persie’s goals more than ever against Madrid, yet he was at his most profligate. Likewise, for Arsenal, he struggled to replicate his domestic dominance in the Champions League, firing only blanks in San Siro last season having been acrimoniously dismissed at the Camp Nou a year earlier.
Inconsistent in so-called “big games”, he scored just one goal from seven starts at the 2010 World Cup as the Netherlands – propped up by Wesley Sneijder – advanced to the final despite Van Persie, not because of him. At the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine he struggled again, scoring just once as the Oranje crashed out of tournament without picking up even a single point.
Van Persie’s involvement in the Euros, off the back of (a career high) 47 games for Arsenal, and the lack of rest therefore afforded to him over the summer could account of his dip in form and fitness.
These are slightly worrying times for United – though, 12 points clear at the top of the table, it is far from a crisis. Nevertheless, with Van Persie’s form suffering, the Red Devils’ once overstocked roster of strikers is looking a little threadbare. Danny Welbeck has scored just one league goal this year, Chicharito has yet to graduate from the role of super-sub, and Rooney is out of favour, perhaps even surplus to requirements.
That goes some lengths to explaining why Van Persie has been rested and rotated so infrequently, but, importantly, underlines the importance of United’s £24 million striker. While the Dutchman’s barren run continues, a tiny sliver of hope remains for Manchester City in the title race, while FA Cup glory will be almost impossible for United without an on-song Van Persie.
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