ROTTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - MAY 30: Robin van Persie of Netherlands jogs during the International Friendly between the Netherlands and Slovakia at De Kuip Stadion on May 30, 2012 in Rotterdam, Netherlands. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
As the Robin van Persie to Manchester United rumors swirled around this summer, I was fairly ambivalent to the possibility. On one hand, the former Arsenal captain was quite clearly the Premier League's standout player last season and his past season-and-a-half was a display of genuine world-class form. On the other hand, he is a 29-year-old striker that has proven to be injury-prone throughout his career and the United strike force already had the world-class Wayne Rooney complimented by talented youngsters Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) -- a trio that has forced the sublime Dimitar Berbatov to be relegated as Sir Alex Ferguson's fourth option. The Dutchman wasn't exactly a need -- as is the need in central-midfield for both a ball-winning battler and a deep-lying playmaker eventually to replace the ageless Paul Scholes -- but the realistic opportunity to acquire a world-class talent has no longer become the every transfer window norm at Old Trafford.
How do I feel about the signing now? Well, now that the deal is soon to be done, I'm no longer too concerned about the finances surrounding the deal because there isn't much that can be done once those numbers are on the books. A sunk cost I suppose. I'm more curious to know what van Persie's role at United will be and how that might affect other individuals such as Rooney, Welbeck, Chicharito, Shinji Kagawa, and even our wingers due to tactical possibilities.
Because van Persie has spent the past 8 seasons in the Premier League, and as one of the league's higher profile players during that time, my assumption is that most of you are generally aware of his skillset. His game has evolved though during his time at the Emirates. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger first deployed him as a secondary striker -- or 'in the hole' -- in behind Thierry Henry and the then youngster impressed because his technique and creativity allowed him to both score goals and set up chances. Eventually van Persie began to lead the line in attack as Wenger's sole striker but the Dutchman would often drop deep as a false 9 to link with the midfield. In the past season, one that saw the striker score 37 goals in all competitions, the striker tended to stay higher while playing more as a traditonal number 9. While evolving from a between the lines player to a true number 9, van Persie has continually displayed superb movement and he still possesses the ability to both score goals and create them. His 13 league assists last season -- the most in his career -- has seemingly gone unnoticed by some.
Fergie's shiny new toy is rumored to soon be on £200,000+/week wages (*) -- only Rooney is thought to likely top this and be in the same proximity in wages -- and therefore, the squad is certainly going to be built around van Persie and current talisman Rooney (**). However, perhaps I shouldn't assume this because the manager's last shiny and expensive toy -- Berbatov -- has been tossed aside over the years despite his club-record transfer fee. Nonetheless, it's probably not a waste of time wonder how van Persie and Rooney will feature together.
(*) Perhaps once a year during the 4-year contract that RvP is thought be receiving, one of those weekly checks can accidentally be sent my way. He'd hardly notice but I surely would.
(**) Maybe the finances of the deal will concern me more than I initially thought.
As previously mentioned, van Persie has become a genuine world-class player recently as a traditional number nine. Rooney has proven to be a highly-effective versatile player in the past as he's excelled as a wide attacker in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 system, a lead striker in both a 4-3-3/4-5-1 system and a 4-4-1-1 system, and most recently as a number 10 in a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 system. From this basic information, one could reasonably conclude that van Persie will be the first-choice number nine in either a 4-3-3/4-5-1 or in a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 while Rooney could operate as a wide player in the former system and as a number 10 in the latter. This theoretically makes a lot of sense, right?
Here's the thing though -- Rooney was somewhat poor for last season's run-in as a number 10 as his close-control was disappointing as was his decision-making in the attacking third. The talisman sputtered way too many attacks prematurely and United were vulnerable to quick counter-attacks in behind Patrice Evra and Rafael on these occasions. Despite his impressive goal-scoring tally, Rooney was nowhere near the form of his tremendous 2010/11 season run-in. In addition, his work-rate had dropped off and he was no longer as effective defensively against the opposition's deepest-lying midfielder while in a number 10 role nor was he particularly good on the occasions he was featured out wide. Kagawa's signing from German champions Borussia Dortmund -- where he had excelled as a central-attacking-midfielder just in behind lead striker Robert Lewandowski -- perhaps hinted that Rooney was going to be moved higher up the pitch as the lead striker. Danny Welbeck clearly playing in behind Rooney at times during the pre-season tour -- rather than taking turns dropping deep -- perhaps further signaled this change. van Persie's arrival confuses the situation.
My guess is that van Persie will always be featured as a number 9 -- whether that be in a 4-4-2, 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1, or a 4-3-3/4-5-1. Rooney may be moved around quite a bit as he likely will play underneath van Persie in a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 and possibly to the left of him in a 4-3-3/4-5-1. Theoretically, these possibilities are exciting but I do have 2 concerns: (1) Will the mercurial Rooney be okay being moved around? Might he see this as a possible challenge to being the alpha dog at United since Cristiano Ronaldo's departure? (2) Is Rooney still effective as a versatile player? His work-rate and tactical intelligence made him a hugely valuable player in a number of different roles when he was younger. Does he still have the same willingness to shift around according to the team's needs?
Besides Rooney, there are questions on what van Persie's Old Trafford arrival means for Welbeck, Chicharito, Kagawa, and United's wingers. Welbeck formed an impressive partnership with Rooney last year and his development as the second choice striker -- over the established Chicharito and Berbatov -- was one of the more exciting stories of last season. The young Mancunian displayed stellar movement, good technique, and fantastic athletic ability. If he is able to improve on his finishing, Welbeck has genuine potential to develop into a border-line world-class talent. However, will van Persie's involvement hinder his development? Fortunately for Welbeck, he is also versatile and he can feature out wide effectively. In addition, with United's congested fixture list, the young lad should get plenty of games and he will still have the opportunity to show that he should be first-choice for the big games.
Berbatov is certainly on his way out but the biggest loser of this deal may be Chicharito. There are already rumblings that he could be looking for an exit from Old Trafford. The Mexican striker is a superb finisher in the box -- unless Tim Howard is in goal -- and he still has a lot of value as a squad player and as a late-game assassin. However, he likely will only feature when Fergie decides to deploy United in a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 system. Also, if RvP, Rooney, and Welbeck are healthy and in good form, Chicharito may find it difficult to displace one of them because the others offer more with their all-around abilities.
Kagawa has been eclipsed by van Persie as this summer's marquee signing at United but has his likely role been diminished too? The Japanese international has already stated that his preferred role is in behind a lead striker. He likely will get opportunities there due to the congested fixture list but he may be second-choice in this role at the season's beginning if Rooney is to be played in behind van Persie. He is also an option out wide, particularly to the left as that is where he recently features for the Japanese national team. Kagawa is versatile enough as an attacking-midfielder to feature anywhere along the third band in a 4-2-3-1ish shape. Although if Kagawa does play out wide on occasion, as could Rooney and Welbeck as previously mentioned, this takes one of two wide spots from the tremendous winger trio of Antonio Valencia, Nani, and Ashley Young. van Persie's arrival may have more of a trickle down effect than initially realized.
In the recent past, United's 4-3-3/4-5-1 system has seen their midfield rotated from a traditional midfield trio. Rather than have a single-holding player with two advanced central-midfielders ahead, Fergie tended to deploy two deeper-lying midfielders with a lone advanced and driving player ahead. Perhaps the system could be better described as a 4-2-1-3. Kagawa is a possibility to be the one in the third band in support of three forwards.The possibility of van Persie leading an attacking line while flanked by Rooney and Valencia/Nani/Welbeck/Young, with Kagawa in behind them linking the midfield and attack, and with Scholes and Michael Carrick controlling matches from deep is a mouth-watering possibilities. Although Yaya Toure may go through that possible lineup like a bowling ball through helpless pins...
It'll be fascinating to see what effect van Persie's signing has on the rest of the squad and on Fergie's tactics. We may see the great manager revert back to 4-3-3/4-5-1 on more big game occasions as he has a genuine world-class striker that is able to lead the line while having other versatile attackers surrounding him as well. Will the acquisition of a great striker in his absolute prime make United's attack an unstoppable force as many are anticipating or might the Dutchman actually cause a disruption to Fergie's team due to the trickle down effect on the squad. Time will tell.