After 22 games, United were four points better off than they were last season. The team has improved or arguably that the competition has not. Add in the fact that Manchester City are five points behind and suddenly the situation looks a lot rosier. But what lies behind the improvement?
Judging by statistics alone is a palpably soulless manner in which to view the beautiful game but to some it is an inescapable refuge. 21 goals by mid-January, however, reads very well for any striker. In goals alone, that is Robin van Persie’s contribution so far this season. To say he has enjoyed a good start to his Manchester United career would be an understatement yet to deem United a ‘one man band’ is taking it a bit too far.
At the time, Van Persie’s acquisition was seen as the defining factor in this season’s title race. Whether it is will be assessed come what May but his contribution so far has been a factor in United’s play and standing in all competitions. Highlight the word factor though, for it is not all about him.
Do not get me wrong, throughout this season it has been a pleasure to see Robin van Persie in a Manchester United shirt. Merely typing that sentence seems a little surreal, almost as if it is far too much of a blessing to have him as the focal point.
His finishing has been sublime. From the exquisite curlers outside the box (e.g. West Brom at home) to the archetypal strikers goals (e.g. Liverpool last weekend – watch his movement for a teaching of how to lose your man and create space). His build-up play has also been a joy to watch such as his little flick to set off Ashley Young before Wayne Rooney‘s opener against Manchester City. There is also his set-piece delivery providing assists.
He has also scored when it matters. The winner against Liverpool away and the opener at home. The last-minute winner against Manchester City. The two opening goals against Chelsea and the opening goal against Arsenal. Not forgetting his stoppage-time equaliser against West Ham to keep United in the FA Cup. These are the contributions that could make the difference.
But a one Van band, really? That shies away from the telling contribution of others.Manchester United have had 19 different goalscorers this season thanks to Vidic’s deflected header against Liverpool.
Javier Hernandez has 12 goals to his name whilst Rooney is on nine despite injury layoffs. Even Jonny Evans and Evra have stolen in to rack up eight between them. One wonders quite how United would cope should any injury impale the Dutchman yet that is exactly what a squad is for, others step in when the chance presents itself.
If you want cases of a ‘one man band’ then you do not have to go that far back to the contribution of another Dutchman, Ruud van Nistelrooy. While his goal tallies were undoubtedly staggering his contribution was not matched by trophies. While he racked up the goals United’s play became predictable, practically aiming for the Dutchman any which way they could.
Part of the reason for his departure was the stifling of both Rooney and Ronaldo. In part, if you centre your play you miss out on peripheral talents. At the time, his departure to Real Madrid was seen as devastating yet three league titles and a European Cup seem to suggest otherwise.
As a statement of intent, buying Van Persie at the peak of his powers sends a daunting message to the competition both outside and inside the club. His arrival has had a galvanising effect on those around him and he has slotted into United’s way of playing almost seamlessly. He remains a talented finisher yet his build-up play cannot be ignored. He can bring others into play, begin moves as well as play in tandem with another striker. As a result the team are playing more entertaining, attacking football.
If United were winning each game 1-0 with Van Persie scoring the winner then understandable accusations of over-dependability could be aimed. For the moment his goals and all-round play are contributing to the teams success, a one man band it is not.