Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Van Persie And His Spaces

Never mind Moyes, are Man Utd better without Van Persie?

Van Persie’s absence through injury and a couple of decent Premier League performances in that time (out of three, Man City at home being the exception) have validated his complaints about other teammates running into his space on the pitch, albeit probably not in the way he thought. 

In his absence Man Utd have lined up in the same 4-2-3-1 formation that they would with him available, just with Rooney moving one position further forward to take his place as the main striker.  Whether this is now Rooney’s best position or not is a (lengthy) debate for another day.  What’s undeniable is in the three games without Van Persie in front of him Rooney has scored 4 goals, just under a third of his total for the season.  He can more than do the job there.  In an alternate footballing universe where Mourinho got his wish and Rooney had been playing for Chelsea this season this is undoubtedly the role that he had in mind for him.  Chelsea already had a squad stocked with tens.  They needed a striker.

With Rooney pushed forward Mata’s freed up from his position on the wing to come inside to undoubtedly his best position, floating behind the striker.  The difference in his performances in the two games he’s played there has been enormous (against City he was shifted out to the wing again to accommodate Tom Cleverly as an extra central midfielder).  He was the best player on the pitch against Villa, providing a goal and two assists.  More importantly he linked midfield and attack in a way that has been almost totally absent for the rest of the season.  Mata was also free to switch positions when required with Kagawa on the left (a position he regularly fills with distinction for Japan).  Rooney’s header against Villa is an illustration of this; Mata’s run through the middle draws defenders away from Rooney as Kagawa cuts in from the left to cross.  Without the movement and understanding from the three Rooney doesn’t score.

What Ferguson meant with the signing of Kagawa we’ll probably never know.  It’s fair to say that as the second biggest close season arrival (together with Van Persie) on what turned out to be his last ever summer in charge he was expecting more than watching him sit on the bench.  Taken together with him leaking Rooney’s transfer request it’s likely that Ferguson might even have planned for him to take Rooney’s place as the team’s ten.  Now though, with Mata signed and the three of them playing well together it looks like it should be a choice between Van Persie and Rooney rather than fitting them both in.

And it’s the lack of this that Van Persie was complaining about.  All season Man Utd have lacked cohesion more than anything.  The problem he’s got now is that in his absence Moyes has stumbled onto a solution.  Whether it should have taken this long to think about playing players in their preferred positions is just something else to beat a defenceless Moyes with.  He’s already tried to go more defensive against City (reverting to type and dropping Kagawa after a good performance) and seen it fail utterly.  You’d think for the sake of job preservation he’d stick with what was working.  And long term that could be bad news for Van Persie.

Even before this latest shift there’s been the odd piece of evidence that Man Utd have looked more threatening without him.  During his other injuries Van Persie’s place has normally been filled by Wellbeck, who has extra training or not done quite well.  When fit, and sometimes when not, Moyes has always found room for the Dutchman.  Given so far he’s shown an inability to make tough decisions it’s likely he’ll do the same when Van Persie returns.  To play Rooney and Van Persie together successfully has proven beyond him tactically so far.  It could well come down to picking one of them.  With his freshly minted £300,000 contract Rooney will be confident he would get the nod.  Van Persie brought attention to the problem early in the season.  It could be his bad lack that in his absence they’ve stumbled onto the solution.

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