Friday, August 17, 2012

What Robin van Persie could mean to Manchester United

With Arsenal captain Robin van Persie certain to sign for Manchester United, the balance of power in the English Premier League shifts again towards the country's northwest. Despite Arsenal's best efforts to provide him with support in the form of the deepest squad of his tenure at the Emirates, van Persie's quest for self-actualisation through silverware now continues at Old Trafford.

Manchester United supporters will be happy with the purchase: it cements their position as a destination club, goals are always welcome and the transfer fee – despite reaching a rumoured 24 million – is quite justifiable should the van Persie provide even three years of quality play.

He will (likely) start at the pointy end of Sir Alex Ferguson's preferred one-striker formations, the 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1. This means, despite ink suggesting other centre-forwards will be marginalised, it seems far more likely that fellow new signing Shinji Kagawa or established wide men like Ashley Young will be most affected. With Kagawa, Tom Cleverley, youngster Nick Powell, Rooney and Young all probably best employed behind the striker, pessimists suggest the club has too many players in competition for one role.

That Ferguson purchased Kagawa this summer, Young last year, as well as advancing Cleverley, suggests the United manager favours a mobile, multifocal attack where numerous players are able to threaten opposing defences. This flexibility fits with his formation preference, which ostensibly affords better support for an creaking central midfield from a mobile forward corps. When attacking, the mosquito-fleet forwards can then run at defences rather than depending upon glamour balls to isolated target men.

United's best play this century came from 2007-2009 with a fluid 4-3-3. When they effectively replaced the versatile Cristiano Ronaldo with the more orthodox Dimitar Berbatov, an element of that interoperability was lost.

Although he was hardly a failure, it was perhaps a sense of tactical straightforwardness which led to Berbatov's purchase in 2008. In spite of a reported 30 million price tag, Berbatov was rarely deployed in big matches and almost never by himself: his lack of acumen and (apparently) inclination reducing his effectiveness in the critical poacher's role. Berbatov's languor and uncanny lead-up play has always been suited best to the 4-4-2. As United have attempted to increase their flexibility, Berbatov has become a bench fixture. van Persie is not nearly so limited.

Although sometimes very effective – c.f. Martin O'Neill's success at Aston Villa and Sunderland – it is tactical naïveté to suggest that “defenders defend, attackers attack and midfielders link the two”. When competing against the best clubs in the world, such simplicity is quickly rendered obsolete, and the flat, age-old 4-4-2 formation is now utilised less and less in truly elite teams.

The lessons taught by Champions League drubbings against Barcelona may have been learnt. Messi, Xavi and Iniesta, the three most important players in what was popularly acknowledged as the best team in recent memory, all prefer to operate centrally. Of course there are differences and these changes may just be a stall until Ferguson develops or acquires a supertalented central hub. Ferguson may opt to shuffle – no-one really knows what the old fox has in mind: signing Robin van Persie could simply be the managerial equivalent of a mid-life crisis sports car.

However, optimists could perhaps see him as the final step in United's journey towards fully embracing a more fluid tactical system.

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