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RVP the MVP: The Robin Van Persie effect

Robin Van Persie has wasted no time in settling in at Manchester United. But what is it about him that makes him so influential? The Daily Shift’s Ian Colgan has a look at the Robin Van Persie effect…

Robin Van Persie taking a penalty for Arsenal against Stoke

Robin Van Persie taking a penalty for Arsenal against Stoke

A lot has been made of Robin Van Persie’s impact as a factor for Manchester United’s current winning streak. Ryan Giggs has spoken of his presence giving the whole team a ‘lift’, while praising his efficiency from set pieces.

This is true for both corners and free-kicks he gets on the end of, and ones he drives in himself. In Villa Park on Saturday, it was Van Persie’s pin-point free-kick that met the head of ‘Chicharito’ to complete the comeback and clinch all 3 points for United. And against his old club Arsenal the weekend before, the Van Persie ingredient was so strong and undeniable that Arsenal defender Andre Santos swapped jerseys with him at half time and was consequently chastised into making a public apology.

This is common practice among top-level footballers, but it is usually done in the tunnel out of public view, and even Arsene Wenger made no bones about his assessment that it was stupidly wrong.

And he is probably correct. Santos and Van Persie are former teammates and old friends, which did little to excuse his act in the eyes of Arsenal supporters who were horrified to see him exchange jerseys with a player whose goal, at that point, was the only difference between the two sides. They consider it an affront to the whole spirit of traditional rivalry.

Wenger also went on to say that he didn’t think it had anything to do with why Arsenal lost, but Santos was tellingly absent from the Starting XI when Arsenal played Schalke in the Champions League a few days later. He was brought on as a substitute, though only in the 90th minute.

Santos showed Van Persie a level of respect and admiration that is generally considered proper only after the full—time whistle. It’s hard to imagine a gaffe going down any worse, unless the game had been in the Emirates and Santos had sprinted over and fought his way through the United shirts when Van Persie scored to congratulate the Dutchman on a ‘well-taken strike’ and shake his hand.

For his own part, Van Persie barely celebrated when he pounced on Thomas Vermaelen’s bungled clearance to fire a shot past Vito Mannone in the third minute. Just like Henrik Larsson  when he scored for Barcelona against Celtic in the Champions League in ‘04, he probably would have considered it grossly inappropriate and it wouldn’t have felt ‘right’.

Ultimately, the jersey incident was the only minor snag of tension. Van Persie did almost everything else to make sure that things ran very smoothly and that he wouldn’t be considered the root cause of any bad karma. Not only did he shake the hands of every Arsenal player as they lined out on the pitch, but he went out of his way to do so in the tunnel beforehand as well, and was even seen having a friendly chortle with Wenger.

Van Persie has reason to expect a wholly different atmosphere when Man Utd travel to the Emirates in April; a Colosseum of jeers, heckles, and aggressive chanting from Arsenal fans who are not quite ready to forgive him for ‘abandoning’ them. RVP will not see it that way, but it’s hard not to sympathise somewhat with Wenger.

It was common knowledge that Arsenal were heavily dependent on Van Persie long before his move north, but it’s only when you watch them perform without him that it hits home and becomes painfully apparent just how much. Some would say their style has visibly improved in his absence — that they’ve been forced to become more inventive without a ‘target man’ — but so far this hasn’t translated into ‘enough’ goals.

Between them Walcott, Podolski and Giroud should just about break the 30-goal mark in the league this season, but only if they’re operating at near-peak form. To put this in perspective, together they’ve scored 8 goals so far, while Van Persie has netted the same amount all by himself. Including the Champions League their combined tally is 12, and Van Persie’s is 11.

Cold data like this makes it easy to understand the growing feeling of despair and dread among Arsenal supporters, and the reverse sense of giddy optimism felt by United’s followers that’s also spread to the team and manager. Alex Ferguson was quoted in the sports section of The Irish Times on Saturday, saying that he believes his team are on the path to score 100 league goals this season — a feat that’s only ever been accomplished once, when Chelsea did it in 2009/10.

Well, why not? Anything is possible. And with 29 goals in 11 games not many would bet against it, just yet. Ferguson also made much of the fact that they have had 15 different goalscorers in all competitions (13 in the league). A healthy statistic, but one that doesn’t do much to lessen the contribution of Van Persie.

If you were to take away all of Robin Van Persie’s goals in the league this season, many of which have been in games United have either drawn or won by a single goal, United would be 9 points worse off than they are right now. This would put them somewhere around 7th or 8th, and if you also left his four assists out of the equation their campaign might begin to look ‘unsalvageable’.

Van Persie was an uncharacteristic purchase for Ferguson, who has built his reputation primarily around bringing in younger players, often nurturing them through the ranks of the academy to develop them into first-team stalwarts. His impact was more or less instant, scoring with his first shot at goal against Fulham in late August and since then he’s quickly made himself indispensible.

This is the ‘Van Persie Effect’ — a very subtle ‘MVP’ takeover/usurpation phenomenon that initially manifests itself in a pure onslaught of goals and then slowly creeps into other statistics, here and there. Last season, for instance, Wayne Rooney was United’s top scorer with 27 goals — a sum he has little hope of equalling now with only 2 league goals — and his total assists came to four.

This season, in contrast, he already has five assists to his name — the most on the team. And he’s done it despite being sidelined for a month with a grisly thigh wound, settling into the role of Van Persie’s ‘supplier’ almost by default.

This has been a surprising development for Manchester United supporters who were slavering at the prospect of having last season’s two top scorers on the same team, raising goal-scoring expectations to the highest level since the Cole/Yorke era.

But it won’t matter too much to them as long as Van Persie continues to be football’s equivalent to the Great Grey Owl and avoids injury. United stretched their lead at the top to 2 points this weekend with a fifth straight victory, and they now face an easy run of fixtures against Norwich, QPR, West Ham and Reading. Plenty of opportunities for Van Persie to run riot.

*Lead image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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About Ian Colgan

Ian holds a Masters in journalism from NUI Galway and currently works as a journalist for the Wicklow Times. With an avid interest in sports, politics and zoology, he has contributed to numerous print and online publications over the last number of years on a variety of subjects. In 2012 he made a radio documentary about Pit Bulls.

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