23 April 2013

We don't need van Persie. How much has Man U needed him?

In the aftermath of Man U's 20th Prem title, Robin van Persie has attracted a lot of plaudits, but how much of the credit does he actually deserve? Yes, he's scored 24 goals so far, including three on Monday against Aston Villa, but just how much has his presence enhanced Man U's performance? After all, they had Wayne
Rooney coming off of a career-season of his own with 27 goals last year, good for a Golden Boot of its own more often than not, and Man U had scored 89 goals. This year, with four games still to play, they've scored "only" 78. They'd need to average three goals a game to close the season out in order to top last year's total. In other words, suggesting that signing van Persie was a master-stroke that delivered the Prem title to Man U is overstating things just a bit. In their rush to judgement, pundits have fallen over themselves to lavish superlatives on van Persie and what he has meant to Man U. I almost gagged when ESPN offered an article with the word "Vanchester". I'm not going to link back to it. Find it yourself if you're so inclined. Van Persie is a tremendous scorer of goals, it's true, but let's not delude ourselves into thinking he deserves all of the credit.

Sour grapes, you say? Perhaps, but I still think I have a legitimate point. The only real reason I would accept for how van Persie's transfer to Man U helped them win the title is one that I haven't seen discussed much: it might have stopped us from winning it. In other words, it didn't add so much to Man U as it took away from us. Even then, I'm not so sure how far this one goes. In the past, I've compared van Persie to Michael Jordan, but I now wonder if a comparison to Kobe Bryant is more apt: remorseless competitor, absolute assassin of a shooter, but too domineering for his own good. Like Bryant, van Persie wants the ball and will do wonderful things with it more often than not. However, his skill sometimes begs the question, how does this stifle other players?

It's not as if Theo Walcott has become the second coming of Thierry Henry in his first year out from under van Persie's shadow, but he has already delivered his best-ever season for us, with 19 goals and 16 assists in 29 appearances so far. On this basis, then, it does seem as if Walcott has started to blossom, if only a bit. What's more, he's joined at the top of our goal-scoring list by three players new to the Prem: Cazorla, Podolski, and Giroud. Whereas Giroud and Poldi came in with reputations for scoring, Cazorla, like Walcott, has tallied a  new career-high 16 goals and really should have made the PFA list. Nature abhors a vacuum, and van Persie's departure created a vacuum that several players have readily stepped into and begun to flourish.

By contrast, look at the much-diminished Wayne Rooney. At the beginning of the season, there was a great to-do about how he and van Persie would form the most lethal attack since, well, ever. With 57 Prem goals between them in the previous year, there would be little doubt that each would feed of the other in a veritable orgy of goals. However, it hasn't worked out like that. Van Persie, whether by design or chance, has shouldered Rooney aside so brusquely that there's considerable talk of Rooney's departure. He's a shadow of his former self with only 12 Prem goals to his name, or just one more than either Walcott or Giroud. His decline has been so steep that it's hard to attribute to much else other than van Persie's arrival and propensity to hog the ball à la Kobe Bryant. Despite his awful new hair-do, I rather admire Rooney. He's 27 and still has some good footballing in him. He may just be sulking now that van Persie has taken the limelight from him. For all of his grit and passion, Rooney sure can be thin-skinned at times. Whatever the case may be, his patchy form this year does lend further credence to the idea that there are only so many goals a team can score, and van Persie, like a Hungry Hungry Hippo™, is going to gobble them up before anyone else can.

Our goals-by-committee approach has seen us do quite well even if we still find ourselves enmeshed in a trickly scramble for a top-three finish while the Manchesters are again alone at the top. We may not reach our total of 79 Prem goals from last year, but we still look set to finish as the 3rd-highest scoring team in the league. I'm not the first to say it, but it's worth repeating: how many clubs can see their best player leave without dropping a half-dozen spots or more down the table? It's again testament to Wenger's management and philosophy, but more importantly, a tribute to the quality and tradition of Arsenal itself. Players come and players go, but but class is permanent.