As Sergio Aguero slipped the ball past Paddy Kenny on May 13, 2012, to win Manchester City the EPL title, he caused a deflated United team to trudge disconsolately off a field 140 miles away in Sunderland. Sir Alex Ferguson will have walked off already plotting his next move in the transfer market.
Ignoring all calls from supporters and critics to sign an enforcer for the midfield and apparently the result of more than one direct phone call to Arsene Wenger, Sir Alex finally got the man he wanted just as the new season was about to kick off.
Sir Alex always said that his biggest nightmare was to lose the league title on goal difference, therefore it will have alarmed him that in the top 20 goalscorers last season, only two United players featured. Wayne Rooney managed 27; Javier Hernandez scored 10.
At the top of the EPL scoring chart was Robin van Persie. He managed 30 goals for an Arsenal side that, although finishing in a creditable third place, fell a massive 19 points behind United and City. Although with a question mark over him due to injuries in his time at the club, the Dutchman was a proven EPL goalscorer, with immense skill echoing that of fellow countrymen Marco van Basten and Dennis Bergkamp.
Goals have also flowed for RVP in his first season in Manchester. But Van Persie has brought something more important than goals back to the United.
Flash back to October 2010, during his new contract dealings, Wayne Rooney demanded that the club showed it matched his own ambition. Whilst casting jealous glances at the building work going in across the city, he also watched Cristiano Ronaldo leave for Real Madrid and United surrender the title to Chelsea. He wanted assurances that the club would still be the place to be in England.
Later that season, United had wrestled the EPL title back and managed to reach another UEFA Champions League final, albeit one in which they were humiliated by a rampant Barcelona in the second half.
All of this while still continuing with the policy of signing young players that would potentially have good resale value when in their late-20s. Manchester City managed to usurp United last May, and Sir Alex was determined that the scenario would not repeat itself.
The signing of Robin van Persie, whilst acknowledging the threat of City, was a huge show of strength in the transfer market and exactly the type of signing that Wayne Rooney will have had in mind when talking about ambition. The club showed in that one signing that it is not afraid to flex its financial muscles nor break its recent transfer policy regarding players at their peak.
Roberto Mancini has admitted that City tried to sign Van Persie also. That United were able to sign the EPL Player of the Year from a top rival and also ahead of the current biggest threat, financially and playing-wise, was a metaphorical “thumbing of the nose” at those rivals.
Van Persie settled in to his task at United almost immediately.
Whilst not exactly forming a "partnership" in the real sense of the term with Wayne Rooney, whereby they complement each other’s games as perfectly as Dwight Yorke and Andrew Cole did in the past, he has provided an extra, different goal threat that opposition teams must deal with, enabling United to mix up their game.
He has also created an aura around himself. Not only with his goals and deft skillful touches, but with his work rate and demeanour. Spectators and players (teammates and opposition) alike now expect something special to happen. He plays with a joy of spirit that is infectious and has spread through the team to the supporters, who sing his name with real gusto.
Incredible efforts like the last-minute equaliser against West Ham United in the FA Cup last month only serve to increase the glow.
All of his work, though, is done with a calmness and quiet determination. Arsene Wenger lamented in a press conference that, “He uses his killer instinct much better now. He is at the peak of his game, 29 going on 30. He uses all his qualities in a calm and intelligent way.”
The calmness is probably there because you can tell that Van Persie himself also expects something to happen when he pulls on that red shirt. He gives the impression that he knows he is at a club where the collective will is so strong that even when things are not going exactly to plan, like water, United will eventually find a way through.
When lifting the UEFA Champions League trophy back in 2009, Ryan Giggs was already telling the younger players that they had to be there again next year.
Van Persie also fits into this “never-satisfied” ethos that Sir Alex likes to instill in all his players, constantly trying to better himself. When commenting on his remarkable start to life at Old Trafford, he replied that he thinks he should have scored more goals.
Far from becoming a one-man team, I believe that Van Persie has lifted everyone at the club, providing confidence, a show of ambition, determination, calmness and not a little amount of skill.
Whereas defeat with the final kick of last season will have galvanised the team, making them determined to do everything possible to erase the memory—Robin van Persie has provided the most important gift to his new teammates, management and supporters: the belief that it can be done.
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