Football

Robin van Persie a luxury United cannot afford

Van Persie made his debut against Everton (©GettyImages)
Van Persie made his debut against Everton (©GettyImages).

Finding value in the transfer market is something Sir Alex Ferguson prides himself on.

Why pay £32m for Eden Hazard when you can get Shinji Kagawa for £17m, or so the thinking goes. In fact, after their respective debuts, both moves look like shrewd purchases.

But for United, despite the introduction of the Japanese international last night, all eyes were on former Arsenal captain turned Manchester United hitman Robin van Persie.

The Dutchman’s transfer – unquestionably the biggest inter-Premier League switch since Fernando Torres to Chelsea – has given Manchester United one of the most fearsome attacking lineups in world football.

But that matters little, as United found out at Goodison Park yesterday evening, when deficiencies elsewhere leave you vulnerable to the opposition.

Manchester United’s priority this summer was never a striker. Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Derbatov are a quartet as good as any in the Premier League.

But sometimes when something drops on your lap, you just go with it. The sudden availability of van Persie took most by surprise. The quick nature of the divorce with Arsenal, accelerated by the finality of van Persie’s shock statement, turned a Gunners icon into a United ‘mercenery’ in a flash.

Van Persie is plainly lacking match fitness after a turbulent summer, and the Dutchman will win games for United, probably single-handedly at some point during the campaign. He does make them considerably better than they were last year.

But the improvement for United won’t be as great, or as lasting, as signing a world-class central midfielder or central defender.

United’s defensive worries are less pressing than their midfield concerns – which Ferguson stubbornly refuses to address – as luck rather than judgement has robbed the United boss of four of his five senior defenders.

Still, Rio Ferdinand continues to struggle with long-term fitness, Jonny Evans has spent lengthy periods on the treatment table, while it’s difficult to discern whether Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are long-term United centre-backs, or right-backs, or even defensive midfielders in Jones's case.

Further up the pitch, United fall victim to the law of diminishing returns. The miracle of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes is not everlasting, their contributions will occur less often, and likely be less decisive, than in recent seasons.

The counterpoint to Giggs and Scholes is Tom Cleverley and the youngster's promise is encouraging, but England’s latest debutant cannot be relied upon once Giggs and Scholes depart. Anderson has failed to live up to lofty expectations since moving from Porto, while Michael Carrick goes in and out of fashion depending on the month.

So while United fans were rightly delighted to sign van Persie, the former Gunners transfer now makes further strengthening highly unlikely at Old Trafford - as most fans know all too well, the Glazers are austere owners. Tricky trips away from home, like Everton, will only get more difficult, as away from Old Trafford, United cannot expect to dominate possession as forcefully.

In contrast, United’s rivals have identified weaknesses and acted accordingly. For Arsenal, over-reliant on Robin van Persie last year, the purchases of Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud were key, the addition of Santi Cazorla as a replacement for Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri crucial.

Chelsea were an ageing squad last season, lacking pace and guile in the final third. In came Eden Hazard, Marko Marin and Oscar – three talented young creative midfielders.

Even Liverpool and Tottenham have identified priorities, prodded by the introduction of new faces in their dug-outs. Fabio Borini has been bought to score the goals to supplement Luis Suarez, but it will take time. Defeat to West Brom just demonstrates the size of the task at hand for Brendan Rodgers.

Over in north London, Andre Villas-Boas clearly wants a defensive clear-out – Michael Dawson, William Gallas and Sebastian Bassong all look likely to leave. Still, their summer hinges on Luka Modric.

Their desperate need – a striker – requires the cash from Real Madrid. Once the Croatian's transfer is cleared expect the dominos to fall into place, with Emmanuel Adebayor, Fernando Llorente and Leandro Damiao linked with White Hart Lane.

200 miles away at Old Trafford, the transfer strategy looks cloudier. Rocked by injuries to key defenders, fielding Antonio Valencia at right back – Rafael left to watch on from the bench – and Michael Carrick at centre-back highlights their vulnerabilities pretty spectacularly.

In midfield, an old United reject, Darron Gibson, looked imposing against Cleverley and Scholes, and for 85 of the 90 minutes, Everton out-worked the United setup across the pitch.

Identifying value in a crowded, and often unbalanced marketplace, is tricky. Sir Alex Ferguson has proven himself adept, though not without mistakes - Juan Sebastian Veron and Dimitar Berbatov - and has often pointed out the excesses of Manchester City and Chelsea that distort fees for the rest of the market.

But at 29-years-old, is £24m for Robin van Persie really the best value in the market? The question is purely subjective, but surely Luka Modric at £35m is equally good, if not better value, looking at longevity, future production and team needs.

Signing the Premier League’s top scorer is never a bad thing. Partnering him with the league second’s highest scorer is even better, and makes a great forward line.

But for United, desperate to extinguish the memory of last season, improvement wasn’t required up-front. Danny Welbeck was blossoming, Javier Hernandez poised, according to Ferguson himself, for a return to the form of his debut season after a summer break.

Where they were lacking was at the back, with Vidic out of action for more than half the campaign, and in the middle of midfield.

Neither concern has been addressed. The battle for the league will likely be as close as last season. But United are running out of time to address the deficiencies of their last campaign. Just 10 days remain until the transfer deadline.

The last few days, hours and minutes of a summer transfer window are always the most frantic, but wading into the market in the dying minutes is not United form.

Instead, the Red Devils look to have settled with the squad they’ve got. Whether it’s enough to break the City stranglehold, only time will tell. Upgrades were needed, and RVP is a great addition, but the Dutchman addresses a problem few felt United had last season. Centre midfield will be where United win and lose titles over the next few years.

Topics:
Robin Van Persie
Football
Premier League
Manchester United

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