One of the biggest surprises of Manchester United’s humiliation against Leicester City last weekend - and there are plenty to choose from - was that Robin van Persie, somehow, lasted the full 90 minutes. Louis van Gaal may have overlooked the 31-year-old for the captaincy, but he is still in danger of showing favouritism towards his Dutch compatriot - and it must stop now.
Despite the fact he notched his first goal of the season against the Foxes, Van Persie was desperately poor against the newly-promoted side, who secured a famous 5-3 victory over the 20-time English champions at the King Power Stadium.
Like his performances against Sunderland, Burnley and even Queens Park Rangers, Van Persie looked sluggish against Leicester. He missed a couple of great opportunities to kill the game off and always appeared to be on the periphery of the game.
It’s a far cry from his debut season with the Red Devils, when he was winning points almost single-handedly. Sadly it seems that version of Van Persie is now in the past, which should come as no great surprise given his age.
Man Utd have seen the best of Van Persie
Manchester United signed the Dutch striker from Arsenal in 2012 knowing that he had a maximum of four years left as a world-class striker. But for their £24 million investment, the Red Devils may end up only getting one full season of brilliance from the left-footed forward.
Van Persie proved the difference in the title race in his first campaign at Old Trafford. He scored 26 goals in 38 Premier League appearances to help United wrap up their 20th league title before the end of April.
But last season, despite scoring 18 goals in 28 matches, Van Persie looked a shadow of his former self - and even disinterested at times.
Van Persie affected by Ferguson retirement
It was widely reported that he did not enjoy the experience of working under David Moyes, while his former teammate Rio Ferdinand has revealed in his soon-to-be-release autobiography that Van Persie was affected by Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement more than any other player in the United squad.
“The person it hit more than anyone was Robin. He'd come the year before, tasted that success and wanted more,” Ferdinand reveals. “Visually you could see it hit him harder than anyone else at the time.”
Van Persie buoyed by Van Gaal arrival
It didn’t take a body language expert to notice that Van Persie was unhappy playing in Moyes’ system, but his smile returned after it emerged that Van Gaal was coming to Old Trafford to replace the Scot.
“Trust me, we will be back,” Van Persie told reporters, on camera, when asked whether there was any truth in the rumours of Van Gaal being appointed as the new Manchester United manager back in May.
He was enthused by the prospect for obvious reasons. Van Gaal had made Van Persie captain of the Netherlands national team, and the pair became friends while working together with the Oranje.
But the fact this close-knit relationship existed meant Van Persie had an unfair advantage over his teammates when it came to squad selection.
Rooney captaincy a side issue
Van Gaal threw a curveball by appointing Wayne Rooney as the new Manchester United captain, rather than Van Persie, but this appeared to be part political decision and part an attempt to prove that there would be no favouritism towards his friend.
But the accusations of favouritism will still come, regardless of who wears the armband, if Van Gaal continues to persist with Van Persie in his current form.
The United boss has already made it clear that Rooney will start every match when fit - apparently the England international has “special privileges’ now that he’s the team’s skipper - while the world-class Radamel Falcao is also guaranteed a starting spot, certainly in his first few weeks at the club.
Decision to drop Mata was cowardly
And because Van Gaal was reluctant to drop Van Persie, it was Juan Mata who missed out against Leicester.
This felt like an almost cowardly decision by Van Gaal. He knew that the Spaniard, who had scored eight goals in his previous ten Premier League outings, was the least likely of the quartet to kick up a fuss.
But it was a decision that ended up costing Manchester United.
First and foremost, Van Persie was awful, despite his goal. Secondly, Falcao - in an attempt to find some space - was forced to go wide.
The Colombian unexpectedly set up Van Persie’s goal with a left-wing cross - don’t expect to see this happen again for the rest of the season - but to get the best out of the prolific South American striker, he needs to be inside the box. It’s a waste of his talent playing him anywhere else on the pitch.
Rooney endured a difficult afternoon and would have been more effective in his natural position, up alongside Falcao, which in turn would have allowed Mata to continue pulling the strings in the playmaker position.
Van Gaal employed to make difficult decisions
Manchester United hired Van Gaal to make difficult and sometimes even unpopular decisions. But he chose the easy option against Leicester - and it backfired.
Against West Ham on Saturday, Van Persie must start on the substitutes’ bench. He has done nothing to warrant a place in the starting line-up, and it must be made clear that he can’t expect to walk into the starting line-up under the man who made him captain of the Netherlands.
Van Gaal is in an unfortunate position where United are only playing one match a week and all of his best players want to feature.
But they should only be starting matches on merit, rather than reputation, and especially instead of favouritism.
Failure to abide by this principle could end up costing Van Gaal more than just league points as the season progresses.
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