Let’s get one thing absolutely straight, those doubting Robin van Persie’s right to a starting berth for Manchester United are not doing so based on last night’s abysmal showing at The Hawthorns.
The Dutchman’s decline has been evident and rather rapid ever since Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement in May 2013.
When discussing Ferguson’s retirement in his recent autobiography, Rio Ferdinand described how, "the person it hit more than anyone was Robin. He'd come the year before, tasted that success and wanted more. Visually you could see it hit him harder than anyone else at the time", and Ferdinand’s observations will come as little shock to United fans. In 18 months of club football, Van Persie has scored 14 goals and contributed three assists.
Of course Van Persie had his fair share of injury problems and his slackness this year may partly be a result of an extensive World Cup but it must be remembered that the Dutchman had six weeks off between the Netherlands third place match in Brazil and his return to the Old Trafford turf.
It is part and parcel of the game for players to lose form, especially at Van Persie’s tender age of 31; however, it is not so much the alarming lack of goals that is as worrying as the Dutchman’s overall game performance.
Van Persie has never been a forward that can control a game in the manner which Wayne Rooney, David Silva and Luis Suarez can, however, without his goals masking some of the floors to his game the former Arsenal man is becoming increasingly exposed in this dynamic and creative United side.
Angel Di Maria, yet again exceptional at the Hawthorns, delivered five or six world class crosses into the West Brom box and, were they not delivered from a rather masterful left boot, could easily have been confused with that of David Beckham.
Van Persie, however, remained abject and never really looked like getting on the end of Di Maria’s incisive service following a very weak effort when clean through in the first half. The Dutchman cut the figure of a man lacking form, fitness, confidence and most inexcusably, desire.
Van Persie may be feeling too complacent with Van Gaal at the helm given the highly publicized nature of the affection the duo shares for one another. Van Gaal made Van Persie captain of his Dutch World Cup side following Kevin Strootman’s injury, however, the relationship hasn’t always been filled with such fond memories.
Following a disastrous Euro 2012 campaign Van Gaal started off his reign by dropping Van Persie in favour of Klaas Jan Huntelaar, a move which ultimately bought the best out of him and led to his sparkling run of form. It looks increasingly likely that a repeat strategy might have to be employed despite Van Persie taking on the captain’s armband in Rooney’s absence.
When Van Gaal introduced Falcao with twenty minutes remaining United looked a different side, attacking loose balls in the final third and stretching the West Brom defence even after Di Maria had been substituted.
Falcao has had his own fitness concerns of course but this is arguably the greatest finisher in World football and if his winner against Everton proved anything, it is that even if he is only 90% fit he is 100% deadly.
Juan Mata has often lacked the recognition that his record at the club might have dictated having scored eight goals and provided six assists since his arrival in January.
With Wayne Rooney suspended ahead of Chelsea’s visit to Old Trafford, Van Gaal needs to reshuffle his pack again and work out a clear game plan against Mourinho’s unbeaten side, Falcao’s dynamism could prove the perfect foil for Mata’s creative ability.
As much as Van Gaal would love to have Michael Carrick available for first team selection, the visit of Chelsea may come too early for the Englishman. One possible front six combination, however, could involve playing Blind and Herrera as holding midfielders with Blind breaking up the play and Herrera distributing as a deep lying playmaker.
In front of these two could be Di Maria playing wide left and Antonio Valencia on the right flank with Mata playing behind Falcao up front.
The high levels of work rate provided by both Valencia and Di Maria would help United’s midfield and defensive frailties and offer more defensive cover than the raw talent of Adnan Januzaj.
Valencia’s big-game experience having often been deployed in this role by Ferguson, means the Ecuadorian might be a more practical option for Van Gaal rather than the talented but tactically naive Belgian.
Given his heroics last night, there may be a few people calling for Marouane Fellaini to bolster United’s midfield options. Fellaini’s physicality was highlighted by Van Gaal last night, when he stated that, "I'm a coach who is always thinking about creative players but in England you also need physical bodies in your team and Fellaini is one of these”.
Such is the state of United’s depleted midfield resources that selecting Fellaini for United’s biggest game of the season so far would require little justification, however, the Belgian’s post match interview described Van Gaal’s desire for him ‘to put pressure on the box’, therefore hinting the Dutchman sees Fellaini more as an impact substitute that might add another dimension to United’s attack rather than a player warranting a starting place in central midfield.
Van Gaal would love to have the options at his Portuguese counterpart’s disposal with the industry and tenacity of Nemanja Matic and the engine of Ramires so often effective in Chelsea’s biggest games. Even the most optimistic of United fans will be worried about Daley Blind’s lack of physicality and yet perhaps more concerned by the lack of reinforcements available.
For any side to compete against Mourinho’s refined side, defensive organization, high-intensity midfield physicality and ruthlessness are essential and United can only really justify an argument that they possess one of those at best.
If Van Gaal’s side are going to get a result this weekend they will need to a repeat performance of the heroics displayed against Everton by David De Gea, a healthy slice of luck and an on form Radamel Falcao, without those components Sunday’s game could be uncomfortable viewing for United fans assuming Chelsea play at 80% or above of their ability.
Having said that, following a long-weekend in which an 8-0 score line was recorded, and Marouane Fellaini smashed a top corner equalizer Cristiano Ronaldo would have been proud of, is there really any logic in this game?