For the last 18 months, Van Persie has done little of note for his club. Yet for the first six months, he had an impact that was widely described as Cantona-esque. Van Persie was an instant talisman, roaming the green like an old don who had a higher level of understanding than everyone else. United’s title that season is associated almost exclusively with two people: Van Persie and Sir Alex Ferguson.
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When Van Persie joined United, he said he listened to the “little boy inside of me … that boy was screaming for Man United”. Now he seems to be controlled by the old man inside him. He has gone from Cantona to catatonia, sleepwalking through games in a manner that has prompted accusations of a wage thief who takes the money but doesn’t run. There are times when Van Persie looks like he’s playing over-60s walking football. He also seems to be playing by rugby rules, dealing almost exclusively in square and backwards passes. A nice, safe game. Low risk, low reward. You don’t need an NVQ in Body Language Studies to see that something isn’t right.

Then again, Van Persie often looks listless even when he is at his best. In his first season at United, Ferguson, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville regularly celebrated what a cold, sophisticated, economical assassin he was. He didn’t waste energy on stupid runs like the rest. “Everything Van Persie does on the football field means something,” said Neville. “He doesn’t move without it mattering.”

The problem with such an approach is that, when you aren’t winning matches, you will inevitably be called lazy. In the first leg against Olympiacos last season, the RTE pundit Johnny Giles said Van Persie “hadn’t tried a leg”. Where Van Persie’s movements were once economical, now they just seem plain thrifty.
His touch is also not as sharp and he has started missing an unusual number of good chances. Despite that, Van Persie’s overall goalscoring statistics have not declined that much: 30 in 48 in his first season, 18 in 28 in his second and 2 in 6 in the fledgling 2014-15 campaign. But there has been an enormous change in the importance of his goals.
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In his first five months at United he scored the winners at Anfield and the Etihad, the first goal in home wins over Arsenal and Liverpool, and was also on target in a win at Stamford Bridge and a draw at White Hart Lane. In short, the kind of contributions that win titles. With every goal, the idea that Van Persie was on an unstoppable one-man mission to win his first Premier League become more persuasive for United’s players and more intimidating for opponents. On February 10, 2013 he scored in a 2-0 win at home to Everton that put United 12 points clear at the top of the table. Life could not have been better. It was his 23rd goal of the season, the league was effectively wrapped up and United were due to meet Real Madrid in the Champions League three days later.
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It was then that Van Persie started to fade. He did not score for the next 10 games, and missed big chances in the cup defeats to Madrid and Chelsea. There is a perception that he was brilliant throughout his first season and jacked it in when David Moyes came to the club. Yet barring his fairytale hat-trick in the title-clinching victory over Aston Villa, including that staggering volley, he did very little after the Everton game. There was obvious mental and physical fatigue, as well as an inevitable reduction in intensity. In a strange way, a significant improvement in United’s defence didn’t help either: the 3-2s and 4-3s of the first half of the season became 1-0s. The purpose, concentration and mental urgency evident before Christmas, when United were dealing in comeback victories almost every week, was not required.

Van Persie hasn’t been able to regain that intensity since, particularly in the big games. Since that goal against Everton 22 months ago, he has only scored twice against the elite septet of English football – both against Arsenal, one a penalty in a dead rubber. He did hit a hat-trick in the memorable Champions League comeback against Olympiacos, yet even that, relatively speaking, felt like flat-track bullying. Since his winner against Arsenal on November 10 last year, his victims have been, harsh as it sounds, a confederacy of mediocrities: Cardiff, Stoke, Fulham, Crystal Palace, Olympiacos, Hull, Leicester and West Ham.
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Not only has he stopped scoring important goals, there have been hardly any of the eye-widening moments of brilliance that were evident in his first few months at the club, like the masterful FA Cup goal at West Ham. He certainly produced one against Spain in the summer. When Van Persie scored that high-flying header at the World Cup and high-fived his friend and manager Louis van Gaal, it was pretty easy to jump to conclusions: Van Persie simply didn’t fancy playing for Moyes, and would now score millions of goals under Van Gaal, first for country and then club. Yet although he scored four times in the World Cup, he was anonymous for much of the time and was subbed in four of his six games. Thus far, he has been even less effective under Van Gaal at club level. There is a burgeoning sense that they could be a fall-out waiting to happen, particularly if Van Persie’s form does not improve.
There’s no doubt the retirement of Ferguson hit Van Persie hard – harder than anybody else, according to Rio Ferdinand. Their love-in was almost touching and, as somebody who had won only a UEFA Cup and an FA Cup in his career, Van Persie was clearly in thrall to Ferguson’s furious will to win. His description of Ferguson’s retirement speech shows his reverence. “I had to gasp for breath and I shook my head,” he said. “Had he really said what I thought he'd said? The room fell deathly quiet and then everyone became emotional. Sir Alex then had a long talk with the squad. I found it a very special speech and felt privileged to have witnessed it.”

The retirement of Ferguson is probably the biggest factor in Van Persie’s decline, though this is a complicated case with a lot of strands. The service to Van Persie was nowhere near as good in his second season in particular, although that is a chicken-and-egg situation given his ever decreasing movement. In his first season Michael Carrick was in great form, while Paul Scholes was still around and Antonio Valencia’s dramatic decline had not fully kicked in. The service should be better now – Angel di Maria’s cute through pass at Leicester, from which Van Persie should have scored, is an example of that – but he is not currently in the form to take advantage.
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Playing two up front may not help either. Moyes did it more than Ferguson, while Van Gaal has been doing it all the time. Van Persie was heavily criticised last season for saying that team-mates were “often playing in my zones”. It was a strange thing to criticise him for, in that many of the game’s poachers – from Gerd Mueller to Gary Lineker, who spoke about it last week – loved to have the penalty box as empty as possible so that they could do their specialist work without well meaning but ignorant team-mates getting in the way.

As well as a clear run at goal, Van Persie could do with a clear run in the side. He has had an exasperating number of minor injuries in the last year. Whether it’s fair or not, plenty feel they were a psychosomatic reaction to life under Moyes. Either way, the absences have obviously contributed to a lack of sharpness. He played all 38 games in Ferguson’s final season; since then his longest run of consecutive Premier League matches is seven.
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It is also possible that, at 31, Van Persie has lost some pace, though we will not know for sure until he attempts to break into a sprint. He also probably had his nose put out of joint by Moyes’s apparent prioritisation of Rooney last season. Maybe he is a good-time Charlie who is sulking because United aren’t very good. Or, conversely, maybe it’s because he has nothing left to achieve. It’s not so much that United won the title in his first season; it’s the way in which they did so. It was everything Van Persie ever wanted. It’s hard to follow that, especially when the man who would teach you that the next challenge is the most important suddenly leaves the club.

All of this must have contributed at some level to a slight reduction in confidence and motivation. That has since perpetuated itself to the point where Van Persie is unrecognisable from the player of two years ago. Then he was compared to Cantona. Now he is starting to look more like Dwight Yorke, a player who had a stunning and instant impact before fading away.
Rob Smyth
You can buy Rob's book, 'Danish Dynamite: The Story of Football’s Greatest Cult Team', which is out now.
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