How Important Has Robin van Persie Been For Man United This Season?

Has Robin van Persie been the difference between success and failure for Manchester United this season? As United head toward their 20th league title, today on the blog FootballInNumbers take a look at RVP's contribution this season and evaluate the impact he has had on his new club's fortunes.

RVP

If you ask the average football fan to answer – off the top of their head – why this season it is Manchester United who are sweeping all before them and have relegated Man City to (likely) runners-up in the title race, most would answer with one name: Robin van Persie.

The Dutchman was Alex Ferguson’s marquee summer signing, an indicator that for the coming season he really did mean business. But how much of an impact has RVP really had on United’s title charge? Could they be in the position they are in without him?

Early Season Van Persie

Let’s start by looking at the early to mid-season Van Persie. By the 20th January 2013, he had racked up 18 league goals, one shy of his current tally nine league games later. Very impressive, but what is even more impressive is how many of these goals mattered, at least pre-Christmas.

He scored all three goals in a 3-2 victory at Southampton; the winning penalty away to bitter rivals Liverpool; the opening goal against Arsenal; the winning goal in a tricky match at Upton Park; and of course the winner in the final minutes against City at the Etihad. These goals alone won United a huge 13 points, without which it would be Mancini’s men sitting pretty at the top in the Premier League.

And the goals kept coming: the equaliser in a 4-3 home win against Newcastle; the opener against Liverpool at Old Trafford; and the opener against Spurs at White Hart Lane, a match which ultimately finished 1-1. There’s another five points one could argue RVP has added to United’s total. Seen this way the evidence begins to look pretty overwhelming for his contribution being the crucial ingredient in United’s winning formula. However, this would be missing a few important points.

The first is that any discussion of this kind ignores the fact that our evidence is biased – we only know what actually happened, not what would have happened had Van Persie not been there to score those goals. Perhaps United would have lost all of those games, perhaps Wayne Rooney or Javier Hernandez would have shouldered the responsibility and snatched those crucial goals. Perhaps had United not had Van Persie, they would have actually got something from those games against Everton and Norwich, and not been looking to him as a saviour who never came. We just don’t know.

Post-Christmas Van Persie

The second factor is that whilst we have already seen RVP’s stellar early to mid-season goals record, his return at the business end of the campaign has been quite different. Everybody knows that he has only scored twice in United’s last eleven games, but not only that, the importance of the goals he has scored post-Christmas has diminished. They have been the second goal in a straightforward 2-0 win against Everton for example, or the second in a 4-0 win against Wigan, or a last minute goal against West Brom which only served to put some gloss on an already certain victory. One has got the feeling in the last 10 games or so, that if United were to play without Van Persie for a few games, they wouldn’t suffer that much. Nothing can have been further from the truth in the first half of the season. This diminishing reliance on one man is down to one thing – the defence.

Before New Year’s Day United had conceded an incredible 26 goals in the league, at an average of well over one a game. Since 2013 began, they have conceded just five goals in 12 league games, and kept eight clean sheets in a row before being upended by their noisy Neighbours in early April. This has meant that United no longer need to rely on the grandstand heroics of their Flying Dutchman; one goal, from any source, has more often than not been enough to keep their title charge on track.

What about Man City?

There is a further factor to consider in all this, and one which may be the most important of the lot – Manchester City. I don’t think even their most ardent fans would deny that their title defence this season has been something of a damp squib. Their star performers in their momentous title-winning year – Kompany, Yaya Toure, Aguero – have simply not hit the heights of last season with anywhere near enough regularity.

After 31 games last season, Man City had 71 points. This year they have just 65. They had scored 75 goals in comparison to this year’s 57, and had drawn five games rather than eight. What about Man United at this time last year? They had 79 points – won 25, drawn 4, lost 3. This season they are just one point better off, having won 26, drawn 2 and lost 4. After all the difference Van Persie has supposedly made, and all the goals he has scored, United are just one point and one win better off than they were without him this stage last season.

Fair enough, you could argue that the one win might be the win that makes the difference in the end, and that United may actually have declined from last season had they not had the mercurial Dutchman to drag them through that early season slump, but the fact remains: United were good enough to push City all the way last year (throwing away a sizeable lead and losing the title on goal difference let us not forget), and this season – in terms of points collected anyhow – they have simply not improved that much.

The Verdict

As mentioned above, any discussions of this kind will always suffer from the bias of only knowing one outcome – we simply do not know what would have happened this season had Van Persie not been there.

Nevertheless, looking at the facts and figures can still be instructive, and what they show is that RVP was integral during United’s early season shaky period, when they were conceding goals with alarming regularity. In recent games, he has become far less important, which is fortunate as he has scored far fewer goals. Man City’s failure to build on – or even keep pace with – their performances and points tally of last season has also been a factor. Man United have simply kept their points tally at about the level it was last year, and City have not been able to match them.

Would Ferguson’s men have been able to do this without Van Persie? Who can say, but what we can say is that Van Persie is undoubtedly a class act, a player who would surely bring something to almost every team in Europe. Having him in their team this season has certainly not proved a hindrance to United, and perhaps his match-winning contribution in possibly the biggest game of the season – United’s dramatic 3-2 win at the Etihad - tips the scales in his favour.

 

The Odds: Robin van Persie is currently best priced at odds of 6.50 with Paddy Power to be awarded the PFA Player of the Year this season. Gareth Bale is currently favourite with the bookmakers with best odds of 1.44 available at Paddy Power, with Luis Suarez at odds of 4.50 with Stan James.

 

 

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