In the aftermath of Robin van Persie‘s move to Manchester United this summer, one of the jokes doing the rounds in social media circles mentioned the title “Fatman and Robin”. Other kinder versions not pushed by the ABUs (All-But-United) talked about the symbolism of our front-line strikers with names Wayne and Robin. In the light of United’s last three halves of football, where we have seen growing evidence of an understanding between RvP and Wazza, this might be a good time to take a look at the potential that this striking duo holds.
The first of these three halves was in the game against Tottenham, where United attempted to launch a barn-storming comeback but fell agonizingly close. Rooney and van Persie were both involved in the first goal, as their exchange of passes with each other and Nani freed up the United winger to score from Rooney’s cross. In addition, there were instances of Rooney dropping deep into the hole to feed van Persie, who was playing as the lead striker. On any other day, RvP might have scored a hat-trick, just from the chances he missed in the second half; and United’s comeback could not salvage a point.
In Tuesday’s Champions League game against CFR Cluj, Sir Alex Ferguson made good on his pre-match promise of playing RvP and Rooney together in the same time. However, he sprung a surprise by playing Rooney at the tip of a midfield diamond, while RvP partnered Chicharito in the forward line. The first half an hour of the game saw a very tentative, slow-paced United, as they played with little width (they weren’t helped by the lack of wingers in the side), and their defense failed to adequately cope with the threat of Cluj’s counter-attacks. As a result, United found themselves a goal behind with less than fifteen minutes on the clock. Particularly culpable for the goal was the United left-back Patrice Evra, who was given a torrid time by the Cluj winger, Madou Sougou.
Near the half-hour mark though, two things changed in the game directly to United’s benefit. First, Sougou went off injured in the 23rd minute of the first half, which massively curtailed Cluj’s attacking threat. Second, Rooney and van Persie began linking up better, as United raised their game and tried to gradually stretch the play.
In terms of the Rooney-RVP combination, the first twenty-odd minutes saw van Persie stay close to Hernandez. Most of his movement was vertical, but he never dropped into the hole for long periods of time. At this time, Rooney was playing in the hole, and finding it difficult to move the ball to the forwards in the face of the bodies Cluj had in front of him. In a subtle tactical switch, RvP changed the pattern of his movement around the half-hour mark. His runs now took him deeper, where he was some times playing along side Rooney in the hole. At the same time, some of his runs were in the channels towards the wings, which helped stretched the game for United and addressed the earlier lack of width. This greater movement by RvP, along with his presence in the hole, released Rooney into a much more freely defined role. He began popping all over the park – left, right, forward, deeper into the midfield – and showed all his class as he ran the game. Thus, both RvP and Rooney benefited from each other’s positional awareness and movement, which greatly contributed to United’s enhanced attacking threat.
In addition, the Rooney-RvP combo worked wonders for United’s scoring, as a pass from Rooney followed by van Persie’s finish was responsible for both of United’s goals. The first of these goals was rather fortuitous, as Rooney’s free kick looped into the net of RvP’s shoulder. Having said that, it was a great delivery into a very dangerous area by United’s number 10, and RvP reaped the rewards for fearlessly attacking the cross. The second goal though was sublime, and almost displayed a telepathic understanding between Rooney and van Persie. As he got the ball on the right wing, Rooney curled it into the box, in the no-man’s land just outside the six-yard box. At the same time, van Persie showed an awareness for what his team-mate was attempting, and made a clever run into the box. He beat the keeper to the ball, and delicately directed a volley into the net. In addition to the goals, there was a lot of fluidity to the movement of both these United forwards, and some of their inter-play and one-touch passing left the Cluj defense chasing shadows.
They say great players challenge and encourage each other to reach greater heights in the game. It seems like RvP’s presence in the Manchester United team is doing the same for Rooney. After his return from injury, he has looked lean and hungry, and put in three Man-of-the-Match level performances in his three games. In addition, RvP seems to be enjoying playing alongside someone of Rooney’s class and vision. If these two players keep performing and playing together the way they have shown lately, we may well be observing one of United’s all time great striking duos at work.