Robin van Persie – the best the Premier League has to offer

The Premier League has seen no shortage of great strikers since the time of its inception, and in the age of false nines and one-man striker formations, great strikers have become more of the exception rather than the rule. Gone were the days when the Premiership boasted a top scorer’s chart such as this: Thierry Henry, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Didier Drogba, Fernando Torres (lol), Nicolas Anelka. All world-class strikers. Let’s take a look at the top scorers chart of this season’s Premier League, and compare it with those of yesteryear:

Luis Suarez 22
Robin van Persie 19
Gareth Bale 16
Demba Ba 15
Michu 15

The first is a striker who leads the attack all on his own, and does the creating as well as the finishing. The second is a pure natural striker. Bale has benefitted from AVB’s successful revamping of Tottenham’s playing style, and is now a hybrid wide forward/second striker. Ba is a striker,and Michu another wide forward, but both could hardly be called great strikers. Four out of five are not strikers of the orthodox mould.

As the modern (lone) forward’s job becomes more about opening up space for his teammates to exploit rather than goalscoring, the traditional centre-forward sticks out like a sore thumb. Just as Luis Suarez, Mirko Vucinic and Giuseppe Rossi embody the creating centre-forward that is so in demand today, orthodox strikers such as Fernando Llorente and Mario Gomez are less in favour. If there is any doubt of this fact, a quick look across all goalscoring tables in the major European leagues point to the death of the orthodox, line-leading centre-forward.

In Spain’s top 5, only Roberto Soldado can count himself an orthodox centre-forward. That’s one in five, hardly a case for the traditional forward. Ditto Germany (Ibisevic). Even Italy, where the obsession with lone forwards is almost cultural, is not spared from the evolution of modern football.We have Cavani, Di Natale, and Pazzini, but the latter two have modified their game to such an extent that they are now effectively second strikers. Even David Villa, the one out-and-out forward of the Spanish national team, is required to be positionally-disciplined to the point of sacrificing his natural instinct for goal. The dearth of traditional centre-forwards is now pandemic.

So where does this leave Robin van Persie, a player whose game is centered so much around touch, instinct, and an explosive burst? It seems almost laughable for Manchester United that, having birthed one of the most flexible forward lines in recent history, would regress to the need for a traditional centre-forward. While many quoted goalscoring stats in van Persie’s case, a bigger tactical question loomed in the background. Where would United fit all their strikers?

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The answer: the bench. Rooney and van Persie has played together most often this season, with Hernandez and Welbeck getting relatively less playing time, despite being at times fitter than Rooney. Why would Robin van Persie start ahead of those strikers who have been more established in the United team? What does he bring to a team who already seemed overstocked on strikers?  Continue reading

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Play well or win? – Part 1

“Even if we had lost, I would have said the same thing: I am proud of the team,” Jordi Roura, the assistant coach, said. Mascherano added: “The fans have gone home happy, because of the performance as well as the result.”

Above all, because of the result. But the two things are not mutually exclusive and it is baffling that they have so often been treated as if they are. “Would you rather win or play well?” is a question asked often in Spain. Quite apart from the fact that “play well” is the most loaded of phrases, the response should be obvious: the best way to win is to play well.

In recent years, Barcelona has become THE byword for “beautiful football” (some would go as far as to argue, football itself). It is “how football should be played”, “the right way”, “joga bonito”, as the men at Nike put it. There is no shortage of neutrals who confess to having Barcelona as a second team, and they include players and managers alike. “When I watch Barcelona, I see art,” Arsene Wenger once said.

While Barcelona’s success make it hard to argue against the effectiveness of their style, it becomes a hefty stick for critics to beat the club with when it fails to deliver results. Why do they insist on playing the same way even when their opponents appear to have their gameplan figured out? The definition of insanity, Einstein was alleged to have said, is to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. “Mes que un club” becomes a personification of Barcelona’s arrogance, a stubborn chauvinism that their style is superior to the others.

It is for this reason then, that THAT question in Spain is most often thrown Barcelona’s way: “Would you rather win or play well?” While in Barcelona’s case it is more a matter of adhering to a style that their players are best suited for (you would hardly lump long balls forward to Messi if he played in your team), it does not disqualify them from being placed under the proverbial microscope; namely, would a team win at all costs, even if it means “not playing well?”

Continue reading