Van Persie's Wonder Season
What is a ‘Wonder Season?’
Likely best summed up as an unprecedented campaign full of individual brilliance, personal achievement alongside record breaking statistics and ultimately team success.
Finding players who experience such a season is rare.
Because not only does he have to repeatedly provide moments of sheer class, contributing to numerous game changing situations but the player must also prove crucial to the overall success of his club across that nine month period.
In recent years which Premier League Strikers have had a ‘wonder season?’
Three outstanding performers come to mind.
In 2007/08 United’s very own Cristiano Ronaldo delivered the finest season of his Premier League career. Making 34 appearances across the campaign, he scored 31 goals and provided seven assists. It was a sustained display of excellence that saw United secure a League and European Cup double. Ronaldo’s performances during that particular season will be remembered for a mixture of flair and devastating end product.
Six years later saw Liverpool striker Luis Suarez cap a fantastic season by scoring 31 times in just 33 League appearances. Disappointingly the Uruguayan would ended that campaign without silverware but his intricate trickery and dazzling drives towards goal will live long in the memory.
The 2017/18 season belonged to Mo Salah. He wowed fans of the game with a combination of dribbling skill and precise finishing, registering 32 goals in 36 games yet like Suarez his sensational campaign ended trophyless.
Who Is Robin Van Persie?
Robin Van Persie is regarded as a Premier League superstar - 13th on the list of its all time top scorers with 144 goals for two clubs over the course of eleven seasons.
Originally applying his trade as a winger, Van Persie began his career in The Netherlands for Eredivisie side Feyenoord. Making his debut at the age of eighteen, he slowly began to show signs of progress and glimpses of brilliance - in three seasons managing a total of 21 goals in 78 appearances.
By age twenty he'd moved to the Premier League, signing for an Arsenal side who had just been donned as ‘Invincible’ the previous season, for a modest fee of £2.75 million.
It is widely believed that Arsene Wenger’s grand plan was to convert Van Persie from the left winger role and into a centre forward - replicating his successful evolution of Thierry Henry only years earlier.
During his first season at The Emirates Van Persie tasted success in the FA Cup - his Arsenal team defeating Manchester United on penalties after extra time and a surprisingly action packed 0-0 draw.
Van Persie made a decent yet far from trailblazing start with The Gunners and during his first four seasons played 133 times; scoring a respectable but less than prolific 53 goals.
It’s fair to say the Dutchman is considered a ‘late bloomer.’
It wasn't until 2008/09, at the age of 26, that Van Persie finally register twenty goals in a single season - an unspoken marker of what many consider a solid goal scoring League campaign.
The following three seasons were more fruitful. Van Persie entered his late twenties and with it - his prime.
But it was the last campaign of his nine year spell in London that would prove his most impressive.
During the 2011/12 season, the Dutchman registered 37 goals in all competitions and also provided nine assists; his goals alone supplying 40% of Arsenal’s overall goal tally that season. Van Persie ended the campaign as the Professional Footballers’ Association and Football Writers’ Player of the year.
In 278 appearances for Arsenal he scored 132 times.
Despite undoubtedly his best season in an Arsenal shirt - Van Persie wanted out.
The first signs of dissatisfaction became during the Summer of 2012. As a senior player, club Captain and their top goalscorer - Van Persie assumed his opinion might hold some weight with Arsenal’s hierarchy. Yet after a meeting with then Gunners’ Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis; it became apparent that their ambitions were different.
"I had seven points where I thought Arsenal could improve. Ivan (Gazidis) decided that he didn’t agree on one single point. That was a clear message.”
Robin Van Persie
It was the catalyst that led to his exit.
Van Persie craved trophies to go alongside his personal accolades and also had an ambition to play for Ferguson.
"He was one of the best I ever managed. A man with an exceptional technique."
It was a surprise to many that Wenger allowed the sale to United to go ahead. Yet Van Persie’s refusal to renew his contract with only twelve months remaining somewhat forced the Arsenal manager’s hand. It was the first time since 1991 that Arsenal had allowed a player make the move to Old Trafford.
Nevertheless - Van Persie's big move was now just around the corner.
Defeat To City
Van Persie was up for sale and it was a tempting proposition for Ferguson.
However it would be out of character. Signing a player only months from his 30th birthday wasn’t a typical transfer strategy. The Scot had long been an advocate of recruiting youth, moulding potential and shaping careers; with the goal of utilising a player’s prime to devastating effect.
But this time around Ferguson had a unique motivation.
United had just surrendered their League title to neighbours Manchester City. Above all else, it was the nature of the loss that bothered the veteran manager the most. Because although they’d matched City’s points tally, it was the lack of goals that eventually cost United the title - fine margins that needed to be addressed urgently.
Using all of his experience, Ferguson recognised he needed a proven goalscorer with Premier League experience, who could hit the ground running from the off.
Signing For United
On August 17th 2012 - United announced the signing of Van Persie for a fee of £24 million.
It was an acquisition with echoes of Eric Cantona’s recruitment two decades earlier. Ferguson had poached the Frenchman from bitter rivals and title challengers Leeds United in November 1992 for a poultry sum of £1.2 million. Cantona proved to be the missing puzzle piece that would deliver United their first League title for 26 years in 1993.
Van Persie was arguably United’s most ambitious signing since paying Lazio £28.1 million for Juan Sebastian Veron in 2001. His impact was to prove significantly greater than the Argentine.
"I remember Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger saying to me 'he’s better than you think’ when we concluded the deal. He was right."
Sir Alex Ferguson
Reading into the Van Persie sale today with the benefit of hindsight; it perhaps gave a clue as to Ferguson’s mindset with the impending announcement of his retirement looming large. The feeling that he was in a rush to claw back the League crown and couldn’t afford to wait for the development of a new up and coming striker.
Van Persie took the number 20 shirt, indicating to fans and pundits alike that it was a statement of intent; part of his personal mission to help United claim their 20th League title.
A Flying Start
The season would begin in disappointing fashion.
Often United fans forget that the club suffered an opening day defeat to future United manager David Moyes’ Everton side. Although Ferguson handed Van Persie his debut in the 68th minute, as a replacement for Danny Wellbeck, it was an underwhelming start for him personally and the club too.
Yet his home debut was a different story. The Dutchman would instantly provide the Old Trafford faithful with a taste of things to come, after only ten minutes meeting a ball into the box with a precise curling effort that looped past Fulham goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer.
From that moment on Van Persie was relentless and scored a total of 18 goals in his next 22 Premier League games.
"Van Persie had the best movement. When he was at Arsenal and he won the Golden Boot, he had the most movement I’d ever seen. Even in his first year at United...that’s why they won the league, because he scored all the goals."
Van Persie provided many sublime moments across the season. There are four occasions in particular that serve to highlight his different qualities - showcasing both his footballing attributes and strength of mind.
Matchday 3 - Southampton (A) - September 2nd
United found themselves 2-0 down in the early stages at Saint Mary’s. It was a haunting reminder of how easily the team had lost a grasp on games the previous season. During the last campaign United often found it difficult to claw back a deficit - but not with Van Persie leading the line.
The Dutchman scored a hat-trick with all three goals highlighting the variety of skills at his disposal. His equalising effort was a precise shot across goals using immense technique and his second requiring a focused and calm finish after the ball crashed off the post into his path. The final strike in injury time was his finest; a brilliantly timed run and well angled header that flew into the roof of Southampton's net.
Matchday 10 - Arsenal (H) - November 3rd
When Van Persie’s former club came to Old Trafford in late Autumn, United were already building momentum, having won seven of their opening nine games. It was the Dutchman’s mental strength that would be tested that particular day, opening the scoring within just three minutes with a controlled right foot finish from fifteen yards.
Van Persie remained respectful, merely raising both hands into the air apologetically and with an almost sorrowful expression. It was a moment of class that showed his humble nature and an appreciation for both a club and former manager who’d helped to shape his progression to the top of the English game.
Matchday 16 - Man City (A) - December 9th
A defining moment of the season came at the Etihad. Deep into injury time United won a free kick on the right edge of City’s box. There was a great chance to deliver a dangerous ball into the area. But Van Persie had other ideas, instead opting to curl the ball towards Joe Hart’s goal - his shot dipping past the City keeper and nestling in the bottom corner. United won the game 3-2 and moved six points clear of their nearest challengers.
Matchday 34 - Aston Villa (H) - April 22nd
With City losing to Spurs the previous afternoon, a win against Villa under the lights of Old Trafford would see United crowned Champions once more and Van Persie didn’t disappoint. He showed pure quality with another trio of goals; the last of which has since gone down in United folklore.
"When I look back on the best moments of my career...that night ranks very high."
Robin Van Persie
Fans will never forget how Wayne Rooney’s long raking pass was met by the sprinting Dutchman, who struck a thunderous volley on the run, his shot zipping past the visiting goalkeeper and into the far corner.
It was perhaps the main reason Ferguson invested in an aging forward. The promise of goals Van Persie brought far outweighed any thoughts of value for money or long term investment.
And he was sensational. With his wand of a left foot Van Persie’s ability in front of goal was indeed elite. The striker had superb all round ability when it came to finishing chances. His sublime first touch often allowed the Dutchman space and time to calmly slot home. Van Persie was capable of producing precise shots from tight angles, smart close range finishes and wonderful long range efforts that required top class technique.
During his so called wonder season Van Persie proved himself to be one of the most clinical strikers in the European game. Statistics highlight that he averaged two shots on target per game and scored roughly a goal for every three attempts on goal.
Not only was Van Persie lethal in front of goal but he also proved a great supply line; notching up nine assists in the League throughout that campaign. The Dutchman’s set-piece delivery and quality from wider areas were both big assets acquired during his early career as a winger. He even managed four assists from dead ball situations and created an impressive fifteen big chances for his teammates across the season.
A Big Game Player
"Everything Van Persie does is quality and class. Even if he just holds the ball up he makes it look simple."
It wasn’t simply the amount of goals Van Persie scored but more noticeably when he found the net. A large portion of his strikes came in crucial game changing moments often preventing defeat or converting a single point into three. In fact as a direct result of his goals alone - United gained a staggering 28 points with Van Persie scoring the decisive goal on eleven separate occasions.
Van Persie’s goal scoring form strangely dipped during the spring of 2013 where he scored just once in eight League games. Many cite the loss of form to fatigue and failing to rest throughout the grueling winter period.
Nevertheless he continued to perform well throughout this barren patch, still drifting to wider areas and providing accurate deliveries for his teammates to find the net instead. In fact the Dutchman finished eighth in the Premier League’s assist table with eight contributions - only two behind Wayne Rooney who managed ten.
He was also ever present. The only squad member to feature in all 38 league games across the campaign despite being encouraged to recuperate several times. Van Persie was reportedly determined to ‘play himself back into form.’
His willingness seemed to pay off, the Dutchman rediscovering his form as United finished the season strongly, the striker scoring seven goals in his final seven games; in turn helping United to claim nine victories in their last ten fixtures.
Winning The Title
Van Persie ended the season with 26 League goals, two hat-tricks and a Golden Boot.
"He changed their situation. He was the difference between them and us."
Man City Manager Roberto Mancini in 2013
United eventually finished the season 11 points clear of City, scoring twenty more goals than their crosstown rivals and wrapping up the title with four games still to play.
With the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs all entering the twilight of their careers, Ferguson’s final side was questionably not his best. Which made Van Persie’s performance that season all the more impressive.
His signing was without question the deciding factor in United winning the Premier League in 2013.
Ferguson’s parting gift to the Old Trafford Faithful.