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The sudden decline of Robin van Persie

The rejected rarely enjoy reunions.

Reminders of what they have lost can tend to be too painful. They sometimes compensate with vitriol. Robin van Persie's recent meetings with Arsenal have been notable for the unpleasant reception he has received from their fans. Yet if his fall is as chastening as his rise was remarkable, the more pertinent issue is his treatment by the Manchester United powerbrokers.

It is a safe assumption that, barring injuries, he will start Sunday's meeting with Arsenal on the bench. It is an indication of a shift in status. There was a time when Van Persie was Arsene Wenger's perfect nine-and-a-half. That was the positional term the Dutchman coined, a hybrid of a No. 9 and a No. 10, to describe a player the Arsenal manager believed was a hybrid of the two greatest forwards of his reign.

It was high praise: "He is less of a runner than Thierry Henry and he is not completely Dennis Bergkamp because he plays higher up the pitch," said Wenger in 2009. "He can be the best passer in the league and the best goalscorer in the league."

If it seemed hyperbolic then, it didn't by 2012. By then, Van Persie was the double Footballer of the Year, the Premier League's top scorer, the prime target of both Manchester clubs and the man whose signing, ultimately, settled the following season's title race.

He was the efficient aesthete, the flair player turned finisher, the enfant terrible of Dutch football who became Wenger's captain and Sir Alex Ferguson's cheerleader-in-chief. A couple of years ago, there was a case for including Van Persie in the world's top 10 players. Now the question is if he belongs in United's first 11.

Recent evidence suggests not. An increasingly static presence lacks Wayne Rooney's mobility. United's best form of the season came in Van Persie's absence. The successor to Bergkamp and Henry finds himself bracketed with another great goalscorer now, but only if he takes a seat on the bench alongside the sadly impotent Radamel Falcao.

The bare fact is that Van Persie has only started once since suffering an ankle injury at Swansea in February. He missed a penalty as United lost to West Bromwich Albion and was promptly relieved of spot kick duties by manager Louis van Gaal. He is soon to enter the final year of his contract with speculation that United will try and cash in on him, even if his wages are likely to deter buyers. He may be a deluxe squad player, Rooney's understudy or a particularly classy Plan B.

That glorious debut season in Manchester apart, Van Persie, who has exhibited a wonderful sense of the dramatic on the field, increasingly appears to have an unfortunate capacity to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. United finished ahead of Arsenal in each of his last seven seasons as a Gunner, but while he won the title that eluded him in London, Van Persie has since experienced the ignominy of the worst season at Old Trafford in a quarter of a century and an expensive grind to fourth place.

Injuries and a lack of form have limited Robin van Persie to just 10 goals in 2014-15.
Injuries and a lack of form have limited Robin van Persie to just 10 goals in 2014-15.

He joined Arsenal the summer after they had been Invincibles and was present for the era of austerity. Wenger showed typical awareness of the economics, pocketing £24 million for a player whose contract expired 10 months later, but Van Persie's departure proved a tipping point. The following year a selling club were reinvented as a buying club. Superstars may be an annual acquisition at the Emirates Stadium. For the second successive year, Arsenal, so long United's inferiors, could secure more points and win more silverware.

Summit clashes always seem to provide a reunion for Arsenal, but the sense of longing should be lessening. Chelsea's Cesc Fabregas would probably get in Wenger's side now. The Manchester City trio of Samir Nasri, Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna might not. And Van Persie?

Until recently, it would have been heresy to suggest Olivier Giroud is a better player. Not now. Two left-footed strikers share similarities. Each has a particularly upright stance. Neither was blessed with the speed that might have taken his game to another level and, indeed, rendered him a more typical Wenger striker. Each is a technician, the volleyer extraordinaire Van Persie more obviously so. Yet if he possesses the more apparent ability, Giroud has the form.

Van Persie, who has struck 10 times in 28 matches, has his lowest goal-per-game ratio in nine seasons. Giroud is on a five-game drought but delivered 10 goals in 10 outings before then. He has confounded some expectations. Signed for half the fee Arsenal recouped for Van Persie, he may be an example of Wengernomics, an improving player offering value for money without quite being the best in his position in the league; Sergio Aguero and Diego Costa are more logical spearheads of a title-winning team, just as Van Persie was in his prime.

Yet while the Dutchman has spoken of his desire to play on into his late 30s, this season has suggested he has entered decline. He seems to have evolved from the winger who arrived at Arsenal to a deep-lying creator, then a "nine-and-a-half" and now a pure, if idiosyncratic, No. 9, one who is neither as physical nor as fast as many others.

Increasingly, he requires a team to be built around him. Three years ago, he carried one. Van Persie's 2011-12 campaign is among the finest of any player in the Premier League era; it constituted a one-man crusade to stave off Arsenal's decline, made all the more significant as, after he had kept them in the top four, he signalled his exit.

He touched heights no other Arsenal player since Henry had reached with 30 league goals that were worth 24 points. His exquisite late winner at Anfield and his hat trick in the improbable 5-3 win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge were the highlights as, almost single-handedly, he preserved Arsenal's ever-present status in the top-four under Wenger.

United, too, have experienced a reliance on Van Persie. Now perhaps neither needs the man who has been both clubs' finest striker in the last few years.

Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.


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