Sunday, September 2, 2012
RVP hat-trick papers over cracks
Miguel Delaney, St Mary's
That, ultimately, is why Sir Alex Ferguson was so determined to sign Robin van Persie when the Manchester United manager didn't seem to really need him at all. It wasn't just about the statement, it wasn't just about the goals - it was about providing necessary examples of both in situations like this, not to mention that extra edge.
Last season, Van Persie's strikes were directly responsible for 27 of Arsenal's points. From 38 appearances, he provided one of the highest such ratios (0.71 points per game) in English league history. It's only behind Alan Shearer in 1993-94 (0.73) and that last truly devastating United talisman, Cristiano Ronaldo, in 2007-08 (0.72).
Against Southampton, Van Persie's two late goals duly supplied all three points to follow the example of the Portuguese and give Ferguson an all too fitting, and all too characteristic, rousing United comeback on the manager's 1,000th league game.
But, while that may have been typical United, the worrying aspect for the striker, team and manager is that it was also a typical demand on Van Persie throughout the 2011-12 campaign. As was so often the case with Arsenal last season, the forward's goals rescued his team from an abject display that threw up all manner of issues and problems.
It also shouldn't be forgotten that Van Persie himself contributed to those issues. While the his dynamic hat-trick ensured that the missed penalty will no longer dominate coverage of the game, that single kick did effectively define 87 minutes of it.
Much like Van Persie's disastrous decision to chip it, United were generally complacent, lacking buoyancy and lackadaisical. By contrast, much like Kelvin Davis's save, Southampton were alert, energetic and opportunistic. They illustrated that as early as the 16th minute, when the imposing and impressive Rickie Lambert out-jumped Rafael to open the scoring.
Many will ask why such a diminutive player was marking such a dominant header of the ball, even though Lambert generally bossed Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic too. Such questions, however, are part of a much wider problem for United - essentially, one that spans the whole pitch. And also splits it.
Until Paul Scholes came on, United effectively deployed a troublesome formation made up of two very distinct halves: an overloaded attack and overexposed defence.
A perfect illustration came on 40 minutes. After another United passing move had broken down, a ball was suddenly lofted forward. Incredibly, it was three on two with Southampton enjoying almost the entire expanse of the opposition half. Only Vidic's desperate run to get across the box and clear the ball prevented Adam Lallana making 2-1 just before half-time.
It wasn't too long after the break, though, that Southampton properly took advantage of such an erratic formation once more.
Yet again, with Ferdinand and Vidic forced to move out in order to cover gaps elsewhere, a small full-back was left to mark one of the biggest opposition players on the pitch. This time, though, Patrice Evra didn't even get off the ground. He slipped and allowed Morgan Schneiderlin to easily - but emphatically - head the ball past Anders Lindegaard.
A further issue for Ferguson, however, was that this shape didn't just cause problems for United in defence but also in attack. With Tom Cleverley all too eager to surge forward despite the manager supposedly seeing him as a physical presence in the middle, wires and lines were too often crossed.
A number of passes were narrowly misplaced or missed and they all had the cumulative effect of slowing down United's attack. Indeed, the visitors' only real chance of the first half after Van Persie's typically-taken initial equaliser was Evra's soft header wide.
In all that, this was much more like United's display against Everton than against Fulham with Shinji Kagawa particularly culpable of getting confused amid the mass of bodies. That caused all the more problems for Ferguson, given how adept Southampton were at congesting their box and then quickly breaking out.
As such, it was no surprise that both Cleverley and Kagawa were eventually taken off, with Scholes immediately resetting both the shape and the pace of the game. Ferguson himself said his introduction "changed the game completely".
"For that period, I thought we were well out of it until Scholes came on the park. His vision and consistency of passing gave us complete control again."
In all of this, of course, there is an even bigger question. Had Ferguson signed the midfield presence United need to properly link that defence and attack, would Van Persie's goals even be needed? Or, how intimidating would United be had they signed both?
Either way, with Nigel Adkins's trio of substitutions further altering the dynamic, Van Persie eventually did his own job.
This may not have been a perfect hat-trick in terms of right, left, head but it was impressive in terms of the range of finishes: a drilled effort, an opportunistic poach and a sweeping header. The complete striker provided a complete turnaround.
"He has four goals in two starts and that's a great statistic," Ferguson said of Van Persie.
It's not that he scores when he wants. It's that, generally, he scores when he's needed.