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How Van Persie's Man Utd career was ruined by Moyes

Mention Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season in football management to any Manchester United fan and the first player that will come to mind is Robin van Persie. Of all the signings Ferguson brought to Old Trafford over his 26 years in charge, it is hard to think of anyone who put their name to their debut season in quite the way the Dutchman did in 2012-13.

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It was perhaps always meant to be for Van Persie at United. On arrival he would be handed the No. 20 shirt, and within nine months the club was celebrating its 20th English league title. In May 2013 the team celebrated its own 20/13 – 20 championships, 13 under Ferguson in the Premier League era.

At United, Van Persie finally got his hands on the silverware that had eluded him at Arsenal. Since coming on as a substitute in the 2005 FA Cup win on penalties over the Red Devils, he had seen countless injuries punctuate a barren spell in north London. Only in his final season at the Emirates in 2011-12 did the former Feyenoord man start more than 24 league games in a single campaign. As chance would have it, he appeared on every one of Arsene Wenger’s team sheets in his final season, encouraging Fergie to make a move.

Ferguson looked at Van Persie’s injury record, then considered his age. Van Persie was 29, and had much difficulty keeping fit for much of the past eight years, making him a risky signing in many ways. Yet still the Scotsman decided he was worth the shot. Ferguson saw it as a calculated gamble at a time when he needed a high-leverage player following the loss of the Premier League title to Manchester City.

Thirty goals later, United had coasted to the championship and Van Persie was the clear talisman having once more appeared in every single league game. Of course that wasn’t going to last, but Ferguson had arguably already got his money’s worth in just one season. 

It is open to interpretation quite what the storied manager saw for Van Persie in the longer term, especially since Ferguson’s subsequent retirement was a move he only cooked up during that 2012-13. But while the striker was always going to be of greater value in the short term, Ferguson can surely not have foreseen quite how far the player would fall under his successor David Moyes.

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The former Everton boss proved to be completely incapable of managing Van Persie’s workload when ailments started to creep in following back-to-back seasons of heavy workload. From the moment Moyes arrived at the club he looked ill-equipped for some of the decision-making necessary at the very top of the game, and Van Persie’s downturn was thanks in large part to the manager’s inability to foresee and manage issues.

Having worked the Dutchman hard during the autumn of 2013-14, a muscle strain robbed Moyes of Van Persie’s services for four games following the 1-0 win over Arsenal in November. But it was a combination of Moyes’ character and United’s struggles on the field that would make things worse for Van Persie.

When Newcastle came to Old Trafford in December with United sitting ninth, Moyes had sat down with the club’s medical staff and decided that Van Persie should play no more than 70 minutes on his return. But after Yohan Cabaye had given the visiting side a lead on the hour, Moyes panicked about what might be said about him if he took off United’s key goal threat.

“I think if I’d brought him off against Newcastle some people would have said ‘What are you doing? You are 1-0 down and you’re taking off your top goal scorer.’” Moyes explained in a candid moment later than season.

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“I think that answers why I left him on. Robin had a sore groin and, after he played really well against Arsenal, we gave him a week’s holiday to recover. When he came back he hasn’t really been right since then. He played against Newcastle and then in the next game he pulled his thigh taking a corner. But I think we have looked to do things correctly.”

In truth, Moyes had thought too much about the reaction of fans and pundits and too little about what was best for Van Persie. Over the remainder of that season, the Dutchman only ever looked close to his best in netting the hat trick which ensured a U-turn in fortunes against Olympiakos in the Champions League.

There were suggestions that even when Van Persie was fit and playing, the manager’s decision to have him play so closely to Wayne Rooney in the attack effectively nullified both players’ games, and the Dutchman himself was rumored to have shared such a concern. It seemed that whether he was playing or not, Van Persie was far from enjoying Moyes' way of working.

By April, Moyes was gone as he failed to secure the return to the top table that might have seen him afforded some extra rope, but Van Persie’s situation was somewhat irretrievable. By the following season he was a 31-year-old more than 12 months removed from his best form and struggling to cope with the return of the kind of physical difficulties which had dogged him for a large part of his career.

After failing to resurrect his best form in a season under Louis van Gaal, his Manchester United days were over. But on Thursday he gets one last shot at impressing the Old Trafford crowd with Fenerbahce in the Europa League.

United fans never forget their greats, and Van Persie is arguably one of them for the way he was able to lead Sir Alex to a career-ending high. But there will always be some who will wonder what might have been possible had he enjoyed another season under the record-breaking boss rather than being let down by David Moyes.