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Robin van Persie’s bit part gives him a taste of task ahead at United | Jamie Jackson

20th August 2012

Dutchman’s debut ends in anti-climax at Everton but Manchester United have reasons for optimism

One question was, could they play together? Related to this was the next one: how afraid would defences across the land be after watching Everton try to repel Wayne Rooney in tandem with Robin van Persie, who only signed on at Old Trafford last Friday.

When the team sheet dropped, Manchester United supporters and all football aficionados knew they would have to wait a little longer. Until the 68th minute, to be precise. Van Persie would enter in the second half for a 22-minute cameo too short to offer any definitive answers to the above, especially as United were chasing the game.

In this spell the Dutchman’s first touch in United’s new gingham shirt would be a corner and another notable offering would a ball he played in that Shinji Kagawa might have finished. But little else.

Sir Alex Ferguson had decided Van Persie should start on the bench and not with Rooney though his 4-2-3-1 still had stardust sprinkled over its business end: the playmaker Kagawa excellent throughout on his debut behind the striker.

There was still a tingle in seeing Van Persie’s name among the United subs as a long season beckoned of Van Persie and Rooney plundering defences. A price tag of £24m and a “long haul” – Ferguson’s words – had achieved the desired result: Van Persie in a United shirt to add his 37-goal firepower for Arsenal last season to Rooney’s own 37, each man’s best count.

After Van Persie warmed up with Nemanja Vidic – ahead of the captain’s first senior appearance following injury since December – Rooney started the business of spearheading United’s tilt at a 20th championship and dethroning Manchester City.

The Japanese-Liverpudlian axis required eight minutes to unlock Everton’s defence. Kagawa’s swivel-then-pass beyond Sylvain Distin was laid inch perfect into Rooney’s surging run and after looking up inside the area the favour was returned with a rolling ball the former Borussia Dortmund player just failed to collect.

This was about as fluid as Rooney – and United – managed during a stop-start performance. A concentration lapse from Rooney allowed Darron Gibson to nick possession near Everton’s area. And, after Paul Scholes dumped his former colleague to the ground, Marouane Fellaini burned off the auxiliary centre-back Michael Carrick before smacking the ball against David de Gea’s right post.

Rooney, operating at the tip, struggled for any consistent touch or contribution. It can be an issue when asked to play the lone role, as all England followers know. Twice he dropped deeper to find the ball and the sense was that Ferguson would bring on Van Persie at the break in a rejig: Rooney to drop into Kagawa’s berth in the “hole”, and the new signing replace him at United’s head.

This would have to wait and when it happened the formation was more an old fashioned 4-4-2. As Rooney walked at half-time from the arena where 10 years ago he made his professional debut there had been two more glimmers from him. A 30-yard free-kick that spun and dipped and Tim Howard palmed away for a corner and an awkward left foot shot aimed straight at the keeper.

On 17 August 2002 Wayne Mark Rooney had first stepped onto this turf in the blue of Everton to start one of the finest Premier League careers which, at 26, may only be halfway through. That October Rooney announced himself to non-Everton folk with a 30-yard shot that ended a 30-game unbeaten Arsenal run.

David Moyes, the Everton manager then and now, handed Rooney that debut – against Tottenham Hotspur in a 2-2 draw – and nurtured him into the £27m asset that left for United in the summer of 2004. Two years ago Moyes said of him: “Nobody can take credit for Wayne’s development. He is the last of the street players that used to be the rage when you go back to all the greats. You can see that in his physique, in his development, in his all-round football play. He had the potential to be a good player when he was here, but he’s now turned into that good player and he is getting better and better.”

Van Persie also learned on the street – those of his native Kralingen, in Rotterdam – where a ball would be thumped against the wall of the family home. As he continued to watch from the bench Rooney and Kagawa illustrated a developing understanding that augurs well for United’s season, despite this defeat. One move consisted of rotating triangles created by passes that zipped in exchange to move United downfield before Nani’s touch – not for the first time – proved clumsy.

Then, disaster – and Fellaini – struck and United were a goal behind with 33 minutes remaining. Ferguson greeted this with sending Van Persie to warm up.

His own Premier League bow came in September 2004 in a 1-0 Arsenal win at Manchester City when Ashley Cole still played for the Gunners and the Blues’ Joey Barton spent long days waiting for the invention of Twitter.

Now Van Persie was on for his United debut but he was given no chance by a resolute Everton to start repaying that fee on a disappointing evening for him and his new club.


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