Does van Persie still merit a starting place for MUFC?
A chart created by Christoffer Johansen made its way into my Twitter timeline last week. This chart was fairly stark in that showed a steady and perceptible decline in the output of Man United’s Robin van Persie over the last 4 or 5 seasons.
Christoffer’s chart was as follows:
That chart doesn’t need much commentary, so I’ll give it none.
Johansen then went on to show that van Persie’s decline extended to more than just the rate that he shot over the last five seasons. He showed that the year on year provision of assists is another category that has seen a decline from the Dutch captain:
Wider Attacking Contribution
On a team with as much attacking talent as this current Man United side possess, it is obvious that both the shots and the headlines will be shared around. Not everyone can take the final shot, or even play the assist for the shot; this is especially true when the attacking talent includes all of Falcao, Rooney, Di Maria, Mata and van Persie.
This desire to award attacking players the recognition that their involvement deserves is what motivated me to create the Attacking Contribution metric . Previously, unless they played the final pass or had the shot, their part in attacking moves would have gone unnoticed by the statistics that are currently reported on.
An introduction to this metric can be found in an article published last week on Statsbomb. In summary, it records the number of times that a player was involved in the final four events of an attacking move that culminated in a shot.
Due to the various ways that forwards play it can be difficult to compare their outputs. Some forwards excel in holding up play and linking with others, while some are simply there to score the goals.
I decided to include the final four events in the calculation of the Attacking Contribution metric as this will, generally, capture all the players that were integral to the attacking move. If attacking players are regularly failing to be involved in the final four events of their teams’ attacking moves I think that questions should be asked of them.
What exactly is their role in the team? What does the coaching staff want them to achieve? And, most importantly, are they taking the position of a player that has more to give to the team than they themselves are?
Robin van Persie’s Attacking Contribution
From Johansson’s charts we can see that RVP’s shot numbers have declined and that he’s also providing a minimal level of assists. This in itself might not be a problem. With all the attacking talent at Louis van Gaal’s disposal it is possible that van Persie is being involved earlier in the moves. Such an earlier involvement would not see him gaining recognition under the two categories of stats that Christoffer Johansen covered in his charts.
If he was central to United’s attacking moves, moves which were being finished by the likes of Di Maria, Rooney or Falcao then supporters of RVP could rightly say that the 2014 version of the Dutch forward is about more than just scoring goals. But is this actually the case?
The Attacking Contribution Metric can help us answer this question:
I only have data for games played from the start of the 2010/11 season. Robin van Persie was remarkably consistent during the spell from 2010/11 to 2012/13, during these three seasons he was involved in almost 50% of the shots his teams took while he was on the pitch.
RVP’s productivity numbers noticeably tail off last season (2013/14) as he is involved in only 39% of United’s shots. Although the table above doesn’t include his playing minutes, I can tell you that he played less than 1700 minutes last season compared to the 3500 and 3350 minutes that he clocked up respectively in each of the two preceding seasons. The Dutchman obviously struggled with his fitness last season; he missed plenty of game time, and when he did play he wasn’t as productive as in previous terms.
If last season was disappointing for van Persie, then this current one has started off very badly. His involvement in just 28% of United’s shots is an extremely poor individual return for a front line attacker and represents a serious decline from the exceptionally high numbers we have grown used to seeing van Persie deliver, first at Arsenal and then in Ferguson’s final season at Old Trafford.
Man United’s Individual Attacking Contributors
The table below shows the attacking involvement of United’s attacking players this season:
I know that the season is young, but we can see that six other United players have had a greater attacking input that van Persie has so far. How can Anders Herrera have had a greater influence (in terms of the percentage of attacking moves he has been involved in) than RVP has had? United’s attacks are passing van Persie by, this is a trend that I picked up few times this season in the commentaries that I made on some of Man United’s Player Positional Trackers, an example of which is United’s defeat against Leicester.
Given the attacking firepower that currently resides inside Old Trafford I don’t think, in his current form, that van Persie is deserving of a start in United’s line up. With Mata, Falcao, Rooney, Di Maria, and Herrera real possibilities for the five available attacking spots (and that’s even before we consider Januzaj or Valencia), Robin van Persie should no longer expect to be one of first names on the Man United team sheet.
Maybe the injuries have finally taken their toll. The fact that he has recently turned 31 will not help him either, but there is no doubt that his ability to influence games is clearly waning, and United will need more from all of their attacking players if they are to successfully secure a Top 4 league position this season.
Tale of Two Dutch Strikers
In a brief Twitter conversation with Simon Gleave on Saturday, Simon mentioned that there was quite a bit of chatter in the Dutch media around van Persie and Huntelaar. Comparisons were being made between the two, presumably around which of the players should receive the nod to start up front as the Oranje played Kazakhstan on Friday night. Van Persie led the line whilst the Schalke striker had to be content with a place on the bench, although Huntelaar did come on in the 56th minute and he grabbed the Dutch equalising goal just six minutes later.
This article is mainly concerned with van Persie, but given the circumstances I decided to widen it out to briefly include some of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar’s numbers.
Van Persie or Huntelaar
When van Persie was in his prime there was no contest around which of the two were the more productive player. However, is this still the case now in late 2014?
It’s impossible to answer this question with the use of just one metric but let’s take a look at Huntelaar’s Attacking Contribution metric over the last four and a bit seasons:
A few seasons back (2010 – 2012) we can see that at with an attacking involvement of approximately 35% in Schalke’s shots he was considerably less involved than van Persie was at Arsenal and Man United. However, as Father Time has quickly caught up with RVP it looks as though Huntelaar’s attacking performances haven’t yet taken the very noticeable decline that van Persie’s has; this despite the fact that just six days separated their birth.
I’d expect the 42% contribution rate that Huntelaar has posted so far this season to reduce a little, but at this stage he still looks to be a player that will contribute to about one third of Schalke’s attacks.
I’m conscious that this Attacking Contribution metric isn’t all encompassing. It doesn’t assess the quality of chances, nor the rate at which they convert their chances and we also need to be aware that we are looking at players that play in two different leagues. But, even being mindful of all of those caveats, it could be argued that van Persie has regressed to the point that he and Huntelaar could be expected to have a similar attacking contribution for the Netherlands.