'SuperVan' was the nickname given to Robin van Persie after his wonder header against Spain last month. Daley Blind's perfect cross-field ball was met by the Manchester United striker to draw Netherlands level, setting them on their way to an eventual 5-1 win over the world champions. The Oranje would go on to top Group B before crashing out at the semi-finals through the medium of penalties to Argentina on Wednesday night.
Against the South American nation, 'SuperVan's' powers appeared to have completely deserted him. The 30-year-old failed to register a shot against Argentina, while his WhoScored rating (5.94) was his lowest at the World Cup. Compare this to his rating against Spain (9.26) and a drop in form in Brazil was obvious. There is often talk of a team peaking too early in international competitions, but in this case it was the player jumping the gun too soon.
Having bagged a brace against Spain, Van Persie followed that up with a goal in Netherlands' 3-2 win over Australia, only to miss the encounter with Chile due to suspension. Since his goal against the Socceroos, the Dutchman has failed to net in 321 minutes of World Cup action, excluding his penalty in the shootout win against Costa Rica.
Despite initially impressing alongside Arjen Robben in the two-man strike partnership, his displays dipped as Netherlands' game plan stagnated. The system Van Gaal implemented suited Robben more than Van Persie, though it goes without saying a manager should formulate a plan to bring out the best in his best player.
At the World Cup, that was undoubtedly Robben, with his WhoScored rating (8.44) bettered only by Lionel Messi (8.77). Early signs, though, suggested Van Persie would excel alongside Robben up front. Against Spain, the striker fired away 4 shots on goal, 3 of which were on target, and he could easily have had a hat-trick had his thundering volley found the back of the net instead of cannoning back off the crossbar as the pairing surpassed expectations.
Against Australia, the talismanic frontman again had 4 shots at goal, with 3 of those hitting the target once more. In fact, of the 105 players to have had at least 4 shots in the group stages of the competition, only Izet Hajrovic (80%) had a better shot accuracy than Van Persie (75%). With Netherlands also scoring the most goals (11) in the opening 3 games, many felt they would press on in the in latter stages of the competition and could perhaps win the World Cup.
However, they netted just 2 goals in their last 3 games, courtesy of Wesley Sneijder and Klaas-Jan Hunterlaar against Mexico. Van Persie mustered just 6 shots in those 3 games, 5 of which came in the 0-0 draw with Costa Rica over 120 minutes of action. Having failed to find a way past Guillermo Ochoa and Keylor Navas, the experienced striker was unable to even test Sergio Romero on Wednesday night, though rather than criticise the Dutch system, it may have been down to the approach adopted by Mexico, Costa Rica and Argentina.
The trio in the latter stages of the World Cup set out to stifle Netherlands by playing narrower, subsequently putting more men behind the ball. In the group stages, only Iran (29.7%) averaged less possession than Netherlands (39.5%), while in the knockout rounds, that rose significantly (59.7%). Clearly, the plan of attack in Group B was to sit back and allow the opposition to control proceedings before striking on the counter-attack. Netherlands had the most attempts on goal from fast-breaks (6) in the opening 3 games of the competition. From the last-16 stage onwards, that figure dropped to 2.
While Van Persie was able to hang on the shoulder of the last defender against Spain and Australia in the group stages, Mexico, Costa Rica and Argentina nullified the threat of the striker by playing more compact. Spending more time on the ball meant Netherlands were unable to replicate their Group B performances in the knockout stages, in turn meaning Van Persie was forced to drop deeper to pick up the ball or operate too far ahead of the midfield to be picked out.
Van Persie's impact was limited due to this isolation, as his goal return suggests. However, while teams found a way to stifle the striker, Van Gaal must shoulder some of the blame for not altering his approach to bring out the best in the experienced frontman. Against Argentina, Van Persie's worst performance of the tournament, Netherlands retreated to a 6-3-1 when La Albiceleste attacked, presumably to shackle Lionel Messi.
However, all this did was unintentionally restrict Van Persie, who touched the ball the fewest times (23) in his 5 World Cup appearances and struggled to gain a foothold in the game before being substituted in the 96th minute. Either way, his decline in form will have United fans wondering whether Van Gaal can bring out the best in his compatriot when he takes over at Old Trafford.
United are unlikely to sit deeper against Premier League teams next season such is their standing in England's top tier, despite an underwhelming campaign under David Moyes, but if Van Gaal insists on a similar system with the former champions next season, Van Persie's performances may suffer as a result.
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All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com where you can find yet more stats and player ratings.Suggest a correction