Signing Robin Van Persie Is a Huge Coup For Manchester United, But How Will He Fit In?

16/08/2012 11:31 BST | Updated 15/10/2012 10:12 BST

Anywhere but midfield. If unofficial Manchester United T-shirt sellers are in a sardonic mood, the "ABM" slogan will be available to purchase soon. Because since Sir Alex Ferguson bought Anderson, his last central midfielder, in 2007, he has spent (including the Robin van Persie fee) roughly £175.75m on players in almost every other position.

That he hasn't strengthened United's central abyss has been papered over by the coup of signing Arsenal's best player last season. Irrespective of the fact the Gunners are no longer a rival to United and haven't won a trophy since Van Persie's first season in 2004/05 (he was one of the spot-kick scorers in the FA Cup final shootout against United), he has pushed Piers Morgan to the brink of suicide.

Van Persie, at 29, would have been a superior signing three years ago when United did need another striker after Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tévez left. For the glass-half-empty crowd, he has had one great season out of eight with Arsenal, was injury prone and is costing in excess of £20m despite turning 30 in under a year.

Excluding perennial crock Michael Owen, he is also the eldest player United have signed since Dimitar Berbatov in 2008. The club's transfer policy has been to buy under-26 players with the potential for a re-sale value, so all these factors stress Ferguson must really rate Van Persie.

And Van Persie's arrival poses a conundrum. Prior to it, most United fans could select their ideal starting XI without having to mull on the system or personnel during their lunch hour. They just wanted some steel in you-know-where. Now the balance has been, surreally, upset by the club's first marquee buy since Berbatov.

Bringing in Shinji Kagawa from Borussia Dortmund appeared to provide the missing string to the Reds' attacking bow. A playmaker who offers a central surge United have lacked for years, he would play off Wayne Rooney with two wingers beside them and two midfielders behind them.

Throw Van Persie into the mix however and, unlike an Ethan Hunt assignment, the mission to fathom how United will line up if or when at full strength is impossible. Kagawa, an excellent number 10 in the Bundesliga, will hardly ever play there now.

The Daily Telegraph's Henry Winter once told a story how, prior to United's away fixture to Barcelona in the 1994/95 Champions League group stage, he predicted the Red Devils' starting XI for the evening as part of the pre-match preview.

With the foreigner rule in effect, Ferguson told the journalists prior to the game: "Never try to read the mind of a madman." He dropped Peter Schmeichel and started Gary Walsh. United were thumped 4-0.

Amusingly it has been suggested because Ferguson refuses to buy midfielders United will play without any midfielders. Kinda like Spain minus the strikers, only stimulating rather than stultifying.

It may be that Ferguson returns to the 4-3-2-1 system which was a hallmark of United's European hegemony between 2007 and 2009. In the 2008 Moscow final, United started with Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes and Owen Hargreaves as the trio behind Tévez, Rooney and Ronaldo. Only Hargreaves would break off from the triumvirate in attack to offer width on the right, while Scholes or Carrick would exchange holding duties, out-passing their opponents.

Back then Ferguson had Carlos Queiroz to rely on to provide tactical savvy. Although the club's greatest ever manager has, in the Portuguese's absence, applied some ingenious methods (eg. Ryan Giggs reverting to left-back in the 4-2 comeback at West Ham United in 2011), like Lord Nelson he is a greater leader than he is a tactician.

Strategically United have regressed steadfastly since Queiroz departed after the win in Moscow, with the under-qualified ex-cone man Mike Phelan appointed to number two. But Van Persie's role would have been made paramount ahead of c**k-blocking Manchester City and it is unquestionable that he is a world-class player who will improve the team and squad.

Feasibly, he would start at the tip of the arrow (a la Ronaldo) with Kagawa and Rooney playing behind him with the trio interchanging. Predicting the midfield three is trickier than Richard Nixon though. Carrick is a certain starter, and ideally Tom Cleverley and Antonio Valencia would flank him. Cleverley enjoyed playing on the left while on loan at Wigan Athletic and is a forward-thinker in the Kagawa mould who, like the Japanese, is as willing a defender as he is an attacker.

Valencia would offer a wide outlet to ensure the team avoided becoming overly narrow, and although United remain lightweight and liable to get overrun in midfield, there is a possibility they may finally resemble the criteria the best attacking sides in contemporary football showcase.

But this is all idealistic. Never guess the mind of a midfield-phobic madman.