Cards stacked against Van Persie if he seeks exit from Old Trafford
If Robin van Persie played the first card in an elaborate game of poker aimed at advertising his potential availability this summer by criticising Manchester United's tactics during the Champions League defeat against Olympiakos, he may have misjudged the strength of his hand.
Van Persie, speaking to the Dutch television station NOS at the Karaiskakis Stadium in Athens following United's 2-0 humiliation, was careful to say just enough without openly rebuking David Moyes for the game plan against the Greek champions.
Selected as a lone forward, and often isolated as United toiled against the unfancied hosts, Van Persie suggested he and his team-mates simply got in each others' way in the last 16, first-leg tie.
"Our fellow players are sometimes occupying the spaces I want to play in," Van Persie said. "And when I see that it makes it difficult for me to come to those spaces as well. So that forces me to adjust my runs, based on the position of my fellow players and, unfortunately, they're often playing in my zones. I think that's a shame."
Heat maps displaying the runs made by Van Persie, and United's other forwards in Greece, do little to support his claims. Van Persie is shown rarely straying from the central areas of the pitch, with neither Antonio Valencia nor Ashley Young roaming into his domain.
Wayne Rooney, meanwhile, covered large acres of the pitch simply to find the ball, but he and Van Persie (below) shared only five passes – three from kick-offs – during the whole game.
Van Persie's cryptic remarks have now fuelled speculation that all is not well with the 30-year-old at Old Trafford and, less than two years after arriving from Arsenal, he is devising an exit strategy after growing tired of Moyes and United's struggles.
All previous rumours of discord and unhappiness have been dismissed by Moyes and those close to the player, but if Van Persie does want out, he will find the cards stacked in United's favour.
Firstly, the player did not negotiate an escape clause in his four-year contract when he completed his £24m move from the Emirates in August 2012 and United's position is that they will treat any interest in Van Persie with the same defiance that saw Chelsea fail in efforts to sign Rooney last summer.
When Moyes discussed Rooney's decision to sign a new five-and-a-half year deal at Old Trafford last Friday, his insistence that the club controlled the destiny of its players now reads like a coded message to his agitated centre-forward. "The one thing I've found about Manchester United is that they decide what players go and when they want them to go," Moyes said last week. "The players won't control that, no matter who comes to the club. The club will always be in control of that."
So, if Van Persie is unhappy and seeking a way out, he is likely to find United a different proposition to Arsenal, who ultimately failed to keep their star player at the club. Still, Van Persie's future will rest in Moyes' hands and the Scot's interpretation of the player's comments in Greece may decide how that plays out.
Moyes' predecessor, Alex Ferguson, grew so tired of the malevolent influence of Ruud van Nistelrooy in the summer of 2006 that he chose to dispense with the Dutch forward, despite his prolific strike-rate for the club. There is no suggestion that Van Persie carries the same influence at United as Van Nistelrooy, or whether his interview in Greece was merely an ill-advised letting off of steam, but Moyes will be mindful of the concessions he has made for the striker in an effort to get the best from him this season.
Moyes has given Van Persie the freedom to express any concerns over his fitness and has allowed the player to train in the way that suits him.
There was also a determination to protect Van Persie by allowing him time to fully recover from a two-month thigh problem, despite it coinciding with a terrible run of results.
When fit, Van Persie has delivered for Moyes with 14 goals in 22 appearances this season, but against Olympiakos he appeared disinterested and off the pace. The retirement of Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs' waning influence and the loss of form of Michael Carrick and Shinji Kagawa have cut off some of the supply that saw Van Persie score 30 goals in all competitions last season.
But it has been Van Persie's demeanour which has perhaps been the most visible change and his comments in Athens gave a voice to the sulking image. Sulking and complaining ultimately earned Van Nistelrooy his pass out of United, but it was Ferguson's call. If Moyes remains at the helm this summer, he may be left with a similarly bold decision on Van Persie, but it in the end, it will be his and not the player's. (© Daily Telegraph, London)