When Cristiano Ronaldo left Old Trafford for the Bernabeu in the summer of 2009, Manchester United unofficially became Wayne Rooney’s team. The captaincy may have passed from Rio Ferdinand to Nemanja Vidic to Patrice Evra and back to Vidic – but Rooney has always been "the man". Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes have always been the longest serving squad members, but Rooney has commanded the bulk of the attention. Despite the striker’s bizarre and ill-timed transfer request in 2010, which was shortly after withdrawn in favour of a new contract, Rooney has remained unscathed as the face of Manchester United – until now.
Robin van Persie’s arrival at Old Trafford has brought about, or at least is threatening to bring about, a change in the dynamic. The Dutchman has four goals in two starts, including a dramatic hat-trick to snatch the three points at Southampton this weekend, and fans at Old Trafford are well on the way to forgetting his Arsenal past. Van Persie has made no secret of his delight at being part of Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad and he has clearly matured considerably through the experience of captaining the Gunners. To see him celebrating with the match ball at the away end at St. Mary’s, it was as though he had been at Manchester United for years.
Of course, all this coincides with Rooney’s enforced absence with the thigh gash suffered against Fulham. Ferguson’s plan is no doubt to pair Van Persie and Rooney as a twin attacking spearhead in due course but the England man may find himself in Van Persie’s shadow when he returns to the fold. Make no mistake, the Dutchman’s display at St. Mary’s was a bold statement, bailing out his team-mates (and himself after a weak penalty miss). He is already the focal point and the man his team-mates look to for inspiration, ushering in a new era at Old Trafford. There is a new saviour in town.
His style of play is smoother and silkier than Rooney’s with technique and finesse the key elements as opposed to grit and power, and he can arguably hurt teams in more ways. Rooney’s sluggish performance against Everton in the season opener did not go unnoticed by Ferguson or the fans, and he found himself on the bench against Fulham as Van Persie took the plaudits with his clinical home debut strike. Clearly, he can take nothing for granted this season.
Given that Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez are also chomping at the bit, the Red Devils will cope without Rooney in the final third but issues elsewhere are sure to be unnerving Ferguson. Vidic and Ferdinand look rusty and short of confidence, while Evra has been short of his best at left back and David De Gea, dropped at the weekend, remains a shaky figure in goal. The midfield is also struggling, with Nani out of sorts and Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick still building an understanding. Thus far, it has been headaches aplenty for the Manchester United boss.
And so, Ferguson has needed to blend the old with the new in the meantime. On Sunday, it was exactly that. Van Persie, the £24M man, struck the knockout blows but it was the introduction of Scholes with just under 30 minutes to go that changed the outcome. Manchester United got a grip in midfield and the 37-year-old’s passing stretched a heavy-legged Southampton defence, opening the door for the Dutchman’s rescue act.
The fact that Scholes and Van Persie are on the same page is a huge plus for the Red Devils. Ferguson, meanwhile, was gushing about Van Persie’s contributions. "His first goal was magnificent – the control and then to bury it," he explained. "It was a really good goal. His header was excellent, too, but he has been a terrific player for us." For now, the English giants will only go as far as Van Persie takes them.
Getting Rooney back on the pitch – possibly as soon as the end of September – is critical for Manchester United’s trophy chances but when the England man returns, he may find he has been usurped as the supporters’ golden boy and the global face of the club. It remains to be seen how he will handle that. But, as this weekend confirmed, the Van Persie era is well and truly up and running at Old Trafford.