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David Moyes finds himself wrestling with a similar problem to one first encountered by Sir Alex Ferguson 12 months ago, but is heading towards a different conclusion.
This time last year Ferguson was on the verge of dropping Wayne Rooney for Manchester United’s biggest match of the season, triggering a transfer request and a summer of turmoil.
Now, ahead of United welcoming Liverpool to Old Trafford on Sunday and a Champions League return leg against Olympiacos three days later, it is Robin van Persie who discovers his starting role under threat.
When Real Madrid came to Manchester last March, Ferguson launched a grenade by selecting Danny Welbeck ahead of Rooney to harness the younger man’s ability to win the ball high up the pitch.
Welbeck is once more challenging the established order, but it is Van Persie who would make way if Moyes decides the time is right to pull the pin.
Against West Bromwich Albion, it felt like a strong statement from the United manager when the Holland striker was replaced by Welbeck in the 63rd minute.
It was a curious passage, which began with Van Persie receiving instructions on the touchline before returning to the pitch only for the board to go up with his number on it. The 30-year-old was talking with referee Jon Moss, who had moments earlier spared him a second yellow card for a foul on Steven Reid, and the official needed to tell Van Persie his time was up.
Moyes said afterwards the substitution had been planned but a shake of the head from the player as he left the pitch seemed to contradict that notion. Yet it was a required switch. Van Persie had grown frustrated with his performance, littered with mis-controls, and Welbeck’s introduction invigorated United, who were 1-0 up through a Phil Jones header.
Welbeck played up top, with Rooney, who scored a header, behind him. The pair combined for a beautiful goal to round off the 3-0 victory. There was more fluidity to United’s play after Van Persie had departed.
Welbeck and Rooney exchanged seven passes in the 27 minutes they were on the pitch together, compared with four between Rooney and Van Persie in more than double that time.
Van Persie was bought by Ferguson for a specific aim last season, which was realised with title number 20.
Moyes, having placed his flag in the ground by handing Rooney a five-year contract, has different priorities; to build, to re-energise.
Selecting Welbeck as striker for these crunch coming games would be a start. ‘I have seen him starting to look a lot sharper in the last week or so. He has done very well,’ said Moyes. ‘We like Danny a lot.’
Asked about his selection for Liverpool and Olympiacos, he said: ‘We can’t start these boys in all the games and we wouldn’t because we have got wide players who are looking to play and other forward players.’
Criticism of Welbeck has always centred on his strike rate but he has nine Barclays Premier League goals in 1,168 minutes of action – one every 130 minutes. Van Persie has 11 in 1,376 — one every 125 minutes. Two were penalties.
With Van Persie grumbling about the positional play of team-mates and speculation about a move, Moyes might reason there is no point waiting to make a change. And that could also be afoot at West Brom with Pepe Mel under pressure after failing to win any of his seven matches in charge.
Mel was persuaded to alter tactics after discussions with players but Ben Foster denied it amounted to mutiny. The keeper said: ‘He knows what he’s doing, he’s more than happy to come to us and ask us our point of view. That’s how it should be. It’s not like it was a revolt.’
SUPER STAT: Wayne Rooney is the first player in Premier League history to record double figures for goals and assists in five seasons (06-07, 07-08, 10-11, 12-13, 13-14). He has scored or assisted 252 goals in all.
West bromwich (4-2-3-1): Foster 5; Reid 6 (Sessegnon 60mins, 5), McAuley 6, Olsson 6, Ridgewell 5.5; Yacob 5.5 (Morrison 40, 5.5), Mulumbu 6.5; Amalfitano 6, Gera 6.5, Brunt 6 (Berahino 66, 5.5); Anichebe 7.
Subs not used: Myhill, Vydra, Dawson, Koulossa.
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-2-3-1): De Gea 6.5; Rafael 8 (Vidic 87), Jones 6.5, Smalling 7, Evra 6; Carrick 6.5, Fellaini 6.5; Mata 7, Rooney 7.5, Januzaj 6.5 (Kagawa 76, 6.5); Van Persie 6 (Welbeck 63, 7).
Subs not used: Giggs, Lindegaard, Young, Fletcher.
Booked: Van Persie, Januzaj.
Referee: Jon Moss 4.5.
Man of the match: Rafael. – Daily Mail