Many fans held high hopes for Robin van Persie entering this World Cup. The spearhead of a potent Netherlands attack featuring Arjen Robben, Rafael van der Vaart, Wesley Sneijder, and Dirk Kuyt, van Persie seemed poised to score goals and set up teammates in large quantities both.
It hasn't quite worked out that way.
van Persie has one goal in five matches, and in his past two, he has looked more than a little listless. World Cup viewers have been left scratching their heads: is this the same player who keyed Arsenal's goal outbursts at the start of the 2009-10 season? Where are the goals, the one-touch passes into the box, the tricky turns?
Certainly, van Persie did not help paint a lovely picture of his World Cup when he argued with coach Bert van Marwijk about his substitution for Klaas-Jan Huntelaar against Slovakia. When van Persie has gotten the ball, he has often looked lost, holding it or dribbling until he loses possession or is forced to pass it out wide or backwards. He has looked rusty, perhaps the effects of not playing much since October when he severely sprained his ankle showing up on the grandest stage.
However, he is not playing in a system which favors his strengths. At Arsenal, van Persie plays in nominally the same position that he does for the Netherlands: the center forward, the false 9, in a 4-3-3. There are differences, though, and they are differences that have left van Persie in the cold. Arsenal's 4-3-3 features two central midfielders that often join the attack as well as two wing players that cut inside while the fullbacks push up towards the corners. In the Dutch system, two central midfielders, de Jong and van Bommel, hang back more, and Robben's tendency to cut inside from the right usually comes with an eye to shoot rather than to pass back to van Persie.
Zonal Marking described what is becoming typical of the Dutch in their play against Brazil yesterday:
Kuyt was forced back by Maicon, and was up against the world’s best two right-backs. Wesley Sneijder was also tending to drift into that zone, and Brazil passed him between Gilberto and Alves with ease – he rarely got the ball in the final third. Robben was ponderous and predictable on the ball, always looking to come inside and running into traffic, as Melo doubled-up against him, and others quickly followed. Robin van Persie, meanwhile, was up against two centre-backs and had very little support, making it difficult for him to influence the game.
It's the lack of support that is key; when van Persie has received the ball, often at the World Cup, and yesterday espeically, there has often been no Dutch player within easy passing range, and two center backs and the holding midfielders are able to quickly surround and dispossess him. It is not that van Persie has been spectacular, either, but in combination with whatever lack of form he's still experiencing, the Dutch system is making him look particularly ineffective at the moment. His frustration against Slovakia led to an unnecessary outburst, but it is perhaps understandable for a man who has so far been unable to make much of a mark for his team in South Africa. Here's hoping that he finds a way to break through soon and show everyone the class that he possesses.