In all the recent years of North-West derbies, perhaps the most disappointing of English football's great rivalries of late, there have been few so desperately lacking in context as this one. The two are not competing for anything like the same honours, there are no particularly great still-raw injustices to be avenged, and the two probably think about each other less than they have for a long time. Fittingly, however, with both clubs being accused of being a ‘one-man team', with everybody else lost, it comes down to Robin van Persie and Luis Suarez to provide the subtext.
As one-man teams go, United and Liverpool are both undoubtedly guilty of the accusation on some level, although both are very different. The two men in question are the leading candidates for the player of the year, likely alongside Juan Mata, if Suarez's non-football-related activities are overlooked (which they probably won't be). Yet for it's negative connotations, there can be joy and beauty in the phenomenon.
The difference is fairly obvious: Liverpool are mostly struggling and rely on Luis Suarez for moments of individual brilliance, frequently having to create his own chances as well as finish them, while United's whole team is uplifted by the remarkably complete game of Robin van Persie, improving any area of the pitch he deems worthy of wandering into. There might be some practical problems with that, but it's oddly thrilling to watch, seeing a great player given his own podium at the top level of the game like that. It's like a violin concerto - just because one man is clearly the star doesn't make it any less enjoyable. Luis Suarez seems like the bratty teenage prodigy, the rest of the orchestra only there to make up the numbers and also bask in his individualism, while Van Persie is more like some legendary, aged master, making everything around him richer and more beautiful.
The problem with this is obvious: you will rarely turn up for a night of Shostakovich and find out just after taking your seat that the violinist has done his hamstring and will be out for four weeks and the rest of the orchestra will have to carry on regardless, producing a disjointed and cacophonous mess which is eventually drowned out by the boos of the crowd. That's the practical weakness. Fortunately for both the spectator and the clubs, that hasn't yet come to pass, and we should get to see a proper duel between the two attempting to carry their respective sides on Sunday.
That difference between Robin van Persie and Luis Suarez, not just in their individual abilities, but also the way in which they relate to their teammates, will define any discussion of who has had the better season. Both dominate any lineup that can be fielded alongside them, and both stand out as the best players for their sides. But considering they occupy the same position and role of striker and main goal threat, their roles are very different. The ability of Van Persie to improve his whole team so significantly, however, means there is only really one candidate for any award.
One of Robin van Persie's most remarkable attributes is that like all great players, he effectively takes up two positions on the field at once. Other strikers, Didier Drogba in his prime a notable one, do this in a more obtuse manner, providing an incredible physical presence combined with an accomplished all-round game which demands the attention of two defenders at all times. As a result, Drogba improved virtually any team he played on, either creating space elsewhere on the field or easily taking advantage when he was allowed any himself. Fernando Torres was once similar, but through pace rather than strength.
The Footballer Formerly Known As Wayne Rooney was once a master of this too, through a sort of Frankensteinian jack-of-all-trades mix of some athleticism here, the odd bit of trickery there, and sheer perseverance. Robin Van Persie, first off, provides a more elegant version of this, possessing neither blistering pace or indomitable physique, but not entirely lacking in them either. Most idiosyncratically, he possesses such mind-blowing technique and two-footedness as to be capable of scoring goals from anywhere, but the danger he poses as a classic striker is best exemplified by his goal against West Ham. Not just for the sheer cruelty of the finish conjured from his weaker foot, but for the latching onto the long ball, the utter perfection of the first touch, the timing of his movement off the ball and then on it to get between defender and goal.
Remarkably, however, the advantages that Van Persie bestows on United do not end there. Van Persie is not unique in occupying more than one opposition defender, but he may be unique in his ability to do so in any area of the pitch. As well as being able to do it as a classic number 9 up against two centre-backs, he provides no less of a threat when on the wing, and incredibly, the same versatility. Already at United he has displayed the full repertoire, with each resulting in a goal: taking the defence on down the line with skill, beating the full-back with a cross, and cutting-inside-and-shooting.
When it comes to contributing to play in midfield, Robin van Persie achieves this too, but through more subtle means. Every striker now, particularly with most playing alone, is expected to have a relatively complete game. But Van Persie has gone well beyond the call of duty this season, and hasn't attracted the praise he deserves. Watching any United game, it's incredible just how deep he spends most of the game, rarely up against the opposition defence until the ball is in the final third. Wayne Rooney used to do the same - imagine him attempting this, and you'll get an idea of how much Van Persie has improved the tempo and fluidity of United's build-up play. Whereas Rooney's first touch makes him unreliable in such a position, Van Persie's sublime control means he provides an outlet United simply didn't have previously, whether he's dropped deep or pushed forward.
Perhaps the most obvious indictment of Robin van Persie's talents is that United are in some of their best goalscoring form in a long time, yet they still struggle in midfield and have very few attacking players in good form. Wayne Rooney has chipped in with important goals, but has hardly had any great games. Rafael has been dangerous when getting forward, and Javier Hernandez has shown his lethal touch when playing. Apart from this, though, United's individuals have been mostly wretched. Antonio Valencia has been a shadow of his former self, Nani and Shinji Kagawa have barely featured, Danny Welbeck has been limited in appearances and form, and Ryan Giggs and Ashley Young have been their typically inconsistent selves.
Where have the goals come from, then? Aside from Van Persie's remarkable haul, and the contributions of Rooney and Hernandez, Patrice Evra and Jonny Evans are enjoying highly unlikely spells of prolific form for their positions, almost entirely from set-pieces. Until recently one of the very worst sides at corners, United have become the most lethal team in the division from there, thanks to Van Persie's delivery, whether directly or merely due to a better delivery creating havoc in the opposition area (as was the case with both Evans and Evra's goals in the 4-3 victory over Newcastle).
The decision to buy Robin van Persie looks insane, even under the light of his exploits so far this season. With United's midfield problem still left unaddressed, it was almost impossible to see it turn out as well as it has - that he would improve their general play to such a remarkable extent. The final verdict will still be a couple of seasons away, but already his impact can be compared to Eric Cantona-levels, albeit in almost the opposite way. While Cantona bestowed composure and surety to an impetuous and youthful rabble, Van Persie's deeper play has given a stagnant United side urgency and fluidity. If there is one problem, it's that United will probably be unable to rest until they are about 20 points clear, as their reliance on him has surely reached the point where an extended injury would be a catastrophe. But it's a problem that's better to be with than without.
(All GIFs courtesy of the excellent Beautifully Red.)