Manchester United and Liverpool's leading goalscorers' differing form has impacted on their clubs going into Sunday's meeting
It may offend a manager's principles, sting their pride, but it pays to indulge a world class asset. The contrasting fortunes of Luis Suárez and Robin van Persie confirm that ahead of their encounter at Old Trafford on Sunday.
Indicators and explanations are multiple for the dramatic transformations at Manchester United and Liverpool. There is the 40-point swing between the clubs since this time last year, managerial impact and the fact that, for the first time in decades, Liverpool head into enemy territory at the business end of a campaign with something precious at stake while United compete for honour. Or Europa League qualification. The role reversal is encapsulated at an individual level by the Holland and Uruguay strikers. Both top their club's goalscoring chart this season, both have felt compelled to declare contentment with their employers and both should be fuelling expectation at Old Trafford. Only one is.
If it appeared improbable last summer that Suárez would remain part of the Liverpool team, never mind a matured figure inspiring a Premier League title challenge on a new £200,000-a-week contract, then it was inconceivable Van Persie's place in the biggest league game in English football should be in question.
One year ago he had effectively accomplished the championship triumph that Suárez seeks with Liverpool by guiding United to a 15-point lead over closest rivals Manchester City by the end of March. Now he cuts a disaffected, disconnected figure on the pitch and is in danger of losing his starting position to Danny Welbeck. A timely interview for United's official matchday programme, in which Van Persie denied wishing to leave Old Trafford or talk of a "bad understanding" with David Moyes, does not gloss over that.
United could never admit it but there are lessons to be learned from Brendan Rodgers's treatment of Liverpool's brilliant No7. Should Moyes still envisage an integral, long-term role for Van Persie at United, that is.
The United manager offered an arm around the shoulder to Van Persie following his hasty withdrawal from the 3-0 win at West Bromwich Albion last Saturday. The substitution was a necessity after the striker narrowly escaped the second yellow card that would have brought suspension against Liverpool but the 30-year-old responded with a stroppy, disbelieving stroll from the pitch. The reaction, and the underwhelming performance that preceded it, strengthened the argument that Van Persie has since denied in print – namely that the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, the departure of compatriot René Meulensteen as coach and the style of play under Moyes has provoked deep discontent.
When Van Persie complained of team-mates occupying his spaces after the Champions League defeat to Olympiakos, Dutch national coach Louis van Gaal and Ronald de Boer followed with similar observations about United's football stifling the talent and enjoyment of their £24m signing from Arsenal. Doubts over the striker's satisfaction with United are not a media creation and it must be a source of envy for Van Persie to witness how Rodgers has maximised Suárez's gifts while he searches for answers within Moyes' system.
Liverpool have thrown an arm around Suárez more often and in far more desperate circumstances than Moyes faced at The Hawthorns but, unlike United and Van Persie, their indulgence of the striker extends to the manager's tactics. Rodgers made Suárez the fulcrum of his Liverpool team the moment he arrived at Anfield from Swansea City, making the bold and quick decision to jettison the club's £35m record signing, Andy Carroll, to build around the Uruguayan's penetrating runs, menacing skill and creativity instead.
The result has been a vast improvement in the former Ajax captain's goalscoring return, from 17 goals in 40 appearances in his one full season under Kenny Dalglish to 30 goals in Rodgers' debut campaign and a remarkable 24 goals in 23 league outings this term. The rapid development of Liverpool's attacking threat has allowed Daniel Sturridge to flourish alongside and add 18 league goals this season so far. Playing to Liverpool's obvious strengths in the final third has brought Rodgers's team into title contention and the cusp of a return to the Champions League for the first time since 2009-10. It has also compensated for deficiencies in other departments. United's, by contrast, have continually been exposed.
Dalglish, the last Liverpool manager to attack a vulnerable United from a clear position of strength, cited Van Persie's form ahead of Ferguson's retirement in his assessment of the champions' rapid regression, albeit as an old adversary of Ferguson might. "United won the league by 11 points last year but last year they had Van Persie," he said. "Van Persie has scored a decent amount of goals this year but he has not played in the same number of games as last year and United have not had the same level of performance as they had last year. It is strange to say when you are talking about only one player but if you are not conceding many and you have a striker like Van Persie banging them in up front then you are going to be hard to beat.
"When there is a change of manager sometimes it can be beneficial but I think it would be hard for anyone to see Fergie moving after 27 years, someone else coming in and it being beneficial. But, at the same time, I don't think anyone could have foreseen what is happening there at the moment. And by the way I cannot see Fergie getting any pleasure out of it. I don't think anyone at Manchester United is happy with what is going on. They will try and use the transfer window to rectify it a bit, but it might take them two or three transfer windows to get to where they want to be. And it might be more difficult to sign the players they want if they are not in the Champions League."
Moyes spoke in glowing terms about Van Persie on his first pre-season tour as United manager, putting Wayne Rooney's nose briefly out of joint as an unintended consequence, and injuries have undoubtedly disrupted work on what should be one of the most potent strike partnerships in Europe. Injuries, however, do not account for Van Persie's isolation when he has been fit this season – one that has yielded a creditable 11 goals in 17 league games compared to last year's return of 26 in 38 Premier League appearances – or why his understanding with Rooney has slipped into reverse. Rooney received one pass from Van Persie in the games against Albion and Olympiakos. In Athens, the pass came from the kick off that followed the hosts' opening goal and helped explain the tactical complaint he issued afterwards.
Suárez went public with several and sometimes contradictory grievances when attempting to leave Anfield for Arsenal last summer, including alleged broken promises by his manager, but being marginalised or misused by Rodgers was and could never be one of them. The Liverpool striker also had a club captain in Steven Gerrard willing to listen to his misgivings and able to persuade him to stick around for one more shot at the Champions League. Nemanja Vidic is not in that position having committed himself to Internazionale from next season. Liverpool and Suárez have stability, United and Van Persie do not. How rapidly times change.
After 28 league games last season United had amassed 71 points and Liverpool 42. Ahead of Sunday's north west derby it is 48 and 59 respectively. The tactical indulgence or otherwise of the clubs' leading goalscorers has been instrumental.