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Oct 6, 2012

Battle of the strikers

Last weekend, we saw an aberration. And it wasn't just that Tottenham Hotspur finally beat Manchester United at Old Trafford; it was the incidents that led to it.

Because, amazingly, Robin van Persie didn't just miss one chance that could have sent points to the home team, he missed two. With the Dutch striker, that generally doesn't happen.

More often than not, Van Persie settles games rather than leaves them open. Whereas many strikers do boost their stats with ultimately inconsequential goals, there are a few with a genuine knack for stepping up when really required. And, if we're talking about the kind of key Eric Cantona-type strikes that bring proper equalisers and match-winners, United's new talisman provides more than most.

Take Van Persie's haul for Arsenal last season: Out of his 30 Premier League goals in 2011-12, 16 were directly responsible for 27 points. When you take into account his number of appearances, it is the third best points-per-game ratio in Premier League history (see table below), behind only Cristiano Ronaldo in 2007-08 and Alan Shearer in 1993-94.

This season, Van Persie's goals against Fulham, Southampton and, most recently, FC Cluj, have seen him continue in a similar vein... with one big exception so far. And that does raise a few interesting issues for United ahead of their trip to Newcastle United.

First off, it cuts to the heart of all the questions around Sir Alex Ferguson's transfer policy. Spurs' 2-0 and then 3-1 leads, after all, can be directly blamed on the United manager's failure to reinforce defensively. Rather than bring in a bit more presence towards the back, he signed more attackers - namely Van Persie.

And here's the thing. Had the forward taken his two second-half chances against Tottenham, United would have won 4-3 and, in the simplest terms, Ferguson could have argued his transfer policy adds up; a United team with Van Persie leading the attack will simply outscore most. Instead, it only further outlined the team's defensive problems.

More than most sides in the Premier League this season, United lack a true defensive balance; certainly more than Newcastle. Although Ferguson's side obviously possess much more talent, they also have more holes in their overall framework. There isn't, for example, the kind of Cheick Tiote figure providing the presence to properly balance out the openness further forward.

Worse for United, ahead of a journey to a stadium where they lost 3-0 last season, is that Newcastle also have a bit of what Ferguson's side do. Over the last year, both Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba have proven capable enough of hitting a key goal when needed.

On first arriving in the Premier League, Cisse's record was remarkable. As many as 11 of his 13 goals genuinely meant something. And, although he has suffered a drastic dip this season, Ba has immediately taken up the baton again. The Newcastle No. 19 has hit key goals in his team's games against Reading, Norwich and, most notably, Everton in the last minute.

That means, in terms of his strikes having a real impact on the 2012-13 season, he is so far only behind Kevin Nolan, Edin Dzeko and the eye-catching Steven Fletcher.

Cisse at least finally struck again against Bordeaux during the week. It remains to be seen whether it will trigger a run like last season. If it does, though, United may have another ready-made response of their own. Because another notable performance in midweek came from just behind Van Persie. Wayne Rooney enjoyed his first start with the Dutch striker and immediately struck a partnership, setting up both of his goals.

Of course, Rooney has something of a history of such key strikes himself. His haul from the 2009-10 season is actually the joint-seventh best ratio in Premier League's history. Notoriously, he picked up an ankle injury towards the end of that season which may well have fatally undermined United's challenge.

Either way, Sunday's match is a clash between four of the most efficient forwards in the division. It's going to be interesting to see whether one of them ultimately seals it.

Only those goals that directly settled the distribution of points in matches - i.e, the final equaliser or the strike that made it 2-1 in a 3-1 victory - were considered. In each case, the appropriate number of points was awarded to the player: one for a draw, two for a win.

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