There is no doubts that when Javier Hernandez burst onto the scene two years ago, he put a broad smile on every single face of the United Faithful. An anonymous footballer, unknown outside of his own country…appearing from nowhere, to score goals of predatory brilliance. A South American Michael Owen…doing the job that Michael Owen was purchased to do! That first twelve months earned him a bumper contract at MUFC, and he deserved every penny of his gazillion percent payrise.
Twenty four months on, and the honeymoon period is over. Chico is very much fourth choice striker, as United traded a mercurial Bulgarian for a prolific Dutchman. It’s the same fight the Mexican was fighting in his first couple of seasons, but the departure of Berbatov has led to a change of tactical conscience at United…only a slight one…but maybe enough to see the tangible end to Chicharito’s chances of starting many games in the foreseeable future.
The biggest debate currently raging between United aficionados is: How do we fit Rooney, Kagawa and RvP into the same team? Many Reds can’t see past the end of their tactical noses, and feel anything other than 4-4-2 is both ‘dirty and vile’…it falls outside the traditions of the club in their opinions. I understand this warm glowing feeling this classic United formation gives supporters, but history never dictates the future…the present does. Today has become a midfield plethora of possession and simplicity. Strikers can no longer sit on the shoulder of the last man, and have a cigarette while the ball is down the other end. Defenders can’t sit in a straight line of four, for 90 minutes, ready to charge their hands into the sky in unison, to claim the mandatory offside they have cultivated. And the players between defence and attack…they need to be skillful magicians…giving the ball away is a criminal act…and creation is their function.
4-4-2 doesn’t lend itself very well to this. 4-4-1-1 is the closest you can get to a compromise. Some think the only variation between the two formation is that man ‘in the hole’ behind the centre forward. But like everything in football, there’s a bit more to it than that. It is important not to isolate the lone striker, because then you might as well play 4-5-1…or even an Italian favoured 4-6-0! That man in the hole has to tie the midfield and attack together, like a piece of elastic…both working hard for the midfield cause of possession, and bursting forward to put the ball in the net. This has been United’s default formation during the Berbatov/Rooney years. Wayne’s willingness to drop deep at every opportunity dictated that this was a natural formation for us to play. It also meant you could stick a Chicharito in that forward role, and he would get bags of service from the wide areas, and a proverbial Evertonian up his backside as support. It was tailor-made for the Mexican.
With the arrival of Kagawa and Van Persie, many feel we will lean towards a more European style of formation, favoured by the Barcelona’s and their mothers. 4-2-3-1 is the idea, or as we played in the Champions League this week, the fabled 4-3-2-1…The Christmas Tree formation that Glenn Hoddle tried to implement on his England side once upon a long ago, with varying success.
This is all very bad news for Chico.
Firstly the issue of traditional supply. The narrow nature of these formations means crosses into the box become a luxury, not a regular occurence. Balls are more likely to be threaded through the channels, meaning the centre forward needs to be top class at beating the offside flag of a linesman. This is a weakness in Hernandez’s game. He is quick, but as many say: ‘He was born offside’. To compound this, the formation lends itself to accommodating RvP in the strikers role. Many were frustrated seeing him having to drop out wide against Cluj on Tuesday night…but who was the one that made the vital run and scored with a sublime touch? Yes, the Dutchman. In the months to come (injury permitting) it will be a fluid congregation of Roo, Kag and RvP in this attacking throng, with the addition of a Welbeck, Nani or Valencia in a wider attacking role…something Chicharito simply can’t do.
Secondly, Chico’s all round game isnt..erm…very good. His first touch is average. He is not great at playing with his back to goal. His link play is suspect. He gets caught offside too much. In a 4-4-2, alot of this can be masked. You can indeed sit on the shoulder of the last defender and wait. But in a more fluid formation, it is essential that all sum of the parts are working in tandem as a unit. Hernandez has a work ethic…he has mobility…yet at least, the second part of this seemed to be missing the other night. He looked stifled by the formation, rather than liberated. Had Welbeck started in that role, one would assume he could revel in such tactics, given his specific skill-set.
Third and finally, the departure of Berbatov is a negative point for Chico. The Mexican is a finisher. He was viable alternative to what alpha-male Berbatov brought to the table. Now he is up against Van Persie…one of the best finishers in world football. Now he is up against Kagawa…one of the best attacking midfield finishers around. And then there is Rooney, who when fit and firing…will obviously start most matches. It knocks Chico down the order for the skill base that is his best attribute. It’s highly likely he will even struggle to get on the bench for many games, just as Michael Owen did and more recently Berbatov. Will he be happy to play such a bit part? For this season, maybe.
However, Sir Alex is shaping a new style attack. The rumours of Lewandowski have returned. It was understood that United had some sort of agreement for the player when discussing the transfer of Kagawa, but the purchase of Van Persie snuffed out the chat. But I think the purchase of Lewandowski makes perfect sense, but only if Chicharito was sacrificed from the squad. The Polish player has a broader skill-set. A more of a physical presence in the strikers role when needed. He also has played two very successful seasons with our new Japanese import, where their combination terrified every defence in Germany. I see the attraction of bringing him into the fold. If we assume that Kiko has no future at United, and that an under-contract Hernandez could net a nice amount of Glazernomic dollars, then Lewandowski would be a clever addition at what would not be an extortionate fee or huge player wages.
Yes, we all want a new central midfielder! But that is tactically a totally different subject. Fergie currently has Carrick, Scholes, Giggs, Cleverley, Anderson, Fletcher and Jones to fill two central roles…and then we have Nick Powell…who clearly is the future in the manager’s eyes. I see why he doesn’t want to spend £20 million on a central player…until the inevitable retirement of Scholes and Giggs forces his hand.
So is this the end for Chico? Much will depend on his performances this season. Unfortunately for him, his chances will be limited. Games such as the Cluj one are precious for him, and he didn’t take his chance at impressing. Goal difference lost us the title last season, and Sir Alex has said he wont let that happen again. If he feels Chicharito wont contribute hugely to the overall effort for goals, there is every chance he will cut the Mexican out of his plans. We know the manager is ruthless when it comes to these things.
However, 2012-13 maybe the year Chico kicks on. He may prove himself indispensible. He may show that he has the aptitude to learn, that many consider he does not have. Time will tell. Lewandowski’s Dortmund form this year will also play into the equation. Whatever happens, Javier Hernandez will be skating on progressively thinner ice as the months of this season ebb away.