For some time now, we’ve all known that Paul Scholes – and even Giggs, eventually – would retire. We’ve panicked ourselves into dementia about who would replace him, who would be as creative as him, who could guarantee a booking like him. Well, not the last one, but we wanted someone strong and creative to cement our midfield like Paul Scholes did in his heyday. Many fans had tunnel vision about who we’d get in the midfield to replace our Ginger Ninja. They’d lock their sights on someone and the rumor mill would start churning. First, we got Jones, who could be a good DMF for us. Then we got Young, a prospect that I was not only thrilled about, but something I had been hoping for. And for months, we’ve been linked with Nasri, Modric, and now, Sneijder – all supposed Scholesy replacements. Nasri and Sneijder have the creativity we severely lacked last year. Modric, for me, mixes some holding with some box-to-box creativity. Every day there’s something new, and the Twitter world does nothing to lessen the hysteria. But lost amongst this midfield frenzy that we’ve wrapped ourselves into is another huge issue that some have overlooked – our forward line. Now, hear me out.
Our star last year – amongst many – was Chicharito. The boy wonder burst onto the scene and netted 20 goals in his debut season for us. He scored some weird goals (Community Shield), some that defy physics (Stoke match), and some that all but secured us the PL title (opening minute vs Chelsea). He’s been a machine for us and some say he’s already a legend at OT. With that said, his sophomore season will be an even bigger test for him considering the type of debut season he just had. Coming in, for 6 million pounds, there were zero expectations. People had no idea why SAF even signed him. Then, one by one, Hernandez started netting goals and converting the non-believers. By season’s end, the boy was almost a God to the faithful and rightfully so. He had long since replaced Berbatov as the go-to up front with Rooney, a partnership that was almost fantasy like. But, this new season has the weight of the Premier League trophy on our backs, right next to the ever-looming target that Manchester United always carries. Personally, I hope that he can continue his streak into the 2011-2012 campaign, but I can’t expect it to be guaranteed. He’s a magnet in front of the goal and he finds a way to score like a natural scorer does, a la Michael Owen. He has the humility and level head of someone much older than him and he absolutely loves playing for our club, an intangible asset long since forgotten in professional football. When he kisses the badge, I kiss my badge, too. But, let’s stay grounded. Had he not performed as well as he did, there would still be limited expectations on his 23 year old shoulders. It’s not unrealistic to assume that he might have some hiccups this season with all the hype he has surrounding him, a la Rooney two seasons ago, and we can’t be quick to call for his head if that’s the case. Which leads me to my next point, Wayne Rooney.
Two seasons ago, Rooney had the best season he’ll ever have. The boy single handedly kept us at the top of the table, but his form went by the wayside and people wanted his head. Going all the way back to the CL exit against Bayern Munich, Rooney had a terrible spell of biblical proportions. A no-show at the World Cup, then his infidelity scandal, and Rooneygate. Whatever the reasons were, he simply couldn’t carry the team like he did. One season, great. The next season, almost gone. With the emergence of Hernandez, Rooney’s role was reinvented. He started dropping deep to take the ball and distribute. Personally, I favor this role for him. He’s a footballer, no doubt, but I think the seasons of (almost) Golden Boots aren’t in his future. Even during that stellar season, I knew that it would all come to an end, at some point. Now, he’s creating, moving, distributing – all allowing Hernandez to do what he does. The issue I see here is that SAF likes options and right now, we’re relying on those two too much. Sure, we have Berbatov, a retention that I was very happy about, but you simply can’t exchange Berbatov for one component of Chicharoo. The dynamics aren’t there and the partnership is completely different. People point at the CL Final against Barcelona and the he-said, she-said about why Berbatov wasn’t even watching (from the bench). Even when he did get appearances in the last 4 or 5 months of the season, he threw little tantrums on the field, pointing fingers and flailing arms. Combine that with the disparity between his first two seasons and his third (almost matched his total goals last season – 21 vs 26), and who knows what we’ll get when he’s on the pitch. Don’t get me wrong, Berbatov is a damn genius and I know we might not have won the league without him last year, but the inconsistency we saw in the first two seasons might creep back into play, especially if he doesn’t see regular action. But, what do we do? What options do we have?
The answer is: We really don’t have that many options. Aside from Hernandez, Rooney, and Berbatov, our attacking line is a bit lean. We’ve loaned out Bebe (who has scored in his first two matches with Besiktas), but there’s no way he would’ve been ready for regular first team action. Diouf looked as lost against the New England Revolution as he did last year versus the same MLS competition. He’s not ready. We’ve got Kiko back from a disastrous loan spell at Sampdoria, and despite his two goals in the first match of the US Tour, I’m not sure if he’s ready for first team action. If he is, how does he fit? What I’m most excited about is having Danny Welbeck back from Sunderland. When he first hit the pitch for us, I knew he wasn’t ready. He had natural skill that needed sculpting, but his loan was exactly what he needed. If handled properly, I can see Welbeck fitting in with us, and producing.
I’d love to see us pick up a proven striker, a la Diego Forlan, but that seems unlikely. In the absence of getting someone new, I feel like we could rely on Rooney and Hernandez, as we did in the 2nd half of the last season. I feel like Berbatov and Rooney do pair well together. In each instance involving Rooney, I feel like dropping back and spreading the field works best for us. Hernandez is more of a natural, in-front-of-goal scorer, so Rooney could drop more. With Berbatov’s languid style, I feel like Rooney would need to be more aggressive in and around the box. As far as the other options, I feel like Kiko and Welbeck (and even Owen) are our best bets with what we have available to us. I feel like Welbeck could pair with Rooney best because Rooney has the experience and ability to distribute. Welbeck and Hernandez are bit too inexperienced and I feel like they couldn’t link up as well without someone like Rooney there playmaking. Kiko is a natural scorer in and around the box. He needs to play it cool and calm, not get too anxious to score. The goals will come. Whatever option we choose, SAF will best know how to get the most from each player, as always.
Lastly, I should also note that in the absence of getting someone up front, our additions to the midfield, even without adding anyone else, could really link up well with our front line. We saw Young on the left against New England and a good game he did have. My issue, as I tweeted, is that he has no left foot. While Nani wasn’t too good last year on the left, I might give him another spell there and move Young to the right (Valencia, too). With a much better 2nd half of the season, I’m hoping Carrick shows up and holds our MF with someone like Fletcher or Anderson (if he’s fit). If it holds, our flanks will be able to work with the front line of Rooney, Hernandez, Berbatov, Welbeck, or Kiko to create some decent forward-thinking offense. Or, we could try to find another 6 million pound steal from Mexico. Or, if that fails, we could just blame Darron Gibson.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasTheDevil