Javier Hernández’ emergence from unknown, to Sir Alex Ferguson’s leading striker could take a limited Manchester United side to ever great heights and – perhaps crucially – bring out the best in Wayne Rooney too. The Mexican’s transformation from impact substitute to first choice in recent games says much for the 22-year-old’s rapid development. It’s progress that could win United the Premier League title and take the Reds to the Champions League latter stages.
Hernández’ brace against Marseille on Tuesday night won United a game that could easily have slipped away. Indeed, had the former Chivas striker been on the French side’s books, the Reds could well now be out of the Champions League. Crucial misses from André-Pierre Gignac and Loïc Rémy spared Ferguson’s blushes on a night when injuries and inconsistency almost proved calamitous.
Hernández’ well taken double proved the difference though. The Mexican’s first after five minutes calmed United’s nerves; the second with a quarter-hour remaining effectively won Ferguson’s side a match in which the hosts were never in complete control. Neither goals taxed the forward’s skill-set perhaps – both close-range strikes – but Hernández’ movement proved crucial, offering a static United midfield consistent options.
The performance drew praise from Ferguson, who resisted the temptation to recall this season’s top-scorer Dimitar Berabtov. Indeed, the Scot expressed delight at the Mexican’s rapid development in the nine months since his arrival in England, and confidence in the growing partnership with Rooney.
“We are surprised,” said Ferguson.
“When we bought him we thought it’d take him time to adjust. He has adjusted to the physical part very well and is lasting 90 minutes.”
“It [partnership with Rooney] has been developing well. Where Wayne has been playing in the past couple of games he is a real threat. He has such power and speed and Hernández is unbelievable with his movement. The boy has goals in him.”
The Mexican’s goals – 15 in all competition, to Berbatov’s 20 – have also relieved the burden on Rooney. If United relied too heavily on the Scouser last season, then the former Evertonian’s troubles in recent months have also demonstrated the wealth of Ferguson’s options in attack. Hernández has taken his chance in spectacular style.
Moreover, the Mexican’s emergence has freed Rooney to take up a deeper position in which the 25-year-old can affect the game in a more creative way. After all, with Paul Scholes’ ageing legs no longer able to carry the 36-year-old through games, United has lacked a certain ‘stardust’ in midfield, to paraphrase beaten coach Didier Deschamps.
While 34 goals in all competitions last season was an immense return for United’s £27 million striker, the change in position arguable hamstrung Rooney’s creative side. No longer so, with Rooney dropping deep and Hernández providing the focul point to United’s attack Ferguson can play a traditional 4-4-2, knowing the Scouser can drop into midfield when required. The change also enables United to take advantage of the Mexican’s blistering pace.
Rooney can also see the benefits of the growing partnership, which has helped United’s star player return to some semblance of form in recent weeks.
“He’s a fantastic player,” Rooney told BBC Radio 5 live after Tuesday’s victory.
“He’s in good form, it’s nice to see him scoring and nice to play with him. He always tries to stay on the shoulder, looks in behind and he’s a quick player. By making those runs in behind defenders it creates a bit more space for you in front of them.
“So it’s working well at the minute. He’s been fantastic and works so hard as well. He wants to improve and it’s good to see.”
Hernández’ gain is Berbatov’s loss of course. The Bulgarian’s patchy form – streaks of goalscoring, followed by long barren periods – has hardly helped the former Tottenham Hotspur striker. Neither has Ferguson’s consistent tinkering with his role though. Now 30, Berbatov joined United having lead the line at each of his former clubs only to be deployed in a deeper role at Old Trafford. Then, finally consistently chosen as a ‘number nine’ this season, the Bulgarian has struggled to maintain a regular place in United’s side.
It places the Bulgarian in an interesting position, with his four-year contract due to run out in June 2012. Other United players in a similar position – Patrice Evra, Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick and Nemanja Vidic – have each signed new deals with the club. While speculation was widespread in February that an announcement could be imminent, there is no ink on a new deal.
That is no concern to Hernández of course, for whom United paid just £8 million up front with staggered performance payments to come. Whatever the final total, Hernández has proven a bargain and is likely to be rewarded with a bumper new contract well ahead of schedule. Few could deny the Mexican the reward for his significant impact at United.
In the meantime Hernández’ goals, if they continue to flow, could take a less-than-stellar United side to both the Premier League title and further in Europe than some predicted.