Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has a conundrum on his hands. Both Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov would have the credentials to start in most sides all around the globe. However, with the re-emergence of Wayne Rooney, only one can.
A few months back, there might have been a case for playing Hernandez and Berbatov simultaneously. Rooney, after misfiring at the World Cup, was struggling to recover the form that had led to his 34 goals in the last campaign. Even then though, Ferguson kept faith in the Evertonian, and it has paid colossal dividends. Rooney’s breathtaking acrobatic effort against bitter rivals Manchester City has sparked form in the same bracket as last year.
As a result, only one of ‘Chicharito’ and ‘Berbaflop’, as some adversaries name the Bulgarian, can be accommodated. One thing is for sure: with a tally of twenty goals in the league alone this season, Berbatov’s unfortunate moniker is unwarranted. Being the Premier League’s top scorer while not being an automatic pick is not a regular occurrence, yet it is what he has had to endure. Berbatov has started only 21 of United’s 30 league games, including just one in the last five, making his goal-scoring record even more remarkable.
Hernandez, on the other hand, has started three of the league leaders’ last five. These figures suggest that the Mexican is winning the battle to start. But he may not have won the war; Ferguson’s tendency to rotate is demonstrated by the fact that he has named an unchanged line-up only twice in the last three seasons. Furthermore, Berbatov scored a critical winner against Bolton last weekend, after having come on to replace his Mexican teammate.
In one sense, Ferguson’s dilemma is almost a matter of style rather than quality. Hernandez represents a poacher, whose job is simply to stick on the last defender, cause problems with his movement, and conclude his side’s moves. Berbatov has a distinctly different manner, which involves clever touches and dropping deeper to get involved in build up play. Although he has sometimes been accused of being languid, his work rate has improved of late.
Some pundits have taken the approach that Hernandez’s recent selection has been a result of Rooney’s preference to play with the speed merchant. Rooney’s instinct is to play off another striker, and Hernandez fulfils this role, conceivably better than Berbatov. In the past, in crunch matches, Berbatov has often been left on the bench. With the emergence of Hernandez, however, it is nigh-on impossible to second-guess Ferguson’s selection. Whether Rooney plays alone, or whether Hernandez or Berbatov supports him, is almost a lottery.
There is of course method behind Ferguson’s decisions, but they have become increasingly tricky to predict. Of United’s last five giant clashes – stretching back to the first leg against Marseille and including games against Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea – Rooney has started all five, Hernandez three and Berbatov two. Then again, was the Bulgarian rested against the Gunners in the FA Cup? Was Hernandez left out of the Liverpool simply because of Berbatov’s sublime hat-trick against them earlier this year?
Whatever the motives behind Ferguson’s decisions, it is clear that he has to make an important one every week. The pair both have excellent records, scoring roughly once every hundred minutes; better than double as good as Rooney’s strike-rate. It seems that Hernandez, only 22, will be Rooney’s long term partner, but it goes without saying that Berbatov’s role in the meantime is vital, if not even bigger. And, having been so maligned, he may well want to vindicate his £30.75 million purchase too.