The Summer of Javier Hernandez
In the summer of 2011, Mexico won the Gold Cup, CONCACAF’s biennial tournament, featuring nations from North and Central America and the Caribbean. Mexico won the tournament on the back of exciting attacking play from some very promising youngsters. Among them were Gio dos Santos, who scored a magnificent goal in the final against the United States, Andres Guardado, Efrain Juarez, Pablo Barrera, and one Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez. Hernandez finished as the tournament’s top scorer, cementing his place as Mexico’s first-choice forward, capping an impressive year of goals that began against France in the World Cup and continued with Manchester United during the 2010-2011 season.
Having ended one month before the Gold Cup, Hernandez’s inaugural season with the Red Devils had been wonderfully scripted. The goals rained in for the Mexican forward, and his performances led to the downfall of Dimitar Berbatov, then the club’s leading scorer, culminating in the Bulgarian’s absence from the team sheet in that year’s Champions League final.
In stark contrast to his first season, Hernandez’s sophomore year with United lacked excitement- and optimism. Simply put, he could not find the back of the net. His overall play looked novice, cheap, and perhaps best suited for Sunday league play rather than the Premier League.
Danny Welbeck, resigned to the bench and on-loan in previous years suddenly looked like he would be the one replacing Berbatov alongside Wayne Rooney as United’s first choice attacking duo. Welbeck’s hold up play and seemingly telepathic understanding with Rooney only highlighted the weaknesses in Hernandez’s play.
Football is a game of “form”- those in form play over those out of form. Hernandez certainly looked like he’d lost his, and many wondered whether he’d be able to find it. During the 2012 summer transfer window, Sir Alex Ferguson brought Robin van Persie to the club, confirming what many already thought they knew: Hernandez was not to be relied upon to score goals at the rate he once could.
At the start of the 2012-2013 season, just over 3 months ago, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team looked like it would have room for only one true striker as the team would most likely play 4-2-3-1. That striker would seemingly be van Persie, and the subsequent performances he turned in (see: a lot of goals), confirmed as much.
Lost amidst the excitement of the transfer window, in which the Japanese playmaker Shinji Kagawa also joined the club, an observation from Sir Alex: “I think this season we’ll see a better Chicharito.” With this statement, Sir Alex both acknowledged Hernandez’s sophomore slump, and the effect that a summer of rest would have on the forward. “”For the last four or five years he’s played all through the summer. This year, with the co-operation of Mexico, he’s had a proper rest.” Could it be? How tired could he be? How much could one summer of rest benefit a young player like Hernandez?
The answers to these questions have been coming for a few weeks now, as Hernandez’s strike-rate reminds us of the glory days of his first magic season at the club. As eyebrows raised, concerned with whether United relied too heavily on van Persie, Hernandez brought them back down with intelligent performances against Chelsea in the Premier League and important goals in the Champions League. Today, against Aston Villa, he came on at the break and did what Messieurs van Persie, Rooney, and Young and Valencia couldn’t do- score.
But it’s so much more than that. His ability to move around the box and draw defenders who had previously looked like Maldini and Baresi out of position has no equal. Ron Vlaar, the Villa captain, had marshalled his defense to near perfection prior to Hernandez being bought on. The Little Pea’s intelligent movement, which took him to the wing, into the box, and saw him come deep into midfield left Villa’s defenders somewhere near lobotomized. Indeed, even Antonio Valencia began to run at and beat his marker, perhaps reminded by Chicharito that these were, after all, just men.
The goals were three, no matter what the dubiously named “Dubious Goals” panel says. The first a goal only he could score: the control awkward, almost comical; the defender hounding him, perhaps too closely; the keeper in excellent position to snuff out the threat. And the ball? Back of the net. The second? A volley, hit with conviction, glanced off a member of the Villa rearguard, leaving the defender with negative time to react. The defender? The aforementioned Maldin- excuse me, Vlaar. The third? A goal we’ve seen him score time and again. Never mind the execution. Never mind the intelligence in positioning and the perfect placement. This goal was a winner. Was it a header? Was it a tap-in? It was a winner.
Looking back on Sir Alex Ferguson’s comments, a summer of rest may just have been what Hernandez needed. He simply looks a sharper, stronger, better version of Chicharito mK I.