Fergie’s forwards – how can he utilise them effectively?

Sir Alex Ferguson

Like I said, it's playing on his mind...

While he’s chewing his gum, he’s constantly thinking. Thinking. Thinking. He’s got things on his mind; the next substitution, the opposition’s tactics. “Doesn’t Darron Gibson look a bit like that guy off Snow Patrol?” He’s then mulling over whether his 4-4-2 was really the way forward for such a fixture; directing Wayne to the left flank…planning ways to exact revenge at Mike Phelan after that infamous Facebook prank.

For Sir Alex, life is never so simple. Thoughts ravage his cerebrum for as much as it can endure. Problems arise; he’ll usually deal with them. Well, most of the time.

He has a new, fresh conundrum to face and that’s deciding how to utilise the talents of Dimitar Berbatov, Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney correctly. However, others would be envious of Sir Alex’s latest conundrum rather than feeling sorry for him; this head-scratcher is a good problem to have and such strength up front is one to be resented. But back to the question – how does Sir Alex utilise the trio and can he do so effectively?

Hernandez, such a revelation for United this season that not even the optimist of all optimists could foresee such consistency, has started most games of late and has created an excellent understanding with Wayne Rooney. Unfair on Berbatov, you might think, considering he is the favourite to land the golden boot this season.  But Hernandez has settled in quickly and has been similarly clinical. It’s difficult to quite put into words of the impact he’s had thus far – get this, 10  out of 14 of his attempts on target in the Premier League have found the back of the net.

A breakdown of Hernandez's 10 goals

<figure 1> The diagram above gives the impression of the type of player Hernandez is – a ‘poacher’. It’s encouraging, and so far his predatory instincts in the box have earned comparisons to Ruud van Nistelrooy. But he’s more than just a poacher. 4 of  Javier Hernadez’s ten goals have come from his head. It’s not about length in his case that is the reason behind his success in the air; it’s all about movement (and positional awareness.) What separates him from past poachers (the type which are nowadays regarded as ’extinct’) is his great pace and ability to drop deep.

Pitch Diagram via the official Premier League website

But Berbatov has an extended case consisting of not just his remarkable goal tally. You could argue, as I would personally, that the partnership of Rooney and the Bulgarian is slightly more effective than the Rooney-Hernandez. Like the Mexican, Berbatov is playing higher while Rooney drops deep – if this wasn’t the case, perhaps Berbatov would not have scored as many goals. A further argument would be that the former Leverkusen man can drop elsewhere and alternate with his partner and link up play as successfully as he does. That’s just by observation, of course, but what is certain is that for either to get a place in the starting line up, they must simply get the best out of Rooney. Love him or loathe him, it is the Englishman that the team is partly built around.

The days of Rooney scoring 34 goals a season are over – for now. His real position is that of a no.10, the one he is playing as currently. He likes to roam like his fellow trequartista’s; he is for Manchester United what Francesco Totti was to Roma (no pun intended). Perhaps this is where the problem lies; both Hernandez and Berbatov compliment his type so well that choosing between the two is one problem has no consensus and no solution. You can’t play all three, can you?

Hypothetically, you could. But that would be a risk which could backfire purely because there would be no real structure. Having posed a question on Twitter about our strike force, one suggested that United experiment with this very shape.

If Rooney was to play in his trequartista role with the two forwards ahead of him, questions will be of the capabilities of United’s midfield. Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick might be able to do the job defensively, but that would leave a huge gap in the centre of the park and Darren Fletcher as central midfielder would be far too ambitious as United will then be up against it when the opposition have the ball in the final third. So you can scratch that one off.

In United’s most recent game against Bolton, it was Berbatov who had scored the winner in a game heading for a 0-0 draw; and it should be noted that he did replace Javier Hernandez straight after half time. In that game, going against the couple that preceded it, Hernandez was starved of action and was quite forlorn. Part of that could be put down to the midfield who had struggled to create in the opening 45 but what could happen now is that Berbatov’s goal could just mean that he will start for the Red Devils’ in their next game. Certainly, there is little room for error. It seems that Sir Alex has made his mind up – that he would rotate between Hernandez and Berbatov to partner Rooney.

Rotation is the correct policy. What’s more, the approach seems to work. There is always going to be a division in opinion, and even if you could make a really good case for an individual it should be recognised that the other could also make an equally good case on the pitch. It’s all about competition, and here at Old Trafford, it’s fierce. The decision of who starts is the interpretation of the manager, conceived by his observation. And that approach couldn’t be any more correct.

The divide in opinion

Having asked what others think on Twitter about the situation, the responses received were interesting; not least because it did give a sense that the opinion of an individual isn’t particularly shared by another. Below, I try to respond to some of the suggestions I received.

FiveCantonas: “Rooney and Hernandez against big teams, Berbatov and Rooney against fast teams (to over simplify).”

jonssonmufc: “I think it all depends on who we are up against. In a game we are supposed to be by far the better team, Berba/Roo should start.”

WayneH7:Berba would my no 1 all the time, build the team around him. He needs to play all the time, he’s our best striker.”

The opinions of the above seem to suggest conflicting views. Two talk of how the duopoly (if we can call it that) of Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov is perhaps better suited against teams of lower status; while ‘WayneH7’ believes Berbatov must be a permanent fixture in the side. Neither point is quite conclusive. As I had concluded in the article, it’s all interpretational and observational – and looking at these tweets I find myself strangely agreeing, nodding. You see, no matter who partners whom it’s one of those when you simply ‘don’t mind’.


17 responses to “Fergie’s forwards – how can he utilise them effectively?”

  1. aaramz says :

    Fergie hardly gets it wrong and the most important thing is the players understand that. Well, for me, I would love to see Hernandez starts especially in the big games where chances are hard to come by. Like you pointed out, he has great positional awareness and with that convertion ratio I think he’d make better use of the limited chances we’ll get.
    I really like Berbatov, what makes me more drawn to him lately is his attitude. He doesn’t look troubled by being left on the bench. Hope he wins that golden boot

    • The Gaffer says :

      “I would love to see Hernandez starts especially in the big games”

      Just thought I’d let others know my opinion on this in particular; generally speaking, and if the trio were to have a clean slate on their goalscoring records and form was no indication, I’d say Berbatov should play the ‘big games’.


      Simple – as I said in the article, I personally think that the partnership of Rooney and Berbatov is United’s best and thus must be used in a game (imagining a ‘one-off’ cup final in my head) that matters. But, whoever partners whom, I actually find myself happy no matter what – that’s how good our inventory of forwards is at the moment 😉

  2. aida says :

    Fine article that you have here 🙂

    So right to the point, you talk about Berbatov/Hernandez and who should partner Rooney on top, I think that the article can be twisted another way, we have played without Rooney for a large part of the year and we have managed to get the results without him, and even though he is a quality player I still dont understand people saying who should partner Rooney, I must say that I still hate him for what he did against the club, dont care nobody is bigger then the club.

    So to my point, I dont think we should be asking the question about who should partner Rooney, Berbatov has also shown that he can play in Rooneys position, I for one think that a partnership of Berbatov and Hernandez could be GREAT. I dont think that just because Rooney has played a couple good games in a row, that he should be an automatic pick for the starting line up, we would not be anywhere near the top of the table without Berbatov and Hernandez……why not give them a chance for once…..Rooney has gotten 30 + chances this season.

  3. thulani says :

    Tough decision to make.Bench Berba he loses the golden boot!Bench Chicharito his spirit gets crushed for all the work he has done on his debut season.The boss is simply in a dilemma!

  4. Edward Godwin says :

    Nice article. As for now Rooney is the engine room of man utd attacking force. The decision is left for fergie to chose who to partner him. (sir,what did you have to say about the partnership between Vidic and Smalling and Vidic and Fardy? Which one is the best?)

  5. Stretford-end.com says :

    Nice article there mate, and hopefully this comment will be the first of many of other top blogs (belated New Years resolution).

    As you may know, over at SE.com, we do love our stats – and we did two posts recently that drilled down on the goals scored by Berba, Rooney (and Nani in the first post) and focused on Hernandez’s scoring ratio against other top strikers around Europe:



    Berbatov and Hernandez have their own qualities as strikers – and offer very different options for Ferguson. I have mentioned recently that the addition of Hernandez was something that we were missed following our elimination to Bayern Munich last season – ironically the young Mexican signed for United the next day. Rooney was injured and Berbatov was out of form and was in the firing line from some sections of supporters.

    Berbatov’s has a sublime touch, vision and can hold the ball up – where as Hernandez makes darting runs to the front/back post and is constantly on the move. Rooney can play with both strikers, because he is a quality player – but I don’t think his best position lies as an attacking midfield, behind two strikers – but more of a second striker – the link between the midfield and attack.

    Maradona’s role in the 1986 World Cup was that of a second striker, or withdrawn striker – which effectively is a number 10. United have always played with width and I could never see the adoption of a 4-3-1-2 formation, with three midfielders supporting Rooney behind Berbatov and Hernandez. For me, Wayne Rooney’s best position is that of a supporting striker that has the freedom to roam around the pitch and create things. In relation to the Totti comparison – I think Rooney offers more to the side than Totti does/did – purely from an athleticism point of view. His runs, both on and off the ball, aren’t as ‘aimless’ as say Carlos Tevez perhaps – which is why is was often sacrificed to the left of a front three to accommodate Cristiano Roandlo.

    So to conclude, both Berbatov and Hernandez are intricate to United’s future. If you’re asking me who would I select, I would counter that with ‘It depends who we are playing’. Right now, Hernandez is getting a run in the side, which is great for all concerned as Berbatov will be fresh for the final run in – a luxury we didn’t have last season. Wayne Rooney’s future is still unclear, with many rumours of training ground bust ups and ongoing transfer stories – fact is, the boy has had a nightmare season compared to last year – but he is quality – and I have no doubt that if he stays, he will recapture his goalscoring form.

  6. The Gaffer says :

    Fair points aida. Yes, I do agree that the partnership of Berbatov and Hernandez could be potentially effective – and super point you make of how Berbatov could play in Rooney’s ‘position’; although Berba’s not quite the trequartista he can definitely play in a deeper role.

    @ Edward Godwin: “what did you have to say about the partnership between Vidic and Smalling and Vidic and Fardy?”

    Presume you mean Ferdinand (unless Sir Alex really did sign that highly-rated Moldavian international everyone else is raving about). But any way, good question – the partnership between Smalling and Vidic has been excellent thus far but the recent game against Bolton (where Vida didn’t play) did show some of Smalling’s frailties. Although, I guess that everyone is allowed a mistake or two. If all our fit, which sounds quite wishful in the current situation, I’d go for the experienced duopoly of Vida and Rio but think Smalling will develop and can soon assume regular status.

    @ Stretford-end.com: The withdrawn striker role would suit Wayne perfectly and you’re right, it will allow him to him roam and create much like he could do as a trequartista – although I think playing him even deeper would be more beneficial to the side and the midfield (which has been deemed our ‘problem position’ this season). Thing is, Rooney is a chameleon and can play anywhere and so well can he adjust to any position, he’s still likely to be as effective.

    There’s even the suggestion he can play up front himself like he had done last year with Valencia and Nani on either flank (34 goals says it all) – but because of Berbatov’s continuous rise and the emergence of Hernandez, United have the luxury of having options. And as you say, we just didn’t have that last year.
    Oh and good luck keeping up with that resolution, too. I usually find myself breaking all of mine come midnight on the second day of January 😉

    Thanks for the comments all 😉

  7. Sleepy Nik says :

    Well said Gaffer and Andy. Top stuff keep it up.

    Thanks for link to Berbarotica piece too, much appreciated. Hernandez will learn so much from Berba’s movement in coming months/years. Far from the complete article that many see him as ~ Chelsea, Bolton and Marseille in parts showed this. But the talent is clearly there.

    Fergie will select according to form, which sets him apart from almost any other manager – Just ask Capello 🙂

  8. hrizantem says :

    I do not understand why do you dismiss Berba and Hernandez partnership. I seem to remember very vividly the game against Blackpool where Rooney was subbed off with less than 30 min to go at 2:0 and Hernandez and Berbatov lead us to 2:3 turnaround.

    Hernandez for me, makes us extremely dangerous when we are away and teams tend to press us. He does not allow them to push forward fully as his speed and precision is just amazing. Hence for me he should play away from home and I belive it will work with both Berba and Rooney behind him. But at home it is more often the case of unlocking defenses when berba with his amazing close control and moments of magic is much more valuable.

    And lets not forget that how well each duo works is also a function of which wingers do we use. the tricky, cutting-inside, Nani, the fast hugging-the-line crosser Valencia, the spirit and experience of Giggs or the hard working, constantly moving Park… it is a real puzzle this one

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