With Late-Game Heroics, “Chicharito” Paces Manchester United
By G. Marcotti
English soccer has two versions of the Footballer of the Year award, the equivalent of a Most Valuable Player honor. The Professional Footballers’ Association Players’ Player of the Year (brevity is not the PFA’s strong suit) is voted on by players. The other, the Footballer of the Year, is chosen by journalists.
It’s not unusual for different players to win the annual baubles, particularly when there is no obvious, outstanding candidate, as was the case in England this year. Furthermore, the PFA’s somewhat-antediluvian voting procedure means that most ballots are cast in February, which effectively renders the last three months of the season meaningless. And so perhaps it was not entirely surprising that the two sets of voters picked two different men, neither of whom is particularly satisfying.
The PFA chose Tottenham midfielder Gareth Bale, who went on a tear early in the season but hasn’t scored since New Year’s Day and has lasted 90 minutes in a Premier League game just four times since then. The Football Writers’ Association, on the other hand, recognized West Ham midfielder Scott Parker. Parker is the club’s emotional leader—a veteran hard-running, hard-working dervish who scored a career-high seven goals this season and regained his place on the England squad. But the fact is that West Ham is last in the Premier League. And that negates one of the oft-cited criteria for such awards: Where would the team be without this particular player? In Parker’s place, the club would presumably still be bottom.
Let’s take this criteria to the extreme. Pound-for-pound—or, better yet, minute-for-minute—you may want to consider another player: Javier Hernandez, a Mexican forward with an uncanny knack for scoring when it matters. On seven occasions this season—most recently in Manchester United’s 1-0 win over Everton on Saturday—he has scored a late winner for United, which is still on track to win both the Premier League and the Champions League. (It clinches the Premier League if it wins its next two, against Chelsea and Arsenal, and United’s two-part Champions League semifinal against Germany’s Schalke starts Tuesday night.) Another time, against Blackpool, he scored a late equalizer before Dimitar Berbatov notched the winning goal. Take his late-game heroics in the Premier League out of the mix, and United would be fourth, with eight fewer points.
Back in April 2010, when United signed Hernandez from Chivas Guadalajara in the Mexican League for $11.5 million, the move raised a few eyebrows. While Hernandez was a footballing blue blood—both his father, also named Javier, and grandfather, Tomas Balcazar, represented Mexico in World Cups—he was something of a late bloomer. His first four years with Guadalajara were spent shuttling between the parent club and its farm team, and in early 2009, when he was 20, Hernandez seriously considered giving up his career and focusing full-time on school. Also, while there are exceptions like Hugo Sanchez and Rafa Marquez, Mexicans have struggled to make an impact in top European leagues.
Yet the kid they call “Chicharito”—or “little pea”; his father was nicknamed “pea”—quickly established himself as the ultimate impact sub at Old Trafford. That’s what makes his season all the more remarkable. Hernandez has started 12 of United’s 34 league games this season, yet he’s the team’s second-leading scorer. He’s one of the most-efficient strikers around, averaging a goal every 107 minutes on the pitch in the Premier League.
Hernandez’s importance is underscored by manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s tactical approach. Sir Alex has increasingly opted for a 4-5-1 system, with Wayne Rooney tucked in a deeper position behind Hernandez up top, or with Rooney as the lone frontman and Hernandez as a game-changing second-half substitute. Berbatov, the club’s leading scorer, is now relegated to third choice having started just three of United’s 13 games in the past two months. On Saturday, he remained rooted to the bench.
It’s a textbook case of chemistry winning out of over stats—in this case, Berbatov’s 21 league goals. The 4-5-1 allows United to get the best out of its wingers, Nani and Antonio Valencia, and Rooney is more suited than Berbatov to leading the line.
But when United needs some instant offense, Hernandez is the man. His flat-out speed and ability to ghost behind opposing defenders make him a perfect fit for the role. His late-game heroics aren’t accidental, either. Thirteen of his 19 goals in all competitions this season have come in the final 20 minutes. That’s when opposing defenses begin to tire, making his blistering quickness that much more difficult to handle.
It’s probably a stretch (and a provocation) to suggest that Hernandez is the most valuable player in the Premier League. Among his United teammates alone, you could make strong cases for Nani, defender Nemanja Vidic or goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, guys who’ve seen a lot more playing time but whose contributions don’t show up in the stats by virtue of the positions they play.
Yet it’s pretty clear that if the club hand’t gambled on a little-known Mexican just more than a year ago, United wouldn’t be where it is now: 180 minutes away from both a league title and a Champions League final.
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