Surely Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández, who has scored 17 goals in all competitions in his début Manchester United season, is not the Ji- Sung Park of strikers? After all, notwithstanding the Mexican’s above average workrate, he doesn’t ‘put himself about’ as much. One doesn’t often see Javier Hernández popping up at the back, for example. In fact, the 22-year-old striker is consistently glued to the shoulder of last defender.
Indeed, the Mexican’s attack-mindedness is what makes the youngster an excellent contributor to United’s defence. Hernández is extremely quick off the mark and by having such a pacey player staying up field, the opposition cannot drive the defensive line forward, lest a quick ball over the top catch the defence off guard. With the defence sapped, the opposition faces two undesirable options: first, commit only midfielders and forwards to the attack and have the team disjointed; or drop the team back a little to remain in contact with the defence. This, of course, relieves pressure on United.
Perhaps, this is why Hernández has been preferred to Dimitar Berbatov in recent games. Despite his languid style, Berbatov is not slow but the Bulgarian does like to drop deep and pick up the ball before launching into attack. Naturally, the opposition defence can safely form a high line. Sir Alex Ferguson tried to combat the problem by deploying Wayne Rooney, who is generally a more direct player than Berbatov, further up field than the thirty-year-old Bulgarian.
The solution didn’t quite work out for it put Berbatov in a completely unnatural position. In addition, Rooney is also a player who likes to drop deep and often United had two forwards in deep positions directly facing a line of defenders. Wingers could theoretically provide the thrust to drive back the opposition but defenders are much less wary of wingers for they are further away from goal than strikers. Also, to engage wingers, players of Paul Scholes’ calibre are need – the task requires accurate passing over long distance.
Not only does Hernández’ obsession with the offside trap help out defensively, but also it assists Rooney United’s midfielders. With Hernández stretching the play, Rooney has a nice pocket of space from which he can influence the play. Even in a nominal 4-4-2, Rooney plays deeper than a typical striker when partnering the Mexican, which results in a more 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 shape. The midfield becomes staggered and such shape is much easier to maintain possession – a triangle of players can always pass around a line of players.
This column has previously written on Park and argued that deploying a defensive winger necessitates a high line and high tempo game – something that perhaps is undesirable when one is actually trying to set up a defensive game. Hernández is a very good example of an attacking player who can be defensive just by the virtue of being attacking. Cristiano Ronaldo is another good example – it takes a gutsy fullback to bomb forward with Ronaldo lurking.
Pundits and fans alike often argue that Park and players of his ilk, such as Dirk Kuyt, ‘take one for the team’ and that they shouldn’t be criticised for their relative lack of attacking contribution. These pundits have a point but they are also missing the fact that attack often is the best form of defence.
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