Since leaving Guadalajara and moving to Europe in the wake of an impressive showing at the 2010 World Cup, finding guaranteed playing time has been tough for Javier Hernández. Four full seasons at Man Utd yielded him just 48 league starts, while after joining Real Madrid on loan in 2014/15 he started just seven, unsurprisingly unable to break past Karim Benzema into the first-team. After a transfer to Bayer Leverkusen in the summer just gone, however, things have changed.
No longer a back-up striker or a super sub brought off the bench to try and change the game, the Mexican is now a first-team regular for Roger Schmidt in Germany – and he’s already started more league games this season than he has in any of the last three years. It’s been a resounding success so far too, with 18 goals and counting in just 19 starts (as well as two appearances as a substitute) in all competitions. That translates to 1587 minutes on the pitch, a highly impressive record of a goal every 88.2 minutes, one which is right up there with Europe’s top performing goal-scorers.
With Man Utd struggling to score goals and looking uninspiring in attack under Louis van Gaal this season, the Mexican’s excellent form has led to a few questions about whether he should have been allowed to go to the German club in the first place – were they wrong to sell Hernández?
The easy conclusion, based off a pure goal-scoring basis, is yes. In reality though, a stylistic comparison between Schmidt’s Leverkusen and Van Gaal’s Man Utd leaves little evidence to suggest that Chicharito would be performing at a similar level if he was still at Old Trafford. Where Man Utd play in a very methodical, carefully-managed manner of possession football, this Leverkusen side is almost a direct opposite: it’s electric, fast-flowing, chaotic almost.
The openness of this new system is what Hernández has thrived in. He’s a very instinctive striker, and it’s no surprise that he’s found the best form of his career in a very instinctive team. They play with great directness (not in a long ball sense), moving the ball quickly up the pitch at high speeds, while their heavy pressing off the ball leads to a huge number of turnovers of possession in advanced areas. This leads to them having a need for dynamic players, ones who can punish the opposition in transitions and break into the space which the other team have just opened when shaping up for a phase of possession.
Hernández’s pressing, even if it is improving, isn’t at the level of teammates like Karim Bellarabi and Kevin Kampl, but what he does have in abundance is that dynamism. His quick acceleration and sudden bursts of pace are great for making off the shoulder runs behind the defence, as well as for dragging defenders out of the way to create space for others to attack. Throw in his natural ability to score goals for good measure, and you’ve got a striker who’s extremely well-suited to this Leverkusen team.
It’s also, perhaps just as crucially for the Mexican, a playing style which masks the deficiencies in his game. An inability to contribute too much outside of the box with regards to build-up play and ball circulation makes it difficult for him to be a player which a team is built around, while his size (5’9) means he’s also far from a physical presence up front; none of those things are attributes that are desperately needed from a striker for a Schmidt side.
It’s not entirely similar, but Hernández’s success under him has elements of how Jonathan Soriano (although the Spaniard is a better-rounded player) also thrived during Schmidt’s time at Red Bull Salzburg and became, in terms of goal totals, one of Europe’s most prolific attackers – he accentuates the strengths of his strikers and gives them a role which lets them focus on what they do best. In Soriano’s case that’s scoring goals, and for Hernández it undoubtedly is too.
At Man Utd, meanwhile, there’s little chance to do any of that. That’s certainly not to imply that Schmidt’s system is ‘better’, because that largely depends on the execution of a tactical idea and personal preference, rather that Van Gaal’s requires a much broader set of attributes from a striker. Being technically deficient in a slow, possession-orientated system which involves regularly having to break down low block defences, like the Mexican is, simply doesn’t work. He’d probably still get a few goals, simply because he’s an excellent finisher, though he’d likely add very little other than that.
Besides, Man Utd’s main problem hasn’t been finishing chances; they’ve actually been converting at a good rate. They’ve scored 11.8% of their shots in the Premier League after 16 games, a percentage bettered by only three sides. Instead it’s the actual chance creation where they’ve been struggling – they’re 15th for their total shots per game (11.1), and with 44% of their shots coming from outside the box (the league’s eighth-highest) a lot of them are hardly great quality opportunities either.
And that’s an issue from outside of the box related to ball circulation and play between the lines which, as mentioned, Hernández is going to do nothing to solve. He’d add another attacking possibility of course, which is something that’s probably needed, but Anthony Martial (when playing centrally) and Wayne Rooney (when he’s not on a pitiful run of form like he has been for a while now) are better options for this side than Hernández is.
Van Gaal’s error in the forward department is more just not signing a third striker, rather than letting the Mexican go to Leverkusen in the first place. So the easy narrative of the sale being an error because of his brilliant form at the moment is quite a rubbish one. Man Utd’s real problems, right now, are deeper ones than simply just letting Hernández go.