Has Fergie got the formula of ‘99 right again?


By Matthew Jones

MOST of the talk so far this season has been about our pretty porous defence and how we can’t start games properly.

But honestly, with our most potent strike force since the treble winning season of 1999 at Sir Alex Ferguson’s disposal, should we care?

Manchester United are the kings of the comeback; Turin, the Camp Nou, Stamford Bridge last season and Villa Park last week, but it seems that all of the famous comebacks we’re staged over the years wouldn’t add up to the ones we’ve already been forced to repeat this season – and it’s November.

Then again, with the four frontmen we have, could we seriously have the firepower to do it all season?

While I don’t exactly want to be going two and three goals down before we start playing every week, United have always been a team that have personified swashbuckling attacking football and ruthlessly disposed of opponents. Even when we’ve had excellent back fours (and let’s not forget we’ve got lots of injuries and we have good defenders), United have always been a team that’s embodied the attitude that if the opponents score three, we’ll score four.

So while the back four this season is finding its feet, learning to play together and busy doing the best job that they can until everyone’s fit, at least we’re being treated to some of the finest goalscoring feasts since the wondrous final year of the last century.

While the dynamic duo of Batman and Robin will get more starts this season, partly on merit and partly on reputation, Javier Hernandez is giving his manager a serious headache for the Norwich game this weekend (although it looks as if van Persie and/or Rooney will miss the game with an injury) and while he’s only scored one league goal this season, Danny Welbeck showed against Sweden this week that his lack of game time at Old Trafford hasn’t made him rusty.

While the majority of fans, analysts and media men will find it hard to look past Barcelona and Real Madrid for the Champions League winners this year, if the four horsemen of the Theatre of Dreams can get anywhere near the amount of goals that the 99 vintage scored, then the trophy drought of last year will be quickly forgotten by the end of this campaign.

In the 1998-99 season, Dwight Yorke top scored with 29 goals in all competitions; Andy Cole bagged 24, super sub Ole Gunnar Solskjaer hit 18 and veteran Teddy Sheringham scored five – 76 goals in total.

Dutchman van Persie has 11 already this season, Hernandez is probably in even better form with eight goals, Rooney has three and fellow English striker Welbeck has just the one – 23 so far. With barely a quarter of the season gone, the goal potential in our front line is frightfully exciting.

In terms of quality, there’s not an awful lot to choose between the two foursomes from then and now, but you’d probably have to give the edge to the 2012/13 school. But just exactly how does the group of Yorke, Cole, Solskjaer and Sheringham stand up against the Van Persie, Rooney, Hernandez and Welbeck quartet?

Van Persie is a phenomenon and United fans are already calling the £24m we forked out on him a bargain. I’m inclined to agree. The man was born to score goals. He reminds me of Ruud van Nistelrooy, but with a much better all round game. He holds the play up, he brings others into it, he rarely wastes possession, everything he does looks classy and his finishing is absolutely deadly. I want to compare RVP to Teddy because the former Arsenal man is the veteran striker, although he wasn’t exactly the snip of a deal Fergie is famous for pulling off over the years, as when he brought Sheringham in from Tottenham, but I think he’ll end up being our leading scorer so I have to compare him to Yorkie. Yorke and Cole struck up and almost telepathic partnership, they would instantly know what the other was thinking, and their goal returns were sublime, but van Persie is simply a superior all-round player to Yorke, so I’ll give the flying Dutchman the nod.

Because I’m going to compare Chicharito to Ole, I’ll pair Rooney off with Cole. Rooney has impressed me this season in every aspect except his goal scoring, but with the business end of the season still way ahead of us, after Christmas is when I can really see him shining. And he’s not exactly playing badly. He’s won man of the match plaudits in a few of the recent games and whenever he’s on the pitch, everything seems to go through him. Cole was a finisher, plain and simple. As Rooney and van Persie said after the Arsenal game, they feel as if they are both 9 ½ strikers, as opposed to 9s or 10s, so perhaps we don’t really have a first choice out and out scorer. Like van Persie, I’d pick Rooney over Cole, simply because like the Dutchman he is a truly world class player who could fit in at any club on the planet. Add that to his all-round game and talismanic status at Old Trafford, plus I think he’ll get over 20 goals eventually.

Of the comparisons between the two sets of strikers, Solskjaer vs Hernandez is the easiest one to see and, arguably, the most fascinating one to call. They’ll both be labelled super subs and after the Mexican’s performance off the bench against Villa last week, who can blame them, but they’re just special footballers. Workaholics, team players and able to oblige when called upon, these are the really vital players to Fergie and our chances of silverware this season. After a terrific debut season, injuries disrupted Hernandez’s progress last season. Critics said he’d suffered from second season syndrome, but that’s just a lazy cliché. He hadn’t had much of a pre-season and suffered several niggling injuries. Despite this it’s largely ignored that he still bagged 12 goals in 22 starts, hardly embarrassing figures. This season he looks sharper and hungrier than ever. He’s such an honest player. While across Manchester, Balotelli sulks and Tevez is having a tough start to the season, Hernandez just sticks to his game and his persistence and hard work are being rewarded and I think he’ll make a lot more than the 37 appearances than Solskjaer got in the 1998/99 season. The Norwegian, of course, has his very own special place in United folklore and within the hearts of United fans, and his 18 goals in 99, from 17 starts, was extraordinary. His crowning glory of course was the winner against Bayern Munich in Barcelona. I love both players, the type of player and characters they are, and I’m just giving Ole the edge in this one.

I was extremely pleased for Welbeck in England’s friendly defeat to Sweden this week. Much is made these days of international players at big clubs starting for their countries but not playing regularly for their teams. But most of England’s frontmen are in the same boat and Welbeck justified his selection. The skilful, energetic and hard-working frontman was excellent all game. He caused defenders problems, he linked well with teammates and he took his goal well, showing that when called upon by the great man, he too will not let his club down. To be fair, Danny’s made as many appearances (13) as Hernandez this season, but he just hasn’t hit his stride yet, although his youth and energy will be important for us come the New Year and even before that in the busy festive period. He really excites me when I watch him. Teddy only made 27 total appearances in the treble season and at 13 already, Welbeck is going to make a lot more than that and whereas the veteran Englishman bagged five goals, I believe the young Englishman will easily hit double figures. Because of that I pick Welbeck over Sheringham.

So, Hernandez is pretty much the reincarnation of Solskjaer, Welbeck is only going to improve and in Rooney and van Persie, we have two world class strikers in our attack. Four into two doesn’t go but while Ferguson will have to do plenty of mental arithmetic to get his striking sums right this season, what are the odds of another treble for the Red Devils?

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  1. More interestingly is that you could play all 4 of our current strikers together with Welbs left and Rooney in midfield, you couldn’t really do that with the 99 quartet, this gives them the edge for me.

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