Rooney and Chicharito? Rooney and Berbatov? Rooney on his own? Manchester United supporters have become accustomed to this constant unknown throughout the past two years at Old Trafford.
Legendary Red Devils manager Sir Alex Ferguson has masterfully balanced his options in attack. Whether it be a tactical system with the traditional two strikers or a lone frontrunner, there has been one constant in recent history: Wayne Rooney.
Last year, in one of his most impressive seasons wearing the red shirt of United, Rooney was frequently employed as the sole striker. This tactical switch saw multi-million pound Bulgarian striker Dimitar Berbatov feature primarily off the bench or through squad rotation.
Although Rooney had a slow start to the current campaign, he started to reach the heights of last season over the past few months. With Rooney's return to form, he has consequently re-cemented himself as the No. 1 strike option at Old Trafford.
The Englishman's striking technique, hard work and determination are strengths that have endeared him to Ferguson and United faithful. The striker's industry and drive to win are what distinguish him as one of the elite footballers in top-flight English football. Regardless of system, if fit, Rooney will be the first name on the teamsheet starting upfront on his own or with a strike-partner.
Mexican starlet Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez burst onto the international scene with a stellar performance at the 2010 FIFA World Cup. United were able to conduct a clever piece of business by signing the striker for a bargain price of £7 million before the tournament began.
The Mexican's valuation skyrocketed following his impressive display in South Africa, and Ferguson has been quoted saying, "I think a lot of teams would have been after him and it would probably have cost us two or three times more." Hernandez has arguably been the season's best signing, competing with the £8 million Tottenham signing of Dutch international Rafael Van der Vaart.
The United striker has made an immediate impact with his new club. Although he was expected to struggle adjusting to the pace and strength of the Premier League, Chicharito has proved all doubters wrong. The Mexican has bagged an astonishing 20 goals in just 23 starts in all competitions. Continuing in United's strong tradition of goal-poachers scorers such as Ruud van Nistelrooy, Chicharito has given his manager a selection headache.
Off the bench or from the start, the striker just keeps scoring goals. The little Mexican can score with either foot and has a tremendous leap for a player his size. His aerial prowess was on display with his corkscrew header against Stoke. Going into the season, United talisman Rooney was expected to be partnered by Dimitar Berbatov as he entered his third year with the club.
After the Bulgarian's flying start to the season, the Rooney-Berbatov partnership seemed to be the obvious first choice in attack. However, when given his chances, Chicharito did what he does best, which is score goals. Over the past month he has surpassed Berbatov as the second choice striker and proved to be the best partner for Rooney.
Chicharito's style of play has been the determining factor of his ascension in the picking order. The Mexican plays football the Manchester United way. Most importantly, he plays football the way Ferguson wants to play it. Chicharito shares Rooney's determination and willingness to sacrifice for the shirt. The striker's pure pace and poacher's mentality is what distinguishes him as the ideal partner for the Englishman.
Chicharito rarely dwells on the ball and plays a very direct style. He leads the line well by making penetrating runs, stretching the defense and leaving pockets of space in which Rooney can occupy.
Chicharito was made to play in United's 4-4-2 system because as a natural goal-scorer. He understands positioning in the box and feeds off the excellent service from United's wing players. In short, Chicharito was made to play in the United system. After the Mexican settled into the team, it became apparent that Ferguson had uncovered a true gem in the young Mexican.
The rise of Chicharito has pushed Berbatov to the periphery once again. Last season it was the Bulgarian's poor run of form that saw him dropped by Ferguson. This campaign, however, Berbatov has barely put a foot wrong and finds himself in a similar situation. The Bulgarian has bagged 22 goals in in his best season with the Red Devils following his £30.75 million move from Tottenham. Berbatov has recently found himself relegated to the bench due to his style of play.
The languid striker likes to float between the midfield and frontline, finding space where he can turn and face defenders. Although a striker and an accomplished goal-scorer, Berbatov prefers to play as the link man in the attacking buildup. The Bulgarian's skill, touch and technique is world-class. Technically speaking, Berbatov is one of the most gifted strikers in the world. His feathery touch has become a hallmark of his play, as he takes balls out of the air with ease.
The striker's abilities are by no means below United standards. However, Berbatov's strengths are more suited towards a possession-based style of play. The Bulgarian's ball-skills are best utilized in a system that emphasizes passing and patient buildup.
United's win over Fulham on April 9 is a perfect example of an ideal tactical system for the Bulgarian striker. Ferguson opted to employ a five-man midfield, with Berbatov upfront on his own. With Scholes, Anderson and Gibson in the middle of the park, United dominated possession in the middle of the park. This possession style of play brought out the best of the Bulgarian striker, as his interplay with Nani displayed his true skill with the ball at his feet.
Although United came away with a routine win, it was clearly a different system than the one most recently in the club's past four matches. Following the loss to Manchester City in the FA Cup, Ferguson has moved away from this new tactical approach.
The Red Devils employed their trademark counter-attacking 4-4-2 against Schalke 04 in the opening leg of their Champions League semifinals clash. Rooney and Chicharito played as the two strikers, with Giggs pulling the strings in central midfield and Valencia provided genuine width down the right. The tempo and style of play reflected Ferguson's preferred tactics.
The pairing of Rooney and Chicharito has emerged as the go-to strike partnership for the Red Devils as the season reaches its climax. However, Berbatov and the changed system gives Ferguson a new dynamic and option in attack. While he has three strikers to choose from, each provides a unique set of skills and attributes that directly impact United's attacking flow.
Although Berbatov is arguably the most skillful and gifted striker of the three, he has clearly found himself playing second fiddle to the first-choice pairing of Rooney and Chicharito. As the Bulgarian striker enters the last few years of his prime, he might have to seek a new club for guaranteed playing time with the first team.
His services would be highly sought after by the elite of European clubs. Arsenal, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich would be the best fits for the Bulgarian in terms of style and system. A world-class talent like Berbatov will not stay at United as a role player for much longer.
The United Number 9 has the makeup of a first-choice striker and the skills to carry a team with his goals and overall play. While it is too early to speculate over Berbatov's next club, it is clear that he is not the ideal fit for Rooney, Ferguson and Manchester United.