The Obsolescence of Javier Hernandez

The immediate consequence of the broken collarbone that Mexican striker Javier hernandez collarbone“Chicharito” Hernandez sustained on Wednesday is bad enough: at this month’s Concacaf Gold Cup, a regional tournament that almost always culminates in a hotly contested USA-Mexico final, Mexico will compete without its most prolific goal scorer. ESPN columnist Andrea Canales called the injury a “cruel setback” for the Mexican team, which hasn’t won any of its last seven games.

But Chicharito’s long-term prospects – his chances of securing regular first-team soccer at a top European club – look even worse. Manchester United coach Louis van Gaal has never seemed particularly interested in him, and Chicharito struggled for playing time last season during a loan spell at Real Madrid. In June, ESPN tweeted that Major League Soccer owners “are looking for a mechanism” to bring Chicharito to the United States. (One commenter suggested an airplane.)

Sebastian Giovinco’s transfer to Toronto last January showed that MLS is fast becoming a realistic option for big-name players in their mid-20s. Still, the rumors linking Chicharito to Orlando City FC, among other MLS clubs, constitute a harsh verdict on his recent form – and on his distinctive brand of old-fashioned forward play.

Chicharito joined Manchester United in 2010, following a series of impressive performances for Mexico at the World Cup in South Africa. His enthusiastic pressing, as well as his signature ability to score goals after coming off the bench, turned him into a cult hero. Fans hailed him as the second coming of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The World Red Army, a pop group that records songs about Manchester United, released the single “Chico Is the Man,” an almost unlistenable tribute to the striker’s “gift of God from up above.” Chicharito finished his first season in England with 20 goals in all competitions.

Chicharito’s initial popularity probably derived partly from the stark contrast between his energetic playing style and the understated (some would say lazy) approach of Dimitar Berbatov, a brilliant, enigmatic striker who polarized United fans. But since Sir Alex Ferguson’s 2013 retirement, Chicharito has become an increasingly marginal figure at United, a benchwarmer widely mocked for his poor touch and wild passing. He still boasts an impressive goal-to-minute ratio, but van Gaal, who started him only twice before finalizing the Madrid loan deal, seems to be looking for strikers who can create chances and link play.

This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Chicharito’s recent struggles not only mark the inevitable comedown of a slightly overrated poacher. They also represent the latest stage in an ongoing tactical evolution that began in the early 1970s: the decline of on-field specialization. “As system has replaced individuality, the winger has gone and been reincarnated in a different, more complex form; so too has the playmaker, and so, now, might the striker be refined out of existence,” soccer journalist Jonathan Wilson writes in Inverting the Pyramid, a history of tactics. “The future, it seems, is universality.”

In 2008, Ferguson led the best United team of the last decade to a league and Champions League double. The front three – Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo – exchanged positions fluidly, confusing opposition defenders. Chicharito wouldn’t operate effectively in such a system. He’s too dependent on the positional stability of old-fashioned formations, the hard-and-fast rules that used to govern where forward players should line up. This anachronistic playing style greatly limits his options. It’s hard to imagine Chicharito starting regularly for any of the ten or so teams expected to seriously contend for the Champions League.

Chicharito will spend the next few weeks in recovery mode, hoping to regain fitness before the end of United’s pre-season tour, or at least in time for the team’s Premier League opener against Tottenham in early August. But a broken collarbone is the least of his problems, whether he realizes it or not.

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