During the past season, Dimitar Berbatov was the co-Golden Boot winner in the English Premier League with 20 goals. However, by season's end, it was the partnership of Wayne Rooney and Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez that helped propel Manchester United to a record 19th league title and a spot in the UEFA Champions League final. The benching of the Bulgarian was not due so much to poor form, but rather a tactical ploy that Chicharito provided manager Sir Alex Ferguson. The young Mexican striker stretched defenses with the threat of his pace by sitting on the last defender's shoulder. In turn, a secondary striker was afforded more space in the hole to link play - which Berbatov did decently well when partnered with the youngster. However, when Rooney regained form and fitness, he excelled in this role with his incisive distribution and industry in defense - he was essentially an auxiliary midfielder. This led to the 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 sort of shape that United used for nearly every big match during the run-in
For the upcoming season, it is nearly certain that Fergie will use varying tactics. Unlike how the current FC Barcelona side impose their system on the opposition, the United boss has always been flexible with his tactics and his practicality has been key to his longevity. While Chicharito has been out due to a concussion, Fergie's selection choices for Rooney's partner has been Berbatov, Michael Owen, Danny Welbeck, and Federico Macheda. Somewhat surprisingly, it was the youngster Welbeck that was first-choice for the league opener on Sunday versus West Bromwich Albion and during the FA Community Shield versus Manchester City. In both matches, the attacking quartet of Rooney, Welbeck, Nani, and Ashley Young provided fast and fluid attacking play in a 4-4-2 sort of system. It was Welbeck that played slightly deeper of the two strikers, however, Rooney acted as a false nine as well by continually coming deep. Looking ahead to the season, Rooney's ability to effectively play a number of different roles will be vital in whatever partnerships and tactics that Fergie uses.
After the jump are the player profiles for United's strikers...
After a nightmare start to the 2010-11 season, in which he was in poor form and infamously put in a transfer request, Rooney rebounded for the final months of the season and once again became United's talisman. During the 2009-10 season, the England international bagged 34 goals in all competitions while leading the line in attack as a false nine. However, United's season fell apart when he was injured in a Champions League tie versus Bayern Munich as Fergie's tactics at the time were heavily reliant on just one player - Wazza. Last season during the run-in, Rooney resembled a classic number ten and his distribution, along with his goal-scoring, helped provide his side multiple threats in attack. It is arguably his ideal role and one he admittedly favors.
As mentioned, Rooney is back to playing a false nine at season's beginning with Chicharito out. This is also a role he can play with the other available strikers as well until the Mexican regains full fitness and form. Either way, Wazza's own fitness and form already appears to be tremendous and if he stays healthy, a 20 goal and 20 assist season is quite reasonable. If Fergie elects to play in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 hybrid shape for big matches, something that he has done with frequency in recent seasons, Rooney can lead the attack line as a false nine. When Chicharito returns, and if regains his starting role, look for Rooney to operate in the space between the lines - from here he can play his preferred role by being both a goalscorer and incisive creator.
The Bulgarian striker was brought to Old Trafford during the summer of 2008 for a reported fee of £31 million. The silky Berbatov has had moments of brilliance, most notably in his five-goal barrage last season versus Blackburn Rovers and his hat-trick hero performance versus rival Liverpool FC. However, he has failed to earn regular playing time as a first-choice striker and perhaps his low moment in a United shirt came during this past May's Champions League final - when he failed to even make the bench despite being healthy.
Berbatov is certainly a terrific player who is unfairly criticized at times (in this writer's opinion). Perhaps the biggest weakness in striker's game is not anything technical, nor anything mental. It is perhaps that he fails to provide tactical flexibility because he has been mostly ineffective when Fergie deploys him as the lone front man. While he is an able target man when he has another striker playing off of him in close proximity, he is unable to transfer those target man abilities when he's the lone fulcrum. With Fergie's varying tactics, this makes it difficult for him to earn a regular spot as first-choice - especially in European competition. For the coming season, and assuming he does not leave prior to the closing of the current transfer window, it is likely that Berbatov is used in two-striker shapes in mostly domestic competition. Because he is also able to come deep and fluidly link play, he could theoretically fit in the system that United has used in the past few weeks. It would not be a surprise to see him start versus Tottenham Hotspur on Monday.
The 23-year-old striker was brought to the club during last summer's transfer window for a mere £7 million fee, according to sources. The move was considered a surprise but it did not take Chicharito long to earn his keep. While most regarded him highly for his poaching and his clinical finishing, it is arguably his intelligent movement and natural ability to slip markers in the box that makes him so brilliant. His pace allows him to stretch play because defenders do not want to let him get behind - but equally important is his horizontal movement - which drags markers out of position and creates space for midfield runners. His 20 goals in all competitions during his debut season provides tangible evidence of his impact. However, it is also his intelligent movement that provides the likes of Rooney, Nani, Park Ji-sung, Antonion Valencia, and Ryan Giggs valuable space from which to operate from while in attack.
The youngster continued his fine form during the summer for the Mexican national team as he terrorized opposing sides with 7 goals during the Gold Cup. However, his concussion suffered during the United's preseason tour has him out for the first few weeks of the season. A possible unintended benefit from this is that it may provide him some rest after consecutive summers of international competition. When Chicharito returns, expect him to play in two-striker systems - particularly in the role previously discussed. However, like Berbatov, he has yet to prove that he can play as the fulcrum in attack in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 system. If Fergie elects to play in that shape for the club's big matches this season, the Mexican may find himself on the bench in those situations.
The U-21 England international spent last season out on loan to Sunderland where he scored 6 goals in 26 appearances. Since his return to United, the youngster has impressed during the preseason tour and he was awarded with starts versus West Brom and City in the past few weeks. Welbeck showed his versatility while playing for Steve Bruce in England's North East - he capably performed as a striker and as a wide player from both sides in attack.
During the past few weeks, Welbeck played slightly withdrawn from Rooney and freely roamed in the space ahead of the midfield. HIs ability to play in numerous areas on the pitch helped United play with the fluidity that they've shown in recent weeks - the movement of Rooney, Nani, Young, and Welbeck have allowed them to frequently interchange and attack at speed. The youngster faces stiff competition to hold his place, and after a quiet performance versus the Baggies, he may not start versus Spurs. However, the faith that Fergie has shown in him attests to how highly regarded the 20-year-old is. His future appears bright and his flexibility may earn him many opportunities this season.
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the former England international regular returned to United for another season. With United losing so many experienced players during the summer while bringing in so many young ones, it is possible that Fergie brought Owen back for both experienced leadership and depth. It was once the 31-year-old's electric pace and clinical finishing that had him regarded as amongst the world's best - he terrorized the opposition by playing off the last defender's shoulder. However, in recent years, he's shown an improved ability to link play by coming deeper for the ball.
For the coming season, Owen will provide quality depth for a club battling on multiple fronts for trophies. While he still may be able to play as a lead striker, he may now be better suited playing in the hole because of his mentioned link up play. However, when he does surge forward, his positional sense in the box and finishing ability can still make him a useful asset to the club. He should also provide terrific mentorship for United's young strikers - his willingness to play a bit part in a haul of trophies rather than play regularly for a mid-table side may be considered quite admirable by some.
The 19-year-old striker joined United from Lazio in 2007. After rising through the club's U-18 and Reserves sides, it did not take long for Macheda to make an impact for the club. On his debut in 2009 April against Aston Villa, the Italian came on as a substitute and hit a curling effort that won the match in stoppage time. He finished the season by by being named to the bench several more times, including against FC Porto in a Champions League quarter-final tie. Since then, it is has been difficult for the youngster to find regular playing time at United. He spent the latter half of last season on loan to then Serie A side Sampdoria, where he failed to make an impact. Macheda is back with United for this season but it remains to be seen whether he will be able to earn many appearances. He is only 19 and has shown his natural talent in the past, but he appears to be behind Rooney, Chicharito, Berbatov, Welbeck, and Owen in the pecking order - that is quite the logjam.
MAME BIRAM DIOUF
The Senegalese striker was signed from Molde FK in the summer of 2009. Diouf immediately returned back for a loan spell that season and he spent last season on loan to Blackburn Rovers. The 23-year-old has shown good athleticism during his time in the Premier League, both with Blackburn and United. However, his technical ability has come under criticism by some as his finishing has not been clinical. It is difficult to envision Diouff getting many first-team opportunities this season at United. The likelier scenario appears to be another loan spell somewhere or the sale of him to another club.