There’s a Dutch flavour to everything around Manchester United at the moment. Erik ten Hag’s been at the hot seat for a little over a month with Frenkie de Jong and Tyrell Malacia likely to join him and Donny van de Beek.
Old Trafford’s been home to many a great Dutchman, from the flying figures of Edwin van der Saar and Robin van Persie to the fierce like Jaap Stam and Ruud van Nistelrooy. The Busby Babe staff felt that it was only right that we celebrate some of the club’s greatest Dutch Reds by coming up with short essays on them.
The essays will be part of a series that also serves as a little game to see who ranks as the greatest Dutch Red of them all. We decided to take inspiration from The Ringer’s Shea Sarrano, who came up with his own quirky metrics to rank different seasons and players in his book Basketball (and Other Things): A Collection of Questions Asked, Answered, Illustrated and gave it our own little spin.
We’ll be using the following metrics to rate each Dutchman:
We will provide a score out of 5 for each metric. The score assigned for the player by the writer tasked with the essay will either be revealed at the end or form the basis of the piece. Since we’ve got 5 metrics and each metric is scored out of 5, the player will get a score out of 25.
We’ve also got 4 players to write about and each writer will provide a score out of 25 for these players. These scores will be revealed in a separate piece, once all the essays are done. Do the math and you’ll realise that each player will be ultimately marked out of 100.
We’ll also do a poll for the final piece and hope to come up with at least one more series of essays before the season 2022/23 Premier League season starts.
Now, here’s a short essay on the prolific Ruud van Nistelrooy by Brent Maximin.
Manchester United fans didn’t come up with the most inventive of chants for Ruud van Nistelrooy. No puns, no clever variations of popular hits － just thousands of people bellowing the striker’s first name at the top of their lungs. In a way, it fits. Because van Nistelrooy wasn’t always a player to make you gasp or giggle. No, Ruud did the simplest, and hardest, and most important thing on a football pitch: he scored goals.
There’s been some revisionism around who van Nistelrooy was a player, mostly by people born after the release of the first iPhone. He was “just a poacher” they say. Well, that’s wrong of course, but not just because Ruud was more mobile and technically gifted than most people remember, and that his movement off the ball was so brilliant that it should be studied, but because “just” scoring goals is kind of the point of this whole thing. We love a tricky dribble, a mazy run, a crisp pass, a hard tackle, a deft touch, but goals…goals make all those other things mean something. Goals can be a source of wonder, but they are almost always a source of relief. So it is fitting that the man who was as good or better as anyone ever was at providing that relief should be celebrated with a raucous, sustained exhale.
Take a look at all of van Nistelrooy’s goals for Manchester United. The variety and quality of finishes are staggering. He could score with power or with precision, with guile or with graft, with either foot or his head. He could score with his first touch, or with as many touches as he needed. He could score from up close or from far away (well, maybe just the one time). He could put minnows to the sword and bring giants to their knees. Maybe he could just do one thing, but that thing is the thing that matters most － and he was the best at it.
Few players have left such an indelible mark on a club as big as United － and indeed on perhaps the most popular sporting league in the world － with neither the trophy haul nor statistical resume most fans would expect. Winning the Premier League, the FA Cup, and the League Cup is no small feat, but if those medals were stolen from the trophy cabinet of say, Anderson, it would be weeks before he even noticed them missing. Ninety-five Premier League goals is a lot, but it’s fewer than Darren Bent, the same as Yakubu, and only a hat-trick more than Kevin Phillips. Hardly the most illustrious company. Van Nistelrooy spent only five years at United as well, making fewer appearances than the likes of Phil Jones and Anthony Martial.
So why then is Ruud van Nistelrooy both a United and a Premier League all-time great? The answer to that question, to quote the occasional basketball player and consistently great Twitter user Kevin Durant, is “Who the fuck wants to look at graphs while having a [football] convo?”
Van Nistelrooy was the leading goalscorer on a team that formed one half of the greatest rivalry in Premier League history (yes, football didn’t start in 1992, so what, bugger off), and he joined at a time when that rivalry was at its peak. Legacies are defined by moments. It’s why Didier Drogba is remembered as being greater than he was, despite having a middling goal return for the majority of his career. It’s why no one cares about Romelu Lukaku. Think of our moments watching United over the years. Van Nistelrooy scoring that penalty against Arsenal to effectively end their unbeaten run (and exorcise his demons from missing from the spot at Highbury) is up there with the very best.
None of this is to be dismissive of van Nistelrooy’s numbers, either, even if they don’t tell the full story of his greatness. Before those two freaks in La Liga ruined our collective understanding of what a good goal-scoring season is, van Nistelrooy’s average tally of 30 goals per season during his time at United would have easily been considered world class. And that’s before taking into account what would have been if not for a few untimely injuries. Even his single golden boot (in 2002/03 when United won the league and he racked up 43 goals in all competitions) should have been his second in consecutive seasons. Sir Alex Ferguson held him out of the final game of his debut season when he was only a goal behind Thierry Henry in the standings －to remind the scoring-obssessed Dutchman that goals at Manchester United mean little if they’re not in service of winning silverware.
Van Nistelrooy learned that lesson well, even if he didn’t leave United with the silverware that his talent deserved. Ruud may have played with some great players, but very rarely played in truly great teams. His time at United was one of transition, even if a team in transition under Ferguson still won a league or two. Roy Keane was in decline, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs were both figuring out how to adjust their games to new stages of their careers, and Juan Sebastian Veron (who arrived in the same summer as Ruud) was ultimately a disruption rather than an enhancement. The defense was straddling the eras of Schmeichel/Stam and van der Sar/Ferdinand/Vidic, and up front Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo were still raw pups. Only David Beckham could truly be said to be in his prime when van Nistelrooy was in his, and the former left for the Bernabeu in the middle of the latter’s spell at Old Trafford.
Van Nistelrooy left United under somewhat of a cloud. He fell out with Ferguson (now that does put him in illustrious company), and he was pushed out so that the reins could be handed to a new generation who would go on to define an era. Rooney and Ronaldo had to step out of van Nistelrooy’s shadow before they could step into the spotlight and realize their awesome potential, but their generational achievements should not lessen the brilliance of the man whose goals they replaced.
United had greater success after van Nistelrooy left, and football itself evolved beyond its reliance on a single target man and primary goalscorer. But for half a decade, Ruud van Nistelrooy was the man of the moment. In a flawed team unsure of its identity, surrounded by players looking either back or forward to their best years, Ruud just got on with it and did the thing that matters most: he scored goals.