As we all know, timing is the most important thing for good comedy. Equally, timing is also the most important thing for good schadenfreude. When you really need to laugh at someone else’s misfortune, to really take joy in their misery, really lift your mood as they are ground into the dirt, you need them to be at their lowest ebb.
Javier Hernandez seems to know that. On Saturday, at the same time as Manchester United were shambling to their latest dispiriting result in Louis van Gaal’s travelling theatre of the indifferent, the man named after a small vegetable was banging in a treble, all inside 13 minutes. It was, as erstwhile F365 man Andi Thomas noted, perhaps the world’s first ever sarcastic hat-trick.
Those were his 15th, 16th and 17th goals of the season for Bayer Leverkeusen (he’s since added an 18th), the club United sold him to in the summer, and his 15th in 12 games. Hernandez scored as many goals in 13 minutes as United’s remaining strikers have managed in the last 12 games. By that point on Saturday Hernandez was merely joining in a chorus started by James Wilson, the young whelp also discarded (albeit temporarily) by Van Gaal, who had bagged his second in two games since signing for Brighton on loan.
This caused a sustained bout of hand-wringing from some United fans, their moods hit with some gusto by an unfortunately-timed message from an ex, the memory of what Hernandez had once been etched across their brains as the latest collection of bumbling buffoons showed in the starkest of terms what this United team have now become. Why did United not keep him?’ some have cried. Look at this now, with the player who used to score goals now scoring goals for someone else, while United aren’t scoring goals. What an egregious error by Van Gaal to let this ace marksman go!
Of course logically this is a certain amount of nonsense, and hindsight at its most crystal clear. The decision to let Hernandez go, firstly on loan to Real Madrid last season and then permanently to Bayer this, didn’t seem an unreasonable one at the time. In his final campaign at Old Trafford he had scored just four goals in the league, and for a player who offers little other than finishing, it wasn’t particularly worth keeping him around. And would he have been much use in Van Gaal’s system? It’s not as if United are missing a whole bunch of simple chances: they aren’t really creating any opportunities, so having someone whose only value is finishing them does seem like a minor waste of time.
The frustration is understandable, though. Hernandez, along with players like Robin van Persie, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and the bloke Wayne Rooney used to be, then going back to Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, provides a reminder of United’s former self. Not the greatest team of Sir Alex Ferguson’s time, but still one that won the league, and one capable of playing interesting football, at least in comparison to the current lot. Even Nani, the source of perpetual irritation when he was at United, seems like a beacon from a bygone era, a shining light of creativity that burns brighter with each passing tedious performance.
The logic of letting him go still doesn’t mean that Hernandez doesn’t represent a mistake, too. Hernandez said recently that Van Gaal told him he had a “1%” chance of playing under him, this despite having barely actually seen him in action. Hernandez played a total of 135 competitive minutes under Van Gaal, 90 of them the debacle in Milton Keynes last season, and with that he was done, over, hands washed. It does seem a little off for a manager to simply clear out a player he knows little about.
Of course the biggest error wasn’t quite as much getting rid of the diminutive Mexican, more simply not replacing him. Getting rid of an underperforming player is fine, quite obviously, but that’s assuming you have someone else to come in. Since the end of last season United have got rid of Radamel Falcao, Van Persie, Wilson and Hernandez, bringing in only Anthony Martial. Hernandez no longer seemed like the the striker he was, but he’s better than nothing. Or Rooney, as he’s also sometimes called.
This is another example of the apparently confused thinking that Van Gaal has been guilty of: selling Hernandez with nobody else coming in, baffling substitutions, waiting until taking Marouane Fellaini off to try long balls against Bournemouth, seemingly not having faith in a youngster like Wilson but happy to throw someone like Cameron Borthwick-Jackson in ahead of Ashley Young or Paddy McNair.
The real kicker is that Hernandez was probably rightly let go, no longer quite good enough for United and their ambitions, and yet still better than most of the options that they have at the moment. In the end, it’s not really about Hernandez himself, but what he represents. A lack of clear thinking, a stubbornness, and above all frustration. And lord knows United fans have enough of that at the moment.