Ruud van Nistelrooy was often labelled a one-trick pony at Manchester United, but to do so is to misunderstand his brilliance.
Goalhangers. You’ll find one in every game of Wembley knockouts, standing as close as they can to goal, waiting for a loose ball they can scuff or toe-poke past the goalkeeper to advance to the next round.
That kid is universally loathed: the more skillful and dedicated players have to do all the running and chasing, only to see the ball put away by some lazy chancer – or “scavving it”, as we called it at my school in the north-west of England.
I’m not sure whether it’s out of residual hatred from the playground games where the offside rule doesn’t apply, or simply because they are prone to contributing nothing until the ball finds its way into the box, but we seem not to appreciate these players in the professional game.
We tend not to call them goalhangers at that level, of course; upon graduating from the academy they are officially upgraded to ‘poacher’, and then once they have 50 or so goals under their belts they get promoted again to ‘out-and-out striker’ status.
Think Gary Lineker. Think Miroslav Klose. Think Javier Hernandez. Think Ruud van Nistelrooy.
Watching back through footage of Van Nistelrooy’s performances leaves you questioning whether he even knew there was another 80 yards or so available for him to play in. For many of his goals he plays absolutely no part in the build-up and isn’t even visible in shot until the very last second, when he pounces with a simple finish.
If he had been playing 10 years later, Van Nistelrooy would be the poster boy for xG fanatics. The way he deals with through balls, for instance, is fascinating.
When running onto a ball in what appears to be a perfect striking position – the kind of territory from which Alan Shearer would unleash a top-corner blast or Thierry Henry would open up his body to curl to the far corner – Van Nistelrooy would take one, two, three more touches, pushing himself as close to the byline as he can get.
Sometimes this means he seems to be heading nowhere, driving forward to what seems like an impossible angle, only to suddenly surprise the goalkeeper with a sudden toe-poke across goal, or a little in-swinger to the near post with the outside of his foot.
More often, though, Van Nistelrooy’s goals for Manchester United were the result of Ryan Giggs or David Beckham simply looking up for any space around 10 yards from goal and sticking it there.
It hardly seemed to matter where Van Nistelrooy was at the time they played the cross, or how many defenders were around him. If they put it there, he would get to it first.
It’s such a ridiculously simple method that it seems like it can’t possibly work: get as close as you possibly can to goal and poke it in. It’s a 12-year-old’s conception of good forward play. But damn it was effective.
As the most successful side in England over the past 25 years, Manchester United has been home to some of the finest strikers this country has seen in recent decades, but Van Nistelrooy’s goalscoring record trumps all of them.
The Dutchman scored more Premier League goals (95) than any United player except all-time record goalscorer Wayne Rooney, and has a better goals-per-game ratio than any other player (0.63).
Van Nistelrooy’s first three seasons saw him score at least 30 goals in all competitions, and he scored at least 20 goals in each of his five Premier League seasons except 2004-05, when he played just 17 games due to injury.
Broadening the comparison out to the whole Premier League, Van Nistelrooy’s minutes-per-goal return (128.2) is better than everyone bar Sergio Aguero (106 minutes per goal at the time of writing), Thierry Henry (121.8), and, weirdly, Adam Le Fondre (124.3).
As we all heard ad infinitum last season, Van Nistelrooy also set the Premier League record for scoring in consecutive games (10) in 2003.
Jamie Vardy has, of course, since broken that record, but it took Lionel Messi to break Van Nistelrooy’s record-equalling run of scoring in seven consecutive La Liga games, which he achieved with Real Madrid in 2007.
His record at the Bernabeu was even better than in England, as he scored 46 goals in 68 La Liga games for Los Merengues, closing off his career before one-year spells at Hamburg and Malaga.
All this, mind you, after overcoming a devastating anterior cruciate ligament injury that kept him out for a year and delayed his move to Old Trafford in the first place.
So with such a prolific record, why isn’t Van Nistelrooy rated higher than he is?
Part of it is the goalhanger thing; as with Michael Owen and even with Sergio Aguero, we find it difficult to definitively assess players whose only contribution is their goals, rather than their all-around work ethic or fabulous link-up play.
Another factor is that he’s simply a difficult man to warm to. He developed a reputation among rival fans for play-acting and complaining to the referee, best exemplified in the infamous goalless draw with Arsenal towards the beginning of the Gunners’ 2003-04 Invincibles season.
Van Nistelrooy so antagonised the Arsenal players throughout the game – particularly with a bit of histrionics that resulted in Patrick Vieira being sent off – that his penalty miss in injury time prompted Martin Keown to go utterly bananas with mocking glee.
His propensity for winding people up also reared its head on the training ground. Towards the end of the 2005-06 season, the Dutchman was continually frustrated by Cristiano Ronaldo’s delays in crossing the ball as it left him second-guessing his runs.
After Van Nistelrooy kicked out at Ronaldo following one of their frequent training ground arguments, Rio Ferdinand retaliated in kind on the young Portuguese’s behalf, causing Van Nistelrooy to swing a wayward punch in Ferdinand’s direction. Van Nistelrooy was sold to Real Madrid just weeks later.
The biggest factor, though, may simply be that for all his brilliance, Van Nistelrooy was just around at the wrong time. He arrived just too late to be part of the treble-winning Cole-Yorke-Solskjaer-Sheringham combos, but just too soon for the sensational Rooney-Ronaldo-Tevez front line.
The five years either side of Van Nistelrooy’s time at Old Trafford yielded eight league titles in total, but during the Dutchman’s own five-year spell, they won it just once.
If only Van Nistelrooy were 15 years younger…