No striker wants 'super sub' label
With 50 minutes gone against Aston Villa last week, Manchester United looked dead and buried. It was one of the poorest United displays I've seen for a long, long while and while Villa deserved credit for taking advantage, Sir Alex Ferguson's players were toothless, spineless - everything you don't expect from one of his sides. Then a little Mexican by the name of Javier Hernandez burst into life.
Hernandez kick-started United's game and inspired an impressive turnaround to pull the game out of the fire for the Premier League leaders.
After promising so much in his debut season at Old Trafford, Hernandez had a really ordinary six months through to the end of last season - he wasn't playing much and when he did he was missing chances. But Sir Alex pulled him out of Mexico's Olympic squad and, though he would have been disappointed to miss out on winning a gold medal, the extra rest and time in pre-season with United is really paying dividends now. He looks full of confidence again, like the player that first broke into the United side two years ago who was scoring goals for fun.
Sir Alex said after the Villa match that Hernandez will be in from the start against Norwich after rescuing them. He pledged to the lad on air publicly that he will play - that's how good he's been, how important he's been, which will boost his confidence still further. One of the problems when you're at a club like Manchester United is that when the quality runs so deep through the squad, there are always going to be world-class players left sitting on the bench. Players who would find themselves walking straight into another team find themselves not playing for weeks on end. That's how and why United stay at the top, that competition for places and hunger that exists between the players. Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie will recognise that Hernandez is a serious threat to them. He's not just some kid - he's a lad who is a proven goalscorer, who is showing what ability he has when given the chance.
It will be interesting to see how Sir Alex accommodates Hernandez in his starting line-up. I imagine he will play him, Rooney and Van Persie altogether. That really is a frightening trio, one that rivals the Rooney-Ronaldo-Tevez trinity that helped United lift the Champions League in 2008. Add in Danny Welbeck as well - an England international who is a fourth-choice striker at his club - and you have an enviable set of attacking options. I managed teams against that Rooney-Ronaldo-Tevez combination and it was tough going. You could keep one, maybe two, quiet but you run out of quality players to mark them. You didn't know which one would provide the threat on any given day, but you were certain at least one would, and if it was a day when all three were on song... well, you were in trouble.
It's tough keeping all these players happy and it means that Welbeck and Hernandez in particular must grasp any starting opportunities that come their way with both hands. We've seen Hernandez at United, and Edin Dzeko at Manchester City, given the 'super-sub' tag in recent weeks and as a striker I can honestly say that it the last thing you want to be known as. The only way of getting rid of the label is by doing the business from the start when given the chance and we've seen at City that, although Dzeko is unhappy with being the bench so often, there's just no denying that when he's started games he's not looked anything like the threat he has when he's come on.
I played with David Fairclough, perhaps one of the most famous 'super-subs', when I was at Liverpool and try as he might he just couldn't get in the team on a regular basis. He was coming on as a sub and getting goals but whenever he was handed a start, he didn't make enough impact to stay in there. The most common explanation of this from the players is that match fitness is so hard to come by. When coming on as a sub you can explode around the field because there's only 15 or 20 minutes left, but if you haven't played for two or three weeks - or in David's case back then, six or eight weeks - of course you are going to be a bit rusty if you are expected to play from the off. Any professional footballer will tell you that replicating match fitness in training is difficult, nigh on impossible. More than that, if you're known for being a sub, you've almost got to come in and not just hold your place but be the best player out there to hang on to your spot. It's tough.
As a manager, I remember Darren Huckerby was one player I would call on a lot off the bench for Manchester City. His pace was a real asset late on in games against tiring defences - he was very direct and caused problems with his fresh legs. I wouldn't necessarily call him a super-sub but he could change a game for you. Understandably the players don't like it as they want to play and I ended up selling Darren twice - once for Newcastle, once for Manchester City - because the guy was good enough to play in a lot of teams but in my opinion not quite good enough to hold down a regular place among the players I had at my teams then.
It will be interesting to see if Hernandez takes his chance for United and, if he does play alongside Rooney and Van Persie, it's probably not going to be a fun evening for Norwich's defence on Saturday. The football at Carrow Road this season has been a bit more pragmatic under Chris Hughton and it was great to see them turn a corner recently after a tricky start. Chris seems to have managed to get the players and fans to forget the fact that Paul Lambert had a different approach and now it is his team, playing his way, and getting results. The victory over Arsenal a few weeks ago was a real watershed moment for this Norwich side, which no-one expected, and Sir Alex will be fully aware that United risk ending up with egg on their faces if they underestimate their opponents.
One of Chris' major contributions at Norwich has been improving the defence. They have kept four clean sheets already this season which is one more than they managed in the whole of last season. It is down in no small part to the two centre-backs, Sebastien Bassong and Michael Turner, who are now gelling after struggling a bit initially. I know all about Bassong having brought him to England when I was at Newcastle. He was an absolute bargain buy at £500,000 and I had only watched him train once but knew he would be well suited to the Premier League.
He was one of the few transfers that the Newcastle board actually sanctioned for me during that period - I told them we just couldn't turn this kid down. We only had him for a week of pre-season and he didn't look out of place, a big physical lad who could handle the rough and tumble of English football. I was a bit surprised things didn't go well for him at Spurs, but they had a real glut of centre-backs at that time which was a little unfortunate. At Norwich, though, he's been playing every week and seems to have developed a good partnership with Turner, who was in a similar position at Sunderland, not really playing regularly. Both lads are really solid Premier league centre-backs and really good additions for Chris - they are experienced and have the makings of a good partnership. They will definitely need to be just that against United!
Up front has been where Norwich have had a bit of difficulty and eight goals in 11 games isn't too encouraging. Grant Holt was unsettled at the start of the season and it looked like he would leave and follow Paul Lambert to Villa. He put in a transfer request so his concentration was probably not fully on playing for Norwich and he is not the sort of player who can get away with only putting half his efforts into something. He's a handful, difficult to play against, which is exemplified by the fact he's scored against Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea this season. He seems to be getting his mind back on Norwich now and is starting to look better, which is a bonus for the club.
When United come to Carrow Road on Saturday, I think Norwich know that in order to get any result they will need to be at their best and the visitors will need to be below par. United are just starting to look like the real deal again and I think they are championship-winning material. They've only been top of the league three times after 11 games before and they won the title in each of those seasons. United are traditionally better after Christmas, too, which is an ominous sign for Manchester City, Chelsea and the rest of the Premier League.