“He is a great goalscorer but a poor footballer.” These were supposedly the words of Dutch legend Johan Cruyff when discussing the qualities of his compatriot Ruud van Nistelrooy.
The quote is difficult to find in its original context and some sources suggest Cruyff actually said it in reference to Filippo Inzaghi, but it is nonetheless indicative of a perception of van Nistelrooy that was prevalent during his career and has persisted in the years since his retirement. Football purists have always been quick to damn the Dutch striker with faint praise – to acknowledge his skill as a finisher but qualify it with criticism of his overall play.
Van Nistelrooy is the sixth highest scorer of all time for the Netherlands, averaging a goal every two games over his international career, and yet the general perception is that he was never in the same league as the other players on that list. Dutch football journalist Ron de Ryk said of van Nistelrooy, when the striker was in his prime in 2004: “I think Patrick Kluivert is a better footballer but not as good a goalscorer. Kluivert does things in a more sophisticated way … van Nistelrooy is only worried about the ball going in.”
It is tempting to assume that there is a bit of misplaced snobbery tied up in this view of van Nistelrooy, and the idea that he was nothing more than a tap-in artist does him a huge disservice – he was for a sustained period one of the undisputed top strikers in the world, and should be remembered and cherished as such.
He was, of course, a goalscorer at heart, and his career statistics in this regard are truly exceptional. At club level he scored 347 goals in 589 appearances, an average of a goal every 0.59 games. This in itself is a very respectable goal to game ratio, better than Robin van Persie (0.47), Dennis Bergkamp (0.38) and Patrick Kluivert (0.43). However, this figure takes into account his much less productive spells at Hamburg and Málaga, when injuries had taken their toll, and he was nowhere near the player he had once been. At his peak, the figures are truly remarkable. At Manchester United, he was averaging 0.68 goals per game and at Real Madrid (0.64) and PSV Eindhoven (0.78) the numbers are similarly impressive.
Van Nistelrooy was no flat-track bully either. He regularly scored goals in important games against the top sides – just ask Arsenal – and his record in the Champions League is nothing short of phenomenal. He is the fourth highest scorer in that competition on 56 goals, only behind Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Raúl. Furthermore, no one has a better goal to game ratio than the Dutchman in Europe’s premier competition – Lionel Messi is level on 0.77 and Cristiano Ronaldo is lagging some way behind on 0.7. Despite never winning the competition, or even reaching a final, he finished as top scorer in the 2001-02, 02-03, and 04-05 seasons.
But it is impossible to get a true sense of the player van Nistelrooy was by merely looking at the figures – he was, much more than he is often given credit for, a scorer of great goals as well as a great scorer of goals.
It is probably for his spell at Manchester United that the striker is best remembered, and it was at Old Trafford indisputably that he was at his peak. The 2001-05 van Nistelrooy was one of the most complete strikers the Premier League has ever seen, combining fearsome pace and power with intelligent movement and, of course, unerring finishing ability. He could play with his back to goal or run in behind, could head the ball and was comfortable shooting with both feet. He was also excellent at bringing his team-mates into play, finishing the 2001-02 Champions League season with more assists than any other player in the competition.
Technically, van Nistelrooy was outstanding. Like his compatriots, Marco van Basten and Robin van Persie, his technique when volleying the ball was something to behold, and his control in the area was exceptional, always giving him that extra half-second to reposition his body before finishing.
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Read | Filippo Inzaghi: the jilted poacher who conquered Europe
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During the 2002-03 season he was in truly majestic form, scoring 44 goals in 52 appearances, including 25 in the Premiership and a quite remarkable 14 in Europe, despite Manchester United bowing out in the quarter-finals to Real Madrid. And it was during this season that he scored arguably the finest goal of his career, the second in a hat-trick against Fulham at Old Trafford. Van Nistelrooy picked up the ball just inside his own half, used his strength to hold off a challenge, then dribbled past four Fulham players in a display of remarkable pace and close control, before finishing with a sensational piece of skill, turning, controlling and shooting all in one fluid movement.
The next season was similarly productive for the former PSV Eindhoven striker, who scored 30 goals in 44 appearances, including two in the FA Cup final. However, the following season was in many ways the beginning of the end for van Nistelrooy’s Manchester United career, with the emergence of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, coupled with the Dutchman’s increasing injury problems, limiting his playing time and dampening his influence on the side. He would return to score a very respectable 24 goals in the 2005-06 season, but was effectively forced out of the club following a bitter row with Sir Alex Ferguson after the manager left him on the bench for the League Cup final, and he was sold that summer to Real Madrid for a mere £10.5 million.
In his first season at the Bernabéu, he won the Pichichi, the prize awarded to La Liga’s top scorer, scoring 33 goals in all competitions as Real Madrid secured the title. However, this would be arguably the final season of his peak years, and his appearances and goals started to wane from then onwards, especially after the damaging knee injury he suffered at the beginning of the 2008-09 season, with the subsequent operation forcing him to spend a lengthy spell on the sidelines.
Van Nistelrooy never quite recovered from that injury, but his time at Hamburg, whom he joined in January 2010 aged 33, was still fairly productive, and he scored 17 goals over two injury-disrupted campaigns in Germany, before leaving for a final swansong at Málaga.
It seems a strange thing to say about a player who scored nearly 400 goals for club and country, but there remains a slight air of dissatisfaction with the way van Nistelrooy’s career panned out – a sense that he could have been even better than he was. After that season in 2002-03, when he was almost unplayable for Manchester United, the feeling was that he could go on to achieve virtually anything in his career and that, at only 26, he would continue to improve for at least another two or three seasons. However, while he remained an excellent elite-level striker for four or five years afterwards, he never quite reached those heights again, and his problems with injury were undoubtedly a huge contributing factor.
Nevertheless, this shouldn’t take away from the fact that van Nistelrooy was a truly outstanding player, not just a great goalscorer but a fine footballer as well, and one of the most wonderfully talented strikers of his generation. His talents were too rich, and his goals were too beautiful for him to be remembered as merely a goal-poacher.
A tap-in artist would never have scored the goal that van Nistelrooy scored against Fulham, or the sumptuous outside-of-the-boot volley he scored for Real Madrid against Valencia in 2006. Ultimately, he should be remembered as one of the finest Dutch strikers of all time, alongside Patrick Kluivert and Marco van Basten, and as one of the most complete strikers that English football has ever seen.
By Nick Fitzgerald. Follow @Fij99