Ruud van Nistelrooy yet to catch fire for Malaga


Ruud van Nistelrooy has returned for his second spell in La Liga with ever-improving Malaga. In the opening five games the Dutch centre-forward has been first choice under Coach Manuel Pellegrini, but his failure to hit the net poses the question whether the 35-year-old’s ageing legs can still meet the challenging expectations of ambitious owner Abdullah Al-Thani.

Despite the promising start, it will concern Manuel Pellegrini that none of his designated strikers – Van Nistelrooy, Julio Baptista, Isco, Rondon and Sebastian Fernandez – have rippled the net: indeed, four clean sheets in five games suggest Malaga owe their current top six place to a much improved defensive unit. Meanwhile, in midfield the expensively assembled trio of Santi Cazorla, Jeremy Toulalan and Joaquin have begun to repay the €36.2m investment made in them by Al-Thani.

With the Dutchman leading the line focus naturally turns towards his uncharacteristically slow start in a Boquerones shirt. No goals from five games represents the striker’s worst start to a season in his whole career. Pellegrini has shown plenty of faith in the forward but with Van Nistelrooy spending progressively less time on the pitch (substituted in the 70th, 63rd and 55th minutes) his patience is wearing thin.

There is a need to be realistic that at 35 there is only so much left in his first-choice centre-forward’s tank. Inevitably in recent seasons the veteran’s goal-per-game ratio has declined:

At his best the former Manchester United and Real Madrid striker was as fearsome a goal machine as any in Europe. Throughout his career he has averaged between three and five shots at goal per game: at Malaga he has only mustered two per game. The instinctive positioning remains but in his 19th season of professional football the accumulative wear and tear has reduced his goal threat.

It can be argued however that Van Nistelrooy’s influence at Malaga goes beyond what he produces in the opposition’s penalty box. When he signed in June, sporting director Antonio Fernandez told him: ”These are the targets, these are the players we want to go for. You are the first one and you are really important for us.”

The capture of the internationally recognised striker served to illustrate that the Andalusian club was a credible destination for the likes of the sought-after Cazorla. Similarly his experience and hold-up play allows him to function as a pivot for his midfield teammates. Speaking, however, after the opening day defeat to Sevilla, Van Nistelrooy highlighted his partnership with Rondon as an example of how the influx of players had yet to fully gel.

“We’ve played one game and it’s a shame,” he lamented. “In pre-season we didn’t play any games together and this was the first time we have been together on the pitch. We have trained just as a pair and right now we haven’t found a balance.”

In accepting Malaga’s offer, Van Nistelrooy admitted that he was “really struck by the project” which comes with “care and vision.” Unless he quickly finds his shooting boots, it is likely that he will play a diminishing role in the fulfilment of that vision.

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