When asked to discuss the greatest goalscorers of the Premier League era the same familiar names often crop up in conversation, but one name often overlooked is that of Ruud van Nistelrooy.
Perhaps it is because the Dutchman agonisingly fell short of hitting the fabled century of top flight goals required to earn countless television re-runs of his best moments, or that his five season spell in English football delivered just a solitary league title.
Whatever the reasoning may be, it misses the point that the Manchester United icon made goalscoring into an art form, his sole focus on providing himself with the best opportunity to hit the back of the net.
It proved to be an obsession.
Van Nistelrooy is one of, if not the best one-on-one finisher the Premier League has ever seen, a predatory poacher who came alive when within the width of opposition goal posts.
Van Nistelrooy’s record-breaking move to Old Trafford almost never happened, a proposed move to join the Premier League champions in 2000 collapsing over concerns over a knee problem. United pulled the plug on a British-record deal, their reservations justified just days later as Van Nistelrooy suffered an ACL injury that would keep him sidelined for a year.
Sir Alex Ferguson had not been prepared to splash a record outlay on just any player, however, the United boss having been left hugely impressed by a goalscoring record that had seen Van Nistelrooy score 62 goals in just 67 Eredivisie appearances for PSV Eindhoven.
Signings from the Dutch league are often fraught with danger as history will testify, but Ferguson was convinced of the goal poacher’s talents and following his recovery, Van Nistelrooy completed a £19m move to Old Trafford that briefly made him the most expensive player in British football history.
Van Nistelrooy’s career in English football began with an instant impression, scoring on his debut in the Community Shield defeat to Liverpool in Cardiff before netting twice on his full Premier League bow against Southampton.
Despite the impact of their summer signing, however, United began the season in disappointing fashion and by early December the reigning champions found themselves as low as ninth, a run of three consecutive defeats raising questions over their ability to challenge.
Just eight games later and the Red Devils were top of the division, courtesy of a record-breaking run of form from Van Nistelrooy. The Netherlands international set a new record of scoring in eight consecutive Premier League fixtures, a period of time which saw the forward net 14 times to take his season’s tally to a phenomenal 24 goals in just 25 starts.
United won each of the eight fixtures Van Nistelrooy scored in, assuming their place at the top of the Premier League on the back of their fine finisher from southern Holland.
Van Nistelrooy was thriving in England, but he was also starring on the biggest stage of all – the Champions League. The striker had taken to Europe’s elite competition brilliantly, scoring prolifically as United navigated both group stages of the tournament to reach the last eight.
Much of his best work came within the confines of the penalty-box, but to label Van Nistelrooy as nothing more than a tap-in merchant is misguided in the extreme.
Deceptively quick, powerful, and brilliantly adept at bringing teammates into play, Van Nistelrooy finished the 2001/02 season as both the leading scorer and assist provider in the Champions League as Ferguson’s side lost to Bayer Leverkusen on away goals in the last four.
United also surrendered their Premier League crown to an Arsenal side who completed a domestic double, a painful home defeat to the Gunners allowing Arsene Wenger’s side to celebrate the title at Old Trafford.
Van Nistelrooy finished the season having scored 36 goals in all competitions – 23 in the league to finish as runner-up for the Golden Boot – his performances acknowledged with the PFA Player’s Player of the Year award despite a trophy-less season for the Red Devils.
No foreign player had ever scored more in their debut season in the Premier League, whilst he remains the only player to be named as the PFA Player of the Year in their first season in English football.
If Van Nistelrooy’s first season at Manchester United had earned him instant hero status at Old Trafford, his second would set records tumbling and cement his place as one of the club’s finest forwards of the modern era.
Ferguson’s side once again began the season in indifferent fashion domestically and sat outside of the top four heading into late November, where a brilliant Van Nistelrooy hat-trick secured a thrilling 5-3 victory over top four rivals Newcastle to kickstart a run of four consecutive victories.
Back-to-back defeats over Christmas threatened to derail the club’s title hopes, though they would prove to be the final league losses of the season for a Red Devils side who went into overdrive over the second half of the season.
“Ruud was the best finisher, ever, but especially in one on one situations, just the keeper to beat. When Ruud was going through one on one, I never doubted him”
– Roy Keane
Thriving on expert deliveries from the likes of Ryan Giggs and particularly David Beckham, Van Nistelrooy scored at an unprecedented rate as United compiled an 18-game unbeaten run in the Premier League, whilst his goals were once again crucial to the club’s progression to the Champions League knock-out stages.
Despite United’s exit at the quarter-final stage to a Ronaldo-inspired Real Madrid, Van Nistelrooy once again finished as the tournament’s leading scorer, hitting a record 12 goals in the competition proper.
Similarly devastating domestically, he pipped long-term rival, Thierry Henry, to the Premier League’s Golden Boot following a 25-goal haul, a tally which crucially delivered championship success to Old Trafford once more.
Amongst those goals included a breathtaking individual effort against Fulham, Van Nistelrooy running from inside his own half and beating four Cottager’s defenders before slotting home as part of a sensational hat-trick.
He finished the season having scored 44 goals in all competitions – a figure which remains the most prolific season of any player in the history of the Premier League.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 6, 2020
Van Nistelrooy was firmly established as the talisman for United and was similarly productive the following campaign, hitting 30 goals in all competitions despite the summer departure of chief supplier David Beckham to Real Madrid.
Arguably the most notable incident of the Dutchman’s season came during a titanic tussle with title rivals Arsenal at Old Trafford, however, missing a crucial late penalty during a goalless draw with the north London side.
The aftermath of that miss saw the Gunners’ players – incensed by Van Nistelrooy’s earlier role in Patrick Vieira’s sending off – surround the striker, Martin Keown’s particularly zealous celebrations sparking an on-field melee between the two sets of players.
United lost their grip on the title to the aforementioned north Londoners who completed a famed unbeaten season, though solace was found in the form of the FA Cup – Van Nistelrooy scoring twice in the final victory over second tier Millwall in Cardiff.
Those campaigns were perhaps the peak of Van Nistelrooy’s years in the Premier League, as the following year saw him make just 17 league appearances in an injury-interrupted campaign, whilst his status as the club’s undeniable key man was under threat from the emerging Cristiano Ronaldo and summer signing Wayne Rooney.
Redemption came in the form of another penalty-kick against Arsenal, the forward slamming home to seal a 2-0 victory for United in late-October, a result which ended the record 49-game unbeaten run of their rivals and wrote a new chapter into an ever-growing rivalry of hatred and intensity.
The arrival of Ronaldo, in particular, had, however, led to a change in the happiness and productivity of the star, the youngster’s penchant for showboating, tricks and holding onto the ball in stark contrast to the early, pinpoint deliveries served up by Beckham.
Despite scoring a hugely respectable 24 goals in all competitions, a widely-reported falling out with the Portuguese winger led to his Old Trafford exit at the end of the 2005/06 season, Van Nistelrooy frustrated and agitated by Ronaldo’s continued showmanship.
The bust-up largely surfaced because of the former’s obsessive nature in scoring goals but led to a sad departure for a player who had become a hero in the red half of Manchester, sold on to Real Madrid for a paltry fee of just £10.5m.
“Van Nistelrooy was the most devastating finisher I have ever played with. We could win a game by three or four goals but, if he hadn’t scored, he would sulk. But in order to become a world-beating striker like Ruud, you need to have that attitude. He lived and breathed goals. I tried to make him stay through speaking to his agent but it was too late. One of the big disappointments in my time at Manchester United was seeing the club let him go.”
– Rio Ferdinand.
He finished as Spain’s leading scorer during his debut season and hit 64 goals in just 96 appearances at the Bernabeu, later enjoying brief spells at Hamburg and Malaga as his career wound down amid a succession of injury problems.
His peak, undoubtedly, was that glorious five-year stint in English football, however, where Premier League fans were treated to the very best of one of the finest forwards of his generation.
Van Nistelrooy’s Manchester United record stands at an incredible 150 goals in just 219 appearances, whilst only Lionel Messi can better his goal-per-game record in the Champions League era, the Dutchman finishing as the tournament’s leading scorer three times in just four seasons during his time at United.
Goals win games and there have been few better at finding the net than Van Nistelrooy, a clinical and predatory forward with an insatiable desire to score.
Circumstances have dictated he may not get the same acclaim as many of his contemporaries, but if we were reliant on a chance falling to one man, there would be few forwards higher up our list.