Month July 2010

Month July 2010

Chichonomics

Ed July 30, 2010 Tags: Opinion 18 comments

Could Manchester United’s acquisition of Mexican striker Javier Hernandez provide a financial boost to the debt-ridden club, with million’s of Hispanics turning away from Barcelona and Real Madrid to proffer their football love (and money) on Sir Alex Ferguson’s team? Perhaps, although probably not in the way it is often reported.

It has long-been the critical refrain of United’s detractors – both internal and external – that the club has sought a marketing benefit from player purchases as much, if not more, than performances on the pitch.

After all, the law of received wisdom tells us that Chinese player Dong Fangzou was bought not for his ability – it turns out he had little – but for the potential to tap into the spending power of one billion Chinese.

Similar arguments are made about United’s far less hapless but no less loved South Korean midfielder Park Ji-Sung, for whom a legion of millions stay up way beyond bedtime to catch the occasional glimpse of the 28-year-old in action on Korean TV each weekend.

Repeat law for US, Irish, Argentinean, Italian, African and perhaps, although unlikely, Scouse players it is said. The globalisation of football, this received knowledge says, is a gold mine to the club, with new found friends happily parting with Won, Dollar, Kroner, Rupee and Groat to wear the club colours, buy United Callypso on polyphonic ringtone and download a wallpaper.

The effect of Hernandez’ financial magic dust will surely be felt in Mexico and the wider Latin world too?

Indeed, the excitement generated among Mexican supporters – perhaps even more so second generation fans – by Chicharito’s appearance in a United shirt is palpable. The striker’s debut against an MLS All Star Xi in Houston on Wednesday night was met with fervor not experienced on any leg of United’s North American tour to that point.

The baying hordes so associated with the club’s tours of Asia had largely stayed away from United’s trips to Toronto, Philadelphia and Kansas City, via a charity diversion in New York. Not so Houston, with the new striker’s 30 minute cameo and well-taken goal met with a frenzied response in the packed 70,000 capacity Reliant Stadium.

The challenge for United’s management, however, stems from the apparent separation between fandom and revenue generation in overseas markets. It is one the club is slowing beginning to address.

The passion with which United is held in Asia is undoubtedly a boon to the club, although until recently largely unmonetisable. After all, much against common wisdom but a reality nonetheless, there are very few ways in which football clubs – even those as famous as United – can generate cash from its supporters, especially away from the club’s core domestic market.

Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, clubs generate cash from ticket sales. About a third of United’s £279 million revenue in 2009 came from ticket sales. It’s a cash cow the Glazer regime has milked of course, with aggregate ticket prices rising by 48 per cent during the family’s five year tenure at Old Trafford.

Then there are broadcast rights, which United sells collectively to both domestic and overseas markets with the other 19 Premier League clubs. As a successful team, finishing each Premier League season within the top three to date, United garners a larger share of the pot from appearance and success fees than most other teams. It’s a reward for both success on the field and popularity off it, although the disparity between top and bottom earners in England is far less than say in Spain where Barcelona and Real Madrid account for 90 per cent of all broadcast income.

Thirdly, the club makes around another 30 per cent of its annual income from commercial enterprises, including sponsorship and merchandise sales. Within this block Aon, the US-based risk-management firm who paid the club a reported £80 million over four years for shirt sponsorship, and Nike whose £315 million shirt production deal runs to 2015, are the principal partners.

While millions of supporters garnered from overseas markets is a headline-grabber, the percentage contribution to the club’s bottom line is in fact minimal. After all broadcast rights are sold collectively, fans in many markets – more than 90 per cent according to the best guestimates – buy only counterfeit goods if any at all, and the much lauded digital content markets offer almost no incremental revenue streams yet.

In fact the real boon to United’s commercial activity is not from individual fans’ spending per se but the brand association commercial partners garner from the country-specific exclusive partnerships the club has struck over the past 18 months. Ed Woodward’s London-based commercial team has inked a claimed £200 million worth of such deals in the past year – albeit with the benefits spread over many seasons – including sponsorship arrangements with Turkish Airlines, Singha Beer, and Collo y Toro wines.

Hernandez’ acquisition is unlikely to create any significant direct revenue streams though. Shirt sales may well increase in Latin markets, but it’s doubtful that it’ll be at a rate that will herald any relevant increase in turnover. More Mexican supporters may tune into Premier League games, but with broadcast rights fixed for the next three years and sold collectively the other 19 Premier League clubs will benefit just as much as Ferguson’s outfit. United may even benefit from the occasion day-tripping Mexican tourist, although it is unlikely to fill the empty spaces at Old Trafford.

Where the Little Pea’s impact is more likely to be felt by the Old Trafford bean counters – aside from his inevitable sale to Real Madrid cynics might add – is in a new addressable Latin American market for the aforementioned commercial partnerships.

Expect to see Chicharito’s baby-face adorning giant billboards in Mexico City some time soon.

It’s a market unsurprisingly cornered by Real Madrid and Barcelona to date but with the poster boy of Mexican football now firmly on the club’s roster, both Ferguson and the Glazers may have equal reason to hope he hits the ground running come August.

* with sincere apologies to Levitt and Dubner

Ferguson misses point as he hits out at fans and lauds Glazers

Ed July 29, 2010 Tags: , Opinion 80 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson has once again brought himself into conflict with supporters angry at the Glazer family’s ownership of Manchester United. The Scot, true to this line for more than five years, has defended the Americans while denying that the club’s financial problems have had any impact on the United’s transfer market strategy this summer.

Ferguson, whose sole nod towards protesting fans is to say that every supporter “has the right” to air their views, has consistently backed the Glazer family despite the club’s £716.5 million debt.

Instead, the legendary United manager has blamed a “lack of value” in the transfer market for United’s limited investment over the past two years. Since the club sold Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid for £80 million, Ferguson has bought Antonio Valencia, Gabriel Obertan, Mame Biram Diouf, Javier Hernandez and Chris Smalling for a total investment of just under £40 million.

However, this expenditure falls well short of the Glazer family’s original business model.The Americans promised a net spend of £25 million per season following their 2005 acquisition but figures suggest that United’s activity is significantly below that level. Indeed, the club has invested £192.7 million but recouped £170.95 million over the past five years for a annualised net transfer spend of just £4.35 million.

Despite this fact Ferguson claims that the Glazer family has always supported him in the transfer market.

“They [the Glazers] have done their job well. They support myself and they’ve supported the players. I’ve never been refused when I’ve asked for money for a player,” said Ferguson yesterday.

“What can I do other than carry on the way we’re doing it, and the way I’m allowed to carry on? I’ve no complaints.”

Ferguson also believes that the Glazers remain blameless for United’s financial position, with a leveraged sale inevitable once the club had floated on the stock market in 1991.

“When Manchester United Football Club went PLC, without doubt it was always going to be bought. So it’s unfair that, because a particular family like the Glazers have bought the club, they should come under criticism when anybody could have bought it,” claimed Ferguson in Houston yesterday.

“The debt has come through the club being bought out by an owner. No matter which business is bought nowadays, it’s usually bought with debt. But because it’s a football club, it seems to attract a different type of negative reporting via the media or particularly some of our fans.”

It’s a claim that has almost no factual accuracy though, with PLC status no more a guarantee of inevitable sale than limited company status ensures a club will remain off the market. Indeed, had JP McManus and John Magnier refused to sell their 30 per cent stake in the club at £3 per share in May 2005 United would quite possibly remain a PLC today.

Moreover, the debt-free acquisitions of Chelsea, Manchester City and Aston Villa during recent season belies the claim that almost all buyouts are leveraged in some form. After all, had the Glazers actually been able to raise the price of the club themselves, the family would not have borrowed 100 per cent of the purchase price from the banks and hedge funds.

But Ferguson goes further in explaining his lack of activity in the market, claiming that fans do not want the club to spend large fees on acquiring new players, such as the top class midfielder the squad so desperately lacks.

“The enormous amounts of money that are paid, not just for the transfer fees, but for salaries; I don’t think it rests easy with supporters,”

“But we’re in such a competitive world that you’re hamstrung. Over the years, we’ve bought players for quite high amounts like Berbatov, Ferdinand, Veron and Rooney, but we try to equate how we’re going to get the proper value before we do it.”

It’s an odd statement from Ferguson, who risks being accused of hypocrisy having broken the British transfer record on no less than six occasions during his 23 year tenure at Old Trafford. Even at £27 million, few fans would argue that Rooney, for example, does not represent value. The Scouse striker almost single-handedly kept United in the Premier League title hunt last season.

This is the point Ferguson does not get – at Old Trafford value used to be a factor of success. Today it is about the absolute price.

Yet, it is almost impossible given the club’s heavy spending on debt interest, management fees and the Glazers’ dividends that Ferguson could buy the next Rooney, if the player’s cost is more than £10-15 million, let alone £30 million

Confirmation of this appears to come with United passing on the opportunity to buy the brilliant young Germany Mesut Özil. The player, who Ferguson tried to sign in 2008, surely represents the epitome of value in the market, costing just £12 million at 21 years of age.

Ferguson’s midfield dilemma

Toby Coughlin July 29, 2010 Tags: , Opinion 21 comments

Manchester United’s play last season was characterised by two things: a rigid 4-5-1 formation and Wayne Rooney’s unstoppable performances. Unstoppable, it seemed, until injuries at the tail-end of the season and then his lacklustre performances in South Africa. It leaves Sir Alex Ferguson facing a dilemma this summer.

The 4-5-1 formation relies heavily on Rooney’s goals, who worked for much of the season in tandem with Antonio Valencia and Nani on his way to an impressive 34 goals in all competitions. It seemed that when the Scouser was playing well good results followed suit. Fans will be worried, however, that Rooney may suffer a recurrence of the minor knocks which plagued the end of last season.

This concern is greatly magnified by United’s dependence on 4-5-1, a system which completely fails to accommodate Rooney’s back-up, Dimitar Berbatov. Sadly for Sir Alex, the Bulgarian striker can only play alongside another goalscorer as he did with former team-mates Robbie Keane and Oliver Neuville.

The reasonable solution, therefore, is for Ferguson to play 4-4-2 when Rooney is injured or rested, with Berbatov and Michael Owen or Javier Hernández up front in the Scouser’s absence

However, this reality brings another problem to the fore and that is the weakness of United’s central midfield. Whilst Michael Carrick, Anderson, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes can play in a three-man central midfield, as they do in Ferguson’s 4-5-1 system, each struggles in a 4-4-2. Either too immobile for the defensive role, or uninventive for an attacking position, each player has his weaknesses.

This was Ferguson’s dilemma last season – the Scot well understands that his players cannot cope in a 4-4-2 system in the toughest games and, in Rooney’s absence, the Scot tried to deploy Berbatov as a lone striker. It was a decision that clearly did not pay off in those crunch games towards the end of the season.

For the coming campaign, therefore, United’s manager must either pray that Rooney stays fit all season, or he needs to bring in players to strengthen United’s squad.

One option is for Ferguson to bring in a striker capable of playing alone up front in Rooney’s absence. Wolfsburg’s Edin Dzeko, for example, would suit the role perfectly. The defining problem with this strategy is obvious though as, even if money is available, it is almost impossible to buy a striker good enough for this role who is happy to play second fiddle to Rooney.

The second, and safest, option is for United to invest in a midfielder or two capable of playing in a 4-4-2, with either defensive or attacking prowess suitable to commanding a central role with a man less.

On the attacking side, players such as James Milner, Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller, the latter two who excelled with Germany in South Africa, fit the bill. While Müller looks set to stay at Bayern Munich and Milner is on his way to Manchester City, Özil is readily available. The 21-year-old’s contract runs out at the end of the season and the player would surely welcome a step up from Werder Bremen.

Another potential signing is Jack Rodwell, a solid defensive midfielder with a wealth of potential and who could also fill in for Rio Ferdinand at the back if needed in an emergency. The Evertonian’s price may still be within reach.

Perhaps Ferguson’s final option is to learn a lesson from the Wolrd Cup where Uruguay, Argentina and Mexico each played with three genuine strikers in a 4-3-3 formation. It recalls memories of Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Rooney in their pomp.

Uruguay used Edinson Cavani, Diego Forlán and Luis Suárez, all of whom are out-and-out centre-forwards for their clubs. Similarly, Argentina played with Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain and Tevez leading the line.

Should United invest in a striker such as Suarez, could Ferguson pull off a similar formation, with three from Rooney, Suarez, Hernandez, Nani, Berbatov and Owen leading the line? It’s a option that offers Ferguson more flexibility and the security of a three man midfield.

Of the three choices presented here, the first is probably impossible and the third is a risk, but Ferguson’s second option is certainly possible. One thing is certain, United cannot rely on Rooney as the team did last season. The risk of injury and loss of form is just too great.

Ferguson claims money is available despite the Glazers’ financial mess – he should use it to bring in one more signing before the season starts in August!

Chicharito keeps feet grounded as United début beckons

Ed July 28, 2010 Tags: , Matches 10 comments

Javier Hernández’ début in a Manchester United shirt comes tonight as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side takes on an MLS All-Star XI in Houston. The match, the Reds’ fourth on this summer’s tour, will offer the 22-year-old Mexican a brief taste of life in a United shirt after the striker trained with the squad for the first time yesterday morning.

Hernández is unlikely to start though as United seeks to regain momentum lost after the 2-1 defeat to Kansas City Wizards on Sunday night. Indeed, the Mexican is likely to appear as a late second half substitute after the single training session yesterday, with the striker offered a long summer break post World Cup.

Signed for £7 million without fanfare in April, Hernández’ performance in South Africa, where the former Chivas Guadalajara striker scored twice against France and then Argentina, has already set high expectations of immediate success in Manchester.

The pressure was hardly eased yesterday, with Ferguson bragging that United could have paid three times the £7 million fee had the deal been concluded after the tournament. It is a message also underscored by former United great Bobby Charlton, who expressed his “great excitement” about the player during yesterday’s training session.

Supporters though should be wary, with the striker’s inexperience compounding a move across continents that will require a potentially lengthy period of integration into Premier League football. After all, another South American – Diego Forlan – failed to score in a United shirt for more than 20 games before leaving the club at a knock-down price. Today, Forlan is widely regarded as one of the World’s leading strikers.

It’s a challenge Ferguson at least recognises, with tonight’s game not only a chance for the US public to glimpse United’s newest star but a first step on a long road towards integration.

“He joined us today and so we have to ascertain what he has been doing in the last few weeks physically, we would like to use him in part of the game on Wednesday – partly because I know there is a big Mexican population in Houston and it would be a very exciting attraction for them,” Ferguson said in Houston before taking his squad on a tour of NASA’a HQ.

“Secondly we want to try to integrate him into the team as quickly as possible so those are the reasons we would like to play him but we want to just have a chat with him and see what he has been doing physically – I don’t think it would be wise to play him without having any real preparation for this game.”

Hernández though is remaining grounded despite high praise from the United camp and a palpable sense of expectation among United’s support both in the US and back home. Indeed, the striker is mindful of the challenges that have faced compatriots Giovanni dos Santos and Carlos Vella on English soil in recent seasons.

“I have spoken to them and they are definitely happy for me and they know that this is the most powerful league in the world,” said Hernández.

“They tell me to take advantage of the situation and I should thank God for the opportunity.

“I always try to see pressure in a different way – more like motivation. There are millions of people in the world who would do anything to be in my position and have this opportunity.

“It’s an honour because I want to achieve big things. It’s a very nice challenge and hopefully I will be able to contribute.

“I will always try to enjoy it because sometimes we focus so much on the achievements and our dreams, and maybe we forget to enjoy it.”

The MLS game arguably offers United the toughest fixture of the pre-season programme, with American star Landon Donovan leading the All-Stars attacking line-up. A Premier League side has never beaten the MLS’ All-Star team on US soil, although UK-based United fans will have to stay up late to see if United can buck the trend with the game kicking off at 1.30am Thursday morning.

Hernández will then play the full 90 minutes of United’s fixture with Chivas Guadalajara in Mexico on Friday night – with a half played in the shirt of each club as part of the deal that brought the striker to Europe – before the squad flies to Dublin on Saturday for a fixture against a League of Ireland XI.

It is there, in Dublin, that United’s tour squad will meet up with the club’s other World Cup players for the first time this summer. Wayne Rooney, Patrice Evra and co, have been on a punishing accelerated fitness programme back at Carrington this week.

They will, no doubt, have developed a thirst for the black stuff by then.

Loaning away the future

Sam Gregory July 27, 2010 Tags: Opinion 42 comments

Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Darren Fletcher, Wes Brown, Phil Neville, Nicky Butt – each is or was an established Manchester United player that came through the club’s academy. The group also shares another similarity; none of them ever left the club on loan, remaining at Old Trafford throughout their youthful years.

There seems  a common myth floating around the United ranks these days that to play for the side, previous first team experience is needed. Sir Alex Ferguson spoke recently about players seeing action and not stagnating.

But in fact, the only players under Sir Alex Ferguson that have become first team regulars after going out on loan are David Beckham and John O’Shea, with Johnny Evans also breaking into that exclusive club considering his recent performances with the United first team.

Beckham and O’Shea spent just one spell on loan once, while Evans played for both Antwerp and Sunderland. While the benefits of first team football has worked for that group, many of United’s more recent academy prospects wasted away on loan.

Take these recent examples.

Danny Simpson was once a very highly rated right back but after loan spells at five different clubs he was eventually deemed surplus and left for Newcastle United. Similarly, Fabien Brandy was England’s next great hope up front, scoring the winning goal in the 2007 Youth Championship Cup against Juventus and leading United to the FA Youth Cup Final in the same year.

In 2008 Brandy went out on loan for the first time. Four loans later and not only is the striker no longer a United player but the club did not receive a transfer fee for the once highly regarded forward. Just two of several examples where recent United youngsters have spent time on loan only to be released by the club.

Contrary to popular opinion, perhaps first team matches are no substitute for quality coaching and learning to play football the United way? United’s coaching staff from academy to reserve team is run by top class talent after all, including director Brian McClair to current reserve team coach Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

There is an argument that players training five a week, with the single match, miss out at the development stage if they spend time away from the club.

Is Championship football a ‘better experience’ for the young players when the FA Youth Cup is still one of the highest quality youth competitions in the world? Then there is the academy and reserve league games, which are often played at a quicker pace than Premier League matches. The experience is still a United experience.

One of the compliments given to the United youth system over the years has been how easy it is for youth players can make the jump to the first team to cover an injured, out of form or suspended player. After all these players are familiar with the United system, often training with first team players and can fill in the gap seamlessly.

There might be a perfect example of the theory in the current United squad. Tom Cleverley is one of the most sought after players in United’s academy, with press reports suggesting that he may be on his way to Newcastle for a season long loan.

There is an issue with this though. Newcastle will most likely see very little of the ball in the club’s Premier League matches this season. It means when Cleverley plays, which he may often not given Newcastle requires a more defensive player, the midfielder may be forced into a deeper role than he’s accustomed to. Is this the experience United requires when the 20-year-old returns?

Then there are the academy’s recent results in producing players for the first team. United’s academy has long been the envy of clubs across the country but in the past decade it has produced very few first team quality players.

Even Manchester City has won the FA Youth Cup more recently than United – last victorious in 2003 – as the club still recalls fond memories of the 1992 Youth Cup winning side that went on to win so many more substantial trophies for the first team.

Is then the club’s reliance on the loan system to blame? Maybe, maybe not, but the evidence says that first team match experience is no substitute to training with United’s best.


Based in Canada, Sam Gregory writes The Canadian Stretford End in addition to his contributions here.

United Rant writing competition

Ed July 27, 2010 Tags: Shorts 5 comments

Submit an article to United Rant and win this high quality green & gold, 100 per cent fake anti-Glazer shirt with the player’s name and number of your choice on it! The rules for the competition are simple – write at least 500 words of topical analysis in the United Rant style, submitting to editor@unitedrant.co.uk with the words WRITING COMPETITION in the subject line.

The top five articles chosen by me will be posted on United Rant later this summer, with the readers voting on the best submission.

Get writing – closing date for the competition is Friday 13 August at midnight.

*Deadline now extended to end of August*

Green & Gold

Ferguson close to finalising squad

Ed July 27, 2010 Tags: , Opinion 10 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson says he is close to finalising his 25 man Premier League squad but may have to make a last-minute call on injured players. New rules dictate that Ferguson must name a maximum squad of 25 men, including eight players deemed as home grown. The Scot may also name an unlimited ‘B’ list of under 21 players to supplement the squad.

Premier League rules, agreed by club chairmen last September, state that home grown players are those registered by an English club for at least three seasons between the ages of 16 and 21. Ferguson is well served in this department with 12 players in his ‘A’ list and another eight on the ‘B’ list this season.

The United manager will also benefit from naming a number of first team squad members on his ‘B’ list, including Rafael da Silva, Chris Smalling, Federico Macheda and Gabriel Obertan whom are all under 21 as of January this year.

Ferguson’s final Premier League squad is also likely to match his Champions League squad very closely, although the rules are not identical. UEFA also stipulate a 25 man ‘A’ squad but have no provision for home grown talent. The United manager can also name a ‘B’ list of players born on or after 1 January 1989, so long as each player was eligible to play for the club for any uninterrupted period of two years since their 15th birthday.

However, Ferguson indicated that he may be forced to leave out injured pair Anderson and Owen Hargreaves if either has not recovered from injury by the time the window shuts. Anderson is expected to return in late September, while Hargreaves remains at Dr. Richard Steadman’s Denver clinic for the foreseeable future.

“It does give me a problem, but I’ve just got to wait as long as I can,” Ferguson said overnight in Houston, where United faces the MLS All-Stars last on Wednesday night.

“I have to make a decision at some point of course and it depends on when I think those players can come back. Most of it [the squad] is formulated in my mind, but one or two I have to make decisions on.”

With 25 men probably on the ‘A’ list already, Ferguson is likely to face a tough choice over Anderson and Hargreaves only if the Scot dips into the transfer market for a player over the age of 21 before the window closes on 1 September this year.

The new rules, despite some media coverage to the contrary, are not aimed at increasing the number of English players in the Premier League, although they will offer younger players more exposure and prevent player stockpiling.

Indeed, United is already well place in terms of squad composition compared to rivals Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and especially Liverpool. While City may leave expensive signings on the sidelines, or ship them out this summer, Liverpool can only name a 20-man senior squad as it stands.  Similarly Chelsea and Arsenal are each short of home grown talent within the senior ranks.

Ferguson may face a tougher choice at start of 2011/12, with home grown players Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville possibly retiring. That said a number of the current ‘B’ list including the da Silva brothers will qualify as home grown if they are not already by next summer.

If the legendary United triumvirate does retire Ferguson will face some serious challenges rebuilding his squad, with Michael Owen and Hargeaves also out of contract in June 2011. While Owen’s contract includes an option for a third season at the club, it will take a minor miracle for Canadian-born England international Hargreaves to earn another contract with the club.

A ListB List
1. Edwin Van Der Sar12. Chris Smalling (HG, U21)
2. Gary Neville (HG)20. Fabio Da Silva (U21)
3. Patrice Evra21. Rafael Da Silva (U21)
4. Owen Hargreaves26. Gabriel Obertan (U21)
5. Rio Ferdinand (HG)27. Federico Macheda (U21)
6. Wesley Brown (HG)31. Corry Evans (HG, U21)
7. Michael Owen (HG)33. Bebe (U21)
8. Anderson39. James Chester (HG, U21)
9. Dimitar Berbatov40. Ben Amos (HG, U21)
10. Wayne Rooney (HG)42. Magnus Eikrem (U21)
11. Ryan Giggs (HG)44. Joe Dudgeon (U21)
13. Park Ji-Sung45. Oliver Gill (U21)
14. Javier Hernandez48. Will Keane (U21)
15. Nemanja Vidic
16. Michael Carrick (HG)Loaned
17. NaniCameron Stewart
18. Paul Scholes (HG)Joshua King
22. John O'Shea (HG)Danny Welbeck
23. Jonny Evans (HG)Mame Biram Diouf
24. Darren Fletcher (HG)Daniel Drinkwater
25. Antonio ValenciaMathew James
28. Darron Gibson (HG)Thomas Cleverley
29. Tomasz KuszczakJames Chester
30. Ritchie De Laet
Manchester United 'A' & 'B' Lists. HG = Home Grown. U21 = Under 21 on 1 January 2010.

* Ferguson can name an unlimited 'B' list of players classed as U21.

No panic on the streets of Kansas City

Ed July 26, 2010 Tags: , Matches 3 comments

Manchester United went down to MLS outfit Kansas City Wizards late last night, with Sir Alex Ferguson blaming the Reds’ inexperienced defence for this summer’s first pre-season defeat. In truth though, United put in an embarrassingly haphazard performance, despite playing with a man advantage for more than half the match.

Kei Kamara scored the host’s winner in the 42nd minute as the MLS side provided United with its toughest fixture of the tour to date. Dimitar Berbatov had brought United level from the penalty spot a minute earlier following Davy Arnaud’s opener just 10 minutes into the match.

But when the Wizards’ Jimmy Conrad received his marching orders for the professional foul leading to United’s penalty the red not only reduced the hosts to 10 men but seemingly spoilt the game as an exercise for the tourists. No major trophies are handed out in pre-season and Ferguson’s undoubted wish is for his stars to get a good work out during the three week tour.

However, United’s advantage barely registered during a match in which Ferguson’s side offered almost no attacking threat, passed the ball poorly and looked extremely vulnerable at the back. The disappointment is magnified because the Reds faced just 10 men for the majority of match, played in front of more than 52,000 fans.

But if many of those supporters left the stunning Arrowhead Stadium, redeveloped at a cost of $375 million, disappointed with the result and United’s performance, then Ferguson at least will draw comfort from the knowledge that his young team may take some matches to bed together. After all the back four had an average age of less than 21.

“I thought the inexperience of the defenders showed in the first 15 minutes,” Ferguson told the media last night.

“That was a bit of a handicap and we never quite recovered from that. Bunbury was a handful physically – he gave us a hard time that way. But I felt young Ben Amos organised the defenders and calmed them down.

“The things we are looking for from the players are coming, but our possession of the ball today was ragged at times. Normally we are much better. Hopefully that will come with the games.

“It was a competitive match in a good atmosphere and despite the result I am satisfied with the progress we are making.”

That inexperience showed with Ryan Smith giving Rafael da Silva another lesson in a steep career learning curve and Chris Smalling facing a tough physical challenge from Canadian forward Teal Bunbury.

Elsewhere the excuses fell a little flat, with Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Dimitar Berbatov and Nani forming the backbone of an experienced attacking unit that will surely put the performance down to the thicker grass and Missouri heat.

The team now moves on to Houston Wednesday for a far tougher fixture, on paper at least, against the MLS All-Star XI with a more purposeful performance top of Ferguson’s agenda.

The defeat to Kansas certainly posed more questions than answers though – in particular those players who offered little in the way of future promise. After all, with the United squad in transition, Ferguson quiet in the transfer market and promising a youthful injection into the team, some players are more under the microscope than others.

Irishman Darron Gibson was hugely disappointing and fast becoming a one trick pony in United’s engine room. The criticism may be harsh in pre-season but the 22-year-old’s passing is conservative at best – worse still frequently wayward – and his technique is questionable. Indeed, if long range shooting is the Derry-born midfielder’s raison d’être then he will certainly have been disappointed to shank his only effort way over the bar.

The manager’s tour selections must also be questioned. Without injured or resting star names including Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen and Rio Ferdinand, the manager has chosen Giggs and Scholes from the start in each of United’s three tour games.

But is the tour about preparation for the season ahead or building new markets? Ferguson says that fitness and rhythm not victories is key, with marketing the club to an enthusiastic American audience a secondary concern. The cynic might suggest otherwise.

After all we’ve been here before when in 2004 Ferguson parachuted in United’s missing stars after a grumbling US public indicated it had been short-changed on the Reds’ previous tour to the Americas.

Not that any negativity has shone through with the US public to date and the match-going fans should be happy with the introduction of Javier Hernández on Wednesday night. In a minor change of heart the Mexican will now play some part in United’s fixture with the All-Stars before turning out for both sides on Sunday for the tie with Chivas Guadalajara.

Expectation is high, as with the remainder of United’s younger players. Chicharito will hope to shine just that little brighter than some of his colleagues managed last night.