Month December 2010

Month December 2010

Glazers “will sell” but when?

December 23, 2010 Tags: , Opinion 6 comments

Nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes, Ben Franklin once famously wrote. To that add the sale of Manchester United by the Glazer family, which was sealed the moment the Tampa-based clan rode into Old Trafford on a debt-fueled wave. It is, after all, how investors with high leverage normally make a profit.

And the Glazers stand to make substantial gains on any sale despite heavily indebting the club.

Following last week’s rumour of a potential £1.5 billion takeover attempt by the Qatar Foundation – read Al-Thani Qatari Royal Family – non-executive United director Mike Edelson has confirmed that the club ownership will eventually change, with the caveat that the plan is long-term.

Financier Edelson has been a non-exec since the early 1980s after being appointed by Martin Edwards to replace Matt Busby on the board. The great former United manager was appointed life president instead, while Bobby Charlton and Maurice Watkins also joined the board at the same time.

It is this long association with the club that offers a certain credibility to his comments, of course. Quoted by the Jewish Chronicle, Edelson says that “it’s no secret that, at some time, the family will sell.”

Indeed, recent moves by the Glazer family to remove the £243 million Payment-in-Kind (PIK) debt – possibly with the aid of Qatari money – is seen by some experts as a precursor to eventual sale, rather than long-term deleverage. After all, the Glazer family almost universally runs its businesses on debt.

The question, as always in leveraged buyouts (LBOs), is at what point maximum value is reached – and profitability maximised – and how receptive the is market to making a bid. On both counts evidence is stacking up in favour of a medium term sale, despite Edelson’s caveat.

While United reported record turnover in October revenue growth in media and matchday income is slowing, with commercial growth potentially limited by over-exposure to the sponsorship market.

Meanwhile, the credibility attached to a Qatari bid by analysts is growing.

“The belief is that they have already brought in extra finance from a third party in a bid to set the club up for a sale,” The Sun quoted one city source today.

After all, the chances of the Glazers having paid down the PIK debt from their own pocket is thought minimal, although the secretive nature of the family’s business dealings means we may not know soon, if ever.

While a refinance package from a US-based financial institution is likely, Middle East money is not completely left-field speculation even if the Premier League has confirmed no change of ownership.

Certainly, on the basis that there is little smoke without fire, Qatar is a potentially keen investor in United.

“They have made tentative moves before with little success but this time it looks like they could be going for it,” one source added in today’s Sun.

“Now they have landed the 2022 World Cup, the country wants to expand its influence in the game across the globe.”

This analysis certainly places Edelson’s caveat into perspective and – should a bid be forthcoming – price is key. After all a £1.2 billion bid – including any club debt – offers the family more than a £400 million uplift. £1.5 billion almost double’s the Glazers’ money.

By contrast a serious argument can also be made that the PIK refinancing has removed any critical risk to the Glazers, therefore further entrenching the family at Old Trafford. This despite the £83.6 million loss posted in October for the year ending 30 June.

However, the move to clear PIK debt, together with the bond refinancing almost a year ago, certainly means a fire sale will not happen until 2017 at least when further refinancing of the notes is likely if the Glazers remain in charge.

Of course, the Glazers have made no direct public noises about selling, save for Edelson’s intervention, with previous approaches from both Qatar and the so-called Red Knights given short shrift. Despite all the speculation, the standard line remains that the family “will not entertain any offers” for the club.

The sale, says Edelson, is a “long way down the line”. So is death but each will catch up with us in the end.

Bring back Becks

December 22, 2010 Tags: Opinion 27 comments

In the spirit of the Christmas there is but one present Sir Alex Ferguson can deliver: bring back a lost son, (Sir) David Beckham. After all the player has consistently stated his love for the club and this loyalty to United, at a time and age when offers might be limited from top European clubs. It is to be greatly lauded.

Meanwhile, murmurs of discontent among Manchester United supporters about the continuous arrival of generations of unknown child prodigies, who usually get released into the slums of the football league or the murky depths of continental football, continue.

Yet Beckham, who has no doubt received offers from many English clubs, including Everton and Sven Goran Eriksson’s Leicester globetrotters professes his continued love for the club.

For the Los Angeles Galaxy star it is simple – “I am Manchester United fan” and consequently he can “only play for Manchester United.”

In England at least.

“I have always missed playing in the Premier League since I left it eight years ago,” said Beckham, as he picked up the BBC Sports Personality Lifetime Achievement Award on Sunday night.

“It’s a great league and one of the most competitive in the world.

“Maybe one day I will come back here but I have always said that it will only be for Manchester United. I am not holding my breath on that one, but we will have to wait and see.

“For me, the best manager in football is Sir Alex Ferguson, who I still regard as a father figure after so many years.”

It is easy to discredit Beckham’s desire to return home of course. But, arguably, the 35-year-old could still command a role in the present United side where his creative instincts in central midfield – the role he grew up playing – or the tried and tested right-wing berth could come in useful.

Beckham’s prospective arrival is be all the more relevant given the departure of Park Ji-Sung for seven weeks to the Asian Cup, coupled with Antonio Valencia’s ongoing injury. Despite his age Beckham’s quality service would undoubtedly be welcomed by United’s strikers.

Despite what many will say about the current level of Beckham’s play in the United States – and his age – the Londoner would, for the first time in years, offer the Reds genuine set piece quality, rather than the lottery of Nani’s dead ball delivery. And in Paul Scholes’ and Ryan Giggs’ continued absence, Beckham might still supply a creative spark.

Any loan deal will come with Beckham’s large wage packet of course but a move could still make strong commercial sense given the global profile the player still commands. It’s a fact team Glazer will no doubt approve of.

Of course, it’s easy to write off the argument as emotionally charged. But, with a hint of realism, Beckham’s re-signing even in the short term makes more sense than say the Spaniard Joaquin, who was recently linked with a move to Old Trafford in the gossip pages. Where imports may flop, Beckham will succeed.

This Christmas lets wish upon a Beckham return to the club where it all began. Wouldn’t you like to see the golden boys run out at Old Trafford once more?

In David’s words perhaps we shouldn’t hold our breath but maybe Santa will bring fans the best present this year.

They’ll carry Fergie out in a box

December 21, 2010 Tags: Opinion 4 comments

Management, they say, always ends in failure. Indeed, no matter how successful the coach, dismissal or undignified resignation is nearly always the fate. Recall José Mourinho fired by Chelsea or the late, great Brian Clough suffering the humiliation of relegation and near insanity with former European Champions Nottingham Forrest.

Sir Alex Ferguson may just be the only manager in history to define his end, his own way.

In the week that Ferguson passed Sir Matt Busby’s record as the longest serving manager in the club’s history – some well thought-out pedantry aside – United’s boss says he has dropped all thoughts of retirment.

Ferguson, having formally retired in 2002 only to change his mind on the advice of his wife, Kathy – or the horror at David Gill having appointed Sven Goran Eriksson – the Scot now also appears to be going back on a 2008 promise to retire within three years.

While his health remains, says Ferguson, he will be in charge of United. Indeed, speaking ahead of the club’s postponed Premier League clash at the weekend, Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti said that Ferguson could remain in charge for another decade. By which time the Scot will be 78.

“The older you get the more worried you are about retiring,” Ferguson told MUTV this week.

“You start to realise that while you have got your health and good fitness, you should carry on in your job. All thoughts of retirement are in the back of my mind.”

No wonder, with Ferguson still master of all he surveys at Carrington. Arguably the Scot is now more powerful than ever – so obviously the glue that holds the Glazer empire together during a period of austerity.

Yet, this was not always the way. During the 2002-5 period, when first Arsenal and then Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea appeared to usurp United’s domestic pre-eminence and the club became a non-entity in Europe, Ferguson was seemingly out of ideas. The energy so famed, no longer apparent.

For a while at least the decision to shelve retirement plans in summer 2002 seemed a mistake; one that could have put the great Scot’s legacy at risk. United’s uninspired football culminated in the humiliating group stage Champions League exit in winter 2005, a thumping defeat at Middlesboro and Roy Keane’s tumultuous exit.

No longer so of course – Ferguson’s drive and desired is renewed. In part the vigour of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez was a catalyst both on the pitch and in Ferguson’s soul. The challenge of chasing a second European Cup reawakening Ferguson’s passion, perhaps.

Despite José Mourinho waiting in the wings there is now no ovious retirement date for Ferguson. June 2012 is a guess already pondered on this website, although it is one based in nothing anything but educated speculation.

Certainly, the Scot will be around to see in 25 years at the helm next November and a major achievement it’ll be. And that, after all, is Ferguson’s true legacy. His ability to master the growth of United from global brand to financial superpower to the most heavily indebted club in sport is indeed remarkable. His longevity at the top is – almost – unsurpassed in world football.

Sir Matt, of course, lasted almost as long. Guy Roux at AJ Auxere remain in the job 44 years; that coming after more than a decade as a player for the club. Roux’ ties to the club were highlighted by his decision to resign just four games into only his second managerial job at Racing Club de Lens.

There is little chance Ferguson will make 44 years at United unless he remains in the boardroom and that is a lesson United learned painfully after Sir Matt’s first resignation when Busby consistently interfered from above. Ferguson could surely not remain aloof if his day job moved from Carrington to Old Trafford.

This time the Scot is unlikely to pre-empt the decision on retirement with a public announcement as he did in the winter of 2001 to such disastrous effect.

“At the time there were some reasons for it. It was one of those things, a mistake,” Ferguson said of his decision to go public with his decision.

The message is clear. One day Ferguson will be here, the next he’ll be gone. The question is, whether that’s in a coffin or not?

Running scared

December 20, 2010 Tags: , , Opinion 19 comments

Incredible isn’t it. It’s Manchester United’s worst team in five years but the opposition still can’t stand facing Sir Alex Ferguson’s men. First Chelsea inexplicably cancel Sunday’s fixture more than 27 hours ahead of the game; then Arsenal captain Cesc Fábregas admits the Gunners were terrified of visiting Old Trafford last week.

For the second time in less than a month United faced a blank weekend, with Chelsea following Blackpool in cancelling a Premier League fixture due to snow. But where the seasiders can blame rudimentary facilities and no undersoil heating at Bloomfield Road, Chelsea boast the most modern of facilities.

Indeed, hours after the midday Saturday cancellation of United’s trip to Stamford Bridge the Londoners could boast a beautifully manicured pitch with not a snowflake in sight. Undersoil heating and halogen lights do their job, after all. With more than a day to clear any snow surrounding the ground, public safety concerns seemed premature at best.

Moreover, Sunday afternoon, Republik of Mancunia diligently dug out Transport for London webcams, showing clear roads around the Stamford Bridge vicinity. It begs the question: what exactly about Chelsea’s poor form, injuries to key players and United’s unbeaten record prompted the desperate action more than a day ahead of a vital fixture?

In a similar vein Arsenal captain and Spanish international Fábregas says that the Gunners fear losing big games, including that at Old Trafford last Monday. No wonder – to bastardise Arsène Wenger’s infamous quote –  despite being consistently told their wives are the prettiest, Arsenal hasn’t won a pageant in more than five years.

“I’m realising more and more that football is all about confidence and mentality. Sometimes you do the right thing but, if people tell you it’s not right, you start believing it, even though you were right at first,” Fábregas said.

“I think the difference on the night was that we were scared of losing but they were not scared of winning. That was a big difference that played in our heads.

“Sometimes we seem scared of losing these big games – we don’t really go for it and we’re tempted to drop back and see what the opposition do.”

Fear. It’s a word that could be applied to Chelsea, who failed to put on the fixture where Ipswich certainly could despite the blizzard conditions in East Anglia on Saturday night. As did Wasps rugby just 30 miles north in a virtually empty Adams Park, High Wycombe this afternoon. No sudden disingenuous concern for visitor safety in the Heineken Cup it seems.

Chelsea’s immediate gain may become United’s loss as fixtures pile up later in the campaign. The cancellation adds a second fixture to United’s backlog, with the postponed fixture against Blackpool now scheduled for 25 January. United’s only logical free date in the next month for the Chelsea fixture is now in between the FA Cup Third Round tie with Liverpool on 9 January and the tough trip to White Hart Lane to face Tottenham Hotspur a week later. It’s a scenario few at Old Trafford will countenance.

Then there’s the more realistic rearrangement in which Sky TV executives’ wet dream comes true – a double-header play-off with Chelsea in April or May 2011. Handily the fixture computer has already drawn United with Arsenal and Carlo Ancelotti’s side in consecutive weeks during the final month of the run-in. My my how the completely random selection process comes up these intriguing late-season fixtures season after season.

By May Arsenal will almost certainly be out of the title race though.  Wenger’s record against Chelsea and United now reads 11 games with no wins. Reason to be fearful indeed.

United will now resume the Premier League campaign with a Christmas fixture list that includes a home match with Sunderland followed by trips to the Midlands to face Birmingham City, West Bromwich Albion and Stoke City before the FA Cup tie. It’s a crucial but less-than-daunting period in which United could conceivably start the New Year with a significant lead in the Premier League. It’s hard to recall when that last happened.

Of course, near neighbours Manchester City might have something to say about that, with victory over Everton tonight ensuring that Roberto Mancini’s outfit goes top at Christmas for the first time in 81 years. City has won trophies since then, apparently.

Fifa 11 Review – the best football game in the world but is that enough?

December 19, 2010 Tags: , Reviews 7 comments

Rant almost always refers to itself in the third person, but when you’re attempting to critically appraise a work of art or entertainment, there really is no room for the third person – none of this is “Rant’s” opinion – it’s all mine. For the purposes of establishing credentials, I have a long history with video game versions of the football.

Me and the esteemed editor of this very website once had an actual 90 minute game of Match Day 2 on his Amstrad CPC464 – the scoreboard broke after 10 goals, and I think I may have won by infinity to infinity minus 3.

We’ve all come a long way since then and FIFA 11 from EA sports will be in many a video game playing football fan’s Christmas stocking next week.

That imaginary video game playing football fan will have much cause to be please with their gift because, with the exception of a few hold-outs waving the Pro-Evo flag, most people acknowledge that FIFA, long the slickest and best presented football game going, is now also the one with the richest, deepest and most satisfying game-play engine. That this is an uncontroversial position to hold is a remarkable turnaround for a franchise long dogged by accusations of style-over-substance.

The difficulty in reviewing annualised sports franchises comes in asking the question “who is this review for?” If it is for people who are getting their first 360 or PS3 for Christmas then there’s absolutely no question that if they have any interest whatsoever in playing football on it, they should run out and buy FIFA 11.

In return for their hard-earned they will be getting a product chock full of features – licensed leagues from across Europe, some startlingly accurate player likenesses (and some not quite so accurate – Darren Fletcher’s hair has NEVER been that colour), wonderful animation, and in spite of a limited number of properly modelled grounds, Old Trafford is replicated in all its glory. So who cares if Fulham, Aston Villa and Bolton all play in identical generic stadia?

The control scheme has been incremented upon – last year’s genuine analogue directional movement remains, shooting from range is improved (I scored an absolute belter with Nani the other day), and whilst I still can’t score from or even hit half decent free kicks, that could just be me.

In fact a good few of my criticisms of the game play may stem from the fact that nowadays, as may be inferred from my reference to 8-bit games, I am a grown up and don’t have the time or manual dexterity to truly master everything on offer here. Games occasionally become very bogged down in midfield because I lack the subtlety to implement much of the right stick skill moves which I imagine could cut open stubborn defences in a way my hopeful through ball can’t.

If the review is for someone who has last year’s edition, or even, as is the case for me, 09’s then the value proposition becomes very different. If what the Americans call “The Roster Update” is appealing to you and the nuanced visual appeal that comes from more years of graphical polish and engine refinement then you won’t be disappointed. And, of course, if online multiplayer is important to you, then the new edition means drastically reduced numbers playing last year’s edition.

For me, though, I think if I hadn’t been sent a review copy I would have thought long and hard before parting with the £35+ needed to pick up a new copy of this badboy. The differences are so incremental, and my own abilities so relatively unsophisticated as to render the game play changes of minimal effect. And the big shiny new addition of playable goalkeepers, whilst competent, is hardly earth earth-shattering.

Be a pro mode has been through some pretty serious changes, some very much for the better, some for want of a better word, bizarre. Instead of playing matches and being assigned points based on your performance after the game to improve your dude’s skills, your skills improve as you pull off moves in games – so running with the ball might improve your stamina, making successful short passes may improve your passing, and so on.

You can also use your pro across all modes of play now, rather than only in “be-a-pro” seasons, which is very neat, and the fact that progress made in exhibition games, or even the arena, is a really nice touch. What isn’t such a nice touch is that, as far as I could work out, you no longer get to play in reserve matches when you’re not in the first team squad, and EA Sports have implemented their terrible, terrible, terrible calendar system which “sims” other matches whilst you SIT IN FRONT OF YOUR TELLY HITTING X AND NOT GETTING TO PLAY YOUR GAME!

Fight Night Round 4 had a very similar problem – I’m not familiar with Madden or the NHL games, but I believe they may have this problem too. This is bad enough when you’re playing a season as an entire team, and having to wait in between matches, but when you’re only getting picked once every six games or so, as you are at the start of your be-a-pro career it’s an absolutely disgrace of a design decision. (Hey, this website does have rant in the title). The long and the short of it is – I just want to play the game. I don’t care that you accurately sim the result of Fulham vs Chelsea.

Enough of the griping though, about value and the very silly calendar thing. Playing local multiplayer is a huge amount of fun, as it always is with good sports games. The AI is the best it has ever been and means that when you don’t have friends round, and you don’t want to be pwned by 12-year-old ninjas on Xbox live, you can still get plenty of enjoyment out of this.

I cannot stress enough how fantastic it looks, and the sound design is great – they’ve added some more texture to the commentary, certain fixtures and individual players get extra attention from Martin and Andy, and whilst Andy’s still occasionally a bit on the wooden side, it certainly works well enough that I left it on for a few games before giving up on them.

FIFA 11 is a must buy if you don’t have a football game, and my personal upgrade cycle for sports games means it’s probably a must buy if you have FIFA 08. Even if you do have 10 though and fancy treating yourself, you know that you’ll be getting a pretty fantastic package, just perhaps not one that’s that different from what you’re already playing.

I’m off to level up my pro – I do feel a little guilty though – I’m keeping Berba out of the side.

FIFA 11 is available on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC.

Poll: Would you welcome a Qatari takeover?

December 19, 2010 Tags: , , Polls 26 comments

The Sunday Mirror today reports that Qatar Holdings “an investment vehicle for the Qatari Royal Family” is prepared to make a £1.5 billion bid for Manchester United. The story, not far removed from the realms of speculation, suggests that the family will add United to its portfolio of investments, including Harrods and Chelsea Barracks.

However, it is clear that Qatar is using football to establish credibility and a global profile for the country that has grown rich on natural gas exports over the past decade. Qatar ‘won’ the rights to the FIFA 2022 World Cup recently and established a £125 million five-year sponsorship deal with FC Barcelona.

But even if the takeover happens there are serious questions to be answered. Despite the vast wealth that the Qatar Royal Family could bring to United, including wiping out all debt and handing Sir Alex Ferguson a large transfer budget according to the Mirror, the country has a patchy record on human rights. According to human rights reports forced labour and the death penalty are common in an absolute monarchy with effectively no democracy. Homosexuality is also illegal.

To date the Glazer family has shown no indication that it is likely to sell United. However, speculation that the Qatari’s have already effectively invested in United by paying down the Payment-in-Kind (PIK) loans has grown recently. The Glazers paid off the £243 million loans last month but have not confirmed how they raised the money. However, the Premier League has not been notified of any change of ownership at the club and no confirmation of this speculation has been established.

Would you welcome a Qatari takeover?

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Why Park is doing great but could still be sold

December 18, 2010 Tags: , Opinion 26 comments

In the past, one could forgive Wayne Rooney’s lack of goals on the rationale that he adds much more to the game than pure goal scoring. No longer of course but it follows logically that one can also criticise a player for doing little but scoring goals. It is perhaps a little harsh to apply the same argument to Park Ji Sung, who is not a goalscorer.

Crucial then that the Korean does add a lot more to the Manchester United side than few goals here and there.

Previously, this column argued that Park isn’t suited to a traditional 4-4-2, where players line up in broadly three ‘bands.’ The terms ‘wingers’ and ‘wide midfielders’ are used interchangeably. In practice it is a lot more nuanced than that of course; some players more attacking, some offer defensive support.

A subspecies of wingers, one that boasts Park and Dirk Kuyt, specialise less in wing wizardry but in defence. Still working high up the pitch, these players succeed in placing pressure on the opposition full-back.

Park’s greatest strength is his intelligence. His understanding and use of space and geometry on the pitch is second only to Rooney in the United squad. As such, the South Korean captain looks to roam, taking advantage of space and creating it for others.

Park’s movement enhances United’s dynamic front line. On the left of a 4-2-3-1 the South Korean’s nominal job is to mark the full-back. Yet, even if the full-back moves infield Park can, and often does, follow his opponent. Frequently United’s attacking central midfielder breaks ahead of the ball, and the lone forward – in that system – shifts to the flank in response.

This particular example is one of many team movements that happen in real games because of Park’s involvement. It is no accident that some recent hammerings handed out by United, such as the home game against Milan and away against Arsenal last season, involved Park – fluid movements can unsettle even the toughest of defence.

In flexible formations United’s players are in close proximity to Park and can switch position. By contrast, n classical 4-4-2 similar movements are harder and often unsettling. After all, an attacking central midfielder doing a stint up-front is easier conceptually than a striker dropping into central midfield. As such, when deployed in a 4-4-2, Park must stick closely to his position or risk leaving United vulnerable to counters. The ultimate irony of using a defensive winger – a tactic that is rather cowardly – is that it often results in fluid movement, the hallmark of modern attacking football.

Adding to the irony is the fact that defensive wingers like Park often require a high tempo, pressing game with a high line. It’s another trait of the modern game. Much of Park’s defensive role is based on tireless harrying, forcing the team to press and United’s defence to push up. Most of the time, United’s players are prescient enough to move up or drop deep depending on the situation. Last Monday United defended deep and played a pressing game contemporaneously – a tactical marvel.

Since Park’s game is much more suited to flexible systems, it is no mystery that he play’s better when the Reds deploy various takes on 4-5-1. But fluidity only partially makes up for the former PSV player’s limited technique. When Park is in a good patch of form, he can control the ball at least long enough to pass it. When the Korean is playing badly, he gives the ball away cheaply.

Technically exceptional players are also much less prone to losing possession under pressure. As such, gifted opposition players can play around Park and exploit the gap that pops up as United players shift position. The Champions League Final against Barcelona a year ago is an example.

With Gabriel Obertan and Bébé making little notable progress, Park will remain first choice. But as the Korean will soon leave for the Asian Cup, United will have to experiment with existing players, perhaps recalling Cleverley from loan, or bring in somebody new.

With impending retirements of senior figures, availability of classy playmakers on the market, promise of youngsters on the wing and a supposedly sizeable transfer kitty the safest option might be to purchase Javier Pastore – a central midfield playermaker – and push Rooney to the left.

Another option is to bequeath the playmaking role to Anderson, push Rooney left and trust Dimitar Berbatov or Javier Hernández up-front. And if United can make it work without him, Park is likely to be moved on in the coming summer, for there are many reasons for his departure.

The South Korea captain leaves for the Asian Cup at the end of December, at conclusion of which he will retire from the national team, citing his wish to concentrate on his club career. It’s an important winter for the player who is about to turn thirty.

Yet, his national service swan song could be swiftly met by an adieu from United.

Rant Cast 52 – Fergie and Sir Matt

December 18, 2010 Tags: Rant Cast 2 comments

In this edition of the Rant Cast, recorded ahead of the postponement of United’s fixture with Chelsea, regulars Ed & Paul discuss United’s recent victory over Arsenal at Old Trafford, talk about Anderson’s new contract and discuss Sir Alex Ferguson, who today passes Sir Matt Busby as the longest serving United manager in the club’s history.

Stream this episode of the podcast using the player below or click here to download the podcast (right click & save as).

We welcome your input – send all feedback to cast@unitedrant.co.uk or comment below.

Follow Rant Cast on Twitter @UtdRantCast

Subscribe on iTunes now.

Chelsea vs. United: a tactical preview

December 17, 2010 Tags: , , Matches 40 comments

Manchester United fans have no reason to like John Obi Mikel, the man who forced a move to Chelsea in 2006. Even Chelsea fans are ambivalent about the Nigerian who seemingly does little but pass the ball to Michael Essien and Frank Lampard. However, Obi Mikel is as important to Chelsea as Jack Wilshere is to Arsenal.

Obi Mikel is the passer who takes the easy ball from defense and distributes it to players further up field. He might not have the twinkle toes of Wilshere but he is physically strong and has a better range of passing than the Englishman, which arguably makes the Chelsea midfielder better suited for the role.

Indeed, it is Obi Mikel’s brawn that allows Chelsea to play Essien not as a water carrier but as an all-action, box-to-box player alongside a creative midfielder such as Lampard in a very aggressive 4-3-3.

Obi Mikel’s role is made even more integral to the Blues given the uneasiness of Chelsea centre-backs on the ball, especially John Terry. By neutralising Obi Mikel, United can “break” Chelsea – without the Nigerian to link the defence and attack, Terry and Branislav Ivanovic will attempt fortuitous long balls.

However, the above analysis is rather simple considering that Chelsea’s first XI will most likely feature Ashley Cole and Paolo Ferreira – two excellent attacking full-backs who are comfortable carrying the ball forward. To combat the threat down the wings, Nani and Ji-Sung Park will likely be deployed on United’s flanks, ensuring direct markers to the opposition full-backs.

Furthermore, Ferguson will probably deploy Park on the right and Nani on the left. While Nani has shown this season that he is a capable defensive player, Park is in a class of his own in this respect and will be deployed to mark Cole. The England full-back, like Obi Mikel, is more important to the current Chelsea side than in the past because Chelsea’s centre-backs are not comfortable on the ball.

Chelsea’s reliance on full-backs and Obi Mikel to start their attacks was exploited brilliantly by Sunderland who defeated Chelsea 3-0 at Stamford Bridge this season. The Black Cats achieved the historic win by deploying a high-pressing 4-4-2. Danny Welbeck et al hassled the Chelsea defence all game, while Kieron Richardson man-marked Cole. Chelsea found it extremely difficult to connect passes and succumbed to the pace of Sunderland’s strikers on the counter.

It is unlikely that Javier Hernández will be risked given his inexperience. Meanwhile Dimitar Berbatov is far from lazy but the Bulgarian isn’t exactly mobile either and rarely hassles his opponents or make runs down the channel to create space. Given the personnel available, 4-4-2 remains a touch too risky and Sir Alex Ferguson will most likely choose a trusted variant on 4-5-1.

Last Monday, Sir Alex deployed 4-3-3 to mirror Arsenal’s formation and to ensure that each of the Londoners’ players had a direct opponent. Similarly, the Scot will go for 4-2-3-1 on Sunday – the usual back four supported by Edwin Van der Sar, with Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher holding and an attacking midfield trio of Nani, Anderson and Park, spearheaded by Wayne Rooney to mirror Chelsea’s 4-3-3.

The game will likely be livelier than the Arsenal fixture too. Pressing is key to defeating Chelsea as Sunderland has already shown this season. United will attempt to take the game to the home side. Chelsea forwards aren’t particularly fast and the Reds will gain an advantage by setting up a high line to facilitate the pressing game.

With Chelsea’s back-four shaky, Lampard just coming into the side after a lengthy spell on the sidelines and Didier Drogba et al having a poor season, United fans can realistically expect a first Reds’ victory at Stamford Bridge since 2002.

Anderson inks deal; must now prove worth

December 17, 2010 Tags: Opinion 16 comments

Anderson signed a new four-and-a-half-year contract extension this week that will keep the Manchester United midfielder at Old Trafford until at least June 2015. It’s a remarkable turnaround for the 22-year-old midfielder who, many suspected, faced a bleak future at Old Trafford after injury and temperamental problems stunted his progress.

The question is: can the Brazilian justify the hefty pay rise and lengthy contract?

The new deal is reward both for the player’s improved recent form and recognition that with just 18 months left on his current deal, the Anderson’s value could potentially erode. Indeed, after a cruciate knee injury last February, a spat with manager Sir Alex Ferguson and a rehabilitation programme that involved drinking and crashing cars at high-speed, few backed Anderson to finally come good.

But the player has turned this perception around – at least in part – following several positive performances in the past month. It is a reminder of the talent and energy that the former Porto player possesses, if only he can apply it with more consistency.

Despite seemingly going backwards since bursting onto the English scene three years ago, Anderson will now spearhead United’s midfield for the next five years. It’s a long way from the poor form and dreadful attitude that seemed to infect the player’s time at Old Trafford for the best part of the last 18 months.

Yet outstanding displays in key matches during the player’s first season pointed to a bright future. Perhaps not the creative Ronaldonho-esque Brazilian many United supporters thought they had acquired but huge potential nonetheless.

Yet an exit though was close. In fact had Ferguson not intervened Anderson could have left Old Trafford last winter, with the player absconding to Brazil without permission seemingly in search of a new club and a rash of European teams apparently enquiring about the player.

Ferguson’s now seems vindicated though, assuming the Brazilian can maintain or improve his form of the last few weeks.

“We are delighted he has signed a new contract,” Ferguson told ManUtd.com this week.

“Anderson has developed tremendously since joining us and he has fantastic potential at only 22; he is going to be a really top player.”

Performances of power, energy and some invention have come recently, especially against Arsenal on Monday night, although the old tendency to give away possession still remains. The question now is whether the Brazilian can finally justify both the £17 million fee United paid Porto in 2007 and the £80,000 per week contract that will earn Anderson more than £18 million before it ends.

Certainly the player is now more liberated, with Ferguson deploying the midfielder with less defensive duties than previously – although the oft-aired argument that Anderson is United’s answer to an attacking playmaker is as yet totally unproven. After all, the player has just two goals in a more than 100 appearances for the club and less than a dozen assists in three years.

Still, the player made all the right noises this week, professing commitment where it has not always been forthcoming. Moreover effort on the training field has apparently doubled since returning from injury in September. Proof in Ferguson’s eyes at least that Anderson is central to United’s future.

“This is the best club to be at and I would like to thank everyone for the great support I have received over the years,” said Anderson this week.

“I am looking forward to winning many more trophies with United and I am so pleased to have signed a new contract.”

Empty platitudes perhaps but also a sign, however small, that Anderson is now committed to the long-term regeneration of United’s midfield post Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs even if a question remains over his role.

The player’s recent good form has come with fewer defensive responsibilities even if there is little evidence that Anderson can suddenly become a world-class creative midfielder the misguided hubris of some fans points to.

Yet there is reason to be positive in what Anderson can genuinely provide: pace, power, energy. In an age of false-nines and trequartistas, the Brazilian has all the attributes of an old-fashioned box-to-box midfielder.

Of course, goals remain missing from the player’s repertoire. Just two in more than 100 games for United and a record that does not read any better at international level or with previous clubs.

“He is strong, he can beat a man and has great acceleration from a standing position. He is electric in that sense.

“The area he has to improve is goalscoring,” admits Ferguson.

“He recognises that and all the players tell him. That is his weakness, he doesn’t score enough goals.

“But he is still only 22. He is an emerging player and hopefully in three or four years’ time we will be looking back and saying he has given us goals because he has the ability to do it.”

It might be the difference between justifying United’s £40 million total outlay in five years – or not.

Yet, alongside a couple of high-quality midfield acquisitions come summer 2011 – assuming the club still possesses the “ambition” claimed during Wayne Rooney’s contract negotiations – Anderson could form a pivotal part of United’s midfield for a decade.