Month January 2011

Month January 2011

On occasion patience has no virtue

January 30, 2011 Tags: , , , Opinion 54 comments

Of Sir Alex Ferguson’s many faults, lack of patience is not among them. The great Scot has, according to recent analysis, the most stable squad in European football, with players remaining at Old Trafford almost six years on average. That lengthy tenure is aided no doubt by Paul Scholes’, Ryan Giggs’ and Gary Neville’s longevity but the point remains – when it comes to some players, Ferguson has almost limitless patience.

In many ways Ferguson’s approach is anathema to the modern game, where high annual turnover of players and coaches is commonplace at many leading clubs. Yet, the flip side of this undoubtedly virtuous coin is the Scot’s seemingly unwavering loyalty to players that many supporters find insufferably frustrating.

Ferguson’s faith in Darron Gibson, Anderson and Gabriel Obertan, as three midfield examples, is based not on an aggregate of excellence but faith that each will come good in time. That they may, even if the evidence is scant to date.

Discounting any player as not fit for purpose comes with risk of course. The oft-repeated example of Darren Fletcher’s rise from fan pariah, cruelly dubbed ‘the Scottish player’, to an essential cog in the Red machine is now something of an Old Trafford cliché. Yet the 26-year-old Scot’s story is instructive – even those that do not posses natural talent in abundance can carve out a niche if Ferguson’s patience and the player’s will are in sync.

Expectation plays a hefty part in supporters’ reaction of course. Fletcher cost the club little, with the player not commanding a transfer fee and serving United on eminently reasonable wages until the Scot signed a new four-year contract in 2008. The same can be said of Gibson, who graduated through United’s academy, and even Obertan, whose £3.5 million fee made little impression on the club’s mammoth debt.

Anderson, by contrast, attracts a different level of expectation – and therefore criticism – having joined the club as Brazil’s ‘next Ronaldinho’ for more than £19 million in summer 2007.

But in each Ferguson has shown faith beyond concrete evidence; perhaps even beyond reason. While Anderson’s undoubted natural talent comes to the fore only sporadically, it is hard to recall any occasion on which Gibson or Obertan have truly impressed. Certainly against the highest level of opponent.

Anderson’s pace with the ball is a boon but the Brazilian’s impact is continually limited by horrendous passing statistics that in aggregate over three seasons barely reach 70 per cent successful completion. That the player neither scores nor creates goals has led to some fans to acerbically labelling the former Porto midfielder as United’s “fake Brazilian.”

Meanwhile, Obertan continues to run into blind alleys on the rare occasion he is selected for United’s first team. The French under-21 international appears to have little to no knowledge of the game’s mechanics. That nothing is left to chance at United, with players drilled in every small detail of gameplay and tactics, makes the wingers progress over the past 18 months – or lack thereof – all the more frustrating.

Then there is Gibson, who sank to new depths this week with two performances of such casual ineptitude as to call into question the very sanity of his selection. The Irishman, who lacks pace, touch, skill, vision or seemingly the ability to pick out a teammate with the simplest of passes, can at least shoot. Whether the Derry Dynamo’s long-range efforts actually work the goalkeeper is another point altogether.

Ferguson though is unlikely to give up on the trio with any speed. Indeed, the 69-year-old United manager believes that Anderson is the long-term successor to Scholes, despite the Brazilian lacking almost all the attributes that have made the flame-haired midfielder one of the finest midfielders of his or any generation. Time will presumably tell whether Anderson inflicts damage to United’s ambitions or aids them.

Whether Obertan and Gibson face a different fate is as yet unknown. The Frenchman is no closer to a first team berth than when he arrived at the club the summer before last. That Obertan has seen so little first team football, even with Giggs ageing, Antonio Valencia injured and Park Ji-Sung having an inconspicuous season, is relevant. Gibson’s one Champions and three Premier League starts this season tell the tale of a player who has seemingly progressed not one iota in five seasons on the fringe of United’s first team squad.

Each is tied to the club in the long-term though. Anderson signed a new four-and-a-half year contract in December that will keep the 22-year-old at Old Trafford until 2015. Meanwhile, Gibson is tied to the club until summer 2012, as is Obertan.

On current evidence Anderson will continue to frustrate until the penny finally drops. If it ever does. Obertan has natural talent if not the know-how to use it. Yet, with the least natural talent of the trio there seems little prospect, even from the most blinkered of supporters, of Gibson ever making a success of his time at Old Trafford.

If Fletcher’s rise to Old Trafford stardom was hugely surprising from those who followed the Scot with increasing frustration from 2003 to 2006, then a similar path taken by Gibson will be little short of miraculous. More talented players than the Irishman have left United, as Giuseppe Rossi and Ryan Shawcross might attest.

Fortunately for the 23-year-old Ferguson is of a more patient bent than most.

Reds into fifth round but only just

January 29, 2011 Tags: , Matches 18 comments

Twice in a week Manchester United has come from behind to win. Twice Sir Alex Ferguson’s side has displayed a level of ineptitude that threatened defeat. Indeed, much like United’s tie with Blackpool at Bloomfield Road on Tuesday, Ferguson’s outfit was second best for much of today’s FA Cup Fourth round tie with Southampton.

Yet, with a will-to-win that is second to none and two second-half goals from Michael Owen and Javier Hernández, United qualified for the fifth round for the eight time in the past nine years.

Ferguson can take little heart from his team’s performance though despite the win, with several fringe first team players covering themselves in very little glory. Southampton manager Nigel Adkins, by contrast, will rue the energy that ebbed away from his side in the last half an hour of an absorbing cup tie.

“The first half we struggled all the way through it,” said United assistant manager Mike Phelan.

“The played extremely well and the system they used was working to plan. Our system wasn’t. We changed it a little bit at half time and then we tried to make amends in the second half by introducing a couple of new players.

“We’ve played players who are not getting as many games as we’d like to give them and we tinkered a little bit with the formation, which is unusual for us. The difference was the formation change – it changed the game.”

Ferguson though contributed to United’s first-half malaise, selecting for the second time in the week, a side devoid of balance and width. With Owen in an unfamiliar role behind strikers Gabriel Obertan and Hernández, and Darron Gibson making another strong case for permanent exclusion from the squad, United’s play was sloppy, casual and shapeless for much of the opening hour.

Southampton played with greater confidence from the start, but with rumoured United transfer target Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain struggling to impose on United’s unfamiliar back-four and début goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard, the home side was restricted to long-range free kicks.

But United rarely threatened save for Owen’s miscued cross that hit corner of post and bar, and another speculative effort from the former Liverpool striker that flew wide.

Indeed, the home side always looked the most threatening and Richard Chaplow took full advantage of Jonny Evans’ poor clearance and Chris Smalling’s hesitancy to lash past Lindegaard on the stroke of half-time. The stunning finish reward for Southampton’s bright play.

Little changed in the opening minutes of the second period, as United struggled to find any rhythm and the hosts sought a second. The Saints left-back Dan Harding almost doubled the advantage, toe-poking a shot wide after a stunning run through United’s defence.

It was enough for Ferguson, who hauled off the ineffective Gibson and Anderson for Ryan Giggs and Nani, finally offering the width United had lacked for an hour. Those supporters of a crueller disposition might argue the former pair saw an hour more than necessary.

And the changes paid almost immediate dividends as United injected both pace and width into the game. First Nani crossed for Owen to poke wide from close range before Obertan delivered for the striker’s equaliser. There was a touch of fortune to United’s goal though, with the Frenchman’s crossing hitting Danny Seaborne and sitting up for Owen to head home on 65 minutes.

Ten minutes later and United sealed the win as Giggs, influential once again, intercepted Ryan Dickson’s pass and played in Hernández to strike home his second goal in a week.

“Obviously they played well, they’re flying high in their division, and always in FA Cups – no matter what standard you’re playing against – it’s always really tough for sort of 45 minutes or an hour,” said goalscorer Owen, who scored his tenth goal for the club.

“Inevitably, you know, the better quality – and it’s not fitness, obviously they’ve got to run more to keep up with us in many ways and then they tire – and it’s often the way that the better teams come good in the last half hour.”

That United was the better team in name only for much of the matters little now; Ferguson can at least look forward to the Reds’ inclusion in Sunday’s fifth round draw ahead of Aston Villa’s visit to Old Trafford on Tuesday night.

Yet the Scot must also be concerned with his squad’s quality after Gibson, Anderson, Obertan, Smalling and Evans all disappointed. On this evidence alone Ferguson must surely wonder whether Gibson or Obertan will ever make it at the club.

No such worries about Hernández though, who continues to impress during his debut season at Old Trafford.

“He’s only had one chance and he’s scored – one chance, one goal is a tremendous ratio,” Ferguson told MUTV.

“He has great feet in and around the box and gets his shots away quickly with hardly any backlift. His workrate is fantastic and he’s always on the move.

“Sometimes we make it difficult for ourselves, but in fairness I maybe meddled with the system by trying a diamond in the middle of the pitch.

“Manchester United are used to playing with width and I think that [the system] was a problem for us. It wasn’t working at all.”

Pretty or effective it was not but a cup victory nonetheless.

Match Facts
Southampton – 442 – Bialkowski; Harding, Fonte, Butterfield, Seaborne; Schneiderlin, Guly (N’Guessan 79), Oxlade-Chamberlain, Barnard (Dickson 73); Chaplow (Gobern 84), Lambert.

United – 433 – Lindegaard; Fabio Da Silva (Brown 46), Smalling, Evans, O’Shea; Anderson (Nani 58), Scholes, Gibson (Giggs 58); Owen, Hernandez, Obertan.

Attendance – 28,792
Man of the Match – Ryan Giggs

Possession: Southampton 49% – 51% United
Attempts: 12 – 11
On Target: 6 – 6
Corners: 5 – 3
Fouls: 13 – 6

Reds take strong squad to Soton

January 29, 2011 Tags: , Matches 100 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson has taken a strong squad South for this afternoon’s FA Cup fourth round tie at League One Southampton. Mindful of last season’s early exit, the Manchester United manager is set on an easy passage through to the fifth round in a competition that the Reds have not won in more than six years now.

Edwin van der Sar will not feature, Patrice Evra is missing following a family bereavement, Rio Ferdinand is injured and Rafael da Silva will miss the game following his concussion against Blackpool on Tuesday but most of Ferguson’s big guns travel. Still, it is likely the Scot will make significant changes to the United team that came from two goals down against the seasiders during the week.

Indeed, after another horrendous Wayne Rooney performance and a fine Javier Hernández goal against Blackpool, United’s £30 million striker may well be under threat. Fringe players such as Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans, Gabriel Obertan and Darron Gibson could also feature.

Michael Carrick is also available following injury, while Anderson could feature after missing out during midweek.

There could also be a debut for £4 million Danish goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard, who officially joined during the winter transfer window. The 26-year-old was on United’s bench for the trip to Blackpool and will compete with Tomasz Kuszazck for a place in Ferguson’s first XI.

“Michael will train today and hopefully he will be okay to travel,” Ferguson said on Friday.

“We picked up one or two bruises at Blackpool the other night – it was quite a physical game, but we’ll still take a strong squad because it won’t be an easy match; away games in cup ties never are.

“I went to see Southampton play Oldham earlier this month and they won 6-0. They’re having a good season. They play good football and I’m sure they’ll have a go.”

The Saints, who dropped out of the Premier League fives years ago, are now own by the estate of late Swiss businessman Markus Liebherr, whose dream was to take the South coast club back into the top flight. Indeed, with Southampton now riding high in League One there is some light at the end of a very dark tunnel. The club is fortunate to still exist after falling into administration two years ago, for which the Football League administered a 10 point penalty.

Manager Nigel Adkins, who took over in September following a highly successful spell in charge of Scunthorpe United in the Championship, now has his side playing attractive attacking football in the Southampton tradition, with the club on course for a place in the League One play-offs come May.

Chalkboard versus SouthamptonIn Adam Lallana and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain the Saints have in-demand talents. Indeed, if tabloid rumours carry any weight, Ferguson is interested in midfielder Oxlade-Chamberlain, who has burst onto the scene this season. Son of former professional Mark Chamberlain, the teenager may command a £10 million fee, with Arsenal also in the hunt. Having lost out to Arsenal for Cardiff teenager Aaron Ramsey, Ferguson’s determination to land Oxlade-Chamberlain may win the day.

Meanwhile, Adkins Saints could be without captain Dean Hammond, who has a calf problem, and Lallana, who has missed two matches with a knee injury.

Nobody at United is taking Southampton for granted though, especially given the lengthy time since the club last won England’s premier cup competition.

“The manager has already had a little word with us over the last couple of days in training telling us how frustrated he is that he has not been able to get his hands on the trophy,” said defender Smalling, who is likely to start.

“We will be going all out for him and ourselves, and hopefully we can impose our presence on the game nice and early.

“Some people make changes in the FA Cup and view it different ways, but it’s an important competition to us and one we want to win.”

More than three thousand travelling Reds will attest to that, and with United on a five-match winning sequence against the Saints in all competitions confidence is surely high. Little chance then of Southampton repeating the club’s most famous win, at Wembley in 1976 when the Saints beat United 1-0 – via Bobby Stokes much-debated – to win the FA Cup.

Southampton – 442 – Davis; Richardson, Dickson, Fonte, Harding; Jaidi, Guly, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Schneiderlin; Chaplow, Lambert. Subs from: Bialkowski, Butterfield, Martin, Seaborne, Gobern, Barnard, Doble

United – 442 – Lindegaard; Fabio da Silva, Vidic, Smalling, O’Shea; Nani, Carrick, Anderson, Obertan; Hernández, Berbatov. Subs from: Kuzszazk, Evans, Brown, Gibson, Owen, Bébé, Giggs, Fletcher, Rooney.

Referee: Martin Atkinson
Assistant referees: Simon Beck and Mike Mullarkey
Fourth official: Kevin Friend

Southampton – WWWWDL
United – DWWWWW

Rant Cast 58 – Podcast? Do me a favour, love

January 29, 2011 Tags: Rant Cast 1 comment

In this week’s edition of Rant Cast regulars Ed & Paul look back at United’s recent victories over Birmingham City and Blackpool. We discuss the now infamous Richard Keys and Andy Gray sexism rom, talk Edwin van der Sar and ponder existentialism and Darron Gibson.

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 or comment below.

Follow Rant Cast on Twitter @UtdRantCast.

Subscribe on iTunes now.

Poll: who should replace Edwin?

January 28, 2011 Tags: Polls 30 comments

Edwin van der Sar has formally announced his retirement, effective May 2010. The legendary Dutchman has played close to 800 matches in his career, and more than 250 for Manchester United. It leaves Sir Alex Ferguson with a key decision to make this summer – buy a top class replacement or trust Tomasz Kuszczak and Anders Lindegaard.

Who would you buy?

Who should replace Edwin van der Sar?

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Goodbye, farewell, Edwin the gent

January 28, 2011 Tags: Opinion 34 comments

So Edwin van der Sar has confirmed what most supporters expected all along – the 40-year-old goalkeeper plans to retire this summer and spend more time with his family. The decision will surprise few of course – least of all the club – with Manchester United scouting the global market for a replacement this past year.

The stopper, whose wife suffered a stroke in 2009, said that he will play his last match when the season draws to a close in May. After nearly 800 games – 245 and counting for United – the ‘keeper will be remembered as one the most reliable and decorated in the modern game.

And with van der Sar’s passing into the football wilderness United will lose a great of the game: a fine talent, a consummate professional and a true gentleman.

The former Ajax, Juventus and Fulham stopper told his management team’s website today that after two decades in football his family comes first.

“It is now time to pay attention to my family,” said van der Sar.

“I cannot really identify a time when it happened. Let’s just say that it was playing on my mind from the moment Annemarie had her stroke.

“She has fought back from it. We decided on another year in England and thus to stay at Manchester United.

“But, once engaged in the season, the thought of saying goodbye started to gnaw a bit more emphatically.  I thought about stopping, maybe a year ago.

“It is a difficult process. After a defeat, I thought differently than after playing a few good games in a row.

“My age played no role. I am 40 years old but I still feel fit. And then the decision came suddenly. Do not ask me how or why, but suddenly you know. That was sufficient.

“The time has come to devote greater attention to my family – although they have never complained. Everyone in the family has indeed always had to focus on me, but we have also had a lot in return.”

The Dutchman’s arrival at Old Trafford in 2005 came six years too late of course. Ferguson’s attempt to sign van der Sar following Peter Schmeichel’s retirement in 1999 fell on deaf ears, with the stopper infamously refusing to renege on a verbal agreement with Juventus. van der Sar’s honour proved one of the costliest mistakes of Ferguson’s quarter century at the Old Trafford helm.

Instead, the Scot first signed Fabien Barthez, the erratic Frenchman whose career at United died on a series of calamitous mistakes. Others came and went too – Roy Carroll, Tim Howard, the risible Massimo Taibi, among many others.

Indeed, much as van der Sar’s contribution to three Premier League titles – potentially four come May – and the 2008 Champions League is central to United’s recent success, the Dutchman’s legacy is his stability through a period of uncertainty. The ‘keeper’s unflappable calmness, presence and authority steered United’s past a period of near terminal goalkeeping decay during the early noughties. United will surely miss him.

Over the past decade many stoppers can lay claim to be the world’s best – Iker Casillas, Petr Čech, Gianluigi Buffon, for example – and each has a strong case. But none could have done more for United than van der Sar. The right man, at the right time.

It is with sadness that Edwin hangs up his clubs; with regret that the Dutchman could not have joined the United family earlier. But United has also given much to the player, with the end coming after a glorious Indian summer.

“Which [trophy] doesn’t really matter, that’s the thing you aim for and I hope that materialises in the end,” added van der Sar, who finished with more than 120 caps for Holland.

“When I initially came here I was just happy to sign a two-year contract and try to win a league before I retired.

“Luckily I was able to achieve a little bit more than that and also prolong it for a little bit longer than two years.

“It would have been nice to have a few years longer here but that’s life – you don’t always get what you want at the right time. I am just happy that at least we got to come together and experience a good few years.

“It’s been nice, it’s been a great experience – even at my age – to be at a club as big as United. It’s just been a joy.”

But United, as Gary Neville once so accurately said, is a cynical club. Come the summer Ferguson will invest in a new ‘keeper to work alongside Anders Lindegaard, the Dane who joined a fortnight ago, and the team will inevitably move on.

Indeed, United has reportedly concluded months of search with a shortlist of three competing players as van der Sar’s top class replacement. It’s a high quality list too – compatriot Maarten Stekelenburg, German World Cup star Manuel Neuer, and the brilliant but callow Spaniard David De Gea.

Of the three Stekelenburg is the most experienced and the safe choice but, arguably, the least naturally talented. Meanwhile, Neuer is available although not necessarily affordable, with Schalke financially stable. Each will do a fine job at Old Trafford.

Yet De Gea is the romantic choice though. Just 20, and suffering a ‘difficult second season’ with Atlético de Madrid, De Gea has all the hallmarks of his erstwhile predecessor in the United net – calm under pressure, presence among men, genuine trust of his peers. He’s also the most talented.

In a summer of change, with Neville and Paul Scholes potentially heading out of Old Trafford too, the succession is now a decision of high importance.

Ferguson once missed out on van der Sar. Supporters and the club can only hope the Scot gets the right man this time.

Tangerine dream brings out best and worst in Reds

January 26, 2011 Tags: , Matches 23 comments

Manchester United produced a stunning second half comeback to secure a win at Blackpool last night and move five points clear at the head of the Premier League table. Coming from two behind to win with three second half goals, the seaside trip demonstrated the very best in United’s sheer determination to win.

Dimitar Berbatov scored twice and substitute Javier Hernández another in the final 18 minutes of a pulsating fixture. But three valuable points cannot obscure one of the most disorganised performances from the Reds this season in a disastrous first half at Bloomfield Road.

Indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson is entitled to feel both proud and highly concerned about his side’s performance against the newly promoted Tangerines. Second best during the first 45, United could well have been out of the tie before referee Peter Walton blew for half-time.

Yet, with Wayne Rooney unceremoniously hauled off by Ferguson with 25 minutes to go United produced some thrilling football to take the points in a game that largely mirrored the Reds’ inconsistent season.

“I know the game’s never done in situations like today,” Ferguson told ESPN, who focused on the positives to come out of United’s performance.

“You know at some point we’re going to do something. You’ll get games like tonight. Maybe sometimes we won’t come back but we’ll always try to come back.

“In the first half we were battered. We couldn’t handle Charlie Adam. We were terrible. I don’t know the reason for the first half. We were all over the place. Maybe we were too confident.

“We changed at half-time, Ryan Giggs made a tremendous difference. We started to penetrate and I think we were deserved winners in the end.”

Over confidence perhaps but the United manager must surely take some blame for the disjointed nature of United’s performance during the first half. Deploying the recalled Darron Gibson, alongside Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher in a three-man midfield, proved a near disastrous selection. And with Rooney wide left, United struggled to defend with any shape, let alone attack with purpose.

For all United’s superstars it was want-away Scot Charlie Adam that dominated the opening period. The former Rangers midfielder was at the heart of a vibrant attacking performance from Ian Holloway’s side, which was ahead inside 15 minutes. Adam’s set-piece delivery allowed former Red Craig Cathcart to lose his marker and head past ‘keeper Edwin van der Sar.

Further goals nearly followed in quick succession, with captain Nemanja Vidic almost putting into his own net before Elliot Grandin fired over from 10 yards out. The midfielder should have done much better.

Then Van der Sar superbly saved David Vaughan’s shot just before the break only for DJ Campbell to head home Adam’s subsequent corner. The two goal lead was everything Blackpool deserved for a superb performance.

If United was lethargic, complacent and casual, the hosts were everthing that is good about Holloway’s management.  Indeed, if Adam was the star, United could boast only Gibson, whose time at the club has brought little in the way of consistency save for regular mediocrity.

Yet if Ferguson was culpable for his side’s selection and tactics the manager also gained much credit for United’s turnaround. Swapping veteran Ryan Giggs for Gibson at half time brought at immediate sense of endeavor and urgency. Replacing the woeful Rooney with Hernández effectively won United the game.

United went close from Scholes and then Nani before two goals inside five second half minutes turned the game around in the Reds’ favour. First Berbatov turned in Fletcher’s centre from close range with 20 minutes to go, then with Blackpool barely regrouped Hernández superbly struck from Giggs’ through-ball. If the Mexican cannot gain a regular first team birth on this evidence it is an injustice.

If all the momentum was now with the visitors not once did Blackpool cave in, with Holloway’s side content to push men forward to very last. It proved the hosts’ undoing though as Berbatov scored the winner with two minutes to go. The Bulgarian lashed home past Richard Kingson from Scholes’ pass to earn a seemingly unlikely win.

Ferguson reserved praise for his goalscorers, although in the privacy of the dressing room United’s players must surely be in no doubt how close they came to a first defeat of the Premier League season.

“His [Hernández’] pace and timing of the runs is fantastic. He’s so good at that. He could have scored four goals. He’s made a tremendous impact.

“[Berbatov is] having a great season. He has great talent. The third goal, the composure, I was screaming for him to square it to Chicharito but, no, he has the confidence and ability to do what he did.”

Indeed, the Bulgarian claimed that his team was always confident of victory. Empty words perhaps but a sign that Ferguson’s drive is deeply ingrained even on the sometimes lethargic forward.

“We’re always confident that if we can score one we can score more and that was the case today. We fight like a team. In the second half we showed spirit and we won,” said the striker, who has now scored 19 times in an increasing fruitful season

”You come here, it’s not a friendly ground. The pitch is not as ours back home at Old Trafford. ‘Blackpool played a very good game and scored goals, they could easily have scored more in the first half.

”In the end it was the team spirit that won the game.”

The systemic problems in United’s squad aside, it is that same team spirit that may just bring a 19th Premier League title. But as so often this season, United surely must perform better than this when key matches come round in the Spring.

Match Facts
Blackpool – 433 – Kingson; Eardley, Evatt, Baptiste, Cathcart; Vaughan, Grandin, Adam; Taylor-Fletcher (Harewood 74), Varney (Phillips 68), Campbell.

United – 433 – Van der Sar; Rafael (Anderson 80), Smalling, Vidic, Evra; Scholes, Fletcher, Gibson (Giggs 46); Nani, Berbatov, Rooney (Hernandez 66).

Attendance – 15,574
Man of the Match – Berbatov

Possession: Blackpool 48% – 52% United
Attempts: 6 – 17
On Target: 2 – 4
Corners:6 – 8
Fouls: 11 – 10

Rafael’s promise a blessing and a curse

January 25, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 14 comments

Despite his crossing ability, Gary Neville has been more a full-back who can attack than a proper attacking player in the mould of Cafu. Yet, Rafael da Silva’s emergence this season has allowed Sir Alex Ferguson, perhaps for the first time in his Manchester United career, to depend on his right full-back to provide genuine creativity.

And while it is plain, even to the most casual of fans, that United lacks a creative central player, Ferguson clearly recognises the issue. United’s tactical focus this season has been to flood the attacking central midfield area with numbers – a ‘quantity over quality’ approach.

United’s base system of 4-4-2 cum 4-2-2-2 cum 4-2-4-0 has born some fruit in the home games against Blackburn Rovers, Sunderland and Birmingham City. An argument can be made though that United’s new 4-4-2 is as much about providing a platform to best utilise the Brazilian full-back as it is about masking the lack of a playmaker.

Rafael has noticeably matured this season even if he remains hot-headed for a defender. United’s system plays to his strengths – by playing a nominal 4-4-2 Rafael has a wide man ahead who provides cover. And because the right winger, usually Nani, is encouraged to cut in, Rafael also has space when in possession.

The twenty-year-old is a genuine attacking threat. Rafael’s blistering pace is buttressed by excellent close control and dribbling. The Brazilian’s passing and crossing are technically proficient even if his decision-making lets him down. Age and experience should improve the timing and reading of the game.

On paper, Rafael’s progress is exciting. Surely, one more avenue of attack will make United even more exciting. However, one must not forget that Patrice Evra is also very attacking.

Take infantry as an analogy – organised by ‘fireteams,’ the idea is to have one soldier charge and gain ground while his or her partner covers the runner. Defence in football operates on the same idea. One-to-one battles are not desirable – once a defender is beaten, the attacker has a free shot at goal.

Football managers have thus always sought a spare man at the back to provide additional cover. For example, one can play three centre-backs to counter two strikers. Or in four-man defensive systems, managers often have a full-back or a midfielder stay behind and form a defensive unit with the centre-backs.

With Rafael and Evra both charging ahead, United faces an undesirable two versus two at the back, especially against teams playing 4-4-2. Even against systems that nominally feature only one striker, such as 4-2-3-1, leaving two men back is risky because of the opposition player ‘in the hole.’

Compensation comes at a cost – a central midfield player can drop deep and provide cover, but the team then gets outmanned in the middle.

United’s response has been interesting. Wayne Rooney has been playing very deep of late and that has ensured United does not get overrun in central midfield. But in the recent away game at White Hart Lane, United suffered simply because Rooney had a bad day.

Indeed, therein lies the problem. United’s new 4-4-2 is a great idea but it can only be a temporary fix. Ferguson’s system asks the midfielders, and one of the strikers, to essentially play two roles. It is arguable that Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher are playing badly this season simply because they are being asked to do too much.

The system works fine when United can hold the ball and play a high line. Yet, in less fluid games the team gets stretched and players find themselves covering a too much ground and running themselves into submission.

With a marquee signing looking increasingly unlikely United will have to make do with existing players. If the answer doesn’t come in the market perhaps one solution to this dilemma is tactical, by deploying a 4-2-3-1, with Rooney as a central attacking midfielder rather than striker. While Rooney has never been – and never will be – a proper playmaker beggars cannot be choosers.

Another, more familiar, option is to play Rooney as lone striker in a variant of 4-5-1. This less fluid system allows players to domore specialised – hence easier – roles. With central midfielders in their proper place the Reds will hold onto the ball more easily, which of course relieves pressure and further reduces the chance of anyone being caught out of position.

United’s 4-4-2 is an exciting, fluid system. It has the potential to do some real damage as Blackburn found out the hard way. But one cannot persist with a system that puts intolerable pressure on central midfield for the possibility of great football.

We must keep in mind the dictum that sound defence wins championships.

Signs point to Evra departure

January 25, 2011 Tags: Opinion 31 comments

Fan favourite Patrice Evra may have less than six months left at Old Trafford after the left-back’s agent failed to guarantee the player’s long-term future at Manchester United. Federico Pastorelo confirmed Internazionale’s interest in the United defender, whose contract runs to June 2012, but said there is no plan for departure during the winter transfer window.

Yet it is Pastorelo’s assertion that his client will decide whether to “stay or go” this summer that will concern United fans most. After all rumours of Evra’s departure have circulated for more than a year now and a new contract is yet to be signed.

“We will sit down in the summer with Manchester United and decide whether he will extend his contract or move on,” Pastorelo told on Monday.

“But for the moment there is nothing special to say on the situation. There has been interest, and I have read about Real Madrid but really the only official interest was from Inter Milan last summer.

“We had a long chat with Sir Alex Ferguson and it was decided he would stay in Manchester. His contract runs out in the summer of 2012 and there he is concentrating and focused on this season.”

Indeed, current signs point to a summer departure unless Evra receives a substantial pay rise in keeping with the defender’s status as the world’s leading left-back. That Evra is yet to publicly commit to the club, nor any talks on a deal yet confirmed, only adds credibility to the rumour of a summer move to the continent.

Moreover, the agent’s carefully chosen words, much like those of Nemanja Vidic’s representative last year, leave the player’s options open, while avoiding painting his client into a corner. After all, Madrid is still reportedly interested despite the improved form of Marcelo this season.

Nor should there be any surprise at Old Trafford that the player is prepared to play the market, despite Evra’s status as a fan favourite. After all, Wayne Rooney’s excessive new deal has set in motion substantial pay increases for United’s stars as wage inflation continues unabated. That John O’Shea’s proposed new deal is reportedly worth more than £80,000 per week puts into perspective Evra’s probable and realistic demands.

The player is in a strong negotiating position too. Evra’s departure – should it happen – will not only cause further disruption to United’s defence for the 2011/12 season but necessitate a potentially large transfer fee for an appropriately top class replacement. After all, Edwin van der Sar is now certain to retire in June and while Fabio da Silva has much promise, Rafael’s brother has little to no experience. With Gary Neville also likely to retire this summer and Wes Brown on his way to pastures new it promises to be a close-season of defensive change at the club.
This change comes just as Ferguson’s back four offers more solidity than ever with Rio Ferdinand’s return to long-term fitness and captain Vidic now settled at the club.

Any transfer will also rob United fans of a favourite son. Not only has Evra developed into one of the world’s finest during a five-year stint at Old Trafford but he is a character to boot. Ever quotable, the 29-year-old defender seemingly has the fans at heart.

But there is a counter argument to the populist view of Evra – one that few fans will accept. Ruthless perhaps, but Ferguson could lose Evra knowing that the player’s best years are behind him. Turning 30 in May, Evra will command a gradually lower transfer fee while earning superstar wages should he sign a contract extension in the coming months. It’s an economic imperative that will  force the player out in June and rather than on a Bosman free in 2012 should a new deal not be agreed.

More to the point, Evra’s performances have noticeably dropped this season. A World Cup hangover perhaps but the Senegalese-born defender is yet to hit previous heights. While that is of course understandable – Evra’s part in the French World Cup rebellion has seemingly been punished with permanent exclusion from the national team – long-term decline will inevitably set in at some point.

That said, the player’s departure is not inevitable. After all, captain Vidic remained non-committal for months while speculation raged about a move to Milan, Madrid or Barcelona. The Serbian’s reward: a 30 per cent pay rise that will make the 29-year-old millions.

In the modern football market the choice is now Evra’s. Old Trafford or abroad, the Frenchman will be very well rewarded.