Month February 2011

Month February 2011

How Gridiron inspired Fergie

February 21, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 28 comments

In American football, the “offense” and the “defense” form a line of scrimmage. The offensive line protects the passer, usually the quarterback, and clears the way for runners. Runners, usually receivers positioned wide, carry the ball forward. Despite the prevalent perception, Sir Alex Ferguson is quite a tactician. He has – perhaps anticipating upcoming European games – revamped the 4-5-1 that Manchester United has used in tough games. Indeed, Ferguson’s 4-5-1 is very reminiscent of Gridiron.

In Ferguson’s system two central midfielders, usually Anderson and Darren Fletcher, charge forward and engage opposition midfielders. Paul Scholes or Michael Carrick plays the deep-lying playmaking role – aided by the extra space afforded by the two midfield runners. The ‘quarterback’ often passes to one of the wingers. Wingers carry the biggest creative load in the system – they have to either make the defense splitting balls to the lone forward, usually Wayne Rooney, or run with the ball and score.

However, wingers are aptly aided by Rooney, with the former Evertonian playing the ‘false nine’ role. A false nine is a striker who drops deep from the nominal number nine position. Such movements can be very deadly as an opposition centre-back or two can be dragged out of position. Should a centre-back follow Rooney deep, United’s wingers then have room for maneuver. Even if opposition centre-backs are disciplined in their positioning, Rooney then links with the Reds’ midfielders and helps maintain possession – allowing United’s defence to creep up and help out.

United's 4-5-1This variant on Ferguson’s 4-5-1 has worked well in home games against Arsenal and Manchester City this season and is likely to be used in a tough away game against Olympique de Marseille in the coming week.

It’s not the first time Ferguson has experimented this season – a prototype to the new system was also used in away games against Birmingham City and Blackpool, although the attempt failed miserably, despite a win and a draw. The two failed attempts can perhaps be written off as an unfortunate, but natural, consequence of any experiment.

The new system does have few glaring weaknesses though. One obvious fault is predictability. The plan: Fletcher and Anderson make forward runs and keep opposition midfielders occupied; Scholes or Carrick pass to Nani, Ryan Giggs, Ji-Sung Park or AntonioValencia; Rooney drops deep to create space; the winger tries to score. However, unless Rooney comes into the goal-scoring form of last season, the new 4-5-1 will remain far too predictable. The opposition can simply sit deep and deny space.

Another weakness is the burden placed on the deep-lying playmaker. With Carrick in poor form and Scholes no longer able to cope with a fast-pressing game, the ‘quarterback’ in the new tactic can easily be nipped in the bud. In the recent Manchester derby, Sir Alex protected Scholes by playing John O’Shea instead of Rafael. Indeed, the formation stifles United’s full-backs.

With Fletcher and Anderson making frequent forward runs, Evra and Rafael must help protect the Reds’ deep-lying playmaker. In addition to the defensive role, they also have to motor forward and provide auxiliary width as wingers cut inside.

Theoretically, two full-backs can help out the quarterback and then motor forward as the quarterback drops deep to form a temporary back three as necessary. It remains to be seen whether the abstract thinking can work on the pitch of course. United’s full-backs will be more conservative away from home but this instruction ensures an already predictable system is even more readable.

United's 4-2-3-1Moreover, Sir Alex appears very concerned with his new 4-5-1. For example, in the recent FA Cup tie against Crawley Town he deployed the new system – probably to fine tune the formation. Events changed the match though – the 69-year-old Scot introduced Rooney and played 4-2-3-1 in the second half. But Gabriel Obertan and Bébé’s poor form, in addition to the Da Silva twins’ injuries, rendered United narrow and allowed Crawley to take the initiative.

Disastrous, and frankly painful to watch as the match might have been, the interesting thing was the Scot changing United’s formation during the interval. In using 4-2-3-1, Ferguson added another midfielder alongside the quarterback, providing extra protection and allowing the full-backs to bomb forward more easily.

It is quite clear that Sir Alex counts his full-backs as a major source of creativity. It is also palpable that the United manager is still unconvinced by the new 4-5-1.

Cup alive claims Fergie as Crawley visit

February 19, 2011 Tags: , Matches 96 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson says the FA Cup is very much alive, with his Manchester United side hosting non-league Crawley Town at Old Trafford on Sunday. With attendances in the competition falling and the FA considering a major revamp of the 150 year-old tournament, the Scot says this weekend’s match is what the cup is all about.

Indeed, Ferguson is likely to select a strong side, with many of United’s fringe squad players joining some youngsters in the matchday squad. Although goalscoring derby hero Wayne Rooney is likely to rest along with top scorer Dimitar Berbatov and other senior pros, United could field up to nine internationals for Crawley’s visit.

“You talk about the FA Cup dying and it’s not dying as long as you have got giant-killing acts like Crawley have produced,” Ferguson told the press on Friday.

“Every manager will tell you, you don’t want to be a casualty. We lost to Leeds last year and it wasn’t easy to take that. They deserved to win on the day. They were up for it and made it a cup tie.

“It will be the same tomorrow. Crawley will get stuck into us and there’s no other way for them. We have got good experience of playing sides like Crawley over the years like Exeter and Burton Albion.

“It’s a reminder shocks can happen and almost did against those two teams. But I think the quality we have tomorrow shouldn’t give us the same worry.”

While Mexican phenomenon Javier Hernández is likely to start for Ferguson’s side, Michael Owen will sit out the tie after suffering a groin injury during training this week. The match, which kicks off at 5.30pm to suit the needs of broadcaster ESPN, will also provide another opportunity for fringe squad members including Darron Gibson, Gabriel Obertan and Bébé.

“We’ll play all the players who were involved at Southampton in the last round,” added Ferguson.

“Bébé will play, so will the two da Silvas, Brown, O’Shea, Chicharito. We’re strong in midfield with Anderson, Gibson and Carrick all available.

“It should be an interesting game. We’ve got good experience of playing sides like Crawley having played Burton Albion and Exeter. Those games were reminders that shocks can happen, and they almost did against those two teams. But the quality of players we’ll have on Saturday shouldn’t give us the same worry.

“We respect the fact that Crawley are the best non-league side for quite a while. They’re very committed and aggressive and it’ll be a tough game.”

Chalkboard versus Crawley Town, FA Cup fifth roundPark Ji-Sung will also sit out the tie after suffering a hamstring injury last week and will miss the next month, while Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans are still unavailable.

Better news comes in the form of Ryan Giggs new contract, with the Welshman now committed to the club until June 2012. While the 37-year-old is unlikely to play against Crawley, a series of impressive performances from the bench have convinced Ferguson of the winger’s continuing worth.

And if Giggs is an inspiration to United’s youth then the next great Old Trafford star could be on the bench after half a dozen kids were handed squad numbers ahead of the Crawley tie. Striker Joshua King, brilliant Frenchman Paul Pogba, and midfielders Ryan Tunnicliffe and Oliver Norwood have each been handed a squad place.

Meanwhile, Crawley’s players warmed up for the tie by taking in an Old Trafford sightseeing tour on Thursday – somewhat belittling manager Steve Evans assertion that his side would play with no fear.

“It’s unbelievable. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” 23-year-old defender Kyle McFadzean told BBC Sport.

“I might not be able to play at Old Trafford again so we have to take our chances when they come. Whatever team they put out it will be a good one but we have to go there thinking we can win.

“There’s no point in going there expecting to get hammered is there? If we did that then there would be no point in turning up. We all think we have got a chance.”

Crawley’s extraordinary rise comes after the club almost went out of business four years ago. In the meantime, Crawley’s new owners Bruce Winfield, Ian and Susan Carter and Prospect Estates Holdings cleared the debt and pumped money into the transfer market much to other non-league clubs’ chagrin.

Dodgy financing it seems isn’t limited to Glazernomics. Fitting perhaps that Evans himself was once banned by the FA for financial irregularities.

The cup may not be dead but it’s certainly on life-support.

Rant Cast 61 – up for the cup?

February 18, 2011 Tags: Rant Cast 3 comments

In this week’s edition of Rant Cast regulars Ed & Paul look back at United’s recent derby-day victory over Manchester City, pausing for a moment to discuss Wayne Rooney’s best-goal-ever™. We ponder Mike Summerbee’s bitterness, David Beckham’s kindness and upcoming matches against Crawley Town and Marseille.

And we’ll talk about the retirement of the phenomenon, Ronaldo. We wouldn’t go so far as to call the brother fat, but he definitely got a weight problem….

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.

Torres makes Chelsea easier to beat

February 18, 2011 Tags: , , , Opinion 12 comments

“When you join a club you want to do the best for yourself and for that club. That’s all,” said Fernando Torres on signing for Chelsea on the deadline day last month. Despite Liverpool fans’ angry protests, the player had no obligation to the Merseyside club above and beyond the contract he signed in 2007.

Indeed, moving clubs is no “betrayal” and even if fans label Torres a “Judas” the Merseyside club certainly got its thirty pieces of silver – the £50 million fee Chelsea paid for the 26-year-old striker. Moreover, Liverpool signed Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll to replace Torres, bolstering an infamously thin squad and replacing the non-firing Spaniard with two decent alternatives. It was a transfer that made sense – even if the American-owned club paid two astronomical fees for Suarez and Carroll.

The move makes sense for the London club as well, although perhaps not in the short-term. With Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka now beyond 30, Chelsea needed someone younger to take over the striking mantle.

However, Torres’s introduction could make an already brittle Chelsea side even easier to beat. After all, neither Anelka nor Drogba are even-tempered and each is  liable to throw a tantrum or two should a spell on the bench result from the incoming striker.

Even if the existing strikers accept the situation, assimilation of the former Liverpool player remains an issue for Carlo Ancelotti. There’s a reason most clubs do their transfer businesses in the close season. Matches start to pile up around this time of year – especially for the top clubs that fight on multiple fronts. Managers begin to curtail training to ease the physical toil and to prevent injuries. With less time on the training pitch, new signings find it harder to blend in, although there is pressure to fully use the new player, in hope that the team will eventually gel.

Winter transfers are much more realistic for smaller clubs though, especially troubled sides fighting relegation. Assuming that the fee is reasonable, a mid-season purchase represents less of a gamble than for the top sides. Also, smaller clubs tend to use less sophisticated tactics than the giants of the game; easier tactics, easier integration.

Chelsea, on the other hand, is helmed by Ancelotti – and even a tactician as renowned as the former AC Milan manager will find the prospect of keeping Anelka, Drogba and Torres happy challenging. The Italian could choose a variant of standard 4-4-2, although it is difficult to implement at Chelsea because the London club lacks a player to play wide right bar, perhaps, Ramires and Michael Essien. Either is simply a temporary fix.

At AC Milan, Ancelotti used decidedly central systems such as 4-3-1-2, but such narrow formations are hard to use in the Premier League. For one, width is sacred to most English clubs. Yet, systems with wide midfielders or wingers can pin back full-backs and render narrow systems completely toothless.

Moreover, Chelsea has no one that can play the trequartista role that is essential in formations such as 4-3-1-2 and 4-4-2 diamond. Frank Lampard is a sound player technically but even he does not have that oomph required for the role. Arguably, the Englishman is too ‘box-to-box’ to play with his back to goal.

This argument similarly applies to Anelka and others – as Ancelotti’s previous flirtations with formations show, Chelsea simply doesn’t have the players to make narrow systems work.

Manchester United hasn’t yet played Chelsea this season but considering that the Reds have fared well against Arsenal  in recent seasons, two upcoming games against the West Londoners will likely decide whether Sir Alex Ferguson’s outfit can win a 19th league title. As things stand, the trophy appears inevitable.

Should Tottenham Hotspur maintain excellent recent form, Torres – whose rationale for the move was to play in the Champions League – might well return to the Europa League next season. What a delicious irony.

Poll: Has Berbatov earned new deal?

February 16, 2011 Tags: , Polls 43 comments

Reports indicate that Dimitar Berbatov is in talks to extend his Manchester United contract, with the Bulgarian striker’s deal due to expire in June 2012. The 30-year-old, who earns around £100,000 a week, is set for a 75 per cent pay increase following a season in which the former Tottenham Hotspur player has scored 20 goals in 29 games.

Indeed, United could break an unwritten club rule by offering the player a new three-year deal and not a rolling one-year contract often given to players over 30. Now in his third season with United, Berbatov could leave the club for free next June unless a new deal is signed.

The question is – has Berbatov done enough this season to justify the huge pay rise and long-term deal?

Has Berbatov earned (potential) new deal?

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Valencia return adds to United’s creative edge

February 15, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 14 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson delivered mixed news on the injury front today, with Antonio Valencia now training with the reserves ahead of a potential first team return in March but Park Ji-Sung now ruled out for a month with a hamstring injury. Bittersweet news of course, although the sum total could still mean his Manchester United team is better equipped for the Premier League and European run-in.

“We got a blow on Saturday morning with the news that Ji-sung Park did his hamstring on Friday afternoon in training,” confirmed the 69-year-old United manager.

“It was very unfortunate because it was his last kick of the ball in training as well. We were really looking forward to having him back after being away for a month at the Asian Cup. He’ll be out for up to a month, which is a blow to us.

“The good news is that Valencia started training with the Reserves on Saturday. So he’s on his way back and that will be a real boost to have him available for the run-in.”

Valencia’s return on schedule after the agonising leg break and ankle dislocation suffered against Rangers in September adds not only to Ferguson’s attacking options but the flexibility of United’s squad. The Ecuadorian’s pace, eye for goal and – perhaps crucially – potential to ignite Wayne Rooney into a goalscoring run could prove the difference come May.

After all, Valencia’s sound delivery from the right-wing in no small part contributed to Rooney’s 34-goal haul last season, with the former Evertonian scoring an uncanny number of headed goals.

That said, United’s ability to cope with Valencia’s absence this season is not in doubt; a permanent switch to the right has brought greater consistency to Nani’s game and Ryan Giggs’ evergreen presence has provided some stability on the left, even if Ferguson’s options are limited.

Meanwhile, Park’s injury reduces – at a minimum – Ferguson’s alternatives in midfield, especially in European away matches where the South Korean has tended to play in a ‘defensive attacking’ role. Park is no doubt a negative choice on United’s win, offering much less in attacking creative output that some of Ferguson’s alternatives. Yet, the 29-year-old remains a key defensive tool in Ferguson’s tactical planning.

Even with Valencia at his disposal Ferguson faces something of a tactical dilemma in the coming weeks, presuming the players returns to last season’s level of consistency. After all, Nani is thriving on the right-side of United’s midfield, not only scoring but creating too. Indeed, the Portuguese has hit the net 11 times this season, contributed 13 direct assists and been involved in the build up in 31 of United’s 32 Premier League goals when the 25-year-old has started. These are impressive statistics on any level.

Switching Nani to the left not only risks upsetting the player’s form but potentially unbalancing United’s attack in crucial matches away from home. Ferguson’s desire for United to never be outnumbered in midfield is paramount and in that context, it’ll be a brave move by the Scot to deploy both Nani and Valencia in key away fixtures against Marseille, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool, presuming fitness on both players’ part.

Indeed, recent history says that the Scot will adopt a wholly negative approach in those games, seeking first and foremost to protect United’s four-point Premier League lead and even up the tactical battle against teams that will each deploy three men in central midfield.

Moreover, Park has played a crucial role in some of United’s biggest fixtures in recent seasons, such as the Reds’ two-legged victory over AC Milan this time last season.

Whatever the tactical choices, Valencia’s return is a personal triumph for the player, who has become both with United’s fans and in the dressing room. The former Wigan Athletic winger’s unassuming nature, initially seen as potentially inhibiting on the pitch, is heartily welcomed by supporters keen to see performances not ‘brand development’.

The players return comes with a word of warning though. Positive as the news surely is, it may still prove a long road. After all, neither Dion Dublin nor Alan Smith made it at Old Trafford following similar injuries. Neither had Valencia’s talent of course but in elite sport inherent talent is only one part of the picture.

Rooney’s scores goal of goals – can he now kick on?

February 14, 2011 Tags: Opinion 11 comments

Wayne Rooney’s goal, to paraphrase a famous late English commentator, was good enough not only to win the Manchester derby but the Grand National too. As the 25-year-old Scouser twisted mid-air and sent the ball arching into Joe Hart’s top-corner Old Trafford drew in a collective breath and then exploded with joy.

Great goals, those remembered for generations, are scored by the best players on significant occasions. With 15 minutes to go in one of the most important Manchester derbies since the 1970s, Rooney scored a goal that will play on repeat for decades. Rightly so, despite the bitterness directed at the Manchester United striker from some commentators.

The irony of course is that Rooney didn’t have a particularly effective game against Manchester City. Not for the first time, the former Everton striker’s touch was poor; his confidence seemingly low. Until, instinctively perhaps, Rooney succeeded in executing the impossible with just minutes to go.

There will of course be debates about where Rooney’s goal sits in the pantheon of strikes either for United, of the overhead variety or, indeed, in the list of the greatest ever. It matters little. On a day when once again United underperformed, Rooney produce a moment of such sheer individual brilliance that even Roberto Mancini could do little but concede the genius of Rooney. It is enough that Rooney’s goal will live in the memory for a generation.

Rooney, meanwhile, was modest in his achievement, admitting that the strike was probably his best while downplaying the inevitable hyperbole.

“As soon as I hit it, I knew it was in and it’s definitely the best goal I’ve scored,” Rooney told the BBC.

“It was a special feeling. The fans deserve that from me because I’ve not had the best of seasons. I know how big this game is in Manchester, so I hope they enjoyed that.

“Now the aim is to keep scoring and help us get that title back.”

And there’s the rub. Unless Rooney continues scoring as the season draws to a close, the striker’s brilliance at Old Trafford over the weekend will count for little.

Rooney now has six goals this season, three of them from the penalty spot, in 21 games. By his own admission it has been a poor season from the striker; beset by controversy in the bedroom and outrageous contract demands in the Old Trafford boardroom.

Indeed, his manager Sir Alex Ferguson was quick to put Rooney’s strike in context yesterday, demanding that the forward produce consistent performances home and away.

“I hope that is Wayne back to his best,” said Ferguson.

“But I have to say, what I need to get out of Wayne and Berba are those performances away from home. They have not been as good for us away and it’s a quandary for us because they should be dictating games away from home. If they do, it will make a hell of a difference.”

Of course, Rooney has always been able to score goals of the very highest calibre. What marked a changed last season was the output, with the 25-year-old plundering 34 goals in all competitions before ankle injury against Bayern Munich in march blighted the last few months of his season.

Rooney now has the chance to put right the wrongs of this campaign. As the former Evertonian says – he owes the fans something. But it is not a single goal, albeit a very special one in a very important game. Should Rooney now score the goals that seals a 19th Premier League title come May, or – dare to dream – takes United to the Champions League final at Wembley, that special goal scored on Saturday will be all the more important.

In truth there is little tangible evidence that Rooney is anywhere near his best; the goal an exception that proves the rule. Against City Rooney’s touch was heavy and his involvement limited as United resisted a fierce City challenge. Not for the first time this season the Reds won without convincing the fans.

Yet, special goals are scored by special players. Saturday’s was among the very best. However, the real test of Rooney’s value in what he can deliver for the team this season in the closing weeks.

Fergie’s deployment of O’Shea proves masterstroke

February 13, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 62 comments

With Rafael da Silva in fine form, few expected John O’Shea to start yesterday’s Manchester derby. The Irishman, who is known more for his versatility than virtuosity, has been in poor form this season but his deployment was crucial to Manchester United’s 2-1 victory at Old Trafford.

There is no doubting Rio Ferdinand’s importance to United’s defence; a leader on the pitch, the English defender provides composure to the back line. United’s defence is much more prone to jittery moments without Ferdinand. With inexperienced Chris Smalling playing alongside Nemanja Vidic yesterday, it would have been too risky to play two attacking full-backs in Rafael and Patrice Evra. O’Shea limited his forward forages and helped stabilise the defence by providing extra cover.

It was a brilliant decision by Sir Alex Ferguson.

This column has previously argued that United’s deployment of two attacking defenders in a 4-4-2 based system has been responsible for United central midfielders’ collective poor form this season. Even against teams playing a lone forward, the Reds’ two at the back are exposed to too much pressure without support from central midfield. United’s central midfielders need to combat opposition midfielders, provide ammunition to forward players and defend as well; they end up trying to do everything and failing all.

With O’Shea, Smalling and Vidic staying back yesterday, Manchester City’s forwards were completely neutralised. United midfielders and forwards were freed by the extra defensive player at the back.

This freedom was particularly appreciated by Paul Scholes. As brilliant as he is, the English midfielder has performed noticeably worse in games where he is exposed to great pressure. Ferguson deployed Scholes deep to afford the midfield maestro extra time but even in this role, the midfielder was pressured as City played pressing game as a response to United’s deep line. With three behind him – instead of the usual two – Scholes always had an easy option to recycle possession.

In addition, Darren Fletcher and Anderson could play box-to-box roles because of the defensive stability brought on by O’Shea. O’Shea allowed Scholes to dictate the play and Fletcher and Anderson could make runs from deep, instead of helping out at the back.

Fletcher and Anderson’s running had two effects. Firstly, Scholes was afforded even more protection as United’s midfield runners pinned back City’s midfield players. Secondly, City’s defensive midfielders could not double up on Giggs and Nani.

City introduced Edin Džeko in the second half and switched to a 4-4-2. O’Shea’s presence allowed United to introduce Berbatov and match City’s system without Vidic and Smalling being overwhelmed by Džeko and Carlos Tevez.

O’Shea didn’t have a particularly spectacular game but he did what Ferguson had in mind. The game was won by a spectacular Wayne Rooney strike but the scene was very aptly set up by the Scot and his Irish defender.

John O'Shea Tactics Board

Credit: Guardian Chalkboards

Rant Cast 60 – Hasta la Rant Cast, City

February 11, 2011 Tags: Rant Cast No comments

In this week’s edition of Rant Cast regulars Ed & Paul look back at United’s recent loss to Wolverhampton Wanderers at Molineux. We preview the derby and wonder if United can cope without Rio Ferdinand. And we look at the United players who appeared during the international break.

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.