Month June 2011

Month June 2011

Barça transfer carousel impacts Red priorities

June 29, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 47 comments

The futures of Cesc Fabregas, Alexis Sanchez and Samir Nasri will be clarified in the coming weeks, with much riding on the ever entertaining internal politics at Barcelona. The heavily indebted European champion claims to have a summer transfer budget of just €40 million, but with a deal for Sanchez still on the agenda and Fabregas increasingly likely to move, something is likely to give. More importantly for Manchester United supporters, Barça’s business will directly impact Sir Alex Ferguson’s planning this summer.

Deals for both Sanchez and Fabregas will have consequences for a selection of Barça’s squad players too, including 20-year-old Bojan Krkić, whom the Catalan giants are reportedly willing to sell for €10 million in a token effort to balance the books.

Barça’s attempt to use another youngster, Jeffrén Suárez, as bait in a Sanchez deal failed, with the player unwilling to join Udinese. The failed opening bid is unlikely to stop Pep Guardiola’s adding two outstanding midfielders to his side’s already plentiful options. The transfer maneuvering comes despite the Catalans picking up €21 million owed for Zlatan Ibrahimovich. The message is clear: Barça must sell to buy this summer.

Closer to home, the merry-go-round may yet have consequences for United, with Ferguson back from his annual French holiday to oversee the club’s search for central midfield creativity. With deals for Ashley Young, Phil Jones and David de Gea all inked, United retains more than a passing interest in Arsenal’s contract-rebel Nasri.

Thiago Alcântara, the Italian-born Spaniard of Brazilian parentage, was reportedly also on Ferguson’s radar as a fall-back option until the youngster signed a new deal at Camp Nou on Wednesday. In truth there seemed little in the reports. United’s interest in Nasri is seemingly more concrete, having hardened as potential for deals on Luka Modric and Wesley Sneijder closed.

Yet with Arsenal preparing to let Fabregas go according to every pundit this side of the Pyrenees the Londoners will feel compelled to offer Nasri a contract hike to more than £100,000 per week. It is figure within reach for United but exclusively Fabregas’ domain at the Emirates. Whether the Frenchman is willing to stay at the post-Fabregas club is as yet undetermined but the News of the World‘s, claim that the player’s predilection is now for a move north this summer will be noted at Old Trafford.

Only a bid will flush out the truth of course and Arsenal’s hand may be forced should United actually make a reported £20 million move this week. After all, Arsenal faces the very real prospect of losing 24-year-old Nasri for nothing in a year’s time when his contract ends.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is talking a tough game. The Frenchman can do little else with few options now left open regarding Fabregas except to negotiate the price.

“One thing’s for sure: we’re not selling him to Manchester United. We are trying to extend his deal,” claimed
Wenger last week. Whether majority shareholder Stan Kroenke agrees is another matter; losing a multi-million pound asset for nothing is surely unacceptable.

For United Nasri’s capture would provide the icing on a profitable transfer cake this summer. Driving a wedge between Wenger and his board merely the cherry on top.

Elsewhere Manchester City has admitted defeat in the club’s chase for Sanchez. While the Abu Dhabi-backed outfit upped the bidding to a reported £32 million – a figure that Chelsea is prepared to match – Sanchez’ representatives have made it known that a move to Camp Nou is the only option on the cards.

Barça’s opening £22 million offer plus Jeffren increased today, with the bid reported to now be £24 million guaranteed, rising to £36 million based on player performance targets. It is, said a spokesperson, a final non-negotiable offer.

“We are waiting for a response from Udinese,” a Barça spokesperson told Spanish news agency EFE today. “Barcelona made a definitive offer for the player and we will not change the parameters indicated.”

Meanwhile, Fabregas will join the Chilean winger in Catalonia having left the Arsenal board in no doubt about the player’s priority this summer. To that end Barça is reported to have made a renewed offer of £35 million on Wednesday, with the end game now in sight.

Of course, Barça’s transfer shenanigans is of passing interest to United, although the club sent a delegation to Udinese a fortnight ago. That chief executive David Gill came back empty-handed on a player Ferguson has tracked for more than three years is indicative of the club’s continued unwillingness to enter pan-European bidding wars.

There is, after all, a financial food chain in place, which in part at least explains Nasri’s new-found attractiveness at Old Trafford. The Frenchman is potentially obtainable where Modric is not without forcing Tottenham Hotspur’s hand with a premium bid. Similarly, Sneijder’s fee and wages package would mean a total commitment of more than £80 million for a player that turns 27 in the coming season.

It could yet go wrong for Ferguson. Should Arsenal play hardball on Nasri, United’s midfield options will appear narrower than ever.

Fergie’s ‘keepers: good, bad and ugly

June 27, 2011 Tags: Shorts 30 comments

David de Gea completed a medical in Manchester today ahead of a €20 million transfer but Sir Alex Ferguson has not always been successful when it comes to recruiting goalkeepers. From calamitous Jim Leighton, to ‘Two’ Andy Gorams, via Peter Schmeichel and Edwin van der Sar, Rant reviews ten of the best and worst Fergie ‘keepers.


  • Jim Leighton 1988-1991
    Scotsman Leighton joined from Ferguson’s old haunt at Aberdeen but failed to live up to the big reputation. The international was ignominiously dropped by Ferguson following a calamitous display during the 3-3 draw with Crystal Palace in the 1990 FA Cup Final.

  • Mark Bosnich 1989–1992, 1999–2001
    Cocaine loving Australian Bosnich spent two periods at Old Trafford, neither successful. First joining as a trainee in the late 1980s before leaving for Aston Villa, Bosnich then re-joined United at Chairman Martin Edward’s behest in 1999.

  • Les Sealey 1990–1991, 1993–1994
    Sealey came to prominence during the 1990 FA Cup Final replay, going on to ‘keep for the club during United’s successful Cup Winners’ Cup campaign the following season. Returned as an understudy to Schmeichel in 1993. Died in 2001

  • Peter Schmeichel 1992-1999
    Surely the best goalkeeper to have ever played for the club. Schmeichel played eight glorious seasons at Old Trafford, lifting the Champions League before semi-retiring to Portugal in summer 1999.

  • Massimo Taibi 1999–2000
    Italian Taibi joined United for £4.5 million following Schmeichel’s departure but played just five games for the club following a calamitous error against Southampton. The ‘keeper allowed a Matt Le Tissier shot through his legs and with that went his United career.

  • Fabien Barthez 2000–2004
    The French international joined a great expense and offered brilliance and errors in almost equal measure. Played nearly 150 games for the club before Ferguson lost patience and loaned the ‘keeper to Marseille.

  • Roy Carroll 2001-2005
    Ulsterman Carroll joined United as a promising youngster but failed to fulfil the potential during four inconsistent years at Old Trafford. Now playing in Denmark.

  • Andy Goram 2001
    Schizophrenic pie-eating Scotsman Goram inspired one of the finest terrace chant ever, arriving on an emergency loan in 2001, playing just two games for United.

  • Tim Howard 2003-2007
    Tourets Tim enjoyed a fine début season at Old Trafford, being voted into the PFA Team of the Year. But inconsistency and a loss of confidence damaged his promising start before being transferred to Everton in 2007.

  • Edwin van der Sar 2005-2011
    Arguably the second finest ‘keeper in United’s history. The Dutchman arrived at Old Trafford during a dark time for United’s ‘keeping department but has offered a calm authority in six years at Old Trafford. Should have joined in 1999.

  • David de Gea 2011-
    With the world at his feet, talented de Gea faces a critical first season at Old Trafford. Already one of the finest ‘keepers in the world but will face a unique pressure during his début campaign for the club.

Poll: Will Ashley Young be a success at United?

June 27, 2011 Tags: , Polls 18 comments

England international Ashley Young completed the formalities on a £15 million transfer last week, adding to Sir Alex Ferguson’s options in attack. The transfer caps a memorable year for 25-year-old former Watford player, who has broken into Fabio Capello’s England team after missing out on selection for the 2010 World Cup squad. However, despite the player’s progress with Aston Villa over the past 12 months not all Manchester United supporters are happy with the acquisition, questioning Young’s quality.

Moreover, with Nani and Antonio Valencia both preferring United’s right flank, Young will likely be used on the left – a position that Capello does not believe brings out the best in the new recruit. So, will the £15 million man be a success at Old Trafford or do the critics have it right?

Poll: Will Ashley Young be a success at United?

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Hernández earns rest after Gold Cup glory

June 26, 2011 Tags: , , International, Opinion 3 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson will surely greet Javier Hernández’ Gold Cup win with mixed feelings. Delight for a player who has burst onto the international scene as a genuine star; concern that the 22-year-old striker faces burn out after seven summer matches that crisscrossed North America and racked up more than 8,000 miles on the continent alone.

There will be relief then that Chicharito is set to miss Mexico’s invitational appearance at this summer’s Copa America, with El Tricolor set to field an experimental squad in Argentina. While Mexico’s status as an invited participant means head coach José Manuel de la Torre has no right under FIFA statutes to call up players not released by their clubs, Ferguson would hardly relish creating friction at this stage of Hernández’ Manchester United career.

On a personal level the summer could hardly have gone better for the United striker, who scored seven goals in as many games to fire Mexico to the gold medal. Hernández may not have scored in the final – a 4-2 win over the ‘home’ side USA in Pasadena on Saturday night – but the striker picked up the tournament’s Golden Boot award and its “Most Valuable Player” gong in any case.

Hernández’ summer feat takes his international total to 21 goals in 29 appearances, adding to the 20 goals the 22-year-old scored in all competitions last season. Far cry from thoughts of quitting the game as the Little Pea struggled to make the break through at Chivas Guadalajara two years ago. Such is the player’s rise to fame in the past year that Hernández could make almost any team in the world.

“I wasn’t playing the minutes that I wanted to at the time and the coach wasn’t playing me. I don’t know why that was, but I was frustrated,” Hernández said after joining United in April 2010.

“My confidence started to go down and I asked my father and my family whether I was still right to play football. The past is the past. I had a very different mind then.”

Confidence now flows through a player who has become Ferguson’s first choice striker at Old Trafford, displacing Premier League top goalscorer Dimitar Berbatov in the Scot’s side during the business-end of last season.

Yet, truth be told, the 22-year-old didn’t have the finest of games on Saturday night, suffering from an unusual profligacy in front of goal as Mexico came back from 2-0 down inside half an hour to defeat their hosts 4-2 in normal time. Perhaps the pressure finally told. Played in Southern California the match was a home fixture in name alone with the majority of a partizan 94,000 crowd cheering for the men in green.

But Hernandez’ two assists in the final add to the feast of goals during the tournament, scored in a delightfully diverse fashion. The striker scored a hat-trick in Mexico’s 5–0 win against El Salvador – header, right-foot, cheeky penalty – a brace against Cuba and then the winner in a 2–1 win over Guatemala; a stunning back-heel at the near post. Showcasing’s the striker’s ability to score by whatever means, Hernández scored Mexico’s winning goal in the 99th minute – with his crotch – to beat Honduras 2-1 after extra time in the semi-final.

Hernández will now be given an extended summer break by Ferguson, with the striker unlikely to feature heavily, if at all, in United’s summer tour to the United States. Fear of burn out is real, despite the limited schedule faced at United last season. In truth Hernández is likely to play more than 40 times for the Reds in the coming season, with Berbatov relegated to third choice if the 30-year-old Bulgarian remains at the club beyond the transfer window.

The rest may mean disappointment for the growing army of United supporters in the states, where Ferguson’s side visits Boston, Seattle, Chicago, New York and then Washington during a two-week tour from 13 July. After all, pre-season training begins in just over a fortnight.

Yet, typical of the man, Hernández is focussed on banishing any thoughts of ‘second season syndrome’ rather than soaking up his new-found global fame.

“Success is written into the DNA of this club,” said the 22-year-old last week.

“I’m at the best club in the world. Everything is done to succeed and win titles. There is only the Champions League defeat that sticks in the throat. I am extremely happy with my season, but I do not rest on my laurels. I want to do even better next season. I want to help this club make history.”

United fans will sleep easy on that thought. Ferguson, meanwhile, has a delicate decision to make on Hernández’ eventual return to the United fold.

Javier Hernandez

Reds miss out on Varane but blessed with options in abundance

June 24, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 21 comments

As RC Lens president Gervais Martel confirmed this week, Manchester United made an official, if ultimately unsuccessful, approach for 18-year old centre back Raphaël Varane. Lens has initially rebuffed United’s offer and Varane’s skills seem certain to be on parade at Real Madrid next season. Perhaps it is for the best. After all, signing a second young centre-back this transfer window would have left manager Sir Alex Ferguson with a huge number of central defensive options.

Space in Ferguson’s squad is likely to be made first through the departures of Wes Brown and John O’Shea. Alex McLeish’s Aston Villa seems the most likely destination for Brown, while Sunderland manager Steve Bruce will follow-up interest in O’Shea, despite the Irishman playing over 30 games last season and only signing a new contract last October.

Though both are regarded with affection among United fans, moves away from Old Trafford are not especially surprising. The rationale behind moving older players on to make way for youth and re-development is hardly an alien concept at United, particularly under Ferguson. The list of remaining senior options encompasses six recognised defenders, some of whom will look towards rosier futures than others.

Embarking on what must be his last attempt to forge a United career, Ritchie De Laet will depart on loan again, although this time at Premier League side Norwich. De Laet has shown hints of ability in six first team appearances to date but being farmed out on loan suggests he may not truly feature in Ferguson’s plans. A good season for De Laet at the Premier League new-boys will only encourage the club to let him go next summer; an excellent season though, and Ferguson may yet reconsider the youngster’s future.

Another centre-back whose United future appears much more assured is Chris Smalling. A brilliant début season, unexpected by seemingly everyone bar Ferguson and his backroom staff, speaks for itself. Regular stints filling in for Rio Ferdinand offer Smalling the chance to form a solid defensive partnership with Nemanja Vidic, which looked unbeatable at times. While Jonny Evans’ rapid decline, after a similarly impressive first two seasons at the club, implores a sense of caution when anticipating Smalling’s bright future. Yet, all signs so far suggest the former Fulham man will be a top quality United centre-back for years to come.

Conversely, the career path of the man Smalling so often deputised for last season seems much less predictable. Ferdinand demonstrated, towards to back-end of last season, that he still has the quality to be one of the best in the world in his position. Once again fitness was Ferdinand’s biggest concern last season and there will be no shortage of competition if the former West Ham United man struggles to maintain a long run of games.

Alternatively, as with Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes in recent years, Ferguson may choose to use Ferdinand ever more sparingly in a bid to ensure the defender is fit for big games at home and in Europe. Either way, the coming year could be a defining one for the 32-year-old defender, particularly in determining whether Ferdinand will still be part of the Old Trafford setup beyond next summer or not.

Meanwhile, Evans’ future appears to be balanced even more precariously than Ferdinand’s. After a year of underwhelming performances, coupled with the acquisitions of Smalling and Phil Jones, the Northern Ireland international appears to have lost his place in the manager’s plans. That Ferguson countenanced a bid for Varane should concern Evans even more.

It was all so much brighter after an excellent first senior season, including outstanding performances in games such as the 3-0 league victory over Chelsea – where a formidable Didier Drogba was kept uncharacteristically quiet – prompted Ferguson to state that Evans’ “United future is assured.”

The defender’s past exploits should be enough to buy Evans another season at the club. Though older than Smalling or Jones, Evans is still young at 23, with plenty of time to develop. After all, Vidic was playing at Serbian SuperLiga level at the same age. While these factors may work in Evans’ favour, it is still likely that opportunities will be intermitent in the coming season; he will need to grab them with both hands.

Jones’ acquisition is partly responsible for prompting the state of minor panic regarding Evans’ future. The England under-21 player arrives from Blackburn Rovers with natural talent in abundance, and was described by Harry Redknapp as “a future England captain” in the aftermath of Tottenham Hotspur’s failed bid to lure the 19-year old to White Hart Lane.

Ferguson admitted that high levels of interest elsewhere forced United to sign the youngster a year earlier than he would have preferred, suggesting that for this season at least, there is no obvious gap in the team for Jones to fill. Jones can also play in front of the back four though and considering the lack of tenacity present in a midfield, which desperately missed Darren Fletcher for much of last season, the 19-year old may well find opportunities there.

Evans position is in stark contrast to Vidic’s role at United. Viewed by many as the best centre-back in the world, the Serbian should have at least four more years to offer the club. He recently confirmed he plans to stay at United too.

Indeed, Varane may have earmarked as Vidic’s eventual successor. Aged 18, the 6’3” defender was an important part of Lens’ team last season, making 23 first team appearances in a tough season for the French club. Lens also received offers from both Paris Saint-Germain and a successful bid from Real Madrid, underscoring the high-quality talent United has missed out on.

Even without the French youngster the club’s defensive prospects for the season ahead – indeed the next ten after – are promising. Ferguson is blessed with top quality full-backs in Patrice Evra, Fabio and Rafael da Silva, an inspirational captain in Vidic and the current England U-21 pairing of Smalling and Jones. If the manager is able to get the best out of Ferdinand and Evans, he has two more players of certified quality.

Certainly, the decision to bid for another centre-back raises questions about the roles of some players within Ferguson’s team. Slight in build but good with the ball at his feet, it is viable that Evans’ future could be at full-back. Indeed, Evans could become United’s new utility man, accomplished at playing across the entire back four; a natural successor to O’Shea for comparatively low wages.

Alternatively, Ferguson could Jones as United’s future as a midfield powerhouse, and not at centre-back, particularly if United is unsuccessful in securing a big name to bolster the central midfield this summer.

Yet, it is instructive that Ferguson is unlikely to seek out another defender in the wake of Varane’s snub. After all, Varane’s talent, available at good value, was a temptation and not a solution to a real problem at Old Trafford. In the short-term at least if United’s failure to capture Varane results in an extra €10m being spent on improving the side’s midfield then it may be a blessing in disguise.

Young deal close so what now for Nani?

June 22, 2011 Tags: Opinion 40 comments

Ashley Young successfully completed at medical at Bridgewater Hospital today ahead of the Aston Villa winger’s £15 million transfer to Old Trafford. The test, just three miles East of United’s home turf, was the latest formality in a much-anticipated move by the England international. It will likely be officially confirmed when the transfer window opens on 1 July but there is now little doubt that the 25-year-old will join Sir Alex Ferguson’s roster for next season.

But with Antonio Valencia now Ferguson’s preferred choice on the right flank there is an increasing feeling that Portuguese winger Nani’s four-year spell in Manchester has now come to an end. It is an exchange in personnel that does not obviously upgrade United’s squad.

Young, who joined Villa for £9.75 million from Watford in 2007, will more than double is wages to £120,000 per week at Old Trafford after choosing the Premier League champions ahead of a move to Liverpool this summer. Much as Blackburn Rovers defender Phil Jones had earlier this month. The transfer marks the zenith of rapid progress over the past year for Stevenage-born Young, who has also forced his way in Fabio Capello’s England, scoring against Denmark and Switzerland this season.

No longer a youngster perhaps, but Young’s progress towards Old Trafford was not born of an auspicious start. Initially rejected by Watford as a teenager, the player eventually broke in Ray Lewington’s side during the 2003/4 season, making five appearances from the bench. But it wasn’t until 2005/6 that Young achieved a real breakthrough in professional football, with more than 40 appearances for the Hornets, scoring 14 times and creating 13 in the Championship.

An excellent start the following season in the Premier League increased interest in the player, drawing a £10 million bid from West Ham United during the January transfer window. Young rejected the move before forcing through a transfer to Villa; a sign of the determination to play at a higher level that would be repeated this season.

“I’ve always said that I’m an ambitious person. To play in the biggest competitions, the European Championships, the Champions League, FA Cup finals, League Cup finals, the World Cup, the Euros,” said Young earlier this season, signalling his Villa departure.

“I want to play in them all. Every player would want to win trophies, titles and medals. I’m no different. I’m an ambitious person like any other person who’s in football.”

Young’s improvement are born out in his statistics, which are a touch better than average this season, having scored nine and assisted 15 in a poor Villa side. It’s around par for the course for a player who has achieved a greater level of consistency at Villa Park in a variety of positions. By contrast United’s Nani scored 13 and created 17 in all competitions this season and that comes after the Portuguese lost his place to Valencia in the final weeks of the campaign.

Yet, for all Young’s progress over the past four years with Villa there is an inherent feeling that the player has already reached his peak. Certainly, if players coming to Old Trafford fit two camps – those who will improve United’s first XI, and those whom fans hope will improve to the level of United’s XI – then Young is firmly in the latter. Certainly few fans will buy the argument that Young enhances United’s first team; nor will Europe’s finest be overly concerned at Ferguson’s new addition.

Then there is the question of Young’s place in the United side. After all the player has excelled as a deep-lying striker with Villa over the past year; the position in which Wayne Rooney showed such outstanding form towards the back-end of last season. It points to a place on United’s flank.

However, those closest to the player believe that he will flourish centrally. Capello, for example, left the Villain out of England’s recent draw with Switzerland not for poor form but because “Young is a really good player in a good moment. But I think the position for him to play is not the left or right-wing but just in the centre of the midfield because he can attack the space really good.”

Former club manager Gerrard Houllier made a similar argument earlier in the season, stating that Young can only become “world class” as a shadow striker. “I like himto play in that position to be fair,” said Houllier. “He can be a real specialist. He can be a striker and he can also be a link between the midfield and the attack.”

Unless Ferguson plans to drop Javier Hernández and deploy Rooney as United’s ‘number nine’ once again, then Young will surely compete for a place on Ferguson’s left-wing.

What then of Nani, who seems certain to head to Spain or Italy this summer. Indeed, despite Young’s acquisition it is United’s failed pursuit of Udinese’s Alexis Sánchez – a player the club has watched for three years without making a bid – that offers the clearest indication Nani will end four years at Old Trafford.

After all, rumours of the Portuguese’s dissatisfaction with a contract that has two years to run have become more than a whisper in recent weeks. That United has done little to quell the speculation about the club’s Player of the Year says much.

In that scenario the question becomes whether swapping Young for Nani has improved or degraded Ferguson’s team. Of course, supporters posed the same rhetorical question of Valencia before the Ecuadorian’s £14 million move from Wigan Athletic two years ago. Valencia, who is only six months younger than the Villa forward, has been a huge hit at Old Trafford despite Cristiano Ronaldo’s shadow.

Young will certainly join the Ecuadorian Manchester; time will tell whether he is also a success.

Ashley Young facts

Born 9 July 1985, Stevenage, England

Watford: 110 appearances, 22 goals
Aston Villa: 190, 38
England U21: 10, 1
England: 15, 2

Watford Young Player of the Season: 2004/5
PFA Young Player of the Year: 2008/9


FC United (re)releases stadium plans

June 21, 2011 Tags: Shorts 13 comments

FC United of Manchester, the Red Rebels, is stepping up a bid to build a new stadium this week. The breakaway club will present plans for a 5,000 capcity stadium at Moston, near Newton Heath, at Moston Methodist Church on Tuesday evening, in the face of local opposition. Moston is FC United’s second attempt at building a permanent home for the six-year-old club, after plans to build at Ten Acres Lane, Newton Heath, fell through earlier this year.

However, strong local opposition to FC United’s plans could thwart the club’s ambitions before ground is broken, with more than 3,000 people having reportedly signed a petition opposing the stadium’s development. The City council is due to make a planning decision in July, with FC United stepping up its efforts to win over both local government and residents.

In addition to presenting plans tonight, club management will hold a series of consultation sessions in Moston next week, while delivering 10,000 leaflets to local residents.

FC will submit final plans for a £3.5 million stadium later this summer, with the club hoping to raise around half the development costs from a long-running community shares scheme.

The stadium, which includes both terracing and seats for up to 5,000 fans, will include a range of community facilities, according to the club. IT and teaching rooms, a full-sized artificial pitch and medical treatment facilities will be made available to the public.

“As part of our pre-planning consultation we want to give residents as much information as possible about the proposals,” said general manager and former fanzine editor Andy Walsh.

“We have had a very positive response from local people and we are continuing to discuss any remaining matters of concern that residents have.

“This development isn’t just about football, it’s about creating a community facility with open access to the people of Moston and north Manchester. It’s about proposals that create the opportunity to enhance the existing provision in the local area.

“FC United are trying to minimise the impact on the local area and we want to reassure residents that their concerns will be listened to.”

FC currently play home matches at Bury’s Gigg Lane but need a permanent home to curtail prohibitive rental costs associated with crowds that average more than 2,000 in the seventh tier of the English football pyramid.

No Sanchez, Modric, Sneijder, Nasri … nor any surprises

June 20, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 120 comments

So the brilliant Alexis Sanchez is off to Barcelona, with the Catalan giants paying the best part of €30 million for the 22-year-old Chillean winger. Little surprise there, with most observers rating Sanchez as a player with genuine pretensions to join a very elite group of players at the top of the world game. Diminutive, quick, with mesmeric feet, Sanchez will likely replace Pedro Rodríguez or David Villa in Barça’s starting XI next season. He is an archetypal Barcelona player and will surely rise to world stardom under Pep Guardiola’s tutelage.

Manchester United was reportedly interested in the player, whom the red tops have repeatedly suggested as Old Trafford bound. There was even an argument – baseless as it turned out – that Sanchez preferred a move to England, with more opportunities for first team football supposedly on offer. The Udinese player will achieve that and more at the European Champions.

Sanchez’ transfer could mean relegation to the bench for Pedro, sale of Jeffren Suárez and possibly Villa too, especially if Barça is still keen on adding Cesc Fabregas’ considerable talents to the squad. Villa is an outstanding marksman but one that has suffered for Guardiola’s decision to deploy the incomparable Lionel Messi in a central attacking role. Moreover, despite Barça’s massive revenues – considerably more than United’s – the club also boasts the world’s largest wage bill necessitating a period of relative austerity.

Despite this fact, United could not – or possible would not – compete for a player that Sir Alex Ferguson’s team has tracked for three years.

Similarly, Chelsea’s aggressive approach to acquiring Luka Modrić will surely end – despite Daniel Levy’s protestations – in a multi-million pound transfer across London to Stamford Bridge, and not Old Trafford. With Roman Abramovich’s lust for football reinvigorated and Tottenham Hotspur’s historically selling its best players, Chelsea will increase the bid until west London achieves the transfer it desires. It may take all summer, with Modrić keen to repair bridges before departing.

After all, while the Croatian is not widely regarded as a player to cause trouble the very reasonable argument that a midfielder of his calibre should be playing in the Champions League is hard to counter. Without European football it is widely understood that Levy will rationalise Spurs’ playing resources this summer. The chairman is heading for a collision with manager Harry Redknapp, after the former Portsmouth chief demanded Levy buy two “top class” players; this to compete for a place in the top four and keep Modrić at White Hart Lane.

Ferguson’s admiration for the diminutive Croatian is well known but United cannot, and surely will not, compete with Chelsea for the 25-year-old’s signature if it comes to a bidding war. Michael Essien, Arjen Robben, John Obi Mikel and Michael Ballack will attest to Ambramovich’s unique powers of persuasion in the face of interest from Old Trafford.

Then there is Wesley Sneijder for whom has there is not a shred of evidence that the player is interested, let alone prepared to agitate for, a move away from Milan this summer. More to the point, the economics of a deal remain eye watering, with the Dutchman’s lengthy contract enabling Internazionale to demand a huge fee, while the Sneijder’s net wages exceed those of Wayne Rooney. Supporters should take summer speculation with a large pinch of salt.

A similar attitude might be relevant when it comes to Arsenal’s Samir Nasri, who has played a smart game during contract negotiations at the Emirates. Arsenal may well invest this summer to quell the Frenchman’s unrest; the club will also substantially increase an initial £90,000 per week offer.

What then of United’s plans to rebuild this summer? The club is already committed to deals for the teenager Phil Jones, goalkeeper David de Gea and winger Ashley Young but at least one marquee central midfield acquisition is surely a priority. At a minimum Ferguson may want to replace Paul Scholes, Darron Gibson and Owen Hargreaves. After two humiliating defeats to Barça in three years, the Catalans utterly dominant in midfield, replacement of that trio is truly a bare minimum.

It is instructive to note that of Ferguson’s last 12 acquisitions, including this summer’s business to date, none has been a central midfielder. With Scholes’ ageing legs, Hargreaves ongoing injuries, Gibson’s failure to improve and Anderson’s inconsistency, the decision not to strengthen last season bordered on the negligent.

Ferguson surely cannot repeat the trick?

Yet, with United unlikely to spend more than £30 million on an established talent under the Glazer family’s ownership, it remains to be see whether the Scot can improve his options in central midfield. Indeed, it leaves Ferguson with a dilemma; persuade the Glazer family to change established club policy, or revert to type and invest in a younger player with a high potential resale value.

Academy changes good for United and England

June 19, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 15 comments

The Premier League’s decision to ratify sweeping changes to how academies are run bodes well both for Manchester United and the production of talent in England. The so-called Elite Development Plan will make two principal changes to academy rules, enabling boys between 10 and 18 years-of-age to be coached for up to 10,000 hours, and scraping the antiquated ’90 minute rule’ altogether. Additional changes to how young players play and train are expected as English football attempts to bridge the gap between talent development here and elsewhere.

Indeed, these are changes that Sir Alex Ferguson has called for not only this season but over the past decade as the Premier League academy system has failed to produce a talent pool that could take the England national team to a tournament win.

Closer to home, United’s failure to produce local talent in the raw numbers or quality of the early 1990s has prompted something of a rethink, leading the club to search ever farther overseas.

The Elite Development Plan changes, which come into force for the 2012/13 season, replace outmoded current thinking that restricts coaching to just 2,000 hours over the 10-18 age-group, and 3,760 hours to 21. Proponents of the much-discussed ‘10,000 hours rule’ – a thesis that states elite sportsmen are born of at least 10,000 hours of focused practice – have long derided the English system.

It has taken a long time but England’s failure at the 2010 FIFA World Cup and Barcelona’s growth to European domination over the past three years prompted a review of youth coaching. Barcelona’s youngsters resident at La Masia, for example, can expect to receive at least 8,000 hours coaching before they turn 18; it is a system born of Johan Cruyff’s remodelling of Barça’s approach in the early 1990s.

“We’ve got an opportunity now where, once, there might have been some resistance to change,” argues Gareth Southgate, the FA’s head of elite development.

“What the World Cup did, and the success Barça have had, is give a greater awareness of what is going on in Europe. There is a desire for change. We’ve had Paul Scholes come through who technically would have been able to play in that Barça team because his quality of touch, pass appreciation, ability to play one-touch and manipulate the ball was up there with them. But would we have produced lots of players like Xavi, Iniesta and Messi? I suspect not.”

Meanwhile, the much-hated 90 minute rule will disappear, enabling clubs to recruit academy players from anywhere in England. Presently clubs, including United, are allowed only to sign youngsters if they are within a 90 minute drive from the home ground; 60 minutes for under-14s.

The rule, designed to protect smaller clubs from larger predators, has failed on two principal counts. First, it has encouraged the growing recruitment of players from overseas. Second, talented youngsters from the regions risk falling through the gaps at poorly funded low-ranked clubs.

The FA and Premier League are yet to publish a formula for compensation, ensuring that the country’s smaller clubs receive adequate indemnity for the investment placed in youth development but it will surely come. While few England internationals begin life at clubs below the Premier League the transfer system remains an important source of funding for the football pyramid.

Further changes sponsored by Southgate will change how youngsters play, with the former Middlesborough manager keen to eliminate mandated full-pitch 11-a-side games for under-13s that promote physicality over technique.

For United the changes will enable a well-funded academy with some of the finest facilities of any club, anywhere, to maximise the pool of talent available to Ferguson and his successors.

No longer will Ferguson need to complain that “we are only allowed to coach for an hour and a half [each week]. Barcelona can coach every hour of the day if they want and that’s the great advantage they have got. You can see their philosophy through that.”

“It’s a fantastic philosophy and we hope that, in years to come, we have more time with young players, to teach them the basics, the technical ability and to have the confidence to take the ball all the time. We’re good at that, but we’re not as good as Barcelona at this moment in time.”

While scraping the 90-minute rule is unlikely to distract United from a much more globalised outlook to youth development than in the 1990s, it will enable the Reds to scour the country for the best talent.

However, neither change will allow United to immediately bridge to gap to La Masia, which has produced in Andreas Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Lionel Messi the three finest players on the planet, according to last year’s FIFA poll.

Indeed, substantive changes in the talent pool either at United or England more widely will not take place for more than a decade. England under-21s insipid performances at this summer’s European Championships suggests the national team is unlikely to turn a corner any time soon.

Meanwhile, United will continue to assign scouts to every part of the globe.