Month July 2011

Month July 2011

Fergie says Reds will match Barça. How?

July 30, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 44 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson has once again challenged his players to match Barcelona, with Manchester United facing the European champions in Washington on Saturday night. Just 63 days after the humiliating defeat by the Catalans at Wembley the question, with six senior players having left the club and no new central midfielder on the horizon, is how?

This, of course, is no trivial matter. The destruction by Pep Guardiola’s side in London was so comprehensive that Michael Carrick’s head is probably still spinning. While Barça is so good that few successfully compete, United’s total capitulation in midfield on 28 May served only to highlight the glaring weakness in Ferguson’s squad.

That Ferguson can no longer call on Paul Scholes, Owen Hargreaves nor – in all likelihood – Darron Gibson in the coming season has also reduced the Scot’s options in midfield. The quality hardly ran deep to start.

In the aftermath of Wembley defeat Ferguson challenged his players to reach Barça’s level; it’s a theme that United’s 69-year-old coach returned to ahead of Saturday’s game in the Capital.

“In everyone’s mind they are the best team, currently, in the world,” admitted Ferguson, without hint of irony.

“I’m quite happy to be in second place at this moment in time because that’s our challenge. Our challenge will be to get to that level.”

Yet, Ferguson’s summer activity to date has largely been aimed at maintaining the status quo. Long-term evolution rather than a quantum leap in quality has been the theme. Hardly a portent to challenge Barcelona as Europe’s finest in the coming campaign. In any case, many observers feel that United over-achieved on the continent last season.

David de Gea will replace Edwin van der Sar in the medium term, although Ferguson has offered Anders Lindegard the chance to impress during the pre-season US tour. Whichever way the goalkeeping decision goes it is certainly not yet an upgrade.

Meanwhile, room for Phil Jones has been made by the transfer of Wes Brown and John O’Shea to Sunderland. Jones is flexible and talented but completely inexperienced at European leave. Then there is Ashley Young, who will at least offer a versatile alternative to the failed experiment with Gabriel Obertan and Bébé, although few count the former Aston Villa winger in Barça’s class.

There is little doubt Ferguson recognises the problem at the heart of his midfield though. This despite protestations to the contrary in recent days. After all, why else would he instruct chief executive to pursue the aforementioned midfield trio this summer? Yet, David Gill insists deals for Sneijder, Modric and Nasri are now “dead.” United seemingly lack the financial muscle to force Inter’s hand over the Dutchman, Nasri will probably join Manchester City next summer, and Tottenham Hotspur remains intransigent over Modric, who has expressed a desire to join Chelsea in any case.

“We didn’t progress that one [Sneijder]. I’m not doing anything on anything at the moment, so they are all dead,” said Gill on Friday.

“The important point is that you never know. I’ve been around in football long enough to know things change quickly. Somebody may become available and we can then say we are interested.

“We have been clear all along. There is money in the bank. Some people have not believed us but if a player is required to improve the squad and challenge for top honours, the money is there. That is still the case. We are not afraid to spend big money on players of a certain age.”

Whether Gill’s comments are yet another in a long-line of spin from the executive will only be confirmed on 31 August. Yet, Gill’s key line – “of a certain age” – might well be confirmation that United’s transfer policy of buying young with a view to re-sale value is still in place. Informally United will not spend large fees on players over 26.

With Sneijder now 27, a total financial commitment of more than £80 million required to prize the Dutchman away from Inter and pay the midfielder’s wages, and little re-sale possible, it is inconceivable that United will deal unless Blaunegra substantially reduces its financial requirements to nearer £20 million than £35 million.

The impasse leaves the Reds to look for an alternative or – far more likely – Gill may Ferguson to begin the season with Anderson, Carrick, Ryan Giggs and Darren Fletcher as the senior central midfielders at the club. Each has their significant limitations.

This is to say nothing of the club’s desperate need for a defensive midfielder with Hargreaves now cast into football’s wilderness.

What then of the stated goal to match Barcelona? Based on a hope and a prayer, critics might add. Perhaps Anderson ‘will come good’ after four years of inconsistency. Maybe, Fletcher will regain confidence after a debilitating illness. Potentially Carrick will step up a level despite history telling us otherwise. Hope, as a wise observer once noted, is no kind of strategy.

That Barça can boast such riches in attack and yet add both the outstanding Alexis Sanches and in all probability Cesc Fabregas too has if anything taken Guardiola’s side further away from United this summer.

United may well emerge victorious as FedEx Field tonight. Ferguson side is, after all, three weeks ahead of its opponents in pre-season preparation, with Barça not beginning the La Liga campaign until late August. Without central midfield reinforcements few will expect a repeat come the Champions League final next May.

Reds wrap easy win as greater competition lies ahead

July 28, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 18 comments

After four wins in a row on Manchester United’s tour of the United States Sir Alex Ferguson’s team is apparently in good shape ahead of the new season. Light at least one midfielder for sure but, with the Community Shield match against Manchester City just 10 days away, the focus is quickly turning away from the summer transfer market and to, heaven forbid, actual competitive football.

Indeed, the Community Shield may take on added significance this season and not solely because United’s ‘noisy’ rivals offer the competition at Wembley. But with matches against all the club’s title rivals within the first 10 Premier League games, Ferguson’s side cannot afford the kind of slow start suffered last season.

Ferguson puts United’s that start, in which the Scot’s side did not win away from home until October and suffered a succession of draws, down to poor preparation in pre-season. It’s a mistake that the United manager intends to correct before the Premier League starts, for United at least, with a fixture against West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthornes on 14 August.

Yet with four easy victories against Championship-level MLS opponents behind United on this tour there is significant danger in Ferguson’s stars being undercooked for the season opener. Plenty of the Scot’s squad are yet to play a full 90 minutes on tour, while Antonio Valencia and Javier Hernandez have not appeared at all.

The Scot will surely be grateful for tougher opponents in coming games; first against Barcelona in Washington in two days time, then to the Community Shield fixture with City. In between Paul Scholes’ testimonial against a scratch XI under the New York Cosmos banner takes place at Old Trafford.

“Last year, I mucked up by giving the players too many half games in pre-season and not enough 90 minutes,” admitted Ferguson this week.

“I will address that this year because when we played Fulham and Everton early last season we were well short, fitness wise. Anyone can win the league – ourselves, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal or Chelsea. But when I look at it, our biggest challenge is ourselves.”

The challenge certainly hasn’t been the standard of opposition on tour. The four goal victory over a David Beckham-led MLS All Star team in the early hours of Thursday morning brought United’s goal tally to 18 in four games. As in matches against New England Patriots, Seattle Sounders and Chicago Fire, the MLS All Stars’ depth was somewhat threadbare once the rash of second-half substitutions began.

At the tight Red Bull Arena in Franklin New Jersey – one of the few MLS stadiums built especially for football – Ferguson also made significant changes, with nine substitutes entering the field after half-time. The pattern had been similar in previous tour matches. Ferguson, it seems, has largely failed to heed his own words.

Yet Ferguson will be pleased with the performances of Dimitar Berbatov and Anderson who each scored in New Jersey, along with Danny Welbeck and Park Ji-Sung. The Bulgarian may well have a significant role during early season games, with Hernandez lacking match fitness and restricted to training alone for the next fortnight after suffering a mild concussion in warm-up on Wednesday.

Ferguson also singled-out new signing Phil Jones for praise, with the 19-year-old former Blackburn Rovers defender starting the game in an unfamiliar right-back role before reverting to the centre on the hour.

Despite the wholesale changes Ferguson declared himself happy with his squad’s improving fitness, with the Scot likely to deploy a similar strategy against Barcelona on Saturday.

“The fitness is improving all the time, the games help with that, of course,” added Ferguson.

“We’ve had some good training sessions as well and we’ve tried to get tempo into our game and some rhythm. It’s also important all the players are given as much game time as possible. Tonight was the first time we gave the starters a good hour’s work. Saturday will be similar – the first XI that play will get an hour before we change it.”

So to the re-match with Barcelona, just two months after the humiliating defeat against the Catalans at Wembley in May. The 82,000 capacity FedEx Field, Washington, DC will host United’s last tour match before Ferguson’s squad heads home and, with the Spaniards earlier into pre-season than United, a chance for a modicum of revenge.

“It is only pre-season,” added Ferguson. “I just want the players to go out and enjoy it.”

The Catalan giants will be without Lionel Messi, who is still recovering from his exertions at the Copa America with Argentina. But the passing carousel of Andreas Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Sergio Busquets are likely to play. That thought alone is likely to bring Michael Carrick out in a cold sweat.

There is, after all, nothing quite like chasing the ball for 90 minutes to increase sub-standard fitness levels.

Fergie calls time on spending

July 26, 2011 Tags: , , , Opinion 96 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson claims that Manchester United is unlikely to spend again this close season but it is the 69-year-old manager’s assertion that this summer’s retirements have financed the club’s spending that will raise eyebrows. While United’s Cristiano Ronaldo-sized cash pile has finally enabled Ferguson to loosen a vice-like grip on the Glazers’ cheque book, it is seemingly the requirement to reign in spending on wages that may limit the Scot’s transfer market ambitions.

Indeed, as has become the parlance in recent times the “Ronaldo money is there,” with the Scot giving the green-light to spend heavily on Wesley Sneijder this summer but unable to afford the Dutchman’s admittedly astronomical wages. Plus ça change critics might add, with United still investing in promise rather than fulfilled talent under the Glazer regime, despite the squad requirements this summer.

“We lost five players in their 30s this summer,” said Ferguson in New York last night, ahead of United’s fixture with MLS All Stars at the Red Bull Arena.

“That helped finance the three younger players – Ashley Young, Phil Jones and David de Gea – I have brought to the club. At this moment, I can’t see another addition. The type of player we might have been looking for is not available. I am happy with the players I have got at this moment in time.”

Ferguson’s comments are a less than oblique reference to Luka Modric, Samir Nasri and Sneijder, each of whom has piqued the Scot’s interest. But with Tottenham Hotspur steadfastly refusing to sell the Croatian and Nasri more-than-likely joining Manchester City on a Bosman next summer, Ferguson’s options in a narrow field are now limited.

Yet the failure to secure Sneijder is disturbing. The Dutchman will remain at Internazionale for the foreseeable future after neatly slotting into a central midfield role in Gian Piero Gasperini’s 3-4-3 system during pre-season. Note to United supporters who doubted it: the Sneijder is, and has always been, tactically flexible enough to flourish in the deeper role identified for him at Old Trafford.

Financially speaking the aborted deal for Sneijder once again brings into question United’s muscle in the Glazer era. By far the world’s most profitable club – at least in EBITDA terms – with the third largest revenue on the planet, United could not close out the deal despite Inter’s willingness – read requirement – to sell and Sneijder’s openness to a move.

After all, Inter is more than £100 million behind United in annual revenues with a highly under-commercialised structure that requires the club to balance the books before UEFA’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) initiative kicks in.

What then of United’s prospects in the coming season, with Michael Carrick, Anderson, Darren Fletcher and Ryan Giggs making up Ferguson’s limited options in central midfield. Each has a serious question mark about his quality and ability to perform.

After all Carrick’s improved performance last season may yet be the exception to prove a rule in an otherwise undistinguished three-season period. Anderson has offered glimpses of talent in an otherwise highly disappointing four-year spell at Old Trafford, while Fletcher cannot shake a serious virus that undermined the Scot’s last campaign. Giggs, the mainstay of United’s central midfield creativity towards the back-end of last season, is 38 in November.

Quibbles over quality aside when it comes to raw numbers Ferguson has fewer options in central midfield for the coming campaign than last.

Despite this United will begin the new season as favourites to retain the Premier League title. Chelsea’s dynamic new coach and Manchester City’s wealth notwithstanding, none of United’s domestic rivals is stronger. New midfielder or not, the nine-point gap at the head of the table  told of United’s ability to endure a long domestic and European campaign.

Yet there is a real debate about whether the club is any stronger for the coming season even if Ferguson has laid the seeds for long-term success. David de Gea  is an outstanding young goalkeeper under immense pressure during his first campaign at the club. Phil Jones will offer solid defensive back-up but less flexibility than Wes Brown and John O’Shea. Meanwhile, Ashley Young must perform from the start to convince many United supporters that the 26-year-0ld is the solution to closing the gap on Barcelona in European terms.

Indeed, in Europe’s premier competition it is hard to see United bettering last season’s performance, in which a spot in the final exceeded many expectations. The humiliating loss to Barcelona at Wembley, insisted Ferguson, was a challenge United would rise too. The Scot’s assertion that no new midfielder will join his ranks has surely negated the promise before a competitive ball has been kicked.

Not that the answer to all United’s challenges lies in the transfer market of course but just occasionally established talent is required amid the club’s policy of buying for the future. In this most pundits and supporters agree that United’s central midfield options are far more limited that even Ferguson must be comfortable with, despite the Scot’s assertion to the contrary.

Of course it  could be a ruse by the wily Scot, who has never been slow to offer the media a smokescreen or two. But with chief executive David Gill joining Ferguson’s party in New York this week it is safe to assume that there is no new signing on the immediate horizon.

Whether any future acquisition is of the quality United supporters hope for is seemingly very much down to economics.

Wenger gets it right and oh so wrong on ‘tapping up’

July 25, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 24 comments

Let there be no mistake ‘tapping up’ in professional football existed long before the Football Association set down its absurd rules banning the practice; governance that is unworkable, impractical and utterly pointless in a globalised football market. Yet, Arsène Wenger once again called for the FA to amend its framework, with Arsenal’s Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas under the gaze of predatory rivals this summer.

Indeed, asked if he believes the pair has been tapped up this summer Wenger called on the rules to be reviewed. It is not the first time the 61-year-old manager has cried foul over more successful, financially dominant rivals chasing Arsenal’s players.

That the north London club has successfully pillaged Barcelona’s academy for Fabregas, Fran Mérida, Jon Toral, and Hector Bellerin in recent seasons is not without its irony of course. Wenger’s inconsistency has always been defined only by its consistency.

“I would like to return the question to you,” quipped the Frenchman.

“What do you think? We live in a realistic world. I do not want to assess what I cannot prove. I know how things happen. It doesn’t necessarily go through the player or the agent but I think it is a rule that has to be reviewed. It’s not really respected.”

Yet the Frenchman’s apparent hypocrisy is moot; Wenger is right that the rules on tapping up need reformation but utterly wrong that the FA needs to strengthen an outmoded philosophy. After all the rules not only patronise players but are a restriction of trade made worthless by contract law. Indeed, as Wenger has made clear this summer Arsenal need not sell Fabregas nor Nasri as each remains under contract with the Londoners until the club is prepared to release their registrations.

But legal protection proffered under contract law is made irrelevant, so say critics, because of player power, a mythical universal force that means clubs must put economics before everything else. In that Wenger’s intransigence this summer is to be admired, even if the Frenchman’s faux horror at Barcelona’s pursuit of Fabregas returns us to that word hypocrisy once again.

The need for reformation of the tapping up regulations – or, preferably, removing them entirely – is more relevant still given the globalised nature of the football market. After all, players are little more than an asset traded, not solely between clubs, but third parties and non-affiliated training academies too. These organisations, such as Desportivo Brasil with whom Manchester United has an agreement, are little more than farms for the manufacturer and export of youthful football talent.

In that context the ban on tapping up makes sense as a protectionist measure only for those institutions that are unwilling to sell but cannot retain players by any normal means, such as money, silverware, or a feel-good-factor. Arsenal, then.

This argument is moot in any case. The one successful prosecution by the FA in recent memory – that of Ashley Cole and Chelsea – was made a mockery by Arsenal’s willingness to sell the player shortly thereafter. As if Wenger delights more not in success but in the moral superiority that the former Monaco coach so often basks in.

Then there is the very real truth in Wenger’s comments – clubs need not confer directly with players that they wish to sign when football is an industry over-populated with agents, middle-men and brokers. Perhaps Wenger would prefer the phones of every licensed – or otherwise – agent tapped to ensure that his want-away players never again hear of an interested outside party.

Have Nasri and Fabregas been “tapped up” in any normal definition? Absolutely yes. Does it matter a jot? Not at all.

Of course Manchester United cried foul in 2007, reporting Real Madrid to FIFA over the Spanish giant’s incessant pursuit of Cristiano Ronaldo. Even then United relented a year later when Madrid returned with a world-record transfer bid for the Portuguese forward. Once again economics trumped the moral high-ground that Sir Alex Ferguson had claimed.

Ferguson though is ever the pragmatist. The Scot’s apparent angry promise that he would not “sell that mob a virus” hid the gentleman’s agreement that Ronaldo would eventually be allowed to leave. All that mattered at that moment was the price.

“You don’t want to [keep unhappy players] really,” said Ferguson yesterday when asked about Nasri and Fabregas.

“Cristiano Ronaldo was never unhappy at United, but he always had a thing about playing for Real Madrid and I believed him. We did well to have him for six years and getting that final year was a bonus because he was disheartened the previous summer. It could have affected him at the time, but we did well to keep him for an extra year and we got top money for him. But it’s usually the foreign players who want to get back to their nest.”

In that there is some truth where Fabregas is concerned, with the 24-year-old Catalan desperate to return ‘home’. Nasri has no intention of returning to Marseille of course as the midfielder plots a lucrative move north to Manchester City.

And there’s the rub: no FA regulation can compete with a £200,000-a-week offer. It is the same principal, if not the absolute salary, that has attracted so many youthful player’s to Arsenal from Catalonia in recent years.

Now Rooney must come of age

July 24, 2011 Tags: Opinion 4 comments

The loss of five experienced players this summer has robbed the Manchester United squad of more than 2000 appearances for the club. Gary Neville’s decision to call it quits last winter, followed by Owen Hargreaves’ release, Paul Scholes’ and Edwin van der Sar’s retirement and the sales of John O’Shea and Wes Brown this summer has precipitated considerable change at the club. Sir Alex Ferguson’s response has been to oversee an influx of younger players – both those acquired at the cost of £48 million this summer – and the return of last season’s loanees.

While Ferguson’s planning for change has been a long-time coming the loss of experience will undoubtedly be felt at the club. Step forward, then, Wayne Rooney of whom the manager expects a greater leadership role in the team during the coming season. United’s erstwhile talisman – sexual scandal and the ‘October Revolution’ having brought the moniker into sharp focus – has long been the club’s focus on the pitch. The question remains whether Rooney can become an ambassador off it too.

Ryan Giggs – 38 in November – and 32-year-old Rio Ferdinand now claim the mantle as United’s senior citizens. But Rooney, says Ferguson, is ready to assume a leadership role given so many departures in the past year.

“Yes — particularly Rooney,” Ferguson told the media in Chicago before United’s departure for New York today.

“I can see Wayne accepting that role, definitely. He doesn’t worry about that [responsibility] too much and he has great energy. He has been doing really well in training here in America. He’ll want to get last season out of the way, but he is one of our more experienced players now.

“We have lost three players with great experience in Neville, Scholes and Van der Sar, so that is where the expectation may bother us this season. Losing three at once is hard. Maybe there’s a bit of evolution going on.”

Indeed, it is not the first time that those close to Rooney have claimed a new maturity for the 25-year-old Scouser, who has been promoted as a potential captain for both club and country in the past. The events of the past 12 months have laid that argument bare of course but with a new contract signed – and a half-hearted apology offered – it is clear Ferguson has moved on from last autumn.

Now the Scot wants Rooney to lead the new United, which shorn of five players that had performed for the club over the past decade is more vulnerable than in the past. Certainly, United’s advantage during the run-in – the players who had ‘been there and done it’ – was signficant over the club’s rivals. Arguably that is no longer true.

In fact with Ferdinand now firmly in the veteran camp and nursing an ongoing sore back – and Giggs approaching retirement next summer – neither is likely to play more than 30 Premier League games in the coming season. Each may not make 20. While Ferguson retains faith in Peckham-born Ferdinand, both as a key team member and natural leader, the Scot is acutely aware that he cannot rely on the player’s involvement as frequently.

“Rio will have to stay fit,” admitted Ferguson.

“That’s the key for him, but as he gets older he won’t play all the time and we won’t attempt use him in all the games. Rio knows he has to protect himself. We have come to grips with that and we just hope he doesn’t get any more of the back injuries that kept him out for six or seven weeks last season.”

As for Rooney, the player’s leadership role not only involves maintaining the outstanding form of pre-season – he scored a superb lobbed goal against Chicago Fire on Saturday night – but also steering clear of controversy and scandal. Infidelity, contract rebellion, swearing on live TV; each generated both media prejudice and a distracting focus on the club. Nobody can genuinely claim that no effect was brought to bear on the player’s performances so abject was the Scouser during the autumn and winter months.

Yet, if Rooney is able to both put the scandals of the past behind him, and focus on the Scouser’s particular brand of dynamic football, the striker could prove invaluable. After all, where Phil Jones and David de Gea now step as expensive but callow acquisitions Rooney has already been.

Moreover, the player, who has now racked up more than 300 appearances for United, will be one of the more senior voices in the Old Trafford dressing room. Tom Cleverley, Danny Welbeck and others will surely take note.

But Ferguson’s call comes with no guarantees; those supporters who remain wary of Rooney’s attitude will not easily forget last October’s events. The explosive nature of the forward’s personality may yet strike again. Leadership, one hopes, will at last bring out the best in United’s £30 million player. The worst will always be in peripheral vision.

Ferdinand ready to fight ticking clock

July 22, 2011 Tags: , , , Opinion 1 comment

Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand is facing up to the autumn of his career, with three young central defenders ready to challenge the 32-year-old for a place in Sir Alex Ferguson’s team. But, says Ferdinand, Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and new signing Phil Jones will have to prove they are hungrier than the Peckham-born defender to do so.

Indeed, with fitness issues a concern for Ferdinand over the past three seasons there are no guarantees that the England defender will finish the coming campaign as Ferguson’s first choice to partner Nemanja Vidic. The former Leeds United player will surely begin the campaign alongside club captain Vidic, but with Smalling outstanding in his début campaign, £16 million Jones desperate to play and Evans with plenty to prove, competition for defensive places is strong than ever at Old Trafford.

Yet Ferdinand has a warning for United’s younger defenders, challenging Smalling, Jones and Evans to show the kind of desire that has taken the Londoner to the top of the world game.

“I remember what I was like when I was young,” Ferdinand told reporters on United’s US tour.

“I remember looking up at Slaven Bilic, Marc Rieper, Alvin Martin and Steve Potts at West Ham. I was only a kid but I used to sit on the bench and think I should be playing. I am sure these guys think the same thing. If they have got anything about them they should.

“They are all talented footballers and, I believe, Manchester United players. At some point I am sure they will take over the reins. But I am competitive and I don’t want to be giving up my position to anybody. My task is to prove I am hungrier than them.

“They can’t be in awe of me. If they are, they will get shipped out. That is the way it is. Your desire has to be to play. I understand and respect that. That is why they are here.”

The club’s concern with Ferdinand – the reason the 32-year-old is not club captain – is, of course, the defender’s ongoing fitness problems. After all, Ferdinand has not started 30 Premier League games for United in three years, with ongoing back problems having threatened to curtail the player’s career. Indeed, a feeling that United was prepared to sell enticed Tottenham Hotspur to bid for the defender last summer.

Yet Ferdinand claims that the back problem, which ruined most of the player’s 2009/10 campaign, is no longer an issue, although a calf injury robbed United of the defender for a large part of last season.

“My fitness is OK. I am nowhere near where I want to be yet but we have three weeks left,” added Ferdinand.

“Last season, I had no problems with my back, which was a good thing, but I did pull my calf which kept me out for a chunk of the year. Hopefully this time around I won’t have anything like that and I can continue to play a consistent amount of games.”

Despite ongoing concerns Ferdinand will remain key to United’s chances of success on the domestic and European fronts in the coming season. With inexperienced back-up in central positions and the da Silva brothers barely out of their teens, Ferdinand’s maturity means the former West Ham United player is likely to be rotated only for those games where Ferguson typically does so; against mid- to-lower table opposition.

But Ferguson will also be concerned that Smalling, who played 33 games for United last season, Evans and Jones all play enough football. The United manager’s revelation this week that Jones sought assurances on the subject before joining in June is telling. The £16 million former Blackburn Rovers player started 26 Premier League games for the Lancashire club last season, seven more than Ferdinand for United.

The United manager will use pre-season as a barometer for both Jones’ talent and the youngster’s ability to handle the pressure of being a United player. After all, Smalling’s excellent début season was predicated not solely on strong performances but 21-year-old’s ability to remain cool under pressure. Jones’ apparent maturity well beyond his years will surely serve the 19-year-old well.

“Over the years this club has been very successful. In the last couple of years we have won trophies as well. It is great to see but it does bring pressure,” adds Ferdinand.

“It is not overwhelming though. It is part of being a Manchester United player. You have to deal with all that stuff. It separates you from being a Manchester United player and not.”

Entering his 10th season as a United player Ferdinand has more than met that challenge. Smalling, meanwhile, has offered a promising start to his United career just as Evans’ future becomes a matter for debate. Jones’ biggest tests are yet to come.

Should Ferdinand once again show signs of age the trio will be more than willing to step into the elder-statesman’s boots.

de Gea starts as Fergie urges ‘keeper patience

July 20, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 18 comments

Manchester United’s new €20 million goalkeeper David de Gea could start his first match for the club against Seattle Sounders on Thursday morning but manager Sir Alex Ferguson has warned that fans may need to be patient with the 20-year-old former Atlético de Madrid player. The player joined training with his new colleagues this week but the Spaniard will face a challenge from Anders Lindegaard for United’s goalkeeping position warned Ferguson.

Ferguson spoke ahead of United’s second match of the US tour, with the Reds facing MLS champions Sounders in the Pacific north-west. While de Gea will play his first United match at CenturyLink Field, Ferguson says the Madrid-born ‘keeper must adjust both to life in the Old Trafford spotlight and the rigours of Premier League football.

It had appeared unthinkable that the United manager would leave  his expensive new acquisition on the bench come the start of the Premier League season in just over three weeks, but Ferguson can also use Lindegaard and Ben Amos on tour in the States. Indeed, 26-year-old Dane Lindegaard started against New England Revolution last Wednesday, with Tomasz Kuszczak left in Manchester to close a move away from the club.

“The only area where we may have to be patient is in the goalkeeping position,” Ferguson told reporters in Seattle on Tuesday.

“De Gea is only 20, he’s young. He’s played in the Spanish league for a couple of years, but it’s not the English league. I think he’ll need time to settle in, but the potential is enormous. It’s absolutely unbelievable, the potential the boy has got. We’ve also got Anders Lindegaard, so we may get a challenge for them both to accept, but in time the boy De Gea will make it his position, there’s no doubt about that.”

Ferguson may consider allowing de Gea time to settle into the club as the new season begins, despite the player’s hefty price tag, which makes the 20-year-old Spaniard the second most expensive goalkeeper in history. It is, perhaps, a risky strategy with Lindegaard also inexperienced at the highest level after a journeyman career to date.

Ferguson’s words also recall the damaging stand-off between Tim Howard and Roy Carroll in 2004/5 before Edwin van der Sar joined from Fulham. The Northern Irishman started 34 games in all competitions, with Howard between the sticks for 27 but neither settled into the role, seemingly undermined and not inspired by competition.

For his part Lindegaard has shown admirable patience since joining the club in January. Sidelined first by van der Sar’s consistency in the Dutchman’s final season, and then by a knee injury, Lindegaard has waited more than six months for an opportunity. The Dane is relishing the challenge.

“The boss told me when I came that he doesn’t care how you look, what your name is, your price tag or what your religion is because, if you’re good enough, you’re going to play,” Lindegaard said earlier this week.

“That’s the same with all the places at Manchester United. The best man plays and that’s how it is and how it should be. There’s been a lot of talk about De Gea, but my focus isn’t on him because I won’t gain anything from that. My focus is what I can do something about, and that’s playing games.

“I didn’t come to pick my nose or to sit on the bench and watch football as a privileged fan. I’m here to play and make my way and earn my respect. Edwin had a huge name at United and earned his way to where he was. He was a legend here and one of the top two goalkeepers ever to play for the club.

“I guess him retiring makes the spot available and it’s the most attractive goalkeeping job in the world. It’s the job everybody wants and I’m no different.”

Lindegaard impressed against Revolution last week but is likely to warm the bench as United begins the second of a five match tour. The squad, including Ferguson’s three ‘keepers, spent a week of training and preparation at Nike’s headquarters in Oregon before moving on to Seattle today.

de Gea’s relaxed work out with Eric Steele on Tuesday included instructions in rudimentary Spanish from the veteran coach, with the youngster yet to learn English. It is a challenge the club will correct quickly, with communication between Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and the ‘keeper essential.

yet despite Ferguson’s warning that de Gea may not claim the number one shirt from August, and concerns about how the youngster will settle in England, the Scot has little doubt about his new ‘keeper’s talent.

“Youth, age, it doesn’t matter when you have the ability of a goalkeeper like de Gea has,” added the United manager last week.

“He’s young, he’s quick and he has fantastic presence and composure. His use of the ball is outstanding. All of these plus points are things that don’t go away. He’s got these natural things.”

It’s a claim that United supporters will review for the first time in the early hours of Thursday morning.

Carrick’s midfield mission impossible

July 19, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 92 comments

With Manchester United’s bid for Wesley Sneijder seemingly run aground on the financial rocks Sir Alex Ferguson has admitted this week that the Reds may not bring in a direct replacement for Paul Scholes. With United’s sights aimed high, Ferguson told press gathered on the club’s US tour that only the very best will do for United. Not for the first time this summer supporters’ hopes that a high-class central midfielder will arrive at Old Trafford may have been dashed.

On a similar track, midfielder Michael Carrick believes that replacing Scholes is a shared responsibility among the players that remain at Old Trafford. It is, of course, an impossible task and not simply because in Anderson, Carrick and Darren Fletcher United does not possess the requisite quality to replace Scholes. Moreover, numbers are down after Scholes’ retirement, Owen Hargreaves’ release and Darron Gibson’s impending sale.

“I think losing a player like Paul is a big loss – he brings so much to the team,” admitted Carrick.

“He’s a world-class player. Scholesy was just brilliant – how he played the game, how he was off the pitch. He was loved by everyone. None of the lads have a bad word for him. He came in, did the business and then headed off again. He had genius ability that you can’t really teach.

“You have to compensate in other ways. We’ve done that in the past – we lost Cristiano Ronaldo a few years ago and people didn’t think we’d get over it. Different players step up – maybe not one player but we share the responsibility. I feel there’s more responsibility as you get older, too. Experience counts for a lot. I just want to improve again and have a good season.”

Nice words of course but essentially empty. After all history indicates that Carrick, while improving over the past 12 months, will remain passive in the face of the highest competition. The Geordie’s qualities are many – and still admired at Old Trafford – but Scholes’ replacement he is not.

Meanwhile, Anderson, of whom many supporters retain high hopes, has achieved little of note in four years at the club. Aged just 22 the Brazilian is arguably far from his peak; yet years into a disappointing career in England to boot. The man Ferguson identified as Scholes’ heir apparent is arguably fortunate to remain at the and benefiting from Ferguson’s considerable patience with players he believes may come good.

Then there is Fletcher, whose 2010/11 campaign was spoilt by a mystery virus that effectively ended the Scot’s season 12 matches early. That the Scotland captain is not fit enough to join United on tour says much, leaving Ferguson with just two recognised central midfielders in the States plus 38-year-old Ryan Giggs.

Yet the United manager has once again sought to cool talk of Dutchman Sneijder joining the club this summer, with Internazionale reportedly asking for £35 million and the player seeking wages over £200,000 per week. The impasse leaves United looking at alternatives, with the club now dismissing the notion that Samir Nasri will join after Arsenal simply ignored a £20 million bid.

“Forget it. We are looking at some things but I am not so sure Sneijder will be easy to get,” Ferguson said.

“I could pick three or four players to come in but they wouldn’t be good enough for us so there is no point. I would be happy enough [with no new signings]. Maybe I am a bit overloaded in the strikers’ positions. The alternatives in midfield are not nearly as strong. But I have a good squad.”

It is pointed then that Ferguson chose to praise young Tom Cleverley as “an intelligent modern-day footballer,” with the 21-year-old joining the United squad, along with Danny Welbeck, at Nike’s headquarters in Oregon this week.

“Welbeck’s an England international, an exceptional talent. Cleverley will play for England. His movement and understanding of space is really good for a young player. We are happy both of them will stay with us. Because of the experience they have had, keeping them now benefits us.”

Although Stuart Pearce used Cleverley  mainly in wide positions for England Under-21 team this summer – as did Wigan Athletic last season – many believe that the youngster has the natural talent to compete centrally. It is clearly a huge ask for the Basingstoke-born midfielder, who scored four in 25 appearances for the Latics, to step into Scholes’ shoes with immediate effect.

Could the answer to Ferguson’s dilemma lie elsewhere? Certainly United’s failure to add proven quality in central midfield has led many – supporters included – to speculate that Wayne Rooney could drop even deeper in the coming season, away from the ‘number 10’ position occupied to such great effect over the past six months. It’s a notion dismissed by Ferguson, who admirers the Scouser’s on-the-field intelligence but is unlikely to deploy the former Evertonian in a more limiting central midfield role.

“Wayne could play centre-midfield, but not the way that Scholesy played it. They’re too different,” added the 69-year-old United boss.

“The way Wayne would play as opposed to Scholesy is that he would be more dynamic and all over the place, using his energy to run everywhere, challenge and hit those cross-field passes that he’s terrific at. Scholes was more calculated. He always had that control about him, controlling the speed and pace of a game, which is pretty difficult to do. He was an absolute one-off.

“You can’t replace players like that. You hope you can get something approaching it, but you’ll never replace Scholes. We’re all searching for that. Everybody is searching for the special player who makes the difference to his team.”

Indeed, this summer has left Ferguson facing the very real prospect of entering the new season with solely Anderson, Carrick and Fletcher as the Scot’s front-line central midfielders. It’s a sobering thought despite Carrick’s promise to exert greater influence in the coming season. One in which the Geordie’s shared responsibility is unlikely to bring much comfort.

Win tickets to the FA Community Shield

July 19, 2011 Tags: , , , Shorts 80 comments

** Update – competition is now closed **

We’ve teamed up with McDonald’s, the official Community Partner of the FA, to offer ten readers the chance to win two match tickets to watch Manchester United take on Manchester City at The FA Community Shield, sponsored by McDonald’s, on 7 August at Wembley Stadium.

This year’s match will be a Manchester derby, which will see Manchester United and Manchester City go head-to-head in this competition for the first time since 1956. The Red Devils look to secure their 14th Community Shield victory against current FA Cup holders City.

McDonald’s has been the Community Partner of the FA since 2002 and aims to create more football opportunities for all. Since the partnership was formed McDonald’s has created over 20,000 qualified football coaches, offering two million hours of free, quality coaching to young players across the UK.

“This year’s FA Community Shield will no doubt be a sell-out as fans from across the country make their way to Wembley to support the Reds and the Blues. It’s going to be a great game – a fantastic match to kick-off the new football season and I wish everyone who enters the competition the very best of luck,” said Geoff Hurst, McDonald’s Director of Football.

To be in with a chance of winning this fantastic prize, answer the following question and email your answer to editor@unitedrant.co.uk with the subject line “McDonald’s Compo”.

Q: How many times has Manchester United won The FA Community Shield?

The Small Print

1. Rules: Please note that, in addition to these Provisions, entrants are bound by both the Promoter’s terms and conditions at http://www.unitedrant.co.uk/latest/win-tickets-to-the-fa-community-shield/ and the Supplemental Rules For Third Party Promotions Featuring Football-Themed Prizes Supplied By McDonald’s (“General Rules”) at www.mcdonalds.co.uk/policies/football-terms-and-conditions.shtml.

2. Participants: Must be 18 and over and UK resident

3. Duration of Promotion: Enter the Promotion between 6pm 18th July 2011 and 6pm 28th July 2011 inclusive.

4. Entry Criteria: Answer a question correctly to be entered in to a draw for a chance to win.

5. Conditions of entry: Limit of one entry per person.

6. How to Submit your Entry: Entries to be submitted via email. No other method of entry will be accepted. Email: editor@unitedrant.co.uk.

7. Prizes: The prize pool consists of ten prizes each of: Two match tickets to The FA Community Shield on 7th August 2011 at Wembley Stadium.

8. Prize Awards: Winning entrants will be notified by telephone and / or email and should be contactable no later than Friday 29th July 2011. Prize notification will be sent by email to the address registered at time of entry. If the winner cannot be contacted by telephone before 1pm on Monday 1st August, an alternative winner will be selected.

9. General: Winners will be required for promotional and media activity in relation to this promotion and other related McDonald’s football activities, including facilitating the publication of press releases, editorial and photographs on the UK websites of the Promoter, McDonald’s, and The FA, winners’ local media and in McDonald’s UK restaurants.

10. Promoter’s Details: United Rant, editor@unitedrant.co.uk, www.unitedrant.co.uk

Becks: the romantic’s choice as Scholes’ successor

July 18, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 46 comments

This week, Sir Alex Ferguson said that he is finding trouble filling the chasm vacated by Paul Scholes this summer. Who wouldn’t? Many class Scholes among some of the greatest midfielders in the history of not only English football, but the world game.

Hinting at further spending, the Glaswegian manager noted that “If we can get a player along similar lines in terms of the quality of his passing and vision, then yes, we’d have to do something.” But if the United manager cannot land Luka Modric, Wesley Sneijder or Samir Nasri this summer, is there another short-term option? Football romantics might think so.

Watching Gary Neville’s testimonial against Juventus in May, one could not but think about the number seven. Not Manchester United’s Michael Owen but David Beckham, world superstar, one of the biggest brands in football and – many people forget – still a very good player. World class? Maybe. But Becks retains all the attributes and characteristics to sort out one of United’s biggest problems – midfield.

Many will write this off as the fantasy ramblings of a fan – it is – but that does not hide the fact Beckham has the class that could really benefit United.

One of Beck’s characteristics was on show at Neville’s testimonial. Scholes’ retirement at the end of the season means that Beckham is now the best long passer in the world. The 36-year-old’s display during the match included a range of pin-point 80 yard passes for fun. The player also lasted the full 90 minutes and obviously feels that he is in good physical condition.

Beckham’s past speaks for itself; a United legend, helping the team to six Premier League trophies, two FA Cups and a Champion’s League trophy as part of the treble wining side of 1998-99. Beck’s is a set piece specialist and arguably the greatest crosser in the history of the game. At Neville’s testimonial he took the best corner of anyone in a United shirt for years.

Tactically, Beckham could be just as good an option as Modric. After all, the player has always fancied himself as a central midfielder and allegedly engaged in many heated debates on this point with Ferguson who saw Becks’ crossing ability as the player’s key weapon. The Los Angeles Galaxy player has lost most of what little pace he had in his youth and is finally been able to thrive in his preferred position, where he can dictate play with either short or long-range passing from the ‘quarterback’, regista or deep-lying playmaker position.

In fact Beckham is a more feasible option than Inter Milan number 10 Sneijder, whose natural position on the pitch encroaches on Wayne Rooney’s stomping ground in the ‘hole’. Beck’s control and touch also make him a very good central midfielder; more attack-minded than Michael Carrick.

The stats speak for themselves. Becks has made 16 appearances since March for the LA Galaxy and has notched up two goals and seven assists. In the player’s time in the ever-improving MLS, he has made 65 appearances while scoring 12 goals and has made 24 assists. It’s a similar game-goal-assist ratio to Ryan Giggs over the same period.

Another reason for Beckham’s arrival is experience, offering his boyhood club a year of service while allowing rising talents Tom Cleverley, Ravel Morrison and Paul Pogba an earlier chance to break-though into the first team than if the 25-year-old Modric or 27-year-old Sneijder were to join. Beckham’s influence in the dressing room around these young player would also be an invaluable asset to a club which has lost five senior players in recent times.

Beckham has also played in La Liga and his knowledge of ball retention could be a great help to United’s crop of talented youngsters. He might also be able to teach Bébé how to cross! Importantly, Beckham’s relationship with Ferguson has seemingly healed over the years.

Beckham, in the final year of a £135 million contract, would be happy to take a wage cut at the club closest to his heart. He offered to take a wage reduction when trying to secure a loan deal to Tottenham Hotspur earlier this year. After all, the economics of deals for Modric or Sneijder deals are eye-watering; Beckham’s is potentially lucrative for the club. When Real Madrid signed him from United for £25 million in 2003 the club claimed to have made the fee back in shirt sales inside a week.

This is a fantasy of course but there is also a good argument for Beckham’s return, stepping into the shoes of his good friend, Scholes.