Month August 2011

Month August 2011

Sir Alex’ lesson for the Professor

August 30, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 32 comments

If anyone needed proof that the current Manchester United side is superior to its north London rivals, then Sunday’s 8-2 demolition of Arsenal provided it. Even taking into account the multiple absences in the Gunners’ squad, the result offered a stark demonstration of the gulf in quality between Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad and that of Frenchman Arsène Wenger.

There have, inevitably perhaps, been calls for Wenger’s head from disappointed Arsenal fans who find themselves humiliated by an unthinkable result and disillusioned at a transfer window that has seen the sale of top-quality players with little in the way of replacements. The Gunners’ fans cannot understand how their club has fallen so far from the glory of Wenger’s ‘untouchable’ team of 2003-2004, which went an entire Premier League season undefeated.

For years in the late 1990s and early 2000s Arsenal fans enjoyed a shared dominance of the Premier League with United, which was finally ended in 2005 by the revolutionary spending of Abramovich-backed Chelsea. This event dramatically transformed the Premier League as Chelsea radically raised the bar needed for Premier League success with an end-of-season haul of 95 points.

At the time, this downturn in fortune for both United and Arsenal seemed insurmountable. But it was the managers’ reactions to the setback that has truly set them apart. While Ferguson rose to and overcame the challenge, Wenger floundered and has never recovered.

In the mid 2000s, sensing a danger to his United empire, Ferguson looked to the future, selling established players such as David Beckham, Roy Keane, Tim Howard and Ruud van Nistelrooy and replacing them with younger talent including Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Edwin Van der Sar. These players were to form the backbone of a side that would win four titles between 2006 and 2011.

Furthermore, Ferguson adapted to the European game, developing tactics including a three-man midfield that provided solidity and a fluid attacking unit that rendered Ronaldo, Rooney and Carlos Tevez almost unplayable. This was crucial in reaching three Champions League Finals during the latter part of the decade despite a move away from the rigid 4-4-2 that Ferguson employed to great effect in 1999.

Wenger, on the other hand, was far less successful in adapting to the new challenge posed by Abramovich’s Chelsea. Players such as Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Sol Campbell and Martin Keown were never satisfactorily replaced and although talented players including Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie helped mount some title challenges, there was always a negative feeling in the Arsenal camp. This led to a repeated and dramatic mid-season collapse in belief, such as that in 2008.

Today, the Premier League is faced with a new challenge – that of Manchester City and the club’s seemingly bottomless pocket. Ferguson has been charged in recent years with some hugely daunting tasks. He has replaced the magnificent Cristiano Ronaldo, along with the ever negative Tevez and has dealt with the retirement of ageing talents: Paul Scholes, Van der Sar and Gary Neville. Players such as Ryan Giggs and even Rio Ferdinand are in the twilight of their careers. At least with United.

Ferguson is, however, a master at creating new teams, keeping the best elements of an old team and merging them with new talent. Once again, he has succeeded in doing this, offering United fans a strong sense of optimism for the future and for the challenge that City will inevitably pose. He has signed young players of great quality such as Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Ashley Young; brought through home-grown talents Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley, and has coupled them with the undoubted ability of existing players.

Wenger, on the other hand, has been forced into selling two of his best players – Fabregas and Samir Nasri. Talk of signing 26-year-old striker Park Chu-Young and 28-year-old full-back André Santos will do little to encourage Arsenal fans as they lick their wounds from Sunday’s 8-2 defeat. Once again, it seems, Wenger and his team are failing to adapt whilst Ferguson’s United are facing the challenge head on.

It seems ‘The Professor’ has much to learn if he is to recreate a team to challenge that of his old adversary Sir Alex.

Why Fergie may persist with youth

August 30, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 20 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson has done it again; the 69-year-old Manchester United manager has created a new tactical template, with players to go with it. United’s formation this season might nominally be a traditional 4-4-2, yet the deployment is anything but ordinary. Two, not one, strikers drop deep as wingers push forward. With no dedicated holding player, both central midfielders – Anderson and Tom Cleverley – maraud into the attacking midfield positions. Ferguson’s attacking six players converge in the same area and have created some beautiful football – as the recent 8-2 victory over Arsenal suggests.

And it is the young players that are key to making the system work, in particular Danny Welbeck. Tall and strong, the 20-year-old can play the traditional target man with whom United can relieve opposition pressure. The English striker also operates as a traditional number nine that diligently works the channels. He can also beat a man using pace and skills – something that Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernández cannot offer on consistent basis. Crucially, Welbeck is comfortable operating a little deeper (see figure 1, below), often occupying the same spaces at ‘deep-lying’ Wayne Rooney.

Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney positions

Credit: Guardian Chalkboards

It is, perhaps, a touch too early to call Welbeck a complete striker but he is more complete than both Berbatov and Hernández. It is this well-roundedness that has seen Welbeck preferred over his more established colleagues in the current, fluid system.

Guardian writer Sid Lowe suggests that tiki-taka style of football deployed by Barcelona is as defensive as it is aesthetically pleasing. After all, the opposition can’t score if they don’t have the ball. Ferguson’s deployment last season of two ball-playing midfielders, Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs, in a 4-4-1-1 was forced by necessity. Darren Fletcher, a more destructive player, would surely have been preferred had he been fit during the closing weeks of the season.

Still, the system worked a treat for Ferguson and United. Carrick and Giggs, along with Rooney, maintained the ball so well that it was not necessary to deploy a holding player to disrupt the opposition play. At least until United met Barça in the Champions League final, with the Catalans playing tiki-taka better than anyone else.

This season, Ferguson has upped the ante. Central midfielders, wingers and strikers congregate in the same area (see Figure 2, below) to form, effectively, a 4-2-4-0 or a 4-6-0 system. With so many players in close proximity any given player has multiple teammates to pass to. United has maintained possession well, including 60 per cent of the ball enjoyed in the 3-0 victory over Tottenham Hotspur recently at Old Trafford. With central midfielders requiring dynamism in the new system, Carrick and Giggs have been discarded in favor of Cleverley and Anderson.

United average positions

Credit: Total Football iPhone App

However, with no holding midfielder screening play and the attacking six pressing like there’s no tomorrow the United defence faces two very tough choices: risk a high defensive line or; play deeper and isolate the attacking six. The first option would not have been possible with Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. The older duo is slower than Phil Jones and Jonny Evans, leaving United vulnerable to pace and the ball over-the-top. Even when Jones and Evans have been pushed deeper the presence of David de Gea – an excellent distributor – allows the ball to move forward.

That isn’t to say that the older players will forever play second-fiddle this season. The downside of fluid systems is that they tend to fail spectacularly. Recall Roma’s 7-1 defeat at United’s hand in 2006/07. Sir Alex will likely go for more rigid formations in Europe to combat the defensive frailties inherent in the a system that features no holding midfielders. Even should the Scot persist with the current formation, players will be rotated for the system places great physical demands on players. The workrate put in by Ashley Young and Nani, who regularly cover for the defensive, is an example. Yet, the way Ferguson’s youngsters are playing, the old guard will have to work hard to play. After all, Ferguson, the notorious tinkerer, would never have selected the same line-up twice in a row had he not been impressed.

Fixtures wallpaper

August 28, 2011 Tags: , , Media 6 comments

Want a free fixtures wallpaper? Want it to include last season’s goal of the year? Want it to fit your computer screen? Then look no further than these Rant wallpapers. Click for a preview, right-click and “save as..” to download.

Wallpaper 1600 x 1200 pixels

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Fergie goes with kids for Arsenal test

August 27, 2011 Tags: , Matches 145 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson will persist with his youthful revolution at Manchester United for this weekend’s fixture with Arsenal. At least that’s the message from the 69-year-old United manager, who says that form dictates younger stars, including Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, will continue in the United side for the visit of Arsène Wenger’s troubled Londoners. Indeed, with a nearly full squad for Arsenal’s visit Ferguson’s focus on youth is now a matter of expediency alone.

And while Arsenal struggles to overcome the loss of Cesc Fàbregas and Samir Nasri this summer, United’s quintet of experienced departures has seemingly revitalised Ferguson’s side. Three inventive performances of attacking verve and youthful flair into the season and a new optimism has descended on Old Trafford, despite the ongoing failure to recruit the new central midfielder many supporters and pundits crave.

How typical of Ferguson then to both praise his young stars and keep their feet firmly on the ground ahead of United’s biggest Premier League match of the season to date.

“They’ve only played a couple of games,” warned Ferguson.

“They have potential and we’re very enthusiastic about that potential and hopeful they can fulfil it. But the name of the game is what they achieve.

“I have a tremendous problem when it comes to picking a side but it is the kind of problem I want. Maybe some of their form will taper off. That is when the squad comes into play. At the moment they are doing very well. So I have to let it carry on.”

The aforementioned quartet of Jones, Smalling, Cleverley and Welbeck is likely to be included in Fabio Capello’s England squad for Euro 2012 qualifiers against Bulgaria and Wales early next month on the back of an excellent start to the new season. With Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick, Ashley Young and, potentially, Rio Ferdinand also included United could boast up to eight players in the Italian’s squad.

The call-ups are, of course, a bitter-sweet moment for Ferguson, the Scotsman who has always put United before international commitments. Moreover, with Ferguson regularly falling foul of the Football Association, the United manager has more reason than most to resent England’s call for his youngsters.

“It’s not a problem for us. The FA may realise who has produced more players for their country than any club in the world,” added Ferguson, of the group’s call-up.

“Maybe they will get some joy from it and realise how important we are to England instead of treating us like shit. I am pleased for the players. They are outstanding so we’re all pleased.”

Manchester United v Arsenal, Old Trafford, 29 August 2011Internationals are for next week though and Ferguson can boast an almost fully fit squad for Arsenal’s visit. Aside from Nemanja Vidic, whom Ferguson confirmed will not return for another month, and Rafael da Silva, the Scot can choose from the full compliment available.

Indeed, fellow Scot Darren Fletcher played the full 90 minutes for United’s reserves on Thursday night and could feature against Arsenal after spending the past six months largely on the sidelines. Meanwhile, winger Antonio Valenica is back in full training, and United will make a late call on Ferdinand’s involvement against Arsenal. Javier Hernández could make his first start of the new season after suffering a concussion in pre-season.

“On the injury front, Darren Fletcher played a game last night which is great news,” Ferguson added.

“I think the boy is back now. He’s had a terrible time but now he’s looking terrific and he’ll be in the squad for Sunday. Chicharito came back on Monday which gives me a tremendous problem for picking a side but that’s the kind of problem we want.”

Ferguson must also choose between Welbeck or the returning Hernández to start alongside Wayne Rooney in attack. Welbeck’s mixed performances against West Bromwich Albion and Tottenham Hotspur may colour Ferguson’s decision, with Mexican Hernández desperate to start after two months without football. Yet, 20-year-old Longsight-born forward Welbeck also scored one and created a brilliant other against Spurs, underlining the genuine if raw talent at Ferguson’s disposal.

It is a choice that boils down to Hernández’ goalscoring record stacked up against Welbeck’s talent, with Dimitar Berbatov’s class all but forgotten in Ferguson’s revolution; a key story of United’s summer.

“It was great to play again, unbelievable,” Hernández told MUTV.

“I had one month off after the Gold Cup, and then the thing happened with my head, so it was two months without games. That was difficult but I talked to my family and friends every day when I was out, and made sure I was ready. Thankfully, for the last game against Spurs I was on the bench, then I played 10 minutes and I enjoyed it a lot.”

Squad players Carrick and Park Ji-Sung could make their first Premier League appearances of the season if Ferguson opts for experience despite words to the contrary.

Meanwhile, the visitors arrive at Old Trafford boosted by qualification for the Champions League in the past week. Despite the departures of Fàbregas and Nasri a defiant Arsène Wenger has, to date, failed to add expensive replacements to his squad this summer.

Such is Arsenal’s current malaise, having not won a trophy in six years and seen key players depart, that some sections of Britain’s media have suggested Wenger may consider his future at the club. Yet, this widespread belief that the London club is already doomed to failure this season is one Ferguson rejects, despite 15 years of rivalry with his French adversary.

“I would like to know who is going to replace him,” said the United manager.

“The work he has done in the 15 years he has been at the club is the best in Arsenal’s history. Yes, he has not won a trophy for six years but what does that mean? The quality of his side has not been reduced.

“Chelsea’s involvement has created a lot of the problem in terms of trophies to win because they and ourselves have been dominating the Premier League. Now Manchester City have come on the scene. When Arsenal and ourselves were going head-to-head, it went on for about eight years. The competition is far greater now.

“But [Arsenal] answered everybody back on Wednesday. They got a great result and the game on Sunday will be another stepping stone for them.”

It is, however, a match in which Arsenal will be without midfielder Jack Wilshere, missing for three weeks with an ankle injury and, probably, Thomas Vermaelen, who faces a fitness test on Saturday. Meanwhile, Alex Song, Gervinho and Emmanuel Frimpong are all suspended for recent indiscretions. Plus ça change at Arsenal.

The absentees are hardly ideal against a vibrant United side in the 214th meeting between the teams: a series in which United has won 88 times to Arsenal’s 79. Moreover, United has won six of the last seven home fixtures against Wenger’s men.

And while Arsenal emerged victorious in the last fixture between the sides on May day, few will bet against an 89th win for United on Sunday.

Match Facts
Manchester United versus Arsenal, Premier League, Old Trafford, Sunday 29 August, 4pm.

Likely Line-ups
United (4-4-1-1): de Gea; Smalling, Jones, Ferdinand, Evra; Nani, Cleverley, Anderson, Young; Rooney; Hernández. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fábio, Evans, Carrick, Giggs, Pogba, Park, Valencia, Gibson, Fletcher, Diouf, Owen, Berbatov, Welbeck, Macheda.

Arsenal (4-5-1): Szczesny; Jenkinson, Miquel, Djourou, Sagna; Walcott, Ramsey, Rosicky, Lansbury, Arshavin; Van Persie. Subs from: Almunia, Fabianski, Traoré, Eastmond, Chamakh, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Miyaichi, Bendtner

United: WWW
Arsenal: DLW

Referee: Howard Webb (Rotherham)

Rant Cast 78 – the team that gets me excited

August 26, 2011 Tags: Rant Cast No comments

On this week’s show regulars Ed and Paul discuss Manchester United’s fine victory over Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford and look ahead to the weekend’s fixture with Arsenal. We talk major squad changes at rivals – does Samir Nasri to Manchester City and Juan Mata to Chelsea change the balance of the title race? And we laud United’s young English players – can Tom Cleverley, Phil Jones, Danny Welbeck and Chris Smalling make a difference to the failing national team?

Hit us up with any feedback below or follow the pod on Twitter: Paul – @UtdRantCast, Ed – @UnitedRant.

This week’s exit theme tune is ‘The Manchester United Calypso’ by Edric Connor from 1956.

Stream this episode using the player below, click here to download the MP3 or subscribe on iTunes, where you can also leave a review!

Welbeck rise leaves Berba in the cold

August 24, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 16 comments

When Paris Saint Germain sporting director Leonardo called Sir Alex Ferguson earlier this summer the Brazilian cannot have been surprised at the answer received. No, the Scot said, to Leonardo’s polite enquiry about Dimitar Berbatov’s availability. That was a little more than six weeks ago when, flush with Qatari money, PSG remained bent on signing United’s Bulgarian as the French club’s summer marquee player.

Three games into the new season, Ferguson will have cause to reconsider his decision – a bold one at that – turning down a bid of around €20 million for a player pushing past 30 and out of contract in 10 months time. Ferguson’s decision was, of course, based on prudence. Last season’s top goalscorer offers something none of his contemporaries at Old Trafford can; the Scot has always valued a flexible range of attacking choices.

“If you look at Berbatov, Owen, Hernandez and Rooney, they all have different qualities,” Ferguson said after United’s 3-0 victory Monday night.

“You have to utilise all that and make changes as best you can. The horrible part for me now is with having Javier back, what do we do? It is going to be a big problem for me.”

Yet, Longsight-born striker Danny Welbeck has started each of United’s competitive games this season, scoring a fine header against Tottenham Hotspur on Monday night and earning a call to Fabio Capello’s England squad for the aborted friendly against Holland.

The 20-year-old’s rapid progress leaves Ferguson the tough task of managing Berbatov’s remaining time with United. Even more so given Hernández’ return to fitness that leaves Berbatov fourth choice at Old Trafford despite last season’s heroics. Moreover, while nobody doubts the Bulgarian’s talent there is seemingly a growing consensus that United’s vibrant, flexible and pacey attacking play this season is far better served with Rooney, Hernández and Welbeck leading the line, rather than the former Spurs striker.

Then there is Welbeck’s progress since recovering from a debilitating knee-problem during his teenage years. The talent has always been evident. After all Ferguson once predicted that the youngster would make Capello’s 2010 World Cup squad. The end product, however, has been honed during a year under Steve Bruce’s tutelage at Sunderland.

“Danny is a big, rangy, long-legged boy who can gallop really quickly,” Ferguson said of Welbeck, who despite the positive start to the season, has been demoted to England Under-21s this week.

“Once he gets his legs going he is quick. He is a good footballer and has a great attitude when he loses the ball. He has always had ability but made slow progress because when he was growing he had a bit of a knee growth problem, so we knew we had to wait for him.

“We put him on loan to Sunderland last season and that is when he became a man. He has grown up. He is still only 20 years of age and the lad has a great future.”

But if the future is Welbeck then the Berbatov calculation is more subtle than simply retention of multiple options. After all, Ferguson has promised Michael Owen more games this season, while Federico Macheda and Mame Biram Diouf – neither made the bench for the Spurs game – each retain hopes of making it at Old Trafford.

For Welbeck, however, the equation is far simpler: staying in the team, with Hernández in line to start against Arsenal on Sunday.

“There is no better feeling for a Manc kid than scoring for United. I want more of it,” said Welbeck.

“It gives us [young players] confidence when the manager picks us. The gaffer has built a great squad with youth and experience in abundance. You know that once you’re in that starting eleven, you’ve got to work hard to keep your place. So I think everyone’s working hard in training and doing their best to get in the starting eleven.”

Welbeck is far from the finished article though and the player’s performance against both West Bromwich Albion and for an hour against Spurs was often mediocre. The striker’s understanding of space, his role and that of his colleagues can and will surely improve. Indeed, Ferguson’s half-time assertion that Welbeck provide more attacking presence offers an insight into the progress that United’s new star must still put in.

“I thought in the first half, Danny didn’t play as a centre forward,” added 69-year-old Ferguson.

“He was too much in midfield. We stressed at half-time that we needed more of a presence up front, we needed our targets up there and we needed someone to run through. In the second half they were much better that way and it made a difference to our game.”

Ferguson’s comments also provide another insight: Welbeck is a fast learner, evidenced by the fine 61st minute header than opened United’s account.

Jones’ class places Rio under real pressure

August 23, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 19 comments

“This result tells you that we still believe in youth,” Sir Alex Ferguson said of the young side that beat Tottenham Hotspur 3-0 at Old Trafford on Monday night. And with the Scot’s young, English, lions – Tom Cleverley, Chris Smalling, Danny Welbeck and Phil Jones – performing with electrifying confidence so early in the season the 69-year-old Manchester United manager has more reason to believe the statement more than most.

The aforementioned quartet is leading an increasingly youthful evolution at Old Trafford this season, which also includes, at just 20, the da Silva brothers, together with 23-year-olds Javier Hernández, Jonny Evans and Anderson. Yet it the youngest of the group, Jones, that arguably stole the show against Spurs with a performance of remarkably classy maturity.

Indeed, such have been the 19-year-old’s performances in Red this season that injured Rio Ferdinand faces a greater challenge to an automatic place in Ferguson’s side than at any point in nearly a decade at Old Trafford. And while Ferdinand could make Ferguson’s side for Arsenal’s visit to Manchester next weekend, the Londoner is surely now fully aware of the alternate talent available to Ferguson.

Ferdinand’s injury has come at an inopportune time of course, so early in the season and with Jones hardly settled at his new club following the £16.5 million move from Blackburn Rovers this summer. Yet, with outstanding performances against both Spurs on Monday, West Bromwich Albion last weekend and for 45 minutes during the Community Shield, Jones has slotted seamlessly into the ‘United way’. The teenager has, it seems, been at the club not two months but a couple of decades.

The player’s arrival at Old Trafford has been a long time coming though, with Ferguson having settled on the England Under-21 international following Blackburn’s 7-1 hammering in Manchester last season. The game was perhaps a strange stage on which to earn a move to Old Trafford but tough times do true characters make.

“When Blackburn lost the fifth goal, he was out giving them [team-mates] all stick,” Ferguson said.

“He was just one of those players you couldn’t miss when one comes along in the game. We made enquiries in November and were hoping to get him in January but we were prepared to wait. He is an absolutely fantastic young player.”

Ferguson’s is a sentiment echoed by supporters at Old Trafford on Monday, who witnessed not only a mature performance from the Preston-born defender but a genuine air of authority. It is a cliché of course but less than three games into a United career and Jones is already marked as leadership material for club and country. The maturity with which he handled not only his personal performance but media commitments with Sky following United’s victory on Monday night said much for the player’s temperament.

The 19-year-old is close to a full England cap too. After all, Ferdinand’s injury has potentially opened up a space in Fabio Capello’s squad for forthcoming Euro 2012 qualifiers against Bulgaria in Sofia on 2 September and then four days later against the Welsh at Wembley. That each of the Premier League’s top six lodged bids for Jones is all Capello needed to know of the player’s class before calling the teenager into the England squad for the aborted friendly with Holland earlier this month.

Indeed, Jones was one of few that returned home with any credit from England Under-21s disastrous European Championship performance in the past summer. Chris Smalling made the tournament’s all-star team but Cleverley, so bright in central midfield for United this season, looked lost on Stuart Pearce’s right-wing.

In fact Jones’ class has already drawn lofty comparisons, with 1968 European Cup winning midfielder Paddy Crerand claiming more than a hint of a famous Busby Babe. “If you talk to Bobby Charlton, Phil Jones reminds him of Duncan Edwards with his power and build,” says Crerand, who regularly commentates on United’s youth and reserve games for MUTV.

The plaudit is unlikely to phase the level-headed 19-year-old Jones, whose rise is remarkable not only for the quality of his game but for the lack of genuine experience; the player has appeared in less than 50 club games for United and Blackburn combined, in addition to nine Under-21 caps.

Yet, such is Jones’ obvious seamless transition to United’s team that it will surprise few if the defender has supplanted Ferdinand not only in the England side but Ferguson’s by the season’s end. The latter’s poor injury record may accelerate a changing of the guard, with captain Nemanja Vidic a certain starter, injury permitting.

“I’ve always said I aspire to follow the likes of John Terry, Michael Dawson and Rio Ferdinand. I always watch what they do and try and learn from them,” said Jones when he joined United in June. When it comes to performing for club and country, Ferdinand may well have cause to hope the protégé doesn’t learn too fast.

MUST evokes memories of Best … and Kitchener in new campaign

August 22, 2011 Tags: , , , Shorts 4 comments

The Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) needs you… to don the Green & Gold of protest and force the Glazer family to use autumn IPO proceeds to rid the club of debt. At least that’s the message of MUST’s new poster campaign, which was launched today. Staring George Best in Lord Kitchener mode, the new MUST poster urges United supporters to revive the spirit of Green & Gold and put new pressure on the ruling Glazer family.

Claiming that the upcoming IPO in Singapore later this year is “victory for the Green & Gold campaign,” MUST wants fans to build a second wave of protest, aimed at pressuring the Glazer family into removing debt from United before it is “locked in” post-IPO.

“Green & Gold was a global phenomenon fought in the areas of media and politics as well as on the terraces. It was an uprising like nothing seen before at OT or perhaps anywhere in English football,” said the group in a statement.

“The bonds actually created more expensive debt and more of it than the club’s previous bank financing, however crucially they allowed the Glazers to take up to £95m in a cash “carve out” from MUFC’s coffers with much more to come over subsequent years.

“So while the bonds were more expensive the Glazers desperately needed the money – their PIK debt was rolling up at an alarming rate and threatening to get out of control and there was no other spare cash in the empire. Such was impact of Green & Gold throughout 2010 however, that the Glazers feared an outright rebellion and had to withdraw their plans to take the carve out money.”

The Glazer family removed the catalyst for protest – the PIK debt – in November 2010 at a cost of £249 million. But with personal debts mounting, and no bidder willing to meet the family’s excessive valuation of the club, Plan B is to enact a partial-IPO of the club in Singapore this autumn.

Yet the IPO is likely to ‘lock-in’ any remaining debt, according to MUST, ensuring the the Glazers – as private owners giving way to a PLC board – will not pay down bond debt from anything other than club sources.

“Effectively at that point they will have taken that money from Manchester United meaning our club (and fans) will have to pay their debt off,” adds the Trust.

“It is the duty of every fan to stand up to protect our club from further un-necessary fees and interest payments.”

MUST campaign poster

Jones starts as defensive injuries bite

August 21, 2011 Tags: , Matches 156 comments

Manchester United supporters have become accustomed to the annual defensive injury crisis in recent seasons, with Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, and the da Silva brothers each on the sidelines for long periods. This season’s incarnation – hardly a surprise to anybody perusing the injury records of Sir Alex Ferguson’s defenders – has come a little earlier than normal, with the Scot’s first choice back-four absent for Tottenham Hotspur’s visit to Old Trafford on Monday night.

Joining Ferdinand and Vidic on the sidelines is and Rafael da Silva, while Patrice Evra may face the Londoners depending on his recovery from a minor knee injury suffered on international duty. It is hardly ideal preparation for United’s opening home match of the new season but with nearly £50 million of youthful defensive talent still at Ferguson’s disposal injuries with open the door for Phil Jones’ first competitive start.

The 19-year-old summer recruit from Blackburn Rovers is likely to line-up alongside Chris Smalling or Jonny Evans in central defence, with Fábio vying for a spot at right-back.

Ferguson’s faith in Jones is nothing new though, with the 69-year-old United manager having tried to sign the teenager last January. The England Under-21 international’s composure and leadership skills, says the Scot, marks the player out as one United “couldn’t miss” in this summer’s transfer market.

“When he was playing against us in the 7-1 game, after the fifth goal he was running out and giving everyone around him stick and he was only 18 then. I was very impressed,” admitted Ferguson.

“After that I tried to get him last January. We put an inquiry in but Blackburn wouldn’t sell him at that time. He was just one that we couldn’t miss. He’s definitely got all the parts to his game, there is no doubt about that. He has got the desire to play and he’s a good trainer, with a great determination about him.”

Despite the manager’s confidence United is likely to field a hugely inexperienced defence on Monday night. Jones, Smalling and Evans are likely to be joined by Fabio da Silva. The five that finished United’s 2-1 win against West Bromwich Albion last Sunday had an average age of just 20 years and 193 days.

It is hardly ideal for under-pressure 20-year-old goalkeeper David de Gea, who has mistakes in successive games since an £18 million transfer from Atlético de Madrid this summer. Despite the media pressure being heaped on the youngster Ferguson says he hasn’t discussed the issue de Gea in the past week.

“He coped with the crosses into the box at West Brom with no problem – he just didn’t get any protection,” added Ferguson.

“You saw the challenges – an elbow in the face and a boy went under him and he didn’t get the free-kick. It’s disappointing when you don’t get the protection, but he’s at home against Spurs on Monday and it won’t be a problem. It’s just away from home where he might get subjected to that.

“David will go through the same programme of core work as the rest of the players do when they come here. [Edwin] Van der Sar was a tall, skinny kid when he won the European Cup in 1995. He was the same – and don’t forget David is only 20. Schmeichel had a baptism of fire, too. He went to Wimbledon in his first couple of games with us and screamed like a pig. He got no protection. He had Vinnie Jones, Alan Cork and John Fashanu all piling on top of him and battering lumps out of him.

“David will be fine. I have no problems with him, none at all. We have never mentioned the criticism this week that David got after the West Brom game. He’s fine, he’s done his training – there’s no problem.”

Manchester United versus Tottenham HotspurMeanwhile, Ferguson will choose between Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick in central midfield. Although youngster Cleverley performed admirably during the Community Shield and away victory at West Brom the senior man is now injury free and ready to face his former club. Darren Fletcher completed a reserve match in midweek but is likely to be a fortnight away from a first team return, as is winger Antonia Valencia.

The Scot also faces a selection dilemma up front, with Danny Welbeck and Dimitar Berbatov vying for a starting spot against Spurs. Welbeck began fixtures with both Manchester City in the Community Shield and last weekend but the Bulgarian replaced him each time.

There is, of course, no doubt about Rooney who has begun the campaign in fine form. Free from controversy surrounding his private life or contractual situation, the 25-year-old former Evertonian is playing in the liberated fashion with which he closed last season

“He’s been flying in pre-season,” said Ferguson.

“His fitness is terrific, he has the same energy all the time, he is a restless player on the pitch, he can never stand still. He is a tremendous asset to our squad. It’s interesting to see how he is combining with [Danny] Welbeck at the moment. Both have done very well together.

“I have Berbatov who did very well in pre-season, he played really well. When Chicharito returns then I’ve a selection problem to work out the best combination. For me, Chicharito has goals written all over him, so it’s not a bad position to be in.”

Meanwhile, Harry Redknapp’s side arrived in Manchester fresh from hammering Hearts at Tyncastle during the week. Spurs’ 5-0 victory came despite the Londoners having yet to start the domestic season after the club’s opening Premier League fixture was called off due to the riots that swept north London a fortnight ago.

Redknapp should be able to call on Luka Modrić even though the Croatian missed the win at Hearts with a groin strain. However striker Peter Crouch, Ledley King, William Gallas, Sandro, Steven Pienaar and Alan Hutton are all doubtful for the match.

And star midfielder Gareth Bale says that the lack of experience in United’s back five is an advantage Spurs must take if the Londoners are to win at Old Trafford for the first time since 1989. Indeed, ‘keeper de Gea wasn’t born until 1990, underlining both United’s youth and the visitors poor record in Manchester.

“If any keeper’s having a bad time, you’re going to test them and it’s going to be no different,” bale told the Mirror.

“We’re going to go to Old Trafford and give our all and test their whole team. It’s obviously going to be nerve-racking for him to go to United and be in the first team, but he showed at Atlético Madrid and with Spain that he’s a world class keeper.”

Yet, despite the focus on United’s 20-year-old stopper, it is arguably Jones that is the key man should he start. For a player so young, a sense of responsibility already rests on the defender’s shoulders; few doubt Jones’ ability to see it through.

Match Facts
Manchester United versus Tottenham Hotspur, Premier League, Old Trafford, Monday 22 August, 8pm.

Likely Line-ups
United (4-4-1-1): de Gea; Fábio, Smalling, Jones, Evra; Nani, Cleverley, Anderson, Young; Rooney; Welbeck. Subs from: Lindegaard, Evans, Carrick, Giggs, Park, Diouf, Owen, Berbatov, Pogba.

Spurs (4-4-1-1): Gomes; Walker, Dawson, Kaboul, Assou-Ekotto; Lennon, Modric, Huddlestone, Bale; Van der Vaart; Defoe. Subs from: Cudicini, Kranjcar, Livermore, Friedel, Bassong, Corluka, Townsend, Pavlyuchenko.

United: WW
Spurs: n/a

Referee: Lee Probert (South Gloucestershire)

Glazers to pay down debt? Believe it when you see it

August 19, 2011 Tags: , , , Opinion 22 comments

There is something rotten in the republic of mancunia when national journalists buy, with seemingly little attempt at corroboration, the Glazer family’s ample spin on the upcoming Manchester United IPO in Singapore. Indeed, the Times and Telegraph each published heart-warming tales of the family seeking to pay down the club’s £500 million corporate debt and invest heavily in the transfer market post IPO. Finally, claimed Mark Ogden in the Telegraph, the Glazers have come to understand the fans’ concerns. It’s a touching story of the Tampa-based family reaching across the water towards hither to embattled supporters.

Believe not a word of it. History and good sense educates that the family’s intentions are likely far less benevolent, with the Glazers almost certain to use proceeds from the Asian flotation to shore up their own precarious financial position. After all, with a £250 million loan almost certainly taken from a US-based hedge fund last year and a financially unstable US property business to reinforce, the Glazer family could use every penny going.

The overnight spin came, presumably, from London-based Chief of Staff Ed Woodward, who has become a familiar if anonymous source to Fleet Street’s finest in recent years. The briefings followed United’s submission to the Singaporean Stock Exchange (SGX) of preliminary listing papers. That submission, reports conclude, appends a promise to cut net debt at Old Trafford; something that is directly tied into a ‘fair’ valuation for the club on listing.

True, if the club is to attract the premium price early noises have suggested – anything from £400 to £600 million according to the BBC – then United’s finances are of direct concern. After all, Asian investors will be offered no more than a third of the Glazers’ equity in United, if that. The promise of long-term profits, capital gains on shareholdings and a healthy dividend are, therefore, preeminent to minority investors with no control over United’s business plan.

Yet, as the Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) warned on Thursday, any supporter, institution or interested third-party investor should take the family’s spin with a large pinch of salt. Lest we forget, it was the Americans’ leveraged buyout six years ago that placed so much debt on the club in the first place.

“While on the surface, fans should welcome any reduction in the unsustainable debt burden on the club, if this Eastern promise from the Glazers seems too good to be true, it’s because it probably is,” concluded MUST in a statement on Thursday.

“The share sale will be in the Glazers’ interests – to pay down their debt – not the club’s. What we wish to see is a full sale to progressive owners who are interested in investing in the club’s future so we can compete with Europe’s finest, currently Barcelona. Ultimately, our ambition is for shared fan ownership of a better United.

“The danger is that a partial flotation will provide a poisoned pill to any such progressive potential owners. And by reducing the Glazers’ personal debt we will continue to be saddled with these absentee landlords. To any United fans considering buying shares at the Glazers’ initial offer price – buyer beware.”

That Glazer-held debt, gained when refinancing the exorbitant Payment in Kind (PIK) loans last year, is of course the primary driver for the upcoming flotation, which the family hopes will take place some time before the turn of the year. Within the bounds of whatever promises the family has made to SGX, supporters should expect the minimum possible bond buyback. The Glazer family is a long-term proponent of running their businesses with debt and leopards rarely change their financial spots.

It begs the question: what then the true cost to United of relisting? After all United will almost certainly issue dividends to both the Glazer family and minority shareholders post-IPO. In the worse case scenario, with less than half of United’s £500 million bond bought back from IPO proceeds and a dividend payable to shareholders, the annual cost to the club may conceivably exceed the £45 million currently paid in bond interest.

Lower debt also raises the spectre of Corporation Tax, which the Glazer family has studiously avoided over the past six years, with the club reporting repeated annual losses. This, of course, was not the case pre-2005, with the old PLC regime reporting profits and paying dividends that in aggregate totaled £61.74 million between 1991 and 2005.

Relisting United enables the club to more easily access the capital markets, of course, with future rights issues enabling the Glazer family to extract more value from its shareholdings. Should the Americans remain at Old Trafford post 2017, when the bonds mature, whatever is left of the club’s debt must be redeemed necessitating one assumes a further share issue to the market.

Yet there is no guarantee United’s shares will perform on SGX, assuming the Glazer family successfully IPOs this autumn. Even if the Glazer family, backed by underwriters Credit Suisse and others, achieves the speculated four billion dollar valuation the open market will surely provide a correction. The realistic scenario that United’s shares are overpriced on IPO and fall rapidly on the market will restrict the family’s ability to extract further liquidity when required.

Much of this is of course speculation and further detail is likely only when the club issues a prospectus in the coming weeks. But there is a lesson in history; one that supporters should heed before buying into the debt-repayment fairytale. It is a shame that our nation’s media is not so circumspect.