Month September 2011

Month September 2011

Data point: September player performance

September 30, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 9 comments

In partnership with the EA Sports Player Performance Index, Rant Monthly uncovers the data behind Manchester United’s strong start to the 2011/12 campaign. Here’s a sneak preview of the data from October’s magazine…

The EA Sports PPI covers Premier League performance based on a mathematical model developed Dr Ian McHale (a Liverpool fan) and Professor Phil Scarf (a United fan). The index provides objective ratings for players’ performances in a match and over a season, enabling comparisons across positions and identifying how much a player genuinely contributes to a team’s success.

Players are allocated points based on set criteria, including points won by the team, specific actions during a match, time on the pitch, goals, assists and clean sheets. McHale and Scart have analysed hundreds of matches since the Premier League’s inception in order to quantify the relationships between player actions and the match result.

The index demonstrates what many United supporters will already know: Sir Alex Ferguson’s side has made a strong start to the Premier League season, backed up by performances by key individuals

Between the sticks few United players have had more column inches dedicated to them than David de Gea. Despite this the young goalkeeper is the top ranked stopper in the Index, having made an incredible 45 saves already this Premier League season, and conceded only five goals at a shots-to-goals ratio of 9:1. By comparison, Manchester City’s Joe Hart has made 25 saves, conceding five goals, at a shots-to-goals ratio of 5:1. The PPI data draws two obvious conclusions: United is allowing far more opposition shots on goal than the side’s rivals but de Gea is more than up to the task, backing the conclusion that Ferguson’s 2011/12 incarnation is a more open than in the past.

Meanwhile, in a defence that has been disrupted by injuries to first choice pairing Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, United’s younger players have been thrown into the spotlight far earlier than Sir Alex Ferguson may have intended. Yet, Ferdinand and Vidic may have some concern about their long-term positions in the side, after strong showings from Phil Jones and Jonny Evans over the first six matches of the Premier League season. The Northern Irishman is now ranked 24th overall in the Index and is the seventh ranked defender. Phil Jones is ranked 30th overall and ninth in the defenders’ list. Remarkably, the pair hasn’t lost a tackle between them in the Premier League and contributed 13 clearances too. Patrice Evra, now one of the senior men in United’s defence, is the 13th ranked defender in the Index, perhaps underlining the slight loss-of-form some fans have noted in recent months.

The much criticised United midfield has also performed strongly in the Premier League this season according to the Index. Brazilian Anderson has shown signs of fulfilling his promise, ranking sixth overall in the Index, completing 123 passes in his opponents’ half, which works out as one every four minutes 14 seconds. Demonstrating the all-round game the 22-year-old is now developing, Anderson has won 78 per cent of tackles he entered into and made five interceptions.

Darren Fletcher’s return is also a boon to Ferguson, with the younger Scot demonstrating his box-to-box credentials by covering 7.65 miles and 7.37 miles against Chelsea and Stoke respectively. Meanwhile, Tom Cleverley’s emergence is underscored by the young midfielder’s performances in his four appearances to date. Cleverley successfully fired 80 per cent of his shots on target and covered an average of 7.4 miles per match before being injured against Bolton Wanderers.

It is, however, in attack that United’s has performed ahead of all expectations this season, scoring 22 goals in six Premier League games to date. Wayne Rooney is the Index’ leading player this season, scoring nine goals and contributing two assists in five games. Ashley Young, ranked third, has started his United career in fine fashion, while the winger on the other side, Nani, is ranked fifth. Between them United’s attacking trio have made 37 shots on target, netting 68 per cent of the side’s goals so far. Demonstrating the hard work the Portuguese has put into his game over the last 18 months, Nani has also covered more ground – 43.8 miles – than any other United player this season.

Adding some level of proof, if any was really needed, of the delightful attacking football Ferguson’s side has put together since August Rooney, Nani and Young have each completed over 100 passes in their opponents’ half this season – 118, 157 and 116 respectively.

Rant Cast 83 – enough material for an entire psychiatry conference

September 30, 2011 Tags: Rant Cast 2 comments

In this week’s Rant Cast, regulars Ed and Paul discuss United’s first dropped points of the Premier League season in the draw at Stoke City, and the 3-3 draw with FC Basel, Basle, BASIL, or whatever they’re called, at Old Trafford. We discuss Carlos Tevez’ mutiny at Manchester City – how does the club that has comedy at its heart come back from this? We finish by previewing United’s fixture with Norwich City at the weekend ahead of the international break.

This week’s exit theme tune is ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ – Joy Division.

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

Stream this episode using the player below, click here to download the MP3 or listen on iTunesand leave us a review! Like Rant Cast? Why not nominate us for a Podcast Award.

Walking with the devil

September 29, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 18 comments

Robert Johnson, so legend has it, was fulfilled with such an overwhelming desire to become a blues guitarist that by instruction, and on the stroke of midnight, he met with the devil at a remote crossroads. Johnson learned to play a six string with such mastery he was able to create the music for which he became famous. Johnson’s Faustian deal was, of course, little more than a marketing exercise but while we’re on the subject, Sir Alex Ferguson this week accused football of making a similar deal with the devil. Take the money and pay the price, declared Sir Alex, who believes that television companies now have far too much power over fixture schedules and little regard for the needs of players, teams and managers.

“When you shake hands with the devil you have to pay the price. Television is God at the moment,” Ferguson told BBC North West Tonight.

“It shows itself quite clearly because when you see the fixture lists come out now, they can pick and choose whenever they want the top teams on television. You get some ridiculous situations when you’re playing on Wednesday night in Europe and then at lunchtime the following Saturday. You ask any manager if they would pick that themselves and there’d be no chance.”

Ignoring the obvious antonym in Ferguson’s argument, this is a familiar refrain from the Scot, who both resents the modern business of football and yet defends the Glazernomic ideals of Manchester United’s globally-indebted owners. This has always been Sir Alex’ contradiction. That is an aside of course. Ferguson’s real beef is the genuine emasculation that United’s control-freak coach feels when it comes to fixture schedules.

But there is, of course, a far wider point to all of this. Modern football has sold itself to the beast and Beelzebub must eat! The Champions League’s expansion, the ever-growing international calendar and rigours of the modern game have placed huge physical and mental demands on players. And while coaches will always desire the greatest possible preparation time between matches, schedulers want the most attractive fixtures – frequently involving United – to kick-off at premium ratings times.

Supporters too have long been ignored in the game of football fixtures business. What price United’s 25 February fixture at Norwich being moved to the Monday night or late Sunday afternoon to suit schedulers? It is a hypothetical of course but few could be surprised. And in that there is a précis for the modern football business that at its heart views fans as customers, customers as revenue and revenue as potential profit.

Driving the mill is the broadcast industry, which at last count paid some £1.8 billion for domestic Premier League rights. Another £1.2 billion flows into the English game from overseas rights while, as one of the biggest markets, Premier League teams benefit hugely in the Champions League pool. In fact United’s accounts showed around £120 million flowing into the club from TV revenues alone in the last financial year.

In this Ferguson and the supporters, often at loggerheads when it comes to the club’s finances over the past six years, are soul-mates. Well, almost.

But fans must also look the devil in the face and ask whether they would make Johnson’s choice. Broadcasters pay, in part at least, for the players that grace Old Trafford, the all-seater comfort and the Premier League ‘product’. Is this a price that fans are willing to pay? Sold out stadiums and a legion of AON-branded shirts walking down Sir Matt Busby Way says Faust wanders among us and we love his choice. That is the deal supporters make. The deal Ferguson makes. The deal football itself has made. Money begets money, so the old economic theory goes, which in turn  begets the men who love money and will do anything for it.

One wonders what Sir Matt would make of it all. After all, here is a man who when questioned about United’s comparative wealth in the 1960s said tersely: “Money in the bank? That’s great but I’d rather see it on the pitch?” Ferguson and United’s supporters would surely agree.

Yet in the competitive world of modern football, with UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations set to be phased in over the next three years, the pressure to generate revenue can only increase. It is the law of competition and clubs face this whether they generate income from supporters via ticket sales, indirectly from commercial sponsors or from the broadcast world. The deal football has struck is one it can no longer break.

Faust might might lend a knowing look. Faust, so the fable goes, is assuredly corrupted by his personal deal with the devil, and when it comes to an end, Lucifer carries him to Hell. Johnson’s music, by contrast, is revered to this day as one of the most important contributions to the Blues canon. Choose your devil carefully and then love him for it.

Injuries hit ahead of Basel visit

September 27, 2011 Tags: , Matches 222 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson will be without seven key players for tonight’s visit of FC Basel in the Champions League, as Manchester United attempt to record a first victory in this season’s competition. Ferguson confirmed that strikers Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernández will miss the tie, while Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling, Nemanja Vidić , Tom Cleverley and Rafael da Silva are also absent for last year’s finalists.

Fresh injury concerns this week add to a growing list of absentees at Old Trafford, although Ferguson was always likely to rotate his side against one of the competitions lesser lights. Indeed, with United – on paper at least – drawn in a relatively weak group, Ferguson may use early matches to ensure fringe squad players achieve some playing time.

To that end Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Owen, Anders Lindegaard and Park Ji-Sung could play, while Fábio da Silva is likely to come into the side at right-back. And although Ferguson insists that Basel will pose a threat, United supports will expect a much-changed side once again, with Ryan Giggs partnering Michael Carrick in an open midfield, and Phil Jones reprising his weekend role at the heart of United’s central defence.

“Having a squad gives them a better chance of winning things, so they’ve accepted (the squad system) a long time ago,” Ferguson said on Monday.

“And they want to do well when they get the opportunity because as a group we all want to do well. They all have a part to play in the context of the number of games you have in the Premier League, Champions League, League Cup, FA Cup, it’s an exhausting season unless you use your squad. We have been consistent in the Champions League, our form away from home has been outstanding and we hope we can do better this year and win it, that’s the aim of this club all the time.”

“They’ve always been among the premier teams from Switzerland [which] has been producing very good young players for quite a few years now. Basel too have very good experience in Europe, so I expect to see that from them tomorrow.”

In Basel United faces an attractive side, unlike – some might argue – the Swiss national side at last summer’s World Cup in South Africa. Yet the odds seem stacked against the Swiss, with United having won 32 and drawn just three in an unbeaten streak at Old Trafford that dates back to Chelsea’s controversial win in April 2010.

Yet in Alexander Frei, Basel boasts a striker whose record at both club and international level is impressive. The locally-born forward has scored 48 times in 64 games since returning from Borussia Dortmund in 2009, while he has a one-in-two record over 84 international caps for Switzerland.

“We’re coming here as outsiders,” Frei is told

“We’re not expecting to make the impossible possible, but why shouldn’t we achieve something? We’re going to be fully committed and give 100 per cent for the whole 90 minutes and we’ll see what happens.

“When I left Borussia Dortmund for Basel, I was hoping to experience Champions League fever again, and I’ve been able to do so twice in two seasons. I’d love to play on at this level for another three or four years to hopefully play at other big European grounds too like Barcelona’s and [Real] Madrid’s.”

Meanwhile, German coach Thorsten Fink insists his side arrives at Old Trafford with a positive mindset, despite being classed as rank-outsiders. Basel earned a 1-1 draw on the last occasion these sides met in 2002. However, Fink is missing key playmaker, and outstanding young prospect,  Xherdan Shaqiri through suspension

Fink was a member of the Bayern Munich that United famously beat 2-1 at Camp Nou in the 1999 Champions League final. But the coach, who replaced former Tottenham Hotspur coach Christian Gross as Basel’s manager in 2009, inists the game is about points, not revenue for ’99.

“We haven’t come here to sit and watch, we’re here to play,” claimed Fink.

“It’s going to be a challenge but we’re looking to get something out the game. To do that we’ll need to be tight at the back as United are clearly very strong in attack. They’re one of the favourites for the competition alongside Barcelona, but we’ve got experience, good young players and we won’t play with any fear. We’ll see what happens.

“There is no question of me trying to get even for [the 1999 UEFA Champions League final defeat with FC Bayern München]. I’m here as a coach, I’m glad to be here and so are the players. I have great memories of that game even though we lost, as I always think that everything that hurts you makes you stronger.

“We went on to win the Champions League in 2001 so that 1999 defeat definitely made Bayern stronger. We played well that day [in 1999] but it proved that if you let your guard down for a moment against a team like United you get punished.”

And even if that United team contains a host of changes from the exciting side that won its first five Premier League games in a row, the smart money still lies on a comfortable win for the Reds tonight.

Match Facts
Manchester United v FC Basel, Champions League, Old Trafford, 7.45pm, 27  September 2011.

Likely Line-ups
United (4-4-2): Lindegaard; Fabio, Jones, Ferdinand, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Giggs, Park; Welbeck, Berbatov. Subs from: de Gea, Amos, Fletcher, Fryers, Pogba, Nani, Anderson, Diouf, Young, Owen.

Basel (4-4-2): Sommer; Steinhöfer, Dragovic, Abraham, Park; F Frei, Cabral, Xhaka, Zoua; A Frei, Streller. Subs from: Ajeti, Schürpf, Huggel, Streller, Yapi, Chipperfield, Stocker, Voser, Xhaka, Herzog, Kusunga, Colomba. Buess, Andrist, Kovac, Tembo, Wieser, Kwang-Ryong.

United: WDWWD
Basel: WWWWD

Win a signed 2010/11 United shirt and stadium tours with Betfair

September 27, 2011 Tags: , Shorts 13 comments

* competition now closed*

Here’s a chance to win a signed Manchester United shirt and one of 20 Old Trafford stadium tours, with United Rant and @BetfairSports! Proving once again that not only does Rant giveth, but giveths again.

In Betfair’s latest ad, United winger Ashley Young takes on team-mates Dimitar Berbatov and Patrice Evra in a very special game of bowling. The trio attempt to floor the ten pins using lightweight footballs, taking on couch potato and footballing wannabe Chris Weber, with the baying crowd betting on their mobiles as to who will emerge as King Pin.

“It was harder than I thought it would be because of the weight of the ball and having to strike it so low over a relatively short length of space, “said Young, who has already provided five assists this season.
“Hats off to Patrice and Berba, they showed unbelievable skills. And all I can say about Chris is ‘he tried his best!’”

Ranters: for a chance to win there’s three ways to enter…

Get involved on Twitter. Simply tweet:

I want to win a signed #MUFC shirt in the @BetfairSports #Stars&Strikes competition RT to enter!

No Twitter? Come up with your best video related pun in the comments section below, or on the Rant Facebook page for a chance to win.

To get a free bet with Betfair Mobile and the chance to win more great prizes, check out Betfair’s Stars & Strikes page here!

The boy is just a bit special

September 26, 2011 Tags: Opinion 53 comments

There is a certain elixir in youth. The vibrancy and the genuine excitement delivered by younger stars introduced to Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad this campaign has transformed the Old Trafford atmosphere – quite literally, as our American brothers sometimes say. Despite United’s outstanding record at Old Trafford last season, where 19 Premier League games brought 18 victories, the inescapable feeling that Ferguson’s 2010 vintage was not quite up to scratch pervaded the Reds’ campaign.

It was out with the old as Wes Brown, John O’Shea, Owen Hargreaves and a plethora of retirees made way for an influx of the new this summe. The transformation has brought not only a new style to United’s play but fresh hope too. In all of that one man stands out, one man stamped with the mark of genuine, undeniable quality. There is a feeling deep inside that, in Phil Jones, we are witnessing the emergence of a genuine world talent

Jones’ powerful running from central defence, full-back or – frankly – wherever he feels like, is compelling. As is the player’s passing, positioning and, lest we forget, defending. Jones’ running from right-back at the Reebok Stadium earlier this month seemed as effortless as it was natural. The defender’s composure in central defence at the Britannia, even under the incessant aerial onslaught, confirmed the feeling that the player is ready for the big time. Right now.

That 19-year-old’s powerful build has drawn lazy comparisons with Nemanja Vidic and, God forbid, John Terry. Let’s have none of that. Jones is a real player. More Rio Ferdinand than Vidic, yet with the captain’s temperament and a physique to surpass the former Leeds United player in every department.

Such is Jones’ quality that Sir Bobby Charlton and Pat Crerand were drawn into making the almost inevitable comparisons with Duncan Edwards last month. That comparison should wait, at least until Jones approaches the 171 game marker the late, great, Edwards reached for United.

The more relevant test is whether Jones compares with the best available in the country today. Would Sir Alex swap his 19-year-old phenomenon for Terry, Phil Jaglielka, Jolean Lescot, or Gary Cahill? Not a prayer. £16.5 million was supposed to include an ‘English premium’, but when it comes to questions of value for money spent, the player would be cheap at twice the price.

Jones’ quality on the ball has also brought the inevitable call for the player to be deployed in midfield. There is little doubt that the player’s touch and passing would allow Jones to compete in the heart of Ferguson’s side. There is something in the argument that Jones could play almost anywhere and hold his own. With Ferguson’s squad still lacking a genuine, tough-tackling, ball-winner in the Roy Keane mould, the cry for Jones to fill that void is all the more inevitable.

Yet, it is also a demand that smacks of that old Anglo-Saxon suspicion of the ball-playing defender. Indeed, Ferdinand’s emergence at West Ham United in the late 1990s brought the same call. The question, surely, is why Jones shouldn’t be retained in defence, where he will become a world star, rather than be pushed into midfield, where he will be one among many. At Barcelona, for example, where possession of the ball is king, midfielders become defenders and not the other way round.

The debate may be moot. Given the surging runs from defence at the Britannia Jones helpfully fulfilled that old cliché: two players in one. At times that buccaneering style, the willingness to break out of defence and create a fifth man in midfield so clear against Stoke, may open United to the threat of counter-attack. Jones will learn, if he doesn’t already know, when to go and when to stay.

Ferdinand used to have that too, but somewhere along the line the fear took hold and the Londoner’s forays forward became more restricted. A rarity even. Somehow Jones’ fearlessness, bravery, and savvy way beyond his years seems likely to prevent a repeat.

No wonder United tied up Jones’ signature months ahead of his official July transfer from Ewood Park, at least according to weekend reports. While United fought hard for Smalling’s signature, fending off Arsenal’s admiring attention among others, Ferguson had no intention of allowing even a debate to unfold where Jones was concerned. Fortunately for United, the admiration was always mutual.

There is still something to work on with the youngster, despite the sense that the player has been two decades in the United side, rather than two months. The former Blackburn Rovers player was caught on the wrong side of the man he was marking as Peter Crouch headed home at the Britannia, for example. That we are resorting to the minutiae of Jones’ game to draw out criticism says much for the man already.

Meet Phil Jones. World star in the making and a joy to behold.

Reds aiming for six pack at Stoke

September 24, 2011 Tags: , Matches 110 comments

The Britannia Stadium, they say, is a cauldron of hostility and Tony Pullis’ Stoke City team the most aggressively direct of any in the Premier League. And while Stoke’s supporters continue to live with the bizarre notion that there is a local rivalry with United to maintain, Pullis’ team is a far better footballing outfit than the pervading popular opinion.

Manchester United head to the Britannia Saturday afternoon seeking a sixth straight Premier League win, in what is the Reds’ best start to a season since 1985. Sir Alex Ferguson’s men face a stern test of that record but, boasting a flawless record against the Potters in recent times, travel South in confident mood.

Ron Atkinson’s ’85 team won 10 straight in the old First Division before old failings were exposed and United finished a disappointing fourth. Atkinson would have only a year left in the job by the his side dropped its first points. With games against Liverpool at Anfield and the derby with Manchester City to come the odds are firmly in favour of Atkinson retaining one of the few records Ferguson has not broken in the 25 years since the Scot took over at Old Trafford.

In any case, chasing records is a notion to which Ferguson gives short shrift, preferring to concentrate on the here-and-now and another examination of his team’s title credentials.

“There is no point analysing our start in terms of previous years,” said Ferguson on Friday.

“I am just enjoying the moment and hope it lasts longer than normal. You know somewhere along the line we will lose a game or drop a point. That is a fact. That is the league we are in. Does it matter if you win the league? No it doesn’t. You deal with the situations as they come along. If we have a defeat, the next week you try to win.”

Ferguson will be without a trio of injured stars – Nemanja Vidic, Rafael da Silva, and potentially Chris Smalling, who has a minor calf problem. Captain Vidic’s return could again be delayed, with the giant Serbian suffering with an ongoing shoulder problem that has failed to clear. But United should welcome back defender Rio Ferdinand for the fixture. The former England captain has missed games against Benfica and Chelsea with a hamstring strain, but is likely to start at the Britannia.

“He has not done any training and just been having treatment,” Ferguson said of the 32-year-old defender.

“Calves can be troublesome that way. When Bryan Robson did his, it kept him out for three months. Rio’s [injury] record is fact. We wish it was better but we use him to our advantage when we have him available because you cannot dismiss the experience he brings. He missed a couple [of matches] after Bolton and one after West Brom, but I don’t mind that because with the squad we have got we utilise him the way we want to.

“We’re delighted with [Chris] Smalling, [Jonny] Evans and [Phil] Jones because the three of them have been magnificent and no doubt they’re the long-term future, but there are occasions when you bring in the bit of experience that Rio offers and it does make a difference. You saw at Bolton, he absolutely walked through the game.”

Stoke City versus Manchester United, Premier League, Britannia Stadium, 5.30pm, 24 September 2011.Elsewhere, Ferguson is likely to persist with the attacking quartet that began against Chelsea, with Javier Hernández having recovered from the bruised shin suffered after Ashley Cole’s brutal assault last week. While Wayne Rooney is rightly taking the plaudits, with 10 goals in all competitions this season, Ashley Young and Nani have nine assists between them in the league alone.

The game is also likely to be a major test for goalkeeper David de Gea, the Spaniard who has visibly grown in confidence as the season progressed, from the early mistakes against City and West Bromwich Albion, to the excellent display in last week’s match with Chelsea that prompted the Manchester Evening News to award the 20-year-old it’s man-of-the-match gong.

Indeed, de Gea has been put through a rigorous training regimen at Carrington this week in preparation for Rory Delap’s long-throw missile that proffers Stoke both chances and territorial advantage.

“It’s an eye-opener for any goalkeeper,” added Ferguson.

“I remember discussing with Edwin what his position would be in terms of the long throw-ins and where he was most comfortable dealing with the situation. We got it right then and we are doing the same with David. All the work this week has been on his position and where he should be.”

Despite United’s strong record against Stoke in recent seasons – a 100 per cent win rate since the Potters’ promotion in 2008 – Ferguson warns against any complacency, with Liverpool losing in the city last week and Chelsea held to a draw. Yet the Scot refuses to join in the chorus of critics about Stoke’s style of play.

“It’s never been a problem for us,” adds the United boss.

“Everyone plays to their strengths. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. You see the progress the team is making. They have signed two or three players, they are playing European football and having a right go. They have a great attitude and their support is brilliant.”

Meanwhile, Pullis will be without striker Kenwyne Jones who is out after picking up a hamstring injury in the Potters midweek Carling Cup tie. But Matthew Upson could retain his place after a strong performance against Tottenham Hotspur this week.

Atkinson’s first dropped points 26 years ago came in a 1-1 draw at Luton Town. The Hatters now play in the Blue Square Premier. The smart money says Stoke is unlikely to repeat the feat this weekend.

Match Facts
Stoke City versus Manchester United, Premier League, Britannia Stadium, 5.30pm, 24 September 2011.

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

Stoke (4-4-2): Begovic; Huth, Woodgate, Upson, Shawcross; Pennant, Delap, Palacios, Etherington; Jones, Crouch. Subs from: Sorensen, Whitehead, Wilkinson, Whelan, Walters, Wilson, Shotton, Wilson, Diao, Jerome

Stoke: WLDLD
United: WWDWW

EA performance stats

  • The Manchester United team covered a total of 76.59 miles during the 3-1 win at Old Trafford against Chelsea, with Nani covering 7.99 miles, Darren Fletcher 7.65 miles and Wayne Rooney 7.55 miles
  • Wayne Rooney scored his ninth Premier League goal in last Sunday’s win. The striker has now, on average, scored a goal every 53 minutes 40 seconds of Premier League action this season. He is also the Premier League player to have had the most total shots (24) this season.
  • Rooney remains the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index’s top ranked player. United boasts four more players in the top 10: Ashley Young (2nd), Nani (6th), Anderson (7th) and de Gea (10th)

Referee: Peter Walton (Long Buckby)
Assistants: M Mullarkey, D C Richards
Fourth Official: C Foy

Happy Owen wasting his talent for the greater glory

September 23, 2011 Tags: Opinion 5 comments

Michael Owen’s smart double against Leeds United on Tuesday night reignited the debate about the (former) England marksmen’s role, both at Manchester United and with the national team. The Telegraph’s Henry Winter led the charge, openly campaigning for the striker’s recall to Fabio Capello’s England squad. After all, Owen has not scored 40 international goals without knowing where the net lies. Indeed, the striker’s one-in-three ratio for United is impressive given the limited opportunities afforded the 31-year-old at Old Trafford.

Yet, Owen is little better than fifth choice at United in his third season with the club, with the inescapable feeling that the player’s talents remain unfulfilled in Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad. No longer quick enough to cause damage against Europe’s finest defenders, not cute enough to perform in a deeper role, Owen is rarely deployed by the Scot. When the former Liverpool striker gains an opportunity it is almost universally against the country’s lesser lights, for that is now the striker’s fate given the quality available to Ferguson.

If the pace has gone, none of Owen’s finishing skills have waned, amply demonstrated at Elland Road. The smart take and scuffed left-footed finish for his first; the emphatic right foot shot thumped home for the second. Against more limited opposition Owen is lethal, with a record while at Old Trafford that backs up the claim.

That the majority of Owen’s goals have come against second-class opposition is a reflection of the limited opportunities the player is afforded. This is reflected in the goalscorer’s record, which shows just one strike against top-class opposition – the 97th minute goal against Manchester City at Old Trafford in September 2009.

In all that there is a contradiction. Owen’s quality is no longer enough for a regular spot in United’s first team, even if Winter believes the 31-year-old is the answer to Capello’s problems. Yet, the goalscorer in Owen’s core must surely yearn for more.

“I’m not content if I’m not playing,” Owen said on Tuesday.

“I get criticised a lot with things like ‘you don’t play, you pick your money up’ and all the rest of it but I’m not proud of that fact. I want to play all the time. If the season was going to be like the first season I was here then I’d be delighted. That was fantastic and I felt involved. I was always either on the bench or playing. Obviously I want to be involved again but I appreciate that there’s some top players in the team and in the squad and it’s a challenge to get on the bench let alone into the first-team.”

Owen’s sentiment is underlined by the facts, with the player having started just six games in the Premier League during his time with United, and just one last season. And despite Ferguson’s words to the contrary at this campaign’s start, unless an injury crisis hits, Owen’s role will again be limited to cup competitions against predominantly minor opposition.

It’s a situation Owen appears to accept much against the popular conception of modern-day footballers. Indeed, the Chester-born strikers claims that he would rather play irregularly for United than start for an inferior club. The sentiment has always been both an enigma and a contradiction.

“I understand you cannot be given guarantees in football,” adds the striker.

“As last season drew to an end I was 50-50 about what the manager would say when he called me in. If it had gone the other way I wouldn’t have been upset. I am proud to have been involved with such a great club. But secretly when he said he wanted me to stay my fist was clenched under the table. We are all men about it. If I didn’t play at all during the season I would sit down with the manager and have another chat.

“I have been the number one choice and had people chomping at my heels. Now it is roles reversed but I can think of a lot worse places to be. When I train it is with the best players. When I play it is in front of fantastic fans in a great stadium and the quality is high. I hope I can be involved but I am not stupid there are a lot of top players here and if my chances are limited I will still have a smile on my face and still feel part of a fantastic club.”

In that there is a lot to admire in Owen. United supporters suspicious of the player’s Liverpool roots will never be so naïve as to believe the player is a United loyalist. It is, after all, just a job. But contrary to the moniker so often attached to the player – especially by those on Tyneside – Owen’s motive at Old Trafford is little more than glory, whether direct or by association.

But there is also an undeniable truth: at a level not much below United’s a fit Owen would surely score a hat-full of goals. Owen: a talent happy but wasted; never essential to United’s cause but pleased to be a bit part in the effort all the same.

Rant Cast 82 – Dimitar Berbatov, couldn’t get a game so played centre-half

September 23, 2011 Tags: Rant Cast 11 comments

In this week’s Rant Cast, regulars Ed and Paul discuss United’s victory over Chelsea at Old Trafford last weekend. Was Fernando Torres’ miss the worst ever and just how did it finished 3-1? We discuss United’s win at Leeds United in the Carling cup, including some unsavoury behaviour by both sets of fans. Finally, we look ahead to the weekend’s fixture at Stoke City, and the home match with FC Basel in the Champions League.

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This week’s exit theme tune is ‘Flowers of Manchester ‘ – The Spinners.

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

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United: the next next generation

September 21, 2011 Tags: , , , Opinion 59 comments

Amid all the talk of Manchester United’s youth this season it is easy to be drawn into the hyperbole. Phil Jones cast as Duncan Edwards; Chris Smalling the new Rio Ferdinand; Tom Cleverley as Paul Scholes’ protegé. Yet below the layer of hype and over-expectation those cast into Sir Alex Ferguson’s first team have consistently performed this season.

Then there are the stars of last campaign’s FA Youth Cup winning side, in particular Paul Pogba, Ravel Morrison and Ryan Tunnicliffe, of whom much is hoped in the coming years. United’s fixture with Leeds United in the Carling Cup on Tuesday offered a glimpse beyond the obvious, and confirmation that the Carrington well does indeed run deep.

In addition to French midfielder Pogba, who made his first team début as a second half substitute on Tuesday, a new star emerged as the Reds cruised to a comfortable win at Leeds United in the Carling Cup. Indeed, one man, defender Ezekiel Fryers, caught the eye with a performance of genuine composure that belied the 19-year-old’s immature status. Fryers, who has often appeared at left-back for United’s Academy and Reserve sides, commanded central defence alongside Michael Carrick. Fryers’ pace and distribution, although sometimes over-ambitious, offered a genuine touch of class that reserve and academy watchers will have recognised.

Fryers was a key member of the Academy side’s run in last season’s FA Youth Cup before injury robbed the defender of a place in the latter stages of the competition. But if personal disappointment market the end of a campaign, the 18-year-old has begun the new season in splendid form.

An England Under-19 international ‘Zeki’ has performed both in central defence and at left-back for United, with arguably even greater versatility with international age group teams. Indeed, the Manchester-born player has performed in a number of midfield positions at England Under-16, 17 and 19 levels.

But it is the youngster’s performance against Leeds – along with Pogba and fellow débutant Larnell Cole – that has brought Fryers to national attention, drawing praise from Ferguson in the process.

“I thought young Fryers did very well,” confirmed the United boss.

“He showed good composure, wasn’t fazed by it which is really good because you always want to see what their temperaments are like because the atmosphere here, as you know, is hostile and he coped with it very well. Paul got a good 45 and young Larnell Cole came on at the end – it’s good for them to get taste of the atmosphere and what the first team is like.”

Yet Fryers’ potential has long been recognised by Old Trafford insiders, with the teenager one of four name-checked by Rio Ferdinand – along with Josh McEachran, Ross Barkley and John Bostock – as England stars of the future. For now the youngster is simply enjoying the first step on what many hope is a long and successful United career.

“It was a massive night for me. It was quality and a massive step up, so I was happy to get 80 minutes in,” he told

“I had to come off with a bit of cramp so now it’s all about working hard with the reserves and getting fitter so that I’m ready for whenever these chances might come again. It was good to have Larnell and Pogba alongside me when they came on. We have been playing together for a long time, so this was massive for all of us.”

Meanwhile, the much-lauded Pogba enjoyed a 45 minute run out against Leeds, demonstrating the assurance on the ball that has become a hallmark of the teenager’s play. Yet there was also a conservatism in Pogba’s performance. Gone were the driving runs, long-range shots and silky skills that lit up United’s academy side last season. That matters little of course, with Ferguson keen to let the teenager develop both physically and mentally over the course of the season before allowing the Frenchman out on loan in 2012/13.

Cole’s talents are perhaps less obvious. The chalk-on-his-heels winger offers a genuine old-fashioned approach to the game, with real pace and balance. But the 18-year-old England Under-19 international’s rise has been steady, rather than spectacular, with reserves’ watchers noting the player’s growing consistency. And in the physically demanding English game Cole will suffer for his diminutive stature. Physical development is likely to hold the key to the Manchester-born midfielder’s destiny.

That is for the future. The right-now, flush in the glow of victory over local and often hated rivals, United supporters can feel confident that youth is not only leading the club to the top of this season’s Premier League table but those of the future too. It is the reason Manchester City is spending more than £100 million of Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth on transforming run-down Clayton in order to catch up.