Month October 2011

Month October 2011

Ole takes first steps on long road to Old Trafford

October 31, 2011 Tags: Opinion 14 comments

It is, of course, a romantic notion that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could one day manage Manchester United. After all, the odds are firmly stacked against the 38-year-old former United striker who scored 126 in 366 games for the club. The ‘Assassin’, no longer so baby-faced, is one in a long line of Sir Alex Ferguson protégé’s to start out on the lonely management road. Yet, Solskjaer’s managerial career has begun in the most positive fashion of all after his Molde FK side claimed an inaugural Tippeligaen championship on Sunday.

This is a title more than 100 years in the making. Solskjaer returned ‘home’ last November and steered the club to almost immediate success. Tiny Molde, Norwegian champions in the club’s centenary year. Backed by a strong former-United coaching contingent, Solskjaer’s achievement is all the more remarkable for a club that finished 11th last season and was languishing in the second division just four years ago.

And where his contemporaries Roy Keane, Steve Bruce, Paul Ince and Bryan Robson have largely failed to succeed in management, Solskjaer has achieved silverware at the first time of asking. It has his fans dreaming of a return to Old Trafford, where as a player Solskjaer enjoyed 11 trophy-laden seasons.

First, the celebrations after Molde secured a point for the title as nearest rivals Brann Bergen crumbled to a heavy defeat.

“The club has waited 100 years for this,” said the former United striker.

“We have been close several times so this was well deserved. When Brann went 4-1 I realised we had done it. It was a good atmosphere in the dressing room and we will enjoy ourselves tonight. The main reason for our success has been the players. They have shown quality during training and several players have performed better than expected on match days.”

“I want to thank my support team. My coaches, Mark [Dempsey], Rich [Hartis], Erling [Moe], Stig [Aambø]. They’ve made a great difference. And then I have the best players in Norway. It’s the players that deserve it, they’ve done it themselves, it’s them that have played the best football in Norway.”

This is false modesty perhaps from a true gentleman of the game but one, so word has it, who is ruthlessly demanding of excellence from his players. The Solskjaer analytical touch, it seems, has worked in double-quick time for the perennial bridesmaids of Norwegian football.

Indeed, Molde had previously finished second in Tippeligaen on seven occasions, the last in 2009 when Swede Kjell Jonevret’s side narrowly failed to top the table in a campaign where striker Mame Biram Diouf scored 17 in 30 games. The performance eventually earned Diouf a move to England but Molde’s wait for glory continued. Two seasons on and the club can celebrate after moving eight points clear with just two games remaining in the Norwegian season.

Small though the club is in English terms, with no more than 11,800 packing into the compact Aker Stadion on matchdays, Molde has benefited from Kjell Inge Røkke’s benevolence in recent years. Former Wimbledon director Røkke part-financed the €20 million stadium construction, while pumping in enough money to attract top coaches, including Solskjaer, and former Reds Mark Dempsey and Richard Hartis. Indeed, while Molde was undoubtedly home, Solskjaer had already developed a burgeoning reputation in charge of United’s second string under Ferguson’s leadership at Old Trafford.

The question now is where Solskjaer goes from here, with Portsmouth reportedly willing to take the inexperienced coach back to England. It is unlikely to be the only offer for a coach whose star is certainly in the ascendency. In the short term Solskjaer will surely relish a crack at the Champions League next season having narrowly failed to qualify for Europe in August. Molde lost 5-4 on aggregate to Stuttgart in the Europa League third qualifying round. Molde hasn’t qualified for the group stages of European football since 1999-2000, when the team lost five games out of six against Porto, Real Madrid and Olympiacos.

If Solskjaer’s career is on the rise that of messrs Keane, Bruce, Ince and Robson is certainly not. Keane finds himself out of work, turning his hand to punditry in recent months following sacking by Ipswich Town last season. Bruce, meanwhile, is under increasing pressure at Sunderland where Niall Quinn quit as chairman this season after heavy summer spending. Ince, the ‘big-time charlie’ whose ‘Guv’nor’ tag so infurated Ferguson has been sacked by Blackburn Rovers, Milton Keynes Dons and Notts County in successive seasons. It is a career in ruins, much like Robson’s, who resigned as coach of the Thai national team in June.

There is little evidence for it yet, but Solskjaer’s determined but measured approach seems built for the very top level. Certainly, former team-mate David Beckham believes so.

“Congratulations to him, he’s such a great guy,” said Beckham.

“He was a great player but an even better person. It couldn’t have happened to a better person. He’s a gentleman and was one of the best goalscorers in the world, so congratulations to Ole. Maybe he will be Man United manager one day, that would be nice. But for now, I think United are happy with Sir Alex Ferguson. But in the future, who knows? He’s a winner, he loves Manchester United, so you never know what might happen.”

Solskjaer would certainly be a popular appointment with United fans whenever Ferguson eventually calls it a day. Nobody knows when that will come, least of all it seems Ferguson himself. In the meantime Solskjaer can continue the business of building a career that already bears the hallmarks of greatness.

Football Manager 2012 review

October 31, 2011 Tags: , Reviews 6 comments

Football Manager 2012 is absolutely, totally and utterly brilliant. I can’t imagine that surprises you much, dear reader. Football Manager has been absolutely, totally and utterly brilliant since it was called Championship Manager, and there was a Mitre Magma on the cover. What is really such an extraordinary achievement is that they really do just keep making it better and better.

I’m writing this assuming you have a working knowledge of the Football Manager series. In case you don’t, as the name suggests it’s a football management simulator in which you take on and run a club as you see fit. You handle tactics, transfers, the media, keeping your players sweet, hiring and firing backroom staff and trying to stop the board from sacking you and hiring Steve McClaren as your replacement – the ultimate ignominy.

The thing is, they put one of these out every year. This means they ask us to part with our hard-earned £30 or so for what will inevitably be an incremental upgrade on the previous year. Without the demands of a large multiplayer audience (FM does have multiplayer, but it’s far from the predominant pull to the given the time investment required), the need to have the latest and greatest version is based more on the quality of the product than it is on being part of a community who all need to be playing the same version of a game.

Feature creep is a big part of annualised sports video game franchises – every year the publishers of these games need some bullet points to put on the back of the box. According to Sports Interactive (SI), which makes the game, you would need a pretty big box in this case, being as there are apparently more than 800 new features. There’s an in-depth new tutorial system, and having played the best part of a season attempting to do a better job than Steve Bruce of managing Sunderland, I can’t say I could pick those 800 features out of a line up, but I can say that I am having an amazingly good time.

If you want a detailed breakdown of what all the new features are, I’d recommend putting “what’s new in Football Manager 2012” into Google, but what really jumped out at me were three key changes. The first of these is the most visible – the presentation of information has been fairly radically overhauled. The higher the resolution the screen you are playing on, the more information you’re given on each screen. This is particularly useful on the player information screen – having an overview with attributes, positions, contract, training, form, all displayed at once is incredibly useful and saves many a click. Each section can be clicked into for more detailed information. And my goodness, there is an incredible amount of information.

I mentioned that I haven’t finished a season yet. Sadly, unlike when CM 97/98 came out (shout out to Ibrahima Bakayoko), I have a proper job, so I can’t just sit up all night playing Football Manager. It is not just my life that has changed beyond recognition, though – it’s the game too. It takes a long, long time to play through a season. The most time-consuming period, for me, was pre-season. There is such a lot to do. Finding new staff, somehow managing to bring in new players (the improvements to scouting are brilliant), getting used to the squad, and getting used to the new tactics interface – it all takes time, but there is no doubt that it is a very engaging process. Incidentally, I managed to sign Darron Gibson and immediately changed his nickname to “The G Bomb.” This was an important step toward success. I think SI might rate him a bit higher than we do. Seeing the words “click here to view the G Bomb’s profile keeps making me laugh like the idiot I am.

Football Manager 2012

Football Manager 2012

The second of the changes which has had the most impact on my experience of playing the game is the new “Tone” system for interacting with players, and the vastly improved team talks. You instantly see the effect of your overall team talk on a player’s body language, and can make adjustments by then providing a specific talk to your players by position, or as individuals. You can choose the tone you use, and varying this made it feel like you had a good deal more control. In previous years I have found that I essentially said I was pleased if players got 6.5-7.9 and delighted if they got 8 or better, which soon stopped having an impact. It now seems that you have a greater chance to actually influence the morale and performance of your team through the team talk which has made it into less of a chore than it felt before.

The third big marquee change which has had a noticeable impact on my experience is the vastly improved 3D match engine. I’m old enough to remember the stick figure match engine of the original Football Manager (which came on a tape, kids.) (A tape being like an MP3 player, but in the olden days). Some of my richest childhood gaming experiences came through those stick figures and whilst the actual figures and animations aren’t that really that far removed from their stick figure forebears, what is so impressive is how closely watching an FM simulated game looks like watching a simulated game of football, not in terms of graphical fidelity in a FIFA kind of a way, but in how well the representative figures move, and use the ball. They make the runs you hope they will, make passes which look like real passes and hit every kind of shot. The ball flies like a real ball should. It just feels like football. Sometimes all the players start running on the spot for a bit, and the frame rate wasn’t great on the battered old PC I’ve been playing on, but these are minor annoyances, and certainly not game breaking.

There is a new option – the Director’s camera which mostly uses the up in the stands angle, but cuts occasionally to a different view at key moments – behind the back for a direct free kick or penalty, for example. It’s a view which mostly works well, but does not seem to know the 180 degree rule. If you’ll allow me to quote Wikipedia – “In filmmaking, the 180° rule is a basic guideline that states that two characters (or other elements) in the same scene should always have the same left/right relationship to each other. If the camera passes over the imaginary axis connecting the two subjects, it is called crossing the line” This might seem like an overly technical complaint, but it actually makes a big difference to the experience of watching matches – it’s disorienting when this rule is ignored.

Football Manager 2012

Football Manager 2012

My only other significant gripe is one which has been a problem for a long while with the FM series – it takes a really long time, sometimes, for it to simulate in the background, all the games that you’re not involved in. This is a particular problem in international weeks, it seems. I was running one league with a small database (because of the aforementioned battered old PC) but the game really chugged in those spots. They have tried to moderate this problem by giving you the option to browse the standard menus and information whilst it processes matches in the background, but I still found there was a good deal of downtime.

So it’s not flawless, then, but Football Manager is one of the crowning achievements in the medium of computer games. There is a lot of debate in video game criticism about the real strengths of the medium – especially when it comes to providing a narrative experience, Football Manager allows you to create your own narrative – relationships with players, ups and downs, key games won or lost on the form of a star striker, or a poor offside decision. As a manager you have enormous influence, but not omnipotence. Which, of course, is very much like real football. You need patience, and some time on your hands and be prepared to sift through an enormous amount of information to get the best out of this game. If you do, though, it’s an incredibly rich, deep and rewarding experience and incremental update on last year or not, really fantastic value for money.

Football Manager 2012, developed by SI Games and published by SEGA, is available now.

Rooney leads United renaissance at Everton

October 28, 2011 Tags: , Matches 132 comments

Wayne Rooney will lead Manchester United’s attack as the Reds visit Everton on Saturday lunchtime. The former Blue, dropped from this fixture by Ferguson last season, will face the inevitable cacophony of abuse on his return to Goodison Park. But at the end of a tough week for the club manager Ferguson insists Rooney will start the fixture.

While Rooney is retained from the side that lost 6-1 against Manchester City last weekend, Ferguson is expected to make several changes in Liverpool. Indeed, a quartet of players are under genuine pressure after the heavy defeat to near-neighbours City. Ferguson openly criticised defenders Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra on Sunday, while United’s dysfunctional central midfield pair of Anderson and Darren Fletcher could be relegated to the bench on form alone.

Yet it is Rooney on whom the greatest pressure resides, with manager, team-mates and supporters expecting a big performance from the 26-year-old striker.

“He’s had mixed success going to Everton,” admitted Ferguson on Friday.

“He’s scored a couple of goals in previous games and gets booed as normal. He got booked in one game and I took him off because he’d been booked and there was no way I was going to give the referee an opportunity to send him off.

“That’s where the hype around the ground in terms of him getting booed every time he makes a challenge comes into it. He’s had mixed fortunes there but he’s scored a couple of goals and done well in some of the games and hopefully that will be the case tomorrow.”

Everton versus Manchester United, Premier League, Goodison Park, Saturday 29 October 2011, 12.00pm.Saturday’s game will mark Ferguson’s first opportunity for ruthlessness in the wake of derby humiliation. While a largely fringe and reserve team beat Aldershot Town in the Carling Cup on Tuesday night, United’s visit to Everton is the first genuine test of the Scot’s ability to rally his troops.

United has previously suffered heavy defeats to Newcastle United in 1996, Southampton the same season, and Chelsea three years later. In those campaigns the club went on to win the Premier League title, underlining that one result does not a season make.

“It’s been a tough week for everyone,” added Ferguson.

“It was bad result but we have to get over it – the fans, players, employees, staff – everyone was involved in the disappointment. We must kick on. We enjoyed Tuesday night but we need to show ourselves tomorrow. We hope we can recover from the disappointment of last weekend. We’ve done that well over the years and we have to do it again. Nothing changes in football. The challenge is always there to be the very, very best which we hope we can do now.

“It’s not going to be an easy game. I went to see that game on Wednesday and in typical fashion of a David Moyes team they were all committed. He’s had a few injuries and he rested a few players which is the norm in the cup, but they still represented their club very well. They all put a shift in and are always committed. We know what Louis [Saha] is capable of – he has fantastic ability and we have to make sure we do our best.”

Ferguson may be without winger Ashley Young for the short trip west, with the former Aston Villa player suffering a toe injury in training this week. Young’s expected absence adds to the Scot’s selection dilemma in wide areas, with Nani poor against City. Antonio Valencia and Park Ji-Sung each completed a much-needed 90 minutes at Aldershot in midweek and at least one of the pair should start.

Ferguson will welcome back Tom Cleverley, who is pushing for his first Premier League start since 10 September. The 22-year-old midfielder was carried off with an ankle injury against Bolton Wanderers but started United’s 3-0 win over Aldershot. Despite the bright start to the season United’s performances have markedly deteriorated in Cleverley’s absence.

“We have one or two knocks,” Ferguson said of his playing resources.

“Ashley Young has a toe injury and we’ll see what he’s like today. The knocks are nothing serious and I hope we’ll have a strong enough squad for tomorrow.

“Tom has got the potential, the expectation lies with everyone. For any United player, we expect a certain standard. Tom played his first game on Tuesday night – we gave him an hour. He had trained for about 10 days so he was in good physical condition for it. Given that we have a game tomorrow, I think an hour was just about right for him.”

Meanwhile, Korean Park says the United squad is focused on the job ahead despite the disappointment of last week. The 30-year-old could start in Young’s stead at Goodison Park – just the third of his Premier League season – where United drew last season after conceding two late goals to David Moyes’ outfit.

“We have to concentrate and everyone has to turn up to show the City game has not affected us,” Park told

“We have to get over that. We have to put it right on the pitch and we have to prove it. It’s a very important game to us and we have to go there and fight to get the points. It’s not an easy game at Goodison Park – it’s always difficult there. Just look at last season, when we were winning 3-1 and in injury-time they scored two goals.”

Everton, knocked out of the Carling Cup by Chelsea in mid-week, may have more than one reason to rue the 2-1 loss against the Londoners. While game went into energy-sapping extra time, midfielder Royston Drenthe was sent off for two bookable offences and will miss the fixture through suspension. Meanwhile key Evertonians Tim Cahill and Phil Neville are both out injured.

Yet it is on Rooney whom all eyes will focus, including a hostile home crowd against which Ferguson sought to protect his star player last season. It is, says Moyes, an animosity from which Everton supporters should move on.

“Wayne would be the first one to tell you – he would be delighted to come back with his wee boy and watch Everton,” Moyes added.

“He is bringing up his son as an Everton supporter and he will always be an Evertonian. He’ll get criticism because he left the club but time has moved on, we’ve moved on and so has he.”

By Saturday afternoon United supporters will know whether the team has moved on from last Sunday’s demoralising defeat or not.

Match Facts
Everton versus Manchester United, Premier League, Goodison Park, Saturday 29 October 2011, 12.00pm.

Likely Line-ups
Everton (4-4-2): Howard; Hibbert, Jagielka, Distin, Baines; Osman, Fellaini, Rodwell, Coleman; Vellios, Saha. Subs from: Mucha, Heitinga, Bilyaletdinov, Stracqualursi, Barkley, Hahnemann.

United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Smalling, Jones, Vidic, Evra; Nani, Cleverley, Carrick, Park; Rooney; Hernandez. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Evans, Ferdinand, Pogba, Fletcher, Anderson, Berbatov, Welbeck, Valencia, Owen, Diouf.

Performance stats

  • Manchester United covered just 106.09km in the game against City last weekend – the side’s second lowest tally of the season – with Darren Fletcher covering the most ground with 11.29km
  • Yet United still contains three of the top ten players in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index, including Ashley Young and Luis Nani, who have each put in 37 crosses so far this season.
  • Nani is also in second place for most dribbles completed (34) and Young in fourth (33).
  • In the opposition Marouane Fellaini remains the Toffees midfield heartbeat, averaging 11.911km per game.
  • However, the Index underlines how much Everton will miss Royston Drenthe, who scored his second Everton goal against Fulham last week. The Dutchman’s two goals have come from just five attempts, with four on target. He has also laid on three assists this season.
  • One time United transfer target Jack Rodwell scored his first goal of the season against Fulham. The young midfielder has returned to form this season, making 11 interceptions and winning 87 per cent of tackles attempted.

Everton: WLLLWL
United: DWDWLW

Referee: Mark Halsey (Welwyn Garden City)
Assistant referees: S Bennett, A Halliday

Rant Cast 86 – why always a podcast?

October 28, 2011 Tags: Rant Cast 10 comments

On this week’s Rant Cast regulars Ed and Paul discuss Manchester United’s heavy home defeat to Manchester City – what does the thrashing mean for the season ahead? We review United reserve’s performance at Aldershot Town, and preview the upcoming the fixtures with Everton and Otelul Galati. Who will get the chop following last week’s thrashing? And we ponder whether John Terry is a f*cking kn*bhead, whatever his skin colour.

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This week’s exit theme tune is ‘Come on You Reds’ – Status Quo.

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 iTunes and leave us a review!

The Ravelation: Morrison shines light as United’s dawn beckons

October 26, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 37 comments

It is a year to the day since Ravel Morrison last pulled on a Manchester United first team shirt. Then Morrison impressed only fleetingly in a Carling Cup cameo appearance against Wolverhampton Wanderers at Old Trafford. The talent is undimmed in the past 12 months, even if question marks hanging over the teenager’s career have only multiplied. But Morrison’s return to Sir Alex Ferguson’s team offers hope for the player’s future, just as the Scot’s side took its first baby steps towards renaissance with a 3-0 victory over Aldershot Town on Tuesday night.

Morrison, all flicks and tricks during a 20 minute appearance at the Recreation Ground, has always been blessed with a gift in abundance. Floating between midfield and attack, with an awareness of space and movement belying his years, the 18-year-old impressed. There was the trademark easy-going flair – bountiful stand out arrogance, with just enough work-rate too – along with a pass exchanged here, a one-two instigated there.

The teenager’s second outing in the United first team came alongside fellow youngsters Ezekiel Fryers, Ben Amos, Michael Keane and Paul Pogba. The latter joined Morrison in central midfield during the closing minutes  and it does not take a crystal ball to foresee that proposition occurring regularly in years to come. Pogba’s classy distribution – long range and short – stood out. The Frenchman’s ability to also break up play offered some yin to Morrison’s considerable yang.

Morrison, meanwhile, will be grateful for the breakthrough after a difficult 12 months. The unease with which the player has drifted between potential stardom and seemingly more probable criminality has drawn more speculation about a United youngster than almost any in a generation. The genuine class on offer only adds to the intrigue. “Old Trafford’s Mario Ballotelli,” one commentator speculated this week. It is, of course, a gross over-simplification but one with some air of truth.

United’s decision to stand behind its errant youth star, despite repeated court appearances in recent months, is based more in hope than expectation. The hope that Morrison’s talent can be fulfilled at a higher level. He is, after all, the most naturally gifted Englishman since Wayne Rooney burst on to the scene almost a decade ago. The expectation, if truth be told, is that Morrison will find a way to waste all that talent.

Yet, the youngster’s appearance in Hampshire offered more than a ray of light amid the darkness following Sunday’s humiliation at Manchester City’s hands. The dancing feet and confidence of genuine class point towards a star in the making, even if it is one that needs careful attention. In hope there is redemption even if the noisy neighbours’ battering is not easily forgotten.

Moreover, United’s paucity of creative central midfield options – if truth be told any options – ensure the clamour for Morrison’s more permanent introduction is unlikely to die down. The player is not going to force his way into the United first team any time soon, no matter what the prevailing social media consensus, but hope is still a very powerful emotion.

If Morrison’s introduction offered some promise then United’s routine victory over the League Two outfit was only a small step in moving on from Sunday’s loss. Tiptoes rather than a great stride. Ferguson’s choice to deploy predominantly experience in United’s starting 11 said much not only for the “minutes on the pitch” that the Scot declare required but also of the need to not turn one heavy defeat into a full-blown crisis. Ferguson called for, and received, a professional performance. Little more, certainly no less.

Greater challenges are to come, both for Morrison and United. Morrison’s is to rid himself of the personal demons that have dogged a short career. If there is any collective malignant spirit it will surely be tested when United visits Everton at the weekend. Ferguson’s selection for the Goodison trip, with an easy Champions League tie to follow next week, should be close to full strength.

Yet, there are question marks about so many of the Scot’s squad that were not answered in the win over Aldershot. Is Rio Ferdinand’s number up; will Anderson be proffered yet another chance; is Jonny Evans now persona non grata. In Sir Alex’ admission that he has suffered no greater loss as a player or manager there is also a tacit understanding that he faces a huge decision at Everton. Should Ferdinand and Anderson suffer the expected fate – perhaps others too – it will be a sign that Ferguson has moved on.

Those questions are for the weekend. In the meantime United fans can bask in the afterglow, not of a minor victory over a lower league club, but the genuine light of a newly born star. The short appearance against Aldershot was not Morrison’s début but in a sense, coming more than a year after the teen’s first appearance for the senior side, it was a re-birth.

United and player both.

Reds begin recovery at lowly Aldershot

October 25, 2011 Tags: , Matches 86 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson will deploy a strong side against Aldershot Town in the Carling Cup fourth round on Tuesday night, as Manchester United takes its first steps towards recovery. With Ferguson’s team and supporters in a cloud since Manchester City’s 6-1 win at Old Trafford on Sunday, anything bar healthy victory over the lower division outfit is unthinkable.

While the renaissance begins in Hampshire, Ferguson also remains keen to use his full squad in the Carling Cup. It means the Scot is likely to field some major names alongside youngsters at the 7,000-capacity Recreation Ground. Michael Owen, Dimitar Berbatov and Antonio Valencia could all start against Dean Holdsworth’s League Two strugglers.

“At the moment, I’ve got a really strong squad,” Ferguson told MUTV.

“We took 23 players to Romania with us and left Rio [Ferdinand] behind because we weren’t planning to use him in that game. So, with a squad of 24 players, some of them have to have games. Michael Owen and Dimitar Berbatov must have games. It’ll be similar to what we did at Leeds, really. All [the youngsters involved at Elland Road] will be travelling with us.

“Young players emerge and take someone’s position. It’s happened time and time again at this club and I’ve experienced it over my 25 years. You see a young emerging star coming through the youth team, and then comes the Reserves and, before you know it, you say why don’t you put this boy in the first team. It’s down to temperament. That’s important, and ability, courage and determination. They’re all the factors we need for top players at United.”

In addition to Owen, Barbatov and Valencia, Ferguson could also deploy first-team regulars Fabio da Silva, Phil Jones and Park Ji-Sung against a team 81 places behind in the football league ladder. Captain Nemanja Vidic could play after missing Sunday’s defeat at Old Trafford.

Aldershot Town v Manchester United, Carling Cup, Recreation Ground, 7.45pm, 25 October 2011.Youngsters Will Keane, Ezikiel Fyers, Ravel Morrison and Paul Pogba are also included in Ferguson’s squad, while Tom Cleverley could make his very long-awaited return in central midfield after travelling south. Indeed, the latter pair could well start in what would be the French youngsters full United début.

Owen, who scored twice in the previous round away at Leeds United, says the match is essential to a host of fringe United players who have seen very little game time this season. The former-Liverpool striker is yet to start a Premier League game, while Berbatov has begun only one.

“It’s obviously going to be a massive game for Aldershot with Manchester United coming into town,” Owen told MUTV.

“I’m sure it’ll be a full house and we’re treating it as an important game as well. There’s players who weren’t involved against City, me being one of them, and a lot of the lads need games so it’ll be quite a strong Manchester United playing against them. It’s a competition we want to do well in. We’ve done quite well in the Carling Cup over the years and we want to progress and win a trophy. That’s the end game.”

Meanwhile, Aldershot manager Holdsworth says that the fixture is the biggest in the club’s history. Former Wimbledon striker Holdsworth runs the club on a shoestring, with the Hampshire-based outfit struggling in 15th place in League Two. In 1992 Aldershot became the first League club to fold since Acrington Stanly 30 years previously. Reforming that spring, Aldershot began the very long ascent up the football pyramid from Isthmian League Division Three, the ninth run on the ladder.

“On Tuesday night, we’ve probably got the biggest game in the club’s history. It could mean financial security for a long, long time”, said Holdsworth, who scored more than 260 goals in a decade-long professional career.

United and Aldershot have only met once, with the Reds winning 3-1 in September 1970. George Best, Brian Kidd and Denis Law scored United’s goals in the win, and while the Reds will not field two former European Players of the Year tonight, there is no doubt that a win is essential.

Match Facts
Aldershot Town v Manchester United, Carling Cup, Recreation Ground, 7.45pm, 25 October 2011.

Likely Line-ups
Aldershot (4-4-2): Warner;Herd, Straker, Jones, Rodman; Morris, Vincenti, Guttridge, Collins; Rankine, Hylton. Subs from: Brown, McGlashan, Pulis, Brown, Smith, Bubb, Panther, Young

United (4-4-2): Fabio, Jones, Vidic, Fryers; Valencia, Cleverley, Pogba, Park; Berbatov, Owen. Subs from: Lindegaard, Amos, de Gea, Evra, Carrick, Diouf, Giggs, Welbeck, Anderson, Fletcher, Young, Nani, W Keane, Morrison.

Aldershot: LLLLW
United: DDWDL

Referee: Lee Probert
Assistants: S Burt S Long
Fourth Official: S Attwell

Poll: derby day thrashing is…

October 24, 2011 Tags: , , Polls 10 comments

Manchester United’s 6-1 defeat to City on Sunday afternoon will live long in the memory for all the wrong reasons. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side committed tactical suicide in a second-half performance that saw the Reds concede five in the worst home defeat for more than 50 years. The disastrous result, called the worst of his career by Ferguson, has media tongues wagging and fan forums packed with predictions of further woe this season.

But what do you think the result means for United…

United's 6-1 derby day thrashing is a...

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Moving forward

October 24, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 23 comments

Sunday’s 6-1 defeat to Manchester City at Old Trafford was the second biggest loss in Manchester United’s history. Sir Alex Ferguson described the match as “the worst result in [his] history.” Still, the arrow of time points firmly towards the future and United must move on, starting with a visit to Aldershot Town on Tuesday night. But what lessons should the Reds take from Sunday’s defeat?

First, United must quickly sort out the midfield, which was again exposed. Many pundits and fans consider United’s engine room the weakest part of the squad. Rightfully so, as the cupboard remains rather bare, with only four senior central midfielderss available to Ferguson. Darron Gibson sits firmly in the reserves, while Ryan Giggs and Ji-sung Park can put in a shift but, mired in mediocrity, the options still look limited.

One option, certainly in the short-term, is to revert to the gridiron style 4-5-1 of last season, which would enable two central midfielders – two from Anderson, Tom Cleverely and Darren Fletcher – to bomb forward while allowing the deep-lying playmaker, Michael Carrick, to create. With Carrick also providing an anchor, the two more advanced midfielders are freed.

The current ad hoc, and rather brittle system as epitomised by the City game, of one staying behind while the other attacks can be abandoned. An ancillary benefit lies in the fact that their attacking takes off opposition pressure from Carrick, who is at his best with a bit of space and time.

Perhaps Fletcher summed it up when he called United’s tactics on Sunday “naïve”. With more than shots conceded to the opposition than any other team in the Premier League, they may have been all season.

“We kept trying to win the game when it was conceivably not possible,” said the Scotland captain.

“Maybe we were a bit naïve and should have sat behind the ball and tried not to concede. At the time you’re thinking we’re at Old Trafford and we always want to get the ball down and play. The players haven’t been brought up to sit behind the ball, defend and see games out. But to lose those goals late on was very disappointing.”

Ferguson’s other option is simply to make do with what is available for now and bring in some reinforcements in the winter transfer window. Luka Modric and Daniele De Rossi, for example, remain available – crucially neither is cup-tied in the Champions League. Yet, both are improbable acquisitions given the nature of Fergie’s previous winter deals.

Ferguson must also examine his full-backs. Patrice Evra has been in decline since the start of last season. On Sunday, the Frenchman’s poor positioning was responsible for the majority of goals conceded. It is worrying that a seasoned professional has been making such glaring defensive errors of late. Surely the day has arrived for Fabio Da Silva to be given a stint on the left, if only to shake Evra out of his funk.

The situation on the right must also be scrutinised. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, for all their bravado and composure on the ball, remain centre-backs out of position, and too often out of depth on the right. While there are legitimate arguments to be made for their deployment, with 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 looking increasingly untenable, the time has surely come to deploy a proper full-back in the mould of the Da Silva twins.

Then what of Ferguson’s strikers? The club has more strikers than it can deal with and implementing a more solid system means one less spot for a forward. Wayne Rooney stands out from the bunch and will be first-choice in such a regime. It is very hard on Javier Hernández, Danny Welbeck and Dimitar Berbatov but surely their feelings are secondary to the general well-being of the club.

Fluidity is hard. Barcelona pulls it off only because the majority of the club’s players are schooled in the same philosophy at La Masia. There is no shame in failing to emulate the Catalan club. Besides, whomever knocks Barça off its perch will likely do so with a unique brand of football, not a tiki-taka replica.

With United’s failings so brutally exposed by City the priority now lies in fixing the most obvious flaws, moving past the historic defeat, and not in attempting to uphold an unsustainable philosophy.

Ferguson commented that “there’s a lot of embarrassment in that dressing room and quite rightly so.” But the players have no time to wallow in their self-pity – there is a lot of work to be done.

“There is a lot of embarrassment in the dressing room”

October 23, 2011 Tags: , , , Opinion 37 comments

It was, said Sir Alex Ferguson, the worst result of a 50-year career in football. Manchester City’s 6-1 victory at Old Trafford on Sunday afternoon brought the Blues three vital points in the Premier League title race and total humiliation for the Scot’s side in its own back yard. Defeat to City in last season’s FA Cup semi-final was bad enough but a thrashing at Old Trafford is, for the Scot and fans alike, totally unacceptable. This reality, Ferguson says, hit home in a silent dressing room post-match.

If the result is a media-friendly ‘statement’ by City then Ferguson is right to hold United’s players predominantly to account for it. No amount of United pressure prior to the Blues’ opening goal will mask the Reds’ suicidal second-half performance. Jonny Evans’ dismissal after taking down Mario Ballotelli in the 47th minute was inevitable; the performance from then on in was absolutely not.

“It was our worst ever day,” admitted Ferguson.

“It’s the worst result in my history, ever. Even as a player I don’t think I ever lost 6-1. That’s challenge for me too. I can’t believe the scoreline. The first goal was a blow for sure but it was retrievable at 1-0. The sending off was a killer for us. We kept attacking when we went 4-1 down and we should have just said: ‘We’ve had our day.’

“When we went to 3-1, 4-1 we should have settled for that. We kept attacking and we should have just said: ‘We’ve had our day.’ But our two full-backs were playing like wingers.  It’s all right playing the history books but common sense has to come into it. We just kept attacking. They were attacking three versus two. It was crazy football. I thought with the experience we’ve got – Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra – they would [defend more] but we just kept attacking. Sometimes there has to be common sense about it. It was a bad day.”

Indeed, the result was not only Ferguson’s worst-ever result but United’s heaviest at home for 55 years. Such, perhaps, is City’s progress since Abu Dahbi’s oil-fueled takeover in 2008. But not to this extent. Not at Old Trafford. Not under Ferguson’s watch. This was hara-kiri on a very grand scale, against the worst possible opposition, and a result that will not soon be forgotten.

Certainly the implied assertion that United should have at, say, 3-1, accepted defeat will not sit well with supporters. But Ferguson is also right that in playing to history, as the manager noted , indeed to the hyperbole of a ‘never-say-die’ attitude, United allowed defeat to become a calamity. Loss to City at Old Trafford after all the Blues’ recent spending comes with no overwhelming shock. Conceding six certainly does.

If there is any silver lining in this disaster – at least for those United fans prepared to throw themselves under the nearest bus – it is in knowledge that Ferguson will ensure no permanent damage to the collective consciousness. There can be no better manager for this situation than the Scot.

“We’ll come back. By January we’ll be okay. We usually get the show on the road in the second half of the season and that will have to be the case. We’ve played all the teams around us and they have all to play each other so the second half of the season is important to us now. We will react, no question about that.

“It’s a perfect result for us to react to because there is a lot of embarrassment in the dressing room and that will make an impact. What did concern me was the goals for and against. Goal difference may count. Last year it was in our favour, most years it is in our favour…this time maybe not.”

More results like this and Ferguson will have no need to be concerned with goal difference though – United will be fortunate to be within touching distance come May so inept were the Scot’s defenders. Not to mention a central midfield that was so effectively eviscerated by the opposition from 30 minutes onwards that supporters again offers cause to question both Darren Fletcher and Anderson’s effectiveness.

The manager’s decision to include no central midfield options on the bench was both a mistake and a reflection of Ferguson’s underwhelming resources available in this area. It is a concern repeatedly voiced over the past two years. No matter Tom Cleverley’s continued injury absence, a strategy that relied solely on the rookie’s fitness and form was always a busted flush.

One disaster does not a season make of course, and United will certainly return from this. Upcoming fixtures with Aldershot Town in the Carling Cup and Everton at Goodison Park will provide an immediate opportunity at redemption. In that there is temptation to send out the heavy artillery at Aldershot’s 7,000-capacity Recreation Ground on Tuesday night simply to get the process underway.

For Evans, whose fatal contribution to Sunday’s calamity cannot be ignored, the consequences may be more serious. While Rio Ferdinand’s poor header precipitated another City attack, Evans’ needless foul on Balotelli helped turn loss into club-wide embarrassment. The Northern Irishman recently admitted a downturn in form last season was due to complacency. One wonders whether the 23-year-old has eliminated that scourge from his game.

Belfast-born Evans recent progress will now halt as the defender sits out the Everton game, with Nemanja Vidic and Phil Jones both ready to step in. Whomever takes up the reigns it can, as the well-worn cliché goes, only get better.

Reds ready for City title challenge

October 22, 2011 Tags: , Matches 278 comments

There is little doubt that Sunday’s Manchester derby will provide a genuine marker for the season ahead. Lose and Sir Alex Ferguson’s United will side will find itself five points behind City in the Premier League. Victory, however, will propel the Reds back to the head of the table. The match is, in Ferguson’s words, is a “real six-pointer”.

The derby’s importance – relevance even – came into question during 35 trophyless years in east Manchester. Abu Dhabi money has changed all that, with the Blues now peerlessly rich, holding the FA Cup and now genuine challengers for United’s Premier League trophy. Cockiness has replaced calamity at Eastlands as £400 million of sovereign wealth is apt to do.

Indeed, City come into the match the team in form, with Roberto Mancini’s side having dropped just two league points this season, scoring 27 goals in the process at more than three a game. Ferguson’s team, meanwhile, has gone somewhat off-the-boil in the past six weeks, despite starting the campaign in such unusually thrilling style.

United’s comeback from two goals down in the Community Shield against City kick-started the season in stunning fashion. Yet, four draws in the past eight games have underlined the loss of form felt in Ferguson’s side since Tom Cleverley suffered injury against Bolton Wanderers in mid-September.

Cleverley’s return to fitness hasn’t come a moment too soon, although the 21-year-old is unlikely to start match Ferguson believes will be significant in this season’s title race.

“It’s early doors of course and there are a lot of winning posts along the way and one of the winning posts is this game,” said 69-year-old Ferguson on Friday.

“It could be a significant point of the season. But you can only judge that at the end of the season really. But it is a six-pointer, no doubt about that. Whichever team wins, it will make a difference. But you can recover from it if you lose. And the way we react in the second half of the season, you hope we will be better. It’s difficult to say sometimes what derby games will be like. Last Saturday against Liverpool was disappointing for 75 minutes but, once the goals were scored, it was a great game.”

Manchester United versus Manchester City, Premier League, Old Trafford, Sunday 22 October 2011, 1.30pm.United will surely have to play far better to ensure a result on Sunday against a City side that is superior to any in the blue half of Manchester for two generations. It is challenge that Ferguson accepts fully, although that has not come without the odd barb of course. After all, United’s noisy neighbours were always likely to get under the Scot’s ultra competitive skin.

Ferguson’s focus on maintaining United’s primacy is undiminished in the face of the new, more localised, threat though. It is a challenge, says the Scot, that the Reds must meet if a 20th domestic title is to head towards Old Trafford next May.

“It doesn’t matter where the challenges come from in this league, you know every year you are going to have to beat someone,” said Ferguson on Friday.

“This year it may be City, although people are being a wee bit premature in writing off Chelsea as far as I am concerned. You can’t discount them. We hope we finish above the both of them. That is the name of the game. City have done fantastically well and, but for throwing away a two-goal lead against Fulham, they would have a 100 per cent record, so we’ve got a game on our hands and we’re looking forward to it.

“The money they have spent doesn’t matter. They are where they are at the top of the league at the moment and at this club we always accept a challenge. We’ve done that time and time again. It’s another situation, another game in the history of the club and we have to deal with it. I enjoy that. It’s the type of challenge we have accepted well over the years.

“When Blackburn had that two-year spell when they were second one year and won it the next it was interesting. It was good for the game. We won the league in 1993 and the next year. Blackburn came along and took the title off us and we reacted in the right way. It doesn’t do any harm.”

In the more immediate future United faces the City challenge with returning midfielder Cleverley likely to make the bench. The youngster exploded into the national consciousness with a match-winning second-half display at Wembley in August. With Ryan Giggs injured, Ferguson will choose two from Darren Fletcher, Anderson and Michael Carrick in central midfield.

Meanwhile, captain Nemanja Vidic is likely to partner Rio Ferdinand in central defence in a rare outing for the pair this season, with Chris Smalling or Phil Jones deployed on the right flank of United’s back four. Wayne Rooney, who scored a brace of penalties in mid-week, will partner Mexican Javier Hernández in attack.

Midfielder Fletcher, who missed much of last season with a mystery virus, underlines the fixture’s importance, not only in the supporters’ consciousness, but for each side’s confidence too. Moreover, adds the Scottish national team captain, United’s pre-eminence is under threat from City. It is a challenge that fans expect United to meet head on.

“We don’t want to give City the confidence of winning trophies to get to our level,” Fletcher told the Daily Mirror.

“Our job is to keep Manchester United on top and as long as we keep on winning the big titles, it means they’re not winning them. If City were to go on a run of winning a lot of trophies, then they would become a global club. But for world recognition, United stands out alone.

The great thing about United is the history of the club. No-one can take away the Busby Babes, the Munich tragedy – all of these things are engrained in the club’s history. United are known all around the world for its history and success, which is what makes it so strong and such a special club.

“Teams like Chelsea have won trophies and built on that success, but that’s been maybe over a 10-year period. They still don’t have the global appeal and size of Manchester United and that’s how we want it to stay.

“The Manchester derby has always been massive, but now City are genuine title contenders for the first time, that makes it even bigger. In previous years, it was bragging rights in the city if you won – it’s a lot more than that now. For years, City weren’t really a threat to us in the league. The derby was always a big game, but now it’s huge in terms of the points at stake and where the title may end up at the end of the season.”

For the moment United remains the dominant force in English football. But City’s challenge is surely coming. How quickly depends, more than just a little, on Sunday’s fixture.

Match Facts
Manchester United versus Manchester City, Premier League, Old Trafford, Sunday 22 October 2011, 1.30pm.

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

City (4-2-3-1): Hart; Richards, Kompany, Lescott, Clichy; De Jong, Barry; Nasri, Y Touré, Silva; Agüero; Subs from: Pantilimon, Taylor, Johnson, Zabaleta, Kolarov, Savic, Onuoha, Razak, Milner, K Touré, Hargreaves, Ballotelli, Dzeko.

Performance stats

  • Seven of the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index’s top ten players will be on display at Old Trafford on Sunday, with Rooney (1), Young (3) and Anderson (5) all likely to start for United.
  • Rooney has scored nine goals this season while City’s top scorer is Agüero with eight. The United striker averages a goal every 66′ 53″ seconds.
  • In midfield the battle may well come down to each side’s wide players. City’s midfielders David Silva and Samir Nasri have completed a pass in their opponent’s half every 2′ 42″ and 2′ 20″ this season. Young and Nani have averaged one every 4′ 43″ and 4′ 25″, but have completed 62 dribbles compared to the City pair’s 22, and put in 57 crosses against 22.
  • Young and Nani have also out run their City counterparts, putting in 122.68 metres and 127.2 metres respectively for every minute they have been on the pitch. Silva and Nasri have run 119.36 and 96.83 metres respectively.
  • Meanwhile, in defence Phil Jones and Vincent Kompany have been leading figures for each side, with neither player having lost a tackle this season. Jones has also completed a remarkable 78 passes in his opponent’s half this season.
  • In goal, David de Gea has been the busiest ‘keeper in the league this season, making 58 saves compared to Joe Hart’s 33. Both ‘keepers have conceded six goals this season.

Referee: Mark Clattenburg (County Durham)
Assistant referees: S Beck, S Child