Month April 2012

Month April 2012

Fabio departure leaves Evra unchallenged

April 18, 2012 Tags: , Opinion 17 comments

Fábio da Silva’s impending departure on loan to an as yet unnamed destination is likely to remove the last challenge, if there ever genuinely was, to Patrice Evra’s supremacy in the Manchester United left-back slot. This will necessitate that Sir Alex Ferguson dips into the transfer market this summer, both for the good of his squad and, indeed, the French defender.

In confirming that Fábio will leave the club on loan next season Ferguson has once again placed faith in one of his most enduring lieutenants. After all, Evra has averaged almost 48 games a season over the past five years, and is now coming towards the end of his seventh season with the club, with 288 appearances in all competitions.

Yet, the Frenchman could benefit greatly from increased competition at Old Trafford. Certainly, only Evra’s most staunch supporters will deny a decline in the left-back’s form post 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Indeed, data on Evra’s performances supports the proposition that the left-back suffered a slump in form during the 2010/11 campaign. The Frenchman made fewer passes, touched the ball less often, completed fewer crosses, shots of goal diminished, and he created a quarter of the goals of the previous campaign. Evra also covered less ground in 2010/11, dribbled less frequently and spent less time in attacking areas than in the previous season.

Away from the data, many United fans believe Evra is, or was in 2010/11, far from the buccaneering left-back who was widely accredited with being the finest in his position in the world for two years previously.

Yet, there have also been encouraging signs in recent months of an improvement in the Frenchman’s form – most prominently since the drama of the ‘Luis Suarez’ affair died down in the early new year. Many of those data points have returned to pre-World Cup levels, suggesting that the mental and physical fatigue brought about by five years of incessant football had taken their toll on the defender, and a long rest last summer helped.

But not all of Evra’s performance data is where it once was – the Frenchman is spending less time in the final third, making fewer attacking passes, the number of shots have diminished, and he is putting in less crosses than two years ago.

It is also common sense that the Senegalese-born defender is unlikely to improve in the coming seasons. After all, with Evra so heavily used in the past, and turning 31 in May, Ferguson will soon begin the process of winding down his reliance on the Frenchman. Burn out, with Evra likely to travel to Euro 2012 with the French squad this summer, is quite possible if Ferguson uses Evra for more than 40 games once again next season.

Many supporters, and most likely Sir Alex too, had hoped that Fábio would provide both the challenge to Evra’s hegemony – and the boost in performance that competition often brings – together with a well-earned respite for the senior man. It hasn’t come to pass, partly because of Evra’s ongoing endurance, and also thanks to the younger man’s frequent injuries.

The young Brazilian has played just 53 games – 36 starts – for United since making his début over three years ago. And while the Fábio claimed United’s right-back berth in time to start last season’s Champions League final, he has made no progress this season, starting just twice in the Premier League.

This regression has prompted a club rethink, with the youngster no longer seen as Evra’s heir-apparent, but instead requiring the match hardening only regular football will bring.

“I hope that Fabio will develop the same way as his twin [Rafael] and, to help him, he will go out on loan next season to give him concentrated first-team experience,” Sir Alex wrote in Sunday’s programme notes.

“I have already talked to him and he understands the value of playing regularly at a higher level than we can give him at the moment.”

By contrast twin brother Rafael – once considered the lesser of the siblings – has now appeared in 88 matches for the club, having claimed the right-back slot for his own during the run-in. While United is seemingly likely to bring in Nathaniel Clyne from Crystal Palace to provide Rafael with competition, the Brazilian will surely start next season as Sir Alex’ first choice at right-back.

Meanwhile, United is likely to welcome suitors for Fábio with open-arms, although the player has already spoken of a move to Benfica this summer. Ferguson though is more likely to prompt the young Brazilian to join a Premier League club, where United’s coaches can more easily monitor the 21-year-old’s progress. Moreover, stories of Fábio becoming a make-weight in a potential deal for Benfica’s Argentinian midfielder Nicolas Gaitan are almost certainly wide of the mark.

“I am excited about the opportunity to play for Benfica, being a famous and great team,” Fábio reportedly told Portuguese paper O Jogo.

“I feel very honored by the interest of Benfica, but my transfer now depends on Manchester United completing negotiations.”

Fabio’s departure leaves Evra as United’s only left-back, with youngster Ezikiel Fryers likely to leave in the summer when he is out of contract. But Ferguson is also unlikely to be handed millions for a new left-back, with spending on a new midfielder and, possibly, a striker a priority. This will leave Evra to play almost every fixture next season – save for injury – unchallenged.

Speculation is already rife that United will bring in a new man though, with club scouts having been seen watching the excellent Spanish youngster Jordi Alba of Valencia, Costa Rican defender Bryan Oviedo, Granada’s Brazilian Guilherme Siqueira, Celtic’s Emilio Izaguirre, and Lyon left-back Aly Cissokho among others in recent months.

There will undoubtedly be another dozen names thrown into the hat before the summer ends. Indeed, some coveting Evra’s place have taken to openly courting the club.

“Aly wants to play in the Premier League because he feels it suits his game,” Cissokho’s agent Ali Barat said earlier this month. “He has already turned down interest from AC Milan and Juventus because he wants to move to the Premier League and his preferred destination would be Manchester United.”

Honduran Izaguirre went so far as to claim “it’s 100% true that Manchester United were following me and were interested in me. It was Alex Ferguson directly who made contact with the Celtic directors. If I have the chance I welcome the move with open arms.”

Fábio’s departure does not mean the end of the youngster’s United career, even if a new man comes in. It is more than likely that United will go shopping a the bottom-end of the market this summer. Whether that provides Evra with any genuine competition is open to question.

Evra’s decline and renaissance?

[table id=16 /]

Reserves crowned Champions!

April 16, 2012 Tags: , Matches 9 comments

Whatever happens in the Premier League title race over the coming four weeks Manchester United fans can celebrate silverware once again after Warren Joyce’s reserve side secured the Premier Reserve League North title on Tuesday night. Facing Newcastle reserves at Whitley Park, Joyce’s outfit came from three goals down inside 30 minutes to win 6-3 in truly spectacular style, with striker Will Keane scoring four.

On the night striker Keane grabbed all the headlines as the young Geordies capitulated, before the outstanding Italian midfielder Davide Petrucci and Belgian defender Ritchie De Laet also found the net. With four fixtures remaining United’s reserves are now seven clear of Liverpool – which has played twice more – and will face the Southern champions Aston Villa in an end-of-season play-off.

“It’s always nice to get on the scoresheet but the main objective was getting the win which meant we won the league,” Keane told MUTV.

“That was the main aim going into the game and we managed to do that so it was good. The defence played quite a high line at Newcastle so I was always looking to get through and, in the end, I should’ve scored six but I’ll take four as I’m happy with that.

“We usually play 4-3-3 so, most of the time, I’ve been on my own up front and it’s been quite tough so when Ritchie [De Laet] came up, it helped. He’s a big, physical presence and his pace helped me get a bit more time and he assisted me as well so it was good. I’ve had a good run in the team and scored quite a lot of goals, which I’ve been pleased with. Overall, the team have done well and the team spirit has been good, we’ve all got on well.”

Tuesday’s result, and the title confirmation, is ample reward for a fine campaign, which has seen Joyce’s men rack up 13 wins in 18 league games this season, scoring 50 goals in the process.

And if progress in the reserves is measured not solely by victories and silverware, but also by the conveyor belt to Sir Alex Ferguson’s first team, then Joyce can be very proud of his achievements this season. Will and Michael Keane, Ezekiel Fryers, Paul Pogba and Larnell Cole have each made their competitive first team débuts in the current season.

Indeed, the talent pool is so deep that Petrucci would surely have found more first team opportunities in the cup competitions had it not been for injury problems in previous seasons, while Jesse Lindgard has been outstanding.

On Thursday the youngsters visit Liverpool, with the Scousers likely to finish above Sunderland as runners-up, before concluding the season with games against Chelsea, Wolverhampton Wanderers, and the aforementioned Sunderland.

Then on to the play-off with Villa, which is likely to be held at Old Trafford in May. If it is any omen, Joyce’s men recently beat the young Villa side 3-1 at Moss Lane, Altrincham.

Newcastle 3
(Inman 16, Airey 26pen, Taylor 32)

United 6
(W.Keane 40,40,54,73 Petrucci 64, De Laet 76)

Newcastle: Alnwick, Nzuzi, Moyo, Logan, J.Henderson, Folan (Nicholson 68), Maddison (Kitchen 55), Richardson, Airey, D.Taylor, Inman (McGorrigan 68).

United: Johnstone, Vermijl, M.Keane, Fryers, De Laet (Fornasier 79), Cole (Thorpe 51), Tunnicliffe, Petrucci, Pogba, Lingard (Blackett 87), W.Keane.

The Key Men

Will Keane – striker Keane will either find himself away from Old Trafford on loan next season, or in Ferguson’s first team squad such is the talent on offer. Keane possess an excellent first touch and a genuine eye for goal, with 17 goals in 23 appearances and another eight assists

Michael Keane – many reserves watchers have been genuinely surprised by Michael’s progress this season, where the defender has appeared in 24 fixtures in the campaign and made his first team debut. The 19-year-old Stockport-born defender has a shot at making it with the club if the rate of progress is replicated next season.

Ezekiel Fryers – defender Fryers impressed many supporters in Carling Cup appearances with the first team this season. Indeed, after frustrating years of injury problems Fryers has surprised many with his composure and progress at both left-back and central defence this season. However, with the youngster out of contract in the summer his United future is in doubt.

Paul Pogba – the man on so many supporters’ lips is seemingly set on a move to Juventus, which will earn the young Frenchman more than €1 million per season and his agent a small fortune. There is plenty of talent, but it has not always been applied at reserve level this season. However, if Pogba stays, Ferguson is sure to promote the midfielder to the first team squad.

Davide Petrucci – the stylish Italian midfielder is another out of contract this summer and may not start the new campaign with United. After two years of injury problems Petrucci has done very well to accelerate his progress this season, with a series of inventive central midfield displays and nine assists. Many supporters would like to see more from the Italian, but at 21 he needs to play at a higher level than the reserves.

Larnell Cole – the diminutive midfielder, who operates predominantly from the right, but also in a variety of attacking positions, has been outstanding in the campaign. Blessed with an outstanding first touch, and the ability to perform in a number of positions, Cole made his first team debut in the Carling Cup victory at Leeds United.

Jesse Lingard – the Yin to Cole’s Yang, 19-year-old Lingard received a first team squad number this season as reward for a superb reserve campaign, which included 21 appearances. A utility attacking midfielder likened to Barcelona’s Xavi Hernandez by Danny Welbeck, who will benefit from first team football on loan next season.

League Table
[table id=15 /]

Data courtesy of Doron Salomon.

Michael Carrick: a season in numbers

April 16, 2012 Tags: Media 85 comments

Love him, hate him, Michael Carrick has divided supporter opinion like few other modern Manchester United players. Superb during his début season with the club, only to suffer an 18 month slump after the 2009 Champions League final. But the Wallsend-born midfielder has returned to form with gusto this season… (right-click ‘open in new tab’ for the full size image)

Michael Carrick infographic

Poll: Is Ashley Young an embarrassment to United?

April 15, 2012 Tags: , Polls 91 comments

Ashley Young, part-time winger, full-time diver – at least if the last two weekend’s matches are anything to go by. In each game, first against Queens Park Rangers and then former club Aston Villa, Young has ‘gone down easy’ to win Manchester United a crucial penalty. The seventh and eighth penalties Young has won this season.

Last weekend, against QPR, Young hit the deck after the mere brush of Sean Derry’s outstretched hand. True, the QPR midfielder made contact and, as such, a foul was committed, but was it enough to bring the £18 million signing down? Then on Sunday, against former club Villa, Young tumbled once again – this time over Ciaran Clark’s outstretched leg. There was less debate about the merits, or otherwise, of the foul, but Young’s theatrics won him few friends.

Yet, as many have opined on Twitter and other social networks, Young’s behaviour is not the ‘United way’, where diving has never been accepted. Indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson took the unprecedented step of admonishing his player in public after the Villa game when questioned if Young was now gaining a reputation for diving.

“Yes. In the last week or two, yeah. I’ve never seen that in him, it’s not a habitual thing in him,” claimed Ferguson.

“He was brought down, he just made the most of it. I think he played for the penalty. If the player decides to put his foot in and doesn’t stay on his feet and read the situation, he has fallen into the situation. But he’s definitely taken him. It was a dramatic fall. He overdid the fall, but it’s a penalty, there’s no doubt about that and I don’t think they can have any complaint because he has taken him.”

Yet, the real question is whether you, the United fan, can accept Young’s behaviour? After all, the winger has earned United goals over the past week at the same time as drawing a rash of negative headlines.

Is Ashley Young an embarrassment to United?

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Scholes returns for Villa test

April 14, 2012 Tags: , Matches 126 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson will recall influential midfielder Paul Scholes to his line-up as Manchester United seeks to restore a five point Premier League lead on Sunday. Manchester City’s thumping 6-1 win at Norwich City has not only cut United’s lead, but increased the Blues’ goal difference advantage, with just five games remaining. Indeed, after United’s humbling at Wigan Athletic in midweek, Ferguson will seek a response that not only secures three points against Villa at Old Trafford, but ensures the Reds take momentum into the remainder of the season.

Ferguson’s side plays twice – at home to Villa and then Everton – before City is in action again, offering the carrot of a potential eight point league lead. But as the midweek loss at the DW Stadium demonstrated, United can take no points for granted this season. And with the trip to Eastlands looming, Ferguson is well aware that domestic title number 20 is far from won.

However, if any player can restore calm in the wake of defeat at Wigan, then Scholes will do so. It comes to something when a club the size of United is reliant on a 37-year-old former retiree, but as defeat to Roberto Matinez’ outfit so ably demonstrated, Scholes must surely play each of United’s five remaining fixtures.

Indeed, Ferguson was the subject of some criticism for resting Scholes at Wigan, but the 70-year-old manager insists that his flaxen-haired midfielder will now be fresh for the rest of the season.

“Paul has shown his influence since he has come back,” said Ferguson.

“We did the right thing resting him on Wednesday. It may not have looked like that to the fans but, after playing on Sunday and then having another match three days later, we did the right thing. He will play on Sunday and he will be fresh.

“There are still five games to go. The twists and turns of the Premier League are fascinating. We experienced that last year. We had to play a vital game against Chelsea and won. Experience helped us that day. Hopefully it does again. Sunday’s game is the one to focus on.”

Manchester United versus Aston Villa, Premier League, Old Trafford, 14 April 2012, 4pmElsewhere, Ferguson is likely to restore Rafael da Silva to right-back after Phil Jones’ inconspicuous performance the DW. Meanwhile, Danny Welbeck could replace Javier Hernández as Wayne Rooney’s partner in attack for the Villans’ trip north.

However, the United manager will resist any temptation to make wholesale changes to the side that lost so meekly at Wigan. Scholes will partner Michael Carrick in central midfield, meaning that Ryan Giggs will drop to the bench.

Meanwhile, United goalkeeper David de Gea, who’s superb recent form has confounded many critics’ premature judgement of the Spaniard, says that the Reds must bounce back from midweek setback if they are to take the Premier League title.

“It was a disappointment on Wednesday but sometimes it can be a wake-up call just to remind us that anyone is capable of winning games in this league, against any opposition,” the stopper told

“We will be even more focused now going into these last five games, starting on Sunday, and carry on that battle for the title. I am really enjoying the title race. We know there is still a little way to go yet and there is still plenty of work to do. But we can’t wait for each game. I want Sunday to come round as quickly as possible. We want to keep putting in the performances we have been and we are determined to keep fighting to keep that advantage.”

Indeed, City’s fine result on Saturday ensures United will feel a little extra pressure to win at Old Trafford, especially with Villa in no great form. The Midlanders have won just once in the past six matches – and two in 13 – while Alex McLeish has been the subject of much home scrutiny for the dour style in which his side has played this season.

Yet Villa has lost only to Chelsea, Arsenal and City since mid-February, while the visitors have been beaten just four on the road this season. Only United has a better record on the road – it points to anything but a guaranteed three points for Ferguson’s side.

McLeish, who played under Ferguson at Aberdeen, welcomes back Carlos Cuellar, Charles N’Zogbia, Ciaran Clark and forward Nathan Delfouneso to his squad. However, Stephen Warnock faces a late test on an ankle problem, and Chris Herd has a head injury. Marc Albrighton, Darren Bent, and Fabian Delph are out.

“He was a great player, and he has had a good career as a manager,” said Ferguson of McLeish.

“He will do a good job at Villa given time, trust and confidence. We all need a pat on the back at times and Alex has done a remarkable job. I do have sympathy for Alex. I have known him since he was a little kid. When I brought him into the team at Aberdeen he was always a very receptive, intelligent young man.

“You only need a couple of injuries and it is a massive blow. And in Bent you are taking away a goalscorer who gets between 18 and 20 a season. That is a big loss.”

Sympathy or not, United can show none on the pitch on Sunday, despite Villa’s precariousness to the drop and Ferguson’s affection for his fellow Scot. With the Reds still to visit Eastlands this season, and City regaining a goal difference advantage, one slip could yet cost United the title.

Match details
Manchester United versus Aston Villa, Premier League, Old Trafford, 14 April 2012, 4pm.

Potential Line-ups
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Evans, Ferdinand, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Scholes, Young; Rooney; Welbeck. Subs from: Amos, Jones, Fabio, Smalling, Nani, Cleverley, Pogba, Giggs, Hernández, Berbatov.

Villa (4-4-2): Given; Hutton, Collins, Cuellar, Warnock; Bannan, Baker, Ireland, N’Zogbia; Agbonlahor, Weimann. Subs from: Guzan, Herd, Lichaj, Johnson, Clark, Gardner, Carruthers, Heskey, Delfouneso.

Match Stats

  • United’s Premier League lead has been cut to just two points after United’s mixed Easter, with Ferguson’s side beating Queens Park Rangers, before losing at Wigan Athletic;
  • Rooney and Scholes each hit the target in the game against QPR, although controversy surrounded the Scouser’s penalty;
  • Rooney’s goal was his 22nd in the Premier League this season, while Scholes has scored three times the league since returning from retirement;
  • Rooney’s goals have come from 118 shots at goal with 67 per cent on target;
  • Meanwhile, evergreen Scholes has covered 50.28 miles so far this season, averaging 4.19 miles in each of his 12 appearances;
  • Scholes has the best minutes per pass completed in the opponent’s half rate of any player in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index, averaging a pass every one minute 47 seconds;
  • Villa arrive to Old Trafford on the back of successive 1-1 draws in the Premier League;
  • Chris Herd scored against Liverpool to give Villa the lead and Andreas Weimann did the same against Stoke City before the Villans opponents equalised in the last 20 minutes in both games;
  • Midfielder Herd has made 14 appearances this season, winning 73 per cent of tackles attempted and making 54 interceptions;
  • Villa have some of the most impressive defensive stats in the league, with players consistently among the top ranked for each defensive discipline – Stephen Warnock is ranked second in the Index for tackles won, having won 79 tackles so far this season, while James Collins is the top ranked player for clearances having made 84 so far this season;
  • Collins has also made more interceptions than any other player this season with 206, and the second highest number of blocks with 33.

United: LWWWWL

Referee: Mark Halsey (Welwyn Garden City)
Assistants: D Bond, R Ganfield
Fourth Official: L Probert

Rant Cast 109 – and now the comedown

April 13, 2012 Tags: Rant Cast 4 comments

This week on another packed Rant Cast regulars Ed and Paul look back at Manchester United’s victory over Queens Park Rangers, achieved with a touch of good fortune.

When Manchester City lost at Arsenal to cement United’s eight point Premier League lead fans confidence was sky high. Hubris is a dangerous emotion though and we discuss whether over-confidence played a part in United’s loss to Wigan Athletic this week.

We talk transfers, with renewed speculation about Nicolas Gaitan, Eden Hazard and Paul Pogba. Also: who will United bring in to replace outgoing strikers Michael Owen and Dimitar Berbatov.

We touch on youth, with the Academy side taking on Chelsea at Stamford Bridge this week. Will the latest crop do enough to impress Sir Alex Ferguson?

And finally we look ahead to United’s fixture with Aston Villa on Sunday, where the Reds will look to bounce back from midweek defeat.

Happy Birthday to co-host Paul!

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

And if you really love the show, you can always help cover our bandwidth and equipment costs by making a small donation!

Stream this episode using the player below or listen on iTunes and leave us a review!

The wake-up call

April 12, 2012 Tags: , Opinion 6 comments

Put a positive spin on it, some Manchester United supporters were heard to say after the Reds capitulated at Wigan Athletic on Wednesday night. ‘This night,’ they continued, ‘is a wake up call for the squad. They won’t blow it now.’ Indeed, the oldest cliché of them all – ‘trust in Sir Alex’ – was commonplace, as was talk of United’s five point Premier League lead. All true, but little more than a mask for the most calamitous performance of United’s season – and there have been some corkers.

From the horrific complacency, to the bizarre tactical mish-mash, this was a United performance with no equal this season, coming at a crucial time to boot. Hubris is for the fans though, not players, and certainly not United’s manager.

But few supporters can genuinely say this wasn’t coming, following sub-par performances against Norwich City, Fulham and Queens Park Rangers in recent weeks, when United could easily have dropped more points. That is to say little of the disastrous Europa League campaign.

No, it was depth not the manner of United’s performance that shocked.

Almost none of Sir Alex’ side, nor indeed the manager himself, escaped the DW Stadium with dignity or reputation intact. Old hands, in particular, had such poor nights that they have much to answer for. The experience Ferguson has based his challenge on displayed such immaturity that the manager may need to quickly recalibrate.

But for Manchester City’s own capitulation in recent weeks, it could have been a season defining – or ending – result.

This was no fluke though. The home side was so much sharper, hungrier, and more determined right from the start, with United’s players seemingly so complacent about an impending title win, that more than one supporter was compelled to ask whether Ferguson’s team was collectively inebriated. Drinking, perhaps, in the dressing room. Heavily. The fruity Belgium ale that leaves the imbibed seeing double, and nursing the mother of all hangovers the morning after.

“Wigan were the better team. We were second to every ball and only had one shot at goal,” admitted Ferguson, who was unusually forthright in his criticism.

“It was one of these off-nights you get. We have been on a great run. It has been tremendous and it has put us in a position where we can win the league, and we have to get over the disappointment of tonight.

“It was a disappointing performance throughout the game. We didn’t reach a level we have been used to in the last few months. A couple of months ago City were something like 5-1 on and we were well behind them in terms of goal difference and points, and we have to take some credit that we have got ourselves back into the race. It is important to win our home games now.”

But the players were only part of the problem of course. Ferguson, who has driven a squad with limitations beyond what many had predicted this season, must also share culpability for defeat against a team United had beaten 14 times in succession. After all, while the Scot’s decision to rest Paul Scholes was not unexpected, the tactical mess was entirely the manager’s doing.

Moreover, United’s inability to deal with Wigan’s 3-4-3 formation in the opening period was forgiveable, but Ferguson’s bizarre decision to deploy almost every forward and midfielder out-of-position, even after a round of substitutions, played a significant part in defeat.

Pity, then, that the United manager should focus not on the lessons learned, but the failings of others. Referee Phil Dowd, for example, took the brunt of Ferguson’s anger for not awarding United a second half penalty when Maynor Figueroa handled Phil Jones’ cross.

“Figueroa didn’t seem to handle it – he did handle it,” the United manager added.

“The thing is, if he had been close to Phil Jones then you would say you are not going to get that kind of decision but he was 15 yards away. That was disappointing. Sometimes you get the breaks and sometimes you don’t. Last Sunday we got a break [against QPR] and it evens itself out over the season. They talk about the big clubs getting all the big decisions but tonight we didn’t get one. I thought Phil Dowd had a disappointing night, I must say.”

It was a churlish line of thinking, especially when defender Jonny Evans escaped a second yellow for a late challenge that would have troubled many official’s books. The inevitable red and one-match ban that would have followed are spared, and Ferguson should be grateful for it. Nor too should United supporters forget Wigan’s opener, chalked off for an apparent foul on David de Gea.

But in truth the United coach will move on quickly from defeat and on to Aston Villa at Old Trafford this weekend, followed by Everton a week later. In that he will inevitably invoke another of the season’s tiresome clichés and call for ‘a response’, as the Scot has done following defeats to City, Blackburn Rovers, Newcastle and repeatedly in Europe this season.

Indeed, each calamitous defeat has been labelled a wake-up call, with Ferguson calling for the inevitable response from his troops. It is, we are told, the United way. Cyncis might question the quality of the Scot’s squad.

Yet, after 11 domestic wins in the past 13 matches it is cantankerous to criticise. Games against Villa, Everton and Swansea at home mean United remains favourite to take a 20th domestic title. But defeat at Wigan could yet haunt the Reds. Imagine, if you will, a realistic scenario in which City beats United at Eastlands on 30 April, potentially leaving the Reds needing a victory over Sunderland on the final day to take the title.

Now that’s a jolt of reality United fans weren’t expecting.


April 11, 2012 Tags: Opinion 9 comments

Easter is the time of resurrection; a movable period in the Gregorian calendar when followers of the Christian faith celebrate the death and rebirth of a savior. Apt then, perhaps, with Easter just past that Manchester United’s own resurrection this season should be catalysed by the return of a fallen son, Paul Scholes.

Indeed, on Easter Sunday, with United beating Queens Park Rangers at Old Trafford and Manchester City losing at Arsenal, the club’s renascence this season was almost complete. Almost. Eight points clear by the day’s end, with just six games remaining, there seemed little City could do to prevent United claiming a 20th domestic title.

Until a Scholes-less United lost in hugely dysfunctional fashion at Wigan Athletic on Wednesday night, of course.

Yet, Scholes’ return to Manchester United in January was, to many an observer – astute or otherwise – a marker for the Glazernomics era. Patrick Vieira’s poorly timed attack two weeks ago has been rightly dismissed as one of the most feeble attempts at late-season ‘mind games’ ever enacted. But the Manchester City executive’s point was reflected by many on both sides of the Manchester divide when first announced in January.

After all, here was Sir Alex Ferguson, robbed of Anderson and Tom Cleverley for the opening months of season, desperately in need of central midfield resources that were never going to be provided in the open market.

It was a viewpoint hard to counter when Ferguson called on 37-year-old Scholes who, despite a mountainous collection of medals over a glorious United career, had only months earlier admitted that his “legs had gone.”  Scholes’ performances in the second half of the 2009/10 season were an embarrassing shadow of the player United fans adore, let alone the Ginger Prince’s efficacy during the current campaign.

But the veteran, refreshed and hungry after six months off, has this season been twice the player last seen in Red, both in terms of influence over games of all types and his productivity. In 12 Premier League games Scholes has appeared in this season, the former England international has made 813 passes with a pass completion rate of over 92 per cent.

To put it another way, Scholes has made 813 passes in just 769 minutes of football, with a pass completion rate significantly better than Yaya Toure, Frank Lampard, Mikel Arteta, and Luka Modric. Ryan Giggs, so poor against Wigan on Wednesday, rarely exceeds 75 per cent pass completion.

Passing stats are, of course, just one pointer to performance; good then that the veteran midfielder also has three goals and created 15 chances for his team-mates. More importantly, Scholes’ 12 games have also brought United 11 wins, with points dropped only at Stamford Bridge, where Ferguson’s men fought back to snatch a late draw.

That Scholes did not feature in United’s loss against Wigan at the DW Stadium on Wednesday night says much for the Reds’ disjointed performance in central midfield absent the 37-year-old. His replacement, Giggs, lost possession more than a quarter of the time.

“He has been a massive impact,” said midfielder Michael Carrick, who has partnered Scholes to such great effect post-Christmas.

“We all know how good he is and what he brings to the team on and off the pitch and around the training ground. His performances, to come straight into the team and play like he did was amazing, really, and he’s just carried it on. He’s got a lot of games left in him.”

Scholes is likely to sign up for an extra year at Old Trafford, taking the midfielder past his 38th birthday. The question of how much the player will be used next season is open of course, with Fergie unlikely to be afforded the luxury of one game a week, unless United once again fail in all cup competitions.

After all, Scholes’ worst performances – or least effective to be more accurate – for United in recent years have been against physical opponents who deny time and space with a high tempo pressing game. Scholes, refreshed after six months off, can find space better than almost any other player on the planet. Six months into next season will be a far sterner test of those ageing legs.

But Scholes’ enduring influence will be felt, even if Ferguson is able to bring in new central midfield talent, or Tom Cleverley manages to stay fit. Neither is guaranteed, although it will ask a lot of the veteran to play more than 30 games next season.

“A lot’s been said about him coming back, whether it has been good or bad for us,” adds Rio Ferdinand.

“But you can see in the results we’ve had since he’s been back, the influence he’s had. He’s a fantastic player. Not only on the games you see out here but in training and around the training ground. He’s an example for all the young players at the club.”

One of those younger players – Cleverley – has seen his progress back into the United side blocked by Scholes’ outstanding performances. The 23-year-old has suffered an injury-affected season, but is unlikely to feature heavily during the run-in despite returning to fitness.

Cleverley’s time will come, but the contrast is another interesting side effect of Scholes’ return. After all, Cleverley’s pass-and-move style brought a vibrancy to United in the late summer not seen in Ferguson’s team for some time. Post new year, United’s outstanding results have come through an altogether less exciting ball retention style, based around Scholes dictating the Reds’ tempo.

In a results business Ferguson’s decision to reign in United’s open attacking early season style was a no brainer. But with the word now out that Sir Alex wants to pack his side with pace and attacking verve next season, Scholes’ place in the system is not necessarily obvious.

For the moment though United fans will probably celebrate Scholes’ return with silverware, poor result at Wigan notwithstanding. With the Reds five points clear with as many games to go, the smart money is still on Scholes being an instrumental cog in United’s 20th domestic title triumph.

And whether fans consider Easter a deeply religious experience, or simply an excuse to eat too many chocolate eggs, nothing will taste sweeter than beating City to the Premier League title. For that, supporters will have Scholes’ Second Coming to thank.

Trio set for Wigan recall

April 11, 2012 Tags: , Matches 209 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson will rotate his playing staff as Manchester United look to take another significant step towards the Premier League title with victory at Wigan Athletic on Wednesday. The United manager has not yet proclaimed United champions, but with the Reds eight points clear and just six games to go, victory at Wigan would surely remove any lingering doubt. However, the 70-year-old coach is likely to freshen up his side, with Chris Smalling, Tom Cleverley and Nani all seeking a recall at the DW Stadium.

United will make the short trip in buoyant mood after 11 wins in the past 12 Premier League fixtures – not to mention a perfect record against the Latics in the past 14 meetings. Few in the United camp will be in any mood to change that series with a title on the line.

While City will aim to extend the race another week by beating West Bromwich Albion at Eastlands on Wednesday, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that United will secure a 20th domestic title in the coming weekend. That would required City to lose twice, while United must take maximum points over the next four days.

First though United must secure three points at Wigan – a ground that has brought much joy to Reds in recent seasons. Ferguson’s side secured the title at the DW in 2008, while a late Michael Carrick strike brought a dramatic United win a year later.

However, Winger Ashley Young says that his United team-mates must stay focused against relegation-threatened Wigan, with the title not yet officially secured.

“Wigan is a tough place to go to – they’re desperate for points and will want to win in front of their own fans,” said Young, who has been heavily criticised for diving against Queens Park Rangers last week.

“We’ve got to be on our toes and be ready for a tough game. I’m sure if we can show the confidence, desire and winning mentality we’ve shown throughout the season, we’ll get the win. I scored my last goal for Villa against Wigan last season at Villa Park and also scored against them away from home, so I’ve enjoyed some decent results against them. Hopefully there will be another to follow tonight.

“We’re just ticking the games off as we go along and staying focused on each one. You obviously want to play well, but at this stage of the season it’s more about results. You just want the three points from every game. We’re eight points clear at the moment but that could end up meaning nothing if we don’t keep our run going.”

Wigan Athletic versus Manchester United, Premier League, DW Stadium, 11 April 2012, 7.45pmWith that in mind Ferguson is likely to freshen up his side, with Paul Scholes and Rio Ferdinand likely to be rested. Smalling and Cleverley could take the veterans places, while Nani is fit to play despite not making the bench for United’s victory over QPR. Ryan Giggs, Javier Hernández, and Phil Jones are also in contention for a recall.

Ferguson has no fresh injuries to report, with only long-term absentees Michael Owen, Darren Fletcher, Anderson and captain Nemanja Vidić definitely out.

Meanwhile, Wigan manager Roberto Martinez is again likely to be without striker Hugo Rodallega, who has a knee injury. However, Victor Moses is fit despite suffering a knock against Chelsea last weekend, while , while former Reds David Jones is close to making a return.

Despite United’s outstanding record against Wigan in recent years the Latics have regained some short-term form, securing wins against Liverpool and Stoke City in the past month. Martinez’ side was also desperately unlucky in defeat at Stamford Bridge last weekend, where refereeing decisions went squarely against the relegation threatened Latics.

“The performances we have had at Anfield and Stamford Bridge this season have got rid of that block,” said Martinez, of his players’ renewed confidence in facing leading sides.

“Against Manchester United you have to be perfect and we know now we can be perfect against these sides. Mentally we are ready for that. We are desperate to test ourselves against them and we are hoping for a bit of luck we have not had over the last few weeks or in the last few games against Manchester United.”

But with the Reds sniffing yet another title it will be a major shock if United does not secure a win on Wednesday night, especially with former Latics winger Antonio Valencia in such outstanding form. Valencia was seen as an unlikely United signing when he moved for £14 million nearly three years ago, but has proven a key weapon in the Reds’ title charge this season.

“If you speak with anyone who worked with Antonio here, they will tell you what an extraordinary character he is,” adds Martinez.

“We all know the quality he has got and now he looks a fresh player. I think Antonio looks a real threat. He looks really sharp and he is enjoying his football, at his best level. It seems as though he has been a key man in every fixture he has played and we are all very happy on one hand, because Antonio left a massive stamp on the football club. But on the other hand we hope he has a bit of a day off against us.”

That seems unlikely in a player who is enjoying the most productive spell of an increasingly fine career. Adding another Premier League title into the mix will do little harm for the modest Valencia’s reputation.

Match details
Wigan Athletic versus Manchester United, Premier League, DW Stadium, 11 April 2012, 7.45pm.

Potential Line-ups
Wigan (5-2-3): Al Habsi; Beausejour, Caldwell, Alcaraz, Boyce, Figueroa; Diamé, McCarthy; Moses, Di Santo, Maloney. Subs from: Kirkland, Stam, Crusat, Watson, Gomez, Diame, Sammon, McArthur, Watson.

United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Jones, Evans, Smalling, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Cleverley, Giggs; Rooney, Hernández. Subs from: Amos, Rafael, Fabio, Ferdinand, Nani, Pogba, Welbeck, Berbatov.

United: WLWWWW

Referee: Phil Dowd (Stoke)
Assistants: S Long, D Richardson
Fourth Official: J Moss

United in triumph over divided City

April 9, 2012 Tags: , , , Opinion 29 comments

There was a fleeting moment of guilty pleasure just prior to 6pm on Sunday night. The pleasure as Mario Balotelli finally, deservedly, saw red and Manchester City’s title bid evaporated at the Emirates. Guilt as a young City fan broke down in tears, live on national television. Inconsolable heart-break played out for all to see in its humiliating indignity.

Oh no. That’s right. It was, of course, pure joy. Every last moment.

Not least because of the £210 million spent over the past two summers under Roberto Mancini’s management; each moment of presumptuous crowing last autumn; and every last reference to United’s apparent demise. “This City is ours,” they cried. Not yet it isn’t.

City’s defeat was all the more fun for the spineless manner in which the Blues caved against Arsenal. In a match Mancini’s men absolutely had to win, coming after United’s victory earlier on Sunday, City was fortunate to escape north London without suffering a severe hiding, so abject was the side’s display.

Yet, if City’s demise has brought joy to United fans, who can now prepare to celebrate domestic title number 20, what machinations must Mancini’s paymasters in back in Abu Dhabi be planning? Half-a-billion pounds investment has earned, if not the title, then a dignified campaign. This has been anything but.

On the pitch City’s autumn form, which brought a string of eye-catching wins – not least that match – disappeared as the year turned. That Mancini’s side transmogrified from the ‘next Barcelona’, to a side that cannot win on the road, and whose collective spirit is broken, can do little else but shock. Not least when placed in stark relief with a United side that has powered to 11 wins in the past 12 Premier League fixtures.

Moreover, while Mancini’s performance is judged predominantly by results, it is off-the-field events that have largely shaped City’s season. These are events in which Mancini is highly culpable.

Carlos Tevez’ refusal to play warm-up against Bayern Munich in last September precipitated a break down in team unity that has only been magnified by Mario Balotelli’s irresponsible behaviour. Far from the lovable rogue of a thousand articles, the Italian has proven to be little more than a petulant thug with an overbearing sense of entitlement. From training ground fights with Micah Richards and Jerome Boateng, to the disgraceful studs-up challenge on Alex Song at the Emirate.

Mancini may not be the cause of his players’ errant behaviour, but he is certainly responsible. That is, after all, management in a very literal sense. And as a senior City executive – “the most important employee” as Sir Alex might put it – so too comes accountability.

The Italian has shown little to date. Only now when the desperation of his team’s situation is in full bloom has Mancini rounded on Balotelli, claiming that the young striker may never play for the club again. After a similar statement about Tevez, the coach has no credibility left in the bank.

“I like him as a guy and a player,” said Mancini of Balotelli, who signed from Inter Milan for £24m.

“He is not a bad guy and a fantastic player but I’m very sorry for him as he continues to lose his talent and his quality. I don’t have any words for his behaviour. I hope for him he can understand he is in a bad way for his future and I really hope that he can change his behaviour in the future.

“He will probably not play in the next six games. I need to be sure I always have 11 players on the pitch and with Mario this is a big risk. Mario made a mistake and I hope for him – not me – that he can change. He clearly created a big problem, but he has also scored important goals for us this season. He needs to change his behaviour if he wants to continue to play.”

Yet, it is almost unimaginable that Ferguson would have tolerated Balotelli’s behaviour, no matter how talented the Italian. Ravel Morrison will attest to that. So too will a string of former United players who failed to conform to Ferguson’s demand for a unified front.

How Sir Alex must have enjoyed the campaign, despite European failure. The Scot, often at his obdurate worst when discussing the club’s financial situation, has nevertheless taken criticism of his squad’s quality as a personal affront. It has proven to be a key tenet of United’s season.

Many an assessment of Ferguson’s squad is legitimate; structural weaknesses in midfield and defence have been exposed at times this season. Not least in Europe, where the Reds suffered two humiliating campaigns. But Ferguson has forged a side that is, to invoke the old cliché, greater than the sum of its parts. Certainly one whose unity is admirable.

No wonder Ferguson was so sharp in his assessment of City’s public division after Balotelli and Aleksander Kolarov squared up during last weekend’s draw between the Blues and Sunderland.

“I wouldn’t allow it but it can happen at moments in a game,” said the United manager on Friday.

“Peter Schmeichel used to have a go at Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister and they’d give it back. Roy Keane used to do it. There’s a difference, though, a distinction there. The general demeanour of a team is more important. The general atmosphere when a team scores a goal. That’s how you judge it. You need unity if a team is going to win the league.

“Teams are about unity – we have got experience of that. Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs can ensure that’s the case. Young players in the dressing room can look at how they have lasted so long – they are great examples. We take unity for granted here. We expect it – but it doesn’t happen everywhere.

“The unity and spirit you get when players stay together is now coming through,” added Ferguson, who took his side on a three day golfing break to Scotland before United’s victory over Fulham last week. “That trip to St Andrews was fantastic.”

How Mancini could learn something from Sir Alex’ ability to forge a group. The Italian’s brusque style, in contrast to his laid-back public demeanour, has seemingly served only to create tensions among a group of players brought together primarily for financial gain.

Ferguson is often painted as a bruiser, unleashing the hairdryer at the slightest provocation. Yet, there is unlikely to be a United player unwilling to lay everything on the line for the cause this season. Mancini cannot make that claim, which is an assessment that if also concluded in Abu Dhabi, may yet lead to the Italian’s demise.

And despite the frustrations of a campaign that has often overwhelmed, United will come out with a 20th domestic title. Far from the greatest team to don United’s red this may be, but beating the most expensively assembled team in the history of English football is no little feat.

In that there is much joy for United fans, with not a hint of guilt.