Month December 2012

Month December 2012

2012 – United’s year in review

December 31, 2012 Tags: , Opinion 2 comments

Calendars have always been somewhat arbitrary in football. It is, after all, an industry that has a timeline all of its own. Yet, here we are, 2012 nearly complete, and another year coming over the horizon. What, then, to make of Manchester United’s year; 12 months that have included European failure in the continent’s secondary competition, domestic loss to neighbours Manchester City, and a Robin van Persie-led rebirth?

On the surface 2012 has brought little success for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men. After all, United secured no silverware in the past 12 months, with the club losing in the Europa League, FA Cup and Premier League during the year. 2011 had already brought defeat in two further competitions – the Champions League and League Cup.

Meanwhile, unrest off-the-pitch was evident throughout the Glazer family’s carpetbagging Initial Public Offering in New York this summer. The flotation filled the family’s pockets while barely making an impact on United’s debt pile, which still stands at more than £300 million.

Yet, by the year’s end the massed ranks on the Stretford End have put financial shenanigans to one side and are enjoying the most attacking United side in four years. There is success, of sorts, on the pitch too. United is safely into the knock-out rounds in the current Champions League edition and has secured a seven point lead over City in the Premier League.

Who would have believed it just six months ago? It is the ever unpredictable ride of professional sport, and all the more exhilarating for it.

But it has also been a year of genuine drama, beginning with Luis Suarez’ petulant refusal to shake Patrice Evra’s hand in January – an incident that left a black mark on a historic institution. The row began in October 2011, rumbling into the new year after the FA handed down an eight match sanction to the Uruguayan striker. Ultimately the saga tarnished both Suarez, club and manager Kenny Dalglish.

The year continued with United’s dramatic FA Cup win over City at Eastlands – a match that brough veteran Paul Scholes’ return to Sir Alex’ squad. Scholes’ reverse-retirement proved to be an inspired, if short-lived, strategy that helped to propel United into a healthy Premier League lead before the Reds’ late season collapse.

January also brought Ravel Morrison’s departure for West Ham United. The multi-talented teenager tested Ferguson’s patience one time too many before leaving for the capital in a £600,000 deal. Morrison appeared just once for West Ham before joining Birmingham City on loan this season – a career going nowhere, fast.

In the early spring United ventured into Europe’s second tier for the first time – a competition that brought victory over Ajax before heavy defeat to Athletic Bilabo. In February fans also celebrated Ryan Giggs’ remarkable career, which reached 900 games.

And there was Red Issues’s victory over the Greater Manchester Police, which came during a hectic early spring period, with the long-standing fanzine courting controversy with a now infamous back cover. The month also brought more smoke and mirrors when the club published its half year financial results.

Meanwhile, United Rant also had cause to celebrate – the site’s podcast Rant Cast reached the grand age of 100 episodes in February.

But United’s skies turn dark in the spring, with exit at Bilbao’s hands in the Europa League, a devastating draw at home to Everton, followed in quick succession by the Premier League loss at Eastlands and finally the last-minute Premier League title defeat.

Yet, there was also hope with United’s reserve team being crowned champions after a fine campaign, although the youth team lost to Chelsea in the FA Youth Cup semi-final. However, there was disappointment when Paul Pogba decided to leave United for Juventus – the French youngster has enjoyed a fine first season in Italy.

Controversy raised its ugly head in March as winger Ashley Young dragged United into a nationwide row about diving, however David de Gea finally earned some media respect after a series of impressive performances for Ferguson’s side.

In the summer, the Glazer regime floated United on the stock market, pocketing most of the profits for themselves, although fans’ anger was quelled somewhat with the acquisitions of Shinji Kagawa, Nick Powell and van Persie at a cost of more than £40 million.

There was genuine fury, but very little surprise, at the Glazers financial antics, but excitement at summer acquisitions. Still, manager Ferguson stood accused of (potentially) profiting from the IPO – a question that is yet to be fully resolved. Not least because of the manager’s inflammatory comments in the summer, suggesting ‘real’ United fans would support the Glazer family.

The summer brought a fine Euro 2012 tournament in Ukraine and Poland, which featured a handful of United players, with Danny Welbeck excelling for England. Then United’s extensive summer tour generated significant air-miles and a financial bonus for Old Trafford’s bean counters.

Meanwhile, Marmite’s Dimitar Berbatov left Old Trafford for the final time, a supreme talent surely unfulfilled at the Theatre of Dreams. Berbatov has already become a favourite at new club Fulham.

All of which leads into the current season, and a dramatic response to City’s Premier League victory: Sir Alex’ commitment to a campaign of all-out-attack. United has transformed once again under the Scot’s stewardship from an oft-uninspiring outfit last season, to one which is on course to score 100 Premier League goals in the campaign. Still, with the side unable to defend, there is little predictability in how the campaign may turn out.

A year of drama, intrigue and excitement, but one in which the story is, of course, only half told. After all, the football season runs August to May!

Size (and what you do with it)

December 30, 2012 Tags: Opinion 12 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson has been in fine form of late, first fearing, quite preposterously, for Robin van Persie’s life and then deriding 120-year-old Newcastle United as “a wee club in the north-east.” Quite a put-down for the four-times champions of England that attracts regular crowds in excess of 50,000. But Ferguson’s jibe, provoked by manager Alan Pardew’s sanctimonious criticism, raises an interesting question: what exactly determines the ‘size’ of a football club in the modern game?

Ferguson’s wisecrack comes with the inherent backdrop of Manchester United’s grandiose. Indeed, United is self-styled as the world’s biggest, with management often touting a flawed Kantar survey that estimates the club has more than 690 million “followers” worldwide – a figure far in excess of rival institutions, domestically and abroad.

The Kantar survey, which includes any ‘fan’ who looks out for United’s results and news even if they follow another team, was conducted ahead of United’s New York IPO last summer. Previous surveys had put United’s supporters at more than 330 million, but either way the club can boast a genuinely huge global supporter base.

Still, the Reds’ average home attendance is also among the globe’s largest, with more than 75,000 packing Old Trafford each week despite steep price rises under the Glazer regime between 2005 and 2010. In Europe only Barcelona at 84,119 and Borussia Dortmund, with 80,521 packing Westfalenstadion each week, can better United’s figure. It is not without reason to suspect that United supporters would fill a substantially larger stadium if prices were more in line with continental rivals.

Meanwhile, Newcastle can boast average gates of just under 50,000 in the Premier League, up from a historic low of 16,000 in 1991. It makes the Magpies England’s fifth best supported club, and the 15th biggest in European football.

Then there is the silverware factor, with United boasting 19 domestic league titles, 15 further English cups and seven major continental or international trophies. Real Madrid, by contrast, has claimed La Liga 32 times, Rangers 54 Scottish titles and Juventus 28 Serie A trophies. Borussia Dortmund, with those huge attendances, has won the Bundesliga just eight times, including those in the past two seasons.

The contrast between the biggest and that “wee club” Newcastle is stark, with the Geordies having claimed England’s top division on just four occasions – the last in 1927 – a further six FA Cups and the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1969. The haul still places Newcastle in top 10 most successful clubs in English history. English champions Manchester City can claim to be England’s finest on just three occasions, including last season’s last-gasp victory.

Yet, the modern game is built above all on finances and the attendant ability to compete in the transfer market. City’s rise has come since Abu Dhabi’s Royal Family pumped in more than £1 billion of sovereign wealth into the club. Meanwhile Roman Abramovich has financed Chelsea to 11 major trophies in the past decade.

Neither City nor Chelsea can match the world’s top three revenue generating clubs: Real Madrid (annual revenues £420 million), Barcelona (£407 million) and United (£320 million). City’s annual revenue was last reported at £254 million, Chelsea’s at £255 million and Newcastle’s at £88 million.

Yet, for all that revenue generated United’s debt pile means that the club has consistently posted losses since the Glazer family acquired the club in 2005. Chelsea has only recently recorded a profit under Abramovich and City has posted cumulative losses of  £510.9 million in the past four years. Meanwhile, owner Mike Ashley has steered a listing Newcastle United to safer financial ground in recent years.

Indeed, only an elite set of clubs – United included – can claim the triumvirate of large revenues, a huge fanbase and a history of consistent silverware. Real Madrid and Barcelona are similarly well-endowed, while there are merits to including Bayern Munich, AC Milan, Juventus, Ajax, Arsenal, Liverpool in any list of the world’s biggest.

Yet, there is something else that determines a club’s size; a certain je ne sais quoi that surely includes ‘history’ in the mix even if a club has fallen on hard times. There are plenty of clubs for whom success has been ephemeral, but might rank more highly than Newcastle in a subjective list of England’s biggest – twice European champions Nottingham Forest, Football League founding member Aston Villa, and three-times England’s best Leeds United, for example.

In fact some of Europe’s biggest match few of the aforementioned criteria. Liverpool, well behind United, Real Madrid and Barcelona in terms of revenues generated, and attendances achieved, can still boast a global supporter base built on years of success in the 1970s and 80s. Meanwhile, Juventus – Serie A champions in 2011 and 2012 – fills its compact new stadium, built to a 40,000 capacity based on the Old Lady’s historic attendances.

Few doubt either club’s right to ‘big club’ status. It’s that ineffable thing again.

European Attendance Top 20 (2011/12 average)
1 – FC Barcelona – 84,119 – Camp Nou
2 – Borussia Dortmund – 80,521 – Westfalenstadion
3 – Manchester United – 75,387 – 2011–12 Old Trafford
4 – Real Madrid – 74,678 – Santiago Bernabéu
5 – Bayern Munich – 69,000 – Allianz Arena
6 – Schalke 04 – 61,139 – Veltins-Arena, Gelsenkirchen
7 – Arsenal – 60,000 – Emirates Stadium
8 – VfB Stuttgart – 55,089 – Mercedes-Benz Arena
9 – Hertha Berlin – 54,259 – Olympiastadion
10 – Hamburger SV – 53,635 – Imtech Arena
11 – Borussia Mönchengladbach – 51,846 – Borussia-Park
12 – Milan – 51,442 – San Siro
13 – Celtic – 50,904 – Celtic Park
14 – Ajax – 50,044 – Amsterdam ArenA
15 – Newcastle United – 49,935 – St James’ Park
16 – Internazionale – 47,913 – San Siro
17 – FC Köln – 47,647 – RheinEnergieStadion
18 – Manchester City – 47,044 – Etihad Stadium
19 – Rangers – 46,324 – Ibrox Stadium
20 – Napoli – 45,789 – Stadio San Paolo

Deloittle Money League 2012 (€millions)
1 – Real Madrid – 479.5
2 – Barcelona – 450.7
3 – Manchester United – 367.0
4 – Bayern Munich – 321.4
5 – Arsenal – 251.1
6 – Chelsea – 249.8
7 – Milan 235.1
8 – Internazionale – 211.4
9 – Liverpool – 203.3
10 – Schalke 04 – 202.4
11 – Tottenham Hotspur – 181.0
12 – Manchester City – 169.6
13 – Juventus – 153.9
14 – Marseille – 150.4
15 – Roma – 143.5
16 – Borussia Dortmund – 138.5
17 – Lyon – 132.8
18 – Hamburg – 128.8
19 – Valencia – 116.8
20 – Napoli – 114.9

* 2012 money league, some clubs have more recently reported financial information

England’s most successful clubs (number of major trophies won)
1 – Liverpool – 41
2 – Manchester United – 40
3 – Arsenal – 26
4 – Aston Villa – 20
5 – Chelsea – 18
6 – Tottenham Hotspur – 17
7 – Everton – 1995
8 – Newcastle United – 11
8 – Manchester City – 11
10 – Blackburn Rovers – 10
11 – Wolverhampton Wanderers – 9
11 – Nottingham Forest – 9
13 – Sunderland – 8
13 – Sheffield Wednesday – 8
15 – Leeds United – 7
15 – West Bromwich Albion – 7
17 – Sheffield United – 5
17 – Wanderers – 5*
19 – Bolton Wanderers – 4
19 – Huddersfield Town – 4
19 – Portsmouth – 4
19 – Preston North End – 4
19 – West Ham United – 4

* now defunct
Does not include Charity/Community Shield

Preview: United v West Bromwich Albion

December 28, 2012 Tags: , Matches 70 comments

Manchester United’s performances this Christmas may be patchy, but the same cannot be said for manager Sir Alex Ferguson. The great Scot started the week fearing for Robin van Persie’s life and ended it by deriding Newcastle United as that “wee club from the north east”. It has been truly spectacular stuff from a deliciously feisty Ferguson.

But while Sir Alex returned to limelight-hogging form, the manager should be more concerned with United’s propensity to ship soft goals as in-form West Bromwich Albion visit Old Trafford on Saturday. Indeed, with West Brom up to fifth place in the Premier League table, and United likely to rotate for the third game in a week, the fixture has significant ‘banana skin’ potential.

Still, while United shipped four preventable goals in the past week it cost the Reds just the two dropped points at Swansea City last weekend, leaving Ferguson’s side seven clear of rivals Manchester City – a lead so healthy that complacency is now a genuine threat.

Good, then, that Ferguson can call on more resources than against Newcastle United on Wednesday night, with Ashley Young, Danny Welbeck and Shinji Kagawa all likely to be involved at some point according the the 70-year-old manager.

“We’re hoping maybe Young will be ready and Daniel Welbeck should be ready,” confirmed Ferguson, who turns 71 on New Year’s Eve.

“He was ill on Tuesday night but I think he should be okay. At least that’s a couple of bodies back fresh for us. We’ll just assess the rest in terms of tiredness. We need to assess players like Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs as I think, at their age, [the match versus Newcastle] took a lot out of them.

“Rooney is out for at least another two games. He was a bit better yesterday. We’re going to assess Phil Jones but I don’t think he’ll be ready. Shinji wanted to do a warm-up and training on the pitch and he is getting close. I could maybe put him on the bench tomorrow depending on who is available.”

Ferguson may opt to rest van Persie, with the manager previously insisting that none of his players would feature in all four games over the festive period. Antonio Valencia is long over due a break, while Tom Cleverley should return to the starting line-up. Japanese midfielder Shinji Kagawa could be in line for a surprise start.

Meanwhile, with Jones not certain to be fit, Ferguson may again call on Chris Smalling at right-back, while Rio Ferdinand could drop to the bench for captain Nemanja Vidić.

Manchester United v West Bromwich Albion, Premier League, Old Trafford, 29 December 2012That balance has proven to be a challenge for United this season, with the back-four and midfield dynamic causing the Reds plenty of defensive problems. United has shipped 28 Premier League goals this season, which is just five fewer than bottom club Queens Park Rangers. United conceded fewer during title-winning Premier League campaigns in 2007, 2008 and 2009, while Ferguson’s side has managed just four clean sheets all season.

“When you are conceding goals at any level you want to put it to a stop,” admits defender Ferdinand. “This season we have let in far too many goals and we need to change that. We need to make a big effort now to push on. We are in a good position but if we are to maintain where we are, we need to sort ourselves out.”

Ferdinand’s are fine words, of course, but a sentiment that has been echoed season long. And while West Brom have scored just 12 goals away from the Hawthornes this season, few will bet on a United shut-out by 5pm on Saturday. With van Persie potentially on the bench Welbeck and Javier Hernández will need to add to one and 10 goals, respectively, this season.

Meanwhile, Steve Clarke is without injured defenders Jonas Olsson and Goran Popov, and midfielder Youssouf Mulumbu, although George Thorne has returned from a loan spell at Peterborough to ease a heavy injury burden.

The visitors’ injuries and history suggest a home win, with United having never lost to West Brom in the Premier League era. Indeed, the Baggies’ last victory at Old Trafford was a 5-3 triumph almost 35 years ago.

Still, with the Midlanders riding high, there is plenty of confidence in Clarke’s squad ahead of the trip north, not least from former Red, Ben Foster.

“I’ve lost every time I’ve been back there and I got ‘pumped’ 5-0 with Birmingham then we lost 2-0 there last year,” said Foster.

“It’s special to play at Old Trafford, but with the way our team is I don’t think anybody gets too excited about games like that. There are a lot of teams who go there like rabbits in the headlights and get starstruck by it all but I don’t think we’re that sort of team. We will go there, business as usual, looking to get some points.”

Moreover, West Brom’s tally of 33 points is the highest the club has achieved at this stage of a Premier League campaign.

But with the carrot of a huge lead heading into the New Year, Ferguson’s team should gain focus for the weekend’s clash. Whether Ferguson’s back-four can keep a clean sheet is another matter – a good question for the manager’s next press conference, perhaps.

Match Details
Manchester United v West Bromwich Albion – Premier League, Old Trafford – Saturday 29 December 2012, 3pm

Possible teams
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Smalling, Evans, Vidić, Büttner;  Carrick, Cleverley; Young, Kagawa, Welbeck; Hernández. Subs from: Lindegaard, Wootton,  Ferdinand, Evra, Scholes, Valencia, Powell, Giggs, van Persie, Macheda

West Brom (4-5-1): Foster; Tamas, Ridgewell, McAuley, Jones; Morrison, Brunt, Gera, Dorrans, Fortuné; Lukaku. Subs from: Myhill, Rosenberg, Long, Odemwingie, El Ghanassy, Jara, Reid

Officials
Referee: Jon Moss
Assistants: A Garratt, C Breakspear
Fourth official: P Dowd

Form
United: WLWWDW
West Brom: LLLDWW

Head to Head
Last 10: United 8, West Brom 0, Draw 2
Overall: United 51, West Brom 40, Draw 29

Stats

  • van Persie’s goal against Newcastle was his 13th of the Premier League season, having come from 63 efforts at goal with 53.7 per cent on target, and an average of 4.84 shots per goal;
  • van Persie’s effort at the other end of the pitch is also important – the Dutchman has made 20 clearances so far this season, more than any other striker in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index;
  • With three goals from just five shots at goal Jonny Evans leads the Index for goals to shots ratio;
  • While Wayne Rooney may not have scored in United’s recent game against Swansea, his seven shots on target is the joint highest by a player in a single game this season;
  • West Brom have enjoyed back to back 2-1 victories over the Christmas fixtures so far, with Chris Brunt, Zoltan Gera and Romelu Lukaku on target;
  • Lukaku has scored six in the Premier League this season, getting 81.25 per cent of his 32 efforts at goal on target at an average of 5.33 shots per goal;
  • Gera has scored four this season, coming from just 16 chances, and has also completed 233 passes in the opposition half – more than any other West Brom player;
  • Chris Brunt scored his first of the season against QPR, although has five assists to his name – has also delivered more crosses than any other West Brom player with 28.

Prediction
2-1

Rant Cast 136 – it’s the defence, stupid

December 28, 2012 Tags: Rant Cast No comments

On the final Rant Cast of the year regular presenters Ed and Paul look back on two eventful matches in the past week. First, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team drew at Swansea City, but the performance was over-shadowed by controversial incidents on the pitch. Was Ferguson right to question Ashley Williams’ ‘attack’ on Robin van Persie, or was the Scottish manager simply manipulating the media?

We move on to United’s victory over Newcastle United at Old Trafford – another barnstormer of a match, with the Reds coming out 4-3 winners. But how long can Ferguson’s side keep on coming back from the brink when goals are shipped quite so easily?

Also on this week’s show – we look ahead to matches against West Bromwich Albion and Wigan Athletic in the coming week. Can United stretch the Premier League lead beyond seven points? Finally, we take your twitter questions and say goodbye to 2012.

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

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Stream this episode using the player below or listen on iTunes and leave us a review! The podcast RSS feed is available here.

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Mid-season report 2012/13

December 27, 2012 Tags: Opinion 41 comments

It is one of the stranger seasons in Manchester United’s recent history. Sir Alex Ferguson’s reaction to Manchester City’s Premier League title victory on goal difference was to bolster his attack, while largely ignoring obvious problems in other areas. Ferguson spent more than £40 million on Robin van Persie, Shinji Kagawa and Nick Powell last summer – attackers all – in search of more goals and greater penetration. Never again, said the septuagenarian, would his team lose a title on goal difference.

Yet that equation has always been a balanced one; goal difference is, after all, the sum of those scored and conceded. Indeed, Ferguson’s decision to concentrate on improving his attacking resources last summer is mirrored in United’s tactical approach through the season – the Reds have largely been open and fluid. The approach has left Ferguson’s back four vulnerable and a certainly sense of inevitability that United would concede freely this season.

There is much to play for in the second half of the season, with the Reds top mid way through the Premier League campaign and looking forward to a Champions League Round of 16 tie with Real Madrid. Yet, history says that teams of United’s open nature rarely win the biggest trophies. While Ferguson’s team has scored plenty, the side has also lost five in all competitions. The suspicion is that United will have to tighten up at some point. The question is whether the team truly can. 7/10

– – –

Sir Alex Ferguson
The 70-year-old Scot now has a stand and a statue at Old Trafford – cynics might suggest that United’s directors are sending a less-than-subtle word Ferguson’s way. Yet, Sir Alex is driving forward with a rare determination, seemingly invigorated by City’s Premier League victory last season. Still, there are plenty of question marks this season: the summer rebuilding programme, tactical approach, and his faith with a tranche of players clearly past their best. This side is certainly not one of the Scot’s finest, but it will challenge on most fronts come May. 7/10

– – –

David de Gea
Generally labelled as a goalkeeper with significant weaknesses, it is only in November and December that the Spaniard has secured a consistent run in the first team. Still, there have been fewer mistakes and more confident handling to go with the outstanding reflexes. It is hard to find major fault with a young stopper still growing into the art. Yet, Ferguson’s insistence on rotating his keepers, or indeed dropping one or other seemingly without fault, is the source of much frustration among supporters. Presumably for the Spaniard as well. 7/10

Anders Lindegaard
Almost in contrast to De Gea, the Dane is billed as solid and dependable. Yet, there was little steadfast in goals conceded against Gareth Bale, Clint Dempsey, David Luíz, and Daniel Sturridge among others. The suspicion, little changed from Lindegaard’s début at United, is that the former Aalesund ;player is good, but not good enough to be United’s first choice. It is seemingly an observation with which Sir Alex has only recently concurred. 6/10

– – –

Patrice Evra
If Alexander Büttner’s acquisition was meant to put pressure on the Frenchman then it has certainly worked in a positive way. Seemingly in the doldrums for more than two years there is a new spring in Evra’s step this season, marked with four goals already. True, Evra has been either directly or indirectly culpable for goals conceded – then who hasn’t in United’s back four and central midfield? Moreover, a tactical system that emphasises attack and not defence has left the 31-year-old exposed far too often. Still among the very best, if no longer at his peak. 7/10

Rafael da Silva
It is surely a landmark season for the Brazilian youngster who has demonstrated a new maturity together with far more consistency this season. An injury-free run until the Christmas programme has certainly helped, as – conversely – has the long spell on the sideline suffered by both Phil Jones and Chris Smalling. On his way to become the classy full-back Ferguson always believed Rafael would become. Bravo! 8/10

Rio Ferdinand
Another solid campaign from United’s veteran campaigner who has overcome a series of back problems to feature heavily once again this season. Culpable for goals conceded at times, with the defender’s waning pace brutally exposed by Gareth Bale in Tottenham Hotspur’s victory at Old Trafford, but still as classy as ever on the ball. Will surely be offered another year at the club, especially with doubts surrounding captain Nemanja Vidić’s long-term fitness. 7/10

Jonny Evans
When Jonny goes marching down the wing he scores, he scores! Four goals from the Northern Irishman together with a string of solid displays mark another step forward in Evans’ career. The suspicion that there is a mistake – whether overt or more subtle – remains though and there have times when the 24-year-old has been caught out of position this season. But the days of Evans shirking a physical challenge are very much over. 7/10

Phil Jones
Long-term injury has restricted the former Blackburn Rovers defender to just seven games this season – three from the bench. There’s much more to come from the youngster, although no obvious place waiting for him in Ferguson’s team. n/a*

Alexander Büttner
Just a handful of games for the former Vitesse Arnham full-back who has confirmed suspicions that the 23-year-old was acquired for his price and not ability. Has sparked some life into Evra at least, but will never become an Old Trafford regular. n/a

Nemanja Vidić
Long-term injury followed an even lengthier layoff for the giant Serbian who began the season in rusty fashion following a six month break. There are still questions about Vidić’s fitness of course, which will be answered over the season half of the season. n/a

Chris Smalling
A frustrating campaign for Smalling who has spent much of the past five months in the Carrington treatment room. But Ferdinand’s age and Vidić’s fitness may provide more opportunities as the campaign progresses. n/a

– – –

Antonio Valencia
There were few players as influential as the Ecuadorian during the closing weeks of the 2011/12 season. Valencia’s power, pace and consistency drove United forward and was a key factor in Wayne Rooney’s goalscoring run. The contrast couldn’t be more stark, with Valencia seemingly robbed of so much confidence that the winger rarely takes on a full-back these days. There is more to come from Valencia; the question is when? ;4/10

Nani
There have been few performances more abject in modern times than that of the Portuguese winger’s at Goodison Park on the opening day of the season. It has proven to be a barometer for the season. Not only has Nani rarely performed on the few occasions proffered by his manager, but Ferguson has lost all confidence in the player. Was it not for United’s shortage of wide players then Nani would surely be sold this winter. 4/10

Ashley Young
Injury has restricted the former Aston Villa winger’s appearances to little more than a dozen in all competitions this season – and there has been little consistency to date. Fine performances against City and Sunderland followed plentiful mediocrity in the preceding matches. Young will never become a star at United, but still offers an attacking option from the left. 5/10

Ryan Giggs
Stirring performances during United’s Christmas fixtures against Swansea City and Newcastle United brought memories of distant past. In truth, however, this has been a campaign that has served to highlight only the Welsh great’s decline. Giggs, says his manager, can play for another two years. He shouldn’t – not on this evidence. 5/10

Paul Scholes
Still among the very finest in Europe on the ball, but suffering physically this season. It is, of course, a hard observation to make about one of the finest players ever to grace Old Trafford, but Scholes influence is waning. Worse, in a midfield two Scholes has too often become a liability, opening up United and inviting pressure on a shaky back-four. 6/10

Tom Cleverley
It should be Cleverley’s breakthrough year. After all, at 23 and a full international, the Basingstoke-born midfielder is no longer the callow youth of old. Yet, the player has rarely enjoyed a long run in the United side. Still, there have been energetic performances in a deeper role than the midfielder enjoyed for Great Britain at the London Olympics. Could still become a key part of United’s central midfield. 6/10

Michael Carrick
The Geordie’s commanding performance last year were not replicated in the early weeks of the campaign. Carrick, it seemed, had regressed into his passive shell. Yet, aligned with Sir Alex’ view of the 31-year-old, Carrick has become stronger in the winter, once again demonstrating that he is the principal deep-lying creative force in United’s midfield. Consistently out-passes all, but could benefit from a more physical midfield partner when deployed in a central two. 8/10

Darren Fletcher
There are few players for whom there is such a groundswell of goodwill. The 28-year-old Scot’s illness has again restricted Fletcher’s role in Ferguson’s team, with just a handful of appearances, predominantly in cup competitions. 5/10

Anderson
Another frustrating campaign for the Brazilian, who has started just three Premier League matches in the campaign to date. Once again there have been flashes of the brilliance that prompted Sir Alex to pay €30 million for the player more than five years ago. They are far too infrequent. And then, once again, came injury as Anderson picked up a hamstring injury against Reading in early December. A career? An absurdest performance of Waiting for Godot. 5/10

Shinji Kagawa
With Kagawa came much hope. Creativity, touch, no little panache, and goals. Lots of goals in German football with Borussia Dortmund. Early season performances solidified the impression, until form dipped and injury struck. There is much more to come. n/a

Nick Powell
There is a feeling that Ferguson has bought a gem in the former Crewe Alexandra youngster, who so easily floats in between midfield and attack. There have been few opportunities to date, but already Powell looks at ease in higher company. n/a

– – –

Robin van Persie
It comes to something when a £24 million 29-year-old injury-prone striker becomes a ‘bargain’, but can the Dutchman be described any other way? Ferguson’s comparison to Eric Cantona is fatuous – the Frenchman influenced a generation – but van Persie’s impact on the pitch is certainly no less to date. It is not only the striker’s goals – 16 – that have been so impressive, but the Dutchman’s all-round game. Class on and off the field. 9/10

Wayne Rooney
The Englishman is still United’s most important player, despite moving into a deeper role this season. Indeed, the former Evertonian has become the Reds creative hub 15 yards in van Persie’s shadow. True, there have been fewer goals, and at times flat performances – see Swansea for evidence – but fans need only witness Rooney’s star turn in the derby for evidence of his enduring class. Central to all United’s hopes and dreams in the second half of the season. 7/10

Javier Hernández
It was always going to be a frustrating season for the livewire Mexican after van Persie’s arrival. Not least because Hernández is alone among Ferguson’s strikers in being inflexible. Yet, 10 goals in all competitions have come, including and important burst during the autumn. Hernández will score important goals for the club this season – and 20 in all competitions is a reasonable ask – but will the player always be happy coming off the bench? 6/10

Danny Welbeck
Frustration abounds for Welbeck, who has become the principal victim of van Persie’s arrival at Old Trafford. The Longsight-born youngster had struck up a fine partnership with Rooney last season, only to see his importance to Ferguson’s team usurped. Welbeck will contribute this season, but it may not always be in his favoured central striking role – not while van Perise is fit. Still, time is on the player’s side and there will be a key contribution or more from the Englishman in the months ahead. 5/10

* ratings given to players who have made 10 appearances or more in all competitions

Preview: United v Newcastle United

December 25, 2012 Tags: , Matches 148 comments

One down, three to play in this year’s festive programme – and if Sir Alex Ferguson’s side is holding on to any lingering disappointment following Sunday’s draw at Swansea City then there is little time to wallow. Not with Alan Pardew’s Newcastle United at Old Trafford on Boxing Day, the Geordies in dangerously poor form, and United seeking to bounce back from a first draw in 21 Premier League matches. Not that Sir Alex Ferguson’s men will count any points secure just yet; not after last season’s 3-2 reserve to Blackburn Rovers at the same stage of the campaign.

Ferguson’s men will be smarting after dropping points in Wales despite a thoroughly dominant performance. Swansea’s equaliser came after Patrice Evra lost his man and Nemanja Vidić was slow to react, allowing Michu to score his 13th of a remarkable season – United’s 70-year-old manager will have gained little reassurance that the Reds’ defensive performances have improved.

Still, it will take a major turnaround in fortunes if Newcastle is to pull off a result at Old Trafford. After all, the Magpies have not beaten United in Manchester since February 1972. Moreover, Newcastle’s six defeats in the past 10 matches points to a team in dire form – and a manager under genuine pressure. Eight year contract or otherwise, manager Alan Pardew’s time at St James’ will surely be up should Newcastle suffer a poor festive period.

It is a shocking about-face for Pardew after Newcastle’s fifth place finish last time out – something Ferguson puts down to the Geordies’ ability to catch opponents off guard.

“The new players they brought in caught us all by surprise,” admits Ferguson.

“We didn’t really know a lot about them. I knew about Ba, of course, but I didn’t know anything about Cabaye or Cissé, to be honest with you. They had fantastic seasons. Second time round, clubs are starting to analyse them a bit different, plus, more importantly, he’s had some injuries.”

Meanwhile, title rivals Manchester City faces Sunderland on Wearside, with Roberto Mancini’s men seeking to improve on a mixed record on the road this season. The Blues clawed back two points on United in the Premier League table after beating Reading with a highly dubious goal at the weekend. But it is just that kind of fortune that swings titles either way.

Little wonder there is a tighter focus from United’s squad ahead of Newcastle’s visit. After all, further dropped points could see City close the gap to as little as a single point after Boxing Day.

“I felt that we deserved to win at Swansea and that is why I am really confident for the rest of the games we having coming up over Christmas,” defender Patrice Evra told MUTV.

“We have to move on from the draw and focus on our next game against Newcastle. It is important to win and it is important that we keep playing well. I think we need to talk about ourselves and not about another team. We face Newcastle at home, let’s make sure we get three points. After that it is West Brom and we must make sure we get three points then too. This is an important part of the season and it is an opportunity to get a lot of points.”

Manchester United v Newcastle United - Premier League, Old Trafford - 26 December 2012Ferguson is likely to rotate for the Geordies’ visit, with games against West Bromwich Albion and Wigan Athletic to come in the next week. Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernández, Darren Fletcher and Chris Smalling could all feature, with Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes also available.

Rafael da Silva must overcome a hamstring injury if he is to replace Phil Jones at right-back.Captain Nemanja Vidić may sit out the tie after completing 90 minutes against Swansea on Sunday.

The Scot must also decide whether to keep faith with Wayne Rooney and Antonio Valencia. The latter is in an extended period of poor form, while Rooney suffered his worst game of the season at Swansea. While Rooney may sit out Newcastle’s visit, there are fewer alternatives to Valencia, with Nani still injured and United short of wingers in the squad.

Meanwhile, Newcastle manager Pardew will be without a slew of key players for the trip to the north west. Chieck Tiote is suspended after picking up a fifth booking of the season at the weekend, while Steven Taylor, Hatem Ben Arfa, Yohan Cabaye and Ryan Taylor are also absent through injury.

It is just the kind of ill fortune that has struck Pardew’s men this season, with Newcastle now just five points off the relegation zone following an exciting 2011/12 campaign. The fifth place finish that took Newcastle into Europe and proffered an eight-year contract for Pardew is now a distant memory.

“They’ve found it a bit tougher this year but I know they’ve had some injuries, which have played a part,” said United striker Welbeck, who spent a season at rivals Sunderland two years ago.

“You can still see potential throughout their team. They have some real attacking threats – everyone knows about players like Demba Ba and Papiss Cissé. All I can do is watch their games, look for any weaknesses and then do some damage on the pitch if I get the chance.”

Indeed, Welbeck is likely to start, with the youngster having featured from the bench more often than not this season. Longsight-born Welbeck has become the principal victim of £24 million Robin van Persie’s outstanding start to life with United.

Could the striker could fill his boots with a weak Newcastle side in town? Certainly, many will feel that an early goal could open the proverbial floodgates at Old Trafford. Then again, supporters said the same of United’s last Boxing Day fixture – the 2-3 reverse to Blackburn Rovers in Manchester.

Still, Newcastle has emerged victorious only once in the ;last 22 matches against United in all competitions – the 3-0 Premier League home victory in January. And the north east side has not beaten the Reds in 28 visits to Old Trafford.

Indeed, no club has secured more points against Newcastle than United in the Premier League era – 75. Few will bet against that total being 78 by Wednesday evening, with Pardew seemingly a lone voice of dissent.

“I’m actually going into it probably more buoyed than any other point of the season,” claimed the 51-year-old.

“We’ve definitely picked up, we look a little bit more resiliant, we picked up a very important clean sheet on Saturday and I think we’ll be in good heart for what is one of the toughest games of the programme: Manchester United away.”

Match Details
Manchester United v Newcastle United – Premier League, Old Trafford – Wednesday 26 December 2012, 3pm

Possible teams
United (4-4-2): De Gea; Jones, Evans, Smalling, Evra; Young, Carrick, Fletcher, Welbeck; Hernandez, van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Wootton, Vidić, Ferdinand, Buttner, Scholes, Cleverley, Valencia, Powell, Giggs, Rooney

Newcastle (4-5-1): Krul; Simpson, Williamson, Coloccini, Santon; Cissé, Anita, Perch, Marveaux, Gutierrez; Ba. Subs from: Harper, Ferguson, Bigirimana, Obertan, Sh Ameobi, Sa Ameobi, Elliot

Officials
Referee: P Dowd
Assistants: G Beswick, S Ledger
Fourth Official: A Taylor

Form
United: WWLWWD
Newcastle: LWLLLW

Head to Head
Last 10: United 6, Newcastle 1, Draw 3
Overall: United 79, Newcastle 40, Draw 37

Prediction
3-0

How Fergie stole Mancini’s Christmas

December 24, 2012 Tags: , Opinion 36 comments

“Whoever controls the media, controls the mind.”
Jim Morrison

When referee Michael Oliver blew the final whistle to confirm Manchester United’s first draw of the season, it was not hard to imagine Roberto Mancini gleefully rubbing his hands. Manchester City’s last-minute winner the day previous proved to be even more valuable after United, in a forgiving Christmas spirit, failed to score a much-needed second goal in Swansea.

Despite Mancini’s rivals sitting comfortably on the top of the Premier League table as the weekend kicked off, the Italian was just one of many cheering United’s result, waiting for the pressure to increase on Sir Alex Ferguson’s team as the packed festive season began.

However, much of the post-mortem ado had little to do with game itself, or even the narrowing gap in the title race. United’s missed chances, questionable individual performances or the timing of Sir Alex’ substitutions are lost amid the ridicule and outrage caused by the United manager’s post-match interview. Even United’s dropped points have been lost amid the hysteria.

“Robin van Persie is lucky to be alive,” blasted the Glaswegian in his post-match interview. “It was a disgraceful act from their player and he should be banned by the FA. Robin could have had a broken neck.”

On the surface it looked like Ashley Williams intentionally slammed the ball into van Persie’s head from just yards away, although few people were as concerned about the Dutchman’s life as Sir Alex. Fan’s take on Ferguson’s interview differed, but whether supporters considered the manager’s words strange, funny or embarrassing, it takes a drama queen to second the manager’s fears.

Indeed, van Persie proved to be very much alive seconds after the ball struck the 29-year-old; a case could even be made that the striker is lucky a slip of the foot came between him, Williams and a certain lengthy ban. The avoidance of death seemed a very long way from the action in that moment.

While many have taken on board a glorious opportunity to ridicule Sir Alex, it is not difficult to spot the great Scot’s true intentions. It is, after all, Sir Alex all over – what he always does after a bad result. And what do you know, the great British press have gladly taken the bait.

The Daily Mail featured a match report and one, two, three articles connected with the van Persie incident and Ferguson’s reaction to it – each has attracted more than twice as many comments as the actual match review. SkySports went further, leading with four pieces on the controversy to date.

Meanwhile, many other outlets – ESPN, the Guardian, BBC included –  feature at least two articles dedicated to the affair, often simply commentary on the FA’s inaction. Cheap copy – after all, who really wants to see Williams banned? It’s what stands for a mainstream media article these days, diverting attention from far more important issues, in football and the wider world.

That is to say nothing of the legion of wannabe experts for whom Sir Alex has brought an opportunity at their fifteen minutes this Christmas – a river of anger, hate and and retweets only an army of ABUs can deliver.

Flash forward to Wednesday; another day, another game and whatever some supporters may claim, Ferguson can’t buy games. But the legendary manager is always able to buy himself time. As for the critics? Ferguson can take the slings and arrows. To keep the team out of the dramedy is result enough.

The irony is that our nation’s media, and the fans that read, revels in a swathe of “Fergie’s lost the plot!” headlines. Few can deny themselves the pleasure of composing yet another list of supposedly outrageous actions by United players, simply because the opportunity is present. “In your face, Sir!” comes the cry.

Yet, as opposition supporters indulge in a game of hate the real winner, as always, is Ferguson. Those who have cried the loudest since Saturday provide the most compelling evidence that Ferguson still owns the plot. And unlike the Scot’s method of dealing with media at his weekly press conferences, this time fans can make jokes without that feeling of embarrassment.

Ferguson’s media theatre won’t make United defend better, but it is nonetheless impressive. Press drowning self-righteousness; ABUs going wild; Piers Morgan outraged.

But of course the only plot that really matters has United four points clear on Christmas Day. Despite the hysteria, life for United’s supporters is good. Roll on Wednesday and Newcastle United at Old Trafford.

Preview: Swansea City v United

December 22, 2012 Tags: , Matches 112 comments

In the week Premier League chairman voted through proposals to curb excessive spending, there is some prescience in Manchester United’s trip to face Swansea City this week. The Welsh club is, after all, a model in sustainable and organic growth. No little surprise that Manchester City was one of only two clubs to vote against the proposals – Mohammed Al Fayed’s Fulham being the other. But also much to laud in Swansea’s model – part-owned by the fans and largely debt-free.

Yet, at the beginning of another busy Christmas programme there will be little charity from United on Sunday, with the opportunity to create a decisive advantage in the Premier League over the next four matches. United faces the Swans, followed by fixtures against Newcastle United, West Bromwich Albion and Wigan Athletic. A quartet of tough fixtures, for sure, but each that Sir Alex Ferguson believes winnable all the same.

Still, with Swansea better off in points terms than at the same stage last season, Michael Laudrup’s outfit has consolidated superbly in the top division. Indeed, while the side’s tiki-taka sensibility has become a modicum more pragmatic, Laudrup’s outfit still plays some of the best football in England’s top division.

Little wonder Sir Alex Ferguson holds much admiration for the 100-year-old club, although the septuagenarian may bristle at talk of fan ownership and financial stability.

“You’ve seen the results they have had and the progress they have made as a football club over the last years,” said the United manager, who turns 71 on New Year’s Eve. “The important thing for me is they try to play and have the courage to play their football, which is good.”

United begin the Christmas period in fine health, with only Brazilian Rafael da Silva, Nani and Shinji Kagawa likely to miss Sunday’s fixture. However, captain Nemanja Vidić is fit enough to make the bench after suffering no adverse reaction to a substitute appearance last weekend. Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand will again pair up in central defence, and Phil Jones will continue at right-back.

Swansea City v Manchester United - Premier League, Liberty Stadium - Sunday 23 December 1.30pmElsewhere, Ferguson is likely to rotate his squad through four fixtures in nine days. Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley will all feature in midfield over the next week, with similar rotation likely in forward positions too.

“At this time of year, all the games are challenges and they come thick and fast now,” adds Ferguson.

“Utilising the squad is important, as is picking the right team, but hopefully we can get through it and be in the same position as we are now.”

“Jonny has had one or two injuries but hopefully they’re behind him now. He’s fit for Sunday. Vida is doing great in training, it’s just a matter of picking the time to bring him back. It gives me options with Smalling, Jones, Ferdinand, Evans. Rafa won’t make Sunday’s game as he’s still out with a hamstring. Nani is still injured. Apart from those players, we’re all right.”

Meanwhile, the hosts welcome back goalkeeper Michel Vorm, who returns after a two-month layoff with a groin injury. Pablo Hernandez is available, but right-back Angel Rangel is again missing.

Whatever the result on Sunday, Swansea’s campaign has suffered nothing for a change of manager last summer. After all, Laudrup is now an experienced campaigner across three countries, although one that rarely seems to stay at an employer for any length of time.

Still, Laudrup can be proud both of the campaign and Swansea’s ability to buck any potential ‘second season syndrome’.

“We are coming up to the halfway point of the season and whatever happens between now and then, we will have 23 points on the board,” said the former Denmark international.

“That is three more than at the same stage last season, and we can then look back at what we have achieved and see what targets we can set for the remainder of the season. But the next six or seven weeks are crucial for us.“Of course we would like to win on Sunday, but if we do then there will be a lot of focus on the club again.

Meanwhile, title rivals City play matches against Sunderland, Norwich City and Stoke City in the same period, after fortunately beating Reading 1-0 on Saturday. In common with Ferguson’s outfit, City will be seeking maximum points from middle-ranked opposition, although games on the road in Norfolk and the north east will test Roberto Mancini’s men.

No team has managed to win all it’s matches in December since Chelsea in 2004/5. Should Ferguson’s team achieve it the Premier League title will be one step closer. Yet, few in the Scot’s camp will doubt that United faces the sternest of tests away at Swansea on Sunday.

Match Details
Swansea City v Manchester United – Premier League, Liberty Stadium – Sunday 23 December 2012, 1.30pm

Possible teams
Swansea (4-3-3): Vorm; Chico, Williams, Tiendalli, Davies; Dyer, Britton, Ki Sung-Yeung; Routledge, Michu, De Guzman; Subs from: Tremmel, Cornell, Monk, Agustien, Richards, Graham, Shechter, Moore

United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Evans, Ferdinand, Evra; Carrick, Scholes; Valencia, Rooney, Young; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Wootton, Vidić, Smalling, Buttner, Fletcher, Cleverley, Powell, Giggs, Hernandez, Welbeck

Officials
Referee: M Oliver
Assistants: S Ledger; S Bennett
Fourth official: L Probert

Form
Swansea: DWWLWL
United: WWWLWW

Head to Head
Last 10: Swansea 2, United 6, Draw 2
Overall: Swansea 6, United 8, Draw 4

Stats

  • Michu remains joint top scorer in the league this season despite not finding the net against Tottenham last weekend – the Spaniard has garnered a goal once every 129 minutes or once every 4 shots;
  • Teenager defender Ben Davies has quietly emerged as a dominant force in the Swansea defence this season, achieving an 80 per cent tackle success rate from 35 challenges, conceding only 7 fouls;
  • Wayne Routledge is the second highest ranked English midfielder in the league for combined goals and assists with eight according to the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index;
  • Jonathan de Guzman has contributed the highest total completed passes in the Swansea squad with 366, also providing 24 crosses and four assists;
  • Ashley Williams has intercepted the ball 102 times this season, as well as providing 22 blocks;
  • Meanwhile for United Robin van Persie continues to settle into the side, registering six assists this season and a goal every 123 minutes this season;
  • No striker in the Premier League has completed more passes in the opponent’s half than Wayne Rooney this season, who has recorded 371;
  • Tom Cleverley has emerged as a midfielder of real quality this season, with the youngster succeeding in 68 per cent of his 22 challenges, as well as completing 240 passes in the opponent’s half;
  • Javier Hernández boasts an excellent shots to goal ratio of three to one despite few chances in the first team this season;
  • Few wingers deliver as consistently as Antonio Valencia, despite some shaky performances recently – the Ecuadorian has made more crosses, with 37, than anybody else in the United side.

Prediction
1-2

Rant Cast 135 – Ronnie’s return

December 21, 2012 Tags: Rant Cast 4 comments

In the last Rant Cast before Christmas Ed and Paul look ahead to Manchester United’s upcoming Champions League fixture with Real Madrid. In an emotional encounter Cristiano Ronaldo will return ‘home’ and Sir Alex Ferguson will once again cross swords with friend and sometimes nemesis, Jose Mourinho.

Also in the show this week: we look ahead to fixtures against Swansea City in Wales, and a Boxing Day match against Newcastle United at Old Trafford. Can United start the packed festive programme with six points this week?

Finally, we take your many questions on Twitter and Rant Back!

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 podcast RSS feed is available here.

Rant Back
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Kagawa returns – the question is where

December 20, 2012 Tags: Opinion 36 comments

The highlight of Shinji Kagawa’s disrupted season isn’t quite a star turn at the Manchester United Christmas party, although those of a more cynical persuasion may be forgiven for making the observation. Certainly the Japanese playmaker has contributed little in recent weeks after suffering a knee injury that has sidelined the former Borussia Dortmund star since United’s 3-2 Champions League home win against SC Braga on 23 October. Yet, 23-year-old Kagawa is set to return before the New Year, increasing Sir Alex Ferguson’s options, and in turn creating a selection predicament.

After three lengthy injuries in as many seasons many wish Kagawa better luck for the season’s remainder. After all, the Japanese has demonstrated glimpses of the form that brought 29 goals in 71 games for Dortmund over the past two seasons. Kagawa’s pace, creativity and ability to play between the lines of midfield and attack mark the Kobe-born player out as a potential Old Trafford star.

Indeed, a fine first month of the campaign offered plenty of hope that Kagawa would add much to United’s attack this season – the missing link between Ferguson’s plentiful striking resources and an Old Trafford tradition of deploying wingers.

This hasn’t quite proven to be the case, with Kagawa scoring two goals in just eight appearances before injury struck. In truth the player’s performances tailed off after a fine first month amid changing tactics and Wayne Rooney’s return to the side, although there is little doubt of the 37-cap international’s genuine quality.

Still, Sir Alex will be delighted with the midfielder’s return and the additional attacking option Kagawa brings to a side that has already found the net 43 times in the Premier League alone.  Few managers can boast such plentiful resources in forward areas without the Japanese’s addition.

The question, of course, is quite where the player now fits into a United side that is scoring so freely. After all, Rooney has now formed a fine partnership with Robin van Persie, with the Scouser occupying Kagawa’s former deep-lying attacking role.

In this there are significant consequences in Kagawa’s reintegration into the side, which may prompt Sir Alex to move Rooney wide, deploy the Japanese international out of position, or change a system that is bringing goals, if not defensive stability.

It may be Kagawa that is the sacrifice. Kagawa can play wide, although most observers conclude that the playmaker’s creative impact is significantly impinged from the touchline, while he offers little genuine width.

Certainly, few supporters will countenance another stint for Rooney on the left wing, and there is little benefit to player or club should an expensive new acquisition be consigned to Ferguson’s bench.

Which leaves a potential change in formation, with Kagawa deployed ‘in the hole’ behind a front two of van Persie and Rooney in a narrow diamond formation. The system has been tried before this season, with mixed success.

There is a temptation for change though. After all, Ferguson has not built a reputation as a tinkerer without foundation. Still, with Antonio Valenicia out-of-form, Nani on the sidelines with injury and Ashley Young inconsistent this season, Ferguson has few reasons to resist his greatest seduction.

Yet, it is a decision Ferguson is set to make soon, with Kagawa beginning full training this week at Carrington. Although unlikely to make United’s squad for the upcoming trip to face Swansea City in Wales, the player could well make United’s bench before the year is out.

Still, there are plenty of fixtures ahead. United plays four times in nine days in what could be an influential period domestically –  Ferguson’s side plays Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion at home, before travelling to Wigan Athletic on new year’s day.  Then there is the FA Cup fixture with West Ham United on 5 January and the Champions League knock-out stages, beginning in February.

Ferguson’s potential selection dilemma underscores that the Scot is yet discover his side’s best formation or personnel this season. The 70-year-old manager has evolved between systems, deploying too many square pegs for comfort at times, while failing to strike a balance between attacking verve and defensive solidity. The former and not the latter has won out to date, with the Reds’ unchecked scoring coming at the price of defensive openness.

Kagawa will offer little change there – the former Cerezo Osaka rarely having been deployed in a more orthodox central midfield role at any of his former clubs.

However, as the season shakes out, United supporters may yet see the best Kagawa has to offer. At Dortmund, as the pivotal link between a trio of attackers, Kagawa developed into a player of real talent – helping guide DVB to successive Bundesliga titles.

United offers an international stage and profile unsurpassed, but only if the 23-year-old can force his way back into Ferguson’s side during the second half of the season. Kagawa has rarely failed in the past; few would will bet against him now, although Ferguson’s ability to reintegrate the playmaker into a winning side is key.