Month May 2013

Month May 2013

Poll: Is Moyes right to disrupt United’s coaching set-up?

May 30, 2013 Tags: Polls 49 comments
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“Ferguson and United’s hierarchy had anticipated a smooth transition behind the scenes following the 71-year-old’s retirement,” said Mark Ogden the Telegraph’s Manchester correspondent  on Thursday. Yet, David Moyes introduction to the Manchester United hot-seat has been anything but smooth, with Ferguson, his brother Martin, the chief  scout, and three senior coaches leaving the club this summer.

In addition to Moyes, the Scot’s Everton assistant Steve Round is set to join United, while Toffees veteran Jimmy Lumsden, goalkeeping coach Chris Woods and scout Robbie Cooke could yet join the Reds before the new season starts in August. Meanwhile, former United defender Phil Neville may also be seen at Carrington next season.

The rapid-fire changes impose Moyes’ will on the United coaching set-up, potentially reducing the risk of Ferguson’s long-shadow inhibiting the new man’s work. But does the significant disruption also carry a risk? After all, in losing Ferguson United is now devoid of 26 years of experience. His key lieutenants Mike Phelan, Rene Meulenstein and Eric Steele have been part of 28 United campaigns in aggregate.

Is David Moyes right to disrupt United's coaching set-up?

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Season review and ratings 2012/13

May 29, 2013 Tags: , Opinion 47 comments
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What to make of a season that ended with the Premier League trophy being returned to its frequent resting place at Old Trafford? Certainly, regaining English pre-eminence is success by any measure. Yet, while the drama of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement masks everything in the narrative of the campaign, premature defeat in three cup competitions, especially the Champions League, leaves a just modicum of anti-climax come the season’s the close.

Indeed, the Premier League was captured with such ease that it is tempting to wonder what might have been in Europe, or perhaps the FA Cup, which Manchester United hasn’t captured in almost a decade. Regrets can wait for now  – certainly over trophies lost – with Ferguson having captured more than 30 during his time at the club. It is, after all, a campaign that will be remembered primarily as Ferguson’s glorious last.

But amid the tears over the Scot’s departure – and celebrations over title number 20 – it is easy to forget quite how shambolic was  United’s start to the campaign. Defeat on the opening day at Everton was followed in rapid succession by chaotic defensive performances in victories over Fulham and Southampton. The latter brought a comically missed penalty and then a hat-trick from expensive new acquisition Robin van Persie.

But it wasn’t so much United’s early season results that drew concern than the propensity to ship goals in such quantity. Three goals conceded in home defeat to Tottenham Hotspur as September drew to a close proved to be a pattern too often repeated, rather than a defensive watershed.

True, injuries to Jonny Evans, Nemanja Vidić, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling left Ferguson’s back-four in constant flux during the autumn. But there was a larger, structural, problem too, with Michael Carrick often exposed by a lightweight midfield, and an almost suicidal attacking ethos from wide positions. It was a philosophy much changed after the Christmas break; Ferguson had little other choice.

Yet, the European campaign started in positive fashion, with the Reds claiming victory over CFR Cluj and Braga twice to seal early qualification for the knockout stage that had eluded Ferguson’s team a year before. Defeat to Galatasary and then Cluj in dead rubbers mattered little, although served as a pointer to the fragile complacency that crept into the Reds’ play towards the season’s end.

Whatever United’s defensive weaknesses the side’s ability to rack up points through the winter proved decisive. Defeat to Cluj in early December, with a much-changed side, was not repeated in any competition until Real Madrid won at Old Trafford in controversial circumstances in February.

Meanwhile, rivals Manchester City lost to United, Sunderland, and Southampton during the same period as Ferguson’s side created a healthy league lead. It proved to be an advantage too great for City to claw back this time.

However, the domestic cups proved far more disappointing than the league campaign. United’s youngsters lost to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the Capital One Cup, although Ferguson’s bravery in using his substitutions to blood ever more inexperienced players should have brought greater rewards. That the west Londoners also removed United from the FA Cup in one of the Reds’ most insipid displays of the campaign proved a season low-light.

And whatever United’s frustration on the road to Wembley it paled into comparison with Ferguson’s much-publicised anguish over Madrid’s victory at Old Trafford. Nani’s controversial red card, followed by two rapid-fire Madrid goals, dumped Ferguson’s side out of the competition and ended the Scot’s hopes of a final European fling. Ferguson’s pain in defeat was surely only amplified by the Reds’ positive performances home and away against Los Merengues.

The consolation was substantial at least with the Premier League secured by mid-April; a full four games from the finishing line. In that the campaign will be remembered fondly – for the decisive victory over City.

Yet, Ferguson’s side has rarely reached the heights of performance to go alongside those excellent results. In the great Scot’s last season the abiding memory is of a team that captured glory through substance rather than style. Much like Ferguson’s team of the early 2000s this side is perhaps just two high-quality acquisitions away from greatness. It is quite possibly an Eric Djemba-Djemba away from mediocrity as well.

Premier League victory should lead to another crack at Europe next season, although Ferguson’s retirement and significant back-room changes may undermine that lofty ambition.

 

Sir Alex Ferguson – Fergie’s final season brought victory at least for the 71-year-old. The Scot was determine to retire “a winner” and that ambition came in emphatic style. Yet, this final team is one of function above all else; a side not good enough to play with freedom lest a brittle defensive unit cracks under the pressure. It is a side that scored less, conceded more and gained no more points than the previous year when City captured the title at the death. This despite van Persie’s expensive capture. In misty-eyed reminiscence this season will be remembered fondly. Just not for the quality of football. 7/10

– – –

David de Gea – 41 appearances, 0 goals – a tremendous season of growth for the Spanish youngster who by the campaign’s close was voted the PFA’s goalkeeper of the season. That assessment, in truth, is based on growth from the autumn onwards, but the 22-year-old is certainly now one of the best in the Premier League. Now far more confident under physical pressure and less prone to error, de Gea can thank outgoing goalkeeping coach Eric Steele for the strong improvement in performances. 8/10

Anders Lindegaard – 13 appearances, 0 goals – the Dane began the campaign challenging de Gea for Ferguson’s attention. He ended it having been offered the sympathy vote by the retiring Scot. In truth Lindegaard has only himself to blame; a calamitous performance against Reading in December consigning the Dane to the beach for all but two games between Christmas and April. The former Ålesund player returned for the final the matches of the campaign, but only due to Ferguson’s mistaken belief that the player required 10 Premier League appearances to earn a medal. 5/10

– – –

Rafael da Silva – 40 appearances, 3 goals – the Brazilian’s finest campaign yet in four years at Old Trafford. Rafael’s natural attacking instincts are now allied to a greater sense of positional awareness and superior discipline. Where the youngster was once guilty of letting his impetuousness dominate, a sense of maturity is slowly growing. The red card received against Chelsea is ammunition for the few critics remaining, but where Ferguson was once loathe to trust the former Fluminense player, Rafael is now solidly United’s first choice right back. 8/10

Patrice Evra – 43 appearances, 4 goals – much criticised following a dip in form during the 2010-12 campaigns, the French left-back was near his best in the campaign just concluded. Foraging runs, encouraged by Ferguson’s decision to afford his full-backs plenty of freedom during the first half of the campaign, enabled Evra to contribute four goals and five assists in the Premier League. It was by far Evra’s best haul for the club. Add just three defensive errors all season and the Frenchman is perhaps the ‘best of the rest’ in Ferguson’s squad. 7/10

Alexander Büttner – 12 appearances,  2 goals – it took, perhaps, two appearances to work out Büttner’s essential problem – he’s not a full-back, and certainly not one able to perform at the very highest level. After all, defenders are normally required to defend – a requirement far outside Büttner’s skillset. But there’s plenty of willing and an attacking mindset that could yet prove useful against lesser opponents. It’s hard to foresee a long-term future for the Dutchman at Old Trafford. 4/10

Rio Ferdinand – 34 appearances, 1 goal – logic dictates that injury and age should have ended Ferdinand’s time at Old Trafford before now. Yet, the 34-year-old will stay into his 12th campaign as a United player – surely one of the very best central defenders to have graced the club. Indeed, Ferdinand’s form in 2012/13 was central to United’s cause – an outstanding, largely injury-free contribution, especially in the second half of the season. Ferdinand has his critics, but his performances have been without peer for more than a decade. 7/10

Nemanja Vidić – 23 appearances, 1 goal – the Serbian is not yet back to his very best and it is tempting to speculate that the 31-year-old may never regain the powers of old. Two serious knee injuries have taken half-a-yard from the player’s pace, although all the old defensive instinct remain. The summer’s rest may yet invigorate Vidić, but it remains an open question whether he can still play with Ferdinand, especially when each needs to drop a little deeper than in the past. Needs to stay fit after two injury disrupted campaigns. 6/10

Jonny Evans – 30 appearances, 4 goals – injury disrupted the defender’s season at a time when the Irishman is coming into his playing peak. Yet, mature performances and a new sense of confidence mark a very solid campaign. Evans is now firmly established in the defensive triumvirate including Ferdinand and Vidić. Fitness permitting, Evans should take over as United’s first choice central defender during the coming season. For now, the 25-year-old will be happy with a solid campaign. 7/10

Chris Smalling – 22 appearances, 0 goals – there is so much potential that will remain unfulfilled if the former Fulham defender cannot complete a season without time in the physio room. Injury affected his campaign once again, although Smalling can at least look back on some creditable performances. Yet, with Ferdinand and Vidić ageing there is a significant opportunity for Smalling to claim a regular starting place in new manager Moyes’ team next season. Can the 23-year-old remain fit enough to realise his considerable talent? 6/10

Phil Jones – 24 appearances, 0 goals – the bombastic defender ended the campaign with Ferguson lauding his potential to become ‘the best player in United’s history’ – a claim that can be put down the post-match giddiness, or an over-eager sampling of the Brunello di Montalcino Riserva ’64. After all, Jones spent much of the season on the treatment table, in common with many of his defensive colleagues. But a very strong finish to the campaign augurs well for the new season, where the the former Blackburn Rovers man will want to nail down his favoured role in central defence. 6/10

– – –

Antonio Valencia – 40 appearances, 1 goal – it is hard to reconcile the player of 2012/13 with that of a year ago. After all, Valencia’s truly outstanding displays during United’s unsuccessful run-in last season saw the Ecuadorian attack with pace, confidence and genuine menace. On current form Valencia offers none of that and it is hard to foresee how or when the player of old will return. Yet, there is some hope, with the 27-year-old offering some improved performances late in the campaign, although there was little left to play for. 5/10

Ashley Young – 23 appearances, 0 goals – mediocrity thy name is Young. Ferguson’s temptation in signing Young surely owes it place to price, with the winger’s contact running down at Aston Villa, enabling the Londoner to arrive without the usual ‘English premium’. But Young has offered little in two seasons to suggest anything more than a squad place is merited. Add injury and poor form to the limited game and Young made very little impact in the campaign just concluded. 5/10

Nani – 21 appearances, 3 goals – a hugely disappointing campaign from United’s most naturally talented wide player. During the Reds’ unsuccessful run at the title in 2012/13 Nani contributed 10 goals and 13 assists. The numbers this season, impacted by injury and a dispute with Sir Alex, is three and five. Nani had always been inconsistent, but his numbers told a story; the Portuguese wins United games. Without the goals and assists Nani becomes a liability – just one reason is why Ferguson kept him on the bench this season. 4/10

Ryan Giggs – 32 appearances, 5 goals – the irrepressible Welshman just doesn’t know when to quit. But that’s enough about Giggs’ love life. On the pitch Giggs continues to contribute, especially through a patch of outstanding form in midwinter. True, he gives the ball away cheaply in central midfield and no longer has the legs to play wide, but in his 40th year it is remarkable that the player is still performing at all. Giggs is likely to play a peripheral role in Moyes’ high-energy direct brand of football, but he has earned the rest. 6/10

Michael Carrick – 46 appearances, 2 goals – another outstanding campaign from United’s only reliable midfielder. Carrick allies sound defensive instincts with a world-class possession game – recycling possession rapidly to convert defence into attack. United simply could not have won the Premier League without him – a fact finally recognised in song from the terraces. Carrick should benefit from Moyes’ apparent desire to strengthen United’s central midfield. 9/10

Anderson – 25 appearances, 2 goals – “Andersron” said the shirt in one of Albert the kitman’s more infamous moments. Back in August, with Anderson recovering from yet another injury, hope remained high that the Brazilian could get fulfil the potential that his talent suggests is possible. Yet, the campaign again proved to be a false dawn. In truth Anderson’s best performances for United are now five years thence. The club should cut and run, but does the new manager believe he can finally unlock the secret to the midfielder’s under-performance? 5/10

Paul Scholes – 22 appearances, 1 goal – one last hurrah too many, perhaps, with Scholes playing only a peripheral role in his final season as a professional. Injury disrupted the campaign of course, but by the New Year the 38-year-old maestro was firmly on the fringes of Sir Alex’ team in any case. Still, few United fans will think any less of the Ginger Prince for playing one season too many. After all, it has been a real pleasure watching him these past 20 years. 5/10

Tom Cleverley – 32 appearances, 4 goals – is it ok to use the bastardised cliché – ‘a season of two halves’ – about Cleverley’s performance this season? For much of the campaign the Basingstoke-born player seemed to be fulfilling supporters’ lofty expectations. Deployed in a deeper role, Cleverley’s ability to retain possession and then speed up the pattern of United’s play offered much to the midfield dynamic, even if the defensive side of his game needs some work. But then the wheels fell off amid unconfirmed reports of an unprofessional attitude towards his profession. There is much in the locker, but can Cleverley seize his chance under new management? 6/10

Shinji Kagawa – 26 appearances, 6 goals – there is magic in those dancing feet, although injury and Ferguson’s propensity to deploy the playmaker out of position severely impacted on Kagawa’s contribution this season. It is a scenario that prompted Borussia Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp to claim that his “heart cries” for his former charge. Does Moyes have the courage to deploy Kagawa at ‘number 10’ next season? The answer may determine whether United ever realise the Japanese player’s true value. 6/10

– – –

Wayne Rooney – 37 appearances, 16 goals – has the former Evertonian suffered a more traumatic campaign in United’s colours? True, the numbers stack up, with 16 goals and 13 assists claimed from a deeper role than in the past. But the sparkling performances of old have largely deserted the 26-year-old. In truth Rooney is at a watershed moment. He should have grown into one of the world’s finest players. He didn’t. But is there still time, and can it happen at United? Many, including Sir Alex, now harbour doubts on both fronts. 5/10

Javier Hernández – 36 appearances, 18 goals – remarkably the Mexican ends the season as United’s second top goalscorer, behind van Persie. The return is phenomenal given the low number of starts afforded the 24-year-old this season. Will that accolade satisfy a player who surely desires a more regular starting role? An answer in the negative leaves the new manager with just one season to use or lose the prolific striker – an outcome that would represent a terrible waste of talent. 6/10

Danny Welbeck – 40 appearances, 2 goals – the Longsight-born player has become an enigma; a striker that doesn’t score, a winger that can’t play wide, a squad player who is invariably picked for the biggest games. Welbeck has excelled at times this season, most notably in United’s draw with Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. The youngster possess a rare, multi-faceted talent and a physical presence that is a real asset in the modern game. Yet, with just two goals Welbeck’s output is shockingly poor. True, the United trainee is typically deployed out of position, but the quality of his finishing is also just short of the mark. Room for improvement on an excellent natural base of talent. 6/10

Robin van Persie – 48 appearances, 30 goals – an outstanding campaign from the Dutchman who joined United for £24 million last summer. Yes, expectations of the former Arsenal striker were high – as they should be for the lofty price. But van Persie’s experience, gravitas and goals has squarely contributed to United’s success this season. In fact United couldn’t have secured the Premier League without the 29-year-old’s considerable talents. More, the Dutchman has won over the fans off the pitch. van Persie does, says and seemingly thinks all the right things. Rant’s player of the Season. 9/10. 

Summer of upheaval

May 26, 2013 Tags: , , Opinion 91 comments
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There is peace even in the storm ― Vincent van Gogh, 3 November 1876

There are times, when chaos abounds, mused Rudyard Kipling in sport’s most over-quoted poem; that those with clarity of thought will come to the forefront at times of crisis. And while Manchester United is in no crisis, it is not yet clear whether the club will emerge from a significant period of change damaged, or otherwise.

Let there be no doubt: United faces the most challenging summer in more than 20 years, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure just one of several major changes at the club as the season ends. While Ferguson’s retirement brings to an end more than 26 years of the Scot’s management at Old Trafford, he is also followed out of the door by long-time chief executive and leading ally David Gill, 16 years a United employee. In their wake the pair leaves a raft of changes in both coaching and executive management that will test the club’s contingency planning to the fullest.

Indeed, by the time Ferguson officially departs his job on 1 July four executive positions and a handful of coaching roles will have changed hands at Old Trafford, threatening short-term disruption that could undermine United’s planning for the 2012/13 campaign.

The question, of course: through the whirlwind of change, who will emerge with clear-sight to minimise the impact of transformation?

In Ferguson’s stead comes Everton manager David Moyes, to mixed reception, while youthful Ed Woodward is promoted to executive vice-chairman as Gill’s effective replacement. But the cascade of change runs deep, with Richard Arnold and Michael Bolingbroke also changing roles in the executive team.

Moyes has wasted little time instigating widely rumoured plans to shake up United’s senior coaching staff, leading to the departures of Ferguson’s assistant Mike Phelan, and respected goalkeeping coach Eric Steele.

There may be more bloodletting too. Reserve team manager Warren Joyce’s quip at the club annual awards ceremony last week that he is as yet unaware of his employment position tells a key story. Nervousness abounds ahead of Moyes official start on 1 July; six weeks shy of the new campaign.

After all, a new man at the top certainly spells change. Moyes may now seek to bring in his number two at Everton, Steve Round, while rumours abound that Phil Neville will join Old Trafford’s coaching team. Paul Scholes has not formally been offered a position in the backroom, although Sir Alex is a leading proponent of the 38-year-old’s coaching ability.

Round is widely respected in the football community, although the same is not quite true of Chris Woods, Everton’s goalkeeping coach, who may also join United. The outstanding job Steele has performed working with David de Gea over the past two years has seemingly been forgotten before the ink has dried on Moyes’ new contract.

Nor is it yet clear whether Ferguson’s departure will prompt a rethink from Rene Meulenstein; the Scot’s principle lieutenant alongside Phelan. Meulenstein’s short managerial spell in charge of Brondby six years ago may represent unfinished business to the Dutchman, especially if Moyes reduces the coach’s scope.

Meanwhile, Phelan may finally take a crack at management – previous assistants including Brian Kidd, Steve McClaren and Carlos Quieroz have found the yearning to lead too great a draw.

It is at least now clear that Moyes is not prepared to work within a system already created, principally of Ferguson’s design. The younger Scot is a man with his own ideas.  The former Everton manager is known to be a proponent of meticulously detailed planning, sports-science and boot-camp style fitness. There will certainly be a change of emphasis at Carrington next season.

Similarly, Moyes’ thinking on the style and substance of his team may prompt change in the playing staff. Top of the list is Wayne Rooney’s future, with the 27-year-old having asked Ferguson for a transfer earlier this spring. While the noise coming out of Old Trafford is that the new man will work with his former protégé, behind the scenes the club has sought an exit for the £27 million striker. A bid for long-standing target Robert Lewandowski hinges on Rooney’s departure, or otherwise.

Meanwhile, there have already been inevitable press reports linking United to an imminent bid for Everton’s combative forward Marouane Fellaini. The gossip may hold some substance, although it is surely unthinkable that Moyes will deploy the Belgian in the forward role he occupied at Goodison Park for most of last season.

Over in the boardroom executive changes are only likely to accelerate United’s hugely aggressive global search for cash. Gill’s departure, which is certainly linked to Ferguson’s – an announcement coming just days after the Scot told his ally last February of firm plans to retire  – means significant promotion for three of the Glazer family’s key commercial team.

Woodward, as the Glazer family’s premier executor of United’s perpetual remit to create new revenue sources, will offer continuity of a sort. Although any temperance to rampant commercialism that Gill brought to the party over the past seven years – an argument often put forward in the 57-year-old’s defence – will now surely evaporate.

The club will still benefit from Gill and Ferguson’s part-time loyalty though. Debt, it seems, wasn’t Gill’s road to ruin – just a ticket into UEFA’s inner circle and a lucrative non-executive position. Meanwhile, Ferguson will reportedly be paid £100,000 a day to for up to 20 commercial appearances a season with United’s principle sponsors.

Yet, amid all the change on and off the pitch weight of responsibility for any post-Ferguson failure will fall squarely on Moyes’ broad shoulders, whether that judgement is fair or otherwise.  Which is why there was some surprise at the sharp decision to sack two of Ferguson’s senior coaches, with perhaps more to come.

Amid a summer storm continuity may be Moyes’ best ally.  The question now is whether Moyes’ head is clear enough to steer the club to the peace of safer ground.

Cleverley’s challenge

May 25, 2013 Tags: , Opinion 27 comments
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Cristiano Ronaldo arguably scored his greatest goal for Manchester United  against Porto in 2009. It was a fantastic strike from forty yards out, but Ronaldo’s movement must not be overlooked; the forward had made the ‘false nine’ role his own during that season, dropping off the front to find the space and time needed to line up that shot.

Anderson, however, was credited with an assist for making a five-yard lateral pass to the Portuguese. There really is no way of differentiating a ‘good’ assist from a ‘bad’ assist from a statistical point of view. Beauty in this case is very much in the eye of the beholder.

Spurred on by Michael Lewis’ excellent Moneyball, just about every club of note, in all sports, now boasts a data analysis department, and analysts differ wildly on how they evaluate players and tactics.

Statistics can be beguiling. Wayne Rooney, for example, has enjoyed two exemplary seasons in terms of goals and assists, but his performances have been subpar at best. Take Paul Scholes in recent seasons – he epitomises imagination and creativity in his passing, but his assist statistic is dwarfed by Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard.

So in judging Tom Cleverley, should one look beyond the meager five assists and two goals he has managed since his introduction to the Manchester United first team in 2011? After all, he has mainly been deployed deep in central midfield where opportunities for killer balls and shots are limited. Although Michael Carrick, who plays deeper still, has racked up five assists and two goals in each of past two seasons.

In the 23-year-old’s Cleverley’s defense Carrick played a lot more often. Still, it is hard to picture Cleverley in the first team. While his stamina and work-rate are commendable, the Basingstoke-born player’s injury proneness is notorious. His height and muscularity offer little in the way of physical strength and he is not particularly quick.

In fact, Cleverley’s lack of speed greatly limits his potential on the wings. He simply doesn’t have the pace to succeed as a traditional winger in the mold of Antonio Valencia. Yet, he has been used on the left by Sir Alex Ferguson and at Wigan and Watford as an inverted winger.

During the two seasons in which Cleverley was deployed in wide roles he managed a goal per roughly ten shots – in line with Ashley Young or Antonio Valencia’s record. It begs a question, with stamina, a great tactical mind and willingness to work hard, could Cleverley can become another Ji-sung Park?

Given Cleverley’s ability on the ball, he also remains a decent option on the wings as an inverted winger directly attacking the defenders or, like Ryan Giggs, used to retain possession.Yet, with reinforcements likely this summer it is hard to see Cleverley breaking into the first team on the flanks.

Indeed, Cleverley’s ability on the ball is excellent. Schooled by Rene Meulensteen, he controls the ball well in tight quarters and engages in high tempo short passing game. This has placed him at the tip of the England national team midfield. The Englishman perhaps lacks incision in the traditional number 10, vis-à-vis penetrative through balls, but makes up for it by setting up one-twos. Crucially, he quickens the pace of the game.

David Moyes had emphasised quick transition during his time at Everton. Quick transition, as practiced by Real Madrid and Dortmund, is essentially long-ball football played on the ground. The Scot, who set up his Everton teams to concentrate playing in the opposition half, might greatly appreciate Tom Cleverley if it wasn’t for Shinji Kagawa’s presence in the United squad.

At Dortmund, Kagawa was often excused from all defensive duties and allowed to concentrate on sniffing out spaces to launch counterattacks. Jurgen Klopp, unlike Ferguson, had the Japanese run onto the ball – at United, the players pass the ball into Kagawa’s feet. With the ball in front of him, Kagawa just needs to apply the final touch. When the ball is coming to his feet, Kagawa has to twist and turn before making his move.

Kagawa epitomises quick transition football as practiced by Dortmund and there is every chance that Moyes will see the Japanese as key should the incoming United manager decide to continue with his football philosophy. This means that Cleverley will not be claiming the central attacking midfield spot as his own.

Moyes is also fanatical about width. Rafael da Silva and Patrice Evra are excellent attacking full-backs and there is every chance that the former Everton manager will allow them to push forward and overload the flanks.

But with two attacking full-backs, United’s central midfield will be set up more defensively. Rafael Benitez, who probably knows more about 4-2-3-1 than any other manager on the planet, argues that with “offensive full-backs, you have to find that right balance. [You need two holding midfielders].”

There is very little point in deploying Cleverley as a defensive midfielder for the Englishman is all about movement and tempo. With Carrick there to provide quick, incisive balls to the wingers and full-backs, Cleverley will be redundant.

In the past season Rooney has shouldered a lot of ball winning responsibilities and allowed Ferguson to field two passers in the middle. Should Rooney leave the club, and Kagawa offered an important role, United will need a genuine defensive player in midfield to partner Carrick.

With the squad set up more or less for 4-2-3-1, Moyes will probably ‘go with the flow’ and make just minor changes to the football philosophy. After all, it’s foolhardy to impose something totally different on a successful squad used to doing things a certain way.

This is bad news for Cleverley. His versatility is admirable, but ultimately he is a jack of all trades rather than a bona fide master of any. Barring drastic changes on Moyes’ part, Cleverley will not cement a first team place next season.

Rant Cast 156 – end of season party

May 24, 2013 Tags: Rant Cast 1 comment
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On the final, bumper-length, podcast of the season presenters Ed & Paul look back on the highs and lows of the season just gone. We review Sir Alex Ferguson’s final game as manager – the 5-5 draw with West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthornes – hand out our end-of-season awards, and look ahead to a summer of transfer speculation!

Thank you for listening this season – we’re grateful your support, questions and comments. Rant Cast returns in time for the new season in August.

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 rising bandwidth 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’s Premier Predictions 2012/13 revisited

May 23, 2013 Tags: Opinion 9 comments
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Each year Rant predicts the outcome of the season to come – winners, losers – Manchester United and others. There have been mixed results in over the years – 2009/10, 2010/11 and 2011/12. And 2012/13 proved to be particularly challenging, with Rant’s worst prediction performance yet – just four correct answers, with the Champions League final yet to come. How did you do?

United’s Season

  • Premier League: second  – FIRST
  • Champions League: quarter-final  – SECOND ROUND
  • Carling Cup: quarter-final  – QUARTER FINAL
  • FA Cup: winners  – QUARTER FINAL
  • Player of the Year: Wayne Rooney  – ROBIN VAN PERSIE/MICHAEL CARRICK
  • Reserve Player of the Year: Jack Barmby  – ADNAN JANUZAJ
  • Academy Player of the Year: Mats Moller Daehli  – BEN PEARSON

Premier League Top Ten

  1. Manchester City  – MANCHESTER UNITED
  2. Manchester United  – MANCHESTER CITY
  3. Chelsea  – CHELSEA
  4. Arsenal  – ARSENAL 
  5. Liverpool  – TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR
  6. Newcastle United  – EVERTON
  7. Tottenham Hotspur  – LIVERPOOL
  8. Everton  – WEST BROMWICH ALBION
  9. Sunderland  – SWANSEA CITY
  10. Fulham  – WEST HAM UNITED

Relegated

  • Southampton  – WIGAN ATHLETIC
  • Norwich  – READING
  • Reading  – QUEENS PARK RANGERS

Champions League

  • Winners: Real Madrid  – TO BE CONFIRMED
  • Runners-up: Bayern Munich  – TO BE CONFIRMED

Europa League

  • CSKA Moscow  – CHELSEA

FA Cup

  • Manchester United  – WIGAN ATHLETIC

Carling Cup

  • Arsenal  – SWANSEA CITY

Player of the Season

  • Wayne Rooney  –  GARETH BALE

Young Player of the Season

  • Eden Hazard –  GARETH BALE

Sack Race

  • Brian McDermott, Reading  – SACKED
  • Chris Hughton, Norwich  – SAFE
  • Sam Allardyce, West Ham United  – SAFE

Preview: West Bromwich Albion v United

May 18, 2013 Tags: , Matches No comments

It has, it seems, been a week of farewells, with Manchester United fans waving Sir Alex Ferguson goodbye from both Old Trafford’s stands and the city centre scaffolds. The orchestrated celebrations served up by the club as Swansea City visited last weekend were followed by a mass outpouring as United paraded the Premier League trophy through Manchester centre on Monday. After more than 26 years in the job, even Sir Alex was caught by surprise by the scale of emotion.

There will be no Pyongang-style mass hysteria at the Hawthornes on Sunday, but Ferguson will surely be more than a little upset should United not beat West Bromwich Albion in the manager’s 1500th and final game. With little on the line bar pride and the perfect send off, United’s players must overcome a week of celebrations and a certain inertia to overcome the xxx placed Baggies.

Certainly, United’s form has been far from champion in recent weeks; not since Real Madrid knocked the side out of the Champions League in April. But with a club record points total of 91 available there is at least a small incentive for victory, beyond letting Ferguson slip into retirement on a winning note.

“1500 games – it’s incredible,” said Ferguson at his final Carrington press conference on Friday.

“West Brom have done fantastically, every team wants to win their last home game and obviously I want to win this one more than last week’s even.

 

INJURY NEWS

“I don’t have any injury problems. I’ll make a few changes – maybe a few younger players will play.

“Anders (Lindegaard) will be in goal. I don’t have Rafael so I need to make a decision about right-back. I want to play Jones and Evans at centre-back – they could be the future. Rio (Ferdinand) and (Nemanja) Vidic will have to have a place on the bench! I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be great.”

ON ROONEY

“I’ve no idea. It is not my department. I am no longer interested in that. David is going to deal with that. Quite rightly he wants to deal with that and I’m happy with that,” the 71-year-old said.

“I have not spoken to David about that. I’m sure he will address it when he gets here,” he said.

KAGAWA

“He has a magnetic power,” Kagawa told ManUtd.jp. “I felt it the first time I met him, from the way he conducts himself and also from working with him on the pitch.

“He communicates well with his players and respects them. As the season went on, I got to communicate with him more, both on football and other subjects. That was important.

“He is a friendly person and his spirit is much younger than his age. I think that’s because of his achievements over the years, and also his personality.

“I wish I could have played much longer under him. What he has achieved for the club is tremendous – he is in a class of his own.”

GIGGS

“Maybe it is,” Giggs said. “But we have a really good bunch of lads in the dressing room and, whenever the manager needs help, the more experienced players will help. That has been the norm, ever since I have been in the club.
“When I was an apprentice, I used to go upstairs at The Cliff [training ground] for my breakfast and see the likes of Brucey, Gary Pallister and Bryan Robson all in the coaches’ room, having a cup of tea and sharing jokes before training.
“That is how it has always been here. The experienced players have always had a good relationship with the staff and helped each other along.
“What David Moyes is coming into is a good atmosphere, a really good bunch of lads, very good players and a really strong squad, so it is a strong position to be in. But the downside is that you have to follow the most successful manager that has ever lived.
“Managers usually go into clubs when things aren’t going great, but this team isn’t on a downward spiral, so I don’t know if that makes it harder or easier for David.”

Match details
Manchester United v Swansea City- Premier League, Old Trafford – 4pm, 12 May 2013

Possible teams
United (4-2-3-1): de Gea; Jones, Vidić, Ferdinand, Evra; Carrick, Scholes; Valencia, Kagawa, Welbeck; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Büttner, Evans, Powell, Cleverley, Anderson, Rooney, Nani, Hernández

Swansea (4-3-3): Tremmel; Tiendalli, Williams, Chico, Davies; De Guzman, Britton, Routledge, Pablo, Michu, Shechter. Subs from: Cornell, Bartley, Taylor, Dyer, Agustien, Moore, Donnelly, Monk, Lamah, Situ

Match officials
Referee: Jon Moss
Assistants: A Halliday, P Bankes
Fourth Official: M Clattenburg

Form
United: LWDWDL
Swansea: LDDLDW

Head-to-Head
Last 10: United 6, Swansea 1, Draw 3
Overall: United 8, Swansea 6, Draw 5

Stats

  • Sir Alex takes charge of United at Old Trafford for the final time on Sunday; his 1499th game in charge of the club;
  • Ferguson’s captain, Nemanja Vidić made 24 interceptions last weekend in United’s loss to Chelsea at Old Trafford – the highest in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index during the last round of games;
  • One of Ferguson’s key demands is his players’ work either – striker Robin van Persie is not only leading the Premier League’s goal scoring charts this season, but has made more clearances than any other forward in the league with 31;
  • Patrice Evra has enjoyed a fine season, winning 64.1 per cent of 82 tackles, completing 624 passes in the opposition half, and delivering 42 crosses, notching up six assists and four goals;
  • On the opposite flank Rafael has made 111 defensive contributions including 52 interceptions, while winning 49 of 82 attempted tackles, and has also completed 531 passes in the opposition half;
  • Swansea face United shortly after holding Manchester City to a scoreless draw and then beating Wigan Athletic 3-2 with goals from Angel Rangel, Itay Schechter and Dwight Tendalli;
  • Ashley Williams garnered Sir Alex’ criticism earlier this season, but showed his value last weekend by making four crucial blocks – the joint highest by a player in the Index;
  • Williams has made 388 defensive contributions this season – tackles won, interceptions, blocks and clearances – 50 more than his nearest rival, Fulham’s Brede Hangeland;
  • Williams’ defensive partner Chico attempted his 100th tackle of the season in the last round of games – one of 22 players in the Index to have done so, and while being one of only five to have maintained a winning tackle percentage of over 60 per cent.

Prediction
3-2

Rant Cast 155 – from Pyongyang, with love

May 17, 2013 Tags: Rant Cast 1 comment
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On the penultimate Rant Cast of the season regulars Ed & Paul discuss an emotional day at Old Trafford, with Sir Alex Ferguson saying goodbye to the home crowd for the final time. In an orchestrated farewell of North Korean proportions, the Theatre of Dreams saw its worst nightmare come true, with Ferguson leaving the club after 1500 games in charge.

Also on the show this week – we look back on United’s performance against Swansea City, with Rio Ferdinand grabbing a late winner in Fergie’s final home game, and a fantastic club parade through Manchester. We look forward to a future under David Moyes, and say goodbye to David Beckham and Paul Scholes.

We take you Twitter questions, give away a fabulous t-shirt, and look forward to the final game of the season against West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthornes.

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 rising bandwidth 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
The pod’s call-in section “Rant Back” features the best audio comments, questions and other nonsense each week. Keep your comment short, reasonably clean and leave a name to take part.

Send an MP3 to cast@unitedrant.co.uk.

Moyes the man to evolve Ferguson’s legacy

May 13, 2013 Tags: , Opinion 51 comments
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José Mourinho was never a smart choice to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson, the Scot who departed Old Trafford as Manchester United manager for the final time on Sunday. Mourinho may be the biggest managerial name in world football, Sir Alex aside, but contrary to popular opinion would never have been a good fit in Manchester – the Portuguese would have significantly clashed with the system set in place by Ferguson over two decades.

Built and moulded in the outgoing manager’s image,  United’s top-down structure would have inhibited Mourinho. One needs only to look at examples from two of Mourinho’s old flames – Chelsea and Inter – for examples of how the system can limit a coach’s success. Mourinho achieved great things in west London and Milan by creating a coaching set up to his exacting specifications. Those managers who followed the 50-year-old to Inter anad Chelsea crashed and burned, haunted by Mourinho’s spectre.

There will be a presence at Old Trafford too of course. Mourinho has proven to be an outstanding manager over the past decade, but Ferguson is simply greater. Ferguson’s legacy, especially with the former Aberdeen manager remaining at the club in an ambassadorial role, would have doomed Mourinho to the same fate as his successors.

This may not be true of David Moyes, whose lack of ego means that he is more willing to work with the system in place. If anything the Scot may deal with Ferguson’s heritage better than Mourinho. Arriving from a smaller, less sophisticated club, Moyes is already familiar with working within the confines set by others, financial or otherwise.

Meanwhile, Moyes’ limitations should be no barrier to future success. True, the 50-year-old’s European experience is limited, but that is not as concerning as it may first appear. After all, United should be too good and experienced not to qualify from Champions League group stages next season, whomever the coach.

United’s 2011/12 European campaign was a disaster, and Manchester City, with arguably a better squad, failed to qualify beyond the group stage two years in the row. Yet, United’s players are well seasoned in Europe, unlike the Blues.

Beyond the group stage matches fall victim to the vagaries of chance more than most, which has haunted Ferguson over the years. Paul Scholes’ goal against Porto in 2004 springs to mind, incongruously ruled offside in the game against Porto that made Mourinho’s career.

Certainly, a tactician of Mourinho’s quality can prove the edge in key matches, but it may behoove United supporters not to write off Moyes too quickly. After all, caution is key in European matches – a trait in which the Scot is well-versed.

Moreover, it is highly advantageous that Moyes has been managing in the Premier League for more than a decade. Europe holds the glamour, but domestic superiority is always United’s priority. Not least because the financial rewards are now greater than in the Champions League. Moyes knows how to navigate difficult domestic ties; one of his main rivals for the top job, Jürgen Klopp, doesn’t.

And if Moyes’ tactical approach is cautious, so too is United’s executive branch. In 1986 United’s board could afford to gamble on Sir Alex taking to life in England. This is no longer the case. With millions of fans worldwide, and more than £300 million in debt, the club must continue to be successful to maintain its current station in world football. The club could not have appointed a coach with limited Premier League experience.

Ferguson, whether by design or disposition – his diligence and desire for control are well documented – is a manager in its truest sense. The 71-year-old secured a hand in everything from the first team to the Megastore. Over the years Fergie has delegated some of responsibilities, but has always remained United’s ‘manager.’

This system is a British tradition. Meanwhile, continental clubs have long abandoned the practice of an omnipotent head, stripping managers of all duties bar first team training and matches. It would have been foolish at this stage to bring in a new coach from continental Europe with a retinue and little understanding of the United way. Moyes probably won’t fulfil all of Ferguson’s extensive responsibilities, but he’ll be receptive to doing most.

In this sense Ferguson’s retirement is an opportunity for the club too. There may never again be a true manager running United in Sir Alex’ mould, partly because  the club has become more complex, but mostly because managers are simply being trained to be ‘head coaches.’

But the club also needs prepare for the future. United will have to adapt by gently introducing more people into the back room. This may inevitably culminate in the club hiring a director of football down the line. After all, the benefits of specialisation and division of labour had long been obvious before Adam Smith’s pin factory.

Part of Ferguson’s genius lies in his adaptability – the Scot survived 26 years in his job because he continued to adjust. Moyes will not last that long, because he is already 50. But as football evolves there is no guarantee that Moyes will keep up as well as Ferguson has previously done.

Conceivably United will have to hire Moyes’ replacement within the next decade. Without a continental style system place, the club will find very limited room to manoeuvre vis-à-vis hiring the new man.

For now though, United has appointed a manager very much in Ferguson’s hue.

Preview: United v Swansea

May 12, 2013 Tags: , Matches 138 comments
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There is a match at Old Trafford on Sunday afternoon, but few in the crowd will care for the action – not on Sir Alex Ferguson’s final home appearance in charge of United. Retiring after 27 years at the helm, Ferguson will say a last goodbye to the supporters who have cried his name for more than two decades. And emotions are sure to run high in the stands, even if the dead rubber on the pitch is of little consequence.

Ferguson has overseen the most decorated period in United’s history, securing 13 Premier League titles and two European Cups among more than 30 major trophies. It is a record without peer; one that will be celebrated as the Reds take on Swansea City in Manchester.

Sunday’s result is of little concern to many, although United’s limp end to the season has brought just two victories in seven matches, including last weekend’s home defeat to Chelsea. The Reds’ complacent performances in recent weeks are surely the result of a remarkably effortless march to this year’s title.

However, it is the big picture in focus on Sunday; United’s 20th league title honoured with the Premier League trophy presentation on the final whistle and Sir Alex’ farewell. The Scot will addresses the Old Trafford faithful for the final time at the close, while the occasion is set be marked with a ‘Champions 2013’ mosaic along the Stretford End as the teams enter the field. It is a celebration that United’s captain Nemanja Vidić is set to lead.

“I had the opportunity to lift the trophy after we won the 19th title and it is a great feeling,” said the Serbian defender.

“As a captain it is special. It is nice when you play for a club like Manchester United and you win a trophy. But it is the same feeling, whether you are captain or not. No-one has given any more or any less. We are a team and we all played a part.”

Manchester United v Swansea City - Premier League, Old Trafford - 4pm 12 May 2013On the pitch Paul Scholes will play his final game for the club before retiring for a second time. The 38-year-old midfielder hasn’t featured since January with a knee injury, but will return to the team before taking a coaching role under new manager David Moyes next season. The flame-haired veteran has appeared 716 times for the club, scoring 155 goals.

“I am finally hanging up my boots for good,” said Scholes, who could start against the Swans.

“Playing football is all I have ever wanted to do, and so to have had such a long and successful career at Manchester United, under the greatest manager of all time, has been an honour.”

Ferguson could also recall veteran Rio Ferdinand for the final home game of the season, while midfielder Shinji Kagawa is also likely to feature. Rafael da Silva is suspended, but Danny Welbeck could return from injury.

Wayne Rooney, who reportedly asked for a transfer for the second time in his United career three weeks ago, will remain on the bench. He may never start a match for the club again.

Meanwhile, the visitors arrive in mixed form having won just once in the past six. However, Michael Laudrup’s side has secured 46 points this year, guaranteeing the Welsh club Premier League football next season. Indeed, the Dane’s side needs just two points more to improve on a fine 2011/12 campaign.

The visitors are without Angel Rangel and goalkeeper Michel Vorm, but top-scorer Michu, defender Chico Flores and Ki Sung-Yueng should all feature at Old Trafford.

Still, Sunday has little to do with the game. Not with two greats of the game moving on. Scholes and Ferguson have each enjoyed one ‘retirement’ a decade apart – neither will return this time around. And while Scholes’ presence will be missed, it is Ferguson’s departure that threatens to fundamentally shake up the club this summer.

Alongside Ferguson, the chief executive David Gill, scout Martin Ferguson, and potential a clutch of coaches will also depart.

Questions of the future can wait though. After all, the mood will be celebratory on Sunday, rather than one of trepidation.

“I don’t think anyone thought the day would come when Sir Alex retired,” said new United manager David Moyes.

“We all thought he was superhuman. He will be sorely missed, particularly by a lot of managers because he always spoke to them. He would always have a quiet word for anybody who was out of work or going into a job. His respect is beyond any real words. Everyone has great admiration for him. Any words I say won’t do it justice because of what the man has done.”

But if words can’t do Ferguson justice then the emotion of more than 70,000 at Old Trafford surely will. It should be quite a send off.

Match details
Manchester United v Swansea City- Premier League, Old Trafford – 4pm, 12 May 2013

Possible teams
United (4-2-3-1): de Gea; Jones, Vidić, Ferdinand, Evra; Carrick, Scholes; Valencia, Kagawa, Welbeck; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Büttner, Evans, Powell, Cleverley, Anderson, Rooney, Nani, Hernández

Swansea (4-3-3): Tremmel; Tiendalli, Williams, Chico, Davies; De Guzman, Britton, Routledge, Pablo, Michu, Shechter. Subs from: Cornell, Bartley, Taylor, Dyer, Agustien, Moore, Donnelly, Monk, Lamah, Situ

Match officials
Referee: Jon Moss
Assistants: A Halliday, P Bankes
Fourth Official: M Clattenburg

Form
United: LWDWDL
Swansea: LDDLDW

Head-to-Head
Last 10: United 6, Swansea 1, Draw 3
Overall: United 8, Swansea 6, Draw 5

Stats

  • Sir Alex takes charge of United at Old Trafford for the final time on Sunday; his 1499th game in charge of the club;
  • Ferguson’s captain, Nemanja Vidić made 24 interceptions last weekend in United’s loss to Chelsea at Old Trafford – the highest in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index during the last round of games;
  • One of Ferguson’s key demands is his players’ work either – striker Robin van Persie is not only leading the Premier League’s goal scoring charts this season, but has made more clearances than any other forward in the league with 31;
  • Patrice Evra has enjoyed a fine season, winning 64.1 per cent of 82 tackles, completing 624 passes in the opposition half, and delivering 42 crosses, notching up six assists and four goals;
  • On the opposite flank Rafael has made 111 defensive contributions including 52 interceptions, while winning 49 of 82 attempted tackles, and has also completed 531 passes in the opposition half;
  • Swansea face United shortly after holding Manchester City to a scoreless draw and then beating Wigan Athletic 3-2 with goals from Angel Rangel, Itay Schechter and Dwight Tendalli;
  • Ashley Williams garnered Sir Alex’ criticism earlier this season, but showed his value last weekend by making four crucial blocks – the joint highest by a player in the Index;
  • Williams has made 388 defensive contributions this season – tackles won, interceptions, blocks and clearances – 50 more than his nearest rival, Fulham’s Brede Hangeland;
  • Williams’ defensive partner Chico attempted his 100th tackle of the season in the last round of games – one of 22 players in the Index to have done so, and while being one of only five to have maintained a winning tackle percentage of over 60 per cent.

Prediction
3-2