Author ajaysmith

Author ajaysmith

Reds approach campaign with no trepidation

August 13, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 39 comments

As much as Sir Alex Ferguson hoped otherwise, Manchester United’s pre-season friendly against Hannover 96 on Saturday night was unable to detract attention from his employers’ financial proclivities in New York. On the opening day of trading a ‘disappointing’ IPO raised approximately $100 million less than initially sought by the Glazer family, while a myriad of unfulfilled speculation surrounding primary transfer target Robin van Persie prompted suggestions that United’s interest was merely a failed ploy to convey a position of wellbeing. Bad press, it seems, is inescapable for chief executive David Gill and his collaborators right now.

Sadly for United, the club’s woes are not consigned to its endeavours across the Atlantic; unease surrounding an underwhelming pre-season campaign has been augmented by relatively low transfer activity, archetypal of the Glazers’ reign at Old Trafford. And even if Ferguson’s intentions to sign the Dutchman are real, the completion of the transfer will by no means receive the unquestioning backing of United’s supporters.

Van Persie’s age, wage demands, and susceptibility to injury are all cited as deterrents, as is the inevitability that the Dutchman would deprive fans’ favourites Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez of playing time. Furthermore, considering the substantial fee necessary to prise last year’s PFA and Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year from Arsenal, any deal will surely deprive the team’s ailing midfield of further investment.

Following a trophy-less campaign least term, continuing negative publicity, and the manager’s apparent refusal, or inability, to address his squad’s key inadequacies, it’s fair to suggest that the season ahead for United appears bleak. Yet, with just over a week to go until the start of the Premier League campaign, Ferguson is not short belief that his side is adequately equipped to regain the title.

Aside from any transfer activity, or lack thereof, United’s squad is already bolstered this summer by the return of Nemanja Vidić. The Serbian has completed ­over 170 minutes of football during the team’s pre-season tour. While Jonny Evans deputised superbly for the United captain last season, dispelling any assertions that the Irishman’s time at Old Trafford is running out, Vidić’s importance is difficult to overstate. Though it is easy to speculate, it is hard to imagine United conceding the two late goals at home to Everton that proved so costly in the title race had Vidić been present to maintain defensive discipline.

Starting the season opener at Goodison Park may be an ambitious target, but having witnessed repeated delays to Tom Cleverley’s recovery last term, and Owen Hargreaves’s haphazard attempts to regain fitness throughout his spell at Old Trafford, United fans are relieved to see Vidić return on schedule from a serious injury.

In addition to the restored first choice defensive partnership, Ferguson expects greater contributions from a number of his younger players this season. Danny Welbeck impressed during his first campaign in the starting line-up, but must improve on last year’s tally of just 12 goals, particularly if the striker is to preserve his place in Ferguson’s team. Having followed-up a decent club season with impressive performances for England at this summer’s European Championships, the Longsight-born player can achieve the 20 goal target set by his manager.

Additionally, Chris Smalling and Cleverley, having also shown much promise already, hope to feature more often after enduring injury hampered seasons last time out. Smalling has developed a reputation for dependability, having continually improved since joining from Fulham in 2010, while Cleverley enjoyed an excellent start to his senior United career before its abrupt postponement at the Reebok Stadium last September. Cleverley’s return may even help observers forget United’s lack of options in central midfield.

Significantly, Ferguson can count on the improved consistency of goalkeeper David de Gea. All but written off by the media following a difficult start to his United career, the Spaniard grew in confidence and stature as last season progressed, winning the team points regularly. Provided De Gea remains composed in the face of renewed competition from Anders Lindegaard, the Spaniard will surely develop into one of the league’s finest goalkeepers.

Additionally, while United’s transfer activity is minimal this summer it has at least been well considered. Glowing praise from his former mentor Dario Gradi has generated considerable excitement in the future of Nick Powell, while Shinji Kagawa’s acquisition could have a decisive impact. The Japanese playmaker made a total of 25 goals in Borussia Dortmund’s double-winning campaign last term, affirming talismanic status, and has looked sharp playing just behind the frontline during pre-season appearances for United. Kagawa could provide a link between the team’s midfielders and forwards that was desperately missing for much of last season, often leaving the strikers isolated and occasionally resulting in Wayne Rooney dropping into midfield.

Away from United it is also worth considering the merits of local rivals, Manchester City. Roberto Mancini’s team has been uncharacteristically quiet in the transfer market, with the Italian failing to offload superfluous players on excessive salaries. Despite possessing considerable strength-in-depth, Mancini’s side looks vulnerable should it lose any one of Vincent Kompany, Yaya Touré, or David Silva.

Though any team is weakened by losing one or more of its three best players, note that Touré will once again depart mid-season to compete in a rollover African Cup of Nations. Meanwhile, Silva will face an arduous campaign, having represented Spain at the European Championships after a season in which he played through an ankle injury.

The lack of quality cover for Kompany was particularly evident during the Belgian’s absences last season, as is reliance on goalkeeper Joe Hart. While United’s recent luck with injuries has been torrid, City’s has been the opposite; should fortunes reverse this season it is difficult to foresee Mancini’s men faring so well.

Furthermore, City will face the burden of playing this season as champions. Painful as it is to acknowledge, the upside is that teams will raise their performance levels against the Eastlands outfit; a belief endorsed by Wayne Rooney this week, who asserted that “over the years everyone has tried to raise their game when they play against Manchester United. Now obviously City are champions they’ll have to face that.”

Whether Mancini’s side approaches the task of retaining the title with a hint of trepidation remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that United seeks the Premier League’s return to Old Trafford with renewed vigour. The pain associated with losing to City on goal difference no will spur on Ferguson’s side, just as it did in 2006/7 when the title loss to Chelsea prompted a change in system, and one of the most exciting domestic campaigns of the decade.

Once again United enters a season in transition, and with a point to prove. Only a fool will write Ferguson’s team off.

Reasons to be cheerful

August 8, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 18 comments

Though last season’s climax will linger odiously in the minds of Manchester United fans, the summer which has followed is one easily forgotten. On the pitch, the absence of key players, due to international commitments at both the European Championships and Olympics, has seen United’s depleted squad score just three goals in five games against markedly inferior opposition, save for Barcelona.

Meanwhile, away from it, only moderate activity in the transfer window has left a midfield bereft of variety and depth, seemingly unimproved. Even speculation concerning the potential acquisition of Robin van Persie, the Premier League’s top scorer last term, has polarised opinion; such is the Dutchman’s inability to mask the team’s most deep-rooted deficiencies.

Arguably the most engrossing stories to emerge from Old Trafford relate to the Glazer family’s much maligned attempt to float part of the club on the New York Stock Exchange, while still pocketing more of the proceeds than will be devoted to reducing United’s insidious debt. Yet, despite the club’s recent anguish, and its future shrouded in doubt, there still remains scope for optimism.

This optimism begins with hope for desperately needed reform. The detrimental nature of the Glazers’ ownership was already well known, but renewed outrage in the face of their Initial Public Offering (IPO) in New York has reinvigorated opposition at a time when the family are looking more vulnerable than ever.

The family’s US-based businesses continue to haemorrhage money, while rumours of a rift within the family persist; the Sunday Times reported this week that of the six children to whom Malcolm has gifted control of United, three “want to sell their shares to concentrate on other ventures.” Even if tales of a family dispute prove untrue, the Glazers are still faced with the dilemma of somehow generating the capital necessary to prop up their failing businesses elsewhere.

Thus it appears the success of the proposed IPO, expected to be launched later this week, is fundamental to the Glazers’ continued ownership of United. Should it fail to deliver the cash injection hoped for, the Americans may well be forced to consider selling the club, or at least settle for relinquishing a much larger share of control.

And if the reports disseminated by a number of renowned forecasters are to be trusted, it is hardly inconceivable that the IPO will fail; the Financial Times damningly opined that the Glazers believe “investors are so credulous that they will hand over their money without being offered a financially persuasive argument or even the pretence of good corporate governance practice,” while analyst house Morningstar has valued potential shares at between $6 and $10 less than the amount targeted.

Though it is true that news ‘leaked’ from inside the club contradicts this position, anybody familiar with United’s increasingly lacklustre attempts to sell season tickets will rightly be sceptical when the world is told that the IPO is already oversubscribed.

The potential difficulty the Glazers face has not been lost on United fans, with the all-espousing Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) avidly vocalising its plans to test the family’s resolve. Having developed a reputation for being somewhat passive in its previous attempts to force the Glazers from Old Trafford, the group headed by Duncan Drasdo stepped up its efforts this week, as it facilitated the dispatch of over one million emails to potential backers of the IPO and club sponsors.

More significantly, MUST released a statement on Tuesday calling for the worldwide boycott of all products and services of those same sponsors. Though such an appeal is highly ambitious, with results unlikely to materialise, it is a step in the right direction; the only way United fans can gain leverage over the Glazers is to hurt the family’s revenue streams until they are forced to sell. This is a goal ordinary fans can only achieve collectively, through mass boycott.

Aided by Blue State Digital, the marketing firm used by Barrack Obama during his first electoral campaign, MUST now provides a figurehead more widely received than the fanzines and online forums that were previously alone in calling for belligerent action. If MUST’s growing global presence proves enough to intimidate the Glazers’ financial advocates and allies even slightly, it may be enough to stifle the IPO, forcing the hand of the Americans.

The infamous figure of 659 million supporters, touted at every possible opportunity in the build-up to floatation, is so significant because it is through these supporters that the club stands to generate revenue.

Should a scenario arise where the Glazers are not able to sell on their own terms, particularly if the catalyst for such a scenario was supporter action against the family, it is unimaginable that new investors would not seek to rebuild the broken relationship between the club’s fans and its owners. A model of the club whereby fan ownership is a realistic possibility may once again emerge.

Reds miss out on Varane but blessed with options in abundance

June 24, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 21 comments

As RC Lens president Gervais Martel confirmed this week, Manchester United made an official, if ultimately unsuccessful, approach for 18-year old centre back Raphaël Varane. Lens has initially rebuffed United’s offer and Varane’s skills seem certain to be on parade at Real Madrid next season. Perhaps it is for the best. After all, signing a second young centre-back this transfer window would have left manager Sir Alex Ferguson with a huge number of central defensive options.

Space in Ferguson’s squad is likely to be made first through the departures of Wes Brown and John O’Shea. Alex McLeish’s Aston Villa seems the most likely destination for Brown, while Sunderland manager Steve Bruce will follow-up interest in O’Shea, despite the Irishman playing over 30 games last season and only signing a new contract last October.

Though both are regarded with affection among United fans, moves away from Old Trafford are not especially surprising. The rationale behind moving older players on to make way for youth and re-development is hardly an alien concept at United, particularly under Ferguson. The list of remaining senior options encompasses six recognised defenders, some of whom will look towards rosier futures than others.

Embarking on what must be his last attempt to forge a United career, Ritchie De Laet will depart on loan again, although this time at Premier League side Norwich. De Laet has shown hints of ability in six first team appearances to date but being farmed out on loan suggests he may not truly feature in Ferguson’s plans. A good season for De Laet at the Premier League new-boys will only encourage the club to let him go next summer; an excellent season though, and Ferguson may yet reconsider the youngster’s future.

Another centre-back whose United future appears much more assured is Chris Smalling. A brilliant début season, unexpected by seemingly everyone bar Ferguson and his backroom staff, speaks for itself. Regular stints filling in for Rio Ferdinand offer Smalling the chance to form a solid defensive partnership with Nemanja Vidic, which looked unbeatable at times. While Jonny Evans’ rapid decline, after a similarly impressive first two seasons at the club, implores a sense of caution when anticipating Smalling’s bright future. Yet, all signs so far suggest the former Fulham man will be a top quality United centre-back for years to come.

Conversely, the career path of the man Smalling so often deputised for last season seems much less predictable. Ferdinand demonstrated, towards to back-end of last season, that he still has the quality to be one of the best in the world in his position. Once again fitness was Ferdinand’s biggest concern last season and there will be no shortage of competition if the former West Ham United man struggles to maintain a long run of games.

Alternatively, as with Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes in recent years, Ferguson may choose to use Ferdinand ever more sparingly in a bid to ensure the defender is fit for big games at home and in Europe. Either way, the coming year could be a defining one for the 32-year-old defender, particularly in determining whether Ferdinand will still be part of the Old Trafford setup beyond next summer or not.

Meanwhile, Evans’ future appears to be balanced even more precariously than Ferdinand’s. After a year of underwhelming performances, coupled with the acquisitions of Smalling and Phil Jones, the Northern Ireland international appears to have lost his place in the manager’s plans. That Ferguson countenanced a bid for Varane should concern Evans even more.

It was all so much brighter after an excellent first senior season, including outstanding performances in games such as the 3-0 league victory over Chelsea – where a formidable Didier Drogba was kept uncharacteristically quiet – prompted Ferguson to state that Evans’ “United future is assured.”

The defender’s past exploits should be enough to buy Evans another season at the club. Though older than Smalling or Jones, Evans is still young at 23, with plenty of time to develop. After all, Vidic was playing at Serbian SuperLiga level at the same age. While these factors may work in Evans’ favour, it is still likely that opportunities will be intermitent in the coming season; he will need to grab them with both hands.

Jones’ acquisition is partly responsible for prompting the state of minor panic regarding Evans’ future. The England under-21 player arrives from Blackburn Rovers with natural talent in abundance, and was described by Harry Redknapp as “a future England captain” in the aftermath of Tottenham Hotspur’s failed bid to lure the 19-year old to White Hart Lane.

Ferguson admitted that high levels of interest elsewhere forced United to sign the youngster a year earlier than he would have preferred, suggesting that for this season at least, there is no obvious gap in the team for Jones to fill. Jones can also play in front of the back four though and considering the lack of tenacity present in a midfield, which desperately missed Darren Fletcher for much of last season, the 19-year old may well find opportunities there.

Evans position is in stark contrast to Vidic’s role at United. Viewed by many as the best centre-back in the world, the Serbian should have at least four more years to offer the club. He recently confirmed he plans to stay at United too.

Indeed, Varane may have earmarked as Vidic’s eventual successor. Aged 18, the 6’3” defender was an important part of Lens’ team last season, making 23 first team appearances in a tough season for the French club. Lens also received offers from both Paris Saint-Germain and a successful bid from Real Madrid, underscoring the high-quality talent United has missed out on.

Even without the French youngster the club’s defensive prospects for the season ahead – indeed the next ten after – are promising. Ferguson is blessed with top quality full-backs in Patrice Evra, Fabio and Rafael da Silva, an inspirational captain in Vidic and the current England U-21 pairing of Smalling and Jones. If the manager is able to get the best out of Ferdinand and Evans, he has two more players of certified quality.

Certainly, the decision to bid for another centre-back raises questions about the roles of some players within Ferguson’s team. Slight in build but good with the ball at his feet, it is viable that Evans’ future could be at full-back. Indeed, Evans could become United’s new utility man, accomplished at playing across the entire back four; a natural successor to O’Shea for comparatively low wages.

Alternatively, Ferguson could Jones as United’s future as a midfield powerhouse, and not at centre-back, particularly if United is unsuccessful in securing a big name to bolster the central midfield this summer.

Yet, it is instructive that Ferguson is unlikely to seek out another defender in the wake of Varane’s snub. After all, Varane’s talent, available at good value, was a temptation and not a solution to a real problem at Old Trafford. In the short-term at least if United’s failure to capture Varane results in an extra €10m being spent on improving the side’s midfield then it may be a blessing in disguise.