Author Andrew Kenyon

Author Andrew Kenyon

Now Rooney must provide more than hard work

September 6, 2013 Tags: Opinion 22 comments
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When Wayne Rooney executed a full-blooded tackle on Ramires near his own corner flag during Manchester United’s recent draw with Chelsea Old Trafford rose to its feet in appreciation. It was about the most exciting thing that happened during a game that said much about Jose Mourinho’s negativity and, potentially, offered a glimpse at David Moyes’s approach too.

That moment seemed to crystallise the ensuing narrative about Rooney’s performance: that he was playing well, looking motivated and was prepared to give his best for the club. Except, Rooney didn’t actually play that well.  He did okay; a six out of 10.  But a player that demands to be centre stage for club and country ought to reach a higher level than when his team really need him.

As most journalists and many fans rushed to heap praise on Rooney the principle justification was that the striker “worked hard.” In other words Rooney “ran around a lot,” making the Scouser a glorified, and very well paid Park Ji-Sung.

Perhaps fans were shocked by the novelty of Rooney putting effort into something other than trying to leave the club.  But a high work-rate is surely the minimum asked of a professional footballer, especially when that footballer is supposedly a world-class.

It is an English world view; that football that is defined by grit, determination and will-power above technical ability. That’s why reports about Rooney’s performance focused on his work-rate and not, for example, his inability to release Robin van Persie through on goal when, instead, the Englishman elected to try and beat Petre Cech from 30 yards.

More widely this attitude is why the enduring images from the English national team over the last 30 years are of Paul Ince and Terry Butcher with blood-stained bandages on their head.  It’s why the enduring national results are of missed penalties in shoot-outs, where technique and mental strength are tested to their limit and ‘our brave boys’ are found wanting.

It’s why the English love to support the underdog, praising effort and courage, rather than celebrating success, and with that the ruthlessness, and above all, skill it takes to reach the pinnacle of the game.

It’s certain that observers from other countries – those that value skill and technique – looked on in astonishment at England’s midfield at Euro 2012, with Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard chasing shadows and consistently giving the ball away. Meanwhile Michael Carrick, the only English player in the past 20 years who comes close to Paul Scholes’ passing ability, remained at home.

Bringing the argument back to United, this attitude is why Rooney’s name has always been sung so loudly, even when his attitude off the pitch, and at times his performances on it, have not warranted the adoration. And the love of effort is why Dimitar Berbatov, who played the game with poise, skill and a Cantona-esque degree of arrogance, was criticised for being ‘lazy’. The Bulgarian didn’t steam into tackles like a madman, but rather gave an impression of being a god among mortals – it made him brilliant fun to watch.

It seems working hard, or running around a lot, proffers players an unusually high amount of leeway too.  And to many, it seems that these ‘qualities’ are valued more than technical ability.

But it’s difficult to think of the last time Rooney lit up a game with any of the qualities that made him such an exciting prospect when he was a teenager.  The 28-year-old does still get into good positions, both between the lines and in the penalty box, and he has good vision, but they alone are not qualities that make a world-class player.  It would be a big stretch to name Rooney in the top 20 players in Europe at the moment.

Put it another way, if Rooney didn’t sport his Roy of the Rovers-esque habit of charging around the pitch, chasing the ball, with a face of determination and rage, would he really be as highly regarded in England? Certainly not after his indifferent form over the past two seasons.

It is telling that Rooney has asked to leave United twice, and on neither occasion did United receive a bid from a club outside of England.

The observation may sound harsh, and of course even since Rooney’s decline began two to three years ago, he has still produced some game-defining moments, but these tend to be surrounded by a greater mediocrity.

United has begun the season requiring more creativity. There has been a worrying lack of invention and creativity in the last two games, and it is no surprise that the Reds failed to score in either.  But what United didn’t need against Liverpool and Chelsea was more effort – the players ought to be doing that anyway.

Besides, Moyes’ side contains plenty of players who do work hard, but while Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia get their shirts sweaty, neither beats a defender, creates chances, or scores goals.

What United really needs from Rooney now is for him to get back to his best – and that means he needs to do more than work hard.  Rooney needs to re-discover that edge that made him terrify defenders; he needs to re-discover his ability to be a creative and goalscoring fulcrum of the side.

Yet, if retaining Rooney and using the striker regularly means United ends up with more bluster and little end product, while Shinji Kagawa sits on the bench, then Moyes’ men will continue to struggle to break down defences. Just as the side did against Chelsea when, for all of Rooney’s supposed good work, the home side failed to create a clear-cut chance.

Rooney, of course, is not the only player who needs to contribute more, but while Young, for example, has never shown match-winning ability at United’s standard, the Scouser has.  And that’s why it is particularly frustrating to hear Rooney being praised for ‘working hard’ on the pitch, as if that is somehow noble, when he has the ability to contribute far more.

If Rooney re-elevates himself to the level seen prior to the 2010 World Cup there is little doubt he should partner van Persie in attack. At his best, Rooney is a special player, but the one on show against Chelsea is not the player United really needs.

Retaining the striker at Old Trafford could be the most impactful decision made by the new manager in his first summer at the club.  Time will tell whether it turns out to be a positive or a negative for the club.

Ferguson’s final gift

August 3, 2013 Tags: , , , Opinion 15 comments
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There was nothing on when Jesse Lingard picked up the ball 30 yards from goal. No red shirts in sight, just plenty of blue, closing in. What happened next was a mixture of the fearlessness of youth combined with individual skill. A look up, a shimmy, a drag back, and then Lingard shifted his weight to wrap his right foot around the ball, bending it into the far corner.

In many ways, it was fitting that Lingard should wrap up United’s pre-season marketing exercise tour. Whilst United’s jaunt around Australia and Asia had undoubtedly earned some extra money to line the Glazers’ pockets, it also served as an exciting window into the future. Sir Alex Ferguson may have retired, but his final gift to United was on display.

There are two things at the heart of Manchester United, woven deep into the fabric of the club: the pursuit of exciting football, and a preference for developing young players. For all the talk of big summer signings that may or, more likely, may not happen; for all the talk of Thiago, Cesc Fabregas and Mouranne Fellaini, the truth is, for most fans, the greatest thrill is seeing one of ‘our own’ flourish.

There is a special place in the club annals for the Busby Babes, George Best, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville. And it’s why there will be extra pleasure at seeing Danny Welbeck flourish into a top class player over the coming years – a favourite moment last season coming when Welbeck scored in the Bernabéu.

United may not have produced another batch of youngsters to match the legendary Babes or Fergie’s Fledglings, but there has been a steady number of youngsters making the grade in recent years. The aforementioned Welbeck and Tom Cleverley played an important role in last season’s title success. Darren Fletcher, John O’Shea and Wes Brown have all won Champions League winners medals. In Brown’s case, two of them.

And as football has become a truly global game,  academy rules have changed, and it has become easier to snap up the best young talent from around the world, the definition of a ‘home grown youngster’ has widened.

Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, the Da Silva twins and David De Gea may not have grown up in United’s youth academy, but they are ‘our’ youngsters. These are players that the club has invested in; players that fans watch as they improve and fulfill their potential. After all, watching youngsters grow into top class performers is far more exciting that spending big money on established stars.

It remains to be seen how successfully David Moyes maintains the tradition of attacking football at United; the side has only periodically excited with great football since Cristiano Ronaldo left. But there are enough encouraging signs that Moyes is committed to continuing developing youth.

The first team squad that visited Thailand, Australia, Japan and Hong Kong was shorn of several regulars, but still contained Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick, Patrice Evra, Robin van Persie and Giggs. Yet, it was three young players who consistently impressed.

The performances of Jesse Lingard, Adnan Januzaj and Wifried Zaha this summer should offer reason to be optimistic for the future. Not just because they are young, nor even because Lingard is a product of United’s academy, but because they are genuinely exciting. Because they produce moments of individual skill. Because they are players who entertain.

Last season was thrilling in many ways. The early season comebacks, the comprehensive title victory after disappointment the previous year, and the joyous finale. But in truth United’s football wasn’t that exciting.

In recent years United have become a functional machine, a team accustomed to gaining results by being greater than the sum of its parts thanks to Ferguson’s brilliance.

It has become a machine embodied by two players on the flanks – traditionally an area of strength – who have just a single trick each, which is more often than not unsuccessful. Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia are not bad players, but they are not players who set the pulses racing. They do not get fans off their seats. And with one goal between them last season, not ones to worry opposition defenders either.

Yet Lingard, Januzaj and Zaha promise something fresh and exciting. They are players who can play across the forward line; who have excellent technique. Players who can take on a defender with skill and who make football fun to watch. And what is football if it’s not entertainment?

As the post-season drew in and the reality of a post-Ferguson United dawns, fans thoughts turned to the transfer market. Could the new manager prise the cheque-book off Malcolm Glazer’s hands and invest in one or two big signings?

Certainly, a central midfielder is a must. It has been for years. But many fans  also want to see another forward – perhaps not a striker, but an upgrade on the resources available in wide or deeper attacking areas. An advance on the maddening inconsistency of Nani and on the average served up by Young and Valencia. On Rooney’s ‘hands on hips look of frustration despite being unfit’ demeanour.

But watching United this pre-season, and witnessing the growth of three young players, may have prompted a re-think. Why should the club spend big on a new attacking player when there may be a solution already present?

This trio is not alone. Larnell Cole and Nick Powell are big talents in midfield. Will Keane is a gifted forward who will overcome a  serious knee injury. His twin brother Michael, who also played on tour, impressed on loan at Leicester City last season. And Angelo Henriquez may not have appeared for the first team yet, but he has already been capped by – and scored for – his country at full international level.

Promote youth and Young, Nani and Valencia will be kept on their toes. Meanwhile, Januzaj can cover for Shinji Kagawa in the attacking midfield role. Suddenly, Moyes’ attack looks less stodgy and far more exciting. More like a ‘proper’ United side.

These players may not make it as first team regulars. They may or may not prove to be good enough. Premier League football may be a step too far. But maybe, just maybe, some will make it. That they are gifted technically, brave and exciting in possession, ensures United fans want them go all the way.

There’s every chance that a rejuvenated Chelsea and Manchester City will leave Moyes’ outfit in the slipstream this season, with the club adjusting to the post-Ferguson era. But it doesn’t mean that the club’s identity will be lost. Instead, there’s an opportunity to build on it and to build a new, great United side.

And perhaps, with this current batch of youngsters, Ferguson has left Moyes with everything he needs to do just that.

Time to think again about United

April 15, 2011 Tags: , , , Opinion 63 comments

Popular opinion has it that the current Manchester United side is one of the worst that Sir Alex Ferguson has assembled in the Premier League era; it’s a criticism repeated often throughout the season. Think back to the late goals conceded against Fulham and Everton early in the season, or the draw at home to West Bromwich Albion, or the much publicised inability – until recently at least – of United to win away from home. Each perceived failure has bolstered the belief that United’s current position owes more to poor quality competitors, than the Reds’ high quality performances. This team, it is said, is not a ‘great’ United side.

But is it that simple?

On 29 November 2010, Barcelona delivered one of the great performances in the modern era against their biggest rivals – Real Madrid. In a match containing 11 world champions, the last two winners of the Ballon d’Or, and the last two managers to lift the Champions League, it was Barcelona who delivered a scintillating performance of skill, imagination, and five unanswered goals. It was genuinely imperious from a side that has won every major trophy entered in the last two years. Moreover, Barcelona is in a fourth consecutive Champions League semi-final and is on course for a third consecutive La Liga title.

Barcelona is the benchmark – not only the success that the club has achieved under Pep Guardiola, but the manner in which it has been achieved – by playing some of the consistently best attacking football seen in the last twenty years. Barça has an incredible 84 points from 31 league games this season, scoring 85 goals and conceding just 16. True greatness.

Ferguson’s latest incarnation, as Didier Deschamps recently pointed out, may lack the ‘stardust’ of previous United sides, and it also lacks the fantasy of a side containing Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Andreas Iniesta and David Villa. But can greatness be defined in other ways?

Certainly, a cursory look at the statistics makes for some interesting reading. United has scored 70 goals in 32 league games this season. The United side containing Cristiano Ronaldo scored 80 in 38 games in 2007/08; the treble winning side of 1998/99 also managed 80 goals. In statistical terms at least, United’s current attack is comparable to those famous teams.

United’s home record in the league this season reads 15 wins from 16 games, with 42 goals scored and just nine conceded. And while much has been made of United’s away form, only Arsenal has picked up more points on the road this season. In the Champions League, United has conceded just three goals in 10 games, and none in five away games. The side also remains unbeaten. In fact, United has only been beaten on four occasions this season in all competitions.

Of course, many of the performances this season, particularly away from home have been average at best. Think back to the games at Sunderland, Birmingham City, Wolverhampton Wanderers and worst of all, Liverpool. It is, of course, possible to recall equally dire performances from United every season. It is also true that on many occasions United has dug deep to secure draws or victories when it seemed unlikely – wins at West Brom, Blackpool and West Ham United spring to mind.

True, when compared to the artistry of Barcelona, the current United side looks humble but perhaps its qualities can be defined in other ways. There is something heroic about the way United has seemingly defied the odds this season. The late winner with ten men at home to Bolton Wanderers, or equally later victory secured against Wolves, the stunning goal to win the Manchester derby, and the victory at home to Chelsea on Tuesday.

On Tuesday Chelsea started well, and like many teams this season, made United look uncomfortable. However, United not only scored first but having conceded an away goal Park Ji-Sung scored within a minute to seal the victory. A perfect microcosm of United’s season.

And all this has been achieved despite a plethora of injuries, poor performances and off-the-field problems. Rio Ferdinand has been dogged by injuries, meaning he has only started 21 games in all competitions this season. Antonio Valencia has missed much of the season after a sickening ankle injury. And at various times United has managed without a dozen players, and recently only had four fit defenders to choose from against West Ham.

While some have excelled, others have suffered poor seasons, including Darren Fletcher, Patrice Evra, Michael Carrick and, until recently at least, Rooney. And with Rooney’s contract saga, bans for Ferguson and the former Evertonian, it has been a turbulent season off-the-pitch. The drama serves only to prove United’s character.

Herein lies the point about greatness – it comes in different forms. While there is greatness in defeating Real Madrid 5-0 in one of the most complete team performances in a living memory, there is also greatness in a team whose sum is more than its parts. There is greatness in Messi, Xavi and Iniesta but also in those less valued; Antonio Valencia, Dimitar Berbatov and Nani, whose collective effort has elevated United’s performances. There is also greatness in longevity: Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Edwin van der Sar, who defy age each week.

But most of all, there is greatness in the manager. Ferguson has worked with better individuals but has moulded a unit as strong as any he previously created and a tactical system that highlights the team’s strengths and manages to overcome its weaknesses.

Of course, United hasn’t won a trophy yet and if the team ends the season without silverware nine months of endeavour will have been for nothing. But it is also true that this team stands on the verge of something we can truly call great.  While it would be a different kind of great to Barcelona, it would be equally special.

United could progress without hat-trick hero Wayne Rooney: here’s why

April 5, 2011 Tags: Opinion 39 comments

66 seconds.  That was how long it took for Wayne Rooney to give Manchester United the lead in Munich almost exactly a year ago today.  It was his 34th goal of the season, and it came at a time when United was chasing success in the Premier and Champions Leagues, and there was genuine optimism that Rooney would lead England to glory at the World Cup.  90 minutes later, and United had lost with Rooney carried off the field with an ankle injury, leaving United fans to fear that the club’s chances of success had evaporated. To suggest selling Rooney at that point, you would have to have been mad, or one of the Glazers.

But events in the last 12 months have led many to question Rooney’s future at the club, despite the signing of a new contract worth a reported £240,000 a week, despite the striker’s recent improved form

There are many reasons why United shouldn’t sell Rooney of course.

First, the 25-year-old is still a player who can influence big games.  His recent goal at Stamford Bridge.  THAT overhead kick. The weekend hat-trick at West Ham United. Rooney  retains the ability to make something happen in a game, and for all the heavy touches, the sluggishness, and seeming lack of interest, there is simply no-one else in United’s that offers all of this.

Rooney  still carries an aura that creates fear in opponents; they know he can single-handedly win games, or lift the crowd with a moment of inspiration.

Third, despite the transfer request and utterly contemptible actions back in October, Rooney still has a place in the hearts of many fans.  The banners that sent a strong message about where the fans’ loyalty lay in the aftermath of the game against Bursaspor have long gone, and now the former Evertonian’s name is sung louder than any other at Old Trafford once again.

Supporters, like a cheated partner, know what he did, but are simply trying their best to go back to normal.  The betrayal will always be there, but letting go would still be painful, because regardless of everything that has happened, Rooney has come to represent the beating heart of the club since Roy Keane retired.

Despite this, there are some compelling reasons for selling Rooney this summer.

For all of Rooney’s half-hearted apologies, he will never undo what happened in October.  A simple look back at that turbulent week shows that he didn’t merely ask to leave the club, but he treated the club, the manager, and his team-mates with disdain.  It started with the leaked stories to the press.  The story first broke late on the Sunday night on Twitter –journalists had been briefed by Rooney’s people and there was talk of his relationship with Ferguson being beyond repair.  Before that, there was the saga of his injury; an injury which he had publicly denied existed before the big story broke.  His form and his own words since have proved this a lie.

Then there was that press conference.  The press release where Rooney – who fans were told had broken off talks over a new contract that he had instigated months earlier – tried to shift the story to being about ambition, citing a lack of investment in the team and a lack of assurance about the club’s ability to attract top players.  It was a carefully managed script, and it was delivered just two hours before a Champions League match.

The financial situation at the club is well known, and many people have given a better insight than this article will, but Rooney’s attempts to win the moral argument were spectacularly misguided.  Not many supporters believed the striker then, nor believe him now.

Indeed, Ferguson himself rebutted Rooney’s claims about ‘ambition’ that same night, responding when questioned about Rooney’s comments, by asking: “have I won 30 trophies or what?”  Ferguson’s response and his plea to fans to trust him with the future of the club was more re-assuring, more convincing than Rooney’s attempt to backtrack on his position and become a martyr for the fans disillusioned with the Glazers ownership of the.

The whole saga left a bitter taste in the mouth.  Rooney’s betrayal seemed far worse than Cristiano Ronaldo’s.  Ronaldo had always been clear that he wanted to play for Real Madrid; Rooney said he wanted to stay at United for life.  No matter how many overhead kicks he scores, he will never undo what happened that week.  His name will never be as revered as Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona or Roy Keane.

But whilst it is possible to argue that, with the episode in the past, supporters should move on – after all, even Keane had a very public dispute with the club over a contract ten years ago– there is another, less emotive reason why the club should consider selling the player.

Last season, in a team that had lost Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, Rooney was simply brilliant.  For much of the season, a side that lacked real creativity relied almost solely on Rooney’s goals, and would probably have won a fourth consecutive league title but for the player’s injury.  Throughout that season, Rooney predominantly played as a lone striker, particularly after Christmas, when he scored an inordinate amount of headed goals.  For the first time in his career, Rooney demonstrated what he could do when a team was built around him.

But this season a combination of factors has seen Rooney play increasingly deeper role.  At the start of the season Sir Alex Ferguson finally decided to play Dimitar Berbatov in the position that he occupied at Tottenham – closer to goal –  and has been rewarded with 21 goals so far this season, his best return for the club.  Also, as the season has progressed, Javier Hernandez has gone from impact sub to challenging for a regular place in the starting 11.  The Mexican’s strength is high up the pitch, on the shoulder of the last defender.  Both players have exceeded Rooney this season, and whilst neither has scored as many goals as Rooney did last season, each has contributed to a team that is better balanced and less predictable.

The pair’s form has seen Rooney pushed either out wide, or into an old-fashioned ‘no. 10’ position recently; arguably two positions he is not fully equipped to play in.  He is a good passer, but not great.  His movement is excellent, but his positional sense is not – too often Rooney drifts when he doesn’t see the ball.  The days of Rooney beating a defender with pace and power are long gone.  He is capable in those positions, but does not excel.

All of this leaves Ferguson with a dilemma.  Does he sacrifice Berbatov and Hernandez to let Rooney lead the line again, whilst at the same time adding another barrier to the first team for the promising Danny Welbeck?  Or does he do something more controversial, and sell his one-time star player, and evolve a new team without him?

The latter choice is not without precedent.  Andrei Kanchelskis, Mark Hughes and Paul Ince were sold and replaced with Gary Neville, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt.  Keane was replaced by a completely different player in Michael Carrick.  Ruud Van Nistelrooy was not even replaced, Ferguson instead trusting Ronaldo to step up.  Ronaldo was replaced by Antonio Valencia and a resurgent Nani.  Each time the team evolved, forging a new identity and a new way of playing.

The need for some reinforcements in midfield is long debate and the club has been linked with bids for Jack Rodwell, Wesley Sneijder and Javier Pastore among others. That is for the summer – what we do know is that Carrick, Darren Fletcher, Anderson and probably Scholes will all be at the club next season (the first three having all signed new contracts recently, and an offer is likely to be made to Scholes), but all of them are more comfortable playing deeper in midfield.  If United sells Rooney, and buys an attacking midfielder of genuine quality to play behind Berbatov or Hernandez to link the midfield and attack, the same process of evolution could take place again.

Certainly, there is much evidence that Ferguson prefers a 4-2-3-1 system or one of its derivatives; a player in the mould of Mesut Ozil, or the aforementioned Sneijder, would fit into that set-up.

We have heard much about the talents of some of the younger players at the club.  Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley have been impressive at Sunderland and Wigan Athletic respectively, Federico Macheda is still to fulfil his potential.  Next in line are genuinely brilliant prospects in Paul Pogba, Ryan Tunnicliffe and Ravel Morrison.  Perhaps moving Rooney on, with all the baggage he has accumulated, will allow some of these youngsters – along with an astute signing or two – to shape the evolution of the next, and potentially Fergie’s last, great United side.