Author Dan Bowman

Author Dan Bowman

Not yet the wrong one

Dan Bowman April 3, 2014 Tags: Opinion 24 comments
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It has been Manchester United’s worst campaign of the Premier league era. This is undeniable. The rumblings of discontent with David Moyes that have been present since the Scot joined the club last summer have surged in recent weeks as United fell to Liverpool and then Manchester City. Yet, it is the campaign among some to have Moyes removed  that is particularly unfair.

Those excruciating defeats to Olympiakos and then Liverpool and City marked the lowest period of a particularly sobering season. Yet, it is also irrefutable that defeats to United’s great rivals were in large part due to the form of the two title contenders; each unplayable on the day, while United’s squad is no longer up to the club’s traditional standards.

City has now beaten United in four of the past five meetings, setting a pattern in which the Blues have disposed of the Reds with some ease. Even Yaya Touré scoring in the fixture has been commonplace. And lest we forget this is a United side that was beaten 6-1 by what many observers judge as a weaker City team than the one of today.

Meanwhile, the rise of Liverpool this season can only be met with begrudging admiration. This is a side that was rotten to its core before being rejuvenated under Brendan Rodgers. In contrast to United Liverpool has frequently dished out masterclasses in counter-attacking football this season.

When the Scousers arrived at Old Trafford last month it seemed inevitable that United would suffer destruction of this nature. Liverpool has progressed to a team now at its peak, with a striker who is simply one of the best players in the world. But then again, would the United team of last season have beaten such formidable opposition, in such form? It is doubtful.

It may even be nostalgic to believe that some of United’s finest side – the team of Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, and Gary Neville for example – would have disposed of this Liverpool team, in this form. The Scousers may not win the league, but they have played some of the most attractive football in the Premier league era.

In reality it is defeats to the Premier League’s ‘lesser’ sides, such as West Bromwich Albion, Tottenham Hotspur, Swansea City and Newcastle United, that have truly cost Moyes. It is these defeats that remain unacceptable; especially the way the Reds have lost some of those matches.

Defeat to Olympiakos was one of the more shocking in recent years, but it certainly wasn’t unprecedented. Is this not the same group of players that threw away a two goal lead against FC Basle, or failed to qualify from the group stage just a few years back? This does not excuse the nature of the loss in Athens, nor the pattern it seemed to follow, but these results do happen – to United and other teams around Europe.

In truth Moyes has rarely excelled this season and has made plenty of questionable decisions. There are myriad discussion points from a disappointing campaign, such as United’s playing style, the lack of combination between Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, defensive chaos, or Marouane Fellaini’s performances.

Perhaps the most evident issue is the lack of identity showcased by the side, together with the failure to play any attractive football. Moyes must take responsibility for this. His ideas have not been taken on in the capacity to which he would like, while the Scot’s signings have flattered to deceive. Even Juan Mata, good player though he may prove to be, looks increasingly the panic buy mirrored in Fellaini’s acquisition last summer.

In this scenario support for Moyes has dwindled during the low points of the season; understandable given the scale of disappointment to which supporters of United have borne witness.

Reds have so often been kicked while they are down. In a season of relatively few highlights the derby could have been the perfect remedy in softening the pain of previous months, even if expectations had hit a new low. However, United simply performed in the manner to which they have all season long: poorly. Perhaps the most significant negative to arise out of defeat to City and Liverpool is that they were simply unsurprising.

Despite this, the way in which the atmosphere surrounding the club has turn toxic following two devastating, but understandable defeats, seems over-the-top to many United supporters.  Especially regulars at Old Trafford. In reality the Reds were well beaten by two sides that are simply better than United this season. That has little to do with the manager.

And even if United fall short in Munich next week there is no obvious replacement to fix all United’s ills this season.

Moyes may well turn out to be the ‘Wrong One’ as the now infamous plane claimed. It was a dumb stunt, but to sack him at this point, with so little time on the clock, now that really would be stupid.

Time to take a chance

Dan Bowman November 28, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 22 comments

In the past few weeks, despite Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s assertions to the contrary, it has become obvious that the club simply does not posses a central midfield pairing worth talking about. Despite the early pace set by youngsters Tom Cleverley and Anderson, United has few central midfield options that can challenge domestic rivals, let alone those of Barcelona. This is especially true since the pair’s lengthy injury absence took hold.

In contrast to Cleverley’s performances during the late summer, the growing dissatisfaction with Michael Carrick continues around Old Trafford. Although the Geordie’s performance against Swansea City 10 days ago was an improvement, it was a ‘needle in a hay-stack’ full of dismal showings. Carrick’s lack of pace and dynamism, and his predictability, remains a source of frustration for many followers of the club.

Indeed, even the once revered ‘Scottish player’, Darren Fletcher, has begun to bear the brunt of some criticism for his lack of guile and, at times, poor passing. Despite the Scot’s enduring endeavour, Fletcher has never been the most proficient player technically. Too often this has been apparent over the last two years. One can attribute Fletcher’s muted displays to a prolonged period on the sidelines, but what is now clear is that there is little more to come from the player that fans have not already seen. Fletcher’s game is no longer improving rapidly, and worse, his form has begun to stagnate.

Anderson and Cleverley started brightly this season; the pair was simply magnificent during August and early September. Cleverley was a breath of fresh air, while Anderson had seemingly found a partner who could bring out the best in the Brazilian. Since then both players have picked up long-term injuries. To many, Cleverley’s absence until Christmas could be the downfall of United’s trophy ambitions this season.

It is rare that a player is missed so much at United. Rarer still that this is true of Cleverley while he remains a rookie. After all, when Cristiano Ronaldo left the club, United survived. Ditto Cantona and a host of other stars. Yet, without the young Englishman’s presence, the Reds have seemingly very few options of quality.

Some say that Ryan Giggs return from injury could be the team’s saviour, but for many that sentiment is a sad reality for a club of United’s stature. Reliance on a 37-year-old veteran, who can barely manage two games in a week, to be the creative driving force says much.

Then there is youth, perhaps the only stone left unturned by Ferguson in the search for the right midfield balance. The Scot has forever championed the use of youngsters, yet Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison remain reserve team players at best. To many supporters the situation is increasingly frustrating, with Morrison displaying more creativity against Aldershot Town in the Carling Cup last month than many of United’s regular central midfielders have done in years.

The much-troubled midfielder has been hailed by pundits as the best in a generation, yet is still waiting in the wings for an opportunity. Granted it is still early for Morrison to be thrust into action against the very best, but it is less obvious why the 18-year-old has not yet been utilised in games against ‘lesser’ sides this season.

Likewise, the highly rated Frenchman Pogba is under-used. Indeed, the teenager is reportedly considering his options due to a lack of first-team football after three years at the club. And where the French under-19 international might see the stadium lights at Arsenal once in a while, his chances remain few and far between at Old Trafford.

What chance, then, that the pair might start against Crystal Palace in the Carling Cup this week? While Ferguson name-checked both midfielders on Monday, the Scot has tended to use the tournament to offer fringe players some game time. After all, many predicted that Morrison and Pogba would start against both Leeds United and Aldershot in earlier rounds. They did not.

“Ravel Morrison was in the squad for Wednesday’s game [against Benfica]. He’s a very, very talented boy, of course, and he’ll possibly be on the bench, at least, in midweek,” said Ferguson.

“But I’ve got other players needing a game like Mame Biram Diouf and Federico Macheda. Chris Smalling has come back and I may be able to play him on Wednesday. He’s still young and it’ll be a young squad against Palace. The only area where I’ve got problems is centre midfield. It’s possible I could play Pogba in there but we’ll wait and see. I’ve got enough players to choose from, that’s for sure.”

“I think the League Cup has turned into quite a good tournament. Clubs like United are able to introduce young players and ones who have not been playing regularly in the first team and it’s been good to us over the years. We’ve won two finals at Wembley with young players, which is good going, and I think it’s become an important tournament for us in terms of getting the youngsters an introduction into winning and having an understanding of the progress they’re making.”

The issue is hot topic for many critics. The failure to sign Wesley Sneijder, or another leading midfield name, was always going to be Ferguson’s shortcoming this season. And while this may be true, if there are no players available at a price the club is willing to spend, then somebody else must be offered the chance. Yet, for many fans the sight, for example, of Ji-sung Park chasing shadows in the centre of midfield, or Wayne Rooney’s immense talent wasted as a defensive midfielder, is beyond frustrating.

It is clear that Cleverley has the potential to be one of the world’s best players in the years to come. The player’s handful of games for the club has already demonstrated all the qualities that Ferguson needs, even if the youngster has too often been injured in his short career. But as Cleverley’s rise illustrates, sometimes Ferguson simply must take a chance on the players at his disposal. Certain youngsters will hope the Scot heeds the advice this week.

Pressure now on Hernández to deliver

Dan Bowman July 13, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 3 comments

While the focus of Manchester United’s summer for many supporters has been the search for the ‘new’ Paul Scholes, Wayne Rooney’s hairline or even how to pronounce David de Gea, for Javier Hernández it may well be how to match or improve on a fantastic début season at Old Trafford.

The Mexican, who scored 20 goals in 45 games last season, arrived with little expectation but announced himself on the biggest stage with a fortuitous goal against Chelsea in the Community Shield. The goal proved a sign of a season to come.

Yet, after the bright start Hernández – Chicharito – struggles with the Premier League’s physicality, especially in United’s disappointing 2-2 draw at Craven Cottage. It said much for the player’s quality and determination to improve that Hernández reassured Ferguson with a magnificent finish away from home against Valencia to seal an unconvincing win in September.

Arguably, however, the real turning point in Hernández’ season was the fantastic double against Stoke City at the Britannia in October.

“There was a game that really made me realise that I could have an interesting season. It was the match against Stoke City in which I scored twice,” concluded the 22-year old striker in May.

“Throughout the match, I felt perfectly at ease in the game. I felt like I had been playing for Manchester United for 10 years. Thanks to my team-mates, I could express myself freely on the pitch. I think it was the pivotal game in my season. I will remember it all my life.”

From a position of strength the Mexican dislodged top scorer Dimitar Berbatov in Sir Alex Ferguson’s starting eleven and scored vital goals in both league and cup competitions. In total the 20 goals allowed Hernández to  join the great Ruud van Nistlerooy in reaching the landmark in his first season at Old Trafford. van Nistelrooy went on to score 150 goals in 200 starts for United.

The immediate challenge for Hernández is to overcome the real risk of burnout so early in his career. Chicharito has been subjected to a grueling summer after a first physical season in England. First the late finish to the campaign against Barcelona at Wembley and then a highly successful Gold Cup campaign with Mexico, in which Hernández netted seven times in six games.

The striker stood out throughout the competition, despite the arguably poor quality of opposition. In the process Hernández won player of the tournament; an outstanding accolade regardless of the competition.

Ferguson will be thankful that Chicharito was left out of Mexico’s calamitous Copa America for a fear of burnout. The Mexican football association is equally protective of its star asset. The extended break afforded to the player before he joins his club compatriots in the USA for their summer is also welcome. Ferguson is no doubt extremely hesitant to overuse the nimble Mexican on this media exercise.

The scene is set for Hernández to carry his impressive summer form into the new season, although Ferguson has a plethora of options available to allow the Mexican ample time recover full fitness.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for Chicharito to now overcome is the clichéd ‘second season syndrome’ – other players have broken in to United’s first team only to fade away.

In fact Hernández could find no greater motivation than in the squad itself, with Michael Owen, once the darling of world football, now little more than Old Trafford squad filler aged just 31 Old Trafford. Hernández has a similar playing style to a young Owen – a game built on playing off the last shoulder of the last defender, matched with deadly pace. Perhaps Ferguson’s real love for Owen is to school Hernández in the fine art of finishing.

Regardless of that particular theory, the coming season remains the biggest test of Hernández’ resolve to date. Teams across the continent will have improved their understanding of United’s potent striker.

“I do not rest on my laurels. I want to do even better next season. I want to help this club to make history,” added Hernández after collecting the Supporters’ Player of the Season award in May.

Ferguson and the supporters can only hope his game has improved too.

One week on: Reds take no pride from Euro final

Dan Bowman June 4, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 10 comments

It has been nearly a week since Sir Alex Ferguson’s team lost comprehensively to a Barcelona side hailed as ‘the best of a generation’. Although credit is due to Pep Guardiola’s truly magnificent Barça side, which illustrates just why total football is no longer a utopian concept, it can also be said that United rarely engaged the Catalan giants in battle at Wembley.

For all the confidence shown pre-match, United failed to deliver a performance in the season’s biggest match. Perhaps part of the problem was Ferguson’s selection? After all, the starting 11 – one that many supporters called for prior to kick-off – failed to disclose Ferguson’s true intentions; whether to match Barcelona tactically and defend, or change the system and go for broke.

Evidently United did neither of those. The selection of Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick, flanked by Park Ji-Sung and Antonio Valencia, suggests United wanted to take the game to Barcelona. Yet, as the statistics demonstrate, Ferguson’s side did little of this, with just one shot on target in 90 minutes.

Defensively United’s midfield did little to deter Barcelona’s attacking impetus, with Giggs struggling to break up the famous ‘carousel’ of Xavi Hernandez and Andreas Iniesta, largely due to the physical constraints of the role. Meanwhile, Valencia and Park failed to offer United an outlet on the wings and were unable to turn the tide of possession in United’s favour.

Despite this Ferguson’s team sheet is certainly defendable given the set of results against Chelsea and Shalke towards the end of the season, using Carrick and Giggs in the centre of midfield.

The Scot had only a few options at kick-off. However, after 45 minutes United was clearly struggling to negate Barcelona threat and change was needed.

Perhaps Wayne Rooney’s strike, giving the side a lifeline on 35 minutes, may have adversely suggested convinced the Scot that no substitutions were needed when it was abundantly clear to most Giggs and Carrick would never force Barcelona into submission. If Ferguson had both Darren Fletcher and Anderson on the bench why did he forget to deploy either of them when needed?

The decision not to call on either Fletcher or Anderson may have led to Barca’s goals. Disappointingly, each of Barcelona’s three strikes derived from lackluster defending. With the aforementioned pair Barcelona would surely not have been gifted so much time in front of goal.

Lionel Messi’s goal on 54 minutes is a perfect example of this point. United’s defence failed to close the Argentinean down leaving Edwin Van der Saar exposed and Messi with a choice of firing into either corner. With no defensive cover in midfield Messi had even more time and space.

Aside from United’s defensive display, the Reds rarely managed to spring into attack with Javier Hernandez cutting an isolated figure and at times seemingly out of his depth.

Here Ferguson could also have done something different too. Certainly a player of Nani’s abilities would have added more had he been introduced earlier in the game. Perhaps even United’s leading goal scorer, Dimitar Berbatov, would have been useful from the bench? It seems futile to even attempt to understand the Bulgarian’s snub in place of a man who has scored just five goals this season.

Many pundits claim that no side would have beaten Barcelona that night. That may be true but the manner of defeat inflicted upon Ferguson’s side was embarrassing. More to the point, those who witnessed Barcelona’s encounters with Shaktar Donetsk, although high scoring, will have observed far more evenly contested affairs with the Ukrainians.

There were also alternative approaches to United’s. Real Madrid infamously tried a more defensive tactic in one of five encounters this season. Despite mixed results, Jose Mourinho’s side certainly gave Barcelona far more of a game than United did.

Ferguson’s side seldom forced Barca’s newly formed defence back. Neither did the they pressurise Iniesta and Xavi. The evidence: how many times did Barcelona’s players feel the need to writhe around on the ground in agony? Certainly, it was merely a fraction of what Barça exposed the world to in the matches against Real Madrid.

In fact the only injustice of the occasion was the presence of Sergio Busquets on the pitch. Despite being clearly and conclusively depicted as racially abusing Real Madrid’s Marcelo in the semi-final UEFA deemed it fitting to dismiss the claims. Maybe Jose Mourinho wasn’t so mad after all.

Not that United can complain. Ferguson’s side got exactly what was coming.

Under Blackpool’s lights

Dan Bowman January 24, 2011 Tags: , Matches 325 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson’s side faces an unpredictable trip north to Blackpool on Tuesday night, with Ian Holloway’s side notoriously durable opponents. Facing a backlog of fixtures, Holloway’s newly promoted side takes on one of England’s heavyweights at Bloomfield Road, with Manchester United seeking a five point lead in the Premier League.

Conforming to the cliché that there are no easy fixtures in the Premier League – despite Roberto Martinez’ best efforts over at the DW – the Tangerines are a resolute bunch, playing an attacking 4-3-3 system where the erratic finishing of Dudley Campbell is nevertheless imperative. The 29-year-old former Birmingham City striker’s tally of seven goals this season has largely repaid the club record £1.25 million fee.

Indeed, Holloway has done a fine job of turning what many thought of as Championship level players into Premier League survivors. In demand Scot Charlie Adam has starred but teammate David Vaughan is also has a player with a terrific range of passing. Across the board under-rated players have excelled under Holloway’s management, with Luke Varney integral to the side alongside Vaughan, Adam and Campbell.

Ferguson has taken stock of Blackpool’s remarkable rise, in which he hailed Holloway’s influence on the seasiders.

“No doubt the manager of the year so far is Ian Holloway,” said Ferguson.

“They’ve been a breath of fresh air – they’ve been positive and lit up the game… they are throwing four or five players forward into the box to get on the end of crosses all the time. They are really having a go and saying if we’re going to fail, let’s fail gloriously.”

The form book says Blackpool has won just one of its last six just as United hits top gear, but as Avram Grant can testify, in football anything is possible. It’s a fact of which Ferguson and his multi-millionaire players will no doubt be wary, especially given United’s nerve-racking performances away from home this season.

Ferguson will be tempted to rest his leading stars for the short trip to Blackpool but whoever the opponent the home side guarantees huge endeavor. It’s a fact illustrated by Manchester City’s recent fixtures against Holloway’s side. At Bloomfield Road it required David Silva’s ‘world class’ goal to beat the home side, while the return fixture was a tough 1-0 win for City.

Still, Ferguson may be tempted to rest Michael Carrick, Rio Ferdinand, Ryan Giggs and Patrice Evra, with each suffering injuries recently. Rafael da Silva returns after suspension but brother Fabio could come into the side or John O’Shea retain his place in any case. Meanwhile, Gabriel Obertan, Darron Gibson and Chris Smalling could all feature at some stage.

Chalkboard v BlackpoolHowever, with an FA Cup tie against League One Southampton to come next weekend Ferguson is under no pressure to make wholesale changes, with the Reds chasing a 27th unbeaten league game. It could be a high scoring fixture too – Blackpool has hit the net in every home fixture since Derby County visited in August 2009.

Meanwhile, Holloway’s preparations for the game have been hit by Adam’s transfer request after Liverpool submitted a £4 million bid over the weekend. The angry Blackpool manager hit out at Liverpool Director of Football Damien Comolli’s approach for the Blackpool captain.

“[Liverpool] have to come up with the right amount of money,” said Holloway, who confirmed that Adam will play against United tomorrow night.

“I don’t want to stand in his way, but they have to put up or shut up. [Comolli] ummed and aahed and apparently did not make much sense.

“Charlie loves this club and just because he puts a transfer request in doesn’t change that.”

Holloway must also face the leaders without Chris Basham, David Carney, Stephen Crainey, Billy Clarke, Matt Gilks and Malaury Martin. Even without the absentees it’s a daunting prospect for Holloway’s men, who have not hosted United for 36 years or beaten the Reds since 1963.

It’s a record few expect the Tangerines to improve on tomorrow night.

Opposition
Blackpool – 433 – Kingson; Baptiste, Evatt, Cathcart, Eardley; Vaughan, Grandin, Adam; Taylor-Fletcher, Varney, Campbell. Subs from: Rachubka, Southern, Sylvestre, Harewood, Ormerod, Euell, Phillips.

United
United – 442 – van der Sar; Rafael da Silva, Vidic, Smalling, O’Shea; Nani, Fletcher, Anderson, Obertan; Rooney, Berbatov. Subs from: Kuzszazk, Amos, Evans, Fabio da Silva, Brown, Carrick, Gibson, Owen, Bébé, Obertan, Hernández, , Evra, Ferdinand, Giggs.

Officials
Referee: Peter Walton
Assistant referees: Andy Newbold & Adam Watts
Fourth official: Mark Clattenburg

Form
Blackpool – LLLWLL
United – WDWWWW

Bring back Becks

Dan Bowman December 22, 2010 Tags: Opinion 27 comments

In the spirit of the Christmas there is but one present Sir Alex Ferguson can deliver: bring back a lost son, (Sir) David Beckham. After all the player has consistently stated his love for the club and this loyalty to United, at a time and age when offers might be limited from top European clubs. It is to be greatly lauded.

Meanwhile, murmurs of discontent among Manchester United supporters about the continuous arrival of generations of unknown child prodigies, who usually get released into the slums of the football league or the murky depths of continental football, continue.

Yet Beckham, who has no doubt received offers from many English clubs, including Everton and Sven Goran Eriksson’s Leicester globetrotters professes his continued love for the club.

For the Los Angeles Galaxy star it is simple – “I am Manchester United fan” and consequently he can “only play for Manchester United.”

In England at least.

“I have always missed playing in the Premier League since I left it eight years ago,” said Beckham, as he picked up the BBC Sports Personality Lifetime Achievement Award on Sunday night.

“It’s a great league and one of the most competitive in the world.

“Maybe one day I will come back here but I have always said that it will only be for Manchester United. I am not holding my breath on that one, but we will have to wait and see.

“For me, the best manager in football is Sir Alex Ferguson, who I still regard as a father figure after so many years.”

It is easy to discredit Beckham’s desire to return home of course. But, arguably, the 35-year-old could still command a role in the present United side where his creative instincts in central midfield – the role he grew up playing – or the tried and tested right-wing berth could come in useful.

Beckham’s prospective arrival is be all the more relevant given the departure of Park Ji-Sung for seven weeks to the Asian Cup, coupled with Antonio Valencia’s ongoing injury. Despite his age Beckham’s quality service would undoubtedly be welcomed by United’s strikers.

Despite what many will say about the current level of Beckham’s play in the United States – and his age – the Londoner would, for the first time in years, offer the Reds genuine set piece quality, rather than the lottery of Nani’s dead ball delivery. And in Paul Scholes’ and Ryan Giggs’ continued absence, Beckham might still supply a creative spark.

Any loan deal will come with Beckham’s large wage packet of course but a move could still make strong commercial sense given the global profile the player still commands. It’s a fact team Glazer will no doubt approve of.

Of course, it’s easy to write off the argument as emotionally charged. But, with a hint of realism, Beckham’s re-signing even in the short term makes more sense than say the Spaniard Joaquin, who was recently linked with a move to Old Trafford in the gossip pages. Where imports may flop, Beckham will succeed.

This Christmas lets wish upon a Beckham return to the club where it all began. Wouldn’t you like to see the golden boys run out at Old Trafford once more?

In David’s words perhaps we shouldn’t hold our breath but maybe Santa will bring fans the best present this year.

The Harry Redknapp model

Dan Bowman December 3, 2010 Tags: , Opinion 20 comments

Much has been made  of Tottenham Hotspur’s resurgence under Harry Redknapp in recent months, from relegation candidates to top four stardom. It’s an achievement that should not be underestimated but what, if anything, can a Manchester United side struggling for true consistency learn from the north Londoners?

To begin with, this Spurs side is engrossed in competition at all levels. Managers have come and gone too often for the club’s own good and old ‘Arry’s appointment was seemingly the last roll of the dice in a bid to become an English heavyweight once more.

The costly removal of Senor Juande Ramos and Damien Comolli, now director of football at Liverpool, made the move for Harry even more desperate, placing Redknapp under extreme pressure to succeed from the start.

This notion of competition transcends to the grossly overpopulated squad too. Where United lack real depth in many positions, Spurs arguably has a myriad of options. In fact of the 11 that started against Liverpool, perhaps only one player is guaranteed his place in the first team – the hugely influential Croatian Luka Modric.

Heurelho Gomes, the once much criticised goalkeeper but now very much number one, has overcome his doubters but remains supported by two other experienced options, Carlo Cudicini and Croatian ‘keeper Stipe Pletikosa.

Right-back Alan Hutton has only recently won his place in the side back from Vedran Corluka, despite once proclaiming his desire for a move to Sunderland he has since impressed all with his attacking impetus.

Central defenders William Gallas and Younes Kaboul are likely to find themselves back on the bench once Ledley King and Dawson return from injury, regardless of their impressive vain of form. This of course is without mentioning the much troubled but talented England defender Jonathan Woodgate

Benoit Assou-Ekotto has been dropped in the past but has recently signed a new contract after positive form this season, although any move to reinstate Gareth Bale to defence would oust the Cameroonian once again.

Meanwhile Golden boy Bale, now the first name on the team sheet, was not so long ago a much a maligned figure, having famously never played when his side had won a game. Bale’s development adds to a sense that Redknapp has a wealth of options in midfield.

Wilson Palacios, bought at vast expense, been forced to play second fiddle to the now injured Tom Huddlestone, despite early promise in his White Hart Lane career. Even Jermaine Jenas’ resurgence has kept the Honduran out of the side in recent weeks.

Should Brazilian international Sandro continue to develop or the much touted signing of Scott Parker happen, Redknapp’s midfield options will only be stronger.

Aaron Lennon has also been used from the substitutes bench this season as his form has wavered but this has accommodated Rafael van der Vaart and two strikers. Lennon is also under some pressure from David Bentley and Niko Kranjcar for his position, who can also provide competition for Bale’s left-wing slot.

Van der Vaart’s inclusion contradicts the basis of Spurs’ recent success – 4-4-2. So for the Dutchman to be accommodated he must carry on producing magic, or Jermaine Defoe and even captain Robbie Keane will be back in the side.

Meanwhile, the hardly prolific Peter Crouch, who like Roman Pavlychenko has been rotated and then rotated again in order to find the best fit, still adds to the wealth of options.

The point vividly illustrated in Redknapp’s model is that no player is irreplaceable. The squad is so deep that if anyone fails to reach his standards there are often three or four players able to step in.

Of the players discussed, each is a now a seasoned pro. Where Sir Alex Ferguson calls on, for example, Fabio da Silva, Harry has Kaboul. Similarly, if Ji-Sung Park plays poorly there is really no better replacement available.

Fans are guilty of enjoying the inclusion of young players but in the pursuit of glory is United’s squad strength enough?

Even more glaring is United’s lack of creativity in midfield. Harry bought Van der Vaart; United stuck by a more dysfunctional unit.

Earlier in the season there was reason to laud United’s strength in attacking depth. It remains true in theory. Sadly, leaving aside the whole Wayne Rooney debacle, few United strikers have regularly stepped up to the plate. Berbatov scores five one week but there is little guarantee he won’t ruin it the next.

The question remains, ‘Does United really have a big enough squad to seriously challenge on three fronts?’

Sir Alex held greater depth in previous years and although it may not have guaranteed anything now watching players’ reaction at Villa park when the two first choice strikers were removed for, critically speaking, two freshmen was instructive.

Perhaps Ferguson this more often as another season of inconsistency will not suffice for many United faithful.

Obertan: the forgotten man

Dan Bowman October 22, 2010 Tags: Opinion 36 comments

When Gabriel Obertan signed for Manchester United, little was known about the graduate of the prestigious Clairefontaine academy. Injury held the player back initially before a dash for the first team came last October. But generally since the player’s £3.5 million transfer from Girondins de Bordeaux at Old Trafford, little has been seen of the 21-year-old.

Turning 22 next February, it is an important time in the French under 21 international’s career. Like Federico Macheda and many others at the club, Obertan must now translate promise into reality if he is to win a long-term future at Old Trafford.

It should be the perfect time for Obertan to break into Sir Alex Ferguson’s team. The deeply unfortunate injury suffered by Ecuadorian winger Antonio Valencia against Rangers last month opened up a spot in Ferguson’s team. Fast-forward a month and there have still been no significant outings for the Frenchman save for a substitute appearance against Bursaspor this week.

After all Obertan’s competition is mixed at best. An ageing Ryan Giggs has been in and out of the United side with injuries, and even a fully fit Welshan cannot be expected to play more than a game a week.

South Korean Ji-Sung Park remains about as effective as England World Cup 2010 campaign. Park is lost, a man of whom much is expected but has proven undeniably useless when United’s need for creativity is most apparent this season. Park’s transformation from the player most-often seen in United’s crucial fixtures to desperately giving away the ball this season is stark.

Obertan is surely next in line but either Ferguson appears to have changed his mind on his acquisition, or he is biding his time and will introduce the Frenchman when he has no more cards to play.

After overcoming a back injury last season, Obertan has become a regular fixture for the reserve team. Playing either upfront or as a winger, the 21-year-old offers pace and dribbling ability. But despite featuring in the Carling Cup time against Scunthorpe United in September, he was immediately called back to play for the reserves.

Such a rapid demotion to the stiffs suggests Obertan is further away from the true first team picture than ever.

Obertan’s last memorable outing for the first team came during last season’s Champions League away trip to Wolfsburg, where he superbly set up Michael Owen to regain as United regained the lead.

The other memorable occasion for Obertan last season was an utterly appalling performance in the home FA Cup Third Round defeat to Leeds United. Obertan was not alone in performing badly but displayed all the traits that are worst in the youngster – his end product is poor, even when the winger beats a man he frequently loses the ball.

United fans can only hope that Obertan’s performance in Germany translates promise into a future reality.

Rather more ominously his former coach and former United player Laurent Blanc warned that United may fail with Obertan where others have already dared to tread.

“Manchester United have been tracking him for a long time,” said Blanc last August.

“They certainly hope to advance him, something that Bordeaux and Lorient have failed to do.”

One thing is certain, despite the inconsistencies of Obertan’s performances the winger must get a chance in the coming weeks or he will stagnate.

United’s stock of wingers remains depleted. Save for a miraculous resurgence in Park or the now infamous Bébé makes a meteoric rise in the coming weeks, it seems that Anderson and Darron Gibson may be utilised on the flanks more.

It’s not a picture that Obertan can welcome.

The dissolution

Dan Bowman October 20, 2010 Tags: , , Opinion 20 comments

Manchester United could learn a lesson from Liverpool’s epic final ownership saga. While Liverpool stared at meltdown, questions must be asked of United’s position too. Is the club really on the road to similar ruin? David Gill and Ferguson might insist all is well behind the scenes, but the club has challenges on and off the pitch.

Certainly, within the confines of Sir Alex Ferguson’s lair, signs point significant unrest in the dressing room as the squad’s quality has been eroded.

Results have not improved in recent weeks, despite the return of heavyweight defender Rio Ferdinand to the United side. Wayne Rooney might have claimed full fitness this season but his performances are closer to those at Anfield, and not title chasing United.

Yet far from improving the squad, Ferguson must face up to the challenge of a team seemingly in decline. In the recent past Anderson, captain Nemanja Vidic, Michael Carrick, Michael Owen, and Federico Macheda have been linked with moves away from the club. Many for good reason.

Many of the squad have questions to answer about their form and fitness. Ji-Sung Park’s woeful displays this season, Anderson persistent underperformance and the simple presence of Darron Gibson in the United squad is cause for concern.

Ferguson must also contend with the imminent retirements of Paul Scholes, Edwin van der Saar, Gary Neville and possibly even the evergreen Ryan Giggs. It is conceivable that the quartet will each quit the club next summer.

The almost inevitable retirement of Owen Hargreaves down the line must also be factored into the equation. Either way, Hargreaves is out of contract in June, with little chance the club will offer him a new deal.

Meanwhile, Antonio Valencia’s injury is serious concern, leaving the squad with just Nani as the sole in-form and fit winger. It has left United bereft of creativity in midfield leaving Scholes at 35 and 36-year-old Ryan Giggs as necessities, rather than luxuries.

To compound the problems in the squad star striker Rooney now seems certain to leave, if not in January then next summer, with contract talks broken off and the player’s reputation damaged by Ferguson’s statement yesterday.

United fans are no strangers to the transfer mill of course and many of the stories coming out of Old Trafford can be attributed to the media’s demand for gossip. Yet there is little doubt that United’s current 25-man squad is a long way off the quality Ferguson has possessed in the past. Perhaps far from the quality he really wants.

Ferguson maintains that he is happy with his squad’s depth but in previous years more decisive action would surely have been taken before now.

Even United’s evolution in recent years into a side that defended better than anyone, rather than outscored the opposition, has now unravelled. The team has a real problem despite its unbeaten record this season.

Whispers of Rooney’s inner predicament allude, in part at least, to the lack of investment in the first team. The former Evertonian is hardly the first person to notice the decline but the reaction from a high-profile player is a major blow to the Gill-Glazer-Ferguson coalition.

But if the squad’s decline is to be arrested then the question remains how to stop the supposed rot? To parrot a well-known phrase: investment, investment, investment. Certainly the club’s youth policy is yet to truly bear fruit in recent seasons.

Over at Anfield Liverpool is showing that nobody is too good for the drop. This despite new ownership. Failure to invest in the squad, together with key player sales and financial problems, has left the club in the bottom three and the manager on the brink.

United may well be a long road from that scenario but the warning signs are definitely there.

A promising start

Dan Bowman September 26, 2010 Tags: , Opinion 26 comments

Despite a mixed bag of results to date, including a disappointing draw at Bolton Wanderers today, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side remains one of two unbeaten teams in the Premier League. Even including late failures at Fulham and Everton, and turgid stalemate with Rangers, it has still been a decent start from the Scot’s side this season.

Although last week’s rout over Scunthorpe United is not the greatest litmus test of the side’s ambitions this season, it demonstrated if proof were needed, that this season’s team has a wealth of goalscoring options. That may not have always been the case at United and will serve the club well this season.

Ferguson’s squad includes five front-line strikers – Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Owen, Javier Hernández, Federico Macheda – all of whom are pushing for regular starting berth. Not even the Real Madrid can boast that kind of strength in depth up-front.

That said, the most obvious deficiency within the current side is a lack goal scoring midfielder. Paul Scholes’ deeper role and Tom Cleverley’s season-long loan to Wigan Athletic have left United short. The injuries to Antonio Valenica and Ryan Giggs have only compounded the problem.

On a more promising note the return of Anderson adds to Ferguson’s options. The flickering embers of the Brazilian’s talent may just grown bright once more. Certainly Ferguson will hope that he will finally become the player United hoped he would when shelling out £17 million three years ago.

On his return against Scunthorpe, Anderson took on the midfield anchor role, with his passing generally consistent. Although the 20-year-old did not play against Bolton today, Ferguson will surely bring the former Porto player back into the fold sooner rather than later.

Ferguson’s new signings have not had a dramatic impact on the side to date but each remains promising.

Recent evidence suggests that Chris Smalling is, in fact, not so appauling. The acquisition from Fulham looks a smart buy following a strong and composed display against Scunthorpe on Wednesday. In the 20-year-old’s two games against Rangers and the Lincolnshire side to date he has shown more than a passing reminiscence of Rio Ferdinand. Keeping the England captain at close quarters can only be a good ploy for the youngster.

Meanwhile, ‘Chicharito’ is yet to fully settle. At times the striker has appeared to struggle with the physicality of the English game despite his promising display in the Community Shield. It’s hardly a surprise but the 21-year-old Mexico international may already have fallen down the pecking order.

An indifferent display against Fulham was followed up by a woeful performance against Rangers, when Ferguson pushed the striker into an unfamiliar wide position. Indeed, against Scunthorpe Chicharito failed to truly assert himself on the home side’s backline, and often looked lost when defending in wide areas.

More intriguing of the three, the now infamous Bébé has a ‘touch of the Ronaldos’ about him on the evidence of his cameo against Scunthorpe. The Portuguese may yet prove the resurrection of Carlos Queiroz’ reputation. Bébé’s direct approach, coupled with his immense physical stature and blistering pace will no doubt trouble even the very best of defences in time.

One of the more promising aspects of the new season is United’s attacking style. Ferguson has once again got his side back to playing the mouth-watering football we also associate with many great United teams. The return of 4-4-2 may have helped, although the rejuvenation of Dimitar Berbatov and excellence of (Sir) Paul Scholes is central to United’s attacking play.

Ferguson’s appointment of Nemanja Vidic as captain could also prove a masterstroke this season, as the Scot attempts to create a more settled side that in the recent past. With Vidic often linked with a move abroad, the captaincy could help the Serbian focus on the job at hand as one of the club’s most senior players.

Yet today’s result with Bolton also highlighted the major fault with the team – defensive lapses that have cost seven goals in three away Premier League games, including two very late draws. United can ill afford for it to continue this trend and perhaps only the return – and consistent fitness – of Ferdinand can eradicate the problem.

Despite the draws on the road United remains second in the table, is through to the fourth round of the Carling cup and is still favourites to top Champions league Group C.

Sterner tests lie ahead than of course. Certainly tougher than the remarkably weak Liverpool side that United crushed last weekend. The next big test sees United travel to the Mestalla on Wednesday to face Valencia, La Liga’s surprise package.