Author Ed

Author Ed

Real return to ‘Galaticos’ policy but will it work?

June 11, 2009 Tags: , Reads No comments

News that Real Madrid have spent an eye watering £139 million to bring Brazilian midfielder Kaká and our very own Cristiano Ronaldo to the Santiago Bernabeau heralds the second coming of President Florentino Pérez and his now infamous ‘Galácticos’ policy. With a reported €300 million transfer budget at his finger tips, Pérez has been typically bullish by announcing his target list that includes David Villa, Xabi Alonso, Franc Ribéry, David Silva and Raúl Albiol. Indeed, Villa will probably follow Kaká and Ronaldo to Madrid by signing for Los Merengues this week for a fee in excess of £30 million.

Pérez was first President of Madrid between 2002 and 2006 when he instigated the ‘Zidanes y Pavones’ transfer policy, which saw the club spend vast sums on bringing in world stars, while filing out the squad with youth teamers such as the much riddiculed Francisco Pavón. The policy began with the contraversial transfer of Luís Figo at a cost of £38.7 million from FC Barcelona in 2000, with Real forcing through the transfer after signing a pre-contract agreement with the player that included a massive penalty clause if the player reneged on the deal. It was a similar agreement to the one it is claimed (but denied) that Real signed with Ronaldo last summer. Then followed Zinedine Zidane for a world record £45 million from Juventus in 2001, (the Brazilian) Ronaldo for £26 million from Inter Milan in 2002, and then David Beckham at £25 million from United in 2003.

But the policy largely failed because it was driven more by marketing than the needs of the team. Pérez was prepared to spend vast sums and wages on star names but this was rarely the case for defensive players. Indeed, it was a policy that led to the departure of Claude Makélélé to Chelsea in 2003 for a huge wage increase. It was also claimed by one Madrid director that the club brought in David Beckham rather than Ronaldinho – the player Sir Alex Ferguson wanted as the Londoner’s replacement – because the Brazilian was ‘too ugly’ to sell shirts.

Madrid under Pérez was also a club riven with factionalism and in-fighting, where the manager had minimal input into team selection and precious little time to succeed. In fact success was no guarantee of a job the following season – Vincente del Bosque was famously sacked in 2003 after winning La Liga because he fell out with Pérez. Many other managers followed. This instability meant that during Pérez’ first spell in charge the team won La Liga in 2001 and 2003, and the Champions League in 2000 and 2002. Was this really enough silverware given the club’s vast expenditure?

Now Pérez appears to be instigating a new Galácticos era that bares all the hallmarks of the past. Time will tell whether the club manages to find the appropriate balance between huge expenditure on big name attacking players, and the stability that comes with a long term manager and solid defensive unit. Many will have their doubts despite the huge names signing on the dotted line.

It’s adieu Ronaldo as United accept bid

June 11, 2009 Tags: , Reads 2 comments

Cristiano Ronaldo will finally move to Real Madrid after Manchester United’s board accepted a phenomenal £80 million bid for the player today. The offer from Madrid, which United claim is unconditional, will be the second time the Spanish side have set the world-record for a transfer fee this summer after Kaká moved to Santiago Bernabeau for £59 million earlier this week.

In a statement Manchester United said that they had accepted the offer at “Cristiano’s request” because the player had “again expressed his desire to leave, and after discussion with the player’s representatives, United have agreed to give Real Madrid permission to talk to the player. Matters are expected to be concluded by 30 June.”

Real Madrid confirmed only that they are trying to buy the rights to Ronaldo and that they “hope to reach an agreement with the player in the next few days.”

United finally accepted the bid for Ronaldo today after fighting off Madrid’s aggressive advances for the player over the past three years, and in particular the previous 12 months. So angry were Sir Alex Ferguson and the Manchester United board that they complained to FIFA about an illegal approach by the Spanish side last summer. Ferguson went so far as to say he wouldn’t “sell Madrid a virus,” let alone Ronaldo.

Clearly the situation has changed this summer, enabling Madrid to pounce and bring Ronaldo to the Spanish capital. The player, who has repeatedly said that he wants to stay at Old Trafford in recent weeks, has kept his council better than last summer, inflaming the club’s hierachy less than in the past. But Ronaldo’s much stated “dream” that that he wants to play in Spain, and specifically with Real Madrid, has apparently never gone away. This much is clear if he has asked for the transfer, as is hinted at in United’s statement.

The change in Presidency at Real Madrid has also made a huge difference and enabled the transfer to go ahead. Not only is new Madrid President Florentino Peréz an operator at the highest level but he has a strong relationship with Manchester United’s Managing Director David Gill, with the pair having encountered each other frequently in work for UEFA. Peréz’ predecessor Ramon Calederon was far less subtle, infuriating Manchester United’s board and manager along the way with his open courting of Ronaldo, even after the club had said no time and again. Peréz’ re-election has also enabled Madrid to open a line of credit with the banks, which will be used to finance the deals for Kaká and Ronaldo.

Ferguson – in hindsight – have also been preparing for life without Ronaldo. The manager has adapted the team’s tactics over the past year. United have moved from a 4-3-3 in 2007-8 to something closer to a 4-2-3-1 over the past season, with Ronaldo (save for a few games towards the end of the campaign when he played centrally) used in a more conventional wide-right role. In part this was to accommodate Dimitar Berbatov as the team’s attacking pivot. As a consequence United can plan for next season without altering their tactics. Berbatov will be shadowed by Wayne Rooney – a move that will surely liberate the player to perform at the level he has with England this season – with Antonio Valencia due to come into the side on the right wing. Nani, Zoran Tosic, Ji-Sung Park and potentially a big name new summer signing will fight it out for the other wide spot.

Whatever Ferguson decides to do with his £80 million plus summer transfer fund, he will need to re-inject some pace and verve into the attacking unit without Ronaldo and – almost certainly – Carlos Tevez. Names such as the aforementioned Valencia alongside Franc Ribéry and the phenomenally talented Karim Benzema will surely be front of Sir Alex’.

The fans meanwhile will mourn the loss of Ronaldo’s incredible contribution to the team but perhaps not the man. While many consider Barcelona’s Lionel Messi to be the more technically gifted player, there has rarely been a footballer with more destructive talents than Ronaldo. His pace, even when running with the ball, shooting from distance, positional play that enable him to score so many goals from a wide start, and ability in the air mark him out as irreplaceable.

However, few fans will shed a tear for Ronaldo, the man, after he leaves Old Trafford for the last time. His histrionics on the field, ego within the dressing room and open courting of personal publicity off the pitch have often bordered on the unacceptable. After all United, even following multi-million pound takeovers and massive commercialisation, are still a fans’ club. And Ronaldo has little in common with the fans.

Aon hand over fat cheque to ease United’s financial woe

June 7, 2009 Tags: , , Reads 1 comment

What do you do when your large American insurance shirt sponsor goes bust and pulls the deal? Get another one of course! That’s exactly what United have done in the last week by announcing that US risk management group Aon will be the team’s new sponsors from the start of the 2010-11 season. The deal is rumoured to be a world-record £80 million over four years, replacing the £14 million per season contract with AIG, which is due to run out at the end of next season. The announcement will ease the pressure on the board who were forced to seek a new sponsor in the middle of one of the worst financial climates in living memory. Bizarrely, United’s shirts will continue to display the AIG logo next season despite the firm having been bailed-out by the US government to the tune of more than $100 billion.

Announcing the deal, Manchester United chief executive David Gill spoke of his delight at entering “such an important relationship with a company of the stature of Aon.” In reality United were open to the highest bidder, save for any companies (such as gambling or porn) that wouldn’t have sat well with the club’s American owners. The huge deal easily outstrips the £25 million five-year deal recently signed by Manchester City with Etihad Airways, or the €15 million per season deal that Real Madrid have in place with online gambling site Bwin. With that Gill was able to claim that the “announcement clearly strengthens our position as the world’s leading football club.”

While Aon may not be a brand name in Manchester, the deal less about the UK market, and more about United’s presence in emerging markets and the Far East, where Aon hope to capitalise on United’s claimed 330 million fans. Aon’s CEO Greg Chase spoke of the “unique opportunity” to partner with “one of the most recognised sports brands in the world.”

The deal comes just days after United announced that they had earned over £90 million in TV prize money in a season when they won the Premier League and Carling Cup, and reached the final of the Champions League.

However, the Reds are still in hundreds of millions of pounds of debt. This season’s profits will barely pay off frightening annual interest payments on debt that is over £667 million as of the most recent accounts. The debt is made up of a £425 million cash loan that is secured on Old Trafford, Carrington, season ticket sales and players. According to The Guardian’s David Conn a further £90 million of unsecured loans and £152 million in Payment in Kind debt are also owed by the club.

The new shirt deal will add to United’s revenue at time when it is most needed. With the Glazer family so far unable to refinance the massive debt, they have consistently rolled annual interest into the overall debt – including the £30 million purchase of Dimitar Berbatov last summer. It’s a policy that will see United paying ever more in interest and paying down very little of the actual debt.

Almost inevitably United are looking to trim their expenditure this summer with £7 million Frazier Campbell set for a permanent move to Hull, and Darron Gibson and Danny Simpson placed on the transfer list. The financial climate has also put a hold on the transfer of Carlos Tevez, with the club unwilling to match his “owners'” £25.5 million valuation. While a compromise agreement was rumoured to have been reached last week, the smart money says the Argentinian will move across town to Manchester City and the vast wealth on offer.

Hargreaves: over and out

June 3, 2009 Tags: Reads 7 comments

It is fair to say that the protracted acquisition of Owen Hargreaves at great expense from Bayern Munich in the summer of 2007 has been an unmitigated disaster. A disaster that just got worst with the news that the Canadian-English international will not now play again for United until January 2010. With the latest setback to Hargreaves’ United career questions must now be raised about whether he will ever play for the club again. It poses a serious dilemma for Sir Alex Ferguson, who needs to rebuild confidence in a midfield that was so badly exposed by Barcelona in the Champions League final. Should Sir Alex cut and run by offloading Hargreaves when he’s finally fit and bringing in new blood, or stick it out and hope that when the player finally returns he will be as good as ever?

With the departure of Roy Keane, United have lacked a true tough-tackling defensive midfielder. This much is true even with the rise in performance this season of Michael Carrick, whose positional sense and effective passing has been instrumental to United’s success. But for the sake of balance Ferguson pursued Hargreaves for two summers, until Munich finally gave in and United’s board handed over the best part of £20 million. Despite some criticism that Hargreaves plays in the same position as Carrick, the move was broadly right. Hargreaves adds something different to United’s squad. Indeed, if the midfielder had been fit, his energy and ability to break up play may have made some difference in the Champions League final.

Now Ferguson must decide whether, for the same reasons of squad balance, he needs to spend big this summer on a tough-tackling defensive midfielder to compliment the abilities of Darren Fletcher, Anderson and the aforementioned Carrick. But this task wont be easy or cheap. Top-class defensive midfielders can be counted on the fingers of one hand and the price to United would surely be in excess of £20 million – the fee that Real Madrid paid for Portsmouth’s former Chelsea and Arsenal reserve Lassana Diarra.

Of course the same criticisms apply to any new acquisition as they did to that of Hargreaves in the first place. Fletcher, Anderson and Carrick have all occupied deep lying midfield slots in the past season. Is there value to the squad in having yet another player in that position? This argument is even more pointed when we think about the experience against Barcelona in Rome, where Barcelona’s ability to keep the ball was so fundamentally destructive to United’s hopes. While Carrick and Paul Scholes, when he plays, rarely give away the ball, the same cannot be said of Fletcher, Anderson and to some extent Giggs. Perhaps Ferguson would be better spending £20-£30 million on a creative midfielder who might stand-up to the class of Andreas Iniesta or Xavi Hernandez, who so embarrassed United in the Champions League final?

Time to think required after demoralising Euro loss

May 28, 2009 Tags: , Matches 1 comment

The morning after the night before is never pretty. And for Manchester United’s team, waking up to the realisation of European Cup Final defeat, it must have been a particularly sobering dawn. More so for the genuine belief amongst players, fans and staff coming into the match that United were favourites to win a fourth European title. But Barcelona were not only good value for their win last night, they embarrassed United from the minute Eto’o’s opening goal hit the net. So much so that the players and manager will undergo a necessary bout of soul searching in order to come back better and stronger next season.

United can be proud of their season. Premier League winners, World Champions, Carling Cup victors, an FA Cup semi and a European Cup final. By almost any standard, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team were highly successful. Along the way the Reds played some great football and created some wonderful memories. We saw the development of a tactically aware side, flexible and youthful attacking football and another Indian summer from United’s ageing stars. There are indeed no reasons to panic.

But a defeat of the magnitude and character suffered by the Reds last night cannot go without questions. Why did United’s players freeze so completely? Why did the team give away the ball so frequently? Why were United’s best players so tactically marginalised? A bad performance can be forgiven. Eleven bad performances are a cause for concern.

Part of United’s problem last night was tactical, part technical and part mental. Tactically, Wayne Rooney was sacrificed on the left-wing. Cristiano Ronaldo – by his own admission – used out of position once again and ineffective when hit with repeated long balls. And Ryan Giggs totally unable to provide the kind of physical, ball winning presence that the team so desperately needed in the Stadio Olimpico. So much so that the Welshman neglected his post, and shadowed Ronaldo for most of the first half.

"Moreover, when change was needed to bring United’s midfield back into the game, instead of narrowing the pitch and adding additional personnel into the centre of the park, United made an error by stretching the game. It simply meant the Reds’ defenders had less midfielders, not more, to find and ended up sending aimless long balls forward."

Technically, Barcelona were superior. That is not to say United’s players are not all comfortable on the ball. They are. Anderson, Michael Carrick and Giggs in midfield are all natural ball players. But placed under pressure by a team that not only passed the ball beautifully but were prepared to do the dirty work and press high up the pitch, United’s trio failed. Miserably.

Mentally the Reds crumbled after conceding the opening goal. It was a sight barely seen by a United fan in years. And a humiliating one at that. The confidence of the opening ten minutes was seemingly shattered in an instant, as Eto’o cut inside a badly wrong-footed Nemanja Vidic and then beat Edwin van der Sar – criminally – at his near post.

But this is no time for recriminations. There are reasons to be hopeful. And this is a top quality United side, make no mistake. The return of Owen Hargreaves and Darren Fletcher will add some much needed steel to the midfield. Anderson will be a year older, and a year closer to fulfilling the potential for world-class talent. Berbatov will have had a year in the Old Trafford cauldron behind him, to settle the all-too-obvious nerves. And in Wellbeck and Macheda, United have a couple of wonderfully talented attacking players coming through.

And what of the manager, who seemed so shell shocked by it all? Sir Alex has made almost no mistakes this year but he too must take the time to ponder a key question. Is the 4-3-3 system, with Rooney marginalised on the left-wing, and Ronaldo out of his comfort zone through the centre, one that will win the 2010 Champions League?

Sir Alex, we trust that you know the answer.

Champions League final: key battles

May 26, 2009 Tags: , Matches No comments

Top matches are decided in the details. Forget tactics and coaching – it will be the one-on-one battles that will decide the Champions League final this coming Wednesday. Win most of these and United take home the cup once again.

Lionel Messi versus Patrice Evra
Messi is the planet’s most in-form player, with 37 goals from 48 games this season. His mesmeric dribbling skills and ability to fashion a goal from almost nothing has been devastating in both the Champions League and La Liga this season. However, Evra can proudly point to shutting the little Argentinian out of both legs of the 2008 Champions League semi-final. Evra, with the support of Rooney on the left, will have to be at his very best. One chance is all it takes for Messi, even if his record against English sides is unimpressive.

Samuel Eto’o versus Nemanja Vidic
The big Serb has had is best season in a United shirt and will expect to win this battle. While Eto’o’s record this season – 32 in 45 games in all competitions – is outstanding, Vidic will expect to win individual battles both in the air (there wont be many) and on the ground versus the Cameroon international. However, the Serb will need to read the game as well as ever if Barça are not to pass their way through United’s back-four.

Xavi Hernandes verus Michael Carrick
Euro 2008 Player of the Tournament Xavi has been in wonderful form this season but then so has Carrick. While many used to criticise the former Spurs man for failing to take control of games it’s hardly that can be leveled this season. Carrick’s passing has been influential and his creativity essential to United’s form this season. However, it will be Carrick’s ability to read the game and break up attacks just outside United’s area that will be essential to this duel. Win this one and Barcelona’s ability to dominate possession with be thwarted.

Thierry Henry verus John O’Shea
Many regard O’Shea as United’s weak link but the Irishman has had a solid defensive season. His attacking qualities are limited and his passing sometimes short of the class expected in a Red shirt, but O’Shea is unlikely to let United down against Henry. O’Shea will need to keep close to United’s central defenders and show Henry the line – this will test the Frenchman’s true fitness after returning from a knee injury.

Cristiano Ronaldo versus Gerard Piqué
Some say that United’s Portuguese winger has had a bad season but 25 goals in 49 games in all competitions, playing predominantly wide right, says otherwise. More to the point, Ronaldo is coming into very top form at just the right time. His pace, power and movement were far too good for Arsenal in the semi-final. Piqué, the former United defender, has matured admirably in his début Barça season. And his ability to bring the ball out of defence compared favourably with the great Franz Beckenbaur. But the final will be his biggest test yet, and without his normal central defensive parter Rafael Marquez the onus will be on the youngster.

Wayne Rooney versus Carles Puyol
If Barça deploy the club captain Puyol at right back as many pundits expect then Wayne Rooney will be the sternest test for the ageing defender. It would not be unfair to say that Puyol’s legs are going and he will need ever bit of experience to stop United’s marauding striker, who has been brilliant cutting in from the left in the last two months of the season. It may not be his favourite position but if he is not burdened too much trying to double up on Lionel Messi, Rooney should have a field day.

Champions League final 2009: preview

May 26, 2009 Tags: , Matches 1 comment

United take on Barcelona in this year’s Champions League final in what many are billing the ‘dream final’. Europe’s two best sides meet this Wednesday in Rome with United chasing their fourth European Cup win, potentially a second in succession. With world-class talent on display in both teams, and a commitment to attractive, attacking football, all the ingredients are in place for a classic final.

United arrive in Rome on the back of 25 European games without defeat and in tremendous form late-season form, both domestically and in Europe. With only long-term absentee Owen Hargreaves and the suspended Darren Fletcher missing from the match-day squad, boss Sir Alex Ferguson’s biggest headache will be who to leave out. The manager will want to strike the right balance between countering Barcelona’s obvious attacking threat, and taking advantage of Los Cules’ weakened defensive line-up. 

Somewhat surprisingly, for a squad boasting the attacking talents of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez, United scored just 68 goals in the Premiership during 2008-9. While the Reds were the most potent home team in the country, Fergie’s men scored just 25 times on the road, reflecting a pragmatic tactical approach away from Old Trafford. With that in mind, it seems likely that Ferguson will pick a team that focuses on United’s defensive strength, while providing options for the team on the break.

Barcelona come into the game having scored more than 100 times in La Liga alone, and swept all before them in Spain’s domestic league and cup competitions. But Los Cules arrive in Rome with concerns surrounding their defence, with first choice full-backs Dani Alves and Eric Abidal suspended. If that wasn’t bad enough news for Barça boss Pep Guardiola, central defenders Gabriel Milito and Rafael Marquez are both injured and out of the match. Moreover, former Barça midfielder Guardiola must gamble on the fitness of star players Andreas Iniesta and Thiery Henry. While it seems both will start the match after taking part in recent training sessions, a thigh and knee injury respectively, mean that neither player will be 100% for the match.

United are likely to go man-for-man against Barcelona’s 4-3-3 system. The back five picks itself with veteran Edwin van der Sar in goal, John O’Shea and Patrice Evra at full-back and Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic in central defence. Irishman O’Shea is likely to get the nod ahead of Gary Neville and Wes Brown at right-back, who have both only recently returned from injury, and the talented but inexperienced Rafael da Silva.

In midfield Ryan Giggs is set to start in place of the suspended Fletcher. With Giggs offering less protection for the back four than Fletcher, both Michael Carrick and Anderson will retain their places in an attempt to counter Barça’s attacking midfield three. It means no place for veteran Paul Scholes, ten years on from the final he famously missed against Bayern Munich in 1999.

Up front Ferguson is likely to stick with the semi-final winning trio of Rooney, Ronaldo and Ji-Sung Park. While nominally Ronaldo is likely to start the match through the centre, the forwards will operate as a flexible three in attacking positions, with Rooney and Park offering greater protection for United’s full-backs than Ronaldo. This will mean disappointment for both Tevez and Berbatov, who are likely to remain on the bench.

Barcelona will have to shuffle their pack due to injuries and suspension. While Victor Valdes is a certain pick in goal, Guardiola’s biggest problems lie in the back four. Carles Puyol is likely to come in at right-back, with midfielder Yaya Toure alongside former United player Gerard Piqué in the centre. Guardiola will choose between veteran Brazilian Silvino or midfielder Seydou Keita at left-back.

The Barça boss is likely to gamble on the fitness of key man Andrea Iniesta in midfield, alongside Euro 2008 player of the tournament Xavi Hernandez and new Spanish cap Sergio Busquets, who will provide some counter to United’s power through the centre of the park. 

Should Henry win his fitness race, he will take up the left-sided attacking slot, with Samuel Eto’o through the middle and the brilliant Lionel Messi starting from the right. Should Henry not make it, it is likely Iniesta will push further forward and Keita come into a central midfield position.

United: Van der Sar; O’Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Anderson, Carrick, Giggs; Park, Ronaldo, Rooney.

Barça: Valdes; Puyol, Pique, Toure, Silvino; Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets; Messi, Eto’o, Henry.

Next season starts now

May 20, 2009 Tags: Reads 2 comments

How do you improve on being English and World Champions, and European Cup finalists? It’s a difficult task you may say but to re-state the old cliché, to stand still in football is to go backwards, so improve United must. In fact Ferguson may need to recruit in all areas of the pitch to replace aging stars, departing players and failed imports.

Inevitably there will be squad changes this summer. The headline casualty will be Carlos Tevez, who is certain to leave to the highest bidder, rather than stay at Old Trafford. But while Sir Alex will need to make some important decisions on the make-up of next season’s forward line, he must also look at other areas of the pitch.

In goal Edwin van der Sar will start the 2009 – 2010 season as number one but at 38 years of age it seems likely that it will be his last year as a professional. Behind him few fans have faith in Polish stopper Tomasz Kuszczak as the great Dutchman’s long-term replacement. At least as a rarely used back-up he can’t do much damage. United’s other reserve, Ben Foster, has plenty of talent but with almost two years out of the game through injury and lack of opportunities there must be serious doubts as to whether he’ll ever make it at United. For his own sake, Foster will need to leave on loan once again next season. With Thomas Heaton likely to leave the club permanently, Sir Alex may look to recruit a third-choice ‘keeper.

In defence there is a short-term question mark over the right-back position, with Rafael da Silva suffering in the second half of the season. While he undoubtedly has huge talent, his defensive inexperience has been exposed on more than one occasion. Moreover, with Gary Neville approaching the end of his career, Wes Brown rarely fit, and John O’Shea most fans’ idea of a decent reserve, so long as he doesn’t have to play every week, then Ferguson may need to recruit.

At left back, O’Shea aside, there is no proven back-up to Patrice Evra. While Fabio da Silva’s talent may well be equal to that of his brother, his injury record has restricted his first team opportunities to just a couple of cup appearances. The arrival of a back-up left full- back would be no suprise.

In midfield, United should be able to welcome back Owen Hargreaves into the fold, which will be a massive bonus to the team, if not to Darren Fletcher’s hopes of continuing this season’s good form. Elsewhere, there will be concerns over the aging legs of Paul Scholes and to a lesser extent Ryan Giggs but there will be one final season in the sun before Sir Alex needs to think about bringing in extra reinforcements.

There is of course the left-sided Zoran Tosic, recruited at a cost of £8 million in January, who has been on a long-term fitness and strength building regime at the club. Next should see the introduction of the Serb to more first team action.

However, there must be a question mark over the long term future of Luis Nani, whose form has been fitful this season. At best the Portugese winger flatters to deceive. At worst, he’s a liability. He has talent but it has almost never been harnessed in a United shirt. The potential arrival of Wigan’s Antonio Valencia, for a shade over £15 million, will not only allow Cristiano Ronaldo to play more games in a central position next season, but potentially end Nani’s spell at the club.  And if it doesn’t, the arrival of the talented but raw Serb Adem Lalić in January 2010 may just be the final staw.

Which leaves the forwards – and that’s an old story!