Author NathanThomas

Author NathanThomas

Confidence from the back

April 27, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 11 comments

As Manchester United made a huge step towards the 2011 Champions league final after a consummate away performance at Schalke, the Reds’ attacking contingent has drawn huge amounts of praise. Rightly so and picking the man-of-the-match award was arguably the most difficult part of last night’s game with Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernández, Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs pulling out outstanding performances.

So good was United’s attack that at times on Tuesday United’s defensive axis of Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Edwin van Der Sar could have been forgiven for ‘cracking open a can’ and mingling with United’s travelling support. Yet, although the back four was given a fairly easy ride against Schalke, the unit has been key in the campaign so far.

Some of United’s flowing attacking football has been brilliant of late, with the partnership between Rooney and Hernández flourishing but it is the sturdiness of the side’s defense that has made this possible. Against the surprise German package United broke a Champions League record becoming the first team ever to not concede a goal away from home. Furthermore the Reds have also only conceded three times overall (Valencia, Chelsea and Marseille) one of which was an own goal. It’s a staggering record that supports those who claim United’s first choice defence is the best in the world.

Since Ferdinand’s return from a prolonged calf injury the Reds’ back-four has returned to its miserly best; United concedes fewer goals when Vidic and Ferdinand play together. However, credit is also due to the collective in the Champions League, where Ferdinand and Vidic have only played together five out of 10 games. In this record Chris Smalling has been a major factor, seamlessly filling in for either Vidic or Ferdinand since a £10 million move from Fulham. Despite the clear potential, Smalling is greatly helped by his experienced defensive cohorts, in particular Vidic.

Arguably the best defender in the world, Vidic was very unlucky not to receive this year’s PFA Player of the Year Award. If anything, the captaincy has brought Vidic’s game to another level. Against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, for example, Vidic coped brilliantly first against Fernando Torres then Didier Drogba. The Serbian’s positional sense, often highlighted as Ferdinand’s strong point, was on show too. Nemanja made nine clearances in an around the area and final third against Chelsea, two of which were in the six yard box, plus a further three headed clearances. Similarly at Old Trafford Vidic made 13 clearances and a further eight with his head. Of these 21 clearances Vidic failed to complete his work on just five occasions.

Where United has excelled, others have failed. Arsenal has struggled for years without a defender who leads his colleagues through tricky patches. United has just that in Ferdinand, whose calmness on the pitch and ability to mop up messy situations makes him the perfect foil for Vidic. Of course, Ferdinand has always fancied himself an attacking player and this is shown through the 32-year-old’s ability to bring the ball out of defence particularly when United a pushing for a goal.

Of course the centre–halves make up only two fifths of United’s back five and in van der Sar United has a ‘keeper with vital experience. Unless the Dutchman makes a dramatic u-turn, as Ferguson did in 2002, United must replace van der Sar with an experienced high-quality ‘keeper. Part of the reason United failed to win the league between 2003 and 2007 was the lack of a ‘world-class’ goalkeeper and with Manuel Neuer keeping Schalke in Tuesday’s game the young German certainly fits United’s bill.

However, the 24-year-old appears headed for Bayern Munich, but after Ferguson missed out on signing van der Sar back in 1999 when Peter Schmeichel retired he will surely not want to miss out again, if the German is his number one target. This argument is for the summer though and in the meantime the manager can revel in van der Sar’s terrific form. The great Dutchman has a maximum of six games to play in a United shirt; supporters should fully enjoy it.

The final piece of United’s almost impenetrable European defence is the full-backs, in whom the Reds have a perfect mix. In games where United is offered greater room for attack, Ferguson frequently deploys Evra with one of the Da Silva brothers. In tighter matches, such as the one at Stamford Bridge, John O’Shea gets the nod. The Irishman is not everybody’s cup of tea but is a good defender, who can contribute in an attacking sense such as the assist for Dimitar Berbatov’s winner against Liverpool this season.

Versatility is also important at United, particularly in defence, as the Reds are not by nature a defensive team. Attacking full-backs were very important at the Veltins Arena on Tuesday, where Fabio and Evra spent the majority of the game in the opposition half. The bulk of the pair’s combined 165 passes occurred in and around the half way line or in Schalke’s part of the field. This contrasts with the game against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, where O’Shea and Evra passed more in their own half, completing just 75 per cent compared to Fabio and Evra 90. The important stat though – in both matches the Reds kept a clean sheet.

United has one final match before confirming a place in this season’s Wembley showpiece but should the Reds go on to meet either Real Madrid or Barcelona the defence’s fine form must continue Ferguson’s side is to claim a fourth European Cup.

Double exposure

April 26, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 11 comments

On Sunday night’s Match of the Day 2 a man previously mooted as Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor spoke candidly on his admiration for what he believes is the makings of Ferguson’s next and possibly final great side. Despite Everton defending resolutely for 83 minutes against Manchester United at the weekend, David Moyes admitted that the Reds were far superior to the rejuvenated Merseysiders, and that despite the criticism United’s squad has received this year this could be the start of something special for United.

United’s current crop of players may not be collectively the most talented side Sir Alex has ever had at his disposal but it is not talentless. United’s current league and European standings are evident of this. However, United is a team in transition, this isn’t a side that could challenge for honours at home and abroad for years to come; not as it is anyway. With players such as Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Wes Brown edging towards the end of their wonderful careers now is the time for a new generation of ‘Fergie Fledglings’ to make themselves known.

Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández has been a sensation but there are others who will also be charged with keeping the silverware conveyor belt running during the final years of Ferguson’s reign at Old Trafford and then post-retirement

Similar to Chicharito, the Da Silva twins arrived on the scene as complete unknown quantities. In their pre-season début against Peterborough United at London Road in 2008, Rafael played the full 90 while Fabio came on for the second half. There was an immediate WOW factor about these two Brazilian twins, who demonstrated pace, power and an unquenchable thirst for the game. This was a friendly and not the Champions League final but first impressions are always important.

Rafael in particular took the ‘bull by the horns’ and in his first season made a total of 21 starts – no bedding in period just straight in at the deep end, the United way. Rafael also showcased his ability as an all-round footballer, scoring a terrific volley against Arsenal at the Emirates and a several assists to boot.

Fabio’s progression has proved to be less rapid, making only one start in his début season, with a second season hampered by injury. However this season Fabio has come into his own and against Everton was one of United’s best players – solid at the back and a threat going forward. Albeit Everton’s attacks were sporadic but when the game began to open up in the second half Fabio dealt superbly with Tim Cahill, Leighton Baines and Victor Anichebe. The Brazilian resisted temptation to dive into challenges, which his brother is often guilty of and did not get flustered in pressing conditions.

In 2008 when Rafael began to break into the first team the word from inside Carrington was that Brazilian scouts rated Fabio above Rafael. However, Fabio’s first forays into first team football could not justify the tag, although his talent was evident. Perhaps Rafael had taken to the demands and pace of English football better than Fabio; maybe fans would have seen Fabio in a better light in other circumstances. Meanwhile, Rafael was already battling for a position which was well and truly up for grabs with Wes Brown, John O’Shea and Gary Neville suffering with injury. Fabio, however, had the not-so-easy task of deposing the ever-present Patrice Evra.

Credit is due to Fabio though as he has never let his head drop despite limited opportunities and this season he has been rewarded. Keen reserves watchers will have noted that when Fabio plays he is often deployed in an attacking position and not at right or left-back. Clearly, Sir Alex has recognised the problem posed by Evra and wants to experiment with Fabio’s ability to play elsewhere on the park.

The da Da Silva’s are both fantastic all round players too – at United the chances of becoming a first team main-stay are greatly enhanced with versatility. In this season’s FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal at Old Trafford Ferguson started the twins on the wings, their attacking prowess was again noted with Fabio notching his second goal of the season. The duo caused endless problems for Bacary Sagna and would have given Fergie a big boost in that he can now utilise their talent all over the pitch.

Ferguson surely sees Rafael as United’s long-term right-back, with Neville gone, Brown likely to follow suit in the summer and O’Shea entering his thirties. However, Fabio’s future remains unclear, despite great form and impressive displays. With Evra signing a new long term deal this season, Fabio’s role is unlikely to be a left-back for the time being, unless the Brazilian can unseat his more experienced colleague.

For those United supporters who watched BBC’s ‘United’ on Sunday night Duncan Edwards supposedly told Bobby Charlton that he wasn’t “given my place in the team” he “stole it”. Whether or not Edwards said this, it is not hard to imagine the attitude; it has been the same for many United greats since. Fabio seems to own a hunger akin to Edwards’ that will serve him very well.

Certainly, using Fabio as a reserve full-back is a waste of his talent. Perhaps then we will see Fabio deployed in a more advanced position more regularly next season as the manager attempts to mould the Brazilian into a solid attacking outlet that can fill in at left or right-back when needed.

With a 19th title on the horizon it is wise to take a second before criticising this current squad. After all, a team in transition has made the European Cup semi-final and is six points clear in the domestic league with four to play. In the last transitional phase United won two trophies between 2004 and 2007, none of which were the league title.

Despite turbulent times on and off the pitch Chicharito, the Da Silva’s, together with Nani and Valencia staking their claim, the future could be brighter than you think.

Just blame Carrick

April 12, 2011 Tags: Opinion 56 comments

This season it seems that Michael Carrick has been blamed for everything. Rising house prices, the war in Iraq, the conflict in Libya; all Carrick’s fault. Joking apart though Carrick has taken a lot of flak in the past six months, some deserved but a lot unmerited. What then will it take for Carrick to return to a page in the supporters’ collective good book and to find consistently effective form in the heart of United’s midfield?

Never one to set the pulses racing, Carrick does a job and in his first seasons at United, did it very well. However, the common consensus amongst United fans is that he has not been the same since being taken apart by Messrs Andreas Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez in the 2009 Champions League Final. That trauma, along with a change in role in the Reds’ midfield due to the extended absence of Owen Hargreaves, seems to have hampered Carrick’s progress. This was particularly true last season as his confidence seemed sapped and he was left out in favour of Darron Gibson in many of the crucial games at the end of the campaign.

However, Carrick has shown a marked improvement in recent weeks. Maybe the Geordie hasn’t hit the heights of his first couple of seasons in Red but the Carrick of old does seem to be emerging, particularly against Chelsea last Wednesday. At Stamford Bridge last week Carrick was crucial in United’s first win in west London since 2002, playing a huge part in Wayne Rooney’s winning goal and, along with the effervescent Ryan Giggs, effectively marshalling Chelsea’s imposing midfield duo of Frank Lampard and Michael Essien.

Michael Carrick versus Rangers

Diagram 1, Carrick v Rangers

The midfielder’s passing was also impressive. Already considered one of his strong points, Carrick completed 83 per cent of all of his passes, which is a praise-worthy stat at such a tough venue. The 30-year-old also covered nearly ten kilometres – an extremely good shift only bettered by his central midfield partner Giggs – that puts paid to claims that Carrick is lazy.

Carrick is not a destructive midfielder in the ilk of Hargreaves or Darren Fletcher though, nor is he an out and out attacking midfielder like Anderson or Paul Scholes in his pomp. However, Carrick is exceptional at reading the game. In this season’s Champions League the midfielder has made a total of 35 interceptions, which betters two other players who are of similar ilk – Chelsea’s John Obi Mikel, who has 13, and Real Madrid’s Xavi Alonso, who has 25.

The positional change referred to earlier has involved Carrick being deployed in a deeper role to screen the back four; a position in which Hargreaves excelled in during his first season at Old Trafford. Although billed as a defensive midfielder by many, Carrick seems to excel further up the pitch as a playmaker.

Michael Carrick versus Marseille

Diagram 2, Carrick v Marseille

Against Rangers (Diagram 1) Carrick started alongside Paul Scholes in a midfield that gave the Geordie licence to move further forward and influence United’s attacking play. By contrast against Marseille (Diagram 2), starting in a midfield three many of his forward passes were less apparent and many were unsuccessful. In the role Carrick played against Marseille he was expected to ‘get stuck in’ and play the Roy Keane tough-tackling midfield role. In fact, he saw less of the ball thus giving him less influence in United’s attack, although he still completed 43 of an attempted 52 passes.

Tackling is not Carrick’s strong point Hhe’s got a tackle in him yes but many feel he is unwilling to ‘get stuck in’. This could be the case and if Carrick is unsure of his own ability in that area then this will be of detriment to his play. Diagram 3 could add credence to this view.

Michael Carrick versus Marseille

Diagram 3, Carrick v Marseille

Another criticism that is often made of Carrick is his in ability to pass forward. However, when Carrick plays in a more forward position – in the centre of the park – he seems to be more willing and confident in his ability to influence the Reds. This can be seen below in Carrick’s passing against Chelsea, compared to that against Marseille (Diagram 4). Although Carrick made more passes against Marseille he had a better success rate against Chelsea, furthermore United had to contain Chelsea for a lot longer than they did Marseille and had possession of the ball more sporadically. Carrick’s use of the ball seems to be more effective when playing in an advanced role.

Interestingly, Sir Alex Ferguson seems to be taking note as Carrick has not played in a midfield three since the game at Stade Velodrome. Carrick has featured in eight of the nine games since the first leg of the last 16 tie and in each he has featured alongside only one midfielder as opposed to two. Not only has Carrick improved but so has the team, Anfield aside.

When Carrick came on at the weekend for the last 15 minutes against Fulham he exuded a confidence that has been lacking at times over the past two seasons. The midfielder popped first time passes around with aplomb and looked very much like the Carrick of old.

Michael Carrick versus Marseille/Chelsea

Diagram 4, Carrick v Marseille/Chelsea

Another reason for Carrick’s upsurge in recent form could be the return of Antonio Valencia, which has enabled United to operate in a 4-4-2 formation more often, reverting to the 1994 style of two out-and-out wingers in Valencia and Nani. But stats mean little to some of course. Many supporters have already made their minds up about Carrick and, despite some praise-worthy metrics, have turned their back on the England international.

What is not in doubt: Carrick has recently signed a new three-year deal. Whether you believe this is because of Ferguson’s faith in United’s number 16 – recent performances merit this – or because the Reds are cash strapped and have been forced to offer the 30-year-old a contract that few were expecting, is up to you.

However, Carrick is going to be here for the foreseeable whether fans like it or not. It is hard to believe that Ferguson has signed up a player who he does not believe has the credentials to be the main man in United’s midfield.

Perhaps its time for a clean slate: give Carrick a chance. The faith may well be rewarded.

A “Harg” one to take

March 6, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 53 comments

After Manchester United compounded a bad week with a 3-1 defeat to arch-rivals Liverpool on Sunday afternoon those associated with the Old Trafford club are again forced to dissect another poor away performance and fathom where it is going wrong. Defeats to Wolverhampton Wanders, Chelsea and now Liverpool in the past month threaten United’s position. Supporters will each have their opinion of course but one argument with credence is that United is missing a player in arguably the most important position: defensive midfield.

It’s been said frequently in the past two years – United is crying out for Owen Hargreaves in games such as that at Anfield. To put it another away, a Hargreaves-type player; an enforcer, a ball winner, someone who can take the game by the ‘scruff of the neck’ and drive United forward.

Hargreaves was the player brought in to play in the ‘Keane role’ at great expense, although injuries have limited his influence. In the 2007/08 season the Canadian-born midfielder was a regular starter in games against the ‘big four’ and more significantly featured in every one of United’s Champions League knock out games including the final.

Sir Alex Ferguson obviously thinks very highly of Hargreaves and the mere fact that the United manager has stuck with the midfielder through injury for the past three years says much. In the 2008/9 season Hargreaves’ absence was not as significant as it could have been – Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo were still with United and the team continued to succeed, although United missed the enforcer in the 2009 Champions League Final in Rome.

United has missed him ever since.

Hargreaves is unlikely to return and there is now no point placing faith in a player who has been out for such a lengthy spell, and United now needs to find an alternative solution. Indeed, players of his ilk – Bryan Robson, Roy Keane – aren’t often available and there are few in the European Leagues.

Supporters are highly critical of the United squad but it is important to remember that the Reds remain top of the League because the side deserves it. United’s has not been the flowing football of the past but top is where the team aims for every season.

Moreover, United’s defence has continued to excell, with a better pair than Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic hard to find anywhere. The club also has some terrific wide and forward players. However, it is always the centre of midfield that receives the most criticism from supporters and pundits alike. The criticism is often justified, although the midfielders United possess do bring something different to the party. However, without steel in the engine room United’s creative players will always struggle to play their usual game.

United could spend heavily in the transfer market but within the club’s youth and reserve teams there is a player of this mould – Ryan Tunnicliffe. The youngster has impressed this year. He is not part of the reserves’ engine room, he is the engine room. So well has Tunnicliffe progressed that the 18-year-old midfielder has been called into the first team squad this season. 

This is not to suggest Tunnicliffe is ready to run United’s midfield just yet but it is positive to realise somebody is coming through that may just fit the bill in the years to come.

Fans of Hargreaves hope for a sensational and unexpected come back but it is less likely by the day. In fact Ferguson will almost certainly fill the gap in the summer, with Hargreaves out of contract and not likely to earn a new one. The question is, where the Scot will find a suitable replacement.

In the meantime the team now has a week to recover from a damaging brace of results. United has some huge games ahead, with the return of  players such as Ferdinand, Park Ji-Sung and Antonio Valencia key. United is still marginal favourite for the Premier League title.

As for the long-term solution to the club’s ‘enforcer predicament’ – it is a key question for Ferguson to answer this summer.

Clash of the Titans, but is it still the biggest?

March 4, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 34 comments

Manchester United’s clash with near neighbours Liverpool has taken on more significance this weekend as the Reds look to respond after defeat at Stamford Bridge. But with the emergence of a cross city title challenge from Manchester City and recent title tussles with Chelsea does the game against the old enemy still get the juices flowing as much as used to?

Some would say it’s a generational thing but for many supporters it’s a no brainer, this is still the fixture. Beating City, Chelsea and Arsenal is as sweet as its come but the history between United and Liverpool provides that special something else.

Even before England’s two most successful football teams came in to being rivalry still existed between the two famous cities. The River Mersey and the Manchester ship canal providing trading routes which enabled both to prosper; but it’s on the football pitch where the real history has been made.

Liverpool’s dominance of the eighties created a sense of injustice among United followers, Liverpool was a great team yes but many felt Bryan Robson and co. deserved better and with good reason. In the 22 times that United and Liverpool faced each other during that decade United won eight to Liverpool’s four and the rest were drawn. Unfortunately Liverpool easily trumped United on trophies.

This stat proves, however, that the teams were not as far apart in terms of quality as history would have you believe. In fact it still baffles many how United didn’t win the league during the eighties. A side packed with talent such as Robson, Ray Wilkins, Norman Whiteside and Frank Stapleton; a side fit to challenge and beat Europe’s elite, including as Barcelona in 1984. But the first league title since 1967 eluded them. Things did seem to conspire against United, injuries to key players and inability to beat the seemingly “lesser” teams. Yet, despite it being a painful admission, Liverpool was terrific back then and here is where the rivalry truly starts.

Today much has changed. In 1995 shortly after Eric Cantona had been banned for his infamous Kung Fu kick a Liverpool fan hung a banner up at Anfield proclaiming “Au Revoir Cantona, come back when you’ve won eighteen.” Well last season United was back and the club’s record-equalling eighteenth title has simply added more spice to the rivalry between Manchester and Merseyside.

Even after the small demise for Liverpool under first Rafael Benitez and then Roy Hodgson the rivalry has not diminished. It still means everything for a United fan and player to beat Liverpool.

Each club respects the other’s achievements but in turn wants to put the rival ‘in their place’ equally as much. If you want to be the biggest, you have to beat the best as the old football cliché goes. Sir Alex Ferguson knew this when he first arrived in Manchester back in 1986 immediately stating his intention to “knock Liverpool off their perch”. Now, the Merseyside club is no longer the best but just as in other footballing battles such as England versus Germany, or Real Madrid versus Barcelona, it is history and pride at stake as well as three points.

On Sunday Liverpool will be desperate to put a spanner in United’s works – especially the bid for a record nineteenth league title. Many Liverpool fans will feel stopping United winning the Premier League is almost as good as winning it themselves. United have been in a similar situation before. In May 1977 all that stood between Liverpool and a Domestic and European Treble was United. The FA Cup final was massive for United, having lost the previous year to Southampton, but to do it against Liverpool, to stop them winning the Treble – this was too good an opportunity to miss. United grabbed it with both hands and became the halcyon “Scouse busters”. The ‘Doc’s Army’ brought the Cup back to Manchester thanks to goals from “Pancho” Pearson and Jimmy Greenhoff.

These games still ooze history. In fact it is the key to the fixture. Both clubs have experienced euphoric highs, devastating lows, tragedy and recovery. Each has always strived to be the best around and respect each other, yet want to beat each other just as much. United versus Liverpool is as special as always.