Author samgregory

Author samgregory

A home-grown attacking midfielder

Sam Gregory August 23, 2010 Tags: Opinion 37 comments

This summer Manchester United supporters have as one cried for a new attacking midfielder to complete what is still a very good squad, albeit lacking some creativity. This desire is, of course, tied both to Paul Scholes’ ageing legs and the Mesut Özil transfer saga, which came to a close last week when the German signed for Real Madrid.

Having lost out on the German, United may now turn to someone already at the club to fill the creative role in central midfield – Tom Cleverley.

Ever since joining United at age fifteen in 2005, Basingstoke-born Cleverley has impressed coaches and supporters alike. In 2008 he was nominated for Reserve Player of the Season, after just his first full year with the reserves.

The youngster was then called up to the United first team squad for the club’s tour of South Africa in summer 2008 and was again nominated for Reserve Player of the Season at the end of that campaign, despite spending almost half the season on loan at Leicester City in the Championship.

Cleverley truly came into the spotlight during his season-long loan to Watford in the 2009-10 season when the club named the attacking midfielder its player of the season, on his way to eleven league goals.

Such were Cleverley’s performances for Watford that he earned an appearance on this summer’s tour to Canada, the USA and Mexico, with the midfielder scoring against both Celtic and the MLS All-Stars. The latter, a goal of real quality, came from an ingenious flick and smart first-time finish.

Despite speculation that the player would again be loaned, Sir Alex Ferguson has opted to retain the English midfielder’s services this season, praising the player who is yet to make a senior competitive appearance for the club.

“He is an exceptional young player in terms of his ability to play a variety of positions,” added Ferguson this summer.

“He can play in central midfield and on both wings. He is such a talent, we must keep him.”

Now Cleverley faces arguably the most important season of his career, with a real chance to crack the United first team. There has never been a better time for the player to make the jump up in class, with Paul Scholes playing a deeper role (and less often at 36), Michael Carrick in the poorest form of his career and Anderson injured and out of favour.

Last season the five-man midfield deployed in most of United’s important fixtures offered Sir Alex an insurance policy when it came to blooding new midfielders. When Darron Gibson came into the picture and performed poorly, United’s two deep-lying midfielders provided extra support and security.

The Irishman gained opportunities in high-profile matches, most memorably against Bayern Munich at Old Trafford in which the 22-year-old scored. Ferguson employed Gibson in the attacking midfield role that Scholes once occupied several times last season but despite the player’s long-range shooting, many supporters feel that Irishman doesn’t have the pace, creativity or range of passing to develop into a top rate attacking midfielder.

On the other hand, Cleverley does.

The midfielder is able to make clever runs to get into advanced positions, can beat a man and moves the ball well. If Cleverley is given the same number of opportunities that Gibson has been afforded, there is every chance the Englishman will have even more success.

The key games for Cleverley will be the early season Carling Cup ties where the midfielder will automatic be on the teamsheet. He must now prove to Ferguson that he has developed to maturity and ability to start the more important fixtures that come in March, April and May when the injury list inevitably piles up.

In fact, if Cleverley impresses in these early season matches there’s every chance he will gain more minutes at United, than the high-profile former target Özil will at Real Madrid.

Finally, a plan B

Sam Gregory August 10, 2010 Tags: Opinion 53 comments

Wayne Rooney’s injury at the tail end of last season rendered Manchester United’s attack became predictable, slow and lethargic. Sir Alex Ferguson first tried playing Dimitar Berbatov up front by himself – a strategy that failed miserably against Chelsea – and then partnered Federico Macheda with the Bulgarian only to discover the pair worked even less.

As United limped over the finish line with defeat to Chelsea and a draw against Blackburn, Ferguson’s side surrendered the title because the team possessed no plan B in attack. That might just be changing…

In Sunday’s Community Shield at Wembley Ferguson picked Rooney alongside Michael Owen in a traditional 4-4-2 formation, intending to attack Chelsea from the start. Although Rooney was better than throughout the World Cup in South Africa, the Scouser is clearly not yet 100 per cent match fit. Meanwhile, Owen looked out of position playing deeper than his striker partner.

In the second period Fergie opted to test out a new strike partnership in Berbatov and the Mexican revelation Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández, as he had done in Ireland last week. Immediately there seemed an understanding between the pair.

Berbatov’s deft flicks and touches were laid off right into the path of Chicharito, whose movement was excellent. Rooney asked John Terry some searching questions in the first half but that was nothing compared to the fits Chicharito had the Chelsea back line in. The Mexican timed his runs to perfection, got into good goal scoring positions and most impressively, he connected with United misfit Berbatov.

Playing alongside the youngster, Berbatov had at last a smile on his face, clearly enjoyed the football and looked more confident than he has in a long time. With Chicharito making runs beyond Berbatov and picking up the ball from the Bulgarian in advanced positions, the Mexican forced the Chelsea defenders deeper, leaving a hole in front of the back four in which the Bulgarian striker could operate.

More than once Berbatov found himself with the space required to work his magic, orchestrating United’s attacks and popping up with a very well taken goal in injury time.

The combination also helped create the space in the middle of the park United so often lacked last season. But this potentially dangerous partnership of Berbatov and Chicharito also brings back the perennial tactical question: 4-4-2 or 4-5-1?

Clearly, Rooney will start for United when fit and the former Evertonian was most effective last season playing the lone striker. So much so that it is doubtful whether Ferguson will make any significant switch away from this formation in the most important matches, especially away from home.

However the blossoming Berbatov – Chicharito combination gives Sir Alex a second potent attacking threat. Significantly, it means Fergie may not have to run Rooney into the ground as the Scot did last season, resulting in the injury at Bayern Munich and the far too rapid return to action.

In reality Ferguson will almost certainly switch between formations depending on United’s opponents as he did for much of last season. The difference is that United now offers more variation going forward.

Finally, United has the plan B that was clearly missing coming down the stretch last season.

The fight for right back

Sam Gregory August 2, 2010 Tags: , , , Opinion 44 comments

The 2006-2007 season saw Manchester United regain the Premier League title for the first time in four years. It also marked Gary Neville’s most recent appearance in the PFA team of the year. Near the end of the campaign Neville suffered a long-term injury, which kept him out of consistent first team action for nearly 18 months.

Since then United has yet to settle on a starting right back, with four men competing for the spot – a problem Sir Alex Ferguson is yet to resolve.

During the following Premier and Champions League double winning season Wes Brown took a hold of the position, with 52 appearances in all competitions. Throughout the season the Longsight-born defender was solid and even popped up with some major contributions going forward in the form of a goal against Liverpool and an assist in the Champions League final against Chelsea.

After getting off to a decent start in the 2008-2009 Brown was hit by another major injury, just as Neville returned from his layoff, allowing teenager Rafael Da Silva to make the first team. Despite the return of United’s captain and the Brazilian phenomenon’s rise to prominence it was in fact John O’Shea who laid claim to the slot, starting most of United’s big games in the position that season.

Last season saw a plethora of injuries to the United backline and everyone from Ritchie De Laet to Darren Fletcher got a chance in the right back role. Now as the Red Devils kick off a new campaign the right back question is still unresolved, with few clues about who will start against Newcastle United on August 16th.

Many supporters are campaigning for youth, with Rafael promoted as the man most likely to make the role his own. Sir Alex has shown lots of confidence in Rafael in the past, starting the 20-year-old in big games, most notably the second leg against Bayern Munich in last season’s Champions League quarter final. Rafael was infamously sent off that night, an event that led to the Germans winning the tie.

But Rafael’s promise showed in how well the player performed in direct competition against Franc Ribéry before the red card, getting forward regularly and keeping the lively French midfielder quiet for the most part.

The criticism of Rafael is his defensive naïvety. The Brazilian sometimes gets caught too high up the pitch and is forced into making poor decisions like the one against Munich and earlier in the season when he conceded a penalty against Manchester City. But Rafael has improved in the tackle over the past year and if there is still a major question mark defensively then the youngster is undoubtedly United’s best right back moving forward.

O’Shea represents the cautious option, with little pace and a tendency towards the lethargic in possession. Defensively Ferguson will have very few concerns though. The Irishman proved himself in the position throughout the 08-09 season and despite a slow start during the early part of his United career, O’Shea has become a fans’ favourite as a result of his work ethic and acceptance to play any role required.

Brown, however, showed himself a liability at centre back last season, and when he did get a chance at right back the brilliance demonstrated in United’s double winning season had disappeared. Brown is another player who Ferguson is delighted to have in the squad because of his versatility. It will still be a surprise to see the 30-year-old start at right back considering it has been more than two years since the role was his.

Then there is club captain Neville, who is likely playing in his last season with United. His playing time will probably reflect that fact. Neville is a good influence on the younger players at the club but the frequency with which the 35-year-old is skinned by mediocre left wingers is worrying. The ultimate pro may just have to accept a bit part role with United this coming season.

In the end the right back position will probably be fought over by O’Shea and Rafael, barring any injuries. While the romantic choice is the Brazilian, the most likely outcome is that he will share the role with O’Shea based on the opponent, with Neville providing cover against weaker opposition.

Loaning away the future

Sam Gregory July 27, 2010 Tags: Opinion 42 comments

Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Darren Fletcher, Wes Brown, Phil Neville, Nicky Butt – each is or was an established Manchester United player that came through the club’s academy. The group also shares another similarity; none of them ever left the club on loan, remaining at Old Trafford throughout their youthful years.

There seems  a common myth floating around the United ranks these days that to play for the side, previous first team experience is needed. Sir Alex Ferguson spoke recently about players seeing action and not stagnating.

But in fact, the only players under Sir Alex Ferguson that have become first team regulars after going out on loan are David Beckham and John O’Shea, with Johnny Evans also breaking into that exclusive club considering his recent performances with the United first team.

Beckham and O’Shea spent just one spell on loan once, while Evans played for both Antwerp and Sunderland. While the benefits of first team football has worked for that group, many of United’s more recent academy prospects wasted away on loan.

Take these recent examples.

Danny Simpson was once a very highly rated right back but after loan spells at five different clubs he was eventually deemed surplus and left for Newcastle United. Similarly, Fabien Brandy was England’s next great hope up front, scoring the winning goal in the 2007 Youth Championship Cup against Juventus and leading United to the FA Youth Cup Final in the same year.

In 2008 Brandy went out on loan for the first time. Four loans later and not only is the striker no longer a United player but the club did not receive a transfer fee for the once highly regarded forward. Just two of several examples where recent United youngsters have spent time on loan only to be released by the club.

Contrary to popular opinion, perhaps first team matches are no substitute for quality coaching and learning to play football the United way? United’s coaching staff from academy to reserve team is run by top class talent after all, including director Brian McClair to current reserve team coach Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

There is an argument that players training five a week, with the single match, miss out at the development stage if they spend time away from the club.

Is Championship football a ‘better experience’ for the young players when the FA Youth Cup is still one of the highest quality youth competitions in the world? Then there is the academy and reserve league games, which are often played at a quicker pace than Premier League matches. The experience is still a United experience.

One of the compliments given to the United youth system over the years has been how easy it is for youth players can make the jump to the first team to cover an injured, out of form or suspended player. After all these players are familiar with the United system, often training with first team players and can fill in the gap seamlessly.

There might be a perfect example of the theory in the current United squad. Tom Cleverley is one of the most sought after players in United’s academy, with press reports suggesting that he may be on his way to Newcastle for a season long loan.

There is an issue with this though. Newcastle will most likely see very little of the ball in the club’s Premier League matches this season. It means when Cleverley plays, which he may often not given Newcastle requires a more defensive player, the midfielder may be forced into a deeper role than he’s accustomed to. Is this the experience United requires when the 20-year-old returns?

Then there are the academy’s recent results in producing players for the first team. United’s academy has long been the envy of clubs across the country but in the past decade it has produced very few first team quality players.

Even Manchester City has won the FA Youth Cup more recently than United – last victorious in 2003 – as the club still recalls fond memories of the 1992 Youth Cup winning side that went on to win so many more substantial trophies for the first team.

Is then the club’s reliance on the loan system to blame? Maybe, maybe not, but the evidence says that first team match experience is no substitute to training with United’s best.


Based in Canada, Sam Gregory writes The Canadian Stretford End in addition to his contributions here.