Author tobycoughlin

Author tobycoughlin

The sacrifice: Wayne Rooney’s European Journey

Toby Coughlin February 16, 2013 Tags: , Opinion 14 comments

In the build up to Wednesday’s 1-1 draw between Real Madrid and Manchester United, the Madrid-based paper Marca depicted Wayne Rooney as ‘El Coco’ – the bogeyman. This was widely misreported in the British press as an insult, where it really acknowledged the city’s fear of the Rooney’s ability. Madridistas might, therefore, have felt a little let down by Rooney’s performance on the night of a game in which he never seemed to get going.

Many commentators are left underwhelmed after watching Rooney on the European stage. To brand his contributions as a failure, however, is to totally misunderstand the role that the striker is often asked to play when facing the best teams that Europe has to offer.

Memories of the 2006/7 Champions League campaign brings rise to mixed emotions for United fans. Nobody who witnessed United’s 7-1 demolition of Roma in the quarter-final home-leg will ever forget the match – a performance of free-flowing attacking football at its best, with Rooney linking with Cristiano Ronaldo and Alan Smith, among others, to dismantle the team from Italy’s capital. Rooney scored in both legs of the tie.

The next round offered up a similar feast of football at Old Trafford, where Rooney was the star of the show, scoring a brace to help his team edge out AC Milan 3-2. The joy was short-lived however, as United went on to the San Siro to face a 3-0 embarrassment at the hands of a Káká-inspired Milan.

The defeat was enough to revolutionise Sir Alex Ferguson’s European tactics – and with it Rooney’s role – forever. Never again would Ferguson allow his team such attacking freedom against the top sides.

When faced with Barcelona in the 2008 Champions League semi-finals, for example, Ferguson’s main concern was to stop Lionel Messi, at that time a right-winger for the Catalans. Ferguson’s response was to start Rooney on the left-wing, a position that quickly evolved into an auxiliary left-back as United defended ever deeper to hold onto a 1-0 lead in the tie. The strategy worked and United went on to win the competition at the cost of Rooney’s attacking flair.

Ferguson’s side was not so lucky against Barcelona in 2009, when United reached a second consecutive Champions League Final. Rooney was sacrificed once again, playing astonishingly deep as the Catalans’ supreme midfield destroyed England’s leading club in a 2-0 defeat.

It is very rare to have a player of Rooney’s attacking quality that is willing to carry out defensive tasks on the biggest stage. A breathtaking sacrifice to make.

Between 2009 and 2011, with Ronaldo departed and Robin van Persie yet to arrive, Ferguson deployed Rooney at the spearhead of United’s attack. In the European knock-out phases over those two years Rooney scored eight goals in 10 games, including a goal in the 2011 Final and two sensational braces against AC Milan in 2010.

Proof, if some need it, that Rooney can perform on the biggest stage as an attacking force when he is empowered to by Ferguson’s tactical thinking.

And yet, the England forward found himself stuck out on the wing again last Wednesday night in Madrid, charged with limiting the impact of former team-mate Ronaldo and the German playmaker Mesut Özil. Rooney’s role was part of a patchwork of tactics used to nullify the Madrid threat, with Danny Welbeck and Phil Jones also selected for their tireless work rate.

The strategy worked with United limiting Madrid to a single goal, while Ferguson’s side created plenty of scoring opportunities too. In the aftermath Jones’ performance, out of position in a deep-lying role, has been hailed as a complete success, while Rooney has suffered familiarly unfair criticism from the fourth estate. The Sun’s Steven Howard, for example, asks “Where does Rooney go when you need him?”

Indeed, if United does succeed in progressing to the quarter-finals of this year’s Champions League, it is very unlikely that Rooney will receive much of the credit. Nobody else in Ferguson’s side will have sacrificed nearly as much to get their team there though.

Rooney’s impact in Europe, while understated when deployed so often out of position, deserves better. It is, after all, a rare quality to combine tireless defensive ability with exceptional attacking talent. It is even rarer to selflessly sacrifice the latter for the former whenever called to do so.

Madrid wanted the bogeyman. Instead the Spaniards got a martyr.

 

Rooney’s European record:
Champions League: 68 played, 28 goals
UEFA Cup: 3 played, 3 goals
Rooney is the highest English goalscorer in Champions League history

Lampard unchained

Toby Coughlin January 18, 2013 Tags: , Opinion 33 comments

In recent weeks speculation has mounted that Chelsea’s Frank Lampard may be on his way to Old Trafford when the player’s Chelsea contract ends at the end of the season. The gossip has caused much consternation among Manchester United fans who, starting to doubt the waning powers of Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Rio Ferdinand, struggle to see the value of bringing yet another veteran into Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad.

Certainly this season has seen Scholes and, in particular Giggs, stray further away from fans’ affections. Ferguson was heavily criticised by some supporters when he threw on the pair in United’s recent 1-1 draw against Swansea City as the Reds chased a victory.

Similarly, Scholes and Giggs’ lack of dynamism in the Boxing Day game against Newcastle United was cited as a reason for United’s lacklustre performance in the first hour of that match. Meanwhile, Ferdinand’s reputation has also been damaged due to United’s often woeful defending in the first half of the season.

Why then is Ferguson seemingly in the market for another player in his mid-30s?

Perhaps it is expedient. After all, it is not certain that any of his veterans will still be at the club come next season. Rumours have recently circulated that Ferdinand may be on his way to China in the search of one final giant pay cheque, while neither Scholes, nor Giggs, have committed to contracts next season amid rumours of imminent retirement.

In the event of the pair’s departure, United will lose 1638 games worth of experience in one go. It is a scenario in which Lampard arrives as a necessary replacement for, rather than a superfluous addition to, the squad’s most experienced players.

With Darren Fletcher seemingly unlikely to ever make a full return to Ferguson’s first team, following surgery on a bowel condition this week, United will be surely be further depleted of experience in the coming months.

Beyond experience Ferguson is attracted to Lampard’s enduring class. The midfielder has been at the centre of a Chelsea side that transformed from a decent Premiership outfit to a world football power in the past 10 years. In that time Lampard has been the Premier League’s preeminent goal-scoring midfielder, plundering an incredible 194 goals in 12 seasons for the Blues. Lampard’s presence was crucial as Chelsea finally claimed the Champions League last summer

Lampard’s hero-esque status also renders the Chelsea idol unsuitable for a rival such as United according to some, although the Londoner is generally viewed with respect among United’s following – a few ill-founded jokes about his weight apart. Certainly, Lampard has never aroused the passionate animosity that has always followed teammate John Terry and Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard.

Lampard would not be the first player to swap west London for Salford. Former Chelsea assistant manager Ray Wilkins served both clubs in the 1980s and the former England international believes that Chelsea’s vice-captain could do the same.
“He’ll want to continue and play at a high level – and there’s no higher level than Old Trafford,” Wilkins recently said. Wilkins also dubbed Ferguson “the master of utilising the older player” and suggested that his recent record of prolonging the careers of ageing players might appeal to the 34-year old Lampard.

Lampard claimed as recently as August that he can still play “at the top level for a good few years” and it seems unlikely that the midfielder is ready to follow former teammate Didier Drogba to one of football’s less popular leagues in search of an easily gained fortune. Certainly, with seven goals from 13 league games so far this season, some of which Lampard started on the bench, the midfielder’s capabilities show little sign of abating.

If Lampard makes the move north, no matter how unlikely, there will inevitably be those who chide the decision as a backward step by Sir Alex and a hindrance to some of the Scot’s younger starlets. It is a genuine fear, not least given the departure of Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison since Scholes came out of retirement last January. Since then Pogba has proven to be a hit in Turin with Juventus, while Morrison is undergoing a revival at Birmingham City. Lampard’s acquisition, should it come to pass, will doubtless give rise to similar fears.

Yet, there is perhaps a prescient transfer in Italy on which Ferguson may draw inspiration. In summer 2011 AC Milan allowed ageing midfielder Andrea Pirlo to leave on a free transfer to rivals Juventus. The Italian playmaker inspired his new club to a resounding victory in the Serie A title race and starred at Euro 2012. Chelsea will be hope that they aren’t rueing a similar situation at the end of next season.

Scholes’ return points to end for young Reds

Toby Coughlin January 13, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 25 comments

The news of Paul Scholes’ return to Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad shortly before the FA Cup Third Round tie against Manchester City seemingly provoked a wave of optimism among Manchester United fans, with polls across the web supporting the Salford-born midfielder’s re-integration. Manager, players, pundits and former Reds were all universally upbeat about the 36-year-old’s return to action too.

Indeed, following United’s 3-2 victory at Eastlands, former Red Nicky Butt drew attention to the psychological blow dealt by his former teammate’s return. “It was a smart move by the manager,” said Butt. “It took all the attention off [City’s] home record and switched all the attention to Paul Scholes.” In this respect, Scholes’ return certainly achieved its goal as a devastating first-half performance by United left the derby rivals looking shell-shocked before half-time.

“Paul is going to be a real positive addition to our squad,” claimed centre-back Chris Smalling, who lauded the longer-term effects of the midfielder’s return. “It gave the young lads a lift just to see him preparing for [Sunday’s] match.” These were sentiments shared by striker Danny Welbeck, who scored a smart volley to help ensure that Scholes’ return would be a happy one. “Seeing him in the dressing room just gave me a lift straight away.,” added the 20-year-old Mancunian.

For two other United hopefuls, however, the veteran midfielder’s return will have been far less encouraging. Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison displayed terrific potential when helping the Academy team to FA Youth Cup success last year, and many supporters believed that this would be the pair’s breakthrough season. It was even hoped that Ferguson’s refusal to sign a central midfielder in the summer transfer window was due to youth team talent available. Certainly, the manager intimated as much.

Following long-term injuries to midfielders Darren Fletcher and Tom Cleverley, together with Anderson’s indifferent form, many believed that United’s young guns would be offered a chance in the first team. It was not to be, as Ferguson instead deployed 38-year old Ryan Giggs, defender Phil Jones, winger Park Ji-Sung and even Wayne Rooney in the heart of midfield.

But the final blow to Morrison and Pogba’s hopes this season has been delivered by the decision to recall veteran Paul Scholes, who despite not having played professional football for over seven months, is now firmly above the pair in Ferguson’s pecking order.

It has long been rumoured that contract talks have broken down with Pogba, who has once again been linked with a move to Manchester City or abroad in recent weeks.

“He [Pogba] has got an agent who’s obviously become a bit difficult, but we’re negotiating with this agent and we want the boy to stay,” Ferguson said recently.

“If he doesn’t want to stay, then there’s not a lot you can do about it. We have an option on his contract that takes us into a year-and-a-half away, so in that respect there’s not a great emergency about it. But we’d like the boy to sign a contract and, if he’d like to be a Manchester United player, then he knows what to do.

“You hope he gets the right advice, but it’s down to the individual also. Matt Busby summed it up perfectly, that you don’t need to chase money at a club like Manchester United, it will eventually find you. If you’re good enough, you will earn money and become rich playing for Manchester United. It’s one of these situations that they can chase the money early in their career, but at the end, it’s not the same as if they’d stayed here. He just needs to look round about him to realise that.”

Meanwhile Morrison Tweeted on Wednesday that he has not been offered a new contract to stay at Old Trafford beyond the summer. Thursday’s Telegraph reported that Morrison’s exit from Old Trafford “seems certain”. The only remaining question is seemingly whether the 18-year-old will stay until the summer, with Newcastle United reportedly having bid £500,000 this week.

“[Ravel’s] agent has been working hard to get him another club,” said Ferguson on Friday, contradicting the player’s claim.

“We’ve offered him terms which he has refused. His demands are unrealistic as far as we’re concerned. We’ve rejected an offer from Newcastle. It’s all down to how that progresses.”

Followers of United’s youth and reserve teams will have noted the exceptional talents on offer, even though reserve football is not always a reliable barometer of a player’s ability. After all, there is reason why interest in this pair of United starlets has come from across Europe. It leaves fans wondering whether Ferguson will let these talents slip between his fingers without giving them a chance in the first team.

Few will need reminding of previous departures either. Gerard Piqué, who left Old Trafford having failed to gain first-team football, has subsequently won almost everything in the game, including the World Cup, two Champions Leagues and three La Liga titles. The recently compiled FIFA World XI award saw Piqué line-up alongside former teammate Nemanja Vidić, leaving United fans pondering what could have been.

The same could be said of Giuseppe Rossi, who made it from United’s reserves to the top of the La Liga scoring charts and into the Italian national team.

To let one world-class prospect leave before his time was careless. Two was a mistake. Fans will hope that Ferguson knows something about Morrison and Pogba that they do not. For to let two central midfield stars of the future follow Piqué and Rossi out of the exit door would be unforgivable.

United’s golden future

Toby Coughlin September 10, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 22 comments

There is an infectious air of belief sweeping around Old Trafford this season that has been created by a new generation of young players. Phil Jones, Tom Cleverley and Chris Smalling, among many others, have shown nothing but promise in a positive start to the new campaign. The pair will be followed up by an even younger generation, featuring elegant Frenchman Paul Pogba and the unruly, yet talented Ravel Morrison. The future, it seems, is bright.

The big question, however, remains whether this side will ever be good enough to challenge Barcelona, a club that possesses some of the best players in a generation, and seems able to create more at will. There is, for the moment, no answer to this question. Not until Manchester United’s new crop enjoys success in the face of Barça’s sustained excellence.

On the face of it Sir Alex Ferguson is trying to emulate Barcelona in his approach by bringing young players through, together, and allowing them to develop as a unit. Only a team that has been reared in this way, it seems, can have the shared understanding required for the phenomenal teamwork displayed by the Catalan giants, which can boast ten home-grown players in the first team squad.

Barcelona’s youth system has produced not only outstanding attacking players, such as Lionel Messi and Pedro Rodríguez, but also many creative midfielders in the mould of Andrés Iniesta and commanding defenders, including Gerard Piqué. Even the goalkeeper, Víctor Valdés, is Barcelona born and bred. This success in youth production is largely attributed to La Masia, the centre of excellence that imbues its graduates with such a strong foundation.

Happily for United, however, new developments in the Premier League – the Elite Player Performance Plan, which was agreed last February and will come into force from next season – should allow the club to create just such an establishment in Salford: a private footballing boarding school for children. This will provide the kind of close contact that is needed to develop the attitude and ability that so many of Barcelona’s youngsters possess.

More crucially still, the current restrictions on training hours are to be scrapped. Under Premier League rules young English players between the ages of 9 and 16 can only be trained for less than five hours a week by their clubs. Dutch, French and Spanish youngsters can hope for ten to twelve hours a week. The perrenial failure of the English national team means that five hours is patently nowhere near enough a player’s formative years.

Under the new system, English players will receive three times more training before the age of 16, which will go a long way to redressing the balance between English youngsters and their European counterparts. United’s outstanding facilities and top coaching team, together with the new rules, means that the club will produce ever more gems from the academy, just as Barcelona does.

Another boost comes in the form of a new academy grading system that is sure to place United in the top band. This system will allow United to enlist any top youngster in the country from a young age, and not just those who live locally. Numerous youngsters from all over the country will, inevitably, join United due to the club’s reputation. The academy will, once again, have access to some of the top talent in the country.

These changes are sure to benefit United in the long-term and fans can hold genuine hope that a new wave of home-grown talent will lift the club perhaps beyond the Catalans and to European domination. There will, of course, be a long wait for the changes to deliver genuine results. In the meantime fans will have to make do with imports such as Jones and Smalling, who are beating the academy youngsters to Ferguson’s first team.

Sir Alex’ lesson for the Professor

Toby Coughlin August 30, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 32 comments

If anyone needed proof that the current Manchester United side is superior to its north London rivals, then Sunday’s 8-2 demolition of Arsenal provided it. Even taking into account the multiple absences in the Gunners’ squad, the result offered a stark demonstration of the gulf in quality between Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad and that of Frenchman Arsène Wenger.

There have, inevitably perhaps, been calls for Wenger’s head from disappointed Arsenal fans who find themselves humiliated by an unthinkable result and disillusioned at a transfer window that has seen the sale of top-quality players with little in the way of replacements. The Gunners’ fans cannot understand how their club has fallen so far from the glory of Wenger’s ‘untouchable’ team of 2003-2004, which went an entire Premier League season undefeated.

For years in the late 1990s and early 2000s Arsenal fans enjoyed a shared dominance of the Premier League with United, which was finally ended in 2005 by the revolutionary spending of Abramovich-backed Chelsea. This event dramatically transformed the Premier League as Chelsea radically raised the bar needed for Premier League success with an end-of-season haul of 95 points.

At the time, this downturn in fortune for both United and Arsenal seemed insurmountable. But it was the managers’ reactions to the setback that has truly set them apart. While Ferguson rose to and overcame the challenge, Wenger floundered and has never recovered.

In the mid 2000s, sensing a danger to his United empire, Ferguson looked to the future, selling established players such as David Beckham, Roy Keane, Tim Howard and Ruud van Nistelrooy and replacing them with younger talent including Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Edwin Van der Sar. These players were to form the backbone of a side that would win four titles between 2006 and 2011.

Furthermore, Ferguson adapted to the European game, developing tactics including a three-man midfield that provided solidity and a fluid attacking unit that rendered Ronaldo, Rooney and Carlos Tevez almost unplayable. This was crucial in reaching three Champions League Finals during the latter part of the decade despite a move away from the rigid 4-4-2 that Ferguson employed to great effect in 1999.

Wenger, on the other hand, was far less successful in adapting to the new challenge posed by Abramovich’s Chelsea. Players such as Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Sol Campbell and Martin Keown were never satisfactorily replaced and although talented players including Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie helped mount some title challenges, there was always a negative feeling in the Arsenal camp. This led to a repeated and dramatic mid-season collapse in belief, such as that in 2008.

Today, the Premier League is faced with a new challenge – that of Manchester City and the club’s seemingly bottomless pocket. Ferguson has been charged in recent years with some hugely daunting tasks. He has replaced the magnificent Cristiano Ronaldo, along with the ever negative Tevez and has dealt with the retirement of ageing talents: Paul Scholes, Van der Sar and Gary Neville. Players such as Ryan Giggs and even Rio Ferdinand are in the twilight of their careers. At least with United.

Ferguson is, however, a master at creating new teams, keeping the best elements of an old team and merging them with new talent. Once again, he has succeeded in doing this, offering United fans a strong sense of optimism for the future and for the challenge that City will inevitably pose. He has signed young players of great quality such as Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Ashley Young; brought through home-grown talents Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley, and has coupled them with the undoubted ability of existing players.

Wenger, on the other hand, has been forced into selling two of his best players – Fabregas and Samir Nasri. Talk of signing 26-year-old striker Park Chu-Young and 28-year-old full-back André Santos will do little to encourage Arsenal fans as they lick their wounds from Sunday’s 8-2 defeat. Once again, it seems, Wenger and his team are failing to adapt whilst Ferguson’s United are facing the challenge head on.

It seems ‘The Professor’ has much to learn if he is to recreate a team to challenge that of his old adversary Sir Alex.

Away form creates tactical dilemma

Toby Coughlin September 27, 2010 Tags: Opinion 23 comments

Coming off the back of Manchester United’s draw with Bolton Wanderers at the Reebok on Sunday, Sir Alex Ferguson must wonder about the cause of his side’s indifferent form. Few could argue that Bolton, Fulham or Everton are easy away games, but they are the sort of matches that a side with serious title ambitions probably has to win.

Even more worrying is the nature of United’s three Premier League draws this season. It is one thing to come away with a point in a tight 0-0 away from Old Trafford, but to concede seven goals in three away games is unacceptable, especially against teams not noted for their attacking prowess.

Reasons for these defensive lapses can be found in the form of Jonny Evans who, despite looking solid for most of the previous season, now appears daunted by his key role in the team. The Irishman’s performances of late have been undoubtedly below par with a string of errors offering chances up on a plate for the opposition. Most recently Evans allowed Zat Knight to score from a corner.

With Rio Ferdinand returning, however, many will hope that United’s defence will be stronger and can once again thrive through the key personalities of the England captain, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra. Ferguson will hope that all three will start together for the first time this season when the team travels to Valencia for another key away tie this week.

Of greater concern, however, is the fact that defensive personnel are not purely to blame. For the first time in many seasons, Alex Ferguson has chosen to play an old-fashioned 4-4-2 formation, even away from home. It could well be this tactical change which has resulted in so many goals being conceded.

Without three midfield players in the centre of the park, United’s opposition have been afforded more time and space with which to move forward. This season in particular, the problems of playing only two central midfielders have been prevalent, with Paul Scholes providing little to no defensive cover and Darren Fletcher attacking more than an out-and-out anchor man might.

In fact United is one of the few elite clubs to play without a traditional holding player. Taking a quick glance at Europe’s top clubs, it’s clear most invariably operate with three central midfielders, one at least of which is defensive minded:

  • Real Madrid – Khedira, Alonso, Kaka/Özil
  • Barcelona – Busquets/Mascherano, Xavi, Iniesta
  • Chelsea – Essien, Mikel/Ramires, Lampard
  • Inter Milan – Cambiasso, Muntari, Sneijder
  • Bayern Munich – Van Bommel, Schweinsteiger, Müller/Kroos

It is no coincidence that Europe’s elite has turned to the system, with games won and lost in midfield. The dominant formation at the World Cup included two defensive midfielders. It is also no coincidence that United’s best seasons of late have come when predominantly playing three in the middle of the park.

Even in United’s 2008 European Cup winning season as Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez often played together upfront, the pair’s tireless nature made up for the missing midfielder, with one tracking back on almost every occasion.

While a return to 4-3-3 – or 4-5-1 depending on your outlook – might be the answer for the current Old Trafford outfit it is no longer easy for Ferguson to play the formation given the personnel available. As noted earlier, Dimitar Berbatov cannot play alone up-front and in his current form it would be folly to drop him to the bench.

The other option, it seems, is to operate in a 4-3-3 formation with Rooney returning to the left of a front three that includes Berbatov and Nani.

Many fans recoil at the suggestion, dreading the waste of talent that comes with Rooney playing on the left. It doesn’t have to be the case and may liberate the former Everton player.

Rooney has been poor this season, looking lacklustre in possession and almost frightened to take on a shot such is the pressure piled on the 24-year-old. Moving Rooney wide may ease much of the pressure on him to score goals, allowing the striker to create but without the weight of providing another 35-goal season.

Alongside Nani, Rooney could provide enough support for Berbatov to play competently up-front, thus solving the old problem of the Bulgarian failing to spearhead United’s attack.

Besides, it is not uncommon for a talented forward to play wide. David Villa almost exclusively played on the left-side of a front three for Spain at the World Cup, as did Luis Suarez for Uruguay. Lionel Messi and, obviously, Cristiano Ronaldo have also shone in a wide position in club football.

The point being United’s only way of solving the current ‘defensive question’ is to return to three in midfield, pushing Rooney wide. It could even solve the ‘Rooney question’ too.

Fergie is very likely to pack the midfield against Valencia in such an important European away game. Those crying out for a change from a 4-4-2 formation that is reaping few defensive rewards, will agree.

Fergie’s folly offers some positives

Toby Coughlin September 15, 2010 Tags: , , Opinion 8 comments

Fans have criticised Sir Alex Ferguson for the selection he deployed against Rangers on Tuesday night. Vindication for his critics came in the lack of creativity shown by the Scot’s team during the dour scoreless draw. Despite dominating possession, United was largely reduced to goalmouth scrambles and long-range shots.

However, those wholesale changes also made the game interesting, with United fans offered the chance to pass judgement on some of the fringe players who came into the team.

At the back, Fabio da Silva and Chris Smalling, both of whom were among the better performers on the pitch, were given an opportunity to shine. Smalling, in particular, looked calm and collected, with only one clumsy challenge  giving any cause for concern.

True, it wasn’t the sternest of tests for the young defender, with Rangers camped in their own half. Smalling and partner Rio Ferdinand rarely had to see off the threat of Glaswegian counter-attacks but the former Fulham defenders passing was impressive, as he often found players in space who were able to move the ball up-field.

Fabio also looked secure at the back, with one sliding tackle in particular rousing the Old Trafford faithful. The Brazilian also showed a willingness to get forward and his substitution for Jonny Evans in the 75th minute made little sense. Fabio, whilst not always accurate with his crossing, at least presented an outlet for United on the left.

In the midfield, Darron Gibson and Park Ji-Sung came into the team, replacing two players who have impressed this season – Nani and Paul Scholes.

Gibson has been much criticised for his role against Rangers, being too often driven to shoot from range. But in his defence, with Rangers camped inside their own area, Wayne Rooney and Darren Fletcher often looked to the Irishman as an outlet.

Amongst several wild efforts, two shots just missing the target either side of half time were impressive. Furthermore, Gibson at least tried to spread the play to the wings from time to time, providing more openings than, say, Michael Carrick might have done.

Park, who played on both wings, was generally poor following an average World Cup. Whilst the Korean worked hard to win possession, he looked bereft of ideas too. When given space to run, he dithered first, before  invariably being outmuscled. It’s not an universally accepted view of course, but many supporters  struggle to see where Park fits into the side. He lacks the kind of final ball the team was crying out for last night.

Up-front Rooney and Javier Hernández  struggled to get into the game. The Mexican fell victim to the poor delivery and Rangers’ defensive resilience. Meanwhile, Rooney still looked uncomfortable, playing the ball into a packed box or back to Gibson when he was better placed to shoot himself.

As the game wore on, with Fabio and Valencia departed – the latter in tragic circumstances – the situation became even worse for United’s strikers. The Reds finished the game essentially playing four centre-backs and, with Hernandez on the right-wing after the introduction of Michael Owen, there was little to no delivery from the flanks at all.

Overall, Ferguson got the tactics wrong, insofar as the Scot should have left at least one of Dimitar Berbatov, Nani or Scholes on the bench. United lacked the little bit of invention that could have cracked Rangers’ resolve.

However, that is not to say United’s second string is second-rate. There are positives: Smalling and Fabio looked comfortable at the back, Gibson, who had difficult job in the circumstances, was often United’s only real threat,  and Hernández fell victim to the game.

In fact, the greatest disappointments aside from the result were Park’s performance and Ferguson’s substitutions.

Ferguson’s midfield dilemma

Toby Coughlin July 29, 2010 Tags: , Opinion 21 comments

Manchester United’s play last season was characterised by two things: a rigid 4-5-1 formation and Wayne Rooney’s unstoppable performances. Unstoppable, it seemed, until injuries at the tail-end of the season and then his lacklustre performances in South Africa. It leaves Sir Alex Ferguson facing a dilemma this summer.

The 4-5-1 formation relies heavily on Rooney’s goals, who worked for much of the season in tandem with Antonio Valencia and Nani on his way to an impressive 34 goals in all competitions. It seemed that when the Scouser was playing well good results followed suit. Fans will be worried, however, that Rooney may suffer a recurrence of the minor knocks which plagued the end of last season.

This concern is greatly magnified by United’s dependence on 4-5-1, a system which completely fails to accommodate Rooney’s back-up, Dimitar Berbatov. Sadly for Sir Alex, the Bulgarian striker can only play alongside another goalscorer as he did with former team-mates Robbie Keane and Oliver Neuville.

The reasonable solution, therefore, is for Ferguson to play 4-4-2 when Rooney is injured or rested, with Berbatov and Michael Owen or Javier Hernández up front in the Scouser’s absence

However, this reality brings another problem to the fore and that is the weakness of United’s central midfield. Whilst Michael Carrick, Anderson, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes can play in a three-man central midfield, as they do in Ferguson’s 4-5-1 system, each struggles in a 4-4-2. Either too immobile for the defensive role, or uninventive for an attacking position, each player has his weaknesses.

This was Ferguson’s dilemma last season – the Scot well understands that his players cannot cope in a 4-4-2 system in the toughest games and, in Rooney’s absence, the Scot tried to deploy Berbatov as a lone striker. It was a decision that clearly did not pay off in those crunch games towards the end of the season.

For the coming campaign, therefore, United’s manager must either pray that Rooney stays fit all season, or he needs to bring in players to strengthen United’s squad.

One option is for Ferguson to bring in a striker capable of playing alone up front in Rooney’s absence. Wolfsburg’s Edin Dzeko, for example, would suit the role perfectly. The defining problem with this strategy is obvious though as, even if money is available, it is almost impossible to buy a striker good enough for this role who is happy to play second fiddle to Rooney.

The second, and safest, option is for United to invest in a midfielder or two capable of playing in a 4-4-2, with either defensive or attacking prowess suitable to commanding a central role with a man less.

On the attacking side, players such as James Milner, Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller, the latter two who excelled with Germany in South Africa, fit the bill. While Müller looks set to stay at Bayern Munich and Milner is on his way to Manchester City, Özil is readily available. The 21-year-old’s contract runs out at the end of the season and the player would surely welcome a step up from Werder Bremen.

Another potential signing is Jack Rodwell, a solid defensive midfielder with a wealth of potential and who could also fill in for Rio Ferdinand at the back if needed in an emergency. The Evertonian’s price may still be within reach.

Perhaps Ferguson’s final option is to learn a lesson from the Wolrd Cup where Uruguay, Argentina and Mexico each played with three genuine strikers in a 4-3-3 formation. It recalls memories of Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Rooney in their pomp.

Uruguay used Edinson Cavani, Diego Forlán and Luis Suárez, all of whom are out-and-out centre-forwards for their clubs. Similarly, Argentina played with Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain and Tevez leading the line.

Should United invest in a striker such as Suarez, could Ferguson pull off a similar formation, with three from Rooney, Suarez, Hernandez, Nani, Berbatov and Owen leading the line? It’s a option that offers Ferguson more flexibility and the security of a three man midfield.

Of the three choices presented here, the first is probably impossible and the third is a risk, but Ferguson’s second option is certainly possible. One thing is certain, United cannot rely on Rooney as the team did last season. The risk of injury and loss of form is just too great.

Ferguson claims money is available despite the Glazers’ financial mess – he should use it to bring in one more signing before the season starts in August!

Getting down to business

Toby Coughlin January 12, 2010 Tags: Opinion 5 comments

The Premier League saw another uncharacteristic twist this weekend as both Arsenal and Manchester United drew games that they were expected to win. Such games have become commonplace this season, with Chelsea and particularly Liverpool also frequently dropping points nobody expected. Can United take the initiative in the next month?

In recent times, the Premier League winners have finished the season with points in the high 80s. Arsenal, Chelsea and United have even managed to gain more than 90 in four of the last six seasons. It appears it won’t be the case this term.

As we settle into 2010 though, Sir Alex Ferguson must be aware that one of the top three teams is going to take the initiative and string a series of wins together. Will it be United?

Arsenal faces a challenging run of games in the next month, which will see Arsène Wenger’s team play Aston Villa, United, Chelsea and Liverpool in the Premier League. If the Londoners come out of that run with nine points or more, the Frenchman will fancy his side’s chances in the title race. Whether Arsenal has the strength in depth to do so without Robin van Persie, Emmanuel Eboué and Alexandre Song over the next few weeks is questionable.

Meanwhile, Chelsea’s run is a touch easier, with home games against Birmingham City and Sunderland followed by away ties with Burnley and Wolverhampton Wanderers. And while Chelsea must still contend with Arsenal, the fixture will be played at Stamford Bridge. Carlo Ancelotti will certainly look to gain an advantage in the Premier League race given that relatively easy run. But as is been the way this season, time and again the so called ‘lesser teams’ look hard to beat.

United has a mixed run in the next month, with manageable home games at Burnley, Hull City and Portsmouth bracketing a massive game at the Emirates and ties in both the Carling Cup and Champions League.

With the cup ties in mind, it is likely that Fergie will rest key players in the team’s home Premier League matches, given the opponents. But with points already dropped against the lesser lights, it is absolutely essential that Ferguson’s side take maximum points from home ties against teams which – as Burnley showed in August – are no push-overs.

The next four games could be absolutely key come the end of the season and there is certainly reason for United fans to be optimistic. Although the team is far from its imperious best, a good performance at the Emirates and an improved success rate against the ‘smaller’ Premier League teams this month could see Ferguson’s side take a decisive advantage.

The time for United to hit top form is now, when building momentum is so important. And the timely return of players such as Rio Ferdinand and Owen Hargreaves in the next month could carry the side through to May and a record fourth consecutive Premier League trophy.

Of course, the celebrations will have to be cut short to prepare for the third consecutive Champions League final, played just days later. We can but live in hope…

Then and now

Toby Coughlin January 10, 2010 Tags: , Opinion 6 comments

May 2008: The outstretched palm of Edwin van der Sar bats away Nicolas Anelka’s penalty. He is swamped by a team of top quality players. Their smiles tell the story – Manchester United is once against Champions of Europe and the best team in the World.

January 2010: Just days after United crash out of the FA Cup to League One Leeds United, a poor performance sees Sir Alex Ferguson’s side drop points in the Premier League at St. Andrews. It’s another display lacking in inspiration.

Among ceaseless rumours of United’s financial situation, with the Glazers desperate to refinance their debt, pundits suggest the demise of Fergie’s Empire.

Question is, where did it go so wrong in such a short time?

United fans had every right to feel excited after that fateful night at the Luzhniki Stadium against Chelsea. After all, they supported a team that could dominate Europe for years to come.

United’s flawless defence boasted, in Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, two of the best centre halves in the world. In turn Patrice Evra and Wes Brown supported the pair superbly.

Ahead of the most miserly defence in the country was a midfield sporting a newly fit Owen Hargreaves, who had instantly shown his value. Youngsters Nani and Anderson had demonstrated enough promise at a tender age to suggest that the pair really could replace the United legends Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes.

Meanwhile, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez had struck up a partnership up front, reminiscent of the telepathic 1999 Dwight Yorke – Andy Cole pairing.

And one man stood head and shoulders above the rest: Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored 42 goals and boasted the ability to go even further.

Then in reserve United had talents such as the now world-class Gerard Piqué, Ben Foster, the evergreen Giggs and Scholes and the improving Darren Fletcher, alongside Michael Carrick, Jonny Evans and John O’Shea.

Fast-forward a year and a half and there are gaping holes in this picture. A previously imperious defence is now shaking, with Ferdinand and Brown struggling for fitness, Vidic looking like he has lost confidence in his ability and van der Sar suffering with injury and personal problems.

Ben Foster, the Dutchman’s replacement, is in the reserves and third choice, the often maligned Tomasz Kuszczak, is resident between the sticks.

Having lost Ronaldo, United’s midfield now looks wooden and lacking inventiveness. Anderson, and in particular Nani, have made little progress since 2008. The elder statesmen, Giggs and even more so Scholes are showing their age. Hargreaves is nowhere, having missed the past 16 months. Even the impressive Antonio Valencia and Fletcher still only pose a minor threat on the world stage.

Of greatest disappointment though, the highly gifted Dimitar Berbatov has failed to strike up the partnership with Rooney that Sir Alex expected. The Bulgarian is slowly and sadly proving the ‘flop’ that every Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea fan has been so eager to label him.

United hasn’t turned to a mid-table side overnight though. Evra is still a phenomenal player and Rooney is developing into the centre-forward fans always hoped he would become. Fletcher is improving steadily and, just perhaps, some of the youngsters such as Gabriel Obertan and Rafael da Silva will make the grade.

But the spark of yesteryear is gone: the thing that made United so good in May 2008 and at times last season. The principal catalysts of that spark – the impenetrable defence, the solid midfield and, most importantly, Ronaldo – have now faded or gone.

With each game there’s hope that it’ll change for the better. That Nani and Anderson will re-emerge, Ferdinand and Hargreaves will return to fitness, or Berbatov and Valencia will suddenly burst into life. It’s a hope in vain, as United’s fixtures against Fulham, Leeds and Birmingham so clearly show.

Still, Fergie has shown time and again that he has the tools to make just one more great team. Now there’s a hope.

May 2008 – Champions League Final Team Sheet

GK – Van der Sar – Then: A top quality keeper showing no signs of his age. Now: Unavailable for the long-term and coming to the end of his contract.

DR – Brown – Then: Coming off the back of his finest season, having made the right back position his own. Now: intermittently injured and lacking consistency.
DL – Evra – Then: A spotless full-back. Now: One of the few success stories, Evra is one of the most consistent and proficient defenders in United’s long history.
DC – Vidic – Then: Had a thoroughly consistent season alongside Ferdinand. Now: Is struggling to maintain his form and fitness ever since the Serbian’s horror show against Liverpool last season. Rumours of a move to Madrid refuse to go away.
DC – Ferdinand – Then: Possibly the best centre-back in the world. Now: Repeatedly injured, which is hampering his performance when he is fit.

MR – Hargreaves – Then: Came back from injury to score a vital free kick against Arsenal and was exceptional against Barcelona and Chelsea. Now: Injured
ML – Ronaldo – Then: 42 goals including strikes against Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Roma. The winger could single-handedly win matches on his own. Peerless. Now: Departed for Florentino Perez’ Real Madrid, where he has scored 13 goals in 13 games. *Sighs*
MC – Scholes – Then: Influential playmaker – scored the decisive goal against Barcelona with a corker of a shot in the semi-final. Now: Really showing his age and there are question marks over a new contract. Still, he is a legend!
MC – Carrick – Then: Had a good season without ever catching fire. Linked the play well. Now: Forced to play at centre-back to cover for injured defenders. Has yet to prove himself of stellar quality.

FC – Rooney – Then: Perhaps over-shadowed by Ronaldo but still at the heart of the team. Now: Finally scoring prolifically for both United and England, Rooney has impressed. Sadly still has a tendency to get frustrated.
FC – Tevez – Then: Found a good partnership with Rooney and scored 20 goals. Always doggedly determined. Now: Departed for the enemy under a cloud. Started to pick up form for City.

Bench:
Kuszczak – Second-rate then and second-rate now but in the first team.
O’Shea – A very good utility defender but is now struggling with injury.
Silvestre – Departed for Arsenal to wind up his career.
Anderson – Was very exciting then and less so now.
Giggs – Still turning out good performances but it won’t last forever. A true legend.
Nani – Bitterly disappointing after an encouraging start at the club.
Fletcher – Always developing. Threatening to become a top player for the club.