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UNITEDRANT

Why United will fall short of goals

August 9, 2009 Tags: Opinion 12 comments

It’s obvious of course but the major challenge for United in the post-Cristiano Ronaldo era is to score enough goals to compensate for the loss of the Portuguese maestro. In the last three years alone the winger-cum-striker scored a phenomenal 91 goals in all competitions at a goals-to-games ratio of better than one in three. Add Carlos Tevez’ 15 strikes in all competitions into the mix and manager Sir Alex Ferguson has to replace 41 goals next season.

The problem is exacerbated when the recent performances of new recruits Michael Owen and Antonio Valencia are taken into account. Owen has averaged around eight goals a season over the past three years, and Valencia less than three.

United hit the back of the net 119 times in 66 competitive games last season. Sir Alex believes the squad can rise to the challenge and score more than 100 goals this season in all competitions. With a minimum of three fewer games next season (no Club World Cup or European Super Cup) the squad probably needs to score 114, assuming the defence is as frugal, just to maintain last year’s performance levels.

But they say the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over but expect a different result. Yet this is what is expected of the squad this season – largely the same group of players but more goals needed. Based on career games-to-goals ratios and a rough assumption of number of games likely to be played by each squad member next season, Rant expects United to score around 104 goals.

Indeed there may be as many as seven United squad members who need to outperform their career games-to-goals ratios in order for United to hit the 114 goal target. This is without unexpected long-term injuries affecting United’s probable squad rotation. Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs are also unlikely to hit their career goals-to-games ratio in the coming season.

The key variables that may skew United’s scoring upwards from 104 – and therefore success this season – are Owen’s fitness, Valencia’s ability to improve on past performance and just how many games Federico Macheda gets.

Owen’s career performance suggests around 15 goals this season from 30 games but this is significantly more than the former Liverpool player managed in any season at Newcastle. Valencia too may have to chip in eight goals to keep United on par with last season. But with just seven strikes in the past two seasons the Ecuadorian winger’s ability to do that must be in question. Macheda and Welbeck – United’s two fantastically talented young forwards – may need to chip in 14 goals between them next season.

Wayne Rooney will also be crucial. The striker’s 20 goals last season beat his career goals-to-games average. Rooney started many of those games from the left and conventional wisdom says he’ll score more from a central position. If Rooney hits more than 25 in the coming season United are likely to finish as Premier League champions.

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Season preview 2009/10

August 7, 2009 Tags: Opinion 1 comment

It wouldn’t be an Old Trafford summer if there wasn’t a little transfer drama whipped up by tabloids with little else to write about. This year’s saga surrounded the futures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, with each departing for big spending European and domestic rivals. The result: £80 million in the bank and another £25 million left unspent. But it left United with 41 goals and a couple of big holes in the squad to fill.

Surely Sir Alex Ferguson would open up the chequebook and sign a world star in the face of relentless spending from Manchester City and Real Madrid? Never one to be second guessed, instead Ferguson delivered one of the lowest key summers in the transfer market in memory. The tricky Antonio Valencia arrived from Wigan Athletic for around £18 million – a deal that had been sealed months previously. Gabriel Obertan, who wasn’t good enough for Bordeaux, arrived at Old Trafford for around £3 million. With all respect to the wide pair, neither signing set the hearts racing. Ferguson claims that there is little value in the transfer market; many suspect the influence of £700 million in debt.

Undoubtedly the biggest shock of the summer was the free acquisition of Scouse legend Michael Owen. The striker, who averaged eight goals a season in four years at Newcastle, arrived at Old Trafford amid the howls of mocking laughter. Injured, shorn of his pace, and rejected by both Wigan and Blackburn Rovers, Owen’s only suitors appeared to be Hull City and Stoke. But Sir Alex’ success in management has been based on a pig-headed stubbornness – call it focus – that would never have taken into account the views of others.

Pre-season saw United travel to Asia for four matches against mediocre opposition, to Germany for the Audi Cup before completing the programme against Valencia on Wednesday night. The Asian tour saw United score 16 goals, culminating in the 8-2 thrashing of a Hangzhou Greentown team little better than semi-pro standard.

If the Asia tour saw United rake in the cash and build confidence, the real work started in Munich with two tough encounters against Boca Juniors and Bayern. The mini-tournament was a good test not only of United’s preparation for a tough season but a new tactical formation adopted in the absence of Ronaldo. With a more rigid 4-4-2 adopted by Sir Alex, the new United look to have plenty of width if a little more vulnerable through the middle of the park.

If United’s success over the past two seasons has been based on a solidity in the back four, much will depend on whether the team can overcome its current injury crisis. Edwin van der Sar, Nemanja Vidic, Wes Brown and Rafael will all miss the start of the season. Fabio has looked excellent through pre-season, and if he remains injury free, is an excellent addition to the first team squad.

The squad also looks short in quality – if not numbers – in wide areas. While Valencia has been highly impressive in three pre-season matches, question marks hang over the quality of Park Ji-Sung, Zoran Tošić and Nani. While Ryan Giggs has been bright in pre-season, age and a tendency to play inside means that United cannot rely on a flying Welsham to solve the problem.

Much will also depend on the growing maturity of Anderson and Darren Fletcher, alongside Michael Carrick in central midfield. With Owen Hargreaves due to return in January, Paul Scholes will become an increasingly peripheral figure in the team. But with just two in the centre of the park this season, the squad still looks worryingly short of a top class defensive midfielder. Hargreaves could be that man but after two years of injuries and major operations on both knees his successful return must be classed as doubtful.

Up front United will undoubtedly miss the goals provided by Ronaldo. But with Wayne Rooney returning to a central role, and Dimitar Berbatov having completed a pre-season programme, the goals will be spread more evenly through the forward line. Will Michael Owen be the goalscorer of old? The former Liverpool striker looked sharp in Asia but against top quality opposition back in Europe he has failed to score a goal. The jury is very much still out. However, the fine pre-season form of Federico Macheda and the growing talent of Danny Welbeck means each will figure heavily for United this season should any of the frontline forwards succumb to injury or loss of form.

United’s squad remains strong – and Ferguson’s desire still burns bright enough – to challenge for honours on all fronts this season. On the positive side Anderson and Nani can only get better, Rooney will enjoy a return to a central role, and Berbatov will surely deliver the kind of season that brought him to the club in a £30 million deal. Valencia too looks like a player who will only get better in a United shirt. But it’s hard to argue that United’s squad is stronger this season than last. At least the squad will benefit significantly from not having to travel to the Club World Cup.

Domestically much will depend on how Liverpool cope without the excellent Xabi Alonso, and how quickly Chelsea settle under new manager Carlo Ancelotti. Neither has strengthened significantly, which means the title race is far too close to call. While a fourth title in a row remains a possibility – despite the loss of Tevez and Ronaldo – realistically United could finish in any of the top three places. Expect it to go to the wire.

But in European terms United has gone backwards. Beaten so comprehensively by Barcelona, United has lost its most potent weapon and failed to strengthen the central midfield area that was totally exposed against Los Cules in Rome. Barcelona has swapped Samuel Eto’o for Zlatan Ibrahimovich – hardly an upgrade – but Madrid will surely be serious contenders come the knock out stages. Should Real add balance to the squad with another top-class central defender the Spanish duo will rightly be favourites for the trophy.

Predicition: The heart says United will be there or there abouts come May. The head says in a season of transition a fourth Premier League title in a row, or another European Cup, are probably just be beyond the team.

Key man: Wayne Rooney – the time is now for the young Scouser to come of age and be the pivot upon which the team is built.

One-to-watch: Federico Macheda – two stunning strikes late last season announced the young Italian’s arrival on the big stage. A strong pre-season means that he will be part of the first team plans from the off.

Boo-boy: Nani – absolutely must improve significantly on last year’s poor effort. Another half-hearted performance, shanked cross or naive pass and more fans will start to believe the Portuguese is out of his depth.

Unsung hero: Darren Fletcher – it comes to something when The Scottish Player was badly missed in the European Cup final. But missed he was, and Fletcher will be crucial to United’s hopes this season, especially away from home.

Rant’s starting XI (assuming fitness): van der Sar; Rafael, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Anderson, Nani; Rooney, Berbatov.

Foster’s big chance

August 6, 2009 Tags: Opinion No comments

Ben Foster is to be afforded the opportunity he has craved most over the past four years after Edwin van der Sar underwent an operation on a broken finger today. With the big Dutchman, 38, out for the start of the new campaign, the talented Lemington-born ‘keeper has an eight week chance to demonstrate his credentials to take over for Manchester United – and potentially England – between the sticks. It’s a make-or-break opportunity.

Foster’s presence and technical ability have long been held up as a standard bearer for English goalkeeping – the natural heir to both van der Sar and England’s David James. Certainly that is the view of manager Sir Alex Ferguson, whom recently tied Foster to a new four year contract.

“We are delighted that Ben has signed a new four-year deal,” Ferguson said recently.

“Ben is seen as one of the best young goalkeepers in England and we genuinely see him as a successor to Edwin.”

“There is no question in my mind that he will be England’s goalkeeper. There is nobody better,” added the Scot.

But for Foster it has been a frustrating four years since a £1 million transfer from Stoke in 2005. The stopper, who has been hampered by injuries and the form of van der Sar, has started just 10 games for United over his four years as a Manchester United player.

Two years on loan at Watford afforded Foster some experience though, and his performances were strong enough to earn the ‘keeper a first call-up to the Steve McClaren’s England squad. Foster made his international début in England’s 1–0 defeat against Spain on 7 February 2007 but it was more than a year before his first start for United against Derby Country on 15 March 2008.

Then Watford manager Aidy Boothroyd offered a prophetic insight into the young Foster. “He recognises the fact he’s just a cog in the wheel. He works harder at his game and that’s why I think he’ll be a future Manchester United and England number one,” said Boothroyd.

“He’s better than Edwin van der Sar in my opinion. He is going to be the best goalkeeper in the world, I’m convinced of that.”

van der Sar’s injury and Portsmouth’s off-the-field problems this summer have handed Foster a hugely lucky break. But even if Boothroyd’s view of Foster’s potential has translated into real ability, there is still has much for the ‘keeper to prove. It’s one thing being handed a start in last season’s Carling Cup final, it will be quite another for Ferguson to plump for the Midlander in the final games of the coming season. At 26 Foster is no longer a young pretender.

Last chance for Nani and Anderson

August 3, 2009 Tags: , Opinion 23 comments

Luís Carlos Almeida da Cunha and Anderson Luís de Abreu Oliveira, share more than the lengthy name and short-form nick of their heritage. Bought for a combined total of more than £35 million in summer 2007, each is also under huge pressure to perform in the coming campaign as two of United’s most expensive ever young imports. The pair, having suffered what can be reasonably described as a ‘difficult second season’ at Old Trafford, could find that the campaign ahead is the last in a red shirt such was their under performance in the previous year. It would be a harsh call perhaps, but the realities of modern football dictate that United cannot wait forever for promise to migrate into performance.

Indeed, the future of Nani and Anderson has been repeatedly questioned in the media of late – with the aforementioned Portuguese winger often thought to be leaving for new pastures. However, Sir Alex Ferguson, who is not prone to criticising players in public, has consistently defended the pair, including after the recent pre-season Audi Cup in Munich.

“They are young, for a start,” said Ferguson. “And when you are young, you have the ambition to get better. Not only that, but they have the right platform at Manchester United and the right training development.”

“I expect to see great improvement and I have got no fears about it. Anderson is 21 and Nani is 22. They’re young boys and they’re playing at the highest level of football, so yes they will improve.”

Improve they must. This is especially true of Nani who was a shadow of his former self last season, starting just seven Premier League games. That the winger also started six Carling Cup matches, playing alongside the reserves and squad fringe, was a clear indicator of Nani’s fall down the Old Trafford player hierarchy. Statistics aside, Nani’s failure to mature must have been frustrating for a manager who prides himself on the development of youth. While Nani is just a year younger than the departed Cristiano Ronaldo, he is miles away from the quality of the Real Madrid player.

Anderson, meanwhile, was frustrated by injury and the search for form last season. Fans, who had become used to the player’s authoritative displays in his début campaign, rarely saw the best of the Brazilian in the early part of the season. While the player was voted Man-of-the-Match in United’s low-key April win over Portsmouth, it was a rare highlight in an otherwise disappointing season.

The pressure may be the same but the challenge is different for each of the young stars. While Anderson has quickly built a bank of credit with the fans – outplaying both Steven Gerrard and Cesc Fabregas will do that – Nani is a poor performance away from becoming the squad’s bogeyman. Instinctively, fans understand that while Anderson has the making of a world class central midfielder, Nani is doing little more than flattering to deceive.

The Brazilian must add goals to the authority he hopes to regain. A stunning strike against Boca Juniors in the Audi Cup will undoubtedly help his confidence. Nani meanwhile must compensate for the loss of Ronaldo, which many fans already believe is a task beyond him.

First look at Valencia

July 29, 2009 Tags: Opinion 3 comments

Antonio Valencia scored and put in a lively performance during his first outing for Manchester United since an £18 million move from Wigan Athletic this summer. The Ecuadorian winger, who was left out of the Asian tour to concentrate on fitness work back in Manchester, was a constant threat from the right wing in United’s 2-1 victory over Boca Juniors in Munich this evening.

While it’s early days in the winger’s United career, Valencia’s performance is a major bonus for Sir Alex Ferguson after the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo this summer. Looking every bit the old fashioned winger, Valencia hugged the touchline and was a constant menace to his opposing full-back, before being substituted with about 25 minutes remaining.

“I think he will figure in many games,” Sir Alex said after the game. “It was his first game. For his first game, we are very satisfied. He is a good athlete, has good power and running ability, as we saw today with the way he created a good goal. Maybe it was a mistake by the goalkeeper, but he created the opportunity and opened up spaces for himself.”

The questions now are, can Valencia perform against better opposition than Boca and can he maintain a scoring rate better than the 1 in 10 he managed at Wigan?

“We know that when you look at his record at Wigan it is not good in terms of goals,” Ferguson told reporters after the match. “He knows that too, but when we assess the individual parts of his game, his athleticism and the power in his shooting, then why should he not score more goals?

The wide-man’s strike today came after beating two defenders and shooting low into the corner, although Boca ‘keeper Abbondanzieri will be disappointed with effort. It could be a sign of good things to come.

United’s 4-4-2 system in pre-season is almost certainly a signal towards a more compact formation this season. With Valencia deployed wide-right and Ji-Sung Park on the opposite flank, United played in a slightly more rigid fashion than with Ronaldo in the team. But it was always going to be impossible to replace the Portuguese maestro’s ability to be two players in one.

Ferguson’s move to deploy two players through the middle makes sense given the strikers at his disposal this season. All four of his principal forwards prefer to work in central areas, with Rooney consistent in his summer demand to move back to his old role.

Recognising that Dimitar Berbatov was largely forced into an unfamiliar role last season, Ferguson told The Telegraph today he “expected the form that we have seen from Berbatov so far in pre-season. Last season was a strange one for him and maybe we didn’t use him in the right way.

“But we know exactly how to use him now, further up the pitch, playing as a centre-forward. I really think Berbatov will have a terrific season for us.”

If that really is the case then United’s pre-season programme is as much about finding out which pairs work best together, as it is about fitness. With Rooney likely to fulfill his England role as a shadow striker to Berbatov’s front-man, does that relegate Michael Owen and Federico Macheda to a supporting role? It may do, but Owen’s goalscoring form and the continued progression of Macheda are very positive signs for the season ahead.

The worry for United is in central midfield and the left wing. Can one of Nani, Tosic or Park make the left his own in pre-season? Unless an unlikely move for Valencia’s David Silva materialises, then somebody will have to. In central midfield both Anderson – who scored a brilliant free-kick today – and Michael Carrick can expect to start the season. But Darren Fletcher will also have an important role to play by providing solidity in the centre of the park, especially away from home. But United still lacks a true defensive midfielder. Owen Hargreaves cannot return fast enough.

Very special but we’ll take a pass

July 28, 2009 Tags: Opinion 9 comments

José Mourinho confirmed today what many have long suspected – he would love to manage Manchester United when Sir Alex Ferguson retires. While the United board would be foolish to turn down a man who has won five league titles, a UEFA Cup and the Champions League since 2003, would the fans really want him?

“I would consider going to Manchester United. But United have to consider if they want me to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson,” Mourinho said today. “If they do, then of course. I like England, where the fans are very passionate and make the game a beautiful occasion with such an incredible atmosphere.”

Famed for his unrivalled ego, the self-title Special One would probably find the only job big enough for him at Old Trafford. After all, Internazionale has always felt like a temporary home, especially at a time when Italian clubs are not challenging for the biggest titles. Yet, for all Mourinho’s charisma, confidence and obvious ability there is something unsettling about the thought of the Portuguese coach arriving in Manchester any time soon.

Mourinho first came to most United fans’ attention after Porto’s 1-1 draw at Old Trafford in 2004. The result that knocked United out of the Champions League on Porto’s way to victory in the competition. Mourinho’s dance down the touchline and fist-pumping celebration was perhaps the first sign of the coach’s bravado.

The Old Trafford quickstep wasn’t the first or last time Mourinho has become involved in some unsavoury polemic. Mourinho has instigated controversial run-ins with Arsene Wenger, whom he unfairly called a voyeur, and latterly the managers of Milan, Juventus and Roma, whom he openly mocked. The coach was also fined £200,000 for his part in the Ashley Cole ‘tapping up’ affair.

More seriously, in 2005 Mourinho accused referee Anders Frisk and coach Frank Rijkaard of meeting at half–time during a Champions League tie between Chelsea and Barcelona. Mourinho inferred that the referee was biased, and the subsequent death threats from Chelsea supporters drove the Swedish official to an early retirement. It is still a serious blot on Mourinho’s copybook, which has been littered with many more entertaining and insightful comments.

Despite the doubts Ferguson has always held a cordial relationship with Mourinho, whom he famously shares an expensive bottle of wine with after matches.

“I got on very well with him at Chelsea and I think it was a loss to the game when he went. I actually enjoyed watching him on the television. I thought he was good. He was cocky and confident but it was good for the game,” said Ferguson prior to last season’s Champions League encounter with Inter.

“Right away he came in and said, ‘I’m the Special One’, and we all thought, ‘Who is this?’ and his team thought, ‘We’d better win here’. They got off to a start like nothing on earth and everybody was chasing their tail for the rest of the season and the next season.”

It’s an assessment on which many United fans can concur. Mourinho is entertaining, and after all that is what football is supposed to be about. He breathed life into the Premiership at just the right time, and took the focus away from the increasingly acrimonious Ferguson-Wenger relationship that had culminated in ‘Pizzagate’ in October 2004.

But Mourinho’s stylish way with words has rarely translated to the pitch. “Look, we’re not entertaining? I don’t care; we win,” he once said in response to criticism about Chelsea’s playing style. For all Mourinho’s obvious talents and huge character flaws, this is perhaps the single biggest reason why he should never take the helm at Manchester United.

Mourinho’s Titles and Awards

  • Portuguese Liga: 2002-03, 2003-04
  • Taça de Portugal: 2002-03
  • SuperCup Cândido de Oliveira: 2003
  • UEFA Champions League: 2004
  • UEFA Cup: 2003
  • FA Premier League: 2004-05, 2005-06
  • FA Cup: 2007
  • Football League Cup: 2005, 2007
  • FA Community Shield: 2005
  • Serie A: 2008-09
  • Supercoppa Italiana: 2008
  • UEFA Manager of the Year: 2002/03, 2003/04
  • World Soccer Magazine Coach of the Year: 2003/04, 2004/05
  • BBC Sports Personality of Year Coach Award: 2004/05
  • FA Premier League Manager of the Year: 2004/05, 2005/06
  • IFFHS World Manager of the Year: 2004, 2005

Owen shaping up to be season’s bargain

July 27, 2009 Tags: Opinion 3 comments

Whisper it quietly but former Dipper hero Michael Owen might just prove to be one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s most shrewd acquisitions if the striker’s pre-season form is anything to go by. While Owen’s move to United has been met with no little sceptism by United fans – not least on this site – the player seems ready to ram that criticism back down the throats of even the most ardent of doubters.

Owen, who has scored four goals in as many games on the tour to Malaysia, Korea and China, has looked fit and sharp in his four matches to date.

“This tour is not the acid test, but given Michael’s ability and understanding of play around the last third, I think he will be getting goals and things are looking good for us in that position,” said Ferguson after the recent 8-2 victory over Hangzhou in China.

“His contribution in overall play is suited to us. He is very clever in the last third and knows when to run and when to hold runs. That, linked with the experience he gives in that position, will be good for us.”

Owen is likely to be paired with Wayne Rooney – a partnership that was not tested in Asia – for the Audi Cup against Boca Juniors and Bayern Munich or AC Milan in Germany later this week. While the pair rarely seemed to click at international level, Owen’s best chance of regular football may be to turn that around during the coming season.

Owen will no doubt have been surprised by the rapturous reception he received across Asia. He is one of England’s most ‘marketable products’ – a point emphasised in the embarrassing brochure developed by his PR team ahead of the move to United. But the hero worship that Owen received in Asia is unlikely to be replicated at Old Trafford by a public who remember the forward’s attempts to garrotte Ronny Johnsen at Old Trafford in 1998. It’s an antipathy that Ferguson is unlikely to have taken into account when signing Owen and handing the player the coveted number seven shirt.

“I am not concerned with what supporters think,” he said. “The important thing is to give the shirt to someone who is confident to carry it and Michael is the natural one to get it.”

With Best, Robson, Cantona and Ronaldo having donned the number seven shirt, Owen undoubtedly has a lot to live up to. Something that United legend Ryan Giggs believes Owen will fulfill.

“Michael is just proving what we all know: that he is a great goalscorer. He’s a poacher who scores all types of goals – headers, tap-ins and then a great volley [against Hangzhou]. They have all come from inside the box and that’s where he does his work. That’s where he comes alive.

“The manager says that he provides something that we haven’t got. The good thing about Michael over the years is that if he misses a chance, it doesn’t bother him one bit. Some players go into a shell if they miss, but it doesn’t bother him because he knows he’s going to get another chance. Coming here has given him a new lease of life.”

The pressure will be on the Scouser to make-up some of the 41 goals scored by Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez last season. But Federico Macheda and Dimitar Berbatov were also excellent in Asia, and United supporters’ concern about whether the team will score enough goals this season may be easing.

Berbatov especially appeared to strike up an instant understanding with Owen in China. The Bulgarian’s sublime flick for Owen’s second goal was a timely reminder of just how much talent the former Tottenham forward has to offer.