The accused

August 24, 2009 Tags: , , Opinion 9 comments

In the euphoric midst of United’s demolition of Wigan on Saturday, fans could be forgiven for failing to notice the director’s box at the DW stadium. There, sat behind United director Sir Bobby Charlton, were several United players. They say a picture paints a thousand words and the image of Michael Carrick, Ji-Sung Park and Oliveira Anderson in their club suits spoke volumes. The three players, who were once considered vital members of United’s first team squad, looked isolated and anxious. Defendants soon to enter the dock might be an apt analogy for the three, who have caused so much debate amongst United fans. How has it come to this? It’s time to take a closer look at the alleged crimes of those now known as ‘the accused’.

Michael Carrick: accused of being an overpriced and inadequate replacement for Roy Keane, his arrival caused much disquiet amongst the United faithful. However, Carrick formed a formidable partnership with Paul Scholes, leading United to a ninth Premier League title in 2007. Carrick’s supporters will also point to last season’s match against Inter Milan as a true reflection of the player’s quality. But it’s a worry that all of the doubts harboured about Carrick when he first signed for the club remain three years on. Here are the charges:

  • Failure to exert any authority even against mediocre opposition (evidence: Burnley away). Few United fans would expect Carrick to routinely dominate against top teams like Chelsea but after three years there has been no improvement in Carrick’s ability to dictate the flow of games
  • Lack of leadership. Carrick is the last person the team can look to for inspiration
  • Lack of goals. He has never scored more than four Premier League goals. In comparison to his English peers such as Lampard and Gerrard, it’s embarrassing.

Ji-Sung Park: few United fans had heard of the South Korean prior to his move to United from PSV Eindhoven in 2005. There was even the suspicion that the player was bought solely to sell shirts in Asia. Four years on and here are the charges:

  • Offers United nothing but work-rate. Park seems incapable of consistently putting in the excellent performances of the standard seen in the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona the season before last
  • Lack of goals. Three goals over the last two seasons is not good enough.

Oliveira Anderson: during his first season at the club United fans saw the Brazilian as a potential successor to Paul Scholes. Remember the player’s duels with Gerard and Fabregas the season before last? But Anderson’s development has not gone to plan. He’s clearly very talented but after two years the former Porto midfielder has made limited progress. Here are the charges:

  • Lack of goals. There was hope in Munich but it’s fading fast
  • Lack of fitness. How many games has Anderson looked exhausted after an hour?
  • Poor positioning, movement, and decision making.

The accusation: each is guilty as charged. The verdict: United’s judge, jury and executioner Sir Alex Ferguson holds the answer.

United hit five, Rant takes credit

August 24, 2009 Tags: , Matches 8 comments

The message was loud and clear: United is back and how. Victory against Wigan Athletic may be commonplace but it was the five second half goals that has truly ignited United’s season. The response to last weekend’s underwhelming win over Birmingham City and the midweek defeat at Turf Moor was emphatic. But if United could have scored ten at the newly renamed DW stadium then there will still be concerns that there was profligacy in front of goal in the first half and a midfield that feels lightweight.

But what a response to criticism that the team lacks creativity and penetration without Cristiano Ronaldo. This was a United side that managed just four strikes on target against Burnley Wednesday night; there were nine more at the DW on Saturday. United, in this vein of form is always going to score goals, albeit against a Wigan team that was more than generous in defence. Roberto Martinez has brought his ethos of attacking passing football from Swansea but in this company his team needed a little more grit.

It took United nearly an hour to get started though and the flurry of late goals gave the scoreline a flattering feel. Wayne Rooney’s free-header for the opener was symptomatic of Wigan’s defending in the second 45. Indeed, better finishing from United’s forwards would have led to a cricket score given the number of chances that the team created.

But Wigan’s bright midfield three of xxx, xxx and xxxx were never out of the game, and the home side could have had three itself.There must still be a concern that United’s midfield lacks quality of the highest level. Paul Scholes, who was very fortunate not to see red after raising his hands, joined the excellent Darren Fletcher in central midfield. While Scholes is increasingly showing his age, The Scottish Player is no longer the love that dare not speak his name with the United fans. On a day when Rooney once again excelled in a central role, it was Fletcher that took the man-of-the-match plaudits. But United’s midfield four was sometimes overrun by Wigan’s three, and despite the away side hogging the possession better teams than the Latics would have cause United significant problems in the middle of the park.

On the wings Nani and Antonio Valencia were dangerous, although the mindless booing of the former Wigan player was as predictable as it was petty. Valencia created the space and delivered the cross for United’s opening goal, while Nani curled in a fine last minute free kick. Cristiano who?

Manager Sir Alex Ferguson will have been pleased to see both Michael Owen and Dimitar Berbatov score too. Owen’s superbly taken strike, clipped past the ‘keeper with his left foot, was easily the hardest of the chances he has created in the start to his United career. Meanwhile, Berbatov was bright and hard-working once again. Criticism of his performances last season were unfair, and it is clear the Bulgarian has put in the work during pre-season this time around.

United now face fixtures against in-form Arsenal and then Tottenham Hotspur. They are the first big tests of the season, despite the defeat at Turf Moor. United can ill afford to waste chances again in what are likely to be two tight games.

United betrayed by ponderous attack

August 22, 2009 Tags: , Matches 2 comments

United’s humiliating defeat at Burnley on Wednesday night is not the beginning of a crisis for the club. Early in the season, with a rash of defensive injuries, shocks are unsurprising. Even defeats such as United’s to Burnley Wednesday night. Save for another defeat this coming weekend, the word crisis can be placed firmly on the shelf. But the Turf Moor game confirmed the suspicions of pre-season that United without Ronaldo lack creativity and penetration in attack. Indeed, if the team needs around 114 goals to match last season’s achievements, it seems unlikely to achieve it with the current personnel.

Worryingly, newly promoted Burnley, with barely a player worthy of United’s reserve team, didn’t even have to ‘park the bus’ in order to beat Sir Alex Ferguson’s side. Despite the away team’s superior possession, Burnley took the attack to United on the break  and looked consistently dangerous. All credit to them. For all United’s territorial advantage against the Turf Moor outfit, the team managed just four shots on target all night. One of those was Michael Carrick’s unsuccessful penalty.

Ferguson may be right in his assessment that United created enough chances to win the game but the team’s profligacy is a now recurring theme. Frankly, the chances created weren’t all that good anyway. Fans must hope that the 100 goals Ronaldo either scored or assisted in the past two seasons are not the difference between success and mediocrity.

But inherently Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov, Nani and Antonio Valencia are top class creative players; the goals should be flowing by now. Ferguson is right to say that the club has “a great group of players.” But the concern is that the team isn’t gelling in the way Sir Alex would have hoped. Shorn of Ronaldo, and tactically more predictable, United is a undeniably blunter force this season.

The defeat against Burnley was..

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Could it also be that the club’s forwards simply can’t work together? At international level Rooney and Michael Owen rarely clicked. At club level the evidence suggests that Rooney and Berbatov have failed to strike up a profitable relationship either. Meanwhile, it would be unfair on Valencia or Nani, talented though each is, to pretend that either can be the new Ronaldo.

Ferguson must also be concerned with Michael Owen’s likely success this season. Three competitive and seven pre-season matches on and Owen has scored only against the semi-professional teams on the Asian tour. Play him and the goals will come they say. The fans are still waiting.

Perhaps – most realistically – United is likely this season to be the ‘rigid’ team predicted by Darren Fletcher. Safety in defence is the team’s route to success this season. It’s a strategy that is being undermined by injuries, with Rio Ferdinand out for the next month, Johnny Evens in desperate need of an ankle operation and Nemanja Vidic only just returning to fitness. The Serb, who will play against Wigan at the weekend has no pre-season matches behind him. For the sake of a morale boosting victory against the Latics, fans will hope Vidic picks up the pace instantly.

Comfort blankets

August 21, 2009 Tags: Opinion 3 comments

It’s been 45 hours 36 minutes and counting since the smackdown at Turf Moor. Fans may hope to wake up, discovering that Manchester United did not lose to Burnley; that this defeat is as true as a FSW facht. Alas, the bad dream seems to be reality. So what can supporters do to make the pain go away? Reach for the comfort blanket and here are six to keep you going fellow reds:

  • If Fletcher (formerly known only as the Scottish Player) had played, United would not have lost to Burnley because he is the team’s new midfield general. This now familiar refrain seems to have been formulated during the red invasion of Rome last May. But for all Fletcher ‘s improvement, he has never scored more than three goals during a Premier League campaign. Would the Scot really have been able to change the game at Turf Moor? Fletcher is a player who has improved dramatically but a matchwinner is not a label that suits him.
  • If Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic were playing, United would not have conceded at Turf Moor. This may be true. Rio and Vidic have formed on the best defensive partnerships in the Premier League but isn’t it somewhat soul destroying that that United can’t win without them?
  • Once Owen Hargreaves is fit, United’s midfield will be unbreakable. We all want to be millionaires but what are the odds?
  • If Antonio Valencia and Dimitar Berbatov had started, United would have won the match. Valencia and Berbatov both started against Birmingham and though United won, neither player produced a performance that set the heart racing When the pair came on as substitutes against Burnley, there was the hope that one of them would produce something magical. But in the fans’ hearts few would have believed they were capable of turning things around. And they were right.
  • Michael Owen will score goals. It used to be a commentators cliché to repeat the argument each time Owen failed to make the England team. United fans must have chuckled at their active imaginations. Now, the Old Trafford terraces recite the same words. It’s not working.
  • Don’t worry, United will buy Silva/De Rossi/Van de Vaart/Sneijder/Ribery/Aguero. Our collective inner transfer muppet yearns for this quick fix, no matter what the cost. So what if the club is £700 million in debt, United need a match winner right now! Then the truth hits like a dagger to the heart; the manager is tight and the club doesn’t buy players over 25 anymore.

And just when the despair becomes overwhelming, hear that faint whisper in the air and close your eyes. It’s the spirit of the Busy Babes. ‘Do not be afraid, we’ve been through worse and triumphed in the end.’ This is United, the most successful team in England. It survived Munich. It’s manager has won 11 Premier League titles, five FA Cups and two Champions Leagues. As comfort blankets go, it doesn’t get better than that.

United fighting dawn of a new age

August 19, 2009 Tags: Opinion 4 comments

Whereas losing one prominent player this summer was unfortunate, and two somewhat careless, three would represent an unmitigated disaster. It is for this reason that no amount of money will take United’s Player of the Year, Nemanja Vidic, to European Champions Barcelona this summer. No matter how much his wife, Ana, is apparently demanding it.

While in this case there is no smoke without fire – rumours have been circulating about Vidic for months – United’s refusal to even countenance a transfer of the giant Serbian defender this summer is about more than the short-term impact on the team. United’s manager Sir Alex Ferguson and his board know that the club must reimpose itself in the European hierarchy if it is to not fall behind its closest rivals. Usurped as European Champions by Barcelona, outspent by Real Madrid, and upstaged by neighbours Manchester City, United risks losing its status as one of the premier destinations for the continent’s leading players.

But attracting and keeping top talent its no easy task for United in the current environment, even without taking into account the impact of the club’s £700 million corporate debt. Tax changes and the degradation of the Pound against the Euro means that continental clubs effectively only have to offer half the amount United are willing to pay players to remain competitive. Barcelona, for example, can probably make a net offer that is 50% more than United’s mooted new contract offer of £100,000 gross per week to Vidic. Mrs Vidic can buy an awful lot of designer handbags for that.

The impact of these changes has been felt across the Premier League this summer, with fewer big money overseas imports arriving in England. United, for example, saw Karim Benzema’s price rise an equivalent of about 40% simply because of the forex market impact over the past 12 months. However, the club by refusing to pay market prices this summer, no matter how overinflated, has moved itself down the football food chain.

The loss of Cristiano Ronaldo has also sent out a clear and unambiguous message; unhappy players will eventually be allowed to move, albeit at the right price. “It would be a dream for Vidic to play for Barcelona as he wants to play in La Liga,” Vidic’s agent Paolo Fabbri reportedly told Catalunya Radio RAC1. Note the word ‘dream’. While rapidly denied, his agent’s quote would appear to be no accident. Vidic has been linked with AC Milan prior to Barcelona, and Real Madrid would jump at the chance to sign a defender of Vidic’s quality.

The rapid development of Johnny Evans means that United could probably afford to lose Vidic in a year’s time. Although with Vidic the younger of central defensive pairing with Ferdinand, Ferguson would have earmarked Evans as the England international’s natural replacement. United may have stocks of talented defenders in reserve – Corey, the younger of the Evans brothers, James Chester and Craig Cathcart – but their promise is no match for the proven talents of the Serb.

As for Vidic, United will need to come up with a big new deal to test the player’s ‘commitment’, pr his wife will get her wish to stroll Las Ramblas rather than the Trafford Quays in 12 months time. In the meantime, as United’s hugely embarrassing 1-0 loss at Burnley demonstrates, the team will welcome the defender back with open arms once he has recovered from a long-term calf strain.

Poll: should United stop Vidic leaving?

August 19, 2009 Tags: Polls 6 comments

Nemanja Vidic has been linked with a move away from Old Trafford this summer, with Barcelona reportedly interested in the giant Serbian defender. It would be a huge loss to the team – and United is said to be preparing a huge pay rise for last season’s Player of the Year, which will take the Serb’s earnings to more than £100,000 per week.

But with persistent rumours that Vidic’s wife is unhappy in Manchester and pushing for a move to Europe, and the player’s agent apparently quoted in the Spanish press as saying his client “dreams” of a move to Camp Nou, should United stop the player leaving?

Should United let Nemanja Vidic move to Barcelona?

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Persecuted Scouse denied 378 penalties

August 18, 2009 Tags: Opinion 12 comments

Shocking new research has revealed that Liverpool FC is the most persecuted football club in the history of the game. The torment, which is now a weekly occurrence, has been happening since the Big Bang itself say boffins. Such has been the injustice dealt out to the club that facts now show Liverpool has been denied an astonishing 378 penalties this season alone. The research, which contains many facts, shows that Liverpool may indeed be walking alone.

“Es el fact, la,” said Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez*. “Every week referee Sir Alex Ferguson looks the other way, even when loyal Steven Gerrard dives in the box. It’s a fact that we are denied penalties all the time. It is a fact that we never foul the opposition. It is a fact, la.”

The Liverpool manager pointed to the fact that his team were denied eight clear penalties against Tottenham Hotspur at the weekend, when the home side’s left-back Benoit Assou Ekotto waged a campaign of cruelty and violence against the persecuted Liverpudlian forwards. A minute’s silence is believed to have been held on the Liverpool team bus after the game.

But persecuted Liverpool, who has a net transfer spend of minus £47 trillion after finding all of their players growing on the professional footballer tree, at least have the World’s Greatest Player™ and the World’s Even More Greatesterer Player™ in Fernando Torres and Steven “Give me the CD, la” Gerrard.

“I am talking about another fact, la,” said Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez. “We have never spent any money on players. The £232,490,000 I have spent on players wasn’t even real money. It was just that funny green stuff George and Tom keep giving me, la.”

Despite Liverpool being the Premier League’s paupers, who has been unjustly robbed of the league title each season since their last win in 1990, they are many pundit’s favourites for the Premier League this season – especially those at the nation’s channel, Liverpool FC TV. This comes after a summer in which the club has replaced one of its best players with the injury-prone Alberto Aquilani at a cost of £20 million. The Italian, currently injured, is set to be sold back to his home-town club Roma at a huge loss this coming January, after spending the next six months on the treatment table. But Acquilani, who has a scoring record of 1 goal in every 10 games for Roma, is set to bring an increased goal threat according to Benitez.

It’s a fact.

* Benitez is unlikely to have said any of this.