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United faces defensive crisis

August 17, 2009 Tags: Opinion 1 comment

Manchester United are facing an injury crisis in defence, with up to five defenders and a goalkeeper missing for the next two weeks of the season. In addition to injury absentees Edwin van der Sar (hand), Gary Neville (groin), Rafael da Silva (shoulder) and Nemanja Vidic (calf), United lost Rio Ferdinand (thigh) ahead of the weekend match against Birmingham City. Worse was to come though, with Johnny Evans limping out of the match in the second half. All six players are set to miss Wednesday’s Premier League at newly promoted Burnley – defensive troubles that could undermine the start of the campaign.

While the word crisis has become a football cliché, United’s manager Sir Alex Ferguson will be grateful for the depth of resources at his disposal with the lengthening injury list. In a move that Rant predicted in our weekly podcast – Rant Cast – Brazilian kid Fabio da Silva deputised for his injured brother on Sunday, following a bright cameo performance in the Community Shield. Meanwhile, Wes Brown, freshly back in training following yet another lengthy long-term injury lay-off, slotted into central defence alongside John O’Shea during the second half against Birmingham. Belgian youngster Ritchie de Laet, who performed so admirably in the home friendly against Valencia, came into the squad at the weekend and is likely to make the bench for the Burnley match.

Ferdinand is set to miss at least two weeks after he received a thigh injury during training in the build-up to the Birmingham game. The defender’s normal partner Vidic has so far failed to recover from a calf injury that is set to keep him out for a similar length of time. It means that of Ferguson’s first choice back-line only Patrice Evra will be fit for the match against Burnley on Wednesday. Fergie will be desperate that Johnny Evans returns ahead of the games away to Wigan Athletic next weekend and at home to Arsenal on August 29. United then faces a tough trip to Tottenham Hotspur before the first derby of the season on September 12.

The crisis has prompted speculation that the manager may make a late move into the transfer market, with former Untied player Ryan Shawcross widely rumoured to be available at Stoke City. It would be an unusual move by Ferguson, however, to panic buy rather than trust the squad at his disposal.

At least the manager can be happy with Ben Foster, whose nervous display against Chelsea in the Community Shield, was not replicated at the weekend. Indeed, the ‘keeper saved brilliantly from Birmingham’s Ecuadorian striker Christian Benitez late in the game and generally looked commanding to help earn United the three points.

Foster was a positive in a generally low-key opening to the season that saw the Reds dominate possession against newly promoted Birmingham, without converting chances to goals. Ferguson will have been relieved to have taken the three points after the lively Brummies created several chances to equalised, including Bentez’ strike and a chance that Evra headed off the line.

Foster will need to maintain that form though, with new players Michael Owen and Antonio Valencia still bedding into the team, a paucity of goals conceded is surely central to United’s success this season. Ferguson will be hoping that the current crisis subsides as quickly as it has built up.

Poll: what will United win this season?

August 14, 2009 Tags: Polls 3 comments

With the long summer break behind us, United open up their Premier League defence against Birmingham at Old Trafford this Sunday. But the departures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez over the summer break has placed a number of question marks over the squad’s ability to challenge on all fronts. Can Michael Owen and Antonio Valencia pick up where the departed players left off? Or are the pundits right, and United set for a unsuccessful campaign? You decide…

What will United win this season?

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Ferdinand blunders but is central to the defence

August 13, 2009 Tags: Opinion 2 comments

United fans will hope that Rio Ferdinand’s catastrophic backpass for Dirk Kuyt’s opening goal during England’s 2-2 draw in the Netherlands this week is not a forbear for the defender’s season to come. Following on from indifferent pre-season defensive displays in which United conceded too many sloppy goals, the defender’s mistake was a return to the error strewn days of his youth. But Ferdinand’s form is crucial to the United cause – the central defender, who had such a commanding season last time out, will have to marshal a defence shorn of Edwin van der Sar and Nemanja Vidic through injury for the opening games of the season.

England manager Fabio Capello brushed off Ferdinand’s error as a “stupid mistake” and born of over-confidence. “They were two presents. But I prefer to give presents in non-competitive games,” Capello said of the errors not just by Ferdinand, but City’s new midfielder Gareth Barry. “These were just two stupid mistakes. Two silly mistakes. The mistakes of this evening I can accept. I don’t accept mistakes where the position is wrong or if I try doing something in training and then, afterwards, I don’t see it being put into practice on the pitch”

In truth Ferdinand rarely switches off with such disastrous results for club or country as he did a decade ago or in Amsterdam on Wednesday. It is the imperious form of more recent times that Wobbly Gob must reach in the opening weeks of the season. With Ben Foster clearly nervous against Chelsea, Johnny Evans still learning and Wes Brown rarely fit, United’s defence could lack the experience and solidity of last season in the opening games.

In addition to Vidic and van der Sar, United will also be without Rafael da Silva and Gary Neville for the opening match of the Premier League season, while Wes Brown has only just returned to training. John O’Shea will continue at right-back but his lack of pace and positional sense has been exposed on more than one occasion. Certainly, right-back is one area of the team that Ferguson faces a selection headache.

A poser for Ferguson could be the form of Rafael’s brother Fabio, who may come straight into the mix. The right-footed left-back’s lively cameo appearance against Chelsea followed on from similarly electric performances in pre-season. Indeed, anybody following United’s reserve team last season would not be far wrong in asserting that it is Fabio, not Rafael, that is the better of the two Brazilian brothers.

In lieu of Vidic, and without Gary Neville, Ferdinand is likely to take on both the mantle of captain and leader of the defensive unit against Birmingham on Sunday and Burnley on Wednesday. United let Liverpool get off the a flier last season. One senses that the team cannot afford to do so again. Ferdinand will be central to that plan.

Fergie’s tactical conundrum

August 11, 2009 Tags: Opinion 4 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson is set to revert to a traditional 4-4-2 formation after the manager’s flirtation with a highly flexible 4-3-3 during the Cristiano Ronaldo era. In a move that plays to the squad’s strengths, Ferguson is set to deploy two through the middle and two out wide during this year’s campaign. While it’s a system that has become unfashionable in the modern day, the real question is: when it comes to the crunch of a tough away fixture, will Fergie stick to his guns and play two up front?

One of the most significant knock-on effects of the summer player departures – and additions – is to leave a squad heavy in numbers on the wing but without the goal return of Ronaldo. United’s wingers Ji-Sung Park, Antonio Valencia, Nani, Zoran Tošić and Gabriel Obertan scored a grand total of 15 goals last season, compared to Cristiano Ronaldo’s 26.

Moreover, United’s squad – minus Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez – is heavy on strikers who are best deployed through the centre, not in the channels. Dimitar Berbatov will start the season leading the line, after Ferguson admitted that the Bulgarian was used far too deep last season. Similarly Michael Owen no longer works the channels, concentrating on playing off the shoulder of the last defender. Fourth choice striker Federico Macheda looks to be a classic number nine – technically gifted and strong with his back to goal but unlikely to succeed as a wide player in a three man frontline.

The exception to that rule is Wayne Rooney, who spent much of last season to the left of a three man attack. But after a summer of breaking ranks to demand a central role, Ferguson would be more than a little remiss to deploy the Scouser on the wing once more.

Manchester United 4-3-3

“The manager has said he will play me through the middle, so I’m happy about that. That’s what I wanted,” said Rooney prior to the Community Shield. “He may change his mind and whatever he says goes, but I hope he will play me there for most of the season.”

Rooney’s hopes remain to be seen. The manager has rarely used two forwards – especially in Europe – in recent seasons.

While the 4-3-3 system was developed to maximise the impact of Ronaldo, coming in off the right, it also gave the team additional manpower in the centre of the park. The risk in switching to two central players is that it will leave United – without a true defensive midfielder – lightweight and outnumbered against most European teams.

United 4-4-2United countered Chelsea’s narrow diamond in the Community Shield by tucking Park inside and leaving Nani to attack the Londoner’s right back Branislav Ivanović in tandem with Patrice Evra. Indeed, Park may continue to play a pivotal role in midfield, especially away from home or in Europe where the risk of being over-run in midfield is greatest. As such United may only deploy both Nani and Valencia against middle ranking Premier League clubs where the Reds can expect to dominate possession.

Ferguson’s tendency to play one through the middle – deploying Ronaldo alone up-front in both semis and the final of the Champions League last season – has been the default tactic in the biggest games for several seasons. Liverpool away on October 25th will be the first real test of the new formation.

Poll: Is Gill right to end summer spending?

August 11, 2009 Tags: , Polls 4 comments

Manchester United’s Managing Director David Gill has today reiterated his manager’s stance – United will make no further summer signings after bringing in Michael Owen, Antonio Valencia, Gabriel Obertan and Mame Biram Diouf.

But with question marks hanging over Owen Hargreaves’ fitness and Ferguson’s options on the left side of midfield, is Gill right to keep £80 million from the sale of Ronaldo in the bank?

Is Gill right to end summer spending?

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Shield leaves questions unanswered

August 10, 2009 Tags: , Opinion 3 comments
If United started the Community Sheild with questions hanging over the squad, then the penalties defeat to Chelsea left many
unanswered. Shorn of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, fans awaited a positive response to the summer’s developments; a
sign that United has a plan for the new era. Instead, the team began the game with none of the close season signings in the
starting XI and without its first choice goalkeeper and central defender.
For all that United started the game well, dominating possession and taking an early lead through the bright Nani. Lining up
in manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s newly reinstated 4-4-2 formation, United used the channel’s well against a narrow Chelsea
team. Yet the team’s early promise gave way to an uncertain performance in the second half after Chelsea’s equaliser. Defeat
would have followed the Londoner’s controversial second bar for a late well taken Wayne Rooney goal.
But if fans were looking for a statement of intent ahead of the new season then the Community Shield provided scant comfort.
In particular manager Sir Alex Ferguson would have hoped for a bright performance from those players who have most to prove –
Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Owen Nani and Ben Foster. The Bulgarian, whom Ferguson stated he intends to build the team around
this season, started the game strongly. Like most of the team, the forward – save for one outrageous piece of skill when
plucking a long ball out of the air – faded out of the match as it wore on. He was substituted in the 75th minute for Michael
Owen’s competitive debut in a United shirt.
Foster’s contribution was more telling on the result but rarely in a positive way. From poor play with his feat, to a weak
flap at the cross that led to Ricardo Carvalho’s equaliser, Foster looked nervous and uncertain. Worst still the
Lemington-born ‘keeper failed to get a strong hand to Frank Lampard’s drive for Chelsea’s second. Foster’s talent is
undoubtedly better than his performance but he can’t afford too many more games on this level. Ferguson was certainly
charitable when blaming Foster’s performance on ring-rustiness.
Nani, however, put in a strong claim for a starting spot before being removed with a dislocated shoulder. The winger, who has
flattered to deceive in two years at Old Trafford, was positive, creative and scored a high class goal before leaving the
fielder after xx minutes. It’s too early to know that this may be the winger’s breakthrough season – we’ve been here before
with Nani – but
Nani
Tactics

If United started the Community Shield with questions hanging over the squad, then the penalties defeat to Chelsea left many unanswered. Shorn of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, fans awaited a positive response to the summer’s developments; a sign that United has a plan for the new era. Instead, the team began the game with none of the close season signings in the starting XI and without its first choice goalkeeper and central defender.

For all that United started the game well, dominating possession and taking an early lead through the bright Nani. Lining up in manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s newly reinstated 4-4-2 formation, United used the channels well against a narrow Chelsea diamond. Yet the team’s early promise gave way to an unconvincing performance after Chelsea’s equaliser. Defeat in normal time would have followed the Londoner’s controversial second bar for a late well taken Wayne Rooney goal.

But if fans were looking for a statement of intent ahead of the new season then the Community Shield provided scant comfort. In particular manager Sir Alex Ferguson would have hoped for a good performance from those players who have most to prove – Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Owen Nani and Ben Foster.

The Bulgarian, whom Ferguson stated he intends to build the team around this season, started the game strongly. Like most of the team, the forward – save for one outrageous piece of skill when plucking a long ball out of the air – faded out of the match as it wore on. He was substituted in the 75th minute for Michael Owen’s competitive debut in a United shirt.

Foster’s contribution was more telling on the result but rarely in a positive way. From poor play with his feat, to a weak flap at the cross that led to Ricardo Carvalho’s equaliser, Foster looked nervous and uncertain. Worst still the Lemington-born ‘keeper failed to get a strong hand to Frank Lampard’s drive for Chelsea’s second. Foster’s talent is undoubtedly better than this performance but he can’t afford too many more games like Sunday’s. Ferguson was certainly charitable when blaming Foster’s performance on ring-rustiness.

Nani, however, put in a strong claim for a starting spot before being removed with a suspected dislocated shoulder. The winger, who has flattered to deceive in two years at Old Trafford, was positive, creative and scored a high class goal before leaving the field following John Terry’s robust challenge. It’s too early to know whether this will be the winger’s breakthrough season – we’ve been here before with Nani – but Ferguson can be hopeful on this evidence.

Tactically United were less fluid but more compact than in recent seasons. While Ferguson would have been disappointed with the two goals conceded, United’s attacking play was good for the most part. Whether Ferguson will continue deploying two forwards – especially in more meaningful matches than this one – is a moot point. If Sunday’s match was a forbear for the season ahead then this United side may be more functional that Ferguson’s previous iterations, by building on strength in defence.

One match does not a season make, of course, but this was an average start against what will be one of United’s principal challengers in the coming campaign.

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.