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UNITEDRANT

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.

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.