Tag Strikers

Tag Strikers

Striking woes

December 7, 2015 Tags: , , Reads 9 comments
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“Quality,” read the motto framed in Louis van Gaal’s office at Ajax, “is the exclusion of coincidence.”  If anything it sums up the Dutchman’s philosophy: every eventuality is covered in the minutest detail; nothing is left to chance. If that’s the case then Van Gaal must be under few illusions that United’s current striking troubles are the result of bad luck, but of a system and ethos that doesn’t prioritise playing with pace.

Much has been said about the Reds’ performance against West Ham United at the weekend, where Van Gaal’s side enjoyed 21 shots in total, albeit with only one on target – in the 60th minute. True, Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial spurned presentable chances in the latter stages of the game, but those opportunities were carved out as United became more frantic in search of an elusive goal. The total number of shots, in the context of the season, was probably a outlier.

In all likelihood had United scored the team would have sat on the lead rather than look for a second. After all, Van Gaal’s side was let off the hook more than once; had West Ham been more clinical the Dutchman would have been left to contemplate a painful and potentially damaging defeat.

Indeed, the frustration many supporters feel is precisely because Van Gaal possesses enough players for the side to play on the front foot all the time – and, on occasion, the team has demonstrated this ability when trying to rescue victory from the jaws of another mundane stalemate.

It doesn’t help Van Gaal’s case that Javier Hernández, James Wilson, Will Keane and Shinji Kagawa all conspired to score over the weekend. Even Angel di Maria weighed in with an assist for Paris Saint Germain.

Yet, the raw data doesn’t make for encouraging reading. Compared with United’s contemporaries in the Premier League Van Gaal’s side comes up short in key attacking metrics. Or, in other words, United’s league position is down to possessing the meanest defense in the division.

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Responding to criticism after drawing another blank against West Ham, Van Gaal complained that the fans “want to score every minute of this game.”

“I don’t understand,” he continued, “why they are shouting ‘attack, attack, attack’ because we are the attacking team, not West Ham, and it’s the same in every game because we are dominating more.”

Of course, to use an Obi-Wan-ism, Van Gaal’s observation is true ‘from a certain point of view’. Once again United bossed possession at Old Trafford, out-passing West Ham by almost four passes to one. Once again United failed to turn this ‘domination’ into goals.

Even in taking 21 shots against the Hammers, the pace of United’s attack was too slow. It is an observation that strikes at the heart of Van Gaal’s challenge. On the occasions when his team has played with tempo, the side look dangerous, but it is as if a hand is holding United back from playing at full pace all of the time.

United’s conservatism is heaping pressure on the players as well. Michael Carrick looked to force the issue when he came on for the injured Morgan Schneiderlin on Saturday. Yet, Carrick was often forced into attempting difficult eye-of-the-needle passes. Behind each pass was a desperation to spark United into life.

Memphis Depay offered another instructive example when the Dutchman had to motion Matteo Darmian into making an overlapping run. The result: Darmian got into a decent area and fizzed a dangerous cross in front of the West Ham goal. It was a moment to summarise the clash between a ‘philosophy’ and the ‘practical realities’ of United’s situation.

The solution may not be easy. Van Gaal believes that if United acquired strikers of higher quality, such as Sergio Agüero or Luis Suárez, they would score in this current set-up. Maybe so, although it is not really the point. For all the major squad surgery that Van Gaal has overseen at Old Trafford his only real striking options are Wayne Rooney, who is on the wane, and a talented but raw Anthony Martial.

Once again the print media is full of stories linking United to the acquisition of stellar names, with a huge budget to go with it. It is an admission that the Dutchman cannot coach the players at his disposal to be more clinical or attack with greater fluency. That, if you will, the philosophy can only be fulfilled in the transfer market, with a player who can produce something out of nothing in an otherwise no-risk approach.

If that observation rings true then the brand of attacking football United supporters crave is likely to be in short supply for as long as the Dutchman is at the helm. After all, the Glazer family is reportedly happy with the progress that Van Gaal has made – outside opinions matter little as long as the Dutch coach is meeting his basic targets. No change of style is on the horizon.

This, of course, is the greatest danger of all. For all the club’s traditions and history it is owned by a family that cares little for much but the bottom line. There is little concern over style in the Old Trafford boardroom so long as the ‘brand’ remains strong and a minimum level of success is achieved. In that the club’s hierarchy has appointed the perfect coach – one that will bear the brunt of any criticism and steer attention away from the owners.

Of course, Van Gaal’s ego dictates that he must win a trophy at United. But he also is safe in the knowledge that his paymasters are content with his work. It leaves just one question: whether the Dutchman most seeks to please his employers or the fans? If it’s the former, then supporters should expect little change in the team’s style any time soon.

The fourth striker

March 22, 2012 Tags: , Reads 16 comments

When Manchester United started the current season Sir Alex Ferguson could boast seven first team strikers; the Scot may go into the summer with just three. Indeed, while Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernández and Danny Welbeck will certainly start the 2012/13 campaign at Old Trafford, doubts abound whether Ferguson’s remaining forwards will be with the club.

After all, United’s decision to allow Dimitar Berbatov to leave in the summer will almost certainly be confirmed in June when the Bulgarian moves to a continental club. Meanwhile, Michael Owen is out of contract, with the former England striker unlikely to be offered a renewed deal, and then there is Federico Macheda, the 20-year-old Italian on loan at Queens Park Rangers who, at a minimum, will be loaned out for another season.

The likely trio of striking departures will leave Ferguson seeking a fourth senior forward at Old Trafford, with United likely to dip into the transfer market when the window opens on 1 July.

Berbatov’s departure was confirmed earlier this week when first Sir Alex and then the player’s agent admitted that the Bulgarian will be leaving after four years, 147 games and 56 goals for the club. That the player did not make the bench for United’s recent fixtures with Athletic Bilbao and Wolverhampton Wanderers says much for just how far the £30 million former Tottenham Hotspur player has fallen out of favour.

Departure will mark the end of a disappointing period for the striker, who has won so many fans with a mixture of artistic ability and off-the-field cool, but, ultimately, failed to produce enough on the pitch. Ferguson, apparently in search of more pace in attack, will not stand in the striker’s way this summer, although it is not yet clear whether United will – or has – already enacted a ‘one-way’ one-year contract extension clause. Extension will guarantee a transfer fee, albeit minimal for a player now in his thirties.

“We accept that Sir Alex Ferguson is [building] his next Manchester United for the next three to four years and the future of Manchester United is not related to Mitko,” said Emil Danchev, using Berbatov’s Bulgarian nickname.

“Sir Alex wants to change the style of play of United, to put more speed in the game. I wanted Manchester to announce that if any team that wants to go for Mitko, they will sit down and negotiate. Mitko must endure this situation. It is not his style to start making scandals like Tevez. Up against Chicharito, Rooney and Welbeck… the only thing all those players have more of than Mitko is speed. Berbatov is more technical.”

Then there is Owen, the diminutive former-Liverpool striker, turned horse breeder, who has scored 17 goals in 52 games for United over three seasons. The goals-to-games ration, in part at least, masks what has been a highly unproductive period, with all but three of Owen’s goals coming in cup competitions, rather than the Premier League.

Injury has struck too, as Ferguson must have known it always would – the latest a hamstring tear that has sidelined the 32-year old since United’s match against Oţelul Galaţi at Old Trafford last November.

Ferguson has been steadfast in his support of Owen though, promising last summer that the 40-goal England international would be used more often in the first team. It didn’t happen, in part because the striker has spent long periods on the treatment table, but also because the 70-year-old manager has so many attacking options available.

Yet, despite all Ferguson’s kind words for the Glazernomic poster-child it will be a major shock if the club offers Owen another deal now, no matter how cheap he is. Fans will always have that last minute winner against Manchester City to celebrate.

Perhaps a more difficult discussion will surround Macheda, who burst onto the scene three years ago with a dramatic goal against Aston Villa at Old Trafford, but has made little progress since. Indeed, when Kiko scored to bring United back into the title race in April 2009 many fans ranked the Italian youngster ahead of Welbeck, both in the pecking order, and on potential. No more, with the former Lazio striker seemingly having gone backwards in the intervening years.

Macheda’s failure to progress has, in part at least, been down to rank bad luck with injuries. But there has also been two disastrous loan spells, first at relegated Sampdoria last season and now with QPR. Critics can, of course, point to Macheda’s desire to return ‘home’ when the club would have preferred a spell in the Premier League last season. But Macheda cannot have predicted such a rapid turnover in managers in west London, where the Italian moved in January.

Yet, there is also the sense that Macheda feels entitled to a place at the top table; that, somehow, he has forgotten the hard work and focus that earned Welbeck a move from reserve team wannbe to Sir Alex’ key man, via a loan at Sunderland, and a place on the international scene.

All is not lost for the youngster though. Others have failed at Old Trafford only to make it elsewhere, not least Ferguson’s seventh striker – Mame Biram Diouf – who has now scored five goals in nine games for Hannover 96 after a £1.5 million transfer in January.

The question now, of course, is whether Ferguson will dip into the transfer market for a fourth choice striker next season, or turn to one of the reserve team youngsters. Certainly, there are supporters who will favour internal promotion, with Will Keane highly regarded by those who watch the second string frequently. Yet, at just 19, and with one first team appearance to date, Ferguson is more likely to send Keane out on loan to the Championship next season.

The alternate route, should Owen leave as is expected, is to bring an experienced man into the squad a little-to-no cost. Could Ferguson’s eye cast eastwards towards Turin, and the once great Alessandro del Piero, who will leave the Old Lady in the summer? It would rank with Ferguson’s most surprising signings, including Laurent Blanc and Henrik Larsson.

More likely, United will follow a similar path to recent windows, by seeking a young, inexpensive forward, who is preferably English, although Ferguson’s scouting network will have been scouring the globe over the past season. Fans may wish to take media stories linking United with big-money acquisitions – Demba Ba, Jan Klaas-Huntelaar, Fernando Llorente, Leandro Damiao – with a pinch of salt.

But if Glazernomics is depressing, then there is always Bébé – the long-forgotten winger-cum-forward who has spent the entire season with Beşiktaş, injured. Now there would be a surprise return.

Seven strikers into one doesn’t fit

June 5, 2011 Tags: , , Reads 37 comments

The surprise decision to re-sign Michael Owen means that Manchester United will have up to eight senior strikers on the books next season. With Wayne Rooney largely untouchable, Javier Hernández and Dimitar Berbatov will be joined by returning youngsters Federico Macheda, Danny Welbeck and Mame Biram Diouf fighting for a place in Sir Alex Ferguson’s side. Moreover, attempts to covert £8.3 million misfit Bébé into a striker leaves Ferguson with a plethora of attacking options but a group that needs rationalisation his players are not to be left without football next season.

Indeed, logic suggests only Rooney and Hernández, together with Owen, can guarantee their places in United’s squad next season, leaving Berbatov to ponder his future after being dropped for the Champions League final. Meanwhile, Ferguson’s promise to bring Welbeck back into the Old Trafford fold leaves the futures of Macheda and Diouf in doubt. The smart money is perhaps on neither being at Old Trafford before the start of next season.

In fact the decision to extend Owen’s contract to a third year at the club, despite the former Liverpool player starting just one Premier League match last season, will impact at least one Old Trafford youngster. It is a choice born of practical and financial concerns. Owen is on a heavily incentivised contract, and despite not using the 31-year-old frequently, Ferguson values the experience that the player offers. With Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, Owen Hargreaves and Edwin van der Sar departing the club, experience is something Ferguson has lost in quantity.

“Michael has proved to be a top footballer,” Ferguson said of the decision to re-sign Owen.

“It’s unfortunate Michael didn’t get more opportunities but the form of Chicharito put everyone in the shade and his partnership with Rooney proved invaluable. I am delighted Michael is staying for a further year and we will look to give him more opportunities in the new season.”

Owen’s chances depend heavily on how many forwards Ferguson chooses to keep in his squad next season, in particular Berbatov who appeared in 42 games, scoring 22 goals in the season just ended. And while Ferguson may be loathe to lose a player of the Bulgarian’s class and experience, this summer is the last realistic chance that United will be able to command a sizeable fee for the striker. Ferguson is reportedly willing to consider any offer in excess of £15 million for the former Tottenham Hotspur man.

Meanwhile, Welbeck will return to the United first team squad after a successful, if injury-prone, loan spell at Sunderland last season. The Longsight-born striker scored six goals in 28 appearances for the Wearsiders and earned an England cap against Ghana in March. Yet if Berbatov stays at Old Trafford Welbeck is likely to spend most of next season on the bench. Its an observation that could lead to the 20-year-old to leave on loan once again. Although unlikely, Ferguson could also cash in on the player who is desperately wanted by Steve Bruce.

The situation is even less clear for Macheda, who spent the second half of last season on loan at Sampdoria in Serie A, helping the Genoa club to a humiliating relegation. The 19-year-old scored just once in 16 games for the doomed side in a spell now roundly regarded as a disaster. More to the point, Macheda’s decision not to remain in England – Ferguson’s preference – may well point to an eventual exit for the striker. Few players defy the manager and remain to chance the Scot’s patience a second time.

Yet, the player’s agent Giovanni Bia has repeatedly made noises about the Italian youngster remaining with United next season, denying this week a move is afoot: “There is a 90 per cent chance Federico Macheda will remain with Manchester United,” Bia said. “As far as I am aware, Manchester United intend to keep Macheda. They don’t want to loan him out again.”

However, Diouf’s chances at United appear negligible after a poor loan spell at Blackburn Rovers. Although the £3.5 million striker scored a hat-trick against Norwich in the Carling Cup last autumn, just three goals in 27 Premier League appearances as Rovers successfully fought a relegation battle tell the story of a mediocre season. The Senegalese striker has played just five times for United, scoring once, but it is hard to envision a scenario in which he can force his way into Ferguson’s plans next season.

The same can be said of Bébé, although there is no chance United will recoup anything like the £8.3 million it cost in transfer and agents fees to bring the Portuguese to the club. Bébé’s power and pace are not in doubt but regular observers of United’s second string will have noted the limited progression the 20-year-old has made in understanding the game.

The plethora of options means that some players are likely to be disappointed next season; perhaps more so if they stay at Old Trafford only to watch from the stands. Not so Owen, who this week used Twitter to declare his delight at signing the one-year extension.

“I’d rather play less in a top team that more in poor side,” said the 31-year-old, much to Newcastle United’s apparent chagrin.