Tag Youth players

Tag Youth players

Reserves crowned Champions!

April 16, 2012 Tags: , Matches 9 comments

Whatever happens in the Premier League title race over the coming four weeks Manchester United fans can celebrate silverware once again after Warren Joyce’s reserve side secured the Premier Reserve League North title on Tuesday night. Facing Newcastle reserves at Whitley Park, Joyce’s outfit came from three goals down inside 30 minutes to win 6-3 in truly spectacular style, with striker Will Keane scoring four.

On the night striker Keane grabbed all the headlines as the young Geordies capitulated, before the outstanding Italian midfielder Davide Petrucci and Belgian defender Ritchie De Laet also found the net. With four fixtures remaining United’s reserves are now seven clear of Liverpool – which has played twice more – and will face the Southern champions Aston Villa in an end-of-season play-off.

“It’s always nice to get on the scoresheet but the main objective was getting the win which meant we won the league,” Keane told MUTV.

“That was the main aim going into the game and we managed to do that so it was good. The defence played quite a high line at Newcastle so I was always looking to get through and, in the end, I should’ve scored six but I’ll take four as I’m happy with that.

“We usually play 4-3-3 so, most of the time, I’ve been on my own up front and it’s been quite tough so when Ritchie [De Laet] came up, it helped. He’s a big, physical presence and his pace helped me get a bit more time and he assisted me as well so it was good. I’ve had a good run in the team and scored quite a lot of goals, which I’ve been pleased with. Overall, the team have done well and the team spirit has been good, we’ve all got on well.”

Tuesday’s result, and the title confirmation, is ample reward for a fine campaign, which has seen Joyce’s men rack up 13 wins in 18 league games this season, scoring 50 goals in the process.

And if progress in the reserves is measured not solely by victories and silverware, but also by the conveyor belt to Sir Alex Ferguson’s first team, then Joyce can be very proud of his achievements this season. Will and Michael Keane, Ezekiel Fryers, Paul Pogba and Larnell Cole have each made their competitive first team débuts in the current season.

Indeed, the talent pool is so deep that Petrucci would surely have found more first team opportunities in the cup competitions had it not been for injury problems in previous seasons, while Jesse Lindgard has been outstanding.

On Thursday the youngsters visit Liverpool, with the Scousers likely to finish above Sunderland as runners-up, before concluding the season with games against Chelsea, Wolverhampton Wanderers, and the aforementioned Sunderland.

Then on to the play-off with Villa, which is likely to be held at Old Trafford in May. If it is any omen, Joyce’s men recently beat the young Villa side 3-1 at Moss Lane, Altrincham.

Newcastle 3
(Inman 16, Airey 26pen, Taylor 32)

United 6
(W.Keane 40,40,54,73 Petrucci 64, De Laet 76)

Newcastle: Alnwick, Nzuzi, Moyo, Logan, J.Henderson, Folan (Nicholson 68), Maddison (Kitchen 55), Richardson, Airey, D.Taylor, Inman (McGorrigan 68).

United: Johnstone, Vermijl, M.Keane, Fryers, De Laet (Fornasier 79), Cole (Thorpe 51), Tunnicliffe, Petrucci, Pogba, Lingard (Blackett 87), W.Keane.

The Key Men

Will Keane – striker Keane will either find himself away from Old Trafford on loan next season, or in Ferguson’s first team squad such is the talent on offer. Keane possess an excellent first touch and a genuine eye for goal, with 17 goals in 23 appearances and another eight assists

Michael Keane – many reserves watchers have been genuinely surprised by Michael’s progress this season, where the defender has appeared in 24 fixtures in the campaign and made his first team debut. The 19-year-old Stockport-born defender has a shot at making it with the club if the rate of progress is replicated next season.

Ezekiel Fryers – defender Fryers impressed many supporters in Carling Cup appearances with the first team this season. Indeed, after frustrating years of injury problems Fryers has surprised many with his composure and progress at both left-back and central defence this season. However, with the youngster out of contract in the summer his United future is in doubt.

Paul Pogba – the man on so many supporters’ lips is seemingly set on a move to Juventus, which will earn the young Frenchman more than €1 million per season and his agent a small fortune. There is plenty of talent, but it has not always been applied at reserve level this season. However, if Pogba stays, Ferguson is sure to promote the midfielder to the first team squad.

Davide Petrucci – the stylish Italian midfielder is another out of contract this summer and may not start the new campaign with United. After two years of injury problems Petrucci has done very well to accelerate his progress this season, with a series of inventive central midfield displays and nine assists. Many supporters would like to see more from the Italian, but at 21 he needs to play at a higher level than the reserves.

Larnell Cole – the diminutive midfielder, who operates predominantly from the right, but also in a variety of attacking positions, has been outstanding in the campaign. Blessed with an outstanding first touch, and the ability to perform in a number of positions, Cole made his first team debut in the Carling Cup victory at Leeds United.

Jesse Lingard – the Yin to Cole’s Yang, 19-year-old Lingard received a first team squad number this season as reward for a superb reserve campaign, which included 21 appearances. A utility attacking midfielder likened to Barcelona’s Xavi Hernandez by Danny Welbeck, who will benefit from first team football on loan next season.

League Table
[table id=15 /]

Data courtesy of Doron Salomon.

Robbie Brady – the great Irish hope

November 23, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 7 comments

Two of Ireland’s favourites, for Reds growing up in Dublin in the 1990’s, were unsurprisingly Denis Irwin and Roy Keane. Not only was the pair two of the best in the Republic of Ireland team, they were two of the finest for one of Ireland’s favourite clubs, Manchester United. For many, Irwin was the best left-back ever seen in a United shirt. His sharp tackling, marauding runs, and cannon of a right-foot made the Cork-born player a complete defender. Meanwhile, Keane’s sheer bloody-mindedness, leadership, and talent made the player one of the best midfielders of his generation.

Yet, since the pair left Old Trafford there hasn’t been a great Irish player in the United team. True, John O’Shea, a very competent player for whom many were sad to see go, spent a decade in Manchester. But O’Shea never reached the level of his predecessors; a great player for Ireland, but not for United. There were other Irishmen who passed through, but never quite made it, such as Paul McShane, Liam Miller, and Darron Gibson.

But now there’s a player tipped for huge things at Old Trafford – a new Irish hope – 19-year-old Dubliner Robbie Brady. Described by Kevin Keegan as a player who “has everything,” and currently turning heads on loan at Hull City in the Championship, Brady joined the United Academy in 2008, having already representing Ireland at U-17 level. Up to 15 Premier League clubs were after the 16-year-old Brady at the time.

Brady, a left sided midfielder, was inevitably hailed as the “new Ryan Giggs” when United signed him. At this club, there is no higher praise for a young player. And it didn’t take long for the youngster to make a mark in the youth set-up, impressing in the 2009 Milk Cup in Northern Ireland as United won the Premier section. Brady has also shone for United’s academy side with bursting runs down the flank, high quality crossing, and a deft finish or two, which even earned the player a stint as Academy captain.

Like many younger players learning their trade at Old Trafford, Brady was sent out on loan for seasoning. In the Championship, Brady has been seen by a wider audience, and has stepped his game up accordingly, impressing many. ESPN’s Keegan and Robbie Savage are two pundits who have been lauding the young Irishman’s efforts, tipping him as one of the brightest stars at Championship level.

Brady made a bright start to his Hull career, scoring a fine goal against Liverpool in the Tigers’ 3-0 win in a pre-season friendly. The Dubliner has continued to impress in his early Championship games for Hull, even netting a winning goal against Reading in his fifth competitve game. Making 16 appearances to date, starting 15 of them, Brady has featured in all of Hull’s games so far this season. He has also registered a staggering 34 shots so far, although just the one has beat the ‘keeper to date.

However, Brady has suffered a slight dip in form recently, with then manager Nigel Pearson citing fatigue as the reason, reminding us that Brady is still only 19, and this is his first full season of football. Brady’s stamina and fitness will need to improve, and have been a slight concern going back to the reserves under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who said “we’ve just got to work on his fitness and, if we can get him super fit, then he’ll be a very, very good player.” Encouraging words, and at a club such as United, there are the facilities to fix the problem.

The rigors of top flight football are much more demanding than the reserves of course, but these are standard growing pains for a young ‘up-and-comer’. Fitness is unlikely to hamstring Brady less as he acclimates to the Championship. Indeed, after a short rest the player’s performance for the Irish under-21s recently showed that he’s still just as talented as hoped.

Should Brady continue his rapid progress there is no limit to where the youngster could go – a place in Sir Alex Ferguson’s first team squad is not out of the question next season. If not, a loan to a Premier League club is inevitable as the player looks to step up a level.

Brady has also risen through the Irish youth ranks, scoring plenty of goals along the way. Now at under-21 level, Brady has scored five goals in as many games, two of which came in the recent 2-1 friendly win over Lichtenstein. As a stand-out player at age-group level, Brady is being widely tipped to become one of the finest Irish players of his generation. He’ll soon get a chance to shine with the full national side too.

Moreover, Brady has the raw talent to make it as a United player: a swift, attack-minded, confident, skilful winger, with clever feet and a footballing brain fits into the United mould. And while many United supporters are justifyably excited about Ravel Morrison, Paul Pogba and Ryan Tunnicliffe, many over the Irish sea will be keeping a special eye on Brady’s progress.

For Dublin-based Reds, he is the great Irish hope.

Robbie Brady factfile
Born 14 January 1992, Dublin, Republic of Ireland

1998–2008, St Kevin’s Boys
2008-2011, Manchester United (academy)
2011-, Hull City, 16 appearances, 1 goal

2005–2008, Republic of Ireland U17, 5 appearances
2008–2010, Republic of Ireland U19, 5 appearances, 2 goals
2010–, Republic of Ireland U21, 5 appearances, 5 goals

Manchester United Premier Cup

August 10, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 6 comments

Manchester United director Sir Bobby Charlton led the opening ceremony for the world finals of the Manchester United Premier Cup (MUPC), which took place at Carrington and Old Trafford last week. The United legend – alongside tournament alumni Kiko Macheda and Ben Amos – were present at the draw and opening ceremony for the tournament, which featured 20 of the best under-15 teams in the world.

Following four days of competition Pachucha FC of Mexico beat South Africa’s Orlando Pirates 1-0 in the final at Old Trafford on Saturday. United’s age group side finished 12th after Tom Martin’s Under-15s lost twice in the group stage of the competition to drop out early.

The Premier Cup was developed by Nike in 1993 as a grassroots tournament but evolved to become the world’s premier Under-15s event in 2003 when United added the club’s name to the competition. Now in its 18th year the tournament has grown considerably in strength, with more than 8,000 teams from around the globe entering the regional qualification contest.

Indeed, 25 players who appeared in the FIFA World Cup in South Africa last year had previously competed in the MUPC, including six players from winners Spain. Alumni include, for example, Xavi Hernández, Carlos Tevez, Lionel Messi, Barcelona new-boy Alexis Sanchez and Chelsea’s £50 million misfit Fernando Torres.

The tournament has also proven a fruitful hunting ground for United in the past, with Rafael and Fabio da Silva competing for Fluminese in the 2005 competition, which took place in Hong Kong. United signed the pair in no small part on the back of performances in the tournament.

“There have been some fantastic players playing at MUPC over the years,” said United manager Sir Alex Ferguson.

“It’s a great chance for youngsters to express themselves and share their skills. But the great thing to it I think is the mix of cultures – there are teams from South America, from China, from all countries throughout the world. I really think it benefits young people to mix with other cultures and get to understand each other; for me that’s one of the real benefits of this tournament.”

The tournament format divided 20 teams into four groups of five teams, with United facing Fenerbahçe, Hannover 96, Bangkok CC, and Pachuca in the group stages. It proved too much Martin’s outfit though, which was hammered 6-1 by Fenerbahçe on the opening day before drawing with eventual winners Pachuca. United then beat Hannover 2-0 on day two, before losing to Bangkok by the same scoreline. The Reds finished third in the group and failed to make the knock-out stages.

“The standard at Premier Cup has always been high and it’s no different this year. Overall the boys gave everything, and we can’t ask for more than that,” admitted United coach Martin.

The knock-out stages offered some competitive football, with Pachuca beating a strong Chelsea side at Carrington in the semi-final; the London side came into the match having yet to concede a goal. Meanwhile, Orlando Pirates beat Brazil’s EC Bahia 4-3 on penalties following a 1-1 draw in normal time. Victory earned the Pirates a minor place in history as the first African team to reach the MUPC final.

The final, which took place at Old Trafford in front of more than 3,000 spectators, saw Pachuca edge to victory over the Pirates. Pachuca’s Ochoa Chavez made the most of a long ball, placing a header into the top right hand corner after just two minutes to claim victory for the Mexicans.

Did the next Messi, Xavi and Tevez appear in the tournament? That much is impossible to tell but once again the cream of the world’s Under-15s have offered a taste of the future.

Awards

Fair Play Award: EC Bahia
Most Valuable Player: Bakkali, PSV
Golden Boot: Aydin, Fenerbahce

Standings

  1. Pachuca FC
  2. Orlando Pirates
  3. EC Bahia
  4. Chelsea FC
  5. Fenerbahce
  6. Right to Dream
  7. Boca Juniors
  8. Valencia CF
  9. PSV Eindhoven
  10. Universidad de Chile
  11. FC metz
  12. Manchester United
  13. Cosmos Academy West
  14. Catania Calcio
  15. Kyoto Sanga FC
  16. Bangkok Christian
  17. Ulsan Hyundai MS
  18. Hannover 96
  19. Hubei FA
  20. Onehunga Sports

Images

Video

Academy changes good for United and England

June 19, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 15 comments

The Premier League’s decision to ratify sweeping changes to how academies are run bodes well both for Manchester United and the production of talent in England. The so-called Elite Development Plan will make two principal changes to academy rules, enabling boys between 10 and 18 years-of-age to be coached for up to 10,000 hours, and scraping the antiquated ’90 minute rule’ altogether. Additional changes to how young players play and train are expected as English football attempts to bridge the gap between talent development here and elsewhere.

Indeed, these are changes that Sir Alex Ferguson has called for not only this season but over the past decade as the Premier League academy system has failed to produce a talent pool that could take the England national team to a tournament win.

Closer to home, United’s failure to produce local talent in the raw numbers or quality of the early 1990s has prompted something of a rethink, leading the club to search ever farther overseas.

The Elite Development Plan changes, which come into force for the 2012/13 season, replace outmoded current thinking that restricts coaching to just 2,000 hours over the 10-18 age-group, and 3,760 hours to 21. Proponents of the much-discussed ‘10,000 hours rule’ – a thesis that states elite sportsmen are born of at least 10,000 hours of focused practice – have long derided the English system.

It has taken a long time but England’s failure at the 2010 FIFA World Cup and Barcelona’s growth to European domination over the past three years prompted a review of youth coaching. Barcelona’s youngsters resident at La Masia, for example, can expect to receive at least 8,000 hours coaching before they turn 18; it is a system born of Johan Cruyff’s remodelling of Barça’s approach in the early 1990s.

“We’ve got an opportunity now where, once, there might have been some resistance to change,” argues Gareth Southgate, the FA’s head of elite development.

“What the World Cup did, and the success Barça have had, is give a greater awareness of what is going on in Europe. There is a desire for change. We’ve had Paul Scholes come through who technically would have been able to play in that Barça team because his quality of touch, pass appreciation, ability to play one-touch and manipulate the ball was up there with them. But would we have produced lots of players like Xavi, Iniesta and Messi? I suspect not.”

Meanwhile, the much-hated 90 minute rule will disappear, enabling clubs to recruit academy players from anywhere in England. Presently clubs, including United, are allowed only to sign youngsters if they are within a 90 minute drive from the home ground; 60 minutes for under-14s.

The rule, designed to protect smaller clubs from larger predators, has failed on two principal counts. First, it has encouraged the growing recruitment of players from overseas. Second, talented youngsters from the regions risk falling through the gaps at poorly funded low-ranked clubs.

The FA and Premier League are yet to publish a formula for compensation, ensuring that the country’s smaller clubs receive adequate indemnity for the investment placed in youth development but it will surely come. While few England internationals begin life at clubs below the Premier League the transfer system remains an important source of funding for the football pyramid.

Further changes sponsored by Southgate will change how youngsters play, with the former Middlesborough manager keen to eliminate mandated full-pitch 11-a-side games for under-13s that promote physicality over technique.

For United the changes will enable a well-funded academy with some of the finest facilities of any club, anywhere, to maximise the pool of talent available to Ferguson and his successors.

No longer will Ferguson need to complain that “we are only allowed to coach for an hour and a half [each week]. Barcelona can coach every hour of the day if they want and that’s the great advantage they have got. You can see their philosophy through that.”

“It’s a fantastic philosophy and we hope that, in years to come, we have more time with young players, to teach them the basics, the technical ability and to have the confidence to take the ball all the time. We’re good at that, but we’re not as good as Barcelona at this moment in time.”

While scraping the 90-minute rule is unlikely to distract United from a much more globalised outlook to youth development than in the 1990s, it will enable the Reds to scour the country for the best talent.

However, neither change will allow United to immediately bridge to gap to La Masia, which has produced in Andreas Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Lionel Messi the three finest players on the planet, according to last year’s FIFA poll.

Indeed, substantive changes in the talent pool either at United or England more widely will not take place for more than a decade. England under-21s insipid performances at this summer’s European Championships suggests the national team is unlikely to turn a corner any time soon.

Meanwhile, United will continue to assign scouts to every part of the globe.

Youth seeks first cup in eight years

January 19, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 13 comments

When Manchester United’s youngsters won the 1992 FA Youth Cup few could foresee the domestic and international success that many of the group would experience in the decades to come. Nearly 20 years on and, remarkably, that side is still represented in United’s first team.

But it is to the current crop that eyes turn Wednesday night as the current under-18s take on West Ham United at Upton Park in the FA Youth Cup fourth round.

Following the age group’s 3-2 cup win over Portsmouth last week, the club’s sights are firmly set on just a third success in the competition since the ‘çlass of ’92’ triumphed with Nicky Butt, David Beckham, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs in the side.

Hopes are high in the group too, with more than one player already earmarked for accelerated development into the first team picture in the coming seasons.

“We have a decent team with one or two excellent players,” Sir Alex Ferguson told MUTV.

“I think we’re strong in the strikers department for example, where we have William Keane and John Cofie. Then we’ve got Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison [in midfield]. We have a chance this year, we’re hopeful.”

Striker Cofie – formerly on Burnley’s books before a controversial move across Lancashire in 2007 – can boast 13 goals already this season. Meanwhile, Keane excelled during the UEFA Euro under-17 championships last summer, with a touch and maturity belying his youthful age.

Perhaps even greater feats are predicted of Pogba though, a French under-17 international whose has been frequently compared to Patrick Vieira. In reality, although there are physical similarities – each is of French-African parentage, tall and sometimes uncomfortably gangly – the youngster has a far greater range of attacking skills than the former Arsenal star could ever boast.

Then there is the silky Morrison, who seems to glide effortlessly across the pitch and is arguably the most naturally talented midfielder to come through United’s academy in the two decades since Giggs’ peers burst onto the scene. Comfortable wide or through the middle, Morrison made a much-anticipated first team début in this season’s Carling Cup.

Indeed, if the 18-year-old attacking midfielder fails to make it at United it will surely be a factor of the company the player keeps and not a deficiency in talent. Euphemistically described as ‘baggage’ by football insiders, stories of trouble with the police first surfaced with an alleged arrest in May 2009. Rumours of an upcoming court date on charges of witness intimidation refuse to go away.

Whatever Morrison’s fate, fans may never again witness five players make it out of United’s academy and into the first team from one peer group again. Yet, history says at least one player will make it out of a successful youth side and into the first team picture. It’s an assessment Ferguson concurs with.

“Kieran Richardson was in the team when we last won the Youth Cup, in 2003,” said Ferguson.

“Before then we won it with Phil Neville and John Curtis in 1995, and of course, with the 1992 team. Let’s hope we have a good run this year.”

While United lost in the 2007 final, success has been inconspicuous in recent season, especially for a club whose association with the FA Youth Cup came long before ’92. Indeed, the club remains the most successful in the competition’s history with nine wins, including five in succession from 1953.

But if anything the club has found youth level far less forgiving than the seniors in recent years. The 28 years between the club’s 1964 success and ’92 was a barren spell that the ongoing eight year hiatus threatens – if not to match – then to ape.

Wednesday’s opponents also have a rich history in the competition of course, having won the competition on three occasions including the 1999 side of Joe Cole and Michael Carrick.

Paul McGuiness’ side is in decent form though. Aside from United’s victory over Portsmouth in the third round, the academy side returned to league action after a month off with a thrilling 4-3 home victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers at Carrington on Saturday.

A similar result on Wednesday will go a long way towards Ferguson’s goal of success this season.

West Ham United v Manchester United, FA Youth Cup fourth round, Boleyn Ground, 7pm.

Ferguson aims for right mix of youth

January 6, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 31 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson will use the next two transfer windows to rebuild Manchester United, in part with the departure of established talents, in part in the transfer market. The real question is whether the Scot can mould a new, potentially great, United side in the youthful model that the 69-year-old has come to forcibly advocate this season.

Moreover, does United posses the right tools to refresh the squad without a period of – euphemistic – transition? After all, Arsenal has been in ‘transition’ for five trophyless years; Manchester City 34 years, and Newcastle more like 50.

But in placing faith in youth, Ferguson must also discard much of the older generation, which the Scot has recently admitted he is reluctant to do. However, it is unlikely Edwin van der Sar, Gary Neville, Michael Owen and Owen Hargreaves will be offered, or take up, new deals at the club come the summer.

Meanwhile, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs will earn new 12 month deals but the pair are increasing peripheral to United’s plans. Wes Brown – who fell out with Ferguson during the summer – and Tomasz Kuszczak will also find pastures new.

“When [players] grow old, their performance level drops, but we have to maintain a level of success at the top end of the game, at all the time,” said Ferguson.

“We can’t afford bad years or breaking-in years. We have had periods like that, but we don’t want it and we need to be successful all the time.

“Sometimes, when a player grows old, you have to recognise it and they have to move on.”

Indeed, in the past Ferguson has ruthlessly jettisoned players he no longer felt necessary to the club; often those who had reached their peak – David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Phil Neville and Nicky Butt come to mind.

More often than not, the Scot already possessed a plan for United’s future. Beckham was effectively upgraded for Cristiano Ronaldo; van Nistelrooy gave way to a dynamic front three of Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez.

But the key positions in United’s squad may not necessarily be filled smoothly in the coming six months, although Ferguson has identified Anderson to replace Paul Scholes and Rafael da Silva to take over from Neville. The latter having already done so to great effect this season.

“Long term, I hope [Anderson] can prove to be Paul’s successor,” Ferguson added.

“It’s a big ask to reach that level and the challenge will test his confidence, but someone will have to step up to the plate one day.

“Injury opens doors and the succession of setbacks suffered by Gary Neville has provided Rafael with more opportunities than he perhaps expected at this stage of his career.”

Yet, there is still a question mark over Anderson’s suitability to replace Scholes, with no replacements for Giggs, van der Sar, nor Hargreaves secured either.

In particular while Anderson’s form has improved neither his average passing statistics (in the mid 70 per cent range) nor goals (just two in 113 appearances for United) come anywhere close to Scholes’ long-term brilliance.

In truth Anderson cannot directly replace Scholes, just as Michael Carrick was no like-for-like successor to Roy Keane, nor Ronaldo for Beckham, or Tevez for van Nistelrooy.

In truth Ferguson’s success or failure with United’s midfield transformation will live or die with whom he surrounds the Brazilian. It’s a big decision, with United’s midfield is of the lowest quality since the mid 1990s.

Ferguson’s faith in Tom Cleverley and the possible acquisition of Sunderland’s hugely talented Jordan Henderson may well be a central part of the Scot’s youthful revolution.

Elsewhere Ferguson still requires a left-sided forward, whatever Nani’s continued progression. After all, Nani’s run of form has coincided with a permanent switch to the right. Antonio Valenica and Cleverley will provide an outstanding range of options on United’s right next season, with the Wigan Athletic loanee also comfortable inside.

Investment in a combative midfielder to complement Darren Fletcher and Carrick is also a vital component of a balanced squad.

In goal United has watched a range of options from Hugo Lloris, to Igor Akinfeev but the smart money says a bid for Manuel Neuer or David de Gea is likely come the summer. The club has already secured Anders Lindegaard, the Danish international stopper, on a four-year £4 million deal.

These decisions – based in part on the budget actually given to Ferguson – will direct United’s success or failure over the next three to five years. The alternative is a further regression of an already average United side, no matter what the league table currently says.

Sobering loss poses serious questions

December 2, 2010 Tags: , , Opinion 37 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson promised faith in youth this season, although he may have cause to rethink the assertion after his team’s humiliation in East London on Tuesday. That Manchester United’s 29 match unbeaten run came to an end in such empathic fashion so soon after scoring seven at the weekend was surprise enough

That the Reds surrendered so meekly all the more shocking. But while Ferguson’s younger players failed to perform, arguably it was his experienced pros that truly let him down.

True, West Ham United exposed all of Bébé’s many weaknesses and Gabriel Obertan often looked lost too, while Chris Smalling was often uncomfortable and Jonny Evans – not for the first time – physically dominated. Fabio da Silva demonstrated his inexperience too.

Yet United, with Anderson, Darren Fletcher and Ryan Giggs deployed in central midfield, hardly lacked for big match nous. The addition of John O’Shea and Tomasz Kuzsazck offered yet more experience to a side whose average age was nearly 25. Not 20.

Sir Alex Ferguson brushed off the defeat, blaming individual mistakes and ‘soft’ goals, which is no surprise. He cannot but support younger players who have yet to build a reputation or the confidence that goes with it. But the nature of United’s drubbing has sparked a debate not only about the quality of the club’s youngsters but the squad’s strength-in-depth too.

“I didn’t expect that, that’s for sure. If you analyse it the goals we gave away were absolutely too soft,” Ferguson told MUTV.

“We had one or two half chances and Gabriel Obertan had a shot saved by the goalkeeper (Robert Green) which then hit the post.

“The goals killed it. You can’t just give goals away at this level. That first goal was a break for them. We were in control in the early part, played some good football. But goals change games.

“The thing that sparked it was the goal that was disallowed because it got the crowd up. It spurred them on.”

Not that Ferguson is likely to criticise his youngster’s potential having very publicly placed faith in the group before the season’s start. Indeed, there’s some sympathy with Ferguson’s view in the match statistics, which saw United dominate possession – 55 per cent – and create as many chances as the hosts.

Moreover, arguably the worst performers were United’s senior men, with O’Shea, Giggs and Fletcher performing poorly. Anderson, after dominating midfield against Blackburn last weekend, seemed less than interested in the first period; presumably Ferguson’s hairdryer inspired a less insipid response after the break.

Kuzsazck simply confirmed that his exit sooner rather than later is to be welcomed not feared. Not least by Smalling, who has looked so assured in previous outings, but turned into a nervous wreck in the freezing cold on Tuesday night.

Yet, one cannot but be struck by Bébé’s failure on the right-wing. After scoring in the previous round, and netting a stunning double for the reserves recently, much was hoped – if not expected – of the £8 million Portuguese. Instead the winger’s commitment to running down blind allies and delivering without any quality was total.

Meanwhile, Obertan’s quality with the ball at his feet is potentially outstanding but his understanding of the game rudimentary at best. Even Hernandez had one of his least effective games in a Red shirt, demonstrating that without true support he is unable to dictate the flow of United’s attacks.

For all the defender’s attacking endeavors, Fabio’s failure was summed up in the opening period when he let a simple pass roll under his foot and across the touchline. Not a good day at the office.

But if one player’s ignominious failure at the Boleyn Ground was a case study for the team, then Evans takes it. The Ulsterman’s embarrassment by Carlton Cole for a second time this season mercifully ended in the second period with his substitution. That United fans had already sung for Wes Brown surely not a coincidence.

Of course, time rather than conjecture is the ultimate judge of whether United’s squad and younger players are up to the job. Humiliation in East London can do little to the players’ confidence though. Indeed, Obertan, Bébé and Fabio will now see little action, save for the upcoming dead rubber against Valencia at Old Trafford, before the season’s end.

Unless Ferguson risks deploying them in the FA Cup third round fixture against Liverpool. After Leeds United at the same stage last season, surely that’s a risk the Scot is unwilling to take.

PlayPlay

OAP United

September 13, 2010 Tags: Opinion 13 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson deployed one of the oldest Manchester United sides in memory as Everton snatched a very late draw at Goodison Park on Saturday. With an average age of 30.7, Ferguson’s side belied the manager’s declaration that this is the season for a ‘faith in youth’ rather than expensive imports and marquee names.

Ferguson’s rallying cry comes after a summer in which many supporters were left disappointed by the club’s investment in the transfer market, with three relatively unknown younger players joining the squad.

The root of that disappointment, of course, lies in United’s relatively poor trophy haul last season, with Chelsea taking the Premier League title and the Reds crashing out of Europe at the quarter-final stage.

While few United fans are naïve enough to believe the club has any kind of right to ongoing success, strategic investment in the market supplemented by a strong youth policy has steered United to undeniable success over the past two decades.

Yet, Ferguson has professed contentment with his squad explaining first that there is “no value in the market,” then that by tradition United invests in younger players and finally – preposterously – that the fans don’t actually want big-name signings at the club.

Whether fans believe the explanation or not many have taken to heart the acclamation for youth. After all, from the Busby Babes, to Fergie’s Fledglings, through to the Class of ’92, youth has served United well. The collective excitement associated with a new young player making his début is genuine and palpable.

Strange then that Ferguson’s faith in youth has not yet come to the fore this season, as Rant discussed last month. It’s perhaps even more puzzling given the ageing nature of Ferguson’s apparent first choice selection, based at least on the fixtures to date.

With Rio Ferdinand set to come back into the side at Jonny Evan’s expense the average age could yet creep up. Moreover, United now has 13 players either in their 30s or will reach 30 by the season’s end, including Edwin van der Sar who will be 40 before next summer. The effect is to hand Ferguson one of the most experienced teams in his time as manager at Old Trafford.

But, fans may ask, is the recently tendency to lose an advantage late in the match any correlation to the age of the United team? After all, experience also brings ageing legs and the inevitable drop-off in physical abilities. More to the point, extra games now for United’s older stars, means less towards the end of the season.

The problem extends further than tired limbs. Four of those players – van der Sar, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, and Ryan Giggs – could conceivably retire in May 2011, while Owen Hargreaves and Michael Owen each will reach the end of their contracts next summer.

Should United lose the sextet, their departures will leave a sizeable hole in Ferguson’s squad; a problem solved in part through players already in the first team picture aged between 20 and 28. This younger group will presumably serve the club for years to come.

But Ferguson’s conundrum isn’t resolved so easily. After all, if a raft of players does leave in 10 months time, then that core of experienced players must be replaced in the squad through acquisition or youth. If United is to not regress then the quality must remain at least equal.

Therein lies the concern with the current selection strategy. After all if the group of players between 18-23 does not play, how can they progress to the level of their predecessors? On a personal level, lack of matches is a genuine worry for Rafael da Silva, his brother Fabio, Darron Gibson, Gabriel Obertan and Ritchie de Laet who have between them started just one game this season.

Meanwhile, Federico Macheda has time on his side, although it is obvious that a third straight season of reserve team football will do the Italian striker no good at all.

Of course, as the Champions League begins Ferguson is likely to dip into his squad pool and the younger group will gain extra minutes.

It really isn’t the point. The next two years will inevitably be a period of transition. In the absence of heavy investment in the market United’s younger players need experience or they will suffer for the lack of it. After all, Ferguson himself said at the season’s start that unless faith in youth is respected the players will stagnate and then leave.

The question is – when the spring kicks in and the games become ever more important – will Ferguson turn to experience or youth?

United’s 30 +

Edwin van der Sar – 39
Gary Neville – 35
Wes Brown – 30
Rio Ferdinand – 32
Patrice Evra – 29
Paul Scholes – 35
Owen Hargreaves – 29
John O’Shea – 30
Park Ji-Sung – 29
Ryan Giggs – 36
Michael Carrick – 29
Michael Owen – 30
Dimitar Berbatov – 29

Faith in youth

August 30, 2010 Tags: Opinion 27 comments

Four matches into the new season and a pattern, to some extent, has emerged in United’s selection and formation. This will, of course, change with the Champions League starting in mid-September but perhaps most startling, despite this summer’s proclamation to the contrary, is Sir Alex Ferguson’s lack of faith in youth to date.

This is not to say Manchester United’s younger first team squad members will not play more frequently as the season wears on. After all, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes cannot compete in the Saturday-Wednesday axis indefinitely. Indeed, last season Giggs started 23 matches in all competitions, Scholes 32, Edwin van der Sar 29, and Gary Neville just 25. None is likely to top that this campaign.

Of Ferguson’s young players – for the sake of argument let’s call first team squad members under the age of 23 ‘young’ – only Fábio da Silva (Community Shield) and Javier Hernández (Fulham) have started for United this season. Neither is expected to be a fixture in the first team just yet.

Jonny Evans, 22, has played in all four matches but with three seasons in the first team its hard to classify the Irishman as a youth.

Of the others Federico Macheda, Chris Smalling, Darron Gibson, Rafael da Silva, Gabriel Obertan, Tom Cleverley and Ben Amos have appeared for a total combined two substitute appearances in the first team this season. Anderson, injured, will not play again until late in September.

Meanwhile Danny Welbeck and Mame Biram Diouf have been shipped out on loan to Sunderland and Blackburn Rovers respectively, while Bebé is not expected to feature this side of Christmas, if at all this season.

The pattern was also prevalent in pre-season, with Giggs and Scholes appearing in a surprisingly large number of fixtures in Canada, USA and Mexico as United raked in more than $2 million per match held on tour.

Indeed, the average starting age of United’s team in the four competitive fixtures to date – including the Community Shield – is 28.6, only marginally younger than Chelsea’s pensioners at 28.9.

It is also perhaps surprising, given United’s relatively sedate fixture calendar this side of the international break, that Ferguson has not blooded more of his younger players of whom he spoke so passionately during the summer.

The intensity of United’s games increases markedly in late September, with the trip to Everton preceding emotionally draining matches against Rangers and Liverpool at Old Trafford in which senior players will surely dominate selection.

The strategy, then, is likely to include some of the squad’s younger players see game time in the autumn and winter months, with Ferguson almost certain to rely on experience as the Premier and Champions League reach their dénouement in the Spring.

However, the strategy with some younger players is also confusing. Cleverley’s mooted loan – all but guaranteed as pre-season begun, then ditched as United failed to secure an additional attacking midfielder in the transfer market – is now back on again.

The midfielder today confirmed a loan move to Wigan Athletic, where he’ll certainly play but faces a season-long relegation battle. However, the transfer leaves United overly reliant on Scholes’ continued brilliance and fitness as the club’s sole central midfield playmaker.

Then there is Rafael, whose relegation to the bench in favour of the experienced but essentially limited John O’Shea, 30, is a source of regret for the more romantic of United’s supporter base. After all, it’s hard to envisage Rafael turning genuine promise into fulfilled talent of the very highest order from the seclusion of United’s reserves.

Finally, Macheda, retained despite loan interest from home and abroad, has failed to make even the bench for United’s three Premier League fixtures to date. In his third season with the first team squad, it will surely be impossible for United to retain the Italian’s services next season if he cannot secure 20 matches this campaign.

This is an observation, rather than a criticism. Ferguson, the most pragmatic of managers, is liable to pick whatever side is likely to benefit the club’s cause in only the short to season-long term.

The question is whether the Scot can fulfil United’s many ambitions this season while – as the Scot puts it – ensuring the club’s younger players do not “stagnate” and evntually leave. The fate of Giuseppe Rossi and Gerard Pique looms large.

As yet, it is not at all clear that the two strategies are not mutually exclusive.

Neville – kids must get tough

November 30, 2009 Tags: Shorts No comments

Manchester United’s captain Gary Neville has urged the club’s youngsters to toughen up if they are to make it. Neville, famed for the work ethic and personal drive that took the right-back from the United youth side to the top of the world game, has called Old Trafford a ‘tough school’ for youngsters trying to make it at Sir Alex Ferguson’s side.

“You don’t get too much said to you by the senior players, to be honest. You have to do it yourself,” United’s captain told The Daily Mirror.

“You do get help on the pitch, but it’s a tough school here and you’ve got to make your own mark. As a young player you’ve got to take your opportunities when they come along.

“The young players know the expectations. The fans let you know what those are. The manager does, too. You are surrounded by it all the time at Old Trafford.”

United’s younger players including Federico Macheda, Danny Welbeck, Darron Gibson, Gabriel Obertan, Anderson and the da Silva brothers will play against Tottenham in the Carling Cup quarter-final at Old Trafford tomorrow night. But there are concerns over the attitude of some young players – particularly Macheda, who allegedly had a training ground confrontation with Anderson.

“This place is an institution, a religion, and it needs dealing with in its own right every week,” Neville added.

“You can’t be focusing on other things. You get found out quickly here if you get distracted. We’re here to win titles every season and the fact we’ve got 18 is irrelevant. If we had 15, we’d want 16. We have 18 so we want 19.”