Tag Youth

Tag Youth

Van Gaal’s essential dichotomy places legacy at risk

November 23, 2015 Tags: , Opinion 8 comments
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It is an inescapable observation. Louis van Gaal is no gambler. Not in the fashion Sir Alex Ferguson once professed to be. Faced with the necessity to tinker, Van Gaal’s DNA screams conservatism. Every time. It was never this way under the Scot whatever the changing nature of his tactical outlook during the end-game of 27-years at Old Trafford. When it came to the crunch Fergie always bet on red, even when the house looked certain to win on black.

Yet, Van Gaal has little compunction in bringing a swathe of youngsters into his first team squad. The latest, Marcus Rashford, is one of the most exciting attacking talents to come through United’s Academy in the past decade. Supporters can add Sean Goss, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Axel Tuanzebe, Patrick McNair, Andrea Pereira, and Jesse Lingard to an ever lengthening list of kids in the picture. Anthony Martial, Luke Shaw and Memphis Depay represent youthful, if expensive, recruits.

It is a bifurcation without easy explanation. Faith in those who have little history on which to base it; and an adherence to a philosophy that, at times, sucks the fun out of a club built on attacking flair. And an observation that begs the question of how Van Gaal’s legacy is likely to shape up. One blessed with long-term health based on youthful vigour. Or on a culture of tactical fear?

Saturday’s victory over Watford brought consideration of both, but also hope that there is room to erode elements of the latter. After all, United’s average starting age, with Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick and Antonia Valencia on the sidelines, was just a touch over 25. The bench included two teenagers and two 20-year-olds.

And at times United attacked Watford without the fear so prevalent this season. Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata and Memphis Depay interchanged beautifully in a performance reminiscent of Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Rooney in the triumvirate’s 2008 pomp. If some way short of the same quality.

Yet, in recent weeks, Van Gaal has also come under fire for an approach that borders on negative, especially in the context of United’s rich history. In repeatedly deploying two defensive midfielders, opting for unambitious substitutions, with a mindset seemingly bent on marginalising some of his more creative players, Van Gaal has earned Old Trafford’s ire.

The observation is born out in the numbers. The Reds rank first for average possession, but 16th for shots-per-game. United’s total number of shots this season is 134 behind Arsenal’s and growing by the game. Inside the penalty area only Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion have taken fewer shots than United.

It is a team that ranks 11th for assists, 16th for key passes and 14th for dribbles attempted. There is little flair to note. Van Gaal’s side has played more backwards passes than any other team in the league, and ranks second in sidewards passing. No other team makes more passes per shot or chance created than United.

Yet, if Van Gaal’s philosophy arcs towards the soporific, it also bends to the will of the club’s youth. It is an accommodation very much in the keeping with the traditions of the Babes and Fledglings. Far from breaking United’s record of calling up an Academy player for every first team match-day squad for more than 3,500 games, Van Gaal has baked in its existence for years to come. Rashford and Goss may not have made the pitch at the weekend, but their chance will surely come. And probably soon.

“It has always been part of my own philosophy and that of the club to give opportunities to youth players,” noted Van Gaal last month.

“With advice from Ryan Giggs and Nicky Butt, I regularly invite members of the development squad to train alongside the first team. It gives them a chance to step up their training and to improve their technical ability.

“A good example would be Paddy McNair. He trained with the first team, which helped him prepare so that it wasn’t such a big step when he was called upon to the first team.”

It is a balance of risk, in trusting those without experience, against long-term rewards that Van Gaal seeks. It also brings a choice: when to trust the young and, perhaps even more importantly, when to ditch the old.

The observation may be born of coincidence, yet Rooney’s absence was met not with the attacking impotence that may once have been expected, but with a brave and vibrant opening period. Terrace joy in the new order was dampened only by Ander Herrera’s injury. After all, it was the Spaniard’s weighted pass that set Memphis up for a neatly finished opening goal.

Saturday’s game was also one that offered a glimpse of a post-Rooney future. And it looked good. One in which Martial, Lingard, Memphis, Herrera and Mata could form the backbone of a flexible, creative, and – Mata aside – pacey attacking unit. In time Ashford and the brilliant youth team prospect Callum Gribbin may also join the group. The latter has already joined Van Gaal’s first-team training sessions.

“This club has always been famous for giving young players a chance and we have to continue with that policy,” notes Van Gaal. “When you see us in the Champions League with Shaw, at 19 years of age, Memphis, 21, and Anthony Martial, 19, it is clear we have the same aims.”

Indeed, the Dutchman’s career is littered with players blooded under his tutelage. At Barcelona Van Gaal offered a first team chance to Xavi Hernandez and Andreas Iniesta. The pair became “the backbone of the club and its culture.” At Bayern Munich there was “Thomas Müller, David Alaba and Holger Badstuber.”

Rashford, Gribbins, Goss, Borthwick-Jackson, Tuanzebe, McNair, Pereira, Lingard, and the other youthful acquisitions will, in time, become Van Gaal’s “guardians of the culture here at Manchester United.” Far from destroying United’s culture of youth, through heavy spending on imported talent, Van Gaal is building for the future.

And yet United’s style matters too. Youth without flair, Champions League qualification, but a campaign short on silverware – it is a cocktail that will not mix in the Dutchman’s favour.

Van Gaal may not be a gambler, not in Ferguson’s mould, but it is a wager of sorts. The Dutchman’s bet is that his faith in the vibrancy of youth breaks free of his self-imposed tactical straight jacket.

The stakes: a lasting Old Trafford legacy.

United’s failure is a belief in the alchemy of youth

August 21, 2014 Tags: , , Opinion 23 comments
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In the cold light of Manchester United’s fateful dawn one can still feel the intoxication. Like a Saturday night drunk, stirring on Sunday morning amid the cold pizza and lager cans strewn across the wreckage once called home. Yet, United’s hangover from Cristiano Ronaldo’s wild ride still throbs, blurring clear thought and obfuscating the truth. Like so many drunks United may need to hit rock bottom before redemption calls.

Ronaldo’s was a special kind of addiction though; certainly love at first sight. The speed, turn, tricks and goals – that magical 20 minutes against Bolton Wanderers to the crowing glory in Moscow in 2008. Little wonder that the Stretford End still sings the Portuguese winger’s name, five years since he departed – on his own insistence – for Real Madrid.

In securing an £80 million fee for Ronaldo the winger also had another affect on the club. One far more damaging than enduring loyalty to a player who came to believe that he had outgrown Old Trafford. Indeed, the ‘success’ of securing such riches seemingly convinced the Glazer family, and Sir Alex Ferguson, that the equivalent of football alchemy was available at every turn – that United could invest in young players, make handsome profits in the market and run a successful team. Like some flash of magic, United’s “philosophy” of “youth” – as a recent investor presentation put it –  somehow gave the club a structural advantage over competitors at home and abroad.

For the club of the Busby Babes, Fergie Fledglings and Class of ’92 it is a vision for supporters to follow – millions spent on young players that may come good is always more palatable than millions more on the finished article. Yet, like so many of the Glazer family’s polices this one has turned out to be bunk. Just one with rhetoric that is so easy to sell.

Since Ronaldo’s sale in the summer of 2009 United’s unwritten policy – broken on only a few select occasions – has been to invest in players under 26 who retain a clear resale value. More than 20 players of the ilk have passed through Old Trafford’s doors over the past five years, including Ander Herrera, Marcos Rojo and Luke Shaw this summer.

Yet, during that same period it is arguable that only David de Gea’s stock has risen in Ronaldo-esque proportions. So many have crashed and burned. That is the way of youth and the failure of a policy that routinely gambled on turning lead into gold, callow youth into venerable experience, and a punt into yet more Glazer riches.

United may extract value and talent from Shaw, Herrera and Rojo. Of the three the former Southampton left-back is perhaps best placed to command an outstanding resale fee in the years ahead. He certainly has the talent to flourish at United.

Of other recent signings Marouane Fellaini certainly will not, while the jury remains out on whether Juan Mata, who was 25 on acquisition last January, will finally come good.

Two summers ago United invested more than £28 million in Shinji Kagawa, Nick Powell, Ángelo Henríquez and Alexander Büttner – and then a further £10-15 million in Wilfried Zaha the following winter. Kagawa may command a similar fee now, while Büttner was sold this summer for a small profit. Write off the money spent on Zaha, Powell and Henríquez though. More importantly, none of the quintet has proven to be value-for-money just yet, although there are special circumstances where the Japanese is concerned.

The pattern repeats. Phil Jones may yet come good, although there is little to justify the £17 million paid to Blackburn Rovers three years ago. Chris Smalling has seemingly gone backwards, while Javier Hernández’ career is at a standstill. United could take a profit on the £6.5 million fee paid for the Mexican, but probably only because a rising market tide floats all boats. The Reds certainly did not profit from the eternally embarrassing £7.75 million spent on street footballer turned Premier League punchline, Bebé.

The less said about the £25 million spent on the combined talents of Antonio Valencia, Mame Diouf and Gabriel Obertan, the better. Look further back into the Glazers ownership and there will be few whom view the investment in Nani and Anderson with pride. More than £30 million was invested in a duo that will command almost no resale fee when eachfinally, and permanently, leaves the club.

The failure is not one of trust in youth per se. This is a romantic notion that appeals in an age where superstars command incomprehensible wages and transfer fees routinely run into tens of millions. The error is in the policy’s inherent lack of balance and the concurrent inevitability of squad degradation, no matter short-term successes.

By contrast, over the same 2009 – 2014 period, United’s investment in experience runs to Michael Owen, Anders Lindegaard, Ashley Young and Robin van Persie. So few struck gold, but then the sample is only a handful.

In an era when the causal – although not perfect – relationship between transfer spending, wages and ‘success’ has been noted, United’s belief in an ability to buck the market has proven false. There is no structural advantage at Old Trafford, bar vast pools of revenue.

It is perhaps little surprise that some have called for a change in policy at a time when Louis van Gaal’s squad is dangerously short of domestic rivals. With 10 days to go until the market closes there is little guarantee that even a manager of the Dutchman’s gifts will lead United into next season’s Champions League.

“United need to arrest their decline,” said former Red Paul Scholes, writing in the Independent this week.

“I feel it is time for major change. What do United need? Five players. Not five players with potential. Five experienced players. Five proper players who can hit the ground running and turn around a situation that looks desperate.”

Five players that are unlikely to arrive before the transfer window closes on 1 September. The months ahead will determine whether it is the Glazer’s policy or Scholes that is proven right. One thing is sure: there are so few to follow Ronaldo. One a million? No, one in 80 million. Odds that look poor good either way.


Acquisitions of players under-26 since Ronaldo’s sale

Player – Acquired from – Fee (£ millions) – (age at transfer) 

Luke Shaw – Southampton – £33 (18)
Ander Herrera – Athletic Club – £32 (24)
Marcos Rojo – Sporting Lisbon – £17 (24)
Vanja Milinković-Savić – Vojvodina – free (17)

Juan Mata – Chelsea – £39.5 (25)
Marouane Fellaini – Everton – £28.5 (25)
Guillermo Varela – Peñarol – £1.5 (20)

Shinji Kagawa – Borussia Dortmund – £14 (23)
Wilfried Zaha – Crystal Palace – £10.5 (20)
Nick Powell – Crewe Alexandra – Crewe – £6.5 (18)
Ángelo Henríquez – Club Universidad de Chile – £5 (18)
Alexander Büttner – Vitesse Arnham – £4.5 (23)

David de Gea – Atlético Madrid – £17.50 (20)
Phil Jones – Blackburn Rovers – £17 (19)
Frédéric Veseli – Manchester City – free (18)

Bebé – Vitória Guimarães – £7.75 (20)
Chris Smalling – Fulham – £7 (20)
Javier Hernández – Deportivo Guadalajara – £6.50 (22)

Antonio Valencia – Wigan Athletic – £16.5 (24)
Mame Diouf – Molde – £4 (21)
Gabriel Obertan – Girondins Bordeaux – £3.5 (20)

*all data from Transfermarkt (rounded)

The Ravelation: Morrison shines light as United’s dawn beckons

October 26, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 37 comments

It is a year to the day since Ravel Morrison last pulled on a Manchester United first team shirt. Then Morrison impressed only fleetingly in a Carling Cup cameo appearance against Wolverhampton Wanderers at Old Trafford. The talent is undimmed in the past 12 months, even if question marks hanging over the teenager’s career have only multiplied. But Morrison’s return to Sir Alex Ferguson’s team offers hope for the player’s future, just as the Scot’s side took its first baby steps towards renaissance with a 3-0 victory over Aldershot Town on Tuesday night.

Morrison, all flicks and tricks during a 20 minute appearance at the Recreation Ground, has always been blessed with a gift in abundance. Floating between midfield and attack, with an awareness of space and movement belying his years, the 18-year-old impressed. There was the trademark easy-going flair – bountiful stand out arrogance, with just enough work-rate too – along with a pass exchanged here, a one-two instigated there.

The teenager’s second outing in the United first team came alongside fellow youngsters Ezekiel Fryers, Ben Amos, Michael Keane and Paul Pogba. The latter joined Morrison in central midfield during the closing minutes  and it does not take a crystal ball to foresee that proposition occurring regularly in years to come. Pogba’s classy distribution – long range and short – stood out. The Frenchman’s ability to also break up play offered some yin to Morrison’s considerable yang.

Morrison, meanwhile, will be grateful for the breakthrough after a difficult 12 months. The unease with which the player has drifted between potential stardom and seemingly more probable criminality has drawn more speculation about a United youngster than almost any in a generation. The genuine class on offer only adds to the intrigue. “Old Trafford’s Mario Ballotelli,” one commentator speculated this week. It is, of course, a gross over-simplification but one with some air of truth.

United’s decision to stand behind its errant youth star, despite repeated court appearances in recent months, is based more in hope than expectation. The hope that Morrison’s talent can be fulfilled at a higher level. He is, after all, the most naturally gifted Englishman since Wayne Rooney burst on to the scene almost a decade ago. The expectation, if truth be told, is that Morrison will find a way to waste all that talent.

Yet, the youngster’s appearance in Hampshire offered more than a ray of light amid the darkness following Sunday’s humiliation at Manchester City’s hands. The dancing feet and confidence of genuine class point towards a star in the making, even if it is one that needs careful attention. In hope there is redemption even if the noisy neighbours’ battering is not easily forgotten.

Moreover, United’s paucity of creative central midfield options – if truth be told any options – ensure the clamour for Morrison’s more permanent introduction is unlikely to die down. The player is not going to force his way into the United first team any time soon, no matter what the prevailing social media consensus, but hope is still a very powerful emotion.

If Morrison’s introduction offered some promise then United’s routine victory over the League Two outfit was only a small step in moving on from Sunday’s loss. Tiptoes rather than a great stride. Ferguson’s choice to deploy predominantly experience in United’s starting 11 said much not only for the “minutes on the pitch” that the Scot declare required but also of the need to not turn one heavy defeat into a full-blown crisis. Ferguson called for, and received, a professional performance. Little more, certainly no less.

Greater challenges are to come, both for Morrison and United. Morrison’s is to rid himself of the personal demons that have dogged a short career. If there is any collective malignant spirit it will surely be tested when United visits Everton at the weekend. Ferguson’s selection for the Goodison trip, with an easy Champions League tie to follow next week, should be close to full strength.

Yet, there are question marks about so many of the Scot’s squad that were not answered in the win over Aldershot. Is Rio Ferdinand’s number up; will Anderson be proffered yet another chance; is Jonny Evans now persona non grata. In Sir Alex’ admission that he has suffered no greater loss as a player or manager there is also a tacit understanding that he faces a huge decision at Everton. Should Ferdinand and Anderson suffer the expected fate – perhaps others too – it will be a sign that Ferguson has moved on.

Those questions are for the weekend. In the meantime United fans can bask in the afterglow, not of a minor victory over a lower league club, but the genuine light of a newly born star. The short appearance against Aldershot was not Morrison’s début but in a sense, coming more than a year after the teen’s first appearance for the senior side, it was a re-birth.

United and player both.

United: the next next generation

September 21, 2011 Tags: , , , Opinion 59 comments

Amid all the talk of Manchester United’s youth this season it is easy to be drawn into the hyperbole. Phil Jones cast as Duncan Edwards; Chris Smalling the new Rio Ferdinand; Tom Cleverley as Paul Scholes’ protegé. Yet below the layer of hype and over-expectation those cast into Sir Alex Ferguson’s first team have consistently performed this season.

Then there are the stars of last campaign’s FA Youth Cup winning side, in particular Paul Pogba, Ravel Morrison and Ryan Tunnicliffe, of whom much is hoped in the coming years. United’s fixture with Leeds United in the Carling Cup on Tuesday offered a glimpse beyond the obvious, and confirmation that the Carrington well does indeed run deep.

In addition to French midfielder Pogba, who made his first team début as a second half substitute on Tuesday, a new star emerged as the Reds cruised to a comfortable win at Leeds United in the Carling Cup. Indeed, one man, defender Ezekiel Fryers, caught the eye with a performance of genuine composure that belied the 19-year-old’s immature status. Fryers, who has often appeared at left-back for United’s Academy and Reserve sides, commanded central defence alongside Michael Carrick. Fryers’ pace and distribution, although sometimes over-ambitious, offered a genuine touch of class that reserve and academy watchers will have recognised.

Fryers was a key member of the Academy side’s run in last season’s FA Youth Cup before injury robbed the defender of a place in the latter stages of the competition. But if personal disappointment market the end of a campaign, the 18-year-old has begun the new season in splendid form.

An England Under-19 international ‘Zeki’ has performed both in central defence and at left-back for United, with arguably even greater versatility with international age group teams. Indeed, the Manchester-born player has performed in a number of midfield positions at England Under-16, 17 and 19 levels.

But it is the youngster’s performance against Leeds – along with Pogba and fellow débutant Larnell Cole – that has brought Fryers to national attention, drawing praise from Ferguson in the process.

“I thought young Fryers did very well,” confirmed the United boss.

“He showed good composure, wasn’t fazed by it which is really good because you always want to see what their temperaments are like because the atmosphere here, as you know, is hostile and he coped with it very well. Paul got a good 45 and young Larnell Cole came on at the end – it’s good for them to get taste of the atmosphere and what the first team is like.”

Yet Fryers’ potential has long been recognised by Old Trafford insiders, with the teenager one of four name-checked by Rio Ferdinand – along with Josh McEachran, Ross Barkley and John Bostock – as England stars of the future. For now the youngster is simply enjoying the first step on what many hope is a long and successful United career.

“It was a massive night for me. It was quality and a massive step up, so I was happy to get 80 minutes in,” he told ManUtd.com.

“I had to come off with a bit of cramp so now it’s all about working hard with the reserves and getting fitter so that I’m ready for whenever these chances might come again. It was good to have Larnell and Pogba alongside me when they came on. We have been playing together for a long time, so this was massive for all of us.”

Meanwhile, the much-lauded Pogba enjoyed a 45 minute run out against Leeds, demonstrating the assurance on the ball that has become a hallmark of the teenager’s play. Yet there was also a conservatism in Pogba’s performance. Gone were the driving runs, long-range shots and silky skills that lit up United’s academy side last season. That matters little of course, with Ferguson keen to let the teenager develop both physically and mentally over the course of the season before allowing the Frenchman out on loan in 2012/13.

Cole’s talents are perhaps less obvious. The chalk-on-his-heels winger offers a genuine old-fashioned approach to the game, with real pace and balance. But the 18-year-old England Under-19 international’s rise has been steady, rather than spectacular, with reserves’ watchers noting the player’s growing consistency. And in the physically demanding English game Cole will suffer for his diminutive stature. Physical development is likely to hold the key to the Manchester-born midfielder’s destiny.

That is for the future. The right-now, flush in the glow of victory over local and often hated rivals, United supporters can feel confident that youth is not only leading the club to the top of this season’s Premier League table but those of the future too. It is the reason Manchester City is spending more than £100 million of Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth on transforming run-down Clayton in order to catch up.

United’s golden future

September 10, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 22 comments

There is an infectious air of belief sweeping around Old Trafford this season that has been created by a new generation of young players. Phil Jones, Tom Cleverley and Chris Smalling, among many others, have shown nothing but promise in a positive start to the new campaign. The pair will be followed up by an even younger generation, featuring elegant Frenchman Paul Pogba and the unruly, yet talented Ravel Morrison. The future, it seems, is bright.

The big question, however, remains whether this side will ever be good enough to challenge Barcelona, a club that possesses some of the best players in a generation, and seems able to create more at will. There is, for the moment, no answer to this question. Not until Manchester United’s new crop enjoys success in the face of Barça’s sustained excellence.

On the face of it Sir Alex Ferguson is trying to emulate Barcelona in his approach by bringing young players through, together, and allowing them to develop as a unit. Only a team that has been reared in this way, it seems, can have the shared understanding required for the phenomenal teamwork displayed by the Catalan giants, which can boast ten home-grown players in the first team squad.

Barcelona’s youth system has produced not only outstanding attacking players, such as Lionel Messi and Pedro Rodríguez, but also many creative midfielders in the mould of Andrés Iniesta and commanding defenders, including Gerard Piqué. Even the goalkeeper, Víctor Valdés, is Barcelona born and bred. This success in youth production is largely attributed to La Masia, the centre of excellence that imbues its graduates with such a strong foundation.

Happily for United, however, new developments in the Premier League – the Elite Player Performance Plan, which was agreed last February and will come into force from next season – should allow the club to create just such an establishment in Salford: a private footballing boarding school for children. This will provide the kind of close contact that is needed to develop the attitude and ability that so many of Barcelona’s youngsters possess.

More crucially still, the current restrictions on training hours are to be scrapped. Under Premier League rules young English players between the ages of 9 and 16 can only be trained for less than five hours a week by their clubs. Dutch, French and Spanish youngsters can hope for ten to twelve hours a week. The perrenial failure of the English national team means that five hours is patently nowhere near enough a player’s formative years.

Under the new system, English players will receive three times more training before the age of 16, which will go a long way to redressing the balance between English youngsters and their European counterparts. United’s outstanding facilities and top coaching team, together with the new rules, means that the club will produce ever more gems from the academy, just as Barcelona does.

Another boost comes in the form of a new academy grading system that is sure to place United in the top band. This system will allow United to enlist any top youngster in the country from a young age, and not just those who live locally. Numerous youngsters from all over the country will, inevitably, join United due to the club’s reputation. The academy will, once again, have access to some of the top talent in the country.

These changes are sure to benefit United in the long-term and fans can hold genuine hope that a new wave of home-grown talent will lift the club perhaps beyond the Catalans and to European domination. There will, of course, be a long wait for the changes to deliver genuine results. In the meantime fans will have to make do with imports such as Jones and Smalling, who are beating the academy youngsters to Ferguson’s first team.

The future is bright, the future is Red

September 7, 2011 Tags: Opinion 22 comments

If you aren’t feeling optimistic about Manchester United’s prospects over the next few years, then you must be the eternal pessimist. Either that or you’re a staunch subscriber to those theories espoused by Alan Hansen.
Of course, it’s all too easy to get too carried away too early, and sometimes it’s best to remain level-headed and temper our lofty expectations, but f*ck it, enjoy the excitement. If Manchester City can get giddy about becoming FA Cup “champions,” United fans are entitled to be excitable about this third bunch of bouncing Busby Babes that deserve to be knighted.

Indeed, the youthful swagger and dynamism evidenced by this second coming of the “Fergie Fledglings” coincides with my renewed zest for the beautiful game. A fourth generation Mancunian born and (b)red, I was one of those fortuitous United fans to be initiated into an unprecedented era of dominance and subsequent riches. I have vague recollections of attending games at the Theatre during the late 1980s with my late grandfather to witness us take on the mighty Brighton & Hove Albion, or play out scrappy FA Cup quarter-finals.

But in reality, by the time I was fully able to coherently relay the concept of offside, and conclude that Ryan Giggs’ ‘ma was a MILF, United was well on its way to reassuming the mantle as one of the greatest club sides in world football. Ever since, we’ve been spoilt and have become complacently-accustomed to that rare commodity known as greatness.

Everyone within a two-mile radius of M16 (even the girls) has a hard-on at the moment, and rightfully so. The bounce of the team has spilt out onto the Warwick Road, and there’s a palpable buzz about the place. You can’t beat the feeling of rocking up to Old Trafford with an air of tangible confidence that befits a Nani backflip. We are being treated to some champagne football. And not that expensive shite you imbibe, which tastes mediocre and whose extortion pains your very existence with every sip. Our champagne footy isn’t akin to mcfc’s (I can never bring myself to write that acronym in upper case) overpriced Cava.

Success is always the ultimate benchmark at Old Trafford, and we have never adhered to the old Arsène Wenger mantra of “we must play a beautiful brand of football irrespective of the result”, but I must confess that I’m

revelling in being the team over which all the pundits purr. It’s very satisfying. Nani’s first at Wembley in the Community Shield – it would have indeed proven a very charitable act had we let City become Community Shield “champions” after embarrassing them for 90 minutes – was the stuff of unrealistic pipedreams, and Anderson’s against Tottenham Hotspur was equally as fairy-tale-esque. And what about the petulance of Ando’s scooped flick-assist for Danny Welbeck’s first against Arsenal? From the sand of Rio de Janeiro’s idyllic beaches to the grass of Manchester’s utopian fields, beach soccer momentarily transposed 6,000 miles before our very eyes.

I always remember my dad saying back in ’93, “savour this son, it doesn’t happen very often.” At the time, as a naïve ten year old, those words were but a mere backdrop to Eric Cantona’s third at Carrow Road in ‘93, but they now reverberate around my mind. I’ve never enjoyed footy as much as the 92-95 era, even when we have been winning all the spoils. Obviously we have been hugely successful, and have been privileged to some immense talent and European joy (’99, of course, was epic) but I’ve never witnessed that same fluidity, pace, sheer unpredictability, and raw dynamism since the time Giggsy, Andrei Kanchelskis, Paul Ince, Roy Keane, Eric and Mark Hughes used to terrorise teams into a stupor, and ultimately, submission. I remember Giggsy’s first at Carrow Road, a move in which we had so many men bursting forward with intent that four players were in prime position to tap in that goal.

The most vividly grotesque, yet simultaneously fitting analogy for this current exhibition of football is like watching “flies to shit,” and red-arsed flies at that, with players buzzing around at multiple different interchanging angles, a swarming reminiscent of that ‘92-93 team, which attacked in their droves like missiles simultaneously diverging from, and converging upon, the enemy’s goal. It’s a wonder to behold.

And what’s special about this present collective of precocious talent is their diversity? Everyone is quick to pinpoint the English backbone to the youthful vibrancy, but lest we forget the foreign contingent that also enhances the side. What’s unique to this cohort of young men, as opposed to the original Busby Babes or the “Fergie Fledglings,” is that we are witnessing a veritable ensemble of international prodigies.

Ashley Young, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley, and Wayne Rooney are perfectly complemented by their foreign counterparts in David de Gea, Nani, Anderson, Javier Hernández and the Da Silvas. English directness and tenacity supplemented with foreign flair and panache. Some would even deem it the ideal hybrid.

The Busby Babes, whilst positively beautiful, didn’t boast any samba jigs. Indeed, Bobby Charlton’s celebratory movements wouldn’t have been attuned to a samba beat. The Fergie Fledglings, whilst fantastic, didn’t showcase any capoeira backflips. Indeed, David Beckham never attempted any double somersaults. So, United, imbued with an added sprinkling of the exotic, appears an even more delightful proposition.

Soon we will be supping Açaí superfruit shakes to accompany our chips ‘n’ gravy as we stroll along the Sir Matt Busby Way. It’ll feel like walking down the Copacabana beach, with all the s(h)and(y) at our feet. Lou Macari’s chippy might start diversifying its culinary offerings, and serve some ‘chorizo’ and ‘patatas bravas’ instead of the time-honoured sausage and chips. It’s that healthy balance of which government bodies constantly inform us, and which evidently also applies to the footy field.

Yet again our beloved Sir Alex proves he’s a genius. Yet again, Sir Alex rejuvenates and redesigns a successful squad into possessing the ability of ushering in another prosperous period. Yet again, Sir Alex substantiates statements that he might very well be the best to ever do it. And who would bet against SAF to decipher the indecipherable conundrum that is Barcelona FC? Who would wager against a United resurgence to the zenith of club football? It might take a few more years, require a few more acquisitions and necessitate a spot of lady luck. But we have time, appeal and that certain “je ne sais quoi” to do it.

Following on from the dejection of last May, exacerbated by the justifiably-elated Catalans as they flamencoed down the Wembley Way, the future once again looks bright, the clouds once again appear to have a silver(ware) lining, and the red moon is rising. Originally, I thought the key was to emulate Barcelona’s style of play, but United too, are one of the world’s finest exponents of the beautiful game, and we shall conquer in our own fashion.

What’s even more encouraging from a Red’s perspective is the plethora of prodigious potential that underpins the club, in the shape of budding hopefuls spearheaded by the triumvirate of Paul Pogba, enfant terrible Ravel Morrison and Ryan Tunnicliffe. So when the noisy neighbours claim that the Premiership is becoming a two-horse race, always rest assured that United is a glorious thoroughbred, rich in decades of yielding classic winners, whilst mcfc is but a glorified carthorse that distinctly lacks pedigree and class.

So as my old man once told me, my only words of advice would be to savour these next few seasons, I have a feeling they’re going to be pretty special. And please utter those infamous words again Hansen. You know, the ones that not only came back to bite you on the arse, but also removed one of your saggy Scouse buttocks. Go on, I dare you.

Jonathan Shrager can be found at United We Stand and on Twitter – twitter.com/jonathanshrager

This article originally appeared in Rant Monthly Issue 2, September 2011. For this and other fine articles download Issue 2 here.

Why Fergie may persist with youth

August 30, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 20 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson has done it again; the 69-year-old Manchester United manager has created a new tactical template, with players to go with it. United’s formation this season might nominally be a traditional 4-4-2, yet the deployment is anything but ordinary. Two, not one, strikers drop deep as wingers push forward. With no dedicated holding player, both central midfielders – Anderson and Tom Cleverley – maraud into the attacking midfield positions. Ferguson’s attacking six players converge in the same area and have created some beautiful football – as the recent 8-2 victory over Arsenal suggests.

And it is the young players that are key to making the system work, in particular Danny Welbeck. Tall and strong, the 20-year-old can play the traditional target man with whom United can relieve opposition pressure. The English striker also operates as a traditional number nine that diligently works the channels. He can also beat a man using pace and skills – something that Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernández cannot offer on consistent basis. Crucially, Welbeck is comfortable operating a little deeper (see figure 1, below), often occupying the same spaces at ‘deep-lying’ Wayne Rooney.

Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney positions

Credit: Guardian Chalkboards

It is, perhaps, a touch too early to call Welbeck a complete striker but he is more complete than both Berbatov and Hernández. It is this well-roundedness that has seen Welbeck preferred over his more established colleagues in the current, fluid system.

Guardian writer Sid Lowe suggests that tiki-taka style of football deployed by Barcelona is as defensive as it is aesthetically pleasing. After all, the opposition can’t score if they don’t have the ball. Ferguson’s deployment last season of two ball-playing midfielders, Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs, in a 4-4-1-1 was forced by necessity. Darren Fletcher, a more destructive player, would surely have been preferred had he been fit during the closing weeks of the season.

Still, the system worked a treat for Ferguson and United. Carrick and Giggs, along with Rooney, maintained the ball so well that it was not necessary to deploy a holding player to disrupt the opposition play. At least until United met Barça in the Champions League final, with the Catalans playing tiki-taka better than anyone else.

This season, Ferguson has upped the ante. Central midfielders, wingers and strikers congregate in the same area (see Figure 2, below) to form, effectively, a 4-2-4-0 or a 4-6-0 system. With so many players in close proximity any given player has multiple teammates to pass to. United has maintained possession well, including 60 per cent of the ball enjoyed in the 3-0 victory over Tottenham Hotspur recently at Old Trafford. With central midfielders requiring dynamism in the new system, Carrick and Giggs have been discarded in favor of Cleverley and Anderson.

United average positions

Credit: Total Football iPhone App

However, with no holding midfielder screening play and the attacking six pressing like there’s no tomorrow the United defence faces two very tough choices: risk a high defensive line or; play deeper and isolate the attacking six. The first option would not have been possible with Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. The older duo is slower than Phil Jones and Jonny Evans, leaving United vulnerable to pace and the ball over-the-top. Even when Jones and Evans have been pushed deeper the presence of David de Gea – an excellent distributor – allows the ball to move forward.

That isn’t to say that the older players will forever play second-fiddle this season. The downside of fluid systems is that they tend to fail spectacularly. Recall Roma’s 7-1 defeat at United’s hand in 2006/07. Sir Alex will likely go for more rigid formations in Europe to combat the defensive frailties inherent in the a system that features no holding midfielders. Even should the Scot persist with the current formation, players will be rotated for the system places great physical demands on players. The workrate put in by Ashley Young and Nani, who regularly cover for the defensive, is an example. Yet, the way Ferguson’s youngsters are playing, the old guard will have to work hard to play. After all, Ferguson, the notorious tinkerer, would never have selected the same line-up twice in a row had he not been impressed.