Monday, 28 March 2011

Not Another Michael Carrick Blog

Today we welcome a new guest writer to my Written Offside blog. 

Terry White is a 26 year old Manchester United fan who takes an interest in club history as well as the current team. His father's uncle was Joe Walton, who was an original Busby Babe.


An objective review of Michael Carrick

It’s fair to say that there have been quite a few reviews of Michael Carrick lately, and it would appear that opinions are quite fiercely divided. I can almost hear the groans of “Oh no, not another Michael Carrick blog” but I have to say, after reading several pieces for and against his inclusion in the team, I haven’t been able to agree with any of them. It seems that a debate cannot be had on Carrick without someone being either so massively pro Carrick, that he is hailed as one of the very best midfielders the world has ever seen, and you are berated with the same few statistics to back this up i.e. passes completed, distance covered and interceptions etc... Or, they are so heavily against Carrick that it is claimed he can only play short passes, backwards or possibly sideways, and he doesn't even warrant a place in the squad. 

I would like to give an objective view of Michael Carrick’s contribution to the team, looking at some statistics, what his new position/role means for him and the team, and how he compares to other top defensive minded midfielders. 

I don’t know about anybody else, but frankly I have become bored with the barrage of statistics and numbers thrown about, in forums and on twitter, after every game Carrick has played in recently. It seems that some people have no other way of expressing their feeling that he played well other than to batter you with numbers and chalkboards. I agree that these figures do give you an interesting insight into someone’s contribution, and some of Carrick’s stats are pretty damn impressive, but a few stats are not conclusive of a performance, far from it. For example, during the recent 2nd leg match against Marseille, Carrick completed 54 of 59 attempted passes which gives a very impressive completion rate of 91.5%. This is a fantastic stat, even more so when you consider the quality of the opposition and the importance of keeping possession in a tight game that we had to win (apart from a 0-0 draw). But what does this really tell you about his game and contribution other than he had the ball at his feet 59 times and managed to find a team mate on 54 occasions....well....nothing. If you want a bit more information then you can refer to the chalkboard and see the direction and distance of all his passes, which again is impressive and goes some way to dispelling the narrow minded view that Carrick only plays the ball short and backwards. What it doesn't tell you about is the player’s decision making, creativity and ability to carry the ball, and these are some areas in which I feel Carrick has not performed to the level he is capable. 

The reason we signed Michael Carrick from Spurs was for his creative and varied range of passing. He was superb at releasing players and splitting teams open with his pinpoint through balls. I remember when we signed him, the general consensus among United fans I spoke to was that Carrick would be an excellent addition to the team, but he would probably need a defensive minded player next to him to do the donkey work so that he was free to play his game. I think over the first 2-3 seasons at united he did this quite well but over the last 18 months, as his own role has become more defensive, his passing and overall contribution has become somewhat subdued. 

This might sound strange given his pass completion rate is so high, much higher than it was before he started playing a more defensive role, but for me it’s not all about completion rate. What about the passes he could have made that he didn't. It’s frustrating to watch a player who clearly has such fantastic passing ability nearly always take the safest/easiest pass available. I’d happily see his completion rate drop a couple of percent if it meant his passing was more creative and occasionally more direct, and if his overall contribution to the team increased i.e. goals and assists. It can be argued that it’s not his job in the team to provide goals and assists, but to play for one of the very best clubs in the world you have to bring something else to the plate other than the ability to always do the basics correctly. 

If you have a look at the OPTA stats for passing this season in the premier league, the top 5 positions are dominated by defensive minded midfielders. 

Passers
Team
Passes
    Accuracy




Murphy
Fulham
1932
80%




Essien
Chelsea
1783
87%




Ferguson
  Birmingham
1705
82%




Barry
Man City
1540
85%




Song
Arsenal
1501
87%



Carrick doesn't appear in this list as he has not made as many passes due to being out of the team at the start of this season. (22 PL apps this season, 4 as sub) His accuracy is actually slightly better than them all (as we already know, he does the basics extremely well) but these players have also made other valuable contributions to their teams this season. Song has chipped in with 4 goals, 2 assists, Essien 3 goals, 3 assists and Barry 2 goals and 2 assists. Carrick currently sits on 0 goals, 0 assists and it was a very similar story last season. It’s clear to see that the best defensive midfielders in the league can all make successful passes and keep possession for their team but can also contribute much more going forward. With Carrick, it’s not what he does do, it’s what he doesn't do that’s the problem 

Another area, in which I feel Carrick struggles, is his ability to tackle. This is a gaping hole in his game if he is going to continue his defensive role in the team. I'm not suggesting that he needs to be some kind of midfield general in the style of Keane or Ince, because he never will be, but to play that role you do need to be able to make a good tackle. Its argued that Carrick is so good positionally that he doesn't always need to tackle, he uses his intelligence to make numerous interceptions each game which is a much cleaner and quicker way of turning over possession. Agreed, and he does this very well, but to be a good defensive midfielder at the top level you need to be able to do both. 

Again, if you look at the OPTA stats for tackling in the premier league this season, the top 5 positions are occupied by midfielders.


Tacklers
        Team
   Tackles




Lucas
   Liverpool
125




Vaughan
   Blackpool
117




Holden
Bolton
117




Parker
      West Ham
112




Murphy
Fulham
102

If you look at Scott Parker's tackling record here, and couple that with 5 goals and 3 assists this season, plus his ability to win the ball deep  and drive forward with it, almost dragging his team mates with him, it’s no surprise that he has been breaking into the England team recently while Carrick is again overlooked.

Overall Carrick is a great midfielder with some fantastic attributes, but I don’t think he is particularly suited to playing in a more defensive role. It seems this added responsibility has had a negative impact on some of his best abilities and without these, despite doing the basics well week in week out, it’s just not enough to play that role for United. We are the best club in the world and need world class players in all positions, and as a defensive midfielder, I think there are several better than him in the premiership, let alone abroad.
Having said that, he is the best player in the current squad at playing in this role (except for the constantly injured Hargreaves) and the contribution he is making is valid. I think his performances in the last few weeks have improved and hopefully he will continue in that vein until the end of the season, when hopefully we will strengthen the squad. Priorities are obviously a goalkeeper and an attacking midfielder and because of this I think we may see Carrick occupying the same role next season. I would say though that after those two, a defensive minded midfielder would be next on the list as this would be the weakest area of the team for me. A player in the mould of Essien, Song or Barry would be a great addition to United. There is a wealth of talent at home and abroad that could be considered e.g. Parker, De Rossi, Diarra, Melo and Toulalan to name but a few.

A signing in this position wouldn’t necessarily mean the end of Michael Carrick at United. Although he would no longer be an automatic starter, he could still make a massive contribution and without the shackles of playing a defensive role, he might start to look like the player we signed from Tottenham. The player that in his final season at Spurs had 35 PL appearances in which he made 1938 passes but only had a success rate of 80%, (far lower than these days) but who also pitched in with 2 goals and 6 assists and with a far more creative and penetrative range of passing which convinced United to sign him in the first place.


Do you agree with Terry's view on Michael Carrick? Please leave a comment below and he will respond when possible.

If you would like to follow Terry or James (written offside founder) on Twitter, please click the links.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

United Goalkeepers - Past, Present & Future

My favourite United goalkeepers from the 80's, 90's and 00's
The Past
This summer Manchester United will face a challenge in the transfer market that has similar connotations to 1999 when the great Dane Peter Schmeichel announced he would be leaving for pastures new. Back then, it was felt that the decision on his replacement was made in a rather hasty fashion with the unpredictable Australian Mark Bosnich being recruited from Aston Villa on a free transfer. Whilst it cannot be denied that he had talent, Bosnich failed to win over the Old Trafford faithful after a series of mistakes and poor quality distribution. It is often forgotten that this was the Australian's second crack at United following a brief three game stint between the years of 1989-92. Second time around he made only 35 appearances before being replaced by Fabien Barthez in 2000.

Fast forward to 2011 and a similar problem is on the horizon. How do Manchester United replace a goalkeeping icon that has been a magnificent asset to the club and that has in many ways redefined the art? Schmeichel's brilliance stemmed from his command of the penalty area, his apparent invincibility when it came to one on one's with an opposition striker and his unique ability to pick out a pacey United forward with a long throw. In many ways, what the Dane brought to United back in 1991 when he signed from Brondby changed the perception of the modern goalkeeper. Now it was no longer acceptable to be simply a good shot stopper or someone who collected the odd cross. He was now expected to be the first line in the attack and also the last line in defence, often becoming an unorthodox sweeper resulting in a dash from his penalty area.

United developed into a wonderful counter attacking team in their successful spell in the mid 1990's and this often relied on Schmeichel picking out the likes of Sharpe, Giggs or Kanchelskis who could be seen anticipating the early throw out, to set the attack on its way. At the time no other domestic keeper had this in their armoury.

Manchester United's recent past has been littered with goalkeepers good and bad but only one of Schmeichel's predecessors really stands out. Gary Bailey was born in Ipswich (like me) as his father Roy played for his son's home town team. Having grown up in South Africa, Bailey paid for his own airfare to commence a trial at Old Trafford in the late 1970's. My recollection of the player mainly stems from the fact that he was the first United keeper I can remember when I began supporting the club in the early 80's. He became an early hero for me following his block at the feet of Gordon Smith in the 1983 FA Cup against Brighton. With the score poised at 2-2 and heading towards a replay, the big Scotsman was left with just Bailey to beat following a pass from Michael Robinson to send the South Coast club into history. 

Unfortunately for Smith, his attempt was blocked by the onrushing keeper's legs and United went onto win the replay comfortably a few days later. The confrontation between goalkeeper and striker was immortalised by the iconic words of the legendary broadcaster Peter Jones on BBC Radio and also sums up the gilt edged nature of the opportunity that had presented itself to Smith that day. The words "...And Smith must score" have gone down in broadcasting history and thanks to Youtube you can click the link below to hear once more:


"And Smith must score.. and he hasn't scored and Bailey has saved it" Peter Jones BBC Radio
Bailey went on to win the FA Cup with United in 1985 after a brilliant Norman Whiteside goal saw the Reds (down to ten men after Kevin Moran's sending off) past the challenge of Everton. It was something of a travesty that someone so talented only won two England caps but he was behind both Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence in the international pecking order.

Two years after Alex Ferguson took over the reins at Old Trafford, he signed Jim Leighton who had been a mainstay of his hugely successful Aberdeen side of the 1980's. The move to Manchester United never really worked out for the Scottish keeper whose confidence seemed to suffer as the Reds languished in mid table. The one saving grace in a desperate time for the club was the run to the 1990 FA Cup final which many claim ultimately saved Ferguson's Old Trafford career. Leighton was selected for the game at Wembley against Crystal Palace but was hesitant throughout and arguably at fault for Palace's opener and third goals. Going into the replay, the manager made the brave and ultimately brilliant decision to drop Leighton for the veteran Les Sealey who had previously played just two matches for the club. Sealey went on to have an inspired game, keeping the Palace attack at bay and helping United to a narrow victory. Leighton was understandably devastated by his shock omission and his career never really recovered. Sealey made a fantastic gesture by giving his winners medal to Leighton as the Scotsman had played in the games leading to the final but the FA subsequently gave medals to both men.

Sealey further ingratiated himself into Old Trafford legend by appearing in the Cup Winners Cup Final the following year and helping United overcome the might of Barcelona in the final in Rotterdam. After a spell at Aston Villa, he rejoined the club as Schmeichel's deputy. Remarkably, his last four appearances in a United shirt were in the Cup Winners Cup Final, two League Cup Finals and an FA Cup Quarter Final. Tragically, he died of a heart attack in 2001 whilst at West Ham as a coach.

The Present
Edwin Van Der Sar joined United in 2005 after a glittering career had seen spells at Ajax, Juventus and Fulham. Louis Van Gaal had given him his debut at Ajax where he stayed for nine years before making the move to Turin to play for the "Old Lady" where he became the first non-Italian to keep goal for them. His spell in Italy came to an end when the Italians paid a world record fee (still standing) of £32.6 million for Gianluigi Buffon from Parma and the Dutchman did not want to remain as his understudy. It is at this point that Sir Alex admits regret at not following up some interest at a time when United were struggling to find a suitable successor to Schmeichel. By the time that 2005 arrived and the club still no nearer to locating a solution, the wily Scot was not going to make the same mistake again and signed Van Der Sar for a fee of around £2 million. From day one almost, it looked a wise decision. Rather than taking another risk on an untried keeper such as the many that had come before, the boss plumped for a world renowned, experienced custodian who was not going to be phased by playing in the goldfish bowl that is Manchester United.

What sets Edwin apart from many of his peers and those that have come before him is the sheer composure and confidence that he exudes. This transmits itself to whichever back four is in front of him and then radiates throughout the team as a whole. This confidence expresses itself in so many ways that are crucial to the art of a goalkeeper. His height allows him to come for crosses that others would not attempt; his positioning means he is usually in the right place to make a save with the minimum of effort; his reflexes mean that he is often ready to make a second save moments after the first one has been parried and finally his supreme fitness mean that he has been able to hold down his position as number one at United into his forties and amass 130 caps for Holland.

An often overlooked quality that Van Der Sar's possesses is his ability with either foot. Since the back pass rule was introduced following a turgid 1990 World Cup littered with incidents of time wasting and back passes, a modern goal keeper could no longer progress at the top level without being a "footballer". There are numerous examples at United who have struggled with this aspect of the art since the rule's inception. It could be argued that this lack of quality with the ball at their feet helped cost the likes of Ben Foster and Mark Bosnich a long career at Old Trafford, as supporters were often acutely aware of their nervousness resulting into a slice into touch and a dent to confidence. One United goalkeeper who did not suffer from either lack of confidence or ability with the ball at his feet is the aforementioned Fabien Barthez. The eccentric Frenchman's biggest problem was arguably over confidence in his ability in this department leading to costly mistakes seemingly every time he encountered his international team mate Thierry Henry and Arsenal! This in turn undermined the confidence that his back line had in him and led to him leaving the club in 2004 having been superseded by Tim Howard and then Roy Carroll.

Van Der Sar is equally adept with either foot and his back line have no qualms about passing the ball back to him when in trouble. His ball control regularly puts many outfield players to shame and his distribution has often been the first cog in a swift United counter attack and frequently led to goals.

Who will be the chosen one? David De Gea, Manuel Neuer & Maarten Steklenburg?
The Future?
All of this leads on to the massive decision that has to be made this summer. Who is deemed the heir to Edwin's throne? What cannot be in doubt is that there will be no stone left unturned in the quest to select the most worthy candidate. Quite simply, Manchester United cannot afford to get this one wrong. By all the noises emanating out of the club it looks like research into the goalkeeping successor began almost from the day that Edwin looked at an annual contract. There have been numerous stories of the manager and goalkeeping coach Eric Steele taking in games across Europe involving the expected candidates over the last year or so. 

This time around, replacing a legend will not be a rash decision, it will be based on research into every aspect of the candidate's life. Not only his abilities between the posts but his character, background and probably family situation. The current front runners seem to be the following: David De Gea (Athletico Madrid), Manuel Neuer (Schalke), René Adler (Bayer Leverkusen) and Maarten Stekelenburg (Ajax). All of these have their strengths and weaknesses but one thing in common is they all lack Premier League experience. This might mean the likes of José Reina and Craig Gordon come under scrutiny although the former's links to Liverpool may make him unpopular with the Old Trafford faithful.

The United coaching staff will look to the right man to provide stability over the foreseeable future. This may be why that they seemingly are not looking at a proven keeper in his early to mid thirties preferring to go for a younger solution in keeping with recent transfer policy. The brave choice would be De Gea (due to age), the sensible choice would, in my view, be Neuer (German number one, experienced, mid twenties). Whoever is chosen, I would be confident that the club has made the right choice after what will turn out to be an exhaustive search. The only caveat to this if the club are unable to agree a deal with the chosen one's current employers. This is why United will have a back up plan and may be forced to look at cheaper alternatives.

United fans worldwide have been fortunate to witness two of football's greats between the posts in the last twenty years and the man who is given the opportunity to emulate Peter Schmeichel and Edwin Van Der Sar, will have an unenviable task to replicate the success that these legends have experienced and made vast contributions to.

Do you agree with my choice of Manuel Neuer for United's next goalkeeper? What do you see are the main qualities that he must possess? What are your memories of the likes of Bailey, Leighton, Sealey and Schmeichel?

Please leave any comments below and feel free to follow me on Twitter.

Monday, 21 March 2011

United vs Bolton Post Match Post Mortem

Manchester United claimed three vital points on Saturday after a late Dimitar Berbatov strike saw off the brave challenge from Bolton at Old Trafford. The Reds once again showed admirable strength in adversity following the dismissal of Jonny Evans after 75 minutes when the score was goalless. Other teams would have brought on a defensive substitute and settled for a point. Not United. Even with this numerical disadvantage they continued to swarm forward and got their reward after Berbatov followed up Nani's initial strike at goal. The Bulgarian was in the right place at the right time after a fumble by the otherwise excellent Jussi Jääskeläinen.

Here are my talking points from the game:

Berbatov Goal Analysis - The key to this goal is the movement towards the ball of David Wheater (shown centrally with arrow). As Nani prepares to shoot he makes an instinctive move towards the ball. Primarily I imagine this is to try to block the shot as it looks like the nearest two Bolton defenders to the ball are not going to be able to stop the Nani strike. In normal circumstances, Wheater's movement forwards would also have left Berbatov (currently on the penalty spot) offside when the ball was fumbled by Jääskeläinen. However, it is late in the game and left back Paul Robinson (perhaps a little tired) has not moved up at the same time.

Wheater makes his move to try to block the shot, unaware that Robinson is playing Berbatov & Fabio onside


The above picture taken from another angle at approximately the same time, highlights how Robinson has been caught late on in the game, well behind the rest of his back line. If he was up with Wheater then the follow-up would have been flagged offside and United would be reflecting on two points dropped.


If you look at the picture above you will see how just a second later from the first picture, the ball has rebounded off the Bolton keeper and without the presence of Robinson, Berbatov would have been flagged clearly offside. Above also shows how advanced Fabio is from right back and how he did well not to get in the Bulgarian's way seeing as he is currently ahead of him!

Football matches and indeed Championships are won and lost on such fine margins and this was another clear demonstration of this.

What it also emphasises for the third time in three weeks is the importance of following the ball in after an effort on goal has been struck. Two weeks ago at Anfield, Kuyt followed in after Suarez' free kick had been fumbled by Van Der Sar. Last weekend, Fabio was on the spot to get his reward after Almunia had made a fine stop from a Hernandez header and now Berbatov (with Fabio once more in attendence!) demonstrates the advantage that can be gained. Each time, it was the attacker (with a striker's knack) alive to the possibility of making a decisive impact. With Fabio being present both times for United, it adds weight to the argument that he could be a potent threat from the flanks in future.

Nani and Valencia in the same team? Saturday was only the second time this season that both of our primary wingers had started a match together. All of Nani's great success this season has come from the right flank while Valencia was recuperating from his long term ankle injury. Against Bolton, it was the Ecuadorian that was given the right hand side with Nani pushed over to the left. As the Portuguese player seems more adept on his left foot, it was the obvious solution but in all fairness, he did not perform to his usual high standard. It looked at times that he did not trust his left foot with crossing, which meant that he became slightly predictable by constantly cutting in. This meant that Steinsson often "showed" him down the left side but each time Nani seemed to cut in on his right when a left footed cross would have been the best option. A possible caveat to his performance may also be that he is still to fully restore confidence after "that" Carragher tackle and at the moment he feels more confident on the right. It was noticeable that in the final quarter when the two did swap, that Nani came more into the game and was often seen moving in-field before attempting a shot at goal or cross to a team mate. 

I would suggest that bearing in mind that Nani leads the assist table and has contributed ten goals to the United cause this season that he deserves to be first choice on the right but I can understand the requirement for a switch to accommodate the right footed Valencia. Time will tell which way the manager goes with this decision in the busy weeks to come.

Michael Carrick Midfield Maestro - The much maligned midfielder has taken plenty of stick this season and while I agree he has not always imposed himself on certain games when he should, he is still a vital player for the Reds. Generally, when Carrick plays well so do United. Without the usual presence of the likes of Scholes or Fletcher, the Englishman took responsibility and managed to marshall his veteran partner Giggs through the game. He managed to complete 82% of his passes and it was noticeable that many were over a longer distance towards the flanks which is often the Scholes role when he is in the team. The other thing that impressed me about Carrick's performance was something that may have been missed or dismissed as irrelevant at the time. In the aftermath of the Berbatov goal where the players are starting to make their way back to the half way line, he makes the below gesture to Nani and Smalling:

"Think" is the clear inference from this gesture from Carrick after the goal euphoria has died down.
With just a few minutes left, he is reminding both players of the need to focus as with the team down to ten men, a late lapse could still cost the team. This demonstrates the responsibility that he clearly felt on Saturday and was further emphasised by the way he slotted into the Evans position at center back without fuss to help see the game through.

How he is not in the England squad for the upcoming internationals is staggering. With the likes of Alonso and Xavi singing his praises I am sure that a squad berth ahead of the likes of Barry and Milner is deserved but at least it means a fortnight's rest for a player who has played a lot of games recently and will be pivotal in the march towards the end of the season.

The Evans tackle - I thought it was refreshing that after the match that both United fans and the boss did not complain about the red card. It was rightly pointed out that it was without malicious intent but all parties understood the ruling that if both feet leave the ground and your studs are showing then you are risking the ultimate punishment. What is clear from the replay is that Holden went into the 50/50 tackle in a similar way but from a different angle and therefore, felt the full force. It is hoped that the Holden is not badly injured and returns soon as he has had an excellent season thus far.

The impact of the full backs - Patrice Eva, Wes Brown and Fabio all contributed to the attacking threat posed by United on Saturday even though both Nani and Valencia were included in the starting line up. Usually you will see full backs to the fore when the team lacks width but on both sides they were able to support their winger admirably. Evra's stats show that 40% of his passes were down the left side in Bolton's half which was exactly the same as his passes in his own half. His pass success rate was 83%. The right hand side was even more productive with both Brown (1st half) and Fabio achieving 50% of their passes down the right hand side in their opponents half. I have already mentioned the attacking threat of Fabio and it seems that he perhaps is slightly less impetuous than his brother in the tackle who does have the tendency to dive in occasionally risking the wrath of the referee! What is sure is that both have a big future in whatever role the manager sees fit for them. With maturity will come the consistency from them that we all crave. It is also hoped that a slightly worrying susceptibility to injury can be overcome.

Giggs in centre midfield - It was somewhat of a surprise to see the veteran playing on Saturday after a busy schedule recently. He looked tired on Tuesday against Marseille and it is noticeable that his pass completion rate often drops when he is not fully on his game. With Scholes, Fletcher and Anderson all out he was selected in the centre alongside Carrick with Gibson on the bench. This would have been a blow to the Irishman as he has been much improved recently but possibly the manager feels he is more productive in a three man midfield. Giggs' pass success rate was just 60% which is low for someone on the ball so much as he was. His chalkboard below shows that a lot of his misplaced passes were of the longer variety which suggests he was trying a little too hard to play the "killer" ball rather than settling for something more simple most of the time. Whilst this is an admirable outlook, it often led to a counter attack from Bolton against our weakened midfield and attack.
Just 33/55 successful passes (many of them short)
In his defence, Giggs was playing out of position and the fortnight international break at this time of the season will do him the world of good and I would expect him to take up his usual position on the left flank when the next match against West Ham arrives in early April.

The Premier League final furlong - Usually at this time in the season you start to see predictions of the title run-in to try to guess who will finish as champions. It is notoriously a difficult task as there are so many unpredictable variables that can take place such as injury, suspension and tiredness that play such a huge role in deciding the destiny of any match or ultimately,  the season. Following Chelsea's victory against City yesterday, it has been suggested that they are back in the race but this is only the case if United and Arsenal drop more points in the upcoming matches.

In my view, the key to the title destination is not what happens at the Emirates Stadium on May 1st, at least not yet, The real decisive period is between the dates of April 17th and 20th where Arsenal play twice before United's next league game on the 23rd vs Everton. On these two dates, Liverpool visit the Emirates and then three days later there is the small matter of the North London Derby at White Hart Lane. At this current time when the Gunners are going through a rough patch, these fixtures present a serious obstacle that if overcome, could put them in pole position. However, if they stumble, the destiny of the league could virtually be decided. These two fixtures are then followed by a tough trip to Bolton who are currently sitting pretty in 7th place and will like nothing better than turning over one of the big boys on their own turf.

After this the heat really turns onto United with the match-up with the Gunners followed closely by the home fixture against Chelsea. What is clear though, is that if Arsenal drop a significant number of points in the three tough fixtures mentioned then these games could be viewed as not quite so pivotal as before.

To be honest, all of the above is full of if's and maybe's but what is certain is that all United must do is take each games as it comes and keep racking up the three points. This then makes any Arsenal or Chelsea results irrelevant.

It is certainly going to be very interesting and difficult to predict. The games will come thick and fast in three competitions for the Reds but with the will to win and never say die attitude displayed once more against Bolton remaining close to the surface, it is hoped that this will carry United towards a glorious climax by the end of May.

Tweet Bits - the best tweets from my twitter followers after the Bolton game.
We always seem to get the result, like watching a film you've seen before, exiting..but you know what happens in the end. KingsofPrem

Carrick and Smalling were excellent but most impressed with the never say die spirit the squad has, never gave in. awesomesj

Always favoured Nani on the right, I was hoping I was wrong, but he still needs a fair bit of work to truly be a success down that flank. Doesn't cross well with his left foot and he becomes more predictable down that flank. RedRae7_MUFC

As for much of the season we were below our best but even with 10 men, found a way to a winner! Thats champion material! Roonaldo107

United showed why they are Champions, after Evans was sent off Bolton went for a draw, but United went for a win. AustinTXRed

Please leave any comments about this post below or contact me via Twitter

Thursday, 17 March 2011

United vs Bolton Wanderers Big Match Preview


Introduction
Manchester United go into their last game in March on Saturday when they take on Bolton Wanderers at Old Trafford in the search for a vital three points. After booking their place in the quarter finals of the Champions League on Tuesday with a nervous 2-1 win over Marseille, the Reds will look to go into the international break still sitting proudly on top of the table.

United will be hoping to avoid a third straight league loss after the recent away defeats to Chelsea and Liverpool. They are boosted however, by two key cup wins back to back that have gone some way to restoring lost confidence.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to overcome on Saturday afternoon will be the home side's lengthy injury list. As it stands the Reds have just five fit defenders with one of those just back after a long lay off (Evans). They face an impressive Bolton side who will make the short trip to Old Trafford buoyed by the booking of a Wembley semi-final against Stoke last Saturday following an away victory against Birmingham. 

The Opposition
Bolton Wanderers have had an exceptional season led ably by Owen Coyle. They currently stand in 7th place with 40 points on the board. In previous seasons and under different managers, the expectation levels were excessively lower with survival from relegation the goal at the start of each season. Since Coyle took charge in January 2010, he has led a revival that has seen them move comfortably into the top half of the elite league.

They have a relatively modest away record this season with just two wins and five draws from fourteen matches which is the 5th worst. They have lost four and drawn one of their last five away from the Reebok Stadium.

Johan Elmander is their leading scorer with eleven in all competitions. The big Swede is complimented by Kevin Davies, Ivan Klasnic and loan signing Danny Sturridge. They have a sound defence marshalled by Gary Cahill and Zat Knight and completed by the much under rated Jussi Jaaskelainen in goal.

A quirky stat about the Trotters is that they have only scored seven in the first thirty minutes in all competitions all season but have managed to score ten in the last five minutes of games. They are a definite second half team having scored double the amount of goals than in the first period.

Key Player - Stuart Holden
  • Born in Aberdeen, moved to Texas aged 10
  • Signed by Sunderland in 2005, suffered fractured eye socket after being attacked outside a bar in Newcastle
  • Was released and returned to America
  • Made his MLS debut for Houston Dynamo in May 2006, played 103 games with 15 goals
  • Joined Bolton in January 2010
  • USA international with 15 caps
  • Had his leg broken by Nigel De Jong in March 2010
  • Made the USA squad for World Cup in 2010
  • Adept at set pieces, likened to David Beckham
  • Was a professional gamer in 2002

Tactics
With United short on numbers in the centre of midfield as well as defence, a return to 4-4-2 is likely. The possibility of both Nani and Valencia starting on the wings will have the home crowd excited and if this is the case, their effectiveness could go a long way to deciding the outcome of the game. Such pace will surely push the away side back deep into their half and mean it will also blunt the attacking intent of their full backs and draw their own wide men back to help out. With Carrick likely to be present, it will be vital that his repertoire of accurate passing is on song as rapid switches of play to the flanks will be needed to  keep Bolton on their toes. It will be interesting to see how Nani copes with a possible left wing role after spending most of the season on the right. He certainly has the talent to use either foot and although his right is his strongest, he can still be mightily effective on his left side which will help keep the opposition guessing which side he goes.

The other tactical point to make is from a United defensive point of view. With Davies and Elmander up front and the Reds lacking their talisman Vidic, the Trotters will eye a weakness both in the centre and in the full back area. They will look to pull onto United's small full backs at set pieces and try to take advantage of this superiority by winning the first header. Look for set piece expert Holden to launch towards the tall forwards and United will have to be wary of this tactic. It also would be wrong to label Bolton a long ball side as they were under Sam Alladyce. They tend to play to their strengths and will mix short and long passes that compliment the players in their ranks.

United

As mentioned earlier, the back five almost pick themselves with Jonny Evans returning to fitness slowly with a slot on the bench likely. This will be Brown and Smalling's third game in four where they have been paired together with the absence of both Ferdinand and Vidic so it is hoped that a partnership will begin to show. As individuals I feel they are playing pretty well but the next stage will be to dovetail effectively. On paper they cover all bases in terms of composure, pace, aggression and positional play so it is hoped that they provide a suitable barrier to the dangerous Bolton front line.

Carrick and Gibson look sure to start in centre midfield with the current injury list and Scholes unavailable due to suspension. Both have been a little inconsistent this season but it is an opportunity to stamp their authority onto a decisive home game in the absence of others. I would expect Carrick to sit in the defensive midfield role and for Gibson to look to break forward when possible. There will be concern that they need to offer sufficient protection to the back line but considering it is a home match, it will be hoped that United will be on the front foot for the majority of the game.

I have gone for Nani and Valencia wide, perhaps more with my heart than my head! It is perfectly conceivable that Giggs could play left based on the need to be careful with the fitness of both players. In my mind, Giggs looked a little tired on Tuesday and was not at his best. There is also a chance that Rooney could play on the left with Berbatov drafted in to play in the hole but the recent form of the Englishman should see him retain his favoured role.

One man who certainly deserves to start is Javier Hernandez after his recent goal scoring form. The boss may feel that a game out of the spotlight would do him good and therefore re-instate Berbatov and I can see the logic behind this view. But my heart hopes that the "Little Pea" takes his place in a pace filled front line.

There may be a place on the bench for the returning Ji Sung Park and Michael Owen which is a boost for squad depth.

Score Prediction
I am going to go for an exciting 3-1 home victory with United pulling away mid way through the second half as Bolton start to tire up against the pace of the Reds attack. Goals from Rooney, Nani and Gibson will be enough to see United consolidate their place at the top of the table regardless of the points haul achieved by a stuttering Arsenal at West Brom.

Nothing but three points will be acceptable on Saturday ahead of a much welcome international break. With so many injuries currently being experienced, it is hoped that the two weeks will lead to the likes of Vidic, Rafael, Anderson and Fletcher being made available for our next match against West Ham on April 2nd.

Please leave your team and score predictions below and please follow me on Twitter.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

United vs Marseille Post Match Post Mortem

Manchester United progressed to the Quarter Finals of the Champions League after a nervous 2-1 defeat of Marseille at Old Trafford. The Reds started well with Javier Hernandez adding to his growing reputation with a fifth minute finish after good work from Rooney and Giggs left the Mexican with a simple finish at the far post. United failed to press home their advantage for the rest of the first period which allowed the away side to threaten on several occasions. The centre back partnership of Smalling and Brown stuck to their task well without ever looking thoroughly convincing. 

The vital second goal arrived in the 76th minute with that man Hernandez again applying the finishing touch after Valencia (on as sub after an hour) and Giggs combined down the right hand side. Marseille managed to make it an uncomfortable last ten minutes after a Wes Brown own goal halved the arrears. The away side now knew that one more goal would see them through but they were unable to strike with United keeping possession well in added on time.

Talking Points & Analysis

Javier Hernandez goal analysis - It is becoming a recurring theme in my reviews to focus on the goals of the Little Pea. Watching it live it would be easy to say they are both simple tap in's but the benefit of replays shows wonderfully how much work he puts in to get his yard of space.

Looking at the build up to the opener last night below, you can see how currently the Marseille centre backs have him covered but with the crucial fact being he is behind Heinze and can go either way to dependent on the cross.
Hernandez on edge of box as Rooney darts into the box to collect return from Giggs
This is the start of his move firstly out then in and then out again to completely lose Heinze thus resulting in the picture below showing how Diawara and Heinze have been drawn towards the ball while Hernandez waits to pounce at the far post. Look at that difference now between defender and attacker who is helpless to stop the simple finish.
Central defenders drawn towards the ball thus leaving Hernandez to apply the simple finish.
The crucial second goal build up shows the Mexican again behind both centre backs as play develops. Valencia and Giggs combine well to set up the chance. Once the Welshman is set free on the right, Hernandez makes a dart for the penalty spot anticipating the cross.
Once again, Hernandez is behind both centre backs and can dart to near post or pull away to far post

One of the keys to this goal and why the Mexican is free to apply the finish is the stumble of Diawara (see blue arrow) that gives Hernandez an uncontested finish.
The defender's stumble allows space for the Mexican to slot home.
The decision to start with Hernandez at the expense of top scorer Berbatov can be attributed to the identification of Heinze as a weak link in their back line but it is also becoming a trend with plenty of recent starts for the Mexican. It now seems he is some way to becoming Wayne Rooney's first choice partner in the attack. Perhaps the manager has decided that with the Bulgarian in the team, both he and Rooney prefer to link play thus leaving United sometimes short of numbers in the box. 

Rooney return to form? In the last two games, Rooney has been played in his preferred position "in the hole" with a licence to drift across the pitch to make things happen. This has coincided with arguably two of his best performances of the season. The once renowned confidence seems slowly to be returning with the sight last night of long passes being attempted in order to switch play or even occasional short passes to try to create goal scoring opportunities. He is certainly far more effective in this role than stuck out on the left where his only option is to cut in on his favoured right foot thus becoming rather predictable.

The future for Berbatov? It is proving to be a tough time for the skillful Bulgarian. Through no fault of his own he has seen himself relegated to the subs bench for many recent matches as the manager has plumped for the movement and penalty box prowess of Hernandez. With Rooney seemingly returning to a role behind the main striker, where does this leave top scorer Berbatov? He will have a big role to play in future matches and must bide his time but perhaps at the moment it will be as an alternative to Rooney rather than in partnership. It is possible that all three main strikers could be chosen for certain games but this would see Rooney shifted out to the left which does not make best use of his talent.

Defensive Injury list is growing - just as one injury ravaged area looks like clearing up (wingers) another seems to have been struck by the curse. Following last night's hamstring injuries to O'Shea and Rafael, the United defence on Saturday against Bolton looks like picking itself if they can all remain fit between now and then. The good news is the return of Jonny Evans is getting closer and with a two week international break upcoming at a good time for once, the medical news could look brighter when we return to action at Upton Park in early April. The situation is showing similarities with last year when the entire defence was seemingly absent forcing us into choosing the likes of Carrick and Fletcher in those positions.

Valencia continues to impress - another half an hour in his legs will do the Ecuadorian the world of good in his quest to return to full match fitness. His impact was almost immediate as he replaced the tiring Nani after an hour. He played a major role in the making of the crucial second goal last night with an incisive ball into the path of Ryan Giggs and generally hugged the touchline to help stretch the opposition defence. He is a different player to Nani on the right as he relies on his pace and movement to create space whereas the Portuguese winger combines pace and trickery to beat a man. The prospect of Nani on the left and Valencia on the right combined with the pace of Hernandez and the guile of Rooney or Berbatov is certainly one to look forward to. Once more it will give us a serious threat on the counter attack which will put our opponents on the back foot knowing that our pace can harm them. I am thinking especially of the Arsenal game coming up on the 1st May as it has been the blueprint to defeat them in recent years at the Emirates Stadium.

Disappointed with Marseille - From what I have seen this season, the French are a better team than we have seen over these two legs. To me it looked like they were a little overawed early on last night and perhaps lacked that crucial belief that they could harm United. Arguably they had the better chances during the game and with a bit more care could well have embarrassed the home team on several occasions. I picked out Lucho Gonzalez as their key man before the first leg but he was disappointing over the course of the tie and did not offer a significant threat. They certainly missed having a fully fit Valbuena in their team who is skillful and offers a great deal in dead ball situations. He has been linked with United this season and although his size may be a factor, he showed on at least two occasions last night that his corner delivery is far superior than what we possess at the club already.


So the main thing is that once more, United prevailed without being wholly convincing. They will look forward to Friday's draw looking to avoid Barcelona (despite what Mr Rooney says) but knowing that they could well meet the likes of Real Madrid and Chelsea as it is a "free" draw. Although lesser known sides such as Schalke and Shakhtar Donetsk will be preferred opponents, they should not be seen as much easier than facing the other English sides or the best from Spain.

For once, an international break will be seen as a god send for Manchester United in light of the defensive injuries that are inflicting the club at the moment. If a vital three points can be picked up against Bolton on Saturday then it will set us up for the frequent battles that lie ahead with many of the current walking wounded restored to the squad in the next game against West Ham in early April.

Tweet Bits - the best views from my Twitter followers
We only really played well for about 5 mins either side of our 2nd goal. Rooney and Hernandez had great movement all night and Rooneys passing was excellent. Smalling was good but still needs someone assured next to him at the moment. All in all good result and brilliant to get through. Hernandez, right place, right time, the man!! - Dr Terence

Can't decide if we played well & were largely comfortable or if we rode our luck a lot in defence & central midfield. Swindelli77

Got the result we needed, nervy end to the game tho. They had plenty of chances, better teams will put us away. JamieFrank87

Lots of positives tonight- Roo & Chich were brilliant, Valencia made a big difference once again! Roll on the quarters! GavinWoodfull

A big thank you once again for the thoughts of my Twitter followers after the match last night.

Please leave any comments below or contact me via Twitter

Monday, 14 March 2011

United vs Marseille Champions League Preview



Introduction
Manchester United go into the second leg of their crucial Champions League encounter with Marseille in fine spirit after Saturday's victory over rivals Arsenal in the FA Cup. The sense of optimism has been lifted still further with the sight of Nani back in training after the serious leg gash inflicted by Jamie Carragher along with Michael Carrick who was originally ruled out of Tuesday's tie.

United will be looking to build on the energy displayed against Arsenal in such a manner that Marseille struggle to cope. Second legs at Old Trafford under the lights are always special and the crowd will have a big part to play. The away team will surely look to frustrate United with three in a central midfield, so an early goal or at least early pressure will put Marseille on the back foot. They should not be underestimated as they have the best away form in Ligue 1 and are unbeaten in their last six away matches.

The Opposition
Olympique de Marseille, to give them their full title, were founded in 1899 and have won the French Ligue 1 title nine times in their history. Their defining moment came in 1993 when they became the first French winners of the Champions League defeating the might of AC Milan in the final after a goal by Basile Boli. That winning team contained such quality as Barthez, Desailly, Deschamps, Boksic, Abedi Pele and Rudi Voeller. Ironically in that final, one of their all time great players Jean-Pierre Papin came on as a sub for Milan after leaving for Italy a year earlier after a stunning record of 134 goals from 215 games.

L'OM's darkest hour came in 1994 when they were relegated to the second tier of French football following a match fixing scandal involving club president Bernard Tapie. Several players from opponents Valenciennes were instructed to let Marseille win and not to injure them ahead of the Champions League Final.


Marseille go into the game in fourth position in Ligue 1, just four points from leaders Lille. Since the first leg they have played three times. They lost at home against the leaders but significantly won both of their away fixtures. Interestingly in both of those games, Gabriel Heinze played at centre back with Mbia in a defensive midfield role which he is more comfortable in. Taiwo took over the Argentine's left back slot. Whichever position he is selected in, he will surely be targetted by United as a potential weak link as he is slow on the turn and often resorts to fouling his opponent.

They will be without leading striker Brandao who is back in France contesting a possible sexual assault charge following a late night encounter after a recent game.

In Friday's game against 2nd placed Rennes, L'OM came away with a confidence boosting 2-0 victory with goals from Remy and Gonzalez. The win was described as their most accomplished performance of 2011.

Tactics
Depending on the personnel available to Sir Alex Ferguson, I would expect United to go in to the game with a 4-3-3 formation with the emphasis on attack rather than a more defensive 4-5-1 that is often on show in away games. As ever, the Reds will look for a fast start and try to get Marseille on the back foot from the first whistle. This will help get the crowd involved and behind the team. Where once it was looking that the home side would be short in the wide areas, I would expect this to be a key area. Either of Nani or Valencia will play on the right and will be expected to run at the left back whether it is Heinze or Taiwo. With Scholes spraying balls wide similar to how he did in the home match with City, the effectiveness of our flank players will look to push their own attacking wide men back to help cover and thus stifle their threat on the counter.

With only one up front, it will be vital that support from midfield is forthcoming with perhaps Gibson the one encouraged to bomb forward when possible. It is perhaps viable that Rooney could play that role after adopting it on Saturday but this may leave us a little short with Scholes and Carrick from a defensive angle and with the thought of Anfield still fresh in the memory. The home team full backs will also look to play high up the pitch where possible supplementing the wide men. Vidic will pick up Gignac leaving Smalling to sweep up alongside. Do not be surprised to see the former Maidstone defender bringing the ball out of defence from time to time as he may find himself in space when a move breaks down.

United

With the news that Vidic's reason for missing training this morning was to get some treatment on a slight knock that will not keep him out, the only choice to be made is at right back. It would be easy to make a case for either John O'Shea or Rafael to be selected. The Irishman is solid, is in good form and never lets anyone down. The Brazilian played well in an advanced role on Saturday and is superior from an attacking sense but can be a touch impetuous in the tackle. It was hoped that lessons will have been learned from last year's exit to Bayern Munich when he was given two yellows but there have been signs that this maturity is still to fully develop. I will go for Rafael simply because of his attacking intent but would have no real problem if O'Shea gets the nod.

The likely fitness of Carrick is a big boost for the United midfield and I have gone for him alongside Scholes and Darron Gibson. Ideally I would like to see a 4-4-2 formation but I can see the extra man for safety as well as the tie is finely balanced. If we were behind then logically, a two man midfield makes sense. An away goal at any time could switch the balance towards Marseille at any time so the more defensive option is the one I have chosen. Valencia gave a wonderful, uplifting display in the second half against Arsenal but in my view it is asking a lot for him to repeat the feat just a few days later. With Nani seemingly fit to return, it makes sense for the Ecuadorian to bide his time on the bench before being unleashed mid way through the second half to get further minutes under his belt. For this reason, I would expect to see Giggs line up on the left.

Although cases could be made for Hernandez and Berbatov up front, I think that Rooney will be the one selected on his own. He is in form, back to scoring goals and looked much more like his old self against Arsenal. The sight of him controlling the ball following a long pass should bring confidence to the United faithful that his dark days are on the way to being banished as it shows the player himself regaining a talent that always seemed to come naturally in the past.

If an away goal is scored or additional firepower is required then a quick switch to 4-4-2 will occur with Berbatov for Gibson and Valencia for Giggs the likely replacements. The prospect of this front four should have fans excited as pace, skill and guile will all be in abundance and surely too powerful for our French opponents. The additional option of Hernandez and his clever, incisive movement means that if they can stay fit, they should ensure plenty of goals in the run in to the end of the season and almost certainly a piece or two of silverware.

Score Prediction
I am going to plump for a 2-0 home win for United. We must guard against complacency, Marseille are a decent side with a good away record and they must be respected. However, I think United's pace, power and intensity may surprise them a little and in the end the pressure will surely tell. Goals in either half from Rooney and Giggs will send United sailing through to the quarter finals. The only team I would wish to avoid would be Barcelona as it is my view that the best chance of success against them is in a one off game (like the final at Wembley). Ideally we would avoid English opponents also but facing either Chelsea or Spurs would not unduly concern me. The romantics among us will hope for the return to Manchester of Ronaldo with his Real Madrid team but they first must overcome last year's conquerors Lyon.

A second successive cup victory will certainly go a long way to restoring faith following the recent defeats to Chelsea and Liverpool. The return of key players is also timely and sets us up well for the challenges ahead as we look towards the climax of the season.

Please leave any comments below about possible team line up or score predictions and please follow me on Twitter after the game where you will get the chance to have your views listed in my review blog.

Mgid