Friday, 24 June 2011

A new era beckons as Ferguson turns to youth

It was football’s worst kept secret that Manchester United would undergo some major squad surgery this summer; the players who looked destined for the exit door were pretty much self-explanatory save for perhaps John O’Shea whose proposed move to Sunderland has come as a surprise for many. What was far from set in stone was the names of the players who would be coming into Old Trafford to bolster what was a transitional squad into what Sir Alex Ferguson hopes can be the start of his next and probably last great United team. 

In truth, the three players that appear to be confirmed United signings have come, possibly not out of the blue but as unexpected packages. Nineteen year old Blackburn defender Phil Jones has arrived as a highly rated prospect, Ashley Young appears to be making the move from Villa to provide extra vigour and guile to the Reds attack and finally twenty year old Spanish goalkeeper David De Gea is likely to become the Reds new number one after he has finished playing for Spain at the European U21 Championships, it appears that Ferguson has once again put his faith in youth to take United forward.

It is Phil Jones who would seemingly possess the most potential. Sixteen million pounds may seem steep for a an unproven defender however the glimpses I have seen of him over the past two seasons since making his debut for Rovers back in September 2009 have contained immense promise. His physique certainly belies his age and he does appear to possess a sound footballing intelligence. For example in young defenders arriving from smaller Premier League clubs it is important that they have a solid foundation to build upon, which Jones clearly has, he must now work hard to iron out any creases such as hoofing the ball out of play as opposed to shielding the ball and returning it to his goalkeeper. This of course, will come and the aimless kicks to nowhere will be eradicated when he is exposed to the tutelage of the United coaching staff and the experience of the likes of Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra. 

On a further positive note he and Smalling were the only shining lights at the end of England’s abysmal European U21 campaign. The two formed a seemingly coherent, solid partnership in which they communicated very well, hailed as a ‘possible future England Captain’ by Harry Redknapp, Jones was the steel to Smalling’s silk, a style that could clearly be moulded in to a Ferdinand Vidic-esc  duo. It is highly likely though that in his first season in a United shirt Jones may well be asked to occupy either the right back spot or a defensive midfield position, if Jones can work well in the latter he will prove himself a top addition given that Owen Hargreaves, who occupied that position so well between 2007-08 has been released after a long battle with injury. Admittedly I have not seen much of Jones in this position but he does possess the attributes to play there, combative, intelligent and has terrific stamina. Interestingly enough, Owen Hargreaves spent a fair bit of game time in the right back position so fans should maybe expect to witness Jones fulfilling a role similar to Hargreaves in 2007/08 before he is moved into his natural position of centre half. It would, admittedly be a lot to ask of a nineteen year old given the importance that is attached to that role in the modern day game particularly in the Premier League, however it would not come as a surprise. 

Ashley Young is another who has arrived having not been on the radar of transfer gossip prior to the end of the season, a talented attacking midfield has shone at Aston Villa however Young now has to prove that he wasn’t just a big fish in a small pond and establish himself as one of the leading lights in the Premier League. His transfer bears resemblance to that of Antonio Valencia in 2009, the Ecuadorian has now established himself as one of the Reds most important players and Young must aim to emulate his success by continuing the form that has seen him placed seventh in the Premier League’s top assists makers, an impressive statistic for a man of just twenty five. 

Most importantly, Young must do more than just compliment United’s game, he has professed a desire to play at the top level, and now that he has achieved his goal he must make an impact and not be carried, he has been charged with creating and scoring goals and he will be expected to stand out in amongst United’s wealth of attacking talent. The expectation will be high, but playing with the calibre of player at United will only improve his game as has happened with the likes of Valencia. In England’s recently friendly with Switzerland I was very impressed of how assured Young looked in his own skin, confident on the ball and his distribution was unsurprisingly very good given his impressive creative record, he also took his goal extremely well. 

I’ve mentioned comparisons with the signing of Valencia however one thing that Young provides over Valencia is versatility, Valencia is very much a right winger, he is so right footed one suspects he uses his right foot for both clutch and throttle. Despite Valencia’s success, his place in United’s first XI signals a loss of the ability to switch wingers as the Reds have done consistently over the past few seasons. Young’s arrival signals a greater fluidity to United’s midfield, he can play right, left and down the middle, a little more time spent on his intelligence of the game in terms of movement off the ball and United could mould Young into one of the most talented players in Europe. His style is different to anything we already have and provides a welcome boost in the post Scholes era. 

Spanish keeper David De Gea presents a different proposition to Young and Jones, the latter two have been, to some extent at least on the radar of United supporters over the past two seasons. Both are suited to the demands of the Premier League and are aware what is expected at United having played against them numerous times for their previous clubs. De Gea however comes from a different background entirely. Clearly a talented goalkeeper with European experience, it does however appear a big ask for a twenty year old with no Premier League experience to come in and replace one of the best goalkeepers to have played the game. 

I cannot profess to be an avid watcher of La Liga so I am probably not the best person to comment on how suited De Gea is to the United number one role but should De Gea complete his proposed eighteen million pound signing from Athletico Madrid he could become the youngest United number one in years. He may take a little time to feel his way in and United must be prepared to give him that however it is comforting to know that United have not jumped in at the deep end with De Gea, they have watched him for months and embarked on meticulous analysis into various aspects of his game, Eric Steele has been a constant spectator at Athletico’s Vicente Calderon Stadium and United cannot be accused of panic buying! Clearly United earmarked De Gea as their man months ago and despite witnessing one of the great goalkeeping performances in the form of Manuel Neuer against Schalke, Ferguson never wavered on his admiration of the young Spaniard even in the face of the Schmeichel-like German. 

Nicknamed ‘Van der Gea’ by his Madrid team mates, it is clear that United have looked to infuse a seamless transition of calm and authority, rather than look for a wild, aggressive and bullish keeper in the mould of Schmeichel. Ferguson has stuck to recent form and looked for as many of van der Sar’s qualities in their new keeper as possible. De Gea does ooze calm, I have watched every game he has played for Spain U21’s in the European Championships and although he has admittedly not had much to do given Spain’s incredible ball retention, when he has being called upon he has delivered. Against England he had one save to make all match, it was just before the half time whistle and De Gea stretched his entire six foot four inch frame to pull off a brilliant save. This in itself is a sign of a major quality needed to be a United goalkeeper in that he may have nothing to do for eighty nine minutes but must keep his concentration as he may have make a match winning save in the ninetieth. Aside from the ‘Hollywood’ saves De Gea is clearly capable of making, the basic most important parts of his game were solid, his distribution was immaculate and his cool head helped him deal with a tricky situation in the first minute where he sorted out what could have turned into an almighty cock up as the Spanish defence temporarily imploded with Danny Welbeck lurking. Another aspect of De Gea’s potential signing is his age, at twenty this makes him thirteen in goalkeeping years! Should he be able to knuckle down a regular berth in the United eleven then perceivably United could have the same number one for fifteen years, which is similar to the success that Iker Cassilas has had at Real Madrid. 

This would without doubt add an unerring stability to United that would continue into the post Ferguson era and which is possibly why the Manager has started his rumoured ‘spending spree’ by investing in youth rather than going all guns blazing for the likes of Sneijder of Modric, an interesting thought whether you agree with Fergusons actions or not. It is clear that to challenge the mighty Barcelona Ferguson arguably needs to create the greatest team of his twenty six year tenure in the Old Trafford hot seat. Names like Jones, Young and De Gea may not instantly fill the average fan with hope but possessing unquestionable potential and desire these young players have every chance of making it big at United and all have the chance to make history. 

Thanks to Nathan for this post and please follow him on Twitter

Click on the button below to follow me on Twitter and/or recommend this post on Facebook. 

If you would like to leave a comment on this article, please do so below. 

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

2010/11 Season Review Part 3 - March to May

March to May
P11, W6, D2, L3. GS:13 GC:12

“Beware the ides of March” we are all told and so it came to pass for United as their title challenge faltered following successive away defeats at Chelsea and Liverpool. A fantastic first half display saw the Reds lead Chelsea by a goal at half time thanks to a fine Rooney strike and an all round energetic performance notable for Scholes and Carrick controlling midfield and dominating on the flanks. However, the second half was a complete reversal as the home side were galvanised by Luiz’s controlled volley and took control before taking the lead thanks to a Lampard penalty. The result meant that Chelsea were effectively back in the title race although some poor officiating from Martin Atkinson left a sour taste in the mouths of the United faithful at Stamford Bridge.

The following weekend saw a much anticipated trip to Anfield but the midfield was once more over run and a Kuyt hat trick put United to the sword. The match will be remembered by many for the dangerous studs-up challenge on Nani by Carragher that saw the Portuguese winger in tears at the assault committed. Although Nani was only out for a week, it could be argued that he was not the same player for the remainder of the season as coupled with Antonio Valencia’s return, he was switched out to the left wing and was noticeably less effective.

Valencia’s return to league action came in the home game against Bolton after a brief cameo versus Arsenal in the FA Cup the week before. A late Berbatov strike (a rare impact as substitute) got United back on track with a precious three points. Jonny Evans was given a red card for a dangerous tackle on Stuart Holden that made United’s strength in adversity all the more important.

There were echoes of Bloomfield Road once more for the Reds as they trailed West Ham by two goals at half time at Upton Park. In similar fashion, United stormed back to claim a vital three points as a rejuvenated Rooney struck three times (including one from the spot) and Hernández popped up late on to put the icing on the cake. Controversy is never far from Rooney’s door and so it proved once more at Upton Park as he swore down the lens of the television camera which led to an FA charge and a ludicrous two match ban that would rule him out of the FA Cup Semi Final against City.

"Which joker put super glue on the match ball?" 
A week later saw the visit of Fulham to Old Trafford and they were comfortably dispatched by first half goals from Berbatov and Valencia before the home side took their foot off the gas with tougher tests on the horizon. A disappointing midweek draw at Newcastle gave United’s title rivals fresh hope in a performance that lacked authority or the necessary invention to break down a stubborn Toon defence. This match followed the sub-standard display at Wembley against City that saw the team’s treble dream evaporate and put their opponents on the brink of ending their 35 year trophy drought.

Having experienced two goalless games, the nerves were out in force for United’s attack in the home game against Everton as the match drew closer to its conclusion. Fortunately, prayers were answered when Hernández, not for the first time, secured the three points late on with a salmon-like leap at the far post.

The least said about United’s trip to the Emirates Stadium the better as the away side slumped to their fourth, and thankfully final, defeat of the season. Neither side looked particularly threatening over the course of the game and post-match many United fans called into question the wisdom of abandoning the tried and tested 4-3-3 formation that has been so effective against the Gunners in recent years. As it was, a momentary lapse in concentration from Park who had just been moved to a central midfield position, left Ramsey free to fire past Van der Sar. A late penalty claim was turned down as Clichy caught Owen but it was not to be United’s day.

The penultimate game of United’s home campaign brought Chelsea to Old Trafford in the knowledge that if they could repeat last year’s victory at the Theatre of Dreams then they would be in a strong position to retain their league title. As it turned out, these hopes were effectively extinguished after just 34 seconds as Hernández was put clear on goal and nervelessly steered the ball past the advancing Cech. What followed was United’s most complete performance of the season as the Chelsea defence wilted under the pressure exerted by the likes of Park, Rooney, Valencia, Giggs and Carrick. In fact, the Ecuadorian gave Ashley Cole such a torrid time that it is hard to recollect another such time in the left back’s career. The relentless pressure told once more midway through the first half as Vidic surged past the Chelsea backline to power in a point blank header. Although, Lampard gave the away side hope with a smart finish in the second half, the home side continued to create a multitude of chances but as each one was squandered so the nerves grew. Chelsea knew only a win would realistically keep them in the hunt and they eventually ran out of both ideas and time. United now knew that a single point in their remaining two matches would see them finally knock their old rivals Liverpool off their perch to claim their historic 19th league championship.

First up in their quest for the one remaining point required were Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park. The home side had the audacity to shock the massed ranks of the away support as they took the lead and looked good value for it as Kuszczak in the United goal demonstrated perfectly why he will not be considered as Van der Sar’s replacement. His nervousness with the ball at his feet spread panic amongst a back line usually so composed under the guidance of the veteran Dutchman. In the end it was left to Rooney to secure the draw with a well taken penalty after Hernández was bundled over in the box by Robinson. The final ten minutes saw both sides happy to settle for a point as the ball was played around among United’s back line with barely a threat of forward progression. The final whistle blew and the scenes of jubilation that followed will live long in the memory as this alleged sub-standard squad celebrated their historic championship with the fans lucky enough to be present.

Going into the final league game at Old Trafford with the title secure, the only remaining goal was to see if the team could complete an almost perfect home record. Only West Brom had left the Reds fortress with anything other than a defeat. Unfortunately, a United victory consigned Blackpool to relegation after a season where they imposed their own brand of attacking football on the division but ultimately they conceded far too many to survive. Their spirit was amply demonstrated by having the impudence to take the lead at one point but hopes of saving themselves were dashed by Anderson, an own goal and a late Owen strike.

The club’s 19th league title was presented after the game but not before Old Trafford had applauded Ian Holloway’s gallant battlers from the field in a sign of class from those in attendance sympathetic to the plight of a fine football team. Nemanja Vidic lifted the trophy and started the celebrations in earnest as the players wives and children joined in the party on the pitch.

The season was to end on a sour note with the defeat to Barcelona in the Champions League but there was no disgrace in coming off second best to one of the best sides of all time. Despite this disappointment, it was never going to take the gloss off a remarkable season that has seen Sir Alex Ferguson navigate his way through the congested fixture list with wonderful imagination and bravery in terms of squad rotation. The challenge as ever is how to remain on top next season and plans are already under way with rumours flying around about transfer dealings at the club. As well as players coming in to strengthen the squad, there will be inevitable departures too with the likes of Neville, Van der Sar and Scholes retiring and question marks about the futures of a number of others. Whatever happens, United will rise again next season in the face of renewed challenges from the usual rivals as they look to retain their league trophy and conquer Europe once more.

Season Review Part 1 can be found here.

Season Review Part 2 can be found here.

Click on the button below to follow me on Twitter and/or recommend this post on Facebook.

If you would like to leave a comment on this article, please do so below.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

2010/11 Season Review Part 2 - November to February

November to February
P17, W12, D4, L1. GS: 39 GC:13

The first league game in November saw the visit of Wolves to Old Trafford. The pre-match talk centred around the inclusion of Owen Hargreaves. Sadly for the former Bayern Munich midfielder, the much anticipated return lasted barely five minutes and he was never seen in a United shirt again. His replacement on the day, Bébé did not fare much better on the pitch as he faced the ignominy of being a substitute substituted after an erratic display. United managed to sneak the three points late on thanks to a Ji Sung Park strike.

Next up was the small matter of the Manchester derby at Eastlands but this occasion passed by relatively unnoticed due to the home side’s negative tactics as the game ended goalless and without incident.

Villa Park has been a happy hunting ground over the years both in league and cup competitions for United but after 75 minutes, the Reds found themselves two goals down after another insipid away performance. Thankfully, the much renowned never say die attitude that resonates from every section of the club shone through as goals from Macheda and Vidic claimed a share of the spoils.

A routine 2-0 home victory against Wigan followed soon after but was notable for the return to action of Wayne Rooney after his injury lay-off to a lukewarm reception from the Old Trafford faithful. Perhaps mindful of a negative reaction, the manager chose to introduce the Englishman at the same time as Paul Scholes to help to quell any disquiet. Wigan in the end were architects of their own downfall in many ways after being reduced to nine men. A rare Evra header was followed by a late Hernández one to secure the three points for the home side.

United’s biggest win of the season arrived shortly after, as Blackburn Rovers were steamrollered 7-1 thanks in the main to Berbatov’s five goals which equalled a Premier League record. It was a day when the home team were at their imperious best with Anderson standing out in midfield with accurate passing and driving runs that Blackburn had no answer to. The fourth goal that arrived shortly after half time will long be remembered as the team goal of the season. Berbatov picked up the ball in an unaccustomed position at left back and after swapping passes with Evra, pinged a glorious pass out wide to Nani who made his way towards the box before cutting the ball back to the on-rushing Bulgarian to fire home. The move was symptomatic of the flowing football displayed by the team that day.

Arsenal at home is always a pivotal match for United and a solid defensive display coupled with an instinctive Park header saw the Reds to victory against their arch rivals. The second half saw a missed penalty from Rooney as he struggled to regain full fitness and form. This malaise in his play was set to continue for a few matches yet.

Following Chelsea’s suspect decision to postpone their home fixture with United a full 24 hours before the game due to adverse weather conditions, the team had to wait until Boxing Day to return to league action where a dull two goal victory against Sunderland was achieved thanks to a Berbatov brace. A Midlands away double header then followed with a trip to Birmingham followed closely by a visit to the Hawthornes to take on West Brom as the New Year began. The trip to St Andrew’s saw a scrappy 1-1 draw played out with more frustration for United on their travels thanks to a late Bowyer equaliser. Rooney and Hernández struck a few days later to give the Reds three points against West Brom although the home side will count themselves unlucky not to pick up at least a point after missing a penalty and having claims for another after a suspect Gary Neville lunge.

Stoke City were the first visitors to Old Trafford in 2011 and went home with a narrow defeat after goals from Hernández and Nani. United managed to keep their unbeaten record in tact following a goalless draw at White Hart Lane which saw Rafael fall foul of Mike Dean’s yellow card on two occasions prompting an early bath for the feisty Brazilian. The match quickly lapsed into stalemate as both sides seemed happy to leave the game with a point in the bag.

Birmingham were duly dispatched 5-0 in late January which saw Berbatov’s third hat trick of the season. Incredibly, this meant the Bulgarian was on 17 goals at the half way stage. Unfortunately for United, he would only add three goals to that tally in the second half of the season.
United’s trip to Bloomfield Road to take on Blackpool brought yet another poor away display followed by a late rally to secure the points. Trailing 2-0 and with little sign of inspiration, the manager brought on a couple of renowned game-changers Giggs and Hernández and the picture rapidly altered. A Berbatov brace sandwiched by a Hernández clinical finish brought yet another Lazarus like recovery from this Manchester United side who were starting to feel that a record 19th league title could be a possibility with their nearest rivals starting to self implode.

February dawned with a solid regulation 3-1 victory at home to Villa with Rooney returning to the goal trail and showing signs of finally getting into his stride once more.

The seemingly inevitable first defeat duly arrived when a visit to Wolves saw the home side emerge victorious. The omens were not looking favourable before the match started when Rio Ferdinand pulled up with a calf injury in the warm up that was to sideline him for 8 weeks. Despite Nani’s early strike, United looked lethargic and lacking in invention throughout as they tasted defeat in the league for the first time in 29 matches dating back to April 2010 against Chelsea.

The perfect way to bounce back presented itself the following Saturday with the magnitude of the Manchester derby at Old Trafford. The performance paled into apparent insignificance following a goal of such majesty to claim the three points by Rooney in the 79th minute. The undisputed individual goal of the season came courtesy of a deflected Nani cross that saw Rooney launch an athletic bicycle kick that sailed past Hart in the City goal. It is easy to forget the quality of United’s opener from Nani just before half time as he collected a through ball from Giggs before slotting past the advancing Hart. Amazingly, it proved to be Nani’s last goal of the season as the “noisy neighbours” were put in their place. With Ferdinand absent, this was the game that saw Chris Smalling really come of age at the heart of the United defence as he demonstrated composure and class that belies his lack of experience at the top level.

The final game of February away at Wigan saw the start of a partnership that would ultimately drive the team towards their much coveted 19th title. Rooney and Hernández contributed three in this game and a further nine in the remaining league games. The partnership blossomed to such an extent that it left the league’s leading scorer to sample life on the bench for much of the remainder of the season. Probably the best away performance followed the selection of these two together and the Reds left the DW Stadium with a 4-0 victory with Fábio adding the final goal in the last few minutes.

Part 1 can be found here and Part 3 can be found here

Click on the button below to follow me on Twitter and/or recommend this post on Facebook.

If you would like to leave a comment on this article, please do so below.

Friday, 17 June 2011

2010/11 Season Review Part 1 - August to October

How the Premier League Trophy Was Won 2010/11

Manchester United kicked off the 2010-11 season with three new additions to the squad. Chris Smalling had agreed his transfer from Fulham back in January 2010 but the deal was officially signed in July. Javier Hernández was signed from Chivas Guadlajara and impressed United fans with his pace and eye for goal during the World Cup in South Africa. The most surprising purchase by the club was that of Tiago Manuel Dias Correia (better known as Bébé) who arrived for a reported fee of £7.4million and with just 26 games as a professional behind him and seemingly little pedigree as a top class footballer.

United kicked off the season with the traditional Community Shield fixture against double winners Chelsea at Wembley. The Red Devils picked up their first silverware of the season emerging as comfortable 3-1 winners which included a goal from Hernández who displayed the first glimpse of his penchant for improvisation in the process of scoring his first strike of the season. The little Mexican’s goal was sandwiched between efforts from Valencia and Berbatov.

August to October
P10, W5, D5, L0. GS:22 GC:12

The Premier League campaign for United kicked off on Monday 16th August with a game against newly promoted Newcastle at Old Trafford. The home side ran out comfortable winners by three goals to nil with the night rounded off by a sublime Scholes assist leading to a fine Giggs finish which saw the Welshman maintain his incredible record of scoring in every Premier League season since its inception in 1992/93.

Scholes’ fine form continued at Craven Cottage the following weekend with a trademark strike from outside the box to give United the lead against Fulham. The Reds dropped their first points of the season in what was to become a worrying trend in the early weeks as a late Hangeland header drew the teams level after the Fulham defender had put through his own net just five minutes earlier. The frustration was further compounded by a Nani penalty miss which would have sealed the points with the score at 2-1.

A comfortable home win against West Ham followed which was notable only for Rooney’s first goal of the season from the penalty spot and a fine individual strike from Nani after cutting in from the right flank.

Matches at Goodison Park always have a habit of producing excitement and this season’s fixture was no different. After falling behind, United replied either side of half time with goals from Fletcher and Vidic before a casual but cultured Berbatov strike left United cruising as the game meandered into injury time. However, lapses in concentration allowed the Toffeemen to equalise and leave the away side with red faces as the stuttering start to the season continued.

Next up was the small matter of Merseyside rivals Liverpool at Old Trafford who would come to be knocked off their perch by the season’s finale. After storming into a two goal lead courtesy of the languid Berbatov whose overhead kick for his second will live long in the memory, United’s habit of letting leads slip emerged once more as Gerrard brought the Scousers level. Scenes of extensive camera and badge kissing were quickly extinguished by the Bulgarian number 9 completing his hat trick with a second header to secure a much needed three points for the home side. The result heaped more pressure on then Liverpool boss Roy Hodgson who had begun his tenure at Anfield in patchy fashion and it ultimately led to his sacking in January ahead of the FA Cup meeting between these two sides.

Away draws followed against Bolton and Sunderland as United looked unconvincing on their travels against teams they would have swept past in previous campaigns. The malaise surrounding the club’s performances grew deeper with the team surrendering a two goal advantage at home against promoted West Brom who benefited from one of the only blunders from Van der Sar all season. These were to be the only dropped points at Old Trafford all season. 

It was at this point in October that news started to filter out about Wayne Rooney’s apparent desire to leave the club. This was swiftly confirmed by Sir Alex in a captivating press conference where he attempted to explain the player’s motives for turning his back on the club. In everyone’s eyes it was a brilliant “performance” by the manager who heaped pressure on his wayward striker and made it clear that he was being badly advised. With the United faithful firmly behind the boss and the sentiments expressed, Rooney had a change of heart and returned to the negotiating table. In many fans eyes, he emerged somewhat fortuitously with a bumper new contract although it took some quality end of season performances to win round the favour of the fans who once idolised him.

The gloom engulfing the club was lifted further by the joy of a first away victory of the season at the Britannia Stadium where a new star appeared from the shadows to nudge United past the challenge of Stoke. Javier Hernández secured a brace on the day but it was his opener that will be fondly remembered and brought him firmly to the attention of the football watching public. After a corner had been headed back across goal by Vidic, the Mexican leapt up with his back to goal and managed to flick the ball towards goal in one swift motion. Replays proved beyond doubt that it was a tremendous piece of improvisation rather than luck as the timing of his jump was crucial to the eventual execution. The winner was a typical poacher’s goal from within the six yard box that sent the travelling army of fans home happy. This was also the game that proved why Gary Neville’s eventual retirement was a sound idea after he was caught struggling for pace numerous times and fortunate not to receive a red card.

October drew to a close with a game against Spurs at fortress Old Trafford. With Rafael keeping golden boy Gareth Bale quiet, it was left to Gomes in the away team goal to take the headlines after he gifted Nani the all important second goal after a Vidic header had put United in front. With the game still closely fought, Nani’s claims for a penalty were waved away by referee Clattenberg who gestured for the game to continue. Gomez clearly thought it was a free kick to Spurs and proceeded to put the ball down only for the Portuguese winger to fire the ball into an unguarded net. The inevitable Spurs protests failed to see the goal overturned and led to phone-in shows being deluged with calls from irate supporters still seething at the “goal that never was” by Mendes a few seasons back. Ironically, Mr Clattenberg was on duty that night also!

Part 2 can be found here and Part 3 can be found here

Click on the button below to follow me on Twitter and/or recommend this post on Facebook.

If you would like to leave a comment on this article, please do so below.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

John O'Shea - Why he should stay.

If various rumours are to be believed, John O'Shea is on the brink of leaving Manchester United to go to the Steve Bruce rescue centre for unfulfilled footballers at Sunderland in a three way deal that would see him accompanied by Wes Brown and Darron Gibson. Although it would be a shame to see the latter two go, I can fully understand that from all parties, it makes a lot of sense but having thought about it over the last 20 hours or so, I tend to feel that letting the big Irishman leave would be a rare mistake from Sir Alex Ferguson.

Born in Waterford in the South of Ireland, John moved to Manchester when he was 17 and had loan spells at Bournemouth and Royal Antwerp (United's feeder club at the time) before establishing himself in the 2002-03 season in a variety of positions. And this is the true reason why United should do their best to keep hold of the easy going Irishman. You just cannot put a price on his key asset - versatility. We all know that O'Shea is not the most talented footballer at the club and that he does not possess the skill or poise of a Ferdinand or the pace of an Evra but what he has in spades is commitment, drive and flexibility. He truly is a jack of all trades. This is amply proved by the fact that during his nigh on 400 games at the club (no bad achievement to be honest) he has played in literally every position available on the pitch and always to a decent standard.

Initially, he rose to prominence at left back where he was regularly seen running down the wing and even managed that famous nutmeg of Luis Figo at Old Trafford in a Champions League tie against Real Madrid. This piece of skill is still spoken of today by those who saw the sheer audacity and impudence as one of many reasons to cherish the amiable lad from Waterford. Various stints in all manner of positions have since occurred over the years and he has suffered without doubt by being unable to nail down a set niche in the side.It would be cruel to say he is a "jack of all trades but master of none" but in some ways this can be seen as an affectionate phrase to sum the player up. Whatever role he is assigned by Sir Alex, he will do it without fuss which often means sacrificing himself for the good of the team.

Few will forget his epic brief appearance at White Hart Lane as a substitute for the injured Edwin Van der Sar a few years back when there was no substitute keeper to call on. Grinning from ear to ear, he slipped into the green keeper's shirt ahead of Rio Ferdinand and managed to keep the home side at bay and delighting the away faithful with his famous block on international colleague Robbie Keane. It was centre back that O'Shea saw as his main position but once he realised that competition for places was going to red hot, he was more than happy to fill any slot that became vacant. Many will recall the culmination of a season when himself and Ryan Giggs were the last men standing in central midfield and although this combination was hardly one to strike fear into the opponents hearts, they responded to the cause with admirable courage and no little quality.

I think one of the reasons that John will always have a special place in United fans hearts is the feeling that he is a normal lad that has made the most of the talent that he has been given. He plays the game with a smile on his face and you get the feeling that he cherishes each and every day in his privileged position. He has also been fortunate to score some vital goals over the years that have contributed massively to iconic moments in United's history. Few will forget the look on his face as he scored United's fourth at Highbury a few years back, clipping the ball over Almunia and almost watching time stand still as it finally dawned on the big man that he had put the seal on a famous victory. The penny finally dropped and he had no idea how to celebrate or where to put himself. It made me think this was akin to a fan being given the opportunity in the first team and then low and behold scoring the goal of his dreams to crush our main rivals.

For every United fan, scoring a goal in front of the Kop is something that dreams are made of. To achieve such a feat and then realise that not only has it secured a vital three points but also nudged the club towards yet another league title is something that this "jack of all trades" would not have envisaged as he made his way across the sea at the tender age of 17.
Sunderland? I have to play with Richardson and Bardsley again?

He is clearly a popular lad in the dressing room and his experience will be invaluable to the likes of the Da Silva twins as they embark on the start of what should be a glittering career with the club. To remove such a character who has been taught and also bought into the ethos instilled by the manager would be a risk bearing in mind some of the others that have departed the club recently. It is clear that time moves on and there is no one better than Ferguson in reconstructing squads as has been proved many times over the years but experience counts for so much in the modern age and a further loss could prove difficult to replace.

For all of the reasons mentioned above, it did come as something of a shock to hear that he was the third player in the possible £12million deal with Sunderland. In my view, he is the jewell in the crown for the Wearsiders and it will be with a heavy heart that Sir Alex sanctioned the transfer. Perhaps the wily Scot feels a touch guilty about the way he has used his versatility for the good of the team rather than the player himself and feels the best way to repay John for such loyalty and unstinting support is to allow him the final few years of his career as a big fish at the Stadium of Light where he will find himself among many familiar faces.

However, none of the other ex United players currently there can hold a candle to the kind of successful career as a Manchester United footballer that John has experienced. If the move does go through, I can see him being made captain and I hope that he finally is able to nail down a set position to see out the rest of what has been an utterly unselfish and trophy laden career with the recognition it deserves.

Please leave any comments below or contact me via Twitter.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Champions League Final Post Mortem

Now that the dust has settled somewhat following our defeat to Barcelona, myself and Nik Storey (Sleepy_Nik) had a chat about the game and below is a transcript of our ramblings:

James_WrittenOff: Champions League Final, Wembley on Saturday. 3-1 Barcelona. What were your initial thoughts immediately after the game Nik?

Nik Storey: Disillusioned is probably the best description! After 6 or 7 minutes I turned to Doron and said, ‘this is Rome 2009 all over again’. and unfortunately it turned out to be the case. Though admittedly we didn’t have the chances we had in that first 10 or 11 minutes in the Olympico, the opening exchanges at Wembley were very frantic and high octane. United looked to have the perfect game plan, and one which I was hopeful of beforehand: press high and challenge for every ball, though it was a pace that was always likely to be hard to maintain for the full duration against a side of Barca’s quality, and in that sense I’m not entirely convinced it was a specific ploy of Fergie’s.

James_WrittenOff: I was disappointed naturally but definitely could understand there was no disgrace in losing to such a wonderful team.I too could see signs of 2009 early on and was thinking there was no way we would be able to keep up the intensity of our early play for 90 mins.
James_WrittenOff: I sensed early on Giggs was off his game and looked drained by the weeks events. To me, for the first time, he looked 37 up against that quality.

Nik Storey: Yeah, I half agree with that; I thought he did well positionally for around half an hour at least, but thereafter seemed to tire. It was certainly his lapse that essentially cost us at 1-1. He found himself way too deep, which allowed Messi so much time to shoot, with Carrick and Park picking up Iniesta and Xavi respectively. I suppose Sir Alex had little option but to keep Giggs on once we were down in the match, swapping him for Park seemed sensible at the the time...

James_WrittenOff: Hindsight is a wonderful thing but I do wonder if any lessons were actually learned from 2009. Sir Alex has made a big thing of how he has been working towards a re-match but did not really show anything fresh that would make a difference. The result became an inevitability from about the 20th minute for me. Unlike him, he seemed lost as to what to change and just left things as they were.

James_WrittenOff: I hate to criticise the great man but thought he could have been more proactive after half time when it looked like changes were needed to stem the tide

Nik Storey: I am not entirely convinced he could have done much to be honest. At half-time we were 1-1 which many people seem to be forgetting, so on paper at least his tactics were right, and I am not sure what exactly he could have done differently at this juncture. Further, it has to be remembered that this Barcelona side are arguably the greatest side ever to have played the game. We can talk about Cruyff’s Barca or indeed 1970’s Brazil, but this team is something special and let’s be honest, operating at a different level to any other - certainly in the modern day.Messi's movement and Xavi's orchestration from the centre (ok, all over the pitch!) is a phenomenal spectacle!

Nik Storey: It’s hard to analyse and pinpoint any key weakness in our set up simply because Barca were so fluid in their attacks, so precise in their movement and so disciplined in their game plan execution. It is far too easy an analysis to simply state (as some have) that ‘and extra man in the middle would have enabled United to exert greater control’

James_WrittenOff: I cannot disagree with that assessment at all. It felt like we needed 12 players - 3 in centre midfield yet still with Rooney and Hernandez up front. I think our best hope may have been to have gone ultra defensive but would have left us playing for penalties and with little threat

Nik Storey: And you make a fantastic point there; the alternatives were just that: harry, tackle, run and play out the game....which simply isnt the United way, and one we were crucified for playing in Rome. 

James_WrittenOff: It is a bit scary that we are clearly number 2 or 3 in Europe yet were made to look light years behind in terms of technique and quality. They could dominate for the next three years if they stay together.

James_WrittenOff: I thought Vidic, Ferdinand and Rooney played well but struggling a touch after that for others that did themselves justice. Such a shame but not sure a fit Fletcher would have made any discernable difference despite what people were saying!

Nik Storey: Scary is the right word James! Which is again one of the reasons I had hoped Fergie would select his (and United's) strongest 11 - given that Fletcher wasnt match fit and Anderson is still not looking the player he was prior to injury - and having clearly weighed up both options (451 v 4411). Fergie decided that his best chance of victory was to focus on the hugely positive relationship between Rooney and Hernandez (one that has blossomed both at home and in Europe)

James_WrittenOff: yeah I have no problem with picking those two up front as on paper they were looking best equipped to cause problems. For me, Saturday perhaps showed why we need to replace Hargreaves and have a true defensive midfielder in the squad for certain games when required. Would not play all the time but a great option from the bench and to start in major games

James_WrittenOff: Carrick and Giggs look lightweight on paper when up against such rapier like passing and movement. But to counter that, they were the key to beating Chelsea and Schalke

Nik Storey: I can see your line of thought. Though one thing that struck me on Saturday was how were unable to stick to the pre-match instructions that Fergie and his team had clearly outlined to the players; take for example Rooney, he seemed to get carried away with the occasion at times and forgot to stay close to Busquets when without the ball. Likewise, Park was so focused at following Messi inside, both he and Evra often went with him (or Xavi for example) leaving the other one spare. For the goal, both Ferdinand and Vidic were drawn to the ball, and Pedro pulled away with ease....

Nik Storey: I could see Fergie was getting quite frustrated at times from the sidelines and rightly so - that was the most disappointing aspect to the game.

James_WrittenOff: I wonder if he thought in his mind he was happy with the tactics but that the players were unable to carry them out and were surprised just how adaptable Barca were and how they could counter anything that United tried.

James_WrittenOff: A big disappointment was the lack of threat from Valencia on the right who failed to get at Abidal at any time. A game too far for him or something else?

Nik Storey: Oh absolutely; I have no doubt as I said earlier that Fergie knew his approach would work 'theoretically', and potentially better than crowding the middle would have - and for the first 20 mins or so it worked a treat: Valencia tucking in watching Iniesta's movement; Park likewise with Alves and Messi who appeared to retreat quite often into a central right position; Evra often working alongside Vidic and Ferdinand, pressing the space in front of the backline. Barcelona were simply able to adapt as you say, and this resulted in us being even further squeezed back, Valencia thus suffered the consequences of starting so deep. 

Nik Storey: Various other things I loved watching Barcelona on Saturday: Xavi’s control of the midfield, Pedro’s opportunism and Messi’s astonishing movement both on and off the ball was a joy to behold. But away from the ‘big names’, you look at Valdes’ distribution, the timely runs of Abidal and Alves and the excellent anticipation and tackle execution of Mascherano. Full credit goes to Guardiola who has worked tirelessly to perfect the system that we see today, adding to the good work of Rijkaard before him, not to mention the unique youth development structure they pour their efforts into.

James_WrittenOff: Where do you think United go from here? What will be on Fergie's mind over the summer about how to best take on the challenges of next season?

James_WrittenOff: Midfield reinforcements the priority?

Nik Storey: Firstly I think we have to tip our hats to Sir Alex and the coaching staff (which includes Phelan!) for a stunning season – to come so close (yet admittedly so far) to a second treble is a tremendous achievement and it is testament to the faith the manager has had in his squad and in his development of some of the younger players (take the Da Silvas for example).

Nik Storey: But I do feel that Fergie will seek to refresh and replenish in the summer, with arguably Scholes' 'replacement' high on the list of priorities yes.

James_WrittenOff: Agree completely. Amazing achievement considering all the ups and downs of the season to lead United so close to such success. Very easy to forget that every fan would have taken winning 19th title and anything else would have been a bonus.

James_WrittenOff: Before we talk about Scholes, who is your pick as a replacement?

Nik Storey: Its hard to be precise with these things, I've always trusted the manager in this aspect - but I must say that Modric is a firm favourite of mine. I have said for some time that it would be a 'No.8' or regista, rather than the 'No.10' that would be highest up Fergie's priority list, so in this sense Modric - as I thought Ozil last season would - is the type of player that would complement the current midfield best I feel. Then we are perhaps a defender and a left sided player (Young?) short.

James_WrittenOff: I would definitely concur with you about Modric. Have always liked him and think he is perfect for us either in a two in centre midfield or as the attacking midfielder in a three. His link play with Rooney would be magical and I think he could end up an Old Trafford legend in time. Also think his goal scoring would improve in our team.

James_WrittenOff: As a known Berbatov fan, how would you feel if the Bulgarian was offered in a deal for Modric as has been suggested?

Nik Storey: Firstly, I not one to read too much into transfer speculation, but there is no doubt Fergie has been amazed by Hernandez's swift progression, which has reduced the chances of Berbatov in the last quarter of the season; but for me, getting rid would only create further issues - you would need to replace him, and Owen isnt the answer, and (without discussing Macheda and Diouf in depth) Welbeck can't be expected to step right in. Therefore I'd be very surprised if it was Fergie's choice (perhaps Berbatov will crave more match time) to get rid of a player - who lest we forget - has been pivotal to us retaining the title.

Nik Storey: If a straight cash deal for Modric can't be done however .....

James_WrittenOff: The problem as you say is the need for a replacement who would probably need to be experienced and would end up being £20m which seems a lot for someone who may sit on the bench a lot!

James_WrittenOff: Today has seen the announcement of the retirement of Paul Scholes although he will remain with the club in a coaching capacity. What are your thoughts on the legacy left behind by the midfield genius?

Nik Storey: As my favourite position on the football pitch, I have always revered the great central midfielders of our time; With Roy Keane and Zinedine Zidane, Scholesey goes down as one of my all time favourite players. I was hoping the rumours were not true, but alas they are, and in a way there was no better way to bow out: in a European Final against the world's best having secured that elusive 19th league title. What a man, what a professional what a truly remarkable maestro of a footballer. We'll miss him won't we?!

James_WrittenOff: Scholes will go down as one of my favourite players over the last 30 years with Robson, Keane and Cantona. Massively under valued in the UK but the true recognition of his genius are the plaudits from the great and the good of world football. A most "un-English" player and one that has created the blueprint for the modern midfielder
James_WrittenOff: To be honest, I am glad he has gone out at the top rather than when it is clear he is no longer up to it. Nothing sadder than seeing that in a legend who goes on too long. He will have a well deserved testimonial in August and I hope all the greats who have eulogised about him will turn out in appreciation.

Nik Storey: I sincerely hope so too James. Legend.

James_WrittenOff: Also, love the story that 5 Barca players had a sweepstake to see who could get Scholes shirt at end of game and Iniesta won and made a beeline for the ginger genius at the end of the game. Wonderful!

Thanks to Nik for his time discussing the game and please follow him on Twitter.

We hope to run more of these web-chats over the summer discussing various issues related to United and football in general, be sure to check Twitter for more news.

If you have any comments about related to what is contained above, please leave a message below.