Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Anderson: Story of an enigma. United's number eight

By Red Snout

It is easy to like Anderson Luís de Abreu Oliveira. He’s Brazilian and as you know dating a Brazilian has its cleansing and astringent effect. His name inspires a shriek of delight. A cheerful and deeply personable character, who, at times reminds us of that frolicking naive next door boy in blazed beige slacks and white loafers. He is the ultimate perpetrator of facile hedonism in the dressing room. Found-in-the-dustbin-played-in-the-streets background, unflagging enthusiasm, gaucho swagger, he has everything you look for in a typical Brazilian.

His football is out of kilter with everything else in a relentlessly high tempo game and its intoxicating Britishness. He was the most nerveless looking 19 year old ever to be found at the sudden death of a European cup final. There is much more to him than that, if you didn't know it already. He has done the impossible in football (see amazing video below) and thus elevated himself to immortal status in a city’s history. He is unique. He is Anderson.

But, like any other human being, he can’t hide some of his flaws. For a left footed Brazilian attacking playmaker, he’s spectacularly unspectacular. His hunchback stance, lump-in-the-throat dreadlock fetish and the air of a man in a persistent struggle to remember his own phone number do not help things one bit. As I'm sure you will agree, these things were forgivable if he delivered consistent performances week-in week-out in that red shirt. Unfortunately, for some unknown reason, he didn’t. Tantalizingly brief ascendancy followed by a string of mediocre outings has become a theme. Statistical fetish isn’t a requisite to understand that 6 goals in 132 matches is hardly flamboyant stuff from a player of his talent. Look, I’m not going hard on him, honestly not, just making a plain observation like every other United fan. Ando’s scoring boots are evidently average, and by average I mean, perennially rubbish. But unlike Carrick or Gibson, he never found himself catapulted in to Beatles-mania style level of media scrutiny or unceasing cacophony of squeals and grunts from the United faithful. Let’s be honest, if he was playing in United’s modern Dark Age (2004-06), there would’ve been a long list of fans ready to drive him to the airport themselves.

Reasons behind his quiescence are often overlooked. Anyone who knows a thing or two about football will understand the impact injuries and an undefined role in the team makes in a young football player. Setbacks like knee problems, malleolus injury, cruciate ligament rupture, a miraculously escaped car accident and a ‘mysterious virus’ were never going to do any good for a footballer’s career. Especially, if you’re a semi-formed footballer, a delicate work-in-progress still learning to embrace foreign football while possessing a language skill which can only be explained as ‘rudimentary’. There’s a plethora of Latin American footballers in Europe who might prove this theory. This might seem like an unnecessary act of gallantry to leap to the defence of a criminally under-performing footballer, but in fact this is just a subtle connotation that it’s naive to overlook certain factors like these and slag him off (which is a new trend, thanks to the Internet).

Anderson’s position in the team plays an even more substantial role in the bigger picture. Six years ago, he blew his savings on an air ticket with the hope of having a stab at making it in Europe and found a team in FC Porto that allowed him the freedom of the suburban Iberian Peninsula. On his day, he attacked with verve, looked a wonderfully elusive and subtle playmaker in his free role. One unknown Portuguese journalist summed up his game well. “Anderson acts on instinct and he doesn’t get paralyzed by thinking too much”. Though, his following comment “The new Ronaldinho Gaucho”, in hindsight, remains as one of the harshest baptisms in modern football. Things were a bit different at United. Anderson’s attacking qualities were stripped back and his role was constrained to be that of a harrier. His frills were sacrificed for an admirable ferreting and deft sense of team play. From fantasy of Iberia to linearity and physicality of Anglo-Saxon football. Like an old couple taking up the tango for the first time, this must have been a culture shock for the teenage Brazilian. Quite tragically, Anderson’s lauded displays, notably against Arsenal and in a game at Anfield, were classic ‘scurrying, tackling and harassing’ performances. I think it’s fair to say that his role was easily misconstrued or he was asked to alter his game to adapt to risk-averse English football too soon. Questionable attitude and fitness were not being much help during troubled times.

Now, after two years of stagnated growth, oddly appearing transfer mutterings and occasional edge-of-the-seat stuff, things are starting to look up for Anderson. For the first time in his United career, he completed a fine pre-season. “The lad looks like a fat 12 year old but still plays well” one of my mates opined. A partnership with Tom Cleverley, still at primitive stages, shows a lot of promise and makes him a better player with dramatic and chastening improvement in positional and defensive diligence. The way he battled the experienced carnality of Yaya Toure and De Jong, the skill of Van Der Vaart and Ramsey, and the cohesion and bustle of West Brom, with such intensity and maturity gives a lot of room for hope. So far this season, United have scored 16 goals in 4 matches, 3 of them against 3rd, 4th and 5th best teams in the country last season. Traditionally, outstanding wing play and world class strikers added with a busy and purposeful central midfield partnership looks the most potent attacking force in the country at the moment. It feels nice.

The worst possible tribute to Paul Scholes could be a decade of terribly damaging auditions for a convincing man-for-man replacement. The mere thought of a freakishly naive young Brazilian with sun glasses and shiny buttoned blazers replacing a demure ginger genius is a bit bizarre, I agree. But the wily old Scot’s belief in youth and parsimonious owner’s economy preservation suggest that Anderson could be a vital cog in this new system for the next few years. It’s a massive step. From a confused-looking-bit-part-man binge drinking in the last chance saloon to a maestro who should set up a sustaining midfield dominance. One of the most difficult endeavours in English football will be the quest to fill the Paul Scholes vacuum. Then again, that poor kid from the meagre and miserable Porto Alegre never had it easy.

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Monday, 29 August 2011

United 8 (EIGHT) Arsenal 2 - Post Match Post Mortem

Picture courtesy of @thedevilstweets
Manchester United stamped their mark of class all over the Premier League on Sunday with a sensational 8-2 victory over "rivals" Arsenal at Old Trafford.Once again, Sir Alex Ferguson entrusted his faith in his youth players as the same side (averaging just 23) took to the field after their encouraging victory over Spurs less than a week before.

Although Arsenal were ravaged by injuries and suspension, United were without many first choice regulars also and Patrice Evra's statement last year that it was "men against babies" has never felt so apt. First half goals from Welbeck, Young and a Rooney free kick put the Gunners to the sword with just a solitary Walcott strike their only crumb of comfort. Their inept first half display was neatly summed up by Van Persie's penalty when United were only a goal up. Weak and lacking in confidence or assurance, De Gea was able to plunge to his right to push away his effort much to the delight of his team mates and the Old Trafford faithful.

The final thirty minutes resembled something akin to humiliation for Arsenal as their defensive ineptitude hit new heights as wave upon wave of home side attacks were met by precious little opposition. To be fair, United's goals were of the highest order in terms of finishing but the sheer lack of fight among many of the Gunners experienced nucleus was shocking to witness. A second Rooney free kick was followed by a team goal of amazing quality finished by a cheeky Nani chip, Park got number six before a penalty brought Rooney his hat trick. The icing on the cake was added by Ashley Young in stoppage time with a wonderful curling effort when cutting in with his right foot. A Van Persie strike was barely all that Arsenal could muster as the Reds ran riot and in all honesty it could have been much worse as numerous opportunities were spurned during the game.

Post match debate

Goals Analysis
Danny Welbeck's opener - a microcosm of the game was displayed in United's first goal. With 8 players plus the keeper goal side, there really should not have been too much to worry the Arsenal rearguard as emphasised by the picture below. All the attackers look well marshalled and the threat looks something that can be contained. However, all it takes is a clip into the box from Anderson (admittedly a sublime one, similar to what Scholes was capable of) to cause havoc as Djourou is left flailing as he allows the ball to bounce and Welbeck, ever alert, steals in to nod the ball past Szczesny. Rule number one in the defenders manual states that letting the ball bounce when it is possible to meet it on the full is a recipe for disaster and so it transpired.

A simple lob over the defence leaves Arsenal flailing despite being comfortably positioned at this point in time.
Goal no 5 - I have picked out this one due to the bizarre nature of its inception and then the dazzlingly incisive break that ultimately leads to Nani finishing with ease. Rooney, in his own half, attempts a back pass that runs out of play for an Arsenal corner. The ball breaks to Evans deep in the United box who, rather than hoofing the ball up the pitch, tries to play his way out of danger. Eventually, it comes to Ashley Young who spreads the play wonderfully to the onrushing Smalling down the right with centre back Phil Jones in tandem outside him. The ball is laid inside to Rooney on the edge of the Arsenal box and here is where the Gunners rearguard lose the plot.

As the picture below shows, the three away team players are all attracted to the inherent threat of Rooney but completely neglect the obligation for at least one of them (probably Djourou in the centre) to hold their ground. This creates the space for the through ball to Nani while the defensive calamity is further exacerbated by the last man trying a ludicrous offside attempt.

Note how the Arsenal players are drawn to the ball to leave the space in behind.
All it takes is a simple pass that bypasses them all to leave Nani free to clip the ball beyond the helpless Szczesny in goal. Not one Arsenal defender is in his own box as the Portuguese player receives the ball. Suicidal defending by anyone's standards.

Just a simple pass, takes all the defenders out of the game leaving Nani with an easy finish.
Freedom of movement
A feature of United's electric start to the season has been the fluidity of the front four who have combined wonderfully to cause havoc in the opposition half in each game. At the heart of it is the pace at which they break and it is clearly very difficult to stop when in full flow. I particularly like the link up play between Young and Rooney who appear to be on the same wavelength ever since they discovered each-other at international level. At times the formation can resemble a 4-2-4 as the Reds attack from all angles and with Anderson and Cleverley supplementing the forwards with their skill and craft, it is looking a potent weapon. All of this comes in the knowledge that we are still to see Hernández at his best and with the likes of Berbatov, Valencia, Owen, Giggs and Park barely seen as yet. Unfortunately, the hamstring injury to Welbeck means that a change will have to be made and Hernández looks the likely beneficiary as his speed of thought and movement should see him seamlessly slot into place alongside Rooney.

Strength in depth
Although the scoreline demonstrated the gulf that exists between the two sides, a glance at the respective benches tells a similar story. Both teams were without numerous first choice players but United were still able to field such quality in reserve that if the game needed changing then the personnel were there and ready. Contrast this with a look at the opposition bench and you found it made up of mainly youth players, which even left some Gunners fans scratching their heads at their identity or quality. In addition, United had the following not even involved yesterday - Vidic, Rafael, Carrick, Macheda, Diouf, Valencia, Fletcher.

We saw last season how matches can turn on the introduction of a substitute and it is clear that with so many games, having a deep and talented squad is a must. With a glut of impressive youngsters in the reserve and academy sides just waiting for their chance also, the future of United looks very bright indeed.

Areas of concern
While it may sound churlish to criticise the team after such a wonderful team performance, you know that the manager will do exactly that. I was particularly concerned with the continuing inconsistency of Evra at left back who continues to frustrate with some poor decision making at times. There is little doubt that he is an excellent attacking threat down the left who has built up a lovely understanding with Young in the short space of time they have been together but at times yesterday, he was found wanting from a defensive point of view. It is also very noticeable that when he loses possession or finds himself out of position that he does not always try his best to get back to his post leaving others to cover. He has been a worry for a while now and whether it is complacency or simply being out of form, his lapses should not be tolerated for too much longer without a spell out of the team.

While both Anderson and Cleverley have been magical in tandem at the heart of the United midfield in the early stages of the season, it has been very noticeable that sizeable gaps are appearing at times that better teams than the ones we have faced will exploit. It is for this reason that I can, unfortunately, see a change coming where either Carrick or Fletcher is employed as a sentry in front of the back four to screen this area for danger which will allow either of the aforementioned creative players to supplement the attacking areas of the side.

Other notable performances
Not for the first time this season watching United, fans could marvel at the confidence, composure and footballing ability of Smalling and Jones in the Reds back four. Both are fearless competitors, good on the ball and not afraid to bring the ball out of defence when required. Evans, although he had the odd sticky moment, was solid once more while De Gea made some vital saves although will be disappointed with the Walcott effort before half time. The dive to his left to keep out a sharp Van Persie drive ably demonstrated his shot stopping capabilities as a strong wrist was used to ensure the comfortable lead was maintained.

Cleverley and Anderson were once more exciting and adventurous in the centre of midfield and thoroughly outshone their counterparts. The Englishman looks overdue a goal to me as he carries such a threat with decent shooting ability and clever one touch passing on the edge of the opponents box often finds him close to a strike at goal. Young and Rooney were mesmeric at times and Arsenal had no answer while Nani lived up to my pre-match description of being frustrating yet still incisive at times. One hopes that the two week international break to in Welbeck's favour as he looks to recover from his hamstring injury. A second goal in two games to go with his blossoming confidence augurs well for a season when he will look to establish himself as vital cog in the United machine.

Player Ratings
De Gea 7, Smalling 8, Jones 8, Evans 7, Evra 6, Nani 7, Cleverley 7, Anderson 8, Young 9, Rooney 9, Welbeck 7.
Subs: Hernández 6, Giggs 7, Park 7

United's next fixture is away at Bolton on September 10th as an international break now kicks in. The Reds will be keen to quickly recapture the momentum on their visit to the Reebok stadium as rivals City have made an equally impressive start to the campaign. As for Arsenal, it will be fascinating to see what transpires over the next few days for them. The last few days of the transfer window must see some movement from them if they are not to fall further behind their rivals in the race for the top four but you also have to worry for their fragile mental state after being humiliated by United.

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Sunday, 28 August 2011

Academy Report & Analysis: United 2 Southampton 4

United U18′s (4-4-2): Jacob; Hendrie, McCullough, Blackett, Giverin; Gorre (Wilson 53, Dalley 83), Rudge (Harrop 30), Weir, Barmby; van Velzen, Byrne. Subs not used: Coll, Ioannou.
Saints U18′s: Mowthorpe, Stephens, Young, Turnbull, O’Sullivan, Ward-Prowse, Chambers, Reed (Curtis 65), Moore, Rowe (Ariybi 70), Sinclair (McQueen 85)
  • United goalscorers (2): Turnbull (og – 12), Barmby (78).
  •  Southampton Goalscorers (4): Moore (37), Ward-Prowse (73), Stephens (76), Chambers (88).
 Match Summary
Another loss for this young United team and this time whilst there was some evidence of penetration in front of goal, at the back it was quite a horror show. The defence was exploited regularly by a very accomplished Saints outfit going forward (to be expected of a side which has produced the likes of Bale, Walcott & Chamberlain over the last few years).
First Half (1-1)
As to the interesting moments in the match, United started brightly enough and this was typified by a jinking, gliding run by the tall Van Velzen on the 8th minute, who beat a few players before moving it to his weaker foot and putting in a decent effort on goal.
There was an immediate riposte by the Saints however, as the shot-stopper extraordinaire Jacobs, kept the score level with an accomplished stop from the bright Calum Chambers; in what was a dangerous 3 v 1 situation, a sign of things to come later in the match. This sequence of non-stop action was brought to an end when United struck the first blow through a  Jordan Turnball own goal. A good run by Kenji Gorre, and a clever pass across the 6 yard area, reminiscent of Ashley Young v the Baggies caught the deflection of the young Saints defender and nestled in the back of the net.
United then failed to capitalise on the momentum with Giverin unleashing a shot cum cross across goal and Byrne who didn’t have the best of games, failing to react with the ‘toe’ needed to make it 2-0 and send the Red Devils out of sight. The failure to do that proved costly as later in the half and following several moments of quality from the Saints, with Sinclair in particular proving a handful,  Corby Moore equalised for the Saints after a neat exchange with Calum Chambers. Blackett was drawn out of position, and Moore got in ahead of the flat-footed McCulloch, to react to the cross with a first-time finish past Jacobs, sending both teams in at half-time 1-1.  
Second half (2-4)
The second half didn’t really explode into life by any means with relatively few significant efforts on goal. Rowe of Southampton wasted a good opportunity to counter attack, failing  to spot the 3 v 4 siutaion that had developed, instead choosing to linger on the ball and making matters worse with an overhit pass that went straight to Jacobs.
United then began to take control of proceedings, enjoying a comfortable spell in possession, knocking it round and probing for opportunities, with  Blackett and Van Velzen linking up to put the latter in space for a great left footed effort wide by a foot on 65th minute. However the inability to capitalise on this long spell on top proved costly as Southampton once again against the run of play, managed to score with Ward-Prowse and Sinclair reacting to the confusion in United’s area and a poor headed clearance, to produce some intricate play in and around the box to put Prowse through and finish from a tight angle with aplomb in the 73rd minute. A few minutes later, the eye-catching Stephens at right back, powered past four players in a mesmerising 70 yard run before powering it Carlos Albertoesque  into the opposite corner from just inside the box.
There was slight hope for United, when a Barmby effort aided by yet another deflection brought the score to 3-2, but just as the late goal against Pompey proved in vain, so it was to be against the Saints, with Calum Chambers topping off what was a solid display with a well-earned fourth goal, reacting well to his initial blocked header from a cross from the substitute Ariybi.
5 Things I Noticed
  1. Shot-Stopper Jacobs – He is very nimble, a decent distributor but he does have a tendency to be caught in no-mans land for aerial confrontations. He’s a young keeper so that is to be expected but if he can get his aerial game to the same level as his general shot-stopping, he looks a good prospect.
  2. Defensively Tyler Blackett – Reminds me alot of Seydou Keita in the way that he glides with the ball, he’s pretty strong in the air and possesses bite, so a very all-rounded talent, but whether he has the discipline to play at the back is questionable, as for McCulloch.. didn’t impress me, seemed cumbersome, but hopefully he has another gear in him
  3. Attacking wise Barmby got forward very well,  smart on the ball and solid player all-round. Up front, Van Velzen  once again looked dangerous, if we can partner him with a similar class of player then he will score goals at this level regularly
  4. Jack Stephens, the Saints right back looked very good but whilst he may find this level of football easy due to his superior physicality, whether he has the talent to look this good in senior football is another matter entirely.
  5. Jake Sinclair – the brother of Scott, looked very lively, not afraid to compete in the air and he could seriously burn past players, footwork is of a good level too. Look forward to seeing him again, but there are question marks on his physique.
Written By
Raees Mahmood (follow me on Twitter)

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Saturday, 27 August 2011

United vs Arsenal Big Match Preview

Manchester United will look to continue their 100% record in the Premier League when they take on Arsenal at Old Trafford on Sunday. The Reds will be fresh after a clear week while their opponents have had a tough assignment in Italy as they edged past Udinese to seal their spot in the group stages of the Champions League.

The Gunners are yet to score after their first two league games following a goalless opener away at Newcastle was succeeded by a defeat at home to Liverpool last weekend. United kicked off their campaign with a close win over West Brom before a comfortable home victory against Spurs last Monday.

This game will be the 46th one between Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger with the wily Scot prevailing 20 times to the Frenchman's 16. Before their defeat at the Emirates back in May, the Reds had won the previous seven encounters between the clubs. These statistics are courtesy of the BBC Sport website.

The Opposition
Arsenal will go into the game severely restricted in terms of squad numbers as a mix of suspension and injury takes its toll. Song, Gervinho and Frimpong are suspended after misdemeanours in the opening two league fixtures while missing though injury will be the likes of Wilshere, Gibbs and possibly Vermaelen. With the departures of Fabregas and Nasri still fresh in the memory, the Gunners will put out a makeshift central midfield with only Ramsey a recognised player in that position. With Djourou fit once again, it has been suggested that he could slot in there which is apparently where he feels may be his best position in the long term.

Their main goal threat will come from captain Robin Van Persie who opened his account for the season in midweek. Theo Walcott continues to impress and frustrate in equal measures while Arshavin is playing like a man who wishes he were in sunnier climes with Fabregas.

What is clear is that Wenger is under pressure from media and fans alike in a manner unprecedented throughout his reign with the club. The next few days could well define their season as not only do they have United to contend with but there is precious little time to supplement the quality in their squad with reinforcements as the transfer window slams shut late on Wednesday night.

United have won six of their last seven fixtures against Arsenal and in the main, these have come with the Reds adopting a 4-5-1 formation with counter attack at the heart. Memories come flooding back of Ronaldo, Rooney and Nani breaking at such speed, catching the Arsenal back line dawdling before applying a quality finish. However, this is currently a very different Arsenal. Shorn of the creativity and flair that lies at the heart of the talented trio of Wilshere, Fabregas and Nasri, the Reds will go into the game not fearing the potency of the team from the Emirates. For this reason I would expect a 4-4-1-1 formation from United that has been favoured in the opening two Premier League fixtures as they look to impose their talents on the opposition.

Central midfield will be the key battleground in the game with Anderson and Cleverley (if selected) looking to continue their blossoming partnership up against a makeshift one from Arsenal. With Rooney and occasionally Welbeck supplementing this area, the upper hand should be gained and allow United to spread the ball wide where Jenkinson and Sagna at full back can be exposed if the Gunners' wide players do not track back. Young and Nani will therefore have a large role to play and once again I would expect them to switch flanks on a regular basis.

It is likely that Jones and Evans will be given a stiffer test up against Van Persie than they were against Defoe last Monday night. They must be wary of his movement and not get caught out of position if he drops deep in search of the ball. It will then be the midfielders role to patrol the Dutchman. He can be lethal on his left foot so he must be encouraged to pass or shoot with his right as often as possible. 


The team I have gone for above is the same as was selected on Monday and I have plumped for a "if it aint broke don't fix it" philosophy from the manager. It sounds like Ferdinand is back in training and if so, then he must stand a good chance of returning but I feel another spell on the training field will do him no harm before he joins up with England next week. Vidic and Rafael are expected to be out for another month and two months respectively.

The midfield question will be whether the boss is tempted to go for experience in the likes of Giggs, Carrick and Park (who has had success against Arsenal before) or stick with the youthful vibrancy of Anderson and Cleverley. I would hope he would stick with the latter, with the old hands ready to rescue the situation from the bench if the need arises. Out wide both Nani and Young deserve to start after impressing in the early stages of the season but the fit again Valencia and the industrious Park are waiting patiently for an opportunity.

Up front, Rooney is a certainty but the identity of his partner is less so. Welbeck is the man in possession after a fine second half display against Spurs, but the sight of the returning Henández will gladden the hearts of the Old Trafford faithful after his epic debut season last year. I would envisage another bench role for the Mexican with the possibility of two matches on European soil with his national squad a useful opportunity to give him some much needed game time. The other possibility is the inclusion of Dimitar Berbatov after a watching brief in the season thus far. At the current time, he looks to be 4th choice in the pecking order for a slot up front but he will surely get plenty of opportunities in the busy campaign to come. Owen, Macheda and Diouf will all likely to be in their suits watching from the stands.

Although it was encouraging to see Darren Fletcher continue his return from the debilitating virus that has engulfed his life over the last few months, he still looked a little short in terms of match fitness although a place on the bench cannot be ruled out.

Scoreline prediction
With United in good form and well rested and Arsenal in a state of turmoil, I can only foresee one result. However, I do not think it will be quite as straightforward as some expect. It could be a frustrating afternoon at times as the Gunners look to soak up pressure from the home side but United will ultimately prevail by two goals to nil with second half goals from Young and Hernández (on as substitute) sealing the three points.

International break then follows where squad members will hope to get a game or two to supplement their fitness levels while others will remain back at Carrington. The Premier League fixtures return on September 10th with a tricky trip to Bolton.

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Friday, 26 August 2011

Episode 5 of our Man United podcast - Spurs review, Arsenal preview and more

Welcome to the fifth episode of the Can They Score podcast.

Our aim to to bring you the best in analysis of the biggest club in the world with regular guests, previews, reviews and discussion.

With Chris still away on holiday, Daniel once again stepped in as host and was joined by James and Samuel Luckhurst.

On the agenda was a look back to the Spurs game, a review of the Premier League action from the weekend, thoughts on the Champions League draw and a preview of United's match against Arsenal on Sunday.

We also answered listener questions from Shaun and Abhinhav

Press Play to listen on the site or you can download the podcast to listen later by clicking the down arrow on the right hand side

Episode 5 - Can They Score - Man United Podcast by Can They Score Podcast

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Thursday, 25 August 2011

Rio Ferdinand - Stick or Twist? Assessing his future at United.

Rio Ferdinand is entering a pivotal season in his Manchester United career. For just about the first time, his position at the club is being called into question but is this conundrum fair on a player who was once one of the world's leading defenders?

Manchester United's flying start to the season (three wins if you include the Community Shield) has been notable for the inclusion of a nucleus of younger players. They have added a vibrancy and verve to a squad still brooding on the footballing lesson handed out to them by Barcelona for the second time in three years back in May. Has their introduction to the limelight been a coincidence or is it Sir Alex Ferguson's way of attempting to rid the club of the demons from Wembley? Has the boss's patience finally snapped with some of the older, established stars in the squad and coupled with the retirement of Scholes, Van Der Sar and Neville, does he feel that it is now a case of "out with the old and in with the new"?

The pretenders to the throne of King Rio are Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Jonny Evans. The former has re-invented himself somewhat during pre-season with a switch to right back which although will be a temporary measure, will enable the former Maidstone and Fulham defender to gain much needed experience and a new perspective in the dark arts of being a defender. Phil Jones was bought from under the noses of all our main title rivals having been earmarked as a potential signing back in November 2010. The 19 year old has settled into United life almost seamlessly and looks to have all the attributes required in a modern defender. Evans has returned after a mixed spell last season saw him lose confidence. Recent showings appear to suggest he has banished the odd horror display from his system and he clearly returned in pre-season with a point to prove to the manager and fans alike.

The first inkling of a potential changing of the guard came at the curtain raiser to the new season, the Community Shield at Wembley. In a pre-planned move, Ferdinand and Vidic were withdrawn at half time despite the unjust scoreline in the favour of local rivals Manchester City. On to the pitch in their place strode Jones and Evans alongside Smalling who was already in situ at right back. Neutral observers rubbed their eyes at the potential train wreck they were about to witness. Were City about to strike a psychological dagger to the hearts of United fans thus laying down a marker that they will be more than just noisy neighbours in the league campaign to come? What transpired however, was something very different and was almost liberating to observe. With an average age of 23, this new United with Welbeck, De Gea and Cleverley supplementing the youth quota tore into a lethargic and complacent City and came away with not only the trophy but a new found confidence in their ability. But, perhaps more significantly, did it plant a thought in Sir Alex's mind that he could no longer hold back the aforementioned youthful talent?

Clearly the boss will continue to use the experienced members of our squad throughout the season as it is unlikely you will win anything with kids is it?! But from this ever decreasing list, who is most at risk? Somewhat surprisingly, I think the player with most to fear could be Rio Ferdinand.

Let us assess the evidence. In his first seven seasons at the club, he averaged nearly 44 games a season and this takes into account 2003-04 where he only managed 27 appearances thanks to his drugs ban (more of which later). In the last two seasons, he has averaged just 25 games as a series of niggling injuries have disrupted his progress and led to a significant period on the sidelines. By the sounds of it, Ferdinand suffers from a long term back condition which can flare up at any time and he is now of an age where he has to do extra training to support this ailment. His increasing years also mean he takes longer to recover from injuries and general knocks. Where in his mid 20's he could shrug off a minor niggle and still perform, nowadays it means a 2 week spell on the treatment table.

While he has always been a terrific reader of the game, his speed across the ground is not at the same level as his speed of mind. Back in his pomp, he had everything you wish for in a central defender. His one deficiency was his frequent lapses in concentration but his recovery speed was such that it usually papered over any such mistakes as observers marvelled at his ability to rescue a situation. As the recent years injuries have piled up, they look to have taken something of a toll on his speed of movement demonstrated by occasional instances of being beaten for pace by forwards such as Bellamy and Torres. The Ferdinand glide across the turf has been superseded by a slightly more laboured version which, although far from being a liability in any shape or form, has made his decision making and positioning his key attributes in recent years.

Perhaps my main cause for concern regarding the former West Ham and Leeds centre back is his increasing off-field commitments which would some would cite as an example of how he has taken his eye off the ball in the last couple of seasons. "Rio Ferdinand" the brand if you did not already know it, is in full swing. A magazine, a massive Twitter following, a record label and even a film producer role have all combined to keep the player in the public eye as he looks to his future away from football. His role as producer and financial backer of the movie "Dead Man Running" starring "actor" Danny Dyer drew widespread condemnation seeing as it appeared to promote gun crime to the very group of youngsters that he was trying to deter from such a life in his home borough of Peckham. Whilst his work in the community should be applauded, as he uses his role model status to try to teach the youth in the area right from wrong, he undid a lot of the good work he had done by being involved with this film project that flopped at the box office incidentally. The final straw for me came when he decided to bring out a range of t-shirts bearing the tiresome phrase "stay on your feet" picked up from a Ray Wilkins commentary of a Champions League tie earlier this year. To milk his impressionable fans to this extent while allegedly only giving a small proportion of proceeds to charity smacked of arrogance and exploitation.

It is well documented that Rio can be a little bit dozy at times.This is best illustrated by his infamous missed drug test in 2003 which he claimed to have forgotten to attend as he was "preoccupied with moving house and instead went shopping". His eventual eight month ban from football in January 2004 was deemed harsh in many quarters due to the precedent set by Manchester City's Christian Negouai who was fined just £2000. In reality, the City player was stuck in traffic on his way to the test while Rio was charged with "failure or refusal" to take the test. Both the FA and FIFA deemed the "offence" suitable to demand a 12 month ban but a compromise was reached that meant the player missed out on Euro 2004 into the bargain.

While certain aspects of this case could be classed as unfortunate, one of the downsides to being a professional footballer is the requirement to be regularly tested and the player disregarded this and paid a heavy penalty. The ban would no doubt have strained relations with the boss at the time as it appeared completely avoidable and robbed Ferguson of one of his key players in the run in to the end of the season. It will be why the manager will keep a close eye on his off-field activities as any indication that it is affecting his on-field performances will surely only lead to one outcome. Ferguson has showed many times over the years that he is not a man that you cross and expect to recover from. There are numerous examples over the last 25 years of this and Ferdinand will do well to watch his step, especially as he reaches an age where he may become expendable.

So that is the case for the prosecution m'lud now onto the case for the defence.You may have got the impression from my words above that I am not a Rio Ferdinand fan. This assumption is not true. As a player I am and always have been, a massive admirer of his ability and effortless poise on a football field. In some respects, he can make the game look easy as the combination of pace and his reading of the game means he is often one step ahead of his opponent.

What is indisputable is that at his best he was up there with the very best centre backs in the world. He has made 357 appearances so far for United and racked up 81 caps for England since making his debut against Cameroon back in 1997. His crowning glory as a member of the national side arguably came in the 2002 World Cup where he followed up an excellent season with Leeds with some majestic performances in South Korea. Although England inevitably fell short at the highest level, the same could not be said of the purring Rolls Royce engine installed in the Peckham born defender. This level of ability persuaded the United board to part with nearly £30 million after a protracted spell of negotiation (sound familiar?!) with Leeds chairman Peter Ridsdale.

Where I think Rio can put more of his energies off-field is in acting as a mentor for the younger defenders at the club. While there is little doubt they have all the talent and ability required to succeed at the highest level, as yet they do not have the experience. Ferdinand has suffered pretty much all of the highs and lows that football can offer and this level of know-how is very difficult to teach. Who better for Jones, Evans and Smalling to learn from than someone who has been there, done it and missed the drugs test? Whether that is by watching him from the bench or by spending time in his company talking about what it is like to live in a 24/7 goldfish bowl, it is the kind of knowledge that you cannot find just anywhere. If he was lucky enough to remain with the club over the next few years then there could be a definite "passing on the baton" scenario where the younger players are slowly immersed into the team ethos which makes any transition much smoother than simply the club cutting their ties with the player. As has been mentioned many times before, when you leave Manchester United, invariably it is a step down in your career and Ferdinand may be happy to stick around and play out his twilight years dispensing his knowledge. He does not strike me as someone who will be happy to drop down to a lower level.

However, in order to remain at the club, he must convince the hierarchy that his "Brand Ferdinand" juggernaut does not become a distraction. I see great value in Rio staying at the club for the foreseeable future for all the reasons mentioned above as the younger generation cannot be expected to carry the club on their shoulders for at least another season. What may count against him is if the number of injuries incurred continues to escalate when it comes to the business end  of the season and the manager feels that he can no longer rely on his presence. Ferguson has shown countless times in the past that he is a firm believer in the mantra that if you are good enough then you are old enough and he will not be afraid to place his faith in youth when the time is right.

My advice to Ferdinand therefore, is to #stayonhisfeet (and on his toes) and not become a "Dead Man Walking". While the youth influx at United is heart warming and a joy to behold, the plain facts of the matter are that we need Rio and most certainly his partner Vidic at the centre of our defence for the foreseeable future as the manager steers our path through the minefield that is the 2011/12 season. Do not be surprised however, if we see a lesser reliance on these two over the course of the season. Ferguson will know that he has to give youth its head and holding them back can only be counter-productive. I would expect to see games where Vidic is paired with Smalling or Jones and Ferdinand with Jones or Evans as they look to instil the United mentality deep into their soul in anticipation they will remain firmly rooted at the club for many years to come.

Do you agree with my thoughts on the future of Rio Ferdinand? Please leave your comments below and I will respond to each one.

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Tuesday, 23 August 2011

United vs Spurs - Post Match Post Mortem

The boys are back in town
United kicked off their home Premier League campaign with a 3-0 win against Spurs at Old Trafford. After a quiet first half where neither team shone to any great degree, Fergie's youngsters produced a second half display that echoed much of the verve and vibrancy shown by the same players at Wembley a few weeks ago. Goals from Welbeck, Anderson and Rooney sealed the three points against an injury hit opposition who played some neat football at times but lacked the cutting edge up front to pose too many questions of De Gea in the United goal.

Picture courtesy of The Telegraph.
The pre-match talk was of the faith shown by the management in the younger generation of squad players at the club with the likes of Carrick, Giggs and Berbatov left in reserve on the bench.The average age of the starting eleven was 23. It is also worth noting that six of the side that started were English.

Post match debate:

Welbeck goal - After a difficult first half when it appeared that he was trying just a little too hard to impress, Danny Welbeck had a storming second half, culminating in a goal and a sublime assist. The boss intimated post match that he felt the youngster was dropping too deep early on and leaving the team without a presence in the box which he quickly rectified, emphasised by his contribution in the second 45 minutes.

His goal was a fine header into the far corner of Friedel's goal but owed much to some Hernández like movement that created the space. With Smalling in possession on the right and Cleverley in close proximity, Welbeck was well marshalled in the box by Kaboul. As Cleverley accepted a pass, Welbeck made a move towards the ball before retreating toward goal which left Kaboul flat footed and there was sufficient time and space for Welbeck to angle his header confidently beyond the reach of Friedel.

Anderson goal - We are just a few weeks into the season and the goal of the season contenders are already stacking up. After the intricate passing that created Nani's goal at Wembley, the second goal last night was pure Manchester United at their best. Just 16 seconds elapsed between De Gea releasing the ball to the ever eager Young on the left hand side to the emphatic finish applied by Anderson in front of the Stretford End. This was counter attacking at its most deadly but still sublime at every stage, epitomised by Welbeck's back heel to leave Anderson with the easy finish.

Look at the space left vacant for Rooney and Anderson as Spurs are left 5 vs 5 at the back after the swift break
The speed of the counter attack had left Spurs short in numbers in defence and with a very open midfield. The picture above demonstrates this perfectly. Rooney is able to feed Anderson and allow him to drive at the heart of the Spurs back four. Welbeck creates the space by making a dart to the right which Anderson spots and plays a pass into his path. The space for Anderson to run into is caused by this move and also by Kaboul coming out from defence as he sees a free running Brazilian as the key threat on goal.

Anderson plays the pass to Welbeck and continues his run past the three Spurs defenders (circled) before finishing
What was very impressive was the determination shown by Anderson to get into the box to assist the attack in the knowledge that Welbeck was likely to have a shot on goal. The young Englishman shows vision beyond his tender years by anticipating the Anderson run with a cute back heel directly into his team mate's path. The finish looked routine but the ball was bobbling somewhat but it was finished with ease.

The picture above clearly shows how the move has ripped apart the Spurs back line with the three defenders (circled) trailing in the wake of not only Anderson but the on-rushing Rooney too.

Jones and Evans secure in defence
In years gone by, the loss of both Ferdinand and Vidic for any length of time would have sent shock-waves through the hearts and minds of the Old Trafford faithful. Those fears are no longer quite so intense based on the array of young defenders at the manager's disposal this season. Phil Jones has looked a Manchester United player for a long time before making the short move from Blackburn Rovers. Hugely impressive in all aspects of play, many observers felt that the club had got a bargain bearing in mind his age and undoubted mental and physical talents. Not for the first time, his display brought back memories of a young Paul McGrath for the all round ability he possesses. Some lazy comparisons have been made with John Terry but Jones has pace and a range of passing that the Chelsea skipper can only dream about. What he does not have just yet is Terry's experience and leadership but signs of this developing were in evidence last night as he marshalled the back line with an air of someone who has found their true footballing home.

Jonny Evans was once again secure alongside him in the heart of the defence. He looks to have regained his confidence after a difficult season last year and was sharp in the tackle while accurate with his passing. Chris Smalling continued his education in the right back slot with another composed and classy display, keeping Gareth Bale quiet for long periods while assisting Nani down the flank with regular marauding runs into opposition territory.

The emergence of this trio, all of whom can play in various positions, means that not only can the boss rest the likes of Ferdinand and Vidic from time to time this season when the fixture list allows but he is also safe in the knowledge that if they are injured for a significant length of time, there is no reason that any loss of solidity should be felt.

New season but same end result - poor delivery at corners. This was a theme that ran through the whole of last season and it looks set to continue into this. United possess such threat at set pieces that it is a shame that more work has not been done on the training ground to improve our effectiveness. Countless times last night, a corner was awarded only to lead to a short one being taken before inevitably breaking down before a cross can be made. In the few times, that a corner was played into the box, it invariably failed to clear the first man and led to a wasted trip up from the back. However, if we are in a position where ability at corners is the only  thing to complain about then we cannot be in too bad a position.

Other notable performances
Tom Cleverley was quiet in the first half (apart from a shot that was well saved by Friedel) before coming to life like a lot of his colleagues in the second half. His telepathic understanding with Welbeck was in evidence for the opener as his cross found his compatriot in the box. There is still a slight worry about his blossoming partnership with Anderson from a defensive viewpoint as at times as, like at The Hawthornes, there were plenty of gaps for Spurs to exploit. For now we will marvel in the confidence and effervescence in his play that could see him cement a place in the starting line up as the season moves on.

De Gea will be greatly relieved to record his first clean sheet of the campaign though it was not without the odd alarm. He looked confident with the shots he had to face and was never really tested in terms of crosses into the box, apart from one that he misjudged in flight and failed to take at its highest point as every goalkeeper manual tells us. His distribution was excellent once again as he often set United on their way with an astute, accurate pass.

Young and Rooney were once more very impressive while Nani seemed to mix moments of class with a careless final ball which can often sum up his contribution during the course of a match.

Player Ratings - Man of the match in bold
De Gea 6, Smalling 7, Jones 8, Evans 7, Evra 6, Nani 6, Cleverley 7, Anderson 8, Young 8, Rooney 7, Welbeck 7.

United are next in action on Sunday as they welcome Arsenal to Old Trafford and will be confident of continuing their impressive start to the season.

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Sunday, 21 August 2011

United vs Tottenham Hotspur Big Match Preview

Manchester United kick off their home Premier League campaign with a match against Tottenham Hotspur on Monday night. This will be the Londoner's opening league fixture after their game with Everton was postponed last Saturday due to the riots that took part in the capital recently. They were in Europa league action on Thursday night and brushed aside the challenge of Hearts with impressive ease despite a lengthy injury list and the continued absence of talisman Luka Modric.

United will look to build on a successful start to their title defence last Sunday when they edged past a stubborn West Brom. A worrying aspect that emerged after the game was the news that Vidic, Ferdinand and Rafael were all consigned to a period on the sidelines having picked up injuries of varying severity. It looks like Ferdinand will return a bit sooner than expected but the other two could be missing for significantly longer.

The Opposition by Greg Theoharis from Dispatches from a football sofa
It never seems to be a quiet pre-season at White Hart Lane and this year was no different with the ‘will he/won’t he’ tug of war over Luka Modric descending into an epic saga akin to a deleted scene from Gone With The Wind. It’s got to a point though where many of us, to coin a phrase ‘frankly, don’t give a damn’. If he goes, he goes. If he stays, he stays.

Of more concern is Harry’s failure to attract any notable names to the squad when other rivals, chiefly Manchester City, are spending money wantonly. His propensity for self-publicism is beginning to grate and I think many of us are preparing ourselves for his inevitable departure.

As for the season ahead, there’s no reason why we can’t challenge for another Champions League spot. The players that got us there are still around and if Harry does actually pull his finger out, Arsenal and Liverpool may just be looking over their shoulders. We’ve got some good young players coming through too. It’s whether Harry has the faith to throw them in. The Europa League should be a focus. Last season’s European exploits should stand us in good stead in that regard.

And thankfully we don’t have any of that ‘year ending in one’ nonsense to exacerbate the pressure on us.

I have a feeling that the game could well be won and lost by the effectiveness of the wide men on either side. Lennon and Bale represent a potent threat to United with their express pace and movement. Patrice Evra certainly will not look forward to facing Lennon who has given him a torrid time in previous seasons and considering he will be returning from injury, it could be a tough experience for the inconsistent Frenchman. On the other flank, Bale will be looking to recapture his form from early last season when he terrorised right backs across Europe with his direct running. Against United, he was kept in check by Rafael who used his pace and kept close by without giving him the room to turn and run.

For United, Young and Nani will fancy their chances against Walker and Assou-Ekotto whose talents lie further up the pitch in my opinion. I would expect both to try to exploit their occasional defensive positional weakness by getting in behind them after swift interchange of passing with the likes of Rooney and the midfielders.

United would also look to exploit the experimental partnership of Kranjcar and Livermore in the heart of the away side's midfield with neither particularly excelling from a defensive point of view. Redknapp will be hoping that injury victim Modric is passed fit to play as he would add another dimension to the Tottenham side. He is much admired within Old Trafford and a solid display could heap pressure on Levy to loosed a grip that has remained tight since the early part of pre-season. The home side, however, will need to keep a close eye on the movement of Van Der Vaart who will play in the space between the back and the midfield and be hard to pick up. There will be times when Evans and Jones will be tempted to step out to confront the wily Dutchman but it could lead to gaps appearing that could be fatal with Defoe busily sniffing around.


With Vidic and Ferdinand injured, the major selection headache comes in the centre of defence. I have gone for Jones and Evans based primarily on Sir Alex's press conference this morning. He would no doubt have thought long an hard over choosing Smalling to partner Jones as they dovetailed successfully for the England U21's in the summer. With the uncertainty of De Gea's early season form, it would have brought a semblance of stability and indeed familiarity to the team but Jonny Evans has had a fine pre-season and deserves his chance. It also keeps Smalling at right back where he has been so impressive in recent weeks. He will need to be on his toes as he will be up against Gareth Bale who, if on his game, can trouble any full back. On the left, I would expect Evra to return after missing the West Brom match due to injury.

Michael Carrick would presumably have had a full week of training so I would expect him to return in the centre of midfield with the excellent Cleverley dropping down to the bench. Anderson gets another chance to shine after a solid start to the season where he will be looking to maintain recent consistency to add to his undoubted talent. Monday will be a good opportunity, bearing in mind the injuries Spurs have in the centre, to stamp his authority onto a big game, something that has mostly eluded him since he arrived.

With the wide men in such good form, the likes of Park and Valencia (when he returns) will have to bide their time from the bench. Nani and Young have looked threatening on either flank and will be the suppliers in chief to my predicted front line of Rooney and Berbatov. Although Welbeck has performed admirably both last weekend and at Wembley, he noticeably tired as the games progressed so a watching brief from the bench will do him no harm. Another option could be to play Park on the left and move Young inside but I would view this as unlikely.  

Score Prediction
Bearing in mind that Spurs have some injury problems in midfield and at the back, I am going to go for a comfortable 3-1 United win. Their lack of Premier League action will also count against them as the intensity may be a shock after just pre-season and an outing against Hearts. My guess on goal scorers is Evans, Rooney and Young with Defoe scoring for Spurs.

A big thanks to Greg for his insight into Spurs as they move into the new season. You can catch more of his excellence on his wonderful blog Dispatches from a football sofa by clicking this link and follow him on Twitter.

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Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Slow out of the blocks? – A look at Manchester United’s Premiership starts

By Daniel Alston

“Manchester United are typically slow starters,” is often heard as each campaign starts, if the Reds stutter into gear and then find themselves a bit behind those at the top of the league. “They always come good in the second half of the season,” usually follows and when those seasons have ended with a title or a podium finish as they consistently have in the Premiership era, perhaps that has become something of a certified assumption.

Although they emerged victorious on Sunday at West Brom, it was a somewhat fortuitous result given the nature of the second goal and the fact that for all the attacking energy in the team, only one shot on target was registered.

But do United really start campaigns as badly as people make out? Do our memories play tricks, convincing us that Fergie’s men only truly perform after Christmas? Have Cantona, Hughes, Cole, Sheringham, Ruud, Rooney & co all only found their shooting boots in the ‘business end of the season’? Or are United just guilty of a few starts short of their typical efficiency? The 95/96 season where Alan Hansen wrote off their title chances after an opening day defeat to Aston Villa sticks in the mind.
You'll win nothing with kids will you Mr Hansen?
Despite the low number of points required to top the Premiership last year, it is difficult to argue that the league is becoming harder and harder to win. Whether that be the improving quality of the ‘lower teams’ and their growing capability/belief in taking points off the big boys, or the contrasting view that the elite teams have weakened in recent years, United certainly have more competition than ever before.

So with a serious challenge from neighbours City, a revitalised Liverpool, a Chelsea now full of youth on the sidelines if not on the pitch and no one – including Arsene Wenger – quite knowing how Arsenal will perform this year, do a Manchester United in semi-transition need to hit the ground running in order to capture title number 20?

Let’s class the ‘start of the season’ as the first 6 league games. Below are the results from those fixtures for each season, complete with possible points obtained, league position after that stage, followed by end-of-season comparison stats.

2010/11: Newcastle (W:3-0), Fulham (D:2-2), West Ham (W:3-0), Everton (D:3-3), Liverpool (W:3-2), Bolton (D:2-2).
P6-W3-D3-L0 / F16-A9 / Pts 12 out of 18 = 67%. Pos: 2nd.
Season total points: 80 out of 114 = 70%. F78-A37. Pos: 1st.

2009/10: Birmingham (W:1-0), Burnley (L:0-1), Wigan (W:5-0), Arsenal (W:2-1), Tottenham (W:3-1), Man City (W:4-3).
P6-W5-D0-L1 / F15-A6 / Pts 15 out of 18 = 83%. Pos: 2nd.
Season total points: 85 out of 114 = 75%. F86-A28. Pos: 2nd.

2008/09: Newcastle (D:1-1), Portsmouth (W:1-0), Liverpool (L:1-2), Chelsea (D:1-1), Bolton (W:2-0), Blackburn (W:2-0).
P6-W3-D2-L1 / F8-A4 / Pts 11 out of 18 = 61%. Pos: 6th.
Season total points: 90 out of 114 = 79%. F68-A24. Pos: 1st.

2007/08: Reading (D:0-0), Portsmouth (D:1-1), Man City (L:0-1), Tottenham (W:1-0), Sunderland (W:1-0), Everton (W:1-0).
P6-W3-D2-L1 / F4-A2 / Pts 11 out of 18 = 61%. Pos: 1st.
Season total points: 87 out of 114 = 76%. F80-A22. Pos: 1st.

2006/07: Fulham (W:5-1), Charlton (W:3-0), Watford (W:2-1), Tottenham,(W:1-0), Arsenal (L:0-1), Reading (D:1-1).
P6-W4-D1-L1 / F12-A4 / Pts 13 out of 18 = 72%. Pos: 2nd.
Season total points: 89 out of 114 = 78%. F83-A27. Pos: 1st.

2005/06: Everton (W:2-0), Aston Villa (W:1-0), Newcastle (W:2-0). Man City (D:1-1), Liverpool (D:0-0), Blackburn (L:1-2).
P6-W3-D2-L1 / F7-A3 / Pts 11 out of 18 = 61%. Pos: 6th.
Season total points: 83 out of 114 = 73%. F72-A34. Pos: 2nd.

2004/05: Chelsea (L:0-1), Norwich (W:2-1), Blackburn (D:1-1), Everton (D:0-0). Bolton (D:2-2), Liverpool (W:2-1).
P6-W2-D3-L1 / F7-A6 / Pts 9 out of 18 = 50%. Pos: 8th.
Season total points: 77 out of 114 = 68%. F58-A26. Pos: 3rd.

2003/04: Bolton (W:4-0), Newcastle (W:2-1), Wolves (W:1-0), Southampton (L:0-1), Charlton (W:2-0), Arsenal (D:0-0).
P6-W4-D1-L1 / F9-A2 / Pts 13 out of 18 = 72%. Pos: 3rd.
Season total points: 75 out of 114 = 66%. F64-A35. Pos: 3rd.

2002/03: West Brom (W:1-0), Chelsea (D:2-2), Sunderland (D:1-1), Middlesbrough (W:1-0). Bolton (L:0-1), Leeds (L:0-1).
P6-W2-D2-L2 / F5-A5 / Pts 8 out of 18 = 44%. Pos: 10th.
Season total points: 83 out of 114 = 73%. F74-A34. Pos: 1st.

2001/02: Fulham (W:3-2), Blackburn (D:2-2), Aston Villa (D:1-1), Everton (W:4-1), Newcastle (L:3-4), Ipswich (W:4-0).
P6-W3-D2-L1 / F17-A10 / Pts 11 out of 18 = 61%. Pos: 3rd.
Season total points: 77 out of 114 = 68%. F87-A45. Pos: 3rd.

2000/01: Newcastle (W:2-0), Ipswich (D:1-1), West Ham (D:2-2), Bradford (W:6-0), Sunderland (W:3-0), Everton (W:3-1).
P6-W4-D2-L0 / F17-A4 / Pts 14 out of 18 = 78%. Pos: 1st.
Season total points: 80 out of 114 = 70%. F79-A31. Pos: 1st.

1999/2000: Everton (D:1-1), Sheff Wed (W:4-0), Leeds (W:2-0), Arsenal (W:2-1), Coventry (W:2-1), Newcastle (W:5-1).
P6-W5-D1-L0 / F16-A4 / Pts 16 out of 18 = 89%. Pos: 1st.
Season total points: 91 out of 114 = 80%. F97-A45. Pos: 1st.

1998/99: Leicester (D:2-2), West Ham (D:0-0), Charlton (W:4-1), Coventry (W:2-0), Arsenal (L:0-3), Liverpool (W:2-0).
P6-W3-D2-L1 / F10-A6 / Pts 11 out of 18 = 61%. Pos: 5th.
Season total points: 79 out of 114 = 69%. F80-A37. Pos: 1st.

1997/98: Tottenham (W:2-0), Southampton (W:1-0), Leicester (D:0-0), Everton (W:2-0), Coventry (W:3-0), West Ham (W:2-1).
P6-W5-D1-L0 / F10-A1 / Pts 16 out of 18 = 89%. Pos: 1st.
Season total points: 77 out of 114 = 68%. F73-A26. Pos: 2nd.

1996/97: Wimbledon (W:3-0). Everton (D:2-2), Blackburn (D:2-2), Derby (D:1-1), Leeds (W:4-0), Notts Forest (W: 4-1).
P6-W3-D3-L0 / F16-A6 / Pts 12 out of 18 = 67%. Pos: 1st.
Season total points: 75 out of 114 = 66%. F76-A44. Pos: 1st.

1995/96: Aston Villa (L:1-3), West Ham (W:2-1), Wimbledon (W:3-1), Blackburn (W:3-1), Everton (W:3-2), Bolton (W:3-0).
P6-W5-D0-L1 / F15-A8 / Pts 15 out of 18 = 83%. Pos: 1st.
Season total points: 82 out of 114 = 72%. F73-A35. Pos: 1st.

1994/95: QPR (W:2-0), Notts Forest (D:1-1), Tottenham (W:1-0), Wimbledon (W:3-0), Leeds (L:1-2), Liverpool (W:2-0).
P6-W4-D1-L1 / F10-A3 / Pts 13 out of 18 = 72%. Pos: 3rd.
Season total points: 88 out of 126 = 70%. F77-A28. Pos: 2nd.

1993/94: Norwich (W:2-0), Sheff Utd (W:3-0), Newcastle (D:1-1), Aston Villa (W:2-1), Southampton (W:3-1), West Ham (W:3-0).
P6-W5-D1-L0 / F14-A3 / Pts 16 out of 18 = 89%. Pos: 1st.
Season total points: 92 out of 126 = 73%. F80-A38. Pos: 1st.

1992/93: Sheff Utd (L:1-2), Everton (L:0-3), Ipswich (D:1-1), Southampton (W:1-0), Notts Forest (W:2-0), Crystal Palace (W:1-0).
P6-W3-D1-L2 / F6-A6 / Pts 10 out of 18 = 56%. Pos: 6th.
Season total points: 84 out of 126 = 67%. F67-A31. Pos: 1st.

*Seasons 1992/93, 93/94 and 94/95 were when the Premiership was home to 22 teams and United played 42 fixtures. Stats have been adjusted accordingly.

The average percentage of total points amassed over the 19 Premiership seasons by Manchester United is 72%. For the first 6 games, the average percentage of points they won equates to a slightly lower 69%.

In 9 of the 19 seasons, United won a greater percentage of the points available in their first 6 games than those for the whole season. These moments are highlighted.

In some seasons, United have lacked in goals at the onset and conceded more than expected (lowest GF:4 in 2007/08 = just 5% of season total in 16% of season’s games). Yet their Goals For column over the first 6 games is on average only 1% lower than at the end of the respective season. Conversely, the Goals Against column is only 1% higher. Thus, it could be argued, there is little difference to United’s attack or defence in August than for the following 9 months.

Returning to the Hansen moment cited earlier, United went on to win their next five matches – something that isn’t as well recalled as the 3-1 defeat to Villa. Yes, United have had some faltering openings. But even some of their worst (56% of points in 92/93, 44% in 02/03) have fronted title-winning seasons. On the other hand, some of their best (89% of points in 97/98, 83% in 09/10) have been runners-up years.

A lot can be learnt over the first half dozen games of a season, but rarely does it paint a true picture of how events will unfold. United average a table position of 3rd after their first 6 fixtures, a position they have finished three times, but never a place lower.

So United may be slow out of the blocks on occasion, not only by their own standards, but also in respect to the league table mid-September. Used to topping it by May, their position is little more than a guide stick in the first few months. Sir Alex may be best at getting results out of his side during ‘squeaky bum time’, but you have to be in the mix for that to even matter. A flying start, it would seem, is little more than a bonus to aiding the process.

Perhaps pre-season predictions and short odds on United as title favourites almost every year have led many to be disappointed if they don’t come away with six straight victories - something they have yet to do in Premiership dawns. Regardless, the saying that United are slow starters is not exactly a myth, but neither is it as much of a trait as conceived. Each season is different and with the Red Devils clear favourites with the bookies once more, anything other than a near-flawless start will sound those familiar misguided echoes.

After that win at the Hawthorns, Manchester United’s first 6 fixtures this time around are completed by: West Brom (A), Tottenham (H), Arsenal (H), Bolton (A), Chelsea (H) and Stoke (A). As the average points recouped for that first half dozen over the years equals somewhere between 12 and 13, I’ll be more than happy with 2 home wins and the remaining 3 as draws, thank you. Hopefully we’ll have a better away record than last year, but I’d be quite happy to go another season at Old Trafford unbeaten. In addition, taking points off Arsenal and Chelsea will be as important as ever.

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