Friday, 30 March 2012

United's top transfer target - a Hazard not to be avoided

By Jonas Giæver

Eden Hazard. A man whose name spells both divine intervention and horrific misfortune. Blessed with speed, trickery, bravery and willingness to spur his team ahead, he's sure to be one of those players you'd remember if you ever watched him play. “The boy's a bit special” is an expression used in Britain about certain young footballers who manage to captivate crowds and hold them in the palm of their hand. Welcome to the garden of Eden.

Much like yourselves I noticed Hazard from both playing Football Manager, and watching his surging runs and excellent trickery on YouTube. Having been tricked into believing that Kerlon (the player known for his seal dribbling a few years back) was the greatest thing since sliced bread some time ago, I decided to check hm out. I was left in awe. Not only did Hazard bring an exciting repertoire of tricks and skills, he also made use of them like no other player I've seen in recent history. He passed defenders like they were cones on a training field, played low crosses into the box, or fired off with both his left and his right. He was an absolute phenomenon.

Normally placed on either the left or the right wing, Hazard enjoys to wander a lot into the center, and often switches wings with the player on the opposite side. What often peaks my attention is Hazard's understanding of the game, and how it has developed over the years. From having been labeled a “smaller copy of Cristiano Ronaldo”, Hazard has certainly shown that there's more to his game than just a million step-overs and an attitude. He leaves defenders for dead at his own will, he cuts into the box, he flicks the ball into the path of a fellow team while splitting the defence open. What amazes me is that you can compare him to so many players. He's got the flair and finesse of a Cristiano Ronaldo, the sheer drive and determination of a Lionel Messi, and he's quickly developing the vision and passing abilities of David Silva. Saying that he's as good as them would be an over-exaggeration worthy of an award, but he certainly has the potential to become as good as those players mentioned. Going back to where he enjoys playing, it seems that he's more suited as a winger coming in from either the left or the right and receives the ball with momentum at his back before he rushes on to the nearest defender. The real threat about Hazard, I think, is that you never have any idea what he's going to do. He can play the defence-splitting pass, cross the ball both high and low, take you on, or blast one into the top corner. Much like his surname often proves, you have absolutely no idea how it will strike and what the effect of it is going to be. All you know is that it's going to hurt you one way or another.

The downside to Hazard is that he needs to get going early on in matches for him to have a good game. I mentioned his momentum, and that speaks volumes about him as a player. If he's tackled hard early on in the game, or his defenders leave him no space, he often seems to hit a bad spell and commits more errors in attack than what he'd usually do. This is certainly something that comes with his tender age of 21, but certainly something that he needs to better. I'd also like to point out his physique as something that hasn't impressed me a lot. He plays in a fairly physical league and has done well there, but I do believe that if he was to make a serious impact in England, with his style of playing, he'd need to put on a few pounds of muscle. In that regard you can compare to a certain Portuguese who had to overcome the same obstacle.

In terms of where he'd fit in at United I believe the claims made by Dimitar Berbatov's agent, Emil Danchev, says it all; Ferguson wants to build a team based on pace. Hazard offers that in terms of how he handles the ball, but also in terms of his quick orientation on the pitch. The latter being something he can still work on, a counter attack led by Eden Hazard with a bursting Rooney through the middle and a Nani/Antonio Valencia coming in from one of the sides would be nothing short of intimidating against any team. Hazard's ability to interchange positions in attack would also give United a whole variety in terms of unpredictability. Let’s say Rooney would feature behind Welbeck with Hazard on the left and Nani on the right. All those four players could, to some degree, play in every one of those four positions up front. That will keep defenders guessing, and keep United's attacking options limitless. Not to mention how much quality you'd have in regards to pace, firepower, drive and the ability for one of those four to create a moment of magic and win United the game. However, there have been some rumblings about Ferguson wanting Hazard to feature in a deeper role, slotting into the role now occupied by Paul Scholes. I'm led to believe that Ferguson sees Hazard as a replacement for the Paul Scholes who'd penetrate the box and come high upfield with the ball. That would ruin much of Hazard's game. He loves to wander across the pitch, but his level of understanding the game, as well as his passing range, is not good enough to occupy the center of United's midfield. Though it is an interesting thought, it gives me flashbacks to the time Anderson, then playing a trequartista-type role at Porto, was brought in in an attempt to recreate the box-to-box midfielder United had looked for since Roy Keane. As much as it is an interesting thought, spending £30-35m on a player whose main qualities are further up the pitch would seem absolutely clueless.

To sum it up quickly; Hazard will become a superstar in a few years. The definite potential and drive won't allow him to become any less. His speed, his ability to pass defenders with ease, his trickery, understanding of the game and slowly improving passing range would offer United a whole new dimension in attack. However, he's a “streaky” player, meaning he needs to stay hot in order to create something. He goes missing if he's not involved, and if pressured off the ball. As mentioned, at the age of 21, that is something he'll be able to eradicate as he becomes more experienced. He'd certainly be a handful if signed by Sir Alex. It's also worth mentioning that Hazard has labeled United a club “he'd be very interested in” should the chance arrive, and was humbled by Ferguson's appearance as Lille played Lyon at the Stade de Gerland. “It's an honor being watched by one of the best, if not the best, managers in the world.” There may be some hurdles in the way, but if he was to sign, it would prove hazardous for defenders across England, and could ultimately lead to Old Trafford being labeled “the Garden of Eden”.  

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.

Unsung Heroes #4 - Nicky Butt

Introducing a new series to Written Offside called "Unsung Heroes" where the great and the good of Twitter reveal the Manchester United players who largely crept under the radar of publicity yet arguably had as much impact on the success of the club as the more exciting names.

In our fourth instalment, the subject is Nicky Butt chosen by RedSnout 

Picture courtesy of The Telegraph
Being born in the very late 80's meant that my earliest, and most effusive, football memories coincided perfectly with a period when United were dominating the football scene in the country. It was also a period that saw a soaraway maturation of a crop of burgeoning talents who later known as Fergie's fledglings. Obviously there were setbacks and shrieks but they didn't bother me much. I was not only too young to appreciate what fine footballers Ince and Kanchelskis were, but was also too infantile to wallow in despair after their premature exits from the club. United were enigmatic in the extreme and filled my childhood with an endless stream of joy. Edge-of-the-seat stuff week-in week-out from some of the most breathtaking footballers ever to grace this game. But now looking back, I feel, in all the excitement, whilst appreciating many, I may have overlooked the significance of an unfettered, icy-veined ginger lad then. No, not Paul Scholes. Nicky Butt.

Nicky Butt is a strange character and, in some ways, a persona that exudes mystery. He may have spent thirteen trophy-laden years at the club he supported as a boy, but no one can be adamant that the twitching remains of his legacy still persist there. There are no banners or memorials at Old Trafford that glorify his footballing deeds. Rarely, if ever, would you see someone in a retro replica shirt having Nicky Butt written on the back of it. He doesn't visit any fan's everyday chats often. Never in last few years have you read an article saying United could do with a player in the mould of Nicky Butt. Heck, if you're asked to pick your favourite Nicky Butt moment, the response, more than likely, will be a long, stretched pause. Don't get me wrong, it's not the fact that his mystique is still not around the club that makes him mysterious, but it's the fact that no one seems to bother about it. A player who's won as much as him isn't supposed to be like this. He should be esteemed and talked about.

Nicky, a born and bred Mancunian, a regular match-goer with uncle Billy in his childhood days, joined United as a trainee in July 1991. A member of youth cup winning team of '92, he was hailed as one of the kids that can fulfil the long-instilled longing of fans for home-grown talents. Though made his debut in November '92, the enthralling success of Ince- Keane partnership meant 'The Guv'nor' of reserve team had to wait till '95-96 to get a regular run in the team. Post-Ince era, Butt was proved to be a crucial player in the two following title winning seasons, made more appearances than Roy Keane in both. He also ably replaced the Irish colossus when the latter did his knee ligaments at Elland road in September '97 and missed the rest of the season. In the absence of suspended Keane and Scholes, Butt was the only recognised central midfielder given a start in the '99 European cup final against Bayern; an indication of manager's trust in his defensive diligence and discipline. It's easy to forget, in all the nostalgic euphoria, that German champions couldn't score from open play that night. Nicky continued to be a valuable member of squad in the early part of century before moving to North East in '04 when his position was taken by Djemba-Djemba, Kleberson and youth product Darren Fletcher. A United career expanding over a decade, decorated with plenty of honours. Loyalty and commitment never in doubt. Nicky Butt, a United hero? Um... Well.. not really.

So what is it about Nicky Butt that leaves him so ill-appreciated by the wider section of supporters? It's facile - not to mention impossible - to offer an answer to that, but it is worth thinking about. Nicky Butt, in retrospect, spent his entire career being a consummate stand-in. United almost, almost didn't miss Keane when he was injured or Scholes when he was out or Ince after he left because of this lad. May be, there lieth the problem. Nicky Butt always had huge huge boots to fill early in his career and as a result he never really had an identity of his own, certainly not of the magnitude of Ince or Keane's. In many ways, Butt was a back-up even when he was a regular starter. Then there is the notion of personality. He had none of the raging ego of Ince or the relentless desire of Keane. He didn't really have the insouciance Paul Scholes either. He had, instead, an almost machine-like grace, in the sense that there was nothing overtly heroic, raucous or surprising about him. A self-conserving but selfless, soft-edged character calmly accepting of the fates, whether they swing for him or against. You want your heroes to be a genius or an eccentric, or both. Nicky Butt was neither of them.

The way he played his football had its blemishes too. Nicky played in the least fashionable position on the pitch with minimum fuss. Stress told on his face and gestures regardless of the situations. Even when he was playing brilliantly, the grimace of distress on his face made it look it's all a bit struggle out there. Unable to offer anything that looks more than functional, he struggled to excite the imagination, even of the utmost pragmatists in the gallery. Moreover, the surrealist form he showed in reserves was abandoned in favour of utilitarianism for the first XI. It's not difficult to imagine that if he had played cricket, he probably would have played it like Shivnarine Chanderpaul. The shivery-looking West-Indian doesn't possess the brooding aura of Viv Richards or the sudden, absurd and outlandish lurches into genius that Brian Lara can provide but he, somehow, does his job rather effectively without tickling anyone's aesthetic sense. Nicky Butt, when compared to Keane and Scholes, wasn't much different.

Picture courtesy of here
I'm in no way suggesting that an enigmatic/eccentric personality or an enchanting playing style is a pre-requisite for being a cult icon. For some players, it only takes a few spectacular incidents in their career or life. But, sadly, that's where Nicky Butt falls really short. His career graph is devoid of any kind of epic curves or troughs of a hero. There were no career threatening injuries and miraculous comebacks, or onerous controversies to please any jaundiced journalist. Grabbing-games-by-the-scruff-of-the-neck was never his forte. He didn't score an injury-time winner at rival's backyard or a wonder goal to keep any dream alive. His best goal came in a 4-0 routine trouncing of Sunderland '00. Arguably his most important goal came in a 2-all draw against Liverpool '95, a game of little importance barring the rivalry factor. The players he tried to pick on in the tunnel and on the pitch were Pascal Chimbonda and Micah Hyde, not Vieira and Shearer. Put simply, his story was one of discernible banality and a tinge of mediocrity.

It's not that he was a mediocre player, far from it actually. An irrepressible but startlingly mature box-to-box midfielder in younger days and an extremely organised centre midfielder later, Nicky Butt was aptly described as a "good, honest soldier you can always rely on" by Ferguson. In a country where only Hollywood passers with the positional sense of blindfolded drunk are revered, he'd still managed to forge a respectable international career. In many ways he had a football career that millions of footballers would dream of. It's just that this lingering concern that the perception of his talent did not always correspond to how good he really was. One would like to think that, if Nicky had done exactly the same job, but snarled like a maniac and ripped Ray Parlour a new one while he did it, things might have been a lot different. A lot different.

If you would like to read the previous posts in the Unsung Heroes series, please click here.

What was your opinion of Nicky Butt? Please leave your comments in the box below.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Unsung Heroes #3 - Henning Berg

Introducing a new series to Written Offside called "Unsung Heroes" where the great and the good of Twitter reveal the Manchester United players who largely crept under the radar of publicity yet arguably had as much impact on the success of the club as the more exciting names.

In our third instalment, the subject is Henning Berg as selected by Samuel Luckhurst who is a Huffington Post sports editor/reporter.

After the delirium of the final three minutes at Camp Nou came the celebration. United’s Treble hegemony had begun and the players – some whose hunger had been sated – savoured the history they had made.

Each squad member requested silence from the Red Army and would then loft the European Cup skywards. Andrew ‘Andy’ Cole’s request was interrupted by his ‘He gets the ball and scores a goal’ ditty, Peter Schmeichel, poseur extraordinaire, feigned lifting it whilst David May sought to appear in every image.

The squad then formed a guard of honour for two players not forgotten amidst the carnival. The suspended Paul Scholes and Roy Keane, each clutching one of the cup’s handles, arguably drew the loudest applause. Lurking behind them however, was a forgotten man. Henning Berg was passed the trophy and merrily hoisted it, yet predictably the cheers subsided.

Many forget that Berg missed out on a squad berth in Barcelona. Scholes and Keane, silk and steel, drew so much attention for their yellow cards in Turin and afflicted Ferguson’s selection process for the final that the Norwegian’s absence through injury wasn’t considered pivotal.

Yet it was. Had Berg been fit then he may have slotted into defence alongside Jaap Stam, enabling Ronny Johnsen, immaculate in defence or midfield, to partner Nicky Butt with David Beckham and Ryan Giggs providing width. Instead Ferguson was posed with a midfield quandary (rare back then, unlike now) which he never solved even during the final.
Picture courtesy of
Signed the previous season from Blackburn, Berg’s steadiness and organisational skills were a welcome antidote to a defence that was as leaky as the present United sans Nemanja Vidic. His compatriot Johnsen had already made waves in his first campaign, but with the Bruce-Pallister axis ended and with the latter’s United career coming to an end, Ferguson sought continental savvy.

A bargain £400,000 signing from Lillestrøm, Berg won the 1995 Premiership with Rovers and featured in the club’s forgettable foray into the Champions League, best remembered for David Batty and Graeme Le Saux’s spat. The foreigner rule had since been abolished by Uefa, so British citizenship no longer presented an issue for Ferguson after the smarting experience in 1994/95.

Had it not existed then it is safe to assume that May, another acquisition from Ewood Park, would never have pulled on a red shirt. Vital goals against Middlesbrough and Porto aside, the boyhood City fan rarely resembled the prerequisites of a United player in his nine years (yes, that long). Berg, on the other hand, was cultured, deceptively quick, a recognised international and adept at right-back as well as at the heart of defence.

Peculiarly though, he only started three matches alongside Johnsen in his debut season when it appeared to be the natural partnership. Ferguson, displaying sentimentalism even back then, showed blinding loyalty towards Pallister, whose back problems were taking a detrimental toll on the team in his final season.

As Pallister returned to Teesside in 1998, Ferguson splashed out £10.75m on Jaap Stam; a then-world record fee for a defender. The Scandinavian centre-back pairing, never given a genuine chance to showcase its credentials, was now disrupted by a Dutchman.

Decent season though Berg had in 1997/98, was just the second campaign in the Ferguson era that United hadn’t won a trophy since the 1990 FA Cup win. Injuries, most adversely to Johnsen, Peter Schmeichel and Ryan Giggs, as well as the void of the retired Eric Cantona, saw the arrivals of Stam, Jesper Blomqvist and Dwight Yorke in 1998.

Berg would make just 10 league starts that season – less than half of the previous campaign – but like most members of the 1998/99 squad, he holds a signature moment that he is instantly synonymous with.

The Champions League contained just 24 sides back in the late 90’s. The last eight consisted of the group winners and the two best runners-up, and United prevailed from the grim reaper of deathly clusters to face Internazionale in the last eight.

There was the hysteric build-up focusing on Beckham and Diego Simeone meeting again for the first time since the 1998 World Cup, the pinpoint crosses from the Brylcreem Boy and the Yorke headers in a fabulous first half at Old Trafford. But for the remaining three-quarters of the tie Inter were mostly camped in United’s half.

The 20-year-old Nicola Ventola, on at half-time for the not-so-divine ponytail Roberto Baggio at Old Trafford, started causing problems with his movement on the shoulder of the defensive line. Schmeichel had already provided one of his greatest saves to deny Ivan Zamorano, but the Nerazurri, now accustomed to the frenetic pace, were dictating play.

Simeone had a goal dubiously disallowed from a corner and Schmeichel then denied Ventola one-on-one. United were on the cusp of not conceding – a rare feat that term – but then Ventola escaped the offside trap and Stam to draw another save from Schmeichel, only for the ball to fall to Francesco Colonese.
Adroitly, the Italian sold the onrushing Dane a dummy to round him before firing at goal. Berg, however, had identified the danger and raced back on to the line, slid out his left leg and blocked the goal-bound shot to deny the Milanese side a valuable away goal. The roar from the Scoreboard End was louder than most goals scored that season, whilst that black and white digital on-screen graphic which signals a programme is coming to an end was on display. It was that crucial.

He was rewarded with a start at San Siro three weeks later as Ferguson dropped Scholes to promote Johnsen to anchorman duties alongside Keane, with Berg beside Stam. However Inter were relentless from the first whistle and dominated.

A half-baked Ronaldo, preferred ahead of Youri Djorkaeff, Baggio and Zamorano provided the mercurial forward line, but time and again were thwarted by Berg and Stam. Zamorano had a penalty appeal overlooked, whilst Javier Zanetti’s stroked effort hit the woodwork. The most outstanding renunciation was to come though.

Drifting into the right channel, Zamorano delivered a cross addressed for Simeone’s head, with the lead on the night seemingly a fait accompli. Only neither South American reckoned on the brilliance of Berg, who scuppered chances of halving the aggregate deficit with an extraordinary scissor-kick, leaving the Argentine in a heap in the goal’s netting.

Eventually Inter breached United after 153 minutes over the two legs, courtesy of Ventola via an uncharacteristic Keane error, but Berg’s colossal display those two legs saved face. Yes, Ze Elias missed a gilt-edged chance to level the tie with eight minutes remaining, but Scholes’ match point goal six minutes later was endemic of United that glorious campaign. And Berg, the forgotten man that night in Catalonia, deserves to be remembered for the part he played.

Please leave any comments below and feel free to recommend this post on Facebook.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

United vs WBA - Instant Impressions & Player Ratings

Manchester United took on West Brom at Old Trafford on Sunday in a vital match in the Barclays Premier League. The Reds prevailed 2-0 in a generally comfortable victory with two goals from Rooney.

Here are my early thoughts on the game straight after the final whistle:

First Half
  • Some quality flowing football in the first half without calling Foster into action 
  • Evans and Ferdinand have developed a solid partnership in the absence of Vidic
  • Ashley Young a constant threat down the left although often lacking in an end product
  • Scholes and Carrick show importance of their influence after lack of control in that area on Thursay
Second half

  • Pogba is staying! The boy has clearly come to his senses. Classic Fergie to give him a cameo role
  • Welbeck has had a fine season but sometimes gives the impression he tries to hard to impress. Consistency will come with experience
  • Hernandez much better outside the box and unlucky not to score
  • Rooney the director of operations on the pitch. Inventive and incisive.
  • Could be a pivotal day in the title race with City losing. Can they handle the pressure as the climax of the season draws near.
Player Ratings:

De Gea - 7
Jones - 6
Evans - 7
Ferdinand - 7
Evra - 6
Welbeck- 6
Scholes - 6
Carrick - 6
Young - 7
Rooney - 8 
Hernandez - 7

Subs - Pogba - 7, Cleverley - 6

What are your thoughts on the game and the player performances? Please continue the debate by leaving a comment below.

Friday, 9 March 2012

5 things we learned from the game vs Athletic Bilbao

1) David De Gea is a brilliant keeper and growing in confidence with each match.

2) Athletic Bilbao were a joy to watch.

3) Manchester United cannot pass the ball and do not possess the technique to cope under pressure.

4) Rafael is prone to losing concentration.

5) Watching United can be painful.

That is all. 

Thank you for visiting. 

Now leave me a comment.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Transfer Target: the playmaker United require?

By  Jonas Giæver (Follow me on Twitter)

As a Norwegian, I'm raised with not thinking too much of my fellow Scandinavians. Sure, we do support them when we're not in it to win ourselves, but there's a rivalry there that we're all familiar with. That goes away when watching Christian Eriksen. There has been a while since I've seen such a fantastic young player whose creativity and sheer elegance is just a joy to watch.

I remember hearing about Eriksen a few years ago when Chelsea were snooping around, and offered him a trial at the club. Despite being offered a deal at Stamford Bridge, Eriksen opted to go to the footballing Mecca in terms of developing talent; Ajax. Now, at age 20, he's one of those players you know every team has on their radar. Impressing in the Dutch league, as well as a brilliant showing against Croatia Zagreb in the Champions League, really opened many eyes to the flair and finesse this Danish trickster brings to the game.

One of the things I truly love about Eriksen is that he's always available. He always manages to ghost his way in between defenders, and loose up tight situations by acting as a shield and passing the ball along for the player in trouble. His abillity to pick out passes is one that is well documented, but his movement on the pitch is something only a true playmaker can do. Eriksen is an artist, the ball is his brush, and the pitch is his canvas. The way he moves the ball around is like watching Michaelangelo creating David or Hemingway finishing The Old Man and The Sea. They are masterpieces, and something which leaves you with a certain feeling of having witnessed a true work of glory take place.

Despite him being such an artist, I'm not quite sold on the Premier League offering him a canvas he could do wonders on. Sure, he's a bright talent and will eventually become one of the best, but there is something about that just does not sit well with me. He's not the worst at tracking back, and his slight frame has proven to be more useful than a disadvantage for him. Yet, there's a feeling of him not being ready yet. He has said he does not want to move too soon, and even though the luring tentacles of Manchester United and Barcelona are attractive to any talent, it may be wise for Eriksen to stay at Ajax for another season. I sat down and tried to find one player who had excelled from Ajax who had failed in Europe. I have yet to discover anyone who was touted as "the next big thing" at Ajax who went out and flunked it. Eriksen will come good, he just needs the experience a club like Ajax can provide him.

If he was to move to United, however, he would be able to work in a 4-4-2 seeing as Rooney drops as deep as he does in defence. Eriksen enjoys being in the hole between midfield and attack, and would free up Rooney to act more as a second striker, than a trequartista. Eriksen's big plus is his vision, and would play through a roaring Danny Welbeck, and a sneaky Javier Hernández without any trouble. His way of dancing across defences would split defences open, and would give both strikers the room they would need to finish. Picking him up is easier said and done, and it's perhaps his abillity to keep defenders guessing that is absolutely stunning for a player of his age. Remember, it took Luka Modric some time to adapt to England as well. He played the similar role as Eriksen did while still playing domestic football in Croatia, and managed to develop himself into a midfielder than can basically do it all. Who's to say Eriksen can't do the same?

Please leave any comments below and be sure to recommend this post on Facebook by clicking the button

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Spurs vs United preview inc View from the Lane

Manchester United take on Spurs at White Hart Lane on Sunday in a crucial game in the Barclays Premier League. Ahead of the game, I caught up with Greg Theoharis from the excellent "Dispatches from a football sofa" site to gauge the mood in the home side's camp.

Spurs are currently sitting pretty in 3rd place in the Premier League. Is this in line with your expectations for the season?

Hell, no. Those two Manchester maulings and Harry's downplaying during the close-season had many of us expecting the worst. I don't entirely know how it happened (well actually, I do - Parker) but this Spurs side has had many of us pinching ourselves and asking as to the identity of these impostors in white shirts who grind out results when needed (Fulham, away) whist eviscerating others (Newcastle, home). Europa was in hindsight a necessary sacrifice but we're doing okay in the FA Cup and provided we're not at home to Mr Cock-up as Blackadder would say, a second shot at the Champions League should be a decent end to the season. The Premier League will have to wait though. So conceding, I'd easily prefer United to get number twenty rather than City.

Losing to Arsenal 5-2 must have hurt, what went wrong in your eyes and who was to blame?
I was. Two-nil up and I go and tweet, "It's all too easy". I knew once I did that the game was up. I think that in essence is what happened to the players on the pitch too. Complacency set in and it was a good reminder that Old Spurs, like Old Labour hasn't been entirely eradicated by the brave, new, shiny world of success. It was nice to see Arsenal fans getting into a frenzy about winning though. It was clearly their Cup Final, to trade on the cliche. We have bigger ambitions and after years of having the North London derby dismissed by Wenger and Gooners as an irrelevance, the irony of how the tables have turned has not been lost by those of us in N17.

Who have been your best performers this season?
Do you need to ask? Scott Parker has been everything and more since he signed and looks as though he was destined to play for us. Although I had a bit of a moan about Friedel when he joined, he has arguably been just as important as Parker. For once, our defence doesn't need to fear the madness and terror that Gomes, despite his likeability, put us through on nigh-on a weekly basis. When playing, King is immense and with Modric and Bale posing a variety of threats, it finally seems that we have a team that can hold its own on a consistent basis against high-calibre opposition. The strike-force has spluttered but Saha has made a decent start and could prove another inspired signing.

Has the speculation about Redknapp's future been a distraction for the team in recent weeks?
After the Newcastle game, I would have said no but the longer the phoney courtship lasts the more of a hindrance it becomes. I don't think Harry should leave as I don't believe he will succeed in the England role. Nobody does and we've seen what happens once the euphoria dies away and the criticism starts. Harry's a patriotic sort, so he'll be tempted but he's also canny and might just walk away from it. Stuart Pearce clearly wants it. Let him have it. The return of the Pizza Hut ads, after England go out at the Euros, would be wonderful.

If Redknapp was to leave, who would you like to see as boss at White Hart Lane?
Martin Jol. I can't help myself. I miss that lovable Honey Monster prowling the touchline at The Lane. But that isn't going to happen. I'd be happy with anyone as long as it's not Rafa Benitez.

Where do you feel Spurs can harm United on Sunday?
Parker's sending off was the worst outcome of the North London Derby. Because of it, I get the impression that we'll play as if we were the away team, hitting United on the break whist soaking up pressure, assuming Sandro starts. Harry needs to play both wingers (Bale and Lennon) but even they're doubts. Get an early goal or two, then defend like the Greek team of 2004. Having said that, an early lead could be very dangerous too.

Which United players do you feel will pose the biggest threat?
Rooney, Scholes, Nani. They all seem to enjoy playing against Spurs and I don't see that changing any time soon.

If you had to pick a joint United/Spurs team, who would you select in your first eleven?
Friedel, Assou-Ekotto, King, Kaboul, Walker, Bale, Parker, Modric, Scholes, Lennon, Rooney - now that really is a sign of how much I rate my own team these days. Only two United players? Really? Really.

What is your score prediction for the game?
Having said that, I know my team. United to win 3-1. Killing off our Premier League challenge and sparking the nervous breakdown as Arsenal and Chelsea win their games this weekend. Never easy, being a Spurs fan.

A big thanks to Greg for taking the time to answer my questions. You can read his musings on the beautiful game by visiting his site and you can follow him on twitter by clicking the link below.

My thoughts ahead of the game on Sunday

The importance of this game to United cannot be underestimated. Ahead of a likely Premier League decider at City at the end of April, this game represents (on paper) the toughest assignment the Reds will face. Spurs are having a wonderful season full of fast, flowing football (once the preserve of their North London rivals and ourselves) and look set to reward their endeavours with a finish in the top four. United are on the back of a decent run of form with a resurgent Scholes and Giggs at the heart of things which is both joyful and deeply troubling at the same time. The return of Rooney could be key bearing in mind the number of big games he has influenced this season and the general cohesion he brings to the make up of the side. With De Gea looking a more assertive presence between the sticks and the blossoming partnership of Ferdinand and Evans in the centre, the defence has looked a tad more impenetrable in recent weeks and without doubt they will be tested to the maximum at the weekend.

While the loss of Valencia on the right has been ill timed, others have come to the fore to help ease the loss. Ashley Young has returned to fitness and the old master Giggs has even returned to his old stomping ground out wide with his usual vigour. Nani has, by his own admission, not had the best of times recently but as is his nature, this can quickly change and once more we will be revelling in his unpredictable genius down the right.

I am strangely optimistic about the outcome on Sunday. This does not stem entirely from the fact that Scott Parker will be missing but mainly from the knowledge that our opponents will allow us to play rather than look to stifle. If it is an open game then I would always back us to prevail and bearing in mind the two teams philosophies on how the game should be played, I cannot see any other situation. The home side will be smarting from last weekend's disaster at the Emirates which makes them a dangerous opponent but bearing in mind the gaps exploited by the Gunners, I can see the Reds have similar joy whilst always being susceptible to a swift counter attack which they must guard against. It is for this reason that I can see goals aplenty on Sunday and I will go for a 2-3 victory for the Reds with the game remaining in the balance right until the final whistle.

Follow @writtenoff_mufc

Please leave any comments on Spurs and the game in general below.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Unsung Heroes #2 - Jesper Blomqvist

Jesper Blomqvist: The Understudy who performed on the Greatest Stage.

By Tom Pattison (Follow me on Twitter)

We’ve all heard the story of Manchester United facing a little known, exciting, young winger resulting in the fans and players imploring the club to bring him to Old Trafford. The origins of the Cristiano Ronaldo legend is oft told; yet few to my knowledge have drawn a comparison with a less heralded Swede who similarly played a part in our European success.

The setting was the NYA Ullevi Stadium in Gothenburg, where 36,000 Swedes witnessed a demolition of a hapless full back which left an indelible impression on all who saw it. The defender in question was actually an out of position centre back – Ferguson paying the price of selecting David May in a role in which he would never again appear. The tormentor was a slightly built, blonde starlet with long sleeves pulled down over his hands. A far cry from the bronzed, extrovert Portuguese yet the devastation inflicted on United was just as deadly.
"Where are my sleeves boss, I need sleeves!"

Unlike Cristiano however, Ferguson did not heed the call to bring him to Manchester. Back in the mid-90s the idea of stashing exciting young talent on the bench was blissfully absent and the form of Ryan Giggs meant the acquisition of an apparent replacement made little sense. Blomqvist did gain the move to a club at the European top table his talent deserved, but it was North Western Italy rather than the English equivalent. Things didn’t go great in Milan however; a season spent warming the bench was followed by a similarly dispiriting spell on loan at Parma. It is worth remembering that during these two seasons he was competing with the likes of Savicevic, Boban, Fiore and Stanic for an attacking midfield berth. So it was that two years after his sparkling audition, Blomqvist sealed a move to Old Trafford; albeit as an undoubted understudy to the Welsh wizard.

Understudy; to study or know a role so as to replace the regular performer. In today’s game such a role is unspoken. Rotation is the name of the game; every position is competed for and a series of systems are used meaning the concept of a ‘first eleven’ has been consumed by ‘the squad’. However back in 1998, the Manchester United midfield had an unchallenged hierarchy; even Nicky Butt was forced to accept a role as providing respite when Keane and Scholes required removing from the frontline at the behest of the manager or Football Association. This was no minor contribution – Butt made only four less appearances over the season than Scholes. In Blomqvist’s case, despite clearly being second in the pecking order, the need to nurse Giggs’ troublesome hamstrings meant the Swede made the same amount of Premier League starts that season as the leading man. For many players, this diminished status would rankle – but not for Blomqvist. Perhaps it was the chastening experience of being isolated in Italy, or simple satisfaction at being a part of something special, but the body language spoke of a player relishing life at the club. This ego-free attitude typified the collective team spirit that fuelled the team’s successful pursuit on three fronts.

Aside from his character as a man; what did Blomqvist the player provide? A solitary goal – providing the coup de grace in a 4-1 demolition at Goodison Park – reveals that he had little direct impact on the goals for column. However that is to miss the point; in the Premier League Giggs himself only troubled the scorers on three occasions. Blomqvist’s role was as a true understudy; his impact is to be measured in how effectively he replicated the contribution of the man he was standing in for. It is on this front that Blomqvist proved such an asset; he may well have lacked the searing pace of Giggs but his propensity to hug the touchline and offer balance to the side meant that the rhythm of those around him was not significantly disrupted by the absence of the number eleven. To use a cliché, in Blomqvist Ferguson possessed a ‘like for like’ alternative for Giggs and in a side so dependant on a finely tuned midfield unit this should not be undervalued.

Catch Jesper's one and only goal for United below:

The crowning glory of Blomqvist’s career came on the greatest stage. Suspensions ripped the heart out of the Manchester midfield. Ferguson had a pivotal decision to make – who would partner Nicky Butt in Camp Nou? The candidates were Beckham, Giggs, Sheringham (who had made such an impact at Wembley) or Johnsen. A selection of either of the former duo would displace a key figure in the double winning quartet. A selection of either of the latter pair would dramatically alter the character and shape of the midfield that had brought such success. In many ways, Ferguson’s decision to bring Beckham in from the flank was a demonstration of his faith in Blomqvist. Giggs suitability for a central role was dismissed on the grounds of his wastefulness in possession (sound familiar?) so Beckham was entrusted with the responsibility of retaining the ball against the technicians from Munich. Ironically, given his role as understudy, in the biggest match of the season it was the leading man who would switch flanks as Ferguson sought to pose the imperious Lizarazu an unexpected problem by using Giggs as an inverted winger. The alternative was Solskjaer in an untried right midfield berth or asking Blomqvist to perform on the right where he was palpably unsuited. Time and again during the season Blomqvist had demonstrated his reliability on the left flank and these auditions gave him the nod on closing night. He didn’t disappoint – arguably proving English champion’s brightest spark in midfield before being fatefully replaced by Sheringham as United went for broke.

From triumph came tragedy, as chronic knee problems meant Blomqvist’s only appearances for Manchester United over his final two years at the club came on MUTV (sadly I never had the pleasure of watching ‘Cooking with Jesper’). Such was his impact that Ferguson went the extra mile to persuade his mate at Everton to take a forlorn chance on resurrecting his career. It is perhaps fitting that his final contribution to Manchester United on the field was the ultimate display of what makes him an unsung hero; delivering exactly what was asked of him on the biggest night in the club’s history. His time at the club may have been all too brief, but he we always have a place in the hearts of many a Red. Thanks Jesper.

Catch the first in the series of Unsung Heroes here where the subject was Denis Irwin