Thursday, 28 June 2012

Supporting Manchester United - how I enjoy a wife and a lover.

By Shane Bailey (Follow me on Twitter)

Is it possible for a supposedly ‘true’ supporter to have real affection for two teams? Many people will baulk at the very suggestion, and their cynicism is perhaps understandable. But I consider myself to be what most would consider a ‘proper’ football fan, and I do enjoy both a wife and a lover where the beautiful game is concerned.

My family aren't really football fans. I wasn't one of these kids that saw his first match from atop my dad’s shoulders when I was three. I developed my own interest in football through the wonder of television, and was quickly attracted to the total football being served up every week at Old Trafford. I jest of course, this was the 80’s and Ron Atkinson was in charge. Nowadays, United supporters from Torquay naturally face accusation of being nothing more than ‘glory supporters’, but I’m referring to a different era. The ‘glory’ was being enjoyed at Anfield. It was the Scousers winning everything at that time, and if you wanted to be popular at school & enjoy the regular taste of victory, your shirt was a different shade of red.

So if not the flavour of success, what attracted me to United at that time? The same things that attract anyone from remote geographical locations to support the club I imagine. The history and tradition of great players playing great football for great managers (well, one great manager at that point). All that, plus the fact I watched the 1983 FA Cup Final with my Chelsea supporting older cousin. He was supporting Brighton, because they were wearing blue, so I did the opposite. I have a lot to thank John for.

My early recollections of watching United revolve around Big Ron’s perma-tan, a keeper with the same Sir-name as me, a little Danish winger with a mullet who played with his socks rolled down and his shirt un-tucked, and some bloke in the middle of the pitch that could do everything better than everyone else. More often than not on one leg. Having caught the bug, I dug deeper into the history of the club and it’s impossible not get immersed in those stories of Munich, Busby and the European Cup. There isn’t another story like ours. There was no turning back.
"Alex who?" (picture from
So who are the other team in this equation, and how did I become involved with them? Well, unsurprisingly it’s Torquay United my hometown team, and my affiliation with them came sometime later. If you are 14 and support Manchester United, but live on the English Riviera, the chances of getting to watch your team in the flesh are naturally limited. So with a desire to watch some live football, allied to a maturing mind that suggested offering support to my local team would be beneficial to them, I made my way to Plainmoor. And that it where I spend most of my Saturday afternoon’s to this day. I get up to Old Trafford 2 or 3 times a season now. But it just isn’t practical or financially viable to make the trip anymore regularly that that. So Torquay fill the void. They are my ‘other woman’, and I care passionately about them.

To sum up then, contrary to all the rules, I have affection for two teams. But do I actually ‘support’ them both? I think I do - just not necessarily in the same way. Manchester United is in my heart. They took residence when I was very young and will never leave. Torquay United are in my head. They are the team that society dictates I should support and for whom I’ve developed great affection. I’ve no doubt if it was up to those supporters who are ‘better’ than me, I’d ditch United completely and dedicate all my efforts on Torquay. But that was never going to happen. In physical terms, my support for Torquay probably is more tangible these days. I spend money through the turnstile at Plainmoor every other weekend after all. But my mood is more dependent on the result at Old Trafford than anywhere else, and that is most telling. Confusingly for others, when I talk of either team I refer to them as ‘we’. Though I sometimes feel obliged to correct myself if discussing Torquay. There remains a hierarchy, and United are at the summit. United are we.

A question I am frequently asked is ‘Who would I want to win if they ever played each other?’ The simple answer is I’d like to be given the chance to find out. It’s not happened yet. The one time they did play each other in my lifetime - in a friendly as part of the deal that took Lee Sharpe north, I was on a family holiday in Yugoslavia. One was not amused. To see Torquay run out at Old Trafford against United remains a dream. It would be a strange day for me personally, but I could at least be confident of a positive result! I have to be honest and suggest my desire for United to avoid embarrassment would override my excitement at seeing Torquay create a massive upset.

Unfortunately, in writing this, I’ve probably gone down (even further) in some people’s estimations. This kind of thing bothers people, it makes them uncomfortable. People do it, but don’t want to talk about it. I still get frustrated if my loyalty to either team is questioned. All the ‘not a real supporter’ nonsense does get a bit tiresome if I’m honest. Certain people have a real need to feel superior, and being able to declare support for just one team seems to satisfy that desire somehow. I guess if it makes people feel better about themselves, that’s fine. I do support both teams (albeit in different ways), contrary to popular belief it is possible – I know this because I’ve been doing it for a long time now. It was watching Manchester United that got me interested in football in the first place, so if it wasn't for them, Torquay would have one less through the turnstiles every Saturday. Would that be better? Not for them I’m sure.

Do you think it is possible to "support" two different teams? We would love to hear your views both for and against the argument so please leave your comments below.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

United's new young signing - shades of Zidane?

By Adam Crafton (Follow me on Twitter)

Nick Powell is the latest prodigy to be churned out of Crewe Alexandra’s prolific production line – one which Henry Ford himself would take huge pride in.
Although he will be following a familiar path – one successfully trodden down by Premier League stars including Robbie Savage, Neil Lennon, Danny Murphy and Dean Ashton – Powell dares to be different.
From Crewe’s laboratory of technical brilliance, Powell now moves on to another magnificent skill factory, to Manchester United’s hi-tech training complex mystically concealed in the Trafford countryside.
Some would naively believe that the hard part has been navigated. Powell by this stage has already attracted the attention of the most successful manager in the history of the English football, and been guided by Dario Gradi, the maestro in the nurture of young talent. Powell will now drop shoulders alongside Wayne Rooney, shimmy and feint with Ryan Giggs and perfect slide-rule passing with Paul Scholes.
In reality, the hardest part begins now; the mental battle. Can the 18 year old boy from Crewe, so used to being the star, the go-to man and the inspiration, adapt to being the prospect, the raw potential and possibly on the fringes? Certainly, it is unlikely that he has ever experienced the feeling of being inferior.
Powell has just finished his studies at Sandbach school and their Director of Football, Craig Malbon, tells Written Offside, “His peers were of course always inferior to him, and it would sometimes be difficult to pitch sessions to him because of the level he was used to playing at with Crewe but he was very sympathetic and supportive of the other lads”
The irony now, of course, is that a role reversal beckons. Powell will now need the support and guidance of the established Old Trafford stars. Being thrust into the Manchester United spotlight is not just a technical and physical challenge – it is an acid test of a player’s mental strength.
He has the ability, obviously. But so do the scores of players being meticulously produced by the Manchester United academy. Powell however, must dare to be different. He must show he can do it in front of 75,000 expectant supporters. He must take responsibility. He must be the man, who, under pressure, makes the difference and creates a better situation.
His performances for Crewe suggest that he can be that player. Fifteen goals in forty one games for Crewe in League Two last season is a hugely impressive return from a player who sometimes played in central midfield, but more often operated in that corridor of uncertainty between the opposition’s midfield and defence.
It is a little careless to dismiss Powell’s chances of making an immediate impact at Old Trafford on the grounds that he lacks experience above League 2 level. After all, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was playing in League 1 with Southampton just over twelve months ago. Fast-forward a year, and he has blossomed at European and International level. With the right care, and the correct attitude, that jump can be made.
The position which Powell excels in, as the number 10, is one reserved for only the most special of players. A position only for those players who demand the ball, who dictate football matches from an area of the pitch where the game should not, in theory, be controlled from, and who produce flourishes of individual brilliance – and his school football coach believes he has all those qualities in abundance.
“He has fantastic shooting ability as we have seen in the goals he has scored at Crewe. He has also been fortunate with the rate at which he has physically developed, he’s now over six foot and is blessed with such great balance, and a wonderful sense of gravity.” Malbon enthuses.
He is in the mould of that kind of player. Those graceful technicians who glide effortlessly like ice-skaters and instinctively seek out space and angles amongst the gangs of opponents.
Shades of Zinedine Zidane (whisper it quietly) were apparent in Powell’s performances in ‘the hole’ at times last season. The way in which Zidane would not only physically and technically overpower his opponents, but also force them to almost psychologically submit to him, granting him some kind of deference, was noticeable in some of Powell’s own displays – the aura, which elevates the greats above the rest.
It is, of course, a little early to be making such comparisons, but it is the ‘done thing’ these days to compare players and be excited about young talent. While some see flickers of Zidane in Powell, Malbon draws a comparison with another legend of the modern game.
“It is difficult to compare Nick to players in the sense that he so many great facets to his game. I really like his sense of gravity, his ability to shift the ball so quickly, and the Ronaldo step-overs. For me, that’s what sets him apart, the speed of his footwork is stunning really”
Again, it is some comparison.
But watching Powell evokes that kind of excitement – his final act as a Crewe player was to propel them to promotion, at Wembley, with a sublime volley on the turn from the edge of the area. He left the field that day to a standing ovation from those Crewe fans. They knew it was the end of his time with a club that Powell has been cultivated by since the age of 5. But they, like the rest of the country, will see plenty more of Powell in the future. 
In 45 appearances by Nick Powell last season.....
116 - Shots taken 
16 - Goals scored 
8 - Assists 
95 - Fouls Suffered 
4 - Yellow Cards
1 - Red Card

What are your hopes and fears for Nick Powell? Could he make an impact in the first team? Please leave a comment below.

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Friday, 22 June 2012

United at Euro 2012 - a progress report

A lot was made of the inclusion and the exclusion of certain Manchester United players. Fans were up in arms over the exclusion of certain form players such as Rio Ferdinand and Michael Carrick. So instead of focusing on those left behind, let’s take a look at those who have been flying the Manchester United flag and making progress at Euro 2012.

Well, the list is a short one. Anders Lindegaard, Patrice Evra, Luis Nani, Phil Jones, Ashley Young, Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck all made it onto the plane to Poland & Ukraine.

Anders Lindegaard was so anonymous, that one could forget that he was actually at the euros. The Denmark keeper was merely a spectator like the rest of us. Seems like he could have to get used to it with De Gea seemingly being United’s number one.

So let’s have a look at United’s stand in captain. Evra started off the campaign quite well. His game against England included something that United fans had not seen in a while; an Evra who managed to mix his attacking duties with his defensive duties, yet never be caught out, albeit that England hardly ever threatened to overrun France. Evra was subsequently dropped for the next 2 games against Ukraine and Sweden. There was no clear explanation to this, but with France coming up against Spain, and Gael Clichy (Evra’s replacement) being prone to the odd aberration, we may see Evra flying down the wing in the quarter final.

Speaking about flying down the wing, United’s very own Luis Nani has hit the ground running. With sparkling performances against the Dutch and Danes, he has caught the eye a bit more than most. Even against a solid German defence, he provided moments of danger that others didn’t seem to create. The Portuguese wing wizard has shown something that he has lacked over the years, and that is a final product. Nani has used his box of tricks along with low crosses into the box, and pinpoint passes that have opened up defences, one of his most glamorous moments being a brilliant through ball to Cristiano Ronaldo, to secure a spot in the quarter finals. Last night's performance against the Czechs was a mixed bag to be honest but he is a key player for Portugal and will have a big say in whether they make the final or not. For me, he is one of the players to watch in this tournament.

From one to watch, to one who is watching the games go by, young Phil Jones has not placed a foot onto the field of play. Seen as a “use in case of emergency” player, it seems as though Jones may not set foot on the field of play, unless it’s an England training match. The tournament will however, be a great experience for him and he should come back to United refreshed after a mixed first season at United.

Another United youngster who was expected to warm the bench was Danny Welbeck. Many saw Andy Carroll as the first choice striker, but the lanky youngster from Longsight has made the position his own. Welbeck hasn’t set the tournament alight thus far but it’s his tireless work rate and willingness to run the channels that have helped England get to where they are. Welbeck hasn’t had much to work with, especially against France, but when most needed, he came to the fore, which was seen in the Sweden game; a great run and cross by Walcott allowed Danny to cheekily back heel England’s third and final goal into the net. This was a goal that played its part in allowing England to face up against Italy, rather than the all-conquering Spanish team. Danny didn’t do as well against Ukraine, but his almost telepathic relationship with Wayne Rooney, speed and tireless work rate should see him keep his place and possibly see the goals flow for the young striker.

Wayne Rooney has barely started his euro campaign. Similar to that of Andrei Arshavin, in euro 2008, he was suspended for the first 2 games. Rooney may not have had the same electric effect as the little Russian, but he did find the back of the net against Ukraine. Some say he looked rusty, but with Rooney on the field, England had someone who could do anything at any time. One moment in particular was his calmness to beat 2 men, and then spray the ball out wide to give impetus to an attack. It was simple but effective. If Rooney can shake off the rust and play at half the level he started the season off at, England could find their attack going from toothless to razor sharp and ready to take a bite into Italy’s defence.

One man who was meant to provide some of that bite was Ashley Young. He had been one of England’s best players in the build-up to the euros, providing assists and scoring goals. Things have not worked out so well for the former Aston Villa man. Against France, he didn’t get much of the ball, but created one of England’s most dangerous attacks only for James Milner to round the keeper, and with the goal at his mercy, miss completely. Young was just as quiet during the Sweden game, but in those 2 group games, Young showed his willingness to track back and help out his defence. A pinpoint cross from Young, against Ukraine, should have culminated in a Rooney goal, only for the striker to head the ball wide from 6 yards out. Young has threatened to show his best form, but has found his way blocked by England’s lack of possession, or defensive tactics. With an injury scare, it seems as though Young may have played his last game in the tournament, unless England can get past the Italians.

The United contingent has had an impact on the euros, and long may it continue. Hopefully, one of them will return to Carrington as a European championship winner.

By Natanael Pillay (Follow me on Twitter)

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Tuesday, 19 June 2012

United's transfer policy: buying big or produce from within?

Fans look at a world class player and hope for game changing moments that can turn a loss into a draw or a draw into a win. Fans dream of that moment where a corner can be turned, and a club can rise to prominence.

One moment in particular stands out during the semi recent past, and that is the win against Juventus in the Champions League during the 98/99 season. Trailing 2-0 (3-1 on aggregate), Roy Keane muscled his way through the penalty area to head in a corner that set United on course for one of the greatest comebacks against arguably one of the best sides in world football at that time.

So where did Roy Keane come from? Was he a transfer based on ability, or a transfer based on talent? Talent is defined as a person possessing such aptitude or skill, whereas ability is defined as the talent that enables someone to achieve a great deal.

Roy Keane arrived at Manchester United as a great talent; a footballer who had to fulfil his talent in order to be considered a player of great ability. That is what United are about. United buy players based on what they could become (talent), rather than what they have become. Yes, United pay great sums for these talented players. The fees for Ronaldo (£13m) and Wayne Rooney (£30m) are a testament to that, but the underlying fact of the matter is that United mainly focus on the development of world stars, rather than the purchase of them.

Those game changing moments, or club defining moments that we live for, have come from players who United have developed into stars of modern football. Moments such as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s dramatic winner against Bayern Munich, Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal in the champions league final, Steve Bruce’s injury time winner vs Sheffield Wednesday and Paul Scholes’ wonder strike against Barcelona.

As a United fan, I take no greater pleasure than seeing a youngster breaking into the first team, either through the reserves or by way of working hard after being brought in during a transfer window. It gives us that warm feeling to know that they are one of our own and that we, as a club, have been a part in creating a player that the world can relish watching.

One of those players is Cristiano Ronaldo. A player once called a “one trick pony” rose to the top of the world in front of our eyes. Even though I may not like the way he left, I still take great pride in knowing that he truly became the player he is because of Manchester United.

So is this overwhelming cry for a world class player merited? Do United need a player of such calibre that would command such a high fee; who could possibly never reach the heights he reached at his previous employer?

On the odd occasion that United have purchased a world star, things haven’t quite worked out. Players such as Dimitar Berbatov and Seba Veron moved to United for huge transfer fees and with great expectations that were never truly met. These were players of class that could grace any team in the world, yet they could not find their feet at United.

With the current pursuit of Luka Modric seeming to be a never ending story, can we see him being a player who would suit United? Can he be the player who we cry out for, or is he just another Trojan horse?
United cannot afford another gamble on a world class player, as the depth of our financial disability restricts our transfer movements. Some have made jokes that we could offer magic beans in return for Modric. It’s a light hearted joke, but as funny as it is, it’s the sad truth with United’s financial problems.

Also, can United find a world class player that suits their style of play? Veron was asked to play an unfamiliar role for United. As seen, he never truly adapted and was subsequently sold to Chelsea. It’s not about buying a player, more about buying someone who can easily buy into the United way of football.

This shows the risk involved in trying to acquire a star. They have the ability to play in their designated area of expertise, but will find it tough to adjust to any new style of play, as we’ve seen with Dimitar Berbatov. Berbatov was unbelievable at Tottenham, but when asked to play at a higher tempo, he looked as if he was a deer gazing into the headlights of an oncoming truck. Add in the pressure of a huge transfer fee, over the top wages, and the fickle nature of fans, and you have a recipe for disaster.

So we need to look at the facts. United have a record as a production line, in terms of producing youth, and have also found it tough to integrate high profile signings into the first team. Do we go with the road less travelled, or do we go with what we know, and what has served the club well over its history?  

I for one would love another young player to come through the system and be another beacon of light in the current Manchester United team. The question is whether or not we have the patience to allow a player to develop, or are we going for the quick fix that could backfire?

 By: Natanael Pillay (Follow me on Twitter)

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Friday, 15 June 2012

United's new youth signing - a rare touch of class

By Shane Bailey (follow me on Twitter)

Nick is introduced to the new United tablecloth

Manchester United this week completed the signing of teen sensation Nick Powell from Crewe.  Powell, one of the hottest properties in domestic football, had a host of potential suitors.  That he chose United represents further evidence, should it be needed, that our club remains the most appealing destination to young British talent.  At United, if you’re good enough, age is not an obstacle to the first team.  Players know it, and we have every reason to be proud of it.

The Old Trafford faithful have always appreciated the beauty of youth.  There is a romance to nurturing and developing young players, whether they are graduates of the academy or those recruited from elsewhere.  Unfortunately, it has to be acknowledged that increasingly such deals have less to do with romance, and owe more to basic financial realism.  We simply can’t compete for the established stars of the day anymore.  Instead, the focus of our attention has to be unearthing the stars of tomorrow.  Where once we could rely on the history of the club and the promise of trophies to lure the game’s biggest names, we have to now concede that the money on offer elsewhere is more appealing.  For that reason, our sights have to be set on a different kind of target.  Thankfully, for some like Powell, the appeal of the club remains as strong as ever.

So what of young Powell?  What kind of player have we invested in?  The simple answer is a very talented one.  It’s not realistic to think we’ll see him in the Premier League anytime soon.  But I’m hopeful that United might just have struck gold again.  Powell undoubtedly has a touch of class and a swagger that suggests he’s unlikely to be intimidated by the Old Trafford stage when he gets his chance.  One of those players that always appears to have time and space – when all around seem rushed and crowded.  He has an awareness of those around him, and a touch that enables him to not just see, but deliver.  He’s a fabulously clean striker of the ball too.  He’s tall, and has a languid style.  He could lead the line or be equally comfortable in midfield.  But ultimately his home will surely be the space in between.  ‘In the hole’ is where he’s destined to shine. 

Of course, all this is based on a few glimpses of him amidst the cut and thrust of League 2.  It’s a long way from there to the Premiership, but just occasionally you catch a glimpse of a player that stands out to such an extent as to demand closer attention.  In the games I’ve seen, he’s looked head and shoulders above those around him, and carries a demeanour that suggests he knows it.  At 18 he’s dictating games, and that’s impressive at any level.  Amongst superior players, he might just find things even easier. 

With regards his short-term prospects at United, there has to be a chance he’ll be sent out on loan.  It’s historically proven to be Fergie’s preferred method of development and if he does select that option, I’d like to think we can find a suitable destination in the Championship.  A loan back to Crewe in League 1 does not offer sufficient benefits to United or the player.  Alternatively of course, Sir Alex might prefer to integrate him into life at Old Trafford immediately.  The sooner he’s comfortable in those surroundings the better.  If he does, my guess is he’ll be in the Carling Cup squad from the outset.  And I wouldn’t be surprised to see him featuring from the bench in the Premier League before the end of next season.

Some people may question the £6m price tag, but I’m personally glad the club have backed their instincts on this one.  We’ve missed out on a couple of other high-profile teens in recent times simply because other clubs have demonstrated greater courage.  Of course mistakes can be made, but it’s much easier for supporters to deal with poor signings than missed opportunities.  My guess is we’ll not regret this one.

Check out Nick Powell in action for Crewe last season

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Friday, 8 June 2012

Why Modric is not the missing piece of our midfield jigsaw

Hands up if you want to join United

An article from Neil Custis in the Sun this morning reports that Manchester United have secured the services of Croatian magician Luka Modric from Spurs and that the deal is almost complete. Far be it for me to pour scorn on the journalistic merits of Mr Custis but the media outlet he writes for does have form in the field of general transfer tripe so most observers will take the validity of such a claim with a gigantic pinch of salt.

To be fair, it is widely known that Sir Alex Ferguson has a long standing admiration for the silky Modric who has been the heartbeat of the Spurs midfield over the last couple of years so few would doubt that there is a semblance of fact that United aspire to capturing him but it is highly doubtful that a deal could be agreed for the reported £25 million.

The point of this post is to strongly argue that if Ferguson is looking to add the supreme talent of the Croatian to the much maligned and neglected midfield at Old Trafford, while welcomed without doubt, it is missing the point of what the club truly requires to restore itself to the top table of European football.

For me, what we need is a large portion of steel to compliment the undoubted silk that we already possess. In Rooney, Nani, Valencia, Young, Cleverley and the freshly acquired Kagawa, we have an abundance of youthful attacking verve and creativity. The missing piece of the jigsaw is the ying to that wondrous yang - the holy grail of the defensive midfielder.

"Football has changed" I hear you cry and the presence of a Makelele type patrolling the centre circle is an outdated model no longer required where possession and pressing are the new buzzwords. Flying recklessly into tackles and risking the wrath of the officials (I am looking at you Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard) is something that does not have a place in the modern game. I completely concur with this ideology, which is why we should literally (© Jamie Redknapp) move heaven and earth to acquire a "presence" in the central heartland of our team. Ideally, a box to box hard man who has ability on the ball yet a defensive mindset when a particular match dictates this role. If God created a player with a mix of Robson (Bryan, not Barry), Keane (Roy, not Robbie) and Touré (Yaya, not tubby Kolo) then there would be no better way for our generous or loathsome (delete as applicable) owners to reward their loyal subjects (Messers Ferguson and Gill) not to mention the long suffering fan base.

Before the men in white coats approach, I fully realise that firstly, no such player exists and secondly if he did then we do not have the funds to purchase thanks to our friends across the sea. We therefore often have to delve into the confines of the bargain bucket when it comes to transfers. Ideally, a young maestro making his way in the game can be persuaded to move to the glittering North of England whilst ignoring the overtures of our considerably richer near neighbours. Names mentioned include Kevin Strootman, Yann M'Vila and Kwadwo Asamoah but it is hard for me to discuss their individual merits as I have not seen enough to form a sensible opinion as to their suitability. A price of around £15 million has been touted which could be possible if offset by the sale of one or two fringe players who have still have some value in the market.    

Last season it was increasingly noticeable just how much over-reliance United had on Michael Carrick in the centre. Shorn of the energy and drive of Darren Fletcher due to his debilitating illness, the much maligned Englishman was a beacon of shining consistency among the injury ravaged Anderson and Cleverley and the waning influence of Giggs and Scholes. In the early stages of last season, when Carrick was out of favour and recovering from injury, his presence was much missed. This was masked somewhat by a flurry of goals and attacking fluidity but ultimately very little protection was afforded to our back four containing young players such as Jones, Smalling and Rafael learning their trade. If Modric is signed (and I would genuinely be ecstatic if true) then his only available partner would be Carrick as otherwise the centre of our midfield will be as open as Anderson's jaw waiting for his next KFC meal.

"Get in! We are selling Gibbo and Ando"
Above all, the signature of some steel in our central area would mean we finally have a "presence" right through the spine of the side to instil a modicum of fear in our opponents once again. With the return of Vidic (pray for Nemanja, fingers crossed) as skipper, the fear factor would once more be prevalent with the addition of an enforcer type player with Rooney ahead, relishing the battle once more after his wish for quality has finally been granted. For almost the first time since the departure of Keane, United could take to the field and strike fear into their opponent as they line up in the tunnel, knowing that our midfield department is not simply a haven for beauty and serenity. A bit of nastiness is never a bad thing.

The addition of such a strong player would also mean that the intended switch to a more fluid 4231 formation could be implemented relatively seamlessly. This would allow a pressing game led from the front by Rooney, Kagawa et al to be the first stage in retrieving possession of the ball, something that has been lacking for years. The visit of Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League emphasised just how far behind we have fallen in terms of the elite sides. To combine such pressure to an opponent and then have the ability to release the forward thinking quality to inflict serious damage, was a joy to behold even if it was in our own backyard. I have no doubt that the purchase of Kagawa, well versed in a pressing game with Dortmund, will see us at least attempt such a strategy in the early stages of next season.

Closing out the game is also another option that the acquisition of a more defensively minded player provides which was something sadly lacking at times last season when Scholes tired after the hour mark.United's football does not have to be all "gung ho" despite the traditions of the club and some solidity would not go a miss in an attempt to secure a vital three points. At least having that option (even from the bench) would be a bonus and another string to Ferguson's bow.

One hopes that impressive performances in the Euro 2012 tournament does not leave the boss to regret not acting quicker as prices will inflate in July. Getting their transfer business completed early and quickly is always the preferred way to proceed but it is naive not to point out that it is not always as easy as that. Signing a new all purpose midfielder as mentioned above would leave the possibility of a utility full back as the only other area to consider for reinforcement. Talk of Baines arriving from Everton would mean that Evra's prospects look bleak but I personally cannot see the Frenchman being replaced just yet. A decent summer break after the travails of the last few years will surely see him return to peak form.

The sensible purchase alluded to here along with the Kagawa signing would ensure United remain competitive both at home and in Europe. Coupled with the much mooted change in formation and playing style, the club may be capable of returning to the lifelong ethos of attacking verve coupled with defensive solidity that could once more see us become a potent threat feared throughout the land.

Do you agree with what is written above or am I wide of the mark? Either way, please leave your comments below and I will respond to each one.

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Thursday, 7 June 2012

Shinji Kagawa - the missing link?

By Natanael Pillay (follow me on Twitter)

In light of the recent news that Manchester United has completed the transfer of Shinji Kagawa, subject to a medical and a work permit, I will look at the possible implications of his move.

During the last season, Manchester United pushed Manchester City all the way in the league, but this only served to paper over the cracks in the current system and players. This was highlighted by the surprise loss to Wigan. This was no fluke, but was an example of what a three man midfield could do against the outdated 442 formation. 

Many times, in the last season, United have struggled to control games in which the opposition have deployed three men in midfield. Many would say that Rooney provides us with another man in there, but the striker’s indifferent form and tendency to drift too far forward have contributed to Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes being isolated.

What does Kagawa’s transfer bring?
The new signing heralds a move from a conventional 442, to a more modern 4231 formation. In Kagawa, we have a player who has the ability to link  with the two deep lying midfielders, yet also go beyond the striker. In order for this system to work, possession is of the upmost importance.

One of the things I’ve noticed on twitter is the clear disregard for the art of possession. Carrick and Scholes were said to be “slowing down the game” with their passes to each other, when in actual fact, they were just manipulating the ball with the intention of finding a player in open space.

For the 4231 to succeed, a clear passing relationship between the two deep CMs and the AM is needed. The role of the AM is to find space and play the forwards in, or to lay the ball off and look for space in behind the opposing CB. Without possession, this would be a harried process that would fail at most hurdles.

This is why the days of United getting the ball out wide at every opportunity will be the road less travelled. Yes, this has been the club’s main source of ammunition for many seasons, but the new formation will bring a greater responsibility upon the wide men. Their role is to provide width, whilst coming infield to help create.

We all remember that Community Shield victory. The highlight being the majestic Nani, Welbeck, Cleverley and Rooney move that ended with Nani cheekily chipping Joe Hart. That, in essence, is the main aim of the 4231. Wide men linking up with midfielders, and wingers coming infield to create the proverbial “triangle” that allows players to open up space.

So, how does Kagawa fit in? Kagawa is a fast paced passing AM that goes beyond the opposition’s defence. Something that United have missed over the years is a midfielder who can go beyond the forward and score goals; the most recent players of this ilk being Scholes and Keane, players who supplemented the attack with runs from deep. Kagawa is not the missing piece to the puzzle, but he’s a major part of it.

An integral part of the 4231 formation is movement; the interchanging of positions of forwards and midfielders.  In Scholes and Carrick, we have players who can keep possession and find a pass, but what we need is a player who can interchange with Kagawa. A player such as Nuri Sahin or Toni Kroos is required; a player who is skilled in deep possession, yet comfortable in moving up field when Kagawa comes deeper. Carrick is more than able to fulfil this role, but Sir Alex seems determined to make full use of his defensive talents. Whether or not this remains so, is the manager’s choice.

I feel that a new CM is a necessity as Scholes is not getting any younger, Anderson has been inconsistent and has been injured a lot whilst Cleverley is still learning his trade in top tier football.

With Kagawa probably taking up Rooney’s creative role, where does that leave our talisman? Rooney should revert back to the striking position and allow him to interchange with the Japanese international. Rooney has great realisation of space and would easily be able to work with Kagawa, in a similar way he worked with Welbeck vs Everton. They both took turns to come deep. 

This leaves us with Welbeck and Hernandez in reserve, who both bring something different. Welbeck brings link up play and tricks, while Hernadez brings his pace and ability to play along the opposition defence’s shoulder. Each would be invaluable in different situations.

Add in the defensive solidarity, and United could look set to make another bid for European domination.

My team for next season: David De Gea, Rafael, Vidic, Smalling, Evra, Carrick, New CM, Nani, Kagawa, Young and Rooney

If you want to check out more about Shinji Kagawa, please view the video below showing all his goals and assists from 2011-12.

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Who else would you like to see come to the club this summer? Please leave your comments below.