Man United First Team Squad
Madness of Social Media Era Removes Perspective
They are ten matches unbeaten and only two stoppage time levellers have prevented them from chalking up six league victories on the trot, including a magnificent display of determination and grit to out-battle and defeat the current league leaders. The club are within three points of second place, only require two points from two games to progress from their Champions League group and have safely negotiated two top-flight opponents in the League Cup.
Time for Fellaini to find his feet at United.
It’s hard to think of a more underwhelming major signing in recent times. The previous big splash of Glazer cash to have failed to hit the heights expected was Dimitar Berbatov; yet even he could always rely on a vocal band of admirers to fight his corner. Fellaini has had no such luck. Whereas the capture of the Bulgarian mercurial enigma (cliché klaxon ago go) represented a thrilling, logic defying pursuit of yet more attacking adventure, our Belgian acquisition is by contrast a depressingly sensible acceptance of functionality over flair.
Safe Yet Solemn, United’s midfield Struggled To Excite
If he were watching, Roy Hodgson might have described Manchester United’s 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace as a game of “high quality”, but he would have been alone in holding that opinion. Crystal Palace haven’t given the impression that they will stay up too comfortably, and continued that form here. For the most part the south-Londoners failed to show even brief glimpses of quality, and were particularly sloppy with the ball in their own half.
Kagawa’s Future – A Call for Calm
Kevin Levingston examines one of the most hotly debated topics of the early season and argues in favour of a little restraint…
If Wayne Rooney’s future was the main story of the summer around Old Trafford, the situation regarding Shinji Kagawa has jumped to the fore now that the season has begun. To say it is a “situation” is perhaps inappropriate. In truth it is uncertain if there is a situation to address as far as the player or the club is concerned. The facts are as follows; Shinji Kagawa has yet to make a competitive appearance for Manchester United this season. The season is three games old and Kagawa has played no games. And fans of Manchester United and Dortmund alike have absolutely lost their minds. Anyone who used a bwin free bet prior to the season on United and Kagawa to have an influential campaign would have been left regretting their bet already.
The Last Poacher
Despite a lively start to his Old Trafford career, Javier Hernández has seen his playing time diminish since a young Danny Welbeck made the step up to first team and Sir Alex hit the transfer lottery with Robin van Persie. Now, with Wayne Rooney staying put at Old Trafford and Shinji Kagawa close to the first XI when fit, the competition for places is very high up front.
Whisper it quietly, but United got their priorities right
With rolling 24-hour sports channels and the social media flourishing more than ever, it should not come as a great surprise that what happens off the pitch is now given more scrutiny than what happens on it. The lust for breaking news and getting ‘the story’ has accelerated out of control, while providing in-depth tactical analysis and insight into the games has become an after-thought.
Many now anticipate the biannual ‘transfer deadline day’ more than the actual football matches which is insane. Each club is heavily scrutinised in the market business and not making big-money signings to appease the fans now portrays club as weak and vulnerable.
And let’s make one thing clear – the new combination of David Moyes and Ed Woodward being thrown in at the same time to work on transfers was a significant error of judgement. Manchester United don’t use a Director of Football as Moyes is famed for scouting many of his own players and playing a large role in club recruitment policy. In any case, a Director of Football doesn’t fit into United’s ideals and more commonly seen at club’s who expect a high turnover of managers. Ed Woodward’s success comes from his tough financial negotiating and helping the club write off large sums of debt accumulated from the Glazer takeover. Both have been hugely successful in their respective fields, but neither is directly familiar with overseeing the intricacies of big-name and big-money transfers. In hindsight, the vastly experienced and successful David Gill should have been persuaded to remain in his role as Chief Executive for twelve more months to ease Moyes’ into his job.
Large swathes of the media are now opening fire on the Moyes and Woodward combination. They were embarrassed by Thiago Alcantara’s last-minute switch to Bayern Munich, before being humiliated by the public pursuit of Cesc Fabregas. There were bizarre attempts to negotiate a non-negotiable deal with Anders Herrera, numerous failed bids for Leighton Baines, reportedly turning down the wonderfully gifted Mesut Ozil, further unsuccessful attempts for Danielle De Rossi and Sami Khedira before missing out on the loan-deal for Fabio Coentrao. To top it all off, they even paid £4 million more for their one major signing than they should have after dithering on triggering his release clause in time.
The wholesale doom and gloom is unfounded and misplaced. Manchester United made a significant number of vital errors over the past number of months but one vital fact has been overlooked by the media vultures circling around their proposed demise of the club. With the acquisition of Marouane Fellaini and the holding of Wayne Rooney, Manchester United have accomplished their two immediate priorities from the start of summer and have thus, strengthened their title-winning squad.
Wholesale changes to the playing staff would have been a grave error and one that was, thankfully, avoided. Much has been made of the impact of new managers on this year’s title race but their influence over proceedings pales in comparison to that of the mentality of a squad.
Sir Alex Ferguson possessed an endless array of attributes but the most crucial was that he was a natural-born winner who despised losing and knew how to be successful. He knew what players matched this and was an expert at spotting which players shared this mind-set and which didn’t. Fergie may be gone but this attitude remains and he has shown full trust in Moyes that this blueprint will not waver.
What United have lacked in recent times is a domineering central midfielder who will assert himself on the game both with his ability and physicality. A midfielder whose robustness and energy could complement the silky passing and fluent rhythm of Michael Carrick. It is telling that Shinji Kagawa (six goals) was the only United midfielder to net more than twice last season and a more significant goal-threat was required. Ideally a new midfielder would be strong in the air, play short, succinct passes to complement United’s counter-attacking threat and be a box-to-box player.
Marouane Fellaini is the perfect fit. He scored twelve times last season, averaging a goal every three matches, finishing as Everton’s top goalscorer, and was the league’s player of the month for November. He can play in a holding midfield role, as a box-to-box player or sit nestle in behind the front-line, such quality in versatility is a greatly underrated asset. He made 82 tackles in the league last season – from the top clubs, only Michael Carrick (83) made more, having played an extra two games.
He is a player Moyes trusts and has a close bond with – a signing virtually with no risks and countless benefits. It also fits the United policy of spending big on established Premiership players, only seriously delving into the European market on the rare occasions to sign promising youngsters when no home-based equivalent is on the market.
Fellaini has helped propel Everton to finishes of 7th and 6th in the past two seasons due to his contributions at both ends of the pitch and was the club’s most technically gifted asset. At 25 years old the big Belgian is now only entering his prime and is sure to improve his game yet further in the coming years. He has an eye for a pass and will bring much needed creativity to United, whilst there should be less focus on his need to contribute defensively which theoretically should improve his attacking attributes further.
Moyes also retained Wayne Rooney and the early indications are that he will use him in his preferred free-roaming attacking role, and will be less burdened defensively. Automatically this strengthens United not just in terms of ability within their squad, but of weakening major rivals Chelsea.
After his summer courtship of Rooney, Mourinho was forced into signing an ageing Eto’o and bizarrely loaning out Romelu Lukaku. Chelsea have an impressive squad with an equally strong-minded coach but the weaknesses which hampered their progress last season remain. Question marks remain over their defensive strength-in-depth, lacking a quality holding midfielder and most crucially of all, firepower up top. Eto’o will score goals and is arguably an upgrade on Torres, but their rival fans will breathe a massive sigh of relief that they didn’t invest more heavily in that area.
Manchester City have also strengthened their squad, but they have already shown massive defensive vulnerability without injured skipper Vincent Kompany. Joe Hart is going through a prolonged spell of poor form and whilst there is now less reliance on Yaya Toure and Aguero, they haven’t made the marquee signing some fans expected after a disastrous 2012/13 campaign.
Arsenal grabbed the headlines with the remarkable coup of the outrageously talented Mesut Ozil, but buying new leather seats for your car without replacing a faulty engine could be dangerous. That said, Wenger has got the fans back on side and the club has made a statement, but they are not quite ready for a title tilt just yet.
Spurs have bought impressively from the windfall of funds generated from Bale’s sale, but the Welshman’s loss to the side cannot be underrated. They failed to break into the top four even with the genius of Bale and have also lost a raft of players adapted to the Premiership. The loss of Dempsey, Parker, Huddlestone and Caulker may not significantly weaken the first team, but the experience and know-how of home-based players can never be underestimated. None of their signings will obviously settle and acclimatise immediately, so the optimism of Spurs fans may have come a little too hastily.
Manchester United romped to the title last year and despite widespread criticism they were mightily impressive. There are no signs that the any of the existing squad will let their impeccable standards slip and the additions of powerhouse Fellaini and the sublimely skilled young winger Wilfred Zaha are purchases which should excite the United faithful.
It is impossible to ignore the on-going incompetencies of their main Premiership rivals, namely Manchester City and Chelsea who despite a limitless supply of wealth have squandered much of their early promise. This summer has seen the furore of management changes but none have taken the transfer window by storm. Inefficiencies have been left unaddressed and no-one has obviously taken the initiative.
It would be an understatement to say United have blundered and dithered at times this summer but the core objectives have been met. Moyes and Woodward will of course need to acclimatise themselves to a learning curve which can be unforgiving and potentially excruciatingly embarrassing, but the next two transfer windows will be the litmus test.
Fellaini could well achieve ‘cult hero’ status at Old Trafford, Rooney may well rejuvenate himself and become the club’s all-time leading goal scorer and in Robin van Persie they have the world’s most complete striker. This is a squad of champions with a winning mentality, and the continuous widespread doubt over their credentials should provide the hunger and determination to once again succeed. You’d be a fool to bet against them.
Bring the big Fella!
Every team needs that sort of player that make the opposition quake in their boots. The type of player that will force his opponent to commit, gamble and eventually crumble. The type of player that, when the other team’s manager reads out the opposing eleven, you hear a unified sigh throughout the dressing room: you know it’s going to be a long afternoon as soon as you spot his name on the team sheet.
It doesn’t really come down to technical ability or passing range, it comes down to your willingness to combat your opposition to the ground. Roy Keane, even though underrated, was never the most technical player. However, when teams saw his name on the team sheet, they knew what was coming. That alone won games. The fear and the anticipation, knowing that across the pitch stands a man who doesn’t think twice before sacrificing his body for his team. Manchester United have lacked that. A man that can dominate a game just by being who he is. That man can be Marouane Fellaini.
If there’s something fans have complained about for the past years, it’s United’s lack of presence in midfield. Despite catching a lot of grief, Sir Alex Ferguson did try to address the issue several times in his last few seasons at Old Trafford. Owen Hargreaves was unlucky, so was Darren Fletcher and Anderson never fit the role to begin with. The emergence of Tom Cleverley gave United a new perspective to how the midfield was to be run, while Phil Jones, who really is a centre back, was the only pure physical specimen when called upon in midfield. This has left Michael Carrick with the herculean task of controlling a midfield by positioning himself excellently, balancing the midfield and defence and acting as a deep-lying playmaker. A test which he has passed with flying colours, but that perhaps needs a bit revamping under David Moyes.
Although Carrick controls a game from the deep, even he has seem himself being combatted to the ground by the likes Yaya Touré. When faced with intense pressure from teams such as Man City, Liverpool and Everton, that task becomes too great even for Carrick. This is where Marouane Fellaini comes in. At 6’4” and with the frame of a barn door, there’s only one adjective that could describe him at the heart of Manchester United’s midfield: Brobdingnagian. Despite not being credited for it, Fellaini levels out his lack of pace with a high footballing IQ. He’ll position himself where he thinks things will happen. This may also be the reason why David Moyes used him as an offensive midfielder for a great part of the 2012/2013-season. As midfields would be running at Carrick and Fellaini, they’d face a battering ram of gigantic proportions in Fellaini before Michael Carrick elegantly sweeps away what Fellaini misses, somewhat in a similar manner to how Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand made their partnership in the heart of defence function.
But this is midfield, right? And Fellaini adds plenty of things to a Manchester United midfield that severely lacks presence. He’s not a midfield maestro and nor does he need to be. Looking at how Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney interchange in terms of dropping deep and establishing play from the back, Fellaini won’t need to part take in that. He will be called upon to carry the ball between the opposing lines. Again, something which he often did do at Everton, knowing that someone would secure the space left behind.
The undervalued factor, however, is the intimidation he’ll scare out of opposing teams. In his first interview with MUTV after having signed Fellaini, Moyes mentioned how teams absolutely hate playing against Fellaini. United fans will know this all too well having seen United struggle to keep up with the behemoth in the league opener against Everton last season. This is also where the comparison to Roy Keane comes in. Fellaini is no Roy Keane, let’s put that to bed already, but he’s the player you’re looking over your shoulder for. Because you know he’s coming. And you know it’s going to hurt when he gets there.
The Two Faces of Antonio Valencia
He had delivered cross after cross. Whipped them high across the box. Smacked them across the turf. No result. Manchester United were battling to stay alive in the race for the title and he was carrying them on the back. In the 81st minute he had had enough. If they couldn’t finish the job, he’d do it himself. And so he did.
There’s something beautifully nostalgic about a winger who thrives on getting chalk on his boots. They ply their trade bombing down the sides of the pitch just waiting for a chance to run at their defender and deliver a ball in. In the days where wingers are relied to move inwards and act as a wide attacker, the job the traditional winger used to do is passed on to the modern wingback. Nevertheless, any Manchester United fan relishes any time Antonio Valencia gets on the ball. Because things will happen. Well, they used to happen.
When Cristiano Ronaldo left for Real Madrid in 2009 the torch was passed on to the Ecuadorian. That was never fair. To be the man to replace the irreplaceable is never really fair. Valencia, however, brought something new to the table. When the ball was passed out to him, he’d hesitate, wait until he found a chink in his defender’s armor and then hammer at him. On the outside of his defender he’d get the first yard and would smash cross after cross in. A throwback to the days of Andrei Kanchelskis or David Beckham, Valencia represented something old, yet fresh, at Manchester United. With Ronaldo gone, United seemed perhaps a bit more like a unit whereas with Cristiano Ronaldo it was pretty much all about him.
As the season progressed, so did Valencia’s improvement. It was therefore valid to believe that he would really stake his claim in his second season. Unfortunately, a freak injury to his ankle saw Valencia out for five months. When he returned, it seemed like he hadn’t even skipped a beat. Former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola’s even said ahead of the 2011 Champions League final that Antonio Valencia was the best pure winger this world had to offer. Another testament to the development and importance Valencia had. The next season proved even greater for Valencia as delivering 5 goals and 15 assists in 32 games was enough reason for Valencia to be named both the “Fans’ Player of the Season” and “The Player’s Player of the Season”. He also completed his hat trick by having his goal against Blackburn named “Goal of the Season”. Having had endless crosses result in nothing, he took matter into his own hands and kept United in the title race with an absolute thunderbolt of a strike from the edge of the area. It seemed as if Antonio Valencia really had become “Toño Maravilla” (Amazing Tony).
Before the start of the 2012/2013-season Antonio Valencia switched his no.25 shirt for the legendary no.7. Does a shirt really matter in terms of performances? There are many theories both ways, but perhaps there are valid claims that it has become too big of a burden for the broad-shouldered Ecuadorian. There certainly weren’t any obvious factors that led to the drop in form. In fact, Valencia recorded the second highest amount of games as Manchester United player last season, second only to his first season at the club. Yet, the end product seemed increasingly worse. The one thing said about Antonio Valencia was “it’s one thing knowing what he’s going to do, it’s another to stop him from doing it”. The bombing down the flanks, the variation in crossing, the ferocious shot he unleashed from time to time had turned into short backpasses, getting caught out by his man and generally not looking comfortable on the wing. Sure, there were injury niggles here and there, but nothing that really would explain his sudden fall from grace. So what stopped Tony in his tracks?
The answer is that there really is no definite answer. Having gone from one of Manchester United’s brightest attacking weapons to somewhat of liability in under a season is nothing short of bizarre. With no real reports of there being an injury problem, it would seem plausible that the bright lights and big stage at Old Trafford just became a bit too bright and a bit too big when Valencia adorned the no.7. From having been a maverick, an alternative out wide, he suddenly became the headliner. It is one thing to deal with it in Ecuador, it’s another to deal with it at Manchester United. What does ring through is that the managerial change at Manchester United will lead to a career defining season for United’s no.7. As David Moyes continues to tinker with his team, it seems possible that Antonio Valencia will eventually get the chance to redeem himself. And as the 2013/2014 season brings to life a whole new era at Manchester United, the timing couldn’t be any more perfect for “Toño Maravilla” to make his long-awaited comeback.
In Defence of Wayne Rooney
For those who are familiar with my writing; you might well be surprised to see my name below the title. Let’s be blunt; I don’t like Wayne Rooney. I’ve never been much enamoured with him as a man and as a footballer I don’t feel he has progressed as he should. Despite those truths I find the circumstances of his expected departure to have cast an unwarranted shadow over an unquestionably successful Old Trafford career.
Times have changed. Football clubs, players and supporters are much different from the sport I fell in love with. The painting of ‘Wayne Rooney the baddy’ has been carefully orchestrated by the club and ably assisted by the fans. Fergie’s final act of mischief coincided with the unedifying spectacle of a player booed when receiving a Championship winners medal. The former we have become accustomed to but the latter really saddened me. On a day of celebration of a season and an era, a significant number of fans chose to voice their displeasure with an important part of the achievements they were revelling in. Wayne Rooney is the fourth highest scorer in Manchester United history. All of those goals came under Alex Ferguson. To not cheer was understandable given the immediate context, but to boo was an act of disrespect to the achievements of the entire team.
In early May I wrote a blog suggesting it might be best for Rooney too seek a new challenge and had commenters queuing up to disparage my argument and even question my allegiance to the club. Those very same critics are unlikely to be such staunch defendants of their ‘hero’ tonight. Momentum has swung to a point that even those who readily forgave his last treacherous act are in agreement that his services are no longer wanted. It is – it must be said – the perfect situation for the club. Instead of open revolt at the prospect of selling a prized asset at the peak of his career, they are being roundly congratulated with no little schadenfreude displayed at the shift in balance of power.
So why has Wayne become so reviled?
Could it be because of his morality? To dislike the man is understandable. I remain surprised that in 2010 a ill-considered rant against the England fans who insulted him drew more outrage from the masses than the reprehensible act of soliciting a prostitute whilst his wife was pregnant. United fans seem happy to draw a line between personal and professional conduct – as demonstrated by the adoration of Giggs. It could be seen as double standards to worship the adulterous Welshman whilst lambasting Rooney for similarly sinful acts.
Could it be then a lack of professionalism that so angers those who once supported him?
I’m not alone in being furious at his condition when returning after his 2012 summer. His relationship with Fergie has been marked by unexpected spells out the team where he has been punished for failing to conduct himself in a manner befitting a professional at the club. This is beyond dispute. The same can and has been said in the past of David Beckham, Bryan Robson and most famously of all George Best. Three men beloved of the United support despite their failure to curb ‘outside interests’ for the good of the club. The traditions of the club has been to support our players even when they have committed brainless acts which have left us deprived of their services for long periods of time (see Cantona, Ferdinand and Keane). In the context of being unavailable for the best part of a year, on reflection the reaction to our scouse number ten carrying a bit of summer timber was perhaps over the top.
Well then, surely it has to be greed?
In 2010 he successfully held the club to ransom and less than three years on he refuses to request the transfer we all know he wants for the sake of adding to his already considerable wealth. Nothing changes. Yet which doyen of financial fair play is Rooney trying to squeeze what he feels he is owed from? Our parasitic owners. Make no mistake, every action (or inaction) of the Glazer era has been driven by pursuit of money. The decision to cave in to Rooney and Stretford’s demands in that infamous week was can recognition of calculating that to allow him to move across town would potentially cause greater harm to the club’s ability to generate revenue. You need not plough through the annals of time to find examples of greed outweighing what would benefit on field performance. As I write this the squad are on the other side if the world, after yet another long distance flight, fulfilling meet and greets in an effort to flog brand United. Unlike the US tours we can’t even spin it as a worthwhile football exercise against fellow European giants. Our next opponents are severely weakened by the absence of Emile Heskey. Let that sink in a moment. Then consider the fact that our new manager and coach attributed their victory over United to the lack of foreign expeditions. How our new manager, looking at his intimidating early fixture list, must wish that he was spending his days familiarising himself with new players and surroundings in Manchester rather than photocalls by Sydney Harbour bridge. If we are disowning Rooney for being motivated chiefly by money, then we must be similarly scathing of our beloved club.
The current stand off is the result of one super rich, ruthless organisation seeking to cut the best possible deal for the club in the sale of one super rich individual. Both are trading unsubtle blows under the gaze of the public which does neither any credit. Once again we see a business masquerading as a sport. It has been an unfortunate subplot to my time supporting United that players who have served the club well have departed in ignominious circumstances. A case in point would be the departure of Ruud van Nistelrooy in 2006. Our number 10 had led us through the lean times, keeping us in contention through his goals alone as the weakest side of the Ferguson era struggled behind him. Yet when Ferguson – and the club – decided it was time to move him on it was conducted in a manner unbefitting a player who had given so much in a red shirt. In fact if Rooney had been a bit more clued up on his recent United history he would not have been so surprised by a surprise omission for the final home game of the season.
It could all be so simple; the player wants to leave, the club accept it would be best for all concerned. We should be acknowledging a player who has aided our clubs achievements but whose time has come to a natural end. Instead of an amicable, respectful parting of ways we instead have a messy divorce played out through media briefing. This has duly been jumped upon enthusiastically by some ‘fans’ who view football as a soap opera and Wayne Rooney as the arch villain. I won’t be sorry to see him go but nor will I celebrate the departure of a man who, on the football field at least, gave me such moments of pleasure.
MUFC Class Of 2013: End of Term Report: Forwards.
Despite the arrival of Robin van Persie in the summer, United only managed to muster a meagre 86 goals this season, 3 less than last time around. In reality, this was probably more attributable to the limited contribution from the wings this season because, in reality, it was a fairly positive season for the forwards. Whilst the defence did it’s best to throw away the title within the first few months – as the odds on Unibet suggested at the time – the forwards did enough up front to compensate for the kamikaze attitude on display elsewhere.
Following on from the defence and midfield reports, this report assesses how well everyone actually performed in comparison to their expected performance at the start of August. It is not a quantified ranking of individual ability, as most typical season reviews are: