What a time for a break. You’d certainly forgive David Moyes for taking some time out to enjoy some rest and recuperation following a suffocating opening few months to life as manager of Manchester United. The old adage that ‘everyone thinks they can be manager’ was traditionally aimed at the national team job but in today’s globalised world debate on who should make up the first eleven of Manchester United rages untamed. Southampton at home should represent the most routine of fixtures yet given the contrasting fortunes of the two sides thus far it has emerged as the pick of the weekend fixtures at betting sites like news.coral.co.uk.
Rather than engage in some downtime, it is far more likely that workaholic Moyes spent every waking hour wrestling with the challenges he faces over the next few weeks, months and even years. Whereas Ferguson became an expert at managing in the face of restriction from above, his successor has found himself roundly criticised for attempting to manage expectations of a manically demanding fanbase. The facebook and twitter mafia might be expected to hit the panic button more readily than the wise old match goer; but both sets of fan groups have legitimate concerns which need to be addressed over the coming series of fixtures.
So what are these challenges that Moyes needs to approach head on?
Rooney has been replaced. He looks on grim-faced as the young pretender relishes the opportunity and rapidly graduates from little known understudy to the main event whilst the team’s former talisman looks on. Rooney faces the reality that his best days are past. No longer do his team mates and supporters entrust him with their hopes and dreams. As much as they revere the part he has played in the club’s history; it is clear to all that the future belongs to others.
Fortunately for the man who goes by a teenager’s nickname, the Rooney in question is Jack rather than ’Wazza’. This scene from Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday plays like a disconcerting premonition of things to come for United’s number ten.
Like Jack, having got used to being the main man, Wayne has found his billing reduced. Not only has Robin van Persie usurped him as the team’s star attraction, but both Shinji Kagawa and Danny Welbeck have in the eyes of many fans emerged as the men most likely. Like in all his films, Stone’s message lacks subtlety but rings true regardless. Everyone can be replaced. Today’s star can become Yesterday’s man before he even knows it.
In Wayne’s case, you can inevitably trace the beginning of his fall from grace to that distasteful episode where in league with his agent he either a) extorted the club or b) took on the Glazers, depending on your view of the man. Regardless of the motivation, his appeal for the acquisition of world class talent has both enhanced the team and diluted his influence. Proven high quality arrived in the form of Robin van Persie, along with potential greatness in De Gea, Jones and Kagawa. The last title-winning side – so reliant upon its talisman – was remoulded, no longer centred upon Rooney. He is not alone in finding himself a functional sentry where once he was a centurion. Both Nani, and even Valencia , have found themselves at odds with the manager’s tactical vision.
To describe Rooney as having a poor season would be ridiculous. He provided a staggering number of assists, delivered a reasonable return in front of goal and earned plaudits for his willingness to adapt to deeper roles. This last element is where the questions lie. Arguments rage over Rooney’s potential to become a central midfielder but the fact these debates continue as he finishes his eighth season at the club is proof of the state of flux in which he finds himself. In the wake of Ronaldo’s sale, expectations rose that Rooney would fulfil his promise to emerge as a player equal to the greatest in world football. For a time he threatened to do so; memorably eviscerating a Milan side who had no answer to his combination of explosive power and intelligent movement. This was not to be sustained, as inconsistency in performance (if not output) convinced his manager to look elsewhere. The call for more goals to fight back against City brought a new face rather than a renewal of faith in the existing star. To paraphrase OFSTED, Rooney has been ‘good, with outstanding features.’
Should Rooney have become the player we hoped? Perhaps we asked for too much. The teen prodigy has edged close to becoming the record goalscorer for one of the world’s greatest clubs. Precious few precocious sportsmen have ever gone on to fulfil the lofty expectations lavished upon them – I give you Robinho for example. Yet like Robinho, the suspicions remain that lifestyle choices away from the field have undermined his achievements on it. None too subtle regular references to his ‘conditioning’ suggest his manager agrees. Even those Reds who defended his actions in the contract saga could not defend his return from the summer clearly overweight. We hoped the arrival of RvP and Kagawa would fuel his appetite to prove his worth, but sadly it seemed only to have fuelled his appetite. On the field Rooney has cut an unusually isolated figure at times this season; appearances punctuated by unforced errors and the now familiar throwing up of the arms when things don’t go his way. Life on the football field frequently looks a chore rather than the pleasure it once was.
Apologists might point to his manager as the reason for a failure to press on. The tombola has forced Rooney to play markedly different roles from week to week. It is an oft heard lament that Rooney’s selfless flexibility has been exploited at the cost of excelling in one particular role. ‘He can play anywhere’ is meant as a compliment, yet the great players don’t. For them it is an endorsement of capability as oppose to a statement of intention. Robson and Keane were both praised as such yet positional changes for those two only came in the darkest of injury crises. The reality for Rooney is that despite being given opportunities to establish himself as both a striker and a creator, he has not convinced his manager of his ability to excel in either role. In the two biggest matches of the season, he was used either as a grafter or not at all. As much as supporters tried to underplay the significance of both selections, the inescapable fact was that Wayne Rooney is no longer considered essential to success. The era of ‘the big man’ is over.
The perverse reality is that in the month that he has added yet another title to his burgeoning collection, Rooney is perceived to be mulling over his next move. Stay, sign a new deal and fight for his desired place? All power to him if he does, but Ferguson’s fluttering of eyelashes at Dortmund’s lethal Pole don’t suggest a man preparing to restore Rooney to frontline service. Nor does the pointed praise of Kagawa and promises of a big future ahead suggest Rooney’s future role will replicate that of his shirt number. An alternative then is stay, sign a new deal and continue to serve in a variety of roles. Those who claim that Rooney could convert to a champions league quality central midfielder after ten draining years have admirable faith I sadly lack. His expensive use of the ball and frequent heavy touch don’t meet the criteria for the mobile, technical number 8 Ferguson craves.
The real alternative could be out of Rooney’s hands, yet ruefully I feel it best for the player and most probably the club. His contribution to our club derserves respect; at times he has carried us. Yet despite the occasional moments of brilliance; the consistent excellence that characterises the true greats has proved elusive once again this season. If a suitor is prepared to cross the Glazers palms with sufficient silver; a new club, with a new manager, could be precisely the fresh challenge needed to make the next five years of Rooney’s career the peak rather than the epilogue.
Following United’s successful progression into the next round of the FA Cup, this week’s Can They Score podcast looks back at our 2-1 victory against Reading before previewing our next PL match against Queens Park Rangers. We’ll be critiquing Nani’s performance, defending Ashley Young, looking at a bit of Brazilian magic and talking about the legendary Emile Heskey. We also pick our players of week, do a red’s recall on Ray Wilkins and give our predictions. Joining me in the studio is Steven and Frenchy.
Twelve points. Not since May 2001 has the gap between the Premiership leaders and their nearest challengers been so gaping. Manchester United have garnered the highest points tally (65) after 26 games than any other outfit in the Premiership era.
Yet this is a side which receives very little love from the media. Every journalist or pundit stresses to clarify that this is far from a vintage Manchester United side. They’re not blowing teams away every week and their level of performance is far from spectacular. They will go out of the Champions League to Real Madrid and any domestic success will be as a result of the perceived low standard of the competition.
Now, I’m old enough to remember back to May last year. Manchester United ‘blew it’ in ‘the most exciting title race ever’. Manchester City had a seemingly endless chequebook, and by all accounts had a far superior starting eleven and greater strength in depth. Radio phone-in’s across the land and internet football forums were gleeful that not only were United no longer the biggest club in the world, but they weren’t even going to be the biggest in their own city. Then there was Chelsea – European champions and ready to launch a fresh assault on the Manchester dominance. Read more…
Although Fulham put up a fight (and knocked off the lights), United reaped the rewards of their ambition after picking up a hard-fought three points at Craven Cottage last night. Thanks to a moment of expert incision from Wayne Rooney, United find themselves nine points clear at the top of the table with 13 games to go.
Rio Ferdinand Has Still Got It
Alongside the equally imperious Jonny Evans, Rio was a rock at the back. When Fulham were piling on the pressure, it was the 34-year-old veteran from Peckham who stood tall and cleared the danger. Making a succession of vital headers in the closing minutes, he encapsulates the determination shown by the old guard this season to win back the title and is making an impressive case for a contract extension this summer.
Other than suffering a rush of blood to the head in the second half, Rio was almost faultless at the back. Although he reminded all those present how foolish Roy Hodgson’s footballing reasons were last summer, Sir Alex will be relieved that he’s not involved in the England squad this week as he gives him time to recover and decide whether or not to play him against Everton next Sunday, considering United are away in Madrid that Wednesday. Considering the options we have, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Smalling and Vidic step in, like they did against Southampton, with Rio and Evans playing in the Bernabeu.
Tom Cleverley is Progressing Smoothly
As the Super Bowl dawns upon this evening, I can’t help but draw comparisons between Cleverley and the 49ers Kaepernick. Both were considered second-tier talents at the start of their young careers, unfavoured in the academy and the draft respectively, and both now find themselves excelling on the biggest stage.
Thanks to their professionalism and enthusiasm, both have become unlikely heroes in their respective campaigns and integral to their team’s success. Just as I wouldn’t fancy the 49ers chances with a bet on the super bowl without Kaepernick, I wouldn’t bet on United’s chances in the Bernabeau without Cleverley. The young Englishman is maturing nicely both tactically and physically alongside Carrick and is a far superior option to our other alternatives. After his injury hit campaign last term, Cleverley’s fitness this time around may be key to our success in this final third of the season this time around.
Wins Make Champions
Although the Red Devils are notably more cautious now in comparison to their kamikaze start to the season, Sir Alex is still prepared to take risks. With the scores level, Ferguson made the positive move of bringing on Hernandez and Giggs. He recognised the importance of getting all three points and went for it. This attitude saw United take the lead and earned them their 20th win of the season (20W, 2D, 3L).
Meanwhile, Roberto Mancini has taken the more pragmatic approach this season and frustrated fans with his defensive substitutions this season. Although City have lost one less game than United this season, they now find themselves 9 points behind having drawn 6 more games and it seems fortune has favoured the brave this season.
Rooney was Ronaldo-esque
Missing penalties, looking podgy, ripping his shirts and sat on the bench, Rooney has been in for a lot of criticism over the last few months. Looking slow and sloppy in comparison to Shinji Kagawa when he came on at White Hart Lane, a lot of people, myself included, wondered whether he’d make an impact on the title race this season. However, in the past week, he has unequivocally proved his doubted wrong.
Whilst Robin van Persie has fired blanks in consecutive games, Rooney has earned us six points in the last few days. Reaching 10 goals for the 8 season in a row, he’s reminded everyone who had temporarily forgot that he’s still a class act. In fact, it’s a testament to the standards he has set that his performances are being brought into question has been involved in 68 goals in United’s last 66 games (47 goals & 21 assists).
“It was similar to when we played here a few years ago when Cristiano scored near the end and we went on to have an undefeated run after that, it was around the same time too.” Sir Alex via The Telegraph
Drawing comparison to Ronaldo’s famous winner a few years, Rooney picked the ball up on the left, following a misjudged header by Senderos, and ran confidently towards the Fulham goal before calmly curling the ball low beyond the grasp of Schwarzer. Belatedly, it seems United’s talismanic English forward is finally finding his fifth gear as the Madrid fixture looms large just down the road.
The summer of 2006. The balance of power in English seemingly shifting to London as Chelsea had secured their first back-to-back league titles in their history, while Arsenal had come within twenty minutes of their first Champions League trophy. Shevchenko and Ballack – both in their pomp – agreed moves to Stamford Bridge.
Manchester United appeared to be on the verge of turmoil as a solitary League Cup success was mere sticking plaster to cover the gaping wounds of no league title in three years – United’s longest barren spell since the Premiership was created. They had been eliminated in the group stages of the Champions League too. Ruud van Nistelrooy had become the latest high profile name to depart the club. Rumours were rife that Cristiano Ronaldo wanted out following the English media’s brutal and relentless witch-hunt of the teenage prodigy. Football pundits across the land were relishing in United’s apparent downfall and many predicted them to finish outside the top four, with Ferguson bowing out of the game. Read more…
8th April 2010 was a day of stark contrast in Manchester United’s history. On the one hand, the Red Devils had just been knocked out of the Champions League the day after losing on away goals to Bayern München (a 3-2 win at Old Trafford proved insufficient to overcome a 2-1 loss in Germany) and on the other hand a virtually unknown Mexican striker, nicknamed “little pea,” was unveiled as a new Manchester United player.
Javier “Chicharito” Hernández Balcázar was signed from Club Deportivo Guadalajara (widely known as “Chivas”), arguably Mexico’s most successful team, for a reported fee of £6 million. At the time, he was unknown Mexican whose signing didn’t garner too much attention but in the years since there is no question that United’s scouts did a great job in plucking Chicharito from relative European obscurity. Read more…
After earning 10 points from 12 over the festive period, this week’s Can They Score podcast looks back at how we performed over the tough Christmas schedule and takes a wider look back at everything that has happened this season so far in our mid season review! We pick our player of the year, goal of the year, disappointment of the year and much more. Joining me in the studio today is Tom and we would both like to wish all our listeners a Happy New Year!
Combining alcohol and football heartache isn’t always the best idea as many of us can testify, but it was the often potent mixture which fuelled Sir Alex Ferguson’s speech at the Manchester United Player of the Year awards last May. Speaking the night after two last-gasp goals saw United surrender their grip on the title, Ferguson spoke of those questioning his place in the modern game: “I’m a dinosaur, I’m an absolute dinosaur but what I am, I’m a winner”. Read more…
In the latest edition of the Scouting Report, I will be taking a look at some player statistics from the first part of the season and in this piece, I will be looking at appearances, goals, assists and passing statistics. So far this season, Manchester United have played 20 games, winning 15 of those and losing the remaining five and, as the season moves towards the Christmas period, it is an appropriate time to focus on some of the United players contributions during the current campaign. Read more…