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.
During this week’s Can They Score podcast, we talk about the surprisingly easy victory against Newcastle, the International Break and all that entails (or doesn’t), Burton’s opening and some silly transfer rumours. Joining us in the studio for this episode is Tom, Jonas and Adam.
An act of genius or a slice of outrageous fortune? The strike which put the icing on the cake for Man United’s comprehensive 3-0 triumph at St. James Park on Sunday sparked much debate; but what cannot be disputed is the rise of Tom Cleverley, who is attempting to become a regular for both club and country. The Basingstoke-born midfielder – who has spent nearly half his life on United’s books – is desperate to make up for lost time, following a turbulent year which has been plagued by injuries.
It is easy to forget that the 23-year-old has only notched up 21 first team appearances for United, and only netted his first goal for the club less than a fortnight ago.
The central midfield problems that the club have endured in recent years have been debated to death in the media, in social networking sites and across various blogs. It would be blind loyalty to suggest problems don’t exist, but whenever an issue occurs within the squad at Old Trafford, it is commonly blown out of proportion. This is due to the intense – and somewhat unique – scrutiny that is enforced over all things Man United.
Sir Alex foresaw this upcoming potential glitch, and earmarked a number of players who would replace the ageing pair of Scholes and Giggs. He was not helped by two of his budding talents being led astray: Paul Pogba due to his agent and desire for instant money and fame, alongside Ravel Morrison, who despite a dazzling array of talent at his disposal, pissed it all up the wall due to his lunacy.
But these departures merely added to the headache Ferguson faced. One of his most trustworthy and dependable assets: Darren Fletcher, was forced into taking a prolonged break from the game. The industrious Scot was ruled out of action for ten months due to his suffering from ulcerative colitis. The problem was rapidly developing into a crisis, and it was exacerbated yet further by prolonged and consistent injuries to both Cleverley and Anderson. Ferguson had viewed Tom as Paul Scholes’ natural and home-grown replacement for upwards of two years; and it was his injury that prompted the end of Scholes’ brief retirement.
By this stage, it was becoming increasingly evident what had impressed the wily old Scot about Cleverley. Following an impressive two and a half years with the reserve side (in which he was often named as captain) he earned a loan spell at Leicester City, helping them on their way to the League 1 title. The following season he was farmed out to Watford; his goal tally for the year ran into double figures and he was rewarded with the club’s ‘Player of the Season’ award. Both these stints were ended a month prematurely, due to injuries to his shoulder (Leicester) and knee (Watford) – luck which has continued to blight his progress.
An impressive string of performances in United’s 2010 pre-season tour of North America led many to believe he would be in the first-team squad the following season, but Wigan snapped him up on a season-long loan deal. His first season in the Premiership was highly impressive; he showed both confidence and ability and made many finally sit up and take notice.
His exciting promise continued in the early stages of the following season, but this time it was at Old Trafford. Sir Alex described him as the ‘best player’ in a pre-season victory against reigning European champions Barcelona, and he once again excelled in the Community Shield against Man City, where he was involved in the superb passing move leading up to Nani’s equaliser.
That goal encapsulated what United’s early season form was all about: a youthful abandon of caution as free-flowing attacking football reigned. Quick passing and movement was the name of the game as United ripped opposition defences to shreds. This was a dream for Tom, who’s quick-thinking and precise passing made sure the team flowed to perfection – providing assists and key passes regularly. But, as was the case in his first two loan spells, his fun and fine form was cut short due to a typically robust Kevin Davies challenge.
He returned after a month in time to take the trip to Goodison Park, and his man-of-the-match performance was widely praised by all, including his manager, who had believed he had been capable all along. Again, he linked defence with attack seamlessly and ensured a commendable 1-0 win at a notoriously tricky venue.
However, his injury curse struck again. Appearances throughout the rest of the season were sparse and United’s midfield often got bullied out of games. The team often appeared disjointed, not being able to simultaneously offer an attacking threat whilst being solid at the back. A season which had started with so much promise ended in heartbreak.
Yet in all the anger and disappointment, Cleverley was forgotten about. The fans bemoaned a lack of investment in central midfield and the team in general. Five players were signed over the summer, but not one could be classified as a central midfielder. Complaints came that Michael Carrick was doing it all on his own, and that Paul Scholes could not perform effectively over a full ninety minutes anymore.
Quietly, Tom was getting back into the groove. He started all five games of Team GB’s short-lived existence, squashing doubts which lingered over his fitness, and being the team’s top performer in the process. He also earned his first England caps – excelling alongside Carrick in a fine 2-1 win in Italy, before starting both qualifying matches against Moldova and Ukraine. Manager Roy Hodgson lavished praise upon him, and this has improved his self-confidence which is bound to have been derailed by constant injury setbacks.
He took this fine summer form into this season – scoring his first goal for the club in the League Cup against Newcastle, before scoring against the same opposition with a belter this weekend. Having waited eleven years to score his first United goal, two came in quick succession.
His partnership with Michael Carrick is one that is worth analysing more closely. The two really complement each other effortlessly, their passing and movement is a joy to behold, adding zip and zest to a side which has been criticised of becoming stale and complacent.
This is a partnership which, despite its qualities, can hamper the Red Devils, especially in away matches. The one weakness is a lack of strength – the squad lacks a player in the ‘Roy Keane’ mould, or to put it more blunt: a bully. United fans have craved a signing in the style of Yaya Toure, Fellaini or Dembele, but this was not forthcoming. The closest United have to this type of battling midfielder is a toss-up between Fletcher and Anderson, and doubts still linger over the fitness of both.
However, Ferguson believes he has a variation of possible solutions. On Sunday, he deployed Wayne Rooney in midfield to give that injection of strength and energy to complement the skill and fluency of Carrick and Cleverley, in a 4-3-3 formation. Rooney was man-of-the-match as United put in their most impressive display of the campaign to date. Sir Alex also sacrificed width in the League Cup win over Newcastle, playing both Fletcher and Anderson alongside Tom to combat the physicality the Geordies offered in the shape of Tiote.
The Carrick-Cleverley partnership is one that must be allowed to blossom, but it may mean sacrificing Ferguson’s beloved 4-4-2 formation and wide-play, especially in games away from home. With an embarrassment of riches in attack, Rooney may make one of the midfield positions his own. The emerging Nick Powell has also been earmarked by the boss to fit into such a role.
Cleverley needs to steer clear of the injuries that have hampered his fledgling career. If he does, exciting times lie ahead of both United and England. He could be the answer to Fergie’s midfield dilemma and he could ensure that England’s finest player of this generation, and close friend of Cleverley’s, drops back into midfield permanently. It will be less revolution, and more evolution, but current signs point toward an exciting future for both Tom and United.
As was made obvious on the pod this week, I don’t much care for the League Cup.
A trophy where the best teams send out their reserves has that same anti-climactic feel as in World Athletics events when USA and Jamaica put their B team in for the semi-final. Same badge, but an altogether different product. If I’m honest, I didn’t even have my heart set on watching the game last night; as any married person will be aware, remote control politics is a high stakes game. Foregoing viewing last night as a bargaining tool for more important televised moments seemed a likely move. So it was a pleasant surprise that my beloved decided that a bath was in order just before eight thirty. So taken aback was I by the realisation that I bounded up stairs to set the taps in motion. One of life’s great joys is watching Manchester United – so to be able to do so unexpectedly meant the serotonin was flowing even before the kettle had boiled.
Fletch and Ando party like it’s 2007.
Settling down for the final five minutes of the first half, brew in hand, reality bit. I remembered what the Coca Cola/Worthington/Carling/Capital One/Mickey Mouse trophy was like. Tonight’s ‘entertainment’ would be the same old laboured, disjointed performance that had characterised recent seasons. Ferguson has understandably viewed the contest as a chance to give forgotten players a chance to shine/attract buyers – Macheda and Diouf as wingers, Michael Owen labouring up front, etc. What an absolute delight then to see what actually looked like a football match. Not only that, but players seemed to actually raise their game for the occassion. Rooney’s first touch didn’t see the ball move into a new postal code for a start. Cleverley looked like the vibrant presence many have pinned their hopes on this year, popping passes around and revelling in the freedom of a more advance role. Biggest shock of the lot though was Anderson not playing like a star struck fan who had won a DHL contest to play for United. His passes were crisp and inventive, his use of the ball was intelligent and his driving runs were rightly rewarded with his name on the scoresheet. The positives didn’t stop there – a back four comprised of players new to the first team picture handled the challenge – hope springs eternal that the inevitable injury to Ferdinand or Evans won’t automatically require a redeployment of Carrick. Darren Fletcher survived ninety minutes and showed glimpses of the tenacity we have been missing so badly.
Powell has seized every opportunity to impress in his short United career.
My own personal favourite performance came from a player who spent just a small amount of time on the pitch yet made a big impression. It is a special feeling when you watch a cameo and have the sense that in years to come you will reflect on seeing a player at the start of a career that has since gone stratospheric. For all the fanfare surrounding the addition of Kagawa and van Persie, it might just turn out to be the youngster from Crewe who is considered our best business of the summer. Powell’s head appears on a permanent swivel, he plays continually on the front foot and his desire to exploit the merest opening is reminiscent of both Andres ‘the ghost’ Iniesta and Indiana Jones reclaiming his hat. It is some time since I have seen a player of such minimal experience, in such a paucity of minutes, look so accomplished. There is no better manager to judge and nurture such a talent as Ferguson and the early signs are of a player who will become a fixture in our first team before too long.
After the stuttering performance and fortunate result at the weekend, this game came as a real pick me up. A cohesive, exciting performance with two goals to cherish. The opposition were admittedly understrength, yet as their manager has opined today, Newcastle presented a formidable challenge. A challenge that we withstood, even allowing for a traditional wobble before the night was over. Real quality lurks beneath the surface of our regular eleven and it is comforting to know that whether enforced or by choice, the manager has the tools to make changes should our main men fail to fire.
As the transfer window heads towards its peak, so does the outcry for new recruits and the inevitable calls for a new midfield maestro.
The general consensus amongst United fans seems to be that the central pairing of Carrick and Scholes is too old, too slow and too feeble to overcome teams such as Manchester City and Chelsea. Therefore, it has surprised many that the mighty Scot, whose job it is to oversee how this operation works, does not share the fans’ viewpoint.
Hailed as the next Paul Scholes when he burst onto the scene with an emphatic display against FC Barcelona in our pre-season tour of the States in 2011, Tom Cleverley had a promising breakthrough season marred by injuries. This season, once he returns from the Olympics, the 22 year old midfielder will be hoping to make a bigger impact on the first eleven with his intricate style of play.
After a successful loan spell at Wigan Athletic in the 2010/11 season, Cleverley returned to Old Trafford and immediately struck up an exciting relationship with Anderson in central midfield after Paul Scholes‘ retirement. However, this partnership was clearly too porous for Sir Alex’s liking and was disbanded by defensive worries and cruel injuries, leaving the Englishman to make only 15 appearances in all competitions.
Amidst a gloomy economic outlook, loans of some sort or the other seem to be dominating the front pages of news. Loan news in the footballing world occupies tiny, three-inch column spaces in the middle pages, but appear to have proven far more fruitful. Last season saw the return of Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley following successful loan spells in the premier league with Sunderland and Wigan Athletic.
Previous beneficiaries of the loan system have included stars such as Paul Scholes and notably David Beckham. With the yoke of ‘Glazeronomics’ unlikely to depart any time soon, it becomes all the more imperative for a club like United to reap returns on loanees which they can reinvest on the pitch or the market. So who are the ones likely to be farmed out for a season or two? And when they return, do they stand a chance of cutting it at United?
The reserve team captain tops this list. Over the last couple of years, Old Trafford has seen overseas talents, in Giuseppe Rossi and Gerard Pique, hone their skills at the club, but eventually grow to world class players elsewhere. Paul Pogba could, and most likely will, follow them to achieve stardom away from Old Trafford. Is there a trend beginning to surface? If so, it must end here. Petrucci isn’t likely to make the cut immediately at OT. However a string of impressive performances for the reserves have convinced this writer that he could light up the theatre of dreams in the years to come, IF he sticks around long enough.
As this campaign teased out to an exciting yet somewhat inevitable climax, United fans cant help but have a bitter taste in our mouth at how the season has gone.
After the superb, flowing football exhibited in pre season and community shield, as well as our first few performances against Spurs and Bolton particularly, not to mention the demolition of the Gooners on a glorious Sunday at Old Trafford, United supporters and pundits alike were no-doubt wondering if Sir Alex had spent his holiday at Hotel La Masia. It was exciting, exhilarating and most importantly full of promise.
Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck made instant impacts returning from loan spells at Wigan and Sunderland respectively. Almost instantaneously partnerships were struck up, Welbeck linking with Rooney and fellow new-boy Ashley Young who In turn seemed to have no trouble linking up with our dynamic midfield duo of Cleverley and the resurgent Anderson. Smalling too, looked very comfortable at right back and Phil Jones partnering the terminator Vidic. This young side looked as if it could not only be in contention for the title, but win it in a style of football that was, quite simply, enthralling.
Then the wheels came off. Key injuries to Cleverley, Welbeck, the prolonged absence of Javier Hernandez and most significantly the long term injuries to Vidic, Fletcher and Anderson come some way to explaining our struggles this year, however, deeper problems emerged. It was plain that without Cleverley, Anderson and Fletcher our midfield was terribly anaemic.
The manner in which Manchester City pried back a title already won by their rivals, clawing themselves to a win against Q.P.R. with two of the most last gasp goals since that night in Barcelona (come to think of it, poor Bayern), inevitably creates a sense of worry and fear over what the next few seasons hold in store for the red half of Manchester.
With what appears to be an endless supply of oil money, Manchester City look poised to further strengthen their grip on the Premier League and, simultaneously, take Europe by storm. If City’s transfer target rumors are any indication- and I can’t find one reason they shouldn’t be- things are beginning to look pretty bleak for the Red Devils.
Robin Van Persie, Gareth Bale, and, perhaps most spectacularly, Zlatan Ibrahimovich, have all been linked with the Etihad outfit. Aggravating all of this is the ever-growing sense amongst United supporters, and indeed one W. Rooney, that the club no longer has the clout- be it financial or otherwise- to lure the sport’s major stars to Old Trafford.
We’ve heard this all before. We heard this at the start of the transfer window two years ago, right after Cristiano Ronaldo went onto the continent play for Galacticos MkII and Carlos Tevez betrayed all of our collective love and swapped red for blue. We heard it when United failed to sign Wesley Snejder, Luka Modric, Gareth Bale; and we especially heard it when “all” Ferguson was able to scrounge up recently were an over-the-hill Michael Owen, a winger from Wigan, and recently, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, and Ashley Young. Let’s not forget, somewhere in the middle of all that there was Bebe.
These signings, taken in part with the money spent by the noisy neighbors, signaled a Brave New World, one where City won everything, and United did not. Yet that new world did not happen. It took City four-odd years to finally, by the hairs on Owen Hargreaves’ chinny-chin-chin, finally, win something to justify their 250 million-plus-pound squad. Here is why next season (and the seasons after), hold much promise for United.
The Return of Nemanja
When Marco Streller rolled onto Nemanja Vidic’s right knee in a Champions League match in early December 2011, a string of events was set in motion that would eventually lead to lost games, lost points, and a lost title. The resulting reshuffle saw Michael Carrick at CB and Antonio Valencia deployed at RB in consecutive losses, to Blackburn and Newcastle, respectively.
Surely other injuries caused problems, but few, if any, had as much impact on the fortunes of the team as number 15’s. Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling, and Phil Jones covered for the big Serb respectably throughout the season, but, as the stands suggest “He comes from Serbia… He’ll ****** murder yer…” There is no discounting the experience and solidity he brings at the back.
Let’s get this straight from the start – Frank Lampard is still a very, very good footballer.
Inevitably, he is ageing and in slow decline as a result, but he is not as washed up as some would try to persuade you. Neither is he still the world-class talent some of his champions in the press would have you believe. Read more…