Friday, 3 July 2009

Owen and Benzema - some objectivity

The rage of United fans is almost palpable this morning. One day after being gazumped on Benzema by Real Madrid, we're almost certain to sign former Liverpool star and Real Madrid and Newcastle flop Michael "Sick Note" Owen.

Edit: Owen has completed his signing.

I am pleased about both of these events.

Benzema is no great loss at that price

Benzema first. He clearly has talent in abundance and has set the French league on fire. He scored a great goal against us. Pretty much everyone who's watched him thinks he has the potential to be a great player. At a stretch, in these bizarre counter-recession times, that makes him worth £25m and no more, but only at a stretch. £35m? £40m? Forget it.

Other players to have emerged as the "next great superstriker" from the French leagues include Didier Drogba and Djibril Cisse. The best that can be said of Cisse is that he gave us an irrefutable line of attack against Liverpool fans, whilst Drogba looked like a donkey for one season, a legend for the next and a moody clown ever since.

On top of that, Benzema's desire to play for Real is well known. What if he came to us, scored a hatful next season and spent the whole of next summer agitating for a £60m move to Real. Not that inconceivable a situation - and I would much prefer signing a player who views United as the peak and who would turn down more money from elsewhere to come to us (as Berbatov did).

I was never convinced we needed him or that he wanted us, so I'm really not that fussed. What does bother me, though, is the sentiment being bandied around that we should have matched Real's bid just because we have the money to do so.We have never operated like that, and rightly so, and anyone who thinks we should write a blank cheque for any player we fancy just because we can sounds a bit too much like a Chelski fan to me.

Finally, where would Benzema have played? At the top of a trio with Berba and Rooney behind him? That would be far too narrow, but I don't see any other alternative that doesn't involves Rooney playing out wide.


Scott has made his position pretty clear on Owen's signing already this morning, but I am in favour of the signing:

  • Yes, he's injury-prone, but whenever he is fit he scores goals at a good rate.
Injury-prone is the major footballing (as opposed to personal) reason why Owen is not a good signing. He has kept up with Louis Saha's rate of missing huge chunks of every season since a big money move. However, like Saha, when he is fit he is dangerous and scores a lot of goals. In 65 starts for Newcastle he scored 30 goals [edited - thanks!] , and also showed an interesting versatility which permitted him to create goals for others as well.
  • We are getting him for free and on a very modest wage
If we were paying £10m and £100k a week for Owen, I'd be against the signing - way too much to lose, and we could use the money better elsewhere. But for free and on £50k a week, there's very little downside for us. The worst case is that he's with us a year, barely starts any games and barely contributes - but the potential upside is a proven big-game goalscorer who still has the talents to trouble any defence on his day.
  • We only need him to start say 10-15 games, with more sub appearances, and even when he starts he'll probably only need to play 60 minutes
Other clubs (such as Blackburn) have rejected a possible move because he can't be guaranteed to play 30 games a season. We don't need him to do that - we need him to be a reserve striker, whose principal is to come on for 15 minutes and nick a goal, with the occasional start mixed in. Think of his role as the new Solskjaer or Sheringham - the type of player who, as I argued before, we needed to sign this summer alongside any bigger-money players. If you want proof of his ability to be an effective substitute, you have only to look at his performances for Real during their galacticos era.

  • He is desperate for a World Cup place, and therefore has a real incentive to rediscover his old form and a real point to prove
It was pretty obvious that he didn't care for a lot of the time that he was at Newcastle. But Capello's repeated snubbing of him has really brought out some fire again, and he looks like he is desperate to play for and succeed at a big club. We could really reap the benefit of that if he stays fit - he still has the potential to be a 20+ goals per season player.
  • Some of the negative attitudes surrounding him (such as the money-grabbing nature of his move to Newcastle and his loss of interest in football) are overplayed
One of the main criticisms levelled against Owen is that he took a big money move to Newcastle rather than wait for a bigger club. Firstly, when Owen went to Newcastle, they weren't the complete shower that they are now. Second, and more importantly, he hated Madrid (having never settled in either footballing or cultual and person terms), and would have taken any move back to England. However, since he came with a £15m price tag and £100k wages, none of the big clubs were interested - leaving a gap for Newcastle.

I have no doubt that Owen saw Newcastle as a stepping stone back to a top level English club. But his injuries have stopped him from making that next move, leaving him stuck at a club that he didn't love and who didn't love him. The loss of interest was understandable, and I'm not sure it was really his fault, particularly given the laughable chaos which was playing out around him.

Finally, yes, he played for Liverpool and talked their talk while he was there. Nothing can change that - but (call me disloyal if you want) that was many moons ago and I'm prepared to give him a chance.

Fergie has the gambler's instinct, and he's seen the potential upside. Let's join him in hoping the potential becomes reality.


Wednesday, 1 July 2009

As much as I liked Ronaldo...

...and I was probably one of his biggest defenders, isn't it great not to have to think about off-field antics like this anymore?

Instead of trying to reconcile it with the player who runs out every week wearing the red, now he's just a typical Real galactico, fighting with paparazzi.

I knew there was a silver lining somewhere (that, and the money).


Monday, 22 June 2009

Transfer targets Mk 43634

The summer of activity so far: Sober Reflections on Rome, Thoughts on Ronaldo (pre-transfer), The End of Fergie's Third Era and The Anatomy of Team Four

I promised myself I wouldn't do it - I promised I wouldn't give in to temptation. But even the best of us have our weak moments, and so here is my runthrough of the latest batch of transfer rumours.

Valencia - good winger (something we're short of at the moment), seems keen and looks to be available for around £17m. Although Dave Whelan now wants his piece of the Ronaldo cash, of course - come on Dave, £17m is more than enough for a Wigan winger.

Ribery - excellent winger, although not going to fill the goalscoring hole left by Ronaldo. And you can absolutely guarantee that Fergie is never going to pay Real money for him, so if the asking price is over £40m you can absolutely forget it. With so many clubs chasing him, and with the hard-nosed Bayern running the auction, I'd be astonished to see him at United next season. Dreamer's choice.

Young - Scott at RoM may have declared himself on the Ribery bandwagon, but if there's a Young bandwagon then I'm driving it. I want this player. A lot. He is making noises about leaving Villa, but at the moment Spurs are reported to be at the head of the pack. Spurs? I mean, I know they're our feeder club, but still, why would he leave a club to go, at best, sideways? I'm really hoping Fergie is working behind the scenes at this one, but I'm not convinced.

Benzema - clearly has promise, but is unproven outside the French league and his chairman is, as Red Rants correctly analyses, very good at getting cash out of big teams. I will remain unconvinced on this one until someone can satisfactorily explain to me how Rooney, Berbatov and Benzema can play in the same team without either a) Rooney playing wide left or b) our formation becoming unacceptably narrow.

Huntelaar, Casillas, Robben, Diarra - if we wanted a Real player, we would have arranged to receive them as part of the Ronaldo deal. Notwithstanding the fact that I don't particularly want at our club a player who has ever thought Real Madrid to be appealing, that commercial reason alone is enough to make me discount all of these.

Hulk - bandied around a bit last week, and seems on the plausible side to me due to his physicality and his great performance against United in the CL last season. Watch this space.

Eto'o - I don't think someone like Eto'o would come to a club where he'd clearly be used in limited circumstances only. Nor do I particularly think Fergie will want a player who doesn't contribute except to score goals - but then, at current count we need 40-odd goals from somewhere next season. I'd be happy if he arrived, but I don't think we'll be first choice.

I will stick by what I said before and state that if we got Valencia, Hulk and a decent cheapish reserve striker then we'd be in reasonable shape for next season. Obviously, Valencia, Young and Eto'o would be very good business. Anything more than that is dreamland for my money.

Any rumours I've missed? Shout and I'll be happy to give my views in the comments box.


Thursday, 18 June 2009

Team Four

Following on from my previous post where I suggested that Ronaldo's departure marked the end of Fergie's Third Great Team, I want to look at how his fourth great team (or Team Four, if you will) is going to begin to take shape this summer and next season.

4-4-2, and why it failed last season

Before I get onto personnel, let's deal with formation. I envisage Team Four being built around a reversion to 4-4-2 in a way that hasn't been possible since the halcyon days of Louis Saha's half-season in 06-07. Fergie tried to revert to 4-4-2 last season as Berbatov was being introduced, but it clearly did not make best use of the resources available - chiefly because it marginalised Ronaldo, tying his goalscoring gifts to a touchline where they were much less of a threat.

Also - with Nani stalling, Park not incisive enough and Giggs' pace failing, we lacked an incisive counterbalance to Ronaldo (whereas when Saha was playing with Rooney, we had Ronaldo and Giggs on the wings). With only Ronaldo threatening, it was easy for the opposing team to tuck one of their central midfielders over to be a de facto second full-back, whilst ensuring the corresponding wide player tracked back. This regularly gave Ronaldo a three-on-one disadvantage, and even he wasn't good enough to make hay with those odds all the time.

Conversely, when the threat is balanced from both flanks, the central midfielders have hard choices to make. Either they both push wide, leaving plenty of space free in the middle for our strikers to drop or our midfielders to burst into. Or, they both funnel towards one side, leaving the opposing flank very vulnerable if United can switch the ball quickly (something that Scholes, and latterly Carrick, are very proficient at).

Hence why pulling Rooney out to the left wing worked so well towards the end of the season. The "gang-up-on-Ronaldo" mentality was ingrained in the opposition and so Rooney was given time, space and only one man to worry about - and consequently flourished.

Potential changes

So, having seen what we need to make 4-4-2 work, what sort of names might we hope to find on the teamsheet next season? How much of our reported £100m war chest will we need to spend to get there, and on how many players?

The main thing to bear in mind is that Fergie will always look within the squad first. Last season we talked about the most promising crop of youngsters since the Beckham / Scholes / Nevilles era - now it's time to see how true that claim was. Also, Fergie very rarely signs a really big name, particularly not one who is on the hitlist of every big club in Europe - so I would expect a number of lower key acquisitions rather than a show-stopper. Dream small, boys and girls.


Firstly, it must be clear - if it wasn't before - that Fergie is going to need to back Rooney and Berbatov through the middle. Berba has yet to fully justify the fee we paid for him, but a pre-season with the squad and the chance to feel like a first choice player by right rather than by transfer fee should bring more out of him. If you want a case for playing Rooney through the middle, you have only to see how he has performed for England over the last 9 months.

One obvious gap is the issue of reserve strikers. Rooney and Berba both had their injury problems last season, and it would be naive to rely on them both to be fit for the whole campaign. From within, we can only look to Macheda and Welbeck as genuine strikers - both of whom have shown promise in the few run outs they did get, but you would hardly want to be relying on them if Rooney broke a metatarsal again.

However, with Rooney and Berba in place, we are never going to sign a world-class striker. It would be an impossible sell to persuade someone of equal calibre to our existing strikers to come and be part of a squad system. So we are left with either young strikers who would be happy to be part of a rotation, or older strikers (in the Sheringham mould) who could come to us for a last fling at glory and be happy to be a squad player.

Not all that many names spring to mind - Benni McCarthy, Eidur Gudjohnssen? Jermaine Defoe? This one will be a test for Fergie.


Next, the wingers. I would think that Valencia is almost guaranteed to arrive. Valencia is principally a right-sided midfielder, who is accustomed to the Premiership, and he fills an obvious hole on the teamsheet.

There are no shortage of candidates to fill the other berth. Nani and Tosic are both internal players bought with a view to being a long term replacement for Giggs, but it is hard to tell whether either of them will be up to it - Nani got little gametime last season, and Tosic has yet to make a Premiership start.

If we were to sign a player, Ribery is obviously the name on everyone's lips. He is clearly a great player and I would love to have him, but I expect Bayern to be a total nightmare about the transfer and totally unrealistic about the asking price. There is no way that United are going to get involved in a four way auction with Barca, Real and Chelsea.

Aaron Lennon is one domestic prospect being talked of. However - apart from the fact that I don't think anyone at United will want the brain damage of another summer negotiation with Daniel Levy and co - he is a bit injury prone and also sometimes lacks the end product in the final third to match his trickery and pace.

My real top choice would be Ashley Young - fast, tricky, scores goal, is accustomed to the Premiership and is English. There's no way Villa could refuse £30m for him. If we were going to spend megabucks on a winger, Young would be better value for money that Ribery.

Central midfield

We're pretty well equipped in the centre of midfield, with one exception - if Hargreaves doesn't recover, we are very light on defensive midfielders. Fletcher has acquired an unhealthy level of importance to the squad, one which we would be well advised to plug somehow. Given that we've been linked in the past with basically every defensive midfielder in the world, I'm sure names will spring to your mind - my personal favourite would be Gattuso as a short term fix, but that is highly unlikely. If there was anyone we might consider picking up from the Real firesale, Diarra is a possibility also. What I wouldn't give for Essien............but there really is no chance of that.


Here, any regeneration we need can come from within. Rafael and Fabio can expect to see plenty of game time, as can the superb Jonny Evans. Hopefully Wes Brown will be back to full fitness by the start of the season as well, giving us valuable cover at right back and centre back.


I have long advocated that EVDS be phased out and Foster phased in. I really do think that Foster has everything it takes to perform at the highest level. The key is his fitness - if he stays fit for the whole season, I would expect him to play a large number of league and cup games. If he can't stay fit, then next summer will be the time to consider signing a keeper from elsewhere.

Right, those are my rather extensive views - what are yours?


Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Another view on the "under-26" policy

The Guardian has reported that United have a new transfer policy which prohibits us from signing any players under the age of 26 on the basis that they wouldn't have sufficient resale value.

If true, this is clearly A Bad Thing. Red Ranter does a good job of explaining why, on the face of it, this is potentially detrimental to our prospects.

However, I'm a bit more cynical - I don't believe it's true. You're welcome to accuse me of overanalysing this, bit I think it is quite a clever piece of propaganda from Fergie and the United board.

Think about it. Everyone in the world knows that we now have £80m jangling around in our pocket, alongside the £20-25m that we probably had to spend anyway. This immediately sends all the prices for "proven" replacements for Ronaldo (if such a player exists) through the roof.

Now, with this "under-26" policy so publicly in place - and I expect us to conclude a couple of signings which comply with it - United can look to approach negotiations like this:

Bayern (or similar): "we know how much money you have, and so we want you to pay this ridiculous price for our player, which we wouldn't have even dreamed over before Real opened the floodgates"

United: "well, as you know it's almost impossible to persuade the Glazers to part with money for anyone 26 or over, and if we were to even have a hope of getting the money out of them then the price would have to be very reasonable - would you like to have another think about your asking price?"

It also makes has a couple of secondary benefits:

1) it might stop United being linked with quite so many established stars at ridiculous prices over the coming weeks, and may cool the feeding frenzy over players like Ribery; and

2) of making it very clear to anyone who wants to try to buy one of our players who we have developed that we know full well what they're worth, and you'd better be prepared to pay top dollar if you come calling.

I could be wrong about this, but few people are as adept at using the media for their own devices as Fergie and there is too much upside for United in this leak for the possibility to be ignored.


My leftfield transfer pick(s)

Gabby Agbonlahor.

Fast, can play from either side or centrally, scores at a good rate, can score with headers...remind you of anyone?

Except he is English and would likely be a "buy-for-life".

Ashley Young would be a good buy too - and I'm sure we could get both for comfortably less than the £60 quoted for Ribery.

What do you reckon?


Monday, 15 June 2009

The End of Fergie's Third Era

I'm not going to write about the Ronaldo transfer at the moment. Plenty of others have done so, expressing viewpoints from across the spectrum. I made my opposition to the move clear in my last post, which was published less than 12 hours before the move was announced and therefore made me look a bit silly. In short, though, I'm disappointed by it and I think he'll be hard to replace, we got a good price and I'm taking it in a fairly philosophical fashion.

I want to look at this from a wider perspective, from the point of view that Ronaldo's departure is the most eye catching aspect of the end of Fergie's third era. There are other losses too - Tevez is certain to depart (and I, for one, unapologetically hope he does); Giggs, Neville and Scholes are at the very end of the twilight of their careers; van der Sar is fading fast; and those of a particularly pessimistic mindset might argue that Rio's recurring back problems mean that his partnership with Vida will never be when it was.

This, in one way, is why the Ronaldo money is a godsend. There is significant regeneration to be done across the squad, and in particular across the forward line. Our first XI next season will look very different to our first XI last season.

In truth, this change has been coming for 12 months or so. All the plaudits dished out at the end of last season - the majority of them before the loss to Barcelona - talked about this side being the peak of Fergie's third great team. In fact, it is hard to convincingly argue that it wasn't a team in decline compared to the Champions League-winning side of 2007-08.

07-08 vs 08-09

That side played with flair and panache, as well as exhibiting the steely spine that achieved records in 08-09. It was a scintillating team to watch, with various supremely gifted players operating at the peak of their powers. It was Ronaldo's finest season, one that he'll find hard to top no matter what he does at Real. Tevez, too, played out of his skin - a level of performance that raised expectations too far for last season, and yet still was responsible for much of the rose-tinted "Fergie, sign him up" chants. Giggs was still a threat from either wing and Scholes could still run games from the centre of midfield. Carrick matured, Anderson played as though to the manor born. Nani sparkled, intermittently but with promise. More prosaically, Wes Brown played out his most effective and influential season in United colours. Vidic and Evra's names were written in the column headed "Fergie's shrewdest buys ever", rather than the slightly less flattering category in which they were placed. In the Premiership, we scored 88 and conceded 22.

The 08-09 vintage was efficient rather than dazzling. The majority of our squad were inconsistent - great one week, indifferent the next. Fergie squeezed every inch of performance out of them by rotating them ruthlessly, but only Darren Fletcher could claim to have improved substantially on his previous season's showing. Ronaldo still scored crucial and spectacular goals and remained amongst the leading scorers in the country, but too many displays were characterised by petulance and frustration. Berbatov could make your jaw hit the floor on occasion, but didn't find a consistent place in the United passing geometry. Tevez worked hard but achieved comparatively little. Anderson seemed unsure of his role and performed fitfully. Vidic was mostly immense but made several high profile errors. Nani only turned up in the Carling Cup. Scholes' legs appeared to have gone. Giggs' player of the season award was for some stunningly accomplished cameos, but cameos nonetheless. Evra looked defensively shaky at times, and van der Sar periodically a complete liability. We rarely demolished teams, preferring instead to monopolise possession and nick the odd goal. In the Premiership, we scored 68 (20 less than the previous year) and conceded 24 (2 more), and would have lost the league on goal difference had it come to that.

In this context, some rebuilding was inevitable this summer. As I have already made clear, I don't think getting rid of Ronaldo constitutes rebuilding, but putting a flaky, uncertain stone in the foundations of Team Four would hardly be good workmanship from Fergie.

In my next post, I'll talk about how I see Team Four shaping up.


Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Some Thoughts on Ronaldo

The inevitable daily quotes and headlines have already begun to emanate from Madrid. In fact, this season it is even worse, since there isn't the distraction of Euro 08 to cover some of them over.

So, as we look forward to another summer of Real mouthing off, Ronaldo being enigmatic and United denying all knowledge - what's our preferred outcome?

Well, as far as I'm concerned, the best outcome for United in that Ronaldo stays. I've been fairly unstinting in my support for him being at the club, even if not for some of his individual actions.

Granted, he did not have an absolutely stellar last season, but he was still comfortably among our best players. He scored a good number of crucial goals - Villa and Porto spring to mind, but they are not the only ones. He was not fully fit until about November, and was carrying a hernia problem for the last month of the season as well. I would happily say that we would not have won the league without him.

And yet, his manner continues to infuriate United fans to the point that they want him to leave anyway. The piss-off factor is very understandable for other football fans in this country - the chances of a United quadruple being prevented is significantly higher if Ronaldo goes to Spain - but is more bizarre amongst United fans.

It seems to me that anyone expecting a teenager from outside the British Isles to have eyes only for Manchester United forevermore has an inflated sense of our importance. Further, if you expect a rise within 18 months from showpony squad player to best player in the world to have no effect on a player and person of Ronaldo's type, then you're a bit too much of an idealist for my taste.

The fact remains that Ronaldo is a spectacularly good player who now performs both on the small stage and on the big occasions. He can play on either wing or down the middle. He can score tap-ins, one-on-ones, long range strikes and free kicks. He can beat people, he knows when to pass (a big development on his early days) and he has blistering pace. I'm not aware of any other player in the world with all these attributes.

Yes, he can be irritating. Yes, he doesn't often track back. Yes, he can be petulant. And yes, he usually looks like a conceited twat whenever he talks to any type of media.

But he can be dazzling to watch, a pure attacking talent in the classic Best and Giggs mould. He is also the most effective attacking player in our squad. Without him, United are a shadow of the team they can be. So as far as I'm concerned, I unreservedly want him to run out in United red at the start of next season. And I think he will.