Wednesday, 3 December 2008

This Week's United Reader

I've been away for a while, and have therefore been having to feed my United addiction by means only of my RSS reader. Here, then, is an extended list of the things that I have enjoyed reading the most recently, and which I urge you to go off and peruse for yourselves.

EDIT: Please also note the new "You should read" box in the sidebar, which will serve as an ongoing, constantly updated way for me to point you in the direction of the best United and other football content I come across on the web. More detail to follow in a separate post shortly.

1. Enjoy a fortifying dose of Schadenfreude by reading this Chelsea fan's lament about why Fergie was right. I particularly want to compliment the measured, objective tone of the author - these are qualities which I really value in the often unbearably tribal world of football blogs and forums, and when I want an opinion on something Chelsea I will look there first in future. (Hat tip: Scott at RoM)

2. It appears I am not alone in championing Michael Carrick - Stretty Rant is of the same view.

3. Against my better judgment, the game of "what will happen when Fergie goes" is one of my favourites. So I particularly enjoyed this piece, again from Stretty Rant about whether he should stay in an upstairs capacity.

4. Ronaldo wins Ballon d'Or special:

a) Barney Ronay at the Guardian summarises my view of Ronaldo perfectly, and should be read even by those who are less than impressed by his antics.

b) I also detected some welcome thawing towards Ronaldo from two other presitigious United bloggers, Scott and Red Ranter.

On a personal note, I have made my position on Ronaldo clear before (here and here) and I am delighted for the boy - on the field, he was without question the best player in the world last season, and it would have been a scandal if anyone else had won this award.

I also happen to agree entirely with Ronaldo's comments, quoted in Scott's post, about the effect of the media - as always, it has been build 'em up, tear 'em down, and stamp on them harder if they're foreign. Although I also agree that, by teasing the media and trying to use them for his own ends over the summer, Ronaldo has brought a lot of this on himself. A truism of dealing with the media is that the media hate being manipulated - no matter how clever you are, if you try to use them they will have their revenge, redoubled in spades.

5. Finally, Danny Taylor (also at the Guardian, which happens to have been on good form recently) gives some very welcome press coverage to the way the City fans (who exceeded all expectations at the Munich anniversary game last season) reverted disgustingly to type at the weekend.


United v Blackburn: Preview

I usually find it hard to get that excited about the Carling Cup. It is a great place to try out our youngsters and give them experience of first team action, but ultimately it is not a priority in the context of the season.

However, certain factors are combining this season to make me much more bothered about tonight's game and the competition as a whole:

1. As soon as people start using the phrases quarter-finals and semi-finals, it brings it home that we're within three games of a trophy. I like trophies, regardless of their status - I like some more than others, obviously, but I'm always keen for us to get our hands on some silverware. Further, if we beat Blackburn tonight, the only other Premiership side left will be Spurs (assuming they can beat Watford - the others are Burnley and Derby), which gives us an even greater chance of success.

2. This is a particularly promising group of youngsters, so there are a much larger number of players whose development I want to see accelerated and also who have a genuine chance of competing against top opposition. I'm thinking of Foster, Rafael, Evans, Possebon, Welbeck and Manucho and to a lesser extent Gibson and Cleverley (particularly in the latter's case, I place them in a separate group because I think they're unlikely to start and we have many others in their position).

3. Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal are all out, which gives us a chance to steal a march on our rivals and, in Arsenal's case, show that we're better than them in their last remaining supposed field of strength - developing youngsters.

4. If we win the Carling Cup, we're on for the Quadruple...................(I'll leave that piece of outrageous optimism hanging for now).

So, having established that I care and that you should too, onto the team news.

Team news

There will be no big guns on the bench to bail us out, as EVDS, Rio, Evra, Carrick, Ronaldo, Rooney and Berbatov left out of the matchday squad of 19 and therefore ineligible.

Ben Foster will come in for his second first team appearance of the season, with the promise of a fairly busy night ahead of him. Blackburn will have seen the glint of silver in the same way I set out above, and they will be putting out a near full-strength side and will be really up for it. Rafael is guaranteed a chance to build on his well-reviewed performance against Robinho and City, and O'Shea likely to play at left back. Evans will definitely start in the centre, with Vidic likely to be preferred to Neville alongside him given the quality of Blackburn's forwards.

The midfield is anyone's guess: Nani will expect a run out; Possebon will hope to feature in the centre, but may be disappointed with Anderson, Fletcher and Giggs also in the squad;  Welbeck could be given a chance to play from the right in preference to Park, since Tevez and Manucho are likely to be paired up front.

Predicted team: Foster; O'Shea, Vidic, Evans, Rafael; Nani, Anderson, Giggs, Welbeck; Tevez, Manucho. Subs: Kusczcak, Neville, Possebon, Park, Gibson, Cleverley, Fletcher.

Predicted score: 2-1 to United, after extra time (Nani, Tevez)


Tuesday, 25 November 2008

United v Villareal Preview, and Apologies

First off, apologies for being on the missing list for the last week. My job is such that it gets busy very suddenly, and when it's busy it is life-consuming. I didn't even see the Villa game, so can't comment on it. I am a bit quieter for the next couple of days, and will definitely be watching tonight and publishing ratings tomorrow.

We go into the Villareal game in a strong but not unassailable position in our group, and level with the Yellow Submarines. We know the value of finishing top of our group, which usually sets up a slightly easier last 16 game, and so it is vital we don't lose tonight. Even better, a win would guarantee qualification and all but guarantee top spot, which would allow Fergie to give some of our promising kids some European experience in the final group game at home to Aalborg.

On the subject of promising kids, our former starlet Guiseppe Rossi will start for Villareal, and rumour is rife that we still have an active buy-back clause over him, whuich could be very useful if his development continues as strongly as reports from Spain suggest. Also look our for Marcos Senna, the player of the tournament at Euro 08 and a former transfer target (who we ditched in favour of Hargreaves...).

Team news

Van der Sar, Neville, Berbatov and Welbeck have all failed to make the trip. This is no great loss, except for Berba who is a massive miss. Tevez will partner Rooney again with the aim of playing himself out of this horrible slump of form, goals and confidence(all linked, of course). Rooney could also do with a decent display, since he has dropped a level from the stellar performances he was putting in in October and is doing little to dispel the idea that he is a very streaky player.

Ronaldo may start despite Fergie's comments after Saturday's draw. I would also expect to see a reversion to the 4-3-2-1 shape that Fergie favours away from home in Europe, with Anderson, Carrick and Fletcher all involved. If Ronaldo is out, expect Nani to deputise if we play three in midfield, and Park if we start with only two in the centre. Rafael and O'Shea fight it out for the right back slot, with Rafael tipped to win the race. Kuszscak replaces EVDS in goal Fergie continues to allow both him and Foster to compete for the number one jersey next season.

Predicted team: Kuszscak; Evra, Vidic, Rio, Rafael; Anderson, Carrick, Fletcher; Ronaldo, Tevez; Rooney.

Predicted score: 2-1 United (Rooney, Carrick)


Sunday, 16 November 2008

United 5-0 Stoke: Report and Ratings

Well, after a week where a lot of fans did a lot of soul-searching and doubting, that was quite the tonic. Or was it? Five goals, a clean sheet, Ronaldo on fire, Welbeck and Manucho making their Premier League debuts, total neutralisation of one of the most dangerous attacking threats in the league - great, hey?

In one way, yes. This is the sort of kick-start that could transcend the actual performance and be a launchpad for the sort of run that we really need. Everyone will turn up at training on Monday feeling pretty good about themselves and about the team. However, as Fergie stressed after the game, the performance in the first half was actually a bit slack. The goal was an error from Sorenson (who had an absolutely torrid afternoon), and then we just relaxed, and were flattered by the 2-0 scoreline given by Carrick's thunderbolt finish.

The second half was exhibition stuff, by contrast. Watching it made you feel warm and fuzzy inside, epitomised by Welbeck's goal of the month contender, which you can just watch again and again. More detail in the ratings, which we'll get onto now.


EVDS - 6 - made a decent save from O'Shea's header, but came and flapped at a free kick. Other than that, fairly untroubled, particularly in the second half where Stoke offered little going forward. I have been negative about him a lot in the last week - one thing I have thought, though, is that we should also judge him on qualities deemed to be very important by the United coaching staff - distribution, and playing as a sweeper-keeper. I must mention in his defence that he has been nearly flawless in this regard, always offering an option when a player is facing his own goal, always looking for a constructive pass rather than a hoof when not under intense pressure, and clearing reliably in tough spots. He also is very quick to look for an outlet when he does claim the ball in his area, and if you think back to the sluggish distribution of Howard and Carroll, and Bosnich's total inability to kick a football, I think we take this for granted when maybe we shouldn't.

Evra - 8 - an excellent performance, combining strength in defence with speed and skill going forward. This sort of display makes me remember why he was accepted as the best left back in the league last season.

Evans - 6.5 - comfortable, but not as composed in possession as he has been in the past. What a luxury it is, though, to have such a quality player as a reserve - another bit of squad strength which makes me feel good about the future.

Vidic - 7.5 - I found it really interesting that he was moved over to play on the right side of the centre back pairing, whereas before Evans has slotted into whichever side was vacant. I think this is a tacit acknowledgement by Fergie that our right side is the weaker, something we were discussing on this blog the other day. Anyway, he was totally dominant, including when covereing behind O'Shea.

O'Shea - 7 - really good performance from Sheasy. He was solid defensively, but we usually expect that. What was pleasing was the was he contributed to the attacks, holding his own in some slick passing triangles on the edge of the Stoke area, including some outrageous attempted flicks. We've forgotten him in the right back stakes, but on this evidence he deserves consideration if Neville does.

Ronaldo - 9 - the boy's back, and how. He was a threat every time he got the ball, scored two free kicks, reduced Sorenson to a quivering wreck, set up Carrick, and generally terrorised Stoke all afternoon. Also good to see the enthusiatic but unforced way in which he celebrated his ton of goals, and how the fans celebrated with him. He was clearly really proud to have hit that milestone, and I'm hoping that this will signal a thaw on the home front as well as more and more trouble for our opponents.

Fletcher - 8.5 - back from injury but still playing to and even above the standards he has set all season. Strong in the tackle, seemingly everywhere at once, and (which is more) displaying an array of passing that was totally absent in his "squad player" years - probably a sign of his growing confidence. The current difference between him and Anderson is the maturity with which Fletcher uses his talents, he operates with much more intelligence and discipline than his Brazilian colleague. Undroppable on this evidence.

Carrick - 8 - first off, a great goal. Four players around him, but his touch found space superbly and his shot was unstoppable. This is his second goal since his return, and if he can keep this up it will go a long way to answering his critics who get held up on his engine room ball retention. Also seemed to be engaged in a pass of the day competition with Fletcher, which is great to see.

Park - 7 - worked hard as always, and with some genuinely good touches. That spinning turn in the second half was first class, shame he didn't bury the shot - but that's the problem, he never does. A player of his type really needs to offer a credible goal threat, but for all his contributions elsewhere, Park never does. Even more attention that usual was drawn to this, as he often had to fill in on the shoulder of the last defender (yes, that's as silly as it sounds) as Tevez dropped and roamed.

Tevez - 5 - I'm sorry, but the more I see the more I think that Berba and Tevez can't play together. Berba likes to drop deep, as does Tevez - but unlike Berba (and Rooney), when his partner is deep Tevez doesn't push up onto the centre backs and into the area. There was a really telling moment in the first half where Berba had the ball in the left channel, and tried to thread a ball down to the byline to Evra on the overlap - he overhit it and it went out, but had Evra kept it in he would have looked up to see nobody in the box, since Tevez was on his heels 35 yards from goal when the pass was hit. When Rooney is fit, I think it is a choice between whether Berba or Tevez should play with him, rather than a choice between Rooney and Tevez to play with Berba.

Berbatov - 7 - great finish for the goal, even if he was slightly fortunate to control a ball which wasn't intended for him. Prompted from deep, and caused the defenders problems by controlling high balls dead again and again. Really fitting well now into the United machine.

Welback (sub) - 8 - what a goal, just what a goal. He also worked hard, and showed an ability to play wide - this will be really useful for him as he looks to get as much first team playing time as possible. Let's hope this is the start of something big, after all he could hardly ask for a bigger confidence booster than that.

Manucho (sub) - 6.5 - great to see him on the pitch, so long after signing him. His lanky style, not to mention his haircut, really did bring Kanu to mind, and he had a couple of half-chances. I suppose it would have been too fairytale for him and Welbeck to score in the same game. Still, I'm looking forward to seeing more, and he looks a different type of player to anyone else we have.

What did you make of the game? Do you agree with my assessments?


Friday, 14 November 2008

United v Stoke - Preview

Saturday sees us take on Stoke at Old Trafford. Unless you've been living in a bunker for this season, you will know that Stoke have a certain player named Rory Delap, and that the said player can throw the ball quite a long way. You may also have seen that certain French managers of North London clubs whinged excessively about Stoke's "physical" style of play following an embarrassing result and performance.

Let me just say a couple of things about these points before I move onto our team news. Delap's long throw is a brutal, brutal weapon. He can deliver it high and looping, or flat and fizzed, in each case towards a number of big, tall lads whose sole aim is to cause enough havoc that the ball goes in somehow. This is going to be a huge test for EVDS in particular - I'm assuming, despite my entreaties in my previous post, that he will play, particularly because he has been busily telling the media how we have plans on how to cope with the long throw - because his decision making and composure under crosses has been pretty questionable this season. Delap has embarrassed other good keepers in the course of this season, who have had no idea whether to come or not and ended up getting it signally wrong.

The last point on this is that our, in my view unparalleled - ability to recycle the ball from defensive areas will be crucial here. A boot into touch from the 18 yard line does not constitute safety against Stoke, and we must look to play our clever triangles is only to gain twenty yards before conceding a throw.

Finally, the physical nature of Stoke's game should not be a problem for us. To resounding silence and my own chagrin, I compared our inability to finish off games we have dominated to the perennial problem experienced by Arsenal. But nobody has ever, or will ever, accuse us of being shy or not up for a physical match, and if Stoke want to come and play that game with us, then they'd better be ready to get it back as good as they give.

Team news

As I said above, I expect EVDS to play in goal, notwithstanding that this would be a perfect opportunity for Foster to show what he's got in a difficult game. Evra is a slight doubt, which would make way for O'Shea - not necessarily a bad thing, given O'Shea's height and aerial ability in set play situations. Wes Brown is still out with a knee injury, leaving the right back slot between Neville and Rafael - despite everything I've said about him this week, I think Neville is the right guy for the sort of streetfight we might have to deal with, and his heading is superior. We should have enough quality to break Stoke down at the back without Rafael's talents in that regard.

Carrick and Anderson are both definitely fit, although Fletcher may have shrugged off a knee injury in time. Carrick must definitely play, and either of the others have the strength and energy to compete. At home, I always like to see us take the initiative, so I'd prefer to see Nani start on the left ahead of Park, although I'm not sure that will happen. Ronaldo will be back on the right, of course. Rooney is struggling to shake off a virus, so Tevez will likely have the chance to build on his midweek goal by playing alongside Berbatov.

Predicted team: EVDS - O'Shea, Vidic, Rio, Neville - Park, Carrick, Anderson, Ronaldo - Tevez, Berbatov

Predicted score: 3-1 United

What do you expect from the game, and what are your predictions?


Thursday, 13 November 2008

The Defence - Problems and Solutions

There is a general dissatisfaction amongst United fans at the moment. Where's our mojo gone, people ask? What's gone so wrong that the same group of players as last year are struggling by their standards? I'm going to do my best to answer those slightly spurious questions by digging deep into the reasons why our defence and our attack are simultaneously a bit off colour. Since this requires quite a lot of detail, today I'm going to focus on the defence.

The Defence

Plain stats first - last season, in the Premiership we conceded 22 goals from the 38 games. This season, we have conceded 10 in 11 games - just under half the number of goals, with less than a third of the games played.

In my view, there are three main reasons for this decline as against last season:

1. The right back merry-go-round

It really is anyone's guess who is going to play at right back from game to game these days. I don't understand this - my analysis has always been that Gary Neville isn't as good as he used to be, Wes Brown is good enough but will never be great, and Rafael isn't good enough yet although he will be great. This isn't new stuff, I've said this repeatedly whenever the issue has come up.

The problem with rotating these guys is that they are so different that they change the complexion of the back four. And the player in the back four whom this affects the most is Rio Ferdinand. Rio plays on the right of the centre back pairing, and so is closely affected by the behaviour of his right back:

- Gary Neville, on a good day, is solid all round. He will do his share defensively and not get embarrassed (yes, I know - I said on a good day, not on an Arsenal day), he is competitive in the air but not that tall, and he will look to get forward and in particular overlap.

When Neville is playing, Rio doesn't have the first idea what to expect. One minute Nev will be attempting a cross from the by-line, leaving a big hole behind him, and the next his slightly failing legs will cause him to hang further back than he otherwise would. And whilst he will be solid against his opposite number for most of the game, the increased chance that he will over-commit or do something rash must be in the back of Rio's mind. Plus, when Nev is on the pitch, Rio seems to defer his moral authority and assume less of a leadership role than he does otherwise, which is a bad thing.

- Wes Brown is much the strongest defensively these days, and he is also the best in the air. He will get forward, but often as an outlet behind the winger as opposed to an overlap - this contributes to the fact that he is the least likely to be caught completely out of position defensively.

When Wes is in the team, Rio is free to devote most of his focus to the centre of the pitch and the strikers - whilst he may occasionally have to come across and cover the winger, most of the time Wes will be in control or at the very least capable of arriving fast enough that a central midfielder can come across and hold the fort until his full back returns. Also, set pieces are that much easier to organise and defend because of the presence of an extra player of centre-back stature.

- Rafael is much the weakest defensively, some well-timed challenges against Arsenal aside. He lacks the experience, and commits himself to the tackle too easily. He has no aerial presence to speak of, and he will get forward at every opportunity, where he is equally happy receiving the ball deep to run at players, overlapping or, as we saw, straying more centrally into the area.

When Rafael is playing, Rio knows that any defensive support he gets is a bonus. Rafael will go where he pleases, and even when he's back defending there's no guarantee he's going to stand up to scrutiny. Therefore, Rio is effectively playing two positions, and has no spare energy left over to organise the rest of the defence.

Conclusion to draw: a defensive unit is most effective if every member knows instinctively what the others will do. This may become a mantra. The solution here is to decide that Wes is the best pick this season, and commit to playing him in at least 80% of the games when fit.

2. The goalkeeping transition

We have similar issues with who should play in goal. Var der Sar is woefully out of form, probably due to age finally catching up with him. Kuszczak, whilst having been understudy for the past two seasons and therefore in some way deserving of his chance, has shown no signs of being good enough to be our next long term number one. Ben Foster has shown plenty of signs of being that good, but has been injured too much so far to force his way in.

Again, my views on this are well documented - I think Foster should be eased in as quickly as possible. But consider again how different these three keepers are, and how those differences change the demands made on the (already fluid, as we have seen) back four.

- EVDS is a shadow of his former self. In his pomp (which for me ended around February last season) he was both a superb shot stopper and dominant in his penalty area. Now he is an acceptable shot stopper and erratically dominant (in that his instinct is to dominate his area but his decision-making has become weaker and he has become prone to the odd unforced error). Also, as his form and so his confidence have declined, he has ceased to be a leader and an organiser - you never see him charging out to give his defenders a piece of his mind, one of the most reliable indicators of a goalkeeper's confidence.

With EVDS in goal, the back four and in particular the centre backs don't know what to expect. They don't know whether he is going to stay put, or come early and claim a cross or loose ball, or come late and make a mess of it (eg against Liverpool). This is an unnecessary extra bit of brain damage for them on top of coping with the rotation at right back and makes it harder for them to focus on their jobs. Notice, just to exacerbate this further, that Fergie has recently started experimenting with zonal marking to cover this flaw - it took Liverpool about a season to get used to Benitez's zonal system, and the last thing we need is to try to incorporate it once every three games.

- Tomasz Kuszczak is a very different keeper. His natural instinct is to stay on his line unless he has no choice but to come for the ball - on the other hand, he is an exceptional shot stopper. Therefore, with TK in goal, the back four have to play that much deeper when crosses and high balls are being played into the box and have to set up with a totally different mindset for corners and set plays. It isn't going to be enough to ease an attacker out of the way to allow your keeper to claim it - you have to deal with it yourself somehow. This is a higher risk way of dealing with difficult crosses, and if all the defenders aren't geared up for it trouble can easily result (eg the Chelsea goal). On the plus side, the defenders have certainty as to what is expected of them - but only when TK is playing.

- Ben Foster, on the other hand, is predisposed to try to come and claim absolutely everything unless there is no chance at all of him getting there. Providing this is done well (eg Schmeichel or Cech instead of David James), this is by far the best approach. It also allows your defenders to hold a higher line and to focus principally on neutralising their man, knowing anything going over their head will be dealt with. However, this also works best when the goalkeeper exhibits strong organisational skills to communicate his intentions and requirements to those in front of him. I haven't seen that yet from Foster, who is likely still a bit starstruck to be bossing Ferdinand and Vidic about.

Let's have that mantra again: a defensive unit is most effective if every member knows instinctively what the others will do. Solution: play Foster in 80% of the games, rather than conducting a season-long audition for the GK spot. Let him sink or swim - if he sinks, at least we know we have to go to the market next summer.

3. Evra's over-ambition

This has become a very long post, so I'll keep this bit short. Evra has in many games overcommitted going forward. I've made this point repeatedly in my player ratings, so I won't labour it now. But this gives Vidic a headache - just as Rio has to play as a part-time fullback when Rafael is next to him, as does Vidic when Evra is in an aggressive frame of mind. This is fine against a single striker, but against teams who play two up top and/or try to actually play football on the wings, it seriously weakens our defence centrally to have the best two centre halves in the league covering their fullbacks all the time. Not to mention when they could do with some cover from the fullbacks.

4. Midfield inconsistency

As a final point, the lack of consistent selection in midfield also has an impact on how the defence sets up. Each of our midfielders contributes defensively in a slightly different way:

- Carrick screens and obstructs areas, but rarely commits to a tackle
- Anderson tries to use his body strength and aggression to get between the opponent and the ball, and failing that actively seeks to win the ball in a challenge
- Hargreaves and Fletcher combine Carrick and Anderson's attributes, which is what makes them our premium defensive midfielders
- Scholes sometimes screens, but is prone to going to ground in 50-50 situations
- Giggs floats about and vaguely makes a nuisance of himself in a Carrick-lite way, but has no real defensive presence
- O'Shea is essentially a centre back pushed a bit further forward

The constant changing in the centre of midfield has affected the level of protection the back four can expect. In one game, you might have Anderson using his energy to track back and cover whichever full back has been caught up the pitch - in the next, Scholes will have given up chasing the same winger and instead tried to get back to assist on the edge of the area. These are big changes when it comes to what is the optimal way for your defenders to deal with a situation.

Again: a defensive unit is most effective if every member knows instinctively what the others will do. In this case, the lack of consistency has been caused by injuries rather than indecisive selection - but again, the solution is to try to play the same pairing as often as possible.

Sorry for the length of post, but I hope you find that in some way interesting - it's my best attempt to dissect our defensive woes. I'd be really interested to read your reactions in the comments.


Wednesday, 12 November 2008

United v QPR, Hargreaves and Ronaldo

Mission accomplished last night, in that we're through to the next round. But at the same time, it was hardly the performance we were hoping for from our young stars and squad players against (an admittedly miserly and unambitious) Championship side.

I didn't see the game myself, since it wasn't shown live anywhere in the UK, and there weren't any decent highlights even. If you found a feed from somewhere, then lucky you. Frankly, all the newspaper reports of the game seem to be written by people who only watched a replay of the goal and listened to the burbling of the "expert pundits" on Sky Sports News, so I won't link you to any of those - the most useful things I can point you to are:

- a report from the Manchester Evening News
- two sets of player ratings, here and here

The main thing I have to add is two unfavourable comparisons with Arsenal, which is probably the last thing you feel like reading, but I think it needs to be said:

1. Wastefulness - it really is becoming a theme of this season that we dominate possession, create countless chances but don't score the number of goals we should. This is very reminiscent of Arsenal in recent years, this lack of cutting edge and inability to shut down games which we are bossing. By all accounts, last night was another of those - and this trend need to stop, now.

2. Shining young stars - whilst I firmly believe that we have a very good crop of youngsters coming through, many of whom could become mainstays of the first team squad for years to come, they certainly didn't set the world on fire in comparison to Arsenal's young guns last night or in the previous round. Arsenal were playing a full strength Premiership side and made 11 changes to the team that beat us - and Jay Simpson, Carlos Vela and Jack Wilshere really made names for themselves. If you want to console yourself on this point, reflect that Arsenal's lack of trophies (not likely to change anytime seen) means they are in danger of becoming the ultimate feeder club - a superb finishing school for young talent, who then go on and actually win things with bigger clubs.

The bigger news from yesterday is obviously that Owen Hargreaves is out for the season after having the first of two major operations on his knee in the US. This is a big blow for us, because not only does he have the potential to be one of the best screening midfielders in Europe, but also has the versatility to play at right back and on the right of midfield, making him a valuable squad member. Also, he is probably our second best free-kick taker behind Ronaldo.

The biggest beneficiary, of course, is Darren Fletcher, who has been sensational all season and is now our first choice DCM. Fletch's form this season, where he has been doing the job Hargreaves was signed for to a very high standard, really softens the impact of this news - but for the first time, well, ever an injury to Fletcher is now a really big problem for us. The other potential winner is Possebon, back from injury last night - we will really see how much Fergie rates him by how many opportunities he is given during this busy season.

The obvious other question is should we go and buy a replacement, or at least loan one during the January window? There are no guarantees that knee operations of this seriousness will be successful first time round, and it may well be even longer than this season before we can hope to call on a fully-fit Hargreaves again. If you had to ask me for candidates, I would reel off names like Lassana Diarra and Scott Parker as interim signings, or you could go back to the drawing board with more expensive premium signings like Marcos Senna. No doubt plenty more central midfielders' names will be bandied around over the coming weeks.

Finally, Ronaldo is sitting down to discuss a new deal with the board. Great news, as far as I'm concerned, and if signing an extended contract is not enough to shut up the boo boys at Old Trafford, then nothing will be.

Lots to discuss here - what are your views?


Tuesday, 11 November 2008

United v QPR- Preview

Bet you'd all forgotten this game even existed, hadn't you? Well, it does, and it's against the lower league glam club, QPR, who are owned by Formula 1 tycoons Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore.

Whilst in the scheme of things the Carling Cup is unimportant, I still want to see us put in a good run. We have a genuinely exciting crop of young players, and a Carling Cup run will give them a great opportunity to showcase their skills and integrate them into the first team squad. We've done badly in the last couple of years, with early exits against weak teams, but I want to see us kick on this year.

Team news

Fergie has been very open about which of the youngsters are going to feature. Thus, we know to expect to see Evans, Rafael, Possebon, Gibson and Welbeck, and possibly Manucho. Apparently the rest will be made up from the "first team squad", but since that squad is about 24 strong it doesn't narrow things down much.

You could make a lottery game out of predicting the exact team, so here's my attempt:

Foster - O'Shea, Evans, Vidic, Rafael - Park, Gibson, Possebon, Nani - Welbeck, Tevez

Predicted score: 2-1 United

What's your guess?


Monday, 10 November 2008

United 1-2 Arsenal: Report and Ratings

I don't agree with Arsene Wenger very often, and still less often when he's assessing games between us. But he summed Saturday's game up pretty well when he said the difference between the sides was that Arsenal took their chances and we missed ours. I mean it when I say that a fair score would have been 4-4.

I would also add that I had a sense from pretty early on that it just wasn't going to be our day - deflected first goal, the Clichy header which missed by nothing, blatant penalty turned just had all the hallmarks of a bad day at the office.

Still, one point from our three away games against the Big Four isn't great. On the plus side, we get to play those games at home after Christmas, and that'll give us the chance we need to dent the big gap that has opened up above us.


EVDS - 4 -
it's a real shame to see such a good keeper struggling so badly - he was, and is, a shadow of his former self. What worries me most is that he seems to be aiming for competence, for an acceptable level, as though getting through a game without making a horrible mistake will be good enough. That weak punch was an obvious error, although he got away with it. But more than that, he was nowhere near saving either of the goals. You may think this harsh, because both were hit hard, one deflected and one right in the corner - but a really, really top keeper would save both of those about 10-15% of the time. The first isn't that far away from him even after the deflection, but the arm he waves at it is pretty half-hearted; for the second, if you watch closely he commits himself the wrong way, and a full-length dive to his right might have been good enough. Forgive the long diatribe on this subject, but as a former keeper myself I feel I have something to add to this debate and it is something close to my heart. In any case, I'm looking forward to seeing Foster play more and more games.

Evra - 7.5 - a very strong defensive display, keeping a firm lid on the potentially dangerous combo of Walcott and Sagna, neither of whom really got a look in. Sagna wasn't so effective against Evra going the other way, as Evra constantly made runs for the bye-line and drew a number of rash tackles. I've been a bit critical of him earlier in the season for neglecting his defensive duties, but he got the balance spot on here.

Vidic - 8 - he was absolutely everywhere defensively, and was definitely the senior partner on a day when Rio was slightly off in dreamland. Crunching tackles on the floor, commanding headers, intercepting crosses and closing down space - nobody got any change from him. Also, he can't be blamed for allowing Nasri the space for his second goal, he has to track Walcott's run and dare Nasri to beat EVDS from 20 yards knowing Evra is coming across.

Rio - 5 - currently is just not quite operating at his best, although I'm not sure why. He is giving the ball away more often than usual (i.e. it never usually happens at all) when passing out of defence and his anticipation seems slightly off. This seems to have affected his own sense of authority, and he isn't chivvying those around him in the way he was when he was playing at his peak - he seems to have introverted to sort his own game out before worrying about others. I just wonder if this is a knock-on from the right-back merry-go-round - Rio plays on the right of the pair, and has to play a very different game depending on which of the three is next to him.

Neville - 3 -
given an absolutely torrid time by Nasri and Clichy, who passed and crossed around him time and again. He has no answer, and could offer nothing going forward since he doesn't have the pace to get back again. Like Giggs, Neville is a useful player to have in the squad and will contribute a lot against lesser teams, but his time is past now as a top defender it seems.

Park - 7 - slippery and inventive going forward (that dummy showed an awareness I never thought him capable of), he always looked to turn his man and often succeeded. When in space he used the ball intelligently, and put a goal on a plate for Ronaldo (who missed). Supported Evra capably at the other end of the pitch, and was generally well worth his place. Still, he never ever looks like scoring and that is a big problem for a winger.

Carrick - 6.5 - did what was expected of him, although not much more. He screened intelligently and used the ball well, and he is certainly a good fit with Anderson. Shame that shot early on didn't creep in. We look a classier team for his presence. And that booking was laughable.

Anderson - 7 - one of his best performances this season for us. Having Carrick alongside him rather than the more energetic but less predictable Fletcher seemed to release his energy, and he charged around the pitch. For long periods of the first half, he single-handedly neutralised Arsenal's three man central midfield, to Fabregas' obvious annoyance. I'm concerned though that the lack of a goal is becoming a real mental block for him, as his shooting is getting more frequent and more erratic by the game.

Ronaldo - 5.5 - his least effective performance for a long time. Like being back in 2005, he had lots of the ball and showed lots of moments of skill, but there was very little end product. His miss just after Arsenal's second was a shocker, not only because it was a very good chance but also because it would have got us right back in the game and knocked a fragile Arsenal sideways mentally - I'd have backed us to get something from the game if we'd scored that. It wasn't all bad, though - he put a goal on a plate for Rooney, and on another day his free-kick from the left would have forced an own goal from Clichy.

Rooney - 5 - a bit of a mixed bag, he did most things right outside the final third, where he just lost it. He had one golden opportunity and two or three other good chances, and didn't even hit the target with any of them. On a day where we matched Arsenal blow-for-blow but only managed a single goal, that was unforgiveable.

Berbatov - 5 - never really got into the game. A player like Berba will always look ineffectual when his flicks and little runs aren't coming off, but he just floated on the surface and never looked up with the pace. Shame, because this type of game should have suited him very well.

Rafael (sub) - 9 - some great challenges and a driving attacking force, to say nothing of a goal that any player in the world would have been proud of. Who said full-backs can't be impact subs? Still, don't get carried away - he'd have been in just as much trouble as Neville against Clichy and Nasri for 90 minutes, but he thrived in the "playground" football at the end.

Tevez (sub) - 6 - didn't make an impact, and the worrying dip in form and confidence continues.

Giggs (sub) - 6 - played as an auxiliary striker in the end, and was involved in some good moves, but didn't deliver from a couple of useful crossing positions at the end.

What did you make of the game? Do you agree with my ratings?


Friday, 7 November 2008

United v Arsenal - Preview

Usually I just launch straight into United's team news and what we have to do to win the game, but with another big four club we have to look at them first. Or, in this case, look and laugh - a huge injury list (Adebayor and Eboue definitely out; Walcott, Gallas, Sagna and Silvestre doubtful; van Persie suspended for his moronic hack on the Stoke keeper); no wins in three not very difficult games (Spurs, Stoke, Fenerbache); lots of rumblings from the interior; and even some calls for Arsene Wenger's head.

So it should be a cakewalk, right? Well, no. Arsenal-United games rarely have anything to do with the form book, or even injury lists. Remember Phil Neville and Seba Veron bossing a Vieira-led midfield at Highbury? A workmanlike United side ending the "Invincibles" unbeaten run with a dodgy penalty (well, ok, Rooney dived)? An Henry-less Arsenal turning us over at home, and then coming back from a goal down with ten minutes left to to win at Highbury, in the season where they'd have finished outside the top four but for some dodgy lasagne? If form and squad strength had anything to do with those games, they'd all have gone the other way.

We must take nothing for granted, but we need the three points. With late lapses of concentration turning four points into one against Liverpool (1-1 at 80 mins) and Chelsea (1-0 at 80 mins), we need to start doing well in the six-pointers. That means putting our foot on the gas, and keeping it there until Arsenal are out of sight - something we've struggled to do even against lesser teams this year.

Team news

Fletcher joins Wes Brown as a doubt for the game with a sore knee - that would be a loss, given Fletcher's form so far this season. Van der Sar will return in goal, with Neville fit enough to take over at right back - Rafael isn't up to this sort of game yet. Carrick will continue in central midfield, with Anderson joining him if Fletcher doesn't make it. Given it is away, I expect Park to take over from Nani on the left, with Rooney and Berbatov restored to the starting line up alongside Ronaldo.

Predicted team: EVDS; Evra, Vidic, Rio, Neville; Park, Anderson, Carrick, Ronaldo; Rooney, Berbatov.

Predicted scoreline: 3-1 to United (Berbatov, Ronaldo and Vidic(!))


Let's Catch Up - Some Random Thoughts

OK, here's a series of random musings about the events of the last couple of weeks which I haven't been able to blog about.

Firstly, Ronaldo. It seems commonly accepted that he is not yet back to his best, in particular because he missed a hatful of chances at Everton and also because he is losing possession more often than he did at his peak. Well, given that he's scoring at just under a goal a game (7 in 8 appearances), with a couple of assists on top of that, most forwards in the world would kill to be playing that "badly".

Also, as I've made clear in the past, am I a Ronaldo sympathiser, and as such I'm pleased that the fans' attitude towards him seems to be thawing. I'm also pleased that it looks more and more likely that he'll be with us next season as well - crunch time will be when Fergie leaves.

Next, Berbatov. I could watch that piece of skill at West Ham for hours on repeat, and it's become clear that we've signed someone who is going to create as many goals as he scores. Which, of course, is once of the main reasons why Fergie signed him rather than a Huntelaar type player. His contributions to build-up play more generally have also been eye-catching. I'm really excited about how good this guy could be for us over the next five years.

In no particular order, Carrick will make a real difference to us. Good to see his name on the scoresheet, but the scraps of the Celtic game I saw last night also provided ample evidence of what we've been missing - effortless retention of the ball in midfield and sharp, quick, incisive passing going forwards. Fletcher has been our player of the season so far, but his skills don't lie that way. I'm really looking forward to a Carrick-Fletcher partnership for a while - with all due respect to Anderson, Fleth has more than earned a long run in the team.

Which leads me neatly onto Hargreaves, whose injury problems have gone from bad to worse and are now likely to require an operation which will see him out for half the season. I feel sorry for the lad, and am pleased that Fergie came out and publicly said that he wouldn't be sold. But he missed most of the season for Bayern before we bought him, and I do worry that we were so keen to complete the deal we'd negotiated in 2006 that we overlooked or underestimated a problem that was evident before the transfer went through. £20m buys you a lot of defensive midfielder (in the world, probably only Essien is out of that price range), and we haven't had much return on that yet from Hargreaves. Still, he's not that old, so if the op sorts him out then we've plenty of years yet to get value for money on him, and in the meantime Fletch has ensure we won't miss him.

What else, what else? The defence is concerning me. Again, I haven't seen all of any of the recent games, but the lapses that have led to goals or chances (of the type which end up on MOTD highlights) have not been consistently of one type. This is good and bad. In one way, it's not as though we can't defend set plays or we can't hold a line - this is good because it doesn't suggest one weakness that can be targeted and exploited. On the other hand, the fact that our poor (relatively) defensive record seems to be down to a general lack of sharpness is worrying, because it's hard to target a particular area on the training ground to improve. It seems just a case of everyone in the back line needing to raise their game by 20% - hopefully a kick is delivered to the correct part of their collective arse sooner rather than later.

Related to that point, we have started to see the goalkeepers being rotated recently. Both TK and Foster have got a game, although neither had much chance to distinuguish themselves (or otherwise) in what were two quiet games defensively. I approve of this policy, and I agree that we're well off on the keeper front, but it is interesting that Fergie and co seem not yet to have a preference for eithe TK or Foster, and are going to give them both a chance to make a case. This is fine, and competition is healthy etc, but that is a second position in a defensive unit of five where there is going to be a merry-go-round of three players - this is bound to be unsettling.

The first, of course, is right back, but not much change there from what I've said before - Gary Neville is good enough but not as good as he was; Wes is the best choice for now but seems to have lost Fergie's trust somehow; Rafael will be better than either in the future, but for now is defensively suspect.

Right, enough for now. Apologies once more for my long absence - I can't pretend I'll be fully back for a couple of weeks, but I've enjoyed writing this and am hoping to enjoy the Arsenal game even more. There'll be a preview up at the crack of dawn tomorrow morning.


Thursday, 6 November 2008

More apologies - but the blog isn't dead

OK, so I didn't quite get out a preview for the West Ham game. Or any since.

I have been screwed at work, run off my feet at home and laid low by a virus to top it all off. I haven't been able to watch any of our last four games. In short, I haven't had the physical or mental energy to maintain the blog.

I estimate it takes me an hour or so to think up and type out a good post. I haven't had more than ten minutes spare at a time for the past two weeks, and I'm afraid I can't bring myself to churn out short, uninteresting news posts just to keep activity up - call it pride, or standards, or laziness, or something.

To those who have left comments in my absence - thanks for the support and thanks for checking back. I'm going to commit now to previewing and reviewing the Arsenal game, so look out for signs of life tomorrow.

Until then...

- P


Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Apologies for absence

Sorry for the lack of activity on the blog, I've been away for the past few days and my experiment with mobile blogging didn't go so well.

I'll do my best to get an article up today, and obviously a preview for the West Ham game - until then, thanks for your patience!

- Penguin


Friday, 24 October 2008

The Ronaldo Saga - Redux

The Ronaldo saga, possibly the most tedious bout of “will-he-won’t-he” transfer talk ever, was the bane of most United fans lives over the summer. Here we were, champions of England, champions of Europe, and all anyone wanted talk about was whether our Portuguese winker was going to join Real Madrid.

Two months into the new season, it is still a big theme amongst United fans, who still rarely sing Ronaldo’s song and are quick to criticise every slip and every piece of neutral body language. In doing so, those same fans are turning Ronaldo’s possible move to Real into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Before I explain in more detail, let’s look back and try to apply a bit of perspective. A lot of conflicts came to the fore during those two months of hell. United V Real Madrid, United v Marca (the Spanish newspaper acting as Real’s unofficial mouthpiece), United v Fifa, Fergie v Calderon, Fergie v Ronaldo…the list goes on and on, and very exciting and dramatic they all were at the time. Or something.

The most tragic, though, was the conflict that developed between Ronaldo and the Manchester United fans. Tragic because within two weeks of that glorious night in Moscow, those fans who had loved Ronaldo like a son, who had publically praised his every move, who had revelled in his meteoric ascent to the top of the game, suddenly hated him.

The adoration turned into bile, and that bile spilled over into every sort of football conversation, from the mainstream media to the pubs to the blogosphere. Looking back on it now, it seems like such a storm in a teacup - having won nearly every honour available with United, Ronaldo was offered fabulous wealth to go and do something he’d always dreamed of doing. The United fans may have hated it, but they should have understood it.

But disloyalty is the ultimate sin for United fans. With notable exceptions like Dennis Law, it is tough to go back and find another example of a leading player leaving United at the peak of his powers and against United’s will. It is essentially unprecedented under Fergie’s management, where whole rafts of players have given United the majority of their career, leaving only when close to retirement. Or, in the case of players like Giggs and Scholes, some have literally only played for one club.

Regardless of the rational motives put before them, many fans refuse to forgive Ronaldo for threatening to leave - it just doesn’t happen to us, they think. Well, it didn’t. Ronaldo stayed, in spite of everything. He gave a very frank, very honest press conference, where he admitted that he had considered leaving, but ultimately realised that it wasn’t the right thing to do. Where he promised to give his best for United, and apologised for contributing so much to the mayhem. He also apologised in private to the United players and staff, who in turn presented him with a Real Madrid kit as a joke - the players and the management have moved on.

Many fans accepted that on face value, but needed to be shown that he was prepared to do his best for the club, rather than just waiting it out a year and agitating for a move again. So, what evidence do we have so far? Ronaldo devoted himself entirely to recovering from his injury, and did so with such success that he returned a full month early to assist United’s misfiring attack. Despite being below his best, he is contributing goals and assists on a regular basis. In his rare interviews, he talks of regaining the fans’ love.

It seems, though, that the fans don’t want to love him anymore
. They talk of supporting him out of a sense of duty, as they would any other player who wears the red shirt, but nothing more. They will not sing his song unless he scores - and then only once - and they criticise him for things they previously were prepared to overlook. On Saturday, Ronaldo hardly smiled when he scored - and he was pilloried for it.

When Fergie talks of bringing Ronaldo back, he talks of a chance to leave Old Trafford as a United legend. I think this appeals to Ronaldo - I think it is the sort of goal he understands, and a masterstroke of man management by Fergie. But it will only work if the fans are prepared to be swayed again - no player, no matter how motivated or well managed, will stay for long at a club where the fans dislike him. If they only support him out of a sense of duty, he will only perform at the level required by professionalism - it’s a two way street.

Ironically, the justification for this lack of love is the assumption that Ronaldo will join Real Madrid next summer, come what may. We’ve seen nothing to back that up. But if the Stretford End want to ensure the best player in the world leaves United at the peak of his powers, they’re going the right way about it.

It’s two months on from the start of the season, and I think the appropriate level of displeasure has been conveyed. The fans need to give Ronaldo a second chance, to welcome him back into the fold, albeit on the condition that if he strays once more there will be no redemption. If the cold shouldering continues, at some point the relationship will be sundered for good and United will lose one of the best players ever to grace the Theatre of Dreams.

What do you make of Ronaldo’s continuing alienation? Can you forgive him, or would you prefer him to leave and end the pain? Let’s hear your views.


Wednesday, 22 October 2008

And Now For Something Completely Different...

Excuse the break in normal service, but I would like to share with you all some thoughts about what this blog is and what I would like it to become. To start with, two requests of anyone who reads this blog:

1. If you read the post, please make some comment, however short - even one word makes me feel like the time I spent writing the post was worthwhile.

2. If people have commented, read the comments - and if anything springs to mind, then respond to the comments as well as (or instead of) commenting on my post.

Now, please read on...

- I started this blog because I thought that I had some things worth saying about United and I wanted to discuss them with other United fans.

- This is a not-for-profit blog, so the only motive for me doing what I'm doing is the enjoyment of discussing my posts and any other United-related or football-related topics with those who read them.

- So far, there's been an ok smattering of comments, with some posts ending up in double figures, but others have been met with a resounding silence - this makes me wonder why I bother.

- I may have strong opinions, but I'm not always right and I am more than happy for people to disagree with me.

- Equally, feel free to comment on the comments, often some really good discussions can get started that way.

- This is a newish blog, and therefore is a good chance for people to get in on the ground floor and really get involved. If you have any ideas or comments, please either put them in the comments to any post or email me using the link in the sidebar.

- I'd love to see this blog develop into a community of people who enjoy discussing United and football in general, and I'm prepared to put the work in to make that happen - but you, the readers, have got to do the same.

Finally, please feel free to give me feedback on what you think of the following post types:

  • previews
  • reports and ratings
  • analysis and comment pieces
  • "readers" of interesting articles
  • YouTube compilations
  • open discussion threads

That's all for the moment...normal service will resume tomorrow!


United 3-0 Celtic - Report and Player Ratings

Well, that was a lot easier than it could have been. For all the pre-match hype, Celtic were pretty docile and were hamstrung as an attacking threat by the absence of their first choice strikers. Admittedly our first two goals were both clearly offside, but given how dominant we were it was hard for Celtic to complain too much, especially when Rooney had one good goal disallowed for offside - the linesmen had a shocker.

Goals for the game

For newcomers, first off I'm going to analyse how the team lived up to the goals I set in my preview.

Goal 1 - control the tempo - we did this very well. Despite Celtic turning up with a five man midfield, and putting in a couple of rough challenges in the first fifteen minutes, we were able to control the match and not get knocked out of our stride.

Goal 2 - minimise set play opportunities - this, again, we broadly achieved. Nakamura had only two good chances to deliver from free kicks, and no real shooting opportunities. We also dealt with the corners well, apart from the mandatory O'Shea moment. 

Player Ratings

EVDS - 7 - his best performance of the season so far, making a couple of sharp saves, dominating his area well and distributing the ball quickly and accurately for the most part. Maybe what United's goalkeeping coach said is coming true.

O'Shea - 5 - was fairly solid defensively except for his attempt to score an own goal from a Celtic set play, but offered little going forward against a docile opposition. Sounds harsh to drop him a point for that, but he used to be capable of it and it is very much part of the remit of a United full back these days.

Vidic - 6 - a quiet night again, but nevertheless his return to the team after suspension has coincided with a run of five consecutive clean sheets, and it's no coincidence. Had McDonald in his pocket all night and seemed to have a good instinctive understanding with Evans.

Evans - 7 - very composed performance after being drafted in at the last minute. A couple of really impressive moments on the ball, including a turn inside his own area which allowed him to pass the ball out of defence rather than hoof it into touch. Looks to be a defender in the Rio mould rather than the Vidic, but that is no bad thing. With Rio passing 30, he defnintely has a big future.

Neville - 7 - really encouraging display, and for the first time I can see why Fergie has been pushing him to the fore. His overlapping runs showed good pace (something we worried he had lost) and were a genuine danger to Celtic, even if his final ball is still not quite at peak level. Totoally unworried defensively, and was frequently able to win the ball back high up the pitch.

Nani - 7.5 - this is the sort of performance we have been hoping for all season. I don't recall him making a bad piece of decision-making (which is the reverse of usual so far, where a right decision is a champagne moment). He regularly beat men, got to the byline and linking well with the other attackers around him. Should have done enough to keep his place on Saturday, and we can start hoping for a consistent run of performances now.

Fletcher - 7 - his energy levels have never been in question, but what has made the real difference is the intelligence which he is using to direct that energy. He is often in the right place ahead of time, rather than having to run like a headless chicken to catch up. Linked the play well, and outgunned Celtic even though outnumbered.

Anderson - 6.5 - a good showing, but in contrast to Fletcher he wanted to be everywhere all the time, and often ended up just following the ball. He needs to engage his brain (or have it engaged for him) and work out exactly what his role is and how best he can influence the game, rather than just charging around. As it is, we don't see enough of the skill we know he possesses.

Ronaldo - 7 - was a man on a mission in the first half, desperate to prove he wasn't tired or below par, and was the quick-slicing rapier to Berbatov's more languid katana (forgiven the elaborate metaphor). Brute of a free kick to set up Berbatov's second. Popped up both centrally and on either side to torment whoever he came across. Still, he misjudged an arrival into the box when a headed goal seemed on a plate, and did seem to fade later on in the game.

Rooney - 8.5 - his hot streak continues. One beautifully taken goal, drilled into the bottom corner from just outside the area, a far from easy finish and one which smacked of self-belief. Another good goal ruled out (that's the second in two games) for offside, and one absolutely staggering aerial scissor-kick (see inset) which was unwittingly blocked. And that's just his shots on goal, to say nothing of a couple of stunning cross-field passes and link play with Berba which makes one drool at the prospect of watching the partnership grow over the season. Just stay fit, son...just stay fit.

Berbatov - 9 - basically ran the game and won the game. Scored two real poacher's goals (admittedly both offside), bundling in from a rebound from Ronaldo's freekick and a scrappy corner. At the same time dropped off to play some sensational passes and through balls, seemed to have the ball glued to his feet and was undispossessable (if that's a work) regardless of how many players were around him. I've already touched on his partnership with Rooney, but he and Ronaldo seem to be on dangerously similar wavelengths as well. More, please.

Tevez (sub) - 7 - unbelievably energetic when he came on, he looked menacing and got into a number of dangerous positions. Seemed if anything too desperate to prove his value, and took on shots when a pass would have been a better option - he badly needs a couple of goals to reassure him that he hasn't lost his touch. Set up Rooney's goal with some intelligent link-up play.

What did you make of the performance? Do you agree with my ratings? Let's hear from you in the comments.


Tuesday, 21 October 2008

United v Celtic - Open Thread

Here's a thread for you all to discuss the game as it's going on, and to discuss anything arising from the game until I can get my match report and ratings out tomorrow.

Chat away.


Manchester United v Celtic - Preview

An English-Scottish derby game always has a good measure of spice in it, and this evening's game will be no different. Certainly, last time we drew Celtic in the group stages we were involved in two pulsating encounters - they took the lead at Old Trafford, Shunsuke Nakamura scored two unbelievable free kicks over the two legs, Louis Saha missed a 90th minute penalty in the away game, and that was just the start.

Still, it is important for us to secure three points - the easiest route to Fergie's magic 10 point figure is to win your three home games and take it from there. We dropped points against Villarreal, and although we compensated by strolling past Aalborg, Fergie will want us to take maximum points from the other two home games to relieve pressure on the away legs. Also, if we can wrap the group up early, it gives us a good chance to rest players in readiness for the fixture congestion that is December.

In team news, Anderson and Tevez are available for selection again, having return from South America too late to participate against West Brom. Anderson is expected to take Giggs' place in central midfield, and I would like to see Tevez replace Park to form the "fab four" strike force with Rooney, Berbatov and Ronaldo. However, Fergie revealed in an interesting interview about Ronaldo that the Portuguese may be struggling with two games a week as he recovers from his ankle injury, and that Nani might replace him tomorrow. Given that we're at home and needing to win, I expect to see 4-4-2 rather than 4-3-2-1.

Carrick and Hargreaves are still missing, although Fergie confirmed that Carrick is training and may be ready for next weekend. The reborn Fletcher should keep his place in central midfield. Evra has been ruled out, and so O'Shea will continue to fill in for him, unless the manager gives Jonny Evans a run in a position he played on occasion for Sunderland. Such a physical European night seems a step to far for Rafael, who will make way for either Neville or Brown.

Predicted team: EVDS - O'Shea, Vidic, Rio, Neville - Tevez, Anderson, Fletcher, Ronaldo - Rooney, Berbatov

Goals for the game

Goal 1 -
Celtic know that they can't live with us in a technical match, and will come with the aim of being very physical and very energetic, looking to knock us off our game. With that in mind, it is essential that we control the tempo of the game, drawing their sting in the first half hour and looking to open them up as they tire.

Goal 2 - they will feel that their best chances of scoring will come from dead ball situations, so w have the twin aims of minimising free kicks conceded in shooting range and defending set plays effectively - the latter was a noticeable weakness in the first few games of the season, and cost us a win against Chelski.

Prediction: 3-1 United (Tevez, Rooney, Berbatov)

What are your predictions, and what will you be looking for from the game?


Monday, 20 October 2008

United 4-0 West Brom: Report and Player Ratings

A good, decisive result against a spirited West Brom side. Tony Mowbray's team defended a lot better than the 4-0 scoreline sugggests - they were well organised in midfield and defence, and were not cowed by the reputations of those facing them. Ultimately, though, they knew there was no way back once they conceded, and their heads noticeably dropped at that point.

Straight on, then, to looking at how the team matched up to the pre-match goals I suggested:

Goal 1 - finish the game within 60 minutes - well, it was the 68th minute before we went two up, so maybe we were slightly out. That said, Rooney scored a perfectly good "goal" after 24 minutes, and if that hadn't been ruled out for some phantom foul, we'd have been done sooner.

Goal 2 - Bolton level of performance - I think that's about where we were. At Blackburn, we absolutely shredded our opponents and deserved four or five, whereas against Bolton we were good value for our win without ever hitting top gear. I think the latter describes Saturday's game better.

Goal 3 - defensive dominance - absolutely achieved, West Brom could have played for another 90 minutes and not scored.

Player Ratings

EVDS - 6.5 - one good save near the end, but otherwise he could have brought his sleeping bag as there were no shots on target for a 60-minute stretch.

Evra - 6 - good but unspectacular until he was forced off with a hamstring injury. He is apparently doubtful for the Celtic game, but let's hope it's no more serious than that, since left back is the only position where our squad does not provide quality cover (however optimistic we are about Fabio, he hasn't played yet).

O'Shea (sub) - 6 - did nothing wrong (although there was a comedy drilled pass down the line to, um, the ballboy behind the corner flag), but contributed nothing offensively when he was hardly under pressure at the back. That will be the element we miss most if Evra is out for a few games.

Vidic - 6 - perfectly solid at the back, with the exception of one instance near the end where he over-committed himself on the halfway line and was beaten easily. Very little of substance to do, though, against a timid West Brom attack.

Rio - 6 - again, did everything asked of him at the back on a generally quiet afternoon. Didn't offer as much going forward as he has in recent games.

Rafael - 6 - a really valuable learning experience for him, this game must have highlighted how different the Premier League is from a civil night against Champions League minnows. He was encouraging and enthusiastic going forward, albeit without making an particularly telling contributions, but he was equally suspect defensively. He was caught ahead of the play on at least three occasions, and seemed overly keen to delegate tracking down the flanks to Park. Still, no harm came of it and the more games like this he can play, the faster he will improve.

Ronaldo - 7 - still not at his best, and his free kicks are currently just a waste, but even when he's not dominant he still pops up with a goal and various other threatening moments. Most wingers in the world would be delighted to have played as "badly" as he did on Saturday. Has also been criticised for not celebrating more after his goal, but scoring a second against a team that has clearly given up is hardly going to spark laps of honour - people are too keen to read things into his body language at the moment.

Giggs - 7 - would have been higher but for a woeful first 15 mins, where he was invariably out of position and gave the ball away repeatedly. After that, though, he was world class, showing both incisive passing and the ability to beat men with the ball. Made no attempt to get into the box, but rather held back and always offered an outlet then distributed with an intelligence that Scholes would have been proud of.

Fletcher - 8 - his later blooming continues with a barnstorming performance. He was everywhere in midfield - harrying in the centre, covering both Evra and Rafael when they ventured forward, hoovered up loose balls and found time to make runs forward. Seems to be thriving on the new responsibility given to him by cluband country, and should retain his place even when Carrick and Hargreaves return to fitness.

Park - 6 - displayed the work rate you would expect, and supported Rafael well defensively, but there was little spark going forward. To be fair, he had just flown halfway around the world, but it seemed a strange selection.

Nani (sub) - 6.5 - this is the sort of cameo we would like to see more of. Lively in possession, a bundle of energy off the ball, and most importants playing with his head up. Made a great chance for Rooney, and did so by getting into a good position and then looking to to choose a pass, rather than hitting a generic cross into a good area. Good run and cool finish for his goal. No extra marks for the acrobatics!

Rooney - 9 - scored one, had a good goal disallowed, made two more, and generally was a threat every time he touched the ball. Growing understanding with Berbatov complements his existing connection with Ronaldo, and he currently deserves the plaudits coming his way. The path to greatness - keep this up for a long stretch, preferably over the whole season; only then can we start saying things like"can claim to be the best player in the world".

Berbatov - 7 - quieter than against Blackburn, but scored another poacher's goal of the type we rarely saw last season. Made Rooney's goal with a perfectly weighted pass, and generally linked up well with those around him, without any of the breathtaking touches we saw against Blackburn. A couple of shots on target, but straight at the keeper. More to come, still.

Roll on Celtic tomorrow!

What did you make of the result and the performance? Do you agree with my player ratings?


Sunday, 19 October 2008

Sunday Open Thread

Here we are, the day after an encouraging 4-0 win against West Brom.

My match report and detailed player ratings will be published tomorrow morning, but in the meantime here's an open thread for you to:

  • discuss yesterday's match and other games
  • talk about anything else United or football related that is on your mind
  • ask me questions about anything you like
  • give me feedback about the blog

I'll do my best to reply to all comments when I can. Have a relaxing Sunday.


Friday, 17 October 2008

Manchester United v West Brom - Preview

After a seemingly interminable international break, we're back in business against West Brom at Old Trafford tomorrow evening. Whilst West Brom are an admirable side etc etc, this should be a nice easy game to get us going again.

Comedy quote for the game comes from West Brom manager Tony Mowbray: "They won't necessarily be all about stopping us. They will want it to be a football match."

Because Sir Alex seriously considered an eleven-men-behind-the-ball hope-to-score-on-the-break strategy at home to a promoted club. Yes, mate. Still, if they want to come and play an open game of football, if will make life easier on United and Setanta Sports will thank them for making the game a better spectacle.

Team News

Despite all the positive noises coming out of Old Trafford, the matchday squad doesn't reflect the "end of the injury crisis". No sign still of Carrick, Hargreaves, Foster or Kusczcak, which is disappointing. Equally, Tevez, Park Ji-Sung and Anderson had long commutes to their respective international games, and would not be expected to start.

Informal briefings suggest that Giggs is guaranteed a place, and with the absentees mentioned above Fletcher seems certain to continue in central midfield. Rooney, Ronaldo and Berbatov will look to build on the encouraging Blackburn display. In defence, I suspect Wes Brown will be rested in favour of Neville, who had no involvement with England.

Probable team: EVDS; Evra, Vidic, Rio, Neville; Nani, Fletcher, Giggs, Ronaldo; Rooney, Berbatov.

Goals for the game

Goal 1 -
with a lot of players just back from international duty, we must be looking to wrap the game up within 60 minutes, which would give Fergie free reign to use the subs bench to rest tired legs.

Goal 2 - the coaching staff have only had a couple of days to prepare the squad, so a performance level on a par with our win against Bolton (as opposed to Blackburn) would be fine.

Goal 3 - a dominant defensive display should be achievable. We are putting together a run of clean sheets, but the last couple have had as much to do with bad finishing by our opponents as flawless defensive play.

Prediction - 3-0 United (Ronaldo, Berbatov, Giggs)

What are your predictions for the score and team? What will you be looking for?


Thursday, 16 October 2008

The Tevez Saga and News Catch Up

The one genuine talking point that has been brewing over the last couple of weeks has been the Tevez situation. I wrote a detailed article on this subject at Red Rants, which I suggest you go and read, but in a nutshell decision time is fast approaching as to whether United want to make Tevez's loan deal permanent for a cost totalling above £30m.

Since my article, reports have emerged that the asking price is non-negotiable - on top of the money United have already paid towards the loan deal, Tevez will cost us a further £25m to keep.

Today, the plot has thickened further, with the following two stories:

- Tevez himself has come forward to say that he has lost his goal-scoring threat recently, but that he is determined to get it back again. This is both an acceptance and a vindication of Fergie's decision to place Rooney above Tevez in the pecking order for partnering Berbatov, and brings the question of whether or not he is worth £30m in total into even sharper focus.

- Real fucking Madrid (of whom more below) have stuck their oar in, via their rag Marca, saying that if United don't secure Tevez on a permanent basis by 30 January, they will step in and buy him from the sports company MSI (who "owns" him at present). It is impossible to tell whether they have done this to wind United and Fergie up or whether they are serious, but in either case, can someone please get them to shut the fuck up? Oh no, of course not - that would mean Sepp Blatter doing something useful for once in his life.

No doubt this has further to run, so watch this space.

If you've been hibernating during the international break, here is what you need to know to get up to speed with United news:

Wayne Rooney has an absolutely stellar pair of games for England, scoring four (yes, count them) and making another. Rio skippers the England side twice, and shows an increasingly assured touch and likeable face with the media - still baffles me why EBJT was chosen - and chips in with a goal. Brown is fairly solid in defence and contributes an assist for one of Rooney's goals.

United (via newly employed scout and former legend Jaap Stam) have been tracking the latest Brazilian wunderkind, Douglas - whose agent claims United are prepared to pay £20m for him.

As Real fucking Madrid start chattering again about signing Ronaldo next summer, our favourite winger says he's feeling the love from United fans. Can someone please make them shut the f....etc.

Despite not knowing his place in the pecking order for right back, Wes Brown makes a pitch for the utility man role by claiming he'd be happy to fill in in the centre.

United's injury crisis promises to be a distant memory as Michael Carrick, Owen Hargreaves, Ben Foster and Tomasz Kusczcak all return to fitness.

United are linked with Valencia and Palacios, both currently playing for Steve Bruce at Wigan, with extraordinary sums like £19m each being touted about. Cabin fever at the red tops, I reckon.

That's all for today. What do you make of the Tevez situation - do you want him to stay or go, and is he worth that type of money? What about the other goings on?

Also, a (fictitious) prize for the person who can come up with the most creative Real Madrid insult!


Thanks for the increased activity in the comments box yesterday - please, same again and more today, I want double figures! For those that missed my impassioned plea, here it is again:

I know there are a lot of you out there reading this blog - my nice little site stats box tells me that. Please do come and contribute in the comments - even a three-worder makes me feel like it has been worth the effort.

Also, don't be afraid to contradict me or even go off on a tangent - ultimately, why I and others make and read blogs like this is because we enjoy discussing United and football. So start discussing!


Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Only three more days....

until the end of the Ice Age that is the international break. Many of you excited by England against Belarus tonight? Nope, thought not. I think Scott at Republik of Mancunia summed my views up pretty well (with the qualification that I still get behind England in major tournaments, just not in these interminable qualifiers and friendlies).

It would be nice for Rio, Wes and Rooney to build on their good performances on Saturday. On the other hand, we don't want Rooney - who is becoming a notoriously streaky player, prone to scoring in 5 consecutive games and then hardly at all for a couple of months - to use up all of his hot streak for England.

The one thought I will leave you with today concerns Rio's comments yesterday that England pre-Capello was a circus.

We all know how Sven was prone to blurring the boundaries between business and pleasure, so the WAG culture seemed a logical adjunct to (a) his own character and (b) his deference to the human being now known only as Brand Beckham. But you would have expected Steve McClaren, a former pupil of Fergie, to have cracked down on all that sort of thing on taking over.

Not a bit of it, apparently - the circus was still in force, with people "more concerned about what they were wearing" than the game (shame nobody told Steve that umbrellas were out). And this is why it is very dangerous for assistant managers to be promoted to the big job.

There are so many examples of this failing and none (that I can call to mind) of it working. I was particularly vehement on this point when people were talking last season about Carlos Queiroz taking over when Fergie retires. Assistant managers as the players' mates - they are a filter to the manager, they can put an arm around the shoulder when necessary, they can be a confidante, a middle man. Changing that relationship to the more distant, authoritative position that a good manager needs is difficult bordering on the impossible.

That was one of my main arguments against CQ being next in line, and one of the many arguments against Steve McClaren for England.

If you want to read a very good piece on the dynamic between manager, assistant and players should work, read this interview with Mark Hughes and his assistant.

See you tomorrow for the last part of the Progress Report series.


I know there are a lot of you out there reading this blog - my nice little site stats box tells me that. Please do come and contribute in the comments - even a three-worder makes me feel like it has been worth the effort.

Also, don't be afraid to contradict me or even go off on a tangent - ultimately, why I and others make and read blogs like this is because we enjoy discussing United and football. So start discussing!

With that in mind, how have you coped with the international break? What did you make of Rio's comments? And do you agree with my views on assistant managers?


Tuesday, 14 October 2008

United's Next No. 1

It was interesting to read today the comments of United's recently-appointed goalkeeping coach, Eric Steele. He was discussing an issue which is coming very sharply into focus - who is going to be United's next number 1?

"One or two will talk about Fabien Barthez and his contribution here but mainly people talk about Schmeichel and Van der Sar as being the best and in-between was a difficult time."

Whist I am one of those who looks back on Barthez's first year with fondness (some of the saves he made were just out of this world), "difficult time" doesn't begin to sum it up:

  • the two years of Tim Howard (that mistake against Mourinho's Porto) and Roy Carroll (Pedro Mendes' "goal" from the halfway line) make United fans hide under the table;
  • Barthez's second year was chock-full of comical errors in important games;
  • Mark Bosnich was woeful, and in particular his kicking and distribution were an embarrassment - have you ever known a professional footballer unable to kick a ball?
On that note, it is interesting how Steele describes United's ideal keeper:

"Edwin is a very, very experienced goalkeeper. He has been one of the finest in the world in terms of the sweeper-keeper role that this club needs...He will now be remembered for the famous save in the shoot-out in the Champions League final but I think it had been noted by the purists in the game that he was one of the finest in terms of playing out from the back.

"His distribution skills are tremendous and ideally what you look for now. He has been, and still is, one of the best. It is a joy having viewed him from a distance to now work with him. He has raised the bar."

This, of course, was something that Schmeichel also excelled at. But these comments could be mis-interpreted. I don't think that Steele is saying that the first criterion is distribution - more that this is the criterion which will separate the men from the boys. We must take all the necessary skills in the areas of shot-stopping and dominance of the penalty area as read before considering this point.

It is good to know that someone is personally taking on the job of transitioning us to our next keeper:

"When the time comes that Sir Alex Ferguson says 'who is going to replace Edwin?' I have to have an answer and reasons for the answer. My job is to give the manager as many options as I can.

"We have to get all the goalkeepers fit and competing and throw the gauntlet down to Tomasz Kuszczak and Ben Foster and say who is going to take over the mantle of the No 1 we have now. This is the time for Tomasz and Ben. This is what they were brought here for. "

I've set out my thoughts fairly clearly on Foster and Kusczcak here. And it's a bit too early to start looking at outside candidates, although there will be a question of whether we need an interim experienced signing/back-up like Brad Freidel and whether we can poach an existing top keeper from another club for a sensible sum.

Finally, Steele's comments on why the standard of keeping so far this season have been low are worth noting:

"I have been here 10 weeks but I missed the nucleus of what I believe is the mainstay of your season and that is the pre- season. Edwin came back late because of his involvement in Euro 2008. Ben was injured in South Africa. All of a sudden you are looking at players who have missed the conditioning work. We have been playing catch-up and have used the international breaks to get them up to speed.

"We have sat down with Tony Strudwick, who is head of sports science at United, and his team and set about doing sessions to bring them up to speed. The keepers needed that. We have caught up and it is only in the last two or three weeks they are at the level I would have wanted them at in August. It is about preparation. They You have to monitor where, when and how much work to give them."

And some good news to sign off on:

"They [Foster and Kusczcak] are both back from injury. Both are fully fit now to accept the challenge and Edwin knows it is there."

Good - well let's hope for a noticeable improvement from here on in. And I, for one, want to see Foster getting a lot of opportunities.

What are your views on the goalkeeping situation? Do you think Foster and Kusczcak are up to the job?