Tuesday, 26 February 2008

United’s Midfield Dilemma

Posted at Red Rants on 26 February 2008.

Pick up a piece of paper, and write down United’s best XI. Picks itself, mostly, doesn’t it? You might be in the Giggs or the Nani camp for the left wing, but I’d bet my bottom dollar that 8 of the names down will appear on everyone’s list. The remaining two? Only the small matter of our central midfield partnership.

This is something that has elicited a lot of discussion in the comment sections recently. I don’t pretend to have the answer or anything approaching it, but what I’d like to do is present my take on the conflicting views and then give you my opinion. Which you can then rip apart (or try to!) in the comments.

As I see it, there are four players (despite Fletcher’s valiant performances recently, he’s never going to be a regular first choice), two general approaches and one big complicating factor. Let’s look at each in turn, and then try to draw the strands together.

The four contenders

All ranked in what I think are the key aspects: Tackling, Ball Retention (I’m thinking here about how well he keeps the ball under pressure, and also pass completion rate), Creativity (what he’s adding to the team going forward), Goal-scoring. I’ve also noted some other relevant points at the end of each.

Paul Scholes
Tackling - 3/10 - has always been dreadful, and is too old to improve now!
Ball Rentention - 10/10 - always seems to have time and space, regardless of pressure, and rarely misplaces a pass.
Creativity - 7/10 - prompts constantly by using the ball quickly and intelligently, but doesn’t crop up in as advanced positions as he used to. Still capable of finding a magic through ball (Milan first leg for Rooney last season, anyone?)
Goal-scoring - 6/10 - again, doesn’t get forward as much as he used to but remains a big threat from range.
Other - getting older now, and you can see the difference in his pitch coverage (and consequently his goal return). Despite everything Fergie says, I can’t see him featuring regularly beyond next season. On his day, though, in a league of his own.

Owen Hargreaves
Tackling - 9/10 - what he was bought for, and what he’s best at.
Ball Rentention - 7/10 - doesn’t try the spectacular, just gives it to his more talented team mates.
Creativity - 4/10 - rarely gets far enough forward to make a difference, and his stock pass goes sideways.
Goal-scoring - 0/10 - not as yet, and with Ronaldo around he’s not going to get many free kicks either.
Other - one word: injuries; we’re not going to see what he’s capable of until he’s fit enough to play 10 games in a row.

Michael Carrick
Tackling - 7/10 - you don’t often see him go to ground, but his positional sense is good and he screens intelligently.
Ball Rentention - 8/10 - has learned a lot from Scholes, but isn’t up there with the master yet.
Creativity - 9/10 - he always looks to pass the ball forward first, and can pick those eye-of-the-needle passes which undo tight defences.
Goal-scoring - 4/10 - picked up the message last season that he needs to contribute, and can score from distance.
Other - a confidence player, who lapsed badly at the start of this season when he found himself dropped for a spell.

Tackling - 7/10 - very aggressive hustler, never gives opponents a moment’s peace
Ball Rentention - 6/10 - more inclined to try flicks or dribbles which don’t come off, but not bad.
Creativity - 8/10 - the only one who can beat a series of players and who will play down the channels as well; very good support for the front players.
Goal-scoring - 2/10 - the floodgates must open soon…the potential’s certainly there.
Other - he’s good this season, so god knows what he could be eventually.

The two approaches

I can see arguments for each of these, but they are broadly:

1. Have a first choice pair, who play 75% of the games together, with others providing ability to rotate and cover for injury.

Pros - first choice pair develop instinctive understanding (Carrick and Scholes had this going on last year, as did our whole Treble-winning midfield - they didn’t even need to look up to know where their mate was going to be)
- consistency also benefits the rest of the team, who know exactly what’s coming from the centre of the park.

Cons - Doesn’t make full use of the talent pool and may cause players to leave
- injuries etc have a more disruptive effect
- see the reasons for option 2 below

2. Pick a partnership based on the match you’re going into.

Pros - can tailor the strengths of the individuals to the requirements of the game (eg Hargreaves for big games to shackle dangerous midfielders, Scholes in games where experience is judged key, etc)
- retains freshness

Cons - just look at Liverpool for the downsides of constant tinkering
- players play as individuals rather than a partnership

As I said at the beginning, I can see arguments for both…I’ll discuss further in my conclusion section.

The complicating factor

Is, of course, injury. Scholes has been out for most of the season so far (which has proved to be a blessing in disguise, since it has allowed Anderson to emerge), and Hargreaves has yet to start more than 2 games in a row. Even if Fergie had decided on a first choice pair, this sort of thing makes it very difficult to implement.


I wrote the above without having a strong idea of where I was going - I was as much musing to myself as anything. But I am going to stick my neck out and say that Carrick and Anderson should be our first choice pair for the majority of matches. My reasoning is as follows:

- They both add a huge amount going forward. I absolutely adore Carrick’s instinct to find a piercing ball forwards to feet - Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez are all good enough to receive this sort of ball with a man at their back and do something with it, and are equally likely to be making runs in behind. I think we will get a lot of goals from Carrick’s passing. Equally, Anderson is a good passer of the ball and a potentially superb dribbler (great upper body strength, a la Rooney) who can support the front players.

- They both do enough defensively. Most teams set up very tight against us, and we’re happy to go man-for-man at the back if needs be, so the attacking penetration is crucial (this is the key argument against Hargreaves, other than injury). Which is not to say they can’t come out on top in a midfield scrap, or hold their own in a physical game.

- Carrick - who is the more controversial choice - is a confidence player. Give him responsibility and a long run in the side and he seems to grow into it. He is also a big game player (witness the two Roma games last season, where he was superb in each leg - a defensive midfield masterclass in the first, and a game-bossing, two-goal performance in the second). What he is not going to be is a useful squad player like Fletcher.

- Both are young and not injury-prone - you really can see them playing 30 games a season with each other without disruption, and doing this for the next 5 seasons. Continuity really makes a difference.

I think the nod to flexibility is that in big games against teams with dangerous midfields, we can lose Giggs/Nani and include Hargreaves as a screen, with Anderson detailed to get up and support the Holy Trinity up front when we have the ball.

But what of Scholes? Well, he has a role to play, but he is past his best and seems to be increasingly injury-prone. He doesn’t make those runs into the box as much anymore, either. As an impact player, an experienced head in some big games and a great alternative he will be unbeatable…but I think his star is waning along with Giggsy’s.

So, here’s my plea to Fergie - start Carrick and Anderson in every game possible, and don’t let the embarrassment of riches at your disposal lead you into tinkering.


Tuesday, 5 February 2008

The Doomsday Scenario

Posted at Red Rants on 5 February 2008.

If I can start off by clarifying one thing from my previous column. In no way did I mean to suggest that we should never sign young, unproven players - I’ve seen Anderson play this season, and I’ve seen how Ronaldo developed. If our opposing bidders are top-flight European clubs, there is no second bite of the cherry so you have to take the first. But when our competition is a lesser club…that’s when we can stand back and play the long game. Aaaaaanyway, onwards to today’s article.

You might say that this is a great season to be a United fan, and that we have a strong chance of winning either the League, the Champions League or both. You might also reflect that we have a young squad, with plenty of strength in depth and room for improvement, and that the squad is better than last year’s equivalent. You might then add, as the icing on the cake, that we have two once-in-a-generation talents playing for us. And I would agree with everything you said.

But. But I’m a pessimist, and so there’s always a but. But, there is a very conceivable scenario which could turn our season from very promising to very worrying. You’ve all dreamt it, in your nightmares, but I’ll start with some stats.

Each stat below is in twostages: end of last season,to date this season.

Total goals: 123, 68

Total goalscorers: 20,10

    Individual goalscorers:

Ronaldo - 23,27
Rooney - 23, 10
Saha - 13, 4
Tevez - 0, 14
Solskjaer - 11, 0
Scholes - 7,1
Giggs - 6, 3
Park - 5, 0
O’Shea - 5, 0
Vidic - 4, 1
Fletcher - 3, 0
Larsson - 3, 0
Nani - 0, 2
Richardson - 2, 0
Evra - 2, 0
Ferdinand - 1, 3
Pique - 0, 2
Others - Eagles, Silvestre, Eagles, Lee, Smith - all 1, none

Did you read that table, or did you gloss over it? Read it properly, because it’s really important, and concentrate on the lines from Scholes to Fletcher. Here are the conclusions:

1. 75% of all our goals have been scored by Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez.

2. Our midfield has only contributed 6 goals this season. That includes none for Hargreaves, Anderson, Carrick, Fletcher or O’Shea (ie 5 out of the 6 possible central midfielders). And no, I don’t count Ronaldo as a midfielder. As the ultimate contrast, look back to the Treble campaign - our first-choice midfield four alone contributed 34 goals.

3. We have under half the number of players contributing to the scoresheet, partly because we have increased our squad depth everywhere apart from up front.

This should lead you to have sleepless nights about two possibilities:

The “It’ll Be A Struggle But We Might Make It” Doomsday Scenario - Ronaldo gets a long term injury. We need Rooney and Tevez to score more, and we need the midfield to step up when those two are having off days.

The “We’re Totally Screwed” Doomsday Scenario - Ronaldo and either Rooney or Tevez gets a long term injury. It’ll take a total turnaround from the midfield to get us the number of goals we need to win anything other than the FA Cup.

Remember those dark days at the start of the season where it took everything we had to win easy games 1-0? Guess which two players were absent from those games, and try to remember who we brought on as a substitute striker. Thankfully it was only a short-term nightmare, but we’re one cruciate ligament and one broken ankle away from being there again.

And some of you mocked me when I said in my last column that we should have signed Jermaine Defoe (or another striker). Let’s drink a toast, then, in your half-full pint glasses to the fitness of our forwards.

Sweet dreams.


Sunday, 3 February 2008

Fergie Happy to Take Second Bite

Posted at Red Rants on 3 February 2008.

It was so uneventful that it may have passed you by (it nearly did me), but the transfer window closed on Thursday night. And totally underwhelming it was for a United fan, too. We signed Manucho, and then loaned him out.

That’s it.

The arguments about the merits of the January transfer window are well rehearsed, and its dangers illustrated vividly by the lukewarm reception given to (and worse performances given by) Evra and Vidic when they arrived this time two years ago. But I read the rumours, and the quotes, and I’d like to divine some meaning out of events and put them into context.

Second bite

The first case in point is Hutton, the Rangers right-back. Anyone who watched any of Scotland’s qualifiers (particularly against Italy) can be in no doubt as to his talents, and it seems Fergie’s admiration is well-known. But we made no bid, and were happy to let him go to Spurs. Why, when a right-back is pretty high up our shopping list, and we had a rare chance to buy British?

To answer my rhetorical question, I’m going to throw some names at you, and you can see if you make the link. Carrick, Tevez, Bale, Mascherano, Rio. OK, so it’s not difficult (although Rio may have thrown a few of you). They are players who we could have gone in for when they first became available from their original club, but didn’t. Instead, we waited to see how they developed at a lesser club before deciding whether to act.

Carrick became available from West Ham when they went down (indeed Arsenal were strongly linked). He had shown some flashes for West Ham, but not consistency or maturity. He developed both at Spurs, and we moved in and reaped the benefit.

Tevez was on offer 18 months ago on a dodgy deal after a good World Cup. It would have been a total punt, even if the business side wasn’t so shady. He went to West Ham, took half a season to adapt, was awesome in the last few months of last season, and in we went.

Mascherano was part of the same deal, and I would have loved to have signed him more than anyone. He seemed to be exactly what we needed (we now have Hargreaves). But again, he took a long time to settle, and is only just started to show his true form. OK, so it was Liverpool who benefit this time, having taken a punt in last January’s transfer window, but Fergie avoided wasting time and money by looking before he leapt.

Bale was very strongly linked with us, but was largely unproven at any level (another Southampton wunderkind, like, you know, that one at Arsenal… Walcott, that’s it, isn’t he great?). Fergie chose not to get into a bidding war, knowing that if Bale turned out to be a success, he could move in.

Rio - I threw this one in to show it’s not a new strategy, albeit one that took a break for 2-3 years. Rio was on offer from West Ham, but went to Leeds, where he proved he was capable of playing at the highest level.

The break from this policy was caused by a drop in our attractiveness as a club for the very best to move to. During our years in the wilderness, and with Chelsea at the height of their spending powers, we couldn’t afford to wait and see, safe in the knowledge that we could always lure the player later. We had to be the one taking the punt, and it resulted in the signing of a lot of mediocre players. There was an amusing Guardian article which described Fergie as “an old man stumbling round the dance floor of a club at 2am, trying to pull anything within reach but without much success”. Now our status as one of the most attractive clubs in the world is restored, we can take a more circumspect approach.

No divas, please

We were relentlessly linked to Nicolas Anelka, but ultimately we didn’t even fight Chelsea for him. We all know Fergie’s attitude to people who view themselves as being “above the team” or as having “a right to start” - his half-hearted pursuit of one of the most talented strikers in the country confirms that this consideration is still paramount. For my part, I’d rather Anelka was still at some second tier club, since he and Drogba could form a sensational striking partnership — Chelsea (lucky bastards) are still too close for comfort.

The one that got away

The only genuinely interesting transfer on deadline day was Jermain Defoe. And I’m disappointed he didn’t come to us. We’re short of striking cover, and Defoe has shown that (a) he is a very good player on his day, and (b) that he’s happy being a reserve for long periods. I reckon he would have been a really good addition to the squad, even if not to the first team. I know the main reason he moved was to get more first team football, but surely we could have swayed him with the prospect of lots of medals over the next few seasons. In any case, I think we could have done with a reserve striker, to guard against the Doomsday Scenario - but more of that in my next column.


Friday, 1 February 2008

Fergie’s Super-Galactico Dream

Posted at Red Rants on 1 February 2008.

I don’t know how many of you watched our FA Cup game against Spurs on the BBC. I did, and in between the usual inane banter in the studio and the consistently good commentary of Jonathan Pearce (please retire, Motty, and take Lawrenson with you), was a strong theme. The excellence of Dimitar Berbatov was constantly referred to, with all the usual cliches, and with many a mention of how he is United’s “number one target for the summer”.

This is not the place to debate that move. It’s been done lots, and I don’t have a lot new to say on him at the moment. However, it put me back in mind of a long term strategy which has been in place at United for some time now. It is simultaneously the reason why we will look to buy someone like Berbatov, and the way we will fit that player into our side. It is the Super-Galactico strategy, and its importance is underestimated by nearly all the journalists, pundits and fans who give their views on our beloved club.

A history lesson

Let your mind drift back through the mists of time to 2003. We meet Real Madrid in the quarter finals of the Champions League, when they are at the height of their powers. Their team, to refresh your memory was:

Casillas; Salgado, Hierro, Helguera, Roberto Carlos; Makalele, Conceicao; Zidane, Ronaldo, Figo; Raul.

A reliable keeper. Two full backs who were potent attackers. A solid centre back pairing, but who could play the ball and were a threat at set plays. Two deep lying midfield players, one a tackler who could pass, one a passer who could tackle. Three unbelievably talented free spirits who could play from anywhere, both scoring and creating goals. And a leader of the line, not as spectacular as the others but capable of brilliance, whose job was to score as many as possible from within the 18 yard box.

Sound familiar? See where I’m going? Well, let’s continue our history lesson.

We went to the Bernabeu on 8 April 2003, and were on the receiving end of one of the finest halves of football I have ever witnessed. Madrid were so good it was unfair, such levels of quality should be banned. We couldn’t get the ball, couldn’t even get close. We got out with a 3-1 defeat, and were delighted to still be mathematically in the tie. That’s the only time I can remember a United team being genuinely happy with a 2 goal loss.

Two weeks later, Real came to Old Trafford, and we came from 3-1 down to win an absolutely pulsating game 4-3. It was a stunning game of football, for fans of both sides and for neutrals. We went out of Europe, of course, but the over-riding emotion for Fergie, to judge from interviews he gave after the game in in following weeks, that night was “I want more of this”.

Crystallisation of the dream

And so it began. Strong defensive unit, fullbacks who could be wingers, two complementary central midfielders, three cascading attackers, and a focal point. The blueprint was there…4-2-3-1 is born - and haven’t we all hated it. Queiroz’s corruption; a betrayal of beautiful football; an admission we’re not good enough; over-sophistication…the list of criticisms is endless, and I agreed with most from time to time.

But born it was, and all we needed now was the players. Trouble is, that’s not so easy. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about Fergie’s Houllier / Benitez phase of buying lots of substandard players. And I’m going to pretend that he never saw Djemba-Djemba and Kleberson as the destructive/creative deep midfield pair, or Forlan as part of the free-roaming attacking trio. It’s been building for a while, now, though.

Two years ago, we had Ruud, complemented by Giggs, Rooney and Ronaldo - not quite good enough, Ronaldo was immature and nothing like the player we see today, Giggs still struggles to operate centrally and Rooney dislikes operating anywhere else. Saha (a perfect fluid forward, at his best), was then and is still injured. Solskjaer (lest anyone forget, the player who was supposed to take over from Becks on the right) - injured, never to be the same again. Keane retired, and his replacements substandard. Bring back 4-4-2, we cried.

And last year, ground down by failure, 4-4-2 came back, and we loved it. At last, Quieroz has been subdued, we laughed. Not so - Fergie had subdued himself. Ruud, seemingly the ideal focal point, had gone, and to replace his goals we needed a more innately attacking system. Two up top, two wingers, attacking central midfielders…we needed our goals back, and Fergie was going to fix it.

At the gates…

But now he can begin to dream again, and I for one finally dream with him, rather than wanting the high-flying fantasies to be tinged with reality. The final piece of his 5-year puzzle is the focal point - but this time someone who has to fit in with our existing excellence, rather than rail against it as Ruud did. Allow me to present Fergie’s dream team:

EVDS (or Foster going forward) - solid keeper capable of match-turning saves.

Neville (or one of our various transfer targets) and Evra - great defenders who offer a lot going forward

Rio and Vidic - superb defensive pairing, capable of marshalling / dealing with an occasional lack of cover from the front 4 (watch how often we go man-for-man at the back compared with most teams).

Hargreaves and Anderson - deep lying midfielders, one more destructive, one more creative.

Rooney, Tevez, Ronaldo - unbelievable attackers capable of creating chances and goals from anywhere on the pitch, all willing to drop deep and swap positions.

The Focal Point (Berbatov, Huntelaar, etc) - aerial threat in the box, good enough on the ground to link in with the passing movements, another 20 goals a season.

One big and one medium signing, and he’s there, in footballing heaven. And, without a ludicrous celebrity culture, an interfering president, managerial instability, so are we.