Saturday, 31 May 2008

Nani and Anderson — Managed

Posted at Red Rants on 31 May 2008.

Roy Keane wrote in his autobiography (or at least said to the Ronaldo-hating Eamon Dunphy) that even though Sir Alex Ferguson is not the best coach, he is an incredible manager of men. And he’s proved it again this season with his exceptional handling of Nani and Anderson.

On the face of it, this was a really difficult ask. Both came to us out of the blue, with big price tags and big things to live up to. The press were totally blindsided by the speed of our moves, but when they recovered our new signings were hailed as the “next Ronaldo” and the “next Ronaldinho” respectively. Everyone dug up YouTube videos proving that these guys were the best thing since sliced bread, and some even put them straight into the first XI on general principle. To make matters worse, neither had lived in England before, and neither spoke the language.

Despite all this, Fergie ensured a smooth transition which leaves us now with two genuine stars in our squad, rather than two pissed-off, burned out and frustrated starlets.

Lowered expectations

The first part of this process was to ensure that both the press and the fans expected nothing. Whenever anyone at United was asked about them over the summer and at the start of the season, the response always came back that they were still learning, and only going to be used sparingly off the bench. It was difficult to adjust to English football, the party line went, so give these boys a season to settle in.

They did better than that. Nani was a key part of our attack in the injury-hit goal drought that was the first few matches of the season — without his screamer against Spurs, the wheels might have been off our title bid before we got started. Anderson didn’t impress on his first couple of appearances, but then came on as a sub against Wigan and dominated the game. Before we knew it, he was winning midfield battles against Gerrard and Fabregas.

But the key was that each good performance was seen as a bonus, and treated as such. There was no talk of “he’ll need a few more games like that to justify his transfer fee” or “only what you’d expect from a £17m winger”. Just good stuff, both from the fans and the media.

Quitting whilst ahead

OK, so far so good. We were impressed by most of what we’d seen, and were filing these guys in the list headed “Evra, Vidic, Ronaldo” rather than “Kleberson, Djemba-Djemba, Poborsky”. But with Giggsy underperforming, Carrick sulking and Hargreaves injured, a lot of managers (Wenger included, I think) would have decided to make them first choice starters until further notice.

Instead, Fergie held both back. Nani started only 26 games in all competitions, and Anderson only 25. Compare this to Giggs (33) and Scholes (30), supposedly fading; Carrick (39) and Tevez (39), who had patches of not starting; Rio (51) and Brown (48), the near-ever presents.

He did so differently for each player, as well. Nani was used sporadically throughout the season, whereas Anderson was allowed to play and play through the middle of the season while his confidence was high and his form was good. We saw the best of each — Nani’s trickery, shot from distance and delivery from set-pieces; Anderson’s strength, drive and (frankly) ability to run games — without having their flaws shown up by the continued glare of the spotlight.

We all know how much the English press loves to bring down the people it has just built up, and if either had been forced to play through a patch of bad form in public, you can imagine the mud that would have been slung. Instead, both can look back on the season with a warm glow, knowing they were a real part of, and positive influence on, a great side.

The velvet glove…

You may not read the tabloids (in which case, good for you), but you’re probably aware of the stories surrounding Ronaldo, Anderson and the ladies of the night. You probably do read the sports papers, and you may have noticed the lack of interviews given by Nani and Anderson.

Whilst I’m not saying that Fergie lined up prozzies to make his youngsters feel at home, it is obvious that he has allowed them to settle into Manchester in their own way. He has not sought to keep them under lock and key, something that would almost certainly have provoked discontent, but has done his best to protect them from the glare of the media off the pitch as well as on.

The final cameo

The last second CL final substitution of Anderson for Wes Brown, and the decision to allow both him and Nani to take penalties in the shoot-out, spoke volumes for both the self-confidence that they had developed over the season (not to mention the trust the gaffer was prepared to put in them). It would have been so easy to get the experienced heads to step up (I expected to see Giggsy before then), but what a sensational boost for the two lads to take into next season.

I know this post is unremittingly positive, which can be a bit boring. I’m not sure I’m even being that controversial. Far more fun to nit-pick over Rooney’s performance or Carrick’s value for money. But this superbly thought out, flexible management of two players who will now be an integral part of our team and squad for the next five years must be recognised for the achievement it is.


Friday, 23 May 2008

Some Sober Reflections

Posted at Red Rants on 23 May 2008.

It’s hard to step back and look at the whole final without being tainted by the result. The temptation is to exult the good bits and ignore the bad bits, on the basis that it was all part of a masterplan. It’s also hard to give any new perspective, given the pages and pages of journalism on the subject. But I’m going to try - I’m going to give you two bits of hype that you should believe, and also four hard truths that we need to learn if we are to improve on what seems like perfection.

1. Believe the hype - 4-4-2

There weren’t many pundits who genuinely thought that we’d go in with a 4-4-2. “All about the midfield battle”, they pontificated, talking fluent cliche; “Chelsea are very physical and United will need numbers to combat that”. Having suffered through the Barca games and the loss at the Bridge, plenty of us also expected a 4-3-3 cum 4-5-1 to take the field.

There can be no doubt that we played an orthodox 4-4-2 for the whole first half, and that it worked superbly. Not least because it was a total tactical wrong ‘un, which it took Grant until half time to figure out. Carrick and Scholes were 15 yards deeper than Lampard and Ballack expected, so they had an extra touch or two to dictate the play. Our strongest player homed in on their most vulnerable. Makalele had no floating players to track, and so was comparatively ineffective. Cashley’s incursions were limited by Hargreaves, helping Brown to tuck and and deal with the central threat.

But the extra stroke of genius, what turned it from an interesting ploy into a potentially match-winning gambit, was the use of Hargreaves. When the teams were announced, literally everybody took it as proof that we were playing 4-3-3. Hargo’s been better going forward recently, but nobody has him down as a right winger. He was to be the screen - after all, that’s what he was bought for. So Chelsea would have focussed their last minute team talks on re-inforcing their strategy against 4-3-3, and a slight surprise was turned into a brutal curveball. It took them fully 45 minutes to recover; by that time, we should have had the match wrapped up.

2. Hard truth - Rooney and Tevez aren’t ruthless enough

This doesn’t matter in many matches, but it does in the really huge games. You don’t get many chances, and you have to be able to take a very high percentage of them against the very best teams to stand a chance. Ronaldo, nominally a winger, had one chance and put it away - that’s been the story of his season, what has turned 25 into 42.

I’m afraid Rooney and, in particular, Tevez aren’t doing that. They have each scored a decent number of goals, but not as many as they should have done in a team of this creative potential. In the final, Rooney didn’t have a single shot on goal - extraordinary for your centre-forward, however selfless. Tevez did - he should have scored twice in the first half, and in the second half he wasted a couple of decent positions by trying to beat the best most orange keeper in the world at his near post.

We need that Huntelaar type of figure - the predator who converts the great moves - to maximise our chances of retaining the European Cup.

3. Hard truth - Edwin van der Saar

Just as for Jerzy Dudek, the last penalty hero in a CL final, so it must be for EVDS. He has been struggling of late, with dodgy kicks and the odd flap at a high ball. It was extraordinary to see Fergie instruct his team at Stamford Bridge not to pass back to EVDS, and there were a couple of examples of that in the final where Vida tamely put balls out for throw-ins rather than trying to re-cycle the ball through his keeper. Nor is this fading towards the end of the season a first - it was the same last time round.

I don’t blame him for the slip for the first goal, since he was going for the first deflection and had to change again for the second. But when he slipped in the second half as Essien approached, that could have cost us the game - if Essien’s shot had been on target at all, it would have gone in.

We have a ready-made replacement in Ben Foster, and this is the ideal time to blood him. He has one of the most experienced keepers in the world on the training pitch, and the most secure back four in recent history in front of him.

4. Believe the hype - Nemanja Vidic

People have talked about the contribution of our stingy defence, but Vida was truly massive in this game. I don’t think there’s anyone better (and I’m including England’s Bottling John Terry, or England’s Bawling John Terry*, as you prefer) at dealing with a physical centre-forward. He had Drogba in his pocket for almost the whole night, so that Drogba’s only contributions came when he dropped out into midfield territory (the shot which hit the post) or out wide onto Evra in the air.

Bear in mind that Rio struggled through half of the game with mystery cramp, and you see the true achievement in containing Chelsea’s attacking threat. It’s no accident that Drogba targeted Vida for that girlie-slap - he was taking out his frustrations on the man who had shut him out of the final.

* For those not familiar with the Fiver, Terry is sarcastically nicknamed England’s Brave John Terry (EBJT) for his tedious self-portrayal as the indestructible, tough but ultimately good bloke.

5. Hard truth - substitutions

It’s been a long time since we’ve had such a strong bench, and Fergie needs to remember how to use it. One of the things that Mourinho was best at for Chelsea was recognising before anyone else did that things weren’t working, and acting decisively to change it.

It is only recently that we have had a full bench of geniune first team players to choose from. We were in serious danger of being over-run in the second half, when the 4-4-2 gambit had been recognised and dealt with. If Fergie had really been on top of his game, Scholes would have come off after 60 minutes and been replaced by Anderson, whose energy and combative spirit would have been very welcome as Chelsea began to move through the gears. At the same time, we should have reverted to the more logical 4-3-3, and freed Ronaldo from the responsibility of tracking the marauding Essien. The sentimental use of Ryan Giggs could have been saved for later.

If you want an example of the benefits of decisive subsitutions, look at the Arsenal game where Tevez and Anderson replaced Park and Scholes after 55 mins, and changed the game - we came from behind to win 2-1. More of this, please, Fergie, and less dithering.

6. Hard truth - Ronaldo as penalty-taker

That penalty miss must mark the end of Ronaldo’s stint as United’s first choice penalty taker. Whilst he has scored some high-pressure penalties (again, at Arsenal, for example), he missed three last season. Three is way too many - one is about the acceptable limit.

And think which penalties they were. First, to put the away game at West Ham out of sight - we went on to lose, and those three points would have been invaluable at end of the season. Second, in the first few minutes of the epic Barca tie - the whole tone of the tie would have been different if we had effectively started with a lead. Last, but not least, the one in the final.

Each could have cost us dear, none did. Let’s not push our luck, and give someone else the honour.

Right, that’s it. I’m going back to glorious celebrations, random chanting and myopic idolisation now. If you can step back from the hype, though, let’s hear your thoughts in the comment.


Tuesday, 13 May 2008

What if Fergie walks away? (Part II)

Posted at Red Rants on 13 May 2008.

Thanks for all the comments on the first part of this topic. Very interesting and, in a couple of instances, really informative.

As you know, Fergie has made it quite clear that he won’t be retiring at the end of this season, come what may. I’m therefore going to curtail this slightly - I’ll give you my order of preference as it stands today, but my main focus is going to be why CQ shouldn’t get the job, now or any other time.

Cutting to the chase, here’s my list in order of priority:

1. Martin O’Neill
2. Mark Hughes
3. Jose Mourinho
4. Carlos Quieroz

Given the overwhelming view in the comments on part I, the main thing I’m going to do is make the case against Queiroz. I take all your points about him inspiring the loyalty of the Portuguese contingent, having been Ferguson’s mentee for years, ensuring continuity and so forth. But I believe they are outweighed by the following factors:

1. Good assistants don’t make necessarily good managers — I don’t have all day, so I won’t quote you all the examples I can think of. But let’s try Brian Kidd, Steve McClaren, Graeme Souness/Roy Evans and Sammy Lee to start with. And include CQ himself in that list, whose season at Real was a disaster.

Suddenly you’re not the good cop who puts your arm round a young player who has just been screamed at by the boss — you need to do the screaming. You’re not the guy who works with the raw materials on the training ground, you’re the guy watching dispassionately and writing 11 names on the teamsheet. You’re not the guy who reads the papers and thinks “I wish they’d leave the gaffer alone”, you’re the one who the rabid pack of journalists doubting and probing and insulting and mocking every day. You’re the one going to the board meetings, the charity lunches, the mandatory press conferences and the photo ops. You’re the face of Manchester United.

That’s tough. It’s a different job, and he might not be good at it. Indeed, in my view, probably won’t be good at it.

2. You need a certain stature to make the biggest signings — We know what type of players CQ can sign — the up-and-coming Portuguese speaking type. But one thing you will never hear from the mouth of any player we sign if he became manager is the line spouted by almost all of Fergie’s signings, “I couldn’t turn down the chance to come and work with one of the greatest managers in the game”. You would see us losing a lot more of the races for the really top players with CQ as the gaffer.

3. A wide-ranging scouting network is essential — If you’re looking for a player from Portugal or South America, CQ is your man. But what about up-and-coming British/Irish players, or players who are making their mark at English clubs? Fergie knows everyone in the British/Irish game, and gets a lot of phone calls to alert him about a particular talent from guys he’s given guidance and advice to in his time. What about France, Italy and Holland? Someone like Evra is gold dust, and United had been able to build up links with Ruud for a couple of years before we first tried to sign him. What about Eastern Europe? A lot of talented, physical players are coming up through the increasingly competitive leagues over there, and we’d like the next Vidic, please.

4. The next manager needs to manage the whole club — CQ’s current role is first team coach. No doubt in the position he finds out a lot about what’s going on with the younger players and has contact with people. But Fergie runs the whole footballing operation. He employs the U-9 scouts, he hires the under-15 team coach, he interviews the replacement physio, everything. Whoever takes over needs experience of doing that.

So I contend that whilst on the face of it CQ is the safe choice, he is actually a big gamble. And one I don’t think we should take.

To justify the guys I would prefer to CQ:

Martin O’Neill certainly doesn’t fall down on 1, 3 or 4, which combined with the qualifications I set out in part I makes him my first choice. For his first season, the stature of the club should help him out with making the signings, and then he’ll have his own record to be judged on.

Mark Hughes falls down on 2 as well, but has less experience in Europe than O’Neill so comes in second for me. He’s also a much bigger gamble, since it will be his first experience of managing a club where success is expected — a different atmosphere. (Note O’Neill faced that at Celtic).

Mourinho struggles most on number 4. Yes, he may have been Porto-centric in his first phase at Chelsea, but that changed as he went on, and now he has a pretty cosmopolitan network of contacts. And no, his football isn’t as negative as you all think. You forget his first season when, as was pointed out in the comments last time round, Drogba with Cole and Duff supporting from wide, Lampard arriving from midfield and the full-backs bombing on was remarkably effective. Notice any similarities to our current formation?

But for now, thank God, this is all academic. Long may it remain so.


Thursday, 8 May 2008

What if Fergie walks away? (Part I)

Posted at Red Rants on 8 May 2008.

There is a mischievous rumour doing the rounds that Fergie will leave on a high if we win the double. I thought it was worthy of an article, because the “who’s next” guessing game is always fun and hasn’t been played for a while and because I (as usual) have some fairly particular opinions on the point which I want to hear your thoughts on.

First off, let me say that I don’t think it will happen. Anyone who saw Fergie in the centre circle after the West Ham game will be clear that he was in no way saying goodbye to the fans. He has built a great young squad that can only get better — he ain’t walking away now and letting someone else reap the rewards. He’s going to make up for those three years of pain by living with this team as well.

If you want to read more debate on this subject (and you should, because it involves the opinions of Martin Samuel, who is the best football columnist around by a long chalk), have a look at the Times website here.

The ground rules

But football’s a funny old game, and you never know. So let’s look at the possible contenders and the qualifications they would need to take over.

Here’s a list, in no particular order, of the names that spring to mind. I’ll put them in my order of preference at the end of the article.

- Carlos Queiroz
- Martin O’Neill
- Jose Mourinho
- Roy Keane
- Mark Hughes
- generic successful foreign manager (Ancellotti, Scolari, Capello, Hitzfeld, Klinsmann, etc etc)
- Sven

Here also are the things I think the next manager should have:

- experience with a variety of teams, preferably including the Premier League
- experience of winning trophies, preferably as manager
- proven ability to motivate players, both individually and as a unit
- prospective loyalty to Manchester United (in other words not viewing United as a stepping stone to another job, or one job in a shopping list of things to do in a career)
- record of commitment to a club as a whole, including youth team set up and other back room staff

I’m also going to think about possible assistants to each manager, because I think that will be a very important aspect in the success of the transition. If you want any evidence of the importance of the assistant manager, just compare our record in seasons where we have had a genuine assistant (Kidd, McClaren, Queiroz) to the seasons where Fergie has been operating on his own with help from the rest of the back room staff. ‘Nuff said.

The contenders

Carlos Queiroz

Experience and Success - good coaching experience prior to joining United, but disastrous season as manager of Real Madrid.
Motivation - undoubtedly responsible for our Portuguese / Brazilian contingent settling so well and performing to their ability. Failed to gain respect of high-profile Madrid players.
Loyalty - good, as far as we know. Came back to us after Real, which is a good sign. Risky, though — if he became manager and continued to recruit Portuguese / South American players and then left, most of them would be severely unsettled.
Clubman - certainly has a vision for United, and has taken responsibility for bringing in many of the next generation. Also has a strong network of scouts and contacts in “his” areas.

Ideal assistant - needs an English speaker who is United to the core. Bryan Robson would be perfect, since he finally seems to have accepted that the top jobs are not for him. Other less experienced possibilities are Gary Neville (if his injury gets the better of him), Ryan Giggs and Ole Solskjaer.

Martin O’Neill

Experience and Success - wide-ranging. Did a sterling job with Leicester in the Premiership, making them a top ten club with almost no resources; domestically successful with Celtic, and lost a UEFA Cup final to Mourinho’s cheating Porto; has turned Villa around with good prospects for next season.
Motivation - forged a fantastic team spirit at Leicester and Villa, making them punch above their weight both in terms of resources and squad size. Kept his team together well at Celtic.
Loyalty - O’Neill is never going to manage outside these shores, and so United is likely to be his last stop if he does well. No history with us, though.
Clubman - unquestionably looks after the whole club and is capable of building a team over time to a vision. Plays good football when his resources allow.

Ideal assistant - well, if he’ll stay as coach, CQ. That will be the case for all the other contenders. But it wouldn’t surprise anyone if CQ left if he was passed over, so failing him someone young, energetic and United to the core. I’m thinking Giggsy…

Jose Mourinho

Experience and Success - we’ve all had it rammed down our throats — Porto & Chelsea, etc. Impressive trophy cabinet. Guaranteed success, almost, which is important both to the fans and the owners.
Motivation - based on evidence at Chelsea, every bit as good as Fergie — players would run through brick walls for him. On the plus side, if CQ left we have another Portuguese to replace him, which would reduce the risk of an exodus.
Loyalty - Looks like he’s set for a tour of the big European clubs, with a stop off in the Portugal national squad — no way we’re keeping him until he retires.
Clubman - Was never allowed to do anything other than first team affairs at Chelsea, so undecided. Plays dire football, though — remember that comment he made to his players before last season’s FA Cup final? “Do you want to enjoy the game, or enjoy after the game?”. Sorry for being trite, but both please.

Ideal assistant - irrelevant. He’ll bring his own back room staff, although again it would be good to see him retain a United presence, like Steve Clarke at Chelsea.

Roy Keane

Experience and Success - has done as well as anyone could have expected with Sunderland, getting them promoted and then keeping them up despite a rough start. Seen and done it all as a player.
Motivation - unproven with big enough names and egos to rival his own, but everyone at Sunderland seems in awe of him. At least as ruthless as Fergie.
Loyalty - if he was successful enough, you could see him being United manager for ever.
Clubman - again, doing well based on limited evidence.

Ideal assistant - CQ. Needs a first class coach and someone with lots of experience alongside him. I honestly don’t think it would work with anyone else, but I also don’t think CQ would let Keano be brought in over his head, and there would be a risk of the lines of authority being blurred.

Mark Hughes

Experience and Success - Wales and Blackburn. He has made both better than the sum of their parts, which is high praise for any manager - in particular Wales, with a limited player pool and a tough group. If only they hadn’t lost to Azerbaijan, they would have qualified for the Euros despire being in Italy’s group. Short of club European experience as a manager, though.
Motivation - unarguable with both teams. Managed difficult personalities like Robbie Savage, and has subdued big egos like Benni McCarthy and Roque Santa Cruz.
Loyalty - like Keano, this would be the peak of his managerial career.
Clubman - has done a good job bringing young players into the Blackburn team. After a rocky start with earned them the name Blackeye Rovers, he seems to be committed to good, attacking football.

Ideal assistant - again CQ would be ideal — see Keano. Otherwise, someone with extensive experience. I’m thinking Brian Kidd…


This was more in here as a joke, but nobody can question his experience and he did a very good job at City. Still, I’m an England fan and the scars run deep…

Miscellaneous European manager

There will inevitably be some big foreign names linked, but it’s impossible to know who. And this post is long enough without going into detail on all the possible contenders. If someone else wants to in the comments, then be my guest.

In fact, this post has become too long to be continued, so I’m going to stop here and let you debate the contenders as I have presented them. I will then write part 2 of this article in a couple of days, which will give my preferences, try to address any comments made, and talk about how the process is likely to work in practice. Happy ranting.


Thursday, 1 May 2008

The British Element

Posted at Red Rants on 1 May 2008.

This post could create a lot of controversy, so I want to make it clear that I don’t have anything against foreign players per se. Many of the United greats have been from beyond these shores, and I revere them as much as anyone else.

That said, I have always been proud that United has had a core of players from the British Isles (note that’s worded carefully enough to include the Republic of Ireland). United are an English team, who have always placed high value on local talent and team spirit. I need scarcely draw the comparisons with the other big sides:

- Arsenal - are and have been for many years (since the likes of Adams, Dixon, Keown etc began retiring) made up almost exclusively of foreigners.

- Chelsea - bought in a load of players, some English and some not, with a trend towards foreigners (particularly Portuguese, like Carvalho, Ferreira and flops such as Tiago) under Mourinho.

- Liverpool - still value their “local lads” like Carragher and $tevie Mbe, but Benitez has brought in a load of Spanish and Spanish-speaking players (Torres, Alonso, Mascherano, a few random Brazilians, Luis Garcia and others who have now left).

An all-British Isles team

To illustrate, let’s look at the best all-British Isles teams that each of the top 4 can put out. In fact, let’s not bother with Arsenal, because it’s not realistic. And actually, scrap Liverpool too because the only players there are Carragher, Finnan, Gerrard, Pennant and Crouch.


Foster; G Neville-Brown-Ferdinand-O’Shea; Fletcher-Carrick-Hargreaves-Giggs; Scholes; Rooney; subs: Simpson, Eagles, Cathcart, Welbeck, Heaton

Now that’s a pretty strong side, and we can even find some subs to put on the bench. I’m actively proud that we can put that team out.


[no keeper]; Bridge-Terry-[no CB]-A Cole; J Cole-Lampard-Sidwell-Wright-Phillips

Not much cop - even ignoring the gaps, where are the goals coming from?

So, on the one hand, the core of our team is still British Isles-based at present (Neville, Rio, Scholes, Carrick, Rooney). On the other hand, the majority of our recent signings have been Portuguese / Portuguese-speaking, which is Queiroz’s influence. I’m talking here about Nani, Anderson, the twin full backs and Manucho, together with all the links to any decent Porto or Sporting Lisbon player.

I would really like to to carry on trying to buy the best of British where possible alongside the top class foreigners (think Rooney, Rio, Carrick, Foster and Hargreaves), whilst at the same time bringing through our youth players (current alumni Scholes, O’Shea, Brown, Fletcher, Giggs and Neville). Bring in top drawer foreign players, but don’t look overseas for the sake of it, or just because Queiroz finds it easier to coach those who identify with him.

Apart from the “British players for a British league” point, on a practical note we’re likely to get better value in the long run for British Isles players. Players like Ronaldo and Tevez are going to want to go and play in the continent and in their homeland eventually, whereas Rooney and Rio will commit their entire remaining career to United. Think about Keane, Giggs, Scholes, Neville and others who played either all or the vast majority of their careers for us. To anyone who wants to accuse me of being prejudiced against foreigners, bear this in mind. Do you think we’d have been so good for so long without this unbelievable loyalty from our core squad?

The other impact of this view is that I firmly believe that our next manager should be from the British Isles - one who is going to view United as the pinnacle of their managerial career and (if all goes well) be with us for 25 years, not someone who might, for example, be tempted away by the Portugal national side in three years time. United are the top team in the top league in the British Isles, and I think we should always act like it.

End uncharacteristic rant. Try not to flame me too hard.