Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Don’t Hate Daniel Levy

Posted at Red Rants on 20 August 2008.

[Ed: This may be a little, shall we say, contrary to general United fan opinion. But sit back and try to wrap your heads around it for a change.]

“God, don’t we all just want Daniel Levy to fuck off? I mean, I can’t see why he doesn’t just accept defeat and sell us Berbatov. He knows he’s going to have to eventually anyway, so he should just get it over with now so we can all get on with our lives. And that tapping-up complaint he filed is a load of shit. By the time he gets his head out of his arse, we’ll be five points off the pace. He is behaving unprofessionally and generally like a cock, and I hate him.”

Do you agree with the above? Then you must be a blinkered United fan like me, because any objective (or for that matter, and other type of) observer should have nothing but praise for Levy’s actions.

Spurs have seemed the most likely entrants into the elite Top 4 Club for the last few years, and barring a dodgy lasagne they would probably have consigned Arsenal to a season in the UEFA Cup. They are now routinely signing some of the best young talent both from the UK and abroad, along with some shrewd purchases of more experienced players. Bale, Woodgate, Hutton, Bentley, Zokora, Bent (admittedly at a hugely inflated price), dos Santos, Modric and, or course, Berbatov have been added to home-grown talent like King, Lennon and Huddlestone. It’s an impressive squad, albeit one whose last eighteen months have been characterised by underachievement.

Until they secure the sacred Champions League place, many of their players will harbour higher ambitions. And the top 4 will see their closest rival as an obvious place to go to pick up Premiership-proven talent, because it should be easier to buy from within the PL than from top continental sides. However, to sustain a challenge for membership of the elite, Spurs need to keep broadly the same squad together for a handful of seasons, so they can grow as a team. At the moment, much to the delight of United and co, they are in danger of becoming a feeder club.

So Levy’s behaviour during this intensely tedious and drawn-out saga is entirely in Spurs’ best interests. In the short term, he will secure an above-market price for a player who has mentally already left the building, funding further investment in the current squad. But more importantly, in the long term he has sent a clear message for the January window and beyond:

“I can’t stop you bidding for our players, but if you want to sign one of our stars then be prepared for us to make the transfer more miserable, disruptive, drawn-out, inconvenient and expensive than you could imagine. If you think you can come over here, tickle our tummies and take the players we scouted and we bedded into the Premiership and do so without a fight, you’re very much mistaken. Now fuck off before I report you to the FA for something.”

And who can blame him. We picked off Carrick two seasons ago, Berba is still (I believe) almost certain to follow; only the da Silva twins will deter us from tracking Hutton and Bale; and we’d probably have tried to sign Lennon already if he could stay fit for more than two games in a row. That sort of interest inevitably leads to cordial relations souring - think of PSV, who provided us with Jaap Stam, Ruud and Park, but have since made it clear that we’re not really welcome anymore, evidenced by our failure to secure players like Arjen Robben.

Robbie Keane, incidentally, is an exception to the rule. For one thing, Liverpool paid way too much for him - he may only be 28, but he is a big gamble for that amount of money. Also, he has been with Spurs through thick and thin since 2002, and nobody at Spurs could deny him a shot at the Champions League before he is too old. It would be comparable to Ole asking us for a transfer a year before his injury - we’d have hated to see him go, but he’d have gone with our blessing.

Berbatov, on the other hand, took four months of his first season to settle in, had a purple patch, immediately started agitating for a move, and then sulked for a while when he didn’t get it. Spurs are treating him with just the same loyalty as he has treated them. So whilst, as a United fan, I subscribe to all the views I started the article with, as a follower of football I think Levy has it spot on.

Oh, and I got all the way through without drawing a comparison with Ronaldo - it would have been too easy.


Friday, 15 August 2008

United On The Edge Of Greatness

Posted at Red Rants on 15 August 2008.

We start this season on the edge of true greatness. Not the fleeting greatness that gets bandied around weekly in the tabloids - proper, timeless greatness. The sort that people who are not born yet will look back on in forty years and rave about.

You can put together “great” teams, you can have “great” players, but what elevates a side into the timeless category is weight of achievement. It’s what makes Ferguson the best British manager ever, and Wenger just a worthy sideshow; it’s what makes Giggs one of the best players of all time, and Gerrard a footnote in comparison. It’s why everyone knows exactly what you mean when you say the Treble, why everyone (however grudgingly) acknowledges that as a seminal footballing achievement; it’s why names like Solskjaer and Sheringham appear alongside Schmeichel and Keane in everyone’s dictionary of footballing legends.

This season we can complete a hat-trick of Premiership titles and retain the European Cup. To do either would put this team into that timeless bracket. To do both would make them the best English club side ever.

The Premiership is harder to win than the top division has ever been. The points tallies required for victory demand relentless excellence over the entire season, starting from game one - the second half of the season push for which we became renowned is not good enough any more. Our main rivals have nearly unlimited money to spend, a squad which regularly sits £25m players on the bench and haven’t lost a match at home for two years. The chasing pack contains two teams who would have been good enough to win the league five years ago, featuring some star players who are coveted by every other club in Europe, including ourselves.

The next tier of clubs are more intimidating than ever before, as a combination of TV money, foreign ownership and the availability of cheap overseas talent allows them to build impressive squads of their own, packed with internationals. Anyone who claims that games against Spurs, Portsmouth, Villa, Everton, Man City or Blackburn will be easy is deluded. Even lower down, we are only too well aware of the surprises teams like Middlesbrough can spring.

We’ve won a hat-trick of titles before, but then we were by far the best team, with more money and more pulling power than anyone else, in leagues with ten teams of comparative deadwood who our reserves could and did beat. Whatever the talk of the “Big Four”, it’s the level of competition that would make this our greatest domestic achievement.

The Champions League has never been retained. Not in its current punishing format, with the leagues followed by a rock-hard knockout phase. The Bayern machine couldn’t do it, the galacticos couldn’t do it, the Treble-winners couldn’t do it. There are so many chances to slip up, so many hurdles to fall at. One bad day can be impossible to recover from. Real and Barca are stronger than last season, and as champions everyone will be gunning for us.

We can do it. We can do both of these things. We can be that team. We have a rock-solid defence, a flexible and resourceful central midfield, the world’s best player, two sensational support strikers, (almost certainly) a hyper-talented new centre forward, a deep and well-rounded squad which is both experienced and hungry, with both old heads and young blood.

But the line is thin. Ronaldo is injured to start with, and surely can’t be as good again. Rooney needs to climb again from his plateau, Berbatov needs to settle quickly to give us enough firepower going forward. Nani may be a season away from turning his talent into end product, and age is catching up with Giggs. Our central midfielders need to discover where the net is, and we have no top class cover for Evra. What if Rio or Vidic gets injured, or van der Saar really can’t last another whole season?

After one of the most boring and frustrating summers on record, we are about to leap headlong into our chance to surpass anything our rivals have ever done in their history. Hold your breath, and hope we smiling next May - if we are, history will smile on us.


Shallow Squad or an Injury Crisis?

Posted at Red Rants on 15 August 2008.

The team we pick to start the first “competitive” game of the season (if you can call the Charity Shield competitive) is going to be pretty threadbare. Prospects aren’t so hot for the Newcastle game either. This has caused a lot of debate here recently about whether our squad leaves us too vulnerable to injury or whether it is an unfortunate run of injuries which we could not have foreseen or provided against.

By the way, I’m going to try out numbering and lettering my paragraphs to make commenting and debating easier. I’m going to touch on a lot of themes here, and so it may help facilitate debate if you can refer simply to paragraph 3a. It may not work, but hey.

1. The squad

First of all, I’m going to set out all the options we have in each position, so that we start this debate by looking objectively at the resources at our disposal.

GK: EVDS, Kuszczak, Foster
RB: Brown, G Neville, O’Shea, Hargreaves, R da Silva, Evans [Simpson is now out on loan, in case you missed that]
CB: Rio, Vidic, Brown, O’Shea, Evans, Silvestre
LB: Evra, Silvestre, O’Shea, Evans, F da Silva
RM / RW: Ronaldo, Nani, Park, Giggs, Hargreaves, Fletcher, Rooney
CM: Scholes, Carrick, Hargreaves, Anderson, Fletcher, Possebon, O’Shea, Giggs
LM / LW: Ronaldo, Nani, Giggs, Park, Evra, Rooney
CF: Rooney, Ronaldo, Tevez, Campbell, Giggs [Manucho is still awaiting a work permit; Welbeck has been mysteriously absent from pre-season games - anyone with info why please post it below]

In short, we have at least 5 genuine options in each position. Yes, you read it right - five. Not two, as Mourinho once advocated, five. Some better than others, but none would disgrace the shirt. Some overlapping, too, but there are thirty distinct players there, not counting Manucho, Welbeck or any other youngsters like Gibson.

2. The striker

a) Let’s also get the striker issue out of the way right here. Yes, we need another one - it is the only area where we have inadequate cover. Yes, it would have been nice to have wrapped up Berbatov already. But should we have gone out and splurged on a striker, any striker, just so we have someone for the start of the season? Definitely not. And yes, a fast start is desirable and a huge advantage, but we hardly got one last year and we coped.

b) It takes a rare combination of skill, temperament and potential to become a United signing. Being good isn’t good enough - you have to be good in the right ways for the team, just ask Seba Veron. Should we have signed Robbie Keane for £20m, just because we could probably have sewn it up by now? Dean Ashton for £17m? Peter Crouch for £12m? Or should we wait for the right guy at the right price?

c) My answers to those questions are please no, good god no, not for that price and yes, in that order. Also, just because we’re not reading stories in the press doesn’t mean that progress isn’t being made. If you’d just been reported for comments made in the media about Berbatov, you’d be pretty stupid to antagonise the selling club by continuing to make comments in the media about Berbatov. This is how we do business these days - quietly, behind the scenes, and not like Real Madrid.

d) I will admit, though, that our lack of interest in Huntelaar is surprising. But then there are a lot of top clubs on the hunt (sorry) for strikers, and none of them have put a concrete offer in for him - so what do they know that we don’t?

3. The injury list

a) Here’s the list, first up:

Ronaldo (ankle, 2 months)
Rooney (virus, first two games)
Nani (suspension, first two PL games)
Anderson (Olympics, August)
Carrick (virus, probably CS only)
Hargreaves (tendinitis, possibly fit from start)
Park (knee, possibly fit from start)
Saha (sniffly nose, the rest of his life)

That’s a pretty brutal spate of injuries - particularly so because it has focused entirely on our midfield and attack. We would happily trade, for example, Evra for Rooney and Brown for Nani, since we could easily absorb those injuries in the defence but would keep some of our attacking potency.

b) To illustrate further, this is what a comparable injury list would be for our rivals:

Chelsea: Drogba, Anelka, Joe Cole, Mikel, Deco, Essien, Malouda, Shevchenko
Liverpool: Torres, Keane, Babel, Mascherano, Alonso, Benayoun, Kuyt, Voronin
Arsenal: van Persie, Adebayor, Nasri, Rosicky, Fabregas, Diaby, Walcott, Bendtner

c) So to criticise United for not being able to absorb the injuries we have suffered without a drop in performance is to criticise the whole league, and probably every other top club in Europe (I don’t know the Barca, Real, AC Milan or Bayern squads quite well enough to do a similar comparison with them - if you do, please do so in the comments). Those teams would be lucky to put eleven players on the field who could beat Hull, let alone who have every chance of keeping us afloat for a few weeks if needed. We should instead be saying how lucky we are to have a few golden oldies and Tevez to reliably fill the void.

4. Should we have more cover?

However, to take our own squad in isolation and knowing Ronaldo was out for the first two months, would it be optimal for us to have signed more players? The answer to this remains no. There is a roadblock practical reason for this, and an objection in principle.

a) The problem is that you are trying to attract players when they know full well they have no chance of playing if the squad is anywhere near fully fit. This immediately rules out players who are really good right now or likely to become really good in the next year, leaving us with two types of player: youngsters for the future and oldies who might have an Indian summer. We already have the oldies, thanks, barring a miracle loan signing akin to Larsson. Equally, youngsters who are over a season away from being good are probably no better than what we can cobble together internally.

Therefore, the pool of players who will sign for us knowing that they will only get regular first team football if we have an horrific injury crisis and who are good enough to play for us even on a part-time basis is pretty small. The only name I came up with was Eidur Gudjohnsen, but there we go.

There is a third category of players, those who are in it for the money and a quiet life. Step forward, Carlo Cudicini (the best keeper in the Premiership when Cech was bought) and Wayne Bridge (only Evra and Clichy are better). But then is greed and lack of ambition a combination of qualities you want in a United player, even if we could afford them?

b) Whilst I’m here, I want to touch on Aaron Ramsey, who has attracted a lot of inches on this blog. A commonly-held belief is that the reason he went to Arsenal is because Fergie couldn’t be bothered to go and meet him. Whilst this doesn’t look very good (particularly set against fireside games of snooker with a young David Beckham, etc), it is wrong to say that this cost us Ramsey’s signature.

What cost us Ramsey’s signature was that we wanted to buy him and loan him back to Cardiff for a season. Arsenal, on the other hand, wanted to take him straight into the first team squad and offered him a shot at Premier League football. He (understandably, in my view), preferred the latter option. This isn’t speculation or my interpretation of things - this is what Cardiff chairman Peter Ridsdale said in an interview with the BBC.

So to use this as a stick to beat United and Fergie over the head with seems a bit silly. We didn’t need him for this season, but tried to secure him in the long term - he’s not so wonderfully amazing that he had to be signed immediately like we did with Nani and Anderson. Ramsey was thinking short term - end of.

c) The objection on principle is that I don’t want to return to the era of utility players. You all remember it - Djemba-Djemba, Kleberson, Phil Neville, Quinton Fortune, Diego Forlan all as integral members of the first team squad. Good enough to be in the squad, but not good enough for the first team. Fergie splintered our transfer budget, signing lots of bit part players rather than one big name. Would you have him spend £10-15m of our summer transfer budget on a fourth reserve player, or save it and secure the player we have identified as The One? I’ll leave that one as rhetorical.

5. I’d like to say one more thing before I throw this open for what I imagine and hope will be a fairly heated debate. I’m not a “loyalist”, I’m not supporting United for the sake of it, and I don’t believe the sun shines out of Fergie’s arse. Everything I’ve offered above is, in my opinion, closely reasoned and supported by facts. So if and when you disagree with me in the comments, please try to make your responses the same.

In summary - our team is going to be badly under strength for the first two games of the season. That does not make our squad defective and does not mean we should spend millions of pounds willy nilly on squad players to compensate.


Friday, 1 August 2008

Ten Indicators For United’s 08/09 Season

Posted at Red Rants on 1 August 2008.

Apologies for the extended period of quiet from my side (note, please, that I am not RR, who has done an admirable job of keeping the site going and everyone interested during what has the most boring, repetitive, inconclusive and tedious close season in living memory). When I say that the cricket has been far more interesting than anything to do with football recently, I think I have said all.

In the continuing absence of any concrete developments from the summer, I want to look back on our staggeringly successful last season and draw out some of the reasons why we were so damn good. These apply both to why we’ve gone from being written off in the summer of ‘06 to the best team in Europe, and also what we did even better in 07/08 to achieve such heights. Then I’m going to darken the tone slightly by picking up three things which could scupper our chances.


1. Squad depth

Last season, with the exception of centre forward, we had high class cover right across the board. Not only high class cover, in fact, but a lot more than 11 players who deserved and were fighting for a first team spot. This allowed us to cope with all the injuries thrown our way; but more importantly, to have genuine flexibility to mix and match our team to suit the exact circumstances.

2. Weakness of our rivals

Arsenal had a great first XI, but as soon as form, fitness and fatigue scratched that surface they were gone. So, this summer they have sold two first team regulars…as much as we now (patronisingly) applaud Wenger, he really is a masochist.

Liverpool had two great players (Torres and Gerrard), one fouling centre back who the press often call great (Carragher), an amusingly foul-mouthed midfielder (Mascherano - thanks again for that red card), a few has-beens (Finnan, Hyppia, Riise), a few might-yet-bes (Babel, that kid they play at right back), and some journeymen / donkeys (Crouch, Kuyt, Pennant, Kewell)….sorry, did I get carried away there? What I meant was that they were entirely reliant (as opposed to over-reliant) on two players.

Chelski were unlucky with injuries, but that said the African Nations was a fairly predictable drain on their resources and Mourinho bought badly last summer (Malouda, Alex, Ben Haim & Pizarro, none of whom were good enough for their first team). And the upheaval of Mourinho’s departure was entirely caused by their owner.

The good thing is that what little activity there has been so far this summer has made Arsenal’s plight worse, kept Liverpool broadly the same (although Keane could be a good signing) and left Chelsea up in the air (what if Drogba and Lampard leave next week, just before the season starts?)

3. The fear factor’s back

In the depths of our three-year slump, the most damaging development was that we had lost the fear factor. Teams used to turn up not shaking in fear and hoping to keep it down to 2-0, but genuinely thinking they could win. So they had a go, and against our weakened team came away with points far too often. Last season they were 1-0 down in the coach on the way to the game again, and it showed.

4. Everyone taking responsibility

In previous times, when we have had to bring in John O’Shea, Darren Fletcher, Ji-Sung Park and co they have played like second stringers. Like good, old-fashioned triers, but ones who know they’re not quite cut out to be in the exalted company they are in. But last season, they were. Anderson and Nani played like present day stars, not ones for the future. Wes Brown was an integral part of our stingiest ever defence, including a quite sensational performance in the second leg against Barcelona. Hargreaves rose above his disappointments to be our most consistent player in the last month of the season. Park, too, played like a man possessed for that month. Even Silvestre came back into the first team against Chelski and gave a good impression of a regular left back.

Not only did we have squad depth, but the quality, maturity and attitude was spot on right through the squad.

5. Confidence in the tough games

Often the difference between a good season and a great season is performance in the so-called “six-pointers”. But since that doesn’t extend to the Champions League, let’s just use the less snappy phrase “games against other elite clubs”. Whereas in some previous seasons this has been our weakness, this time round we were superb, with only the last minute penalty against Chelski blotting our copybook (even that in a game where we played a below-par team):

Chelski: W 2, L 1
Arsenal: W 1, D 1
Liverpool: W 2
Barca: W 1, D 1
Roma: W 3, D 1
Overall: P 13, W 9, D 3, L 1.

6. Suitability for Europe

Our squad and style of play is now much more suited to success in Europe. With the very honourable exception of 1999, it doesn’t often wash in Europe to have a flimsy defence and rely on scoring heavily. Most of the top sides, particularly in Italy, are too good to be overwhelmed defensively, so keeping clean sheets is much more important. Equally, we had the players to make the 4-3-2-1 system work properly against better teams, with plenty of players all over the pitch who could provide solid defence and then switch effortlessly into fluent attack (Evra, Carrick, Rooney and Tevez to name but four).

7. Prospects for the future

Well, with the exception of Ronaldo, this squad has the potential to grow together for the next five or so years. In fact, last year’s squad had a somewhat raw feel to it in midfield and attack at times. Tevez took a while to settle in, Anderson stepped up magnificently but failed to score a single goal, Nani’s decision-making looks like Ronaldo’s did four years ago and Hargreaves was out of sorts until April. We can expect a lot more from these players and others this coming season.


1. No standout assistant manager

It’s no great secret that we’ve always struggled when Fergie hasn’t had a first class coach working with him. Brian Kidd, Steve McClaren and Carlos Queiroz have all been integral parts of our best sides; their ability to devise cutting-edge training routines and support the squad in a complementary was to Fergie were essential. It doesn’t look like we’re going to start the season with a “specialist” assistant, with various of Fergie’s underlings helping out. That makes me nervous.

2. Reduced return from Ronaldo

No secrets here. With Ronaldo out for the start of the season, and questionably motivated thereafter, we need others to stand up and be counted. Big season for Wayne Rooney, and whichever striker we buy (I’m still confident of Berbatov) needs to hit the ground running. We can’t afford another start like last season.

3. We were lucky with injuries last time round

I mean, I know Vidic was injured for most of the last two months, Scholes missed a lot of games before Christmas and Gary Neville didn’t play at all. But we had most of our key players fit most of the time, and we can’t rely on that again. If Rooney missed injures himself on the first day again, for example, we could be in serious trouble by the time he and Ronaldo return. Equally, our defence wasn’t quite the same without Rio and Vidic at its heart. We have a great squad, but injuries could still screw us.

That’s my lot. Any themes you would draw attention to?