Who’s going to push the panic button?

In case of emergency...

Amazingly, Manchester United came back from 2-0 down to draw with Aston Villa 2-2 at Villa Park. But United were lucky: Villa attacked from the beginning and outplayed United the entire match. Which means, of course, that the English media and a lot of US columnists will wring their hands. So, let’s step back and see the pros and cons of pushing the panic button.

Reasons to push the button:

1. No wins away from home. United have been in positions to score, but haven’t been able to finish teams off. Why is that? Perhaps it’s complacency, but I think it has more to do with lack of squad depth and disharmony.

2. No reinforcements. Wayne Rooney’s hissy fit last month brought into relief the lack of spending. In principle, I understand Sir Alex’s desire not to overspend. In reality, he clearly has no money to spend. It appears as though the Glazer takeover debt is finally coming home to roost.

3. No speed and no creativity. Let’s get one thing straight: Nani will never, ever be a consistent performer (unless that performance is dramatizing fouls). Park Ji-Sung is a nice player with plenty of industry, but he’s not going to float beautiful crosses. The speed comes into play at the back. Having one center back with no speed is fine; two is too many. Add to that the fact that the left and right backs have neither the speed nor the skill to keep up with Aston Villa and United has major problems.

4. Poor transfer decisions. Bebé for 7 million? Smalling for 10 million? No move for Özil at a cut-rate price? No move for van der Vaart, available on the cheap?

5. Playing not to lose, rather than playing to win. In the Manchester derby, United adopted a defensive posture despite controlling large portions of the second half. Against Villa, United was attacked from the beginning and had no response (at least until Macheda’s laser in the 81st minute, which appeared to flick a switch in the team). It looks like United is rattled, and that’s not a good thing for such an ambitious club.

Reasons not to press the panic button:

1. Sir Alex Ferguson still runs the show. Twenty-four years in charge with amazing success means he has a lot of leeway.

2. An ability to come back from the brink. United have an amazing ability to come back. In the match today against Villa, they came back from 2-0 down. They’ve done that more than once this season alone. Perhaps it’s not complacency, but an unwillingness to fight until it’s absolutely necessary (which may, in fact, be a bigger problem).

3. The kids might actually be okay. Gabriel Obertan looks like he’s developing (which only took about three years). Federico Macheda’s development curve, on the other hand, looks like the last two years of the Dow Jones index. Javier Hernández was an excellent piece of business. The downside? None of those are defenders or creative wing players.

By numbers, the cons outweigh the pros, but I’m still not ready to push the panic button. United will not win the league this year (barring some major changes in January, which aren’t going to happen) but all is not lost. At least not yet.

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Canada loses Bunbury

Teal Bunbury plays for the Kansas City Wizards

Perhaps “lose” is the wrong term, since Canada never really had him in the first place. Like Jonathan de Guzman and Asmir Begović (and, to a lesser extent, Owen Hargreaves) before him, Teal Bunbury – a young, promising striker currently playing for the Kansas City Wizards – chose his other nationality. In this case, that means the United States. Make no mistake, this is a serious problem for the Canadian Soccer Association, and it doesn’t look like it’s being taken seriously.

I realize that de Guzman, for instance, never really wanted to play for Canada. He was going to choose Holland (unlike his brother) from the beginning, assuming Holland wanted him. The same is true of Hargreaves, who was always going to choose England (and, really, choosing England over Canada, esp. when you were good enough to start for England in the World Cup, is a no brainer). I have no issue with them for that. I do have issues with both Begović and Bunbury because they both suited up for Canada at various points. They both waffled (esp. Begović), and, in the end, they both set Canada back.

Begović, for example, would be Canada’s starting keeper today. Bunbury, although only 20, would certainly be in the game day roster, and likely see a lot of action (Ali Gerba, Olivier Occean, and Iain Hume [though I’m a huge Hume fan] aren’t getting any younger or better). Bunbury’s father, Alex, played for Canada and scored 16 goals. I know fathers want their sons to make their own decisions (and I can respect the fact that Bunbury has spent half his life in the US), but from a playing perspective, Teal’s path is not blocked the way it is in the US (Jozy Altidore is the starting striker for the foreseeable future). Of course, the US will likely make it to a few more World Cups before Canada, and playing a World Cup is every player’s dream.

On the other hand, this is good for the US. Bob Bradley needs to attract dual-nationality players to (a) improve the team and (b) increase the team’s depth at all positions. He does have the US’s standing as one of the two best teams in CONCACAF (and therefore all but guaranteed to go to the World Cup) as a positive. On the other hand, he is very stuck in his ways and finds it difficult to work in new blood. Thus, while Bunbury may or may not get to play in a World Cup (depending on injuries, skill development, etc.), he definitely would have played more with Canada and could have been, with Will Johnson and David Edgar, the foundation of the Canadian national team for the next decade. However, assuming he fights his way on to the US national team, he probably made the right choice for him.

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The Manchester derby, part 1

Michael Carrick and Nemanja Vidic are challenged by Yaya Toure (Getty)

The hype machine went into overdrive for no real reason. The derby was built up to something it was never going to be: a back-and-forth game full of scoring chances and acrobatic saves.

Have any of these commentators seen Manchester City play this season? More importantly, do they know anything about Roberto Mancini?

The problem with the general assumption that the derby would be a cracking game is that neither team is really playing that well right now. Also, City spend all of its money on defensive midfielders rather than creativity (and the one creative winger they do have – Adam Johnson – played 8 minutes). On the other hand, Wayne Rooney was out and my opinions of United’s wingers are well known. Not only that, but Michael Carrick was starting, which is never a good thing.

I figured Sir Alex would match City’s formation and try to counter-attack given his squad’s status (pay no attention to the virus claims, David Hirshey; they’re called mind games). In fact, United dominated the second half, esp. in terms of possession. I figured City would come out more aggressive, but they didn’t, partly because they’re not built that way and partly because that’s not Mancini’s style. True to form, the game ended in a 0-0 draw.

Can we take any grand conclusions from this game? No, not even a little bit. Both teams played like any rational evaluator would have guessed. Neither looks like it will challenge Chelsea for the title this season because both are deeply, deeply flawed. City has delusions of grandeur, but Sir Alex knows he’s getting the most out of his players as (I hope) he looks for reinforcements.

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TFC panders to its fans

Jürgen Klinsmann

A couple of days ago, I read with interest the report that Jürgen Klinsmann was on his way to Toronto. He had been hired as an consultant (or adviser, whichever term you prefer). The term itself is interesting. In and of itself, “adviser” is a meaningless term, especially for a team with neither a general manager nor a coach. The question, then, is two-fold: first, what is TFC trying to do here? Second, what about Klinsmann’s desire for control?

It seems relatively obvious that TFC is pandering to its fans. By appointing Klinsmann as an adviser, it gives the illusion of action when, in reality, there was none. In short, TFC did nothing, except pay for a plane ticket and possibly some wages, with this appointment. I’d like to think that the club’s fans are a little savvier than MLSE thinks and are not, in fact, fooled by this appointment. Klinsmann should be given a proper title and a proper place in the organization if ownership wants to prove it’s doing something.

Now, how much control does Klinsmann actually have? Famously, the lack of control is why he is not currently the manager of the US national team. Apparently, Bob Bradley is more pliable (what that says about Sunil Gulati and the USSF is another post). So what’s Klinsmann’s role in Toronto? Is he going to hire the GM and manager and then step aside? Something tells me that’s a no. Klinsmann wants to be on the sideline. He wants to be in control. Will TFC’s players respond to someone with no real title? His name guarantees instant respect, but his odd ways might rub some players the wrong way (though he did have success with Germany in 2006).

Klinsmann is, in my opinion, a talented manager. He has a lot to learn (don’t we all?), but he should be given a chance. If TFC wanted to make a bold step, it would hire him in an official capacity. As it stands, Klinsmann is smokescreen, designed to distract people from looking at the fact that the organization is in shambles.

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Wednesday Book Review: Soccer Against the Enemy

Kuper, Simon. Soccer Against the Enemy: How the World’s Most Popular Sport Starts and Fuels Revolutions and Keeps Dictators in Power. New York: Nation Books, 2006 (1994).

An Argentine general, upon meeting Simon Kuper and learning the subject of his book said, “Soccer and politics! What an original theme!” (208) In reality, Kuper’s book, Soccer Against the Enemy: How the World’s Most Popular Sport Starts and Fuels Revolutions and Keeps Dictators in Power, is not about soccer and politics. It’s more about soccer and life, or soccer and one particular subculture. To be sure, Kuper’s stories are entertaining, but he sometimes wanders off his point. I’m quite sure that most people can connect soccer to the sectarian violence in Scotland associated with the Old Firm or in the Balkans after the most recent war there. But there are precious few revolutions and even fewer dictators in Kuper’s book. There are, however, a lot of gangsters, superfans, and poor examples set by the English.

Kuper’s book is a product of a year-long journey around the world to various soccer hotspots (and some that were not such soccer hotspots). As a result the book is part travelogue, part match day description, and part investigative report. It is the third part on which Kuper wants the reader to focus. It is true that in some places soccer has assumed a different importance. For example, in Kiev, Dinamo Kiev was more powerful than the city government in the early 1990s. In Argentina, using soccer to cover up the nation’s problems is a tactic that dates to at least 1978. The generals in the 1990s simply used soccer more efficiently. In Africa, soccer was used as a representative example of the dysfunctional nation-state. True, soccer was used by people for various reasons, but there were not a lot of dictators to be found. Kuper wanders off his main point when discussing Croatian fans and the meaning of any Holland-Germany game (like many others, he associated it with World War II). Accidentally, he proved that soccer was a means of defining oneself as a nation.

In the last two chapters, Kuper hammers home his point by jumping around the Middle East and the Balkans. In both areas, soccer is viewed as an expression of nationalism. Like Camp Nou during the Franco era, it is perhaps the only way for people to express anti-regime feelings. Soccer, then, is capable of bringing people together and dividing them. Terrorists, as well, want to use soccer’s global reach for their own awful gains. Kuper paints a horrifying portrait of bombs at the World Cup (this section was clearly revised for the second edition, because it references 11 September 2001). To be sure, soccer is a weapon used by people in power all over the world to keep people in line. National teams, for example, take on an importance in other parts of the world – especially Africa, or new states like Croatia – that is unknown in the United States. Even the Dutch national team, in Kuper’s estimation, are a proxy for the nation itself. Playing Germany is a little war, in which the Dutch can express their resistance, once again. In the end, soccer is simply another political tool for some people, which is not an especially new thesis, but Kuper’s presentation – a comparative perspective – is eye-opening.

Simon Kuper is an excellent writer. He is engaging and eloquent, with often funny asides (though some non-sequiturs are rather pointless; then again, who am I to judge?). He never explicitly connects the dots between areas of the world, but leaves that to the reader. As a result, things can be interpreted in different ways. There are a number of small mistakes throughout the book; some are grammatical while others are factual. It’s also a shame he didn’t have time to visit Central America or Asia (in his defense, soccer wasn’t big in Asia in the early 1990s and South American soccer was more important than Central American soccer).

With all that said, Soccer Against the Enemy is an impressive book. I can see why it won awards, but I wish he had tied everything more concretely to his thesis. Nevertheless, this is a book all soccer fans should own.

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Much ado about nothing

Wayne Rooney in United colors

Wayne Rooney signed a new 5-year deal with Manchester United today, thus ending, temporarily, the speculation of him leaving.

This does not, of course, mean Rooney is United-for-life like Ryan Giggs or Paul Scholes. Both of them are probably rather peeved at the moment. Nor does it mean that Sir Alex Ferguson is changing. He is famous for cutting ties with players who want to leave, and cutting ties quickly. He did so with van Nistelrooy and Stam, to name two. There has to be more at work here, namely Sir Alex’s affection for Rooney.

That said, nobody involved comes out smelling like roses. Rooney is now perceived as greedy. Sir Alex caved (though he may be retiring the not too distant future). United have been saddled with the “unambitious” tag. Perhaps this is a stalling tactic, and Rooney will be sold in the summer, a more agreeable time for all involved. The new contract also gives United leverage in negotiations, meaning a player exchange + money deal with Real Madrid (I read Karim Benzema, Lassana Diarra, and cash for Rooney yesterday) would still be on the table. If that happens, both Sir Alex and Rooney are craftier than portrayed at the moment.

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Questions about Wayne Rooney

Wayne Rooney in United colors

I’m going to start with two immutable truths that will guide my analysis.

1. English players are overrated, especially by the English press.

2. Manchester United’s debt is far more crippling than David Gill will have you believe.

Stipulations: Wayne Rooney wants to leave Manchester United. He says he wants to leave because United aren’t showing ambition anymore. I can accept that reasoning, although Sir Alex did spend £7 million on Bebé (which is basically the same as burning it, IMO) so there must be some money to spend. Furthermore, United are tremendously in debt, despite what David Gill says about the actual money in the bank (approximately £165 million). At the same time, I don’t believe Sir Alex wants Rooney to go, despite his notoriously hard heart. I think he has a soft spot for Rooney, which may or may not be affecting his judgment.

Which brings us to the salient questions:

1. Why didn’t Sir Alex sell Rooney in August, after Rooney informed the board that he would not sign a new contract on 14 August?

The short, simple answer is that Sir Alex thought that Rooney would change his mind. That’s a reasonable assumption, because people change their minds all the time. In particular, Ferguson was relying on Rooney’s affection for the club and for the manager (they have had, apparently, a good relationship since Rooney arrived). Ferguson probably thought he could make a couple of moves to convince Rooney of United’s ambitions (i.e. to compete for the Premiership and Champions League titles). But he proved unable to sign anyone he targeted, save Bebé and, more importantly, Javier Hernández. Yet neither of those players are world-class, and neither is Chris Smalling. So if the summer signings aren’t going to convince Rooney to stay, what else can Ferguson do? He could hope for a good start to the season, or that Rooney changed his mind and signed a new contract, neither of which happened.

The fact remains that Rooney was seemingly intent on leaving and Ferguson had two weeks to sell him, and he didn’t. I have to add this to the list of Ferguson’s questionable summer decisions.

2. Wayne Rooney called United unambitious. Is that true?

No, it’s not true. United under Ferguson still wants to win the Premiership and the Champions League. The club still sees itself as one of the world’s elites and still sees itself competing for players like Mesut Özil and others. The real problem is the finances. United are crippled by the debt taken on by the Glazers to buy the team. At first, this wasn’t a problem (at least on the field) as United went on a long run of success. But now, like Barcelona, United’s debt is becoming a major problem and affecting things on the pitch. It was the debt, not a lack of ambition, that prevented Ferguson from spending in the summer (his questionable decisions are a topic for elsewhere).

3. Will Rooney be sold in January?

Highly unlikely, mostly because he is cup-tied, but also because teams rarely add such important players in the winter (except in Football Manager). That said, Ferguson would be foolish to turn down a monster offer.

4. Who does United have coming through the system?

Admittedly, I don’t know every prospect, but the only player who could conceivably step in right away is Tom Cleverley. And he’s a midfielder. So that doesn’t help. Gabriel Obertan is a winger and, at a big club, a part-time player. Hernández can start and play in every game, but he’s not a traditional striker. And Federico Macheda appears to have talent, but isn’t close to being near Rooney’s level. Danny Welbeck and Darron Gibson are eminently expendable.

5. Who will replace Rooney?

If the debt is as crippling as I think it is, there will not be a large purchase. But politics will almost force United to spend a chunk of change on at least a couple of replacement players. The easiest thing to do is take a combination of money and players back in exchange for Rooney. I’m thinking, in particular, of Real Madrid, which could offer Karim Benzema, Mesut Özil, and about £40 million. Edin Dzeko would work, but Wolfsburg don’t want to sell him, while others suggest Sergio Agüero from Atlético Madrid (the former would be nice, but the latter isn’t a straight-up replacement for Rooney). In the end, the replacement will depend on the fee United receives, which depends on the contract situation. That is, it becomes more difficult to get a lot of money for him next summer when he has only 12 months left on his contract.

Which brings us back to the first question regarding why Ferguson didn’t sell him in the summer. In the end, that may be his biggest mistake.

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