Category Archives: Premiership

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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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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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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Well, that figures

Of course it happened this way. The day after I write about how there’s absolutely no possible way that Wayne Rooney can leave Manchester United, Sir Alex goes out and confirms it. By ESPN’s count, Rooney would make the third world-class striker to leave in two years (ESPN says Cristiano Ronaldo is a striker [he’s not] and that Carlos Tévez is world-class [he’s not]). This, however, remains a massive problem for a multitude of reasons.

Clearly, the reason Rooney wants to leave is money. It may not be over a new contract (he’s paid approximately £100,000 per week and would probably ask for £150,000-200,000 in a new contract) but it’s probably over United’s transfer policy during the summer in which Sir Alex did next to nothing.

UPDATE, 20 OCTOBER 2010: Wayne Rooney gives his side of the story. It is, indeed, about money, but it’s also about trophies. Apparently, three straight Premiership titles and a Champions League crown only buys about 18 months of good will from a player these days. I’m not sure what to make of this, other than the fact that neither Rooney nor the board are going to come out of this clean.

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Rooney to leave United?

Wayne Rooney (AP Photo/Martin Rickett/PA)

It’s interesting what happens when a player stops producing at a level to which he was accustomed. It’s interesting that, suddenly, his relationship with his manager is questioned and there is talk of him leaving the team. The player in question is Wayne Rooney, who clearly isn’t himself, and hasn’t been himself for several months. The fault lays with the manager or the player, or perhaps with the media (what with the incessant wondering, by British tabloids, about Rooney’s marital life, which may or may not be fair game).

All of this means that, with Jose Mourinho’s desire for a Drogba-esque striker (and because the man himself isn’t going anyway), Rooney to Real speculation becomes the norm. So, what do we know?

1. We know Rooney’s form has been, to say the least, off. And it has been off for several months.

2. His form may or may not be affected by his straying from his wife.

3. He may or may not have an ankle injury. This is the key point of contention in Wilson’s article, and the key point in transfer talk. Rooney contends that he doesn’t have a lingering ankle injury, while Sir Alex says he does.

4. The point in number 3 may or may not have led to an argument between Rooney and Sir Alex. And players who disagree with Sir Alex are not long for Old Trafford.

5. Rooney wants a new contract, and he wants on the order of £250,000 per week. He is not in a good bargaining position given his terrible form, but he is helped by the fact that his contract ends in 2012. So it’s likely a stalemate, though it’s clear that United and Rooney don’t really want to part ways.

6. All of that leads to this.

The context for the Rooney speculation is United’s terrible financial situation, and the lack of activity after the Ronaldo transfer. Antonio Valencia is a nice player, but he’s no Ronaldo. Same goes for Michael Owen, Nani, Bebé, and Chris Smalling. Sir Alex did get one right when he brought Javier Hernández in from Chivas, but that’s not enough.

No matter what Sir Alex says, there has to be pressure to save money given the club’s staggering debt. I understand selling Ronaldo, and I think it was a coup given the price received. But if United expects to contend for the title every year, it has to plug holes that are painfully obvious. Otherwise, the side will become similar to Arsenal (witness Arsène Wenger’s refusal to buy a keeper this summer). Sir Alex has obvious holes at keeper, center back, holding midfielder, and winger. It’s clear now that he has to rebuild the squad on the cheap.

Which brings us back to Rooney. Sir Alex could sell him for about £40 million, because Real Madrid would pay that in a heartbeat. It would devastate United, but it might be worth it. Even though I don’t think Rooney is going anywhere in January.

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Van der Sar isn’t quitting

Edwin van der Sar

According to the always reliable Sun, Edwin van der Sar has rubbished reports that he’s retiring at the end of the season. Perhaps he wants to win the FA Cup (one of the few trophies he hasn’t won yet), as United’s goalkeeping coach has suggested. Or, more likely, he can still perform at a high level for a couple more years.

The best plan would be to buy a successor and split games for a year or two. Van der Sar is nothing if not professional and I’m sure he’d be happy to bring his heir along somewhat slowly. This would allow Sir Alex to go get Igor Akinfeev from CSKA Moscow and give the new keeper time to adjust to England, learn the language, and learn from van der Sar. I still believe Akinfeev is a better choice than Atlético Madrid’s David De Gea.

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