Tag Archives: Silly Season

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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United target De Gea?

Sir Alex Ferguson

Apparently, Sir Alex Ferguson is targeting Atlético Madrid keeper David De Gea as the long-term replacement for Edwin van der Sar. He could do worse, of course. He could have Manuel Almunia.

There are snags in the plan (or whatever this is; gossip and/or speculation are probably the best words): the first is that De Gea will reportedly cost around £12 million and it’s unclear exactly how much money Sir Alex has to spend. The second is that the man (boy?) himself said that he’s going to remain at Atlético. The second is mere window-dressing. It’s the first that matters.

The gossip brings about questions regarding United’s current transfer policy, in that the club doesn’t seem to have one. There are obvious weaknesses: central defense, central midfield, and wings in addition to back-up keeper. There were plenty of targets over the summer – Mesut Özil would have been an excellent (and cheap) addition – but Sir Alex didn’t pull the trigger. Perhaps he couldn’t because his hands were tied, financially speaking. I doubt that, because he scrounged up £7 million or so to spend on Portuguese striker Bebé in addition to the £20-odd million spend on Javier Hernández and Chris Smalling. I daresay he could have spent £16 million on Özil.

Which brings us back to the start: what’s the plan? Is Sir Alex being obstinate, like Arsène Wenger? Wenger continues to think that he doesn’t need a keeper, which is foolish. Similarly, Sir Alex has unending faith in Rio Ferdinand, Owen Hargreaves, Michael Carrick, Nani, Anderson, et al. Except that all of them are either perma-crocked or not up to the task of playing at the highest levels (although Nani has shown flashes of brilliance, I think he should be off-loaded ASAP; someone will pay based on his potential). Sir Alex used to be ruthless. He used to get rid of players as they proved they were unworthy. I realize that it’s hard, but sometimes you need to admit you were wrong.

United need to add players because, sooner or later, it’s lack of skill and depth will come back to haunt them.

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Transfer round-up

Rafael van der Vaart

In which I publish a list of notable transfers, in no particular order:

Rafael van der Vaart to Tottenham: For a measly £8 million, Spurs added an excellent player in Rafael van der Vaart. He’ll give the offense a bit of class and a lot of punch. I never understand why he didn’t feature prominently at Real Madrid, not do I understand why he doesn’t play more for the Dutch national team. And I don’t understand why Sir Alex Ferguson wasn’t all over this move, especially at only £8 million. Their loss is Tottenham’s gain.

Robinho to AC Milan: For €18 million, AC Milan added a supremely talented striker and malcontent. He’s one of those guys who needs constant attention, which must be exhausting, to be honest. However, I think he’ll provide a good return on the money because he’s motivated and he’s wanted at Milan.

Asamoah Gyan to Sunderland: Ambitious Sunderland added World Cup hero Gyan in a bid to give the offense a boost. I, for one, think it will work out just swimmingly.

Javier Mascherano to Barcelona: A terrible move for both club and player. Mascherano doesn’t fit Barcelona’s system at all. This is a vanity signing, pure and simple. And it’s destined for failure.

Raul Meireles to Liverpool: A good move for Liverpool because Meireles is a gifted player (despite his comically bad tattoos). I think he’ll work out fine.

Mario Balotelli to Manchester City: And City add another player. And overpay for the privilege, too. Of course, that’s been the story of the last couple of years. I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

Ramires to Chelsea: A good move by Chelsea. And cheap-ish, too.

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Classy Krulak trashes O’Neill

Martin O'Neill at Aston Villa (Getty Images)

Of course he’d pop off like this: Aston Villa director Charles Krulak has said that Martin O’Neill fancied himself bigger than the team. Furthermore, Krulak said, O’Neill was too cowardly to stay and correct his mistakes in the transfer market.

I’m sure Krulak was doing owner Randy Lerner’s bidding, because Lerner and O’Neill have not had a good relationship for a long time. Instead of taking the high road, Lerner and Krulak descended to the low road and blamed the manager (in truth, O’Neill’s transfer record wasn’t perfect, but he is a good manager) in an attempt to take the focus off, what else, finances.

I’m sure there’s more to this than meets the eye.

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Where’s Özil going?

Mesut Özil during the 2010 World Cup

In general, I’m willing to let Sir Alex Ferguson do what he will when it comes to transfers. With a few exceptions, he generally makes the right call (a bad transfer is, for example, allowing Gerard Piqué to go to Barcelona). However, I think anyone who called themselves a fan of United needs to call for a bid for German playmaker Mesut Özil. Especially since Barcelona apparently registered a bid between €12 and 15 million (and, apparently, it was accepted though I can’t find any confirmation of either the bid or the acceptance). Fergie needs to trump that with a bid in the range of £14-16 million.

I get that Ferguson is pleased with his squad. I am, too: it’s a good squad that thoroughly handled Chelsea in the Community Shield. But there are weaknesses, mainly at central defense and in the midfield. While I’m not sure what’s going to happen with the former, I do know that the latter can be fixed (along with the curious reliance on the aging in dog years Paul Scholes) with Mesut Özil.

Sure, Özil is the flavor of the month but his track record (13 goals in 95 appearances for Werder Bremen and steady improvement during Germany’s run during the World Cup) speaks for itself. He can help United now and in the future. He’s not quite a finished product, but he fits the profile of Fergie’s recent additions, and will definitely improve.

Let’s not let him go to Chelsea or, worse, Barcelona (where he would sit on the bench; if I was him, I wouldn’t go there. But that’s just me).

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Who should United sign?

Sir Alex Ferguson

Sure, there are a couple of signings already completed (Javier Hernández and Chris Smalling) and the club is on tour in the United States, but that doesn’t mean that Alex Ferguson’s summer work is finished. And, for sure, he has a proven track record of making the right choices in the real world while mine is limited to Football Manager.

But still. There are a couple of players I’d like to see in red shirts before the transfer window closes at the end of August.

1. Michael Bradley, midfielder. If anything, the United States international will be a massive step up from Michael Carrick and the perma-crocked Owen Hargreaves (that latter of which is too bad, since he had the potential to be outstanding for both club and country, as proven at the 2006 World Cup). Bradley has the fitness, the pace, the skills, and the football intelligence to play both defensively and offensively in Fergie’s system. No, he’s not a straight up defensive midfielder but he can mark offensive players far more effectively than Carrick ever could (despite his own flashes of goodness).

2. Mesut Özil, midfielder. Özil is the flavor of the month, and for good reason. The Werder Bremen man showed glimpses of his potential when he dominated long stretches of games for Germany during the World Cup. He’ll be relatively cheap (apparently United and Chelsea have tabled bids in the £10 million range) because he only has one year left on his contract. He’s worth perhaps double that amount. With Özil and Rooney near the top and Bradley controlling the middle, there’d be less pressure on Ryan Giggs and, more importantly, Paul Scholes. Ball-winning and ball-controlling midfielders also help relieve the pressure on the back four.

3. A central defender. I don’t have a specific name but I do have a profile. The defender should be quick and strong and, preferably, tall. He needs to pair with Nemanja Vidić so he should have complimentary skills. He needs to replace Rio Ferdinand (who’s aging in dog years and preparing to join Hargreaves on the perma-crocked list) so there’s that, as well. I maintain my position that the one recent transfer Fergie would undo if he could is selling Gerard Piqué to Barcelona. Getting another central defender probably should be number 1 on this list, if one thinks about it for more than a few seconds.

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Manager a-go-go

Roy Hodgson introduced as the new Liverpool manager

Now that some of the good teams are knocked out of the World Cup, expect a lot of movement in terms of managers in the next few weeks, for both club and country.

Javier Aguirre, Mexico. Aguirre resigned as Mexico manager, falling on his sword and taking responsibility for Mexico’s showing. To a degree, he’s right (it was a stupid decision to go with Oscar Pérez in goal and he had misplaced faith in the obviously overwhelmed Efraín Juárez). At the same time, he’s wrong because Mexico’s expectations were too high. The team that went to South Africa was a 2nd round team (perhaps a quarterfinal team if it played its socks off). That’s the first problem. The second problem was skill level. Mexico is very talented in midfield, especially with Giovanni dos Santos’s improvement over the last year. But the team has no strikers: Guillermo Franco isn’t that good and Carlos Vela isn’t developing (here’s hoping he makes a dos Santos-like breakthrough in the next year or so). When Cuauhtémoc Blano is still seriously considered for national team duty, the cupboard is bare. Mexico needs to develop young players and put its faith in them (Javier Hernández comes to mind), much like Germany has done.

Roy Hodgson, Liverpool. Hodgson left a decent Fulham team for a Liverpool squad in disarray. What he does get is a massive step up in reputation (no matter what I think about Liverpool, it’s one of the biggest clubs in the world). Hodgson is clearly a stop-gap and he might not even have been the first choice (Didier Deschamps reportedly turned Liverpool down). So, one of the biggest clubs in the world hires a middling manager with precious little success on his resume. Fascinating. I think this was a political choice and I hope Hodgson makes the best of it. But when the clear-out comes – and it will come sooner rather than later, what with the owner debt and lack of European competition – Hodgson will be the sacrificial lamb. He should’ve stayed at Fulham.

Bob Bradley, United States. Let’s make this clear: Bob Bradley should NOT be fired. Although starting Ricardo Clark was a massive error, Bradley’s system works for the United States, as it’s currently constructed. In short, he gets good results out of sometimes lacking talent (the distressing habit of allowing goals in the first 20 minutes notwithstanding). The bigger problem is that, like Mexico, the US has no go-to striker (if we’re being honest, the two best strikers are midfielders: Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey). Jozy Altidore has the potential to be very good but he needs to play like he did against Algeria all the time (he was virtually absent against Ghana). Some of that is the coach’s fault. But national team managers are put in a position where they only get to see their players for weeks at a time. It falls on the USSF, MLS, and players to get into situations to maximize their skill development.

Fabio Capello, England. Of course, the English tabloids are calling for his head. They are, if nothing else, predictable. England’s problem is similar to Mexico’s: it fancies itself a world soccer power when, in reality, it’s a middle-of-the-road player capable of extraordinary results once in a while. In fact, according to Soccernomics, England consistently punches above its weight and wins a lot of its matches, except when it counts. England’s problems are twofold: first, it’s a relatively small country, in terms of population (meaning there are fewer players to choose from) and it’s relatively insular in terms of coaching and skills development (the Everton academy is a bit of an exception). Don Fabio helps with both of those by exposing English players to Italian soccer philosophy. Second, the players it develops are all the same. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. Emile Heskey and Wayne Rooney. John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, and Jamie Carragher. Aside from skill level, they’re all basically the same player. And they can’t play together. I think Capello will learn from his mistakes and I think he has the stones to leave some of those players out next time (clearly Gerrard was England’s best player at the World Cup – he should be the captain).

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