Phil who? This was the reaction of a lot of football fans when it emerged that the first major bidding war of the summer had broken out over a 19 year old Blackburn centre back. Liverpool looked as though they were wrapping up a deal for yet another promising youngster, as Kenny Dalglish looks to rebuild, but then Manchester United swooped in with Sir Alex Ferguson on his own reconstruction mission. A sizeable £16 million release clause in his contract was triggered and after a period of uncertainty, Fergie got his man.
Or should I say boy? Jones is currently with the England Under 21s for the European Championships. Against a Spain side much fancied to win the whole tournament, Jones won plaudits for his performance alongside another United youngster, Chris Smalling. Sir Alex bought him last summer and he has since proved himself as a top quality, capable defender, deputising for the increasingly injured Rio Ferdinand with composure beyond his years. The 21 year old was also praised universally by pundits and columnists and it was generally accepted that but for Jones and Smalling in central defence the Spanish would not have been held to a 1-1 draw.
It’s looking worryingly like the same old story for England fans, even at Under 21 level. On paper the squad of youngsters is stronger than most, bursting with names that have already gained considerable Premiership experience and demonstrated their skills on a tough stage. Some might even think it’s stronger than Fabio Capello’s first team and many players will be looking to break through. But following the promise of the hard fought draw with Spain, England drew 0-0 with Ukraine, with the only impressive performances coming once again from the defenders. Talented forwards with enormous potential simply didn’t deliver.
And literally as I write England have capitulated to a 2-1 defeat against the Czech Republic in a must win match. Danny Welbeck had headed them ahead with just twenty minutes or so to go, but then it all fell apart with an equaliser and a snatched winner as England poured forward in stoppage time. Their tournament is over. Stuart Pearce’s boys are no better at winning trophies than the men.
None of this will greatly concern Sir Alex Ferguson. He is used to watching England internationals as accomplished as Paul Scholes, David Beckham or Wayne Rooney go off to tournaments and return dejected and defeated. It did not stop them becoming phenomenally successful Old Trafford legends. He will set about the task of moulding Phil Jones and Chris Smalling into the perfect readymade pairing to replace the ageing Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand.
In an interview this week Smalling said that he liked to think both he and Jones had a mixture of Ferdinand’s passing ability and football brain, as well as Vidic’s hard as nails tackling prowess. This might be true because certainly Smalling has proved that he is no physical lightweight and Jones is versatile enough to play in midfield, so he can presumably pass a ball reasonably well. But there’s no doubt that Jones appears to be the tough tackling long term replacement for Vidic and Smalling the smoother operator to step into Ferdinand’s shoes. I mean he even looks a bit like Rio.
Jones proved his Vidic-esque credentials by almost singlehandedly taking United’s title challenge to the last day of the season. In the end a penalty earned the Reds a 1-1 draw at Ewood Park but Blackburn almost gave Chelsea hope thanks largely to Jones’ one man brick wall. Even on his Blackburn debut against Chelsea in March 2010, not long after his 18th birthday, Jones made his presence felt with some stinging but legal challenges on the likes of Frank Lampard.
Smalling meanwhile, as I said, has had a surprisingly key role over the last season at Old Trafford. I’m not sure even Fergie would have anticipated his rapid rise through the ranks, leaving the veteran manager contemplating selling the likes of Jonny Evans, John O’Shea and Wes Brown with not too much concern. Ferdinand’s fitness is unlikely to ever reach the heights of reliability and effectiveness again, meaning that Smalling will be called upon more and more often until eventually Rio is relegated to experienced squad member. The former Fulham man will grow in confidence the more he plays, so that he’ll be bringing the ball out of defence and looking for a killer pass as Ferdinand did in his prime, as well as covering superbly.
Jones and Smalling then have the potential to become a durable, formidable and complimentary partnership at the heart of one of the best teams in the land. Any understanding the two develop could also be transplanted beneficially into future England teams. But before such a partnership forms, they are going to have to compete against one another to play alongside Vidic for perhaps the next couple of seasons.
This time will test, trial and prove the individual ability of each player but will give them little chance to play together. If they have both been useful and their talents have passed the tests of high quality football on a regular basis at the Theatre of Dreams at the end of this period, then Sir Alex (or his successor) will have relatively cheap, and English, replacements for two of the best defenders the Premiership has ever known.
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Fernando who? With a certain £50 million Spaniard well and truly nullified on his Chelsea debut and a fourth consecutive win for Liverpool, things are finally on the up on Merseyside. On Monday Anfield veteran Jamie Carragher spearheaded calls for the apparent architect of the revival, the messianic Kenny Dalglish, to be given the managerial job full-time. At the moment his clean-up as caretaker seems to be unstoppably accelerating, but is he really the right man to orchestrate Liverpool’s return to the top four in the long run and perhaps in the future once again push for the Premier League title?
What’s fairly certain is that you won’t get an argument based on pure reason from a Liverpool fan. King Kenny rules the Kop and as far as they’re concerned current results are mere confirmation of his status as a divine saviour. Incidentally it was reassuring to hear Liverpool’s American owner champion the atmosphere of the Kop as something unrivalled and irreplaceable last week, as he announced he would reconsider the club’s plans for a new stadium in favour of an expansion of Anfield. One thing Dalglish’s rebirth as manager undoubtedly proves is the galvanising power of tradition and distant American owners would do well not to disregard the heritage that could still play a pivotal rule in luring the talent needed for Liverpool to get back to the heights they once scaled.
Carragher was wise on Monday not to tear into the methods and tactical nous of previous manager Roy Hodgson. In my opinion Hodgson remains a shrewd manager capable of great success, who was given an unfair hearing from the start at Anfield and not enough time to turn a dire inheritance around. Substantial blame for Liverpool’s failings this season must rest both with the players and disruptive behind the scenes shenanigans. But Carragher was also spot-on when he said Dalglish had got everyone “onside”. Will the problems come however, when unity and renewed hope cease to be enough?
Looking on as Dalglish took over there appeared to be some worrying signs. After a better performance against Manchester United in the FA Cup, which nevertheless lacked attacking punch, they succumbed to a loss against Blackpool. But then Blackpool almost outplayed and defeated United not long ago at home. It would definitely have been unfair to judge Dalglish so prematurely.
However then there was the captivating comings and goings in the transfer market on the final day of the deadline. Endless column inches have lambasted the out of control decadence and excess of football today, but ultimately there is no way back to the “good old days”. The best the fans and the public can hope for is that the big money filters through to the grass roots and puts something back.
Talking of the “good old days” though, I couldn’t help but think of the time Dalglish has spent out of football and then look at his key new signings to fill the hole left by the outgoing Torres. Despite the new dimension of crazy money, Dalglish appeared to be paying over the odds, unavoidably due to the rush, for a traditional target man in Andy Carroll. And Uruguayan Luis Suarez from Ajax seemed to be the tricky little goal-scorer to partner him. In the past Dalglish created and subsequently relied upon classic strike partnerships like Sutton and Shearer at Blackburn to propel his teams to success. Clubs no longer seem to have these attacking pairings. Has the age of the target man, of the little and large partnership, passed for a reason? Does it no longer work? Or would a new back to basics focus on team chemistry and complimentary traits work wonders for Liverpool?
Obviously until the unproven talents of Suarez and Carroll play together, the jury is still out. Undeniably both players have potential, but they were also overpriced. But then Liverpool simply had to gamble and replace the disaffected Torres because their season needs saving right now. They couldn’t wait till the summer and watch their prestige diminish still further. Ultimately there are more immediate concerns surrounding the possible appointment of Dalglish as permanent boss.
Mike Ashley tried it at Newcastle with Kevin Keegan. Times are hard so let’s bring in the one man the fans can’t possibly criticise me for, even when things go wrong. With a bit of luck his sheer presence will energise the players and gee up the fans. Are Liverpool simply experiencing the short-term Kenny Dalglish effect right now? When it disperses, does he have the vision and modern coaching ability to lead Liverpool into the future?
Despite the worries, overall the outlook is good. Alan Shearer is forever praising Dalglish’s “man management” abilities on Match of the Day and I’d have to agree, simply from the evidence, that he seems to have the difficult knack of motivation and inspiration nailed. Dalglish tried to insist no mention of Torres’ treachery was made in the dressing room prior to Sunday’s Stamford Bridge clash, but my word somehow he kicked some urgency into his players, instilled some fire and passion in their bellies. Chelsea rarely forced Reina into action.
More importantly perhaps, Dalglish got the game against Chelsea tactically perfect. Three central defenders, lead by a reborn Carragher, coped almost effortlessly with the hopelessly narrow attack of Chelsea. Dirk Kuyt was given the chance to play as a striker for a change, and relished the opportunity to apply his phenomenal work rate on his own down the middle, a constant nuisance to the Chelsea defence. If Dalglish can continue to raise the confidence of his squad, in tandem with the excellent coaching of number two Steve Clarke, Liverpool should end this season strongly and start the next with a far better platform for success.
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It seems fitting that Manchester United’s new kit has a retro style this season, given their reliance on the resurgence of their old guard, the likes of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, for a much needed breath of life and class during a stuttering start to the campaign. With few new signings to speak of United fans have been forced to hope that established stars in the squad recapture their best form to give this year’s title charge renewed vigour and yesterday in the ultimate clash of rivals Bulgarian forward Dimitar Berbatov stepped up to make a much needed, more significant contribution and spark premature talk of becoming player of the season.
All the early season talk has been of the ginger maestro Paul Scholes, spraying the ball effortlessly and accurately around the pitch from midfield, at the heart of everything good United do going forward. However whilst the shy professional stole the headlines for a change through the sheer dominance of his performances on the pitch, several of his usually derided teammates have quietly improved their consistency. Nani looks as if he is finally emerging from the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo to become a tricky winger with plenty of end product, in both shots and crosses. He is tearing apart teams down United’s flanks and will be needed even more with no Valencia to steer crosses straight onto the head of Wayne Rooney for the bulk of this season. Berbatov too had, until yesterday, been progressing unnoticed into a reliable source of goals as opposed to an occasional scorer of wonder strikes full of delightful, artful strokes of flair and football genius. Yesterday’s hat-trick ensured his new season transformation took centre stage and became the subject of endless discussion. The test for him now will be whether or not he can continue all the qualities demonstrated against Liverpool’s demoralised defence and genuinely ease the burden on Wayne Rooney upfront for United by becoming their next big match winner, their next title winning goal machine.
For yesterday that it was what Dimitar Berbatov hinted he is capable of. He has always oozed flair and natural ability on the ball. As Mark Lawrenson remarked on Match of the Day 2, he is the type of player who can play football at walking pace. However yesterday Berbatov showed a whole host of other qualities that would make him the complete player should he be able to replicate them week in, week out. Much debate has centred on the lack of understanding between Rooney and Berbatov but yesterday they displayed intricate, interlinked build-up play. Berbatov showed plenty of movement and eagerness to work for the team. Most tellingly and positively for United he got himself in the box, in dangerous positions far more often than usual. Then once in these positions he produced classic, clinical centre forward headers that he made look easy, as well as a world class, instinctive second goal that will be one of the best of the season. In reality even the simple finishes required timed jumps, thoughtful movement and strength. I have previously argued that Fergie should ditch Berbatov if he proves to be nothing more than a costly luxury, but now the veteran United manager knows he has a player around which a successful season can be built should he maintain his form.
Worryingly for Fergie his side almost threw away a comfortable lead again against opponents they had easily outplayed though. Dropping points away at Fulham and Everton may already prove costly in the title race, but to allow arch rivals Liverpool back into the game so casually at the invincible fortress that is Old Trafford would have been unbearable and perhaps irreparably damaged United’s march to reclaim the title. Berbatov may symbolise all that was good about United’s attacking play and have had the effect of a new signing by discovering such inspired form, but the holes (literal ones in the wall for Liverpool’s equaliser) and lack of concentration in United’s defence may have the fans hoping for similar inspiration at the back. The return of Rio Ferdinand may help steady the ship should he find fitness and even the long awaited emergence from exile of Owen Hargreaves could give United’s title charge new impetus. Fergie must be hoping that the £17 million paid for Hargreaves finally reaps some rewards. He has undoubtedly only been a costly crock thus far in his Old Trafford career, but his return could prove timely and give the United defence a focused, hard working defensive shield in midfield that inspires concentration in the rest of the team. If United do not iron out defensive slip ups they will quickly lose touch with Carlo Ancelotti’s juggernaut of Chelsea consistency.
Meanwhile on Merseyside Liverpool fans will have to wait sometime before Hodgson’s new team gels and produces anything like the sort of consistency necessary for a title charge. Kenny Dalglish’s optimistic assertion this week that his old club could win the league contradicted the realistic assessment of the new manager and the expectations of all onlookers. The turmoil off the pitch means that Roy will be given time by the fans to rebuild upon sustainable foundations and a successful first season is only likely to yield silverware via a typically passionate and rollercoaster cup run with a few hard fought victories won in front of an always loyal Anfield faithful. Yesterday at Old Trafford it seemed for a while that Liverpool may have snatched a draw and such a result would have felt like a victory. In reality it would have been unfair on a dominant United side who easily stifled the likes of Torres and new boys Joe Cole and Raul Meireles. Liverpool’s new faces will eventually take the club forward but this season looks set to belong to the old heads at Old Trafford, with only the Chelsea steamroller capable of crushing their last hurrah.
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