Tag Archives: transfers

Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are the perfect long term replacements for Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic


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.

Managerial Merry-go-round: Fulham have got it right but Villa look certain to get it wrong


Who did Mark Hughes think he was kidding? As a storm of press speculation linked him to the Aston Villa job, as it did ludicrously just days after his appointment at Fulham at the beginning of the 2010-11 season, he announced his decision to resign from the helm at Craven Cottage. He insisted his decision wasn’t influenced by the approach of another club or his desire to apply for any available vacancies. He left a club that had treated him excellently and given him the chance to revive his coaching career following the disappointment of his tenure at Manchester City. And just weeks away from a Europa League qualifier on the 30th June, he left Fulham well and truly in the lurch.

Now though, in a very short space of time, the tables have completely turned. Just as fortunes can shift dramatically in a moment on the pitch, they rise and fall erratically behind the scenes too. Credit must be given to Randy Lerner for turning his nose up in disgust at the way Hughes handled his departure from Fulham. He swiftly turned his attention to other targets, leaving Hughes deservedly in the wilderness.

 Credit certainly must not be given to the tabloids that linked Hughes with the Chelsea job though. Roman Abramovich wants to win the Champions League; it is his holy grail. Mark Hughes may have a connection to the club but that will mean nothing to the Russian. He will look at his track record and see he has not even been that successful in the Premiership. His tendency will be to go for impressive foreign coaches anyway, even if, like Scolari, they turn out to be mistakes. Hiddink will go to Stamford Bridge.

Whilst Lerner took a surprisingly honourable and praiseworthy course in steering the search for a replacement for Gerard Houllier away from Mark Hughes, the candidates he began to focus on were far from praiseworthy. The revelation that Villa wanted to initiate talks with Roberto Martinez was a complete shock. The Wigan manager kept the club in the Premiership with a late run of form by the skin of their teeth but their survival was hardly a triumph of his ability to lead. In fact it was his coaching style, aiming for an unrealistically fluid and attacking team, which left them vulnerable to the drop.

Some might say that the decision makers at Villa wanted Martinez to get them playing good football and that their players are more capable of it. In all likelihood though the appointment of Martinez would have signalled a downgrading in ambition from the club, admitting that they couldn’t attract big name coaches or big name players to compete with the likes of Spurs and Man City for European places.

Now the rumours are that next in Villa’s sights is Bolton’s Owen Coyle. Coyle’s track record, both at Bolton and Burnley, suggest he’s a better manager than Martinez, but he’s still hardly an inspirational choice. And in the case of Coyle, it seems daft of Villa to make an approach when the only answer they’re likely to get is “no”. Coyle played for Bolton and has got them scoring goals as well as keeping clean sheets. He has too many reasons not to leave the Reebok. He must believe he could finish above Villa with his Bolton side. There’s still a chance he could say yes but he would be foolish to surely.

Carlo Ancelotti was never going to step down from Chelsea to Villa’s level and Rafael Benitez knows he can wait for a higher profile job if he is patient. Steve McClaren is available, along with the shunned Mark Hughes, but fans reacted viciously to rumours of an interview. This is harsh given the way McClaren has grown as a manager in Europe with FC Twente in particular but inevitable given his England track record. David Moyes is a manager of Martin O’Neil’s calibre but he ruled himself out of the Villa job last summer.

Meanwhile, as Villa struggle to find a decent manager, Fulham appear to have found the perfect one. Of course it’s too early to say for sure but Martin Jol appears to be a spot on fit for the hot seat at Craven Cottage. He is very much in the mould of Roy Hodgson, in that he has extensive experience in Europe and of course the Premiership with Spurs. He knows the Europa League well, which bodes well perhaps for another exciting cup run if they can get through the qualifiers granted them by their place in the Fair Play tables. He can also bring a bit of cutting edge to Fulham’s attack, which has been lacking, with his knowledge of Dutch and German styles. He has already started to release players as he begins to remould the squad, so it can compete on all fronts, probably with the backing of funds from owner Mohammed Al-Fayed.

Perhaps whichever mediocre candidate gets the Aston Villa job will surprise us. But hopefully Randy Lerner will stick to his guns on Mark Hughes, so that someone in the game gets their comeuppance.

Manchester United can beat Barcelona at Wembley: And it would just be the beginning


The title is theirs. Carlo Ancelotti did his best to fire up the Chelsea players, repeatedly calling it their cup final, but the Red Devils proved too strong at Old Trafford. The Theatre of Dreams has been a fortress of consistency in a curiously unpredictable season. Often it’s appeared as though no one wanted the league enough but ultimately United’s experienced desire was superior, and it was at its lustful best against Chelsea.

It seems as though we might be witnessing a time of real change in football, particularly in the Premiership. Every team in the league is capable of taking points from the top sides. The notion of a traditional top four is crumbling and the ways in which clubs are preserving their success are evolving too. The era of the successful big money signing appears to have past. Of course there are exceptions, with Manchester City the latest to flash the cash, but the big teams doing well this season were not dependent on new signings or even one standout performer. Arsenal may have once again fallen at the crucial stage of the race, but they were United’s primary challengers for most of the campaign. Their squad has grown gradually over the years.

And so has Manchester United’s. Since the departure of Ronaldo to Real Madrid Sir Alex Ferguson has continued to ignore the calls from fans, myself included, for more expensive replacements. Instead he has focused on improving the players he already has by carefully managing their experience of important fixtures, as well as bringing in some future investments (with some paying off early, such as Javier Hernandez). The failures of other teams have proved his strategy right. He has also once again settled on a different tactical vision for his side. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Champions League.

United have not conceded a goal away from home in the competition. They have done this by mastering a drilled and disciplined style of play. In many ways this is at odds with the entertaining, attacking tradition of the club. But Ferguson has been wise enough to recognise that the strengths of his team have changed. In 2008 when they defeated Chelsea in the final, United were a team boasting the sparkle and individual talent of Berbatov, Rooney, Tevez and Ronaldo. These days United have become a highly efficient and effective collective unit. Their starting eleven appears inferior in terms of talent, but they are no longer dependent on stars to succeed.

Having said this they will still need the key players in their unit, particularly Rooney, to be at their best if they are to beat Barcelona at Wembley. This is because the Catalans have the collective mentality of the current United side, as well as happening to have a team bursting with world class footballers. Ferguson insists he knows where his team went wrong in the final of 2009 against the Spaniards. He has been able to rotate his squad with extreme flexibility to get what he wants from a game, with whoever comes in doing what is required of them. But against Barcelona nothing less than his best combination of midfielders will do.

For it was in midfield that United lost the 2009 final. They can take some comfort from the fact that Yaya Toure, who scored the goal that ended United’s treble hopes in the FA Cup semi with Man City, will no longer be an immovable object at Barcelona’s core. It was he that overpowered Carrick and co so fatally. But nowadays the likes of Javier Mascherano are there to provide a defensive screen from which Iniesta and Xavi can create for the devastating abilities of Villa and Messi up front. Somehow United’s players will have to get a grip on possession.

Carrick has been unfairly derided in the past. He is a world class passer of the ball who can provide both a defensive shield and attacking platform. In recent weeks his resurgent form has added vital impetus to a tough run in. But there will still be question marks over whether or not he will perform for the big occasion and whether he will once again be outmuscled. He seems likely to start though given his involvement lately, so Ferguson must decide who to play alongside him and in what formation.

With the main worry being a lack of possession it’s likely we’ll see a three man central midfield, with Rooney leading the line alone. This robs United’s prize asset of much of his threat and his deadly combination with Javier Hernandez. It will also put him under pressure that might lead to frustration, which is a dangerous cocktail for his volatile temperament. Against Chelsea a two fingered salute to the Blues fans was a sharp reminder that the striker is way off the level of maturity required for a captaincy, of England or his club.

Darren Fletcher could be the missing link, as he missed the final two years ago through suspension. He would add the grit that was so evidently missing that night. But this time around its fitness that will be a problem for the Scot. Giggs has been majestic in some vital fixtures this campaign but mediocre in others. Anderson and Scholes seem unlikely to feature, but Ji-Sung Park, especially after his man of the match display against Chelsea, might be chosen to be a busy thorn in Barcelona’s side. It’s interesting and baffling that Dimitar Berbatov, the team’s main source of goals in the league and an undoubtedly dazzling player, is not being seriously considered by any commentators for a starting place. Ferguson does not trust him for the big fixtures and Rooney plays better with Hernandez ahead of him. The Bulgarian’s future will be one to watch in the summer, despite being top scorer.

It’s a one off game at Wembley. Ferguson will have learnt genuine lessons from two years ago and the togetherness of his new team will be a challenge for Barcelona, just as their undeniable quality will be a challenge for United. The tantalising thing for United fans is that if they are successful here, in theory such a young squad should only improve with experience, without the need for drastic and expensive imports.

Why I’m not applauding Crawley’s fairytale moment


It was a weekend of clichés. The FA Cup was restored to its place at the top of English football and in the hearts of millions of fans. Thousands poured forth from homes not usually filled with the sounds of football chatter to watch David vs. Goliath encounters. Communities came together and embarked on quests to places suddenly rendered exotic wonderlands. Who would have thought Manchester could seem such a distant, unattainable paradise?

There were shocks across the board. Even in an all Premiership tie in London, eye brows were raised as the holders Chelsea were dumped out. But the novelty attractions lay elsewhere in the form of so called minnows taking on the swaggering, mega-bucks big boys. Leyton Orient snatched a replay with Arsenal. And of course there was the tie of the round.

It was the dream draw on everyone’s speculative lips as the balls were swirled and plucked. No one quite expected it to really happen, despite the FA Cup’s notoriety for such things. Non-league Crawley Town, netted a huge financial windfall from the grandest theatre of football in the land, not to mention an unforgettable “day out”.

I say “day out” because it was always going to be more than that. United’s FA Cup jitters have become commonplace in recent years and Crawley were up for the occasion. They’re also a team studded with players that could play at a higher level, bought for sizeable sums in non-league terms. Crawley are now reaping rewards that are not merely financial. Thanks to holding the Premier League leaders and the world’s most famous team to a mere 1-0 win, they have secured a place in the hearts of countless neutrals and established themselves on the football map. Many would say they deserve the plaudits for a fearless second half display in which they dominated a team far above their standing.

I am reluctant to praise Crawley and refuse to join in the enthusiastic congratulations. Yes they played well at Old Trafford and reasserted the reality that the so called stars of football can be little better than a well organised, galvanised lower league team in a one-off match. Yes they gave hope to other small teams hoping for a break and injected life into the dreams of youngsters. Yes they hinted at the FA Cup’s ongoing ability to charm and surprise. But the manner in which they progressed from the previous round tarnished the innocence of their fairytale moment for me.

Until they burst onto the scene courtesy of an FA Cup run, I’d not heard of Crawley, the so called “car park for Gatwick” of the non-league. I don’t follow non-league football so I have no bitterness about their supposed Manchester City like spending to propel themselves towards the football league like an unfeeling big stack bully. But I saw the highlights of their triumph over Torquay.

The behaviour of the Crawley players in that game was nothing short of shameful. There was talk of the squad showing disrespect by warming up in the home side’s goalmouth prior to kick-off and of spats between the managers behind the scenes. On the pitch Crawley displayed evidence of dirty tackling and unsporting tactics alongside promising bouts of impressive football. Worst of all were the school boy tantrums surrounding two missed penalties.

Crawley players literally fought each other in fits of moody rage for control of the ball and the right to have a go from the spot. They tugged at each other’s shirts and unmistakeably swore. They abused the referee and demanded cards for their opponents. It was an ill tempered match and Torquay also had a sending off, but those two petty squabbles over penalties highlighted Crawley’s immaturity, arrogance and disrespect.

There’s been all the usual talk about the “magic” of the FA Cup surrounding Crawley’s tie with Manchester United. But for me if there is such a thing as FA Cup magic a key ingredient of it is the good behaviour and pure innocence behind the lowly sides’ valiant and courageous displays. There’s an assumption these days that it’s the money at the top of the game that breeds the bad side of football. I didn’t believe this to be entirely true. But the arrogance and disgraceful behaviour demonstrated by Crawley against Torquay, that sets such an unsporting example for watching youngsters, seems to suggest that even an injection of cash lower down the leagues can lead to behavioural problems and dissent in the dressing room.

It’s a worrying trend of excessive wealth tainting all corners of the game, given greater weight by Leyton Orient’s chairman Barry Hearn’s plans to fly his squad to Las Vegas as a reward for securing a replay with Arsenal. On the surface this is far more acceptable than Crawley’s shocking antics on the pitch and simply a part of another cup fairytale. But why isn’t a replay with one of the country’s greatest teams reward enough? It seems football in itself isn’t enough anymore. After the ludicrous transfer window the last bastion of pure football, the FA Cup, appears under threat too. Cup glory is becoming a trendy badge, an accessory or piece of bling, rather than something honourable, innocent and valuable all by itself.

Roman’s next move could topple his Chelsea Empire


It surely can’t be the same season and yet it is. Chelsea began this campaign steamrolling the opposition and notching up impossible scores. Drogba and Anelka and co were unstoppable. But this weekend Chelsea crashed out of the FA Cup, the one trophy their fans must have been counting on their team to comfortably retain. The coming week is make or break for the blues as they take on Copenhagen in the Champions League. After letting slip the Premiership to a way below par Manchester United side and an Arsenal team still in development, Chelsea’s only hope for silverware this term is in Europe. Carlo Ancelotti started this season as if he could do no wrong after reclaiming the title for the London side after a 3 year stay in Manchester, but it would seem he has to win the trophy Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has always coveted and never won to keep his job.

Indeed it feels as if Abramovich’s tenure as Chelsea owner has reached a sort of tipping point. The unspoken fear around Stamford Bridge has always been what if the big Russian tires of his English plaything and leaves the club. It was the one consoling thought for many football fans as they watched Chelsea steadily ascend to the heights of world football; that the situation was unstable and one day Chelsea would crash and burn. It’s been said again since unfathomable amounts of oil money were ploughed into Manchester City. But so far Roman’s defied the expectations and hopes of the doubters, and continually funded his club. He’s proved the role model and catalyst for countless other investors to take the leap into English football. And thanks to Roman’s success and commitment, fans have even started welcoming benefactors in lots of cases.

Since the departure of the Special One however, Abramovich’s record with managers has been poor, with Ancelotti the only real success, besides Hiddink who was a temporary measure. And the chopping and changing of managers has disguised the relentless decline of the club’s squad. Once unbeatable and prized assets like Drogba, Lampard and Terry are ageing and no longer capable of consistent greatness. Once again Roman dipped into his vast wealth to try and resurrect his empire during the transfer window. Fans might have been reassured by this continued investment and the arrival of Torres and Luiz. But the Spaniard from Liverpool is yet to ignite and is not a long term solution. David Luiz displayed commanding defensive ability and sublime passing on his full debut against Fulham, alongside experienced Terry at centre back. It will take a whole clutch of young signings like Luiz to rejuvenate a Chelsea squad that has been neglected and has become predictable.

Ancelotti is coming under considerable fire of late for his tactical decisions. There’s no doubting that he is playing far too narrow through the midfield and into the hands of opponents that no longer see Chelsea’s defence as invincible. He’s certainly trying too hard to accommodate Torres without thinking first of the need for results and team chemistry. But in many ways Ancelotti is limited by his squad, a group of players he had little hand in selecting. There are an abundance of central midfield players in the Chelsea team, all of them quality players, and Ancelotti is trying to play to his strengths.

The danger is that Abramovich will simply sack another top class coach and there will once again be a period of upheaval. There’s an unquestionable need for change and fresh legs at Chelsea, but this will be best managed through continuity as well. It’s a real shame that the pressures of modern football and the heavy egos of club owner’s mean that managers no longer get time to shape a side to their vision. If Roman Abramovich is truly serious about winning the Champions League, and establishing Chelsea as a long term force at the top of football, he’ll keep faith in a manager who’s already proven himself and back him with the resources he needs. Top coaches deliver with time as Alex Ferguson proves. Take a reactionary axe to his management team as well as his squad and Roman might see his football empire crumble into mediocrity.

King Kenny: Outdated monarch or timeless leader?


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.

The curse of an unbeaten run: Do United need to lose?


In Westminster a Conservative and Liberal coalition sits in power. But the mood, as shown by recent policies and events, is unquestionably one of cold conservatism. And so it is too in Manchester, a city that at the start of the Premier League season may have had lofty but not unattainable ambitions of displacing London as the country’s capital of football. The nil-nil clash between the city’s red and blue halves this week has been widely condemned as the dreariest fixture of this campaign. The disappointing lack of incident, entertainment and thrills can be traced back to the currently cautious philosophies of both managers.

Now Roberto Mancini’s preference for restrained, grey tactics is well known. He is, after all, following a long, accepted tradition of the defensive minded Italian coach. Many have criticised him for pursuing such a continental style of football in the action-packed, fast-paced Premiership and it would seem results are now proving these critics correct. It beggars belief that a squad bursting with creativity and forwards can be so dependent on Carlos Tevez for a cutting edge. The starting line-up Mancini decided upon for the mid-week derby looked as if it were struggling to accommodate all his holding midfield players, as opposed to the usual dilemma of squeezing every last ounce of creativity from the team sheet. My jaw actually dropped when I discovered that Yaya Toure, the man once courted by the red side of town as the solution to their weak defensive spine, was selected to play “in the hole” behind Tevez. Certainly Toure was capable of surging runs on the ball but he was and is primarily a defensive rock to be positioned in front of the defence, giving other more gifted attacking players the freedom to roam. Even if Mancini refuses to play a second striker, and a degree of caution was more understandable against such able rivals, he ought to at least deploy his midfield cast in the right roles to support the increasingly isolated Tevez.

Anyway Mancini’s shortcomings are predictable. He has openly said that he would be happy with fourth place for his Manchester City side and is seemingly happy to progress in small steps towards the oil rich owners’ dream of global domination. Certainly his side has enough quality to achieve this goal, ahead of an overstretched Tottenham and dazed Liverpool, even though I happen to agree with Tony Cascarino in The Times that the title is up for grabs this season should any team have the willpower and resources to seize it. City clearly have the resources and an opportunity afforded them by a league in which teams continuously take points off each other, including the big teams. If Mancini took a risk and let some of his fiercer dogs off the lead the oil barons’ dream could be accelerated. The more interesting aspect of the mid-week duel however was Sir Alex Ferguson’s conservative style.

What conservative style? I hear you cry. His team just stormed back from two nil down against Aston Villa to snatch a point and remain unbeaten, and the defence has hardly been watertight, so if anything they need to sharpen up the concentration and caution. The real problem is that United just aren’t good enough anymore. All of this may be true. There’s certainly no doubt that the Reds have eased off the gas too early, conceding damaging late equalisers in games they should have easily won, despite below par performances. There’s also no doubt that another type of conservatism, that of caution in the transfer market, has led to a United squad that no longer matched Chelsea’s and in some cases City’s. The last time I saw the Red Devils play they were decked out in white kit at Villa Park, as they were yesterday. Rooney was also absent for most of the game, coming on late as a right-winger. Ronaldo tore Villa to shreds down the left, the defence was impenetrable, Scholes scored a wonder goal. Yesterday the squad could not cope so well, despite an almost identical backline. But a team of United’s stature having more draws than wins at this stage of the season must suggest something more.

As do Sir Alex’s comments after the Villa game yesterday. He had just watched two vital substitutions prove crucial to his team’s revival, with the first goal an excellent, thumping top corner finish from Federico Macheda, and the equaliser a diving header from the always commanding Nemanja Vidic. Before that though Villa had nearly deservedly runaway with it and the defending had been dire. Fergie insisted that another five minutes, and such was the swing of momentum, United would have won it. All I could think though was, like most fans: why had they not played with such incisiveness and urgency for the whole 90 minutes or at least from the off? Why the need for the near fatal catalyst?

Without Rooney, Manchester United look timid, shy and inexperienced going forward. They are also crucially devoid of leaders in the final third of the pitch. Vidic is superb, but good teams need someone to lead by example from the front, and Berbatov’s languid style can only do so sporadically. During Rooney’s injury spell, despite his poor form and bad attitude preceding it, an air of hope rather than expectation has ruled before United’s games. Fans seem to be praying a promising youngster like Hernandez can step up to grab a winner, whilst consciously lowering their expectations, knowing they aren’t ready to do so consistently.

By remaining unbeaten for the longest spell at the start of a season during Fergie’s considerable tenure, United remain within touching distance of Chelsea, just. But only just. And coasting so inconsistently will not wrest the title back from London. Given the promise shown lately by the likes of Hernandez, Obertan and Macheda, perhaps it’s time Sir Alex let his own young pups off the lead to go truly wild in pursuit of glory. It might lead to recklessness and the end of the immaculate record and it may already be too late, but they have little to lose. All of the big hitters seem to be plodding this season, with even Chelsea’s march slowing, so it’s about time someone erupted into a sprint for silverware. A return to the attack minded, high tempo, youthful United of days gone by may provide the key to unlocking a championship increasingly shackled by the scarves of caution donned by European coaches. And if not, at the very least it will be gripping entertainment.

Ah, but Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal are all about the free-flowing, thrilling stuff aren’t they? And where has it got them for the last few seasons? There are two key differences between United and the Gunners though. One is the strength of the defence: Ferdinand, Vidic and co have it in them to be immovable, they just need to get their act together, whereas Arsenal’s last resort is more questionable, particularly the goalkeeper. The other difference is the styles in which the teams attack: Arsenal attack in an arty, pretty, more continental style whereas United are direct, to the point, going for goal in wave after wave of red surges. It’s these imposing surges United must find the confidence to unleash away from home, as well as at the fortress of Old Trafford, if they are to reverse their stagnant fortunes on their travels, which have hampered their season so far. It will certainly do them little good carrying on as they are. At the moment United look easy to intimidate away; a fact they must reverse by becoming the aggressor, not through Mancini’s technical intricacies.