Sports

How David Moyes Can Salvage Man United’s Season

By Mohamed Boru

I realized at some point last year that I’d been writing predominantly about football, Man United to be specific and decided to diversify and cater for the non-football audience as well. Given how shitty United have been since then, it seems a timely decision in hindsight. But things have deteriorated so drastically that writing about United seems one of the few cathartic avenues left to relieve some of the angst.

The transition to new management has left us in an unfamiliar position of strife and a plethora of reasons have been given in an attempt to explain the sudden mediocrity. Of these reasons – poor squad made worse by lack of signings, the leeching Glazers, lack of motivation among the players et al – I believe that it’s the manager’s tactics that are largely to blame for the poor performances and results. Allow me to explain.

Whereas United has always been a team that likes to move the ball wide and whip in crosses, Fergie has always mixed it up ensuring that we also create chances through the middle. It would be a stretch to claim United have been entertaining for the last three years but the football was bearable and challenged for trophies right until the end of the season. Under David Moyes, our idea of attacking play has been to get the ball out wide to Evra and Valencia for them to cross it in. Not occasionally but almost always. We’ve largely avoided attacking through the middle as though there’s some magical crater that suddenly appears outside the opponent’s box when in possession to suck in our players and the ball. This is bad enough without factoring in Evra and Valencia’s poor crossing. The result has been limp performances from United where we create very little in games.

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Down but not out: United can yet steady the ship (c/0 ndtv.com)

You may say that the lack of midfield options has forced this archaic style of play on Moyes but Fergie managed the same players to the league championship a few months back. And it’s not like anyone told Moyes to dither with signings in the summer anyway. But looking back, you notice a clear pattern where Moyes’ teams almost exclusively attack through the wings. It’s no surprise that Leighton Baines was one of Everton’s best players last season and explains Moyes’ desperation in trying to sign him in the summer.

The easiest solution to the dearth of options in midfield would be to sign players that would see us change our style of play but let’s face it, that’s not going to happen. Moyes was brought in primarily because he was consistently ‘successful’ without spending much at Everton. Since we probably won’t be signing anyone as Moyes himself admitted and the Glazer’s won’t sack him for the poor results, it’s time the manager stops sulking and makes the most of what he has got.

One way to steady the ship would be to ditch 4-4-2, not because it can’t work but because we don’t have the players for that system. Man City play with a 4-4-2 but they’ve got two dynamic central midfielders and effective wide players. At United, we not only lack good central midfielders but wingers as well. What we have are a number of good defenders, world class attackers and fullbacks who are arguably better at attacking than defending.

A good system that would maximize on this squad imbalance and possibly bring out the best in our players is 3-5-2. We have five central defenders and of these, Evans, Vidic and Smalling deserve to be starters at center back. Phil Jones can arguably be added to that category as well. Playing three center backs – with one playing as a Sweeper – would in one move guarantee playing time for our good young defenders and shore up the defence. Since Moyes must get his crosses, Evra and Rafael can play as wingbacks sans the priority to defend that fullbacks have. I’ve got no doubt that Rafael would absolutely kill this role. Valencia can deputize for him with Buttner as Evra’s understudy.

In midfield, the problems we’ve faced have been lack of dynamic midfielders to allow us to play two in the middle as we’d like to and finding a position for Shinji Kagawa. Playing three in the middle would allow us to have a double pivot of Fletcher and Carrick with Kagawa playmaking ahead of the duo. The extra player in the middle would see us win the midfield battle. Kagawa would also create chances from the middle and reduce our over-reliance on wing play. Adnan Januzaj has also indicated that he sees himself as a playmaker in the long run and depending on form, he’d share this position with Shinji.

Upfront, Rooney won’t have to drop deep as he’s been doing, with a playmaker tasked with creating operating behind him. Essentially, this would leave us with two world class out-and-out strikers whose sole aim is to score goals. Having Rooney and RVP stay high up the pitch will force opposing center backs and even fullbacks to drop deep and hand us territorial advantage. Kagawa would keep their defensive midfielder busy denying the latter a chance to assist his defenders. To add to the numerical advantage, Fletcher can join in attack safe in the knowledge that Carrick and three center backs are covering him. United would thus line up as shown below:

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How United would line up in a 3-5-2 formation (Excuse the numbers :o)

All this seems a long shot though, but if our form is to improve, something has to give. Moyes could do worse than try out this system until the end of the season when he’ll presumably buy players and build the team to his liking. Juventus are successfully implementing the 3-5-2 in Serie A where Pirlo, Vidal and Marchisio/Pogba provide technique, industry and creativity as Lichtsteiner and Kwadwo Asamoah bomb up and down the wings. There’s no reason why the aforementioned trio of Carrick, Fletcher and Kagawa can’t replicate this for us. If anything we have better strikers and potentially better wingbacks. Add the good form shown by Moyes’ teams in the second half of the season and we might just salvage a season that is slowly turning into a tragicomedy.

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David Moyes and Manchester United’s Era of Uncertainty

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by Mike Njoroge

The departing master left one final instruction. As Sir Alex Ferguson held the microphone and addressed the Manchester United community in his last game at Old Trafford, he gave them one final command. The words that echoed provided a truism to his retirement. He commanded that now, everyone had to stand by the next United manager.

Of course by then, he had already known that David Moyes would be that man. Ferguson had already rang up the former Everton manager, invited him to his house and told him what his immediate future was. Further confirmation would prove it. That, alongside Jose Mourinho to Chelsea, Carlo Ancelotti to Real Madrid and Gareth Bale’s world record transfer would compete for 2013’s version of football’s worst kept secret.

As such, the chosen apprentice now finds himself in the shadow of the irreplaceable master. For a long time, the thought of Ferguson departing Manchester United had seemed false. A whole generation has grown up knowing nothing other. His influence reached mythological proportions that seemed to create a false sense of eternity. He is most definitely gone now.

And nothing proves this more than the surreal uncertainty that his absence now provides. The Manchester United community finds itself in a state of never before experienced dubiety. Ferguson had enough triumphs behind him to mask any blips. He continued to provide triumphs that justified his supposed mistakes. Trophies were won because of him. Challenges were overcome in spite of him. Despite anything, Ferguson occasioned the wins.

Ferguson’s imperialistic manner means Moyes has a near impossible act to follow. As Mourinho once said, Ferguson’s whisper makes the whole Premier League shiver in fear. Such a statement now quantifies a past that has now ended. A new era has begun.

Robert Greene’s 41st Law of the 48 Laws of Power speaks of the avoidance of stepping into a great man’s shoes. If such is the case, then Moyes finds himself in the shoes of more than just a man, but an icon who was massively influential. But Moyes would hypothetically counter Greene’s advice with a question of his own – what was he meant to do when an opportunity of such grand stature as managing United presented itself?

Indeed, Moyes never ticked all the boxes, but he ticked enough that Ferguson himself was willing to recommend him as his successor. A recommendation that was very well a decisive stamp of approval. In turn, it provides Moyes with further quest for ambition. An ambition to grow his managerial career and make a name of it.

That means that he must now further follow Greene’s advice. If one finds himself following a great man, they must not get lost in that shadow or remain stuck in that glorious past. One must establish their own name and build up their own identity. The best way of doing this is slaying the overbearing father, disparaging his legacy and shining on your own.

If this is the case, then a horrible transfer period has done little to work towards that. Missing out on targets with the public nature not usually accustomed to has put a glaring dent into Moyes’s already difficult start. As such, it has also put a dent to the reputation and aura of a post-Ferguson Manchester United.

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All the misgivings are of course not of Moyes’s sole doing but in a football world where constantly the buck stops with the manager, they will be held as such. An indifferent start to the Premier League season also points to this further perceived ineptness.

Because a win against Swansea City, a draw with Chelsea and a loss to Liverpool point to only four points being registered. As such, the underlying question has been – ‘if it were Ferguson…’ Yet, it was Ferguson whom in those same games last season oversaw a loss to Chelsea at Old Trafford, a draw to Swansea at the Liberty Stadium and a win against Liverpool at Anfield. The same four points from the same four games mirrors itself. But even though the contexts of those seasons are entirely different, the difference will relate as much with the times as they will with who was the manager at those different times.

That shows that the overbearing absolute faith placed in Ferguson has been lost with his departure. In place, a shaking incertitude has replaced it. As such, questions are bound to always arise as the impossible attempt at comparing the two manager’s reigns inevitably continues. Ferguson’s incomparable shadow will — unless Moyes steadies the ship very quickly and delivers a trophy; and until he finally departs – forever linger above the new man’s head.

For whereas Ferguson’s presence provided guarantees and sureties – his absence opens doors of uncertainty. It is this, more than anything else that Moyes will have to battle against most.

Mike Njoroge writes FutbolTriangle

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So long, Godfather

Godfather

Yesterday, the greatest chapter yet in the best story of my life came to an end. The legendary Sir. Alex Ferguson walked into a football tunnel never to come out again as the manager of Manchester United United Football Club. His was a chapter in the United story that is unlikely to be matched in longevity and success and he’s been rightly lauded to the high heavens over the past fortnight for his achievements.

My tribute to the old man who gave us most of our lives’ best moments won’t focus on his incredible achievements but rather how he managed the club so successfully. In many ways, Sir Alex managed United with the ruthless efficiency a Don would run a mafia organization. (If we put aside our prejudices, we’ll realize that accomplished mobsters are just like leaders in any other industry in life, be it business or sports).

In particular, the story of Sir Alex shared many similarities with the greatest mafia story ever told and its central character, Don Vito Corleone, better known by his reverential moniker ‘The Godfather’. For starters, both men demanded unquestionable loyalty. Considering the many competitors seeking to usurp their ‘organizations’ at the top of their respective games, both leaders considered loyalty a must if they were to maintain their status at the summit.

Sir Alex and The Godfather also shared the same cruelty to adversaries, real or perceived. The media, the F.A, opposing managers, referees and even our own players and fans have faced the wrath of the boss throughout his tenure if he felt they were out to undermine his team. This compares with how the Don would go after enemies and foes who posed a threat including his own lieutenants and capos.

At the same time, both men are also famed for their kindness and generosity, going out of their way to ensure they are there for those who need them. The Godfather by Mario Puzo starts off with incidences where people come to Don Corleone to seek favors of all kinds. The Don didn’t discriminate, helping anyone who came to him regardless of social standing. This kind streak was also exhibited by the Don of the football world Sir Alex Ferguson, helping managers across the different leagues in football and offering his support during difficult moments. He’s written hundreds of letters of support and gratitude to United fans over the years while also attending weddings, funerals and other social events of importance in the lives of United fans. Don Corleone in much the same way attended as many funerals, weddings and baptisms as he could. Such gestures of friendship and loyalty gave a human touch to these larger than life characters and endeared them more to those who loved them.

The outreach that so characterized these two men contrasted sharply with their code of silence that was vigorously enforced during their respective tenures. The mafia is famed for its code of silence, Omerta, that forbids leaking of information to outsiders. Omerta is so central a pillar in the mob that those who break it pay the ultimate price for their betrayal. At United, there is an unwritten rule that club business should strictly remain as such with no info leaked out at any cost. In my fifteen years of supporting United, never have I seen newspaper articles or exclusives generated on the back of dressing room snitches or moles as happens with other clubs. In the one instance where Jaap Stam alluded to Fergie tapping him up when he was at PSV, the boss got rid in no time despite Stam being one of our best players at the time. With many people seeking to chip away at their position at the top of the game, the two leaders ensured they didn’t give them any extra ammo to help bring them down.

Family meant everything to both men and they did everything they could to protect them. Sir Alex infamously boycotted the BBC for eight years due to a 2004 documentary that portrayed his son in bad light. He also treated his players like family and was viciously protective of them. The media got a mouthful when they constantly questioned Veron’s worth to the team. “On you go. I’m no fucking talking to you. He’s a fucking great player. You are all fucking idiots,” said Sir Alex to the media gathered that day.

The characters in ‘The Godfather’ also share a resemblance with characters in Fergie’s United story. Sir Alex being the Don has got his own consiglieri, Ryan Giggs. Like the adopted son Tom Hagen, Giggs has been by Fergie’s side for the better part of his reign. Giggs has grown into a wise and respected figure within the team and was increasingly consulted by the boss on team affairs. It is telling that the new manager met Sir Alex and Giggs together last week presumably to plan for the future. Giggs will be central in the new regime, maintaining the culture and traditions of the club and ensuring the winning mentality is sustained.

David Moyes plays the role of Michael Corleone, the unfancied heir who most resembles the master in character and ends up taking over from him eventually. Moyes, like Michael takes over from the boss ahead of more fancied and flamboyant if abrasive characters. Many expected Mourinho to take over at United much like Sonny was expected to take over from the Don but their abrasive, combative nature proved their undoing and both men suffered as a result. The deceptively ruthless, obsessive Moyes assumes the leadership post and is likely to maintain the traditions and culture of prioritizing youth and attacking football that is ingrained in the club’s DNA.

Both Ferguson and the Don were visionary men who planned for life long after they are gone. The need to maintain their legacy and success saw both men planning for the next phase. Fergie built a youthful team that has its best days ahead and scouted for the best successor in his mould to sustain his empire. The Don, sensing turmoil in New York, built up his enterprise in Las Vegas as he planned for withdrawal. He also had a successor in his mould installed and when the time was right, the New York empire was abandoned with vanquished opponents in its wake and the empire shifted to Vegas with its new head.

In the end, both the stories of Sir Alex and Don Corleone are legendary narratives in their own rights. Where Fergie trumps his counterpart is that his is a real story of epic achievements while ‘The Godfather’ is a fictional account of a successful mob boss. Considering how surreal Sir Alex’s achievements at United are, his story could as well be fictional given how incredible it has been. The story will be barely believable to those who weren’t lucky enough to witness it unfold.

The great Scot has also done it for a longer time and has maintained his empire’s position at the top for the better part of three decades. And that is not the end of it. The stability, mentality and aura that Fergie has instilled at the club will long outlast him ensuring that the great story goes on.

Manchester United is an endless book that forever keeps giving. It has given us many tales of the master doing his thing, inducing the full spectrum of human emotions from frequent joy, madness, hysteria, nostalgia and the odd incidences of sadness and bile. And there is more yet to come. No sooner had Fergie time come to an end than we started anticipating the David Moyes chapter. We are already speculating on its main characters, the plot twists that lie ahead and the inevitable success. Will Rooney stay? Will we re-sign Ronaldo? Bale? How many trophies will we win over the next few years?

Sir Alex, the strong, brave and principled character stood tall against adversaries and challenges, defying critics and succeeding in a way that no one has or likely will in football history. In short, he is the kind of man we all wish to be in whatever industry we are in.

So for all the memories, joy, inspiration and the wonderful story that we’ll all tell our kids and grandkids, we thank you Sir Alex. Here’s us collectively kissing your pinky ring and wishing you the best in your retirement. So long, Godfather.

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Thank You RVP!

By Mike Njoroge

RVP SAF

Tensions relieved, emotions outpouring and overflowing. Those could be the words used to describe the image of Robin Van Persie racing down the touchline to jump into the arms of Sir Alex Ferguson.

Rarely do grown men jump into the arms of old men. But such is the nature of sport, such is the emotional connection that Van Persie could not contain himself. Like a little boy jumping into the arms of his father. Then again, didn’t Van Persie’s Manchester United career begin with that little boy inside him?

Against Stoke City, Van Persie had been brought down in the penalty area and as the penalty was signalled, here was the chance. The goal drought was now ready to be shattered. 10 games in the Premier League.  13 overall. For last season’s top scorer, it was not making for a pretty narrative.

Not only for the Dutchman alone. His teammates had come to rely on his goals. Now, the goal drought had taken something away from their title push. Their juggernaut like momentum had been reduced to that of a crawling marathoner. Inching ever closer to the finish line but without the same conviction that had led to the bursting out of the traps at the start.

But, Van Persie stepped up, and tucked it away. Then came the most compelling image. A statement in itself. ‘Where was he running to?’ turned into ‘who was he running to?’ What he did next summarised everything.

Sir Alex may not be the ultimate father figure that Van Persie has ever had. There have been the academy coaches at Feyernoord and Arsenal. Then, Arsene Wenger turned him into this goal scoring machine that he is. For two seasons at Arsenal, he was unplayable. Unstoppable. Any shot in the general direction of the goal and it was a goal. Everything he touched turned to gold.

Yet, he has not touched gold yet in the form of a Premier League medal. Indeed, his majority goals, had not won anything major.

Last season, outside of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Van Persie was probably the best forward in the world, if not, the best footballer. Yet, when the FIFPro World XI was mentioned at the FIFA Ballon D’Or Gala, Radamel ‘Falcao’ Garcia took his place alongside the superhumans in a quite vicious and fictional front line. Why? Because Falcao won the Europa League.  Falcao’s goals won Atletico Madrid the Europa League.

Van Persie won nothing. Van Persie’s goals won him nothing but the Premier League’s Golden Boot.

For all the individual greediness that footballers tend to be associated with, it is the joy of winning a trophy with a team that brings the most satisfaction.

That was what Van Persie was alluding to when he stated that he was leaving Arsenal because the club did not match his ambitions. Some will disagree; some will call it a betrayal of a club that had taken care of him in his injury prone days. A betrayal of a manager that was patient enough with him.

But, nobody considers whether that same club and manager betrayed him by not giving him the assurance that a trophy would be won.

That was the assurance that Ferguson sought to give the flying Dutchman in the summer as he made him his major season signing.

On the flip side, nobody considers it in this way. How a manager took a huge chance on a 29 year old with a reputation of incurring injuries. That this manager made a final big move possible for an ageing striker.  That he bought him without the warranty of time, but hoped that he would guarantee goals.

And how in his quest to reclaim the Premier League trophy, that same manager made him his team’s star man. Definitely, first choice. Evidently, irreplaceable. Even the once untouchable Wayne Rooney had to play second fiddle. Even the promising Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez had to understand. Dimitar Berbatov had to leave. All because all the eggs were placed in the Van Persie basket.

And even now, in his drought, Sir Alex had still kept faith in him. “Robin Van Persie was fantastic” he had said after the Manchester Derby loss. You really found it hard to understand how.

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But as Van Persie scored the penalty at the Brittania, all the relief of the few weeks were swept away with the perspiration. The run was fuelled by inspiration. The need to thank the man who was making it all possible for him.

Thank you!

That must have, and surely was the reason for all that. Thank you for believing in me.

Undeniably, those must have been the words that Van Persie uttered to his manager as he hugged him. Thank you for making a Premier League trophy possible. Yet, those could also be the same words Sir Alex will utter to his Dutch striker once the Premier League trophy is won.

As they inch ever closer, Van Persie reminded everyone that it is goals like these that will hand the Red Devils a 20th League title. And in thanking Sir Alex, he reminded everyone just who has ensured that they are competing for a 20th Premier League title in the first place.

And why they will achieve it.

Mike Njoroge is the Writer of Football Triangle

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Cristiano Ronaldo Returns

 

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By Mike Njoroge

 

I, for one, will be applauding.

Applauding because he once was a good servant of the club. A servant to the point of becoming a master. On Tuesday, the 5th Day of March, 2013, if everything goes right; injuries permitting ; Icelandic volcanoes and Mayan apocalyptic prophecies ignored, Cristiano Ronaldo will return to Old Trafford.

It will be, his third game against Manchester United. His second competitive game against them. His first at Old Trafford since leaving Manchuria to join the Madrilenos. Stopped being a Red Devil and became a merengue. Preferred paella to fish and chips. Euros, to Sterling Pounds.

And when he comes back, when he returns, I will be applauding.

Applauding just as I did on that day in early August, 2003. Fresh from a pre season tour in the United States, Man United stopped over in Portugal. Their purpose, ridiculous it seemed to me at the time, was to play the inaugural match at Sporting Clube de Portugal of Lisbon’s newly built José Alvalade  stadium, which would in a years time host five matches for the European Championships.

United had already felt the satisfaction of a pre season tour. In the States, they had already defeated, convincingly so, both AC Milan and FC Barcelona. The 3-1 win over the Catalans had been most satisfactory. Barcelona had in their line up their latest coup,  Ronaldinho Gaucho. The Brazilian was wearing the Blaugrana colours out of choice after refusing to join United. That same summer, he had chosen tradition over novelty. With the chance of becoming Manchester United’s first ever Brazilian superstar, he instead chose to follow the footsteps of fellow Brazilians Romario, Ronaldo and Rivaldo in establishing a name at the Camp Nou.  It was his first game against the club he had just snubbed.

So, as United defeated Barca 3-1, though just a pre season friendly, the feeling was that dominance would come ; there was no need of Ronaldinho. The trip to Portugal was therefore but just a casual one. To enjoy the festivities of the opening of a new stadium.

The Portuguese were in festive mood. The scoreline after 90 minutes read 3-1 to Sporting Lisbon.

That was not the important factor though. The performance of an 18 year old completely left all who witnessed that match feel as if they were in dreamland. Donning the number 28 jersey, Cristiano Ronaldo had dazzled and bamboozled the United defence with his dribbling. Nobody could contain him. He was an evident thorn in the side.

The new stadium applauded.

Apparently, on the way back to Manchester, United players pestered their manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, urging him to buy that player. They would have their wish. Before the transfer window was over, Ronaldo would be unveiled as a United player. 12 Million Pounds had been the price. At the time, it was the largest sum anyone had ever paid for a teenager, but a meagre amount to the 30 million that had been set aside for Ronaldinho.

It would be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Legend has it that at his unveiling, Ronaldo requested the number 28 jersey that he had worn in Portugal. Sir Alex had refused, and instead gave him the number 7. The stuff of legends. Ronaldo was told that he would become a legend.

From then on, the rest is history. Requesting for the number 28 would prove to be Ronaldo’s last act of modesty. Arrogance would eventually encapsulate him as he set out on the road to becoming a legend. By the time of his departure, he had contributed a lot to the United cause. He had been central to a hat-trick of Premiership titles between 2007 and 2009. He would also be instrumental to the Champions League winning side of 2008. His goals in that season, 42 in all competitions, would be phenomenal, falling just short of Denis Law’s record of 46. He had though surpassed other legends such as George Best.

The road had not been rosy. The start had been doubtful. His endless dribbling was, although flashy, at times needless. Charged with delivering corners and free kicks, his delivery was poor. It seemed as if United had gotten another headless running winger into their ranks. All the while, Arsene Wenger was leading his team to an unprecedented unbeaten run. Then, Jose Mourinho would join the millions that Roman Abramovich had brought to West London to clinch the Premier League in two successive years. Success in Europe was also not forthcoming. In fact, neither was the FA Cup. It led to a period when the only realistic challenge United had was the one for the League Cup.

So bad was it that Sir Alex said some of his senior players requested to leave. One in particular, unnamed to everyone, had even told Sir Alex that he recognised that Ronaldo (as well as another young recruit in Wayne Rooney) had potential, but that he was not willing to stick around to wait for that potential to materialise.

That would eventually be his loss, whoever he was. As he left, Ronaldo was busy learning. The potential would eventually materialise. Ronaldo and Rooney would together become an unstoppable, immovable force. They led United in a period of dominance just as grand as the one that had won the treble in 1999.

It was all because of that August night in Lisbon when a young boy had lived up to that legendary name of his.

Now, he returns. Returns having further made his name and raised the bar for all of football. At times, superhuman, his battle with genius Lionel Messi means that he is undoubtedly one of the best footballers in the world, – if not ever.

He returns after having already played against United, and scoring against them at the Bernabeu. On a night filled with stars, he had risen as high as the stars to head in the equaliser that ensures that the tie is now precariously placed at 1-1.

The last time a man named Ronaldo played for Real Madrid against United at Old Trafford in the Champions League, he scored a hat-trick. If Cristiano is to emulate his namesake, then he will undoubtedly etch his name forever into the pantheon of greatness.

Whatever transpires does not matter for me. All that matters is that once Cristiano Ronaldo steps onto that Old Trafford turf, it will seem like a dream. Ronaldo back at the theatre of dreams. I will raise my hands and move palm to palm in a motion to produce complimentary sound. I, for one, will be applauding.

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ROBIN VAN PERSIE WINS THE MANCHESTER DERBY

Manchester City v Manchester United - Premier League

By Mike Njoroge

Sometimes, some decisions change everything. For Manchester United, that must have been the day when ‘that little boy inside’ Robin Van Persie decided that Manchester United, rather than Manchester City, would be his preferred destination.

And on Manchester Derby Day, he himself showed why.

For with a swing of his left boot, Van Persie’s free kick, with the aid of a deflection off his former Arsenal teammate, Samir Nasri, went past the despairing dive of Joe Hart and in off the upright for a 92nd minute winner. That goal, the 5th of the game, the third for Manchester United and Van Persie’s 11th this season, was definitive. It showed just why Sir Alex Ferguson splashed the money for him. For he was brought in to win games like these for United. That is exactly what he did.

And that is exactly what he has been doing. His career at United has, already, seen him haul Manchester United from the depths of defeat to the heights of victory. His first ever United goal, an equaliser against Fulham, sent United on their way to a win. A week later, he would, on Sir Alex Ferguson’s one thousandth game in charge, miss a penalty, but complete his hat-trick in a manner that would be enough to endear him as a legend to the Red Devil faithful.

The word legend is however used too loosely these days. In Van Persie’s case, it seems that even though he hasn’t acquired it by status yet, the journey he is undertaking will in all eventuality take him there. For that City winner means that his goals have been worth 16 points. Without them, United would be on 23 points, tied with Stoke City and Swansea City, and a point behind Arsenal.

The former Arsenal talisman however is not only doing it in the Premiership. Already in the Champions League, he secured a comeback victory with a brace against CFR Cluj in Romania. He also started the comeback that at Braga ensured that the Red Devils would qualify as Group Winners with two games to spare.

No wonder he is being missed at Arsenal. It is that sort of impact that makes champions. Then again, he didn’t make them champions last season. But without his 30 goals, Arsenal would have finished in the lower half of the League table rather than competing in the Champions League.

But it is not only Arsenal who miss him. In another possible world, Man City would have bagged the Dutchman for themselves, and it is they who would have been enjoying his goal scoring exploits. Instead, they have had to contend with a drop in form of Sergio Aguero, as well as deal, once again, with the unpredictability of Mario Balotelli and the ill discipline of Carlos Tevez. Lively and for the most part a game changer in the Derby, it was a Tevez foul on Rafael that led to Van Persie’s free kick. Indeed, the indication is that the effects of that night in Bavaria when he refused to play have not been fully dealt with. That may explain why at times he hasn’t started even when it seems ludicrous not to start him.

Man City however showed that they are still the second half specialists. The silky David Silva raised his game and for a while, they looked like they would juggernaut their way past the eternal enemy. Were it not for Sir Alex Ferguson’s introduction of Phil Jones into the midfield to add a bit of bite, as well as pulling two goal hero Wayne Rooney back into midfield, a City comeback was well on the cards. That in itself would have been ironic for only last season, City went away with United’s crown in the most Man United of fashions – on goal difference and winning it in Fergie time. A comeback win in the derby would clearly have shifted the tide.

That tide however would be shifted by Van Persie. His 11th goal of the season ensured that United would go six points clear at the top. It is a situation that City will be aggrieved by considering how many draws have put them in this position. It shows why Robert Mancini wanted him. It shows why Sir Alex got him.

The script for the 2012-2013 Premier League season seems to have Manchester as its main battleground. If that is the case, then it began, and has eventually come to be centered around the battle for Robin Van Persie. United won the initial battle and on Derby Day, did it again. There is still a long way to go and City still showed that their quality can, and will, still rise to the top if and when the moment requires it. However, Robin Van Persie’s late strike meant that, at least for the time being, the rise of the blue moon is being eclipsed by the return of the red sun.

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ACID TESTS AWAIT MAN UNITED

By Mike Njoroge

The mixing and matching is evident. Like a Chemistry lab professor mixing his elements, it still looks as if Sir Alex Ferguson is trying to figure what his favourite combination for a starting XI is. Tinkering and tampering has occurred. Changing and switching. All the while, it has led to Manchester United having indifferent games. Dominating then dominated. Conceding, then scoring. It has been difficult to determine just what Manchester United will produce, or how they will produce it.

For one, it seems as if Sir Alex this season has started by building his team from the front. Ordinarily, teams are built from the back. You start filling in the defensive positions first before moving on to midfield and then ultimately the attack. Where Manchester United is concerned this season, the inverse seems to have been happening.

This is the only reason that can explain how three strikers can start, with an attacking midfielder, and a winger. Most team sheets this season have featured; both Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney; either Javier Hernandez or Danny Welbeck; Shinji Kagawa has also been on the pitch, then out wide either Luis Nani or Antonio Valencia. This means that in essence, there are 5 attacking players. That leaves room for 5 other players. Considering that a back four is a certainty, that leaves room for only one central midfielder.

It really looks like the Maradona confusion that Argentina played with at the FIFA World Cup in 2010. A wonderful array of attacking players, with as little midfield cover as possible for the defence. That little midfield cover has led to the defence being exposed in more situations than is necessary. And it is no wonder Manchester United has been leaking goals.

However, some common sense has been restored in recent games. A midfield diamond has been deployed, meaning that width has been abandoned. The midfield diamond still looked shaky when introduced against CFR Cluj in the Champions League. But against Newcastle United, it glistered. In the first 22 minutes, Man Utd were averaging 70% possession. In that period, the pressure on Newcastle’s goal had produced two goals. To avert further disaster, Newcastle had to change tact and fill the midfield. It worked as it reduced United’s momentum. But what it did was to also reduce Newcastle’s strengths. Now, they did not have two strikers up top to aim at with crosses. Furthermore though, it meant that Newcastle, the home side, were now playing on United’s terms. That is what control is all about.

But that control has been lacking. In subsequent games, United have fallen behind. Luckily, they have had the firepower to always bounce back. And against Braga in midweek, the stakes were raised a bit higher. They stretched and dug deep to come back from 2-0 down to win 3-2. Then however, their most dominating period did not include the diamond, but rather Kagawa’s injury had necessitated the introduction of Nani. Width in place of the diamond, and still the victory was acquired. It doesn’t look that much confused now as Maradona’s model was. Sir Alex’s model can morph into the circumstances it finds itself in. A case of Plan A and Plan B working in tandem. There is no set standard, and that is why it looks all confused, while all the same fulfilling its eventual purpose of winning.

Major questions still linger though. What happens when, as Maradona found out against Germany, this model meets up against a well organised team. Can Man Utd continue to come back against the better organised teams of this world. Can they afford to continue conceding? Can they still score more than their opponents can? Those are questions that will probably be answered in the coming weeks. A run of fixtures that sees United face Chelsea twice, then Arsenal, and then a trip to Braga in the Champions League. This is bound to set things into perspective. United faces major tests here. The diamond and the width will now have the chance to prove their worthiness.

Categories: Sports | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

DON’t you wish your striker was RVP?

Alas! The summer’s most drawn out saga has come to an end. Bar a failed medical, Robin Van Persie will become a Manchester United player in the next few days. United announced last night that a deal has been agreed with Arsenal to transfer the reigning PFA Player of the Yaer and last season’s top scorer to the red half of Manchester. His move brings to three the number of players signed by United in the off-season, joining German player of the year Shinji Kagawa and prodigy Nick Powell in signing for the Red Devils. With the transfer all but complete, its time to analyze what RVP’s arrival will imply for MUFC.

First off, I’ll have to admit I was adamant against United moving for RVP. My main reason for objecting to this move was the effect his arrival would have on the younger players at the club whom much was expected from this season. Being an undroppable player, the Dutch striker would would compel us to employ a system with two strikers against the prevalent lone striker system of modern football. With RVP and Rooney up front, Shinji Kagawa would be forced to play much deeper, negating his exemplary skill and awareness which is best utilized in the final third. I argued against such deep deployment here.

Robin Van Persie’s arrival would also curtail the burgeoning career of young Danny Welbeck. As reds would know, Danny looks likely to be the first striker to break through form United’s reserves system since Mark Hughes in (1986). Welbeck formed a nice partnership with fellow Englishman Wayne Rooney last season, displacing Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov from the first eleven. After an impressive Euro 2012 outing, Welbeck seemed poised to take off. With RVP in the squad however, Danny will have to contend with much less game time which will undoubtedly hinder his progress. The less said about Javier Hernandez the better as his hitherto limited appearances will diminish even further.

Despite all these obvious reasons as to why we didn’t need to make the RVP move, its now water under the bridge and we gotta start looking at the positives. First off, RVP is a world class player and I won’t complain with the addition of such a classy player to the team. With Rooney and RVP, we have the best strike force in English football if not the whole of Europe. Last season, the two scored a combined 71 goals. Defences all over Europe will be shitting themselves at the thought of facing the two world class strikers.

What the arrival of RVP indicates is that Fergie sees the number ten as Rooney’s best position. With last season’s 34 goals from this deep lying role, its hard to argue the case against this line of thought. As such the two can strike a perfect complimentary partnership as their ideal positions do not overlap. Van Persie excelled playing the number 9 position at Arsenal and with Rooney ploughing in goals from further back, the prospect of both getting 30 goals each isn’t far feteched.

With the defensive midfield position blind to Fergie hence our defence being exposed, Van Persie’s signing adds to our already impressive attacking options making it a case of trying to outscore the opponents this season. This will be a stark contrast to the dour 1-0 scorelines we’ve been accustomed to in the last few seasons. I’m sure this is something reds will relish despite the occasional heart-in-mouth moments that accompanies the 5-3 scorelines.

In terms of the system to be played, Fergie will move or less replicate last season’s 4-4-2 and its slight variations. As noted earlier, RVP will start uptop with Rooney tucked behind him in the hole. TonyV and Nani will cover the wings with Carrick and Kagawa playing in central midfield. Carrick will sit back and build up play/ intercept possession from the opponents with Kagawa shuttling back and forth much like Scholes did with Keano behind him in that most amazing of midfield partnerships. In fact, the more you look at it, the more you realize the line up will resemble the treble team. After much experimenting, Fergie has taken it back to his classic system as he builds what he probably sees as his last great side. Suddenly, we have moved from slight ambivalence to wanting the season to start in excitement. Opponents should be afraid. Very afraid.

Finally, RVP’s arrival is a chance to laugh at Arsenal football academy club  and its loud fans. Since Vieira’s exit in 2005, the club/academy has seen a steady exodus of their star players in their prime. Arsenal has perfected the art of nurturing talent for the big teams to cherry pick from. Ever summer, the club’s star player (and most likely captain) leaves the club under a ‘Judas’ tag to achieve success elsewhere. What these fans fail to see is that theirs is a team that isn’t at the very top of the game and is struggling to accept this. For a team that views Champions league qualification as the barometer for a successful season, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when the star player becomes ambitious and wants to win things. Its symbolic that Vieira’s departure marked the beginning of the drought that is now entering its eighth year. They have at least made the effort to secure replacements early enough ensuring the loss won’t sting as much. Curiously though, how do Arsenal allow the players to run down their contracts and find themselves in this position every summer? For a club that specializes in selling their best players, you’d half expect them to try maximize on such deals. Either the club is plain daft or in denial. With Arsene ‘I didn’t see it’ Wenger, its more likely the latter. Whatever the case, this is an apt opportunity to all point at Arsenal and laugh. All together now, HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

Let the games begin.

Categories: Sports | 26 Comments

Access to football news, then and now.

I was following the trial of John Terry on twitter recently and a tweet I came across made me pause to think of how access to football news has evolved since the days I started following the English Premier League. In the race to break the news first, certain journos and wanna-be journos had logged into twitter through two separate devices with each device having a tweet ready to be sent. One phone or PC would have the words “John Terry: Not Guilty” and another “John Terry: Guilty” with thumbs ready to click on ‘Tweet’. The race to break the news was on.

Compare this with the late nineties when the most up to date way of accessing such news would have been through Sky News through their sports bulletin every twenty past the hour.  Sky News used to be televised through the now defunct STV/ TvAfrica which would be on during the day and late at night. If your team had made a signing or had a player injured, you either had to stay up late to catch Sky news (which was a problem considering we were in primary school and had a bedtime to abide to) or wait for the sports news on local news which was brief and useless. I remember the disgust when you would wait for KTN sports news and after two or three news pieces, Tony Gachukia or Robert Soi would inform that that was it for sports news without giving you the news you were waiting for.

Charlie Thomas, the face of Sky news sports. (c/o skynews.com)

Lack of internet meant that the local dailies would carry a sports piece two days after the news broke. This was due to the fact that they would not have accessed the piece from Associated Press meaning that the piece would be forwarded to the next day.

The internet started to become available intermittently at the turn of the millennium. The wait for ‘news’ was getting more and more excruciating with each passing season. Finally, something had to give. In the summer of 2002 after the Japorea World Cup, rumours were abound that Sir Alex wanted to sign English defender Rio Ferdinand from rivals Leeds United. Leeds had only signed Rio two seasons before, breaking the transfer record for a defender in the process but financial difficulties meant they had to sell their assets. If United were to sign him, they would have to cough up quite an amount. I longed for the deal to be completed as he would have added to our defensive ranks which wasn’t the strongest at the time. The tension was getting to me and when I heard (belatedly as was the case back then) that Rio had undergone a medical at United, the excitement got the better of me. It was this sequence of events that led to me to breaking my online virginity.  I quickly rushed to the nearest cyber, Naitel at my friend Arnold’s place and despite the prohibitive fee of five bob per minute (five times the current average rate), nothing was gonna stop this moment of destiny.

With help from Arnold’s brother Steve, I typed in the magical words in the address field.. ‘www.manutd.com.’ The red and black background on the website was contrasted with a picture of Rio in a white suit being unveiled at Old Trafford by the manager. Alas, he had arrived.

The eagle has landed. Rio Ferdinand on signing for Man United. (Image c/o Reuters)

The joy I experienced at that moment and the significance of it all is understood better in hindsight. Yesterday marked ten years to the day this happened and what an experience it has been. In his time at United, Rio has won five Premier League titles, one FA cup, the Champions League and numerous other trophies in the most successful period the club has had in its long history. On a personal note, access to news has gone from being a tedious process to being bombarded with news as it happens. To that extent, I have gone from consuming news and analysis on the net to this, providing content on the net through a blog. The wheel has indeed come full circle.

As the Terry verdict was announced to a flurry of ‘Not Guilty’ tweets, one couldn’t help but help but crack a wistfully nostalgic smile at how technology has evolved and with it, the speed with which we access the news. The mind boggles at the thought of writing a similar article ten years from now and how things will be by then. So here’s to another decade of technological evolution and continued success by the greatest team of them all. Cheers.

Categories: Best of Panoramicdon, Sports | 17 Comments

PLEASE FERGIE, DON’T KILL KAGAWA THE PLAYMAKER

Shinji Kagawa: Will he be played in his best position?

By Don Pablo

First off, let me say that I am as ecstatic as the next guy that Man United has agreed a deal to sign the Japanese playmaker Shinji Kagawa from Borussia Dortmund. Kagawa offers a different dimension to anything we have at present; an attacking midfielder capable of thriving in the final third of the pitch. Whether we would have sanctioned such a signing if the player wasn’t in the final year of his contract (hence the knockdown price) is moot but regardless, Kagawa is a welcome signing.

 
Despite the excitement that comes with signing a goal getter and a goal creator, there’s a palpable sense of fear that laces such excitement. My fear is that Sir Alex Ferguson will curb the attacking instinct of a creative young player and in a few years time, we will end up with a less flambouyant more functional Kagawa.

There is a precedent to back such a scenario. When Anderson arrived at Man United, he was being dubbed ‘The new Ronaldinho’ due to his quick dribbling and his playing position that was similar to his established compatriot. A casual look at youtube videos of Anderson in his Porto days shows you a player whose game relied on creativity high up the pitch and could create chances in plenty for himself and his team mates (see video below). At United, Fergie has tried unsuccessfully to convert Anderson in to an all rounded midfield player who is equally adept at attacking as he is when tracking back. To say the least, he has failed in that regard with the Brazilian’s questionable fitness not making it any easier for the gaffer. Football pundits in Brazil have always lamented on how Sir Alex has killed the Brazilian in Anderson by trying to make him a central midfielder as opposed to his initial attacking midfielder role.

Michael Carrick is another player who arrived at United as a playmaker who would control play higher up the field but he has done a better job of dropping deep as compared to Anderson, mainly due to his passing range and his ability to read play hence breaking up opposition attacks from deep. Regardless of his relative sucess in a deeper role, the trequatista Carrick is no more.

 
As German football expert Raphael Honigstein puts it, Kagawa’s finishing is one of his strongest assets, along with his ability to play in team-mates with direct, one-touch passes. He is very much a man for the final third, a player who finds space between the lines and gets on the end of things. Pulling the strings in the center of the pitch is not his game.His ideal position is behind the main striker.

 
Kagawa would thus best be used in the hole in a 4-2-3-1 formation behind Rooney as the lone striker. This system would see us kill many birds with one stone. We will have three players in central midfield as opposed to the two we had in last season’s 4-4-1-1 which saw us lose midfield battles more often than not in the big games. We would also negate the need to buy another striker as Hernandez and Welbeck would be understudies with Rooney ploughing a lone furrow upfront.

The 4-2-3-1 system will also see Fergie maintain his wing play approach with Valencia, Nani or Young given the freedom to cut in regularly and try get goals for the themselves as they wouldn’t necessary be wingers per se but more of inside forwards, with less defensive responsibilities as opposed to the traditional winger.

 
If we move to the 4-2-3-1 and play Kagawa in the hole, there’s every reason to believe we will be a potent force both at home and in Europe. The cynic in me however believes that Kagawa, much like Berbatov, Anderson and Veron, is a creative player who Fergie will struggle to use in his best position and at best, he will end up being an OK central  midfielder as opposed to a world class playmaker. I hope I am proved wrong. Welcome to Manchester Shinji.

Anderson the playmaker at Porto: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0QoRV7JuQOc

Categories: Sports | 16 Comments

REACTION TIME

By Michael Njoroge (@Mikenjoro)

I’m scared.

Scared, not because of the Manchester City fans. No, not them. They don’t scare me. In my part of the world, there are not enough genuine City fans who can really rub it in. Just City sympathizers who really, to be honest, made the right decision. They did not want Manchester United to win. Manchester United haven’t won. But they, they don’t scare me.

Scared, not because of the Gooner. Unlike the City fan, he has more than enough comrades in this part of the world. He may want to rub it in, but unlike the City fan, he lacks enough firepower. And he secretly knows it. And though he claims that his club, along with mine, are at par in terms of the achievements of the season (or lack of), that assertion, quite oddly, is both true, and untrue. He is simultaneously right and wrong. But he does not scare me. No, not him.

I’m scared because my blood is red, and its not just because of the haemoglobin. Manchester red. It scares me because I try not to act like one. But I can’t really deny the emotions that come with it. It is impossible to be, and yet at the same time, act as if I wasn’t. It is impossible, yet it is still possible. That dilemma scares me. For it forces me to withhold my opinion. Fear of the fact that my opinion on the subject will be considered biased. Or as a consolatory remark. In truth, I am not sure myself which one it is. Objective or subjective. Clear view, or red view. Am not sure. And that scares me. Scares the living daylights out of me.

But the minute you are scared to voice your opinion is the moment you shrink your greatness. It is the moment your darkness obliterates your light.  But I am not inadequate. I am powerful beyond measure. This opinion will not stay in my head. And besides, this article cannot write itself.

So, here goes.

Manchester City are champions. They totally deserve it. They have played the better football. Expansive I think is what they call it. They have scored more goals. Brilliant ones too. About 5 or 6 (no, not those 6). They have also shown character. They should have lost against Sunderland. Mario Balotelli and Aleksandr Kolarov ensured they didn’t (of course, after sorting out their little spat). They should have lost against Chelsea. But Carlos Tevez reversed the pass. Samir Nasri clinched it. They should have given it up. Mikel Arteta sought to convince them so. But they did not. And now, they are the best in Manchester. Now, they are the best in England.

Don’t talk about the money. Yes, His Highness Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan has pumped in the millions. But fuelling a car doesn’t mean that the car will win the race. Money buys talent. Money buys class. It does not buy championships. It only seeks to steer. Money can buy Sergio Aguero. It can’t buy that last minute winner. That final day drama. It can’t buy a moment of history. It can only precipitate it.

Deserved champions they are. But also as well in the League, deserved runners up come behind them. Manchester United. For the 7th time in a row, they have finished either first or second.  And though their head to head record shows a huge gulf in class, the overall league table doesn’t.  Level on points. City won it on goal difference. It is an illusion. So far behind, yet so near.  The fact that the last day was so dramatic was due, in part to United as it was to City. United, in truth, pushed them to the limit. United, did what they had to. That meant that City had to as well. It wasn’t a procession. It was nerve-wrecking. It shouldn’t have been. It should have been a pleasure cruise. It wasn’t.

Why it wasn’t that easy for City doesn’t matter. They have reached the pinnacle, regardless. And there is no use mulling over the quality of the United squad. That is never an excuse. Never from Sir Alex Ferguson. Never from Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. It is the reason they overachieve. It is the reason they are 2nd and 3rd best, when all odds point to them not being 2nd and 3rd best. It is the reason it hurts to be second, or third. Because it was expected that 1st is the only objective. Even when it does not seem realistic. The belief was instilled. There is never any room for excuses.

But what happens  when 1st place does not materialize?

You react. He reacts. He always does. Its in his DNA. It probably hasn’t been in Wenger’s, at least for the past 7 years. But now, there are signs that it is. Wenger is looking to do what the knight has always done. React.  He has been doing it for years. Reacting to everything. To Liverpool’s tradition. To Kenny Dalglish and Jack Walker’s Blackburn. To Kevin Keegan, when he would have ‘absolut’ly lov’d it if we beat ‘em.’ To Wenger’s football. To Jose Mourinho’s pragmatism. To Rafa Benitez’s ‘facts rant.’ To Carlo Ancelotti. He has always reacted. And now, there is the Roberto Mancini problem. Now, what will he do.

I assure you that for as long as Sir Alex has breathe in his lungs and chewing gum is still edible, he will react. The problem will be solved. It may take one year. It may take two. Eventually, it will be solved.  The cool Italian will eventually feel the pressure. He will be scrambling for his scarf. The noisy neighbours will eventually be silenced. Let them have their party now. They deserve it. A time will come when it will be their turn to watch us have the party as they have always done. Sir Alex will react. He always does.

And when he does, Manchester United will be back.

Categories: Sports | 12 Comments

MAN UNITED 2011-12 SEASON REVIEW

Overview

So that’s that then. Man United will finish the season trophyless for the first time since 2005 bar a catastrophe for City on the last day. To say the least, it has been a pretty dire season by United standards. Our gameplay has been more functional than pleasant, efficiency being the keyword.

There have been extra ordinary highs such as the 8-2 win against Arsenal but more often than not, turgid affairs have been the order of the day. The regular three points kept the belief that we stood a chance (as it still does) but truth be told, entertainment has been little and far between.  It has been a gallant effort by Sir and his boys as they have maximized on whatever little resources availed to them to give the championship a go.

In hindsight though, our current position doesn’t come as much of a surprise. The parsimonious Glazer regime has hampered United’s ability to compete despite the best effort of the team. The three signings by Manchester United last summer were nowhere near enough to fill the gap existent following the departure of several players.

David de Gea was a direct replacement for VDS, a signing that was not out of choice. The fact that several clubs had their bids for Phil Jones accepted by Blackburn forced United’s hand as they had identified Jones as a future signing. His unplanned move has been reflected in the way the United management hasn’t figured where to use him best. This, as much as his versatility has been a reason as to why Jones has played at center back, right back and central mid at different spells this season.

Ashley Young’s signing epitomizes United’s transfer strategy in the Glazer era; players available on the cheap due to contractual reasons. It is arguable that we needed a central midfielder more than we needed a winger like Ashley Young. The fact that he was a quality English player available on a cut deal made United move for Ashley Young, instead of going for a central midfielder who was needed more. Young has been a good signing but his arrival signaled the close of summer business for us.

Those three signings were deemed enough to augment a squad that was already lacking in quality and later, numbers following the departures of VDSar, GNev, Hargreaves, Brown, O’shea, Scholes and in time Gibson. This meant that as much as we spent 50 million pounds, we went into the season without achieving squad balance with our central midfield lacking in quantity and quality. By October, the paucity in midfield options saw Rooney played in midfield for a number of games including a European tie.

Man United have largely won the easier fixtures without getting out of gear two but we haven’t looked convincing enough in the big games. We have surrendered easily in some of these matches and looked shaky on other occasions even when winning. Big games call for big players and few United players have stood up to be counted when the going has got tough.

Our transfer strategy has seen us concentrate the squad with players that have ‘resale value,’ a term synonymous with players under 26 years of age who can be sold for a profit, and senior players above 32 years of age. The only players in the 26-31 bracket are Carrick, Berbatov, Park, Vidic and Fletcher. Fate had it that the latter two would miss most of the season through injury with Park and Berbatov being non-features. Only Carrick would feature prominently.

It is arguable that in football, a player reaches his peak between the ages of 26 and 31. It is during this age bracket that a player finds the perfect balance between physical ability and mental maturity, with younger or older players lacking in either the experience or youthful vigour respectively to perform at their very best. It is therefore logical that the more of such players in your squad, the higher your chances of success. As it is, United’s squad is full of talented kids who will be world beaters in a few years and older players who despite their ability and experience, cannot be called upon in every game.

There are some instances where previous United teams with enough leaders on the field would not have let the game slip from their hands. The 4-4 draw against Everton comes to mind as an obvious example. Naivety was also evident as United tried to chase the game despite being 1-4 down in injury time against City. A team with older heads would have accepted the loss at that point and avoided the humiliation that ensued.

The fact that we didn’t address our central midfield was truly shocking. At best, it was short sighted and at worst negligent. Our central midfield has been crying out for reinforcements for several seasons before last summer and the departure of Scholes and Hargreaves meant that we were due at least one central midfielder if not two or three. That we brought back the ginger ninja mid season showed how ridiculous it was not to sign a central midfielder last summer.

Looking forward to next season, it is important we look at certain areas of our squad if we are to remain competitive both at home and in Europe. Of utmost importance is the signing of at least one central midfelder or two if Pogba leaves. We have been crying out for midfield signings for several years and continue to do so. Even with the return of Scholes, our midfield has not been good enough to compete against the very best. The mooted transfer of Shinji Kagawa from Borussia Dortmund to United would be a good start to our summer business. A destroyer to complement the midfielders we have wouldn’t go amiss either. It’s been a while since we had a midfielder who would crunch into tackles and terrify the opponent Keano-style.

Patrice Evra has been a consistent figure in our defence for over five years but his performances have began to tail off in the last two years. Personally, I’d have Fabio played more regularly with Evra deputizing but since that doesn’t seem to be on the cards with Fabio’s planned loan move, a left back to provide competition to Evra is required.

It remains to be seen whether Fergie will be able to convince the owners to fork out the amount required for transfers to keep United competitive. Without necessary additions, there is the nightmare scenario that City will deny us titles regularly, starting with the league title on Sunday. In the mean time, we can all concentrate our energies into hoping the Glazers disappear to whatever hole they came out from.

Game of the season: Man United 8-2 Arsenal

A day when all that could go right did exactly so. Its one thing hammering any team 8-2 but metting out such punishment to one of your biggest and loudest rivals is another story. Despite the poor quality of opponent on the day, this is one game reds worldwide won’t be forgetting any time soon.

Worst game of the season: Man United 1-6 Man City

Not just the worst game of the season but the worst in my time supporting Man United and beyond. Writing about it seven months later gives me the same sick feeling. The less talked about, the better.

Goal of the season: Ashley Young vs Arsenal 8-2

For his first season, Ashley Young has scored some amazing curlers. None has been better than the first he scored against Arsenal during the 8-2 demolition. The technique to curl the ball from outside the box and place iot in the top corner is a difficult one to execute and the fact that he’s scored several similar goals shows that its not a fluke. Other notable goals include Fletcher’s in the 1-6 debacle, Welbeck’s goal against Everton at Old Trafford and Nani’s goal versus Chelsea at Old Trafford.

Player of the season: Wayne Rooney

It’s a tricky one choosing the player of the season as different players have proved crucial at different times of the season. The mature performances by Johny Evans in Vidic’s absence and his recovery from the 1-6 low point makes the Irishman a viable candidate. Michael Carrick has been a pillar of calm and consistency in the heart of our midfield. So too has Valencia in the wings with consistently impressive outings, particularly in the second half of the season. Paul Scholes came back to steady the ship and soon went about doing his magic, his return coinciding with our most productive spell till the late season slump.

Ultimately though, Wayne Rooney shades it with his overall contribution that includes 33 goals in all competitions. He has largely had to play number 10 in a 4-4-2 formation this season behind Welbeck or Hernandez and to still finish the season with such a high return speaks of his undoubted world class quality. Infact, I’d go as far as proclaiming him the best player in the world after those two La Liga freaks.

Rooney’s return to number ten has seen him get involved in build up play more often while still exhibiting ruthless efficiency when infront of goal hence getting the best out of the player. His contract saga is now behind us and Rooney remains central to United’s fortunes now and in the future.

Worst Player of the season: Park Ji Sung and Michael Owen

A tie between Park and Owen for this one. Park has had his appearances few and far apart which has not helped his game as he ages and loses the physical ability to maintain his high energy performances that made him a key squad player especially during big matches. He has only managed 18 starts this season with nine of those starts coinciding with a loss for United. A fan favourite, the former South Korea captain is likely to leave in the summer. He will be remembered fondly by the fans.

Michael Owen has had a worse season than his prior seasons at United, something which seemed impossible given how poor his previous seasons were. He has been largely missing with just 3 starts this season (none in the league) and offered little on those few occasions he has been called upon to play. The ultimate low in Glazers frugal transfer policy of cheap/free signings, he is likely to follow Park out of the door and will not be missed by many.

Young Player of the season: Danny Welbeck

Young players often endure unproductive spells during their formative years of pro football (through loss of form or injury) as part of the growing up process. Phil Jones, De Gea, Cleverley, Smalling, Rafael and Fabio have all had such unproductive spells for different reasons this season despite some promising outings.

The stand out performer among the younger players has been Danny Welbeck. Welbeck returned from a season-long loan in Sunderland and came back having matured physically and his perfomances proved equally mature and impressive. Welbeck has formed a good partnership with Rooney, nailing down a starting spot for club and his form sees him going to the Euros with England with a chance of leading the line in their opener against France.

We are often reminded of how Man United hasn’t produced a first team striker from the reserves since Mark Hughes almost two decades ago but that unwanted statistic is about to be rectitfied.

Welbeck has shown great versatility upfront, dropping deep to influence play and leading the line well. A big tournament might just be what he needs to announce himself to a world stage and Euro 2012 provides the perfect platform for that as Euro 2004 did for Wayne Rooney. Gwan Danny, kill it.

Disappointment of the season: Berbatov (mis)treatment

Top scorer in the league last season, Bulgarian record goal scorer and the silkiest touch in football since Zidane and still Berbatov struggles to secure even a bench spot at United. Fergie’s preference for a quicker style of play and Berbatov’s selfless love for United has seen the mercurial striker stuck at United and relegated to fourth choice striker at the club. Nowhere has graft over craft been exhibited better and at such a costly price.

It’s been sad seeing Berbatov consistently miss out on even a bench spot for most games and the sooner he takes his talent to a place where it is appreciated more the better. All the best in your career, Mitko.

Best moment of the season: Return of Scholes

That forgettable night at Wembley seemed the last we had seen of United’s most technically gifted players and one of the best in our history. Seeing his name on the squad sheet before the F.A Cup tie at City had our collective pants wet with excitement as we never expected to see the magical Scholes perform live again. As Ian Holloway put it, what he does is art and the chance to watch his masterful play once again  was one we welcomed with glee.

The second half of the season has been full of wonderful long range passes from Scholes with a few late-run goals for old times sake. It was arguably the best moment of the season when Scholes returned and another season of spoiling us with his technical brilliance would be welcome especially as the only other technically perfect player, Berbatov looks likely to leave.

Categories: Sports | 17 Comments

The forgotten twin

The forgotten twin, Fabio da Silva

When signing for Manchester United in 2008 alongside his brother Rafael, Fabio da Silva was widely regarded as the more talented of the Brazilian twins. After all, he had captained his country at different age groups including the U-17 team at the World Cup where he was the joint top scorer for his country despite playing as a defender.

Fast forward a few years later and Fabio is struggling to establish himself in the United team, his brother having long settled into the team and arguably nailed down a spot for himself in the starting eleven. The reversal of fortunes leaves you wondering whether this was just another instance of wrongful judgment by pundits or whether there is a deeper cause to Fabio’s stagnation.

Over the course of his time in England, the former Fluminense prodigy has suffered a plethora of injuries, his shoulder bearing the brunt of such malaise. Much like his brother, Fabio has proved to be a very fragile player, rarely completing the full ninety minutes on his equally rare starts due to injuries and knocks. To say this has been a frustrating feature of his United career would be a gross understatement. Given his immense potential, it’s amazing to think how far Fabio would have progressed in his United career had he stayed injury free.

The consistent and seemingly indefatigable nature of Patrice Evra’s play has also put paid to the young pretender’s claim to the throne. Evra has been a permanent feature of that defence to the extent that he was given the armband at Rio Ferdinand’s expense. The combination of these two factors has seen Fabio limited to just 36 starts in his United career to date.

However, there is a third reason (though not as obvious as the first two) that can provide a clue as to why the more talented of United’s twin dynamos has had a difficult time finding his feet in England. For the better part of the 2008/09 season, Fabio featured prominently for United’s reserves. It’s during this time that another feature of his game, albeit a less heralded one began to emerge. For the most part of that reserves campaign, Fabio da Silva played predominantly on the left side of midfield. His stint as a winger showcased his versatility but more importantly, his immense attacking abilities usually associated with Brazilian fullbacks. Able to use his right foot as well as his left, the dimunitive Brazilian tore apart fullbacks with his repertoire of skills and explosive dribbling bursts with the ball. He proved a key outlet for United’s stiffs.

The increased attacking responsibilities sans the need to defend gave an interesting alternative to Fabio the fullback. The shackles were off and rather inevitably, the goals followed. Fabio scored an incredible hatrick against Rochdale in the Lancashire Senior cup.

Back to Spring 2012 and Fabio is facing an uphill battle to establish his place in the United side. His lack of action this term has led to Sir Alex deciding that the player’s development would be served better with action elsewhere.

“With Evra such a consistent performer over the last five years, it doesn’t matter who would have been second choice, it would have been difficult for them and that is the situation with Fabio,” said Sir Alex. “It has been difficult for him.”

“We will put him out on loan, possibly to Portugal next season; I know there has been a bit of interest.

If the loan proves to be half as beneficial as Welbeck’s or Cleverley’s loan spell, we will have one hell of a player in our ranks, a fact Fergie recognizes.

“Fabio’s brother has improved by getting consistent games for us. So I think a year out at a good level playing every week will make Fabio a real top player for us.”

While a full season with game time would do his career a world of good, it is the opportunity to prove himself in a number of positions that will ultimately be the making of Fabio.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OsJaLtzwgGs (Fabio hatrick against Rochdale)

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( I’m pleased to announce that the blog has been nominated among the ‘Best Sports Blog’ at the inaugural Bloggers Association of Kenya Awards. Kindly head to bloggers.or.ke/voting and vote ‘Panoramicdon’ as the best sports blog. Voting closes tomorrow with the awards ceremony slated for Saturday. Your continued support is greatly appreciated. Ta)

 

 

 

 

Categories: Sports | 1 Comment

Squeaky Bum Time

Agony for reds..might not last long

It’s two days after the derby. The feeling of disgust has subsided enough for me to jot down a few words on Man United. I can think clearly now the shit storm is over. I know the last thing y’all wanna read now is anything United related but bear with me.

An interesting feature of this season’s title race has been the handing over of the initiative by each Manchester side once on the ascendancy. At some point early in 2012, City all but looked assured of winning their first title in 40-odd years after establishing a healthy lead. As April approached, the jitters of leading the title race got the better of City to a point of implosion. United, having hauled back the bitters and established an eight point lead at the top of the table were going to defend their title. Or so it seemed.

The eight point lead United had over City in mid-April vanished as quickly as the time it took for them to establish that lead. Having dropped just two points since the turn of the year, United dropped points in three succesive games culminating in City’s return to the top of the table. For a team that had such consistency, the sudden desertion of United’s famed resolve was unimaginable. It seemed the hot seat was too hot to handle.

And now we have City back at the top with two games to go. Only the most hopelessly optimistic reds think that the title race is not over yet. The blue confetti has been thrown all around and obituaries in red fill the sports pages. But don’t pop the champagne yet. If the take-and-give that has been happening at the top is anything to go by, the last chapter of this race might not have been written yet. And what an ending we might be in store for.

City face Newcastle away in their next game followed by QPR at home. Newcastle are still in the race for the coveted champions league places and have an impregnable record at home. Reds will no doubt remember the 3-0 drubbing we got at the Sports Direct Arena, arguably our worst performance this season. This game has the potential to be a title decider in more ways than the derby itself. So to is the QPR match. As Wigan have shown, facing a relegation bound team at this stage of the season is one of the most difficult games you can ask for.

The point of all this is that the number one spot has been a poisoned chalice up to this point with both teams losing their radars as soon as they get to the top. For now, all United fans can do is squeeze our bums, what Fergie famously alluded to but the press reported it as ‘squeakybumtime’ due to his heavy Govan accent. As it has repeatedly proven so far this season, its not over till the fat lady sings. With City being City, anything is possible. So for one last time, BELIEVE!

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( I’m pleased to announce that the blog has been nominated among the ‘Best Sports Blog’ at the inaugural Bloggers Association of Kenya Awards. Kindly head to bloggers.or.ke/voting and vote ‘Panoramicdon’ as the best sports blog. Voting closes tomorrow with the awards ceremony slated for Saturday. Your continued support is greatly appreciated. Ta)

Categories: Sports | 16 Comments

THE PRECARIOUS MANCHESTER DERBY

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By Michael Njoroge (@Mikenjoro)

“This sets up the derby pretty nicely.”

These were the words uttered by Jon Champion as Samir Nasri’s shot hit the back of the Wolves net. The goal put Manchester City two goals up against an all but relegated Wolverhampton Wanderers. In the context of the day however, it ensured that Manchester City would close the gap at the top to three points.

And the derby, is coming.

Sir Alex Ferguson is terming it the most important derby of his Manchester United career. He is wrong. Roberto Mancini is still insisting that the Premiership title race is finished. He is wrong.

Both managers are wrong. And it is in being wrong that both Manchester Clubs find themselves in this situation.

Manchester City had this title wrapped up. They were scoring goals for fun. They were on course to break the record for overall points tally. Then, the wheels fell off. Partly because of not dealing with the over-inflated egos. Carlos Tevez. Mario Balotelli. The team stopped turning up for games with hunger and desire. It was as if the three points were an inherent right. When they realized they had to work, they were already under pressure. They could not cope with the pressure. The Emirates was clear evidence of that.

Manchester United had reacted well to that 6-1 thrashing at Old Trafford. They went back to basics. They re-signed a legend. As City fell off the pace, they picked up theirs. The fighting spirit was back. Slowly, they clawed their way back into contention. Slowly, they got to the top. Slowly, they established a gap. However, they quickly let the advantage go.

Three weeks ago, Manchester City lost to Arsenal. Earlier on, United had won against QPR. United increased the gap to eight points. City were written off. This was Ferguson’s United. And Sir Alex never lets such a lead slip. But just as quickly as United had gained the advantage, they lost it. A loss two days later to Wigan Athletic, and a win by City at West Brom meant that the title race was back on. It did not look like it at the time, but the loss heaped huge pressure on United, something that the loss at Arsenal had removed from City. City were now playing expressively, United were being closely watched at every turn.

So with a week to go to the derby, United drew, and City kept on winning. The gap that was 8 points, had been reduced to 5, and is now 3. If City keep on winning, the gap will be zero. But Sir Alex has said it millions of times in his 25 year career at United. Goal difference is an extra point. At the moment, City have the better goal difference. City have the extra point.

United fans will tell you that in 2008, they lost to Chelsea at this same stage of the run in. They will tell you that last season, they lost to Arsenal a week before meeting Chelsea, with whom they were engaged in the title race. They will tell you that in both cases, they went on to win the Premiership. They will tell you that based on the evidence of that match at the Emirates, City cannot handle the pressure. The pressure that has now been turned on to its full capacity.

What they will not tell you is that in 2008, there was some breathing space. Chelsea won, but had an inferior goal difference. It was United who had the extra point. Last season, Chelsea met United at this stage, but the match was taking place at Old Trafford.

Now, there is simply no breathing space. City have the better goal difference. United go to the Etihad. There is no advantage to United. It is a must win.

But that is where everyone is wrong. A draw, would suffice. It is not a must win for United. A draw keeps the title race in United’s hands. They can thus go to the Etihad and make it a boring affair. Risky, but possible.  And that is also where Sir Alex is wrong. If it were the most important derby of his Manchester United career, it would be a must win game. If it were the most important derby of his United career, his job would be on the line.  The most important games of his United career have passed. That 1990 FA Cup Final. That League win in 1995/1996 season, when it was won with kids. That 1999 Champions League win. Nothing else matters at United. Win or lose, Sir Alex will be there next season. And the season next. If you think am lying, just ask the Gooners.

For City however, it is a must win. Failure to win puts the pressure back on. The next game after the derby is a trip to the Direct Sports Arena. Newcastle and Papiss Demba Cisse are chasing that final Champions League spot with gusto. It will not be easy. The final game is QPR at home. Easy, but they may or may not still be in the relegation fight by then. The business has to be taken care of at the Etihad. They have to win.

That’s why Mancini is wrong. The title race is not over. It may have been after games against West Brom, and Norwich. But now, it isn’t. In fact, this is the most important derby of Mancin’s City career. If he loses, he may not be at the Etihad come next season. It is also the most important derby of City’s history. Win, and they begin a new era. An era of Manchester City success. Lose, and the feeling will be that they may never get closer.

Mancini was right to downplay the importance of the title race. After the Arsenal loss. After the West Brom win. After the Norwich thrashing. It allowed his players to play without pressure. To subsist with it now, is ridiculous. He has to make his players understand the importance of the game. He has to make his players know that the derby is the one to fight for. That’s why Sir Alex calls it the most important of his career. The players will do it for the boss, because it’s that important to him.

There is something right though in both manager’s approaches. It may not be the most important derby of his career, but it is definitely the most important derby of the season. It will decide the destination of the title. And the title race may not be over, but to think it is and approach the game with no pressure at all gives the players the right mind set. They will be free to do the business on the pitch, without looking over their shoulders. A free Aguero is a beautiful sight to behold. And United know exactly what a free Tevez can do.

Whatever happens, the derby is set up pretty nicely.

Categories: Sports | 8 Comments

Schadenfreude

Cry baby JT is gonna retire without the Champions league. Aaaah....bliss.

One of the most intriguing aspects of being a football fan is the joy you get from seeing a rival going through a rough patch. The kind of sadistic joy that Germans coined a word for; schadenfreude. Such emotions are usually triggered by the fear, real or imagined, that said rival will deny success to your team in a winner takes all sport. That, plus the repulsive persona of the poster boys of these teams serves as fuel for the burning hatred.

Over the last fifteen years of supporting Manchester United, it has become second nature to hate whatever team challenges us for top honors. And Liverpool. Apart from a few occasions, it has largely been a period filled with much joy out of seeing the enemy fail.

With two of my most hated rivals in the doldrums, now would be as good a time as any to indulge in some schadenfreuede.

Steven Gerrard is a player I hate with as much passion as Liverpool fans adore him. He is a physical embodiment of Liverpool FC, a dinosaur trying to stay relevant by virtue of success in a long gone era. You see Gerrard is no spring chicken, cruising towards his 32nd birthday with a big monkey on his back pointing and laughing at a big failing of his.

In a recent interview, Gerrard confirmed what he and Liverpool fans fears most as he approaches the end of his football career; the lack of a Premier League winners medal for a club legend. Said Gerrard in a November interview: “It’s something I think about almost every day. I always think about the dream of winning it – or the disappointment if I was never to win it.”

“To have played at Liverpool for 14 or 15 years by the time I finish and not win it would be hugely disappointing. It would be an awful shame.”

And therein lies the source of so much joy for Reds around the world. As I write this, Liverpool are struggling in the league as they are 14 points off the top of the table past the halfway stage of the season. The return of Dalglish was supposed to mark the return to the days of glory but has been typified by their consistent mediocrity. With United a force to reckon with at all times and City looking stronger with every passing season, the likelihood of Steven George Gerrard lifting  the league trophy is looking slimmer with him being in the winter stages of his career. Somehow that thought creates a warm fuzzy feeling for me and countless reds worldwide as the bastard slips into oblivion.

Speaking of slipping, the father of all cry babies offers another avenue to indulge in some sadistic bliss. Step forward John Terry aka The British bulldog. I don’t need to go into details as to why I hate this repulsive thug of a player. The hatred I feel for the guy can only be matched by the joy I get whenever I remember his Russian escapades in May 2008.

Fed by the obsession of the club owner to win the Champions league, Chelsea have tried all tricks in the book to achieve this end. They came so close to finally achieving this dream only for their dear leader, captain, legend to bottle it. The delight United fans got from that day was immortalized when a terrace chant at Old Trafford was quickly put up, mocking the Chelsea captain for his fuck up at the most crucial of times.

Viva JohnTerry, Viva John Terry…could have won the cup, but he fucked it up..Viva John Terry’ sing the United fans, forever reminding him of his failure.

Gerrard’s inability to lead his team to the title was never in doubt given how poor the team has been in the last two decades. For Terry however, it seemed a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’ he is going to lead his team to European glory given the strength of the team under his leadership and the several near-misses. But as Jonathan Wilson puts it in Inverting the Pyramid, success is a nebulous quarry. Luck retains its place in football, and success can never be guaranteed, particularly over a thirteen game continental tournament. With an ageing squad and a manager trying to find his feet in a new league, Chelsea are as far from winning the European cup now as they have ever been at any time during Roman’s ownership of the club. Again, JT as they call him is no young turk in football terms. Like his team, he has become slow and ineffective and hopefully soon enough, irrelevant.

Steven Gerrard and John Terry; one club men, club captains and legends. Bar a miraculous upturn in fortunes, its looking almost certain that both will  bow out of the game with much regret having missed out on what they wanted most. In another part of Northern England, one Ryan Giggs is challenging for what would be his 13th league medal with two European gongs and numerous other medals.

The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer mentioned Schadenfreude as the most evil sin of human feeling, saying famously “To feel envy is human, to savor schadenfreude is devilish.” At the end of the day, I guess we are all devils. Red devils.

Categories: Sports | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 28 Comments

Six years and waiting –The Arsenal’s Fan Dilemma (Kenyan perspective) Part II

Has Le Prof overstayed at Arsenal?

The second part of the series looks at Wenger’s misgivings and whether his presence is hindering on-pitch success.

By Arnold Njue

When he came to England in 1996, he completely changed the way football is played . He reformed the training and dietary regimes, ridding the club of drinking and junk food culture and brought in dieticians to explore the benefits of a healthy lifestyle.

He changed Arsenal football club . He endeared Kenyans to the team who in turn filled pubs and restaurants to watch Arsenal.

He is the best Coach Arsenal have had and you could bet your money that he might be the best ever Arsenal manager. Yet the question still remains, why has Arsene Wenger failed so spectacularly in his last six years of managing the club.

In Part two of this series, l would  like to highlight the observation I have made since the good old days of winning trophies, what changed along the way and why Wenger’s methods are not working anymore.

1.   He does not teach defense

When he first came to England ,Arsene inherited a defensive unit of David Seaman, Lee Dixon , Nigel Winterburn , Steve Bould , Tony Adams and Martin Keown . These defenders with the proper scientific methods and diet introduced by Le Prof formed the backbone of his first league and cup double in his first full season in charge. It is noteworthy that all of his titles winning sides have had a core of experienced defenders who helped the team overcome training ground deficiencies or lack thereof . (Vito Mannone, the 4th choice Goalie currently on loan  said that sometimes he plays midfield in training!)

Ever since the 03-04 title winning team, conceding goals from corners and free kicks has become the norm rather than exception. You cannot win the league without a measly defense.

Some positive developments after being thrashed 8-2 by United is that the defence now trains together, though am yet to see the improvements on the pitch .

 2.  His stubbornness is surreal

 When Arsenal reached the Champions League final in 2006, Arsene managed such a fete with the help of one Martin Keown. His input in the defensive aspect of the game helped Arsenal go ten games to the final without conceding a goal. One of the revelations was that of playing a right footed central midfielder Mathieu Flamini as a left back. When Keown got all the plaudits for that achievement  Wenger by design or circumstance quietly let Keown’s contract run out so that he could resume working alone .He does not share the platform with anyone else ; he is a complete control freak. He has made Arsenal the biggest’ “Phrench” club in the world.

3.  Rewarding Failure

Arsenal’s wage bill was £111 m pounds while that of our bitter rivals Tottenham was £ 67 m in 2010. The media portrays him to be a wheeler dealer but the truth is he hides behind a facade. In order to have a happy go lucky dressing room, where nobody knocks on his door complaining, Wenger pays ridiculous wages to players who are average. For example Manuel Almunia, Fabianski, Denilson, Diaby , Squillaci, Bendtner, Carlos Vela and Lukasz Fabianski  are all on £50, 000 a week plus (allegedly). To put that into context, that’s more than the wages of Luka Modric at Spurs . There is also another bunch of well-paid young players who get their contracts renewed, sent out on loan and have no resale value because no team would touch them with a 9 foot pole .

All this unnecessary recurrent expenditure negates all the ‘saving’ he does by not buying expensive world class players, making his mantra of building a team without overspending a fallacy.

4.   Transfers

Did you know that during deadline day Arsene was attending a coaching clinic in Switzerland as he left the dealing to Ivan Gazidis, the CEO back in London? Did you know that Yossi Benayoun came to Arsenal without undergoing a medical? Or that we missed out onXabi Alonso because of £2m , missed out on Yaya Toure because of dilly dallying, or worse still, missing out on Ibrahimovic because he wanted to take him on trial! (Yet he could keep  Jeremie Aliadere at the club for 8 years where he only made 8 EPL starts). These are some of the transfer howlers that have been made but you know the old cliché, no one is without blemish including football managers.

What is inexcusable is the quality (or lack thereof) of his squad since Arsenal last won a trophy in 2005. Wenger’s squad is never big enough or strong enough, so he never gives himself the tools to do the job. After the 8-2 humiliation, Wenger began changing and accepting the fact that you cannot have youth without experience. Relying on cheap young players without established players won’t work. How he has gone about recruiting senior players is still questionable given he added quantity on the cheap and not necessarily quality.

Its intresting to note that Wenger was the only Premier League manager to have made a profit on transfers as of 2007; and between 2004 and 2009, Wenger made an average profit of £4.4 million per season on transfers, far more than any other club. That Arsenal makes more money selling players than what they spend on players contrary to all top clubs is maybe an indicator that the profit motive has superceded success on the pitch as the prime indicator of success at the club.

Essentially, Arsenal is a business whose mission is (1) respectable failure (2) making a profit. No one can achieve these two objectives as well as Arsene does hence being indespensible to the board.

5.  Change of playing Style

4-4-2. This has been the hallmark of all Arsenal trophy winning seasons and marked ArseneWenger‘s foray into the English game. The type of 4-4-2 that Arsenal played was  basically having overlapping fullbacks during attack , box to box midfielders ( who had an extra responsibility on their shoulders knowing that they had to work extra hard for each other and for the team) .

With this kind of setup, the dynamic four as I would call them  i.e. the right winger attacker ( Freddie Ljungberg) ,the left wing attacker (Robert Pires) and the two strikers (Henry, Bergkamp) would roam freely interchanging positions in attack. No tika taka or shaq attack or whatever the Catalans call it . The midfielders in this regard would be the likes of RemiGarde, Emannuel Petit, PatrickVieira, Ray Parlour and to a lesser extent Gilles Grimandi and later Edu and Gilberto . These were hard grafters and not playmakers passé. The playmaking/creativity job was left to the aforementioned dynamic four and the fullbacks (Winterburn, Sylvinho, A.Cole, Lee Dixon, Lauren or Van Bronckhorst). With this kind of system, fullbacks could end up with 5 to 7 assists per season and a few goals.

The wide midfielders became goal scorers of note especially Ljungberg and Pires .In the last 6 ‘barren’ seasons, goals from midfield have dried up like a seasonal  stream in Ukambani . For example the following wing attackers; Sylvain Wiltord (though sometimes used as a striker scored 32 goals in 104 appearances), Marc Overmars (25 goals in 101 appearances), Ljunberg (46 goals in 216 appearances ) and Robert Pires (62 goals in 189 appearances). Such figures are now a pipe dream.

The goal drought from midfield is alarming. The main reason for that is that after the ‘invincibles’, Wenger introduced 4-3-3. Out went flair and hard men, in came the small nimble injury prone footballers with no tactical nous or fighting spirit.

He also started building his team around a player read RVP and Fabregas before him. Intrestingly, the change in formation coincided with the move to Emirates stadium from Highbury. Since then, the trophy cabinet has been reduced to useless piece of furniture at the stadium.

6.   Four High Quality Strikers

Arsene Wenger once said that to compete for honours you need to have 4 quality strikers. With this in mind ,the title winning sides had four strikers (two main with the others beng rotated).

For instance, the title winning side of  97/98 had (Ian Wright, Dennis Bergkamp, Nicholas Anelka and Christopher Wreh). In the 2001/02 season, we had Henry, Bergkamp, Wiltord and Kanu; and in 2003/04, Bergkamp, Henry, Kanu and Reyes.

Currently, we only have one striker doing the business of getting goals. The only other out and out striker Chamakh has not scored a goal in since 1980. Park Chu Young could not get into the under -18’s team if they had injuries. One would hate to imagine what would happen if RVP got injured.

7.    Hard men with Team spirit

Few people know that Lauren and Vieira had a huge disagreement between themselves after a draw against Rosenborg in 2004 in a European game they expected to win. It took the intervention of police to stop them. I’m not encouraging violence here but the passion to win and only win was evident in this generation of players.

Martin Keown once told off a new signing at a corner during a match telling him to “Play like you are playing for the shirt, this is the Arsenal”.

The teams of yesteryear had leaders all over the pitch. Lauren, Lehmann, Parlour, Vieira, Bergkamp, Petit, Adams, Gilberto, Sol Campbell (before he decided to eat lots of potato chips) to name but a few.

Gone are the days when Arsenal had players who could give as good as they got, on and off the ball.

I am not saying that players should disagree or fight but the will and passion to win and the team spirit supersedes all else. They would never just lay down and go through the notions even when a match was already lost. Whether such mental fortitude is present in the current set of players is doubtful. If fingers are to be pointed, most would point to Le Prof as he is the overall head of the team.

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In conclusion, there is so much to address at this beloved club of ours. Clearly Arteta, Mertesacker and Benayoun have brought about some fighting spirit, have enough experience to mould the younger players (or those who care atleast, stand up Sczesceny and Wilshere) to make Arsenal compete for 4th or 5thplace.

This is the State of affairs at AFC from a Kenyan perspective. Things might get better, things might get worse especially as billionaire owners continue buying into the EPL with limitless spending thereafter .Personally, I think bar the Emirates cup, Arsenal will never win another trophy with Le prof as the Manager! Of course I may be so wrong but only the future will tell. In the mean time, we diligently continue our duty as supporters hoping for better days.

Categories: Sports | 11 Comments

Six years and waiting –The Arsenal’s Fan Dilemma (Kenyan perspective)

A relative period without silverware has got Arsenal fans wondering whether its profits first, trophies later for the club as discussed by a gooner.

By Arnold Njue

Football is a funny old game. People say that all the talking should be done on the pitch. Well think again. I have been an Arsenal fan hitherto the Wenger era up until now. I have scratched my head to come up with observations as to why this team is failing

PART ONE: THE GENESIS OF CLUB POLITICS

In 1983, a certain David Dein bought 16.6% holding of Arsenal Football Club and was made the Vice Chairman as a result.  The then Chairman Peter Hill Wood called him crazy for his investment in the club. David Dein first met Arsene Wenger in 1988 in London. Slowly but surely, they cultivated a close friendship that lasts to date. Dein built up his shareholding and owned up to 42% of AFC in 1991. Later in 1996 David Dein used his influence to appoint little known Frenchman and good friend Arsene Wenger as manager of the club, after similar attempts failed in 1995.

During his tenure at Arsenal, Dein was in charge of all major football matters. He took a role in the transfer of players and contract negotiations where he was able to use his extensive networks and contacts to get players and convince them to join Arsenal.

In April 2007, David Dein left the Arsenal board, acrimoniously after falling out with the rest of the board over a possible takeover of Arsenal by an external benefactor seeking to invest in the club. Lady Nina Bracewell, joined with the other board members, her husband’s cousins, as well as the Danny Fiszman and the chairman, Peter Hill-Wood, in resisting a take-over by Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov, which was believed to have the support of Dein.

Later during that year, David Dein sold what was left of his shares to Red Holdings, an investment company owned by the Russian Usmanov and Fahard Moshiri.

Dein’s exit was met with dismay by ex-players and the dressing room, with Thierry Henry leaving soon after and Arsene only staying after Dein convinced him against leaving the club.  Slowly began a downward spiral that infiltrated the team and a couple of seasons without silverware would now turn to a full scale trophy drought.

David  Dein was the only board member who was a football man; the one administrator at the club who would demand results on the pitch to match the results off it. He truly cared about the club and was the one person who kept Arsene Wenger in check. He would frequently visit the dressing room to encourage the players  before and after games .The players loved him and he was like a father figure to them. The fact that his son Darren was Thierry Henry’s best man at his wedding says it all about his relationship with the players.

Batman and Robin: Dein and Wenger had been instrumental in the success of Arsenal.

I cannot overstate how Dein’s departure left Arsene Wenger with a carte blanche to do as he pleases with the team as long as the revenue stream is healthy. In one unplanned for move, Arsene became the untouchable one. The rest of the board members were not football fans but business minded people whose main interest in the club was to make money for their investment. So long as the club was making money, Arsene Knew he had no one to answer to. Qualification for the UEFA Champions League (which Wenger would guarantee) would ensure sufficient annual returns for the club and became the de facto measure for success. That he would ensure such benchmarks without spending much on player recruitment made him indispensible to the board. With all he has done for the club and achieved at Arsenal, it goes without saying that Wenger became bigger and is still bigger than the club.

After deciding they will not sell shares of the club to any “non member” in April 2009, the Arsenal board would reverse this decision in April 2011 when American Stan Kroenke bought out several major shareholders of the club. Kroenke acquired the shares of Lady Nina Bracewell (15.9%), as well as Danny Fiszmann (16.11%) and other directors of the  board. This after they had denied Alisher Usmanov the chance to buy the shares as he was not “one of them” despite him bidding for the shares for a higher price much earlier than Kroenke.

The current shareholding of our beloved club is thus as follows:

Stan Kroenke- 66.96% – Appointed Non executive Director after some initial resistance.

 

Red Holdings PLC (Alisher Usmanov & Farhad Moshiri)-29.9%.

The shares they have were sold to them by their close associate David Dein.

The remaining 3.14% is held byformer players and three shares by the Arsenal Supporters trust.

This is how the Board operates to vest their interests after frustrating David Dein.

The Board have a different agenda to the fans and the best players at the club.The players can move on, but we the fans have no choice, so we suffer at the of whims of arrogant directors and manager, all answerable to no one .

Now that we have a background on the board room politics, indulge me further in the  second and final part of this series as we look at what’s wrong with the Le Arsenal; Le professor!

Categories: Sports | 10 Comments

PREMIER LEAGUE CLASSIC: TOTTENHAM HOTSPURS 3 – 5 MAN UTD


As a football fan, there are some matches you want forget about as soon as the final whistle goes; a scrappy win or a defeat of any sort the most obvious source of such desired amnesia. At the other extreme end are matches that will forever be etched in your memory due to the incredible turn of events that ensued. One such game was a visit to Tottenham by Man United early in the 2001-2002 season.

The date was 29th September 2001, the venue White Hart Lane, North London. Manchester United came into the match on the back of a poor away record that season, having registered no points on the board on their travels. Journeys to this part of London brought no joy for United having lost in each of their three previous visits to Spurs by the same 3-1 scoreline. As soon as the game got underway, a repeat of that scoreline seemed highly likely as Spurs sprinted off the blocks to establish a healthy lead over United.

Dean Richards opened the scoring after escaping the attentions of Ruud Van Nistelrooy, heading in a corner from the left boot of Christian Ziege at the near post. Soon Spurs were two up, a flowing move saw Les Ferdinand through one on one after a neat through ball by Uruguayan Gus Poyet. Ferdinand composed himself before firing in a crisp low shot past United keeper Fabien Barthez.

United were forced into a tactical change before halftime after Nicky Butt went off injured following a challenge by Mauricio Taricco. In came Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who played upfront with Van Nistelrooy and Andy Cole, with Beckham, Scholes and Veron completing the midfield three.

Just before the interval, Tottenham took advantage of the change in system by United, Christian Ziege scoring past the hapless Barthez to send the home fans into a frenzy. Steffen Freund fed Poyet down the right and his deep cross was met by the unmarked Ziege at the far post with a diving header.

Going into the break, United seemed dead and buried. Surely, there was no way out this hole. What Sir Alex said to his players only they will know but whatever he said transformed United. Less than a minute into the second half the fightback began as Beckham slipped the ball outside to an onrushing Neville and the right-back’s cross was headed in by Cole. Given United’s history of comebacks, the home fans must have feared for the worst when that first goal went in. Their worst fears would soon be confirmed.

Just before the hour mark Laurent Blanc rose to nod in a corner from Beckham and the sense of expectation from the away end was palpable. In the previous away match, United came from 3-1 at Newcastle to draw level at 3-3 before Newcastle scored the fourth and winning goal. There was no stopping the red juggernaut this time though and with 18 minutes to go, Silvestre’s centre found the obliging head of Ruud van Nistelrooy, completing a hatrick of headed goals by United and drawing level with Spurs.

There was going to be only one winner from that point, and four minutes later Paul Scholes and Solskjaer combined to send in man-of-the-match Veron for a low left footed finish and with three left Solskjaer dragged the ball across for Beckham to drive in the fifth.

United players celebrate Juan Veron's goal

The comeback kings had done it again. It would seem ridiculous to back a team for a comeback from three goals down but this was no ordinary team. The failure to accept anything but a win spurred United from the jaws of defeat to complete one of the greatest comebacks in premier league history. Years down the line, Sir Alex nominated this match as one of his all time favourites at the club and rightly so. United went on finish the season in third place in one of the few seasons to forget in the Fergie era. For those who witnessed this spectacle though, the memories won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

Tottenham – Sullivan, Taricco, King, Perry, Richards, Ziege, Freund, Anderton (Rebrov 83), Poyet, Ferdinand, Sheringham – GOALS Richards 15, Ferdinand 25, Ziege 45.

Manchester United – Barthez, G. Neville, Blanc, Johnsen, Irwin (Silvestre 45), Beckham, Butt (Solskjaer 40), Scholes, Veron, Cole, van Nistelrooy – GOALS Cole 46, Blanc 58, van Nistelrooy 72, Veron 76, Beckham 87.

Highlights: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AlK61BOscRA&feature=player_embedded

 

 

Categories: Sports | 20 Comments

The United State of Affairs

After storming off the blocks at the start of the season and seemingly looking unstoppable, Manchester United’s engine is slowly running out of steam. The lethargic nature of play is a far cry from the buccaneering style that saw opponents swept away with relative ease earlier in the season. The nadir came with the drubbing by the noisy neighbor but the rot had set in much earlier. Here, I attempt to explain the three main reasons behind the poor form while offering a prognosis of the near future as we approach the halfway point of the season.

1.       Squad Composition

The end of last season (2010-11) saw a change of guard at United. Stalwarts of the club retired and deadwood was cleared to pave way for the building of Fergie’s last great team. Out went the old guard, with the squad replenished by young hungry players to complement the existing core of the team. What was lost in terms of experience and composure was replaced with youthful vigor and vitality. Crucially though, squad balance was not addressed.

The composition of the defence is solid with a right blend of talented young pretenders and experienced players. The caveat to this has been the injuries sustained by the defenders at different times of the season that has seen United use 14 different back four combinations in just 17 games this season. It goes without saying that a solid back four is a settled one. Partnerships, good understanding, communication and all that. Talented as the defenders are, the chopping and changing has a destabilizing effect that coupled with limited protection from midfield (more on that later), results in a shaky defensive unit.

Midfield. United’s Achilles heel. Lacking in both quality and quantity, the center of the park is clearly our weak underbelly. Many a column have been written explaining United’s weak midfield. For the best part of the last ten years, our midfield has been functional at best. The most glaring weakness has been the lack of defensive midfielder. There was a joke doing the rounds that when Keane retired, many thought Fergie would retire his jersey number 16. Little did we know he’d retire the whole defensive midfielder position in his honour. We haven’t been strong in this position ever since Keane started going downhill circa 2003. Even when we had Hargreaves in 07-08, he nominally played from an inside right position and rarely played infront of the defence. Alan Smith, Anderson, Carrick, Fletcher have all been tried there and failed. All originally attacking players, all unsuccessfully converted to a defensive position. Their creativity stifled and their defensive abilities clearly limited, they have all ended up being duds, central midfielders who cannot create nor destroy. Apart from Cleverley, all our CM’s are a variation of this can’t-defend-can’t-attack type of midfielders. The lack of specialization has seen an over emphasis on creativity from the wings and a burden on the defenders to be extra solid when repulsing opposition attacks.

Whatever the midfield lacks in quantity and variety the strike force has in abundance. At present, United boasts seven strikers in our books. Seven strikers who expect minutes on the pitch, or at least a bench spot at worst. With Rooney guaranteed a starting spot when fit, that leaves six strikers to fight for one position. With a need to keep everyone happy, and (as cynics would have it) compensate for the dearth in midfield, Sir has had to tinker with his formation by attempting to have as many strikers as possible at any given time on the pitch without necessarily destabilizing the team balance. Attempting to do it is one thing, succeeding in such attempts is another. This leads us to point number two, tactics.

2.       Tactics

As noted above, Sir Alex has made a prudent attempt at reconciling the paucity of midfield options and abundance in strikers with his team layout by switching to 4-4-2 from 4-3-3. A firm believer in 4-4-2, Sir Alex had to make the switch to 4-4-3 belatedly after a disastrous spell in Europe in the mid 2000’s. While most teams were adapting to the new wave of 4-3-3 following the success of Mourinho’s Porto team, Fergie stuck to his guns with his traditional 4-4-2. Having a squad in transition and a formation that proved a non-starter in Europe, United went several years without winning away in Europe, the nadir coming with the crashing elimination at the group stages of the Champions League in 2005. Hitting rock bottom gave Fergie the chance to rip everything apart and start afresh; rip he did, dispensing Ruud van Nistelrooy and Roy Keane and bringing in Michael Carrick with Rooney and Ronaldo now playing from wide to support the lone striker Saha.

As the great man explains, the lack of control in games necessitated the shift. “The idea behind the 4-3-3/4-5-1 is that you can control the midfield and keep possession of the ball – that’s always your aim when you use that formation,” Sir Alex says. “I believe the team that has possession of the ball has more opportunities to win the match. As for the 4-4-2, there is more emphasis in that formation placed on playing the ball forward and usually you use the two traditional wingers.”

The shift to three midfielders brought about arguably the most successful period in United’s history with four EPL titles and three European cup finals. The blueprint for this success was the dynamic 4-3-3 formation brilliantly executed at its peak by the Rooney-Ronaldo-Tevez triumvate. When Javier Hernandez started a scoring spree that made it nigh impossible to leave him out of the team mid last season, Sir Alex had to switch tactics to accommodate both him and the indispensable Rooney in the same team. Cue a switch to 4-4-2 with Rooney playing off Hernandez and dropping to help the midfielders when not in possession. For this formation to work though, you have to have the right players. They have to be very, very mobile and they have to be able to play when they get the ball. The double-legged win against Chelsea in the quarter final of UCL last term was a demonstration of this system executed perfectly; Giggs and Carrick played with great mobility and outstanding technique in the center of midfield.

Mobility and technical brilliance are not exactly in abundance at Old Trafford presently, most players having either one of those qualities but seldom both at once. With 4-3-3 still the favored formation by most teams at present, United’s midfield is outnumbered 3 to 2 in almost every game, inevitably forcing the two midfielders to sit dip. The two strikers as such become isolated. Hernandez, usually the most advanced of the two strikers, suffers most and his lack of hold up play is exposed ruthlessly. The midfielders available aren’t good enough. Worse still, none is a specialist player in breaking up play. The net effect is a disjointed unit; a midfield that cannot create nor attack, a midfield that is over powered and has to seat deep and a strike force that is isolated. Creativity is left exclusively to the wingers and a little dip in form or a formidable fullback opponent renders our play blunt, toothless.

The lack of right players to implement the new system has not only seen us concede a staggering number of chances and leaking goals but also a shortage of creativity and goal scoring opportunities for our strikers.

3.       Poor form post-Cleverley injury

Compounding the problem of squad balance and tactical conundrums is the poor form displayed by some of our players. The purple patch in August and September was largely based on the form of Cleverley and Anderson and to an extent Nani and Ashley Young. The former duo dovetailed perfectly in the middle, playing quick short passes and releasing the ball wide at the earliest opportunity for the wingers to play early crosses in. Cleverley in particular gave a new dimension to the midfield. His quick incisive passing increased the tempo of our play right from his introduction in the Community shield to subsequent matches and brought the best out of Anderson. Crucially, creative duties were now being shared between the two central midfielders and the wingers.

Cleverley’s injury saw a massive dip in form from Anderson and consequently the whole team. The wingers too were not spared. Nani has been poor lately and so has been Young before injury took him out of the firing line. Antonio Valencia has been having a mare for the better part of the season, a reminder perhaps that like Eduardo, the hardest part to overcome after a massive injury is mental rather than physical. As noted earlier, a 4-4-2 system relies on wide play for creativity and having wingers in poor form renders the system redundant.

Outlook

Going forward, there are a few issues that need to be addressed. Of paramount importance is squad balance. The strike force needs culling, if not for anything else, to stop forcing Fergie’s hand when choosing the formation to play with. As much as I love what he brings to the team, Dimatar Berbatov has to go in January. After being denied even a bench spot in Wembley despite being the league’s top scorer, the guy has no incentive whatsoever to perform. He still speaks highly of Ferguson and the team and has no desire to leave, but the truth is it serves everyone well if he transferred his talent to a place where he will be more appreciated. Ditto Diouf, a hard working player who unfortunately isn’t good enough to play for United. He should have been sold in the summer instead of having to play in the reserves, stunting his progress and denying Will Keane and John Cofie some playing time. That Macheda didn’t go out on loan was perhaps the most baffling move of the summer, well at least after the lack of a midfield purchase. January should provide such an opportunity, preferably a short term move to a premier league team where if he can benefit half as much as Welbeck at Sunderland, we’ll have one hell of a player in our hands.

When it comes to midfield, a radical surgery isn’t advisable mid season but some additions won’t go amiss seeing how thin that department is stocked. The clamour among United fans over the last few months was for the signing of a playmaker, a replacement for Scholes per se. While the mooted names of Modric and Sneijder would greatly enhance our squad, Cleverley, Anderson, Carrick and Giggs can all play relatively well in an advanced midfield position with a solid midfield pivot behind them. Strikingly though, there’s a gaping Keane-shaped hole in the middle of the pitch that needs plugging. That we have conceded the most shots on target bar a team or two in the league points to the lack of protection offered to the back four. The game against Basel in Europe highlighted the frailties in the middle of the park succinctly when the opposition had the ball, the Swiss side repeatedly by-passing our midfield and creating copious chances from right outside the box. My favored choice to fill this vacancy is a player who has shone over the last eighteen months in a Newcastle team punching above its collective weight. Cheik Tiote is a player who brings an assured solidity in midfield and is a deceptively good passer of the ball. His most outstanding feature though is his ability to win back the ball and rarely losing it thereafter. What he would bring to the team is a shield in front of the back four and freedom for his midfield partner to venture forward knowing he has his back covered. Having been bought for a meager three million pounds and Newcastle showing a willingness to offload key assests for a good price, his capture wouldn’t prove too difficult. Whether Fergie would sanction a move for a player who immediately leaves for African Cup of Nations duty after he signs is another question. Scott Parker would have been a good short term option but that boat has sailed.

Strikers: Rooney, Welbeck, Hernandez, Owen. Berbatov (out) Diouf (out) Macheda (loan)

Midfield: Cleverley, Anderson, Carrick, Fletcher, Tiote (in), Giggs, Park, Gibson, Pogba, Morrison

Defence: Rafael, Smalling, Jones, Evans, Rio, Vidic, Evra, Fabio, Fryers.

GK: De Gea, Lindegaard, Amos. Kuszczak (out)

In summary, the potential of this United side is staggering. David De Gea, Rafael, Fabio, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Thomas Cleverley, Chicharito and Danny Welbeck. All incredibly talented, all with massive room for improvement given they are barely out of their teens. This is without factoring in Nani, Valencia and Rooney, all still relatively young or the youth talents like Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison. In the short term, Cleverley will be back from injury and the likes of Nani, Young and hopefully Anderson will inevitably pick up some good form that will reverberate throughout the team. January should see some freshening up of the squad with Berbatov, Diouf, Macheda(loan) and Kuszczak allowed to leave. At a minimum, one midfield player ought to be added, preferably of a defensive nature. That should give the team a more balanced look, freeing Sir Alex’s hand to allow for some tactical elbow room and variety in formation. Essentially, fans should recognize that success in football is cyclic, a process that starts with the building, peaking and subsiding of great teams. Currently, this United team is at the onset of a new cycle, similar to where we were in 06-07 and as much as success is not guaranteed this season, the prognosis for the next few years seems amazingly bright. With a few tweaks here and there and factoring in this is the great man’s last attempt at building a great team, United fans should be rubbing the hands gleefully as we witness the greatest manager in football history work his magic for one last time.

BELIEVE.

Categories: Sports | 34 Comments

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