Playing style. Lewandowski ticks all of Ferguson’s centre-forward attributes boxes with a fine quill. Presents a physical presence, treasures crosses (aerial and land based), and adept at articulating the play around him, supersonic reactions inside the box.
Personality. Lew has a team-based, no frills or fancy haircuts, lack of apparent individuality about him that socialist Ferguson admires in his players. Lew is definitely the type of guy you can imagine having lunch on a steel girder atop a skyscraper, as in the photo in Ferguson’s office he shows all his new signings.
Having settled well in Dortmund, Lew would adapt well to Manchester. Dortmund and Manchester are both former industrial heartlands of their country, with a proud and dominant working class community. Ferguson is often wary of signing players he doesn’t feel would settle into life in Manchester, he wouldn’t have any worries with Lew. Ferguson’s famous personality background checks wouldn’t be needed with Lew.
Dortmund style of fast transitions, aggressive attacking play means Lew is well versed in Ferguson’s preferred style of football. The strikers in Klopp’s and Ferguson’s systems are vital to the success of the strategy, and are expected to be clinical on short notice and in an instant. Lew is hyper-aware of potential through balls and crosses coming his way often out of nowhere. Lew will be used to chances coming his way when his team have not necessarily been dominant in possession.
Big game mentality. Lew has shown time and time again, he is the man for the big game, and there’s nothing Ferguson admires more in a player. Many of Ferguson’s striking signings in the past were made off the back of especially impressive performances in front of him against his own teams. The ability to handle the unusual pressure of playing for Manchester United is mandatory in a Ferguons centre forward signing, Lew shouldn’t have problems in this regard.
Shinji Kagawa. The two players struck up a transcendental understanding while together at Dortmund. Ferguson knows this first hand, witnessing this example first hand int he cup final vs Bayern last year.
This article is most devotedly concerned with the moral aspect of diving in football, and I will come to that further down, but first it’s crucial to examine some more constituent matters towards fouls and tackling in football.
“People keep saying I’m diving, but if there’s contact it’s not diving. Referees need to look more closely.”
”If there’s contact, it’s a penalty or free-kick. There’s nothing I can do. “
“For any kick, trip, push, strike we must consider how careless, reckless and whether excessive force was used”
“Careless means that the player has shown a lack of attention or consideration when making his challenge, or that he acted without precaution”
“Reckless means that the player has acted with complete disregard of the danger to his opponent”
“Excessive force means the player has far exceeded necessary use of force and is in danger of injuring his opponent”
The word “contact” is never used. That’s because in football, you cannot make a tackle without making some contact with the opponent. The idea permeating football speak now that if there “is contact” it’s a green light to dive is simply hideous.
I want to move away from this more asinine debate about the amount of contact that is allowed in a tackle. Because for me it’s clear. It’s common to hear pundits or players comment thus:
“When moving at a high speed, any touch is enough to throw you off balance”
That is a fair point. But it’s not a fair point to use when a player has chosen to throw his body to the floor when he’s moving at high speed because he felt a touch from the opponent, because that’s OK when you’re moving at high speed. It is not. The plain fact is, you should only be lying on the floor, if the contact has physically caused you to be there. Anything else, is cheating. The referee must make the judgement on a careless or reckless tackle - not the player. If referees are not doing that correctly, that needs to be analysed. It simply should not be up to the player to “win” a free kick. That is not in the laws of the game.
And what of the opponent, trying to make an honest tackle on a player moving at high speed? It’s not against the rules of the game to attempt to win the ball from players moving at high speed, in fact by most schools, funnily enough, it’s encouraged. That’s because moving at high speeds doesn’t immunize yourself from being tackled. An opponent making a challenge on a fast-moving player is of course possibly more likely to trip them up. And if they do trip them up - that’s fine, they lost the battle of skill. Making challenges on fast-moving players is difficult - that’s the good thing about fast players.
But here’s the crutch - it is not “careless” to make a tackle on a player at high speed - it’s perfectly within the laws. You’re more likely to make a foul, that’s for granted, but is it careless to attempt to tackle a fast player? Of course not.
The problem is, the attacker is given far more assistance than the defender. The zeitgeist at the moment is that it is quite simply “careless” by default to attempt to tackle a fast player - and if you make contact with them, that’s simply you’re own fault. It’s basically making attacking players untouchable. Yet it is clearly not what the rule book of the game says.
Defenders of course prefer to use precaution and not to jump into tackles with fast players, but there comes a time when a defender is sometimes required to make a tackle - there is no other option. The act of doing so is not in itself careless - and is therefore not a foul - unless the tackler has shown “a clear lack of attention or consideration” (this also brings up the absurdity of the law of “last man” being automatic red cards, an odious rule that should not be applied across the board on defenders that are clearly within their rights to try and, you know, defend). You cannot accuse a defender, when he is going for the ball and not the man of being in the wrong. If he doesn’t win the ball, or if he also brings down the player before the ball - then it’s a foul. It’s quite simple.
But flying attackers like Bale see it differently these days.
To Bale and many others, a defender is not allowed to “make contact”, and if they “feel contact”, they are well within their poorly perceived rights to splay out their limbs, and fling themselves to the canvas, belly first. It’s completely wrong, morally and ethically bereft way of treating your fellow professionals. We all know a defender will sometimes take down, take out, or foul a player with a bad tackle. But if it’s a bad tackle - it should not need a replay. It will be clear at the moment, that the defender has been reckless or careless, and the attacker has been unable to hold his balance.
This is where I am most adamant - if you are able to keep your balance, then you should do so. This is where the moral split is in modern football. And it is this point, that I feel most strongly about.
It was not always the case. That may seem odd to anyone born after a certain date, but not so long ago, even in Premier League football, it simply was a complete taboo in England to throw body to the ground if you could have stayed on your feet. And I believe, strongly, that for all the faults of the English game, that this was it’s strongest marker. Of course there were other things that were morally questionable in English football, but at least cheating your opponent in this way wasn’t one of them. Holding up human values against deceit was big plus point for English football, and many of the first wave of foreign players in the Premier League often commented how commendable it was. Players have changed. Fans have changed. Pundits have changed. Pundits that were part of that era of football - will now accept going to ground voluntarily is acceptable to win a penalty.
What a despairing and wretched turn for the morality of sport, and by that I mean the people in sport, have taken in this country.
“Sport - at it’s best and most enlightening - is about striving to be proud of your performance, and fighting in a not negative way. It is about fighting to achieve something.”
-Kapil Dev, cricketer.
Kapil Dev has spoken about the crucial links between sports and peace. While people compete and fight against each other for a prize - vitally - it is all done within the framework of certain rules, “rules that remind you that you must uphold human values first.”
With football being the world’s sport, and so often cited as an inspirational factor in many impoverished parts of the world - and it rightly is - it’s crucial we don’t let the sport descend (if it already hasn’t) into the moral nadirs we are currently seeing nastily blossom. Because football is, was, and should be used as an only positive influence in the lives of people and children over the world. Diving, cheating, and “winning” free kicks is only purely negative and deceitful behavior, that is not an example for how to achieve something within frameworks of rules and human values. Instead of being a virtuous lesson in how to achieve in life, it is a nasty, selfish and counterfeit way of achieving ”success” in football, or life.
More than any politician or charity, football has an unequaled influence on the nature of thought of people all around the world. It is, perhaps a bizarre situation to be in, but it is surely the one that exists. It requires, in a thinking world, to be treated with great responsibility. Teaching that it is OK to “get ahead” or succeed in what you do by being fallacious, selfish, and sneaky is morally abhorrent, yet this “dark side” of the game seems to be winning the war of the mind in English football. I say our moral compass is terribly misaligned, and a “win-at-all-costs” mentality - never ‘won’ anything at all.
The biggest problem with The Brendan Rodgers Philosophy is that he clearly sees himself as such an important part of it. Recent comments from Rodgers that he alone has “added value” to certain players, and that, according to him “is as much the job of the manager as winning games”, shows either a man suffering from severe job insecurities trying to boost his image, or severe self-conceit. Or both. Epictetus - “for it is impossible for anyone to begin to learn that which he thinks he already knows”, Rodgers thinks he already “knows” what needs to be done, and if the club and players follow his doctrine, all will work out. Rodgers can stick with his philosophical bravado, but the main tenet of philosophy is to learn and understand, not stick dogmatically to any one ‘idea’.
While Rodgers keeps getting the definitions of ideologies and philosophy mixed up, his Liverpool team continue fail to bear the fruits of any of his work on the training pitch. The most important thing at Liverpool F.C right now is not Brendan Rodgers’ brain, but Luis Suarez. He didn’t have his most fruitful game, but is clearly a bigger threat to any opponent than the footballing ideological nous of Rodgers right now.
The fifth consecutive defeat for Liverpool at Old Trafford, but their fans have never let mere facts get in their way of reality, and this is still in their eyes a defining day of the season. The game itself certainly does carry an intangible charge with it unlike others, but Liverpool fans again have Luis Suarez’s antics to thank for this recent re-kindling of the game’s atmosphere in a time when the footballing gaps between the two clubs is larger than it has ever been in Premiership history.
United were settled and as confident as you could expect in a game with such an emotional charge inside the stadium. Michael Carrick was darting passes with a speed of thought greased by his serenity in his surroundings that not many midfielders can match. Shinji Kagawa and Ashley Young were providing a good presence on the wings. Steven Gerrard, apparently we are told in top form, caused little bother to Cleverley or Carrick.
The opening goal was the showpiece. Incisive one/two-touch passing in the final third that you won’t see bettered. Carrick’s first-time pass forward to Kagawa with his back to goal, laid it off to Welbeck who with a single touch, pushed it forward for Cleverley, two touches and it was wide to onrushing Evra, in the form of his life, who took a touch and delivered it low for Van Persie to guide it home first-time. Six players, nine touches, one goal.
For two Manchester United players in particular, this seemed like a game of determining importance. The first, being Danny Welbeck. He shone. Imagine if he scored goals? Danny is a beacon of United axioms under Fergie. A brilliantly un-English center forward, who refuses to be categorized by pundits looking for an easy explanation of what “type” of striker he is. He’s agile, quick passing, skillful yet relaxed, and adroit at connecting his teammates. He’s almost a throwback to classic Brazilian forwards of the 70’s and 80’s. He certainly can finish, the main question with his goal scoring is his composure, which seems to be so well collected at all times apart from when presented with a chance to score. He’s undoubtedly getting better with each game he plays, and when you mix his energy with his skills, with his commitment to the cause, he is for me the most exciting prospect at United. It was another aspect to his game - intelligent runs behind defenders - that led to free-kick that Van Persie contorted onto Evra’s forehead.
Shinji Kagawa was also hogging a lot of the attention from curious fans antsy to gather enough information to have a solid opinion on him. He’s a player about brief moments of cultured acuteness. Coolness and composure is his forte, and his interest in keeping the ball moving in small spaces spreads to the ethos of the entire team. Cleverley and Welbeck particularly seem to buy-in to his ideas best of all, completely on his wavelength of peppy passing behind enemy lines. If his teammates can entrust him more with the ball where he operates at his best - under pressure from an opponent - we will see more of his assists and goals.
The team’s sharp and savvy passing went awry though in the second half. An under pressure Cleverley receiving deep from Evra, played a risky pass into Carrick who was pick-pocketed by Gerrard, which lead to Evra being caught out of position in the middle, and Vidic was rushed into covering for his full back out wide. Ferdinand was left alone with an on rushing Gerrard, who got his shot away. Even after all this mayhem in the United defending that was caused by one single poor pass from Cleverley, David De Gea, after making a fantastic save unsighted to stop Gerrard’s low drive, has bafflingly been singled out by popular opinion as the main fault. Strikers are always in the better position to react to a rebound off a keeper, Sturridge doing his job well, Rafael was on his heels but probably unlikely to be able to stop Sturridge anyway, who had a head start, facing the goal, as forwards do. More than anything though, this goal came about from good pressure high up the pitch from Liverpool, forcing mistakes from our midfield.
The terrible state of the usually good Old Trafford pitch certainly isn’t helping the team’s passing game. Ferguson commented recently the pitch was on it’s last legs, and the turf on Sunday was being lifted with every step. With Vidic and Young both leaving the stadium on crutches, we certainly don’t need a bad pitch throwing in a helping-hand in increasing our already frequent injury problems.
Back to Brendan’s Philosophy Corner. After the 1-3 home defeat to Aston Villa in December, Brendan invoked the spirit of the line-graph while he mused in his post-game interview that “the growth and process of the group is never linear”. You can’t imagine Sir Alex ever speaking in such ambiguous ways, and has always worked on a “brand” of football and spirit, rather than any self-conceited ‘philosophy’ of play. For the second time this season, the old Master’s methodology won the debate.
“In football everything is complicated by the presence of the other team”
Full back is becoming an increasingly important and influential position in English and European football, and a good left back especially is worth his weight in uranium. I was interested to compare the 3 highest profile Left-backs in the English league - Leighton Baines (21 apps), Ashley Cole (17 apps), and Patrice Evra (20 apps). For the sake of clarity, (and because this article is mainly about the differences between Baines and Evra) I have not included Gael Clichy due to him having only 13 appearances.
The thing that stood out most for me when looking at each players defensive stats, is the aerial duals (headers contested and won). Baines and Cole both have similar, quite poor defensive heading attributes, this season Baines winning just 8 of his 18 aerial duels, Cole 11 of his 21 duels. Patrice Evra however, is simply in a different league. Winning 48 of 66 aerial duels. To put that into perspective, it’s better than Johnny Evans (35 of 64) and Gary Cahill (39 of 54). However Cahill and Evans have both made abotu 5 less appearances. Never the less, still incredibly impressive for a full back.
Aerial duels won -
Baines - 8 of 18 (0.4 per game)
Cole - 11 of 21 (0.6 per game)
Evra - 48 of 66 (2.4 per game)
Tackling (total tackles) -
Baines - 43 (2 per game)
Cole - 45 (2.6 per game)
Evra - 52 (2.6 per game)
In tackling, you would expect the most defensive of full backs, Cole, to comfortably be ahead. However Evra makes the same average tackles per game.
Dribbled past -
Baines - 5 times (0.2 times per game)
Cole - 7 times (0.4 times per game)
Evra - 11 times (0.6 times per game)
All player are quite strong in respect, although perhaps not too surprisingly Evra gets beaten slightly more often. Baines though, is clearly the most difficult player to dribble past, only 5 times this season. However I would suppose due to being more defensive, Cole may have been engaged in more 1-on-1 situations than Baines or Evra, who often are caught up pitch in counter attacks.
Baines - 5
Cole - 3
Evra - 11
Evra again out on top defensively, blocking 11 shots so far this season. This is a fairly high amount for a full back. Ashley Cole’s number though is incredibly low for such a defensive minded defender, and should be much higher (Maynor Figueroa the highest shot blocking FB, with 18 blocks).
Baines - 47 (2.2 per game)
Cole - 50 (2.9 per game)
Evra - 104 (5.2 per game)
Patrice Evra again completely dominating in this respect, and that figure by my viewing puts him as the top clearing full back in the league. This may be relating to his strong defensive heading ability, especially at corners, that Baines and Cole don’t usually contest.
Baines - 34 (1.6 per game)
Cole - 20 (1.2 per game)
Evra - 26 (1.3 per game)
It’s quite clear that statistically the contribution to the team of Patrice Evra, perhaps surprisingly, is quite a way ahead of both Cole and Baines. His heading and clearing ability especially, is in a different class. But his shot blocking and tackling is also better. United fans may question Evra’s positioning, but when actively engaged in defensive duties there aren’t many better.
Attacking stats is where Leighton Baines rightfully shines, especially his huge crossing and key passes stats. Though this season, Evra has more goals (4) and same assists (2). Also Baines set pieces are a huge asset. I’ve included Marcelo and Jordi Alba here, also.
Baines - 69 accurate of 189 attempted (3.0 per game)
Cole - 3 of 26 (0.2 per game)
Evra - 13 of 53 (0.7 per game)
Jordi Alba 3 of 21 (0.2 per game)
Marcelo 7 of 15 (1.2 per game)
I think the attempted crosses is the far more important stat here, rather than the “accuracy”, as a cross may lead to a goal scoring possibility regardless of it initially reaches it’s “target”. As spectacularly attention grabbing as Baines amount is, Ashley Cole’s almost complete lack of them is just as shocking. Barely registering 1 cross per game, the attacking play through crosses is almost non existent. Baines however, is quite easily as the top crosser, defender or not, in Europe.
Baines - 69 (3.3 per game)
Cole - 13 (0.8 per game)
Evra - 19 (1 per game)
Jordi Alba - 13 (0.8 per game)
Marcelo - 11 (1.8 per game)
Key Passes, defined by OPTA as “The final pass or pass-cum-shot leading to the recipient of the ball having an attempt at goal without scoring.”. Baines 3.3 per game puts him level with Pirlo this season. Only Franck Ribery in Europe has higher. No one in La Liga matches Baines here.
Statistically, the picture painted is quite clear. Evra is leagues ahead in defensive contributions, Baines is galaxies ahead in attacking contributions. Cole is bottom of the pile in both respects. So, if Leighton Baines is a target for United, United will clearly be losing some huge numbers defensively that I’m not sure Baines can replace. Evra might have impressive stats, but the fact remains United’s team defensive issues have certainly been caused by the full backs both bombing forward and leaving acres behind them. But it can’t be said that Evra doesn’t contribute defensively, he’s one of the most active full backs in the league where defensive numbers are concerned.
If there’s one weakness in Evra’s game, it has always been his crossing. If he’s got an attacking strength, it’s getting into crossing areas. Ferguson loves his full backs to get to the goal line and Baines would surely be a huge asset to the United style of play. But would Ferguson be happy with losing such an important player in the air for his team, for one who is clearly lacking in that area? Rafael usually marks the post on corners, and I believe Baines may do the same thing for Everton. One of them would need to give up that job if they both played. Baines is surely a big asset, in my view the top attacking full back in Europe right now, but being 29 this time next year, and costing near £20 million, I wonder if he really is still in Ferguson’s plans.
During a recent private conversation with Sir Alex Ferguson, cycling czar Sir David Brailsford inquired of the 26-year coach of the biggest sports team in the world, “what is your secret to constant success and longevity?”
“Get rid of the cunts”, was Ferguson’s reply.
In his typically effervescent way, the response is clarion clear. In Ferguson’s view group stability is the key to unlocking the door to a long path of success. Whether it’s brusque casting aside of important players who had become disruptive to the regime, or the allegiant focus on youth and future potential, to his adamant refusal to publicly disrespect his contestable employers in the Glazer tribe, everything Ferguson does at the club is dogmatically focused on maintaining a stability. It’s a stability plan that’s always required him as the fulcrum of course, but he’s been doing it so well that no fan would have it any other way. The problem is, soon we will have to.
This legacy of the stability of Ferguson at United is what should be heeded most carefully upon his retirement. There is no avoiding the boat being rocked at that moment. Not even the aggressive Malcolm Glazer tidal wave and the media storm the fan reaction brought was enough to destabilize the ship under Ferguson. The exits of star players popular with fans like Ince, Stam, Beckham, Keane, Van Nistelrooy, non of these potentially damaging rifts ever destabilized the vessel. The vital thing down all the years was clear; no outside influences must be allowed to effect the players on the pitch. If we are to learn anything from his time, it should be allowed to be no different when he is no longer around.
But at some point, the catch-22 in the Ferguson master plan will be upon us. The man that has devoted his life to keeping United stable, will be unavoidably at the heart of the clubs most traumatic schism.
Not an opinion I held until quite recently, but like the finest reds in Ferguson’s cellar, the idea of David Moyes as manager has gotten better over time. In the past 10 years managers names allegedly in the frame have come and gone, waxed an waned, yet Moyes’ has stayed steady. Moyes doesn’t have a gleaming trophy cabinet. Yet his fellow managers have voted him a record 3-time LMA Manager of the Year for good reasons. And I believe these reasons make him the most suited candidate for the job. The fact is, there is no easy option to replace Ferguson. Moyes’ lack of experience in Champions League games for me counts against him far more than his lack of trophies, yet his experience in English league football is unrivaled amongst other potential suitors.
“‘When I was a player at Celtic and Alex was manager at Aberdeen, I’d sit on the bench at Celtic watching him, and I was just struck by the intensity, the passion, the drive.”
The transition to a Moyes led Old Trafford would be the smoothest, and not only in terms of the football played. The personal similarities alone between the two Glaswegians is in itself uncanny. Moyes is from Partick, a part of Glasgow that sits directly opposite across the river of Ferguson’s famous area of Govan. Ferguson’s father was a shipbuilder in Govan, and Moyes’ father worked as a draughtsman in the same shipbuilders. It goes on, Moyes’ father also coached one of the boy’s teams that a wee Alex Ferguson played for. Both men have been brought up with fiercely working-class values, and both men as managers instill this no-nonsense and hard-work ethos into their teams.
Moyes exemplifies stability.
Firstly, Moyes being British affords him a great advantage over continental suitors. The long-term inclinations and history of both Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho is contestable. Mourinho’s relations with club owners makes him a genuine risk as manager, and his affiliations with Chelsea don’t sit great with me personally. Pep’s Barca-burnout naturally makes you wonder if he could cope with the extravagant stress and focus on United, especially long-term. Mourinho has often stated he wants to return to England at some point (in doing so at the same time destabilising his own team in Madrid), but he has also stated his strong desire to manage the Portuguese national team eventually.
Moyes’ attraction for and experience in planning for the long-term gives him more similarities with Ferguson, and means he already is in tune with the club’s values. His canny and thrifty dealings in the transfer market shows he is not a manager who relies or needs masses of cash to do his job. Could Jose Mourinho work comfortably under the same restraints? It’s fairly unknown. What is known is that Mourinho has had confrontations with bosses who have not given him the cash he feels he needs, when he feels he needs it. In tempestuous times in managerial climates Moyes has been the beacon of stability for his club for 10 years with humble resources.
When Moyes joined Everton, in 2002, he said “what Everton need more than anything is stability and continuity. That will come through having a group of young players..and a manager to lead them”. Of course Moyes was the manager who successfully unleashed Wayne Rooney into the league, and has always shown interest in young players and players with potential when possible. He recently commented on his admiration of the youth policies of German teams, and his desire to emulate them. Leon Osman, Tony Hibbert, Wayne Rooney, Victor Anichebe, Jack Rodwell are some Everton academy graduates Moyes has successfully brought into the first team. (A side note of trivia while we’re on the subject, Moyes coincidentally was the Preston assistant manager when David Beckham was successfully sent there on loan by Sir Alex.)
Youth development of course has always been crucial, if not the most crucial tenet at Old Trafford, and it’s absolutely vital we bring in a manager post-Ferguson who understands and encourages this. A British manager, also, has a major advantage in this case. Ability to communicate completely effectively and relate or explain some cultural intricacies to young players in this country is indispensable.
Style of play.
This season, as I write this on 4 January 2013, Everton have scored more goals from open play than either Chelsea or Man City. Any watcher of Everton can see that Moyes has a real understanding of team-play, it’s an understated fact that Everton display some of the most attractive one touch passing and interplay in the league. Moyes’ teams play with width and deliver plenty of crosses. It’s an attractive style of play the fans at Old Trafford are accustomed to watching, with wide midfielders linking and exchanging with their full backs.
Whatever players are around at Old Trafford when Ferguson moves on, under Moyes there will not need to be a potentially dramatic overhaul of the United style of play, potentially destabilizing the way the players are used to playing. Moyes’ teams are good at creating scoring chances and attacking set pieces, it’s an aggressive style of play that suits the Old Trafford faithful. Defensively, last season Everton finished with the fourth best defence in the league.
Moyes’ teams are also noted for their strong ability to come back from losing positions. Indeed, Moyes’ ability to bounce back from upset was probably most evident after the season they finished 17th, 2004, just avoiding relegation. The following season they finished in 4th, qualifying for the Champions League, where they went out unfortunately to a Villareal team who went on to be unbeaten in the group stage that included Sir Alex’s United, and reached the semi-finals.
Operating under one of the tightest budgets in the league, Moyes’ hawkish eye for a successful player has more than impressive. Jelavic (6m), Lescott (4m), Arteta (3m), Jagielka (4m), Cahill(2m), Fellaini (15m), Pienaar (2m), Neville (3.6m) and Baines (6m) have all been unbridled success stories. Moyes’ track record of achieving his aims with minimal funding should make him a serious contender in the eyes of any potential employers. With United currently in debts of over £300 million, a manager in charge who needs to demand a new stock of expensive players to fit in with his methods is surely a recipe for disaster. Moyes, like Ferguson, is known to be a bit of an obsessive when it comes to monitoring potential players. Often jetting to multiple countries during a week to watch players. It’s the sort of effort in detail successful managers are known for.
The idiosyncrasies of the press and media coverage in English football requires a manager who is experienced in dealing with it. The scrutiny, especially that United and it’s players are under of course, is intense. No manager that is replacing Ferguson is getting a free-ride, the pressure will be like no other any manager has faced, but Moyes has a good relationship with British press and this would again surely help with the stability of the club at this time. This is again an area I have my concerns about Mourinho. A media darling, but this is mainly due to his soundbites. His apparently unstoppable desire for making ‘outrageous’ comments to the press has a high possibility of backfiring on Mourinho, and therefore United, at such a delicate time.
While David Moyes was a young and ambitious manager of Preston, he had a managerial offer from a Premier League club. Ferguson, who was contacted in a request for guidance by Moyes, told the young manager to reject the offer, and wait. Twelve years on, Moyes has shown himself in my opinion to be a man capable of stepping into Ferguson’s own position, when the time is right. As I previously said, there simply is no easy choice for this unique position. Guardiola and Mourinho clearly have the European experience that a club like United might expect of a new manager. However, I think the benefits of appointing Moyes out-weigh this point. European success isn’t guaranteed for any manager, and plenty have also succeeded without any prior experience.
Ferguson has always preached continuity, but he has also often achieved that continuity through change. I think in employing Moyes (and as long as SAF’s health is good, I don’t expect it to be anytime soon), United would keep alive that great tradition.
When one thinks of the central midfield pairings on parade at Old Trafford over the last decade, one’s mind is of course inescapably drawn to the mythology of Romulus and Remus, twin sons of the God of Mars, eventual founders of Ancient Rome, immediately deserted and discarded upon their once promising birth into the River Tiber. At Old Trafford, not much is currently known about the whereabouts of the Liam Millers, Djemba Djembas, Alan Smiths, Klebersons, Gibsons, Possebons et el, and for all anyone at United knows or cares these particular Fergie-fledglings may have suffered the same watery fate as the Roman twins, flung by Ferguson himself dispassionately into the Manchester Ship Canal than runs adjacent to the famous Manchester stadium.
But fortunately the forced analogy doesn’t quite end there. Romulus and Remus of course went on to actually survive their trauma at birth, with the help of a righteously mammarious wolf mother (Manchester also, incidentally, named after the Celtic word for breasts), and with the kind help of other forest animals, Romulus went on to found the great Empire of Rome, but not before killing his unfortunate own twin along the way.
Which brings me not at all too awkwardly onto the subject of Michael Carrick and Manchester United United pairings. Many OT(T) fans have been craving for Ferguson to break the habit of a lifetime and buy that elusive ‘defensive minded midfield battler’, without thinking too hard what that might mean for the artful Geordie wile of Carrick. But perhaps now the Old Trafford zeitgeist has shifted. Six years into his United career, and doing pretty much the same thing he’s always done, Micheal Carrick may have finally won over the majority of fans, who seemingly weren’t previously paying attention to anything other than the number 16 on his shirt. Carrick has been a faithful partner to many in the central midfield since his arrival in 2006, but not many have had fans quite as excited as his matrimony this season with the perceptive Tom Cleverley. Carrick’s urbane twinning with Paul Scholes or Darren Fletcher was wildly successful for a time, but now Carrick seems to have, Romulus-esque, shed his former partner(s), and found himself at the heart of a new, exciting and powerful United team. In a midfield pairing that, away from home, has already won the battles with Man City and Chelsea, United’s two rival empires.
Alex Ferguson’s past intimacies at Old Trafford with his more ‘defence minded’ midfield signings have historically been quite loveless. From his ego-butting with Paul Ince, the gauche bunglings of Djemba-Djemba, and knee-nightmares of Owen Hargreaves, it’s not actually so surprising he isn’t keen on buying any more. Ferguson also expects so much from his players, that a player taking a position in his midfield needs to be doing far more for the team than simply resisting attacks. To be sure, Sir Alex hasn’t bought what you might call a defence-minded midfielder since Hargreaves in 2007. Even then, Hargreaves was purchased just as much for his more rounded box-to-box abilities than for any specific defensive duties. Indeed, it could be argued Eric Djemba-Djemba is Ferguson’s only defence-minded midfield buy since Premier League football began. That’s quite a thought. Another success that may pop into your head is of course Kleberson, but he was known (quite remarkably) more as a passing, long-ranging, box-to-box style of player who drove teams forward and before he turned up at Manchester airport wearing shiny, tight leather pants United fans were actually quite excited by the arrival of a Brazilian World Cup winner. Roy Keane was purchased as an all round, influential, quick passing team player. In his early United days Keane was a marauding presence, who would do whatever was necessary to win the game, whether that be a attack breaking tackle, or a game winning goal. In his later years, when Keane was forced into focusing more on his defensive role, Ferguson no longer saw him as crucial to the team, and Keane’s exit was notably sharp.
Nevertheless, as much as any single player, duos in the United team have been a hallmark of Ferguson’s great teams. The Two Towers of Bruce and Pallister, Beauty and the Beast of Ferdinand and Vidic, the runaway, explosive and short lived Bonnie and Clyde of Yorke and Cole, and even from the shadows of sub bench, the thinking, problem solving pair of Solskjaer and Sheringham: Mulder and Scully. It goes on. A more recent central midfield experimentation has involved the superhero Batman and Robin duo of the squad, the aging Giggs and Scholes. Both players have impressively reinvented themselves in recent years and achieved even higher cult-status than they already possessed, but when paired together in midfield, most fans are now wishing they would finally hang up their… capes.
Dodie Smith is a former Old Trafford resident, and more famously the writer of The Hundred and One Dalmations. In the decade since the regal Juan S. Veron was bought for our midfield,the famous story from Old Trafford has felt more like 101 Midfielders. Conjointly, since Micheal Carrick was birthed into the red shirt, his partners have been numerous and varied, more confusing than Tweedledum and Tweedledee.His beginnings in the team in the eyes of fans were at best humble, yet Carrick has remained dignified and determined to succeed. His relationship with the fans has always been mistrustful, wolves at the door, and not the nurturing kind known to Romulus. His opposers didn’t see him as “one of us”. But he has always had one man in his corner. That man is not Mars The Roman God Of War, or a benevolent she-wolf, but someone with a far more specific power in the halls of Old Trafford, his Demigod manager from Govan. Six years after being Ferguson’s lone signing,in his partnership with Cleverley, he finds himself at the heart of a new team as the older, founding statesman of a new generation of a promising United team.
Carrick’s ability to remain stoic and unruffled in pretty much any situation, as Paul Scholes says “makes him a dream to play alongside”. It also makes him a quiet leader among men. Carrick’s temperament and consistency makes him an ideal partner for a new player into the team such as Cleverley most likely bustling with thoughts and apprehensions learning his trade in front of 76,000 people. Carrick is becoming the experienced player the younger players can look to as an example of calmness. While it’s hard to argue that Wayne Rooney is the “heart” of this United team, Carrick’s position and influence in the team can certainly see him labelled as the quiet Emperor. It’s my humble conjecture, that for what he’s given to this team since his arrival, he deserves it.
1. People did and still do question why Ashley Young was bought by Ferguson. These people wouldn’t look out of place on the end of a Fergie flying boot. Young’s play is archetypal of the team’s as a whole. His quick thinking in counter attacks and commitment to his defensive duties makes him a predictable Ferguson purchase. In our two biggest games of the season, away from home Young has shone. Regardless of his recent form, Ferguson is characteristically shrewd in his selections of Young for these big away days.
2. Thirty-four year old Ferdinand showed why he is the paragon of the camouflaged, unobtrusive latter day style of central defending. The fact Ferdinand’s uber urbane on-pitch style is clearly in a marvelous juxtapose of his apparent off-pitch slightly unrefined image just makes his allure as a player all the more oddly stronger. His lightening fast thought processes that still see his feet meet with the incoming ball before younger and physically sharper strikers also sits oddly with his off-pitch reputation for slow forgetfulness. Ferdinand’s football intelligence is only magnified with his increasing age, for as though in his long career he never needed to rely on such things as pace, it was often a welcome ability he possessed when dealing with being stranded one on one with strikers as due to Ferguson’s aggressive play, United defenders often are. But now without that pace Ferdinand’s game doesn’t seem all that noticeably damaged. With all the defensive instability going on around Rio in the last 18 months, he has managed, as he does, to stay calm amidst it all, apart from that is, when we score. Sadly Ferdinand’s on pitch sophistication isn’t mirrored by some people who go to football matches to watch him, believing that throwing coins in people’s faces when your team doesn’t win a football game is a fun way to live your life.
3. There were considerable extended periods in this game (mainly before City scored) where the central midfield combination of Cleverley and Carrick no longer looked, defensively, like a fool’s paradise. When we deservedly went 2-0 up, we were looking in control of the game. Not something many United fans may have predicted before hand. Had Young’s clearly onside goal been allowed for 3-0, Fergie’s ideal of a midfield without a “holding player” began to appear more possible. This was the second time this season that a Carrick/Cleverley midfield was at the heart of a very comfortable away first half performance against a title rival. Anderson’s performances were impressive before his injury, but with him out now for a few weeks, here’s hoping we’ll get to see more of this combo in midfield.
4. A slim Wayne Rooney means a brilliant Wayne Rooney. I’ve always been of the opinion that Rooney’s dips in form are easily explainable by his physical fitness. Rooney this season is clearly much lighter than recent times, and Ferguson’s recent comments that Robin Van Persie is “lifting the game” of those around him seems apt. Van Persie’s colossal presence among our squad can only force other players to keep up with him, otherwise he will simply make you look bad.
5. The arrival of Mancunian Welbeck on the pitch led directly to our success at the death and it was simply no coincidence. A great skill of Welbeck and his long legs is his occasional neat retrievals of the ball from opposition defenders. Man City’s full-back’s had gone through an awful lot of work, and their legs and minds were tired. Welbeck undoubtedly was told by Ferguson to hassle their tired defenders and his insistence of carrying out this task up to the final moments paid off. As soon as Clichy decided to run with that ball I knew Welbeck had him.
6. For those who believe in such things as fate, the position that the free-kick was awarded was so historically perfect for the left boot of Van Persie that it could not be explained by anything else. I was instantly convinced if he kept it down, it ‘was gol’ . Van Persie is like a man possessed right now, and so often in his career we have seen him hit the most sublime shots from free kicks from that very position, the fact such a moment presented itself to him at that time, and with his old teammate Nasri being pulled away by some unseen hand, could surely make anyone a believer that ‘it was written..’. I know I, at least, was calling him God when it flew in.
Thirty minutes before kick-off and I’m not scrambling for a decent stream, but for an open bar with satellite TV in a small North Sumatran village by Lake Toba, late on a Sunday night. Every other person in Indonesia seems to be a United fan but this is harder than I thought. The places that had previously assured me of safe viewing were all dark and now (literally) boarded up. Other half asleep at the hotel, I end up having to rent an unconvincing and hard to start motorbike from a nearby sleeping family, promising to return it in a couple hours, which will be about 1 A.M. Kindly they comply, probably noticing my state of anxiety and thinking its something truly important. I drive until I find a bar.
Success… but oddly even 3,000 miles from home, I’m not safe from the voice of Craig Burley in the commentary position. But not even this abasement can dampen my joyous relief. Thankfully United start far better than my bike, and are neatly juxtaposing themselves against my recent last minute panic to find a TV by calmly and clinically cutting through Chelsea with quite noticeable ease. I relax into my uncomfortable seat, happy to finally see our Stamford Bridge performances rewarded dutifully.
Firstly, I’d like to highlight a positive about a player who has been noticeably singled out, unfairly, for plenty of negativity this season. Both our opening goals have their genesis through the play of Rio Ferdinand. The first, he cutely steps in front of Mata to cut out a pass from Hazard and play the ball into Rooney, who turns and passes into Young in two-touches. The second goal is all started from Rio’s fantastic chipped pass into the way of Rafael, always facing forward, who feeds Valencia, who angles one into van Persie. This intelligent creating from the back is always a crucial side of Ferdinand’s classy, unseen game, that rarely gets highlighted.
On the other end of the class scale, is David Luiz. A multi-talented player but easily described as a clown for more than just his character resemblance. He takes more needless risks than a net-less trapeze artist and appears, like an incompetent lion tamer, obtusely over-relaxed in the face of clear and apparent danger, putting not only himself in danger but selfishly others, too. But if Luiz is the clown, then Chelsea F.C is the circus. I have no kind words for the club, and as for the players I think it’s summed up in that I don’t believe a single one of them would have reacted in the dignified and understated manner of Tom Cleverley when he received a powerful boot to the chest from a frustrated Torres. A Torres, incidently, that managed a total of one shot all game. Robin Van Persie had six.
For the first 30 minutes, United as a team were persistently threatening. Chelsea however, even lacking the team attacking ability of United, still pose a strong individual threat at any given moment, regardless of how well they are playing together as a team. This is a perceived benefit of unlimited transfer funds. But the Chelsea teams of old didn’t have a defensive partnership of Cahill and Luiz. Incredible individual moments aren’t enough. United fans may complain over the alleged small transfer kitty of United under Glazers, but if the alternative is a team like Chelsea’s, I’m happy with our budget. It attracts the right kind of player too, in a way. Van Persie for one. When things aren’t going well, you don’t want a squad filled with players who came for the money. Things won’t turn around as easily. Our smaller transfer budget, to me, has clear advantages.
Take case in point, Ashley Young. I love Ashley Young as a United player, and I believe he was crucial to victory yesterday. A decent technical player, but clearly far behind the likes of Hazard. Young, an attacking player, put in a performance for the team you are guaranteed never to see from Edin Hazard, Juan Mata, or Oscar. Young playing for the away team, first game since August, made more passes (51) than Mata (40), Hazard (41) and Oscar (36). Only two Chelsea players made more than him. He also made more tackles (4) than Mikel (3), and Hazard and Oscar with 1 each, Mata without making any. But more so than statistics, Young, even lacking match fitness, showed a desire to win and work as part of a team that surpassed most of his opponents.
As you would expect away from home against any team, there was of course a period of pressure leading up to half time. While this was to be expected, we didn’t seem to cope with it particularly well. Cleverley is still going though an awkward growth spurt when it comes to his defensive contribution to the team, and Carrick struggles when the opposing teams attacking tempo is high. Yet, thanks mostly to the continuing Amazing Adventures of David De Gea, Chelsea required a silly free kick (always seems this way for us at Stamford Bridge?) to score their goal.
I’ve highlighted Young as one of the crucial players on Sunday, my other two picks would be Rafael and Van Persie. In Rafael, Ferguson seems finally to be gaining to dam-like control over a player with the power and willing of his native Iguazu falls, but also the unsure positional location of the border-straddling famous waterfalls. Rafael caused numerous Chelsea players defensive headaches, and didn’t let much if anything go past him the other way, as has been his way all season.
While Van Persie played a major part in all 3 goals, and caused the sending off of Ivanovic. An incredible and economicly brilliant contribution from the svelte Dutchman. If Wayne Rooney is the nucleus of this team, speaking in atomic terms, Van Persie, Valencia, Hernandez and Young were his orbiting electrons. And an atom, being 99.9% empty space, which is exactly how the movement Rooney and Van Persie made the Chelsea penalty box appear at times yesterday. Chicharito with rapid meringue-like steps to organise his feet to slot in the winner with fine agility and awareness.
As I sit here on the crater-lake shores of Lake Toba, the site of the largest Volcanic eruption for 25 million years, this was a charged, convulsive game often at boiling point. The football United played at times was explosive and forceful, and Sir Alex excelled tactically. This United team simply out-flexed Chelsea and Ferguson out thought Di Matteo. Chelsea, who even with so many free roaming highly talented attackers, looked rigid, disjointed and dormant in comparison. For this Ferguson must be acknowledged. He effectively molded his line up to deflect and counter Chelsea’s threat. Our title rivals are lacking in this respect. But the defence, alas, still seems slightly unstable. I think this is less a fault of our defensive back line, and stemming more from central midfield, with Darren Fletcher in the team I am convinced much would be different. But if this game is a sign of things to come, we should prepare for a volcanic winter.
To the old and fearful change can be unnerving, to the young and hopeful it’s encouraging. But to the confident, and Sir Alex Ferguson, it’s inspiring. Robert Kennedy claimed “change is a motivator”, and no manager is more renowned for frequently refreshing his team or being as motivated as the man from Govan.
Before the season, and before this game, many United fans have been demanding a change in central midfield. Sir Alex, the great arbiter of change, yet operating under a restriction not imposed on Chelsea and Manchester City, has resisted the transfer, but yielded for this game. United fans may be baying for a famous foreign name to come in and solve all midfield conundrums, but no foreign player is as valuable as a locally made one. Cleverley’s career will clearly benefit from the central midfield opportunities. Ferguson, in his persistence with Fletcher early in his career, in the face of heavy fan opposition, understands more than most the value of bringing though players from inside the club. If Cleverley, a boyhood United fan, can truly make it at United, he will spend a career at Old Trafford giving his maximum. No changes needed.
Ferguson has never spoken as though his central midfield options were limited. Wayne Rooney has spoken about how he enjoys playing there, so easily changing his game when needed, and he looked impressive and tenacious in the role today.
Van Persie, his hair changing to resemble the Newcastle shirt, seemed to be in a particularly petulant and tetchy mood, but calmed himself well enough to deliver a majestic corner to the head of Evans.
The Magpies never took flight today, but David De Gea was regularly seen flapping. A goalkeeper whose capriciousness in the claiming of crosses is matched only by his confidence in continuing in coming for them. Yet, no one could beat De Gea today. Not even himself, after he looked to be a laggard casualty of his own error, he made an rapid and charged recovery more suited to an episode of E.R.
In Japan, the blooming of the Cherry Blossom is a highly symbolic event of change, beauty, and fleetingness. Ferguson today asked Shinji Kagawa to change his usual role so far this season, to a wide midfield one, laden with a large defensive responsibility. United fans are yet to see Kagawa in full bloom, but he contributed today with his team intelligence, and kept things tight. Kagawa, not a player to control games, but like the cherry blossom, is a player of fleeting moments of beauty. Such a player will take time to integrate.
The full-backs had also made a noticeable change. Now operating as two-connected but asynchronous pistons, The Magpies rarely showed a wing threat. Rafael showing his best form, Evra returning to his. A welcome change.
Welbeck was once again chosen in a league game, and although he’s not yet a devil in the penalty area, it’s hard to argue with his inclusion. A player who clearly spent the bulk of his childhood poking a mini football around his home’s chairs and table legs, he still plays with that audacious impudence, more comfortable shifting the ball around narrow opponents legs than blasting it between the width of the posts.
If change is sometimes necessary for growth, the changes in United’s team and play this Sunday demonstrated it, and hopefully signals progress for the season. Of course though, 70-year-old Sir Alex has seen this all before. Some things never change.