Manchester United – A dissection of 2010

Manchester United still remain unbeaten this season, despite being put through the wringer. Crippling debt, several draws, uninspiring performances and a certain striker allegedly wanting out of the club. Dave Stubbings looks in-depth at United’s problems on the field.

Another match and another draw for Manchester United. Two more goals conceded as questions are asked again about their defence, questions which failed to be answered.

It is worth pointing out that United have not lost yet this season. However they’ve conceded two goals or more in five games already this season, something that happened only six times in the whole of last year.

Wayne Rooney’s form (or lack of) continues to be a hotly debated topic with many wondering what happened to the player who, before Man United’s quarter-final against Bayern Munich appeared to be scoring for fun.

Rooney’s problems though appear to be much more than just a lack of form as he continues to be a shadow of the player he was last season. His ability to control a ball and run with it have deserted him and his shooting has been just awful at times this season. The cliché ‘can’t hit a barn door’ would be a suitable one to use, however after recent performances Rooney would be lucky if he even hit the barn.

Two goals in 21 games and only one this term for his club after 34 in the 09/10 season is a shocking return by any striker’s standards.However the poor performances of United’s number 10 are distracting from other areas which could harm their chances of picking up silverware this season.

Let’s start with the defence.

 

Patrice Evra: now becoming the French national side version for club.

 

Three years ago Patrice Evra was being raved about by the United fans. His tackling, constant running and persistent attacking threat made him an Old Trafford favourite with some claiming he was the best left-back in the world. However since France’s disastrous World Cup he’s lacked most of these qualities as mistakes come thick and fast.

You only have to watch the build up to the West Brom equaliser last weekend to see what I mean, as he failed to clear his lines not once but twice and just ambles back after giving away possession, a far cry from a few years ago. His other habit of 2010, attempted overhead clearances have also failed dismally. Ronaldinho’s goal at the San Siro and Pienaar’s strike last month are two examples of a terrible idea, poorly executed.

On the opposite flank though, things are much worse. John O’Shea’s season has been poor to say the least, both when playing right back and centre midfield.

Whereas Chelsea’s full backs, Ashley Cole and Branislav Ivanovic get forward and provide crosses and even goals, without abandoning any of their defensive responsibilities (usually as the other stays back and helps the centre-backs), it’s a skill O’Shea simply doesn’t have as he timidly passes, match after match. O’Shea’s inability send over a decent cross restricts the winger ahead of him (whether it be Nani or Valencia) and whenever he does decide to venture into the opponents’ penalty area, he turns into a hindrance for his team-mates.

From one extreme to the other though, as Rafael is the opposite. While some of his crossing at times is superb, he appears to forget that he is a defender and constantly wanders off leaving a huge hole on United’s right flank, dragging one of the centre backs out wide.

Rafael is Old Trafford’s version of Glen Johnson. Yes he’s good at crossing and can occasionally score but doesn’t track back enough and rashly dives in for many a tackle; both players play like wing backs in a 4-4-2 formation and it simply doesn’t work. In other European leagues, Rafael would excel but unfortunately the Premier League isn’t a forgiving mistress and you get found out quickly when not in line with the rest of the back four.

What about the other two right backs? Well Wes Brown never appears to be fit enough while Gary Neville is past it and should no longer be considered for most matches.

The centre backs are exactly blameless either. Rio Ferdinand may be fit now but he’s been in and out with injuries so often he struggles to find consistency. However a half-fit Ferdinand is still better than a fully fit Johnny Evans, a man who brings a wonderful air of panic to the United defence the opposition come forward. Also, if anyone can explain the definition of the word ‘mark’ to the Northern Irishman, please write to Carrington Training Ground, Birch Road, Manchester.

This ramble about the defences lets the midfield off however. Owen Hargreaves must surely have a season ticket with Virgin Atlantic now, with his frequent flying to America to see his knee specialist.

 

 

Fletcher and Scholes: dynamic midfield for 70 minutes.

 

Ferguson’s first choice midfield partnership this season of Darren Fletcher and Paul Scholes are solid but perhaps no longer good enough to help United push for the league or European success.

Whilst Fletcher remains as tenacious as ever, he lacks that presence which other top teams have. Chelsea’s Michael Essien is a shining example of the sort of midfielder United need; a tough tackler who can dominate a game. His partner Paul Scholes still has the vision to pick out a fantastic pass, but at 35 is getting on a bit and struggles to play 90 minutes, let alone play week in week out.

Don’t get me wrong, Scholes is a fantastic player and he’s still a joy to watch with his range of passing and shots but he can’t run like he used to, and it’s plain for all to see, especially in the last 15-20 minutes of a game.

However the lack of depth in midfield is apparent as Scholes’ younger team-mates struggle to make a case to be picked. The out of favour Anderson and Michael Carrick, both bought for large amounts of money, continue to frustrate with neither ever given a run of games long enough to force their way into Fergie’s plans.

As for Darron Gibson, one long range shot on target every other match does not constitute a top quality midfielder. He may have scored nine goals in a United shirt but strikes against Southampton, Derby and Scunthorpe make up a third of this tally with two of his league goals coming against Hull and West Ham.

This air of nostalgia around Old Trafford and a misguided belief that the likes of Scholes and fellow midfielder Ryan Giggs can dig United out of a hole whenever the going gets tough.While Giggs and Scholes can still link up wonderfully, as shown by the Welshman’s volley against Newcastle in August, it is worth mentioning that against quicker, more skilful opponents they will not have the time and freedom offered by the Magpies/James Perch.

The lack of outstanding replacements means that they are still being picked regularly, when at other clubs they’d be considered squad players by now. Can United afford the replacements?

The Glazers have always said they can afford any player Sir Alex chooses. However the common consensus appears to be that the Old Trafford coffers are running dry. How true that is remains to be seen. After all Ferguson did splash out £16m on Valencia in 2009 and £7.4m on Bebe this time round (quite why remains to be seen) hints that there is some money there.

Maybe questions should be asked of the manager’s judgement. Shocking as it may sound, he may not be quite the master he once was. Stagnant performances against Rangers and Sunderland as well as a subdued second half against West Brom were a far cry from the United of years gone by.

The decision to replace Fabio da Silva with another defender in the 0-0 draw against Rangers while overlooking Anderson and striker Federico Macheda was a curious one.

While the 1-0 win in Valencia was achieved through the classic counter-attack, it was against the run of play and a type of goal rarely scored by United at the moment; a far cry from the free-flowing football which was common as recently as 2008.

The gap left by Cristiano Ronaldo is evident. If you want an example of the classic counter attacking football United played when he was there, cast your mind back to the 2006/7 season when he and Rooney ripped Bolton to shreds.

A season later United had a strike force of Rooney, Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez  and Nani which was boosted in the summer of 2008 with Berbatov and Macheda (for two matches anyway). Add to the mix an in-form Carrick plus Scholes and Giggs, both two years younger and it was a much more free flowing United side.

However with the loss of Ronaldo and Tevez (officially £105m worth of talent) has made United a much more rigid side. Valencia and Nani are much more orthodox wingers, and as good as they are, do not have that ability to roam which Ronaldo did. There’s no point in asking them to be like Ronaldo but it appears United did not prepare for life after the £80m man and have become too predictable.

This air of nostalgia could hamper United moving forward in the next few years. It’s worth noting that nobody is infallible and as good as the likes of Ferguson, Scholes and Giggs have been for Old Trafford, nothing lasts forever.

Just ask Liverpool.

Follow Dave on Twitter @dstubbings14 and read his brilliant motorsport blog, Hitting the apex, if you are that way inclined.

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Champions League group draw thoughts (Group E-H)

Group E: Bayern Munich, Roma, Basel, CFR Cluj

This group may seem very clear to whom will emerge from it, but the clash between Bayern and Roma promises to be exceptional. Bayern ran their luck all the way to the final last year, effectively with Arjen Robben bailing them out twice in the nick of time (Fiorentina/Manchester United) but they were well worthy of being in that final. Louis Van Gaal has built a tremendous side there, with the only weak area really being the left back, Holger Badstuber, which is incredibly harsh on a rookie. Last year marked a turning point in the wilderness for Bayern. Philipp Lahm finally managed to eradicate his form of a few years back, captain Mark Van Bommel is his usual combatant self and of course the combination of Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben destroying full-backs and defences in general.

Add to that some underrated talent up front in Ivica Olic, Thomas Muller (who came of age at the World Cup), Miroslav Klose and Mario Gomez and Bayern should look at least making the quarter finals. The only worry is the centre-back pairing of Van Buyten and Demichelis (a rumoured Chelsea signing) who were given the run around by Diego Milito in the final last year, and also the lack of big name summer signings. It shouldn’t be an issue really as Van Gaal is a master at getting the best of his players, that and his desire never to throw the towel in.

Roma are also very strong this year, following on from pushing Inter right down to the wire for the Scudetto. Ranieri’s improved the team a lot since he took charge, but can he convert that to European success? The centre back pairing of Juan and Mexes looks solid, but could be susceptible in the later stages. The addition of Adriano leaves a lot to be desired really, considering he doesn’t look near his former best. But Roma can call upon a superb midfield engine in Daniele De Rossi, Simone Perotta and David Pizarro, the latter being severely underrated as a central midfielder. They’ll rely on the everpresent and ever controversial Francesco Totti and Mirko Vucinic to bang in the goals, but is that enough?

FC Basel return to the Champions League after playing the Europa League last year, full of Swiss internationals who started with a bang in South Africa then ultimately petered out. The stand out players here would certainly be Benjamin Huggel, who is a consistent defensive midfielder, although at 33 could find the Roma and Bayern game tough. Up front is Alexander Frei, who has an impressive goal to game record at Basel, but again could be left wanting at this level, and his best days at Stade Rennais well in the past now. All in all, Basel have a look of Bolton about them, but a Euro version. It could work but most probably won’t, although Thorsten Fink who replaced Christian Gross as manager, has done a great job to get them here.

Finally CFR Cluj make another appearance in the Champions League, following on from two season ago where they beat Roma in the Stadio Olimpico. Serious doubts over whether they can top that. Like many Eastern European sides, they’ve got tons of journey Brazilians, none of which really have lived up to their potential. Cadu, their captain has been voted the best defender in Romania two years running will have to be at his upmost best to keep Vucinic, Olic and co at bay. They are managed by Andrea Mandorlini, who’s finally found success at  a club after knocking around Serie B for 10 years.

Winners: Bayern Runners Up: Roma

Group F: Chelsea, Marseille, Spartak Moscow, Zilina

Carlo Ancelotti should be fairly content with this group albeit it conjures a travel nightmare for their away games. This shouldn’t be a problem for one of the richer clubs in the world. Their signings over the summer have certainly bolstered their midfield options. Ramires adds another wide player, something pundits have claimed Chelsea have lacked, and Yossi Benayoun is a decent back-up in the Joe Cole benchwarmer role. We all know of Chelsea’s strengths, but this season could be an opportunity for younger players to make an impact, notably Daniel Sturridge and Jeffrey Bruma, a sturdy centre-back. They shouldn’t have any issues here.

The return of Didier Drogba to the Velodrome is the highlight here, and he should be given a rapturous reception by the Olympique fans. Which is a deep contrast to the internal struggles currently going on at the club. Didier Deschamps may have led them to the Ligue Un title last year but since then he’s seen several of his best leave the club, notably Mahamadou Niang (who wanted a fresh start at Fenerbahce) and Hatem Ben Arfa’s loan to Newcastle is imminent. Apart from that, they’ve had a pretty poor start to the season, although they finally won last weekend. Players for Chelsea fans to be wary of include Benoit Cheyrou (who’s better than Bruno),  Mathieu Valbuena who should thrive under no competition from Ben Arfa and finally Gabriel Heinze, who’s attributes are clear to Premier League fans.

Spartak Moscow could surprise a few. Firstly, the Luzhniki stadium (not a happy hunting ground for Chelsea and John Terry) could see teams fall foul of the artifical turf, yet Inter and Manchester United didn’t have issues last year. The weather in November could be another factor that could catch teams out. Apart from that, they’ve signed Aidan McGeady from Celtic who will be looking to do better than Garry O’Connor at Spartak. Welliton has been in stunning form in this year’s league bagging 13 goals for himself. They will be tough to beat at home, but could come a cropper away.

Finally, MSK Zilina qualified after eliminating Sparta Prague. I won’t try and claim that I know much about the side, but I promise a further blog into the side, before the Chelsea game. Either way, its a great achievement for the Slovakian side.

Winners: Chelsea Runners Up: Marseille

Group G: AC Milan, Real Madrid, Ajax, AJ Auxerre

The group that got everyone salivating. 20 European titles between three of them, and throw in Auxerre who were sensational to beat an albeit 9-man Zenit, and you have potential for some great action. Plus Kaka returns to Milan again, Clarence Seedorf and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar could return to two of their former clubs. Mouthwatering.

This group is difficult to call. Many have touted Real Madrid as the favourites for the trophy itself but Jose Mourinho would have liked to get an easier group. He drew a great top seed really, avoiding the English sides, but Ajax could easily throw a proverbial spanner in the works. It also remains to be seen whether he can co-exist with director Jorge Valdano at Real, since it seems inevitable there will be a power struggle of sorts. Will Jose adapt his style, most probably considering he has most times he’s joined a league. His summer signings have been great, Mesut Ozil was a nice bit of business for the fee, but Ricardo Carvalho could be a masterstroke. Real look weakest in defence, and it seems perfect for him to buy a player he knows so well, and generally improves his centre-back partner, which is great news for Sergio Ramos. Add to that the exciting duo Angel Di Maria and Sergio Canales (if given games), and you can see why Real have been installed as tournament favourites. That spectre of the 2nd round haunts them but not this time.

AC Milan on the other hand could struggle. Forever aging, forever manager changing, this could be a season of disappointment for the Rossoneri. That being said, some astute deals in signing Kevin Prince Boateng on loan and the impending Zlatan Ibrahamovic transfer possibly will strengthen a side that lacks youth and a good frontman. Alexandre Pato will be looking to prove Dunga wrong for not selecting him for the World Cup and the  duo of Seedorf and Pirlo have undoubted quality. They’ve also signed Marco Amelia on loan from Genoa to amend the goalkeeper problem, Abbiati is a liability at times.

Ajax finally return to the top stage, under Martin Jol, who encourages attacking football in his side. The frontline looks superb, particularly Luis Suarez who’s been dynamite up top for 12 months now. They’ve signed his international teammate Nicolas Lodeiro to strengthen the backline, which looks a lot better that it did, with Dutch international Gregory van der Wiel being the best of the bunch. The midfield looks decent, particularly Urby Emanuelson bombing down the left flank and Demy De Zeeuw, a supremely able midfielder. Ajax have huge potential.

Finally Auxerre, the outsiders handed a monster task. They dumped Zenit out to get here, and contain some quality players such as Stephan Grichting, a robust Swiss defender, Ireneusz Jelen and Anthony Le Tallec forming a good partnership up front. They will be dangerous from set-pieces mostly as Zenit found out. Had they been in an easier group they could have done well.

Winners: Real Madrid Runners Up: Ajax

Group H: Arsenal, Shaktar Donetsk, Braga, Partizan

Finally we reach the Gunners group, which looks good on paper but not so great once you delve into the logisitics of things. Wenger’s side always promise it to be their year but ultimately this passes on from season to season. This has to be their year in my opinion to win a trophy, will it be this one?

They’ve managed to keep hold of Cesc Fabregas, but his move is inevitable this following summer. The signing of Laurent Koscielny from Lorient looks to be another Wenger work in progress, and Squillaci from Sevilla will provide that experience so desperately needed. Jack Wilshere will be given time too, which is great news from an England stand-point in the long-run. Theo Walcott looks to have improved following his World Cup snub, deserved in my opinion and could mould himself into a great talent finally. But that underlying issue of the goalkeeper remains. Manuel Almunia looked assured against Liverpool and can’t get the critics off his back. Even if Arsenal did sign Schwarzer it’s a short term measure and more for the league than here. Arsenal should coast this group really.

There will be a quick reunion with former striker Eduardo after leaving for Shaktar in the summer, a good move for them since he lost pace from his leg injury and could make the Ukrainan league his playground. Other that Shaktar may look flash but otherwise don’t impress me. I saw them against Fulham in the Europa League last year. They dominated but couldn’t finish at home, and it ultimately cost them. Sounds a lot like another team in this group (I jest). Jadson is really their best player who looks skilful and a great finisher (notably in the Europa League final of 2009). The signing of Dmytro Chygrynskiy from Barca will shore up a weaker defence. Pep Guardiola didn’t want to let him go apparently, but the board needed to create funds.

Braga provided the biggest shock of qualifying beating highly fancied Sevilla in a thriller of a game. They almost won the Liga Sagres last year until a late collapse. They looked great upfront midweek, especially striker Lima who got a hat-trick. That being said they looked a bit shaky at the back, so improvement is needed there. But as Celtic and Sevilla found out, this side is lethal from a set-piece and from all around play really. Expect flair and passion from them for sure. They also have a player called George Lucas. I hope to god he hasn’t seen Brazilian Star Wars.

'The force is with Braga' George Lucas of Braga.....he did say this

Finally Partizan Belgrade will look to bring back the glory days of ’66 where they reached the European Cup Final (they don’t go on about it as much as England does). They participated in the world’s worst penalty shoot-out against Anderlecht to get here. From the highlights it was clear Cleo is a striker to be wary of, he finished off scraps and can find space easily. Also keep a look out for Sochaux loanee Ivan Stevanovic who is a decent right-back

Winners: Arsenal Runners Up: Braga

So there we have it. After today’s Europa League I’m not as excited about this draw as I was, but come September 14th I’m sure I’ll change my mind when Bremen take on Spurs.

I’ll leave you with my favourite goal from last year’s competition, starring Dutch wonder Arjen Robben

Jon Dahl Tomasson: The Danish Dynamo

This weekend will be remembered as an utter farce from an international perspective. Several English players have retired from international careers, effectively down to said players not being selected for the World Cup. Maybe like some, they thought they weren’t going to be called up. Others effectively threw their toys out of their pram because of a tournament snubbing. At the end of the day, neither Wes Brown or Paul Robinson will be missed from the set-up.

Contrast that to another retirement this weekend. A player who’s contributed so much to his nation and captained his country. That player is Jon Dahl Tomasson.

It’s fair to say that Jon Dahl Tomasson is a journeyman of European football. Having played in Holland, Spain, Italy and England, he’s been recognised as a good front-man in Europe, certainly in the earlier part of the last decade. He’s accumulated several accolades during his career across the continent too, arguably the pinnacle being his Champions League medal with AC Milan in 2003.

But its at international level where the Dane has excelled. He has garnered 112 caps over 11 years with the national side and scored 52 goals.  This makes him the all time cap leader and goal scorer for Denmark. For a man who was often frustrated at club level, frequently left on the bench behind highly rated targetmen (Shevchenko, Vieri, Shearer) he’s done a superb job of flourishing for his country.

In fact, Tomasson’s better position was ‘in the hole’ playing off the front man towards the end of the 90’s but he was forced up front in his time at Newcastle. His finishing and positioning were key aspects of his game. But this proves that Tomasson is very versatile up front and can fit in anywhere. A true team player.

He first came to prominence when Heerenveen bought him from Koge in 1994. He was prolific in Denmark, and helped Koge up the division, scoring 37 in 55.  He was in great form for Heerenveen too, finishing top scorer for them in his 3 years at the club.

Kenny Dalglish decided to bring Tomasson to St James Park in 1997, in hope that he would provide the perfect foil for Alan Shearer. The problems began however when Shearer got injured right at the start of the season, which forced Tomasson to fill his position. But Tomasson failed to adapt to the English game, citing a lack of physicality for this and only scored 3 Premier League goals.

He then returned back to Holland this time at Dutch giant, Feyenoord. It didn’t exactly take long for him to regain his confidence and he led the club to the Eredivisie title, plus a Dutch Super Cup. More was to follow however when he was part of the UEFA Cup winning side of 2002, knocking out Inter Milan and PSV along the way. He scored in the final against Borussia Dortmund as well and was crowned Man of the Match. His link-up with Pierre Van Hooijdonk made them one of the most feared partnerships in Europe at the time.

Summer in 2002 was memorable for Tomasson. He lit up the 2002 World Cup with some fabulous strikes, and finished the tournament on 4 goals. Denmark should have gone further in that tournament but ran into England and capitulated.

This spell was the most fruitful of his career really, but he left on a Bosman to Milan at the end of the season. It’s fair to say Feyenoord have never looked as strong since. At Milan he was a bit-part player in their success after struggling to replace Shevchenko or Rui Costa in Ancelotti’s line-up. But  he still managed 1 in 3 games for the club and was part of a side that won Serie A, a Coppa Italia and a Champions League in Ancelotti’s golden years for the Rossoneri. Not a bad haul shall we say.

Cue the next tournament,Euro 2004 ,where he scored arguably the best goal of his career against bitter Scandinavian rivals Sweden. A powerful half- volley, which is exemplary of Tomasson’s technique and control.

The remainder of his club career has been less glittering with spells at Villarreal and now returning to Feyenoord. This World Cup he failed to live up to the pressure bestowed upon him by passionate Danes and he has faced increasing criticism to step down. He finally did so after the World Cup where Denmark were eliminated at the group stage, with captain Tomasson’s solitary goal against Japan.

But you don’t realise what you’ve got til it’s gone. The Danish manager, Morten Olsen called Tomasson ‘the ultimate team player’.

The man himself said: “It was not an easy decision because the national team was a huge thing in my life and I have always been proud of representing Denmark.” He’s got one year left for Feyenoord, so clearly wants to concentrate on club football, in his last season in football.

You’ve certainly done yourself proud Jon. Here’s a tribute to you:

And don’t worry Danes, there’s always Nicklas Bendtner in waiting…..