Why All The Love for Ronaldo?

Originally published by Pick Our Team on February 27 2013.

Like the nostalgic laments of ex-lovers still pining for their former comforts, Viva Ronaldo continues to be sung from the match day stands. For those who cherished the Portuguese winger without giving themselves away to the cult that surrounds him, hearing his name sung while others still at the club play and graft for the shirt can be a sorry and unfortunate situation.

While the backing of a former player isn’t something to discredit, it’s difficult to understand the continued power of the love-in. Ronaldo never sacrificed himself for the cause; never propagated a familiarity with the ordinary fan; was hardly a leader or progressive figure on-the-pich like Cantona or Keane: he was however a very good player to watch who won matches with great goals. But shouldn’t there be more to all of this than jilted hunger for a one-man glory factory?

It’s easy to forget the baggage Ronaldo brings to a club. For him to prosper the team’s system must become more specialised, with other players forced to pick up the defensive duties and workload his talent elevates him above. In the final days of his first stint at Old Trafford, this specialism saw United’s game plan reduced to little more than ‘give the ball to Ronaldo’, a plan which, when faced with poor form, or a side willing and able to muzzle him, saw the team’s approach became extremely one-dimensional and predictable. Continue reading

City are yet to become true modern rivals to United

Originally published for Can They Score? on February 23 2013.

For the majority of its existance, the Premier League title race has followed in the principles of The Thunderdome of Mad Max fame: “two clubs enter’ one team leaves… victorious.”

Genuine three-way title fights appear to have become extinct in the Premier League era (hence our focus), with each season framed around a duopoly of contenders. Of all the gladiators who have entered the league’s gruelling grand arena – Leeds, Blackburn, Newcastle, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, City – it is Manchester United who have remained the most persistent and dominant force throughout the past 11 years.

Riding high and heading into March 12 points clear, United are in excellent shape to go on and clinch a 13thPremiership title. However, the club’s detractors have denounced their position as false, claiming that the current United team and the league itself is bereft of quality. This season is said to be a low-point in the domestic game that flatters a side lacking in skill and substance – a drought lacking in good players, teams or contests. Continue reading

FA Cup Success Sweet for United

Originally published by Pick Our Team on February 21 2013.

It’s about time the FA Cup returned to Old Trafford. While the Premier League takes priority, ending this season with just one piece of silverware in the bank would feel like an opportunity missed considering the names left in the running.

After United disposed of Reading on Monday night, only Chelsea, City and Wigan have qualified for the sixth round from the Premiership (Everton must first navigate a tricky reply). Championship and lower league giant killers round out the remaining contenders. It’s a cup that, on paper at least, is there for the taking.

That’s not to say that the likes of Barnsley and Oldham should be dismissed: their continued presence in the tournament is testament to their threat. However, with Middlesbrough and Chelsea battling for the chance to play United in the next round, surely it isn’t too controversial to suggest that facing the former is preferable to a tie against Roman’s real life Football Manager fantasy? Continue reading

Real Madrid preview: Ronaldo isn’t the only threat for United

Originally published online for Can They Score? on February 13 2013.

In the build-up to their first leg encounter with Madrid, much has been made of Phil Jones as United’s key tactical agent in the battle to muzzle Cristiano Ronaldo. Secondary concerns have also been raised around Xabi Alonso and Mesut Ozil, with suggested solutions ranging from a dropping Wayne Rooney  in deep to unsettle the Spaniard and unleashing Danny Welbeck or Ashely Young on the left to harry the German playmaker.

Negating Alonso’s influence is key – cutting off Real’s supply line will isolate and wither their starving forwards who can often rely on the midfielder’s quick, sharp distribution from deep – but with his fitness in doubt, it’s possible that Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley may instead find themselves facing Luka Modric, Madrid’s almost forgotten man.

With Sami Khedira paired alongside him in a midfield pivot, Modric’s will be a different proposition to the slow-moving, long-pass artillery piece that usually feeds the attack. An effective dribbler and lithe space creator, the Croatian has the ability to beat a man or two in order to unshackle himself of his markers – cutting out opposition players and giving himself room to pick a more penetrative passing option. Continue reading

Mourinho Not the Man to Replace Fergie

Originally published by Pick Our Team on February 13 2013.

The Bernabeu exit looms large over Jose Mourinho. Wherever the Portuguese ends up in the summer, the inevitable intrigue surrounding the Special One’s relocation will guarantee that his flirting courtship with Europe’s richest clubs will be the transfer story of the off-season.

With Mancini’s place at City looking precarious, Roman running out of other top-end options at Chelsea, and both Paris and Anzhi rich enough to potentially woo Mou’s services, Jose won’t be lacking in options. For United fans hoping to see Mourinho take up the challenge of succeeding Sir Alex, these are worrying times.

At 71 years of age, the moment will come (sooner than many of us would like to admit to ourselves) for Fergie to retire, but as rivals circle above, Mou may not be prepared to wait. Can United afford to miss up on one of the world’s most prolific and effective coaches, especially if he ends up at Eastlands? Continue reading

Is Berbatov the answer to United’s midfield question?

Is Berbatov the answer to United’s creative gap in midfield?

For the past few seasons, Manchester United’s midfield has become a figure of ridicule, on par with Arsenal’s goalkeeper crisis and the perennial lack of width in Liverpool’s squad. As always, the fans disagree on the solution to Sir Alex’s dilemma, with factions clashing over rival cures: a proven Premiership playmaker like Luka Modric, a hard man in mould of Roy Keane, new signing Shinji Kagawa or a talent trawl for the next Ronaldo.

With his graceful power and embarrassment of elegant technique Dimitar Berbatov is, on paper, the quintessential creative target man for the modern game, yet he has at times struggled to shine on a consistent basis for United. However, the Bulgarian’s ability to read the game, thread a pass and keep possession have lead some admirers to suggest him as a left-field solution to a midfield that often seems to lack inspiration. Continue reading

Substance: Tricky Everton offer a solid test to a Fergie resurgence

Phil Neville: Everton's captain and an important influence in the dressing room if not so much on the pitch these days

Everton and Manchester United have enjoyed a fairly amicable, working relationship in recent years. Be it the cordial concurrence of the two team’s popular and long-serving Glaswegian managers, their recent trades in key player personnel and even their respective old boy figureheads in Phil Neville and Wayne Rooney, there exists a common ground between the two clubs beyond their mutual antipathy to the red faction of Liverpool.  Continue reading