I WILL not be surprised if Manchester United fans get a Christmas present in the shape of Wayne Rooney signing a new “contract for life,” and a follow-up boost in the January transfer window, with the arrival of a midfield playmaker. Former United coach Rene Muelensteen has nominated Borussia Dortmund’s German international Ilkay Gundogan as the player who could knit it together for David Moyes. I would put Chelsea’s Juan Mata in the frame. The Spaniard, who was mooted as a part-exchange when rumours were rife that Rooney could join Chelsea last summer, might well be available if he doesn’t start getting more games under Jose Mourinho. On the face of it, United’s fans can be confident that the Rooney issue is settled, with the 28-year-old back to his world-class best, as he showed when sparkling in Sunday’s massive win against Premier League leaders Arsenal.
Rooney was awesome as both the inspirational marshall of a magnificent collective midfield display, helping out Carrick, Jones, Kagawa and Valencia, and the architect of United’s attacking moves.This was the Wayne Rooney of two years ago, the player who didn’t know the meaning of a lost cause. I remember, a couple of seasons back, watching him chase down a winger who had gone past full-back Patrice Evra. What an appetite for the game! I suspect Sir Alex Ferguson detected a reduction in that appetite and decided to jolt Rooney late last season, when axing him from the team to face Real Madrid in United’s glamour game of the season. The result was Rooney’s public display of disaffection with life at Old Trafford and, with Ferguson’s retirement, what looked like a grenade with the pin out for successor Moyes to pick up. Well, all credit to Moyes, who seems to have handled a difficult situation well. Rooney is not only playing with all his old skill, enthusiasm and determination, he also appears to me to have reached a new level of self control. Rooney comes from a tough area of Liverpool only about a mile from where I was raised, so I didn’t have any trouble translating the foul-mouthed diatribe he used to level at referees when he was unhappy with decisions – not that you needed to be a lip-reader, anyway! However, I detect a more mature Rooney this season, a man who checks himself before reacting to a perceived injustice on the pitch. There was a moment against Arsenal when he clearly believed he had been hard done to but, where he would once have erupted in four-letter fury, here he contented himself with a puzzled look before picking himself up and getting on with the game.
Maybe United have been waiting to see if Rooney would respond to Moyes and regain his form before deciding whether to offer a contract extension. If so, surely they have their answer. The boy is definitely back! If Rooney goes into next summer without a new deal, and with one year left on his current contract, his value will plummet. And, of course, the following summer he would be available on a free transfer. In this form, he is not only United’s, but also England’s, best forward so, why would the powers that be at Old Trafford not try to keep him there for the remaining, best years of his career?
If Rooney is returned to his impressive best, United as a unit look like they are getting there after a disciplined midfield display which, I admit, I did not think they had in them. Arsenal are the best team in the league at getting behind opponents and to the byline, but United worked so hard to stop them that they did not manage it at all. United certainly had size on their side and, especially in the absence of the towering Per Mertesacker, stricken with illness before the match, the Gunners were really cut down to size. The likes of Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla never got to grips with the challenge of breaking down United’s midfield iron curtain. The only time they had a glimmer of hope was when Phil Jones moved back to partner Jonny Evans, with Tom Cleverley coming off the bench and into midfield. Still, they could not put together many of the one-twos that have proved too much for most teams to handle this season. Twenty minutes had passed before Arsenal put three passes together and I don’t recall United keeper David De Gea having a save to make. In retrospect, I think Arsenal showed the strain of two huge matches – and victories – against Liverpool, then Dortmund, the previous week and they are too good not to come back from this defeat. Arsene Wenger said afterwards that the international break which now follows has come at the wrong time, wishing instead that he could get his team back in action quickly. I disagree. I think he can use the next two weeks to sit and talk with his staff and properly analyse this defeat and the way forward. He and his coaches may well reconsider the zonal marking strategy that put Van Persie into penalty area heaven as he ran, unmarked, for 10 yards before powering home the header which ‘killed’ his old team-mates.
The zonal system is all well and good if you have – as Wenger’s great ‘Invincibles’ team did – huge defenders like Tony Adams, Steve Bould and Martin Keown, men who can attack the ball with power and purpose. On Sunday, and with Mertesacker conspicuous by his absence, a line of defenders was straddling the six-yard box, almost inert, while Van Persie charged in to deliver the coup de grace. Believe me, as a centre-forward, I can tell you there is not much that is more disconcerting than trying to meet a corner, a free-kick or a cross with a big defender’s arms all over you. I – along with big centre-forward contemporaries of mine like Wyn and Ron Davies, Peter Osgood and the lean but Zebedee-like leaper Denis Law – would have thrived on the zonal system, which hadn’t found its way over from the Continent in my playing days. Despite this setback, Wenger, I suspect, still has the nice problem of deciding what is his best team, once everyone is fit while Moyes, though massively boosted by the win, will still try to bring in a proven midfielder, an authentic all-rounder in the mould of a Robson, Keane or Scholes.
AS for my title tips, Manchester City, they, along with Tottenham, Chelsea and Everton slumped to unpredictable setbacks over the weekend. The Stadium of Light is a dark place for City, in danger of becoming the graveyard of their title ambitions following a fourth successive 1-0 defeat there. Manuel Pellegrini’s all-stars can, realistically, afford to lose only twice more if they are to fulfil their potential this season. Despite the wealth of talent at his disposal, Manuel Pellegrini still has problem positions, like left-back, where Gael Clichy and Aleksander Kolarov carry question marks and central defence where, in the continued absence of Vincent Kompany, the team remains vulnerable. Garcia has had plenty of opportunity, in different positions, without being able to cement a role and Demichelis is clearly still finding his feet. Meanwhile, with kingpin Kompany still missing, midfield powerhouse Yaya Toure, the talisman, is a frustrated and frustrating figure. Toure should be running games, but, in the absence of the rock-like Kompany, I get the impression he is being told to hang around rather than run at the opposition. And, I’ll say it again, the City player who could make the difference for them is down the road, on loan at Everton…Gareth Barry.
Not that Barry was able to inspire the Toffees to victory at bottom club Crystal Palace, where the 0-0 was, arguably, the surprise result of a weekend of surprises. I thought that was an away banker for my old club. It certainly wasn’t the result they needed with the Merseyside derby at Goodison coming up in two weeks, especially with Liverpool maintaining their impressive form by thrashing Fulham at Anfield. I will look at the derby next week, a fixture which played such a big part in my career, both as player and manager. Tottenham, who spent even more than City in the summer, continue to cause concern for manager Andre Villas-Boas. Having ‘discovered’ England winger Andros Townsend, in the wake of Gareth Bale’s exit to Real Madrid, Spurs have failed to find a goalscorer. Jermaine Defoe is their best bet, but he can’t get into the team because he can’t play as a lone striker. Expensive recruit Soldado is not as prolific a finisher as Defoe and he is certainly not a target man in the mould of a Mark Hughes. It is a headache for Villas-Boas, who will know that more was expected after such a big summer spend. The late penalty that rescued a point at home for Chelsea split opinion, but I have to say, if the boot had been on the other foot and West Brom had been in desperate need of the award, their boss Steve Clark would, like Mourinho did, have claimed it was a legitimate spot-kick, albeit a bit of a soft one.
Another team desperately in need of firepower is West Ham who are sliding down the table, having scored only nine goals in 11 matches with three of those coming in what increasingly looks an improbable 3-0 win at Tottenham the other week. Unless they can get big Andy Carroll fit, the Hammers will struggle. And, if Sam Allardyce’s loyal and trusted midfielder Kevin Nolan gets injured I dread to think what might happen. Nolan and Under-21 star Ravel Morrison are their only hopes for a goal in the absence of Carroll, who is yet to play since his summer transfer from Liverpool. Stoke, too, are making heavy weather of it under new boss Mark Hughes, who succeeded long-serving Tony Pulis last summer. Stoke went 2-0 up at Swansea and contrived to draw 3-3 – courtesy of a controversial, late penalty. Pulis was axed amidst a clamour for more of an expansive style, but I did warn then: Beware of what you wish for in football!
A SIGN-OFF mention for my first club as a manager, Oldham Athletic, who I went to watch in the FA Cup tie with Wolves. The club, the town and its people will always have a place in my heart and I left Boundary Park after the 1-1 draw with mixed emotions. Young manager Lee Johnson deserves praise for the football his team is playing, passing the ball well and with a good attitude in the unit. However, there is an old saying in the game, namely you are as good or as bad as your front players. And Oldham’s forwards are not scoring enough goals. The big problem is that goalscorers cost money and Oldham haven’t got any money. The all-round product is good but the positive results are not being achieved and what worries me is that there will come a spell when the team is not playing so well. Then, the pressure will really be on.