Perfect storm

THE Perfect Storm hit Old Trafford last night, leaving David Moyes and Manchester United with a heck of a job on their hands to repair the damage. The penalty shoot-out implosion as United crashed out of the Capital One Cup semi-final to Sunderland was the culmination of a growing crisis that I – and many others – had seen coming since last season. I have alluded to this several times in this column and I’ll have to say it again: United’s 13th Premier League title win last season, Sir Alex Ferguson’s glorious swansong as the most successful manager in the history of British football, was all the more remarkable because it was achieved with a squad that was clearly fraying around the edges.

Now, a combination of that ongoing fact, plus injuries to key players like Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie, has left new boss Moyes with the mother and father of a job to restore the team to former glories. The massive problem Moyes inherited is that United icons like midfield maestros Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs have not been adequately replaced, resulting in a sub-standard level of performance in that key area. United have authorised a club record £37m fee for Chelsea’s Juan Mata – and that, plus the £28m spent of Maroaune Fellaini last summer must only be the start of the spending if United are not to allow the phenomenal success story that Ferguson wrote over a 27-year tenure to unravel. I am sure that, within weeks of taking over last July, Moyes will have realised that all was not what it seemed with the squad and that, by now, he is crystal clear about the extent of the rebuilding required. He needs another two top class midfielders and he needs to strengthen a defence that has lost its air of authority along with the waning powers of Ferdinand, Vidic and Evra. Goalkeeper De Gea’s embarrassing fumble to allow Bardsley’s shot to enter his net will renew old doubts about him and, as for the strike department, so much will depend upon whether Rooney and Van Persie stay at the club. I see rumours have reawakened as to the possibility of Rooney going to Chelsea and that makes me wonder if there is an unspoken agreement in the Mata deal. What is for sure is that if either, or both, of those players had been in the team last night, what a big difference it would surely have made. Not least from the penalty spot, where you would expect Rooney and Van Persie to succeed.

As it was United’s inexperienced, shoot-out nominees blew it, big-style. It is hard for the fans to understand how professional players, particularly those at the top level, can miss from 12 yards, but the fact is it takes a special character to step up in front of 70,000 people, with millions more watching on TV, in a make-or-break situation, and do the job. It is down to pressure and how well or badly you handle it. Rooney wouldn’t have had a problem with that. But there aren’t that many Rooneys or Eric Cantonas out there, men who thrive on the tension. A mistake that is often made, as it was by several of the failures last night, is to try to place the ball. To do that, you have to either be lucky, with the keeper  going the wrong way, or you have to have the nerve to withhold your strike until the last split-second, something that former Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli is good at. No, believe me, the most effective method for most players is to smash the shot thus giving  the keeper little hope, even if he has dived the right way.

In the final analysis, though, as Moyes graciously admitted, United were not good enough to subdue a Sunderland team struggling near the foot of the table. On the assumption that United, therefore, cannot possibly be good enough to win the Champions League, their season is, effectively, over in January! When can you remember that last being the case? It is time for sweeping change and Moyes should not be judged until the end of next season, when he will have had time to implement his revolution.

 

 

 

Moyes must be careful

David Moyes is in danger of being accused of double standards over his attempts to sign Marouane Fellaini from his former club, Everton. Moyes seems to be growing increasingly frustrated in his attempt to pull off a double deal for midfielder Fellaini and left-back Leighton Baines, but he must be careful not to let his impatience leave him wide open to criticism from the Goodison club. New Manchester United manager Moyes is a friend of mine and I have nothing but respect for the way he managed Everton for 12 years. However, I must take issue with him over his remarks regarding Everton’s refusal to do business at £28million.
David has suggested that Everton are standing in the way of their players’ career progress by playing hardball over the proposed deal, with Goodison chairman Bill Kenwright making it plain he considers United’s offer unrealistic. And the fact is that David Moyes knows full well why Kenwright is taking such a firm stand because, as the manager who signed Fellaini in the first place, Moyes agreed with Kenwright on a ‘golden handcuffs’ valuation on the Belgian international of £24 million. Now, when he is trying to sign the player for a second time, it seems David is conveniently overlooking that valuation. United made an original offer of £12 million for Baines, upping that figure to £28million to include Fellaini, thus suggesting a £16million price for the latter. No wonder Kenwright is not inclined to do business!
The Goodison supremo is a lifelong Evertonian, as true a Blue as you could ever meet, and he has, and always will, do all he can to ensure that he does right by his beloved club. No-one knows that better than Moyes, who worked so closely with Bill for all those years – and who agreed that £24million valuation! So, David is hardly in a position to start suggesting Everton are the bad guys. If he wants Fellaini badly enough – and it would seem that he does – then he and United will have to pay the price, or something closer to it. The biggest clubs complain, often with justification, that the selling clubs try to rip them off in the transfer market because they are richer. That’s a fact of life. You always have the option of pulling out of a deal you think is becoming unrealistic. On the other hand, if you want a player badly enough and you have the wealth, then you simply have to pay the price. United, Real Madrid and Barcelona are the biggest clubs in the world and, as such, they must expect to pay top dollar in the transfer market. You could argue that United paid over the odds when they signed Robin van Persie, from Arsenal, for £24.5million 14 months ago.
But Sir Alex Ferguson knew Van Persie was the striker who could shoot United to the title – and enable him to retire as a winner. And that is precisely what happened.
I am on record as stating I am not convinced Fellaini is a Manchester United-style player, whereas I can fully understand why Baines’s crossing ability is coveted by Moyes, who can probably envisage even more goals for the prolific Van Persie from such a supply line. But Moyes clearly believes that Fellaini, who cost Everton a club record £12.4million, is the man to fill a void that undoubtedly exists in the United midfield. That being the case, then Moyes must surely acknowledge the facts of the situation. Moyes could not lure the gifted Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona and it might be he is feeling the pressure of failing to clinch a big signing, with the transfer window closing on September 2nd. However, trying to pressurise Everton, while conveniently overlooking the detail of his previously agreed valuation of Fellaini, will not help his cause. And, if I know Bill Kenwright as well as I think I do, he will stick to his guns. With Fellaini valued at £24million and Baines at, say, £13million – Everton turned down United’s original £12million offer – that puts the package at a minimum £37million. Real Madrid, who paid United £80million for Cristiano Ronaldo, are about to smash that world record fee to land Gareth Bale, from Tottenham. United, like Madrid, may have to accept that, sometimes, you just have to pay the price.
My suspicion that Manchester City would have a weakness in central defence following the injury to Vincent Kompany was born out in their shock 3-2 defeat at promoted Cardiff City, where they were embarrassed by two close-range headed goals from Fraiser Campbell. Joleon Lescott was partnered at centre-back by the Spaniard Garcia, who is a midfielder. The problems are likely to continue when the injured Nastasic, who was on the bench in Cardiff, returns for both he and Lescott are natural left-sided players and, unlike two natural right siders, two lefties rarely combine well. The balance just doesn’t seem to be good. So, don’t be surprised if City splash out yet again in the transfer market. This defeat was a short, sharp shock to their system and Manuel Pellegrini will be well aware he cannot afford to slip behind the pacesetters early in the race.

No way, Jose?

What an intriguing situation we have in the Premier League with the Big Three under new management next season. David Moyes, at champions Manchester United, Manuel Pellegrini, with runners up Manchester City and Jose Mourinho back at Chelsea…it’s going to be fascinating to see how they all take to their new roles. Certainly, each one of them has a massive job on his hands, and each has his own different challenge. But, perhaps the trickiest task is Mourinho’s because he attempts to deny that old football adage: Never go back.

The self-styled Special One swept into English football like a whirlwind in his first spell at Stamford Bridge. Having announced himself as a super confident extrovert by dancing down the Old Trafford touchline under Sir Alex Ferguson’s nose after his Porto team knocked United out of the Champions League, Mourinho went on to take Chelsea to unprecented levels of success, cleaning up all of the domestic trophies, before going on to further success with Inter Milan and then hitting the buffers at Real Madrid, where he couldn’t fulfill the obligation on every manager at the Bernabeu and conquer Europe, as well as dislodge Barcelona from top honcho status. The image that characterised Mourinho’s trophy-laden times at Porto, Chelsea and Inter was of a man who was cocky, chirpy and, at times, downright arrogant. Yet that picture was too often replaced last season by a sullen expression, Mourinho often sideways on in the dugout, as if detached from his team.
Mourinho’s return to the Premier League will be wonderful for the English Press, the football-loving public and, in particular, the Chelsea fans, who see him as the returning prodigal son…but he will fit that description only if he rediscovers the twinkle in the eye that so characterised his first stint at the club. He recently talked about his ‘need to be loved’ which is all very well, a natural human emotion – but not necessarily one which you should be proclaiming as a football manager. I can’t imagine the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson ever publicly talking in such terms! So, we need to see Mourinho shake off the surly image that soured his last season at Real and replace it with the bounce and ebullience that he will need if he is to belie the widely-held theory that you should never go back. Famous examples of men who tried, and failed, to replicate earlier successes are my old Everton team-mate Howard Kendall, who twice went back to Goodison, where he had won the European Cup-winners’ Cup, league title and League Cup in the mid-80s, Kenny Dalglish, whose recent return to Liverpool was shortlived, and Kevin Keegan, who must wish he hadn’t gone back to Newcastle, where he was such a hero as player then manager first time around. If Mourinho is to avoid similar embarrassment he must quickly put his problems at Real – where he fell out with captain Iker Casillas and several other big names – and renew the bond he had with the Blues stars during his first period at the Bridge.
Manuel Pellegrini, Roberto Mancini’s successor at City, has a clearly defined priority: He simply has to reunite a dressing-room packed with superstars that was clearly disunited last season.  I have previously stated my sympathy for Mancini, axed after delivering the Premier League title and FA Cup in the two previous seasons. However, it has become increasingly clear since the Italian’s exit that he ‘lost’ too many of his players, notable examples being keeper Joe Hart, skipper Vincent Kompany, midfielder Samir Nasri and striker Carlos Tevez. With the unity gone, so was the collective will to push on and retain the title. I mean this in no way as a criticism of United, but City have more outstanding individual players than their arch rivals and, as such, should not have conceded their title so tamely. City’s Middle Eastern owners expect nothing but the best after splashing hundreds of millions of pounds over the past four years, and that means conquering Europe. First, though, for Pellegrini comes the challenge of re-establishing team harmony, harnessing the huge bank of talent at his disposal and mounting a serious title challenge. The Chilean’s man-management skills will be of paramount importance.
Pellegrini and Mourinho know that they face a huge task to dislodge United, whose 13th title success was an enormous tribute to the retired Ferguson, who won the crown with weeks to spare and, as I say, with a team which, individually, was inferior to City’s. A key to United’s triumph was the never-say-die, keep-going-to-the-final-whistle spirit fostered so passionately by Ferguson throughout his twenty-six and a half years in charge. United’s mental strength is unrivalled in the Premier League and David Moyes must ensure that it remains so. Moyes will also know that his first buy is so important, his statement signing that is going to improve a team which has just won the title at a canter. At Everton, David was shopping in the bargain basement. At United, he will be spending big in Harrods. There is talk of Cristiano Ronaldo returning from Real Madrid. Now, wouldn’t that be a stunning statement of intent by Moyes?

 

 

 

Bale hunters set their sights

There was something poignant about watching Gareth Bale seal another win for Tottenham with another fabulous strike, only to discover that Arsenal’s win at Newcastle had pipped Spurs to the Champions League fourth place, thus denying this exceptional young player the opportunity to play on the biggest stage in club football. But you can bet that there are several clubs itching to offer him that very thing. As I’ve said already in these notes, Bale is THE player in the Premier League who will be the most sought after this summer. The best teams in England, Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal, would all be improved with Bale in their line-up.That means Tottenham have a big decision to make if they are to keep the man around whom the team revolves. In an era of outstanding athletes on the soccer pitches of the world, Bale has emerged as an elite performer, a player who combines impressive physique with power, pace and control and a gift for scoring goals from all areas.

Players of his quality understandably expect to perform at the highest level in Europe and that means the Champions League. I mean no disrespect to Wales, the country of Bale’s birth, but he is extremely unlikely to savour the ultimate thrill of international football, competing at World Cup finals, let alone European finals, proud though I am sure he is to wear the red shirt. There have been some world-class Welsh players in the past 20 years, like goalkeeper Neville Southall, midfielders Gary Speed and Ryan Giggs and striker Mark Hughes, all of whom never savoured the big international stage. Hughes and Giggs, of course, had the consolation of many European club campaigns with Manchester United. And that is what Bale will aspire to.

So, the challenge for Tottenham supremo Daniel Levy is to keep the predators who can offer Bale the glamour of the Champions League at bay. There has been talk of a huge pay rise offer, in the region of £170,000 a week, for Bale and Spurs fans can only hope he is willing to accept and continue to be their driving force next season. If not, you can be sure Levy will demand the highest price for one of the most coveted players in the world. For example, if Cristiano Ronaldo were to leave Real Madrid, the Spaniards would almost certainly try for Bale and Levy would insist upon a fee in the region of the £80million Real paid Manchester United for Ronaldo three years ago.

 

Goodbye Becks,

David Beckham, who retired this week after a glorious, 20-year playing career, lacked the one element that I always reckon is the key ingredient for a top-class player, namely pace. Yet Beckham, though not in the same bracket as men like Pele, Maradona, Messi and Ronaldo, was the exception to my rule. From the moment he burst on to the scene at Manchester United  he performed to the highest standards at the highest level at Old Trafford, Real Madrid and Milan. He had immense stamina, a tremendous delivery and he was the scorer of some outstanding goals. Beckham won a remarkable 115 England caps and he was also a marvellous ambassador. Well done, David.

 

Arsenal must pay the price

Arsenal go to Newcastle on Sunday for their final Premier League fixture, when a point will be enough to clinch Champions League qualification – and what a massively important outcome that would be for the Gunners. The word is that manager Arsene Wenger will have up to £70m to spend in the transfer market this summer, provided he maintains his annual success in qualifying for Europe’s top competition. It follows that, if Wenger spends big on top-drawer names, he will also have to pay top wages and that’s something Arsenal haven’t done. At least, not in comparison to the Manchester Uniteds, Manchester Citys and Chelseas of this world. I think that is what the Gunners will have to do if they are to end their recent trophy-less seasons and take on the Big Three.

Arsenal is one of the best-run clubs in the world and, in Wenger, they have a manager who has consistently produced teams that play exciting, fluid football. Wenger’s teams get behind the opposition, get to the byline so often. I often think how happy I would have been to be the centre-forward. If you could put Alan Shearer in to the teams Wenger has produced, he would have smashed every scoring record. The problem has been that Wenger has lost a lot of top class players in recent years, men who have gone to other clubs where they have often doubled their wages. And, because Wenger has been unable to compete in the pay stakes, his replacements have too often not been of similar quality. I am an admirer of Wenger, who goes on producing inspirational – if not always functional – teams, despite this financial handicap and I believe that, if the board backs him with hard cash, Arsenal will be a serious threat next season. Put it this way, if they are serious about trying to lure Wayne Rooney, from Manchester United, they will have to increase their current top pay packet of £100,000 a week to £250,000. Crazy, I know. But that is football at the highest level in the modern era. It will also be interesting to see if Tottenham, who are also knocking on the door for that final Champions League place, reassess their wages policy in a bid to make the step up to the top four.

 

 

D-day looms for Rooney

Wayne Rooney, by far England’s most talented striker, is ending the season in no man’s land, with a parting slap from retiring Sir Alex Ferguson, who pointedly left Rooney out of the squad for his last home match in charge, against Swansea, on Sunday. Sir Alex says he has turned down a transfer request from the player, while admitting he can’t be sure Rooney will be at United next season, so it will be down to new boss David Moyes to decide how the situation is resolved.

One thing I do know is that Rooney remains by far this country’s best forward, still the only Englishman who guarantee 20 goals a season in the Premier League. And that is because, at his best, he is strong, aggressive, deceptively fast, good in the air for a man of average height, utterly fearless and possessed with a fierce will to win. That particular characteristic was clear for us to see when he was nine/ten years old and preparing to join Everton’s Academy, when I was manager in the mid-90′s. He is so good that he can operate with equal effectiveness either up front, wide or in central midfield. And it just might be that therein lies Rooney’s problem. I don’t know if he has a preferred position, but the fact that he has been played in different roles might be what is disillusioning him. Rooney likes to be the top dog and it might be that he feels his nose has been put out of joint by the arrival of Robin van Persie. Or the problem could be that Sir Alex is unhappy with Rooney’s physical condition and that he is trying to make a point by having him in and out of the side.

I must say, whether it is a physical or a mental issue, I feel Rooney hasn’t been at his sharpest this season. He and Moyes, who successfully sued Rooney over allegations in the player’s book that he was “overbearing” and “controlling” at Everton, clearly have had their differences. It will be interesting to see the outcome when the two men get together to thrash out the current impasse.

 

 

Softly,softly for Moyes

David Moyes starts the biggest challenge of his life when he takes over from Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United on July 1. But, believe me, he will have met the United players before then. And, when he does address his superstar Premier League champions for the first time, David will be telling them: “I’m here to make it business as usual. Let’s keep up the good work.” The likes of Ryan Giggs and Rio Ferdinand, players who have been there, done it, worn several of the T-shirts, don’t need to be told they’d better start doing things differently!

This is not a situation like the one that confronted Andreas Villas-Boas when he took over at Chelsea 12 months ago when, it seems, he had a mandate to make sweeping changes. Moyes, who already has the public approval of players like Ferdinand – and, of course, Ferguson who nominated him as his successor – will stress he has no need, nor intention, to bulldoze his way into the biggest job in club football. David’s first major issue is Wayne Rooney’s future. There has been no denial from Rooney of the stories claiming he wants to leave the club, so David will need to sit down with the player and his agent Paul Stretford and sort out the situation. David will, of course, be armed with Alex Ferguson’s take on the affair and it just might be that Rooney’s days at Old Trafford are numbered.

Certainly, Rooney would not be missed if United have lined up a sensational move for their former superstar Cristiano Ronaldo and, or, Borussia Dortmund’s Polish striker Robert Lewandowski, the man who destroyed Ronaldo’s Real Madrid with all four goals in their Champions League semi-final first leg 4-1 win two weeks ago. Wayne’s role seems to have changed from the all-action forward he was when he arrived at United to a more mature, more withdrawn operator. Whether that is more in Wayne’s mind than Alex’s, who knows? But it is a fact that Wayne has been in and out of the team and playing in different positions and this  may be a factor in Rooney’s reported unsettled state of mind. Someone will be happy to pay around £30m for Rooney, who should be in his prime in his late 20′s, and that might be seen as good business at United.

And, if United are, indeed, aiming to bring back Ronaldo, who has been blitzing La Liga defences for the past four years and for whom Real will want their money back, it is feasible it could be a self-financing deal, with the potential sale of players like winger Nani, striker Chicarito – and Rooney. I don’t see Moyes raiding Everton for players, though I do think  Leighton Baines, the best left-back in the country, could join his boss at United. Everton’s Marouane Fellaini is being touted for the big move, but I’m not convinced the Belgian is what United need, either in midfield or up front. Nor do I see a wholesale switch of backroom staffs, though don’t be surprised if David wants his Goodison assistant Steve Round to stay with him. At United, the backroom structure is as sound as the playing side and I’m sure Alex will have pushed the job security of the people who have served him so well. There is also the Phill Neville factor. I know David thinks a lot of Phil, who is from the same mould,  a man who gets in to training early, gets the players up for it and who, like his Sky pundit brother Gary, has an excellent knowledge of the game. Phil made 386 appearances for United before joining Everton eight years ago – and he might be a candidate for the Goodison job. He could well get an interview, though I feel such  a huge step would be too soon without experienced support.

For Moyes, the biggest concerns, aside of the Rooney issue, will be the age of Rio Ferdinand, at 34, and the injury issues that plague him and his centre-back partner Nemanja Vidic. United have marvellous, young defenders coming through, like Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, but Moyes might be tempted to try to take his Everton stalwart Phil Jagielka as insurance. Meantime, David Moyes’ biggest challenge is to get the players’ respect on the training pitch. I’m sure he’ll do that.

 

 

SIMPLY THE BEST

Only a few people become legends in their own lifetime. Sir Alex Ferguson is just such a person. The man who will, surely, be acknowledged as the greatest manager in history, certainly in the UK and, possibly, even the world, is leaving a massive hole for someone to fill at Manchester United.

royle-ferguson-cupfinal

It is hard to see beyond the current bookies’ favourite David Moyes or the self-styled Special One Jose Mourinho. Where Everton boss Moyes shades it over Mourinho is with his long, unbroken run as a Premier League manager at Everton. On the debit side, David has never won a major trophy and has limited experience in Europe. Mourinho has won everything. David, of course, is a free agent from this summer, whereas Real Madrid are said to want £20m to buy out Mourinho’s contract. And the feeling is he’s headed back to Chelsea, anyway. One thing I am sure of, and I can’t see an obscure name coming out of left field, is that the chosen one will get both a fantastic job and an impossible job. For the harsh fact is that  Alex’s successor knows one thing for certain: He simply cannot do better than his predecessor. Alex bows out having won his 13th Premier League title and a staggering total of 38 trophies in 26 years at United. You have to re-read the stats to give them chance to sink in. He has been phenomenal, the master of the big decisions on and off the pitch, tactically and in the transfer market and unrivalled in his ability to know when to move players on. No manager gets his transfers 100 per cent right, but Alex has got more right than anyone else. Under his guidance, United have not only produced several major teams but also become the global brand they are today.

Men like Frank O’Farrell, Dave Sexton and Wilf McGuinness found the strain of trying to succeed the other Old Trafford managerial legend Sir Matt Busby too hard to bear. But the man who succeeds Ferguson faces an even bigger challenge! Put it this way, the new man had better target the Treble next season! Certainly, this is not a job for a novice, however promising he may be. Don’t forget, when Ferguson was brought in to start his United revolution, when he was in his mid-40s, he had already established himself as the major managerial force in Scotland where, with St Mirren then Aberdeen he won 10 trophies and, most significantly, broke the Celtic-Rangers domination.

Like many people in the game, I had my run-ins with Alex, who is as formidable as they come when arguing his corner. We fell out when, as Everton manager, I was signing winger Andrei Kanchelskis from United and Alex accused me of trying to fix the price, which wasn’t the case. Then, I had to take him to task for suggesting in his autobiography that my Everton side’s FA Cup victory against United in the 1995 FA Cup Final was the triumph of one ordinary team over another. But these are minor hiccups in an otherwise excellent relationship. Mind you, thank god we never argued about politics. I have been described as having views somewhere between Margaret Thatcher and Attila the Hun, while Alex is proud of his left wing upbringing on the working-class streets of Govan. Alex was kind enough to subsequently write the foreward to my autobiography, for which I am extremely grateful. Alex Ferguson is a remarkable man who has earned his place in football history. It’s an honour to have worked in his era and it’s one of life’s pleasures to share a glass or three of his favourite red wine with him.