Papering over the cracks

A night of mixed emotions for David Moyes as he watched his much-changed Manchester United beat Liverpool in the Capital One Cup, exacting revenge for the recent Premier League defeat in the process. The win, against a pretty much full-strength Liverpool, gives Moyes a little breathing space amidst the welter of criticism in the aftermath of United’s 4-1 derby-day thrashing by Manchester City. But, last night’s display merely papered over the cracks of the most pressing problem the new United manager faces, namely the shortage of invention in midfield. It is a tribute to Ryan Giggs’s fitness, desire and quality that he is still playing at this level on the eve of his 40th birthday. I am afraid it is also a stark indication of United’s urgent need of reinforcement in that vital area. The 1-0 win was a much-needed morale-booster for Moyes and his players, and yet another example of United’s ongoing never-say-die spirit, but the display did not address the big issue of the team’s shortage of ideas in midfield. You could see why Moyes wanted to sign Cesc Fabregas, from Barcelona, in the summer.

The warning signs were there last season when golden oldies Giggs and now-retired Paul Scholes were figuring so frequently. Tom Cleverley is an England international but still has to fully convince that he can be a major influence at Old Trafford. Antonio Valencia does not look 100 per cent confident after coming back from serious injury, Kagawa is quality but possibly lightweight, Nani continues to excite and exasperate in equal measure – you could see Wayne Rooney waiting for the simple pass that did not come, then watching, perplexed, as Nani did something extraordinary – and Ashley Young does not seem to have made the transition from Premier League to Champions League quality. In short, Moyes needs someone to complement the excellent Michael Carrick, United’s most consistent player last season, who was rested against Liverpool. The deficiencies highlight the absence of ‘forgotten’ man Darren Fletcher, the often unsung hero in whom Sir Alex Ferguson placed so much faith. Fletcher has been struggling with a health problem for the past two or three years and his continued absence has been a big loss, for this excellent athlete and fierce competitor, a player who is decent on the ball and who scores goals, was en route to being top class. Moyes said this week he needs two players – and you can bet that, come the January transfer window, the targets will be midfielders.

A big plus for Moyes was the return to starting action of the excellent Jonny Evans at centre-back. He and Chris Smalling did a good job against one of the league’s most dangerous attacking duos, Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez, who was back after his 10-game suspension. Evans, still a young man but already an experienced player for United, is very quick and I can see him putting huge pressure on Rio Ferdinand to be first choice alongside Nemanja Vidic. Even Vidic may have reason to start looking over his shoulder if Smalling gets the opportunity to play regularly. Lack of first team action is, it seems to  me, all that is holding him back. It will be interesting to see who plays at centre-back at home to West Brom on Saturday, and even more so, who figures in midfield.

I was delighted for the Liverpool fans that they got to see Suarez in action again, even if the controversial Uruguayan looked a little rusty. I did not agree with the FA when they hit Suarez with the 10-match ban after his bite on the arm of Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic. Don’t misunderstand me, I am not condoning such behaviour, far from it, but I believe it was more of a social, rather than a football, offence and, as such, should have been met with a social punishment i.e. a lengthy period of community service, working with kids in Liverpool and setting a better example than he did on the pitch that day. Fans of my old club Everton may find it ironical that I speak out in sympthay for Liverpool supporters. However, my view is that the hard-working, hard-up folk who shell out for a season ticket should not have been deprived for so long of the sight of a player who can go on to rank alongside Liverpool’s legendary strikers, Roger Hunt, Ian St John, Ian Rush and Kenny Dalglish. For me, the most serious offence on the pitch is the blatant, over-the-top, potential leg-breaking tackle. Ask any player which he’d prefer, a bite on the arm – and Suarez’s misdeed was more of a petulant gesture than a vicious act, he didn’t even break Ivanovic’s skin – or a smash from behind against his knee and he will opt for the former. What Suarez did was distasteful – no pun intended. It was a red card offence and that, in itself, brings an automatic three-match ban. Had he served that ban and been ordered to spend time with the people of Liverpool, hopefully showing the better side of his nature, then I think justice would have been better served.




Don’t rush to judge Moyes

The knives are already being sharpened and pointed towards Manchester United manager David Moyes, following his team’s capitulation in the Manchester derby on Sunday. Let me state right now that it is much too early to judge the new United manager, a man who took on one of the best, but most challenging, jobs in football when he succeeded the incomparable Sir Alex Ferguson this summer. I have said here before, and I’ll say it again, United won the title last season by 11 points but it was a false margin, owing more to City’s failure to live up to their potential than to the quality at Old Trafford. And, in that respect, I believe that that 13th title success for Ferguson was amongst the finest of his many fine achievements. City had the better players, but United had the better team.

At The Etihad on Sunday, City had both the better players and the better team, comprehensively dominating the midfield and winning individual battles all over the pitch. In fact, for United only Wayne Rooney did himself justice as his team-mates spent most of the 90 minutes on the back foot and facing their own goal, swamped by a sea of blue. It must have been tough for Moyes to take, especially as United have already lost to their other great rivals, Liverpool – and because they face them again on Wednesday in the Capital One Cup, a match that now assumes massive significance. But I caution Moyes’s critics and the doubters amongst the United fans…this guy is no Paolo Di Canio – the histrionic Italian who was sacked by Sunderland overnight Sunday – he is a strong, determined, level-headed character and a man who won’t lose his nerve. It has been a particularly daunting opening period for Moyes. Hard enough to step into Sir Alex’s shoes, even tougher not to have made the signings he would have liked in the summer, and then faced with opening League matches against Chelsea, Liverpool and City. It will be interesting to see how he approaches the League Cup-tie with Liverpool, who also lost on Saturday, at home to Southampton. Moyes might well be tempted to play his strongest possible team, whereas a good result against City would have afforded him the option to be more experimental. Either way, knowing Moyes as I do, I am sure he will hold his nerve throughout this awkward, early phase of his tenure in the highest-profile managerial post in British football. Let’s give him at least another six matches before we rush to judgement.

One thing is for sure, following the emphatic victory for the blue half of Manchester…City’s performance was awesome and, if they maintain that level, they will fully justify being so many people’s – myself included – tip for the title. City were superior in virtually all positions, with Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero and Pablo Zabaleta the best of a very good bunch. Kompany, in my opinion, has surged ahead of United’s Nemanja Vidic, who does not look as dominant since coming back from injury, to become the outstanding centre-back in the Premier League. Toure, quite simply, is a unique player, a towering midfielder who is so versatile he once played a Champions League tie for Barcelona at centre-half. He often operates in the holding midfield role but, when let off the leash, as he was against United, he is almost unstoppable, Usain Bolt in football boots, a runaway train that clears all before it off the tracks. Two-goal Aguero is Mr Perpetual Motion, a strong, stocky man who is hard to knock off the ball and who is an excellent finisher and his Argentinian countryman Zabaleta, well, he has become the best right-back in the league. In fact, I think he’s probably the best full-back. Zabaleta, signed by Mark Hughes at the start of Sheikh Mansour’s City revolution, is somewhat unheralded in the media but, believe me, not by the professionals, who hold him in the highest regard. Watching him against United, I couldn’t help wondering: “Whatever he’s on, I could do with some of that.” He is that rarity, a full-back who defends well but who also gets forward and even scores the occasional goal. He is a 100 per-center. A manager’s dream.

These players were the jewels in the crown of a gem-encrusted Manuel Pellegrini team who won the day on all fronts, superior in their pace, power and tactics. Credit to United for the way they kept going at 4-0 down, but I will close with a friendly word of advice to David Moyes, regarding Marouane Fellaini, United’s one big signing of the summer, at £27million. Fellaini, along with Michael Carrick, never got near Toure and Fernandinho in the central midfield, a failing that, once again, highlighted United’s deficiencies in that area. Fellaini produced his most effective displays for Everton, under Moyes, when used further forward, as a support act to the strikers. I do not see him as a complete midfielder, nor as a disciplined holding player. And that leaves the more advanced role, as a loose forward, as the best option for a return on that big investment.


The Fab Four

I telephoned Sir Alex Ferguson the other day in my capacity as a fellow member of the hip replacement club. The great man is still in recovery mode following his recent surgery and it was good to chat with my former adversary, the recently-retired most successful manager in the history of British football. My conversation with Sir Alex got me thinking that we are almost certainly never going to see his like again, him and that other outstanding trio of British managers, Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley and Brian Clough. You see, these four men, collectively winners of a mind-blowing 67 major trophies, would probably have neither the opportunity, nor the inclination, to go into football management in the modern “qualifications” dominated system.

These legends were not only dyed-in-the-wool football men, they were also natural-born leaders, whose phenomenal achievements owed more to their instinctive man-management skills and hunger and desire for success than to anything you could read in a coaching manual. Indeed, when Shankly started his revolution at Liverpool in 1959, I’m not sure if there were any coaching manuals! Now, to get a job bossing a Premier League club, a candidate must endure two or three years’ university course-type study en route to attaining his UEFA Pro Licence, the Holy Grail prerequisite as stipulated by football’s governing body in Europe. You must have your UEFA B Licence, then your A License and, finally, your Pro Licence, achieved after an estimated 240 hours of studying. I ask myself, would Shanks, Paisley, Cloughie and Fergie put themselves through that if they were starting out now? The answer, I’m pretty sure, would be no. That being so, imagine all that managerial quality, all of those titles and trophies, being lost to the game. It is a fascinating thought.

Shankly, for example, founder of the famous boot room culture at Liverpool, used to tell his assistants at the end of the season: “Go to Lilleshall, do the coaching courses, take it all in – then get back here and forget it.” Of course, he wouldn’t have meant that, literally, but implicit in his message was the belief that you can’t be coached to get the best out of footballers. That comes from within, from a man’s instinctive ability to identify a player’s strengths and weaknesses and to maximise those strengths. You need charisma, you must command respect and you MUST be able to judge a player.

Nowadays, you MUST have the UEFA Pro Licence.

Shankly, fuelled by his sheer will and love and understanding of the game, transformed Liverpool from a run-of-the-mill club, wallowing in the old Second Division, into the pre-eminent force in English football throughout the 1960′s and 70′s, leading the club to three First Division titles, one UEFA Cup and two FA Cup wins. His successor, Paisley, the former trainer whose tasks included running on to the pitch with bucket and sponge, was a man whose outward, quiet persona concealed an inner ruthlessness. Soft-spoken Paisley had an ‘everybody’s favourite uncle’ image, but he was known as ‘Rats’ at Anfield because he had been one of Field Marshall Montgomery’s Desert Rats in World War Two. A player of modest ability, Bob developed into one of the managerial giants, taking over the reins from Shankly and scooping an incredible three European Cups, six League titles, three League Cups, a UEFA Cup and a Super Cup in nine years. Bob took Kenny Dalglish, arguably Liverpool’s greatest player, and that supremely elegant forward John Barnes to Anfield.

How do you begin to explain the genius that was Clough, like Paisley a son of the North East of England, and the man who worked football miracles by elevating “second city” clubs Derby County and Nottingham Forest to the top of the English game and, in Forest’s case, staggeringly, to the top in Europe. Clough went on FA courses but, I am reliably informed, he was not remotely a stand-out coach, probably only paying lip service to the Establishment. Clough’s feats with Derby and Forest, who won the European Cup in successive seasons, will go down in the annals as one of the greatest achievements in British football. You can be sure that none of his success was down to anything he learned on a coaching course and that all of it was due to his innate ability to command respect and get the very best out of players, so many of whom, in his Forest team, in particular, were guys he picked off the scrapheap. Clough, aided and abetted by assistant Peter Taylor, brought in bad boys like Larry Lloyd and Kenny Burns, rejects like Ian Bowyer and Colin Barrett, free transfers like supposedly over-the-hill full-back Frank Clark and turned them into world-beaters, members of a team who did not answer back to referees and who went to fortresses like Anfield and Old Trafford and won, when nobody else  could. Clough also knew when to invest, buying Peter Shilton, the best keeper in the world at the time, and making Trevor Francis Britain’s first £1million player – then putting him on the bench on his debut! If that wasn’t an example of how to bring a player down to earth, to show him who is boss, then I don’t know what it was. Clough turned John Robertson, the cigarette-smoking, whiskey-loving, chubby winger into one of the most feared forwards in Europe. He made Peter Withe, a free transfer from Southport, into an England centre-forward. I don’t know how he did all these remarkable things, but I do know he didn’t get his inspiration from coaching manuals.

And then there is arguably the daddy of them all, Ferguson, the tough guy from Govan, Glasgow, who became the first of several candidates to be capable of stepping into Sir Matt Busby’s shoes at Old Trafford and who went on to emulate – and even surpass – the legend. It is difficult to separate Shankly, Paisley, Clough and Ferguson in terms of their accomplishments, but perhaps what sets Ferguson apart is his success in embracing the advent of the twin eras of sports science and the multi-millionaire superstar player. That and the fact that he built so many all-conquering teams. Ferguson, already an icon in Scotland where he pushed Aberdeen above previously all-dominant Celtic and Rangers, took over a sleeping giant when he became United boss in 1986 and he transformed the club into a raging monster that gobbled up silverware like no other club had, not even Liverpool. Indeed, this most driven of men stated that his mission was to break Liverpool’s stranglehold on English football. Ferguson retired in May having notched his 13th Premier League title – 13th! His unrivalled 38 major trophy haul also includes three Scottish Premier League wins, four Scottish Cups, one Scottish League Cup, two Cup-Winners’ Cups, two Super Cups, five FA Cups, four League Cups, two Champions Leagues and two World Club Cups.

He did all of that and recently said that one of the best decisions he ever made was, while at Aberdeen, to stop taking coaching and instead to observe from the sidelines, thus being in a better position to assess his players’ form, mental attitude and fitness levels. Clough, whose unique approach included rarely bothering to attend training, once said: “Players lose you games, not tactics. There’s too much crap talked about tactics by people who barely know how to win a game of dominoes.” Ferguson had the nerve – and, believe me you need it, especially at that level – to rebuild teams, the confidence to set standards and the determination never to concede control. Those strictly adhered to rules were the bedrock upon which this remarkable man ran United, so successfully, for an unprecedented 26 years. For the modern, top-level, fully-licensed manager three or four years in the job is akin to a marathon stint.

As I say, we will never see the likes of Messrs Shankly, Paisley, Clough and Ferguson again. And more’s the pity.




Pressure on the purse-strings

It is interesting to note, following my recent comments here, that Manchester United have now upped their dual offer for Everton’s Leighton Baines and Marouane Fellaini to £36million, which had to be the starting point of the proposed double signing. As I have already pointed out, it was at best cheeky and at worst insulting for United to offer £28million, with manager David Moyes adding insult to injury by accusing his former club of standing in the two players’ way by not agreeing to sell at that price, because Moyes, while Everton boss, had already been party to a £24million valuation being put on Fellaini. Now, United have seen sense, though I feel they will have to go a little higher if Moyes is to clinch his first major signings before the transfer window closes on Monday night.

Pressure to strengthen United’s suspiciously lightweight midfield is undoubtedly building on Moyes, who has seen attempts to sign Barcelona’s Thiago Alcantara and Real Madrid’s Cesc Fabregas fail. As United’s fans grow increasingly restless, having watched arch rivals Manchester City and ambitious Tottenham splash around £100 million apiece this summer, news comes of a rejected £25million offer for Athletic Bilbao’s Anders Herrera and an enquiry for Roma’s 91-cap Italy star Daniele De Rossi. Moyes clearly recognises that midfield is the key area that needs instant, top-class reinforcement. I certainly believe that to be the case and I think the majority of United’s fans think so, too.  Michael Carrick was superb last season, the consistent performer as United won the title at a canter, but those around him are not as impressive. Brazilian Anderson has never quite lived up to expectations, Tom Cleverley, though now an England player, is yet to convince that he is top class, and the Japanese Kagawa, though  a delightful footballer, is a bit lightweight for the gruelling demands of a long, Premier League season. Moyes knows he needs one, possibly two, midfielders but the problem for United is that, as one of the world’s top clubs, they will have to pay top dollar to get the men they want. Herrera has a £30million release clause in his contract and Everton appear to value Baines at more than the £12million originally offered, suggesting they will want £36million-plus before agreeing to sell the two players. With four days to go to the transfer deadline, neither United nor Arsenal have spent a penny. They will have to put their money where their mouths are or risk more rejection – and the fury of their fans.

It does look increasingly as though Wayne Rooney will stay at United and, given how fit and streamlined he looked against Chelsea last Monday, that, at least, is a huge boost for Moyes. I have never doubted Rooney’s commitment, but he has looked less than 100 per cent, physically, at times over the past couple of seasons. Not so at Old Trafford the other night, when his sharpness was a beacon on an otherwise dull occasion, one which reflected negatively on Jose Mourinho. You might have expected the second chapter of the Roman Abramovich-Mourinho partnership to provide something of real substance, but Mourinho’s decision to play without a recognised striker was disappointing, to say the least. Perhaps we should not have been surprised, given the way they went 2-0 up against promoted Hull City at home in their opening match – then went into their shell. These early signs suggest Mourinho has not changed his outlook and philosophy much while in Italy and Spain and that he remains, above all else, a supremely practical manager. Certainly, his team selection suggested he doesn’t have much faith in his strikers, Torres, Demba Ba and Lukaku. No wonder he coveted Rooney and no doubt the arrival of Samuel Eto’o on a one-year deal is designed to put pressure on the aforementioned players.

So, let us hope that Sunday’s heavyweight clash at Anfield between Liverpool and United lives up to its traditional billing as one of the crunch matches of the Premier League season. Sir Alex Ferguson consistently claimed the fixture was United’s biggest, though I tend to think that was a sideswipe at Manchester City. I think most United and City supporters would say the Manchester derby means more than any other match. One thing is for sure, Chelsea under Mourinho won’t lose many matches. The question is, will they get bums off seats like I hope Liverpool and United will do this weekend.