Friday, November 20, 2009

Robbie Keane would have done the same

More than enough has been written about the unfortunate turn-of-events when France advanced to the 2010 World Cup at Ireland's behest.

Though Thierry Henry is the culprit, he should not become a villain, nor have his reputation tarnished by what will surely become the omnipresent fine print in his character bio forever.

First, the ball hit his hand. Then he knowingly moved hand to ball, effectively trapping prior to crossing. This reaction is the same most other players would have had in extra-time for a crucial World Cup qualifier.

As a player, you do it instinctively. It's not conscious. But in the milliseconds after the act, you assume to be caught, penalized, and possibly booked.

Unfortunately for the Irish, and fortunately for the French, he wasn't.

But his blink decision to handle the ball is the same any other player would have, whether they're honest English or deceitful French. There is no one player of the top 30 in the world that haven't purposefully handled a ball, or fallen over easily. Too much is at stake to do otherwise.

Henry is certainly culpable, and he was in no way honest. But language like "disgraceful" and "specialist cheat" are hyperbolic at best.

The Frenchman's post-mortem comments probably could have been nobler. Though he stated that he handled the ball, he didn't absolve himself of guilt. Nor was he proving skeptics correct; he obviously handled it, purposefully, and twice, and could not have hid that fact. Owning up was par for the course.

Only after FIFA rejected the FAI's request for a replay did Henry pipe up with, "Of course the fairest solution would be to replay the game but it is not in my control.'' Saying something like that before FIFA's decision would have showed some more gall and class.

But, regardless of those particulars, the unfortunate result is that Ireland misses out on the World Cup. Also, all the money commensurate, while Henry suffers lasting ignominy for what would have otherwise been a brilliant career.

Who's to blame, then? Irishman Roy Keane grinds his ax such: "I'd focus on why they didn't clear (the free-kick). How can you let the ball bounce in your six-yard box? How can you let Thierry Henry get goal-side of you? If the ball goes into the six-yard box, where the hell is my goalkeeper?"

But accountability is passe. Should the match officials be blamed? Is FIFA's structure at fault? Does the game need television replay?

It'd be fruitless to blame the match officials. The mass of players prohibited the referee from seeing the infringement. Even if he had been closer, and had a clear view of Henry, he'd have only seen the French striker's back.

However, there is certainly cause for having four line judges at a match of this caliber, when there are millions of dollars at stake, as well as the pride of a nation. A third and fourth line judge would cover more viewing angles on the field.

But television replay in the game would detract from the beauty of football, which is found in its subjectivity and continuity of play. American sports suffer from constant stoppages and TV time outs, which detracts casual fans not bred in the sport.

It's too bad to have to say this, but it all comes down to luck, or a lack of it. Apparently even the luck of the Irish has no bias, just like the luck of everyone else. All sides find themselves at the receiving end, both from the good and bad variety, at varying times and to varying degrees.

It all averages out, more or less, and may that never change.

Do the Irish deserve to be at the World Cup? No. They lost to France. Paul McShane should have cleared that ball instead of letting it bounce to Henry.

Does Henry deserve to be forever remembered a cheat and a liar? No. He did what many other players do and have done since the game was invented, which is all we ask of them: use trained instincts to try and win football matches.

Evans and Vidic, together forever

Most casual observers of Premier League football attribute Manchester United's trilogy of consecutive championships to be largely based on an ingredient no longer present: Cristiano Ronaldo.

But it's intellectual evasion to simply attribute anything to just one factor. The current Galactico's emergence into the world class certainly paralleled United's resurgence against what was Chelsea's brief dominance of the top division, but his influence was not absolute.

Often overlooked—as defenders are—was the capturing of Patty Evra and especially Nemanja Vidic in January of 2006.

Despite each taking time to acclimate to the British game, both Evra's swinging wingplay and particularly Vidic's gorilla mentality provided the foundation for players like Ronaldo to get forward with complete abandon.

Then United started winning titles again.

If that trend is to continue, it'll likely be predicated on defense again. United are famously without CR7 and conspicuously without any great creative threat in his absence.

Unable to rely on that big, red button, the great Ronaldo emergency pressure valve, activated after each successful defense, launching marauding counter-attacks, now United are stagnant getting down the field.

Often Wayne Rooney drops deep, sensing need, to spray the ball to the right, and if a cross comes in, it's only Dimitar Berbatov in the middle to fend for himself. Or vice versa, as Berbatov links play, leaving Rooney's considerable head—but small stature—in the center alone.

When once they sprang forward, they now progress more deliberately, making their attack less incisive, their defense more important.

As such, any success in Mancunian parts will be founded again upon a murderin' Vidic with his new partner Jonny Evans.

Rio Ferdinand is mercifully taking ample time to tend to his injuries. He can afford to, already cemented in Fabio Capello's England plans. Therefore Evans has at least two months of consistent football ahead of him.

In the games he's earned this season and last, the Northern Irishman has proven more than willing and capable to fill Vidic's position in the left of central defense. The right-footed Vidic actually seems more comfortable in Ferdinand's vacated position to the right of Evans.

Just a fortnight ago, against Didier Drogba—formerly Vidic's favored nemesis—Evans cheekily and knowingly stamped the Ivorian's chest in a pugnacious display which brought joy to anyone rooting red, as Vidic himself chuckled on the sideline while Drogba writhed epileptically.

It's the same physical, simple-minded approach that Vidic himself brought to the club in 2007 which perpetuated what is now a decade-long dynasty for Man United.

Each player will have a chance to put their head in where it hurts when they greedily welcome the blue-collar Everton to Old Trafford on Saturday. For Evans, it begins what should be a long run of games alongside the fan-favored Serbian.

If Jonny Evans continues to impress fans, pundits, and his manager, while causing our rivals' show ponies to spasm comically, Ferdinand might not be—nor should be—featuring even into the new year, or even well beyond.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Owen Hargreaves and the United Midfield

When Owen Hargreaves finally returns from injury, in what may be his last chance to achieve his prime, United manager Alex Ferguson can again field his strongest midfield.

But the Englishman, so influential in United's 2008 European double-winning season, is not the only significant addition required to create United's most balanced side.

In a 4-5-1, Ferguson's preferred—though not always proven—formation in Europe and major domestic matches, Hargreaves and Fletcher are a staple. In a 4-4-2, the two comprise the ideal pairing, though it could be debatable.

If only Giggs and Scholes weren't solely effective against lesser quality midfields. Psychologically and physically, against sides like Chelsea, Arsenal, Man City, and further at Inter, Barcelona, or Madrid, United will need Owen Hargreaves and Darren Fletcher to partner in 4-4-2.

Such a pairing, going forward, isn't disimiliar to a central pairing of Carrick with either player, but both Fletcher and Hargreaves bring more energy, truculence, and consequently control to the middle.

Ultimately, Giggs or Scholes could still feature in a five-manned midfield, or if Hargreaves has to slot in at right-back, partner Fletcher in the middle. With the Canadian-born Englishman back in the fold, at no point should Carrick's name appear in any ideal starting eleven.

However, as with any central pairing not containing Scholes or even Giggs, this leaves a need to attack and counter through their wings. The imbalance created by having two holding midfielders can be compensated by faster, more creative wingplay.

The left wing has been a void this season. The star-crossed Nani continues to waste his potential. His decision-making hasn't improved, despite being given more than enough time on the field to grow. He stops when he should start, and dribbles when he should pass. He has no composure. He defines inconsistency. He's done.

United's right flank is in somewhat better shape. Serviceable but not particularly exciting, Antonio Valencia can supply crosses regularly, but he almost always dribbles to his right, making it increasingly predictable for defenders to smother.

Furthermore, if United aren't on the counter, the opposing team generally has plenty of bodies in the middle, which isn't really ideal with usually just Rooney with Berbatov in heading positions.

A team with two such skillful forwards would benefit more from a counterattacking philosophy, wingers going past and through defenders at pace or playing off Berbatov to eventually feed a darting Rooney.

Gabriel Obertan has captured the imagination of United faithful with his pace and naivete. As such, the French prospect is not only an obvious (and merciful) replacement for the egregious Nani, but a feasible alternative to Valencia.

Naturally right-footed, the French prospect can cut in effectively from the left, a-la Ronaldo, or drive down the right, with more guile and abandon than the straightforward Ecuadorian.

When Obertan is not opposite Valencia, Zoran Tosic is the man to drive past defenders, deliver set pieces, and provide a natural width most teams lack and crave.

However, Alex Ferguson is, so far, willing to give Tosic the consistent run-out he deserves. Whether or not the Serbian was bought with fellow midfielder Adam Llajc simply to bring security or comfort to Nemanja Vidic, he's proven in few chances that he's a quick and tidy player.

At 22, Tosic may have less gusto than a similarly aged Giggs, but there's no reason he can't fulfill the same classic left-winger mold, in a natural role every team craves, for the next many years in Manchester.

If only his crotchety manager agreed. But Ferguson precluded the Serb from United's European squad this year, making the youngster's maturation dependent on his inclusion in United's domestic games this season.

With a combination of Obertan, Tosic, and Valencia, United's wings are very dynamic. Hargreaves and Fletcher can gamely control the middle while Tosic, in his natural position, provides balance and flare as Obertan or Valencia slice in from the right, supplying Berbatov to pivot and create for Rooney running behind defenses.

As stated, Scholes and Giggs can still contribute in the center, albeit sparingly and against the right opponents.

But just because Ronaldo is plying his trade in Madrid doesn't mean United can't, or shouldn't, continue to feature wingplay, particularly on the counter, and especially since a marque creative midfielder wasn't sought in the summer transfer window.

And without a Wesley Sneidjer or Yoann Gourcuff to partner world-beater Fletcher in the middle, Ferguson will need to trust both Hargreaves and his two young wingers if United are to regain their attacking acumen and compete with Arsenal and Chelsea throughout the season.

Monday, November 9, 2009

United can look ahead from Chelsea loss

As mostly everyone knows by now, Man United lost 1-0 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge Sunday after John Terry scored a controversial goal in the 76th minute.

Different articles on different sites will all tell you more or less the same thing: United had several major decisions go against them and probably didn't deserve to lose.

Maybe United deserved a point. But, without Berbatov to link chains in the middle, and with a midfield containing three holding players, with Ryan Giggs unable to create anything against Chelsea's athletic midfield, the Reds weren’t likely to score and didn’t have many chances to.

But now that it's behind United and its fans, it doesn't really seem to matter.

Last season, United played Arsenal, Chelsea, and Liverpool all away in the first half of the campaign en route to their domestic double.

This term, their two toughest fixtures of the season—away to Anfield and at Chelsea—are again already behind them, with the corresponding reverse fixtures coming at home in the second half of the season.

After 12 matches last year, United were eight points adrift of Chelsea. After Sunday's loss, they stand only five points behind.

It’s these data points that save us pseudo-neutrals from having to read any doom-and-gloom declarations by the “anything but United” contingent or sourpuss United fans.

Hell, the Red Devils couldn’t have played much better against Chelsea barring a few finishes being just slightly more calibrated. Of course, they could have made much better measure of themselves against Liverpool three weeks ago when they lacked all composure and lost 2-0 after Vidic was sent off—again.

In hindsight, though, United's loss to Liverpool can be promoted from "embarrassing" to "fluky," as Liverpool plummets down the table—now 12 points behind Chelsea—and are essentially out of Europe.

So, if there was any team to play well against, it was Chelsea. They're the only likely competition for a long title race which, as of Sunday, unofficially began.

And just as interest piques, so too it wanes; two weeks of friendly international matches now interrupt the narcotic transmission of competitive continuity.

But Alex Ferguson's men can hang their hats during their vacation, knowing they'll need to put them firmly back on—Draper-esque—as they embark on a long winning streak all their fans now demand.