Sunday, December 27, 2009

Manchester United-Hull City: Player Ratings

Manchester United

Kusczak (6.5 ) Didn't have to do anything spectacular. Distribution was a little wayward, as usual. Good shot-stopper.

Rafael (7 ) He's definitely not shy. Added impetus to a United attack requiring it. Reckless at times, as usual, but quick and resilient. Had United's best chance in the first half which he attempted well.

Vidic (8 ) Again looked perhaps more comfortable in Ferdinad's old position as right-centre back. Provided the difference in the air. Hopefully he's not carrying any more knocks as United look to make a winter run.

Brown (7.5 ) Good game. Strong in the air. More a natural centre-back than right-back here at the peak in his career.

Evra (7 ) Good technique and pace to provide much-needed natural width. Caught forward a few times. United's most consistent player this season.

Valencia (6.5 ) Got behind the defense a few times in the first half, looked positive when he was able. Touch needs refining, which will come.

Fletcher (8.5 ) United's man of the match back in midfield where he belongs. Looked like he was moving in fast-forward next to his midfield partner. Broke up play and created it throughout an energetic 95 minutes.

Carrick (5 ) Pedestrian as usual. Casual passing led to casual turn-overs. The invisible man.

Giggs (5 ) Definitely has been practicing his free-kicks. However, he's still very old and looked ineffective again on the wing. Passing was poor. Had little effect on the match, little presence throughout.

Berbatov (6.5 ) Held the ball up per usual. Didn't make enough runs. His form has been inconsistent since returning from injury. Needs a good run in the team and these 90 minutes help.

Rooney (6 ) Torrid first half. Lacked belief. Lacked confidence. Passed abysmally. Ball control was wayward. Made a good run to tap in Fletcher's nifty cross, though. Completely culpable for Hull's goal when he panicked under little pressure. Felt guilty and made amends by making more good runs behind the Hull defense in the second half. Nut-meg pass to Berbatov was a bit lucky. The three positive moments of his match don't outnumber the poor decisions and technique he displayed throughout the rest of it, especially in the first half.

United's young wingers

The idea that young players with potential should be weened ever-slowly into first team action is a fallacy perpetuated at the highest level.

At Manchester United, Alex Ferguson employs it capriciously. He shields starlets with the requisite skill and panache to balance his asymmetrical side in favor of experienced, "what you see is what you get" players, like Ji-Sung Park or Ryan Giggs.

But when Ronaldo emerged on the scene in 2003, the deliberate growth of his prodigious talent was quickly marginalized when United needed results. Ronaldo started 23 games in his inaugural season.

The situation is not dissimilar to current circumstances at United. With a dearth of creativity in central midfield, compounded by a disinclination to start Berbatov consistently, Ferguson and United suffer from a lack of innovation going forward.

This weakness of unbalance can be assuaged by compensating the creative paucity with the right selection in United's wings.

Giggs' days as a wide player are essentially over, despite perhaps one performance on the wing to the contrary.

Similarly, Park's efficacy as a defensive winger went out the window when Ronaldo left; his back-tracking is no longer required because he is not playing across from, essentially, a third striker in Ronaldo who rarely tracked back against opposing wingers.

However, players who can provide the required natural width aren't getting the same allowances Ronaldo received at the club, despite the Portuguese player having a much higher ceiling; a much greater need for protection.

Gabriel Obertan has started only one game this season for United, despite being the only winger in United's first team capable to dribble past defenders with skill.

Against Wolfsburg, Obertan arrived in the 73rd minute and immediately skinned two defenders before setting up a sitter. In a rare start, Obertan featured against Wolves in United's next match, playing for 70 minutes in a game United comfortably won with their best attacking six.

Zoran Tosic, a natural left-winger, has started all of none, despite being the only natural left-footed attacker in the squad not named Patty Evra—United's best offender this season..

Over many reserve games, and throughout few first-team appearances, Tosic did very little wrong, and looked spritely, eager to pass and play, and willing to take on defenders. Sadly, he wasn't even included in United's Champions League squad this year.

Either player, opposite Antonio Valencia, help provide the needed balance to their sputtering attack. And they could be rotated with each-other to prevent overburden.

They're both young, and surely shouldn't be thrust into first-team starts consistently, or perpetually, like Wayne Rooney, who's featured every game for Untied this term.

But just because they are young and yet to fill into their bodies, yet to fulfill their potential, doesn't mean they must be coddled with pussyfeet, especially during a time when their attack must relieve pressure on an ailing defense.

Alex Ferguson has done a lot right in his career, enough to be remembered as one of the greatest managers ever.

But, to think he is above changing, or thinking outside of his carefully constructed box, means he will not continue to evolve as a manager, a condition some of his young wingers are currently suffering, through non-use, as players.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Rooney needs a rest

Like his manager, Wayne Rooney is a publicly revered sportsman, generally beyond reproach from the English media.

Despite not being the best player in the England side next to a Gerrard or Lampard, he is the most marketable, and as such, World Cup aspirations are almost solely entrusted upon his swarthy shoulders.

Rooney’s quality is often described in intangible terms. But, the heart and drive which fulfill his forced legend are often exaggerated in masking of his attacking inefficiencies. Never able to beat defenders, and too inept to create space for himself, Rooney is ineffective when off-form or exhausted.

Such is now the case. He has started every United premiership match this season, and it shows.

Lately, besides not threatening defenses at all, the Englishman doesn’t even have the engine upon which his numerous proponents can hang their hats. At least when he wasn’t passing, dribbling, or shooting well, he would track back and get stuck in, giving reason behind the repetitive chants of his name.

But, currently, a knackered Rooney can do little to achieve space or use it. Even his passing—his supposed offensive hallmark—has been askew in his last few appearances.

This is compounded by a natural inability to use skill or trickery to beat defenders, which is compounded further by a general disinclination to dribble to his left. Despite having a strong (if not especially accurate) shot, ultimately, what you have is an overrated, overused striker.

It's important to remember there hasn't been an offseason yet in Rooney's reign at United where he wasn't vicariously expected to evolve into the cabal of footballing elite.

For two seasons prior, Rooney often partnered Carlos Tevez, a player very smilar to himself. Each season, Tevez arguably outplayed the Englishman. Rooney started this season well, partnering splendidly with Dimitar Berbatov, with pundits expecting the Englishman's evolution into the world-class in the Post-Ronaldo era.

Halfway through another season, it remains a hope unrealized.

For some reason, his manager is inclined to play him every match, without any heed to mental or physical exhaustion. Instead of pairing Owen, Macheda, or Wellbeck with the necessary Berbatov, Ferguson chooses instead to employ Rooney awkwardly with the aforementioned three, instead of granting an occasional, needed break.

With a cluttered holiday fixture list forthcoming, the perfect time for a Rooney rest may have come and gone, but the opportunity remains rife for Ferguson to remind Rooney that he is not irreplaceable, and must continue to work in training to achieve his growth, without featuring perfunctorily every match.

When players like Peter Crouch, Jermain Defoe, Gabriel Agbhonlahor, and Bobby Zamora are proving more creative, effective, and predatory in the top flight than Rooney, a rest and reapplication are surely required for the statured English talisman.

If complacency weren't a feature of Ferguson himself, perhaps Rooney would be employed in a role he naturally fits: as a central midfielder, where his passing, strength, engine, and tendency to drop into the pocket to instigate play would be better utilized.

Rooney has potential. But his inability to evolve into a more balanced player, plugging the holes in his incomplete arsenal, means his growth has been deliberate and ordinary, instead of meteoric.

He watched Ronaldo surpass him in almost every category. Then he watched him leave.

Yet Rooney remains. And he remains just Rooney; instead of something more he could have been, he's becoming something less; complacent a world star, never to become world-class.

Berba must start

In regards to United’s relative woes, Alex Ferguson would like everyone to throw up their hands and blame the extensive injuries to his back-line, just like he does.

But perhaps the most bemusing aspect of United’s current descent is the Scotsman’s bewildering usage of his most expensive player, striker Dimitar Berbatov.

Ferguson said in early December that he was “completely satisfied” with the former Bayer Leverkusen striker, and immediately continued to only play him sporadically.

The mysterious playmaker returned from a month-long injury absence in late November, and was featured as an unused substitute against bottom-dwellers Portsmouth.

He started United’s next match against Tottenham, essentially running the game in a comfortable victory. Instead of starting United’s next match at West Ham, Berbatov came off the bench in the 67th minute only after stasis was removed by long-range strikes from midfielders Paul Scholes and Darron Gibson.

United’s next match was a dour home loss to Aston Villa. Ferguson started a 4-5-1 formation, with a mentally and physically exhausted Rooney again expected to succeed up front, alone, as he rarely does. Ferguson pressed the panic button in the 62nd minute, sending Berbatov into the fray to unlock a Villa defense already well retreated within itself.

In their next match, it seemed like the Scotsman begrudgingly realized his best attacking six. Berbatov and Rooney were paired up top—a combination bloomed this year and last—with dynamic, balanced wing support from a rare Obertan start across from Valencia.

Though United, or any of the aforementioned attackers, didn’t play their best, they walked away three goals to the good.

In United’s next and latest game, Ferguson made one of his most egregious tactical mistakes in recent memory. Starting a nebulous 3-5-2 formation, the legendary manager put a fatigued Rooney up top with an unfit Owen, a like-for-like pairing, with no guile, incision, or aerial presence.

Once again, Ferguson teetered and desperately brought in Berbatov after 52 minutes, down two goals, and once again, it was too late for United, who were shutout 3-0.

Simply put, United are 11-1-1 this season in games Berbatov starts. With Scholes and Giggs on the wane, and Ronaldo in foreign shores, the graceful striker is United’s most creative player. Hell, he’s one of the most creative players in the world; largely why United paid such an exorbitant sum for him.

Granted, he’s not perfect. His laconic style is personal, but, there are often times he could hustle more into goal-scoring positions, instead of shrugging his shoulders, almost self-congratulatory, and maundering slowly forward after he’s sent in a splitting through-ball.

However, his ability to cast off defenders and retain possession is absolutely world-class. His vision and passing are outstanding; better than Rooney’s. He holds and shuttles the ball intelligently, seemingly with little effort. His close ball control, again, is unparalleled. His volleying technique—magnificent.

Unfortunately for Berba, his inimitable style beguiles onlookers just as it does defenders, making him one of the most opinion-dividing stars in the world football. But Berbatov is the truth. His play doesn't lie, it only confuses.

He can’t really seem to get a game, though, while his manager strangely tinkers with new formations. Omnipresent in these formations, though, is Rooney, who does far less to create and produce goals, even though his actual goal tally this term is markedly higher than the Bulgarian’s—mostly tap-ins with four penalty conversions.

Rooney doesn’t create goals exceptionally well, but he does finish goals, albeit not at the frequency of more predatory strikers. Berbatov is not a natural predator, but creates goals better than Rooney, other forwards and most attacking central midfielders in Europe.

Their combination to start the season was and remains Ferguson's best option, short of pairing Berbatov with Macheda and pushing Rooney into center midfield.

But now Rooney is tired, Berbatov can’t get a start, and United are playing their worst football this season.

Ferguson can’t blame all that on injuries, and nor should you.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Ferguson minus plot equals United

Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson again complained about not being granted enough injury time, but his tactics throughout the match Saturday are what sent United packing.

Apparently believing the hype of certain outlying, individual performances over the past few weeks saw Ferguson start the home match against mid-table Aston Villa with an overly cautious 4-5-1 approach, with several players again expected to play better than they generally are.

Ferguson believed a starting eleven featuring Wayne Rooney uncomfortably alone up top, Ryan Giggs as the central, creative driver, with only Valencia and the Ji-Sung Park to overlap would be enough to beat Brad Friedel, arguably the best goalkeeper in the top flight over the last decade.

But the manager's reliance on Giggs and Rooney as the soure for impetus and innovation going forward indicates as much of his crooked perception in his own player form as bringing on Michael Owen—for Rooney—when United desperately needed a goal.

The stubborn persistence of this tactic employed will see United lose out to Chelsea for this seasons' EPL crown as most followers already predict.

The inoften times Giggs unlocks a defense or confuses a defender are happily exaggerated in the general public, leading to a surprising growth in legend for the Welshman over the past few seasons.

But his growth is mainly in legend only, for his inability to boss games, much less hold on to the ball consistently or unlock defenses, are eagerly overlooked for the outlying occurrences of any successes.

Wayne Rooney, by this account, is having another inconsistent season fluctuating from mediocre to only above average. Despite the incessant hype and world-wide adoration from the casualist of fans, his most explosive years in the top flight trace back to wearing a blue shirt, or in his earliest United campaigns.

Then he wasn't robotically trained to pickup the ball left of center, inevitably going to his right, without faking or attempting any sort of guile, to pass square or backwards.

Rooney past used to duck his shoulder, shrug off defenders, and both belt and curl shots from range past pony-tailed goalkeepers. But in the Youtube era, his reputation precedes him each match, and defenders know his disinclination to attack them head-on, use his left foot, or dribble to his left side.

Simply put, when a forward players' greatest asset is his penchant for tracking back, or the intangible "heart" he posesses, there is quality and potential being masked and left wanting.

There's less doubt that Rooney can be more than a serviceable striker for a perennial global top-five club, but certainly not playing alone up top in a pedestrian formation formation usually reserved for away matches at Europe's continental giants.

Ferguson's player selection didn't help Rooney's or United's cause.

Although fully fit, Dimitar Berbatov was left on the bench, despite having recovered from a knee injury that interrupted a run of fine form for the Bulgarian. Ferguson said recently that he was "completely satisfied" with the classy linchpin, but his selection doesn't mirror his spoken platitudes.

Berba returned from injury Nov. 28 against Portsmouth as an unused substitute. He then started the following match, running the game against Tottenham for the first 60 minutes, before inexplicably only appearing as a sub in the last two matches.

Without Ronaldo to beat defenders and create space, United need their best creative players in their spine, and Berbatov has proven this year to be their absolute best in that regard.

The United head coach also optioned Park Ji-Sung on the wing across from Antonio Valencia, who, despite improving, is consistently expected to do too much going forward.

But most of Park's value to United went awash when Ronaldo left. The Korean's purpose at the club was to defend as much as Ronaldo attacked, compensating for the void left by the former Ballon d'Or winner whenever he burst forward.

Without such an obstensible attacking winger to foil, there's no real reason for the clumsy but tenacious Park to be gifted a start in a side gravely lacking in verve. Like a poor man's Rooney, Park's best quality is his engine and back-tracking, useful attributes--when you need them.

The complete exclusion of the spider Gabirel Obertan, who has only impressed in his spotty performances this season, shows a crotchety reluctance by Ferguson to give the young, dynamic attacker a starting berth, a philosophy contrary to the manager's supposed motus operandum as a promoter of younger talent.

And when it all went wrong Saturday night, the knighted gaffer continued to err in reason. Instead of finally and mercifully pairing Rooney and Berbatov together to field his most attacking, flowing side, duly assuaging the audience's expectation for enterprising football at Old Trafford, Sir Alex replaced Rooney with Owen.

But despite what recent headlines read, a happenstance hat-trick in a European rubber match has not warped Owen back to 1998 as a prime finisher and integral ingredient in the England national team.

Owen was not instantly restored to his former self after finishing thrice against Wolfsburg, and until he consistently resembles a predator, he can't be expected to patch over his manager's tactical mistakes, saving matches after they're already lost.

If he is to be the ace in the hole for United's current campaign, Alex Ferguson is clearly believing too much of what he's been reading.

The romantic headlines United's attackers garner are reflective more of each's inconsistency then they are a trustworthy expectation of form throughout the year.

Without allowing Berbatov to dictate play from the beginning, playing 4-4-2, or letting starlets like Obertan or Tosic grow by fire and balance a void for originality in the center, needless setbacks against lesser sides will continue to mar a sub-par year for United.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


It's refreshing to watch United win without Rooney or Giggs, if only to be spared the fawning ballyhoo they receive following a game they even only marginally influence.

Such was the case midweek in the Carling Cup against Tottenham, when a youthful United side without the two superstars beat Spurs old-fashionedly, with stout defense, concise passing, and a rampaging midfield, with a dose of class from Berbatov up top.

Though Darron Gibson got all the headlines, more importantly, it was a team performance in a match containing flow, reciprocity, and good spirit, all encouraged by a laisse-faire approach in an excellent showing from referee Mark Clattenburg.

Last weekend, though, the media's two favorite British players were once again forcedly elevated to Pantheon status, glossing over what was otherwise a pretty poor display from the Manchester reds at home to Portsmouth.

A frustratingly tentative United side could have gone into the tunnel at half-time down if not for Pompey's abysmal finishing and Kuszczak's Brobdingnagian goalkeeping.

Almost immediately after the intermission, United scored their only goal from open play to seize and keep the numerical advantage. The best pass of the move was from Fletcher forward to Giggs, who in turn played forward deftly—but simply—to Rooney who finished neatly—but somewhat fortuitously—under the onrushing goalie.

The floodgates were opened. United poured through. When the rainclouds cleared, the scoreboard read 4-1. But the truth was not alone constructed by digits.

The two players who appeared most on the scoresheet at match end—Rooney and Giggs, with four goals and an assist between them—were actually two of the worst players in red, especially for the first half.

Rooney was quiet and unproductive, maundering, producing no inspiration, turning past all of zero defenders. Giggs was misplacing passes left and right, perfunctorily getting the ball stolen from his slight frame and slowing feet, out-swinging corner kicks fruitlessly.

Only Giggs was marginally better in the second half from open play. Pompey were stretched, knackered, and mentally beaten. Only then did the Welshman produce two good passes which, along with his late free-kick and assist, somehow ended up representing his whole performance.

Lost to selective memory are all the misplaced touches, poor decisions, and lack of physicality that really comprise most of Giggs' forays these days. Lost to the greater good is each instance Rooney can't hold off, turn past, or drive through defenders, drifts completely out of influence, or gets caught offside needlessly.

It's not that good players, on even great days, do everything perfectly. But when they weren't having even a good day, they should be credited as such, without special weight given to either the exceptional few acts of quality, or a serendipitous goal return.

To be fair, whether it's Ryan Giggs or Randy Couture, aging athletes are easy to get behind. But at least in the mixed martial arts world, where discourse is fueled and driven by a youthful Internet community's online forums—not in newspapers or megasites—the latters' real stature is known self-evidently as merely entertaining, not competitively qualitative.

In football, though, a wishful perception recycled and promoted repeatedly becomes reality. editorialized Rooney's performance as such: "His every flick was delightful, shooting exceptional and link-up play effortless. Without the United No. 10, the fires of the comeback would have been impossible to stoke."

Such vivid imagery. The writer added in the player ratings, "[Rooney] finished all his chances superbly and didn't give the Pompey center-backs a moment's rest." Both the elder Welshman and the balding scouser received a nine rating, while players who actually played better , like Kusack, Valencia, Fletcher, and even Scholes, had lesser marks.

You wonder if the writers are sponsored by the FA and England's 2018 World Cup campaign, or just caught up, like most others, in cultivated group-think, consuming and fostering the Rooney brand.

On Match of the Day , the dim Alan Shearer thought Giggs was "absolutely sensational," literally highlighting Giggs' only positive moves on the 90 minutes as justification. Mark Lawrenson incorrectly added "Giggs and Rooney were difficult to play against today" before Gary Linekar obligatorily and needlessly concluded "as they so often are."

It can be easy to get caught up in the hype and romance. But football should be judged where it's played, beneath the layer of hope-fulfillment and emotion, beneath the artificial film of production aesthetics and commentary. It's during those 90 minutes where players' quality is expressed, not in the arbitrary sensationalism written afterwards.

Though Rooney is at times better than most players, he is not yet in the world class, and it appears it never will be without developing his left foot and dribbling.

Giggs is mostly unable to cope or create against midfields better than the mediocre majoity in the incongruous Premier League.

But, just as Rooney and Giggs were cultivated as all-beating heroes last weekend, Gibson took home the crown after belting two wicked goals Tuesday against Spurs.

Several pundits likened him to Roy Keane, apparently because they're each Irish, because the United player most emulating Keano on the pitch is actually Scottish. correspondingly titled their United-Spurs match report "A Star is Born." It's click-worthy, but really, it's stretching. A following editorial reads "Darron Gibson Could Be the New Frank Lampard at Jose Mourniho's United." Now that's definitely a shameless combination of hyperbole and whimsy.

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