Sunday, March 13, 2011

Rooney justifies midfield ambitions in balanced display against Arsenal

Employing Rooney in Scholes' role instead of continuing to shoehorn him as an out-and-out striker he is not is the only scenario I can envision really unshackling Rooney's remaining and decreasing potential.

Well it's about bloody time.

Sir Alex Ferguson emerged from his carefully-carved thinking box and finally employed Wayne Rooney in the center of midfield for Manchester United.

Granted, it was only a bit-part performance: Against Arsenal on Saturday, Rooney was still, at most times, the second-most man forward.

But, particularly in the first half, he played like he was part of the midfield instead of someone without any defensive duties.

His head was on a swivel. He was involved, almost happy, pointing and directing traffic on defense and grabbing the ball deep to alternatively create triangles and slowly press upfield or ping it himself over the top through to Hernandez, occupying Rooney's old position. It was almost beautiful.

He even intimated that Ferguson did it on purpose, which is both refreshing and surprising.

"The work effort from the two lads on the wing, and we had me and Gibbo just in front of O'Shea, and I think it worked out well," the Englishman said.

"We worked hard. We stopped them getting through-balls to the forwards and we knew we could catch them on the break which we have done over the last few years against Arsenal.

"It was a gritty performance from us."

Hernandez was the target man as Rafael and Fabio also flew forward giving Rooney the foundation to really ply his inherent traits.

Why did we have to wait 65 million years for this?

And his traits are well-documented, just as this paradigm shift from his manager—if it's even that—is long overdue.

I wrote in 2008, advocating Rooney behind Berbatov and Tevez when the English striker was characteristically off-form and their rotation up top became counter-productive:

While they are healthy, the situation could easily be manipulated to the side's advantage, but it requires a break from dogma for the Scottish manager.

Ferguson's parochial approach to playing Rooney at the expense of Tevez must be shifted to slotting Rooney behind both [the Argentine] and Berbatov in an attacking midfield role.

Rooney is a workhorse. His penchant for tracking back is actually maligned when he is playing striker; slot him into a supporting role, and it would be glorified.

In addition to his work-rate, Rooney is a brilliant creative passer and a team leader. He is quicker and stronger than Carrick, and might even be better in the air.  

The energy he harbors playing forward, which, as said, is often expressed rashly and impudently, could easily be displaced throughout the midfield. 

There he can win balls and orchestrate forward movements: passing, firing long-range shots, and making late runs trademarked by the ginger-haired master.

Not a lot has changed. United still have two other strikers in more consistent form. Carrick is still shite. Why not get Rooney on the field in a position he can really express himself?

He could play the defensive in role in midfield better than the lanky Englishman while passing better, being faster, stronger and with better cardio and vision.

Furthermore, Wayne would absolutely revel in being able to constantly pick up the ball off the backline,  eliminating the inevitably of them aimlessly booting it downfield to him.

He'd also love tracking other playmakers because players with huge egos love tracking other players with huge egos. Trust me.

He could start from deep, work triangles through the park, ping Hollywood balls from corner to corner, flying tackle people, throw elbows willy-nilly, spit to his heart's content, be closer to the referee to yell "FACK OFF", and get sent off more.

Where's the downside?

Rooney has always been a better footballer than a striker.

Different formations an' that

It doesn't really matter what tactics the gaffer wants to use, our Scouser would fit finely.

Even a center pairing of Rooney and Scholes is more combative than the Ginger Prince and "The Friendly Ghost" proved against Chelsea two weeks ago. There United's center midfield were overrun in the second half, Fletcher marooned out wide.

Then Ferguson again started Carrick and Scholes in the middle against Liverpool in front of a depleted backline. This time Rooney was the one marooned incorrectly in left field and thereby abysmal. United conceded more space and looked more amateurish than they had at any other time this season.

To be sure, in a 4-4-2, Fletcher should be the first midfielder on the teamsheet. Pairing him with Rooney is an equally creative—but substantially more bottled—alternative to Scholes and especially Giggs.

In a four-man midfield, if the ginger one isn't up to task—injured or otherwise, employing Valencia, Nani, Fletcher, and Rooney is much more appealing on paper than any other possible attacking array.

Ferguson's infamous 4-5-1 with Hernandez or Berbatov up top with Rooney, Scholes, and Fletcher supporting makes an otherwise ineffective and undesirable formation seem absolutely dreamy.

Sir Alex experiments elsewhere too

Basically, when it comes to five-man midfields, if it doesn't involve Carrick or Gibson, and has Wayne somewhere in the middle, then it's green pastures.

Especially since Ferguson also revealed against Arsenal his hitherto unknown or nonexistent willingness to try a da Silva twin on the wing.

The Brazilians are perfect like-for-like replacements to fulfill a Ji-Sung Park role, except they are much faster and far superior going forward.

They have fantastic engines and each get well stuck-in—with a grain of naivete, of course, and not that it's always bad.

They provide rambunctious, more defensive-minded wingplay if ever an overabundance of creativity in the middle had to be compensated for.

The da Silva twins do so with more attacking panache and ability along the wing than Park, Fletcher, Rooney, or any other player Ferguson would shoehorn in for a more defensive approach.

Russian doll phenomenon

Perhaps most importantly, slotting Wayne Rooney into center middle means Javier Hernandez gets to play more.

Chicharito gives a completely different look than any other United striker. It's become obvious even to pundits. His forward runs are absolutely electric, opening space throughout the whole park and enabling a

United counterattack that is otherwise stale without him.

Hernandez is more natural to the position and more effective in it than Rooney. Already. After half a season.

Ponch has vast, undeveloped inherent talent, as opposed to Rooney who had talent but plateaued as he became complacent believing was a premier world striker.

He's the better forward, better alone up top, and a better partner for Berbatov.

Frankly, the idea of Rooney creating play for the two up top is absolutely spellbinding in theory.

Whether it plays out in real time is unlikely to be ascertained until next season—a consistent, major postitional shift for Ferguson's most popular player wouldn't take place proper during the culmination of a three-front trophy assault. Rooney may not even be here then.

But if he is, and if it does, then United and its fans might have finally been rewarded with the replacement for Paul Scholes we've been desperately seeking already for several years.

It's a move that benefits the team and the player, giving United a younger, energetic version of—and replacement for—their best player of the last 15 years, allowing Rooney the space and role to do everything a relatively complete footballer should be able to do throughout the course of a match.

Follow me on twitter ya'll.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The absurdity of Manchester United's midfield and Sir Alex's selection

For being a legendary manager, Sir Alex sure makes a lot of bad fundamental decisions.

Especially coming off a hopefully learning loss at Chelsea midweek.

But Ferguson showed no signs of insight or clarity when he sat Darren Fletcher and played a flimsy 4-4-2 away to his arch-rivals Sunday.

Selection askew again

Midweek at Stamford Bridge, Sir Alex got about as tricky as he can by playing 4-4-2 away to Chelsea.

But there he marooned Fletcher on the right wing so Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick could eventually give up control in the second half.

He should have learned from that display that any 4-4-2 needs to contain the Scotsman or a similar end-to-end player who can both get stuck in correctly and make occasional more runs into the 18-yard-box.

After all, I wrote about it after the match. Why didn't Ferguson read it? He should really follow me on twitter.

But at least he played Fletcher against Chelsea.

Sir Alex appallingly seated his Scottish nucleus on the bench at Anfield, setting the foundation for an abhorrent losing display.

Let's not get physical (physical)

The game was always going to be cagey and demanding. So why did Ferguson start his lightest midfield possible?

Especially when a five-man midfield in games like these had regrettably become his hallmark.

Giggs and Nani are poor tacklers. The latter particularly lacks defensive sense as well.

Honestly if you need some steal on either wing and Park isn't available, put another da Silva out there and let him run wild. Hell, the twins could probably interchange along the touchline with some really good football.

An approach like that against Liverpool (with Fletcher centrally) would have been very helpful.

But United's longest-tenured manager shows no signs of adapting his thinking or doing it outside of a carefully constructed box.

United could have gotten away with it, though, if their center midfield had any sort of bottle at all.

Carrick the friendly ghost

Scholes and Carrick are a horrible pairing and it's not the former's fault.

At least he has credible attributes that contribute to the team in a meaningful way.

Selecting Scholes is justifiable; his creativity in the middle is tantamount going forward.

But the Englishman isn't getting forward himself much these days, content, as everyone knows to spray passes from deep with artistry and precision.

But he needs the right partner. Someone who will go from box to box and really harry opposing playmakers and enforcers.
Carrick doesn't fit that description. He, ironically, is also content to attempt to do exactly what Scholes does but significantly worse, without equal guile, technique, or vision.

He tries to get by being being a ninja but he plays like a ghost. He is anonymous, hoping if he avoids detection he can keep being paid egregious amounts of money to have little or no impact on a football match.

But if you actually watch him individually over the course of a game, wow, he sure is rubbish.

The waferthin Englishman spent most of United's match against Liverpool standing 10 feet away from his maestro. Scholes was shimmying around constantly trying to get the ball as Carrick watched with mouth agape.

Meanwhile whenever United got the ball up to their forwards or wingers, there was no one to come knifing into the box late.

On the other side of the ball, as Scholes threw himself about, the former Spurs midfielder basically played a zone defense and only rarely pressured physically.

He doesn't assert himself or throw his weight around at all as evidenced throughout United's last two losses and recorded in these margins.

How has he ever been considered up to an English standard or meeting the grade in Manchester has always been purely beyond me and is archived in all my writings.

Rooney creates more problems than he solves

Wayne Rooney should be the player to replace Scholes as the club's prime central-midfielder.

He tracks back, gets stuck-in, and has a very wide passing range.

Ferguson is considered a genius but this simple idea, written time and again, remains just a pipe dream to those of us outside his rigid paradigm.

Instead he positions Rooney on the left wing and it is utterly mind-numbing.

Wayne never touches the ball with his left foot to turn or dribble and it makes his dribbling slower and his turns less effective.

He could dribble faster if he was are able to use either foot; therefore able to take a decisive touch with every step of a running gait.

Furthermore, if he can touch the ball and turn and dribble with both feet then not only is the ball protected between his legs, but it will be under his center mass, providing better natural balance and a quicker ability to change direction at any whim.

Furthermore, he could dribble faster if he was are able to use either foot; therefore able to take a decisive touch with every step of a running gait.

His array of attacking moves would be diverse and reactive instead of plodding, forecast, and obvious. He might actually get around someone with the ball instead of only rarely getting past them only to be off-balance.

But Rooney is so one-dimensional. He doesn't stretch play at all on the wing and his dumbfire intention of hoofing in an aimless cross is completely and laughably forecast.

Is this the United hallmark for football? A left-footer on the right wing and a right-footer on the left wing checking inside to hoof in hopeful crosses?

I guess so, especially without a central-midfielder getting forward to create play in the final third.


Watch United's possession at 34:27 of the first half against Liverpool. Watch Rooney's inability, then track Carrick all the way until Liverpool get their clear-cut chance.

It embodies everything I've said and felt for the last few seasons.

We can still win the league, but it'd help if Ferguson is challenged by someone at his staff to change his parochial, stubborn, failing approach to selection and tactics.

We've been riding our luck thus far, something that has been consistently mused upon before being confirmed over the course of two regrettable matches.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Ferguson's selection, Chelsea dominance send United packing off to Anfield

With a trip to Merseyside against Liverpool looming on Sunday, Manchester United have little time to ruminate over the frustrating loss to Chelsea on Tuesday.

Luckily, I have way more free time than any respectable person and I've decided to spend some of it sitting here typing this bollocks.

Errors on the teamsheet

The Red Devil's loss to Chelsea on Tuesday was pretty brutal. To begin, Alex Ferguson's starting lineup was a little confusing.

At this point, we're all completely desensitized to him opting for a 4-5-1 in any major away fixtures. He even flirted with it recently away to Wolves and Wigan and went with it at home to Villa.

Opting instead for 4-4-2 in a situation like this could have been refreshing. However, marooning Darren Fletcher out wide while Michael Carrick supported Paul Scholes against Michel Essien was never going to be enough.

Carrick has a tragic tendency to get near opposing midfielders without making a tackle. It's crucial to, at the very least, upset another player's balance and timing by putting a body on him. Carrick doesn't tackle often enough or well enough to guard Scholes in the middle.

I thought this stuff was obvious. I thought Fergie had only been playing him as a stopgap over the last couple months. I was wrong and Ferguson was wrong on Tuesday.

Scholes is necessary going forward, but he's gotta be protected. He alone has trouble anyways against more physical midfielders. In starting Lampard and Essien, Anceolotti put out a more balanced center midfield than Ferguson. Essien is the best player out of the four and our best midfielder was required in the core.

Blew it. Right formation, perhaps; wrong teamsheet.

I would have played Giggs out left, Fletcher protecting Scholes in the middle, and Nani on the right. That's our best four-man midfield, right? Without Valencia, at least. But, whatever.

Hernandez enables, Rooney delivers

Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney up front looked good on paper and performed in actual spacetime.
Hernandez was and is the great enabler: He stretches defenses leaving room for any strike partner and both Berbatov and Rooney prefer to drop in that space to pickup the ball, turn, and create play.

This played out at Stamford Bridge and Rooney benefited. He was flowing forward and using the Mexican smartly, showing fitness and marginally better touch.

Hernandez was a perfect foil for the Englishman to touch onto whenever he chose to drop in the slot.
Other times Rooney made forward runs and got in behind the defense in an impressive first half.

Chelsea's defence inexplicably let him carry the ball onto his right foot outside-left of their 18-yard box and Rooney fired a harrowing driven strike low into Petr Cech's bottom-right corner on the 28th minute.

The shot embodied perfect connection and execution. These long-range driven shots used to be Rooney's motus operanda; shall they become again not even I could deny we'd have a dangerous striker.

After five goals in five matches, and actually playing well in the outfield, showing engine, and driving forward, the Englishman may actually be entering a run of good form. His consistency has always been his achille's heel.

If the Scouser can perform in the northwest derby on Sunday, it'd be a good omen for United in the run out of a congested season's end.

Second-half tortures

The game itself contained some great football. Both clubs played as elite sides in the first half. In the second, things began to unravel for United.

David Luiz equalized for Chelsea after a scramble in the box that saw Patrice Evra drift inwards intuitively, allowing the centerback space to drive perfectly from six yards inside van der Sar's near post.

Later Chris Smalling yielded a soft yet not wholly unjust penalty which Lampard converted perfectly.

In the end, three great strikes created a 2-1 scoreline for the Blues. Nemanja Vidic was sent off late after two bookable offenses.

Credit belongs to the United goalkeeper for some ridiculous stops in the first half. Hernandez, Rooney, and Nani did well from open play as Scholes still managed to play the right passes inside the midfield despite having poor cover.

United's manager publicly bemoaned the refereeing performance, but seeming unjustices like this are investments for the future—surely it's been paid forward at this point. Expect some beneficial penalty calls, as ever, in the near future.

Every now and then we have a great game between two great sides where it's hard to find a player on either team that played poorly. This was that game and I ain't mad.

War wagon goes west

Man United now face the daunting prospect of facing Liverpool away without Vidic.

How Ferguson will line up his side is anyone's guess at this point. Hernandez has proven to everyone the effect his style has on our attack, importantly opening up play for either strike partner. Antonio Valencia probably won't feature, but is nearing fitness.

Perhaps Ryan Giggs could start in Scholes' stead, but at the very least the Red Devils will need Fletcher in the middle of the park where he can really assert himself.

Without him United have no bottle in the center of the pitch and would be certain to concede without their most important player this season in Vidic.

Ideally Rooney would start in center midfield next to Fletcher, something that should have been experimented with years ago—if not this year when Scholes was injured. Sadly this remains just a pipe dream.

However things play out, the title race is refreshingly closer and we should be looking at goals for either side come Sunday.

Note: Anytime I say "Fletcher" I also imply "Hargreaves if he was healthy."