December 24, 2009
Oscar Wilde once joked that he was so clever, often he didn't understand a word of what he was saying, and he wasn't even speaking in Scottish. So imagine how hard it must be for poor Fergie to decode his complexities into a suitable football team; seeing something that others can't might be a hallmark of genius, but there's always the chance that you might just be seeing things.
Because football is a perfectly balanced game, its formations are an unsolvable riddle; add something in one place, lose something in another. Nonetheless, there's a reason no one plays 3-5-2 anymore, and why its most famous proponent also thinks that suffering is a punishment for sins in a previous life. But for some hallucinatory reason, Fergie decided it was the best way of lining up at Fulham, forcing players already in unfamiliar roles into an unfamiliar system - one that effectively ignores the four corners of the pitch, particularly disadvantageous for a team that aims to make the playing space as wide as possible.
With a squad shorn of defenders, not even the most inveterate of acid casualties would have deployed one of its best at wingback, but there Patrice Evra was, not even moved when things went wrong. Meanwhile, Darren Fletcher, whose drive in midfield was so sorely missed against Villa, toiled at the back to no avail.
December 19, 2009
On the way to Old Trafford as a kid, I used to stare into passing cars, wondering why not everyone was going to the game. You're in Manchester, United are playing, and you're not busy - what else is to do?
The answer, of course, is nothing, but the takeover and resultant price hikes have forced people to stay away on principle – perhaps the Glazers were actually funded by a consortium of fed-up wives. Anyway, the upshot is that games like Tuesday's at home to Wolves no longer sell out, leaving season ticket holders stuck at work with nothing better to do with their tickets than give them to the likes of me.
It'd be wrong to say that there aren't advantages to boycotting – less awayday guilt, less hassle, less expense and less general despair – but not having been to Old Trafford for a while, I was glad of the opportunity. Despite it all, there's still nowhere like it, even on the dullest of dull nights (and this one was duller).
December 11, 2009
On the Tube late one night, I couldn't help but overhear a conversation between two people, about how ironic it was that they'd missed the previous train. Drunk and bored, I suddenly found myself interrupting to explain that this may have been annoying, but ironic it was not.
Before I knew it, I was on my feet, fielding questions from the rest of the carriage and slurring my way through explanations of the dramatic, the tragic and the proleptic. Now, there's a new category to add to the list, brought to my attention by a terrace chant - once ironic, now ironically sung, "Darren Fletcher Football Genius" has added a wrinkle that we might perhaps call irony squared.
The hope is that it will be chased into the grammar books by a similar ditty - "Darron F**cking Gibson" - aired for the first time at Upton Park last Saturday. Sung largely out of amazement, we can only hope that it'll graduate in the same way. If not, it'll do as yet another example amongst the many contributions coaxed by Fergie from bit-part players; alongside the obvious names that adorn the last twenty years are also those of Dublin, Cruyff, Berg and Macheda. There are numerous Vince Lombardi quotations that sum up this kind of thing, but let's go for "the only measure of who we are is what we do with what we have".
Yes, it's a good time to be Fergie right now, even if what he has is a problem of partly his own making. Brilliant in a crisis - especially one that constrains his ability to tinker - no one loves an I told you so more, and he'll doubtless be enjoying the fair few currently knocking around, a tribute to his stubbornness, judgment, and his all-the-pieces-matter approach to squad building.
This has been no more in evidence than during the past week, every player stepping up to make adverse circumstances seem routine - admittedly aided by Saturday's opposition, Westairmfrewnfrew, who were compliant in the extreme. Even when Carrick replaced Neville - whose injury was classily jeered by the home crowd - to have avoided victory would have taken as phenomenally poor an effort as the injuries would have been excuse.
The game was an excellent opportunity for Scholes to play himself back into form, after pre-match comments that suggested he was low on confidence - understandably so following a patchy first half of the season. For someone used not only to excelling but to giving regular masterclasses in orchestrating the whole damn thing, the gradual waning of influence must be an almost unbearable frustration, but in both games this week, he showed that used correctly, he can still make most opponents look remedial.
That he was still required to save a miserable first half reflects badly on the efforts of those around him, United dominating possession but creating little, to flat-vowelled shouts of "they're sh*te, these". The second half, though, was a different story, Westairmfrewnfrew obliterated by rhythmic, patient and pacy passing. As we saw against Spurs last week and to a lesser degree at Chelsea, the 4-3-3 is a decent way of harnessing the running power of Anderson, allowing those in front of him to roam more freely at the same time. And while Gibson has only give then merest hint that he might develop into a United player, goals from midfield can cover up a lot of faults this particular formation can hide; can't they Frank?
Talking of Lampard, and Chelsea, it's nowhere near late enough in the season to be pleased by City's victory, but the reduced gap is appreciated nonetheless. Each season, the league title is awarded around this time to whichever team has a built a narrow lead, the most recent winners being Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal. The reality is that on none of these occasions has the enthusiasm to crown champions other than United been reflective of the football I've seen, and this time, it's been shown up more quickly than usual. With both United and Chelsea now facing a hectic but favourable run of fixtures, the test will be of which squad better understands how to win. I know where my money is.
The hassle that is the matchgoing experience was put into sharper focus in midweek, with the joy of attending a game in Germany. Reasonably priced tickets, a new ground that's actually like a ground, and most notably, no officious authority; it was possible to enjoy a beer before the game and leave when it finished, totally different to the usual European misery.
The time spent in the car in London did, however, prompt a conversation about ex-United player Willie Morgan, which reminded me of the time I ran into him in a toilet. Yes, I know that sounds weird - the good news is that it gets more so. Having both had a drink or two, it was only a matter of seconds before were singing "Willie Morgan on the wing" to the very part of his anatomy with which he shares a name, before just as quickly going our separate ways.
Back to the game, United did exceptionally well to beat Wolfsburg in difficult circumstances, showing enterprise and heart. Playing midfielders in defence was actually advantageous in terms of how the team passed the ball, to the extent that I'm quite looking forward to seeing how it works against Villa this weekend.
Perhaps the most important aspect of United's win was Obertan's superb creation of goals two and three. Despite a promising start, people had already begun to question his final ball delivery, criticism he stymied with two very different interventions - one a slaloming run followed by a composed and perfect cross, the other an intuitive, first-time through pass.
Unfortunately the beneficiary was the otherwise anonymous Owen, whose happening upon a hat-trick is unlikely to have fooled Fergie. Of course the question on everybody's lips after the game was whether he'd managed to grab the match ball, and luckily good old Geoff Shreeves was on hand to ask it, Owen confiding the following response:
"I give it to the masseur to grab it - I get a bit shy when I'm holding it, as if to say ‘look at me'. So I give it to the masseur and hopefully he'll get it signed for me and hopefully pop it back in my bag on the quiet when we land in Manchester".
Yes, Michael, how very self-effacing of you - no one will ever know.
December 5, 2009
To paraphrase Verbal Kint, the greatest trick that debt ever pulled was convincing the world it didn’t exist. Those who did believe in it were treated as cranks by the vast majority of those in the game and in the media, until the incontrovertible evidence of ticket prices rocketing in inverse proportion to transfer market spending left them looking decidedly Michael Fishy.
- On-pitch matters set up Tevez test
For those unfamiliar with great British weather forecasters, Michael Fish was the man who on October 15th 1987 told us the following: “Earlier on today, apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way; well, if you’re watching, don’t worry, there isn’t”.
As it turned out, there was – the worst in almost 300 years – and following the sudden cancellation of the transfer to United of Serbian youngster Adem Ljajic, residents of M16 would do well to brace themselves for a storm.
Quite simply, aborting the deal makes sense only against a backdrop of severe financial difficulty. The official line is that there’s a coterie of “top young talent” already at the club, in the “attacking midfielder” position, but in fact nothing could be further from the case; along with pace up front, this is the single most glaring aspect in which the current squad is lacking.
If Ljajic is anywhere near as good as he’s meant to be – as good, say, as United thought he was a year ago, when they also thought there was a need for a player of his type – then this excuse is even more of a nonsense. He may not have progressed as expected, but United were undeterred from buying Gabriel Obertan last summer, despite a season far less auspicious than Ljajic’s.
There are, of course, two differences; price and economy. Starting with the former. Obertan cost £3 million, Ljajic between three and four times that. The apologists will say that he isn’t worth it, and maybe he isn’t, but that misses the point. This is Manchester United we’re talking about: the most popular club in the world, during one of the most successful periods in its history, in the aftermath of the most profitable summer any team has ever enjoyed, at a time when unimaginable riches are sloshing around the top end of the game; if they have to pay a premium, so what? If the player flops, so what?
In defence of this parsimony, the club preached that in the current market, it was impossible to obtain value for money, hilariously expecting people not to fathom the identity of the most significant beneficiaries of this cursed inflation. For years, Fergie has moaned about the United tax added to the value of any player, before quite rightly paying the necessary - and in the days of Kenyonomics, often necessary plus a bit more. Now, suddenly, he expects us to believe in him as ideologue crusader, acting for the benefit of the footballing community.
It’s not that I want United to chuck money around for its own sake – there’s something very vulgar about using financial might, even when legitimately earned, to liberate talent nurtured by others as soon as convenient. But if absolutely required, the money through the turnstiles demands the need be met, even if it costs more than it should. Instead, though, we’re told about United’s proud reputation for developing young players, something the club used to do because it’s important, but now does because there’s no other choice.
The arrival of this time – always likely given the aggressive tenets of the takeover – has been hastened by the economy. Ljajic had been budgeted for a year ago, and the club applied for a work permit as recently as October; it seems very much as though United expected to make the payment.
Their sudden inability to do so illustrates the effrontery of the “top young talent” excuse, as it’s impossible anyone has rendered years of scouting worthless by having a good couple of months - however well Cleverley’s doing at Watford. I’d suggest the real reason the deal has been pulled is that the recession has hit the Glazers harder than they’re letting on; either a planned refinancing is no longer possible, or they require the Ljajic money for something else; perhaps both.
Frighteningly, that something else needn’t have anything to do with United – the Glazers are free to siphon cash out of the club and into any interest of theirs that needed it; verily money ain’t got no owners, only spenders. And who knows what they might do next time they need some capital?
Meanwhile, Fergie – who unforgivably welcomed the Glazers in the first place, even though his opposition could probably have kyboshed the plan – skives his weekly press conference, safe in the knowledge that he can be boozing and spieling a merry retirement by the time we’re in real trouble, probably around the period Ljajic fulfils his potential.
It’s possible that Ljajic will turn out to be another Celio Silva, and United go on to spend the money on a better, similar player. But until they do, the evidence does not look good. Promoting himself – sorry, I mean England’s World Cup bid – the other day, David Beckham referred to the Premier League as “the most exposed in the world”. However you interpret it, he’s not wrong.
Visiting Fratton Park is a rare pleasure these days, congestions and obstructions preferable to gangways and sightlines, authenticity and proximity to the pitch trumping whatever the newer grounds have to offer.
- Ljajic snub smells fishy
Ending up in row 3, my little group was afforded an excellent view of Kusczak’s silver boots and pan face, which grimaced every time he was forced to kick clear. Although he had probably his best game in a buttercup yellow shirt, his inability to use his feet is almost Bosnichian, and equally unacceptable.
Kicking a ball high, hard and straight is a skill learnable by anyone blessed with a working lower body, let alone a footballer - the clue is in the name, Tomas. I can only surmise that the poor lad is simply is too busy to squeeze in some practice.