Ian Herbert of the Independent and Steven Wyeth of the BBC join us this week on Press Red to discuss the title race, the future of Dimitar Berbatov, the reshuffling of the reserve and youth leagues and also Liverpool’s decision to not play on April 15th. Former United striker Alex Notman was asking the questions.
With new faces to challenge Sir Alex this season, it’s certainly added an extra spice. Some are already rushing to describe this as Ferguson’s best achievement yet while others point to Roberto Mancini simply not being able to handle the pressure of a title race. How badly have the Italian’s decisions affected City’s mentality?
Steven : I’ve got quite a lot of sympathy for Mancini. Handling the egos of such a richly assembled group of footballers would be a challenge for any manager and arguable he’s done well to maintain unity as he has done. It was always inevitable that they’d be greater scrutiny on him and his team the minute any problems surfaced – and Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli are significant problems. However, if City fail to win the Premier League I don’t think they need to look within for the reason why – they can point the finger of blame at Old Trafford and Manchester United’s phenomenal form in the second half of the season. City have more points now than Chelsea finished with in 2nd place last season – Mancini can’t be doing too much wrong.
Ian : I put the fact United will almost certainly see off City down to Ferguson, more than Mancini’s failings. I think we all agree this isn’t a vintage United but the players’ willingness to shed blood for him has revealed itself again. It’s old fashioned motivational ability, where Ferguson is concerned – and this is clearly where Mancini trails. I’m not impressed by Mancini’s willingness to criticize his players publicly – and what kind of effect that has on morale. Ferguson keeps it indoors, of course. Conversely, Mario Balotelli has also become a deeply divisive player and Mancini persisting with him has not delighted the more professional members of City’s squad. Compare the firm way Ferguson dealt with Rooney at the turn of the year. It’s not had a detrimental effect. When it comes down to it, the skills of man management are the same in today’s hyper-analysed game as they were when Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford. He’s experienced every situation many times over. You can’t buy that asset.
United had the title all but sown up no matter who you listen to now – Bet Fred have already paid out – but after Wednesday nights results, a limp defeat at Wigan and City’s win reduced the gap back to 5 points, and it stayed that gap after both sides won over the weekend – who are you backing for the title?
Ian : I don’t see any way that United will not see it home now.
Steven : Manchester United, five points clear, with five games remaining!? My chips are going on Red.
There has been much talk about Dimitar Berbatov over the last 12 months – his career is almost certainly up at United now he rarely even figures in a squad, but there remains a split in opinion about whether he has not done enough or, as top scorer last season, he’s been badly treated. Where do you stand?
Ian : I think I’m a bigger Berbatov fan than some. I recall an excellent interview Patrick Vieira gave last year in which he lamented the decline in the number of genuinely talented players on show and the rise of the oversized, over-powerful athlete. Players were running quicker and jumping higher, he said, but there were fewer “good players.” Where’s the next Scholes? he asked. Berbatov is one of those players. He has that type of peripheral vision where he just sees an opportunity, an opening. It’s what he creates as well as the goals he scores. These days, everybody wants to see good stats, good pace, aggression and Ferguson is also driven by the search for youth. Berbatov’s been a victim of this, to my mind. Yes, the flat track bully thing is true to an extent – but so what? He has deserved more of a chance this season. Welbeck and Hernandez are not the finished article.
Steven : I can’t believe how little we’ve seen of Berbatov. His exclusion on the basis of a lack of pace at the start of the season when United were playing with a really high tempo was understandable. However, we’ve not really seen that from United on a regular basis since the leaves started turning brown. He’s scored seven Premier League goals in just five starts (and five sub appearances). Surely he’d have been an asset at Wigan – he was good enough to score a hat-trick against them in December.
Berbatov might be moving on but one man looking like he might get another year is Paul Scholes – with him doing so well in midfield, and United looking strong in all areas, where do you expect Sir Alex to be looking at strengthening in the summer? The most often quoted desire is that of a creative midfielder but our league defeats at Newcastle and Wigan underlined the need for a Bryan Robson or a Roy Keane…
Steven : Certainly a spark is needed from midfield and if that player – because, let’s be honest, United aren’t going to be making multiple signings in any transfer window soon – can offer a bit of a physical presence too then all the better. Patrice Evra has had a fair amount of stick from the stands this season. Not all of that has been justified but we’ve not seen enough of Zeki Fryers at left-back to be sure United don’t need to be thinking about Evra’s successor too.
Ian : I think like many I’ve felt for two years or so that it’s a lynchpin in midfield that United need, though if I were betting on it I’d say Michael Carrick’s form since around the turn of the year – just as significant as the impact Scholes has made – means the manager won’t strengthen in that way. I do believe there’s been interest in Eden Hazard at Lille, though since he operates as a wide man – where United are well equipped – and less often in the centre. He’ll cost at least £30m too. Emile Danchev said recently that Ferguson wants pace, which Hazard has. I wouldn’t rule out another look at Wesley Sneijder, either.
The Independent reported on Friday 6th April that the current reserve team format is going to be replaced by a (or relaunched as a) national “under 21s league” by August 2013 with the emphasis on getting young players more game time – What do you think of the move?
Ian : It’s excellent. Not before time. Many people in the game complain about the lack of football for excellent under-21s on the fringes of the elite sides, who spend most of their time on the bench. The sticking point for the PL clubs is how many over-age players should be allowed in, to make it a place for those returning after injury. There’ll be a half-way launch of sorts for next season (full details not yet established) among some of those PL clubs designated Category 1 for youth development under the new EPPP system.
Steven : I hear a lot from those involved in player development that getting youngsters enough game time is a significant problem. I’m sure they’d see this as a possible solution. Also, why not? The top clubs don’t seem to play their senior players in reserves much anyway and I’m sure if they had a player returning from injury in need to game time a compromise could be reached on age restrictions.
The under 18 competition is also to undergo a change, with a league set up for all Premier League and Football League clubs that hold the highest ranking of “Category 1” to ensure better development – is this a good change for the future of English youngsters?
Steven: Whatever they settle on, surely a structure where players are playing on a consistent, regular basis and against a similar standard of opposition has got to be the most agreeable solution.
Ian: Many of the academy people complain that there are not enough Category 1 v Category 1 matches. Liverpool, for example, were talking the other week about an excellent under-15 game against United. They want more of that. The NextGen tournament was good last season, providing a rounded education about different European playing styles for those clubs who entered. Playing the best can only make the English youngsters better.
This weekend the FA Cup semi finals are played and Liverpool’s decision to not play on the anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster (as they never have since) has been the source of debate – this has, according to some, effected the fixture list which could now negatively impact on Chelsea’s preparation in the European Cup against Barcelona. Considering that, to name just one relevant example, Manchester United have played on February 6th plenty of times since the Munich disaster, do you agree with Liverpool’s refusal to play on the April 15th? Would a Merseyside derby at Wembley in the Cup not be a perfect opportunity to pay respect?
Steven : I don’t agree with Liverpool’s stance, but they’d need to take the initiative on a change. As Alan Davies has found to his cost, publicly questioning it doesn’t do you any favours. It would be more appropriate for Liverpool to decide enough time had passed and that they were able to start playing on April 15th again than it would for the FA/Premier League/UEFA to insist upon it. Can you imagine the row!? Certainly it’s impacted badly on Chelsea this year, which is, at the very least, unfortunate. Of course the FA could’ve done something about it. Play both semi-finals on Saturday, Spurs v Chelsea at Wembley and Liverpool v Everton at OT, Eastlands, St. James’ or elsewhere more convenient for two teams from the North-west anyway!
Ian : It’s a personal view that Liverpool are entirely entitled not to play on April 15 as a mark of respect and that Chelsea’s preparations for he Barcelona game pale by comparison with that desire. These things obviously run very deep at clubs and I guess United fans’ scepticism is driven by the fact the club have, of course, played on February 6. Liverpool have lived with the knowledge of institutional failings that day at Hillsborough (which were later covered up) as well as the 96 lives lost. It is for each club and its fans to decide how they approach an anniversary.
Thanks to Ian and Steven for their time. Steven co-hosts the interactive BBC radio Manchester show “Red Wednesday – follow the account on Twitter.
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