Welcome to the second edition of “Press Red”, our fortnightly feature bringing you opinion on the latest Manchester United news and topics in the football world from a panel made of United supporting celebrities, journalists covering the club and a member of the 7Cantonas team.
Taking the role as host this week is the illustrious TV presenter and personality Terry Christian, he is joined by CNN journalist Alex Thomas, www.united.no writer Truls Lian as well as our own Kieran Marriott. They talk about our two first games, Arsenal’s relative decline, David De Gea and Phil Jones among other things.
We’ll start by assessing the big one, United take on Arsenal on Sunday. It’s certainly been a very interesting start to the season. Arsenal have long been renowned as a team dedicated to youth while United have often been written off; yet United come into this game having just fielded their second youngest ever team and the Gunners seem to be falling apart. What are your views on how both sides have started the season?
Terry: I think reports on Arsenal’s demise have been exaggerated, I thought they played well against Liverpool but they were a bit unlucky. Obviously losing two players like Nasri and Fabregas is tough, but I still expect them to be in the top five come April if Vermaelen and Van Persie can stay fit.
Alex: It’s no coincidence that Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger have become friendlier as Arsenal have become less competitive. When Wenger first arrived in north London, his approach to diet & fitness was revolutionary for the English game. He forced Manchester United to raise their game, and they did. At the same time, both Ferguson & Wenger have been forced to build several different teams down the years, as players retired or left. However, it appears Manchester United’s manager is far better at this than the Gunners boss. Now, it is Wenger who needs to be the student. All of United’s summer signings look promising, especially Phil Jones. And I’ve been impressed by Ashley Young who looks as if he can find another level under Ferguson’s tutelage. Arsenal’s woes have been well documented. After years of financial diligence, they finally have money to spend but it may be too late to persuade experienced or talented players that the Emirates is the place to go to win trophies.
Truls: To start with Arsenal, I can’t see them fight for the title after the departures of Fabregas and Nasri. An interesting point, however, is if Arsene Wenger will splash out for a superstar before Deadline Day. He’s never sold his two best players before, and I think he doesn’t have any choice but spend money on a world class midfielder. If not, I don’t even think they’ll get a Champions League spot next season. So we’ll have to see what happens the next week before I make up my mind on where Arsenal will finish this season. Against Liverpool, Nasri was the only attacking minded Gunner who actually played decent. They’ve got one point from their first two games, and there’s nothing in their game that suggest they will be up there with the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea.
When it comes to United, I’m really impressed. They are playing the best football since 2006/07, and Sir Alex Ferguson has once again showed his faith in youth with huge success. The comeback against City was magnificent, and we managed to get three points at the Hawthorns, where West Bromwich will cause trouble for several teams this season. The last half an hour against Tottenham on Monday was pure quality: Great attacking combinations and a rock solid defense. There’s something about United this year.. I’m not able to put a finger to what, but there’s something that makes me really optimistic about this season.
Kieran : Well I think it’s always sensible to take a step back when evaluating any team, especially those under intense media spotlight, as you can be guilty of just getting caught up in all the reactionary sensationalism surrounding them. So baring that in mind I’d first like to agree with Terry and say that Arsenal’s demise has been greatly exaggerated. The current narrative since their collapse at the end of last season has been that of “club in crisis with long past it boss”, which is very similar to what United and Alex endured in 2005. Anything good is downplayed, anything neutral is twisted and anything genuinely bad is blown out of all proportion.
In reality they had a mixed start to the season 1/6 points is not what they would have been hoping for but winning both legs against Udinese, with all their suspensions and injuries is all you could really ask of them. The biggest concern for the club is how disaffected such a vocal section of their fans are yet given the fickle nature of fans i don’t think that’ll be too difficult to rectify and I still see them finishing above Liverpool in fourth.
As for us, well I think we’ve started very brightly and have a team that seems to have that excitement about them that has been sorely missing from the club for 2/3 years. Alex & Rene’s restructuring of how our club developed players over 10 years ago, has finally started to bear fruit, which to a very vocal critic of our recent lack of successful, academy graduates, is very welcome. At this point of the season we look, along with City, the strongest team at this early stage of the season. Now Chelsea proved last year that the team that’s the strongest at the beginning won’t necessarily be the strongest over all of it but you’ve got to feel whoever out of us or City really capitalises on our apparent superiority at this stage is going to have all the momentum for the title push in the new year.
Alex, United haven’t been free of criticism; David De Gea has been subject to his fair share. Ideally he’d have been able to get experience behind the experience of Rio and Vidic but their injuries mean he has to learn quickly with Evans, Smalling and Jones. Do you think this could actually be of a long term benefit to us?
Alex: I don’t believe that playing behind Jonny Evans and Phil Jones, rather than Ferdinand and Vidic, will be beneficial to David De Gea. However, the Spaniard has to quickly eradicate his errors and maybe he’ll have more work to do behind the youngsters than United’s first choice centre half pairing. That’s slightly harsh on Jones & Evans who have looked good. Evans may have been spurred on by the departures of John O’Shea and Wes Brown. At United, it’s not enough to be promising. You must continue to improve and then maintain a high level or wave goodbye to Old Trafford.
Truls: We all saw how Phil Jones and Jonny Evans stepped up against Spurs. I’m a big fan of Jones, and I think Ferdinand will get some real competition regarding his place in the XI this year. Of course, it’s not optimal to lose your best centre back and captain, but if the youngsters keep playing like they did on Monday, I’m not worried.
Kieran : The 4 young players you mentioned have, despite their youth, enough experience already to be trusted by Alex and that’s showed since the Community Shield. With young players so much is about finding an oppurtunity and then taking it so I think in the long term at least this period will only benefit them. However with de Gea’s current lack of English I do think it’s important we have Patrice the polyglot on the pitch with him, when we can.
Terry: I think Smalling and Jones have been brilliant. It reminds me of the days of 1995/96, that closing down and enthusiasm for the ball. It has been great to watch and a breath of fresh air. They are the future (and the present by the looks of it).
Truls, what are your views on David De Gea’s start at United? Do you think he has been given a rough ride by the media?
Truls: To be labelled “a flop” by the Daily Mirror after his mistake against West Bromwich was obviously harsh on him. He hasn’t had the best of starts, but hey, he’s 20 years old, and needs time to adapt to English football. He’s great with the ball in his feet, and his delivery is among the best in the league. We will see more bloopers from him, but the support he got from the Stretford End on Monday was quite astonishing. In addition, his English is bad, but let’s hope that means he won’t notice the stick he gets in the English press!
Kieran : It’s hard to deny he’s made a tentative start to his United career, he’s made some high profile mistakes which have obviously been the focus. Despite all that he has impressed me, both with his confidence and distribution. In Edwin we had one of the finest goalkeepers when it came to using their feet and from what I’ve seen of de Gea’s in both England and Spain I think he’s every bit as good. Also the one weakness Edwin had in his distribution (if you can even call it that) was with his hands, whereas de gGea seems every bit as proficient there as with his feet.
Terry: De Gea… well, he plays for United, so every mistake he’ll make according to the press becomes a disaster. I ignore it. This was the same press who made out that Veron was a flop, and that Andy Cole wasn’t a great striker. I wonder what game they’re watching sometimes. They create these myths.
Alex: Of course David De Gea’s been given a rough ride by the media – but that’s what we’re here for! And there’s no point United fans getting on their high horses about it. His form is a great talking point and he’s playing in a crucial position. Goalkeepers at every club are under the spotlight and it’s a thankless role in the team. Much has been made of De Gea letting in more long range shots than any other keeper in La Liga last season, but I believe he also saved the most. He was a busy boy. However, there is no getting away from the fact that he has made two howlers between United’s posts and, if that became a habit, Sir Alex would eventually lose patience. Even France World Cup winner Fabien Barthez was deemed by many as a failure at Old Trafford, so the stakes are very high.
Terry, with young, English players like Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck breaking through, will the enthusiasm around the club grow significantly?
Terry: I think it already has. We’re playing with a passion and a verve. As well as the English players, Anderson has been fantastic too, continuing his good form from the end of last season. I thought he was unlucky not to start against Barcelona.
Truls: There are loads of fans who want United to focus more on English players, and with the new homegrown rules in the Premier League, Ferguson hasn’t got any choice but to buy and develop domestic players. The fans will get even more satisfied about Danny Welbeck, who’s born and raised in Manchester. Welbeck had a great spell at Sunderland last season, and now it seems he’s Fergie’s first choice up front with Wayne Rooney. It’s great for the club to have young, local players coming through the ranks, that’s one of this club’s core values.
Alex: Did the enthusiasm at Manchester United need to grow? They are the reigning English champions and reached the Champions League final. If the squad isn’t happy after that, when will it be? What it does show is Sir Alex’s appetite to rebuild the squad yet again. He’s stopped talking about retirement and seems to love the job more than ever. The only sour note is Europe because there is still a huge question mark over United’s ability to challenge Barcelona’s reign. In two of the last three seasons, the Catalan club have comprehensively outplayed United in a Champions League final and, for all the promise of Wellbeck & Cleverley, I’m not sure they are the players to tip that balance in favour of the Reds.
Kieran : In terms of the media? For a while maybe but the media, rightly or wrongly, will move on to something else rather quickly. It’s no doubt one of the stories of the moment but give them one allegation of infidelity and that will change, So I wouldn’t get too used to it. in terms of the fans I think it has definitely brought a positive vibe around the club which hasn’t been there for a while. How fleeting this may or may not be only time will tell, but I haven’t seen much encouragemnt over the last few years that a couple of bad results won’t bring a disproportionate amount of negativity.
Kieran, Sir Bobby Charlton likened Phil Jones to a young Duncan Edwards. Incredibly daunting words, but just how excited have you been by Jones in his early days?
Kieran : I’m hesitant to really hype up young English players due to a caution one can only gain from the experience of continual disappointment, nonetheless since we signed him I’ve been nothing but impressed with him. His talent is there for the whole world to see, but I’ve been equally impressed by him off the pitch. Down to earth, reasonably articulate and with a refreshing lack of ego, he is somebody you get the sense will make the most of his natural gifts.
Terry: He looks awesome for a 19-year-old, and he has got such determination and enthusiasm to go with his ability.
Alex: I would love to have seen Duncan Edwards play but I never got the chance so it’s hard to comment on that comparison. Sir Bobby Charlton would know better than I, however his praise seems slightly over the top. I can’t see Phil Jones dominating an entire game and scoring plenty of goals, outside of set pieces. That said, the former Blackburn defender has made an immediate impression. He looks commanding at the back and not afraid to marshal the defence, happy to shout at team-mates even though he’s new at the club.
Truls: With the utmost of respect, I think it’s unfair to compare any player to Duncan Edwards. He’s a mythical player. But Jones really has impressed me. He was arguably Englands best player in the Under 21 Euros this summer and has continued his excellent display in the United shirt. I love this kind of old-fashioned, English centre backs, never afraid to dive into tackles. In Jones United have got a centre back for many years to come, and as Gary Neville once said, a future captain.
Alex, the Tottenham game was very encouraging in terms of attacking relations, what type of game plan do you think Sir Alex Ferguson will adopt against Arsenal?
Alex: If you were being cruel, you would suggest that any game plan Sir Alex comes up with will be good enough to beat Arsenal right now. There’s no reason to believe that, at Old Trafford, United will be any less attacking than they were against Tottenham. If Wellbeck mis-fires, having Javier Hernandez ready to come on is a great back-up. Ferguson would do well to persist with Young and Nani; they give United width and Arsenal are more suspect on the flanks than through the centre.
Kieran : I can’t see Ferguson changing too much. We have in the past versus arsenal but given their depleted line-up and our good form I don’t see the need this time. The only real dilemma for Alex is that of Welbeck or Hernandez? Personally I’d like Welbeck to be given the start, Hernandez’s quality will no doubt be crucial this season but he won’t have reached match fitness just yet and Welbeck has more than earned this opportunity.
Terry: I honestly don’t know, but I think he’ll go for the win. It’s strange to think we’ve got Park, Berbatov, Hernandez etc. sitting on the bench, but the team is flying as they are.
Truls: As I’m not impressed at all by Arsenal’s start to the season, I honestly hope we approach the game in the same way as we did against Spurs. Free-flowing attacking minded football is always great to watch, and there aren’t many Arsenal players I believe has the ability to cause trouble for us. Robin van Persie is obviously one of them, but Jones could handle Didier Drogba last season, and is able to do the same with Van Persie. I think Fergie will stick with the youngsters – not that he has any choice bearing in mind we’ve got some of our most experienced players ruled out with injuries.
Terry, on a final note, do you think the club need another left back to challenge Evra?
Terry: We’ve got Fabio. It would be good to have competition in all places, but we look very versatile and our young defenders look fantastic.
Kieran : Not just yet. With Smalling now a converted right back, we now have 4 fullbacks for 2 positions which seems perfectly adequate. Apart from the first half of last season Evra has been one of our most consistent performers, so I don’t see much sense in spending money on another fullback who is unlikely, barring injury, to get many games.
Alex : In an ideal world, yes. Without John O’Shea, United are looking a little threadbare in that position.
Truls: Pat isn’t the player he once was, unfortunately. He wasn’t even close to match Aaron Lennons pace on Monday (although he’s not the only one having trouble with that), but I think it’s vital to play him on left back now with United’s experienced centre backs ruled out. He’s an important player now due to the circumstances. However, he’s ageing, and I’m afraid we have to search for a new left back in a couple of seasons. I hope we don’t have to, though. My dream is that in five years time, our charming, Brazilian twins will run up and down each flank – one on the left, the other one on the right. My fingers are crossed.
Thanks to Terry, Alex, Truls and Kieran for taking time out to answer these questions. Press Red will be back in two weeks time with a new set of guests, and a new set of questions.