Something In The Air At Old Trafford

If it was just one game, then you could put it down to one of those things. If you take into account West Brom recently won at Arsenal, it doesn’t seem so bad. However, I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something very wrong going on at Old Trafford, and that something needs to be done urgently to address the situation. So, what exactly is the problem? There’s talk in the press about Rooney either wanting to go or fearful he’ll be kicked out. The club have denied it, but unrest remains. I’ll take a look at the (several) issues that currently present themselves as major problems at the club, and suggest why a 2005 style bombshell might be exactly what we need.

Ownership

Most supporters, it can be agreed, have something of a different take on how we protest, but most (if not all) concur that the Glazers are bad for the future of the club. Their ownership is directly linked to all of the below; as I am about to take the stand of stating clearly that investment is needed. There is talk that there is around £120m plus sitting in the bank for United to spend on new players. Time will tell, although history suggests it’s probably going to go in the Glazers’ pockets or to whichever of their other failing businesses needs temporary respite. What can we, as supporters, do to force them to leave the club? The protest scheduled for the 30th is a start. But the Glazers have shown they won’t leave just because they are unpopular. Taking the approach that they appreciate investment is needed in order for the team to remain a successful cash cow (and the fact that we shelled out around £60m in 2007), let’s look at where, in the team, we are lacking.

Goalkeeper

This isn’t a knee jerk reaction to Edwin’s mistake against West Brom. If anything, it was sods law that his one high profile mistake came at this point. All top keepers are prone to it, Schmeichel had at least one a year, and the last major one to my mind for van der Sar came at Anfield the season before last. He was due one. Nonetheless, he is 40 in a few days. Sure, he’s in a position where he doesn’t run a lot, but every November for the last 3 years we’ve half expected him to announce he was hanging up his gloves. If he does so, then we’d better have a safety first keeper lined up. If there’s one thing that our defence needs, it’s a keeper comfortable in his own ability. I honestly don’t think too much is wrong with our defence, in general, despite the number of goals we are shipping. Rio wasn’t sparkling yesterday but he was present for the clean sheets in Valencia and Sunderland, suggesting that – for now at least – yesterday was the exception to the rule, and that the problem lies further forward.

Engine Room

I use this term loosely, based on it being the popular football culture reference for the middle of the park. Made famous for the driving spirits of Roy Keane and Bryan Robson, displayed on the continent in the recent past by the likes of Gattuso and Edgar Davids. If you wanted the antithesis to that, you need to look no further than yesterday, when for 30 minutes, Michael Carrick and Darron Gibson plodded their way to another appearance bonus, 30 minutes in tandem that saw them offer nothing of their creative talents going forward and even less in protection for a back line exposed to raw pace. If they are unable to impose themselves in the bigger games on a consistent basis, then that’s hardly a stick to beat them with. If they lack the desire to even try against the so-called lesser lights? Then something is wrong, and that something is more than likely their fundamental lack of ability to do so. At least in tandem.

Because for the moment at least, United look blessed in numbers. Perhaps it’s the combination? Any two of Gibson, Carrick and Scholes is a leaden footed recipe for disaster. Scholes has been in imperious form but benefits from the energy of Darren Fletcher or Anderson at the side of him. Part of United’s problem lies with the injuries to wide players; with Ryan Giggs’ hamstring recurrence suggesting he was in need of a longer rest the first time – something he’ll definitely get now, the lack of a direct crossing threat that Antonio Valencia provided is also absent. Anderson was shifted wide at times against Valencia and after Gibson’s introduction yesterday.

Is Anderson the answer? After 3 years trying to find his natural role – pushing him into numerous positions, (where to be fair, he has applied himself admirably) to accommodate for others, namely, yesterday, Gibson – he deserves the opportunity for someone to be shoehorned in at the side of him for a change. It wouldn’t have hurt for Bebe or Obertan to have been around yesterday, and it won’t hurt for them to be involved on Wednesday.

One key thing I picked up yesterday, and remarked upon immediately on Twitter and in the match report, was our lack of penetration. We rely on a 36 year old to provide this, and it shouldn’t be the case. Rooney can, if he’s in the mood, but he’s not. Anderson has the natural talent to do it but yesterday he was denied that opportunity in place of Gibson. Nani, for all his improvement, is not that answer. At times last season he looked like he would be. This season he has scored goals and created loads, so it’s with a degree of apprehension that I write this. I was talking before the game yesterday about my thoughts on him, only for him to do, yet again, exactly what I had predicted. Two moments of brilliance accompanied with 88 minutes of almost complete frustration. Is this because he’s reverted to type, or is the rest of the side just not good enough? Given the number of crosses that failed to clear the first man yesterday, I’d have to suggest the former, but I wouldn’t give up on him yet.

Tom Cleverley may yet turn out to be the penetrating midfielder we need, but that’s the unknown quantity. Ravel Morrison is tipped for the future and had a stormer yesterday, but he is very much one for the future. Likewise, Magnus Eikrem features for the reserves and is the regular captain for United’s second string. Of the two, Eikrem is far closer, but even he is yet to make his debut. There are hopes that he will figure in the coming weeks, but it remains to be seen if he is able to make the transition from excelling in the reserves to performing with comfort in the first team.

Where does a penetrative threat lie outside of Old Trafford? There are two names that spring to my mind immediately. Cristiano Ronaldo is the first. When I discovered that some at the club were actively seeking his return and willing him to come back to Old Trafford, it was greeted with scepticism by some, and I would have to at least concede that the move relies heavily on the willingness of Real Madrid to sell in the first place. Given their unpredictability on transfer matters, it’s very much wait and see.

The other name is Gareth Bale. The young Welshman is currently the most exciting left sided player in the country and it is no secret that Ryan Giggs is his hero. A transfer is no foregone conclusion given Tottenham’s current standing and our dealing with them in the past. He would, without question, come at a premium, which would immediately cock an eyebrow at the finances. While Ronaldo remains the dream, Bale – although equally unlikely – is surely the hot favourite for Ferguson to look at. When casting an eye for “Manchester United” style players, Bale is the one that sticks out like a sore thumb, and certainly, one I wished we’d taken a punt on in the January window when he was seemingly out of favour, since when his price has probably trebled.

In terms of a Keane / Robson / Davids style player, we already have Anderson, who has the potential to be a box to box midfielder, if only he is given the prolonged run he is crying out for. Build the team around him, if only until a transfer window and we will at least have a pressing urgency. Best of all, we already have him, so only an arm around the shoulder and faith is required. We have to try and at least utilise his immense ability; after all, we’re trying to do the same for players of lesser individual talent. The worst thing of all of late is the lack of urgency in the late stages of games. It was there to see against Liverpool, but that pride shouldn’t just materialise when we are playing esteemed rivals, it should materialise whenever our players pull on the United shirt.

Reliance on the old guard

Maybe a little too simplistic, given that we finished the game with plenty of players who cost more than £7m on the pitch. They should have been able to see off a newly promoted side, right? As I wrote in the match report, and to be fair, as has been widely acknowledged, United looked toothless after Giggs went off. So, with Giggs out, Scholes unable to kickstart some energy into a team intent on going through the motions, and van der Sar making an uncharacteristic error, we saw exactly what happens when we can’t rely on the elder statesmen. I spoke at length last season about how it was Ryan Giggs pumping blood into the United body that decided the league derby with City at Old Trafford, and the pride of Paul Scholes that saw him pop up in the last minute at Eastlands. Where was the heart yesterday, the pride? It was sulking, or already feeling in the comfort zone. Too many players who don’t think they have anything to prove, Dimitar Berbatov and Nani in particular who seem to believe that one swallow made a summer. It’s not a particularly helpful attitude to those who are playing as if they have got something to prove, yesterday, Anderson and Chicharito.

If this were a film, it would represent the Wizard of Oz, with United needing a new heart, new brains and a little bit of courage. Yesterday, and too many times this season, we have displayed little of any.

The problem dates back to last season – I believe the same problems on display yesterday were all too easy to see in our game against Aston Villa last December and at various points through the season. It’s not simply that we lack conviction or a cutting edge; profligacy up front does not correlate with these bizarre short spells of terrible defending nor does it explain the lack of cutting edge or even desire that generally follows. I waited until after the international break to voice this concern; I was hopeful that, as these things seem to in the past, it was just a short trend. However, the trend has continued through two international breaks and a lack of invention without Valencia and Giggs does not bode well for upcoming games against Stoke, Tottenham, Villa and City (three of those away!). If we continue to defend like we have, too, then things are likely to get worse before they get better.

The Rooney factor

This will be unpopular, as it is going against the grain for myself to write it. It’s only in response to the rumours that Rooney is unsettled that have been ridiculously over-hyped and exaggerated by the Mirror who are boldly claiming Rooney will definitely be off and be off in January, too. Regardless of whether they are right, perhaps there is some truth in the style of the story.

If the problem isn’t that Gibson and Carrick aren’t as desperately bad as I make them out to be, then it’s somewhere else. In 2005, Sir Alex dropped a bombshell by kicking Roy Keane out of the club mid-season when it seemed that Cristiano Ronaldo and Darren Fletcher, among others, were facing the end of their own stays at Old Trafford. At the end of that season, Ruud van Nistelrooy was gone too, and only Michael Carrick came in. Minor tweaks (the midseason signings of Evra and Vidic) and we had a title winning side. If, in the summer of 2005, you would have identified Roy Keane as the player to go, you’d have been laughed out of town. Yes, we needed a long term successor, but every time he was on the pitch he was invariably United’s best player. Kicking him out was a huge decision and, ultimately, the right one.

The Mirror’s story that Rooney has had a number of rows with Ferguson – there is only likely to be one winner in that scenario. Rooney’s bench time and introduction wide left is probably the fuel to the fire on the Mirror story – the Daily Star (I know) go with quite the opposite, that Rooney will stay, and will sign a new contract. The Telegraph’s reaction was to take an even further stand; far from trying to engineer his exit, Rooney himself appears to be fearful of his future. United have dismissed talk of a sale as “nonsense”.

I’m not suggesting for one moment I want Rooney to be sold, only that the problem with some players might not be quite so obvious. At the end of the day, no player is bigger than the club. Roy Keane’s controversial exit did not tarnish his legacy at the club, as evidenced by his warm reception on his subsequent returns. More importantly, Darren Fletcher and Cristiano Ronaldo grew into two of the best players in their positions in Europe. The problem may be Rooney – the finger is pointing there, as he seemingly struggles to come to terms with the consequences of his recent actions – but even if it is, he has time to put that right. It may well be someone else. Maybe Nani has gotten too big for his boots. I get the feeling that there is something massive brewing at United, and that a bombshell is about to hit. I actually said this in pre-season, and it’s a feeling that grows every time I see us go through the motions. If it takes the sacrifice of one top name to be conducive to the progress of others and the team, then that’s what will need to be done.

Conclusion

I don’t have the answer. Just that, something isn’t right, it’s just as likely to be none of the above but factoring all of it in. You can just take a look at the three completely different stands taken by the media re: Rooney, and how Sir Alex’s response, if he gives one, will probably contradict the lot. One thing we can safely say, though. Our midfield needs a re-invention, and unless Cleverley or Bebe has the keys or Obertan makes an unlikely and startling rise to prominence, it will have to come in the terms of significant investment. Investment that is required, as conceded by Sir Alex, with the inevitable retirement of Scholes and Giggs on the cards, too. My pick, as I said, would be Bale, and another midfielder. The identity of who, I don’t know, but what we have is not enough.

Before then, however, we need to wait for the storm to hit. Exactly what kind of storm is brewing, is anyones guess.

The intention of this is not doom-mongering. But we have to be realistic; all is not right, and it’s not just the ownership. There is an issue that exists within the team. It needs to be resolved, and quickly, if United are serious about trophy ambitions this season.

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