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Rants & Musings

City Guard of Honour may be a Good Thing

Added by Philip Meese on 17 Feb 2018 15:31

As we approach the business end of the 2017-18 season, Ultimate United looks at how the possibility of giving neighbours Manchester City a guard of honour in April might have a positive effect.

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By Philip Meese, Chief Editor

The Premier League title race has been over since before Christmas, if we’re honest. When Manchester City won 2-1 at Old Trafford, José Mourinho admitted his side’s title hopes were as good as over. That defeat left Manchester United nine points behind their cross town rivals, with an inferior goal difference. City have since extended it to 16.

A season that started out with so much promise is in danger of fizzling out to become one to forget for United fans. It’s strange to say that, considering the clubs poor performance in the Premier League since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013. Statistically, this has been an improvement on any campaign in the last five years. The club are currently second in the table, with a better defensive record than anyone in the Premier League. In spite of this, a top four finish is by no means a certainty.

While United, Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool and maybe Arsenal fight it out just to be playing Champions League football, City continue to march unchallenged towards the title. As painful as this may be to admit, nobody can say they won’t be worthy champions. United play City at the Etihad on April 7th, by which time Pep Guardiola’s side might very well have won the title. If that happens, the Red Devils might have to form a guard of honour, and applaud their rivals onto the pitch. If that happens, it will serve them right.

A Different Level

In 2014, David Moyes said that United needed to get to City’s level, it didn’t go down too well with the Stretford End faithful. This was no surprise given that United were defending champions at the time, and had a squad full of accomplished, though ageing, stars. It just seemed like yet another excuse from a man who was totally out of his depth.

This is not like then, and the United squad today features hardly any of the players who won trophy after trophy at Old Trafford. Other than Michael Carrick, every player who was there when United last won the title was brought in during the last few years of Fergusons reign, when he was literally papering over the cracks, rather than rebuilding the squad.

Many have said that if City hadn’t had such a storming season so far, United would be in a title race. Maybe they would, but does anyone think this group of players has the winning mentality to see that through to the finish? There is no doubt that United have a squad full of talented players, but they don’t always play as a team. There are too many showboaters, too many prima donna’s, and the fans are sick of it.

City, on the other hand, do play as a team. This is the mind-set that Guardiola has instilled into their squad. People have pointed to the amount that he has spent since arriving in 2016, but the reality is that most of his best players this season were already at the Etihad when he arrived. Fernandinho, David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Sergio Agüero were all brought in by his predecessors. Guardiola has just gotten a different tune out of them, especially Sterling.

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Comparing Managers

Both Mourinho and Guardiola arrived in Manchester in the summer of 2016, and both would have had a similar message from their respective chairmen. The task would have been to take their club to the pinnacle of English, and European, football. Nobody can deny that Guardiola had less distance to travel in this respect. City had won the title two years previously, and although they had underachieved since then, they still had the better squad.

Mourinho, on the other hand, walked into a squad full of players, many of whom were not fit to wear the shirt. This would be true of players such as Matteo Darmian, Memphis Depay and Morgan Schneiderlin. It seemed as though very little research had been done prior to buying them. Bastian Schweinsteiger, for example, was a fantastic player but was past the age of 30 and had well documented injury problems at the time. Why would Bayern Munich let such a player go, a World Cup winner no less, for around £6.5 million? Alarm bells should have been ringing right there.

After his first season, Guardiola looked at what needed improving in his squad, and spent a lot of money improving his entire backline. He has since brought in one goalkeeper, one centre back and three full backs. Mourinho, also not shy to get the chequebook out, still has work to do to address the balance of this team. Both defence and midfield still look in need of reinforcements, especially as the club look set to lose both Carrick and Marouane Fellaini this summer.

Assuming that Mourinho is still manager next season, and he probably will be unless United finish outside of the top four, he needs to get this balance right. He still hasn’t figured out how to get the best out of Paul Pogba on a regular basis. One thing is for certain, playing him as a defensive midfielder isn’t the answer, that’s not the position we bought him for. You might as well put Alexis Sánchez there.

The same could be said of the full-back situation. Antonio Valencia has done a good job since converting to a right-back, but is there really no better options out there? Maybe someone who isn’t afraid to cross the ball? Ditto Ashley Young, especially when in Luke Shaw we have a young left-back who is still to be given a proper run under Mourinho, despite looking in great form when he has played lately.

During his first two seasons, Mourinho could be forgiven for claiming that United is still a work in progress. Players who are surplus to requirements have had to be eased out slowly, just as new signings have had to be integrated into the team piece by piece. From next season, there will be no excuses if the team he is building doesn’t at least look like it might challenge for the top honours in the future.

There are plenty of players in the current United squad who many fans deem to be not good enough. Mourinho himself probably knows who these players are, and probably has done from day one. Those players should not be around next term, and neither should any complaints about not having a strong enough squad. Next season, this won’t be somebody else’s team; it will be Mourinho’s.

Spice Boys of the Modern Era?

Remember the Liverpool team of the late 1990’s, that the media nicknamed the “Spice Boys”? Players like Steve McManaman, Jamie Redknapp, Robbie Fowler and Jason McAteer, among others, were talented, yet underachieving, footballers back then. All of them internationals, loving the life of being in the spotlight for one of the biggest clubs in Europe. The issue was that, despite being in the glossy magazines, and having thousands of female fans, this group of players won absolutely nothing. In fact they never even put up a fight for the title, at least, not a serious one. Sound familiar?

The difference between United’s current crop and Liverpool’s is that Mourinho has already won two trophies. The manager himself is a serial winner, but the squad don’t look like threatening to challenge for the big prizes anytime soon. These are the prizes that one of the world’s biggest clubs should always be competing for. It seems that things like putting their latest haircuts on their social media account, and testing out their latest goal celebration are more important than putting that extra effort in.

While the Liverpool players of that era were focusing on marketing themselves, the United team were more interested in becoming winners. This seems very similar to what City are doing now – focusing on the job in hand, while the neighbours practise their dabbing skills. Next time United reach a cup final, if they are wearing cream coloured Armani suits before the game, we’ll know the transition has been completed.

Guard of Honour – or Worse

When the Manchester Derby takes place at the Etihad on April the 7th, it is probably going to be uncomfortable viewing for many reds around the world. If City keep winning, and there is no reason to assume that they will give up that habit anytime soon, United’s players could end up having to applaud their neighbours onto the pitch.

This should be the ultimate humiliation for anyone associated with United. For over five years, the Red Devils haven’t even been the best club in Manchester, let alone the Premier League. Even on the rare occasion when we have beaten them in the last five years, the result has meant little more than local pride. City still always finished above us.

Maybe clapping their city rivals onto the pitch will give United’s players a long overdue kick up the backside. It might make the penny drop that they are looking at a team of winners, and maybe force them to up their game. Don’t hold your breath, though. Whether they win or lose, each player still takes home a pay check of hundreds of thousands of pounds at the end of the month.

There is another possibility, of course. City could go into that game only needing a win, or even a draw, to secure the title. They could literally do that in front of their home fans, against their hated rivals. Given how they always raise their game against us, it is almost impossible to imagine them not getting the result they needed, if that were the case. It’s probably hard to say which one would be most appealing for Blues fans, and most painful for United’s. Either way, they will be looking at what they could have won, and they will have it rammed down their throats by a team of winners.

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Final Thought

City could very well go one better than United’s best achievement this season. They are currently one of the best teams in Europe, if not the best already. If they do win the Quadruple of Premier League, F.A. Cup, EFL Cup and Champions League, nobody will be able to say they don’t deserve it.

If this was to happen it will devastate United’s fans, no doubt about that. The question is whether it will hurt the players significantly enough to make them raise their game next season. Based on the attitudes we have seen from most of them, the jury is very much out. But if applauding Guardiola’s newly crowned champions doesn’t inspire this group of players to step up a gear and make the most of their talents, nothing will.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Rants & Musings

Reality Check Needed by some United Fans

Added by Philip Meese on 08 Nov 2017 20:23

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A look at how much of the criticism levelled at José Mourinho is actually justified, and why he will probably welcome this international break.

By Philip Meese, Chief Editor

 

It hasn’t been the best of months for Manchester United. The international break left the Red Devils devoid of a few players, and defeats to Chelsea and Huddersfield, plus a draw at Anfield, have some fans disenchanted. José Mourinho in particular has been heavily criticised for a negative approach in certain games.

Liverpool

Forget the fact that we have missed several players through injury, apparently we are not playing the “United Way”. The Liverpool result in particular angered some fans, who claim that Alex Ferguson would never have sent a side to Anfield to play like that. Anyone who truly believes this has a very short memory, and should cast their minds back to 2007. We secured 1-0 victories there twice that year, and could have got soundly beaten both times. There were plenty of occasions under Ferguson where this actually did happen, especially in his later years. Can’t exactly blame anyone for wanting to forget the fact that Dirk Kuyt once scored a hat trick against us though.

The game in October was a shocking spectacle, with Lukaku seeing our only clear cut chance saved. But had he put that away, people would have been declaring it a Mourinho masterclass. It is disappointing that we didn’t attack more, especially given that both Liverpool’s defence and goalkeeper are hardly reliable, but it could also be said that our sloppy passing that day contributed as much to the result as did Mourinho’s bus. Even Ashley Young’s usually superb crossing deserted him that day.

The performance was not pretty, and given Liverpool’s defensive frailties, it was disappointing. Most United fans, however would take going to Anfield and not getting beat every time. The shame of actually losing to your biggest rivals does not bear thinking about.

Huddersfield

This was just an awful performance, where around five or six of our players looked like they weren’t up for it. There is no excuse for a performance like that, but from time to time it happens. It happened at least once or twice a season under Fergie, where his side would play against a team they were heavy favourites to beat, and lose miserably.

Nobody is saying it’s OK to play like they did, they are getting paid millions of pounds per year after all. But there isn’t a manager in the game that hasn’t seen his team do that at some point. The outrage from United fans that followed that defeat was probably more to do with the fact that it was on the back of such an abject display at Anfield.

Chelsea

One criticism that definitely can be levelled at Mourinho here is that maybe he got his tactics mixed up in the wrong games. At Anfield, where the performance was more conservative, he probably should have approached the game looking to attack. If Eric Bailly had been available, he might have played with the same back three formation that he adopted at Chelsea. Had he done so, he might have beat Liverpool, and nobody would have complained too much if he had parked the bus at Stamford Bridge and earned a draw.

To lose 1-0 away to the champions is hardly the worst result in the world, especially when you consider that United were still in the game right up to the last minute. A lot has been made of the performance, but the first half wasn’t too bad, and ten attempts on goal shows that it was not the bus parking bandwagon that everyone is fond of jumping on.

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City

The noisy neighbours seem to be running away with the title at the moment and, make no mistake, if they keep up this level of performance into the New Year it is hard to see anyone catching them. It is, however worth remembering that plenty of teams have been “Autumn Champions” only to miss out at the end of the season. Newcastle did it in 1995-96, and we did it two years later when Arsenal overhauled us. City currently lead the table by eight points. Apparently nobody has ever overhauled a lead that big before.

The one obstacle City have yet to come across yet is an injury crisis. So far they have only lost Benjamin Mendy (you can’t count Kompany as he is injured more than Phil Jones, and most of their results this season were achieved without him). This may change as winter kicks in, and the pitches get harder, which some of their newer players may not be used to.

One of the biggest issues with United fans watching our blue rivals is how well Guardiola’s team are playing compared to ours, given that both he and Mourinho have spent heavily in the last eighteen months. But have a closer look at who their best players have been this season, ask any City fan (they’ll be only too happy to tell you). De Bruyne, Silva, Sterling, Fernandinho and the undoubtedly world class Agüero will be high up that list. All of those players were already at the club when Guardiola arrived. The main areas he needed to address were at full-back and goalkeeper, which he has done. Both Mourinho and Guardiola were tasked with taking their respective clubs to the top of English and European football. City’s manager had far less distance to travel in terms of how long it would take to make that happen. Mourinho is still having to clear up the mess of his predecessors.

You can’t even guarantee success by spending money anymore, because everyone is doing it. Look at what Everton spent in the summer, almost £135 million. They have just sacked their manager because they are facing a relegation battle. We are in second place with a quarter of the season gone, despite taking just four points from our last twelve. What a disaster. Since Ferguson retired in 2013, we have made the top four once, and only got into the Champions League through the back door last season. Whichever way you look at it, we have improved.

International Break

Normally when the Premier League fixtures are disrupted for the International break, both United’s fans and manager become disgruntled. The last one was a particular source of annoyance to Mourinho, as Bailly and Fellaini came back injured; the latter only came back on Sunday.

It is very possible, however, that Mourinho will welcome the break this time around. Chris Smalling and Ander Herrera have not been selected, so less chance of them joined United’s walking wounded. It also gives Paul Pogba, and possibly Marcos Rojo and Zlatan Ibrahimović, an extra two weeks to work on getting back to fitness. All of them have been sorely missed in recent weeks, and it can’t be much of a coincidence that Lukaku’s goal drought came as soon as Pogba was absent. When his mate gets back, perhaps he’ll get some service.

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Positive Results

Judging by some of the tripe you read on social media, anyone would think United haven’t won for weeks. They have played seven games since the last internationals, and won four of them. While they have lost ground in the title race, they have practically assured qualification to the knockout phase of the Champions League after beating Benfica twice, and are through to the quarter-finals of the Carabao Cup after an easy win over Swansea City.

The performance in Lisbon wasn’t pretty, with the mistake of an 18 year old goalkeeper gifting United the victory. He didn’t have much luck in the return leg either, as Matić’s rebounded shot forced him into an unorthodox own-goal. This actually saw him draw level with Alex Stepney as United’s highest ever scoring goalkeeper.

Many will be quick to point out that we wouldn’t have beaten Tottenham had Harry Kane been available, and it is a fair point. Perhaps Liverpool wouldn’t have got a draw if Pogba had been fit, and maybe the Chelsea result would have been different. You can play that game all day long. The fact is that we beat one of the best teams in the Premier League, with is no mean feat considering the “crisis” we currently find ourselves in.

The United Way

The United Way is kind of a myth in many respects. But the trouble with fans of all clubs when comparing the present to the “glorious” past is that it makes them go all misty eyed. They forget that, even in their greatest eras, all of those teams had patches like the one United have had recently.

There is no doubt that under Ferguson, United played a fast-paced, entertaining brand of football with was sometimes breath-taking. But that wasn’t always the case under him. Remember the years between 2003 and 2006, when United got nowhere near the title? The team was in transition at the time, and they were sometimes awful to watch.

In the last ten years, the only time United have gone to Anfield and took the game to them was in 2015, when Louis van Gaal was in charge. In the final 6 or 7 years of Ferguson’s reign, United were poor when playing Liverpool away; even when they won. Look at our recent record at Chelsea. In the last 15 years we have won twice at Stamford Bridge, and only one of those was in the Premier League (even that was helped by some seriously dodgy refereeing).

Nobody can rubbish what Alex Ferguson achieved at Old Trafford, he is the greatest manager of all time. But the way some people have reacted to some of our recent results, you would think that every game Ferguson took charge of was easy on the eye. As though we were great to watch even when we got thrashed, and it’s just not true. There were plenty of games, even during our most successful seasons, where we scraped a win after being painful to watch for ninety minutes.

Final Thought

Just because we have had a few drab performances lately, this does not mean that Mourinho isn’t the right man for the job. Six weeks ago, when we were regularly scoring four goals in games, José apparently had us “playing the way that United should”.

The unfortunate truth is that many people will only judge Manchester United on what is right in front of them. This is because while they harp on as though everything was rosy in the past, they are incapable, or just point blank refuse, to look at the bigger picture.

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With the money that is flowing through the English game right now, it is hardly likely that anyone will dominate English football, the way the Red Devils did in the 1990’s, ever again. But anyone who claims to be a United fan should get behind the team, get behind the manager, and stop complaining that things aren’t like they were in the good old days. Whenever we have a game that is boring to watch, remember that we had games like that under Ferguson, Atkinson and Docherty. Even Sir Matt Busby didn’t wow the crowds every time his teams took to the pitch.

We don’t have a divine right to win every trophy with scintillating, entertaining football. After the last few years, we should be grateful that we are in the position we are in; with a manager who has proved he knows how to win the top prizes in world football. It could be worse: we could be West Ham fans right now.

 

 

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Rants & Musings

Why some United players need to Grow Up

Added by Philip Meese on 25 Oct 2017 21:08

Why the 2-0 Carabao Cup win over Swansea does not change matters, and those players unhappy with José Mourinho’s comments after the Huddersfield game need to take a look at themselves.

 

By Frank Mead, Editor

 

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Manchester United returned to winning ways with a comfortable 2-0 victory over Swansea City in the League Cup on Tuesday. This will have come as a massive relief to Jose Mourinho after the defeat at Huddersfield Town, but this is in danger of masking an underlying issue.

 

It seems that certain Manchester United players believe that manager José Mourinho went too far in his criticism of them following the 2-1 defeat at weekend. These players ought to take a look at themselves in this argument. There is no doubt that it is the manager’s job to motivate his players prior to kick off, to get them in the right frame of mind for the match, but the buck doesn’t stop entirely with him.

 

In Retrospect

 

The facts appear quite simple. United turned up to a rainy, wind-swept ground on Saturday and clearly didn’t fancy it. Anthony Martial seemed to love the idea of getting sent off for a nice, hot, early bath, and demonstrated this by getting booked within the first ten minutes, and committing two blatant fouls shortly after. Henrikh Mkhitaryan was absent for most of the game, as was Juan Mata, and it was no surprise when the former replaced the latter at half time. Basically a like for like change, as both of them had the same degree of effectiveness. One suspects that the reason neither were used against Swansea was to give more deserving players a chance, rather than merely resting them.

 

Ander Herrera, who admitted in the post-match interview that United’s attitude had been poor, has so far been a shadow of the player who became such a stalwart under Mourinho last season. In the last three games, his passing has been abysmal. Even Ashley Young’s normally superb crossing was awful, although we will hope that is just an off day, given how consistent he usually is. In fact it could have been caused by the ineffectiveness of his team-mates – that kind of attitude can spread like wildfire.

 

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Problem Areas

 

There is no doubt that United are missing Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini, and you suspect that either one of them in the midfield could have made the difference at Huddersfield. It is also highly unlikely that United would have conceded either of those catastrophic goals had their defence featured Eric Bailly. But none of these can be used as an excuse for the limp showing at weekend.

 

Most, if not all, of the players United had on the pitch that day would walk into Huddersfield’s squad. Everyone is an international, most of whom have several years of Premier League and European experience behind them. This is not to say that they should not ever lose a game like this. We have seen it several times over the years when a team has battered another and had no luck at all, having shots cleared off the line or hitting woodwork, having decisions go against them, etc. If United had lost this game because of things like that, then nobody would have minded once the initial disappointment of losing had evaporated. But that performance was gutless.

 

Nemanja Matić hasn’t looked quite as impressive as he did in the first few weeks of the season. Maybe this is down to the fact that he has almost been carrying the midfield on his own recently, because he is not getting much help from those around him. Mata’s carelessness caused the counter-attack which set up Huddersfield’s first goal, and his performance was so awful he can think himself lucky to have made it to half time without being hooked. But that didn’t stop him taking to his blog as usual on Monday – maybe if he focused the same efforts on the job he is being paid to do, he might last a full 90 minutes one of these days.  

 

It’s no wonder that Romelu Lukaku hasn’t scored for a few games with the limited amount of support he is getting at the moment. Sure, he could do better and maybe get himself involved in the build up a bit more, but that is exactly what the players immediately behind him are paid to do. We bought him to finish off the chances they create – so who is not doing their job, exactly?

 

The only players to emerge from that game with their reputations intact are David de Gea and Marcus Rashford. De Gea continues to pull off world class save after world class save, but even he couldn’t make amends for Victor Lindelöf’s mistake the second goal. The world and his wife know that the Swedish defender is struggling to adapt to the rigors of English football, and his below-par team-mates won’t have helped his confidence on Saturday. When Rashford came on, he was the only one that seemed to want to have a go at Huddersfield, and took their players on time after time, eventually being rewarded with a goal for his efforts. They are the only two players wearing a red shirt on Saturday who didn’t deserve to be on the losing side.

 

Moving Forward

 

With if the above in mind, if the rumours about them being a tad peeved at Mourinho’s criticism are true, then maybe they ought to listen to it, instead of spitting their dummies out. They are being paid many thousands of pounds a week to represent one of the biggest clubs on the planet. They are also being coached by one of the most successful managers in the world, who has won every trophy he has ever competed for. If they are feeling a little bit stung by the criticism, maybe they should question whether or not they have the character to play for such a big club. Don’t go blaming a manager who has proved he know how to win trophies, especially when many of the squad haven’t. 

 

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Scott McTominay and Axel Tuanzebe were drafted into the side against Swansea, and both of them impressed Mourinho. They displayed high energy, graft and inventiveness. Towards the end of the game, McTominay set forward on a run through the Swansea midfield which started in his own half, having clearly grown in confidence. Both players did more last night then the players they have replaced had done in the previous three games. Given how poor United have been seen the International break, it’s hard to see too many fans being upset if they kept their places against Tottenham this weekend. Just a shame that Tim Fosu-Mensah and Andreas Pereira aren’t currently at Mourinho’s disposal. It is likely that their hunger alone would have seen them add something to the current set up.

 

Final Thought

 

 

The chances are that the Huddersfield defeat itself hasn’t hurt these players as much as Mourinho’s comments but, make no mistake, the fans are still fuming at such a spineless showing. A win over a lightweight Swansea side won’t earn them instant forgiveness. And if these players want someone to blame for how they were left feeling after that game, perhaps they should start looking closer to home.

 

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Rants & Musings

Why Lindelöf Critics should Think Again

Added by Philip Meese on 10 Aug 2017 22:02

Manchester United’s previous centre-back signings show that early criticism of Victor Lindelöf might be somewhat premature.

By Philip Meese, Chief Editor

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Following the UEFA Super Cup defeat to Real Madrid, both fans and pundits alike have been very critical of Manchester United’s players. New signing Victor Lindelöf has particularly come in for criticism, thanks in part to the fact that he hasn’t looked too convincing in the pre-season friendlies either. A lot of blame has been levelled at the Swedish defender for both of Madrid’s goals in Skopje on Tuesday night.

Lindelöf isn’t the first centre-back to come to Old Trafford with a heavy price tag, and he certainly won’t be the last. In recent years, many have been in the position he currently finds himself, and gone on to flourish, with some even becoming United legends.

Gary Pallister

A British record transfer fee of £2.3 million took Gary Pallister from his hometown club Middlesbrough to Old Trafford in 1989. Classed as a United legend today, things didn’t start off too rosily for him. His debut season saw the Red Devils battling relegation, eventually finishing 13th in the league table.

Despite winning the F.A Cup in 1990, there were some horrific results, such as a 5-1 thrashing by Manchester City at Maine Road. With his expensive price tag, Pallister was one player who bore the majority of the fans’ criticism following some high profile mistakes. His laid back style, plus his proneness to lapses in concentration, didn’t help when trying to justify a record transfer

The big defender turned it around and, along with Steve Bruce, formed the best defensive partnership of the 1990’s in English football. His redemption was complete when he won the 1992 PFA Player of the Year award. He left in 1998 having won 4 Premier League titles and 3 F.A. Cups, as well as the League Cup and European Cup Winners Cup.

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David May

In the summer of 1994, it seemed that Manchester United had gotten themselves a snip at £1.25 million. David May was out of contract at Blackburn Rovers, who had finished runners up to United for the Premier League title, and had formed a very impressive partnership with Colin Hendry at Ewood Park. Another plus was that he was English, with UEFA’s “three foreigner” rule a handicap in European competitions back then.

To May’s misfortune, he spent his early months at Old Trafford out of position at right back, deputising for the injured Paul Parker. May was not suited to this position, boasting neither the pace nor the attacking prowess to make an effective full back. While clearly uncomfortable in the role, it didn’t really cost United until they travelled to Gothenburg in the Champions League. May had a nightmare against future club mate Jesper Blomqvist, and was replaced by Gary Neville.

When he did get a decent run of games in his preferred centre back position, he never let the club down. By the end of the 1995-96 season, May had usurped Steve Bruce from the team, and scored the first goal against Middlesbrough on the final day of the campaign, which the Red Devils won 3-0 to regain the title.

Up until 1998, he was a regular in the heart of United’s defence. This was when his injury problems began to surface. He stayed at Old Trafford until 2003, by which time he had fallen down the pecking order. While May’s career might not have propelled him to legendary status, he was a good reliable defender, who overcame a difficult start at United.

Jaap Stam

The big Dutch defender with an equally big reputation, Jaap Stam was signed from PSV Eindhoven ahead of the 1998 World Cup. The £10.7 million fee made him the most expensive defender in world football, and following a tournament where Holland missed the final only on penalties, much was expected.

Within the first two months of the season, serious questions were being asked about whether he would be an expensive flop. During the 3-0 Charity Shield defeat to Arsenal at Wembley, Stam looked all over the place. His miserable afternoon was completed when Nicolas Anelka both out-muscled and outpaced him to slam home the third goal. The following month, Arsenal repeated that scoreline against the Red Devils at Highbury. Despite scoring a lot of goals in the early months of the season, United weren’t keeping many clean sheet.

By the end of the year, the tables had turned and Stam began to consistently play well. His performances, both at home and in Europe, began to receive critical acclaim. The climax to the season saw United win the Treble. This was followed with a further two successive Premier League titles, before Stam was surprisingly sold to Lazio in August 2001.

Few people believed the reports that it was due to comments made in the Dutchman’s autobiography, or Sir Alex Ferguson’s later admission that he believed Stam just wasn’t the same. The fact that he received a six month ban shortly after leaving Old Trafford, after testing positive for Nandrolone, seemed to make much more sense. Whatever the reason, Stam is now regarded as a legend by most United fans, a rare achievement for someone who spent just three seasons at the club.

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Rio Ferdinand

In 2002, following Leeds United’s failure to get back into the Champions League, the club began to sell off their best assets. Following spectacular performances at the World Cup, Rio Ferdinand was not only the world’s most expensive defender, but a British transfer record. While it was evident straight away what a quality player he was, it took United fans a few years before they saw the best of him on a consistent basis.

In the first few months of the 2002-03 season, United looked anything but solid at the back, and it looked like Arsenal were going to walk the defence of their Premier League title. The autumn saw away defeats to Manchester City and Leeds, as well as a home loss to Bolton Wanderers. Like Pallister before him, Ferdinand was prone to lapses of concentration, none more evident than when he lost Michael Owen for Liverpool’s second goal in the 2003 League Cup Final.

Although United turned it around and eventually regained the Premier League trophy that season, Ferdinand’s joy was to be short-lived. In September 2003, the defender made front page headlines for missing a routine drug test after a training session. The consequence was that he received an eight month ban, between January and October 2004.

It took him a while to get into his stride following his return, and was famously caught on camera munching on some Jaffa Cakes in the middle of his comeback game against Liverpool. Once Ferdinand regained his match fitness, he began to show exactly why United had invested so much money in him, becoming a leader at the back. Alongside Nemanja Vidić, he became one half of one of the strongest centre-back pairings in Premier League history. Given all that United achieved in Rio Ferdinand’s twelve year spell at Old Trafford, the £29 million fee now looks a bargain.

Nemanja Vidić

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The Serbian defender is quite rightly classed as a United legend, but endured an uncertain start to his Old Trafford career. Signed from Spartak Moscow in January 2006, Vidić was a complete unknown prior to joining the Red Devils. His first half season was rather stop-start, with Ferguson seemingly reluctant to put him in so soon after joining. The main reason for this was that he had joined in the Russian close season, so it would take a while to get his match fitness up. It wasn’t really until the end of the 2005-06 season that he began to get a run in the team, and by then it was clear that Chelsea weren’t going to blow the title.

Any hopes that the fans might get a proper look at Vidić during the 2006 World Cup were dashed when he injured knee ligaments in training. This meant that he did not play in Germany, and would be out of action until September. One popular belief was that United had bought another injury-prone defender, but once Vidić returned, he made himself one of the first names on the team sheet. He stayed at Old Trafford until 2014, and his legendary status is such that his name is still sung by the fans on match days.

Marcos Rojo

Twelve months ago, nobody would have been surprised, or particularly bothered, if the Argentinian defender had departed Old Trafford. Marcos Rojo didn’t feature in United’s first five games, and during the first two months of José Mourinho’s reign, he was only really used in the cup competitions. The word on the grapevine was that the Portuguese manager didn’t fancy him at all.

In fairness, he hadn’t done much to convince anyone that he was a United player, with his fitness and stamina coming under particular scrutiny. Under Louis van Gaal, who brought him to the club from Sporting Lisbon, Rojo had been used as a left-back and in the centre. He hadn’t shone in either position, and certainly didn’t look anything like a player who had started the last World Cup Final.

The turning point for Rojo was during United’s 3-1 win at Swansea City in November. With Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling and Daley Blind all unavailable, Mourinho had no choice but to field a makeshift centre-back pairing of Rojo and Phil Jones. The latter, due to yet another injury problem, was making his first appearance of the season. Although Swansea offered little in attack, the two defenders made a solid partnership, so much so that they were picked for a further eight league games in a row.

There were still concerns, such as Rojo’s willingness to jump into two-footed tackles; it still seems miraculous that he wasn’t shown a red card at Goodison Park. Overall, though, his form had been superb and the settled pairing more than contributed to United winning six games in a row in December. When Bailly returned to the team at the end of the year, he made a strong partnership with the Argentinian.

Rojo was starting to look the part, and a knee ligament injury finished his season against Anderlecht, there were concerns that United would miss the defender more than their top scorer, Zlatan Ibrahimović, who suffered a similar injury in the same game. He is expected to return towards the end of the year.

The jury is still out on Rojo, but hopefully he will recapture the form that would have made him an almost certain starter in the Europa League Final in May, had he been fit. If he can do so on a consistent basis, his doubters will have been silenced.

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Reaction, and Final Thoughts

The reaction from some on social media to Lindelöf’s performance against Real Madrid was a bit over the top. Comments such as “flop” and “not a United player” have been labelled at all the defenders above in their early days, and all of them came through it to prove themselves worthy of the shirt.

It is possible that he will flop at United, he wouldn’t be the first player to do so. One criticism is his apparent lack of pace, which Talksport presenter and ex-United player Alan Brazil said is crucial in the Premier League. I’m sure Michael Carrick would disagree with that seeing as he plays at the same pace now as he did ten years ago. Rio Ferdinand saw his pace leave him a good four years before he left Old Trafford, but went on to win two league titles after that. If his positional sense is good, as Ferdinand’s was, then pace is merely a bonus.

Coming to the English league is a big step up from most European ones. Jaap Stam found this out the hard way in the early months of his career. It’s faster, more physical and features a higher class of opponent. Just because someone doesn’t look good after a handful of pre-season games is hardly cause to panic.

It might get worse before it gets better for Victor Lindelöf, and if that is the case he can certainly expect a bit more criticism in the near future. But the list above shows that not everybody can be like Steve Bruce, Ronny Johnsen or Eric Bailly, looking the part as soon as they put on the Red shirt. José Mourinho has a proven track record at recruiting defenders, and he has obviously spotted something in the Swedish centre-back.

History shows that we should at least give Lindelöf time to bed in before we start judging him.

 

 

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Rants & Musings

How Real Madrid's greed cost them £15m

Added by Philip Meese on 20 Jul 2017 22:08

A look at how Real Madrid’s haggling with Manchester United over the price of Álvaro Morata ending up losing them money.

By Philip Meese, Chief Editor

A dramatic shift in the market has occurred in this summer’s transfer window. Real Madrid striker Álvaro Morata, linked with a move to Old Trafford all summer, now seems set to move to Stamford Bridge. Providing he passes his medical at their Cobham training ground, Morata will line up for Chelsea next season, while Romelu Lukaku, who the Blues were expected to sign, will wear the number 9 shirt at Manchester United.

Anyone who chanced a bet on this being the situation a few weeks ago will be eagerly awaiting confirmation of the Morata deal. That’s how nailed on the two strikers’ deals seemed to be. Rumour has it that, in addition to cutting short his honeymoon to fly back to Madrid to seemingly seal a transfer to United, he also dyed his hair red in anticipation of his unveiling as a Red Devil.

Real Madrid wanted £80 million from United for Morata, but have settled for just under £60 million from Chelsea, although certain add-ons mean that deal could rise by at least a further ten million. Had they not been so greedy, Madrid could have pocketed more from this deal. In fact, they have kind of mugged themselves off.

Recap

Álvaro Morata came through Real Madrid’s youth system, and was given his debut as an 18 year old by then-manager José Mourinho in 2010. He was sold to Juventus in 2014, with Real inserting a €30 million buy back clause into the deal, which they activated last summer.

As was the case during his first spell at the Bernabéu, Morata played second fiddle to players such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. Realising that he would probably never be their first choice striker, the Spanish international decided he wanted to move.

The whole world knew that Manchester United would be prioritising a striker this summer, even if Zlatan Ibrahimović stayed. United moving for Morata seemed quite a logical decision, as he would be playing for the manager who gave him his debut, and at a club where he would finally be the main man.

What Went Wrong?

Even when Real Madrid activiated his release clause last summer, many speculated that they were only doing it to sell him on again, making themselves a tidy profit in the process. Although he hardly set any goalscoring records during his time in Turin, he developed so much as a player in Serie A that he was already worth double the amount that Madrid paid to bring him “home”. They also would have known that, with the World Cup coming up, Morata would not want to spend the season leading up it to being a bench warmer. In this respect, the plan worked better than they could have hoped. Despite only starting 19 games in all competitions, Morata scored 20 goals, his best ever tally in a single season. This feat alone probably added £10 million onto his transfer value.

Where Madrid made a mistake was that they got greedy. United were willing to pay more than what Chelsea will have to stump up. They started their bidding at £60 million, and given what they paid for Lukaku, Madrid probably could have got them up to more than £70 million. Real Madrid could have almost tripled the money they paid Juventus for Morata last summer, for someone who they saw as no more than a quality squad player. It would have been an even better piece of business than what they have done with Chelsea. Whether it was an act of revenge for United having a dodgy fax machine two years ago, nobody knows, but Madrid held firm and insisted on £80 million for a player they didn’t even want.

The Outcome

Tired of the constant haggling, United turned their attentions to another of Mourinho’s former strikers, Romelu Lukaku. They paid £75 million up front, more than they ever offered Real for Morata, and Everton, already resigned to losing the Belgian, accepted without too much fuss.

The official line from Old Trafford was that Lukaku was always their first choice frontman, but there aren’t many who are convinced about that. One thing it did show, however, that they won’t be backed into a corner.

Real Madrid were probably as shocked as Chelsea when United signed Lukaku. They probably thought that the Red Devils would crack in their desperation to land the striker, and cough up the asking price. Once the Belgian had moved to Old Trafford, their bargaining position was compromised. They now knew that, although they could still command a fee that would double their investment, they could kiss goodbye to the kind of money they were asking for him. Especially when the entire world knew that he wasn’t exactly a crucial part of Madrid’s squad. They didn’t have much choice but to accept Chelsea’s bid.

Maybe United were mindful of the fact that several players have used a clubs interest over the years to secure a better contract with their present employers (mentioning no names, Mr Ramos). Now that Paris Saint-Germain have activated Neymar’s release clause, it will be interesting to see how that one pans out. One possible outcome would be the Brazilian inking a better contract at the Nou Camp, and PSG buying Alexis Sánchez from Arsenal as a consolation prize.

There was plenty of interest in Morata, as you would expect for a top class international when he goes on the market. AC Milan, with their cash-rich new owners, were known to be one club who were considering making an offer.

Final Thoughts

In summary, given what United coughed up to Everton for Lukaku, they probably would have been happy to compromise on the price for Morata. Some reports suggested that Ed Woodward offered more than Chelsea have agreed to pay, which shows how Madrid’s hand was weakened. Chelsea have paid an initial £58 million up front. If he really was United’s first choice, Madrid could have probably got them to pay £70 million, maybe even £73 million. Although it is a small amount given some of the ridiculous amounts of money that have changed hands this summer, Madrid’s bare-faced greed has cost them a potential £15 million. There are many clubs around the world whose entire future could be changed by that sort of money.

This type of behaviour is quite typical of everything Real Madrid has become, and in fact, everything that is wrong with the game. They are so far removed from the club who were such a big support to United following the 1958 Munich Air Disaster, and arranged a series of high profile friendlies between the two clubs to help the Red Devils out financially. That club were a credit to themselves, and the game of football in general.

You get the feeling that their legendary president, Santiago Bernabéu Yeste, who oversaw the running of the club from 1943 to 1978 and was a great friend of Sir Matt Busby, would turn in his grave at the circus they have become.

 

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