Watched Manchester United’s 07/08 Season Review over the weekend (grab the torrent here) and it was quite an entertaining 2 and half hours.
It also gave me some perspective on the season that went by – perspective that I think is useful considering the Ronaldo saga, the transfer speculation this summer and for predicting United’s performances for next season. If you’re going to watch anything this summer, the Frost interview with Ferguson and this Season Review is it.
If you’re not a United fan, this is not for you. If you ARE a United fan, this is a must read. Here we go…
This is LONG, so you can use these links to skip to the relevant sections and back:
- 10. Improving Strikeforce
- 9. Team Movement
- 8. Team Character
- 7. Referee Decisions
- 6. The Newcomers
- 5. Old Guard
- 4. Best Players v Best Team
- 3. Champions League
- 2. Wayne Rooney
- 1. Cristiano Ronaldo
10. Improving Strikeforce
The highlights reels shows a few misses but after viewing goal upon goal upon goal, my mind went back to how many chances our front three – Rooney, Tevez and Ronaldo – sent wide. The old adage ‘at least we’re creating chances’ is often trotted out when strikers are shooting and not scoring but in United’s case one should look at the full picture, the numbers and the reasons why.
In the Premier League:
Ronaldo: 181 shots, 109 shots on goal, 31 goals, 7 assists.
Tevez: 92 shots, 57 on goal, 14 goals, 7 assists.
Rooney: 104 shots, 69 on goal, 12 goals, 13 assists.
Saha: 18 shots, 9 on goal and 5 goals, 0 assists.
Ronaldo: 200 shots, 90 shots on goal, 17 goals, 14 assists.
Rooney: 124 shots, 64 shots on goal, 14 goals, 11 assists.
Saha: 65 shots, 41 shots on goal, 8 goals, 5 assists.
Solskjaer: 28 shots, 17 shots on goal, 7 goals, 3 assists.
Ronaldo’s efficiency has almost doubled, Rooney has a better shots on goal percentage and Tevez has a decent average as well. However, in both cases you see someone like Louis Saha and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, both playing far less than Rooney / Ronaldo but both scoring half as many goals as the young striker.
Did they get more chances? No. Quite simply, these two have far better positioning on the pitch (and therefore get the better goalscoring opportunities) than Rooney (and Tevez for that matter). As I’ll discuss later, part of Ronaldo’s success has been his positioning and the way he pops up regularly in the box to take chances.
While Rooney and Tevez are both excellent support strikers they also need to work on their positioning on the pitch and rotate the front striker spot amongst themselves – either that, or the two need to play behind a front-line striker (a position that Ronaldo often popped up in last season). I still feel that Rooney can do that job and that his positioning and judgment will improve next season.
9. Team Movement
The team moves as a unit – in attack and in defence. When United play a 4-4-2 with Rooney and Tevez up top, all 10 outfield players can be seen dropping back to defend. Carrick will be seen ushering attackers to the wings where Brown / Ronaldo or Evra / Giggs can double-team, Giggs / Ronaldo will often drop infield to help out (with the fullbacks overlapping in case they need to switch to attack) Scholes defend a bit further up the pitch, Rooney will be roving like mad and going wherever the ball goes and Tevez will often be right behind, pitching in when needed.
And when United win possession, they switch from defence to attack as a unit – everyone moves forward, from Tevez to Rio Ferdinand. There’s no set pattern – sometimes a ball will be played long up front and the front four will go rushing in with the defenders pushing up on the half-way line, and sometimes there will be lightening one-touch passing as the front eight escort the ball into the opposition box.
Time after time what stood out about United was how they played as a single entity as opposed to a group of individual players. When that unity broke down, United suffered. I’ve had people ask me how Ferguson, despite being primarily a ‘motivational’ manager, can make United play such attractive football. The answer is simple – there’s no fixed system, just an underlying set of principles that the players use to adapt to any situation. It can mean being under the cosh at times – as we saw last season against a few opponents playing to strong, well-tuned systems – but the flexibility also brings with it versatility and the ability to thrive in different conditions and has had a large role to play in Ferguson’s success as a manager over the last 2-3 decades.
8. Team Character
You see players like Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher, John O’Shea, Park Ji-Sung and Tomasz Kuszczak getting their heads down and working hard for the team even when they’re out of the starting lineup for a while. You see players like Tevez, Nani and Anderson – newcomers to the club – talk about the respect they’ve developed for the cub and their teammates. You see players like Scholes, Giggs and Neville – consummate professionals – give 110% on the pitch, whenever they get the chance, whatever the occasion.
Part of what Ferguson has done – and you realise this only once you sit back and observe the team over the course of a few seasons – is build a family of footballers that WANT to play with each other and WANT to play for Manchester United (before you complain, I’ll get to Ronaldo and those who’ve left the club later on). What’s more, they’ve got the right spirit and mindset on and off the pitch – United always comes first.
It’s an attitude that’s embodied by the elder statesmen like Giggs and Neville but it’s also a lasting legacy of Ferguson’s management at Old Trafford. Today’s footballing environment sees clubs change managers ever 3-5 years, quite often a lot sooner. Given enough time, a manager can mold a club, give it character and create traditions that will outlast him (hopefully) for quite a while.
I don’t see Arsenal’s commitment to their style of play going away if Wenger leaves. It’s the same with United. We have an amazing treasure in Sir Alex Ferguson, not only in what he contributes to the club on a daily basis but what he’s done to and for the club in the last 20+ years.
Part of this character encourages loyalty – loyalty to the players and loyalty to the club. Ferguson is fiercely loyal to his players – his backing of Roy Keane past the man’s playing date is testament to that. More recently we can see that loyalty in his desire to keep Ronaldo onboard – as long as Ronaldo doesn’t betray Ferguson by speaking nonsense to the press, saying to the gaffer that he will go at any cost or underperforms in training or matches, Ferguson will back his player to the hilt. It’s the same with Saha – and despite Saha’s fitness issues (part of it had to do with his lack of confidence last season), he has backed the player and will keep the player as long as Saha keeps doing his best to recover his form and fitness.
On the other hand, players who have betrayed the club ethos (at least as Fergie has seen it) – RVN (who wanted to go a season earlier), Keane, Heinze in recent times – have been summarily dismissed from the club. And Ferguson has been loyal to his fringe players too – if they’ve wanted to leave for first-team football, he’s more often than not let them go (Smith, Butt, Rossi, Pique) and continue their career.
It’s the small things that make and break the club. Manchester United is a family and that’s part of the club’s success in the last two seasons.
A striking example of this character-building strategy is in the four signings Manchester United made last summer. Owen Hargreaves – a fighter on the pitch, adaptable enough to play in different roles (fans will remember his bombing runs down the right flank in the latter stages of last season with relish) and an all-round quality professional. Carlos Tevez – words cannot describe his efforts for United this season but maybe what stood out most were his diving near-post headers that scored crucial goals for the team and his fighting display in the Champions League semifinals against Barcelona. A remarkable engine and a fantastic footballer.
Nani and Anderson are young pups in comparison to these two but you’ll get some idea of their temperament from the way these two stepped up to take their penalties in the Champions League final. There was no fear, no self-doubt, and both are fighters to their core.
Four players, four talented footballers with ox-like tenacity and a overwhelming desire to succeed. Sure, there are faults – Nani’s misses were worse than anyone else’s, Anderson is tactically naive at times, Hargreaves had the annoying tendency to run with the ball towards his keeper when playing at right-back and Tevez made some horrible misses – but overall these players have the right personalities and skillsets needed to succeed at a team.
7. The Decisions
The thing with refereeing decisions is that you get some going in your favor and some going against you, but it never really balances out. What’s worse, while 50-50 decisions can be accepted at times, the blatant mistakes keep going uncorrected and there is at times very little consistency between one game and the next.
United had a few go in their favor – against Chelsea at Old Trafford both the Mikel red card and the penalty were incidents that we would have protested furiously against if they’d been given against us – and a few go against them (the Ronaldo sending-off against Pompey at the start of the season, against Pompey again in the FA Cup), but overall our league position wasn’t affected too much by these decisions.
With FIFA refusing to bring in technology to assist the referees with the obvious decisions (the 50-50 ones are a matter of judgment and consistency), we’re going to see more of these next season. I hope United don’t get too affected but we’re going to see a big one go against us sooner or later and it’s galling to see that the authorities won’t do anything nor would they let the clubs themselves do anything about it.
6. The Newcomers
The sorrow of losing the Champions League semifinal to AC Milan wasn’t taken away by the Premier League trophy but the signing of Nani and Anderson surely did the trick. Add to it the addition of Carlos Tevez and the eventual arrival of Owen Hargreaves and you had a strong Manchester United squad that one felt would safely make the transition from old to new.
Owen Hargreaves – English but with continental experience at the highest level. Brings a versatility to the squad by being able to fill in at right back, right midfield and central or defensive midfield. With his willingness to bomb forward, we might even see him in a more advanced midfield role next season. He’s a United player till the end of his career now – as long as he stays fit United will always have a strong presence in midfield.
Carlos Tevez – The critics were wrong. Tevez and Rooney CAN play together – the deft one-touch football in the final third, the telepathic understanding and the goals made sure of it. Like Rooney, Tevez needs to improve on his finishing but his fighting spirit and remarkable engine make him the best signing of the summer. United should be able to secure a permanent deal but it’s unsure whether he will stay here for life.
Nani – His long-range shooting was rarely on target (Tottenham, Middlesbrough) and he misses a boatload of chances, not to mention that his decision-making is poor AND that he dilly-dallies too much on the ball. With that being said, this is a player with supreme self-confidence and the technical ability to succeed Ryan Giggs on the left flank. He has the right temperament and as long as he learns United will be better off.
Thinking of Nani reminds me of Kieran Richardson, Darren Fletcher and Alan Smith – three United players (former and current) with great potential but often unable to realise it or to play in sync with their teammates. Richardson and Smith departed because of the lack of chances they got because of being ‘out of sync’, but hopefully Nani will improve his game and play with the team the way Ronaldo learned to play with those around him.
Anderson – Perhaps the most determined and fearless ball-winner at Old Trafford, which is lofty praise if you consider the likes of Hargreaves and Vidic (not to mention the two fighters Rooney and Tevez). He can rumble with the best of them and has shown flashes of his passing ability in games where he’s had space and time to play. With time he will get better at dictating the pace of the game and should be able to some goals under his belt as well.
Both Nani and Anderson have the confidence, ability and temperament to be the best in the Premier League in their respective positions.
5. The Old Guard
Gary Neville got only a few minutes of playing time last season but the occasion, the timing and the response from the crowd told the whole story. Here was the United captain, a loyal servant to the club and a player who gave 110% in training and every time he stepped on the pitch. He played for 15 minutes but found the time to use his new position as holding midfielder (and the reception he got from the crowd) to his advantage and made a foray into the opposition half and looking for the ball, eliciting cheers from the supporters.
His absence was felt but he remained the club captain regardless of his status, a clear sign of SAF’s faith in his leaders and the gaffer’s loyalty to his players. Neville is one of those who won’t let the club down and will play as long as he is able to.
Edwin van der Sar had many shaky moments during the season – provoking criticism and claims that he was ‘over the hill’. But when it mattered, the man produced match-winning saves. He’s an excellent role model for the younger keepers and I only hope that he considers a coaching role at United after the end of next season (or even during it).
I was listening to a Ryan Giggs interview the other day and I realised that he is a rare role model – he mixes the grit and determination of Gary Neville with the pure talent of Paul Scholes and as he has gotten older he has turned into a remarkable statesman and ambassador for the club. It doesn’t show now, but off the pitch the man is a walking icon for United and once he hangs up his boots I hope he stays on-board and contributes to the club the way Bobby Charlton has done and the way Bryan Robson has been asked to do recently.
Paul Scholes – what a cracker of a goal (you know the one I’m talking about). Him and Giggs have held the team back in a bit in terms of speed and movement but their contributions in terms of skill and experience have been valuable nevertheless. Scholes limits his movement on the pitch but thanks to his excellent anticipation he still manages to pop up in the right places to receive the ball.
Plus wherever Scholes is, you can be sure that he’s looking for the ball, knows where to pass it next and has the ability and presence of mind to free himself of any opposition players close by and actually receive the ball. It’s a valuable skill and I hope he can pass some of his knowledge on to Anderson and Fletcher (who definitely needs help) before he retires.
4. Best Players v Best Team
You know how everyone wants the best players for their club? I don’t. I want the best team on the pitch playing for Manchester United, and I’ll back that team every second of every day against a team with the best players.
After all, we’ve done it for two years in a row against Chelsea. While I’ve liked Chelsea’s managers and several of their players, they’ve made several mistakes in buying players in their rush to buy success (there’s no shame in buying success, only in failing to do so). The club has tasted success based on the sheer quality of their players but when it comes to picking ‘the best team’ Chelsea would fall behind United and Arsenal at the very least. Liverpool themselves have the same problem – good players but a bit short in the team-building department.
United don’t have the best left-back in the world but in the context of this team Patrice Evra fits the bill perfectly. Wes Brown, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic may not be the best in their positions (at least Rio is, but that’s a different debate) but they complement each other so well that the back line seems unbeatable. It’s the same elsewhere on the pitch.
This summer we’ll see Wenger and Ferguson again bring in players that match the philosophy and personality of the club. Scolari is a different manager to Mourinho in that he can judge players better and different to Grant in that he is more capable of building a ‘family’. But doing that takes more than a few months – and Scolari will need to prove with his signings that he wants to create a long-lasting winning culture at the club that depends on more than just buying the best players and then forcing them to fit together and work as a team.
For Chelsea’s sake, they won’t make the same mistakes with buying players but where United is concerned, we can rest assured that regardless of what the fans think or want, Ferguson will bring those players that fit in best with the team AND can help us improve on and off the pitch.
3. Champions League
Reliving the penalty shootout, the drama and the emotions, brought back the same tears to my eyes that came when VDS stopped the last penalty in Moscow. As a fan you live for these moments and I’m lucky to have seen some great triumphs in recent years, from United’s back-to-back titles to the Champions League win and going back a bit in time, Italy’s World Cup win.
I hope you’ll watch the penalty shootout again, or better yet, watch the whole game again and appreciate the fine line between success and failure. The quality of this team / club / management is that more often than not, they can translate opportunities into success.
Anyone doubting Rooney’s technical abilities should watch the highlights reel – his assists, the one-touch play, the finishing (some it was extraordinary, like the goal against Reading – 19 January 2008) or the goal against Newcastle at St James Park) and his all-round efforts.
As part of a team Rooney and Tevez both made their positioning subservient to Cristiano Ronaldo who at times was simply unplayable. Instead of competing with him they chose to complement him to United’s benefit. Wayne Rooney is a team player above all else and a well-settled individual off the pitch. He’s a future United captain, a Red for life and apart from being England’s best striker he’s also one of the best forwards in the Premier League and Europe.
With time, his positioning will improve and so will his decision-making (sometimes he’s chosen to shoot / pass when the other option might have been better) and we’ll see more goals from him.
Oh, and hopefully he rests well this summer and stays fit for next season.
The season highlights plus a review of the events post May 21 have given me a fresh perspective on Cristiano Ronaldo. Last week I couldn’t care less about him and considered him to have already left the club. But I watched the highlights and saw how committed he was to the team, to his game, how well he gelled with his teammates, what an excellent team player he was, how his positioning had improved from 06/07 to a point where he seemed to pop up in the opposition penalty area at exactly the right time to score some stunning goals.
He’s scored crucial goals this season against the big clubs – Roma away, Arsenal away, Chelsea in Moscow and Liverpool at Old Trafford. Replacing him will need a striker who’s as fast and deadly a finisher as Torres but taller and stronger, like Drogba. Plus we’ll need a winger who is as comfortable with hugging the touchline as he is with cutting in and taking on the opposition defence. Two players to replace one on the pitch and in the squad, and we haven’t even talked about his leadership qualities yet.
I never loved Ronaldo. Even after the last two seasons, I like Rooney and Ferdinand more. But you can’t deny the fact that he’s remained 100% professional during the summer transfer saga – two interviews in which he’s deferred the final decision to his club, Manchester United and despite his ambitions has stated that he will be happy to go back to United and perform as before if asked to. It’s impossible to ask someone to do this year in and year out especially if they want to go, but for Ronaldo to do it even once (considering the shit we’ve been hearing in the press from Barry and Adebayor and Drogba) is heart-warming.
Ronaldo will be at Old Trafford next season and the fans need to get behind him and show him why United are the best in the world. There’s no need to be jealous – to draw a parallel from real-life relationships – sometimes a girl just likes someone else and it has more to do with what she believed and held valuable while growing up as opposed to what you are right now. If that happens, you have to give them the space to consider their options and then if they want to go, you let them go. On an emotional level, we’re far more removed from Ronaldo than a person would be in the above example, so there’s no cause for resentment or being jealous.
On the other hand, the club and the manager have full right to decide Ronaldo’s future, and they’ve done exactly that. As long as Ronaldo plays for United and gives his 100%, he’ll stay. The day he stops making the effort is the day he will be flogged off to the highest bidder. I’d be sad to see him go but no one is bigger than the club, not the fans, not the players and not even the manager. And he is professional enough not to cause trouble at United. As for next summer, Real’s interest is only going to get stronger so we’ll have to see whether United can woo Ronaldo or will fake Madrid get their man eventually.
All I know is – as long as he’s at United, we’re going to have a blast. And when he goes, the players who played around him will step up their game and ensure that United keep on winning.
So much said and so much more that we could say about the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Michael Carrick, Patrice Evra and Wes Brown. They all had their roles to play in the double and most importantly they’ve all played together as a team and forced themselves to improve from the previous season.
It’s sad to see Pique go just like it was sad to see Rossi go but in both cases (Tevez is better than Rossi, Vidic is better than Pique) the players had no place in the team and while I’d like to see Petrucci / Welbeck / Eagles / Gibson / Amos / Brandy / Evans breaking into the first team there’s little chance of all of them doing that, so we’ll see a couple of more departures this summer.
On to the next season – a striker / winger to come in (depending on Saha’s status) and United to be stronger on all fronts thanks to a more experienced squad.
I think I’ve written enough for one day, so off you go and have your say in the comments…