Archive | December 2011

A festive Wayne Rooney poem

…because we feel like it. 

A visit from Saint Meredith

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
United socks hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that Saint Nicholas soon would be there.

The baby was nestled all snug in his bed,
While visions of footballers danced in his head.
A Littlewoods nightie, and dad’s special cap,
Lay close in attendance as owners did nap.

When out on Pitch One there arose such a clatter,
Wayne sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window he flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to goalposts below.
When, what to his wondering eyes should approach,
But a little red man, in a bustling team coach.

In his mouth was a pipe, or cigar, or a stick,
Wayne thought for a moment it must be Saint Nick!
More rapid than Concorde, the vehicle came,
Then he whistled and shouted, and called them by name.

“Now, Bobby! now, Georgey! now, Dennis and Duncan!
On, Malcolm, on! Joey, on! Francis and Colin!
To the top of the pitch! to the top of the goal!
Now run away! run away! run away all!”

All the men tumbled out when he parked up the bus,
One boot stood on another and Wayne heard a cuss.
But then up to the goalmouth the players they flew,
With a bag full of balls, and their eager boss, too.

And then, in a twinkling, Wayne saw on the grass
The players all dribbling or choosing to pass.
As he drew in his head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney their gaffer did come with a bound.

He landed, well balanced, with a ball at his foot,
His crimson shirt faded and all covered in soot.
But he brushed himself down and there right on his chest,
Sat proudly a dragon, on an old-style crest.

His eyes how they narrowed! his cheeks how they sunk!
As he saw young Wayne dressed in silk cap and silk trunks.
Then his mouth it grew small, as his lips, they went tight,
The moustache on his philtrum was black as the night.

The stump of a pick he held firm in his teeth,
Bit tight, he had clearly no rush to bequeath.
He had a slim body and yet slimmer smile,
That made poor Wayne wish he could run for a mile.

He was near perfect shape, a trim little old elf,
And Wayne shied when he saw him, in spite of himself.
The glare of his eye and his motionless head,
Soon gave Wayne to know he had something to dread.

He wasted no time and went straight to his task,
He rifled through cupboards, then turned sharp to ask:
“Dear Wayne, what is meant by this Christmas eve trip,
Is honest appraisal of this here wage slip.”

He held it aloft, the small blue printed note,
And queried the figure he proceeded to quote.
Why was Wayne still paid such a laughable sum,
When neighbouring players looked on and made fun?

Written by Jude Ellery, courtesy of strange bOUnce After Christmas, they’ll continue the festivities with more poetry, and a bit of fiction for good measure.

From everyone here at MU24 (just me, lonely), we wish you a Merry Chrimbo, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, whatever.

Manchester United have a brand new bag

Like James Brown and his brand new bag,  Manchester United have rediscovered their “groove”. For a team supposedly in crisis, this win – and indeed, the general response post-Basel – serves as an emphatic reminder to the critics that they are very much still a force. Ryan Giggs perfectly summed up what was so good about Manchester United’s performance against Fulham last night: “When you have so many options on the ball – people running in behind, people dropping in the hole – we’re a very difficult team to play,” Giggs eulogised after the impressive 5-0 win. “The performance was really pleasing.”

Granted, the opposition since that fateful night in Switzerland have been teams that United are expected to beat, but you’ve got to start somewhere – and United’s rehabilitation has gone fairly smoothly so far, brushing aside stubborn mid-table teams with much verve and conviction; and the only time they’ve been caught with a narcotic is when Dimitar Berbatov metaphorically puffed on one after scoring that audacious backheel for the fifth at Craven Cottage. That said, away ties against QPR and Fulham should always be regarded as tricky, anyway. Seven goals – with not a single goal conceded – is no mean feat, either.

In the previous campaign, many had cited United’s emphasis on a ‘collective’ ; where, it was difficult to distinguish an outstanding individual, because, as a unit, they were all equally good. Here it appeared as if there were many outstanding individuals. Ryan Giggs, for one. At 38, he continues to amaze and his central midfield partnership with Michael Carrick gives United a surprising dynamic. By design, they shouldn’t work together but it inconceivably does. Unfortunately for Fulham, a team that usually displays great presence in the centre of midfield, Dixen Etuhu and Danny Murphy both crumbled into anonymity from the very start.

Sir Alex may take comfort from another impressive display in the middle of the park given that United still lack incredible depth in that position – and with Phil Jones now out injured and Darron Gibson being Darron Gibson, there remains a lot to be addressed there. Still, there’s a possibility that United may get lucky even with so few numbers if they continue to play like this, and you’d imagine the manager is likely to take this risk and decide not to buy in the January window. It isn’t recommended – at all – but Sir Alex’s stubbornness works in many amazing ways and he’ll probably end up having the last laugh and, come May, cheerfully drinking red wine as expensive as Athletic Bilbao’s Javi Martinez. Anyway, back to the Fulham game.

Manchester United hadn’t played this well in a game since September; and usually, they need both Nani and Wayne Rooney to tick. As frustrating as Nani can be, there can be no disputing that he is United’s most productive player. According to the number nerds, he creates a chance every 29 minutes, the same as David Silva. Pretty good, that. For the first goal, his dazzling run was extraordinary; with so little space, he managed not only to sprint and hold it down the line, but find Danny Welbeck with a beautifully executed and pinpoint cross. His second was an uncharacteristic header, suggesting that Nani is indeed adept to any situation.

Rooney is in fine form, too; always making himself useful when dropping deep and so outnumbering the opposition in the process. Moreover, the fact that he finds himself in such a withdrawn position creates a problem for the defence, and helps Welbeck to prosper, too. While Welbeck isn’t as prolific as Javier Hernandez, he arguably does more for the team. There have been countless occasions where Hernandez has drifted out – even in those in which he scores in – while Welbeck goes in always searching, always wanting. His positioning is an asset, too and his goal was reward for a good, solid past fortnight in a red shirt.

And praise is in order for others too; Anders Lindegaard managed yet another clean sheet. His inclusion is of course debatable; because it arguably ruins David de Gea’s rhythm and that of the defence, but that claim has so far been unfounded. Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling were solid again, while Patrice Evra responded well after a shoddy performance at Loftus Road on Sunday. It was a great shame, however, to see both Jones and Ashley Young leave the field of play with injuries.

The only criticism of United yesterday was the manner in which they approached the start of the second half. Perhaps, they allowed for arrogance and complacency to seep in at 3-0, but United should have learnt from the Chelsea game earlier this season; they led at half time with the same scoreline, and ended up 3-1 victors but only thanks to Fernando Torres’ horror miss which, if scored, would have certainly made for a nervy finish. They did improve as the night went on and bore two more goals out of their efforts towards the end; both gorgeous, but contrasting, takes by Rooney and Berbatov. It ended 5-0; who saw that one coming?

Gary Neville: Single-handedly making punditry bearable (again?)

Back in February 2011, the Guardian’s ‘The Gallery’ humorously predicted Gary Neville’s next career direction in response to the news of his imminent retirement. Unfortunately, he became neither a Tellytubby or an Egyptian rebel – instead, replacing Andy Gray as the man tasked with analysing games for Sky Sports; and, boy, has he done it well. With his somewhat-oversized iPad-like gizmo and the trusty stylus which he excitedly waves around like an eight-year-old playing Nintendogs, he’s gone down a hit with armchair fans this season. And they’re not poking fun at him, any more. Unless you’re an oblivious, Neville-hating, armchair fan without a TV. Which would be weird.

His entertaining, fresh approach to punditry has been so well-received that some have even remarked the actual game, the one he’s tasked with analysing, to simply be ‘two 45-minute breaks’. That’s not too far from the truth because there’s something so obviously different about him – for example, his professionally soothing voice, his ability to read between the lines – compared to, say, Alan Hansen or Alan Shearer, where he actually says something viewers would find remotely interesting. And he probably knows a thing or two about Hatem Ben Arfa, as well.

Neville isn’t as relaxed on camera as Hansen or Mark Lawrenson – sometimes he’s nervous and fidgety – but he’s already proven himself to be far superior on his hourly 7pm review of the week for Monday Night Football. And he’s still fairly new, let’s not forget.

Of course, there are times when he falls into ‘The Lawrenson trap’ of saying something disappointingly banal; for instance, he put Tottenham’s emergence as a force this season partly down to ‘desire’; only seconds away from wheeling out the “never-say-die” cliché we’re so familiar with on Match of the Day. Fortunately, Neville is Neville and, in no time, he turns it around with a gem and all those minor blemishes are forgotten about.

His close knowledge of 21st century football is mightily impressive; he is familiar with all the latest trends, but finds the perfect balance in not going so technical with saturated tactics talk about the perceived role of the ‘False 9′. He will point out where teams are going wrong – and indeed, right – not shying away from being critical, even if it means being critical to his beloved former club, Manchester United. He’ll throw in some hilarious tounge-in-cheek statements, too. His David Luiz quip, in which he said the Brazilian appears as if he were being “controlled by a 10-year-old in the crowd on a Playstation”, remains a highlight.

He’s even seeing a contrast in fortunes from his playing days as many have begrudgingly praised the ex-United player, seemingly won over by his charm (true story). Neville has always been a bit of a charismatic figure, however; his famous friendship with David Beckham – the butt of many jokes – showed this. He once said: “I was with him that fateful night he first saw The Spice Girls on the telly and said: ‘See that girl who can’t dance or sing, I’m going to marry her’”. Now, he’s forging a famous double act with a less glamorous being in Sky presenter Ed Chamberlain, feeding off each other like two lion cannibals. But, once the show really gets going, Chamberlain stops talking – and leaves it all to the meticulous Neville. Someone, anyone, give the man a raise and, better yet, his own spin-off show.

Talk of a serious Rio Ferdinand regression premature

“[Rio Ferdinand's] performance was nothing short of magnificent,” announced Alan Hansen on Match of the Day 2 yesterday, before wheeling out selected clips for his analysis on what appeared to be Ferdinand’s return to form (at one point, he put down a random pass to Wayne Rooney as good “anticipation” ). He was correct, however, in his observation that the former England skipper was the stand-out performer in the 2-0 win over Queens Park Rangers; helping Manchester United keep a clean sheet in the process.

Indeed, this did look like a return to form. Ferdinand’s start to the campaign was by no means encouraging. That’s not to say that he was dreadful, far from it, but he appeared to be a liability for United. And, given his injury record, and his age, it was excusable to think as much. Fabio Capello logically axed him from the England team – although somewhat questionably in the favour of Gary Cahill – and his days as an international looked numbered; and then, unsurprisingly, rumours emerged of a possible move away from Old Trafford.

Manchester City’s 6-1 thrashing of United in late-October acted, for some, as confirmation for his supposed regression; he was ruthlessly exposed by City’s attacking artillery and looked a player not only lacking sharpness and fitness, but devoid of any confidence. Some may even argue that this ‘regression’ had actually started seasons before – perhaps, when he had set up that Twitter account – where injuries were all too-frequent. Even then, though, we saw enough to suggest that, potentially, he can be at the top for another two or three years. It was at the beginning of this campaign where we all felt a little concerned.

But back to yesterday’s Match of the Day. “Finally,” Hansen continued. “Six weeks ago, he wasn’t fit enough to do this.” And there, they showed an impressive moment where Ferdinand, alert and full of anticipation, sprinted out of the 18 yard box to make a clever interception, preventing a possible goalscoring opportunity for QPR. It seemed as if he had rolled back the years. Apart from a few blemishes, he was largely impressive in this game – and complimented the much-maligned Jonny Evans well. In fact, not only was it Ferdinand’s best game of the season, but Evans too.

By definition, Ferdinand has regressed. But that’s barely a surprise for a player well into his 30s. The point is, he hasn’t ‘regressed’ as much as some think. Since the start of November, the 1-0 win over Sunderland to be precise, he has barely put a foot wrong. Ferdinand is still very much the same player as he was in his peak; perhaps, in present day, he’s a lot more hesitant, has lost a bit of pace but he is still fairly agile and his calmness is still his defining feature.

What Ferdinand remains is someone who is dependable, not always, not any more, but enough to give United fans reasons to be confident(ish). Albeit a slightly irritating figure, with his banal tweeting and incessant plugging of his below-average, pathetic excuse for a webzine, he is still a good player. A very good player. And his recent purple patch isn’t so much to do with Nemanja Vidic being absent, more so to do with the fact that he has always had it.

___

Notes:

- My sincere apologies for quoting Hansen. I feel dirty. 

- Just as I finished writing this, I hopped onto Twitter and there he is promising to give an Xbox away for his followers on behalf of his magazine. I take all the kind words back. 

Retrospective #15: The Ultimate Rivalry: Manchester United and Arsenal 1997-2005

Manchester United and Arsenal, from 1997 to 2005, undoubtedly engaged in the era-defining rivalry in English football. In order to be classified as a great sporting rivalry the protagonists must move beyond the feudalistic; the edge and the aggro, and be ultimately characterised by supreme competition and a bountiful supply of dramatic and heart-stopping moments. The other great sporting rivalries of the 2000s – Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal; the Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots; Phil Taylor and Raymond van Barneveld – all contained those crucial elements at their core.

Barring some occasional minor rumbling, the long-standing rivalry between Man United and Arsenal had lain dormant since the late seventies but it erupted again spectacularly at Highbury in November 1997 and overflowed with blood and thunder for the next eight years. David Platt’s late, looping winner for Arsenal that Sunday evening at the climax of a gripping struggle was the prelude to years of continuous artistry and aggression, class and conflict.

Highlights during this period included Ryan Giggs’ mesmeric FA Cup semi-final extra-time winner; a Dwight Yorke-inspired 6-1 thrashing of the Gunners at Old Trafford; and Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s magnificent solo goal in April 2003. Lowlights: Thierry Henry’s majestic flick and volley over Fabien Barthez at Highbury; Barthez’ meltdown at Highbury and Sylvain Wiltord’s winner at Old Trafford in 2001/2002; and the Martin Keown-led baiting of Van Nistelrooy by The Invincibles.

United v Arsenal at this point in time was a vivid illustration of the Premier League’s golden age and always contained unforgettable footballing theatre. And throughout the 7 years of warfare, the focal point remained unchanged: Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira’s eternal battle for midfield supremacy.

The physically imposing Vieira and the mentally imposing Keane defined this great footballing rivalry. Immense midfield play and captaincy from both parties was punctuated by regular shenanigans. Like Avon Barksdale and Marlo Stanfield feuding for the metaphorical turf of West Baltimore, Keane and Vieira fought for every last inch of the literal turf of Old Trafford and Highbury. Instigation of an on-field 22-man brawl and an obscene tunnel fracas were particularly memorable moments in this colossal confrontation between two rare giants of the modern game.

In 2004/2005, the rivalry reached its pinnacle despite the two sides essentially playing for second place behind Jose Mourinho’s immovable Chelsea. At Old Trafford in late October, Arsenal’s 49-game unbeaten run was ended by a combination of brutality and blatant cheating by United; a day when betrayal of the club’s principles was ultimately justified, and accepted, due to the end result. This was followed by a Carling Cup victory for United in early December and then the most awe-inspiring game of football I can ever remember, in the return match league match at Highbury.

Not even the most ardent Premier League fans would claim that this was one of the most aesthetically pleasing of matches but the swash and buckle thrill of the English top flight has never been more evident than it was in north London in early February 2005. Battle commencing – almost literally – with Keane and Vieira’s spat in the tunnel, the game lurched from incident to dramatic incident in a breathless showcase of the English footballing mentality. Ironically, almost none of the key figures in this archetypal English match were actually from the green and pleasant land.

Vieira opened the scoring with a towering header; Giggs pegged Arsenal back with a deflected strike before Bergkamp gave Arsenal the half-time advantage sliding the ball under Roy Carroll after Henry’s weighted pass. In the second half United came storming back with a verve and passion that was largely anonymous during the rest of the season. Ronaldo’s quick-fire double gave them a 3-2 lead but Arsenal were given renewed hope when Silvestre was sent-off for a senseless headbutt on Ljungberg. The Londoners pushed forward to exploit their man advantage but O’Shea took advantage at the other end finishing off a delightful move by nonchalantly chipping the advancing Almunia.

From the fraught moments in the tunnel pre-match until O’Shea’s unlikely clinching goal, this game was characterised by drama and tension; skill and flair; incident and threat. For these reasons and as the final great battle of this seven-year war between United and Arsenal, this is perhaps my all-time favourite game.

After the battle of Highbury, the rivalry became largely inactive again with United increasingly dominant for the latter half of the decade. Arsenal did win the FA Cup on penalties in 2005 after ‘parking the bus’ for 120 minutes against United, but the sale of Vieira to Juventus left them bereft of any intimidatory presence in midfield and 6 largely irrelevant, trophyless years have followed – mirroring the Barksdale organisation when Avon was finally locked up at the conclusion of season 3. A humiliating Champions League semi-final evisceration by a rampant United was the death knell for the rivalry that defined English football and gave temporary credence to the Best League in the World myth.

This was written by Alistair Walker. You can find more of his excellent work over at Natural Police, “for all your [bloody ace] sporting insight”. And you can follow him on Twitter.

The unplayable Nani is back. Probably. Maybe.

It barely makes up for the chaotic week gone by – where Manchester United were knocked out of the Champions League, where Nemanja Vidic was ruled out for the season and where the author of this post dropped the last piece of his birthday cake (Belgian chocolate, thanks for asking) on the kitchen floor – but the 4-1 win over Wolves goes some way in reassuring fans – even those who have had to experience an endless line of shoddy birthdays (naming no names) – that things aren’t totally bad. Well, they are. Sort of. But today isn’t the day to focus on that. Instead, let’s just look at the positives – along with one semi-negative thingy – all in five points.

1. Welbeck’s selflessness could push him ahead of Hernandez

Danny Welbeck did everything but score today according to the trusty Book of Clichés; but, indeed, he did everything but score. His link-up play is often overlooked; and he appears to be in the same mould as Dimitar Berbatov, where his other assets – including being able to read play well and spot a pass – bring those around him into the game and allow the team to maintain some sort of rhythm. It might sound harsh on Javier Hernandez, the man with the second best goal ratio in the history of the Premier League (Opta), but with him and Berbatov still injured, this is a great opportunity for Welbeck to show his worth. And, really, you wouldn’t put it past him. The greatest criticism of Hernandez is his tendency to drift out of games; here, against Wolves, there was no such problem for Welbeck. However, it was when he was off the pitch where his importance was recognised the most – as the energetic Kiko Macheda floundered around like a fish on a-a-a, er, something.

2. United find balance with Phil Jones and Michael Carrick

Phil Jones had a stinker in midweek; but there he was missing his midfield partner, the man with whom he flourished with days earlier in the 1-0 win over Aston Villa. With Michael Carrick, the perfect balance is found; and it’s a partnership very similar to the Tom Cleverley and Anderson one we saw at the start of the campaign. Similarly here, there’s an emphasis on dynamism and neither are in a fixed position – Jones continually caused problems for Wolves’ out-of-sorts defence with his marauding runs downfield; and he could take credit for the fourth goal where, after a bold sprint that covered nearly 80 yards, he released Antonio Valencia with an accurate, drilling pass. Defensively, he was excellent again.

The renascent Carrick also appeared to be nearing his wonderful form that inspired United to a League-Euro double in 07/08. His diving header in the eighth minute suggested he now had a bit of freedom – and was not expected to carry out solely defensive duties. That doesn’t mean he was neglected in helping out at the back, though, making vital interceptions and tackles – a supposed weakness of his. There was the one particular case where he won the ball, looked up and saw Rooney, found him with a delightful through ball … but the forward could not direct his shot past his namesake Wayne Hennessey.

3. Wayne Rooney and Antonio Valencia compliment each other perfectly

For Antonio Valencia, a player woefully out of form, he needed this. Sure, the opposition could be stronger but that shouldn’t matter; here, with three assists to his name, he not only gained some much-needed confidence but perhaps has earned the faith of the manager again and, with Ashley Young in a similar blip, could see more gametime in the coming months.

In his début season, the Ecuadorian was the perfect foil for Wayne Rooney. What sets apart Valencia from other wingers is his crossing technique; the astonishing accuracy he manages to find, the ability to read the situation and the way he battles past dumbfounded defenders. He crosses at the byline – unlike many others – and this is what suits Rooney, or indeed any forward in world football, best (“I think we kept their full-backs completely occupied all through the game – we were getting to the edge of their box all the time,” Sir Alex told MUTV after the game). These crosses are certainly more effective than the chanced ones from a distance, something Valencia rarely attempts. And another point: Valencia’s pace is an underused asset.

4. Vidic-less United may be punished by better opposition

This isn’t meant to act as a criticism to either Jonny Evans or Rio Ferdinand because both were fairly tidy in this game; in particular Evans, who put in a good shift, making one outstanding block as Wolves looked to grab a consolation goal at 4-1 down. But Evans’ biggest problem is his composure and concentration, and tends to back off – as does the Ferdinand of today – which can be punished by better opposition, especially if you’re playing a two-man midfield. There were some jittery moments, and Steven Fletcher’s goal after half time was the result of poor position and perhaps poor marking by Patrice Evra. Still, it is not absolutely essential that United go into market for another central defender – they’ve got the luxury of depth that they certainly don’t have in central midfield.

5. The unplayable Nani is back. Probably. Maybe.

We don’t know how long it’ll last, though. But he did come out of the Basel game as the only player who could really reflect on a decent job done. Nani – as if we were surprised – recognises just how influential he can be when he’s firing: “It’s important for the team I’m on my best form and I’m happy with my performance. I’ve been working hard to try and be at my best as then I can help the team.” Nani’s right, though. Wolves were narrow and that suited him; he found plenty of the space on the flank and found little trouble against Wolves’ full-backs. And if there’s one part of his game that has elevated him as a player, it’s how good he is drifting into other positions, giving United fluidity and allowing them to switch play. Both of Nani’s goals were special in their own way; the first a well-executed low shot from outside the area, the second a moment of quick-thinking and good position which allowed him to get to the end of Valencia’s cross.

United need more of this, and the gap between them and City may just gradually close. But, as good as they were, the bench told another story. There were no out-and-out central midfielders – having just 1 in an 18-man squad is always a cause for concern (EDIT: I’ve just realised that Darron Gibson was on the bench, although some may argue that it was a deliberate mistake). For all the positives, this result may just act as another convenient smokescreen.

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