Archive | May 2012

Retrospective #23: The joy of Gary Neville

How do you define who is, and isn’t, a great? A legend? Or is that the same thing (it isn’t, apparently)? Gary Neville isn’t a great, we know this. Is he a Manchester United great?  No — or at least I don’t think he is.

Instead, he was just a good player, the no-frills type, but unlike the airlines the term is connoted with, Neville was reliable and consistent; a so-called ‘team player’ who is correctly renowned today as the English right-back of his generation. Indeed, there is a feeling that Neville was universally undervalued throughout his career and that is true, to an extent. Sure, there are and have been many right backs, such as Javier Zanetti or Gianluca Zambrotta, who were superior to Neville in many respects, but it’s not taking anything away from him. If technique did desert him, Neville can at least boast longevity which allows him to be mentioned along with and among the other great right-sided defenders in a career spanning roughly 19 years.

And so, there is more to football than what it may seem. Neville’s strength was being able to perform well over a sustained period — perhaps without being able to do something so expansive — for nearly two decades. Very few players – even those who dazzle us every Saturday with their fancy tricks, flicks and overhead kicks (all this now further dumbed-down to “tekkers”) – can boast that. Neville did everything asked of him; well, nearly.

The joy of Neville might have been born from something else; perhaps his antics that make him the lovable little scrote he is today. And, goodness, here was a man that could make football fans – particularly Liverpool and Manchester City supporters – united in joyous hate. Fantastic.

He was the sport’s very own [insert controversial pop-culture figure here] the moment he repeatedly kissed the Manchester United badge in front of a bemused, anguished Liverpool fans immediately after Rio Ferdinand notched a late winner in a game years ago. Schadenfreude was Neville’s forté, while for everyone else, it was German for a very, very bad word.

Back to the football. While injuries did shorten and stunt his career somewhat, and made the last few a bit wince-worthy, there were still plenty of joyous moments to look back on. He forged an impressive partnership with David Beckham in the late 90s/early 00s which was all the more spectacular because they were actually quite similar in some ways. Neither were excellent dribblers but fed on each other and Neville’s adventure down the flank was perfect foil for Beckham for both club and country, to a considerably lesser extent. Gary Neville himself was a good crosser – albeit not as good as his teammate – but still pretty effective with or without him.

Defensively, he went about his job quietly and without much fuss. Of course, there have been times where it didn’t always gone according to plan. United’s ill-fated run in the Club World Championship in 2000 might have had Neville partly to blame for their explosion in a different environment, where he absolutely capitulated at the hands of nifty Brazilian Romario in a 3-1 defeat to Vasco de Gama and some other teams from far away places.

He was at fault for the first two goals and United really weren’t able to recover from there. In the same year, he didn’t particularly perform in either leg of the Champions League quarter final against Real Madrid (aggregate defeat 3-2) which many observers had noted at the time. Yet, these instances were rare in such a lengthy career. Granted, he lost his wheels in his penultimate and final seasons at the club but that can only be expected and his excellence in previous season meant it could be forgiven for.

Neville was no great. That title is reserved for very few players and is decided by a wider consensus. Legend is perhaps more appropriate as it suggests something that has been decided internally. Gary Neville, Manchester United legend. Sounds good.

This is a revised version of a piece that originally appeared on CanTheyScoreRead more Retrospectives here

A pointless review of a select few United players this season

Because we just haven’t got time to do everyone. With added, pointless star ratings. 

David de Gea

United fans’ staunch defence of the maligned Spaniard mid-season was admirable (well most of them did, anyway), as they felt they had to; partly, because they’d seen flashes of a £20million player and partly because they didn’t want another Roy Carroll, another Raimond van der Gouw. The press were themselves determined to find another Massimo Taibi to laugh at, joking that this mug from another league wasn’t cut out for the physical nature of the Premier League and dismissed him as some sort of competition winner, who was probably given a replica shirt a size too big. It was only the gloves that were XXL as David de Gea found that replacing Edwin van der Sar was never going to be achieved in just a year — but he’s progressing nicely and can look back at an encouraging début season. United will hope he maintains his post-January form going into the first game in August.

He gets three pointless stars; because, yes, while it was certain his bad form in his first few months at the club was just a temporary thing that can easily be put down to naivety and nerves, it cannot be avoided. Nor have we (just me) quite worked out how good three stars is, but, here, take them Daveeeeed.

★★★☆☆

Phil Jones 

The form of Phil Jones, who enjoyed temporary — yet bizarre — cult status in his first few months as a United player, wavered a little towards the end of the season. The problem Jones has is this: he may be far too versatile to be taken seriously. It would be genuinely interesting to see how he does next season and how exactly he’ll be utilised; when John O’Shea was a United player, he was respected and reliable, but there was a ceiling — his peak so difficult to distinguish that the mountain was probably a slightly bumpy, square-ish rocky thing. Or something. The danger now for Jones is that he can’t just be a good player, he needs to be more because United require him to be. Is this too harsh? Of course, although it’s overdue given how much he’s been talked up — that includes all kinds; hyperbole and über-hyperbole. (Interestingly, he’s looked his best at right-back this season — not bad for a centre-half that can do a job in midfield …)

The personal stance is this: he can and should be a really good player, perhaps even future captain and whatever else, but the second half of the season exposed some obvious flaws (that fans/observers/pundits were happy to ignore because it was more fun than way) — which we’ll put down to the player’s naivety — that many opposing players were happy to capitalise on. It is important, then, to point out that there is a lot of work to do and we’ll certainly learn more from his second season than the first.

★★★☆☆

Jonny Evans

From a piece on Evans, March 2012:

Evans has not been perfect — but screw perfection. He’s been an able deputy in Vidic’s absence and has looked as good as experienced partner Rio Ferdinand – heck, he’s performed even better.

★★★★☆

Patrice Evra

Patrice Evra has always been good with words. He once said of France’s Lilian Thuram: “It is time that Lilian stops playing a role that isn’t his to play. Walking around with books on slavery in glasses and a hat does not turn you into Malcolm X.” Considering all this, I think we can forget that this hasn’t been an entirely great season for United’s left-back and stand-in captain in the absence of Nemanja Vidic, a post-World Cup 2010 decline that’s extended into its second year. Still, he’s not been that bad, but … two stars, in appeasement perhaps, to those that think he has.

★★☆☆☆

Michael Carrick

Pass, pass, pass, ooh a little slip, get up, dust yourself, pass, pass, shoot, pass, pass, tackle, pass, interception, pass, final whistle, three points. He gets four stars.

★★★★☆

Paul Scholes

Paul Scholes, the scruffy, half-blind, asthmatic messiah brought down to Old Trafford in January to aid an ailing Manchester United side — or already ailed according to some back then — has shown that, despite its negative connotations, it’s never so bad to act desperately. Indeed, many have retracted their initial cynicism for the U-turn; it’s only a desperate masterstroke, now, as we look back on it.

He’s been arguably as influential as any other player post-January and United have looked in most control with him in the side, barely able to drop points; the City defeat perhaps the only game in which he has disappointed. Painfully, United were without Scholes in all three losses to the combined force of Wigan Athletic Bilbao. Even if he were to stay, central midfield is an area where United have to invest in.

★★★★☆

Antonio Valencia

Football is, according to Mark Kelleher, a “mental disorder”, where “beauty is often too infrequent” — and that’s, well, true. Rather than your life, it can be a horrid, tragic extension of it and we sometimes wonder why we bother at all. Which is perhaps why we enjoy the good aspects of the game so much that seem increasingly rare as we get older. Valencia, battling and booming down the right-wing, falls into an esteemed category of players that make us feel warm and fuzzy inside — when we watch these types, we remember why we enjoy the game so much.

And Valencia, not without a few difficult, yet thankfully short-lived, periods, has been exceptional in the middle part this season. Valencia’s biggest success was being able to provide a service for those that need it; relieving the workload for the other winger in his team, the full-back behind him; pinging in an endless supply of crosses like a troubled kid on a roof with a new batch of water-balloons. And United sorely missed him in the Manchester derby defeat — heck, they were not even able to attempt a shot on goal, creating little.

Who doesn’t dearly love a stutter? A powerful, beastly and lethal strike? A measured, yet wonderfully-vicious, cross?

★★★★☆

Ryan Giggs

Shrug.

★★☆☆☆

Wayne Rooney

Below is an excerpt from this piece posted on the site last week.

Rooney has managed to score 27 goals from 34 in Premier League games. That statistic, in isolation, is good enough for some to go far enough to say the forward has been United’s best player this season. But Rooney has a lot to answer for. He is not just their chief goal-getter; but also their playmaker. It is partly true that United rely on Rooney too much for his own good; indeed, he has only really fulfilled his role as the goalscorer, and yet not much else. This season, it’s been a bit of both and neither, played everywhere and nowhere; given the target of 40 goals and yet, at the same time, (probably) told create goals for others, too.

Too often this season, when Rooney has tried to assume that playmaker role, he has played a bad pass for every good one, being far too negligent and careless and a bit of hindrance as United go forward. That, typically, followed by a strop or a sudden goal from the penalty spot … it’s clear that this is not Rooney’s best season at the club, only a good one, despite what some may say.

★★★★☆

Danny Welbeck

It’s amazing to think that Welbeck still has his doubters. But he does, even after a largely-impressive first season as an established senior which saw his goals tally nicely into double figures. Perhaps more importantly, he’s been consistently good — the romantics among us have dearly missed Dimitar Berbatov’s presence but Welbeck has been an able deputy, not too dissimilar at times, either; even nudging Javier Hernandez  (not a bad second for the Mexican: ★★★☆☆) to the bench. And what’s not to love in a local lad, eh?

★★★★☆

I’ve not enjoyed this at all. The star rating was rubbish. The season was well, good; for a bit. Bye. And have a horrible summer.

Despite the goals, Wayne Rooney isn’t Manchester United’s player of the season

Without a fuss in Sunday’s 2-0 win over Swansea City, Wayne Rooney strolled off, looking resigned, and accepted his substitution. Manchester United were bringing on Dimitar Berbatov for the last 10 minutes of a game that had already been won and just as Rooney was coming off, he received a warm ovation. United fans, in the last league game at Old Trafford this season, had acknowledged his efforts in this campaign — he did score 26 goals from 33 in Premier League games, after all. That statistic, in isolation, is good enough for some to go far enough to say the forward has been United’s best player this season.

But Rooney has a lot to answer for. He is not just their chief goal-getter; but also their playmaker. It is partly true that United rely on Rooney too much for his own good; indeed, he has only really fulfilled his role as the goalscorer, and yet not much else. This season, it’s been a bit of both and neither, played everywhere and nowhere; given the target of 40 goals and yet, at the same time, (probably) told create goals for others, too. You should never read too much into number of assists because they’re the most devilish and worst-behaved of statistics (well, after, pass completion rates, which is like a youth offender) but he’s only managed four this season compared to last year’s 11, at least giving an impression of his general profligacy.

This is what I had thought and seen before looking at the numbers (which should only be used to back up an observation); that he’s been far too wasteful and negligent than he’s ever been, especially after the most impressive second halves to a season you’ll ever see in the previous campaign; where Rooney forgot all that happened in the first and shrugged off not only a lengthy run of bad form caused partly by injury, but the pressure exerted by those not interested in football, but by what was on the front page of The Daily Star. Then, even with a ludicrous swearing ban which served in keeping up appearances, he was able to balance creating and scoring goals — against Barcelona in the Champions League final, he looked the only player who could turn it around from what may have seemed a perilous position. It was a fine spell that Sir Alex may or may not have tried to take advantage of — logically, I would say — but it hasn’t quite worked.

Is it possible to be your side’s most important player and yet not their best performing one? It seems so in Rooney’s case. He seems to be used as a goalscoring playmaker, but Diego Maradona he is not, which at least goes to show the Pelé comparisons (‘The White Pelé’) are a little more suitable. In simple terms, being a goalscorer means you have to be generally central and so your freedom is restricted — but freedom is surely what you need as a playmaker, which Rooney doesn’t always get. He’s expected not only to start attacks, but finish them, too.

Too often this season, when Rooney has tried to assume that playmaker role, he has played a bad pass for every good one, being far too negligent and careless and a bit of hindrance as United go forward. That, typically, followed by a strop or a sudden goal from the penalty spot. Which might then, therefore, indicate that it’s more than just a change in roles — that he’s most accustomed to one thing over another, rather than it being a choice. Perhaps Rooney needs to be deployed higher up the pitch and United sign an attacking midfielder that can alleviate the burden. Whatever the solution, what is clear is that this is not Rooney’s best season at the club, only a good one, despite what some say. It’s also worth pointing out that Sir Alex has been less reluctant to take him off than in seasons passed.

And in last Thursday’s Football Writers’ awards, he finished second behind Arsenal’s Robin van Persie, which is quite interesting, given the Dutchman has made a similar refinement to his game, albeit with more success (slightly, in the goal department) and (crucially) clarity. The margin between the two was roughly 100 votes and even with only about 250 in total anyway, was a still lot less than it perhaps should have been. Harsh? Yes. But that’s the beauty of value judgements — they’re not at all beautiful and nobody wants to agree, or, indeed, even hear it. But there were other players who deserved to be runners up. Furthermore, while the awards might suggest otherwise, he hasn’t even been United’s best player this season, or their second best, or even their third*.

Thankfully, Rooney recognises this. After he had scored two in April’s 4-0 win over Aston Villa, he accepted, post-match, that goals alone do not tell a story:  “It was nice to score two goals but I didn’t think my performance was good enough. The rest of my play wasn’t great. I am disappointed with that and I will be working hard to put it right.” Given the amount of times Rooney has been written off without any real basis, you can’t doubt he will at least try to find a solution, if, indeed, he is still a Manchester United player next year.

___

*For the record, and just for a bit of fun, this is my Top 5 this season in order (feel free to share your own below): Michael Carrick, Jonny Evans, Rio Ferdinand, Antonio Valencia, Wayne Rooney. (Though Danny Welbeck and Paul Scholes have claims.)

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