Robin van Persie has helped United turn a corner

Robin van Persie’s first act as a Manchester United player was to take a corner-kick in the season’s first game at Everton; it almost didn’t matter that the set-piece amounted to nothing, because it was an outcome most were familiar with. It was also Van Persie. And his job was to score goals.

Months on, he’s scoring goals, but doing more. Not that Van Persie was not ever such an all-round player, of course he was*, but United’s aim this season was to learn the lessons of the last; that meant finishing off games, that meant turning one point into three and ensuring that there was no repeat of what ultimately consigned United to a runners-up spot: 2011/12, as Sir Alex Ferguson said in August, was “the first time anyone has beaten us on goal difference.”

*This should be made clear. What justified the signing of Van Persie was the promise of another 30-goal season and that meant that United, already in possession of an accomplished group of strikers, could pay plenty for a 29-year-old. 

After scoring two against Wigan Athletic in Tuesday’s 4-0 win, Van Persie observed that “everybody’s helping each other and everybody wants to share the goals.” In the previous campaign, United would play Danny Welbeck at the risk of leaving goals on the bench (Javier Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov), with the idea that the young English striker could complement United’s chief goal-getter, Wayne Rooney, best. That generally worked — only this year, by signing Van Persie, they’ve made this super-effective, especially when partnered with Rooney. It’s also worth noting, though at times it feels like an illusion, Hernandez’s added efforts outside the box.

The Wigan game was changed, after 20 minutes of very little, because United had stumbled onto a new way of creating pressure and building momentum. This season, from corners — corners! — they’ve looked decidedly dangerous, as Jonny Evans and Patrice Evra would no doubt agree, and even if they don’t score directly from one, they are able to put the opposition team on the back foot. Ferguson seemed to agree, with much of the same words: “We took a bit of time to get going but, once we started to get those corner-kicks, with Robin [van Persie] whipping them in, it was keeping them under pressure.”

Fans feel confident when United have corners; gone, for now, are the days when United would take them short to counter their own inability to make them work. When writing about corner-kicks a few years ago, Rob Bagchi noted that they fail because they end up “as a simple equation of being outnumbered and unless an extraordinary cross or slackness opens up an avenue to score it becomes a routine defending exercise.” United do not have to follow by this rule any more; sure, there will remain those that are cleared by the first man, but considerably less of it, especially with new personnel (Rooney has been productive from it, too) who can deliver those extraordinary crosses.

The manager was also pleased with United’s willingness to go for a second, scored, unsurprisingly, by Van Persie. It was a goal that’s importance could not be downplayed, hitting the home side again just before half-time. This one was all Van Persie, as he took his time to weigh up an opportunity before turning the ball onto his right foot and placing it in with such precision that Ali Al-Habsi could offer no resistance. And there’s another claim to the striker becoming an all-round player; as he showed for Arsenal in his final season, he is remarkably capable with both feet. Goalscorers must strive to ambidexterity; this particular one has six goals with his less-favourable foot out of 16 (in addition to his 13 out of 30 last year).

With Hernandez’s good form put into consideration (with two more goals at the DW), some are tempted to forget about Wayne Rooney altogether. It shouldn’t be like that; since returning from the gash injury suffered in a game against Fulham in August all the way until United’s draw with Swansea in December, Rooney had performed very well, especially in tandem with his new partner. Still, when Van Persie had signed, many had hoped it would mean that the team no longer relies so heavily on Rooney. They’ve just about achieved that. Now, they’re only reliant on Robin.


Manchester United’s Seven Deadly Sins: #4 – Sloth

Sloth: Wanting to sleep at Dante’s house. 

Di Canio outsmarts Barthez, 2001

Back when ‘mind games’ as a footballing concept was underground and credible, Fabien Barthez could call himself the undisputed King of the Games. He had virtually won 2002’s free-for-all when his famed eccentricities, history has it, saw him prevent a spot-kick and, with it, a Manchester United defeat. With Fulham’s Steed Malbranque set to take a penalty, Barthez thought it funny – it was, in fairness – and practical – that too – to scrape the soles of his boot on either post, importantly getting rid of some mud that might contrive to bite him back later on, and catch up with his thoughts, perhaps to contemplate the nature of Beppe di Marco’s relationship with Lynne Slater. This colourful Barthez moment, though the Loftus Road crowd saw it differently, delayed Malbranque from taking the penalty despite the referee’s approval by whistle. Duly booked, Malbranque could take his kick, but could not convert.

BBC writer described this as “unsporting” and taking “gamesmanship to the limit”, which, isolated, makes the event sound like a one-off. Barthez had in fact done something similar thirteen months earlier, this time with Muzzy Izzet and Leicester City. Izzet, having initially put the ball into the empty net only to have it disallowed, saw his second attempt saved by Barthez. Of course it was.

Like another of United’s Frenchmen, Fabien Barthez quite enjoyed the attention he invariably got in his football career. Like Eric Cantona, this attention was the result of two things: performances and everything else, which covered all the interesting bits that made the characters. Unlike Cantona, the attention that came from ‘performances’ was largely unwelcome, perhaps somewhat unfairly. Goalkeepers are the lonely men of football, thrust into an unforgiving world, where only a small percentage, disproportionate to players of any other position, are ever held in high regard. Mistakes, those that can be comprehended, are magnified. Bad mistakes, those that can’t, even more. And then there’s instances like Barthez’s with Paolo Di Canio in 2001’s FA Cup. At the time, Barthez had not yet mastered his psychological manoeuvres.

Di Canio, through on goal having gleefully collected a Frederic Kanoute pass, struck the ball past Barthez, who, mostly in hope, put his right arm up in search of a flag. What Barthez had in this instance was time and the kindness of angles, and decided to use neither: rather deception. That failed and West Ham led 1-0; and not unjustly, either. Replays showed that Denis Irwin had played Di Canio onside, and there went Barthez’s defence. There was little time for United to recover, and Barthez, so desperate to atone, played the last minute as an outfield player.

On behalf of the Izzets and Malbranques of the world, and those opposition forwards unlucky enough to have been rounded and nutmegged by the crazed ‘keeper, Paolo Di Canio saw past the smokescreen those before and after him couldn’t see. “He tried to stop me. He tried to make my brain a little bit confused,” Di Canio would say post-match. “But I have played 15 years at the top level and have a little bit of experience in these situations.”

Barthez later conceded to trying to put Di Canio off: “It’s all part of the game!” There was no flag signalling offside, but there was, clear to everyone including Di Canio, a big white one in the goalkeeper’s right hand.

United’s grey area, 1996

An invisibility cloak has its uses in the fictional world, but, as Alex Ferguson and his team realised, not in the real one. Trailing 3-0 to Southampton at half-time, Ferguson had told his players to “get that kit off, you’re getting changed.” They had worn a grey strip for the first half, but came back out in blue-and-white. “The players don’t like the grey strip. They find it difficult to pick each other out,” Ferguson explained. It was only after the kit change had they realised the bad guys were the ones in the red-and-white, and scored a consolation goal through Ryan Giggs.

“The shirt is probably a collector’s item now, for all the wrong reasons,” said Lee Sharpe a decade later, a ‘two birds’ purchase for any Manchester United fan who enjoys J.K. Rowling.

George Best is sick of it, 1972

It happens even to the Best. In the 1971/72 season, with Manchester United’s challenge waning, George Best declared to a journalist that he was “sick of United”. The author of Sod This, I’m Off to Marbella, John Robertsrevealed that Best’s motives for leaving was the team: “It’s just not good enough. It’s just not going anywhere,” he would say off the record. “I could go right through the team and find things wrong. People knock me when I’m no doing it, but when I’m not doing it who is?”

1972 was not Best’s year. The problems that had existed in the first half — the bottled-up anger, absences from training, premature retirement for good measure — had worsened into the second. In December, he had enough. United were in the wrong half of the table, and Best, presumably in search of some joy, was spotted in a London nightclub when he was supposed to be up north. He was transfer listed (5th) the next day. On the 6th, the writer Eric Todd sided with the club: “He has shown a complete dis­regard for discipline, and several times he has been suspended and fined by his club for missing training sessions.” Eight days later, a u-turn, apt as it’s just one of the many to concern Best in his career, and the club no longer had him up for sale. Still, the damage was done. On the 16th, United were on the end of a 5-0 thrashing to Crystal Palace. On the 19th, manager Frank O’Farrell was sacked and Best had announced another retirement by letter. “I’ve had as much football as I can take,” he was reported to have written, citing United’s position in the table — last — as the reason for his decision.

George Best would play again in a red shirt. It remained that way for another two years, perhaps to everyone’s surprise.

Berbatov, 2008-2012

“I lie in bed the night before the game and visualise myself scoring goals or doing well,” Wayne Rooney once said in an interview, presumably in full-kit before a non-stop 24-hour training session with himself. When Dimitar Berbatov played for Manchester United and scored goals or done well, he presumably visualised himself elsewhere, lay in bed.

Rooney and Berbatov were largely successful as a pairing, perhaps because, as they say, opposites attract. Rooney has the enviable attitude — on the pitch — of a footballer; in addition to his most obvious qualities, he is persistent in trying to win the ball, he takes the opposition on and tracks back to help out his defence, face hydrated and everything. Berbatov not so much, or so was the popular opinion. He cut a figure that didn’t seem to care most of the time, earning an unfortunate, though oddly cool, reputation of being the game’s most languorous player. Unlike Rooney, Berbatov seemed to expect the ball to come to him. There was no other way.

He best showed this in a 2-0 win over Manchester City in 2009 when Darren Fletcher sent a searching ball up field from the back and he just picked it out of the air, without relying on a bounce or five. He then turned away from his man and played a simple pass to Carlos Tevez, who struck it sweetly past the ‘keeper; it was a goal ordered by the Gods, at least as far as the man who would provide the assist. Some magicians can create the illusion of catching a bullet with their mouths. Perhaps Berbatov has the same sort of subtle trickery; indeed, West Ham’s James Collins found out as much when he was at the end of Berbatov’s infamous, audacious pirouette on the goal-line. There would be no excess body movement and he was better that way, doing special things his own half-arsed way. In this instance, he once again played a simple pass, this time to Cristiano Ronaldo. Statistical records will say nothing of either Berbatov moment, and that seems just right. He is exclusive to the eyes, and sounds better when spoken about. And yet people are still split over him. He is football’s Nessie.

Berbatov’s agent explained that the reason he left United was that he didn’t have what the competition offered. “The only thing … those players have more of than Mitko is speed.” In Bulgaria, where the Dimitar Berbatov Appreciation Society has more members than its populace, ‘Mitko’ is what they affectionately call their most prized export, at least when we’re not talking about Stoichkov or Stilyan Petrov. What finally ended Berbatov’s prolonged stay at Old Trafford it turned out, far longer than he had deserved in the end, was his perceived weakness. However, it was this perceived weakness that made the man, to maintain the vague comparison, the myth.

If Berbatov was a sloth, then we must ask ourselves why we don’t instead have six deadly sins, and eight heavenly virtues.

Keane vs Schmeichel, 1990s

A popular character of the small screen once bluntly remarked that “‘remember when …’ is the lowest form of conversation,” then immediately got up and left. He had a point: there’s a feeling of pathetic longing when you reminisce, an inclination to hyperbole and, when in company, a further feeling of desperation to keep the dialogue going. Those are the bad things. What can’t be said about the revisiting of the past is that it’s not interesting. All the best things happened in the past, of course.

Manchester United demonstrate this truth well. Were you to look in the right places, you’d find some of the best ‘remember when …’ tales from ex-United players who have too much to share. After a while, you’ll find common themes, subjects and you can start to narrow it down. Those that played in the 1990s, especially those lucky enough to have been involved in the treble-winning side, barely talk about anyone other than Alex Ferguson, Roy Keane and Eric Cantona. And then they start talking about things off the pitch.

Keane, the man some have dared compare to the very same television character named above, holds the unique honour of being even more interesting than Cantona away from football. Take this one: “It was 1997 and I was on tour with Manchester United when I heard the banging in the corridor,” Andy Cole told The National in 2011. “I went to investigate and saw that Roy Keane was rolling around fighting with Peter Schmeichel, the giant goalkeeper. They weren’t playing. ‘Typical Roy,’ I thought, and went back to bed smiling. The next day, Schmeichel was wearing sunglasses. There had only been one winner.” (Then there’s the story of when a drunken Keane took on a group of Liverpool players in Gluttony.)

The relationship between Schmeichel and Keane was well-documented. Dwight Yorke revealed in his autobiography Born To Score that in the dressing room at half-time with United level with Sheffield Wednesday, a game they would go on to lose 3-1, Keane “was having a go at Peter for having given away a soft goal. [They] had to be separated before coming to blows.”

Those that live in fear of committing the cardinal sins will tell you that to be unable to develop spiritually, to apply yourself, leads to the downfall of man, and that these people are sloths. In his own words, Schmeichel was not Keane’s “cup of tea”, and though he recognised the Dane’s talents, he would surely regard him as a sloth. On one evening in front of the television cameras, at the request of fellow-pundit Lee Dixon, Keane opened up about Peter Schmeichel, and told him what we had already sort of known. “When he did become cocky, that’s when he made mistakes. If you speak to the goalkeeping coaches, they say Peter wasn’t that technically brilliant but stopped the ball going into the back of the net. I felt there were times when he got a bit carried away and thought he was the bees-knees.”

Like Fabien Barthez then? Many were certain that he was the perfect successor to Schmeichel, a view that was reinforced by his impressive début season. The Frenchman, however, could not quite maintain the level of performance into the next campaign. The Independent‘s Matt Lawton wrote at the time that “some pros feel that his current difficulties stem from the degree of his success last season.”

“There’s a big difference between cocky and confident,” Keane would add, and let that be a lesson to sloths — not just those with gloves — everywhere.

United play to their strengths – and win

Manchester United have, at times, looked a team without an identity. They still win games — they win plenty — but it sometimes feels like they’ve forgotten how they used to do things. Nerves have replaced verve, and it has generally been less entertaining to watch as a result. Still; while they no longer dissect teams like they had done in the latter part of the ’00s, United are still home to a talented set of players who can play. When Jackie Chan remarked that “I may have amnesia, but I’m not stupid!” in his good-but-not-his-best, surely-a-metaphor-for-this-United-team film Who Am I?, he recognised his own capabilities, despite essentially being a changed man. Manchester United seemed to have realised that as they beat Manchester City 3-2 on Sunday.

In many ways, this was the opposite of the corresponding fixture last season where City won 1-0. Three of The Guardian‘s five talking points in the aftermath of that game, points 2, 3 and 4, would cover the following: Sir Alex Ferguson’s ultimately futile decision to go against type and play with caution; United’s defeat in midfield; and a significantly quiet game for Wayne Rooney, whose highlights included “nearly being booked by Andre Marriner for giving the referee too much ear-ache.” Lessons learned this time around.

Since Cristiano Ronaldo left, and it’s a bit sad we’re still on that, United have scrabbled around for a system that works — they’ve been fairly successful post-Ronaldo, but less convincing. What made United so good back in 2007/08 was that there never a reason to change. They performed well, they got the results. This season, there are factors; we’ve seen Ferguson bring out his inner-hipster with a diamond most probably to cater for either all of his forwards or lack of wide players. But, above all, the most telling reason for constant change is that is not clear which of width or no width has been better, with the scores tied at 1-1, 40-40.

Width will always prevail in the end, as anyone would suspect. The diamond has always felt like it has an expiry date, while Ferguson wouldn’t seriously think of turning away from something that has brought so much joy to those sides he has assembled. What helped United beat City was that Ferguson had clearly learned from the embarrassment of their previous meeting, where they played three thirty-somethings in midfield and just the one forward. Other sides might be comfortable in lining up in such a way, but United are not. They beat City at the weekend with the two central midfielders, two wingers and two forwards: this time they played to their strengths.

With Antonio Valencia and the majestic Rafael on the right-hand side and Ashley Young, in confusing form, with the renascent Patrice Evra on the left, United played, from minutes 15 to 45, the sort of football that fans had longed for; and though perhaps someone like Valencia didn’t play necessarily well, others around him clearly benefitted from the way United were set up.

The midfield battle was more or less won by the visitors by default, on a moral victory, because they came a long way from the horror show at Eastlands last April. Michael Carrick was impressive and enjoyed Tom Cleverley’s presence, and there was a sense that it was because this was something they felt more comfortable in. The midfield that had lost out to City back then felt contrived, unnecessary and quite simply a pale imitation: a bit like Simon Webbe’s rap verses.

Up field, Wayne Rooney was excellent along with Robin van Persie, and though it seems like one of those things that are only really realised on simulation games, last season’s two top scorers have forged a good partnership. United’s dependence on Rooney is arguably greater than that of the Dutchman, however; the Englishman acts as the spare wheel both on the channels and in midfield — and this season, he might just create as many as he scores.

The United that had beaten City were far from perfect, and probably were only as good as their opposition (who were superb in the first quarter of an hour, and, to their credit, stayed in the game) but they set up with a clear game-plan this time and had done things the right way. They approached the game with a mind to three points, not one. There was not a single problem with selection, either. Even the decision to bring on Danny Welbeck instead of Javier Hernandez was vindicated; it was Welbeck’s quick thinking to win the ball off Gael Clichy with the game into its nineties, and allowed United to have one last attack which would eventually lead to the winning free-kick.

Things people were wrong about: Well, wrong is harsh. Ashley Young might still be the “thespian shithouse” Rob Smyth thinks he is, but he does have his uses, especially in a simple 4-4-2 built to get goals. He is football’s no.1 ‘On His Day’ player.

Things people weren’t wrong about: David de Gea; some great saves, yes, but more importantly, he continues to show that he has indeed grown more assured in the air. Soon you’ll see, people. Soon. Meanwhile, Rafael’s hair, as it turns out, doesn’t give him magical powers. He’s just always been very good.

David de Gea: The people’s choice

Diplomatic and idiosyncratic, Anders Lindegaard has a lot to be liked for. He is popular enough amongst fans: he’ll remind you that he’s not at Manchester United to “pick his nose”, and that his career has developed in the way of a “fairytale”, that he’s got “calmfidence” and plenty of it, and that he’ll love to have even “one seat” named after him (in response to Sir Alex Ferguson’s very own stand and statue). But what’ll ultimately pull him down is that he’s not the most popular. And it’s not that he’s not good enough, it’s just that he’s not as good as …

The people want David de Gea.

Sir Alex Ferguson, September 2012: “I am happy alternating them. That’s the policy I am adopting and I am happy with that situation.”
Sir Alex Ferguson, November 2012: “I am not happy to rotate [the goalkeepers] all the time — I don’t think that creates consistency.”

People change their mind all the time. And there’s nothing wrong with it, largely. When Sir Alex first told of his desire to rotate his goalkeepers, and then went ahead and put it into practice, United fans hoped he would see the apparent danger of it all sooner. His recent decision to put this rotation on hold would have been welcomed but for one thing: he’s chosen the wrong number one. Or so the consensus believe.

What has swayed things in Lindegaard’s favour, other than De Gea’s fitness, is that, according to Ferguson, there is no “actual reason to leave Anders out in terms of form.” But it is easy to object to ‘form’. How important is form? And just how in-form is Lindegaard? The answer to the latter is not very — he’s played a handful of games, for one, and probably not near enough to either justify even his temporary security nor a starting place ahead of the superior De Gea. Additionally, the goalkeeper’s efforts in the four games he’s played since De Gea’s last (excluding the Reading visit because the manager’s comments preceded it; more of which, of course, later) are simply not noteworthy enough, except in the defeat suffered at Galatasaray, where Lindegaard showed himself to be confident and competent — a good number two, in other words. The other three looked like this: another 1-0 defeat, this time at Norwich and two comfortable wins over QPR and West Ham where Lindegaard only had to make a single save in each.

This is barely an indication of an in-form player but that’s not to act as criticism, though it might seem to some (some) that the real reason the Dane is playing is because he just happened to be the last one in goal when it was decided that there would be no more rotating. Which brings us on to the first question on the importance of (good) form; you generally play the one who is performing better, even if the other is held in higher regard. However, it isn’t one of those situations. Which then means that De Gea should start if both are available. And if we’re going by form this season, also just a handful as if happens, De Gea edges it on those he’s played.

“I am going with Anders at the moment because he has not let me down,” Ferguson would say a day before Saturday’s 4-3 win over Reading, tempting fate as if on purpose. Lindegaard looked troubled and barely touched the ball inside the first half hour — except for when he had to trudge back into the net and pick the ball up. Three times. He was not culpable for all, nor was he fully responsible for any particular goal if we were to consider what could have been contributed defensively. Still. “He’s in a position where he can collect the ball,” said a blunt Gary Neville on Monday Night Football, analysing Reading’s second and third that started from Nicky Shorey’s corners — Nicky Shorey! — and ended up in the back of the net. Neville pointed out how crucial it was for Lindegaard to “dominate the box”, mostly because it would reassure his team-mates that he had control.

There is a certain irony in Lindegaard failing at what has lazily been presented as his main selling point — that is, being able to do what his Spanish counterpart cannot. De Gea would have instead rushed out for at least one, if not both, and punched the ball to safety, shortly before being chided by a typically disgruntled co-commentator for not catching it.

Whether the rotation policy itself really affects goalkeepers could never be proved outright, but logic would suggest it doesn’t. “It keeps us both sharp,” Lindegaard told MUTV last year, on this precise subject. “It makes us both better.” Two immediate responses to that would be, well, he has to say that and, second, he would still prefer to be the indisputable number one. It also made sense to rotate back then. United had two new goalkeepers and both were settling in. Once that time had passed, a clear winner emerged. Post-Christmas, De Gea was near-flawless and had what was justifiably his.

All of this, you might suggest, is simply a fuss over nothing, and a fuss too soon. That may well be right, but this is a problem beyond what the manager might say, beyond who plays tomorrow, or next week or next month. United need to settle on one goalkeeper because, above whether rotating is a hindrance or quite the opposite, it is clear who their best goalkeeper is. And it isn’t Lindegaard; but, in his defence, and get this, the man who he’s up against is pretty damn good.

Manchester United’s Seven Deadly Sins: #3 – Gluttony

Gluttony: Wanting Dante’s share. 

When Ferguson signed Veron, 2001

“I want this chess set. Isn’t it beautiful, this set?” In Living With Michael Jackson, the infamous 2003 documentary which gave an insight into the life of a troubled star, there was a segment where, in a vase and furnishing store, Jackson binged on the nice, shiny things, buying expensive urns, vases and even a large golden chess set. He had the money and it all looked good: whether he could better use his money elsewhere was irrelevant.

Like the chess set, Juan Sebastian Veron was the ultimate luxury. He cost a lot and was difficult to accommodate. United fans, however, are fairly revisionist when it comes to Veron; he was not a flop, instead a good player who had many good moments, outstanding in Europe, but held back by expectation and an unfamiliar setting. It would, of course, be delusional to think Veron was anything better: he himself went as far as calling his debut season a “catastrophe”. He was played in a number of positions because, ultimately, there were others who fit into the side more easily. “Sometimes he may put Paul [Scholes] in the middle and I’ll be elsewhere. I’d much rather have Roy [Keane] in the team,” Veron would say in 2002.

In an article about Foodies (those crazy types who like food), Steven Poole of The Guardian wrote that the original definition of ‘gluttony’ wasn’t simply the excessive consumption of food, but the interest in it, too: “the theologian Thomas Aquinas agreed with Pope Gregory that gluttony can be committed in five different ways, among which are seeking more ‘sumptuous foods’ or wanting foods that are ‘prepared more meticulously’.” In buying a player that he really appreciated, and to an extent, over the needs of the team, Sir Alex Ferguson committed the sin of gluttony.

The signing of Robin van Persie in August 2012 is another example of this excessive interest. It was adding to a single position that was already embarrassingly strong. He did the “I want that one; and that one,” thing Jackson had done in the pricey store; Van Persie was not absolutely necessary, but it’s always better with than without.

And also Blanc, 2001

While a defender was necessary when Jaap Stam left the club in 2001, it could be argued that it was not in United’s interest going forward to buy a player whose main selling point was simply the experience he had gained naturally through age, because, in reality, Laurent Blanc was no longer as good as he once was. Ferguson had always shown an interest in Blanc that should have ideally waned as we reached the Millenium: it was perhaps, as suggested by Greg Johnson when these Deadly Sins started to take shape, a case of the Scot’s preferences overruling “the true needs and functions of the team.”

It was instead important to sign a player that could be relied upon to deliver and develop, as well as having adequate experience anyway. Like Rio Ferdinand a year later: one of Ferguson’s most astute acquisitions to date, even if he did cost the equivalent of twelve 35-year-old Laurent Blancs.

Ferguson wants an end to the drinking culture, 1986

When Alex Ferguson became Manchester United manager in 1986, he made it clear that things would be done his way, imploring those concerned to trust his judgement in moving the club forward. One thing standing in his way was alcohol — and, more precisely, the players’ attitude towards it. In his autobiography, Managing My Life, Ferguson wrote that it had always been a “blight on the discipline of British footballers.”

And so he established his very own Volstead Act. “When I arrived at United, I was astonished to find that there was a club rule forbidding players to drink alcohol ‘less than two days before a game’. I replaced that feeble prohibition instantly with a rule that made it an offence for any player to drink while he was in training. Of course, I knew there was no way that ban would be observed but at least the new wording was a declaration of my attitude.”

He was right. He would encounter a problem in the shape of Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside. “It was with my two wayward Irishmen that alcohol would eventually become an unmanageable problem for me.” McGrath revealed that, because of the amount of time the two spent together in the treatment room, that both he and Whiteside would use the afternoons to drink. “We had serious injuries together at the same time which compounded the problems.”

Both left the club in 1989, with Ferguson uncertain and impatient over fitness. “I was saddened as well as infuriated by the way they abused themselves,” he wrote.

Darron Gibson meets Rangers, 2010

When people first wrote about Darron Gibson the Manchester United player, they would go at length in explaining why he simply wasn’t good enough for a team that has seen better and can do better. But “he can shoot at least,” they would admit, placing a pillow in front of the gun before pulling the trigger. Though, along with something about how he still has potential, that was apparently all that was good about Gibson. But then it stopped. It turned out that he couldn’t even do that any more.

Gibson would find that the thing he was renowned for — “shooooot” — the thing that gave him added worth in a cruel game was exactly the same thing he would be repeatedly chastised for. “Shooooot” would become ironic, a revoking of permission, a cry of displeasure. “Shooooot” would become “boooo” and “booo-urns”. Gibson was not fully deserving of the backlash, but it existed because the same thing over and over … is the same thing over and over.

It would be at its worst against Rangers in a scoreless Champions League group game in the 2010/11 season. “We didn’t really make too many chances,” said Sir Alex Ferguson post-match. “All the attempts were from outside the box from Darron Gibson.” Gibson would have six shots in that game — five of which were off target.

When Roy Keane drank, 1996

“There was a social culture in football at the time,” Jason McAteer would say in 2001, by then ex-Liverpool and, more importantly, ex-Spice Boy. “We were doing nothing more than the players at Arsenal or Manchester United.” McAteer was right: the Nineties witnessed another kind of footballer, or, even if footballers remained the same, they were different because off the pitch activities were all of a sudden being highlighted. Tragically. And Liverpool would suffer most as a result as the likes of Steve McManaman, Jamie Redknapp and even Robbie Fowler (or “Ugly Spice” according to McAteer) were made celebrities of. The thought of the country’s most decorated club underachieving was relatively new and with the level of expectation, players’ lifestyles were being contrasted with apparent failures on the pitch.

Of course, as McAteer pointed out, these types could be found elsewhere; Dwight Yorke, simultaneously footballer and playboy, was overwhelmingly one of them. David Beckham, too, and not just for being Mr Spice. It wouldn’t be right to put Roy Keane in such a category — because he’s Roy Keane — but he did enjoy what the nightlife had to offer. “[He] regularly used to punch and puke his way through the city’s nightspots,” wrote The Guardian‘s Daniel Taylor, for whom credit, along with Lee Sharpe, goes to for the following anecdote.

Liverpool’s tribute band would arrive at the same bar Keane was in and — predictably — trouble would ensue. Because it is sometimes too difficult to distinguish hyperbole from anything Keane is even remotely a part of, you didn’t have to witness it, or read it in the newspapers to believe it. You just knew it to be true. This was classic Keano.

The refreshingly blunt Keane would remind this group of Liverpool players that they were indeed underachievers, going at them like the wooden targets in a shooting range, one by one for verbal practice. Phil Babb would get it. John Scales, too: “You’re rubbish as well, with your England B cap, you’re nowt, rubbish.” And then Redknapp who, like Scales, tried to make peace and failed. “What the hell have you done in the game?” Keane would ask, most likely rhetorically.

“He had this blackness inside him I never understood, and it came out when he drank,” revealed Sharpe, which is interesting, because any poor soul oblivious to Roy Keane the footballer might just assume he was an angel when sober.

Rafael da Silva, the best of the second bests

If it has been established that the ‘second best bed’ for Anne Hathaway (the other one) was not an insult nor an example of a fractious relationship, then surely we’ve got it all wrong. ‘Second best’ is a good thing — or, at least, it should be. Certainly, being second best at Manchester United is. Robin van Persie has been so good this season that he is the outstanding candidate for all of the awards; and so good that, in imagining a ranking, those that follow him in second, third, fourth would not feel inclined to be aggrieved by his superior position.

Who, then, would place second? Tom Cleverley perhaps; but, right now, it’s only been satisfactory going on good going on very good. There hasn’t been a distinguishable level of performances and, as if it hasn’t been said already, United must persevere in being patient — not that it’s necessarily a bad thing. Just look at Rafael da Silva.

Now, football, as a a general rule, is too slippery and erratic to form premature opinions: when Manchester United started 2011/12 beating all of Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Chelsea, scoring three, eight and three goals respectively, few stopped short in hailing a return to the attacking football the club had practically deserted the year before, and foresaw a dominance that season that would never really materialise. In September, with Arsenal the only of the 92 league teams to have not conceded, Amy Lawrence of The Guardian wrote that Steve Bould’s presence in the dugout has “had a remarkable effect on Arsenal’s approach to defending,” which not only made sense at the time, but was such a widely-held view that it is unfair to make an example out of that particular one. Still — swiftly moving on — this could be Rafael’s season. Or not. No, it definitely could be. Maybe.

Resisting the late charges of Javier Hernandez, Wayne Rooney and the renascent Patrice Evra, Rafael places second in the Imaginary But Definitely Important Rankings. But it is worth wondering how many others see that to be the case; Carl Jenkinson was preferred to Rafael when a couple of BBC pundits — the best of the judges — sat down to devise a Team of the Season So Far. It isn’t so much a case of Jenkinson not deserving it all, but Rafael perhaps deserving it more. Thankfully, this is easy to shrug off; this was just one instance, after all, and an instance in which the alternative view isn’t one exclusive to Robbie Savage: Jenkinson has been good enough to be in contention. The problem here is not what’s not been said in the present, but what has in the past and what might in the future. It would be predictable of badly behaved football to change its tune and for Rafael’s form to taper; but, in imaging some twisted sort of football utopia, where things reassuringly remain the same, what would be said of him then at season’s end? (Hint! Say good things!)

Rafael is a full-back and he’s Brazilian. Godspeed. He may never truly be appreciated in this regard because the notion of an accomplished, flawless Brazilian full-back is almost an impossibility; as if this is limited to just Brazil. It is true that there is an extra emphasis on what could be offered going forward, the reason, according to Brazil-based Tim Vickery, why Rafael and his twin brother Fabio left for Manchester United so early in their careers. “Taking them across the Atlantic before they had ever played a senior game for Fluminense followed a simple logic — left in Brazil, it wasn’t likely they’d have much chance to refine the defensive side of their game,” Vickery wrote. But not everyone has fallen into the trap. Indeed, the two prime examples are among their greats: Roberto Carlos and Cafu. The two were so good in going forward that it was assumed that their weakness was in defending: but, at the risk of sounding revisionist, it only compared unfavourably. Carlos, impressively enough, was twice UEFA’s Defender of the Year.

The world, however, dislikes full-backs just as much as they do goalkeepers, because so many of them cannot find a balance between defence and attack … well, obviously. The full-back is, in general terms, the only player tasked with two jobs. And that’s never going to end well.

Rafael, though, after four years of enthusiastic bouncing around ‘There’ and ‘Not Quite There’, has finally made firm his place in the starting eleven. He has even been able to show up others; while Nani and Antonio Valencia have been floundering, Rafael continues to respond to situations such that he’s a part of the United attack that has played so well this season, and for whom most credit goes to for the club’s league position. Against Aston Villa, he was refreshingly insistent and was rewarded when his cross had set up the second. The hotheaded Rafael is still there, but is often suppressed, and with an improved head, sees his defensive game, his tackling, his willingness to compete and get at the other player, go up a level.

“Maybe he had rashness and the impetuosity of a young boy but somewhere along the line that maturity comes along and the rashness disappears,” said Sir Alex, suggesting that Rafael could emulate Gary Neville. “His form this season has been brilliant.”

Injuries elsewhere have helped and, forced away from tinkering, Sir Alex Ferguson has managed to get the best out of the right-back, his self-belief burgeoned. He has played regularly, often twice in a week, and has not yet suffered from burnout or a loss of form — not to jinx it, but the lack of any of that so far is a sign of wonderful progress. Of course, fitness will always be a worry; as are all the things that have happened before.

But to find evidence of actual progress, you can point to Arsenal’s Andre Santos — if you’re not doing that already. A decent left-back until now, once on par with team-mate Kieran Gibbs, Santos is now apparently miserable and hopeless. In Rafael and in Santos, you have players of contrasting fortunes. One has been exceptional, the other an exception. If that makes sense. For a full-back, a bad case of defending is usually shown as not being there at all, an exploited space. That problem is barely ever their problem; a team should be able to cover. What Santos has done wrong, not Rafael, is his inability to do something when posed against it. Match of the Day, though admittedly not at the forefront of football analysis, showed several examples of Santos’ failure to deal with the opposition threat at Old Trafford a fortnight ago, where he would show reluctance in doing anything about it. He would let play as well as an out-of-form Antonio Valencia to bypass him. What constitutes a bad full-back, or one out of form, or one learning, is surely one that makes the same mistake over and over. Rafael has not done that. Not this season, anyway.

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