Manchester United are now so far behind Guardiola’s City it’s painful

RALF RANGNICK said just recently Manchester United need an identity just like their rivals Manchester City and Liverpool. This was a strange thing to say, for United, more than most clubs in Britain, made their name on their identity firstly in the Busby years and then in the trophy-laden time of Sir Alex Ferguson. United provided the blueprint for everyone’s idea of a successful football club, but when Ferguson left, the rug was pulled out from under their feet at precisely the wrong time, for their neighbours were in the ascendancy and had plenty of cash to build their team.

We’ve known for some time Manchester City have overtaken United in most things, but a 4-1 derby defeat merely highlighted just how much of a chasm the difference is between the two clubs. For some time, pundits and United-centric media folk have used the excuse of poor managerial appointments, but United have tried all angles: the brave appointment (Moyes); the proven track record men (Van Gaal and Mourinho); one of our own (Solskjaer) and the far-sighted, fashionable hiring (Rangnick). Ironically, the trophy men delivered the only prizes United have won since Ferguson’s retirement, the FA Cup in 2016, the EFL and Europa in 2017, but that didn’t make the club happy.

What are they really looking for and will they be patient enough to really transform Manchester United from what has become a money-wasting, knee-jerk footballing institution desperate to make up lost ground?

The man they really want is Pep Guardiola, but that can be interpreted as a yearning to buy an off-the-shelf system that can create a new United dynasty. Guardiola is part of a club that is not just signing top players, but is also building something very solid, multi-faceted and very considered. Of course, it is underpinned by vast sums of Abu Dhabi money, but United have not been short of money, they have spent heavily on players – £ 1.3 billion in 10 years, versus City’s £ 1.4 billion – and their wage bill is among the highest in world football, but they have lacked direction and a clear strategy. The longer time passes after Ferguson, the less United-like they seem.

City were excellent at times in the Manchester derby but United’s shortcomings were there for all to see. Harry Maguire is rapidly looking like £ 75 million’s worth of lumbering centre half rather than a modern, articulate defender. Jonathan Wilson of The Guardian captured the Maguire condition perfectly: “A player who can look so commanding, particularly in the less demanding world of international football, has become a liability.” Wilson adds that Maguire goes “wobbling into challenges with all the grace of an Easter Island figure being brought down from a quarry.” To be fair to Maguire, United’s lack of defensive savvy exposes him time and time again.

For 45 minutes, United competed well even though they went in at half-time 2-1 down, but it was the poor second half and 79% City possession depressed the red half of Manchester. The Telegraph commented: “This may go down as one of the most shameful derby defeats in Manchester United’s long history. They are the Damned United on this spineless evidence.” Gary Neville commented on SKY: “Any time they play a half decent team, they lose.”

Kevin De Bruyne, who scored twice in the game, told The Mirror that United’s players did not have the required energy and fitness levels to play the type of game asked of them. “When you play a pressing style, it’s very hard to adjust to it, so maybe it seemed like they did give up a little,” De Bruyne said.

Paul Pogba came in for criticism, a player who has never justified the huge transfer fee United paid for him. Paul Hirst of The Timesasked if the French midfielder will be missed when he eventually leaves. “It is hard to think of a prolonged period when he has put in a series of world class performances…for £ 89 million, United were expecting a much better return on their investment.”

That’s one area where City are faring far better than most, they get more value out of their players. How many of United’s big signings have truly worked out? The players used in the game with United cost them £ 554 million compared to United’s £ 456 million. City’s players have a market value of more than £ 600 million, United’s just under £ 500 million.

United’s market activity has been questioned, and rightly so. Daniel Storey of the points to the gross wastage that comes from a transfer policy that focuses on big, expensive names as well as players others are pursuing. Consider the amount paid to hire veterans like Cristiano Ronaldo, Edinson Cavani and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. As Storey adds, “the most miserable conclusion for any United supporter is that they were outclassed by City because City are light years ahead.”

Ronaldo was missing from the City defeat and must be thanking his lucky stars he has a hip flexor injury. But there are concerns about CR7 and his form. He has scored once in 10 games but he has looked increasingly frustrated in recent games and there are conflicting stories about his relationship with certain players and Rangnick. There are whispers circulating that he was actually dropped. Barry Glendenning, in The Guardian, noted: “While the official United line was that Cristiano Ronaldo had sat this one out in Portugal with hip-knack, pre-match rumours suggested the preening show-pony might have stormed off to Portugal in a hissy-fit upon discovering he would not be playing in a starting line-up that boasted no out-and-out strikers.”

The current situation at United is hard for the Old Trafford faithful to take, but for Sir Alex Ferguson, he must wonder what is happening to the little empire he built. The Manchester Evening News reported: “There was a heart-wrenching acceptance etched across his face as United were humiliated at the Etihad. United are now recognisable to the club that Ferguson left behind but the 80 year-old seems to have come to terms with it. That’s a sad indictment of where United currently are.”

Sources: The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph, Manchester Evening News, The i, The Mirror.

Time for some objective reporting and punditry

ANYONE who saw the post-match bun-fight that went on after Manchester City had just beaten neighbours United at Old Trafford witnessed a group of experienced former players desperately trying to say it how it is without saying how it is.

Roy Keane, fidgeting a little uncomfortably, shaking his head and biting his tongue, finally let slip by suggesting somebody was an idiot. At the same time, the others were looking at the record of United and, if it had been anyone other than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, would have been suggesting the manager’s time was up. There were hints that they all knew it was 11.59pm for the Norwegian, but nobody wanted to say it was really close to midnight.

Football, for all its globalisation, is still a small country, hence the pundit community bumps into each other all the time. How would Gary Neville, for example, feel about coming face-to-face with Solskjaer when the former “baby-faced assassin” is finally sacked? It is going to happen, it may happen very soon, for everyone is singing the same song – “this just isn’t good enough for Manchester United”. And by the way, the singers include a fat lady strolling the streets of Salford.

Legions

This is the problem when TV broadcasters insist on hiring a legion of former Liverpool and Manchester United pundits to discuss the games. There cannot possibly be objective commentary when a player has played 500 games for Liverpool and is watching the club that undoubtedly still welcomes him with open arms, possibly giving him an ambassadorial role and access to the key figures behind the scenes.

Rarely do these people offer constructive criticism, unless they are Graeme Souness or the highly entertaining Keane. Solskjaer is a classic case, he has been under scrutiny since day one, usually by people who were once lining-up alongside him. Management is a poison challis, but the Manchester United job, if not executed correctly, can be at best a hindranxce and at worst, the destroyer of careers.

Managers that have become part of a club’s story as players, achieving that overused and inappropriate tag, “legend”, should perhaps be avoided as suitable candidates. It simply doesn’t always work, if only because when the time comes to sack that legendary name, nobody wants to do it.  

For example, Frank Lampard at Chelsea was a rude awakening for a much-loved player who was given a job really made for a more experienced head. There’s no way Lampard and Chelsea won’t be friends going forward, but some managers can become very bitter about the end of a relationship. One former manager who had won England caps but failed miserably as a manager, told me: “One thing is certain, we all get the sack. We can all be the greatest people on earth, all enjoy each other’s company, but when it comes down to it, results determine whether the relationship goes on. The last thing a manager should do is interpret getting the sack as a personal thing.”

When Glenn Hoddle took the Spurs job, many felt it was a marriage made in heaven, but it was something a let-down. Andrea Pirlo of Juventus was another disappointing appointment. Others, such as Howard Kendall (Everton), Kenny Dalglish (Liverpool), Zinedine Zidane (Real Madrid) and Pep Guardiola (Barcelona) were all almost instant successes. 

Valuable

The TV companies, and you could extend this to match reporting, need to think twice about engaging committed former players or fans to report on a team. They don’t want to upset their pals and they don’t want to look bad with their old fans. Likewise, regular reporters of local clubs are almost obliged to be sympathetic and frequently use terms like “unlucky”, “brave” and “committed” to describe a setback, whereas straight to the point descriptions such as “poor”, “ineffective”, “effortless” or “lacking” are avoided for fear of offending. They know they won’t get access to club insights if they tell the truth and today, a football writer can get come face-to-face with a lynch-mob on social media if the fans are upset. Yet the most incisive and valuable reporting is often made by the neutral observer, not the die-hard fan that has the club in his or her DNA.

There are still some very partisan reporters out there, many of whom are more interested in building their personal brands via social media rather than producing captivating copy. Punters do not want to know about a reporter’s back story, personal experience or education, they want them to be wordsmiths telling a compelling story about the game.

Perhaps it is time for media companies to adopt some aspect of neutrality when it comes to assigning pundits and reporters to games. There’s enough of them around to provide more objective coverage rather than former pros of the clubs involved in a specific game. Will it happen? Of course not!

Barcelona really cannot afford to get messy with Lionel

IT LOOKS as though Real Madrid are going to lift their first La Liga title since 2017 and Barcelona, the reigning champions, will go into the close season resembling a family in conflict and misunderstanding.

Amid this turmoil, Lionel Messi is one year away from the end of his contract and Barca officials’ nervousness continue to grow. The “will he, won’t he” discussions are gathering pace and Messi is clearly resembling an unhappy man who wishes he was somewhere else. His body language isn’t good and he hasn’t looked a player at the very top of his game since La Liga resumed in June.

Guillem Balague, writing for the BBC website, suggested many of the rumours around Messi are untrue and although they come with the territory for a player of his profile, the little Argentinian is fed-up at the moment. But, adds Balague, Messi is not unhappy with his team-mate Antoine Griezmann and, along with Luis Suarez, regularly socialises with the Frenchman. Marca  notes, however, that Griezmann and Messi are both discontent at the moment, the former displeased about his lack of game time and Messi because the season seems to slipping away from Barca.

With the ongoing political situation at the club, Messi – who has a leave clause in his current contract – may be persuaded to stay if Xavi was appointed as coach, says Eurosport. The former Barca midfielder has renewed his contract at Qatar’s Al-Saad, but he has a release clause should Barca come looking for him.

Messi is very influential at Barca and critics say he has too much involvement in events at the club. Some people have said he was instrumental in Ernesto Valverde getting sacked in January. Messi himself has said the incident was badly handled by the club. He also wants the club elections, which take place next year, fast-tracked to 2020 – probably to make his last year more harmonious.

Is there a club that could handle Messi if he does decide to leave? Eurosport  reported that Zinedine Zidane, Real Madrid’s coach, has urged him not to leave Barca and La Liga. The Indian Express  suggested that Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City could afford him. There’s talk of him returning to Argentina with Newell’s Old Boys.

Graham Hunter, on TalkSport,  believed Manchester City would go “hell for leather” to sign Messi but cautioned that Guardiola might not necessarily be as keen as the club. “I think Pep has doubts about how well Messi will work in the system because of the level of pressure and work off the ball,” says Hunter. At Barca, Messi is allowed to do exactly what he wants to do.

AS says Messi has halted contract talks, according to radio station Cadena Seri even though they were proceeding well. “Messi has told his inner circle of his frustration, complaining he does not want to be held responsible for anything than his performances on the pitch.”

Messi has been criticised for the way he deals with the coaching staff at the club. His disagreement with director of football Eric Abidal was well documented and recently, he has had problems with coach Quique Setién and Eder Sarabia. AS  pointed to Messi’s out burst a few months ago when he said Barca didn’t have enough quality to win the Champions League. Setién disagreed but Messi’s response implied the Barca coach didn’t have enough experience of the competition. The Spanish newspaper believes that Messi is coming to the end of his career with Barcelona and wants to leave the club in June 2021.

What is Messi worth in the market, personal terms aside? CIES Football Observatory values the 33 year-old at around € 70 – 90 million, while KPMG Football Benchmark goes considerably higher at € 127- 134 million.

 

Sources: Independent,  AS,  Marca,  BBC,  TalkSport,  Eurosport,  Indian Express

 

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