The Summer Clearout – Who Stays and Who Goes?

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Much has been made of the urgent need for David Moyes to bring in new recruits as he looks to return his Manchester United side to its former glory, but there is likely to be a fairly major exodus, as the Scot looks to free up funds and squad spaces for the incoming players. Here, I take a look at who should survive the cull and who should be shown the door…

Goalkeeper:

David De Gea has been United’s best player this season, looking every inch the long-term successor to Edwin van der Sar, and Moyes will be desperate to keep him. However, with the goalkeeping situations far from clear at each of the top three clubs in the Spaniard’s homeland, United may have to brace themselves for a big-money bid for the 23-year-old, this summer.

Anders Lindegaard’s experience is useful when called upon, but there is no chance that he will overtake De Gea as the Reds’ first-choice Number One, so he is certainly expendable, at the right price. If the Dane does depart, young Englishmen Ben Amos and Sam Johnstone would share deputising duties, but one or both may look for employment elsewhere if their game-time remains so limited.

Right Back:

After showing signs that he has matured over the past two seasons, Rafael has taken a backwards step this season, as exemplified by a ludicrous two-footed challenge at Stamford Bridge in January. Nevertheless, the 23-year-old adds much-needed bite and attacking thrust to the United line-up, and deserves to be retained for next term.

The sale of brother Fabio has left the Brazilian short of a specialist understudy, with Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Antonio Valencia each deputising throughout the season. However, the rotation of positions has hampered the form of all three players, and this is an area Moyes needs to address. Since his arrival, the Scotsman has overseen the purchases of two young right-backs – Guillermo Varela and Saidy Janko – so he may decide to promote from within, due in no small part to the difficulties with recruiting a player who knows they will be second-choice.

Centre Back:

Captain Nemanja Vidic has already announced that he will be swapping Manchester for Milan this summer, and some woeful performances this season mean long-term defensive partner Rio Ferdinand should be also searching for alternative employment, come May.

That joint departure means Jonny Evans will be United’s most senior defender, and the Ulsterman’s performances over the past three seasons show that he merits a place in the Old Trafford ranks. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling have encountered a great deal of criticism this season, but the aforementioned positional rotation, combined with multiple injuries have certainly impacted the pair’s form. Nevertheless, that both men look set to form part of Roy Hodgson’s plans for Brazil is an indication of their talents, which, in the absence of injury, should see them well-equipped to form part of another Old Trafford defensive dynasty.

The struggles of Martin Demichelis and Kolo Toure at north-west rivals indicate the perils of making a cheap but experienced acquisition to fill the fourth centre-back slot, so United would be wise to dip into their youth ranks in their search for a deputy. 21-year-olds (the same age as Jones) Tom Thorpe and Michael Keane both have England youth and senior Championship experience, which will stand them in good stead, as they look to make the leap into the first-team.

Left Back:

Undoing the good work of a stunning away goal in a Champions League quarter-final takes some doing, but Patrice Evra managed to do just that with an awful defensive contribution having put United 1-0 ahead in the Allianz Arena, in April. Too easily out-jumped at the far post, not close enough to block a cross nor stop a winger getting a run at goal, the Frenchman’s failings, which have been evident all season, were clear for all to see, yet again. The decline Evra has encountered in the past three years surely sees him destined for the Old Trafford exit door this summer.

Having spent months trying to replace him with both Leighton Baines and Fabio Coentrao, it is somewhat surprising that David Moyes has selected Evra on 41 occasions this term. However, the fact that the former Monaco man has been a virtually ever-present owes much to the poor standard of the Scot’s other options. The sale of Fabio means the inconsistent Alexander Buttner is Moyes’ only other senior left-back. In truth, the Dutchman isn’t really Manchester United standard, but a dogged display when faced with Arjen Robben, combined with the previously mentioned issues with signing back-ups, mean Buttner will likely survive this summer.

Wingers:

This is arguably the area of Moyes squad where he will look to facilitate the most departures; due partly to years of substandard contributions from United’s wide-men and also the fact that the outgoing players may raise substantial funds, as the Scot looks to bring in top-quality reinforcements.

It would be startling if Juan Mata, United’s record signing, left the club, and the same goes for Adnan Januzaj, after a promising debut season.

The future of the other wide-men is far from guaranteed, however. Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and Nani have offered little in recent years, and all three may be moved on, if the right offer comes in. Young guns Jesse Lingard and WIlfried Zaha both impressed in pre-season, and their exuberance may add a degree of unpredictability to an area of Moyes’ side which has been one-dimensional on too many occasions, this season. Sir Alex’s Ferguson’s purchase of Bebé was widely ridiculed, but this season’s loan spell at Pacos de Ferreira has seen the former Portugal Under 21 man net 10 league goals. That’s no mean feat considering his side have netted just 39 in total, and Valencia, Young and Nani have scored 12 combined, over the past two seasons. If money can be raised via the sales of other widemen, the Portuguese might be worth having around.

Then there’s Shinji Kagawa. The Japanese star has been the feature of much discussion this season, and some good recent performances might yet see him start next season at Old Trafford. However, it is clear that David Moyes, just like Sir Alex Ferguson before him, has struggled to find a role for Kagawa and the January purchase of Mata has merely pushed the 25-year-old further down the pecking order, and further towards the left flank. Moreover, a return of 0 goals from 26 appearances this season hardly gives weight to the (in my view, startlingly) popular argument that Shinji needs freeing on a more regular basis.

Kagawa’s quality is not in doubt, but some players just aren’t good fits for certain clubs – Juan Sebastian Veron, Diego Forlan and Gerard Piqué are among those who have flourished away from Old Trafford. Also, considering he could considerably swell David Moyes’ transfer kitty or be a hugely useful makeweight in any potential deal for one of Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund stars, the play-maker’s days at Old Trafford should be numbered.

(P.S. I’m not saying Bebé is better than Kagawa – just that there are probably more benefits to keeping Bebé and selling Kagawa, in the long run)

 Central Midfield:

This is the area of the side David Moyes needs to most urgently rejuvenate, and part of that process includes clearing the decks prior to bringing in reinforcements. Ryan Giggs has reinvented himself superbly, but this season must surely be the 40-year-old’s last. Marouane Fellaini clearly wasn’t Moyes’ first choice target last summer, and the Belgian has looked out of his depth at Old Trafford. United would have to take a loss of Andy Carroll proportions if they were to let the former Everton man go, but the Red Devils could do with the extra funds, and without the reminder of previous failings in the transfer market.

Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher are both the wrong side of 30, but their experience will be vital given the amount of old hands set to leave the club. Tom Cleverley has shown admirable bravery by partaking in a number of high-profile interviews in the past year, but not enough on the pitch to earn a slot in next year’s squad. Even if the England international does feature in Moyes’ long-term plans, a loan spell away might be best; regular first-team football and time away from the glare of Old Trafford could revitalise the academy graduate, but in truth, Cleverley would be lucky to still be a Manchester United employee, come September 1st.

Having seen his Number 8 shirt handed to Juan Mata, Anderson looks to be all but out of the exit door, but his dynamism is exactly what United are lacking, and, if fit, merits a place in the squad. Nick Powell has impressed during his loan period at FA Cup semi-finalists Wigan Athletic, and should be retained to add flair and versatility to the Old Trafford ranks. The addition of two top-class central midfielders would leave Moyes with a blend of youth and experience, solidity and guile, the likes of which have been lacking at United for far too long.

Strikers:

The purchase of Juan Mata has created a dilemma for Moyes; how does he fit the Spaniard into the side, with Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie? Mata is best in the Number 10 position, and Rooney looks more at ease further forward, so where does that leave the Dutchman? This season, his demeanour has been that of a discontented man, and he has expressed his surprise at the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson, and the tactical struggles he has faced under Moyes’ stewardship.

Consequently, Moyes might just be tempted to sell, if the chance to award van Persie’s considerable wages to a midfield acquisition arose. Given more regular game-time up front and some more work on his finishing, Danny Welbeck will prove to be a very adept understudy, but the frustration of being third-choice may become too much for Javier Hernandez. A failure to improve his all-round game has stagnated the Mexican’s development at Old Trafford, and a big offer would probably see the Little Pea depart.

The lone-striker system means Sir Alex Ferguson’s circa-1999 desire for four top-class strikers can be reduced to the need for three. Therefore, if Hernandez did stay, Moyes doesn’t need to spend. Even Chicharito’s departure may not force the Scot into the striker market, given the form of James Wilson (who was on the bench at Newcastle) in the Under 21 side, and Angelo Henriquez on loan at Real Zaragoza. Federico Macheda has impressed at Doncaster Rovers and Birmingham City, but some shocking performances for United suggest that the Championship is really his level.

As evidenced by the shambles that has unfolded at Tottenham Hotspur this season, signing several players for big money isn’t necessarily a sure-fire way to revitalise a football club. Therefore, David Moyes may be looking to bring in quality rather than quantity, with the major surgery on his squad being executed in the form of departures.

A ruthless approach that proves nobody is safe from the axe, and uses hungry young talent to put pressure on more experienced counterparts, while returning an air of unpredictability to the Old Trafford ranks may be David Moyes’ best chance of using this summer to turn Manchester United around.

DEFINITELY STAYING:

David De Gea

Rafael, Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Michael Keane, Tom Thorpe

Juan Mata, Adnan Januzaj, Wilfried Zaha, Jesse Lingard, Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick, Anderson, Nick Powell

Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Angelo Henriquez, James Wilson

POSSIBLE DEPARTURES:

Anders Lindegaard, Ben Amos, Sam Johnstone

Alexander Buttner

Tom Cleverley, Nani, Shinji Kagawa, Bebé

Robin van Persie, Javier Hernandez

EXIT DOOR FOR SURE:

Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra

Ryan Giggs, Marouane Fellaini, Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia

Federico Macheda

United 1-1 Bayern – Moyes succeeds where many have failed

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Manchester United, having gone into the match tasked with avoiding further humiliation in this most abject of seasons, produced a hugely spirited display and will be disappointed to head to Munich next Wednesday with merely a 1-1 draw to show for their efforts.

That the Red Devils produced such a result against the odds attributes a lot to their counter-attacking game-plan. The approach drew criticism from many experts and fans alike, who claim that United’s rudimentary and direct style flew in the face of the maverick qualities instilled in the club by Sir Alex Ferguson. However, the recently retired Scot used the same rearguard action in big European games himself.

Despite boasting soon to be World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo in their ranks, the focus of United’s 2008 Champions League semi-final triumph over Barcelona was stopping Lionel Messi and maximising their limited opportunities to counter-punch. The knockout blow was duly delivered by Paul Scholes, Old Trafford erupted, before the trophy was secured in Moscow. That similar organisation and tactical discipline was sorely lacking was a major factor as Tuesday’s adversary Pep Guardiola later twice led the Catalans to the trophy with the Big Ears at the expense of United, within the space of three years.

Nevertheless, Ferguson appeared to have learned his lesson from those final defeats during last season’s encounter with Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid. A carefully constructed counter-attacking ploy, which utilised the pace of Danny Welbeck to ease the pressure on aging centre-halves Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand (sound familiar?) looked set to create a famous European night at Old Trafford, until Nani was wrongly dismissed. Moyes tweaked this successful template and summoned the same intensity and selflessness from his players, inspiring them to a result that has proved beyond even the most accomplished sides in world football.

Last season, en route to an unprecedented treble, Bayern thrashed the Barcelona side Guardiola built 7-0 over two legs; the world’s best team in terms of retaining ball possession, led by Lionel Messi were outplayed comprehensively. Borussia Dortmund’s Jurgen Klopp features on most fans’ shortlists of replacements for David Moyes, but his side’s high intensity pressing game was unsuccessful against FC Hollywood’s 2014 vintage – BVB succumbed to a 3-0 home defeat in the sides’ November meeting. Manuel Pellegrini’s Manchester City outfit have irrefutably had a better campaign than their neighbours, but even they were comprehensively beaten when Bayern came to town. An Arjen Robben-inspired 3-1 victory made a mockery of the Citizens’ reputation as the country’s great entertainers.

The limited options available to Moyes make this result even more impressive. It is likely that, with a full complement of players to choose from, the Scot would have selected the more mobile Phil Jones and Jonny Evans at centre-half, flanked by Rafael and Patrice Evra. A combination of injuries and Evra’s suspension meant that Jones had to re-locate to right-back, with the aging Vidic and Ferdinand joining the erratic  Alexander Buttner in the back-line.

Consequently, United were forced to concede a great deal of ground in the midfield area, where Bayern are so strong, as they sought not to leave their centre-backs exposed the pace of Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben. Not only that, but Brazilian right-back Rafinha was allowed to maraud forward, linking with Robben to over-load Buttner, but this was with good reason.

In the first half Ryan Giggs, and in the second, Shinji Kagawa were dragged inside to match-up with their opponent’s midfield three, seemingly obligating either Danny Welbeck or Wayne Rooney to come out to the left-hand side and track back. However, Moyes took a risk and told both his front-men to stay central and occupy Javi Martinez and Jerome Boateng, neither of whom looked comfortable throughout the evening. The 50-year-old has been criticised for his excessive caution since taking on his new role, and Tuesday night’s game was held up by some observers as further evidence of it, but to do so would be to do Moyes a huge disservice.

Not only is a defence-based strategy more risky than many people realise – one defensive slip-up and it’s very hard to recover, especially in a tie governed by the “Away Goals” rule – but the decision to give his side two central outlets outlined Moyes commitment to attacking where possible. He identified Rafinha as Bayern’s weakest link and was quite prepared to let him have the ball, especially when shorn of a crossing target for the game’s first hour.

In truth, he may have been too brave; a 1-0 advantage and the introduction of Mario Mandzukic as Bayern’s attacking spearhead probably rendered Welbeck’s aggressive positioning too risky, as evidenced by the roles of both Rafinha and the Croatian striker in Bastian Schweinstiger’s cruical equaliser.

Moyes combined pragmatism with endeavour – he knew his team would be defending for long periods (when Bayern are so good at keeping the ball, what else can you do?) but also hatched a plan – something sorely lacking too often this season – to hurt Bayern when in possession. Had Welbeck found a corner with a low and hard shot five minutes before half-time, the approach would have seen United travel to Germany with a slender lead.

Prior to Tuesday’s encounter, the concern for the majority of United followers was how their side could keep the score down. At its conclusion, they had legitimate grounds to feel their side should have won the match. David Moyes’ game-plan, so effectively executed by his players, is responsible for the shift in perspective, which gives rise to the faint hope that Manchester United can complete their Mission Improbable.

Bayern Munich will be without Martinez and linchpin Bastian Schweinstiger for Wednesday’s return clash, while David Moyes should have more defensive options to call upon. With a 1-0 win enough to secure a place in the Champions League semi-finals, some fans may dare to dream. Although, whatever happens in Munich, David Moyes has already experienced a resounding success, where many of Europe’s elite have tasted bitter failure, before him.

 

 

Manchester United 3-0 Olympiakos – 3 Positives, 3 Negatives

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Robin van Persie's hat-trick saw Manchester United into the Champions League quarter finals

Robin van Persie’s hat-trick saw Manchester United into the Champions League quarter finals

It was by no means the perfect performance, but it was certainly better than most of what David Moyes’ Manchester United side have served up so far this season. The rapturous Old Trafford faithful finally witnessed a display representative of the quality of the players at the Scotsman’s disposal, as three goals from Robin van Persie saw their side become only the second side in UEFA Champions League history to overturn a two-goal first leg deficit and book their place in the tournament’s last eight. Here are the main positives and reasons for caution for United fans, as the dust settles on a memorable night at Old Trafford.

1. Attacking Intent

This was Manchester United as most people expected to see them under Moyes; they had their flaws (more of that later) but masked them by attacking at speed, working tirelessly and being ruthless in front of goal. The quintessential need for goals on the night made the United players’ decision making very straight-forward; they had to play the more incisive pass, create the overlap or run in behind and each and every one of them looked better for it.

Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs and Antonio Valencia can all look insipid when they frequently choose the safer option but, knowing they had to go for broke, made strong contributions as United’s forwards took control of the match. Granted, United gave the ball away rather often, which contributed to an end-to-end affair, and Moyes will no doubt wish to exercise greater caution on other occasions, but a more positive approach throughout the team certainly made for a much more potent attacking display.

2. Danny Welbeck injected pace into the side

Danny Welbeck's display of pace and panache was vital as United overturned the two-goal first-leg deficit

Danny Welbeck’s display of pace and panache was vital as United overturned the two-goal first-leg deficit

Moyes’ decision to recall Valencia brought greater attacking thrust down United’s right hand side, but Danny Welbeck’s display was even more impressive. The England man was irrepressible; at times moving inside to occupy the Olympiakos centre-backs, at others racing away from right-back Leandro Salino, but also contributing to the defensive effort with constant pressing and impeccable discipline.

Welbeck’s sublime display last night led Sky Sports’ punditry team to question David Moyes’ decision to omit him from the side in recent weeks but, in fairness to the Scot, Adnan Januzaj has had a brilliant season and dropping £37million man Juan Mata would have induced even greater criticism. Nevertheless, the Salford boy has surely made himself undroppable for Saturday’s trip to Upton Park, and offers United a different dimension. England boss Roy Hodgson is sure to have been impressed, too.

3. Robin van Persie looks interested again

The Dutchman’s recent performances have been so poor that it wouldn’t have been a huge shock if he was omitted from the starting eleven last night. Prior to Sunday’s humbling at the hands of Liverpool, van Persie stated that he remained happy at Old Trafford, but his performance was so devoid of quality and enthusiasm that many United fans’ must have shuddered at the thought of seeing him play when he’s not happy.

Last night, however, afforded more support and service from his team-mates, “RvP” was rejuvenated. He led from the front as United looked to get on the front foot, and his superbly taken second goal was a reminder of just how sharp he can be in the penalty area. David Moyes will want his top scorer to stay in this kind of form, as he looks to build towards next season.

Reasons for Caution – 1. The central midfield is short of legs

Ryan Giggs possesses the quality, but not the energy to star in the Manchester United midfield

Ryan Giggs possesses the quality, but not the energy, to star in the Manchester United midfield

Ryan Giggs’ display of class and poise alongside Michael Carrick, epitomised by the two defence-splitting passes that led to van Persie’s first half goals, added some much-needed creativity to United’s midfield, but the fact remains that he is 40 years old. Gary Neville claimed that his former team-mate is a shoo-in to start when Manchester City visit Old Trafford on Tuesday, but if that were to be the case, Giggs would almost certainly be over-powered by the imperious Fernandinho and Yaya Toure.

Moreover, all of United’s potential Champions League opponents boast dynamic midfielders, and are all almost certain to line-up with a central trio in the engine room. Demanding Wayne Rooney to drop in and make up the numbers while being charged with driving United forward creates a strain on his midfield companions that will surely be too much for Giggs’ aging legs to cope with, against elite opposition. With Moyes search for a successful formula bearing very little fruit this season, the centre of the park is an area that United’s opposition in the next round, whoever they are, will surely to look to exploit.

2. Olympiakos created chances

For all their good attacking play, United were indebted to goalkeeper David De Gea, who has surely been their player of the season, for securing their passage to the next round. At 1-0, Patrice Evra was nowhere to be seen as the Greek Champions carved United open on down the right flank, and from the resulting centre, shocking marking first allowed David Fuster a free header then Alejandro Dominguez a clear chance on the follow-up. Both efforts were expertly repelled by De Gea, but the move highlighted United’s persistent defensive vulnerability, which is sure to have potental last eight opponents licking their lips.

3. All previous ‘turning points’ have been false dawns

November’s win against Arsenal, four straight wins over Christmas and three away Premier League clean sheets were all depicted as turning points, moments when David Moyes faltering Manchester United tenure would finally get off the ground. However, United followed up their win over the Gunners with four winless matches, their festive resurgence with three defeats in their next five games, and their latest upturn in fortunes by being massacred at the hands of Liverpool.

Moreover, United have endured further embarrassment at the hands of Chelsea and Manchester City, which does little to suggest that they’re capable of beating the very best sides. That Olympiakos sold their best player and top scorer, Kostas Mitroglou to the Premier League’s bottom side, Fulham, in January provides an indication of their true level of quality and it remains to be seen whether Wednesday’s game really is a turning point for David Moyes’ United regime, or just another false dawn.

Manchester United vs. Liverpool – A Tactical Preview

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The importance of the match for both David Moyes and Brendan Rodgers – albeit for very different reasons – and the nature of the rivalry between their respective clubs may mean that Sunday’s encounter between Manchester United and Liverpool is more of a battle of stealth than strategy. However, here’s a quick look at how the sides, if they continue with the game-plans that have brought them success in recent weeks, may approach the game.

David Moyes has, rather staggeringly, failed to name the same starting eleven in two consecutive matches since the start of his Manchester United tenure. Nevertheless, a desire to examine the credentials of young defenders, ahead of a summer of upheaval, and some promising away performances from his front six may convince the Scot to redeploy the side that secured victory in United’s most recent match, at the Hawthorns. The main decision Moyes will have to make is whether or not to rest teenager Adnan Januzaj, knowing he will be shorn of the cup-tied Juan Mata with goals required when Olympiakos arrive at Old Trafford on Wednesday night. Ryan Giggs, Shinji Kagawa, Danny Welbeck and Ashley Young are all waiting in the wings.

Lucas Leiva’s two-month absence due to a knee ligament injury has seen Brendan Rodgers uncover a hugely successful formula, and there is no reason for the Northern Irishman to divert from it on Sunday. Captain Steven Gerrard will be the deepest on a midfield three completed by Jordan Henderson and Phillipe Coutinho. The trio will be charged with providing the ammunition for ‘The SASAS’ – Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling. In the absence of Jose Enrique and Aly Cissokho, Glen Johnson is expected to again deputise at left-back.

There was much made of the fact Moyes has predominantly stationed Juan Mata on the right flank, since his January arrival from Chelsea. However, in United’s last two matches, the Spaniard has been granted much more freedom to drift inside and get involved his side’s build up play. The heat map below, from the Red Devils recent 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace shows that Mata played almost as a second Number 10, helping his side to dominate proceedings.

mata heat mapOn Sunday, Moyes may look for more of the same from his £37million man, to combine with Wayne Rooney and overwhelm Steven Gerrard. While the deployment of the England captain in a deeper role has allowed him to showcase his exceptional distribution, it has also highlighted his defensive frailties. This was most noticeable during last month’s encounter with Swansea City, at Anfield. Gerrard’s inability to get to grips with ex-Red Jonjo Shelvey allowed the 22-year-old to lead his side back from 2-0 and 3-2 down, before they eventually succumbed 4-3. Much has been made of Rooney’s inability to link up with strike partner Robin van Persie in recent weeks, but if Liverpool allow the ex-Everton man to interchange with Mata, they could be in trouble.

This season has seen Brendan Rodgers shed his loyalty to the possession-based philosophy that probably got him the Liverpool job, in favour of a more direct, counter-attacking approach. The effect of this shift has often been devastating; the Reds have thrashed both Everton and Arsenal at Anfield, with an aggregate score of 9-1, yet in both matches, their opponents had the majority of ball possession. The key to the Merseysiders’ success in these matches was Rodgers’ carefully constructed pressing strategy – designed to concede possession in certain areas, but spring into action and win it back once it reaches others.

On Sunday, there is unlikely to be a shortage of ‘triggers’ – a player or area to which the ball is played, which induces all 10 outfield players to apply intense pressure to their marker – for Rodgers to use to kick-start this aggressive strategy. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling were Moyes’ centre-backs at the Hawthorns, and while the pair are generally sharper on the ball than the aging Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, they would likely struggle to play quality passes with Suarez and Sturridge nipping at their heels. Even if the centre-backs are granted the freedom to play, the languid Michael Carrick and clumsy Marouane Fellaini will almost certainly find their time on the ball extremely limited. The off-form Tom Cleverley and 40-year-old Ryan Giggs are also available, but the pair would likely struggle even more against such a high-tempo strategy. The pedestrian nature of United’s build-up play so far this season indicates that Liverpool’s pro-active defensive style – led by the revitalised Jordan Henderson – could pay real dividends at Old Trafford, provided Brendan Rodgers is brave enough to employ it.

Sunday’s match is likely to be an oddity; in this era where possession is often perceived as nine tenths of the law, the side who has less of the ball here will be most likely to win. David Moyes will be keen to provide Rooney and Mata with constant service, but without a commanding midfielder capable of playing around a dynamic pressing style, he is likely to be happier if Liverpool are forced to take the game to his side. When the Merseysiders dominate possession, the tempo of their play drops, and The SASAS find themselves with less room to manouvre; they’re simply a different animal on the counter-attack.

Arguably Manchester United’s best result of the season, a 1-0 home win over Arsenal in November, came thanks to a compact and resolute defensive display, combined with an ability to make the most of their limited attacking opportunities. United’s approach that day was trademark Moyes, and a repeat performance represents their best chance of success on Sunday.

5 Things Roy Hodgson Could Try Against Denmark

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Wednesday night’s friendly against Denmark represents England manager Roy Hodgson’s last chance to examine his options before naming his provisional 30-man squad for the World Cup. Here are five ideas he could experiment with at Wembley…

1. Pairing Steven Gerrard with Jack Wilshere

Theoretically, based on the roles the pair perform for their club sides, partnering his two most creative midfielders represents a fantastic option for Hodgson. Brendan Rodgers has organised his Liverpool side in a multitude of formations this season, but one constant has been the deployment of his captain in a deeper midfield role. At the Emirates, Wilshere, having occupied all three of the advanced play-maker roles during the early part of the season, has since returned to the deeper position in which he made his name. Either Mikel Arteta or Mathieu Flamini provide the security for the 22-year-old to drive forward and dictate matches; something that an on-form Wilshere can do more effectively than anyone else in Hodgson’s ranks.

However, he main draw-back of fielding the pair together is their collective lack of discipline, both positionally and in the tackle. In recent weeks, Gerrard’s lack of tactical awareness has left Liverpool’s back four exposed, most notably as Aston Villa and Swansea netted five goals across their respective matches at Anfield. Meanwhile, there is a feeling amongst regular observers of Arsenal that Wilshere’s cavalier style often leaves his midfield partner stranded. Furthermore, the 22-year-old’s willingness to engage in individual spats on the pitch will be a worry for Hodgson, as will what the 66 year old saw in Gerrard’s last two outings against the Gunners. In last month’s Premier League encounter, with Liverpool 5-0 up and cruising, Gerrard dived into an inexplicably reckless challenge on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, which saw Arsenal awarded a consolation penalty. Eight days later, the 33-year-old was fortunate to escape a red card for an incident involving the same player, in an FA Cup match.

Hodgson, fully aware of the need for discipline on the international stage, will be very keen to eradicate such deficiencies. However, if he succeeds in taming the pair, the rewards could be sensational. Gerrard’s best years are undoubtedly behind him, but he will certainly provide a combative shield for his back-line, while his passing range remains exceptional. And it was with Gerrard in the holding role that Wilshere put in his best performance in an England shirt, during a 2-1 Wembley win over Brazil, in 2012. The play-maker illuminated the National Stadium, showcasing his inimitable blend of intensity and panache at a level of performance that his manager will hope to see him replicate on a more regular basis.

On that occasion, the pair were joined in a 4-1-4-1 system by Tom Cleverley, but the Manchester United man’s demise, coupled with the remarkable form of Daniel Sturridge, mean that deploying the pair behind Wayne Rooney in a 4-4-1-1 would likely be Hodgson’s preferred choice. If Gerrard and Wilshere can improve their discipline, Wednesday’s match could see the birth of a dynamic, combative and creative partnership, capable of driving England to success in Brazil.

2. Attacking like Liverpool

hendo stuzz

The Anfield club have netted more goals than any other Premier League side (73), winning many plaudits for their breath-taking style of play. Tantalisingly for Roy Hodgson, he has four of the in-form side’s front six at his disposal; Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge. What’s more, the former West Brom boss is able to cast Jack Wilshere in the role of advanced midfielder Phillipe Coutinho and talisman Wayne Rooney as a not too startlingly pale imitation of the irrepressible Luis Suarez.

This season has seen Brendan Rodgers divert from his possession-based philosophy, having realised that a direct style best suits his explosive attackers. In the demolitions of Everton and Arsenal, Liverpool had the minority of the ball, but used their share with ruthless efficiency. England are notoriously poor at retaining possession, so imitating this template could be perfect for them, as they search for a formula that can see them overcome the strongest sides on the planet.

To shoe-horn his most potent attacking weapons into one team, Brendan Rodgers has fielded both Suarez and Sturridge on the right of the front three, and similar selflessness would be required from Rooney or his strike partner if Hodgson’s ‘Liverpool 2.0′ were to be successful. However, one of the most striking aspects of the current England squad is each player’s willingness to diligently perform in whichever role they’re cast. The November friendlies against Chile and Germany saw the Three Lions make a disjointed attempt at a high-tempo proactive pressing game, and if Hodgson decides that the quickest way to develop it is to copy Rodgers’ template, the signs look promising.

3. Give youth a chance

Don’t worry, this isn’t another ludicrous call for Roy Hodgson to jettison every member of his squad aged 30 or over, replacing the “has-beens” with 23 young players, in all their raw and naive glory.

However, 14 of his 30 man party are still in single figures in terms of caps, and there is a very real chance that players such as Luke Shaw (no caps), Raheem Sterling (1), Ross Barkley (3) and Jordan Henderson (7) will play a major part in Brazil. The World Cup is no place to be learning on the job, so it is imperative that Hodgson takes every available opportunity to expose his starlets to the international arena, starting on Wednesday.

4. Select two out-and-out wingers

James Milner and Danny Welbeck were frequently selected on the flanks during the qualification period, as Hodgson prioritised discipline over flair. However, as previously mentioned, England’s failure to keep the ball forces them into a counter-attacking style, which means they desperately need an effective outlet when they do recover posession. Even without the injured Theo Walcott, Hodgson’s squad still contains wide-men capable of providing a greater threat on the break than the Manchester-based duo.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s fine form upon his return from injury has gone some way to compensate Arsene Wenger for the loss of Walcott, and the quality of Sterling’s recent performances has already been discussed. Andros Townsend’s brazen style was a major weapon as England sealed qualification with wins against Montenegro and Poland, while Jay Rodriguez has bagged 10 goals from Southampton’s left flank.

Group stage opponents Italy and Uruguay rely greatly on their full-backs to provide width, which might ensure Hodgson sticks to his ‘safety-first’ policy when selecting his wide-men. However, Wednesday’s match provides the perfect occasion on which to explore what more expansive choices can bring to his side. Each of the aforementioned quartet (which neglected to mention in-form Adam Lallana and of course the threat Sturridge or Rooney could provide from a wide area) are disciplined and hard-working enough to provide adequate protection for their full-back, while doing more to carry the fight to the opposition.

5. Playing without Wayne Rooney

Although England’s top goalscorer in qualifying is still a vitally important member of the squad, the reality is that it is ten years since Rooney arrived at a major tournament without a question mark over his fitness and form. Hodgson’s recently expressed that he hoped this summer’s showpiece would finally see the frontman “explode” on the global scene, which provides rather conclusive proof that, if fit, the Manchester United man will take to the pitch in Manaus, on June 14th.

However, every England side since Rooney’s emergence in 2004 have been dangerously reliant on the Liverpudlian, looking startlingly bereft of belief and ideas when their talisman has made a premature exit from proceedings or struggled for form. Therefore, it could be worthwhile for Roy Hodgson to use at least half of Wednesday’s match to examine his Plan B.

In Rooney’s absence, the 66-year-old would have two choices. If he stuck with a 4-4-1-1 system, the marauding Jack Wilshere, intelligent Ross Barkley and athletic Jordan Henderson are just three of the former Fulham boss’ options in the hole; none of which would be disastrous. Alternatively, the 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 exhibited at home to Brazil could make a return, with Michael Carrick, Frank Lampard and Adam Lallana among the candidates to fill the void. Again, such a scenario shouldn’t see England outclassed.

It is worth remembering that Rooney’s abdication of his responsibility to man-mark Andrea Pirlo afforded the mercurial Italian the freedom to dictate England’s Euro 2012 quarter final clash with Cesare Prandelli’s men. Greater discipline would almost certainly have seen the Liverpudlian’s superior athleticism dominate Pirlo, allowing England to impose themselves on the game. Given Daniel Sturridge’s outstanding goal-scoring form, and the emergence of creative players who can press more effectively and diligently in the most advanced midfield role, maybe Roy Hodgson will consider just how important Wayne Rooney really is to this England side.

Replacing Wayne Rooney would indeed be expensive – but Manchester United have already done it

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The recent announcement that Wayne Rooney had signed a lucrative five-year contract with Manchester United, rumoured to be worth around £300,000 per week for the Liverpudlian, indicated the club’s determination, or maybe desperation, to prove that Old Trafford remains an attractive home for the most stellar names in football. The extension keeps Rooney at United until he is 33, which is undoubtedly a gamble, but it is one that Ed Woodward clearly felt the club simply had to take, as David Moyes sets about transforming the fortunes of his under-performing side. However, despite being one of United’s best performers in a hugely disappointing campaign, Rooney isn’t as indispensable as such a bountiful contract; which stipulates that Moyes must discuss transfer activity with the striker, and that he will become a club ambassador upon his retirement, suggests.

According to tabloid mathematics, the extension will cost United around £86million. Yet those who claim such extortionate figures mean the club should cut their losses have generally been met with one rebuttal; it would cost even more to replace Rooney. Gary Neville recently defended the club’s stance by stating, The question you’ve got to ask is how much does it cost to replace him? And the market is demanding, for a player that has scored the goals he has scored in his 10 years at United, you’d be talking £50-£60m”.

The England coach, and others who share his view are indeed correct, replacing Rooney would be very expensive. The thing is, Manchester United have already done it. Having splashed out £37million on Juan Mata, three years the Scouser’s junior, and two-time Chelsea Player of the Year and £24million on Robin van Persie, the Premier League’s top scorer in the past two seasons, the void that would have been left by Rooney’s departure have been filled.

It has long been, rather lazily, stated that ‘Manchester United are undoubtedly better with Wayne Rooney in the side than without him’ but the purchase of Mata, whom many supporters wish to see occupy a more central role, in any case, provides a serious challenge to this theory.

If it seems bizarre that David Moyes followed the club-record acquisition of a world-class playmaker, most comfortable in the Number 10 position, by making an older man, who wishes to occupy the same role, the highest-paid player in English football, a closer look at Mata and Rooney’s respective credentials only serves to make the Scotsman’s decision look more foolhardy.

Having been to the European Championships and Olympic Games, last season saw Juan Mata play 64 games for Chelsea and his haul of 20 goals indicates the Spaniard’s ability to avoid burn-out and maintain his performance level. The former Valencia man is of slender build, but has adapted to the rigours of the English game, while staying remarkably clear of injury. By contrast, Rooney’s bustling style leaves him susceptible to spending time on the treatment table, which has been a feature of nearly every one of his eleven seasons at Old Trafford.

In addition, last summer saw Sir Alex Ferguson express what was already clear to many observers; that Rooney’s ‘stocky frame [means] he must be worked very strongly to [maintain] his edge’. The England striker admitted as much himself in his latest book, stating “I’m stocky. I’m not like Ryan Giggs, all bone and muscle”. The constant struggle to reach maintain his fighting weight has had an adverse effect on Rooney’s ability to perform consistently throughout his career. It has played a major part in his inability to shine at multiple major international tournaments, and saw the striker benched for a considerable part of Ferguson’s final season.

Consequently, tying Rooney down until he is 33, by which time there is no telling how much of a handle he will have over his physical condition, while marginalising Mata, a more natural athlete, with an injury record David Moyes should feel a greater deal of confidence in relying on, doesn’t, on the face of it, appear a particularly shrewd move.

Even without the fitness concerns, there is a strong argument to suggest that Juan Mata is simply a better footballer than Wayne Rooney. That Jose Mourinho ousted the Spaniard due to concerns over his defensive diligence has seemingly caused many observers to forget just how good Mata’s performances since his arrival in England have been. 12 Premier League goals and 18 assists saw the World Cup winner nominated for PFA Player of the Year last season, while Rooney played a bit-part role as United strolled to the title. This season, while Mata warmed the Chelsea bench, and prior to his most recent injury, the 28-year-old was enjoying a fine run of form. This is likely Moyes’ justification for Rooney’s deployment in a more pivotal role than Mata, but the striker’s goal in last Saturday’s win over Crystal Palace was his first in seven apperances.

This relatively baron run is nothing out of the ordinary for the notoriously ‘streaky’ Scouser, but the startling dip in his performance levels when he isn’t in form are a worry for many United fans. All sorts of things can go wrong for players down on confidence and luck but, for a player so involved in his side’s build-up play, the way in which his sharpness and first touch can seemingly desert an off-form Rooney casts aspersions Moyes’ desire to rebuild his Manchester United empire around him. The striker’s atrocious display as England limped to an abject 0-0 draw with Algeria at the 2010 World Cup demonstrates the depths his performances can plumb, and Roy Hodgson waits in hope, rather than expectation, for a marked improvement, four years on.

In short, despite his resurgence this season, Rooney remains a loose cannon, equally liable to produce the woeful as the wondrous. Meanwhile, Mata is one of the most gifted players in the Premier League, with fantastic technique, tactical intelligence and an eye for goal, yet it is the former Everton man that David Moyes has entrusted with leading his Old Trafford revolution.

David Moyes’ stubborn insistence that Wayne Rooney would not leave Old Trafford, followed by the exceptionally generous contract afforded to the 28-year-old suggest that the Scot thought that securing his signature was an imperative part of his quest to rebuild Manchester United; a sentiment clearly echoed by Ed Woodward and the club’s directors. However, having sanctioned £37million to add Juan Mata to a squad already containing Shinji Kagawa, Adnan Januzaj, Robin van Persie, Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez, Woodward had unwittingly ensured the White Pele’s erratic concoction of perspiration and inspiration wouldn’t be sorely missed at Old Trafford. The deal showed that world-class players are still interested in joining the Red Devils, without the club being held to ransom over personal demands, all while providing Moyes with an upgrade on his creative fulcrum. It has been said that retaining the service of Wayne Rooney exemplifies the on-going strength of Manchester United, but in actual fact, letting him leave the club would have sent out a much more powerful message.

To replace Wayne Rooney with a one-in-two striker, goals-wise, over a long period of time would have cost them £50million with a five-year contract [for the player] on top of that.
Read more at http://talksport.com/football/exclusive-gary-neville-rooneys-no-more-obscene-alan-shearer-14022280884#h2FoLJrHIfI1lHPk.99
To replace Wayne Rooney with a one-in-two striker, goals-wise, over a long period of time would have cost them £50million with a five-year contract [for the player] on top of that
Read more at http://talksport.com/football/exclusive-gary-neville-rooneys-no-more-obscene-alan-shearer-14022280884#h2FoLJrHIfI1lHPk.99
To replace Wayne Rooney with a one-in-two striker, goals-wise, over a long period of time would have cost them £50million with a five-year contract [for the player] on top of that
Read more at http://talksport.com/football/exclusive-gary-neville-rooneys-no-more-obscene-alan-shearer-14022280884#h2FoLJrHIfI1lHPk.99
To replace Wayne Rooney with a one-in-two striker, goals-wise, over a long period of time would have cost them £50million with a five-year contract [for the player] on top of that
Read more at http://talksport.com/football/exclusive-gary-neville-rooneys-no-more-obscene-alan-shearer-14022280884#h2FoLJrHIfI1lHPk.99
To replace Wayne Rooney with a one-in-two striker, goals-wise, over a long period of time would have cost them £50million with a five-year contract [for the player] on top of that
Read more at http://talksport.com/football/exclusive-gary-neville-rooneys-no-more-obscene-alan-shearer-14022280884#h2FoLJrHIfI1lHPk.99

Manchester United are well equipped to build another defensive dynasty

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Manchester United captain Nemanja Vidic’s recent announcement that he will depart the club at the end of the current season conclusively signalled the dissolution of the formidable back-line that formed a crucial part of Sir Alex Ferguson’s final Old Trafford side. The news, coupled with the creaking limbs of 35-year-old Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra’s almost inevitable summer return to France, leaves David Moyes needing to reconstruct his back-line. Fortunately for the ex-Everton chief, he has inherited a squad rather well equipped to deal with such upheaval.

United’s three other senior centre backs are Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans. All three men have come in for some criticism during their time at the club, but each have their best years ahead of them (Evans is the oldest of the trio, aged 26) and have shown signs they can step into the breach left by Vidic and Ferdinand.

Still just 22 years old, Phil Jones is the youngest of Moyes’ central defensive options, but is also the most talented. His superb athleticism is his biggest asset but has also stagnated his development. Both Moyes and Ferguson often deemed Jones’ energy to be best served at right-back or in central midfield, while his all-action style has brought about injuries; all of which has limited his game-time in his preferred centre-back role.

However, the ex-Blackburn man is the best young central defender in England, with Sir Alex Ferguson claiming last April that he could be “one of the best players [United] have ever had” and regular game-time at the heart of the Red Devils’ defence should see Jones begin to realise his huge potential. Also, with Phil Jagielka turning 32 after this summer’s World Cup and Gary Cahill still failing to inspire confidence on the international stage, there is a real chance he could nail down an England starting birth, too.

The 2013-14 season has seen Chris Smalling become the focal point of much mockery and ire, due, in the main, to some clumsy performances at right-back. In the same way that constant positional rotation has not benefited England team-mate Jones, Smalling has struggled when stationed at full-back. However, this is hardly surprising as nearly every defender plying their trade in the Premier League would find it hard to perform consistently well while being shunted between positions. Therefore, it is harsh to deem the less experienced Smalling unfit for purpose at United, based on some poor showings in the role, as some observers have done.

In previous seasons, the 24 year-old has shown fantastic aerial prowess and composure. Such attributes convinced Sir Alex Ferguson to spend £12million to lure him away from Fulham and make Smalling a fixture in Roy Hodgson’s England squads, but there is undoubtedly still room for improvement. In April 2012, Vincent Kompany rather easily escaped him to nod home a vital goal as Manchester City surged towards the league title, and lapses in concentration are still too common. Nevertheless, former centre-back Moyes should realise that Smalling has the necessary tools to develop into a player capable of forging a successful career at Old Trafford, and in the international arena.

Since the duo lined up together at the UEFA U21 European Championships in 2011, it has been widely suggested that the Jones-Smalling axis would be at the heart of both Manchester United and England’s defences for years to come. However, the emergence of Jonny Evans in recent years provides as strong a threat to that premonition as any.

The Northern Irishman is arguably the least naturally gifted of the current crop of United centre-backs, but has flourished due to such consistent exposure to first-team football. Evans was criticised in the early part of his United career, as he struggled to adapt to the Premier League, while ex-Red Gerard Pique collected trophies on both the domestic and international stage. Nevertheless, Sir Alex Ferguson showed faith in the Belfast boy, and, having remained largely injury free, the 26-year-old has blossomed into an accomplished performer, tipped as a future captain for club and country by Norman Whiteside and Ferguson.

Despite the having three top centre-backs at his disposal, it is almost certain that David Moyes will want to enter next season with four. While Rio Ferdinand’s departure hasn’t been confirmed, he is yet to sign a new deal at the club and has underperformed this season. So where should Moyes look for a reinforcement?

It is widely accepted that the Scot has a lot of shopping to do in the summer transfer window, with many onlookers suggesting that he picks up a centre-half in the close-season market. Given the youthfulness of his current options, buying another player of a similar age would be futire, giving Moyes two options if he is to make a purchase.

Moyes may opt to make a big-money purchase, splashing the cash on an experienced central defender in the prime of his career, to bolster his currently vulnerable defence. The problem with this approach is that there aren’t many world-class defenders plying their trade in this era, meaning he is likely to be paying inflated prices, for an inferior standard of player. Porto’s Eliaquim Mangala and Benfica’s Ezequiel Garay have been the two names most frequently linked with an Old Trafford switch but price-tags of around £30million do not represent good value for money, for it is doubtful that either man would represent a huge improvement on United’s current options.

United’s other option in the transfer market is to make a cheaper purchase, bringing in an experienced defender to nurture Jones, Smalling and Evans, and providing reliable cover in the event of injury. Manchester City and Liverpool made similar moves this season, but the purchases of Martin Demichelis and Kolo Toure have produced somewhat mixed results. Manuel Pellegrini and Brendan Rodgers have hailed their experienced aquisitions, but both men have cost their side crucial matches. Furthermore, the Red Devils need to put more pressure on the ball, which intensifies the need for centre-backs who are quick across the ground, rendering in the arrival of an aging player somewhat counter-productive.

The lack of value in the transfer market, coupled with the fact that any addition to the defensive ranks is likely to be fourth-choice centre-half, mean that Moyes may find the players most suited to his needs in the youth ranks at Carrington. If the 51-year-old decided to take his predecessor’s lead and put his faith in youth, his best options are Englishmen Tom Thorpe and Michael Keane.

Aged 21 (just a year younger than Jones), Thorpe has recently returned to Old Trafford following an injury sustained in his debut for Birmingham City, following a deadline day loan move. While Moyes’ willingness to loan the youngster to a Championship side may not appear to be a glowing endorsement of his qualities, he slotted into a Premier League loan spot vacated by Fulham’s Dan Burn. You’ll remember how crucial Burn was as the Cottagers frustrated United, two weeks ago; showing both that Brum boss Lee Clark can spot a talented defender and also that a young player can bridge the gap between the divisions. Thorpe has also played for England at every level from Under 16 to 21, making 26 apperances in total, so the weight of expectation at Old Trafford shouldn’t be an unfamilar burden.

Keane, also 21, has had two loan spells in the second tier, making 22 appearances for Leicester City last season, before a four-game period with Steve McClaren’s promotion chasing Derby County this term. The captain of United’s Under 21 side has made 8 appearances for England in the same age group, scoring 3 goals. Two seasons spent on loan at Sunderland were a vital component of Jonny Evans’ development, and Keane’s similar exposure to regular football would stand him in good stead if called upon by Moyes.

Sir Alex Ferguson may have left David Moyes with a great deal of work to do in order to revitalise the Manchester United midfield, but the outgoing Glaswegian wasn’t so negligent with regards the heart of the Old Trafford defence. The blow of losing Vidic, who is likely to be followed by Ferdinand, will be softened by the array of talent from which Moyes can choose their replacement, which runs even deeper than the senior ranks. The beleaguered Scot is likely to be very thankful for that, as he looks ahead to an extremely busy summer.