All posts by George Kyle

Glorious Giggs

 

When you think of Manchester United legends, no doubt Ryan Giggs ranks highly in the pantheon. Someone who came from the youth set up and who completed 23 years as a professional at Manchester United, it reads like the fairytale of football.  Not to mention that Giggs is the most decorated player in football history. A player of Giggs stature can never have too many epithets about how fantastic he was and his legacy as undisputed best left winger that the Premier League has ever seen endures.

Perhaps his most poignant moment was his goal against Arsenal in the final FA Cup replay of all time, which was quite simply incredible.  The speed and agility bewildered the legendary Arsenal defence of the late 90s, the ball seemingly surgically attached to Ryan Giggs’ left wand. The thunderbolt shot sent ripples through my spine that still reverberate today as Seaman desperately tried to parry the strike that had already left him for dead. It is a goal for the ages, to delight Manchester United fans for generations to come.

“Obviously we know the goal he scored in the semi-final against Arsenal, an unbelievable thing to do [ . . . ] the best goal ever scored in the FA Cup. From 16 years of age to (his retirement in 2014), to be able to perform at that level, and to give the team so much, Ryan Giggs has got to be the greatest Premier League player ever. [ . . . ] What he’s given the Premier League is unbelievable, and what he’s given Manchester United is fantastic.” Peter Schmeichel

Surely, it is Giggs’ ability to reinvent himself constantly to stay in the Manchester United team throughout our glory years and the outstanding longevity he had that sets him apart from others. When Giggs burst onto the scene at the age of 17 he was the first of the class of ’92 and in taking the lead paved the way for the others to make a smoother transition. Indeed, he claimed the first of his major trophies that year, producing the assist in a one nil victory in the League Cup Final. A testament to the precocious talent and the vision, pace and trickery he imbued was his PFA Young Player of the Year award at the end of the season. The arrival of “The King” Eric Cantona provided Giggs with the platform next season to win the Premier League, in its inaugural year. However, Johan Cruyff himself had no doubt who the real master was of these two:

“Eric Cantona is a great player, but he’s not as good as Ryan Giggs.”

Another fascinating statistic is that Ryan Giggs was never sent off for Manchester United, quite remarkable when you consider how long that spanned.  When we consider how often players are targeted if they possess the flair and skill necessary to damage you in the modern era, it speaks volumes that Giggs retained his composure and showed a remarkable team spirit in ensuring he never left them short staffed.

During the Treble winning season, Giggs was a key part in the unprecedented achievement. It was his equalising goal in the semi final home leg injury time against Juventus that gave us a vital lifeline before that unforgettable Roy Keane inspired night in Turin. Additionally, it was Ryan Giggs’ assist off his unfavoured right foot that equalised in the Champions League final grandstand finish against Bayern Munich.  Giggs offered the artistry within the famous midfield four, contributing goals and assists but also striking fear into defenders who tracked his movements, which allowed the other attacking players to utilise their own respective talents more expressively.

Over the following few years, Giggs cemented himself as one of our standout performers during a period of United dominance. During the season of 2002-03 many people started to write him off, there was an incredible open goal miss against David Seaman in February of that year, off his right foot during a 2-0 defeat which I remember vividly but Giggs was to prove once again that rumours of his demise were premature and ill conceived. In a 3-0 victory over Juventus, he scored twice. One of the goals was a typical mazy dribble that showcased the dexterity and genius for which Giggs was revered.  It was an incredibly timely goal which helped to defuse a potential rumoured switch to Inter Milan and ensured that he extended his stay at United.

In 2004, Giggs won another FA Cup against Millwall, his final FA Cup triumph and had begun to look after his health far more seriously. It was to be this healthy lifestyle which included yoga which helped him elongate his career for so long, the hamstring issues which had dogged him for his career were eradicated.  The final part of 2005 was marred by United’s loss in the FA Cup Final to Arsenal but United were going through one of our periods of mini transition during the Sir Alex Ferguson era. In the 2006-07 season, Giggs was to chip in with a few vital goals and also scored a controversial free kick against Lille which demonstrated his quick thinking and inventiveness in one snapshot. With United’s Premier League crown, Giggs celebrated his ninth league title which saw him become the new record holder of most titles achieved by a single player. His record of 13 league titles as it stands is a mark which will stand for many years, one that we may well not see outstripped in our lifetimes, dear reader.

In the summer of 2007, Giggs called a halt to his international career as he wished to concentrate more on his United career.  There were many times where Giggs would make himself unavailable for selection for friendly fixtures or other non competitive fixtures during his Manchester United career. Like Scholes, his nation’s loss was very much the club’s gain as it helped to ensure he didn’t pick up as many of the niggling knocks and fatigue injuries from playing more games than necessary.  He represented Great Britain in the London 2012 Olympics and at the age of 38 years and 243 days scored a goal which beat an 88 year old record to become the oldest scorer in the football competition.

In the 2007-08 season, Giggs was rotated within the team by Sir Alex, seemingly saved for important games where his nous and experience would be most valuable for the team. It was Giggs who scored the second decisive goal against Wigan on the final day of the season to win United their 10th Premier League trophy and he celebrated breaking Bobby Charlton’s appearance record for United in the Champions League Final against Chelsea. In the sudden death penalty shootout at the end of the game, it was especially fitting that the new longest reigning bastion of the club scored the winning penalty, retaining his conviction beautifully on the most nerve wracking of all club stages.

In the 2008-9 season, Giggs shifted to a play in the deeper lying central midfield role which he was to make his own during the latter stages of his career. Despite not playing in many games, Giggs’ quality and exceptional displays merited him being awarded the PFA Player of the Year that season. Furthermore, he also won the 2009 Sports Personality of the Year award which showed that whilst even in his mid thirties, Giggs was winning individual awards normally reserved for players a decade or so younger than him. This is a glowing acknowledgment of his supreme reserves of talent. The club itself felt his contribution had been the most telling of the decade by awarding him Manchester United Player of the Decade.  Over the next couple of seasons, Giggs was to break more records, continuing his streak of scoring in every Premier League season since its inception and also becoming the oldest Champions League goal scorer in a 4-1 victory over Schalke 04 in the semi final of the 2010-11 season at the time. The following season he extended this record and broke Raul’s record by scoring in 16 Champions League seasons, another quite astonishing feat.  In February of that year, Giggs scored the winning goal in the 90th minute in his 900th appearance for Manchester United prompting Sir Alex Ferguson to deliver this superb speech: “For a player to play for one club for 900 games is exceptional, and it won’t be done again. He deserved that goal for his service to the club. He’s had an amazing career and is an amazing man.”

Only a couple of years later at the end of the 2014 season and the summer following his 40th birthday, Giggs retired and received an incredible amount of fitting tributes from players, pundits and journalists alike for a quite remarkable career of success and accomplishment. During the last few matches of David Moyes’ reign Giggs became interim player-manager, a time which caused the Welshman an incredible amount of stress given his novice status as a manager. The fact that he broke out in tears after the final match spoke volumes of the degree to which he cared and wanted to do well in the position as he had done for his entire United playing career. Ever the perfectionist as a player he wanted to translate these traits into his fledgling managerial career.

Giggs finished on a total of 168 goals for Manchester United which places him 7th equal in the all time list of Manchester United’s top goal scorers, the sheer variety of these goals makes them well worth watching.  He had an unerring knack of being able to score off both feet and knew how to find pockets of space quite wonderfully. In those moments, the finishes were often composed and swept home with utmost aplomb. Some of them were simply mesmerizingly beautiful in their impudence as he reduced opposing defenders and keepers to jabbering wrecks.  Not only that but Giggs was an exceptional provider of goals evidenced by the fact that he has the most assists of all time in the Premier League with 162. He was able to find team mates with his pinpoint passing and could also cross excellently at the end of one of his flying runs hugging the touchline. To be so high on both these end products which attacking wingers are often measured by whilst always adhering to his defensive duties in aiding his left back showed the stamina and overall peak efficiency at which Giggs operated.

If we take into account the sheer amount of medals Giggs won in his career, he has had the greatest club career of any player who has played the professional game. However, what this and other such staggering statistics of this magnitude fail to encompass all that Giggs accomplished during his professional career. This was not a man who allowed the vicissitudes of time which should have wearied him during his thirties. Instead, like a true legend, he adapted his game so that he could survive whilst other lesser mortals moved to more lowly leagues or retired. Of Giggs’ many attributes which set him firmly amongst the greatest players to have played the game, it was his reliability and flexibility which enabled him to remain an essential part of Manchester United’s team for over two decades. Whether he was dancing around opposing defenders as — Sir Alex Ferguson opined: (“When Ryan runs at players he gives them twisted blood. They don’t want to be a defender anymore.”), scoring with a vicious rifled shot or patrolling the midfield magisterially, Giggs was a truly glorious player whose unbelievable talent and skill shall never be forgotten by all Manchester United fans and all those who were fortunate enough to share the same pitch:

“He was the one that set the benchmark for us. He was the one we looked up to and yet he was only a year or two older than us. We never reached his heights because he is one of the best players of all time. We were just lucky enough to become team-mates of his.” — David Beckham

Sublime Scholes

The greatest English midfielder of his generation as the majority of Manchester United fans would describe him. The player, whose quietly spoken professionalism during his playing career, was at complete odds with the talent and skill that procured him a plethora of accolades and trophies.  Paul Scholes was so vitally integral to Manchester United’s success that Sir Alex Ferguson helped to convince him to revoke his decision to retire in 2012 because he knew that the ginger master would be an integral part of him finishing his managing career a winner. Additionally, Scholes himself was having difficulty coming to terms with his retirement and felt just as keenly that he could contribute amidst the injury crisis.  Whilst Scholes’ inability to tackle was legendary he more than made up for this defect by excelling in all other areas. He had a rocket shot, unrivalled passing ability and indeed, his rarest attribute, the ability to dictate the tempo and rhythm of an entire football game. This prodigious talent was harnessed by an incredible football brain which enabled him to extend his career for years beyond his peers at the top level and retain his immense effectiveness.

Scholes is undoubtedly a Manchester United legend, someone who was a one club man and who won many honours during the greatest era of the club’s history. When you think about the 11 Premier League titles, the 3 FA Cups, the 2 Football League Cups, the 5 Community Shields, the 2 Champions Leagues, the Intercontinental Cup and FIFA Club World Cup he amassed, you begin to get an understanding of the sheer volume of medals which he accrued during his decorated time. Scholes, unlike Giggs, was not an early bloomer and had to wait for his chance to shine whilst other members of the class of 92 broke through slightly earlier. However, the old rhyming adage, that Paul Scholes scores goals, was proven correct almost immediately as the youngster bagged a brace on his debut in 1994, in the Football League Cup 2-1 victory over Port Vale. Over the next couple of years he worked hard, scoring a few goals and in particular showing great fortitude in stepping in to complement Andy Cole in a strike force devoid of the suspended Eric Cantona. In 1996, it was reported that Blackburn Rovers would only allow Shearer to move to United if Scholes was offered in part exchange but luckily, for all United fans, given how Scholes’ career went, Shearer joined Newcastle instead.

By the season of the unprecedented treble, Scholes had begun to flourish fully and was part of arguably the greatest midfield four that the Premier League has ever borne witness to, Beckham, Keane, Scholes and Giggs. Keane, who was often grudging in his praise, knew the value of his midfield partner, offering this glowing tribute to him.

“An amazingly gifted player who remained an unaffected human being.” Roy Keane

Scholes would score many important goals during the campaign. In particular the equalising and crucial away goal against Inter Milan in the San Siro, Scholes showing incredible composure to finish the Italian giants off. Additionally, Scholes was further able to swallow his disappointment that like Roy Keane he was suspended for the Champions League final and scored the decisive second with a sweet left footed drive to score a decisive second in the 2-0 victory over Newcastle in the FA Cup Final.  Scholes disciplinary record was something which hounded him throughout his career, in total racking up many yellow cards that symbolised that although he was quiet, the fire and fervour to win were indubitable. Furthermore, in the 99-2000 season Scholes scored an incredible screamer against Bradford City, a goal of such immense quality and class it beggared belief.  David Beckham’s inch perfect corner against them was met with a full blooded rasping drive that almost burst the net. It was a goal which epitomised the natural talent which Scholes exuded and the almost supernatural gift he had for the superlative.

By the 2002-03 season, Scholes had well and truly established himself, scoring his best ever total of 20 goals in all competitions, goals of all varieties such was his creativity and attacking verve. In the following season, Scholes was to win the last FA Cup medal of his career scoring a winning goal against Arsenal in the semi final. However, against the same opponents in the FA Cup Final the following year, Scholes sadly missed the decisive penalty in the shootout. It was a rare aberration for a player who was usually exemplary and faultless during most games.

At this time, Scholes made the decision to retire from international football, which perhaps provided him with the extra recuperation period he needed to prolong his United career in the forthcoming years. It was well documented that Scholes was often placed on the left wing to make room for a Gerrard and Lampard axis in the middle.  England’s loss of course was his club’s gain, as it meant Scholes didn’t have the added burden of international duty to tire him over the following seasons.

In the following 05-06 season Scholes was subject to a health scare where he was experiencing blurred vision which may have ended his career prematurely. Thankfully, he recovered and in the 2006-07 season was shortlisted for PFA Player of the Year as well as getting a spot on the PFA Team of the Year. Perhaps, his finest moment of brilliance that year was his audacious flicked assist for Wayne Rooney’s equalising goal against A.C. Milan in the Champions League semi final. It was a moment of pure brilliance which encapsulated Scholes superb reading of the game and his ability to execute a perfect pass. Rooney, another of Scholes’ legion of fans, admired this visionary aspect of Scholes immensely.

“The best I’ve played with, no question. His touch, passing, vision, composure is outstanding. I try to copy him.” — Wayne Rooney

Similarly, he scored an absolute peach against Aston Villa where the ball came to him on the edge of the area and he struck it fully and quite wonderfully to strike fabulously. It was perhaps the best goal of Scholes’ United career which featured many priceless gems to cherish.

In the 2007-08 season Scholes fulfilled his dream of playing in a Champions League Final thanks to his incredible long range, lashed shot which provided the only goal in the semi final against Barcelona.  It was a sumptuous strike deserving of winning any tie and exemplified Scholes’ integral role in the team, even at the age of 33.   Barcelona’s Xavi, one of Scholes contemporaries at the time was undoubtedly a fan of the ginger magician:

“In the last 15 to 20 years the best central midfielder that I have seen – the most complete – is Scholes. I have spoken with Xabi Alonso about this many times. Scholes is a spectacular player who has everything. He can play the final pass, he can score, he is strong, he never gets knocked off the ball and he doesn’t give possession away. If he had been Spanish then maybe he would have been valued more.” — Xavi

Although Scholes was substituted in the 87th minute and did not participate in the penalty shootout he had secured a 2nd Champions League winners’ medal, thoroughly deserved for the orchestrator in our midfield.  In the Super Cup Final against Zenit St Petersburg, Scholes got himself sent off for deliberately handling the ball into the net to try to equalise. It was a moment of cheeky exuberance which highlighted the playfulness and inventiveness that flowed through Scholes’ veins. There is often talk that in training sessions no one was safe from Scholes attempting to hit them from long range with one of his laser sharp football missiles. Rather than attempting to curb this overenthusiastic side to Scholes, which may have contributed in part to the disciplinary issues, Sir Alex understood fondly that these antics were an essential part of Scholes’ makeup.

In the 2009-10 Champions League season, Scholes scored against AC Milan in the San Siro becoming the first player to score against both Milan clubs at that stadium in the Champions League.  Scholes also possessed an unerring heading ability for one so diminutive, often timing his run and leap to perfection. This was given further credence by a last gasp winner against Manchester City that year, where Scholes directed his header quite beautifully into the corner to send the United fans into absolute raptures along with Sir Alex and the coaching staff on the touchline.

At the end of the following season, Scholes retired for the first time but motivated by an injury crisis that winter returned and spearheaded a trademark United surge towards the title in the summer of 2012. When City won the title on goal difference, he signed another one year contract, perhaps like Sir Alex, he wished to end his career on a title winning high and by scoring in his 700th game for United he scored in his 19th consecutive Premier League season, 2nd in magnitude only to his Welsh wing wizard team mate Ryan Giggs (21 consecutive PL seasons).

When Paul Scholes finished his career he had amassed 718 total appearances and scored 155 goals, placing him at third and tenth respectively in the all time lists for these respective hallmarks.  In my opinion, the greatest footballer in the Premier League never to have won an individual Player of the Year award, Scholes perhaps did not receive the personal accolades which his success and commitment on the pitch merited.  A part of me feels glad since Scholes shunned the limelight at all times whilst playing but at the same time it still feels like a most egregious oversight on the part of the powers that be, especially when you consider the sheer weight of top players who held him in the highest esteem.  Whilst Scholes has become more outspoken as a pundit you can tell he has retained his insatiable desire to see Manchester United succeed and his criticisms are done with the best intentions to see his beloved club returned to the glory days which he was an integral/vital component of.

As a member of the Class of ’92, he and his contemporaries seemed to spur one another on to greater heights and the unity and respect between this particular group of players is very obvious to see, not only in the way they played for one another showing the indomitable United fighting spirit but also how they spoke and encouraged one another, the mutual respect and admiration for one another. We were supremely lucky that such a group of players came through the youth at one time as individually they were excellent, but unified could achieve greatness. Of those members, Gary Neville perhaps summed up the general consensus among them that Scholes was the most talented of them all:

“I wouldn’t swap Paul Scholes for anybody. He is quite simply the most complete footballer I have ever played with. He is the best.” — Gary Neville

It was a true privilege to be alive during Paul Scholes time at Manchester United, a man who could do anything with a football and then some. He was a genius whose contribution was invaluable and who firmly deserves his place in the pantheon of United legends.  Prodigiously gifted off both feet, blessed with composure, dribbling talent, skill and made to measure passing, United were incredibly lucky that we had a man who gave the one club he played for such an immeasurable amount. His retiring personality only heightened the contrast with his football which spoke volumes that will echo through the annals of Manchester United’s illustrious history. When you juxtapose his influence and impact with that of our current crop of midfielders there could not be a starker contrast.  As Sir Alex Ferguson foresaw when he eulogised about him:

“I think Paul Scholes is the best player in England. He’s got the best skills, the best brain. No one can match him. There isn’t a player of his mould anywhere in the world. Paul is irreplaceable.” — Sir Alex Ferguson

Captain Crimson

In my formative years growing up I spent a great deal of time, like many a boy, searching desperately for an idol to emulate, or people from whom to gain guidance on how to behave and act in certain situations. One of my heroes was a fictional one, a superhero “Captain Crimson” who came to life from a comic book writer’s strip and who embodied the ideals of heroism in an altogether educational form as BBC’s Look and Read was at the time. Another was our very own Captain Crimson superhero, Roy Keane, for me, still the best captain that Manchester United have ever had, in my lifetime. As a youth, I watched him and adored the way that he led the team, he was tenacious, fearless and incredibly talented. As I grew older, I grew to appreciate and love Keane more as I saw that no one embodied desire and passion better than he did. Keane had a multitude of impressive skills amongst which tremendous tackling, fearsome shooting and excellent passing were his most renowned assets.

Keane had an unremitting fire in his belly; he wanted to fight everybody who stood in the way of him winning. He is the most successful Manchester United Captain of all time for good reason; his drive carried the others forward. Perhaps the greatest example of Keane’s self-sacrifice was the infamous 1999 Champions League Semi Final against Juventus. In the match, which I watched live at the tender age of 8, Keane was absolutely peerless, it was a stunningly exceptional performance especially given the circumstances that his yellow meant being suspended for the Champions League Final. The entire team were on their game, so razor sharp; willing to fight for every ball and Keane was at the heart of it, cajoling the players, making interceptions, threading intricate passes. In short doing what Roy Keane does, leading by example and competing to win every ball and working harder than anybody to win the game. You can see him harrying the Juventus players like a terrier and winning the ball through sheer grit, determination and hard work. The Juventus star studded line up couldn’t get anywhere near Keane, as the UEFA.com official website describes it in their match report:

“Such was the Republic of Ireland midfielder’s influence in Turin, United may as well have had an extra player; there was one Keane to supplement their attack, and another Keane to stifle Juve. He was immense.”

Sir Alex Ferguson is a legendary figure with the club but there are certain things which he has said or done which seem illogical or erroneous. When he listed his four world class players he omitted Roy Keane which immediately raised the eyebrows of the majority of the football community. So the player who possessed every conceivable asset you would want in a midfielder is not world class? The player who exuded confidence, leadership, passion, dedication isn’t world class? Quite frankly, in my book, that is absolutely laughable. When you’re world class you turn up in the big games and Roy Keane made sure he turned up, even in the 1999 UCL semi final when he knew he wasn’t going to make the final, for Roy the team came first and he was incredibly professional and resolute in ensuring United’s safe passage. As Sir Alex Ferguson commented on that performance:

“It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field. Pounding over every blade of grass, competing as if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose, he inspired all around him. I felt it was an honour to be associated with such a player.”

I still get the shivers as I watch Roy Keane’s goal against Juventus and the commentary fills my ears, it is the pure brilliance of Keane.  As the commentator says about Keane’s textbook header “Roy Keane with a Captain’s goal”. My brother and I will often use this line to one another when a captain scores an important goal for his team in a match. It is in homage to Roy Keane, the Captain who scored the most important Captain’s goal of our lifetimes, as Manchester United fans.

Keane captained Manchester United to nine major honours, which makes him the most successful captain in the club’s history. He also won, overall, 7 Premier League Titles, 4 FA Cups, 4 Community Shields, 1 Champions League and 1 Intercontinental Cup, the last of these won by his winning goal. He was also named in the PFA Team of The Year 5 Times, the PFA Team of the Century (1907-2007) and was the Football Writers and Players’ Player of the Year, both in 2000.  These are just a smattering of the team and personal prizes which Keane picked up for Manchester United during a time of unparalleled glory in our club’s history. Furthermore, Keane scored 51 goals in his Manchester United career, the majority of which were extremely important and were at times where Manchester United needed him to step up and finish when the strikers couldn’t. Amazingly, in all of the matches in which Keane scored, Manchester United never lost, showing how his goals were always integral in winning games for the club.  The players knew how much Keane meant to the team, in particular summed up amongst the myriad of glowing quotes from team mates, I felt, by this:

“If I could pick one player in my team, I would always pick Roy Keane, in front of any other players I’ve played with. Keano had everything; he was a leader, a great player, and probably the best I ever played with.” — Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Manchester United, during Keane’s time, were serial winners. Driven on by Keane and Sir Alex’s mirroring insatiable thirst for silverware, United plundered trophy after trophy. During Keane’s time at United, we often defended our Premier League title, or quickly snatched it back if Blackburn or Arsenal managed to secure one.  It is testament to Keane’s winning influence and how difficult it is to retain the Premier League that only one side (United apart) have managed to retain the Premier league, Chelsea in 04/05 and 05/06, which coincides nicely with Keane’s departure from United. In fact, at the height of Keane’s powers at the turn of the Millennium, United won three league titles in a row, a feat only achieved thrice since World War 2. In the year, Keane picked up his individual Player awards, Manchester United also secured the biggest title winning margin of the Premier League (18 points) which remains a record to this day. All of these statistics reinforce the assertion that Keane was absolutely vital to United’s extraordinary performances over his playing years for them.

One of the aspects of Roy Keane’s character that defined him was his inability to accept slights. It was to be perhaps the worst and most inglorious moment, which epitomised this, when he flew in with a completely unacceptable and outrageous tackle on Manchester City’s Alfe-Inge Haaland. In Keane’s autobiography he revealed that it had been premeditated and was a consequence of Haaland mocking Keane for feigning injury in an earlier encounter. For someone like Keane, a man who prided himself on honour and integrity, this seemed a grievous barb which demanded requisite retribution.  A significant proportion of the best footballers’ share this side to them, a characteristic which is best summed up by the one word which Keane uses to describe Sir Alex Ferguson, “ruthless”. In another interview with Kevin Kilbane, Keane admitted that this reputation and persona was something of an “act” and that he felt footballers, like other sports people, had to go into a zone to perform at their best. As with a lot of what the fiercely intelligent and articulate Keane says, there is more than a grain of truth in that admission.

Another fascinating nugget of Keane’s character and his football career at Manchester United can be found in how he confronted injuries, head on and like a man. However, as he often points out he could have been more careful and conscientious in how he dealt with these kinds of physical setbacks.  The hip injury that he had and which still affects him, is further confirmation that Keane never accepted lower standards and of the tremendous strain that his constant, relentless, over exertion in pursuit of victory took on his body.

One of the incidents which occurred late in Keane’s United career was that of the infamous Highbury Tunnel incident of 2005. When Gary Neville seemed to be under attack, Keane emerged from the back of the tunnel, as the fiercely protective leader he had so often been, vehemently defending Neville and insisting assertively “We’ll see you out there” to the Arsenal ringleaders. United ran out 4-2 winners confirming that Arsenal were beginning to lose some of the edge and lustre that they had had at the turn of the millennium. This was further reinforced by the 2005 FA Cup Final, a match that having watched myself, I still remain flabbergasted that United failed to win such was our overall dominance over the 120 minutes before we lost the shootout to the Gunners.

Possibly, the primary reason why Roy Keane doesn’t get as much respect or love as he might have done was the nature of his departure from the club.  The impossibly high regard that Sir Alex Ferguson is held in by the Manchester United fan base means that anyone who dares to question or contest him is fighting a losing battle. Keane, typically, doesn’t know a battle he can’t win and won’t concede defeat whatever the cost to his reputation with the United fans. The catalyst for Keane’s departure was his interview with MUTV where he was asked his thoughts and feedback after a 4-1 loss. Ever the pragmatist Keane outlined exactly where he felt that United players could have improved and that certain aspects of their performance had been unacceptable.

All in all, the way Keane portrays his exit from Old Trafford, paints the Manchester United hierarchy in a pretty unflattering light. Even on the prepared statement for his exit, the wording of the eleven and a half years tenure was a year short of the actual length of service given. Keane points this out as a particular flaring point, as we know with the Republic of Ireland in World Cup 2002, another issue which really infuriates Keane is unprofessionalism. Understandably, Keane was incredibly emotional at leaving the club into which he had poured so much of his heart and soul, the club where he had realised so many of his dreams and spearheaded so many indelible successes. He admits to crying in the car following the decision but resolutely retaining the belief that the club had lost respect for him, forcing his decision to accept their concerted efforts to eject him from the club.

It’s obvious that Keane doesn’t bear too much of a simmering grudge towards his treatment and that Manchester United still remains firmly ensconced in the Irishman’s heart. He goes on in his book to say that he “loved everything about United”.

However fabulous Roy Keane was as a footballer, it was his honest, down to earth character which got him into trouble and made him an indefatigable driving force in Manchester United’s engine room as Captain. As Roy Keane said of Sir Alex’s particular praise over his incredible performance against Juventus to him “it’s like praising the postman for delivering letters”. It is a line that reminds me of my other childhood hero Captain Crimson who used to say “It’s all in a day’s work” after whichever act of heroism and courage that he performed.  Keane, like Captain Crimson, was a superhero who epitomised so many values of bravery and tenacity, yet never took the credit he deserved. Of course, like Captain Crimson, that doesn’t stop him being idolised and venerated for the inspirational leader and hero that he was. As when Captain Crimson was sent back to the comic world and Keane retired, their names and deeds will never be forgotten nor the legendary status that they richly and fully deserve.

“Roy’s obsession with winning and the demands he put on others made him the most influential player in the dressing room. He became a great captain through that and, to my mind; he is the best player I have had in all of my time here. Over the years when they start picking the best teams of all time, he will be in there.” — Sir Alex Ferguson (on Keane’s retirement in 2006)

Valencia Vindicated

Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher have indulged in their fair share of banter with one another on Monday Night Football. One of Carragher’s good natured taunts particularly resonates with me as I begin to elucidate and extol the virtues of this article’s subject. Carragher said “There are only two things for a full back. You’re either a failed winger or a failed centre back. No one wants to grow up and be a full back. No one wants to be a Gary Neville.” Parking the hilarity for one moment, there is a case that Antonio Valencia might have become a failed winger had he continued to play there. However, I sincerely hope that his immaculate performances in the full back position this season may have inspired members of the younger generation to aspire to play in the position Carragher so disparaged.

There were certainly some question marks from fans over our right full back area when the season began as our left back spot seemed destined to be Luke Shaw’s permanent berth. However, with Shaw’s struggle to return to the form he exhibited prior to his horrific leg break, Valencia, by contrast, has defied all the odds to become arguably our most consistent performer.  The official Manchester United website still has Valencia down as a winger and certain pessimistic fans, myself included; felt that his positional sense and his relative novelty as a right back would be exposed repeatedly as the season wore on.

Valencia, however, has been a revelation. His pace and strength combined have provided him with the physical attributes to counteract his foibles and he has been absolutely incredible this season. The goal saving tackle which he made on Roberto Firmino, at Anfield this season, was absolutely exceptional, for instance. He had to show impeccable timing when chasing back and it was an incredibly pivotal moment, at a time when many of United’s other players simply weren’t performing.  Even when passes played to him are placed astray his lightning quick pace makes the balls seem perfectly weighted, which is a gift to any of Manchester United’s other players who can rest assured Valencia will retrieve them.

He has been a constant attacking outlet for us this season, a more regular occurrence of Paul Pogba, in particular, spraying the ball cross field to him, you would struggle to find.  He has provided ceaseless energy and stamina for the attacking element of our team. Valencia supplies width and positive wing play, characteristics which are particularly essential when the majority of teams form a very defensive shape and we are required to break them down.  An illustration of that wing play was the inch perfect long ball he sprayed up the flank against West Brom which Jesse Lingard sprinted onto to cross for Zlatan’s opener.  Valencia embodies the definition of the attacking full back that is adept at delivering through balls to his winger.

While Rooney for instance, chastised Luke Shaw for not getting beyond him in an FA Cup Match this season, we know that Valencia has proven he needs no such instruction to get beyond his winger and provide assistance. In this way he is a winger’s dream because not only does he support the attacks capably and effectively but also possesses the incredible athleticism to race back and cover any opposing counter attack which may break out. Our left back woes have been thrown into wider relief because of Valencia’s incredibly mobile work rate, contrasting clearly with that of the slower Blind or Darmian whom Jose seems to favour above Shaw.

Valencia has two main crosses in his arsenal which are the dinked variety into the box or the driven low cross. Both have proven to be effective this season, even against the same opponents (Leicester).  Firstly, the chipped cross which Zlatan powerfully guided home in the Charity Shield or alternatively, the low driven cross which the Swede stroked home gleefully in the Premier League away game. This unpredictability is an incredible boon to have when we are looking to exact the most reward for our dominance in matches. It should be noted that Valencia’s crossing has been far more accurate than we give him credit for and a brief perusal of our matches will contain many circumstances when he has pulled a low cross back for one of our attacking players or crossed for a team mate to head over.

Another of Valencia’s assets is his incredible pace, which even puts him in the top bracket worldwide amongst the top footballers. Perhaps, he is not as quick as a couple of years ago, but of all players studied by FIFA at the time, Valencia was given a speed of 35.2 km/h. This was, at the time of the analysis, faster than the likes of Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and Cristiano Ronaldo.  Even accounting for the passage of time, have no doubt that Valencia in a race with the vast majority of the players in the Premier League would win. This is very advantageous in an attacking and defensive sense as it means he can tap the ball round players and collect it offensively, or make seemingly irretrievably lost causes redeemable in a defensive aspect.  This also helps with interceptions, of which we have seen Valencia make a great deal this season. Opponents play passes to their team mates which by all logic should be perfectly adequate but Valencia’s unbelievable velocity has allowed him to intercept these passes, or if not, force opponent’s into wild and rash decisions by harrying them incessantly.

A good yardstick of Valencia’s consistently high level of performance is how general a consensus there is that he is our first choice right back. In this way, he has elevated himself to a near certain pick on the team sheet. Valencia is a tenacious tackler and has incredible abundant energy supplies, bombing up and down the flank to great effect in all matches this season. There have also been occasions where he has shown glimpses of the winger’s skill of his former years, with an impressive range of flicks and tricks when he is closed by the opposing players. The back heel he supplied for Mkhitaryan to set up Anthony Martial during our victory over West Ham, in particular, was quite simply sublime and is indicative of the undeniable attacking threat that Valencia offers our opponents when he joins in with our attacks.

Also, Valencia is unbelievably strong and physically imperious. This is such a great attribute when playing as a full back as it enables him to outmuscle many a tricky attacking player seeking to outmanoeuvre him.  Who can forget against Stoke, for instance, when the colossal Marko Arnautović tried to go round the outside and was summarily dispossessed by Valencia in a supreme show of strength that had the big Austrian rolling around on the grass, through a firm but fair challenge?  Even on the occasions where Valencia’s brute strength has not aided him in tough situations he can rely on his cultured feet which often find a team mate when clearing the danger. When you watch him against opposing wingers or forwards, there is never the sense that they can bully him physically or for pace and it is extremely refreshing and reassuring that we have someone so reliable as our right back.

Mourinho, for his part, when extending Valencia’s contract last month, was effusive in his compliments on Valencia’s merits and how important it was to retain the Ecuadorian’s services. He sees Valencia as “the best right-back you can have. There is no better right-back in football.” High praise indeed from Jose which is backed up by the crossing statistics which showed only two weeks ago that Valencia had hit the most crosses in the Premier League this season at 123. This was combined with a crossing accuracy of 29.3%, a higher accuracy than the ten players directly below him in the crossing table.  Valencia clearly offers something unique at Manchester United, as the closest to him at that time of calculation was Marcus Rashford with 44 crosses.  He has an excellent technique of squaring up to defenders before poking it round them which has led to this incredibly high supply of crosses for our forward players to utilise. It is a shame that his efforts have not seen further fruition when you compare him to his nearest contemporaries, who have provided fewer crosses and with a lower accuracy.

Valencia has proven that reinvention is the key to longevity and continued success when tested. He has proven that he can not only play at right back but also that the position is unquestionably his. The likes of Matteo Darmian and Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Jose has used sparingly in that position as he reserves it for the Ecuadorian powerhouse. As Mourinho also stated “It is a privilege for us to have such a good player and such a good man”, which further indicates his fondness and admiration for Antonio Valencia’s character and his ability.

What is undeniable is what a revelation Valencia has proven to be this season; he has said recently that he plans to be at United for the next five to six years, perhaps inspired by golden oldies Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Michael Carrick, currently enjoying Manchester United football in their mid thirties. Valencia indeed, has been at United since 2009 and surely at least the prospect of a testimonial will inspire him for another couple of years or so. Valencia, like other footballers, uses his incredibly poor and tough upbringing to remind him to keep striving and working hard to overcome obstacles and challenges, like adapting his position to full back. One thing I’ve learnt when I was critical of playing him at full back at the start of the season is, writing off Valencia at any point, is extraordinarily dangerous as he has the power to far surpass anyone’s expectations.

 

Magical Mkhitaryan

Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the Armenian magician. The sheer brilliance of the midfield maestro this season has been astonishing. His highly anticipated arrival in the starting line up has rejuvenated and revitalised our attacking force. Although all four of our summer signings have been excellent, Mkhitaryan’s exceptional impact can partially be attributed to his prime age on arrival (27) compared with Bailly and Pogba (early twenties) and Zlatan (mid thirties). It is not only his incredible work ethic which has impressed but the decisive, match winning pieces of imperious brilliance, which have illuminated our season. Is it a coincidence that his reintroduction to the team at the end of November prompted a dramatic upsurge in our fortunes and performance levels?

His first Premier League goal against Tottenham was quite simply breathtaking; a finish of aplomb and finesse which fuelled our expectations that Mkhitaryan could be a talismanic figure in our attacking skirmishes.  Whilst I do not share Spurs fans’ admiration of the talents of their left back Danny Rose, his lightning pace is unquestionable. So when Mkhitaryan motored past him with sublime ease and was brought down despairingly by the lunging Rose, I gained further proof that we had acquired a genuine gem. His subsequent injury from the abhorrent challenge strengthened the fervour and clamour surrounding the Armenian, and our firm belief that we had found the missing piece of our team.

All of this was in stark contrast to his initial Premier League debut where he was the main culprit (along with Jesse Lingard) in a sobering 2-1 defeat against Manchester City. His lack of game time and match fitness was really exposed by the high energetic pressing of Guardiola’s side.  Hauled off at half time, Mkhitaryan no doubt had a baptism of fire to the English Premier League.  He looked a shadow of the player who had terrorised the Bundesliga last season, scoring 23 goals and assisting a further 26, an average of a contributing to a goal every 89 minutes in all competitions.

However, Mkhitaryan wouldn’t allow this poor debut to thwart him entirely. Rather, he used it as galvanisation and worked extremely hard to win back his place. As Jesse Lingard revealed in a recent interview with FourFourTwo, Mkhitaryan is the earliest to arrive at training, which shows his dedication and exemplary work ethic. Mkhitaryan’s professionalism and endeavour will surely have impressed Jose Mourinho, who with his repeated picks of Marouane Fellaini, has shown that he values desire and passion as much as skill and technique.

Mkhitaryan, also, has an incredible propensity to show moments of true attacking brilliance, whether this is a defence splitting pass, a mouth-watering dribble or an outstanding finish. His scorpion kick against Sunderland epitomised the immense quality that he has. The goal may have been scored from an offside position but the linesman who denied it would have been deemed an enemy of football had he flagged. It wasn’t just the exquisite nature of the precise contact but the placement of the strike which nestled into the corner of the goal. It was quite simply extraordinary and deservedly won Goal of the Month.

Another of Mkhitaryan’s most impressive skills is his ability to track back and win possession for the team.  Unlike some other members of the team, if he loses the ball, he will chase his dispossessor to retrieve possession.  In the recent FA Cup match against Blackburn, Mkhitaryan’s offensive statistics were impressive with 1 assist, 7 dribbles and 66 passes but he also won 100% of his tackles. This redoubtable ethos not only impresses the fans, but inspires the other players to try their utmost at all times. I feel that the majority of fans will accept defeat, if the players have tried their absolute best and shown maximum effort. Mkhitaryan’s heart and pride in his work is unquestionable.

His pace, so unusual for a creative play maker, adds a further asset which has proved invaluable this season as he terrorises defences and offers the threat in behind when bursting clear against opponents such as Tottenham and Leicester in the league, for example.  In the one on one situations, Mkhitaryan shows composure and class in taking the right amount of touches before executing the final pass or finishing with conviction.  Indeed, with his abundant pace, Mkhitaryan has stated that he would have been a sprinter, had he not become a footballer. Attacking verve is characterised by quick, skilful players of which Mkhitaryan is amongst the best in world football.

At 5ft 10 inches Mkhitaryan is not the tallest player but has shown that given the chance he can contribute aerially also.  It was his towering leap above the Hull defender in the opening leg of our League Cup Semi Final that directly assisted Juan Mata, who had the simplest of close range finishes from Mkhitaryan’s perfectly placed header. This is important as taller players like Marouane Fellaini and Zlatan Ibrahimovic will often draw the opponents’ direct attention and smaller players like Mkhitaryan can ghost in for set pieces and crosses as he did on Thursday against St Etienne.

Footballers are often praised on their intelligence, ability to read the game and make the correct decisions. Mkhitaryan is multilingual, fluent in six languages: Armenian, Russian, English, German, French, Portuguese and also some Italian. This is a somewhat rare and admirable trait, as it shows an intelligence which disproves the common rhetoric that footballers are all unintelligent, other than with their feet. Certainly, one can imagine that with the multinational Manchester United squad, these lingual skills will enable him to more closely bond with his team mates.

Undoubtedly, we have seen that Mkhitaryan’s vision and execution are incredible. His backheel assist for Zlatan’s opening goal in our 4-0 demolition of West Ham off his weaker left foot, gave a tantalising glimpse of Mkhitaryan’s ingenuity and flair which have gained him accolades and plaudits from pundits and fans alike. His slide rules passes have further characterised his precision and tremendous ability, notable mentions, include his assist for Mata against Leicester and his assist for Rashford against Blackburn Rovers.

He and Mata, in particular, seem to revel playing with one another exchanging intricate, quick passes when playing together, never more showcased than by the one two the pair exchanged for Mata’s strike against Leicester.  Mata repaid the debt, when he curled a delicious cross into Mkhitaryan’s path to stab home the away goal against St Etienne.  Replays show that Mkhitaryan points to Mata where he wants the ball, as the latter looks up and further cements the chemistry the two seem to have.

Mourinho has been seen to trust certain members of his team well above others.  Many Manchester United fans for instance, have been wont to observe that Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba seem beyond approach and censure for below average performances.  They are picked in almost all games and seem above substitution. It is a credit to Mkhitaryan that his efforts and skill level are commensurately rewarded with becoming a member of Mourinho’s elite contingent of trusted acolytes.  However, the debilitating effect which this immense game time can have was exposed when Mkhitaryan pulled up with a hamstring injury ruling him out of this weekend’s League Cup Final.

His import to the team can be judged in the uncertainty surrounding whom to pick to replace Mkhitaryan.  There are a wide variety of options being bandied about whether to use Lingard, Rooney, Fellaini in the more attacking role, or switching the formation to allow a deep lying player like Michael Carrick to play. When a team contends with having to alter its formation in your absence you know you’re a key component of it.

There is no higher honour or epithet which I can bestow upon Mkhitaryan than that he reminds me of Cristiano Ronaldo.  The parallels with the Portuguese’s second goal in the 2009 Champions League away tie against Arsenal and Mkhitaryan’s goal against Wigan are striking. In both, the players run at breathtaking pace and are involved in a rapier sharp, counter attack exchanging passes from deep in their own half and finish with distinction.  Mkhitaryan is in the same mould as Ronaldo, a thrilling, exhilarating player whom fans can enthuse and rave about.

It is easy to forget that Mkhitaryan wasn’t playing in the autumn of this year. Many fans became restless and there was a general feeling of despondency and dejection that the Armenian would be offloaded.  Mkhitaryan has since, graciously, admitted that Mourinho acted in his player’s best interests and that his absence from the front line had served him well when he has vindicated his reputation over the last three months.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan has firmly embedded himself in the Manchester United team, evident as we desperately search for a replacement for the League Cup Final.  After his winning goal in Wednesday’s 1-0 win over St Etienne, Mkhitaryan has been directly involved in 11 goals in his last 16 games for Manchester United with 6 goals and 5 assists. A strong argument could be made that Mkhitaryan is both our best and most invaluable player, with his plethora of attributes and panache. He has certainly become a firm fans’ favourite and one of mine.

 

 

 

Defensive Dilemma

Amongst the myriad of conundrums which Jose has had to crack this year, the heart of defence certainly appears one of the trickiest propositions. Unlike Sir Alex, who could rely upon the superb defensive pairing of Ferdinand and Vidic, Mourinho has had to; through injury circumstance hone the capabilities of hitherto defensive reprobates Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo.  Argument is rife amongst supporters about which two defenders combine for our best central defensive partnership, if all are fit and whether their form justifies our reticence to strengthen this area in the transfer market during the January window. Furthermore, with youth products such as Axel Tuanzebe and Timothy Fosu-Mensah vying for defensive inclusion, another portion of the fan base would prefer to develop their talents to provide the solution of defensive solidity.  The dearth of clean sheets, despite having the best keeper in the league, suggests that this is a situation which needs to be rectified as soon as possible but the solution is not an entirely obvious one.

Firstly, we need to look at the defensive displays we have shown in the league to garner evidence on how the current defensive crop has performed thus far under Mourinho’s stewardship. Whilst attacking frailties have been magnified regarding Manchester United’s profligacy, the defence has escaped similar censure principally because of the upturn in fortunes over the last couple of months in positive results. However, Manchester United have only attained ten clean sheets in 25 league games.  Contrast this with runaway league leaders Chelsea who have accrued 13 clean sheets over an equal number of games and it becomes apparent how integral defensive security is as a characteristic of a team.

Indeed, when you look at the games in which we have secured “drosses” (a term coined by Mark Goldbridge, referring to a draw which is as good as a loss), Stoke (both home and away), Arsenal, West Ham, Everton and Liverpool (Home), a greater proportion are games which have ended one all than goalless “drosses”, only Liverpool (away) and Hull at home in fact all season.  Indubitably, we were wasteful with our own chances but the opposition offered very little threat for the most part, sporadic at best yet were able to find the net to steal points from us.  This is why I feel that the defensive issues have been camouflaged somewhat by the hyperbole surrounding our profligacy rather than an inability to bolt the door at the other end from even the tamest of attacking pillagers.

Of the four main central defenders we possess on our current roster which has emerged this season with the most credit and which the least?  Eric Bailly, upon first glance, appears the most obvious starting centre back due to his athletic powerful physique and combative nature. However, 3 yellow cards and other flaring points have led to concerns regarding the Ivorian’s temperament. To his credit though, he does possess the extra guile and class compared with his contemporaries.  Marcos Rojo, to an even greater extent, despite sharing the 3 yellow card amount with Bailly is prone to the odd, rash challenge which could have warranted harsher punitive action against Everton and Crystal Palace. By contrast, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling have yet to pick up a league card, showing a greater level of maturity. Only yesterday, Eric Bailly received an unnecessary red card in the Europa League against St Etienne, albeit a harsh one which could have further ramifications if committed in a tighter, more important affair.

All defenders pride themselves on their tackling ability but which of our four players has proven themselves most adept at this difficult skill to master? Incredibly, in 14 Premier League games this season Eric Bailly, tops the list with 26 tackles won during these games and whilst Jones and Rojo have won 16 and 14 tackles respectively at the time of writing, Chris Smalling has only won 7 tackles. This really epitomises why Smalling seems relatively lightweight when compared with his more combative counterparts, as he doesn’t possess the ability to dominate the opposing attacking players. The more prescient of readers will have determined the most logical counterargument would be that Smalling’s reading of the game and his number of interceptions in the Premier League this season would be larger, which is why he is forearmed and doesn’t need to tackle as often as our other case subjects.

In interceptions, once more though, Eric Bailly stands head and shoulders above the others having accrued 34 interceptions, whilst this time Rojo and Jones swap positions in the pecking order and have accumulated 24 and 20 interceptions each.  Chris Smalling, incredibly, props up this list also, having made a miserable 8 interceptions in all of his Premier League game time this season. When you combine the two areas of tackles won and interceptions, despite mitigating circumstances of fewer minutes played, the result is a pretty damning indictment of Smalling’s defensive prowess so far this season.

The importance of composure, whilst on the ball as a defender, cannot be understated.  Defenders should be able to beat players and show an aptitude for playing the game in a controlled and considered manner.  Often a defender able to beat players is invaluable, as opposing players are forced to engage the ball and leave open spaces. The opposition’s formation fluctuates which attacking players can look to exploit.  Eric Bailly, in a recurring display of dominance, has a successful take on % of 90 while Marcos Rojo is not far behind with 81.82%.  Phil Jones, has a successful take on rate of 50%, which is a considerable drop in efficiency behind these two while Chris Smalling, in a statistic perhaps the most shocking of any collated in this study, has a successful take on % of 0.  This, quite frankly, beggars belief, given that this guarantees he is, at best, equal worst in the entire Premier League for this statistic.

Smalling is often complimented on his aerial ability and, as we move away from these sobering statistics, he finds redemption in the % of aerial duels won. Phil Jones leads the way with a creditable 73.17% of aerial duels won, whilst Smalling at 66.67% has the second highest figure in this section. Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo at 60% and 59.62% respectively, are at the foot of the table in that statistic but the disparity in this statistic between our subjects is far less than in other notable areas analysed above.

In the section of amount of clearances, Marcos Rojo really excels with 118 clearances made. Phil Jones (99) and Chris Smalling (92) follow with Bailly (78) rounding off the candidates. This will come as no surprise to people who have watched Marcos Rojo mopping up errors from his defensive counterparts this season, time and time again.  Bailly, at least, is forgiven because of his successful take on % of 90 as it shows he might want to play out from the back but surely Jones and Smalling who particularly foundered in that area should be the highest in clearances?

It should also be noted that in general terms with fouls committed, Smalling and Jones could be seen to thrive, having only committed 7 and 5 respectively compared with Bailly (14) and Rojo (17) which also provides support for their case to be included.  However, as I mentioned before quite often Rojo and Bailly are left exposed by their lack of positional awareness. Smalling and Jones, as we know, have a tendency to dally on the ball too long, shown in their far inferior take on scores.

In conclusion, my overarching recommendation would be to buy a top quality, world class centre back in the summer to complement Eric Bailly. We owe it to David De Gea to try and protect him more than we do currently, with a better defensive unit than we possess at present and a recognised, proven centre back would provide a more solid foundation for any potential title tilt next season.  In terms of the current central defensive pairing, my feeling, compounded by the evidence studied above is that Marcos Rojo is the man best suited to partnering Eric Bailly for the remainder of the season.

Chris Smalling’s figures and position across the analysis, attributable to his general lack of composure enable us; I feel to remove him from the equation of our best partner for Bailly.  Phil Jones, unlike Sir Alex Ferguson postulated  in perhaps his worst error of judgment during his tenure, is nowhere near the player comparable to Duncan Edwards, as he doesn’t have the ball playing skill necessary to be a top centre back. His favourite phrase may well be coined as “Why make a forward pass, if one sideways or backwards would do?” His total of 191 backward passes monumentally dwarfs Rojo (138) and Bailly (106) in fewer minutes played providing evidentiary substantiation to this quip. Also, his injury record is quite simply staggering and it would be an incredible shock if he were to overturn his near legendary permanent place on the Manchester United treatment table.

Rojo, by contrast, has a far greater ball playing ability, shown through his more positive passing (549 forward passes) comfortably ahead of Bailly in 2nd (384) and take on ability and as I alluded to before, has a far, far superior level of composure. The ability to make the correct decision in a stressful defensive situation, in my view, really separates Rojo from Jones or Smalling and makes him the ideal candidate to partner Bailly going forward this season as well as the statistical evidence supplied above.

Statistics Obtained from www.squawka.com

David De Gea: The Irreplaceable Man

As always, during the transfer window, there is a great deal of speculation and conjecture which surrounds the possible movements of players into and out of our club. As I write this, we have just sold Memphis Depay to Lyon and, earlier in the window, allowed Morgan Schneiderlin to leave for Everton.  Both players’ sales have fuelled debate as fans argue whether their sales were justified, or whether they could have carved niches into the Manchester United team, as starters or within the supporting squad cast.

Furthermore, there has been ceaseless debate about how to replace Michael Carrick, who approaching 36, is coming to the end of his illustrious career at Manchester United. Even Old Father Time, whom Carrick has somehow eluded thus far, appears to be catching up with him and the theories on how to replace him have abounded.

As I ruminated over these issues during the last week, I began to formulate a hypothesis that there could be an “irreplaceable” player. As I perused the most prime candidates for this accolade, I considered the merits in particular of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba but then realised who, ultimately, in my opinion, is in a league of his own.

The man for whom an infamous fax machine malfunction prevented him moving to Real Madrid, the only man who every single rival fan admits is truly world class in our ranks and the man who has the complete trust of his fellow players.  The answer, of course, is David De Gea. To analyse whether he truly is irreplaceable we must consider his Manchester United career:

When De Gea arrived at the club in 2011, it was for a British record fee for a goalkeeper of roughly 17.8 million. I firmly believe that no fan of our club would say that since then we have been short-changed in the slightest and we have received more than a commensurate level of vital saves and performances which have cemented him as a firm favourite.  Although he struggled in his first season and was criticised roundly, De Gea showed the mental character and resolve necessary to stick around and prove his mettle and his worth.  Peter Schmeichel commented regarding the early period of De Gea’s United tenure:

“I admire David De Gea. I cannot remember anyone coming into Manchester United and being criticised the way he was. He was the subject of every debate in the media. You haven’t seen De Gea defend himself in the media or shifting the blame elsewhere. He just gets on with it.”

As I read through other comments about De Gea, it is striking how many reflect or allude to his incredible calmness and composure, a fantastic attribute to have when you are a goalkeeper with all the pressures and scrutiny that the role provides.  In the 2012-13 Season, at the tender age of just 22, De Gea was voted into the PFA Premier League Team of the Year as we won the Premier League keeping 11 clean sheets in 28 appearances.

Additionally, he also won the 1st of his Sir Matt Busby awards, which showed the high esteem he had become held in, during only his second season in the Premier League. De Gea also showcased that when it came to incredible stops he was already among the best at this young age, a particularly incredible save from a Torres header a highlight.

In the 2013-14 Season David De Gea won the Save of the Season for an incredible save from that year’s form player, the unstoppable Luis Suarez, who left Phil Jones eating dirt but whose rifled shot from point blank range was somehow parried by De Gea. It was an example yet again, over the past few years, where De Gea had provided a resolute wall, in the face of some pretty abject defending from his United team mates. This year he was named as both the Fans’ Player of the Year and the club’s Players’ Player of the Year.

By 2014-15 David De Gea had already established himself as our most valuable player in his compatriots’ eyes and went on to demonstrate further heroics in this season.  On the 5th October 2014, De Gea became the first goalkeeper to save a penalty from Leighton Baines, who had converted all of his prior 14 Premier League penalties. Again, De Gea was named in the PFA Team of the Year for the second time, reclaiming the title that Petr Cech had won the previous year. A save against Everton again earned him the Premier League Save of the Season.

By this point De Gea had attracted great desire from Real Madrid, and in the summer of 2015, an agreement was reached for roughly 29 million, which included Keylor Navas being offered in part exchange. Fortuitously, the deal collapsed due to the paperwork not being submitted before the transfer window closed in Spain. On the 11th September, De Gea signed a new four year deal for the Red Devils to allay any further concerns about losing him for the immediate future. He put aside any personal feelings of disappointment and set about proving himself. Most notably with another quite astonishing save against Watford which won him the Save of the Season for the third consecutive time.

The club itself showed no ill feeling and he became the first player ever to win Manchester United’s Player of the Year for three consecutive seasons.  This is perhaps the most remarkable achievement, even amongst so many detailed above, given the illustrious and supremely talented players we have had at Manchester United over the years.

This season (2016-17), there has been a feeling among some supporters that De Gea’s level has dipped when compared with previous seasons. Indeed there is a call that, as rumours again surface about Real Madrid’s possible renewed interest, he could be replaced easily. This complacency and laissez-faire attitude is not borne out by the achievements I have laid out above nor reflective of De Gea’s vast importance to the team.

Some younger readers may not remember the goalkeepers which we had between Schmeichel and Van Der Sar. I struggle, even as I write the names, to block the hideous memories coming back to me. Raimond Van Der Gouw, Mark Bosnich whom Sir Alex Ferguson dubbed a “terrible professional” in his autobiography, Massimo Taibi (the worst of the bunch, in my opinion, who allowed a grass cutter to roll through his legs, in ignominious fashion against Southampton), Fabian Barthez (who famously asked Di Canio whether he could go to the toilet with his hand up in an FA Cup Match, claiming offside as the Italian swept the ball past him for the winner), Roy Carroll ( who will forever be remembered for allowing Pedro Mendes’ shot to creep over the line in the goal that never was) and Tim Howard among the most notable incumbents during this period.  Having to revisit these painful memories is justified in this case because it shows us that it can take years to find a worthwhile goalkeeper in particular.

Rival fans always try to insinuate that their keeper is better than De Gea but the facts do not bear these assertions to be true.  Two goalkeepers who are often mentioned as better than De Gea this season are Thibaut Courtois of Chelsea and Hugo Lloris of Tottenham Hotspur.

As I looked through the annals of the Sky Sports website, I came across a veritable diamond of an article, which demonstrates unequivocally why David De Gea is a better goalkeeper than not just these two, but all other top goalkeepers in the Premier League also. The global agency World In Motion’s head of research and analytics Sam Jackson studied each of the top goalkeeper’s shot stopping in greater depth. His model consists of two factors-how well a keeper responds to a shot on target and the difficulty of each shot he faced.

De Gea, on both these scales, came second out of the keepers from all six top clubs. Lloris, who came first in response to shots on target, crucially also, had the easiest level of shots to face. Courtois, similarly although first in terms of dealing with the most difficult shots, ranks 5th out of the 7 keepers studied for response.  On the final graph which shows the evidence combined, De Gea is comfortably ahead of any other keeper. Jackson summated “De Gea appears an elite shot stopper” and went on to say that “Lloris, meanwhile, has been heralded by many for keeping so many clean sheets for Spurs this year, yet he has faced the easiest shots of any of the ‘keepers at the top six clubs.”

The article, which I have included a link to below, indicates in a rational, scientific and unbiased way what I, and many United fans surmised, that De Gea is simply the best keeper in the Premier League. This, in what some United fans have called his worst season for the club, demands that we consider whether De Gea is not our most valuable asset.

How do you replace someone who is arguably not just the best goalkeeper in the Premier League but the entire world?  Someone who has shown time and time again, that he can make saves that no other goalkeeper would, on a regular basis. The saves he has already made this season at key moments, of such effulgent beauty to take away my breath, like that against James McArthur of Crystal Palace and Philippe Coutinho of Liverpool. In my view, any goalkeeper you would bring in would be a downgrade on De Gea, who has proven himself on innumerable occasions to be truly invaluable in goal.

As Vladimir Nabokov remarked:

“The goalkeeper is the lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender”. 

There is artistry to goalkeeping that is often underappreciated as they perform the job that no one else wants, they are alone and the last bastion of the defensive line. They are the keystone in the unit that provide the support that fortifies the rest of the team.  Bearing this in mind, should we allow our keystone to move to Real Madrid? Is it really that easy to replace someone of De Gea’s class? In my book, allowing our most invaluable player to move to Real Madrid is not a situation we should allow as we did when Ronaldo left in 2009. Not if we want to seriously challenge for the Premier League and the Champions League and have ambitions of cementing ourselves as the world’s best club once more.  There are some players whose value transcends any monetary value offered and David De Gea, most certainly, is one of those who fall firmly in this irreplaceable category.

 

 

Sky Sports Article Regarding Goalkeeping Study: http://www.skysports.com/football/news/11095/10731973/chelsea-tottenham-liverpool-man-city-man-utd-arsenal-39keepers-ranked

 

Wayne Rooney: United Legend?

The major talking point of Twitter, and indeed Talk Sport, who ran a poll on it after the Manchester United vs. Reading game, in which Wayne Rooney equalled Sir Bobby Charlton’s record of 249 club goals is, unsurprisingly, a Wayne Rooney one. Not the one where he was congratulated for his scoring feat but rather the debate which continually rages over Wayne Rooney, our club captain, and the exact nature of his legendary status as his career draws to a close.

In the distasteful poll, Talk Sport enquired as to whether Sir Bobby Charlton or Wayne Rooney was the biggest legend at Manchester United. Whilst some dismissed the poll as a joke, others became aggressive that Wayne Rooney should be compared to Sir Bobby Charlton, and went on to extol the virtues of the latter compared with the younger man.

All of this bitterness and furore which the achievement evoked left a sour taste in my mouth. Particularly given the fact that the pair about whom this argument entails have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for one another.

In this article, I will not be drawing a direct comparison between Sir Bobby Charlton and Wayne Rooney, particularly given the fact that no Manchester United fan I know of disputes the former’s legendary status.   However, Mark Goldbridge, of our very own United Stand, reflected that the past few years of Rooney’s tenure at Manchester United had seen such a steep decline in his overall effectiveness and telling contribution to the team and that he was not a Manchester United legend.

Added to this is the feeling that Wayne Rooney’s flirtation with our City rivals in the summer of 2010 which forced even the redoubtable Sir Alex Ferguson into budging over contract demands, has demanded that regardless of exploits, his reputation irks to the degree that he does not merit legendary status. With all of these factors in mind, we will now take a look at Wayne Rooney’s Manchester United career and ask ourselves is Wayne Rooney truly a Manchester United legend?

Our tale begins over 12 years ago, when Manchester United paid out a then record amount for a young player under 20.  Indeed, Rooney was still only 18 but had already inspired Sir Alex Ferguson to stop at no sum in order to bring the hottest young prospect in Europe to Old Trafford. At this juncture, in Rooney’s fledgling career, he had already proven his merits in a simply outstanding Euro 2004 where he had scored four goals, become the youngest goal scorer in the history of the combination and been named in the UEFA Team of the Tournament.  Undoubtedly, Sir Alex might have strongly suspected he would reap the rewards from his purchase but little would even he have expected Rooney’s astonishing introduction. He made his debut in a 6-2 Champions League victory over Fenerbahçe where he scored a hat trick and even got an assist. The hat trick meant that again he became the youngest player to ever score a hat trick in the Champions League and although Manchester United failed to take a trophy, despite totally dominating Arsenal in the FA Cup that year, Rooney top scored with 11 goals for the season. Additionally, he was awarded with PFA Young Player of Year for his efforts during his debut season.  To put into context, how phenomenal an achievement this was, the only other Manchester United player to win this award since the turn of the century, is Cristiano Ronaldo, once, and Rooney won it twice. In fact, in the entire history of that trophy of 43 years, only 2 others have won the award twice, Robbie Fowler and Ryan Giggs. Ryan Giggs’ legendary status is undisputed for his accomplishments with our club.

Furthermore, Rooney won The Goal of the Season award for his effort against Middlesbrough in the FA Cup.  A feat he would later repeat twice more in his career thus far, leaving him the only man standing alone, on a mark of three of these prestigious awards. When you think of the amazing depth and calibre of players we have seen since this award’s inception in the 1970-71 season till present day, this mark is well worth acknowledging.

During the 2005-6 season, Rooney won his first trophy with United the League Cup, scoring twice in the final and being awarded Man of the Match. He also scored 16 goals in 26 Premier League games during this season. As well as the Young Player of the Year award, Rooney picked up the PFA Fans’ Player of the Year Award. Sadly, we missed out on a title in this season, with Rooney sustaining a broken metatarsal in a 3-0 defeat to eventual champions Chelsea which left us runners up during this period of Manchester United transition.

In the 2006-7 season, Rooney was integral as Manchester United won the Premier League, Rooney’s first Premier League title and he scored 14 league goals.  Manchester United would go close in the Champions League, exiting to a Kaka inspired Milan team, who proved too strong in the San Siro. However, the first leg showed Rooney’s import to the team when he equalised from a quite brilliant Paul Scholes improvised hooked through ball and then showed a supreme piece of opportunism in striking the winner magnificently first time, in injury time, to win us the match.  At this point, Cristiano Ronaldo won the main individual awards at the end of the season but Rooney had proven himself an invaluable asset with his work ethic, goals and overall play. The two combined indeed, superbly for a counter attack goal against Bolton which secured Rooney his 2nd Goal of the Season award.

The 2007-8 season was a season where Rooney was hampered with injuries, missing 6 weeks for a fractured metatarsal in his left foot and also injuring his ankle but managed to end the season with 12 league goals (18 goals overall) as Manchester United won the League and the Champions League. By this juncture, Rooney was being forced often into more of a left wing role at times because of Cristiano Ronaldo’s sensational goal scoring season.  The football played during this year was absolutely scintillating, and Rooney was a major part of that as part of an incredible attacking triumvirate with Ronaldo and Tevez.

In 2008-9, Wayne Rooney ended the season with 20 goals overall (12 league ones) as Manchester United again won the league and fell just short in the UCL final against Barcelona of an as yet never accomplished record of retaining the Champions League. The season was notable for Rooney for one performance against Tottenham Hotspur in the latter stages of the campaign where Manchester United came from two goals down at half time to win 5-2. Rooney scored two, set up two and provided the assist for Carrick to win the penalty for the first as the other.  It was, in short, an incredible individual performance and one that was integral at such a key stage of our title tilt.

In 2009-10 despite a season in which Manchester United only ended up winning the League Cup, Rooney enjoyed his 2nd best goal return for the Red Devils, notching 26 goals in the Premier League. It was to be the outstanding nature of these performances which not only resulted in the contract dispute, which I alluded to at the start of this article, but also Rooney winning the PFA Players’ Player of the Year for the first time.

In October of the 2010-11 season, Sir Alex Ferguson stated in a press conference that Rooney wanted to quit the club. Rooney was angered that Sir Alex was keeping him rested for longer than he deemed necessary and that he wanted to leave due to the club’s seeming lack of ambition. This could be evidenced by letting go of world class players such as Ronaldo in 2009 and not bringing in top class replacements.  The player Rooney brought up in his talks with Sir Alex at the time was the fact that we hadn’t pursued Mesut Ozil who had joined Real Madrid from Werder Bremen. In Sir Alex’s autobiography it is clear that he holds no ill feeling towards Rooney and that it was not a monetary affair.

“It was a sorry episode for Wayne because it portrayed him as a money man who had dropped his grievance the minute his salary was raised. That’s the way it was presented, but I don’t think it was Wayne’s intention to make it a financial issue. It blew over quickly. With the fans, however, there was a residue of mistrust.”

This perfectly sums up how the dispute coloured the view of a significant proportion of Manchester United fans who still hold a lingering grudge against Rooney for his behaviour at the time. However, who can really blame Rooney when you see how, only a few years onwards, that the squad did need a dramatic overhaul which Jose has started to facilitate in the summer of 2016. Furthermore, rather than disrespecting Sir Alex, in a statement he released he said that “For Manchester United’s sake I wish he could go on forever because he’s a one off and a genius.”

By the spring things were forgotten between the pair especially when the record 19th League title was secured with Rooney scoring the penalty to equalise at Ewood Park to win us the title. The season was also particularly noteworthy, due to Rooney scoring an overhead kick for the ages against Manchester City. The goal not only gave Rooney his third Goal of the Season Award but was also awarded the Best Goal in the 20 Seasons Awards and Ferguson described it as the best goal he had ever seen at Old Trafford.

In the 2011-12 season, Rooney enjoyed his most prolific season scoring 27 League goals, bettering his previous best mark in 2009-10 where he had scored 26 but was again runner up for the prestigious Golden Boot. Sadly, that season Manchester United lost out on the title on goal difference despite the fact that Rooney had outscored Sergio Aguero (23).

In the 2012-13 season, Rooney was again required to play second fiddle, to the man to whom he had lost the Golden Boot to the previous season, new signing Robin Van Persie. This season Rooney still scored 12 league goals, 2 of which were in the 3-2 victory over City that, I feel had proven so monumental in our reward that spring, the 20th Premier League title.  Again, Rooney as he had one with Ronaldo, had still done well despite playing 2nd fiddle to another player.

In the 2013-14 season, Rooney during an incredibly difficult transitional period under David Moyes still managed to hit 17 league goals as Manchester United’s top scorer and 4th equal on the overall scoring charts. Also he was top for assists with 10 in the league and had the most assists in the 2013-14 Champions League with 8 out of any player in the Champions League.  All of this during a season in which United finished 7th marked a good personal year but an atrocious one for the club.  This was reinforced by him being named club captain the summer of 2014 by Louis Van Gaal after Vidic’s departure.

During the 2014/15 season, under Louis Van Gaal, Rooney was often utilised as a midfielder but was again top scorer for the season with 14 goals.  Again, Rooney had shown his worth even if the football under Van Gaal had been extremely cagey and uninspiring, with the team recording its 2nd worst ever goals tally in the Premier League.

In 2015/16 Rooney endured a torrid time with injuries and was again used in a midfield role as it appeared that was where he and Louis Van Gaal saw his career being prolonged. The highlight was a majestic mazy dribble against Crystal Palace and cross which lead to the equaliser in the dying minutes of our FA Cup triumph.

During all of these fallow years than for Manchester United, Rooney has proven himself our top scorer, often having played in midfield and has also had many assists as is shown factually above. Furthermore, would we even have an FA Cup trophy had he not torn up the Van Gaal tactics sheet to go on that run?

In conclusion, there is a reason why I have run through a brief summation of Wayne Rooney’s career. It is to allow you, dear reader, the benefit of being allowed to make your own decision based on the facts and figures of Wayne Rooney’s Manchester United career, the trophies and personal accolades he has won whilst at the club.

There will always be fans that dismiss people who champion Rooney’s cause as “Rooney Fan Boys” but as I watched Rooney’s plethora of highlights, researching for this article, I couldn’t help but feel myself smile with pure pleasure. There have been moments of unadulterated brilliance that should never be forgotten. For the players who played with Rooney, there is nothing but respect and admiration when they talk of him, Scholes, Giggs, Neville and Ferdinand to name but a few.

There is an argument to be made that Rooney’s influence and contribution is on the decline. A brief look at Rooney’s appearance total gives, to my mind, the main reason why. As of the time of writing he has 543 Manchester United appearances, putting him 6th in the overall standings, but all the players ahead of him played for many more years than him. In fact, of those five players that have played more than him, only three have played for our club within the last 40 years, namely Gary Neville, Scholes and Giggs and all of them played for the club for twenty years. Put simply, Rooney has definitely put in the work for United over the last decade or so but has borne the brunt of his exertions. Rooney’s records certainly evince his inclusion as a legend but again, it is your, the reader’s, decision as to whether he is or not.

I will just leave you with the quote from Lionel Messi, which sums up my own feelings towards Rooney:

“Wayne Rooney is for me a once in a generation player. One of those special players, who is not comparable to any other. There are many special players, but Rooney has exceptional quality and technical ability as well as being one of the strongest players I have faced with an exceptional work rate- there is nobody like him.”

 

The French Confection

It’s interesting, as I peruse the meaning of the word confection in the Encarta English Dictionary, how apt a word that it is to describe Manchester United’s last gasp victory over Middlesbrough. The 1st of its definitions is that it can be used to describe something sweet, such as the sweetness and richness of a well deserved victory plucked from the jaws of a morale crushing loss.  Put simply, referee Lee Mason was being pilloried by every Manchester United fan, for a few horrific refereeing mistakes which had abetted a scarcely believable 1-0 deficit, going into the final few minutes of the match.

The 2nd of the definitions of confection states that it is the process of combining things or the result of such a combination. In essence, Manchester United became the irresistible force of yesteryear. Wave upon wave of United pressure, ceaseless barrages wore down the stubborn rear guard with both Martial and Pogba, the beneficiaries of some excellent attacking interchanges, scoring to turn the game on its head. As many fans alluded to, it was a fitting, stirring comeback on the birthday of the peerless Sir Alex Ferguson, watching on from the stands, who masterminded so many of our prodigious comebacks of the past.

The 3rd and final definition of confection is that of an often elaborate piece of craftsmanship and skill. There is a sense of optimism amongst fans that Jose Mourinho, on the back of five successive victories, showcasing progressive, scintillating attacking football that the verve and identity of the club is becoming firmly re-established. In short, that Mourinho is beginning to turn his expert hands into returning our club back to the zenith of the English game.

The French contingent of our starting line up today scored the vital goals that secured the victory and provided the classy strikes to cement our victory. Anthony Martial, despite the furore regarding a possible loan or transfer out of the club in recent weeks, was simply exceptional.  A constant thorn in the side of Chambers all game, he ran the Middlesbrough defender completely ragged.  Sadly, due to the multitude of bodies packed inside the box, the breakthrough during the opening half eluded Manchester United and Martial.

On one occasion, Martial found Marouane Fellaini with a peach of a cross but the midfielder’s header looped over the crossbar, summing up a frustrating afternoon to that point for the young Frenchman.  Indeed, after Martial hit a sumptuous long range shot which rattled the woodwork, he then proceeded to exhibit superb close control dribbling skill before delivering a wonderful, deliciously curling cross which Ibrahimovic gleefully rammed home. Sadly, the big Swede was penalised for a high foot, preventing him from equalling Messi’s goal total for the calendar year.  Replays showed that the decision was contentious to say the least and many viewers, me included, were aggrieved that the goal was disallowed.

Pogba also showed glimpses of the player I am sure he will grow to be at United, during the first half.  Despite having the unenviable task of unpicking the stubborn Middlesbrough defensive lock, illustrated through the dense, packed middle of the pitch and with the albatross around his neck (Marouane Fellaini), Pogba thrived with touches of inimitable class.  His effortless running and range of passing was a joy to behold, combining with his incredible flair, during the first half summed up by a glorious overhead kick which rattled the post.  Had this effort gone in, we would have had two sublime goals, which should have been given offside to treasure within a week (Mkhitaryan’s scorpion effort the other).

The engine room, or midfield, of a team is so integral to how well it performs and with Pogba there we have someone who can do it all. Pogba has such a plethora of attributes, one moment he is breaking up the play, the next spraying inch-perfect searing passes to every corner of the pitch, or powerfully bringing us forward striding like a colossus through the opposition’s ranks. The pass he fired at Fellaini’s chest during the first half, beggared belief given how pinpoint accurate it was from such a distance and also taking into account the Belgian’s strongest asset, his chest control.

However, somehow despite the great performances of our two French heroes and the seemingly inevitable goals that would come, our hearts sank when Grant Leadbitter found the net and it seemed that a gnawing sense of déjà vu was the most pressing French saying that came to mind. This was especially reinforced when the two failed to communicate as the ball was half cleared from a corner, Pogba‘s attempted acrobatic heroics preventing Martial from having a clearer, more conventional chance.  The former, then headed back across the face of the goal for Mata but the Spaniard’s shot was blocked by a Middlesbrough defender as the minutes ticked inexorably by.

However, there was still time for the French pair to produce two wonderful finishes and turn the match on its head. When Eric Bailly fired the ball up to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, it was Martial who timed his run to perfection meeting Zlatan’s knock down and finishing with composure and aplomb. The goal was a crucial one which epitomised the Frenchman’s iron clad self belief and the precocious talent, he has displayed in his short time at United, in providing key and telling moments to change a game in favour of his side.  For the winner, Pogba sauntered into the perfect space and with the most nonchalant of headers dispatched the ball unerringly beyond Valdes’ reach into the top corner of the Middlesbrough goal.

From agony to ecstasy in a matter of moments, two French young players, for whom we supposedly overpaid in consecutive summers, repay their debt in spades with priceless goals.  Rival fans can only watch and drool over the French pair, surveying with eyes green with envy that we are able to afford to bring some of the finest most precious jewels in the world to our kingdom.

Jose Mourinho, himself, has taken full responsibility to hone these two rough diamonds into the perfect cut, at all opportunities managing them brilliantly. Of Pogba recently, he has called him “the best in the world” and his complete skill set in this position certainly does provide compelling evidence to substantiate this claim. Jose shows his tactical nous in being able to inspire players. As Zlatan says in his autobiography, Jose, “lights up the room” and “would become a guy who I was willing to die for.” By showering Pogba with accolades such as these, it becomes clear that Jose wants to be the man for whom the midfielder will fulfil his undoubted potential.

Of Martial, Mourinho has exhorted him to listen to his manager’s instructions so that he can listen to feedback on how and what to improve upon.  It is imperative that both of the Frenchmen continue to appreciate and value the advice and teachings that Jose can impart to them. Jose is a winner, who has managed many top talents over his managerial career and led them to success so I am confident that he can generate the best future for these two French prospects.

Rumours have begun to circulate that Atletico Madrid forward Antoine Griezmann could be the next French maestro to arrive at the club in the summer. This would further enhance the burgeoning French contingent at Manchester United and with Memphis Depay seemingly resigned to leaving the club the hallowed Number 7 shirt would seemingly be destined for the diminutive ace. His friendship with Paul Pogba is well known, as is his idolatry of David Beckham.  Surely, the lure of following in his hero’s footsteps and playing with his friend will prove too great a temptation to resist? Certainly, the timing looks ripe for his arrival, Manchester United have the funds, reputation and clout to circumvent any obstacle, proven through an exceptional summer transfer window before this season.  The prospect of the three Frenchmen in tandem with magical Mkhitaryan and magisterial Ibrahimovic would give any defence in the world nightmares and would certainly provide an outstanding attacking force to be reckoned with next season for a title charge.

The French confection, then have combined perfectly to take us to the cusp of the top four places.  However the remainder of the weekend pans out, we will be within four points maximum of those precious Champions League places at the halfway stage of the season.  Unbelievably, given my own and many United followers despair when we drew at Everton, just under a month ago, we have resurrected our season with the help of some of our United superstars. Today, the French Confection provided us with a sense of renewed hope and optimism that our season can provide the sweet success of cup triumphs and the Holy Grail of a Champions League berth at the end of it. Maybe this triumph will inspire, Antoine Griezmann, another Frenchman, to join the confection, providing another jewel in the elaborate creation Jose is trying to mastermind.  In the meantime, Pogba and Martial will continue to be “les incroyables” but to my mind, the prospect of this further French ingredient really would make this already mouth-watering concoction a masterpiece.