Roy Keane : The man behind those red misty eyes

The relationship has long been uneasy; once hero to the massed hero-worshipers, now the cynic and the increasingly cynical. But Manchester United supporters have not yet fallen completely out of love with Roy Keane, the player who remains the finest all-round midfielder in the club’s modern history. Indeed, the player – and man, some might say – that United has not genuinely replaced since the Irishman was forced out of the club by Sir Alex Ferguson in 2005.

Roaring tyrant or inspiring leader? Aggressive hothead or driven talisman? Dramatic is not a word that Keane would enjoy using to describe himself, but it would fit the path of his career. For many, the images of Roy Maurice Keane that endure are of the sinew-busting approaches to referees or him towering menacingly over fallen opponents. They fit the character that has been built up over time so easily – he’s an angry man, right? The pantomime villain that others hate but his followers love, if only because they are not facing him.

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Everyone and their grandma knows how the Champions League concluded in May 1999. That balmy night in Barcelona, when Ole Gunnar Solskjær won it for Manchester United. What some fans — not United fans, mind you — may forget is that United’s road to that final was perhaps even more dramatic than their late comeback to win the tournament. Their resurrection from 2-0 down in the semi-final second-leg against Juventus in Turin was perhaps their greatest moment of all.

Therein lies the paradox of his success. A born winner, ruthlessly determined and free from the distractions of celebrity and an almost religiously private family man, but needing the grandest stage of all to feed his thriving potential. His infamous comment about the corporate atmosphere of fans eating prawn sandwiches showed a disdain for the glitz and glamour of the theatre in which he found himself, but without the very essence he was against he could never have achieved everything he had in the game.

Titanic battles between the Irishman and his arch-enemy Patrick Vieira – and by proxy between Manchester United and Arsenal – characterised the late 1990s. In a face to face encounter broadcast by ITV three years ago, Keane stared deep into the Senegal-born giant’s eyes as the reminisced over their era on the pitch.

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“It was almost my job to keep you down there,” Keane said to Vieira.

“It was an important role for me that I didn’t feel you were going to get the edge on me. I needed to dominate even the players at Man Utd; I think if I’d let you beat me in these rivalries in the middle of the park it don’t would have cost me long term.”

Their last ever league clash in 2005 epitomised the depths to which the battle was as much a mental struggle as a physical or tactical one. On his way back from the dressing room to collect his forgotten captain’s armband, Keane overheard Vieira threaten Gary Neville with a direct confrontation if he went near Robert Pires, and his switch flipped.

“We’ll see you out there,”

Psychology has always been central to his style, but whereas others in the game would use modern theories to direct and inspire them, Keane’s version was much simpler: never, ever, accept anything other than your best.

While playing for Nottingham Forest, a sloppy back pass from Keane led to a Crystal Palace equaliser in a 1991 FA Cup tie, which infuriated Brian Clough so much he punched the young midfielder in the face. Nearly two decades later, Keane reflected on his former manager’s attack:

 “Cloughie was dead right, absolutely. It was the best thing he ever did for me. It’s good to get angry. It’s an emotion and it’s part of the game. If people upset you and you don’t get angry, I’d say you’re in the wrong game.”

If emotion is part of football – and few could argue with that statement – one would assume that elation and pride would rank pretty highly on Keane’s mind when reflecting on his career as a player, given the sheer volume of trophies and adulation he earned. That would be too simplistic a view, though; there were much darker sides to the mental aspect of the game that Keane battled with.

 “A lot of my preparation would be fear; fear of losing, a fear of letting people down, a fear of letting my neighborhood down, a fear of letting my family down. Fear played a big part of my sporting career. The enjoyment was very, very brief I’m afraid. Too brief.”

The attitude towards overcoming negative emotions, as opposed to exalting in the positive ones, was infinitely more central to his way of thinking, however. When he was brought in as assistant to Paul Lambert at Aston Villa, he was told that the squad had a policy of not dwelling on bad results for more than a day.

“Obviously Villa were used to it but I wasn’t,” he was reported as saying. “At United we had a culture where, if you were beaten on a Saturday – people talk about bouncing back and moving on quickly – but Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, the lads would be fuming, and I loved that.”

In one of his most iconic matches in the red of Manchester, Keane faced what could have been one of the most crushing moments of a player’s career, but showed his character in turning it into his most memorable and inspiring moments through sheer brute force of will. The sublime Juventus side of Edgar DavidsZinedine Zidane and Paolo Montero had raced into a 3-1 aggregate lead in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final when Keane rose to head hhi-res-e2a1afb8f2156f8ea47b7d81003d34a8_crop_exactis side back into contention. Eight minutes later, however, he was booked for a late stretch to tackle Zidane, which would prevent him from playing in the final if his side got there.

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When he wasn’t captain of Manchester United stretching every sinew to the cause, when he was just another man walking his dog through the leafy suburbs, he was anything but the growling pit bull that many choose to remember him as. That petrified young boy standing nervously on his doorstep believed every powerfully terrifying image of the man, but what few people know about, or care to recall, is the softly spoken man who would stop for a cup of tea with the octogenarian dog walkers who shared his peaceful strolls across the hidden parks of Cheshire.

One such route would take him past a low house surrounded by trees with a large garden overlooking the fifth tee at Hale Golf Club, a few hundred metres from his old front door where the media camped out to catch a shot of him with his beloved Triggs after Saipan.

A red mist of rage? Not a bit of it. In the world of Roy Keane, everything was measured – but by his standards and not anybody else’s.

But if there is one thing that sums up that night, or even one thing that sums up the Manchester United of 1999, it’s that goal from the Irishman. Raising his teammates alongside him as he flew in the air, showing them how it’s done, whilst simultaneously crushing the spirit of his opponents. That’s Keano.

Fergie said after:

“I don’t think I could have a higher opinion of any footballer than I already had of the Irishman, but he rose even further in my estimation at the Stadio delle Alpi. The minute he was booked and out of the final he seemed to redouble his efforts to get the team there. 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.”

Performance counts for everything in football. Teams and players are judged on results, not character traits. The soldiers of the game are disappearing and in their place is the football mercenary, the glory-hunting, heavy-earning, often responsibility-shirking player with more talent at their disposal than many of the on-field generals could ever hope to muster.

The game has never seen more skill across the broad spectrum of players that step across the white lines every match. The game has never been faster, more fitness-focused, and more dependent on money than it is now. There is a saying that natural leaders are born, not made, and judging by the modern game, the role of the on-field general looks consigned to fade.

PS: tft and image credits :gettyandunitedwebsite

Profiling Eric Dier : Manchester United’s midfield Target

The time for excuses, it seems, is over. After what had gone before him, Mourinho was always going to be given time to get things right, but expectations remain as high as ever at English football’s most successful club.

Three trophies in 2016-17 have helped to lift the post-Sir Alex Ferguson mood and get United back into the winning habit, but more is demanded rather than merely longed for. Mourinho has to push his side back into Premier League title contention, and that has to happen in 2017-18. His track record suggests that one season is normally enough for him to get his eye in and know what is expected to challenge for domestic dominance, with the immediate success enjoyed during a first stint at Chelsea and with Inter in Serie A complemented by league crowns in his second year at Real Madrid and after returning to Stamford Bridge.

He knows what pieces are required to complete the jigsaw and has made the powers that be at Old Trafford aware of where to find them, stating immediately after a Europa League triumph in May:

 “Ed Woodward has my list, what I want, what I would like for more than two months. So now it’s up to him and the owners.”

United are working their way down said list and have arrived at the section titled ‘holding midfielder’.

The need of a DM:

Manchester United fans were left largely underwhelmed by the news that Michael Carrick had replaced Wayne Rooney as captain. While it’s true he has been a loyal servant for the past 11 years and has done well for the club, it’s hard to look past the fact he will turn 36 in the next few weeks and only featured in 18 Premier League games last season.

Carrick’s playing time is likely to be limited further next season if Jose Mourinho gets his wish of signing a defensive midfielder. Nemanja Matic was long-hailed as the most likely new arrival, but chances of that happening took a hit after United beat Chelsea to the signature of Romelu Lukaku, the striker that Antonio Conte had at the top of his shopping list this summer. This has lead to talk of Eric Dier making the move to Old Trafford, with reports suggesting that the Tottenham Hotspur midfielder would be keen to make the move to Manchester.

While obviously not a candidate to be captain, Dier would likely take more minutes from Carrick, and the reaction from United fans is likely to be mixed.

In English football, describing a player as a ‘utility man’ often infers that he’s good in a number of positions but not good enough to make one of those his own. Manchester United have already had a bid of just under £25m for Eric Dier turned down, as per The Independent understands, and it is likely to take more than double that to even tempt Tottenham Hotspur into the idea of a sale. Just about every area of the field is being addressed by Jose Mourinho, with the Portuguese eager to ensure that no stone is left unturned.

There is also the fact that Mourinho wants a player who has proven Premier League experience for the defensive midfield position, as he sees it as a key role for the quick functioning of the team from the start of the 2017-18 season, and would prefer that to someone who has to adapt. There is still interest in Fabinho of Monaco, but he is seen by the Portuguese as a right-back.

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When Carrick arrived at the club in 2006, taking Roy Keane’s No.16, there were plenty of supporters who were disappointed. Throughout his time at the club, there has been a section of fans who have been indifferent, at best, to Carrick’s presence at United. He was never going to be in the Keane mould, but that was the sort of player the fans were desperately craving — in fact, they still are — so his signing was seen as fairly anticlimactic.

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While it would be wrong to claim Dier is the next Keane, he certainly resembles him more than Carrick ever did. The former United captain would have been proud of the performance Dier put in the season before last on the night at Stamford Bridge when Tottenham Hotspur conceded the league title. He threw himself into challenge after challenge, somehow avoiding a red card while allowing his emotions to get the better of him. Keane would have been guilty of exactly the same in that situation.

One thing that did amuse United supporters last season was Dier’s veiled threat toward Ander Herrera. The Spaniard is immensely popular at Old Trafford, so fans didn’t take too kindly to Dier having a pop following a clash on international duty.

Dier claimed he was elbowed in the face during England’s draw against Spain, a game in which Herrera made his national team debut. Dier labelled Herrera’s action “ridiculous” before adding, “I’ll see him soon,” in reference to Spurs’ upcoming game at Old Trafford. It hardly carried the same menace that Keane’s statement to Patrick Vieira in the Highbury tunnel did, but it showed a bit of fire in his belly.

However, the day before the game, Dier gave an interview in which he downplayed the whole incident, claiming he was just joking. United won 1-0, Dier was an unused substitute, and Herrera was named man of the match.

Case of Daniel Levy :

Still, while such silliness won’t put United off the midfielder, the club still has to overcome the hurdle of dealing with Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy. He has been a thorn in United’s side on a number of occasions and was embarrassed in the summer of 2008 after putting Dimitar Berbatov on a plane to Manchester to discuss terms with City — only for him to be collected from the airport by Sir Alex Ferguson and taken swiftly to United’s Carrington training ground.

David Gill and Ferguson have both left the club since then, meaning there is the opportunity for an olive branch to be offered. But even if the Spurs are to sell Dier, they will demand a large fee.

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Dier made 48 appearances for Spurs last season in all competitions and formed a budding bromance with Dele Alli, much to the delight of the supporters. Losing Dier would be viewed as a step backward for the North London club, who will be hoping it’s lucky the third time in their bid to be crowned Premier League champions next season, after coming close in their last two consecutive campaigns.

Carrick didn’t get the fans buzzing, but his arrival coincided with three title wins on the bounce for United. If Dier could play a similar role, supporters would be more than happy regardless of the overinflated transfer fee.

Portuguese Education

“I play with my head up, unlike you Englishmen.”

Iconic quote by Michael Laudrup but the fact is it is the basic for any midfielder. Watch the man ahead of you so that you can get through. the softly spoken 21-year-old would be far too self-effacing to admit it, his Portuguese upbringing does appear to have imbued in him the same European qualities that Laudrup referred to during that on-pitch conversation all those years ago.

He was eight when he first came to the club, a shy English boy with little grasp of the language being spoken by his peers. As would be the case in England – in the playground or on the football pitch – those two realities initially left him on the outside looking in. Those first six months, as a foreigner with his new hometown club, were some of the toughest of his young life.

According to those who saw him play in those formative years, among Dier’s greatest gifts were his composure and precious ability to keep the ball – a trait that Sporting’s coaches ingrained in their charges from an early age.

In an interview with Four four two one of his footballing coaches said

“Unlike on the park pitches of England on a Saturday and Sunday morning, there were no coaches balling at the youngsters, Players were told things once and expected to learn from it. Likewise, the first question on the return to the Sporting clubhouse after an away match wasn’t ‘did you win?’ but ‘did you play well?’.”

That notion of keeping the ball, being patient and waiting for your chance, would have been foreign to most English players of a similar age. In Portugal, however, it was as natural as breathing.

The way United are going about their business this summer it is unlikely that he would be the final piece of the puzzle, but he – or any alternative that operates in a similar role – would be another sensible signing and a step in the right direction for a club looking to put down several sizeable summer markers to their rivals.

Think about this for once :

This is the manager who had Claude Makelele at Chelsea, Esteban Cambiasso at Inter and Sami Khedira at Real Madrid. No-one appreciates the value of a defensive midfielder quite like Mourinho, yet at Old Trafford he has been forced to choose between wrecking ball Marouane Fellaini and 35-year-old Michael Carrick for the holding role. So, it is evident we are signing a defensive mid but the question comes will it be him or Fabinho or someone else.

The Portuguese is shrewd enough to know that signing a player like Dier has the dual effect of strengthening his own team while weakening a side who have finished above United in three of the four seasons since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. 02.jpgMauricio Pochettino could replace Walker, who has four years to run on his contract, with Kieran Trippier and the Spurs manager could use the fee from the sale to strengthen his squad. Pochettino would be less willing to cash in on selling Dier.

In a transfer market that is quickly threatening to lose its proverbial head, Dier represents genuine value. He is a key cog at Tottenham, central to everything positive about the side’s fresh-faced resurgence, while Mourinho had lost faith in Matic by the end of their time together. Make no mistake, were United to sign Dier, it would be a bigger coup – and more damaging blow – than even their record deal for Lukaku.

 

Manchester United’s graveyard of Potential

There are few things more exciting than watching a youngster showcase sky-high potential. Take Monaco’s latest prodigy, Kylian Mbappé, who injected fresh interest into the Champions League last season – a competition that has become stale in recent years given the domination of the continent’s biggest clubs, including Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Juventus. Young players bring unpredictability and excitement. Few outside France knew of the Frenchman’s talent before he burst onto the scene at the turn of the year. They know him now.

Opposition teams could not plan for Mbappé as they had little prior knowledge. First, Mbappé showcased his exquisite finishing. Then came the turn of pace. As Mbappé’s confidence grew he begin to demonstrate those brilliant touches of skill that took everyone by surprise. The youngster may have been perceived as a poacher, but by the end of the season he was viewed as one of the most complete footballers in the competition, at the tender age of 18.

Manchester United, of course, is no stranger to blooding talented youngsters. The world-renown Class of 92 stands apart as one of the most extraordinary narratives in modern football. Never before – and given football’s globalization probably never again – had six footballers matured together to help their boyhood club win the ultimate prize: a Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup treble in 1999. For that story alone, United commands an aura of respect for giving youth a chance.

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Nostalgia is beautiful. Unfortunately, the club hasn’t been able to replicate that since the class of 92. While the academy continues to produce talent, the club has failed to build on young promise in recent years. There is no longer a regular stream of players making it to the first team. Just two weeks back, United announced that Josh Harrop will be joining Preston North End when his contract expires at the end of the month. Harrop leaves having scored a beautiful solo goal versus Crystal Palace on his club debut on the last day of the season, but his chances of making the first team permanently are limited.

Perhaps, more pointedly, Adnan Januzaj is off to Real Sociedad in an attempt to relight his career after years of stalled progress. The Belgian youngster burst onto the scene as one of the only bright spots in David Moyes’ disastrous season at the club. Louis van Gaal distrusted the mercurial winger and then Borussia Dortmund boss Thomas Tuchel expressed public disappointment with the player’s attitude and sent him back to Manchester. It should have been the perfect opportunity to develop at one of the world’s most youth-friendly clubs. Frustration, anger, and a touch of sadness describe the emotions felt about a player who many believe holds the natural ability to reach the top. It just won’t be at United.

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The broader picture is not positive either. Januzaj is far from alone as a promising youngster that has failed to make it at United. The list of highly talented players to have left with talent unfulfilled is too long for a club that has lacked exceptional quality since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. United’s results declined only after Ferguson’s retirement, but the youthful talent pool had dried up long before the Scot called it a day. In the past five years alone, Ravel Morrison, Paul Pogba, Federico Macheda, Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverly, Tyler Blackett, and Paddy McNair each offered United fans a glimpse of talent, yet all left with a sense of potential unfulfilled. Even youthful acquisitions such as Wilfried Zaha, Nick Powell and Memphis Depay departed having failed to turn talent into performances.

This is not all on the club, of course. Many factors play into development and progress of talent, many of which are out of United’s control. Morrison’s personal issues, for example, made it seemingly impossible for the player to dedicate the required focus on his career. Pogba has proven to be Ferguson’s most costly misjudgement, and with hindsight, maybe the hype afforded to Macheda, Cleverly, Welbeck, Blackett and McNair was unjustified.

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Yet, there is also a sense that with the right coaching at least some of these players could have progressed to reach the standards they were once touted to possess. Zaha, for example, was not afforded the chance to showcase his mercurial talents despite the £15 million fee. United fans might look at the player’s outstanding season at Crystal Palace as an opportunity missed. Powell and Depay were each accused of demonstrating a poor attitude, although if the former is able to focus and the latter carries on his good form for Lyon, United may rue not holding a little more patience.

The result is a graveyard of youthful potential. There are too many ‘what ifs’ – players discarded to the wind when the excitement of youth was exactly what the club needed. Today, supporters are right to be concern that youngsters such as Marcus Rashford and Antony Martial might not fulfil their potential at the club. Each enjoyed superb seasons under Van Gaal, but neither truly built on those foundations during Jose Mourinho’s first campaign at the club. The duo enjoyed ample game time last season, but there is a sense that Mourinho’s more conservative tactics have stunted the pair’s growth. Potential is not yet lost, but neither enjoyed featuring on the left wing and being asked to perform defensive duties even if it is beneficial to the team. If Mourinho captures Alvaro Morata, neither will appear at number nine much next season either.

 

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In more defensive areas, Mourinho can choose from a plethora of talented youngsters waiting for a chance. Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Axel Tuanzebe, Luke Shaw, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Guillermo Varela have each offered assured performances for the senior team. Fosu-Mensah looks like the beefy, all-action defensive midfielder that the team has lacked in recent years, while Tuanzebe epitomised composure when he was thrown into Mourinho’s first team plans towards the end of the season. Shaw is a complicated case, but his ability is unquestionable. Shaw will hope that Mourinho places more trust in the former Southampton player, although that trust may only come with the hard work his manager demands.

Borthwick-Jackson and Varela looked like capable attacking full-backs under van Gaal’s tutelage, although with so many options in front of them it seems unlikely that either will make the senior squad in the coming season. Departure is likely.

Mourinho has much to do if he is to dispel the assumption that he fails to give youth a chance. Last season Rashford, Martial, Shaw, Tuanzebe, and Fosu-Mensah enjoyed time in the first team. Mourinho offered more minutes to teenagers than any other manager in the Premier League, albeit a stat skewed by Rashford’s impact. Yet, none is guaranteed first choice for the coming campaign.

The sense that Mourinho’s conservative ideology hinders talented youngsters persists. Few will argue that the Portuguese prefers the fickle world of potential – one that can be full of surprises, good and bad – to proven talent and experience.

Still, the current crop of youngsters at United is more exciting than in recent years. Now the club and manager needs to find the right environment to stimulate that talent.

 

Happy birthday Pretty boy : David Beckham

‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them’

I am no fan of Shakespeare, I couldn’t care less about the contextual values of his time and totally dislike his Elizabethan English. But if their were to be something I totally agree with,  it’d have to be the above quote.

There is a popular story narrated by former United Kingdom Prime minister, Tony Blair in an interview. He said he happened to visit a small island in Japan and people couldn’t recognise him or United Kingdom. Children couldn’t even pronounce his name correctly. Out of desperation he uttered the name “David Beckham” and immediately stuck common chord with those kids. Probably, the story may be a bit exaggerated but there is no denying the fact what David Beckham had on football.

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Beckham has played for some of the biggest clubs in Europe, while also acting as a sporting ambassador for his country, playing a key role in London winning the race to host the 2012 Olympic Games. He was born and raised in East London, but began his career at Manchester United at the age of 14, winning the Champions League in 1999, as well as the Premier League six times and the FA Cup twice. After winning the French title with PSG, Beckham has won 19 trophies – 10 of them league titles – in a playing career spanning 20 years, and is the only English player to win championships in four different countries.

Stylish, flamboyant and a free-kick master. A wonderful range of passing, a quick decision maker, creative, patient and composed. Such superlatives could be about any number of brilliant players throughout football’s history. Had Beckham been born Italian, he would undoubtedly have been played centrally.

Such is David Beckham’s godlike status these days – sporting ambassador, style guru, model father, stoic asthma-sufferer – it’s easy to forget how unpopular he was at the start of the decade. England supporters still hadn’t forgiven him for the petulance that earned him a red card against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup finals (and which led to his effigy being burned outside a London pub).

You are just 23 and the entire country says “ You cost us the World cup.” David Beckham famously said :

‘I have nightmares about France 98. It was humiliating. It will always be with me.’

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Probably, it was in his genes or the club he played for at that time when he decided to take the free kick against Greece.  The stage was Old Trafford, Manchester United’s home ground and the lead actor was David Beckham. From the boy who costed the world cup to the captain of the country taking a free kick to help England qualify for the world cup. Think of the pressure, the thoughts which would have gone in his head.

“ What would happen if I miss this? ”

Everyone knew who would take it. And everyone knew what he would try to do The Greeks should have known, too, but they put only four men in the wall, and Beckham swung the ball round them into the top corner. The draw was enough to take England to the finals in Japan, where Beckham exorcised the demons of four years earlier by scoring the only goal (a dubiously awarded penalty) in the defeat of Argentina. But David Beckham did what he did for Manchester United for years. He took the challenge and delivered one of the most iconic free kicks in the history of football.   

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But Beckham has something few footballers possess: beautiful looks, he’s an art-object in his own right. Forget the frantic hairstyles (skinhead, Mohican, ponytail, kiss-curl, spiky, slicked back, bleached, etc) and the wretched tattoos. Forget the sarong and the experiments with pink nail varnish. However silly the get-up, his good looks can’t be disguised: brown eyes, a winning smile and (as seen in underwear ads as well as the shirt-exchanges at the end of games) a terrific body. Sam Taylor-Wood recognised it when she made a film of him sleeping. Peter Blake, Alison Jackson and Antony Gormley have all produced art-works inspired by him. And Tracey Emin exhibited a letter she sent him, along with a photo of herself half-naked on a bed – the sort of come-on Posh must spend half her life fending off.

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Some thought the obsession with fashion and celebrity would be the ruin of Beckham, much as alcohol destroyed George Best. But Beckham had been into clothes from an early age. At the age of six, for a family wedding, he delighted in choosing his pageboy outfit – maroon knickerbockers, white stockings, frilly shirt, ballet shoes (“I’d have worn it to school if they’d let me”). He is famously fastidious, too, once refusing to give a fellow player a lift after training in case he scuffed the leather seats of the new Becksmobile. For a footballer to be a gay icon transgresses the laws of beery machismo, but Beckham has pulled it off.

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Some fans would prefer him to be tougher: had his dodgy metatarsal not made him shirk a Roberto Carlos tackle in Japan in 2002, allowing Brazil to sweep downfield and equalise, might England have gone on to win the match and the tournament? All three World Cups Beckham has played in have ended in disappointment and “what ifs?” But the miracle is that he’s survived to take part in a fourth. He may be the modern George Best for Manchester United minus the drinking habit. Every woman wanted him and every man wanted to be like him. I grew up watching Manchester United day in and day out and David Beckham was the reason why I wanted to sport a “spiked hair style”.

But Beckham was more than a player. He was — and will remain, even in retirement — a brand. The planet has enough replica Beckham jerseys — in England white, United red, Madrid blue and Galaxy gold — to clothe a small nation.

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The problem many people who love to hate Beckham encounter is that as an individual he is hard to dislike. He is not a bon viveur full of witty put-downs when he faces the press – that is Steven Gerrard’s job – but Beckham is polite, mild and, even now, sometimes stumbles over his words. They like the fact that he is rich, famous and lives in Beverly Hills but, like them, makes a regular pilgrimage to the stadium by the North Circular in the vain hope that one day the England team will get their act together.

Somehow, against all the odds, this hyper-celebrity with his improbably named children and Hollywood actors for friends has become a man of the people. He has done so because the older and less effective a footballer he has become, the more people have come to appreciate the way that he has hung on tenaciously to what is important to him – his place in the England team. And, of course, every now and then he can still hit the kind of cross or free-kick that tells people that, technically, he is still an excellent footballer.

There were some utterly absurd moments in his England career which, looking back upon, it is hard to believe he was allowed to get away with. His decision to have a traditional African “corn-row” plait hairstyle for England’s 2003 friendly in South Africa – when he met with Nelson Mandela – was one.

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We shouldn’t really be surprised that Becks is a man capable of sleight of hand when it comes to handling his public image. Just think what he’s pulled off in the two decades since he became globally famous. It’s stunning. In this commitment, Beckham, too, has form. This is the boy who, without the innate talent of a Messi or a Ronaldo, would spend three hours at practice after everyone had gone home, to ensure he could cross the ball with the best. His great heights were undoubtedly built on early foundations of grit, focus and dedication.

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The biggest lesson he taught to fellow footballers was rightly said by Zlatan Ibrahimovic :

“As a footballer it is important to be yourself and live your life – not to live in a bubble, not enjoying your life. That is what I admire about Beckham. The attention that follows him, is not easy to live out your life. But he does it. I even told him that I admired him because he brings his children to surfing, to the park. I felt sometimes I would stay at home, because I want to be left alone. But after I saw him, he brought me off the couch and he motivated me to take my family out and do these things. If he can do it, then me, someone with 10% of his attention, can do it.”

Happy birthday David Beckham. Thank you for making my childhood wonderful with those killer free kicks and the unforgettable Samurai advertisement. The supporters at Wembley cannot all be wrong. They feel a connection with him that transcends the usual suspicion of modern-day millionaire footballers. 

 

The Eternal Man of Rome : Francesco Totti

Rome, the Eternal City, has hosted some of the game’s all-time greats – among them Conti, Falcão, Signori and Chinaglia. None, however, are greater than current captain and symbol, Francesco Totti. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to label the local star as one of European football’s greatest talents. Further to that, on skill alone, Totti may well lay claim to being one of the finest players in the history of the sport. His skill is at times immeasurable, for what he brings to Roma is unique and everlasting.

Francesco Totti has a very special place in Italian as well as world football. Performing consistently at the top level for almost two decades now, Totti has now elevated his stature as a professional footballer to such a level that his following and fandom has reached a crescendo that is afforded only to the best of the best out there. And with the Roman born and bred toppling records and milestones with classic vigour even at the age of 40, one can only excitedly wait in anticipation to see what comes next from the boots of Rome’s favourite son.

Francesco Totti goes by many names at the Stadio Olimpico, the King of Rome and the Gladitor to name a couple. But Nike have taken his Golden Boy tag and run with it to celebrate Totti’s quarter century of ‘service to Roma’ with a special edition boot.

Totti actually made his debut for Roma in 1993 but as a highly touted youngster has been involved with first team for 25 years after turning down Lazio in 1989. The limited edition Nike Tiempo Totti X Roma boot is finished with gold hue on the leather upper and will be officially unveiled by Totti at the Roma store in Piazza San Lorenzo, Rome, on Wednesday.

Like so many geniuses, his career is flawed; blotted by moments of madness. Controversy has followed Il Bimbo d’Oro (The Golden Boy) throughout his career and his psyche remains one of the most intriguing and unpredictable in the game.

Perhaps the greatest testament to Totti is that he’s still here; still gracing our screens with match-winning performances and memorable goals; still bringing hope to a city besieged with socio-economic and cultural challenges; still giving hope to the thousands of children who dream of becoming the next monument in Italian football; still keeping alive the romantic dream of the classic fantasista.

Not good enough : Francesco Totti 

There is an anecdote regarding Roberto Mancini’s attempted persuasion of Roma midfielder Daniele de Rossi to join him at Manchester City:

“Do you want to end up like Totti?” Mancini is reported to have said to Roma’s vice-captain. A great player who has never won anything?”

The misinterpretation of Francesco Totti’s raison d’etre by both is spectacular. Winning trophies is an important part of any player’s career, but for Totti the greatest significance lies in the method and the meaning, not the triumph. Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona all tried to tempt him from Rome, but its king was not for abdicating. For Totti, three points in the Stadio Olimpico outweighs three trophies anywhere else.  One man’s playing career will span 28% of Roma’s history, and he’s already signed up for six years as a technical director. No wonder he says that Giallorossi No. 10 shirt feels like “a second skin”.

Early Life

It is difficult to envisage a man more representative of his city than Totti, the modern brother of Romulus and Remus. Born and raised in Porta Metronia, five miles from the Stadio Olimpico, Totti became obsessed by football from the age of three, regularly playing with -and embarrassing – older children on the streets of his neighbourhood. Totti’s Roman roots stretch back seven generations, and his face adorns murals and posters across Italy’s capital. He is worshipped by Roma fans and respected by Lazio’s, a walking, talking monument of the city. Totti is, as Claudio Ranieri once said,

“as important as the Colosseum is to Rome”.

 “Francesco remains the undisputed symbol of Roma,” – Carlo Ancelloti

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To many, it is Totti’s loyalty to Roma that stands out most. Paolo Maldini (seven Serie A titles, 13 European trophies) and Javier Zanetti (five Serie A titles, two European trophies) are both given the same treatment, but both were rewarded with honours. Totti (one Serie A title, no European trophies) sourced his enjoyment via other means. He judged achievement not by trophies or trinkets but by the difference he made. By that measure, he was at least their equal.

Yet to Totti, loyalty to Roma was merely a state of mind. His life would feel less complete away from Roma and Rome, so why leave? Only the passing of time can force his departure from the Olimpico pitch. Totti was Serie A’s youngest ever captain and is the Champions League’s oldest ever goal scorer. He is also the top scorer and appearance-maker in Italy’s Derby della Capitale, naturally. Every time you think the flames are fading, Totti throws another log on the fire.

“I grew up playing for Roma and I want to die playing for Roma, because I have always been a Roma fan,” 

This is more than a club and more than a city for Totti – it is a way of life which he cannot, and does not wish to, escape. He sees his career not as a footballer, but as a footballer for Roma.

Confidence with Class personifies Totti

Totti’s confidence in his own talent is blended with a humility that allows for introspection. Totti’s work for Roma’s poorest communities is notorious, as is his self-mockery. Roma’s captain helped to create a book filled entirely with jokes at his expense, deriding his intelligence, ego and behaviour. Totti stipulated that all the money raised by the book went to projects helping the elderly in Rome and homeless children in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was a bestseller.

It is this understanding of his own role, duty even, that makes Totti so endearing to supporters not just of Roma but across the world. If you were to choose one footballer to convert someone to the game, the perfect blend of natural talent, dedication, personality and physical specimen, there should be no competition.

At his peak, to watch Totti play live for Roma was an extremely odd experience. Football remained a team sport, but the team was powered by one man. Such was the will of Totti to influence play – and a reciprocal will of the home crowd for him to do so – there was the No. 10 and then the other ten. That is not to say that Roma were a one-man team – for there were wonderful players around him – but Totti was the player you noticed first, the foundations around whom the squad and its attacking moves were built. In some teams this could be a negative, but Totti’s desire to create chances as well as score them made it a powerful force for good. Even during Roma’s barren years, every game was touched by Totti’s majesty.

Starting out as a No. 10, Totti was moved into a position as a central forward by Luciano Spalletti in 2005, who used him as a false nine. Totti would have to do less defensive running as he moved into his thirties, but could still drop deep and let attacking midfielders overlap. His ability to hold up the ball and bring others into play is at least as good as most other traditional centre-forwards. 

Spalletti famously said

“Giving him the ball is like putting it in the bank,” 

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Yet it is Totti’s vision and skill that will be most fondly remembered, the first-time passes through, round and over a defence for a forward to chase and the one-touch flicks and backheels to play a pass that a defender’s brain had failed to even compute as a possibility. Gabriel Batistuta described him as the best strike partner he had ever played with:

“He just knows everyone, everything.”

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If Totti is defined by one skill, it is his Cucchiaio, translated literally as ‘the spoon’. This is Totti’s method of chipping a goalkeeper from outside the area, by feigning his foot movement to stab the ball as with a Panenka penalty. From open play, Totti’s chips had a mesmeric effect by slowing down the game, magnificently disguised and nonchalantly executed with an ease that should make him blush.

There is a cliche about players ‘having the ball on a string’, but Totti’s Cucchiai is that to the maximum. So in control was he that he seemed able to alter the angle of the ball’s movement even after it had left his boot to create an impossible trajectory into the goal. Totti could even put curl on these technically intricate shots.

The length of Totti’s career tends to impact negatively on his reputation, overshadowing an eight-year period of true greatness between 2000 and 2007. During that time, Totti won the World Cup, Scudetto (four times a runner-up), was named Serie A player of the year twice and Italian footballer of the year five times, won the European Golden Boot at the age of 31 and twice won Serie A’s goal of the season award. He also broke his leg and tore cruciate ligaments. Some players’ glory days last for months; Totti’s lasted for seasons.

If that adds a blue tinge to Rome’s golden boy, Totti has plenty enough respect in the bank to change that mood. Franz Beckenbauer mourned his lack of Ballon D’Or, while Luis Enrique called him “the king of the world”. Arrigo Sacchi says that Totti is “one of the greatest players I have ever seen”, while Marcello Lippi hails him as “a monument of Italian football”. Both Pele and Diego Maradona have called him the best player in the world, and we know how much it takes those two to agree.

For Totti, it has never been about recognition outside of Rome, and the supporters of a club who became his family. He said :

“Roma is everything to me, everything a person can want: passion, love, joy – the team I have always supported and always will,” 

When he retires, a part of Roma dies with him. “Un Capitano c’e’ solo un Capitano,” is the chant that comes down from the Olimpico stands; for them there will always only ever be one captain of Roma. Whoever wears that armband will be under no illusion of the man they have to follow: Francesco Totti is a country, city and fanatical support in footballer form. He’s all the more magnificent for it.

Bad Times Don’t last : But Jose’s tactics do

It was archetypal José Mourinho. On Sunday, the Portuguese manager found the perfect tactical riposte to the champions elect at Old Trafford. His Manchester United side emerged victorious after nullifying Chelsea in impressive fashion. Not that Mourinho’s team was on the defensive in victory against Antonio Conte’s side on Sunday. Far from it. The Portuguese manager reimagined his natural and historical inclination towards destructive football in his finest performance as United manager to date.

United’s dramatic victory potentially opens up the title race, with Tottenham Hotspur now just four points behind Chelsea. More importantly for United, victory leaves the Reds in touch with the top four as the season’s denouement approaches. If Mourinho’s team wins games held in hand over Manchester City and Liverpool the gap will be down to one and zero points. All to play for with just seven games to go.

United impressed by destroying Chelsea’s ability to play, highlighted by the visitors taking just three shots over the match and getting none on target. This is a Chelsea team that averages more than 14 shots per game over the Premier League season and has scored 65 goals.

But this wasn’t Mourinho’s anti-football at play, at least not as many understand it in the context of the manager’s career. On Sunday United enjoyed 47 per cent possession at Old Trafford, only dropping below 50 per cent in the second half when Mourinho sacrificed Jesse Lingard’s pace and endeavour for Michael Carrick’s greater defensive nous.

United also took more shots than Chelsea and played more passes in the attacking third. This was a vibrant, attacking United, even if the team was set up to destroy the visitors from the inside out.

Nor did United kick Chelsea off-the-park as Conte suggested was Mourinho’s strategy during the recent FA Cup tie at Stamford Bridge. On this occasion it was the visitors who committed more fouls, even though Mourinho’s team attempted, and succeeded with, more tackles.

United won because, much as in that FA Cup tie, Mourinho targeted both Chelsea’s main attacking threat and principle defensive fulcrum. Once again Ander Herrera was charged with shepherding Eden Hazard, while Paul Pogba’s incessant ability to drive forward occupied N’Golo Kante, mentally and physically.

More than Herrera and Pogba, United can thank Mourinho’s decision to impose a high press for what might be only the second time this season, after the team played with similar intensity at Anfield. Chelsea simply couldn’t cope with it.

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Little wonder Mourinho found room to crow in the aftermath, celebrating not only United’s victory on Sunday, but the opportunity lost in the Cup, when Herrera’s controversial dismissal cost the Reds.

Jose Mourinho Said 

“We went to Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup with same tactics and the game was totally controlled when we played with 11 players,” 

Only the decision that made us play with 10 men for the second half, plus some minutes in the first half, gave Chelsea a chance to be dominant, but we knew that if we played this way then it would be very difficult for them. I think everyone did what they had to do.

I am really happy with the team and the results, because the Manchester City and Liverpool results left us in the position of needing to win. Not even a draw would be a good result for us, so I am really happy for the boys and for us because we keep two windows open to try to play Champions League football.”

 

Mourinho’s team selection also paid off in spectacular fashion. The Portuguese manager rested Zlatan Ibrahimovic for the first time in league football, seemingly suggesting from the off that he had decided to prioritise Thursday’s Europa League match with Anderlecht.

Far from it. As the match played out, with United punishing Chelsea on the break, it became clear that Mourinho has worked out that brilliant though Ibrahimovic is, the Swede has a certain inhibiting influence on United’s pace. Not so Rashford and his strike partner Jesse Lingard. “Maybe we didn’t rest,” noted the manager. “Maybe we just chose the team that we thought was the best team.”

With two in attack, Rashford and Lingard continually isolated David Luiz, with the Brazilian exposed once before the young England striker burst past the defender to score United’s opener.

The manager’s decision to switch to a back three was also vindicated, with Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young full of endeavour at wing-back, restricting the space normally enjoyed by Remi Moses and, on this occasion, César Azpilicueta. The system also offered Pogba the freedom of Old Trafford, with the £89 million midfielder, protected by Herrera and Marouane Fellaini, finally imposing himself on countryman Kante.

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It was also a day on which Herrera excelled in a destructive role. The Spaniard was sent off at Stamford Bridge for two innocuous fouls on Hazard, one probably not an infringement at all. Now came retribution, with Herrera shadowing Hazard to such good effect for more than 70 minutes that the Belgian took no shots, created just one chance, and completed just 78 per cent of his passes, with only 15 in attacking areas. One of the players of the season, reduced to a passenger.

Ander Herrera said : 

“It was almost perfect, Defensively it was perfect; they’re top of the table but didn’t have any chances. On the counter-attack we hurt them but we played football as well; we controlled the game. I think we can be very happy.”

Herrera, of course, was much more pivotal than solely being the hosts’ defensive shield, with the Spaniard playing the perfectly weighted pass from which Marcus Rashford score the opener. The former Athletic Bilbao player then smashed home the second in joyous fashion.

This, of course, was perfectly set-up for Mourinho to shine; the great reactive tactician, a master at building a bespoke plan for a one-off game. It is this ability that has won the 54-year-old so many trophies.

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The challenge now for the manager is to parse Sunday’s victory into seven more than will guarantee Champions League football next season. While the Reds have suffered most when facing middled-ranked teams at Old Trafford, the manner of United’s win over this season’s probable champions may provide a lesson learned. There are, after all, pivotal away games at City, Arsenal and Spurs yet to come. United will probably need to win them all.

Jose Mourinho said in the aftermath

“I cannot yet give up the Premier League, We have to try and if one day we are in the Europa League and in the Premier League the distance is too big, then we have to prioritize and nobody can criticise us if in the last matches of the league we do it in a different way. But while it is mathematically possible, we have to go with everything we have.”

In his first season at United Mourinho has already shown a willingness to adapt and evolve. Squad rotation might be his latest adjustment, but one made from compulsion and not choice. The silver lining among many ominous clouds is that Mourinho’s side still has control over the season’s outcome. If United does well in the games against others in the top six, the Reds should end up in the Champions League places despite sub-par home form.

Mourinho’s Experimentation with 3-4-3

Antonio Conte’s decision to adopt the 3-4-3 formation at Chelsea has been influential in the narrative of the Premier League season. While Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur have stumbled over different formations and team selections, Conte has persisted with the shape that brought him so much success with Juventus and the Italian national team. Chelsea’s balance of defensive solidity, work ethic in midfield, and mercurial attacking talents have pushed the Londoners to within touching distance of the title.

Indeed, Conte’s tactical revolution is taking the English league by storm, with various opponents attempting to mimic Chelsea’s success. Only Spurs have fully implemented the formation to a similarly devastating effect, while Crystal Palace, Watford and City have all experimented. Palace and Watford lack the quality to succeed, while Pep Guardiola’s side is probably short of the right players for the roles envisioned.

José Mourinho has also tinkered with the 3-4-3 in recent weeks, despite being accused of losing touch with modern football. The trial has offered mixed results. Mourinho deployed a back three in the first leg of United’s Europa League Round of 16 fixture with Rostov in Russia. The fixture was played on a surface that would not look out of place in the Sunday Leagues, and the Reds struggled to create any kind of tempo.

United also shifted to a back three against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup. It was billed as a litmus test for Mourinho’s newfound formation, and the contest looked even until Ander Herrera’s dismissal. Having lost a man against the league leaders, United parked the bus and played a back six for the remainder of the game.

The final outing of the system to date was in United’s Europa League home leg against Rostov. With a lower-quality opposition at Old Trafford, many observers expected Mourinho to roll out United’s full offensive capability. The visitors, however, were well organised and subdued much of United’s attacking threat until Juan Mata scored the only goal of the game 20 minutes from time.

United reverted to a more familiar system against Middlesbrough at the weekend, but the brief experiment with three at the back has offered some food for thought.

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Squad depth in defensive positions

Simplistically, a back three offers more defensive options than with a regulation back four. The extra centre back allows the full-backs take up higher positions on the pitch, although the wide players still perform defensive roles for the team. This plays to United’s advantage, with the Reds enjoying squad depth at centre back.

There have been times this season when the form of Eric Bailly, Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling has offered the manager a selection headache, while Axel Tuanzebe and Timothy Fosu-Mensah are youthful options on the periphery. Bailly has enjoyed a strong début campaign, while Jones and Rojo have, at times, fashioned a strong partnership. Although Smalling’s form has fluctuated, Daley Blind illustrated during the 2014 World Cup that, despite lacking pace, he is comfortable playing in a three-back.

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Mourinho also boasts good options at wing-back, with players possessing the necessary industry and pace to perform in the role.  This season Spurs’ Kyle Walker and Danny Rose and Chelsea’s Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso have demonstrated the importance of wing-backs in the system. United could mirror the London clubs in that department, with Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw potentially two of the finest in the Premier League. With Blind’s quality of delivery and Ashley Young’s relative experience as an attacking full-back, United has some strength in depth.

Variety in forward positions

Conte prefers trickery and pace in wide forward positions, with Eden Hazard and one of Pedro or Willian, supporting lone striker Diego Costa. Over at Spurs Mauricio Pochettino prefers one of his wide forwards, normally Christian Eriksen, to have creative license while the other, Dele Alli, supports Harry Kane.

United could adopt either approach. With Zlatan Ibrahimović leading the line, Mourinho is able to draw on Henrikh Mkhitaryan or Juan Mata as wide playmakers in a 3-4-3 system, with Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford providing a second-striker’s quality on the left. This system might allow Mourinho to switch fluidly between a dynamic front three and a more rigid two striker partnership, with a supporting midfielder. It opens up the possibility of Paul Pogba using his talents closer to the opposition’s goal

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Manchester United’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates scoring his side’s second goal of the game from the penalty spot alongside teammate Paul Pogba during the Premier League match at Old Trafford, Manchester.

Mourinho’s style

It is unfair to call the Portuguese manager a defensive coach, although Mourinho holds a natural preference for defensive solidity over attacking flair. There remains some truth in Mourinho’s assertion that he is upholding United’s attacking traditions. During United’s glory days in the late 90’s, Sir Alex Ferguson’s preferred style was based on defensive solidity and vertical passes, launching fast counter attacks, predominantly through the flying wingers.

The league leaders have adopted the 3-4-3 system for many of the same reasons, with the team able to defend deep and then look to hit the forward players quickly when possession is overturned. If the opposition is stretched, the three forwards can often mount a dangerous attack by themselves. If reinforcements are required, the overlapping full-backs can provide an overload in wide positions, particularly if the ball is switched quickly by one of Chelsea’s two central midfielders.

It’s a style of that applies to many of Mourinho’s best teams. The manager prefers taking fewer risks, while reaping the attacking rewards when executed correctly. The Portuguese focusses his coaching on the defensive aspects of football, while allowing his forward players freedom to use their own ingenuity and personality.

It was unsurprising that United’s only goal against Rostov at Old Trafford came when the Reds allowed the Russian side to retain possession. The home side seized the ball on the half way line and broke quickly against Rostov’s high line; a combination of quick passes between the front three ended when Ibrahimović teed up Mata with a smart back-heel for the Spaniard to tap home.

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Yet, for the majority of the game, United held possession in Rostov’s half and created few clear-cut chances. It offered an indication that the Reds may still be suffering a hangover from the Louis van Gaal era.

Pogba may struggle in 3-4-3

If the 3-4-3 system may superficially suit Mourinho’s personnel and style, it might not fit the team’s £89 million star player.  In the system two central midfielders shield three centre backs when the wing-backs have pushed up to create overloads. For example, at Spurs, Victor Wanyama and Mousa Dembélé are used to great effect in the centre of the park, with both players capable of breaking up play and launching vertical passes. Chelsea deploy N’Golo Kanté and Nemanja Matić to perform a similar task, with Cesc Fabregas occasionally filling in for the Serbian against lesser teams.

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Pogba offers some defensive capabilities, but there is no doubt that the Frenchman is a far better player when given freedom to roam from box-to-box.  Against Chelsea, Pogba struggled to track runners from midfield as the game wore on and his positioning was far too deep to have any effect on United’s attacking play.

Ander Herrera has enjoyed a fine season, breaking up play and performing at a high level, yet the Spaniard cannot provide adequate defensive cover if the Frenchman is allowed to roam forward. It would leave Mourinho with three options if he wanted to persist with a three-man defence in the longer run, none of which are ideal. Firstly, Pogba can be given license to roam while United reign in the wing-backs. It might have the effect of making the side narrow and predictable. Pogba could be asked to perform a more defensive role alongside Herrera, but it would waste his myriad attacking talents. Finally, Pogba could be dropped for a more defensively astute midfielder – a solution palatable to nobody.

My Opinion : a dynamic system, but probably not for United

The system has proved a master stroke for Chelsea this season, and variations of the formation are quickly being adopted by some of the most exciting clubs across the continent, including Borussia Dortmund and Barcelona. The system offers flexibility in attack and defence, providing every player is an ideal fit for their given role. Mourinho has many of the players available to switch to the system permanently; the big sticking point is his star man. It is probably a defining factor the debate.