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.

Zlatan Ibrahimović: The King who would be Legend

Zlatan Ibrahimovic had been the talk of the Premier League even before he kicked a ball. The name Zlatan means the golden one – and unlike most, has rung true to his own nature.

You can take the boy out of Rosengård but you cannot take Rosengård out of the boy.

These words are written at the entrance of the tunnel that leads through to the suburb of Rosengård in Malmö, Sweden, which for decades has been notorious for its crime and its poor economy; it was estimated in 2013 that over 80 percent of its population of 24,000 have immigrant backgrounds, and only 38 percent of the residents have a job.

The Liverpool Game

Zlatan Ibrahimović’s equalizer against Liverpool at Old Trafford is a breathtakingly good goal. His sense to take a couple of steps back into a tiny pocket of space thus giving Antonio Valencia a clear target for a cross demonstrated the instincts of a top-class and experienced striker. His header was placed, inch perfect high into the goal. Make no mistake it was not easy to execute. What shouldn’t get lost in the joy and relief of Ibrahimović’s leveler was his reaction to the goal.

There was no self-indulgent celebration here, just a few high-fives, a cry for Old Trafford to raise the roof, and a determination to restart the game in search of a winner. It was a pure display of the player’s winning mentality; no wonder Mourinho sought to recruit the Swede on taking the reins at Old Trafford.

Ibrahimović’s was not solely recruited to lead the line though. He is also at Old Trafford to add a measure of leadership missing for some time. By sheer force of personality, he’s emerged as the alpha male, supplementing both Wayne Rooney, and deputy captains Michael Carrick and Chris Smalling.

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United’s dependence on Zlatan, both for inspiration and goals, is dangerous, especially with Juan Mata and Paul Pogba being the next top scorers for United in the league, a full 10 goals behind the Swede. But when United needs inspiration the man Mourinho’s players seek is the talismanic number nine.

United legend Nemanja Vidić singled out the Ibrahimović as being central to Mourinho’s side – and the Serb should know a thing or two about leadership.

“First of all, his motivation at 35 years of age is incredible. I think he’s keeping himself fit. He’s professional. And his scoring is a great record. He is the one who has been driving Manchester United forward in recent weeks. Other players have to step up with the goals if they want to keep winning matches. He is playing really well this season.”

If anything Vidić is understating the striker’s maniacal desire to stay at the top. The Swede may not have many years of football left, but his influence could linger around Old Trafford long after he hangs up his boots. A modern day Eric Cantona to inspire the youthful hopefuls.

It’s important not to underestimate the importance of Ibrahimović’s mindset – a winning mentality sorely missed during the Louis van Gaal and David Moyes era. Indeed, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial identified the impact the Swede has already made at Old Trafford.

Zlatan has taken on the role of “godfather,” and was quick to defend Paul Pogba after the Frenchman’s poor performance against Liverpool. Criticism of Pogba was exacerbated by the launch of the player’s emoji across social media. Poor timing.

Much like Roy Keane became, in his peak, the embodiment of Sir Alex Ferguson on the pitch, so Ibrahimović’s is Mourinho’s ‘general’, the man tasked with dragging United back to the top of the tree. It takes a special sort of arrogance to make that happen, and in Mourinho and Zlatan the club has a duo who possess confidence in spades.

It may labour the point, but it is Zlatan’s attitude and work ethic, as well as his aura, that could be his biggest legacy at Old Trafford.

In a recent interview, he said :

“I prefer to win the Premier League than any individual ones because seeing me winning something and not my team-mates is not the way I want it, If I could be first in the Premier League and have five goals and the media attacking me, ‘he can’t do it in the Premier League’, I’d prefer to have it like that.”

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Ibrahimović may prefer to have it that way, but he’s not one to let his high standards slip and, by default, challenges those around him to keep up. True, there have been games where Ibrahimović has been relatively anonymous. He even suffered a six-match scoreless run, but he still has that rare gift of making a telling difference when inspiration is required. As my old man says “He has got a swagger which slays”

Cantona, United icon and self-appointed Commissioner of Football, gave his seal of approval to the Swede, dubbing Ibrahimović an heir, albeit with tongue firmly in cheek.

Behind the jest is a truth: that the Old Trafford throne finally has a worthy successor, one whose influence could linger long after he hangs up those golden boots.

Number 16: WHAT’S IN A NUMBER?

The United number 7 is a shirt that carries plenty of history, albeit in recent times a jersey that was held by gifted yet ultimately lightweight talents. While the club is looking for a worthy successor to don the fabled number 7, José Mourinho is fully aware that a new number 16 could be required sooner rather than later.

We have been told time and time again that the key to international (and European) football is possession. There is no better English player to Michael Carrick playing the possession game which makes it hard for me to see why he has been overlooked time and time again. With England failing time and time again at an international stage, could Michael Carrick have held the key to success? He has never really been able to nail down a place in the England team, often being overlooked and shunted aside to make way for Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry; a decision which continues to baffle everyone even today.

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Only two players have worn the number 16 of Manchester United: enigmatic Roy Keane and the metronomic Michael Carrick. He is entering the twilight of his career there’s now a question eerily similar to that posed when Keane departed Old Trafford. “Who will be the new Michael Carrick?”

The query seems straightforward enough, but what it implies is that Mourinho should search for a direct replacement and there are very few high quality options to fill Carrick’s boots. The most obvious choice is Paris Saint Germain’s Marco Verratti, while Borussia Dortmund’s highly rated Julian Weigl has also been mentioned in the conversation. It is perhaps just as pertinent to consider whether United should look for a Carrick clone at all.

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This much was as true when Keane left Old Trafford in 2005. Carrick is many things, but a copy of the Cork man he is not. That did not stop Carrick from successfully defining himself as an extremely effective midfielder to the point where the Geordie is practically indispensable. Simply put, whenever Carrick has played this season United, more often than not, has won.

In the question of succession, Mourinho must consider whether he wants United to operate with a deep-lying playmaker, in the Carrick mould, or whether he prefers to alter the way the midfield functions. Mourinho should know – he has worked with some of the best over his career, coaching Claude Makélélé, Xabi Alonso, Esteban Cambiasso and Luka Modrić. The Portuguese is more than capable of assembling different types of midfield to suit his need. It seems Mourinho’s vision for his team appears to be one filled with powerful, quick, athletic technicians.

Last summer’s transfer dealings certainly indicate that Mourinho is heading in that direction, given what Zlatan Ibrahimović, Paul Pogba, Eric Bailly and, to a lesser degree, Henrikh Mkhitaryan offer on the pitch. There has been a noticeable effort to make the starting team more powerful, taller and stronger, which may explain Mourinho’s decision to start Marouane Fellaini at the beginning of his Old Trafford tenure. Though the Portuguese manager admitted that it’s a “pity” Michael Carrick isn’t 10 years younger, he is fully committed to retooling the team. In all likelihood that means the ‘Carrick role’ could soon become a thing of the past. Not least because, as noted, there are very few identikit Carrick replacements. Once the Geordie hangs up his boots the position will become open to new interpretation.

It may be that Carrick’s successor will have a more limited scope, simply being instructed to screen the defence and offload possession to more attack-minded players. Alternatively, Mourinho may look to build a more fluid midfield, where the middle three are comfortable switching roles, enabling a new number 16 to attack, while still expecting them to be defensively responsible.

The crux is that just like there was never a new Keane, despite Liam Miller’s best efforts, there probably won’t be a new Carrick either. Indeed, the incumbent has a unique mix of defensive nous and attacking intelligence that makes him a vital cog in United’s team even at the age of 35, and even after Mourinho had mentally discarded the player last summer.

Moreover, it is noticeable that those who have tried to fill Carrick’s shoes have not quite been capable of pulling it off. Any notion that a direct replacement is needed overlooks the fact that very few players can do what the Geordie can.

United discovered the hard way that a like-for-life search is nigh on impossible in the wake of Keane’s departure. While Carrick is a very different type of player to the Irishman, it makes sense that whoever inherits the number 16 will have to make the position their own. No cheap imitations here.

The transition will not be easy either. Indeed, Carrick suffered plenty of lows at United before truly commanding the position. His presence in midfield is no doubt calming right now, but in the grand scheme of things Carrick is a player that is just aiding the transition from a post-Ferguson United to a Mourinho outfit. Ultimately, the Portuguese manager has very different demands of his squad.

For the successor there will be comparisons to Carrick once a new recruit is found. It’s the easiest route to an analytical critique. That form of evaluation will blind pundits and supporters alike to whatever new tactical requirements Mourinho will inevitably ask of his new player.

The question to be asked is now, is how the role will be redefined after the Geordie’s eventual departure, and not simply “who will be the new Michael Carrick?”

 

The Silk and Steel of Manchester United

Great partnerships, whether in attack or defence, are hard to come by in football. It’s either one of the two failing to adapt to conditions around them – through either a lack of talent or a lack of adaptability – or a failed experiment by the man at the helm. But some work out perfectly and shape the long-term future and success of a side. One such duo, Nemanja Vidić and Rio Ferdinand, came to be in England with Manchester United and were the backbone of their success for eight years. Their dominance began in 2006 when the Serb arrived at the club from Spartak Moscow and would end in 2014 when they both went their separate ways after nearly a decade together at the top.

Robin van Persie was asked during a press conference describe ‘Nemanja Vidic’.He said :

‘Vida puts his head where others are scared to put their feet’.

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That’s the easiest way of defining Nemanja Vidic. Sir Alex Ferguson called him his greatest warrior and one of the best pieces of business he did from Spartak Moscow.Signed for just 7million pounds on a January transfer eyes did roll when he chose United over Fiorentina and specially Sir Alex Ferguson was questioned why did he bring a centre back of unknown quality and just on the basis of 2006 FIFA qualification. Nemanja Vidic had put a stellar display where he and the fabled back 4 of Serbia conceded one single goal.

It wasn’t until the start of the 2006-07 season that he would team up with Rio Ferdinand at the back, and they would make the sternest of partnerships in European football. Having seen Mourinho’s Chelsea dominate the Premier League scene for the two seasons prior, Ferdinand and Vidić’s chemistry together would help the Red Devils launch a title challenge as well as reach the semi-finals of the Champions League and finish as runners-up in the FA Cup. Their astonishing defensive contribution saw them concede just 27 league goals, and the blossoming attacking talent of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo saw them firing goals left right and centre.

Goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar had his often exceptional work made easy with the two centre-backs in front, as well as the ever present full-backs around him, Gary Neville and Patrice Evra, all of whom made it onto the PFA Premier League Team of the Season that year. However, if that season was brilliant, the next was even better.

The 2007-08 season saw Ferdinand and Vidić become the most frequent names on the United team sheet. Amassing 41 starts together across all competitions, their statistics were more miserly than ever. Ferdinand also had the opportunity to take the captain’s armband due to Gary Neville’s injury problems, which forced him to make just one substitute appearance all season.

Having retained the Premier League title in emphatic fashion, conceding just 22 goals and having a goal difference of +58 – the second highest in Premier League history, behind Chelsea’s +71 two years later – the pair also retained their spot on the PFA’s Team of the Season and had greater success on the grandest platform.

It was on the European stage where United put the gloss on their season as they beat Chelsea in the Champions League final in Moscow after an enthralling game and a dominant season where they put the likes of Barcelona, Roma and Lyon to the sword, conceding just six goals in 13 games. Their magnificence at the back earned them high praise from around the footballing world and they were staking their claim to be one of the greatest defensive duos in the sport’s history.

Club legend Sir Bobby Charlton, who rose from the ashes to see the club go from strength to strength following the horror of the Munich Air Disaster in 1958, has seen some fine pairings at the club but regards Ferdinand and Vidić as the greatest defensive pairing in the history of the club, even ahead of Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister, who won a number of honours during the 1990s. He said in an interview in 2011 :

“We’ve had some magnificent centre-halves down the years, but these two [Ferdinand and Vidić] form the most formidable pairing of all.”

They were the silk and steel of the side, with Ferdinand the former and Vidić the latter. Ferdinand was a calm figure, a smart ball-playing central defender who had the elegance to make him one of the best of his generation, while Vidić was the enforcer, the man who would take no nonsense and whose aggression, timing, tackling and aerial skills were in a league of their own. The two complemented each other and together they were the perfect pairing when fit.

Fernando Torres – Liverpool’s Number 9

In the spring of 2009, however, the cracks started to show. After their record-breaking run, title rivals and old nemesis Liverpool came to Old Trafford in a bid to claim top spot in the league. After taking the lead through a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty in the first half, the stage looked set for United to seal a 12th successive league win. But just eight minutes later, Fernando Torres’ high pressing and eagerness forced Vidić into losing concentration and letting the Spaniard free to equalise.

Patrice Evra’s foul on Steven Gerrard in the penalty box just minutes before the interval allowed the Reds to take the lead from the spot, before Vidić, who endured a horror afternoon, was sent off for pulling down the Liverpool captain while he was on his way to goal. Ferdinand was helpless after that as Fábio Aurélio would score from the resultant free-kick and add a fourth just before the end after a lapse in concentration from the United back line.

The result did, however, just prove to be a blip in a supreme title challenge as their lead at the top was never in much doubt. They would win the league with a four-point gap over Liverpool to add to their League Cup success, and would again see Vidić and Ferdinand earn spots on the PFA Team of the Season, as well as individual nominations for the PFA’s Player of the Year award to honour their immaculate efforts for the club over the course of that season.

United lost the 2009-10 league title to a free-scoring Chelsea but would retain it just a year later, where Vidić would captain the side and also become the Premier League’s Player of the Year, despite the fact that his partner-in-crime was often absent. If United fans hoped for an unabated run in the team for the two during the 2011-12 season, they would be left disappointed. Their captain picked up a career-threatening knee injury in a crucial Champions League game in Basel and his absence was felt around the club as they would hand over their title to local rivals Manchester City and finish the season without a major honour for the first time since 2002.

Vidić announced his departure to Inter Milan in February 2014 while Ferdinand completed the 2013-14 campaign before being let go by new boss Louis van Gaal to join his former manager Harry Redknapp at Queens Park Rangers. They played their final game together under interim coach Ryan Giggs away at Southampton and received rapturous applause from the United faithful who made the trip to the south coast that afternoon.

After a combined 20 seasons, 755 appearances and 10 major honours, Manchester United said goodbye to a partnership that can be ranked alongside the very best in the game’s history. Classy and powerful at the peak of their powers between 2006 and 2009, they join an illustrious club that contains great duos like AC Milan’s Baresi and Maldini of the 1990s, the Picchi-Burgnich of the Grande Inter era in the 1960s, Piqué and Puyol at Barcelona and a select few others.