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. 

 

Louis Van Gaal’s “decay” Transfer policy : Answers which Mourinho is searching

Bastian Schweinsteiger’s long-proposed move to Chicago Fire was finally completed last week. with the German heading Stateside ahead of the new MLS season. The World Cup winner left with a classy parting message to Manchester United fans and seemingly no bitterness, despite what has been a difficult and unproductive 18 months at Old Trafford. Schweinsteiger’s departure means that five of Louis van Gaal’s 10 signings as United manager have now left the club. Of those who remain perhaps only two can be considered successful, each with caveats attached. It is a truly rotten legacy.

Van Gaal’s time at United was characterised by a scattergun, often contradictory, agent-driven approach to improving and evolving United’s squad. Shiny new toys were bought, whether required or not, and too often acquisitions were based on the recommendation of agents, or a lofty reputation long-since diminished.

Van Gaal’s purchases included two fading stars, Schweinsteiger and Radamel Falcao; three talented youngsters, Memphis Depay, Luke Shaw, and Antony Martial; one bone fide world star at his peak in Angel di Maria; and six squad fillers. Of that group Depay, Di Maria, and Falcao have left, in various degrees of disgrace, while Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin were effectively frozen out by Van Gaal’s replacement before being sold, deemed not good enough for the club.

Of those who remain, Luke Shaw is on the periphery, Matteo Darmian, Daley Blind, and Sergio Romero are useful, but limited squad players, while only Marcos Rojo, Ander Herrera, and Anthony Martial are regular starters.  We look into the mess which Van Gaal left behind

Radamel Falcao | AS Monaco  | Fee £6.46m | Value for Money 1/10 |  AS Monaco/Chelsea
The Colombian came with a huge reputation, large wage packet and an even larger appendage. Of that trio, only the manhood survived contact with Old Trafford. After two unsuccessful years in England with United and Chelsea, Falcao is back among the leading goalscorers in Ligue 1. But the extent to which Falcao’s legendary sharpness and eye for goal had dismissed by the time he arrived in Manchester cannot be underestimated. The striker scored just four times in 29 appearances for the club, all too often seeming two yards off the pace despite desperately wanting to succeed. This was no last hurrah and cynical pay check; Falcao wanted to be a hit – he just wasn’t good enough, or fit enough. To nobody’s surprise, United failed to take up the second year of the striker’s loan agreement. To everybody’s surprise, Chelsea stepped in to repeat the mistake.

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Victor Valdés | Free Agent  | Free | 2/10 |  Middlesbrough
Goalkeeper and manager fell out almost as quickly as it took for the former Barcelona player to sign for United. Valdés’ career had been put on hold, with a torn anterior cruciate ligament injury not only ruling the player out of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, but scuppering a proposed move to Monaco. Van Gaal first offered his former Barcelona colleague time training with the club, and then a permanent contract. If Valdés was supposed to challenge David de Gea he did not. The ‘keeper certainly didn’t want to be sat on the bench, and it wasn’t long before the Spaniard was consigned to training with the reserve team. The agony of a loan spell in Belgian football followed, before a summer transfer to Middlesbrough where Valdés is rebuilding a once great career.

Ángel Di María | Real Madrid  | £63.75m | 4/10 |  Paris Saint Germain
It took Di Maria hardly any time at all to establish that he was the best player in Van Gaal’s squad. The Argentinian came with a huge reputation as a creative tour-de-force in the middle of Real Madrid’s central midfield. Those few early performances suggested that he could repeat it at Old Trafford. Yet, it didn’t take too much longer to realise that Di Maria was that tour-de-force only when he wanted to be. Granted, the player probably never wanted the move to United in the first place, nor did a break-in at his house aid with a difficult period of acclimatisation. Van Gaal’s bizarre use of a world-class talent in almost every position in the team didn’t help either. In the end there was little that United could do bar sell the player on at a significant loss.

Luke Shaw | Southampton  | £31.88m | 4/10
Shaw has all the natural talent to become one of the finest full-backs in football. Luck hasn’t always come his way, not least with that horrific leg break against PSV Einhoven in the Champions League 18 months ago, together with a raft of minor injury problems that never allow for a consistent run in the team. Yet, there is too much in the accusations of lack of fitness and lack of application to ignore. Shaw recovered from that double fracture, but he has not yet matured as an athlete or a professional. It is taking far too long for the penny to drop, and Mourinho is far from impressed. There were times this season when Mourinho has pointed the way, and yet Shaw is still unable to break back into the United side. A divorce this summer appears to be increasingly likely. It will be a very sad conclusion if that is the case.

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Bastian Schweinsteiger | Bayern Munich  | £7.65m | 5/10 |   Chicago Fire
See above. Schweinsteiger offered plenty of classy moments at United, but not enough to justify his place in the squad. The pointing was pretty good, as was his obvious leadership. The German international was, perhaps, the right player at the wrong time. If only he had joined United a few years earlier when the club’s midfield was truly short of world-class performers. Having suffered one too many injuries, Schweinsteiger arrived in Manchester a little too far off the pace during his début campaign for United. There can be little surprised that Mourinho, a coach who values physicality more than most, ditched the midfielder with little ceremony. Classy man, who was once a classy player. Good luck in MLS.

Morgan Schneiderlin | Southampton   | £29.75m  | 5/10
There were a few eyebrows raised when United spent the best part of £30 million on the former Southampton player. Schneiderlin’s industry is to be admired, but as more of an attacking talent than a defensive one, plenty had doubts that he could translate his Soton form onto a bigger stage. Van Gaal tried to deploy the Frenchman in a holding role; it didn’t suit the player or United. Schneiderlin’s time at the club was no disaster and United secured a decent fee from Everton this winter, but the original hunch that the player just wasn’t a significant enough improvement on what United already had proved to be correct. There’s a term for buying too many mediocre players for incremental gain: Liverpoolisation. United should steer clear of it, and Schneiderlin’s sale was surely the correct decision.

Matteo Darmian | Torino   | £15.30m | 6/10
Darmian’s first half-dozen performances for United proved to be a very false dawn. The Italian is a cool head, can operate across the back four and came at a reasonable price. But there’s little quality going forward and the defensive mistakes started to creep into his game during the second half of last season. He has proven a useful squad player, able to perform in either full-back position, but he is not as good as Antonio Valencia or Daley Blind, and has nowhere near the natural talent of Luke Shaw. The Italian remains at the club for now, but a sale to a mid-ranked Serie A side this summer is on the cards. Mediocre squad filler. See warning above.

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Marcos Rojo | Sporting   | £17.00m | 6/10
What an enigma. Rojo’s purchase was seemingly driven by agent Jorge Mendes and not any long-term scouting on United’s part. The former Sporting player enjoyed a strong World Cup 2014 with Argentina, but has produced a highly inconsistent two and a half seasons in Manchester. The player is clearly more comfortable in central defence than at left-back – and in fact this season can lay claim to being United’s most consistent performer in the centre. There are moments of genuine rash play though and he is lucky not to have seen red more often. At left-back Rojo is neither a great defender, nor a good attacker and it is still amusing when he is used in that role.  Rojo is probably not good enough to form part of a title-winning back four. For now the recent improvement is welcome.

Sergio Romero |  Sampdoria   | Free transfer | 7/10
Flappy Serge offers the odd heart-stopping moment, but for the most part the club has gained a good quality back-up ‘keeper and a very reasonable price. There were some who suggested the Argentinian World Cup finalist could challenge David de Gea for a place in the United side on a more regular basis. That, of course, was nonsense. Yet, Romero’s consistency, save for a few comedic errors last season, enabled Van Gaal and now Mourinho to rest De Gea in cup matches. Indeed, Romero has been near faultless in his 11 appearances to date this season. Rumours that the player would like a move in search of a more regular starting role may escalate in the summer. Should he move on, Mourinho will do well to find a reserve ‘keeper of equal quality.

Daley Blind | Ajax Amsterdam   | £14.88m | 7/10
The Dutchman’s composure and flexibility is an asset, although his pace and overall quality remain in question. Used mainly at left-back by Ajax, and in midfield by the national team, and in central defence by Van Gaal, Blind is the modern-day John O’Shea – a jack of all trades, master of none, squad player for the rotation era. That suited Van Gaal well, although Mourinho much prefers specialists in all positions. To that end Blind has been used primarily at left-back this season – it is comfortably his best position and there have been several stand out performances. It would not be a surprise if Mourinho moves the player on in the summer though. United bought Blind at a decent price and should find plenty of suitors across European football. No disaster, but no smash hit either.

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Ander Herrera | Athletic Bilbao   | £30.60m | 8/10

The Spaniard’s energy, tenacity and determination has been put to very good effect by Mourinho this season in a deeper role than any he has taken in his career to date. Used either at eight or 10 by Bilbao, and sometimes on the right side of midfield, Herrera joined United after a protracted transfer negotiation lasting more than a year. Van Gaal seemed unsure about the player, as did Mourinho for some of the early part of this season. Now Herrera is an essential foil for Paul Pogba. There is a question about his long-term role though. Herrera is not quite a pure-play defensive midfielder, nor does he offer the same quality as Pogba at eight. It seems that the Basque is best in a midfield three, and his position and future could be impacted by Mourinho’s summer transfer strategy.

Anthony Martial | AS Monaco   | £42.50m | 9/10

Martial has not enjoyed the same impact this season as he did last, although there are plenty of mitigating factors to take into account. The Frenchman has been limited to a wide role, when selected, and came off a turbulent summer in which he was supposed to help France win the European Championships – and didn’t. Then personal problems seemingly affected the player’s focus and confidence. Some of that old bravado is returning though, and Mourinho deserves credit for being patient with a player who has all the potential to become a world-class forward for United. The Portuguese manager is not always so with young players. United supporters will hope that Martial’s difficult second season will transform into a very high impact third. It should.

 

 

 

 

Ander Herrera: The jackal disguised as a choirboy

There are few greater crimes in football than Louis van Gaal’s decision to sideline Ander Herrera for much of his two-year reign. It had little to with the Spaniard’s ability. The midfield terrier has plenty of talent. Instead, Herrera’s exclusion appeared to be a clash of ideologies. Van Gaal’s possession obsession versus Herrera’s aggression; the Dutchman’s patience against a streak of recklessness. No longer. Herrera is important again, a man fit for José Mourinho’s regime. One fully understood by his manager, and the supporters.

While Zlatan Ibrahimović and Paul Pogba are the poster boys of Mourinho’s United, Herrera is the player who personifies his manager most on the pitch. When the Portuguese coach first joined Chelsea in 2004, he was characterised as charmingly arrogant,  but a man who also commanded respect. The same kind of paradoxical traits that can be seen in United’s number 26.

While the Basque-born midfielder charms with a smile and offers small talk about the game for hours on end, his on-the-pitch antics polarise neutral supporters. Herrera’s penchant for a tackle, frequent protestations to the referee, and that face of innocence when pulled up for fouls, infuriates rivals. They are the same traits that endear the player to United supporters. Like Mourinho, Herrera has an infuriating quality: you either hate to love him, or love to hate him.

ESPN in their blog wrote :

It is easy to be fooled by Herrera when you first look at him. He is not particularly tall, and his fresh-faced demeanour suggests that of a polite and diligent postgraduate student, possibly studying economics. He looks like — well, like a nice boy. But he is assuredly not a nice boy. Nice boys do not conjure slide tackles with the viciousness of bear traps. Nice boys do not steal possession as if it were a wallet left too long on the adjacent dinner table. Herrera is an unlikely source of fury, a jackal disguised as a choirboy.

Mourinho’s success in raising Herrera’s game should not be underestimated. The hardest task in management is perhaps not getting the best out of star players, but raising the game of the less prominent among a manager’s the squad. While Antonio Valencia deserves plaudits for his improvement this season, it is Herrera who is now the most important cog in United’s machine.

Under Van Gaal, the Spaniard was used as a creative midfielder with plenty of license to get forward. Mourinho, in contrast, has harnessed Herrera’s industry, and perfected it. By deploying Herrera in a two-man central midfield alongside Pogba, or in a three with Carrick as regista, the Spaniard’s role has become that of the destroyer. His tireless running and willingness to harass the opposition gives Pogba the license to roam and Carrick the freedom to dictate.

Every successful team contains a player of this ilk. Leicester City’s fall after N’Golo Kanté’s departure in the summer, or Liverpool’s poor form since Jordan Henderson suffered an injury offer evidence of the point.

While strikers’ goals win games and goalkeepers’ saves rescue them, the Premier League is evolving into a battle for midfield control. The shift by both Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspurs to a 3-4-3 system, highlights the the importance of controlling the central third of the pitch. It seems highly likely that Kanté will be named the PFA Player of the Year for his title-winning impact on Chelsea this season.

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Herrera’s importance was highlighted by his dismissal against the Blues at Stamford Bridge on Monday night. While any player loss will have a detrimental effect on the team’s performance, it was telling just how much United regressed without the Spaniard’s presence.

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The central duo of Pogba and Herrera had adequately matched Kanté and Nemanja Matić until the 34th minute when the United midfielder collected a somewhat dubious second yellow of the evening. Marouane Fellaini was brought on in place of Henrikh Mkhitaryan to add more steel to United’s midfield, but the game was already gone. The Belgian showed good strength, but Kanté’s dynamism could only have been matched by Herrera, and Chelsea dominated for the rest of the game, claiming 72.6 per cent possession by the end of the match.

Despite Herrera’s ability to break up play, the Spaniard also possesses quality on the ball, enabling a smooth transition from defence to attack. With Carrick unable to impose himself on matches as his legs age, Herrera has taken on the mantle of the deep-lying playmaker when he is partnered by Pogba. The former Athletic Bilbao player has the industry and game awareness to drop deep and restart attacks, while still being able to get further forward in support of United’s attack.

For now, though, what he is doing should be celebrated. He is arguably as cerebral a midfielder United have had in recent years, having played under Ernesto Valverde, Marcelo Bielsa and Louis van Gaal. He also takes to his play with the passion of a United fan — a quality which finds itself in the performances of his fellow Spaniard, Mata.

On the field Herrera is not the replacement for Roy Keane that United has missed since 2005, but his ability to command the centre of the pitch, bark orders at teammates, and incite fear with a crunching tackle or few offers a hint of the past. Herrera may still look like a charming school prefect, but his tenacity is a remnant of the Irishman’s heyday.

The player’s leadership also means that many supporters view the Spaniard as United’s next club captain. After all, Herrera has the mental strength, skill, charisma, and empathy to do it. He also has Mourinho’s approval. The player not only understands supporters’ passion, but embraces it. After each home draw he vents his genuine frustration eloquently and honestly. When the team wins, he does it with the fans. At a time when footballers are at a distance, the Spaniard thinks and plays like those on the terraces.

Indeed, if there is anything that Herrera can add to his game, then it is the odd extra goal here and there — he has shown that he can be a fine finisher when called upon, and with so much attacking talent he can benefit from the preoccupation of defenders by arriving late in the area. Yet this is all fine tuning of a machine in near-perfect working order. It has taken Herrera longer to get here than he might have hoped — far longer than he should have expected, perhaps — but he has finally become pivotal to United’s trophy challenges on all fronts, and looks to remain at the heart of their push for silverware for years to come.

 

The Fosu Mensah Test

Timothy Fosu-Mensah’s situation at Old Trafford is an interesting study. The youngster made an impressive start to life at United last season, one of the few bright sparks during the Louis van Gaal era, and it seems only a matter of time before he fully develops into a top-class footballer. The Dutchman is already a fan favourite and there is widespread clamor for the youngster to get more games under his belt. Yet, José Mourinho has overlooked his talents in favor of more experienced pros. Is there a route into the first team?

Part of Fosu-Mensah’s problem is he has largely been used at right back, where Antonio Valencia’s thighs of steel reign supreme.

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Under the Iron Tulip, Fosu-Mensah made eight appearances in the Premier League and four in the FA Cup, but the 19-year-old has found that Mourinho is not quite ready to let him loose. In fact, Fosu-Mensah has rarely enjoyed any game time this season, clocking up 74 minutes against Zorya Luhansk at Old Trafford last September in one of only six games this season. Other appearances have been restricted to short cameos, the EFL third round match against Northampton Town aside, and it’s hard to see him getting much more first-team action before the campaign is out.

Make no mistake, the talent is there for all to see, but the former Ajax player is jostling for places in some fairly well stocked areas. In midfield, the teenager has to compete for a place with Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera, Michael Carrick, Marouane Fellaini and even Bastian Schweinsteiger. At right back, José’s first choice is Antonio Valencia, with Matteo Darmian and Ashley Young the go to deputies. In central defence, the club is already well stocked.

The other problem Fosu-Mensah faces is to nail down a specific role. Indeed, Mourinho could not have been clearer on his appointment that he is looking for specialists and not utility players. It imposes an immediate dilemma for the youngster to tackle; does he define himself as a central midfielder, or as a fullback, or something else?

After all, both Nelson Semedo and Kyle Walker have been mentioned as potential candidates for United’s right-back slot, while Monaco’s Tiemoue Bakayoko is on the proverbial radar to strengthen in central midfield. Granted it is paper talk now, but that should not detract from the message that Fosu-Mensah has much work to do.For all the player’s struggles, there are signs that a pathway to the first team could become clearer. Morgan Schneiderlin’ s departure to Everton enables Fosu-Mensah to move up the midfield pecking order, Carrick can’t last forever, while only so much faith can be invested in converted full-backs Valencia and Young, not to mention the continuing speculation surrounding Darmian’s future.

Despite Mourinho, being acutely aware of the club’s history with respect to promoting youth prospects there is, just as pertinently, a tradition of success and if given it comes to a choice between one or the other there’s no question for which option the Portuguese will plump. After a slow start this season, Mourinho is under pressure to secure a Champions League position and there will be little appetite for experimentation with youth when his primary brief is to make United a winning machine again.

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There are recent cases that could give the Dutchman some cause for hope though. Kurt Zouma’s development at Chelsea during Mourinho’s time is a positive frame of reference. The former Saint-Étienne man won the trust of Mourinho and was eased into the side playing primarily as a central defender, though he was utilized as a defensive midfielder to neutralize Marouane Fellaini when the Blues defeated United 1-0 at Stamford Bridge in April 2015. The comparison is instructive insofar as the pair share similar skill-sets, with Fosu-Mensah possessing the added attribute of being a good distributor of the ball. The key differences are that Zouma has experience of competitive league football under his belt and was first in line to freshen an aged Chelsea defense. Fosu-Mensah, by contrast, is still an inexperienced player competing against contemporaries who have a fair bit of football ahead of them, with the notable exception of Carrick.

This is, no doubt, a test of Fosu-Mensah’s mentality as well as his quality. Mourinho will be taking careful notes on how the United youngster responds to being on the fringes. Despite his positive impression, one cannot shake off the meltdown Fosu-Mensah suffered after giving away a penalty against Everton in the FA Cup semi-final, which led to Van Gaal quickly substituting the teenager. It is an episode that must be chalked up to experience. After all, it should not be easy at a top club, but the carrot to succeed is tangibly there for one of United’s most talented youngsters.

Fosu-Mensah signed a new five-year contract at the club last October, committing his future to United until 2021. Mourinho could not have been more enthusiastic, claiming that

 “Tim is young player with great potential. I am delighted at the progress he has made so far. He is learning every day in training and there will be plenty of opportunities for him as the season continues.”

Those opportunities have been fleeting thus far. Now it is time for the 19-year old to battle hard and prove that he is a key building block in United’s brave new future. The one mitigating factor is the context in which the player must make his breakthrough: a season where failure cannot be accepted. Given the task of reestablishing United as one of England’s, let alone Europe’s, preeminent powers it is too much pressure to expect too much from the youngster so quickly.

The coming pre-season is another question, and Fosu-Mensah should get a chance to impress. The thinking this season is about the short-term, and if the targets are met then it will allow more breathing room to integrate talented young players like Fosu-Mensah more completely. It is a testing period, but one that could still mark a key step as the Dutchman blossoms at Old Trafford.

 

 

The importance of being Paul Labile Pogba

Manchester United players and supporters are on a different level right now. A league cup may not be the best trophy to have but it certainly is the one which Jose Mourinho would be happy to start off with. Manchester United players or supporters weren’t in any mood for a song and dance at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard on Wednesday. The Old Trafford club eased to a 1-0 win against their French opponents, Saint-Etienne – a victory attained at some cost, with Eric Bailly seeing red, and both Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Michael Carrick collecting injuries.

The injuries were  particularly ill-timed given that United faces Southampton in the final of the EFL Cup on Sunday.  They are big blows, no doubt, but perhaps not as catastrophic as they first seem. Manchester United managed to pluck this trophy in thin air and all credit to smart substitutions done by Jose Mourinho and Zlataner effect.

Paul Pogba may not have hit the heights as expected by fans and critics but it would be absolutely stupid to say he has not been performing for his new club. At the beginning of the season this side struggled to reconcile its identity, with performances and results reflecting that uncertainty. Those elements of doubt appear to have vanished with time as the United squad has a clearer idea of how it is meant to play. More importantly, the team is more able to execute game plans.

Naturally, it helps possessing a player as gifted and astute as Paul Pogba on the books. While the Frenchman is capable of this

he has also demonstrated an ability to adapt to José’s tactical demands.  That detail may seem a minor point, but nonetheless it should not be overlooked.  One only has to recall earlier in the season the cries to play a 4-3-3 in order to accommodate Pogba’s talent. In recent games, alongside Ander Hererra, the Frenchman has looked more than comfortable playing in a 4-2-3-1.

Why is this important?

So why is this important?  For a start, his ability to operate in a deeper position lessens the impact of losing Michael Carrick.  It’s no coincidence that Mourinho’s side plays better when the Geordie is in the side, but it simply isn’t feasible to continue to rely on the 35-year-old to boss midfield.

Former United fullback Paul Parker recently criticized Pogba’s performances this season.  Parker has a flair for hyperbole, claiming that Pogba couldn’t “justify his fee unless he scores 15 goals a season and has 25 assists.” That observation should be taken with a pinch of salt as it’s designed to make a headline, but his comment about style of play is worth looking at.

Parker had said

“The problem is that he’s not playing with the same calibre of players that he had at Juventus so he’s trying to do too much and holds onto the ball too long, He never had so many touches of the ball at Juventus because maybe now he feels he doesn’t have the players around him who he respects. Maybe if he kept it more simple and began respecting the people around he’d do more instead of just flashes.”

Pogba has made 1,787 passes in the Premier League this season, second only to Jordan Henderson, and played 23 through balls.  Those don’t look like the numbers of a player who doesn’t ‘respect’ his teammates. The remark about simplicity does bear a little scrutiny though, certainly if one is to go over Pogba’ s early matches.  To the naked eye the Frenchman appeared to be trying too hard, perhaps in an effort to justify his transfer fee.  It certainly didn’t help that he and his manager was still searching for the correct role.

Now though things seem more settled and Pogba is demonstrating, if any proof was required, that teams don’t necessarily need to be built around the Frenchman for him to thrive.  It is common knowledge that he can be devastating on the left hand side of midfield in a 4-3-3, but he’s showing that playing effectively in a 4-2-3-1 isn’t beyond his repertoire.

Tactical Adaptability

His performance against Watford prompted Mourinho to argue that Pogba

“is playing with great balance in these last two games: he is playing with his brain, he is recovering a lot of balls, he is very good in his positional play.”

Pogba is an outrageous talent, but not enough is made of his tactical nous. Mourinho mentioned Pogba’s positional play is sound and knows when to go forward and when to he needs to cover.  Moreover, with Pogba adapting to his deeper role it allows for Mourinho to play Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the pitch together, a seemingly unthinkable proposition a few months ago.

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Pogba’s discipline in a 4-2-3-1 allows for United to exploit the attacking options at Mourinho’s disposal and gives the United boss the tactical flexibility to alter his team’s style of play.  Naysayers will argue that this iteration of Pogba won’t be able to score 15 goals or lay on 25 assists; that he doesn’t justify the transfer fee. Maybe they’re missing the point.  Goals and assists don’t necessarily reflect Pogba’s ability to break presses with his range of passing, not to mention his dribbling.  Nor do they shine a light on his ability to recognise transitions of play and act accordingly.

But isn’t £89 million a lot to pay for effectively a holding midfielder?  Perhaps but maybe Mourinho’s plan isn’t to embark on a clumsy galactico style endeavour where all the stars are forced fit into the side.  That money has bought one of the finest midfielders of his generation, who is savvy enough to adapt his game and still perform to a top class level. So much so that by playing deeper he allows forwards more freedom to express themselves because they know the Frenchman can deliver – whether covering the defence or initiating attacks with intelligent passes.

Mourinho is a believer. The Portuguese coach said

“I am really happy with what he has been doing for us, He gives us an incredible balance and he is still very young. He starts build-ups from the back, he recovers the ball and at the top of the pitch he is a guy that can score goals. He can be fantastic and I think in a couple of years you will realize he was cheap.”

He is a man who once said “25 million is cheap for a striker and judge him when he leaves this club”. This man was Didier Drogba and was he worth 25million? We all know the answer to that.

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An £89 million bargain? In the world of football that may not be as preposterous as it sounds

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?”