soccer

2010 English Premier League Preview: Manchester United

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Manchester United took on some of the best North America had to offer on their pre-season tour.

Another pre-season tour is in the bag, but there is still a cloud of nerves hanging above Manchester United supporters ahead of the 2010/2011 Premier League season. The transfer period has slowly evaporated without much movement at Old Trafford, save the signings of Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Chris Smalling. David Gill has constantly insisted that funds are available, but not too many people believe him (“I promise we have the money. No you can’t see it! But it’s there, promise!”).

The lack of spark last season, the fact that we didn’t win the league, the fact that the quality of football took a step back between ourselves, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Arsenal, the fact that we didn’t get quite as far as we got used to in the Champions League…yea, I get it. People are skeptical. People are wary. People are afraid of a “transition period” at the club, which is basically another way of saying you need to wait awhile for trophies (and I know Arsenal supporters are sick of that phrase).

But on the flip side of the coin, we have a new crop of untested players who could become world beaters. I’m not saying that they will or won’t, but they at least show the potential. The final hurdle is the toughest one for young players at big clubs. Will we end up with a Ronaldo or a Chris Eagles? A Darren Fletcher or a Danny Simpson? That is the hardest thing to gauge, because these players are Premier League quality, but the question is whether or not they are Manchester United quality. Over the next season or two, we’ll hopefully have an answer. That’s why I enjoyed this pre-season so much. Most of the big boys stayed home, and in their place were a group of youngsters with everything to prove. It gave us a good look at the possible future of the team.

That said, here are some of the movers and shakers from the North American tour.

Chris Smalling

Smalling made his Manchester United debut against Celtic in pre-season.

I’m about to make a comparison that I never, ever, EVER want to have to make about a United player again. Chris Smalling reminds me of…Oguchi Onyewu. I don’t mean to offend any Gooch fans out there, but the guy has the football IQ of a 10-year-old. If there’s an opposing player within 20 feet of him when he gets the ball, he’ll just boot it away as far away as he can. I like no-nonsense defending…but to an extent. Like the Nemanja Vidic approach: rather than risk losing possession or giving up a positional advantage, clear the ball.

Any manager will tell you that there’s nothing more frustrating than giving possession away at the back (Rio Ferdinand vs. Craig Bellamy last season, anyone?). But if you take that idea too far, then your defenders turn into professional kick-ball players. United thrive on possession, and that’s why defenders who are confident on the ball are so important. If it’s one thing that Smalling needs to work on, it’s that.

He also has to get a better sense of his positioning, but being that it was pre-season and he was playing in a completely unfamiliar backline, I’ll give him slack on that for now. From what I saw on tour, he showed more from a physical standpoint than from a defensive one. He’s a big fella, but at this level, big doesn’t cut it.

The good news? He’s 20 years old. That’s like 6 in central defender years. The confidence, positioning, and passing sense will develop in time, and at United that learning curve will hopefully be faster than normal. Vidic staying at Old Trafford is huge, because he’ll have more time to learn and mature. As of right now, I’d say he’s the fifth choice center-back, behind Rio, Vidic, Evans, and Brown, so there won’t be too much pressure on him (yet).

Rafael and Fabio

Which one is which again?

I’m not lumping these two together because they’re twins, but because what I have to say about one also applies to the other (and on second thought, that’s probably because they’re twins). One thing we knew about these guys going in is that they’re fast, and they definitely showed that on tour. It was like watching two identical blurs shooting around the field.

Unfortunately, their patience runs faster than they do. I can’t even count how many times Rafael or Fabio would immediately lunge into a two-footed tackle Rambo-style as soon as an opposing player was within five feet. I have to give them some credit – sometimes it got the job done. But most of the time it didn’t. Most of the time they would miss completely, go flying into the stands, and leave the entire flank open for the other team to exploit. See, that’s the things with those desperate tackles, you need to be desperate in order to use them. It has to be the last weapon you pull out, because if it backfires you’ll be looking at (a) leaving the entire area in front of you free for the attacker to run rampant, (b) a yellow or red card, (c) an injury, or (d) all of the above.

To Fabio’s credit, he has a little more composure than his brother does. We’ve known for awhile that Rafael is a loose cannon ever since he burst into the Premier League knocking out left wingers like he was going through a level of Final Fight, and not surprisingly, his brother is in a similar mold.

Don’t get me wrong, the fire that these guys have is great – I love it, I just want them to tone it down a little bit so we don’t get repeats of the Champions League quarter-final second leg against Bayern Munich last season. The positive side of that intensity is that even though United were in pre-season, where a lot of players tend to just go through the paces and take it easy, the twins were sprinting around like they were playing in the World Cup final. You don’t see tenacity like that too often, and I’m a big fan of it.

Ryan Giggs

Ryan Giggs: man or mutant?

I have come up with the following possibilities to explain Ryan Giggs’ longevity as a footballer:

1. He is a mutant. Giggs’ DNA contains the “X-gene”, a gene that normal humans like you and I don’t have, which gives him special powers and abilities. Just like how Cyclops’ X-gene allows him to shoot energy beams out of his eyes, Giggsy’s give him the skills and coordination of a 25-year-old.

2. He is a time traveler from the distant future, when average male life expectancy is 114. In this far-off time, a man’s athletic peak lasts until he is roughly 40.

3. His birth certificate is a fake, and he is actually 26 years old as opposed to 36. That means he joined United on his 4th birthday, made his League debut at age 8, and has been using hair dye for the past few years to fake those old-timer grey spots.

4. Giggs, Brett Favre, and Jamie Moyer combined forces several years ago to develop an anti-aging elixir that gives them unnatural athletic longevity. Giggs and Moyer have been using it so they can prolong their careers, while Favre uses it because he realized two years ago that he enjoys retiring more than he enjoys playing football.

Darron Gibson

Gibbo's getting there, but he still has a lot of work to do

Ok so maybe he can’t really pass that well. Or play defense. Or dribble. But man, can he shoot.

I have to admit, I’m incredibly hot-or-cold when it comes to Darron Gibson. Some days I think he can make it, other days I’m sure he’ll be a bust. One thing is for sure, though – with a shot that good, he has a leg to stand on even if the rest of his game isn’t up to par. He showcased that with a gorgeous free-kick against the MLS All-Stars.

The problem, though, is that as an attacking midfielder, creating goals is more important than scoring them. So if Gibson really wants to make a push for the first team, he has to figure out how to cut through defenses with his through balls rather than cutting through the net with those right-footed rockets. If he manages to figure that out and works on his positioning, he can be a complete player. But that’s a pretty big if. Besides blasting some huge shots on the tour, he didn’t do much else, and that’s pretty much where he left off last season.

 

Jonny Evans

Jonny Evans was all-business in Toronto against Celtic

I have seen a lot of central defenders come through United and it’s hard for me to think of one in recent years that has looked as polished and composed as Jonny Evans at his age. One of my favorite parts of the tour was seeing him marshal young back-lines, and even though the defending was shoddy at times (*cough* Kansas City *cough*), it seemed like he was always the one who came to the rescue when somebody else made a mistake. A solid pre-season is huge for Evans, because he will likely be thrown straight into the mix while Ferdinand heals up. Is this kid really only 22? Someone check his birth certificate please.

Federico Macheda

Macheda and Nani celebrate one of Kiko's goals against the MLS All-Stars

Macheda proved on this tour that he’s not just a one-goal wonder. Whenever he was on the pitch, he was a menace. His best performance was undoubtedly the MLS All-Star game, when he hounded their back-line the entire first half Tevez-style (I hate that I had to use that analogy, but it’s the best way of putting it). The confidence in his finishing was really impressive, and it’s something you don’t see that often in an 18-year-old (reminds me of a young Michael Owen). The match against Philadelphia was another solid performance, and he was unlucky not to tuck one or two away in that match as well.

Macheda has bulked up, and it showed against the physical MLS players, so I don’t think going up against Premier League defenders will faze him too much anymore. Rumors have it that he will be staying at Old Trafford this season rather than going out on loan, and if that’s true, I hope to see him starting every FA Cup and Carling Cup match.

Danny Welbeck

Welbeck and Obertan celebrate the winner against the Philadelphia Union

Speaking of bulking up, Danny Welbeck looks like he’s been hitting the protein shakes this summer. He sprouted a few inches and added plenty of muscle to go along with it, so now he should be ready to tussle with Premier League defenders at full-force.

We knew that he’s fast, and we knew that he can shoot, but over the last couple seasons, his problem was decision-making on the ball. From this tour at least, it looks like he’s making strides in that department. Against the Philadelphia Union, he took advantage of a defensive error to slot in Gabriel Obertan for the winner. Add to that a nice little tap-in goal against Celtic, and Welbeck had a very strong showing on this tour.

Ferguson is likely to send him out on loan again this season, and I’m hoping he goes out to a Premier League club where he can get consistent playing time. Based on his pre-season, I don’t think going back to a Championship club (he spent some time at Preston North End last season before getting injured) is going to do him much good. He has to be in the Premier League, and most importantly, he has to be playing often. The last thing we need is another Giusseppi Rossi-Newcastle situation, where we send a player on loan only for him to warm the bench. Can we get Stoke on the phone, please?

Gabriel Obertan

Which was better, his goal against the Union or the celebration?

The following list needs to be made as soon as humanly possible: Most Absurd United Goal Celebrations Ever. I can’t compile the entire list right now, but I’d be willing to bet that Obertan’s little number against the Philadelphia Union ends up in the top ten. It looked like a four-year-old dancing to Ace of Base at a wedding.

That aside, Obertan is one of those players who I get excited about the moment he touches the ball. He has plenty of tricks up his sleeve, and you never quite know what he’ll do. There is a downside to that, as you’re also never quite sure if he’ll beat his defender with a smooth step-over and bolt down the wing or just dribble the ball out of bounds. But the ability is definitely there for all to see. On top of that, it looks like he added some muscle over the summer, and he’s definitely not as lanky as he was when he came on against Wolfsburg last December.

Besides the goal against Philly, he was consistently a nuisance on the wing, and he showed that he can do the business on both flanks, which is huge considering we only have one actual left winger in the team in Ji-Sung Park. Gabby spent most of his playing time last season on the left side, but played almost the entire pre-season tour on the right. That versatility is a great thing to have, especially with Antonio Valencia refusing to let the ball touch his left foot. As of right now, if you were to tell me that he would be the left wing understudy for next season, I’d be completely fine with that – just as long as he does that same exact celebration the next time he scores a goal.

Tom Cleverley

Cleverley made his mark in the MLS All-Star Game

Tom’s pre-season didn’t get off to a great start. He was the player I was most looking forward to seeing on the tour, and oddly enough, he was also the most disappointing player on the field in his first match against Celtic.

I’ll peg that to nerves though, because he improved with every minute of pre-season. Against Celtic, he was unsure of himself, he wasn’t completing his passes, he wasn’t defending properly, he was just plain awful. But fast-forward to the MLS All-Star Game, and it was like watching a completely different player. He started to look a lot less like a reserve and a lot more like the player who won Watford’s Player of the Season award last season. I just wish we could have seen him play down the middle of the field rather than on the wings, because that’s the role I hope he can eventually step into. And that finish against the All-Stars? Goal of the tour, hands down.

Chicharito

One last goal for Chivas, now onto Old Trafford

What promise this kid has. He comes on as a sub against the All-Stars and scores almost straight away, then he plays against United with Chivas and turns in a classy half-volley finish from 20 yards out. That was one of the few times in all the years I’ve followed United when I was actually legitimately happy with an opponent’s goal.

After a good World Cup with Mexico, Chicharito looks like he could be ready to challenge Dimitar Berbatov for a starting spot alongside Wayne Rooney. Based on the kid’s ability, I wouldn’t be too shocked if he won that battle, although I think he’ll be mainly an impact sub for the time being while he gets acclimated to English football.

Pre-season Standouts: Macheda, Welbeck, and Obertan

Those three showed a big jump in development from last season, and I hope it’s only a matter of time before they start legitimately challenging for first team spots. I would be thrilled if a few years down the road our striker quartet was Rooney, Macheda, Welbeck, and Chicharito (having Diouf come through would be pretty awesome too). All three of Welbeck, Obertan, and Macheda have bulked up over the summer, and they still have some growing to do before they reach their physical peaks. They showed that they have the moves and now the muscle to fight with some very tough defenders, and now the obstacle is proving it on the big stage. The potential is there, and hopefully they all fulfill it. If they do, this scary “transition period” might not last that long after all.

 

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