A slightly unusual story has been doing the rounds at Old Trafford over the past week that Antonio Valencia is undecided about wearing the No7 shirt at Manchester United this season and might be willing to start again with a number that does not weigh so heavily on his back.
Valencia’s touch was not so sure when he took over Cristiano Ronaldo’s old number last season. He stopped trying to take on his man and the right-wing deliveries that had made him such a penetrative player when he joined the club a few years earlier, so often picking out Wayne Rooney’s forehead, stopped becoming a prominent feature of the team’s attack. In the worst moments Valencia has given the impression of it being a breeze block on his back rather than a shirt number. Now the story goes he is happy, if necessary, to let someone else have a go.
David Moyes should probably tell Valencia it is just a confidence thing and that, if Sir Alex Ferguson selected him to wear that number, he should just get on with it. Yet it is a reminder of how difficult it is sometimes to fill the void left by players of authentic greatness. United sold Ronaldo ? a man who wore 7 like a fashion statement ? for £80m and have spent £60m of it on Valencia, Gabriel Obertan, Ashley Young, Bébé and Wilfried Zaha. Maybe Zaha (who, I’m told, bought four cars in the five months between agreeing a move to United and finishing the season with Crystal Palace) will fancy himself one day as next in line to Cantona, Beckham, Best, et al. Otherwise you look through Moyes’s squad and there aren’t really a great deal of alternatives. It is a very capable group of players, clearly, but also one that lacks a certain amount of stardust.
Manchester City and Chelsea will surely make a better fist of the title race this time around and, though suspecting a few of my colleagues have been too hasty to disregard United’s chances, it is easy to understand why there are misgivings. United, if they are not careful, are in danger of treading water.
It has certainly been a complicated first summer in the job for Moyes and it probably won’t make him feel a great deal better that his predecessor also had his fair share of disappointments in his first year. Ferguson never forgot the time he rang Willie McFaul, the manager of Newcastle, to ask about Peter Beardsley. “He told me he wanted £3m and three weeks later sold him to Liverpool for £1.9m without even a phone call.” Glenn Hysen agreed a move from Gothenburg then decided to go to Fiorentina instead ? “a complete farce and embarrassment for us”, as Ferguson remembers.
In his 1992 book, 6 Years at United, Ferguson also remembers the chief scout, Tony Collins, talking him out of a £400,000 move for a young Gary Pallister, a player they ended up buying for £2.3m a couple of years later. Ferguson, new to English football, also sought the advice of Collins about John Barnes at Watford. “The opinion was that Barnes was up and down, not terribly consistent. The result was we lost Barnes to Liverpool and have paid for it more than once. John Barnes would have been a wonderful player for Manchester United.” Collins, you won’t be surprised, was quickly moved out. “Too cautious for me,” Ferguson explained.
Moyes is probably entitled to a few grievances of his own bearing in mind United, after all the briefings about starting the new era with a bang, have not brought in a single player bar a 20-year-old Uruguayan defender by the name of Guillermo Varela, signed from Peñarol for an undisclosed amount and likely to be loaned out this season. After all that fluttering of eyelashes at Thiago Alcântara, United watched him go off with Bayern Munich. Trying to bring Ronaldo back from Real Madrid was a nice idea but never likely to lead to anything bar fluffing up the player’s ego and the suggestion that Cesc Fábregas would leave Barcelona always seemed too good to be true. Whoever it was who told United to persist with this one, it is not entirely clear. What is startlingly obvious is they have been led down a very long garden path.
Throw in the stand-off with Rooney and it is easy to see why Moyes swerved a press conference to preview the Community Shield. Rooney is adamant he wants to leave and is picking up all manner of strange injuries (tripping over his bottom lip, perhaps). United, in turn, are adamant he won’t get his wish. It’s a staring contest, and who knows who will blink first? Either way, it’s wretchedly sad if you value history?making and achievement and want to cling to the belief that the people out there, on the pitch, go by the same philosophies.
Whatever the lure of working for José Mourinho, it makes little sense to this observer why a player in Rooney’s position would turn up his nose at the chance to become the most distinguished scorer in the history of England’s largest club, overhauling Sir Bobby Charlton no less. Rooney seems neither to care nor understand and it is never been an easy thing clambering inside his head to work out what is going on in there. What will be really interesting is whether there will be a show of power from his employers. A brooding Rooney would still be more use than one who knocks in 25 goals for Chelsea over the next nine months.
Where does all this leave United? They have lost Paul Scholes, Rooney may be next and what, say, if Michael Carrick were to be injured? United, staggeringly, have not signed a classic central midfielder since Owen Hargreaves in 2007 (Scholes coming out of retirement in 2012 doesn’t count). Bayern’s midfield options ? take your pick from Javi Martínez, Luiz Gustavo, Thiago, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mario Götze, Toni Kroos, Franck Ribéry, Arjen Robben and Thomas Müller ? make the Premier League champions look ordinary in the extreme. And, surely, Bayern are the level to which a club of United’s ambitions must aspire.
As it is, United are pursuing Marouane Fellaini and Leighton Baines and may have to pay through the nose now they are starting to look a little desperate. Luka Modric? Moyes has already done background checks with Harry Redknapp, Modric’s former manager at Tottenham, and the Croat would certainly tick a lot of boxes in that, a lot like Carrick, if you are a supporter of his team, as soon as he has the ball, you feel a certain assurance that he will take good care of it. Sadly for United, the same also applies to Rooney.
Modric and Fellaini, though, are fall?back options and if United had been that serious about them they would have tried to arrange a deal before now. Moyes’s analysis of Modric is that he has wonderful gifts but can drift to the edges of the important games. If the player’s impact as a substitute for Madrid at Old Trafford last season contradicts that theory, it is not lost on Moyes that United were down to 10 men at the time. This would be his first major signing and, plainly, he doesn’t want to get it wrong. But the bottom line is that United have done less business than any other Premier League club bar Arsenal and there is a serious risk of it undermining Moyes’s first season in charge.
This is not to say that chucking money around is the answer to everything but Roberto Mancini was on to something when he complained about City’s transfer business last summer and pointed out the benefits of adding category A players. High-calibre signings want to show they are good enough to get into the team. The players who are already there want to show they can keep them out.
It is not an exact science but put the two together and it usually means a better team. But it works both ways. Do nothing, or sign players of no better quality, and a team can quickly regress. For City then, see United now. Even before they consider the fact Rooney has started to think of Carrington and Old Trafford as five-star prisons.
Liverpool play game of bluff and counter-bluff
John W Henry could hardly have been more emphatic about how “ludicrous” it was for Liverpool to entertain the idea of selling Luis Suárez and, taken at his word, that should be it finished. Except the problem in football is that it increasingly seems difficult to take anyone at their word these days.
Henry made similar noises about Fernando Torres a few years back and, apologies for the cynical tone, it probably won’t be until 2 September before we can be certain he means it this time, or if it is just a clever ploy to put the thumbscrews on Arsenal. As Gary Neville says of this part of the transfer window: “It’s basically a game of poker. You’re waiting for someone to panic and put in an extra £10m.”
This summer has certainly seen a lot of bluff and counter-bluff. Plus some fairly extraordinary double standards.
At Spurs, André-Villas Boas complains about Carlo Ancelotti confirming Real Madrid’s interest in Gareth Bale and ignores the fact that his own club have plenty of previous for doing the same.
Then there is David Moyes, outraged at Everton a few years ago when Manchester City made public their bids for Joleon Lescott, but not so bothered by this tactic now he works for a club that have started doing the same.
Back at Anfield, Brendan Rodgers castigates Arsenal for lacking class while Henry implies Shaun Ryder and Howard Marks must have taken over from Sir Chips Keswick and Arsène Wenger.
Rodgers also appears to have conveniently forgotten how Liverpool triggered Joe Allen’s release clause at Swansea City last summer, two months after taking over at Anfield. His old club haven’t. They released a statement at the time confirming Liverpool’s interest “despite a written agreement not to approach any players within the 12-month period of Brendan Rodgers leaving for Anfield”. Swansea were “extremely disappointed” details of Allen’s contract had appeared in the media. The leak was not from within the club, they claimed.
Suárez, meanwhile, talks about his emotional attachment to Merseyside. “Liverpool will always be a special place to me, my daughter was born here.” Delfina was born on 5 August 2010. Suárez, for the record, signed for Liverpool on 31 January 2011.
Football League could have stopped Coventry’s move
At the last count, Coventry City had sold 491 season tickets for their new “home” in Northampton. They expect around 750 Bristol City fans for the first game at Sixfields and no doubt there will be a few hundred other rubberneckers. Let’s say a gate of 1,500, maybe 2,000, and it’s not too difficult to imagine crowds falling to three figures at some point this season.
Greg Clarke, chairman of the Football League, says he is “savagely angry”. He understands why Coventry’s fans are “outraged” and, if he were one of them, he would be “incandescent”. But this is confusing. Rule 13.7 in the League handbook states a club will be allowed to move ground only if it does not “adversely affect officials, players, supporters, shareholders (and) sponsors.” It goes on to say it has to “enhance the reputation of the League and promote the game of association football generally”.
Clarke has been busy telling everyone how cross he is. Just not cross enough, unfortunately, to have blocked it when he had the opportunity.
© Guardian News & Media Limited 2013