MARTIAL, THE MAGICIAN

The Frenchman is a star for Manchester United and Alexis Sanchez’s signing should not see him lose his place

Anthony Martial’s debut in the Premier League was every up-and-coming footballer’s dream — an appearance against his new club’s old enemy, and a goal barely minutes after coming on following some breathtaking pieces of dribbling. That performance immediately sparked comparisons with his compatriot and Arsenal legend Thierry Henry and it is a weight that the youngster is still carrying with him.

When Louis van Gaal splashed £36m, with a provision for another £22m, on an unknown 18-year-old Frenchman from Monaco in the summer of 2015, football fans and pundits in England thought that the Dutch manager had lost his vision and was throwing money at quick-fixes for his ageing squad. The Dutchman was gone at the end of that season, but Martial emerged as the club’s top goalscorer and a hope for the future.

The arrival of Jose Mourinho as the club’s new manager, however, halted his progress. The Portuguese manager brought in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, handed him Martial’s #9 shirt and left the Frenchman on the bench for most parts of the season. First team opportunities came few and far between and Mourinho refused to hand him an extended run of games. “We have so many good players in similar positions — Martial, (Juan) Mata, (Henrik) Mkhitaryan, (Wayne) Rooney. I cannot give him four, five, six, seven matches in a row when I have other people on the sidelines waiting for a chance. I try to give him chances. In fact, I gave him good chances because I played him against Tottenham and Arsenal, in some big matches,” the manager said at that time.

He even claimed that the France international was struggling to adapt to the pace of United’s game.

Martial’s agent sparked transfer speculations, with Sevilla and West Ham United among the parties interested, following the barrage of criticism from his manager. Mourinho hit back soon after by telling the player to listen to him and not his agent. While many thought that this was the master man-manager’s attempt to get the best out of the prodigious youngster, others felt that the player was genuinely disgusted by the dearth of opportunities and was looking to quit the club.

Martial did turn out to be crucial following Ibrahimovic’s season-ending injury and played a part in United’s first ever Uefa Europa League win. However, that didn’t stop the tabloids from listing his potential destinations in the summer. Inter Milan even wanted him to be part of any deal to take Ivan Perisic in the opposite direction. Mourinho, however, stood firm and refused to grant the Frenchman a transfer. That, coupled with a run of several games during the summer tour, helped settle the player back at the club and he has already reaped the rewards.

He has already surpassed his goals tally from last season having played 10 fewer games. Having been signed as a striker, Martial has been played wide on the left by both van Gaal and Mourinho. This season, the Portuguese boss has alternated between the Frenchman and Marcus Rashford on the left, with both giving a good account of themselves whenever they got a chance. Martial’s confidence has been boosted by a regular run of games and he’s started to play with a smile on his face. But the arrival of Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal is bound to make him nervy.

In his very first interview at his new club, the Chilean said about his preferred playing position: “I really like to play down the left, through the middle… but to tell you the truth, as long as I’m playing football, I’ll fit in anywhere.”

Mourinho has bemoaned the lack of competition among his attackers. After the club’s win against Burnley earlier this month, the manager said: “In this moment there is no competition for places. We have four attacking players for three positions: three are starting, one is on the bench. Zlatan (Ibrahimovic) for the whole season was not available. You look to central defenders, we played (Phil) Jones and (Chris) Smalling. (Marcos) Rojo was on the bench, Victor (Lindelof) was in the stands. Eric Bailly was injured. Look to midfield, there was (Marouane) Fellaini, (Ander) Herrera, (Scott) McTominay on the bench, (Michael) Carrick in the stands. We need that extra, internal competition but (also) more solutions for us.”

Sanchez’s arrival means that the “competition” Mourinho deemed was missing is there in the squad and it will be a good test of the players’ calibre seeing how they rise to that challenge. On form, however, Mourinho has no reason to drop Martial, even if it is to accommodate his new signing — the Chilean needs to settle either on the right wing or play behind the striker.

Inconsistency may blight Martial’s performances once in a while, but, at 22 he still has a lot to improve and give to the club. If the manager drops the youngster at this time, however, he will just kill the player’s confidence and that might coincide with the end of the player’s time at the Theatre of Dreams.

The views expressed in this blog are mine unless otherwise mentioned.

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Heir to the #7 Throne

Alexis Sanchez is the player to restore United fans’ faith in the legacy of the club’s fabled shirt

Alexis Sanchez finally signed a four-and-half-year deal at Manchester United after one of the most protracted transfer sagas that lasted two transfer windows and almost saw him move to the Red Devils’ bitter crosstown rivals, Manchester City.

The Chilean international links up with Jose Mourinho’s side after a goal-laden three-and-a-half years at Arsenal. United immediately handed him the club’s fabled #7 shirt as they look to finally end a curse that has seen four players — Michael Owen, Antonio Valencia, Angel di Maria and Mephis Depay — buckle under its weight.

While some “pundits” have cringed at the amount of money being spent on the player, the value he potentially holds cannot be underestimated. Neymar’s transfer from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain last summer for £198m has broken all previous records and set a new benchmark for player sales figures.

To that effect, United signed Chile’s all-time record goalscorer for free. Sanchez’s transfer was straight swap with Henrikh Mkhitaryan moving in the opposite direction. United didn’t spend a penny on the player, apart from paying £15m in agent fees and a £7.5m signing-on bonus. Sanchez stands to gain another £7.5m, which will be spread over his deal with the club. United, as a result, paid £30m for a player in his peak, tested in the top level and with essential Premier League experience. Any “pundit” worth his salt would call that good value.

Speaking about his new signing, Mourinho said: “Alexis (Sanchez) is one of the best attacking players in the world and he will complete our very young and talented group of attacking players.”

“He will bring his ambition, drive and personality — qualities that make a Manchester United player and a player that makes the team stronger and the supporters proud of their club dimension and prestige.”

It is this drive and cutting edge that United have been lacking as a team since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013. They have been blown out of the water by Manchester City’s explosive football and were crying out for a marquee signing who would take the game by the scruff of the neck and drive his teammates forward. In Sanchez, Mourinho has got that player.

United have struggled to replace Cristiano Ronaldo, either as a player or as a charismatic presence to carry the legendary #7 shirt, since his then-record £80m transfer to Real Madrid in 2009. The shirt, worn by revered figures such as George Best, Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, David Beckham and Ronaldo himself, carries a lot of weight and only those with tremendous drive and ambition can live up to its demands.

Ferguson had extensively scouted Sanchez, who would have been a like-for-like replacement for Ronaldo, during his time at Udinese before the player signed for Barcelona in 2011.

The Chilean began life at Udinese as a right-winger, much like Ronaldo in his peak at United, before moving to the left and centre at Barcelona and Arsenal. United’s blockbuster summer signing Romelu Lukaku has failed to light up the Premier League against the big teams, despite plethora of goals against smaller teams. He has been isolated up front as a single striker with neither Marcus Rashford nor Anthony Martial capable of supporting him as a second striker that can draw away opposition defenders to free up space for him. In Sanchez, United have got that player now.

It could even be argued that come matches against the big sides, Mourinho might just favour the hard running style of his new signing to the Belgian striker.

In his Daily Mail column, former Arsenal great Martin Keown wrote: “Romelu Lukaku has looked isolated up front in recent weeks. To thrive, he needs players in and around him. While Sanchez could start wide on the left, that is not where he wants to play. He will be drawn into a central position and get close to Lukaku.”

United’s play has been very inconsistent this season — blowing away teams in one match and recoiling under pressure the next. This inconsistency has also impacted Lukaku’s scoring, which can be described as erratic at best. But Sanchez can grow frustrated from the lack of supply and tends to track back for the ball.

“When he is on it, Sanchez is the nearest thing to a modern-day Ian Rush. He homes in on defenders like an Exocet missile. Mourinho has to make him play high up the pitch. Sometimes, when he is frustrated, Sanchez will drop back deeper to get touches of the ball. He is at his most dangerous when playing on the shoulder of the last defender and that is where he must be,” Keown wrote.

Mourinho knows he has a robust and relentless attacking talent on his hands and if he allows him to flourish, instead of holding him back, Sanchez can rip apart any opposition in the Premier League. While the title seems lost at this time, United are still very much in the running in the Uefa Champions League and a free-flowing Sanchez can lift the club to new levels. And that can only mean good things for an army of supporters who have long been crying out for an heir to take the place of their their prodigal son.

The views expressed in this blog are mine unless otherwise mentioned.

MANCHESTER UNITED: IN SEARCH OF AN IDENTITY

Scattergun approach to transfer market undermines club’s traditions

Manchester United have announced the signing Romelu Lukaku for £75m from Everton. The Red Devils now hold the top three positions for transfer fees paid by an English club, including the world record — Paul Pogba (£89m from Juventus), Lukaku, and Angel di Maria (£59.7m from Real Madrid).

This marks a stark change in the club’s transfer policy. In the summer of 2012, Sir Alex Ferguson pulled out of a deal to sign Brazilian winger Lucas Moura because he refused to meet Sao Paulo’s €45m valuation of the player. Instead, he signed Robin van Persie for £24m from Arsenal and the Dutchman fired United to their 20th league title.

Sir Alex announced his retirement in 2013. And since then, United’s transfer business has been turned on its head by the club hierarchy. David Moyes was greeted with the token signing of Marouane Fellaini as the club’s repeated attempts to bring an expensive marquee player failed. They went after Cesc Fabregas, Robert Lewandowski, Cristiano Ronaldo, and even blew Real Madrid out of the with a reported £100m bid for Gareth Bale. None of those players came.

While United fans would shudder at the thought, even Sir Alex was responsible for the mess the club was in. He left the club with an ageing squad, an academy in need of a complete overhaul, a faltering scouting network, and, most importantly, an incompetent successor.

While the first three were more down to the owners’ unwillingness to shell out big bucks, blame for the last completely falls with Sir Alex as he handpicked David Moyes as the man to succeed him.

Moyes proved to be an expensive failure and lost his job before the end of the season after it was confirmed that United would miss out on qualifying for the UEFA Champions League. In came Louis van Gaal, coinciding with the club owners loosening the purse strings, afraid that failure on the pitch would translate into loss of revenue off it.

When Louis van Gaal, a manager with a proven pedigree of promoting academy talents, was hired, it was expected that he would steady the ship. But his reign was marked by a general lack of direction. Despite a gaping hole in midfield, only Ander Herrera was bought in 2014 for an anchorman role. Instead of strengthening at the back, he signed di Maria. The loan signing of Radamel Falcao was another curious decision. For man who wanted to play possession football, signing an out-and-out target man made no sense.

The following season was stabler as the Dutchman realised he needed midfield backup and brought in Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Then he splashed £36m on an untested teenager in Anthony Martial. While he did promote from the academy, it was more due to necessity than choice.

It was humiliating for the manager of a club with the pedigree of Manchester United, and the board, that their two best players that season were a 19-year-old last-minute panic buy (Martial), and an 18-year-old academy graduate (Marcus Rashford) who was picked in the side because the former was injured.

United can never be accused of being stingy in the transfer market. They paid the British record fee for Roy Keane (£3.75m from Nottingham Forest in 1993), made Rio Ferdinand the world’s most expensive defender in 2002, paying Leeds United £30m for the England man, and signed the two most expensive teenagers in history at that time, paying Sporting Lisbon £12.24m for Cristiano Ronaldo in 2003 before shelling out £27m for Wayne Rooney the following summer. The club have a rich history of promoting players from within to complement the expensive purchases. Sir Alex used the academy to good effect with the Fergie’s Fledglings, Sir Matt Busby did it with the Busby Babes — United have always had an academy graduate in their matchday squad since 1937.

The arrival of Jose Mourinho has restored balance somewhat. Having known for some time that United would turn to him if and when they sacked van Gaal, he had identified the positions that needed strengthening and went about his business without much fuss. He wanted players who could get the club back to its glory days and United’s deep pocket meant Juventus squeezed out £89m for Pogba.

But that deep pocket and willingness to spend has not always turned out positively for United.

Several players have used United’s interest, or press reports about an apparent interest, to either sign improved contracts with their current clubs, or get better terms with a potential new team. Throughout the summer of 2015, Sergio Ramos played United before signing on an improved deal with Real Madrid. Dani Alves did exactly the same at Barcelona. James Rodriguez and Monaco used United’s alleged interest in the player to get top dollar from Real Madrid in 2014 — such instances are abundant and are reflective of the haphazard manner with which the club have begun to go about their transfer business.

Even this summer, the club made a fool of itself in the very public chase for Antoine Griezmann. Fan channels on YouTube had already photoshopped images of the Frenchman in a United shirt, made videos of what to expect from the player at Old Trafford — all before the player himself announced that he would stay at Atletico and signed a new deal.

Gone are the days when the press would hardly get a sniff of a signing before he was paraded at Old Trafford. Pressure from sponsors to gain maximum visibility, including driving a new arrival from the airport to the training ground in their branded cars, have also played its part to create such a dismal scenario.

Mourinho, however, deserves the credit for instilling stability in the club’s transfer policy, handing over a list of targets long before the end of the season so that the board can begin talks early, instead of going gung-ho in panic mode and signing whoever is available.

That still doesn’t excuse spending £75m for a 24-year-old with no UEFA Champions League pedigree. At least Lukaku will get a long time to repay that faith, and the investment.

The views expressed in this blog are mine unless otherwise mentioned.

WAYNE ROONEY’S LEGACY

Is the former striker really a Manchester United legend?

Wayne Rooney put pen to paper on a two-year deal with boyhood club Everton, bringing to an end a 13-year trophy-laden career at Manchester United.

Despite the 31-year-old holding the scoring records for both United and England, opinion is still divided on his legacy at the club — be it because of his two transfer requests or the swift fall from grace during the latter part of his Old Trafford career. Many United fans see him as a club legend, while many others view him as a mercenary who tried to force his way out of the club, once to bitter rivals Manchester City and then to Chelsea.

Sir Alex Ferguson signed him as an explosive 18-year-old after his exploits for England at Euro 2004 for ₤27m, a then record fee for a teenager. His start for the Red Devils was equally explosive as he netted a stunning hat-trick in a 6-2 win against Fenerbahçe on debut. His first couple of seasons at the club were uneventful as United struggled to keep pace with Arsenal and a nouveau riche Chelsea, going trophyless.

Then came the infamous incident with team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo during the World Cup in 2006, culminating in the Englishman’s sending off.

But it was playing alongside the Portuguese winger that Rooney made the biggest impact. Ronaldo, Rooney and the indomitable Carlos Tevez formed the most dangerous Manchester United triumvirate since the Holy Trinity of Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best. Rooney prospered in that role as an attacking focal point. But he never had to bear the goal scoring burden alone as the other two chipped in with regular strikes.

Unfortunately for Rooney, however, he will always be judged alongside Ronaldo. Towards the beginning of his career, Rooney was head and shoulders above the Portuguese. But Ronaldo spent hours in the gym perfecting his physique, and even more in the training ground honing his skills. Rooney never bothered about all that.

He was a street fighter, a one-man riot squad who depended more on the fire in his belly than technical nous honed with hours on the field. That’s not to say that he was not technically gifted — Micah Richards and Joe Hart stand testament to that. Rooney was capable of moments of sheer brilliance, but he could also frustrate with his lack of application and fitness.

His best season in United colours was in 2009-10, as the club, reeling from the departures of Ronaldo to Real Madrid and Tevez to City, relied heavily on Rooney for goals. He delivered too, scoring 34 goals in 44 matches as United won the Football League Cup. That was one of only two times that he scored over 30 goals in a single season during his 13 years at the club.

That was more down to his lack of fitness than application. Over the years, injuries played a significant part in his reduced role at the club. Robin van Persie’s arrival also curtailed his role as the club’s figurehead.

Despite Louis van Gaal naming him club captain, Rooney was never the leader like Roy Keane that United fans expected him to be. The Dutchman saw him as a midfield general but Rooney was a passive influence from deep, never being able to exert himself as he wanted to. He flitted in and out of the side and despite leading the club to silverware in van Gaal’s last season and Jose Mourinho’s first seasons at the club, he was never the first name on the team sheet. The desire was there, he still wanted to play, and be an automatic starter, but he was no longer the player that he was to warrant such a treatment. Mourinho slowly eased him out of the side last season and the writing was on the wall from that moment on.

Andy Mitten, editor of United fanzine United We Stand, said: “The move is best for all parties. Rooney will be remembered well by United fans when the dust settles, a club legend who scored more goals than anyone and was a leading light in one of United’s greatest sides.”

Both Rooney and United reaped the benefits from their 13-year association, winning the Premier League five times, UEFA Champions League once, FIFA Club World Cup once, FA Community Shield four times, Football League Cup thrice, FA Cup once and the UEFA Europa League once.

But he should not expect a statue outside Old Trafford.

The views expressed in this blog are mine unless otherwise mentioned.

ROMELU LUKAKU: A £75m GAMBLE

Is the Belgian striker the right man to fire Manchester United to glory?

Manchester United splashed £75m on Everton forward Romelu Lukaku after growing frustrated in their chase to sign Alvaro Morata from Real Madrid.

That is a significant outlay on a player who has not yet played for a big club and, at 24, will most certainly be expected to fire on all cylinders as United look to mount a challenge for the Premier League.

Chelsea signed him from Anderlecht for £18m as an 18-year-old in 2011, but except a handful of appearances, he has spent much of his senior career at mid-table also-rans West Bromwich Albion and Everton. These are big clubs, but Manchester United is bigger, perhaps the biggest in the world, and that comes with its own unique pressures.

It’s also interesting that Jose Mourinho, who sanctioned Lukaku’s sale to Everton in 2014 after a successful loan spell the previous year, questioned his attitude.

“He wanted to play for Chelsea, but clearly only as first-choice striker — and at a club of our dimension it’s very difficult to promise a player that status. We want to be inside financial fair play rules, you have to analyse these situations,” the United boss said at that time.

The Belgian has since gone on to score 71 goals in 133 matches for the Merseyside club. At Everton, he played with a lot of freedom than what Mourinho will afford him at Old Trafford. He was the big star there; at United, he is one among a plethora.

While United snapping him up from under Chelsea’ noses was a coup, a report in The Liverpool Echo will make the situation uncomfortable for the player, manager, and the fans. The report says Mourinho insisted on Chelsea not inserting a buy-back clause during Lukaku’s sale, suggesting that he did not believe the Belgian would develop sufficiently, and that such an option would be worthless in the long run. As a result, Chelsea took the £28m that Everton offered instead of selling him for a lower value with a buyout clause.

Lukaku, as a player, lacks the finesse and the class that traditional strikers who have played in the famous red had. He is a flat-track bully and a target man who can be used a battering ram. At Everton and West Brom, he played with freedom. At United, he’ll be expected to break down teams that camp outside their own penalty box. In this respect, Morata would have been a better player, having played for two of Europe’s biggest clubs in Juventus and Real Madrid. Real wanted £79m for him, but United chose to pay £75m for Lukaku.

Reports, however, suggest that the fee could rise even further with £15m in add-ons and a £10m waiver of Wayne Rooney’s transfer fee ahead of his return to his boyhood club. A potential world record fee is a huge show of faith to a player who has no UEFA Champions League experience. As United return to the competition after a year’s absence, Lukaku will need to quickly delivering. Here, too, Morata, who has led the line for Juventus and Real Madrid, would have been the better option.

Even for the national team, bristling with the talents of Eden Hazard, Dries Martens and Yannick Ferreira Carrasco, Lukaku is not seen as the real goal threat despite scoring his fair share of goals (20 goals in 57 caps). That speaks volumes about a player who wants to return United to their days of dominance.

His record against last season’s top six makes grim reading for anyone who thinks £75m plus add-ons represent a transfer coup for Manchester United. Lukaku has scored only 16 times in 57 matches against the sextet. Although he scored in both the matches against Manchester City last season, his impact against the other teams does not offer too much hope, at least for the time being.

The Belgian’s prowess in the air is a positive, especially with United losing the physicality of Zlatan Ibrahimovic that got them a lot of goals last season.

His arrival will also add to Mourinho’s problems of finding an attacking focal point. Lukaku is not someone who will track back and start off moves if things are not going his way. He is more traditional that way and relies on his physicality to bully his way through. That may work sporadically against teams in the Premier League’s bottom half. Time will tell whether he is able to unlock Chelsea, Liverpool or Tottenham with that kind of play.

Lukaku will need to adapt and the test will begin from the first time he pulls on the red shirt, even if it’s in a pre-season tournament in the United States.

The views expressed in this blog are mine unless otherwise mentioned.