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Manchester United and Thiago Alcantara – a good match?

Reports in Spain are linking new Manchester United manager David Moyes to Barcelona midfielders Thiago Alcantara and Cesc Fabregas as he looks to add some craft and creativity to his midfield. We all know what Fabregas can do, but how about his younger team mate? Could he be a cut-price, high-quality answer to a question that even Sir Alex Ferguson could never wholly answer?

One of the reasons that 22-year-old Thiago is being linked so heavily to Manchester United this summer is that a release clause in his contract has been activated. This is by virtue of him not playing at least 30 minutes in 60 per cent of Barcelona’s games this season. All player contracts in Spain have a release clause, a result of a previous agreement between the union and the clubs. However, most of these are designed to make the player unattainable. For example, Lionel Messi’s is £205 million and Cristiano Ronaldo’s over £500 million.

Before this season, Thiago’s release clause was €90million, about £80m. Obviously no one would have paid that. Now, it is just €18million, about £14m. £14m is exactly the type of price range that clubs such as Manchester United can easily afford. It is, for example, less than they paid for Anderson.

Thiago Alcantara

For Barcelona to have allowed this to happen is pretty incredible, verging on negligent. Considering that they had the league comfortably won by March, had an easy group in the Champions League and on top of that, plenty of Copa Del Rey matches in which to field him, it is ridiculous that they couldn’t find him 30 minutes in 60 per cent of games. The amount of games that they were three or four nil up by half time, surely he could have come on? But, he is now near enough unprotected.

The question Manchester United fans could ask at this juncture is ‘if he can’t even get that amount of playing time, why would he be a good signing for us? For the answer, it is best to defer to no less a judge than his Barcelona team mate Xavi, who describes Thiago as ‘the future of Barcelona’. Xavi knows first hand about being the Emperor in waiting as he spent the early years of his career, even in to his early 20’s, as Thiago is, waiting to succeed Pep Guardiola. Xavi is now 33 and there is some feeling that if he wins another World Cup next season he might call it a career; surely Thiago can wait another year? Well, maybe not.

Thiago has the talent to start for any club in Europe; it is literally only the presence of Xavi keeping him out of the starting eleven at Barcelona. He has a wider range of passing than any Manchester United player, he is an excellent runner from deep, he is fleet footed and he covers the ground easily. He is an athlete who also boasts the technical skill you would expect of a Barcelona youth graduate.

Manchester United don’t have anything like him. He’s more dynamic and multidimensional than Michael Carrick and would make for an ideal partner for him. He has the action-packed, athletic game of a young Paul Scholes, complimented by the field awareness and deep-lying vision of an older version of Scholes.

If Manchester United are to have any chance of overhauling the big Spanish and German clubs they need someone who can grab hold of a game by the scruff of the neck and dominate possession. Thiago Alcantara is at a stage of his career where he is ready to be given the keys, and signing him at such an affordable price would immediately give United what they need to take the next step in Europe.

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Is Marouane Fellaini a good fit for Manchester United?

With David Moyes assuming the Manchester United hotseat, the transfer of Everton’s best players Leighton Baines and Marouane Fellaini to Old Trafford could well be on the cards. With Baines’ form and Patrice Evra in need of some top competition, the England international’s signing would make sense. But do the Premier League champions need Fellaini?

The Belgian has offered Everton a versatility that could well be useful for United. Fellaini has played most of his football this season as a brutish second striker, but has admitted that he prefers playing as an enforcer in front of his side’s defence.

United could potentially use one new signing in both of these positions. Michael Carrick has been devoid of support over the last 12 months in the centre of the park, while doubts remain over Wayne Rooney’s mindset.

Marouane Fellaini

In the attacking role, Fellaini certainly would provide an addition offensive option. His direct approach, ability in the air and endless running have made him a star in a good Everton team, and Fellaini has proved a nightmare for many a defence, including United’s, over the last 12 months.

In the centre of the midfield, Fellaini would certainly offer United more energy and a physical presence that has been missing since the retirement of Roy Keane. With Paul Scholes hanging up his boots, a creative central midfielder needs to be a priority, however Fellaini’s ability to be a stopper in the centre of the park could also be a sensible signing. Phil Jones has filled the enforcer role well in the recent past, but his preferred position is yet to be determined.

However, whether Fellaini has the ability on the ball and craft to fit into the United passing game is questionable. The Old Trafford faithful will want to avoid a scenario where the side compromise style for a direct approach, and utilising Fellaini in an attacking position could result in this.

Fellaini’s transfer fee is likely to be sizeable given Everton’s financial position, but it appears that he does not have a definite place in the United set-up. His versatility may well be asset, but the Red Devils may well end up signing a player that is good at two positions but great at neither.

Tottenham’s Bale, Liverpool’s Suarez and Manchester United’s Van Persie – but where is Swansea’s Michu?

The nominees for the Premier League Player of the Year award have been named, with a notable absence amongst the six candidates. All the discussion about the accolade have rightly focussed on Tottenham’s Gareth Bale, Liverpool’s Luis Suarez and Manchester United’s Robin van Persie, however the addition of Juan Mata, Michael Carrick and Eden Hazard leaves me scratching my head that a certain Spaniard missed out.

I am not saying that Michu of Swansea City should be awarded the Premier League Player of the Year awaed, however the versatile attacker has had a fantastic debut season in England and was certainly great value for a nomination. It will boil down to Bale, Suarez or Van Persie, however Michu’s excellent season should have been acknowledged with a nomination.

Michu

Carrick has long been the unsung worker in the United midfield, and is only now being recognised for the tireless work he puts in and the range of passing he brings to the soon-to-be champions. Juan Mata has grown in stature this season and deserves his place in the six. The ex-Valencia playmaker has been superb throughout the season and will play a key role in Chelsea’s attempts to forge a Premier League title challenge next season. Hazard at times has shown brilliance, especially towards the start of the season, however I feel he has not done enough to warrant a place on the shortlist.

It is unfortunate that bargain £2 million buy Michu is not included. He has netted 21 times in all competitions for Michael Laudrup’s men, 17 in the league, and been a figurehead in the Liberty Stadium side overcoming the often tricky second season to become a well-established Premier League side. He also played his part in the club winning the Capital One Cup, the first major trophy in the Welsh club’s history.

Michu was never going to be the Player of the Year, but a nomination would have been just reward for a cracking debut campaign. The fact that he plays for one of the less glamorous sides in the division has clearly worked against him, the powers that be should have widened their net to include the likes of the Spaniard in their shortlist.

Change of Face, Change of Pace. The shift in Strategy of Manchester United’s attack

Change of face, change of pace; the shift in strategy of Manchester United’s attack

When Manchester United sold Dimitar Berbatov last summer it was no surprise given the arrival of Robin Van Persie and the lack of playing time afforded to the former Spurs man over the previous season. It has become a bit apparent recently though that the move signalled more than just a change in terms of bringing in one gifted front man for another. One of the reasons the Bulgarian cited had been given to him by Sir Alex Ferguson was a shift in the Old Trafford side’s attacking ethos. Berbatov had been told that he did not fit in with a move toward a faster and more direct attacking style.

In the derby on Monday night, United’s new methods were particularly apparent and interestingly a slight weakness in the plan was also on display. Many of the Reds’ wide players in particular regularly seem to overrun the ball when sprinting and on several occasions when the home side were surging at the City backline a heavy touch saw the move break down. Rafael was the main offender on Monday, but an out of sorts Antonio Valencia has been doing this for months. Danny Welbeck displays a good first touch at times but at top speed often resembles a cart horse attempting to dribble a beach ball. Ashley Young is not immune, nor is Nani or reserve left back Alexander Buttner.

Dimitar Berbatov

This may seem harsh given how potent United have looked in attack this season with the addition of Van Persie to an already well-stocked squad of strikers and wingers, but it is something that needs to been fine-tuned before Sir Alex Ferguson’s new design is the finished article. Perhaps Wilfried Zaha’s dribbling ability will improve the situation next term.

United sides of old held an ability to patiently probe for an opening. Slow build-up followed by a devastatingly quick interchange would often see defences unlocked after 30 or more passes had gradually pulled them out of position. Perhaps the demise of Paul Scholes has something to do with the death of this style in Ferguson’s plans. Neither Scholes nor Berbatov would have ever made the local sprint relay team, but their styles complimented an ability to attack while controlling possession for long periods.

The Premier League is faster and quicker than ever and even the top European ties are not the games of chess they were 10 years ago. Intensity, if it isn’t king, was certainly eyeing the throne amid the ferocious pace of Monday’s derby. Ferguson is a master of transition and building new sides, but it would be a shame if his current charges could not revert to a more patient approach if need be. In Michael Carrick they have a player who can take on the Scholes mantle in terms of dictating tempo at least. Wayne Rooney and Van Persie seem currently focused on attempting to spin their man or lay the ball off once before making a run in behind.

Perhaps on Monday this was due to specific instructions from the boss but both front men have the quality to get involved in build-up while waiting for the right time to strike. Regardless of how direct United’s game plan is, expect them to continue to challenge, as their ability to adapt has always been one of their greatest strengths.

Have Manchester United found their next Paul Scholes?

Much has been made of the lack of creativity in the centre of midfield for Manchester United since the ageing and initial retirement of Paul Scholes. An attempt to sign Wesley Sneijder was thought to have been made last summer, while countless deep-lying playmakers have been linked with a switch to Old Trafford since. However, could Borussia Dortmund’s Mario Gotze be the answer

The Germany international playmaker has been on the radar of top European clubs for a number of seasons now, but it appears that the wonderkid will be a major target for many this summer. Despite being tied down to a long-term contract to the Bundesliga champions currently, Gotze has recently admitted that a switch to a top European club, such as United, would be hard to resist.

“Clubs such as Real Madrid, Barcelona or Manchester United are attractive, other top leagues would dominate you and you could develop.”

United are by no means desperate for a central midfield maestro, given the passing ability of Michael Carrick and the clever footwork and industry of Tom Cleverley. That said, with Anderson ineffectual and seemingly on his way out of the club and continued doubts over Darren Fletcher’s fitness, Sir Alex Ferguson would be well advised to invest in someone to give the side a shot in the arm from the centre of the park.

Mario Gotze

Someone like Gotze would obviously provide that spark. At 20 years old the Memmingen-born player has the world at his feet, and is set to be an immense talent over the next decade, or longer. With 20 international caps in a top Germany team already under his belt it would be no surprise to see him make 100 appearances for his homeland before he finally hangs up his boots.

The fee to persuade Dortmund to sell would be considerable, plus the player has made no great shakes about leaving Signal Iduna Park. However, as good a side as Dortmund are, it is only natural that Gotze will want to play for one of Europe’s top historical sides if he progresses at his current rate, and the opportunity to move to Old Trafford would certainly appeal to him.

Real Madrid vs Manchester United: The game where anything can happen

According to Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho, this is ‘the match the world is waiting for’.  When you consider the talent on display, the numerous subplots and their history, it is hard to disagree. In short, when Manchester United face Real Madrid, anything can happen.

Just look at the sides’ eight previous meetings in Europe’s premier competition; 31 goals have been scored between them, 11 of which came in the epic quarter-final of 2003. Many are predicting a similar total this time round, but the tie could just as easily be a tense affair where goals are at a premium.

Much depends on how United cope with their former player Cristiano Ronaldo.  If they manage to shackle him, they will nullify Madrid’s most potent threat. But if they don’t, they may be torn apart by the Spanish side’s incisive counter-attack. Sir Alex Ferguson will hope his instructions are carried out to perfection, whilst being blessed with a little luck on the side.

Sir Alex Ferguson and José Mourinho

Phil Jones has found fitness and form at precisely the right time and he, along with Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley, will bring the regimented energy the Red Devils need to keep the likes of Angel Di Maria, Mesut Ozil and Ronaldo at bay.

In defence, Rafael will hope his man-of-the-match performance against Everton can be replicated in a competition where his rashness has proved most costly. While the rarely-spotted partnership of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic will have to be at their very best.

At the other end, the likely attacking trio of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Shinji Kagawa will have chances they must take. It is games like this that Kagawa was bought for, and that van Persie has the ability to win with one movement.

Aside from Ronaldo, Madrid’s strike-force is out of form of late, but both Gonzalo Higuain and Karim Benzema possess such natural ability that they can punish the smallest misjudgement. Meanwhile, even Kaka was hailed by Spanish newspaper Marca as being back to his best after a rare start in Saturday’s 4-1 win against Sevilla.

First legs of knockout competitions are too-often cagey affairs.  And don’t bet against the pressure on Madrid to perform – from a home crowd desperate for success in a season that is fast becoming a write-off – to have a bearing on the game. Already 16 points behind Barcelona in La Liga, and with a fight to stay in the Copa del Rey, the Champions League may be Mourinho’s only chance of a trophy this season; a trophy that would go down in history as the fabled Décima – their tenth European title.

Too often, pre-game hype is unjustified; but not this time. It may be the second leg that ultimately proves to be the one the world is waiting for, because it is then that a winner will be decided.  But this week’s match will be both clubs’ biggest challenge so far this season – for United to raise their game in a year when they have hardly needed to, and for Madrid to prevent theirs from ending three months too soon.

In For Eden? Hazard potentially the man to reinvigorate Manchester United’s midfield

Belgian star on United radar as Ferguson’s midfield comes under further scrutiny in wake of derby defeat

Monday night saw Manchester United lose the Premiership title initiative to big-spending noisy neighbours City and consequently opened fresh debate on the need for investment at the heart of Sir Alex Ferguson’s side.

The Old Trafford supremo stuck to his guns last summer, opting not to sign a midfielder as he waited for the right player to become available. Fergie entrusted his current charges and the decision seemed to be vindicated as United clawed their way to the league summit with the evergreen Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick on good form in the early part of 2012. Due to Darren Fletcher’s continued absence, Paul Scholes even made a shock return from retirement and has boosted the champions with a series of assured performances.

The narrow derby loss however, saw the trio along with Park Ji-Sung, overrun by the power in the engine room of rivals City, with Yaya Toure and Gareth Barry particularly impressive. Even though the title race is far from over, the manner of the defeat has left Sir Alex under fresh pressure to bolster the champions’ options in the middle of the park.

Across the channel meanwhile Lille star Eden Hazard continues to impress. The Belgian, regarded as one of the hottest properties in Europe, now has 17 goals and 19 assists in Ligue 1 this term.

The Red Devils manager went to watch the 21-year-old when Lille met Lyon back in March and clearly was impressed.

“He is a very good player who has many qualities.” – Sir Alex Ferguson after travelling to France to watch Eden Hazard.

Despite his impressive statistics this season, the fact that Hazard is playing in the French league rather than the Premiership or La Liga could indicate a need to prove himself at a higher level. Ferguson is sure to have noticed though, that unlike his United side in recent weeks, the Belgian playmaker is displaying consistency. He was instrumental in keeping the Lille title challenge alive, netting a penalty away to rivals Paris Saint-Germain and also playing a key role in the winning goal with a superb rabona style cross. Hazard also notched another assist as Rudy Garcia’s men won 1-0 at Nice in their most recent fixture.

Ferguson will surely have alternative options in mind and only he knows for sure who his top targets will be, as United continue to be linked with creative players around Europe. One certainty though, is that if the Scot does identify Hazard as his priority he will pursue the transfer with shrewd efficiency. He has an impressive record of getting his man and can be expected to act early in the window, as he did last year.

There will of course be competition for the Belgian’s signature, should Lille be willing to let him go. Due to Arsene Wenger’s preference for young slick players from Ligue 1, Hazard has continually been linked with a switch to the Emirates. Harry Redknapp is known to be another fan of the player. Competition could also come from within France in the form of big-spending PSG, Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona, and possibly Manchester City and Chelsea too.

Hazard is rumoured to have indicated a desire to move to the Premier League and after being watched by Ferguson in March is quoted as being ‘flattered by the compliment coming from the top manager in world football.’ If United opt to move for the Lille man, Sir Alex will need the full financial backing of United’s American owners – it is believed the French club have a minimum release fee clause in the 21-year-old’s contract of €40 million.

By Francis Johnston

Manchester City take the Premier League initiative, but did Sir Alex Ferguson get United’s tactics wrong?

In a tight and nervy encounter on Monday night, Manchester City took the initiative in the Premier League title race with a 1-0 win over rivals and current champions Manchester United. The noisy neighbours are now equal on points with the Red Devils, but are top due to their superior goal difference and have destiny in their own hands. United have slipped up in recent weeks, and failed to really test Joe Hart in the derby clash; did Sir Alex Ferguson get his tactics wrong?

Against a City side containing the attacking talent of Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, David Silva and Samir Nasri, United opted to pack the midfield in a 4-5-1 formation. Although admittedly this limited the hosts to sparing opportunities on goal, it also shackled United’s attacking ambitions and meant that the champions have given City the advantage without really testing their title rivals in the clash.

Wayne Rooney started by himself in attack and largely cut a forlorn figure, as limited support saw the visitors’ main attacking weapon isolated, frustrated and ineffective. Nani played on the right flank and was the closest player to the England international, but the pair failed to effectively counter-attack, and the Portuguese winger failed to majorly contribute or create chances for the lone striker. One feels that Sir Alex had adopted the blueprint of previous seasons in away Champions League fixtures, where Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo were left to try and hit teams on the break; unfortunately Nani does not have the ability or clinical touch in the final third of his countryman, and United’s attack proved toothless at the Etihad Stadium.

In midfield, Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Ji-Sung Park fought to limit City’s creative players, and in fairness the hosts’ usual free-flowing play was not evident as a result. However, in possession the quartet failed to keep the ball for any lengthy periods of the game, and the South Korean in particular was guilty of giving the ball away on a too frequent basis.

Most of City’s joy in attack came down their right flank, as Nasri and Pablo Zabaleta found space against Patrice Evra, with the midfield quartet failing to get out to help their colleague. The selection of either Ashley Young or Antonio Valencia instead of Park would have levelled out the midfield, providing more cover out wide and still allowing United to play three in the centre of the park. Valencia has been one of United’s standout performers this term, whilst one of Young’s strengths is to come off his wing and pop up in central positions, in support of Rooney; although both came off the bench, neither was given sufficient opportunity to influence the game.

Ferguson’s frustrations were evident as he clashed with counterpart Roberto Mancini on the touchline, but the Scot’s annoyance was probably down to the ineffective nature of his team rather than the antics of the Italian. United fans will be hurting after City completed the season double over them, but to be beaten without providing an attacking threat or putting their opponents under any concerted pressure will make the blow doubly hard to take. With Young, Valencia, Danny Welbeck, Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez all on the United bench, such a defensive team selection suggests that Sir Alex played for a draw, or, unlike any United team of recent years, was wary of going toe-to-toe with an attacking opponent.

City have by no means won the title yet, as a trip to Tyneside to face Champions League qualification candidates Newcastle will test Mancini’s men. However, United’s relinquishing of a seven-point lead at the top of the table at the business end of the season will have the powers that be at Old Trafford scratching their heads, and suggests that the Red Devils’ usual collective superiority over the division is no longer apparent.

Published – Soccerlens

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