Has he gotten a bit too used to his throne? Does he believe his own press clippings at the expense of reality? (Photo by Andrew Milligan/WPA POOL/Getty Images)
I seem to be apologizing for delays a lot recently. Not a fun position to be in as an author but the plus side (about which you probably care little) is that my day job has been busy for all the right reasons (new business, new projects, etc.). In this sort of economy, you can never be thankful enough because things can turn on a dime and fortunes can go from excellent to miserable quite quickly. If this is too obvious a segue-way from my introduction to a discussion of Manchester United then I apologize, I try to make them clever and interesting but sometimes it doesn't quite come off.
Seriously though, who would have seen this coming for United? Consider this timeline:
- Early Summer - Incredible momentum coming off of a league title and appearance in the Champions League final with some seemingly strong new blood both in the squad (Chicharito, the twins, and Smalling) and getting experience elsewhere (Welbeck, Cleverley, etc.).
- Late Summer - Even more excitement as Cleverley shows well in pre-season and Ashley Young, DDG, and Phil Jones are added to the mix as potential superstars who are both young enough to have upside but ready to contribute now. First small warning - no veteran central midfielder brought it as insurance for Cleverley and the conglomeration of mediocrity that is Carrick/Park/Fletcher/Anderson/Old Giggs. No one pays attention because of all the other, seemingly much bigger positives.
- August - Not only going according to the script that SAF and the press wrote but even better as strong teams like Spurs and Arsenal are mowed down in the early going. Goals are flowing. The kids - especially Smalling, Jones, and Cleverley - are playing well AND things can only get better as Chicharito, Vidic and Rio get healthy. Second small warning - DDG lets in a few questionable goals from distance. People generally don't panic because SAF is SAF and DDG is young and can be allowed a few early blunders while United continue winning by comfortable margins.
- September - The month starts well enough with a 5-0 trouncing of Bolton but Cleverley goes off after 8 minutes but it is lost to some extent because a) United go on to crush Bolton; b) the draw to Benfica in mid-week is away; and c) they come back and beat Chelsea (which was still considered an accomplishment at that point in the season) the following weekend. Somehow the alarm bells were only ringing mildly as the month closed with an away draw against Stoke (with no away mid-week Champions League match to explain it away) and a home draw against Basel. The fact that people generally assumed that things would be OK is an incredible tribute to SAF and United's history.
- October - Things changed dramatically in October as United went from the free flowing, high-scoring team we expected when Rooney, Chicharito, Nani, and Young were brought together to a team to one that was scraping out goals against all but the weakest of teams (e.g., Aldershot Town and Otelul Galati). You figured they'd hit rock bottom much as Arsenal had when United routed them with the drubbing by City at Old Trafford. Fuel was given to that fire as United closed the month with a solid 1-0 victory at Everton. More Tribute: If Arsenal or Spurs or Liverpool had had this month, there would have been story after story about the Manager being sacked. I don't recall a single one saying that SAF might finally have lost it.
- Early November - The month started well but in retrospect that was probably as much down to the quality of the opposition than any improvement in United's performance. Home to Galati and Sunderland and away at Swansea padded point totals and, combined with Chelsea's more glaring struggles, pushed the spotlight away from the fact that United were well into their second month of playing mediocre football with nearly all of their first team healthy. Could Tom Cleverley really be THAT important to the reigning champions?
- Late November - Home draw with Benfica (and solid, but still mild concern about their place in their Champions League group), home draw with a Newcastle team missing Tiote, and a home draw with Crystal Palace in the Carling Cup was about as miserable a way as a month could possibly close. The mitigation was a) All United have to do is beat a Swiss team to advance, no problem; b) Newcastle has had a great early season and they only scored due to a questionable penalty; and c) they played second teamers against Palace. Somehow, amazingly, there weren't a raft of stories about the fact that United had been a shadow of their usual selves for a solid 2 and a half months - Rooney and Ashley Young have gone from world-beaters to being afterthoughts in the United attack - Chicharito is keeping them afloat with his timely and efficient scoring. AND EVERYONE WAS STILL HEALTHY AT THIS POINT.
- December - A potential rebound win against Villa is muted as Chicharito leaves early with a serious injury and Ferguson decides his best option to replace him is a second team winger (Valencia). That bad news is followed by a double dose of misery as United crash out of the Champions League to a Swiss team, seriously, a Swiss team when playing for their lives. Injury is added to insult as their most valuable player over the past two or three seasons is ruled out for the season with a torn ACL. (Rooney may be their most talented but Vidic is their most valuable and most consistent when healthy - especially when United are grinding out 1-0 wins). Despite things really crashing down around them, I only today saw my first "Could United finish outside of the Top Four?" column. Again, all credit to Ferguson for having such an incredible reputation that people aren't questioning him at all.
- A Glaring Weakness Unaddressed - Everyone on Earth but the most passion-blinded United supporters knew that the central midfield - both attacking and holding - were average for the Premier League and sub-standard for the Champions League. If you look at the options available to City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Spurs, and Arsenal none of United's central players would sniff a starting spot at any of those places. Barca and City in particular go two deep at all positions before you'd even CONSIDER any of United's central midfielders for playing time. Despite the fact we all knew this, United spent a bunch of money in the Summer without doing anything about this flaw. Sounds a lot like Wenger and his CB/GK problem of the last couple summers.
- Over-reliance on a Talisman/Scorer - The Arsenal of the last few seasons have been over-reliant on RvP as their primary scorer of goals. When he (inevitably went down) there were nice complimentary players who could score occasional goals (e.g., Cesc and Nasri last season, Arteta and Gervinho this season) but no real replacement. SAF has been over-reliant on Rooney. You could argue that Berbs led the league in scoring last season but he wasn't starting by the end of the year and only really scored against bad teams. Rooney hasn't been injured this season but he's sure fallen off for the last 10 weeks or so. Chicharito is a great complimentary player but he's not your focal point, ditto Young, and Nani. As Arsenal is thriving with a healthy and in-form RvP, United are suffering with an out-of-form Rooney.
- Over-confidence in Squad Players - For every mediocre Rosicky, Diaby, Arshavin, and Squilaci who has disappointed in the Arsenal squad yet lingered under the theory that it isn't them so much as the circumstances that has led to their lack of performance there is an equivalent in the United squad. Step up Messrs. Carrick, Anderson, Evans, Fletcher, and Park. In both cases, the manager seems to heavily over-value them and has been burned when forced to play them as starters for an extended period of time.
The usual suspects - RvP, Suarez, Rooney, and Drogba as well as some more recently fashionable choices like K2, Ba, Aguero, Defoe, and Yakubu all seem incredibly steep given their sheer cost (RvP, Aguero), form (Suarez, Rooney), and long-term quality vs. recent form (K2, Ba, Defoe, and Yakubu). It seems like a lot of potential for disappointment if you're buying at retail. If you have big discounts, some of those players may make a lot of sense. If you're looking for more sensible alternatives then may I suggest:
- Shane Long - He's not CHEAP at 9.77 but he's been having a great season and he's playing at home against Wigan - 'nuff said.
- Luis Suarez - If you're looking for a recommendation on one of the above expensive guys, Suarez is the one I'd be buying at retail prices.
- Scott Sinclair - Despite the venom spewed this way in the TWA comments last weekend about Sinclair being a "mediocre player on a third rate team" (or something like that) he more than returned his value in a week when he didn't score. His price still isn't outrageous and he's playing at home against average competition (Fulham).
- Ivan Klasnic - Another match-up play but this one is coming off a modest week. Being back at home and playing at full strength against a mediocre Villa side puts him back in contention for some goals. Not a super-strong recommendation but a strong one none-the-less.
- Danny Welbeck - United starting forward, playing at home, against a team toward the bottom of the table, and priced under 8. Under ordinary circumstances, there wouldn't be much more that needed typing. Perhaps it is due to the opus I wrote above about United's doldrums but I'm not as convinced as I thought I'd be. There appears to be a mild chance that Berbs will make a return. It is unclear whether he will partner Rooney or partner Welbeck with Rooney remaining in midfield.
Gareth Bale - He's been extremely hot. Not quite RvP hot but then no one else in the world is that hot (well, except maybe a particular wife of one of Bale's teammates). The big worry here is that his part in the attack will be somewhat reduced if that lovely lady's husband is restored to the starting line-up.VDV - I missed the "Bale will require a late fitness test" news which means that VDV is the best bet if you want one of Spurs' premium midfielders.
- David Silva - I assume you all have him cheap and don't need to be told but I'd hate for you to think I was off the bandwagon if I didn't mention him.
- David Dunn - If you need an enabler and are willing to risk the possibility that he'll go out in the 10th minute with a knock (or pick up a YC) then he's a really cheap (3.80) enabler who we know can get a goal or some phantom points. He also has a nice match-up depending on how you feel about teams in their first week with a new manager.
- Stephane Sessegnon - Hard to say anything nice about Larsson after his cynical dive + penalty miss last weekend and even less so because his price is still pretty high. That said, vs. Rovers with a new manager could be a big opportunity under 10.
- Chris Brunt - Call me completely up in the air on this one. He's not nearly the player he was last season and he's more expensive. The only reason to consider him is that a) we know he has talent and b) he's home to Wigan.
- Dedrick Boyata - 3.15 and home against a low-scoring team. Not a slam dunk but certainly not a bad option.
- Chris Smalling - Likely to be back in a starting role for a long run now that Vidic is out. United may not be playing particularly well but he's value at his current price (7.47)
- Nicky Shorey - An old friend of the blog who is only being recommended based on his price (5.99) and the "Home to Wigan" theory. I wouldn't (and won't) give up a defender who has been producing at a discount for him. Just a one week stop-gap if you're in need.
- James Perch - Hard to know how to evaluate Newcastle given their injury situation. If Perch were starting with Tiote and a fully healthy Coloccini around him then he'd be a great bet but with Tiote and Taylor definitely out and Coloccini uncertain NUFC may be a big risk on the road no matter how well Tim Krul is playing this season. Still, Perch is priced at 3.30 and managed 6.5 points last weekend with no clean sheet. There are worse risks you could take if you need the money for those expensive forwards and keepers.
- DDG - This is for those who kept him at a discount and suffered through the 0 last weekend (and two others earlier in the season). DDG is STILL tied for the lead in overall points by a goalkeeper despite having played 3 fewer matches than Hart and 2 fewer than Friedel. It may suck to see that Zero but he's still great value.
- Keiran Westwood - IF you believe in the healing powers of a new manager for a team that has played below its talent level this season, then Westwood at home is a solid bet at 5.05 against Rovers.
- Szczesny - If you're going to spend a little more then Szcz is a solid bet at home to an Everton team that matches up poorly with Arsenal (no towering presences in the box and no super-fast players on the counterattack).
- Michael Vorm - No one saw last weekend coming but the Swans are a different team at home and Fulham may have done well against Liverpool but they're hardly consistent. Seems like a solid pick-up at 6.67.