The Manchester United conundrum

It seems that some people think solving the Manchester United conundrum is as easy as flying an anti-David Moyes banner over Old Trafford.

Others believe it to be a task that will require more than a £100m splurge in the summer transfer window to complete.

Whichever way Manchester United’s current plight is observed, you can’t help but wonder where it all went so wrong.

Perhaps the most startling difference between the 2012/13 title-winning side and the current 2013/14 squad is the defence.

Nothing has changed in terms of personnel yet it looks completely dysfunctional.

Having watched several Manchester United games this season from the comfort of a local pub, it has even appeared to be frightened, almost paralysed with fear.

This was so devastatingly demonstrated by Manchester City’s bludgeoning of their arch-rivals in the very first minute at Old Trafford on Tuesday night.

City swarmed forward and fizzed around the United defenders as if their legs had been soaked in a concrete bath. They were motionless, scared and lacked aggression.

David Silva danced around two United defenders with embarrassing ease, before Samir Nasri’s simple shuffle and shot hit the post and fell straight to Edin Dzeko who tucked the ball away with the sort of unchallenged freedom strikers can only dream about.

Who would replace this ailing defensive unit, then?

Unfortunately for David Moyes, summer signings will be hard to come by.

Not only is the World Cup a traditional obstacle in transfer dealings, but the cunning Old Trafford executives have arranged a pre-season tour of the United States just weeks after the final in Rio.

This means that not only will world-class players be recuperating on holiday and therefore be unavailable to negotiate with, but any prospective signing would not have the chance to integrate with the squad.

Manchester United’s troubles don’t end there.

In midfield they lack energy, creation and combativity. Marouane Fellaini has so far proved to be a dazzlingly questionable signing, while Juan Mata has failed to make an indelible impact since his £37m January move from Chelsea.

Tellingly, both new signings have failed to score since their arrival at the club.

Moyes has been very active on scouting missions throughout the winter and has reportedly had Sporting Lisbon’s holding midfielder William Carvalho scouted 12 times.

Carvalho would be an ideal fit at United but the English champions are not his only suitors – and there Moyes faces another problem.

It is becoming harder and harder to believe that world-class players and those of similar potential would choose United as their next club over another one such as Barcelona or Real Madrid.

Moyes could do much worse than blooding the promising Nick Powell if his pursuit of Toni Kroos is fruitless, but it would be a blow similar to the failed chases of Thiago Alcantara and Cesc Fabregas if Carvalho decided against a move to Old Trafford.

Would Manchester United’s under-fire manager then be forced to panic buy as he has apparently done with Fellaini and Mata?

All the current criticism of Moyes is not only misinformed, it is premature.

The Scot has barely had a chance to construct his own side, allowing the new recruits to gel and then getting them to play in the manner he wants.

Therefore he should be judged midway into the 2015/16 season, when it will become clear if his forthcoming transfer strategies have worked or not.

If he is to succeed he can afford no repeat of his previous transfer dealings. That said, the World Cup barricade might prove to be his maker.

Then there is the spectre of European football.

Before the home game against Aston Villa, a five-point gap separates United in seventh and Spurs in sixth. The final Europa League place is awarded to sixth place with a Champions League spot all but mathematically beyond United.

If United do miss out on European football they could struggle to attract the biggest names to the club – and that is a focusing chastisement of their deficiencies this season.

Given all his current challenges, and the ones that inevitably lie ahead, Moyes will be hoping that he is afforded the time he needs to reconstruct a side so alarmingly in decline – and with a six-year contract in hand it is logical for him to be given it.

Bayern Munich – The world’s first hybrid football team

Over the last few years the concept of all things hybrid has spread across the world. We now have hybrid cars – both on the road and in motorsport – there are hybrid road bikes and even ‘phablets’ which are a cross between a smartphone and a tablet.

There has, however, never been a hybrid football team – until now.

Bayern Munich, the German, European and world champions, are arguably the first tangible example of such a thing in the sporting, not technological, world.

A couple of seasons ago, Bayern were eclipsed in the Bundesliga by the burgeoning force of Borussia Dortmund.

‘Die Schwarzgelben’ had revolutionised German football with their aggressive defensive pressing –  ‘Gegenpressing’ – and their razor-sharp attacking play which regularly made fatal incisions into Bayern’s defence – most notably during a 5-2 German cup final win in 2012.

Dortmund’s powerful arrival onto the German footballing scene provoked a reaction in Munich. Bayern manager Jupp Heynckes finally had the barometer that would help elevate his side and convert their huge potential – setting them on the path to becoming the world beaters they are now.

Heynckes’ response was to recalibrate Dortmund’s ‘gegenpressing’ – using it in a way that would suit Bayern. The results were devastating.

The following season Bayern defeated Dortmund in the German Supercup and later went on to win the treble – including a last-minute win over their arch-rivals in the Champions League final at Wembley.

Yet, it was Bayern’s performance in their semi-final against Barcelona – then comfortably held to be the best team in the world – that drew the most attention as they crushed them 7-0 on aggregate.

In the first leg they swamped their Spanish opponents, asphyxiating them with a brutal display of counter-attacking and finishing them off with startling lethality in a 4-0 win.

Barcelona’s Camp Nou had long been a fortress – particularly in European football – but Bayern flattened it in the second leg, cruising to a 3-0 victory.

The Bavarians sent shockwaves through the footballing community – especially the Catalonian one – and from there they have built upon that success.

Heynckes left Bayern last summer but was replaced by Pep Guardiola – a man who had been the chief architect of Barcelona’s rise to the top of the game.

Guardiola has not hindered Bayern’s progress though – he has sharpened it.

In just eight months at the helm he has developed the German giants into an all-conquering machine and the theme of hybridity is the ideal way to describe their style of play.

A key feature of the modern Bayern is the seamless transition from defence to attack.

Guardiola has drilled a sublime one-touch passing game into his new side, which serves to speed up the way Bayern shift the ball from their penalty area to the other.

Full-backs David Alaba and Rafinha have a licence to raid forward – particularly Alaba who is rapidly developing into the most potent left-back in the world.

However, it is when Bayern are faced with a wall of 11 players in front of them that they are at their most fluid.

Their defence, midfield and strike force all combine in each venture forwards, with an interchangability that is unprecedented in the modern game.

So much so that some photographs of Bayern’s offensive shape this season show a 1-8-1 formation – an almost incomprehensible form for a football team to sustain.

That ‘midfield’ eight usually comprises Alaba, Rafinha, Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Phillip Lahm and Thomas Mueller.

Eagle-eyed readers will notice Lahm’s absence in defence. Only a few years ago Lahm was seen as one of the best full-backs in the world, but Guardiola has transformed him into a free spirit that roams across midfield.

Effectively, Lahm acts an important cog between defence and midfield but, such is Bayern’s constant fluidity, the diminutive captain can pop up on either flank to assist wingers Robben and Ribery with attacks.

In Schweinsteiger, Bayern have the typical box-to-box midfielder – himself reformed from a flamboyant winger in his early career.

His partner in central midfield is contract rebel Kroos, whose growing influence during Bayern’s games has seen him linked with several top clubs in Europe.

Then there is Mueller – one of the most underrated players in world football at the present time.

Mueller has the ability to play as a striker – indeed that is where he started in his early career – but in recent seasons he has acted on the edges of an attacking three.

That Mueller is also an extremely hard-working midfielder enables his side to spring forward in numbers while also knowing that he will return goalside quickly if his side loses the ball.

This takes a huge amount of discipline and drilling on the training ground, and Guardiola must take credit for that.

What Guardiola has created is, in effect, the all-round football team.

In cricket, there are all-rounders, in cycling there are rouleurs and now in football there are hybrids.

Bayern’s influence on world football is now so strong that teams in England are dropping players whose talent only extends to one area of the game.

This is best evidenced in footballers such as Juan Mata and Mesut Özil.

Mata was allowed to leave Chelsea by Jose Mourinho in January. The Spaniard’s attacking quality was not in doubt, but his willingness to defend was.

Mourinho is keen to have the same all-round, hybrid player that Guardiola has created at Bayern. Consequently, players such as Ramires, Oscar and Eden Hazard were preferred to Mata for their greater work without the ball.

The same is true of Özil at his new club Arsenal. Although Real Madrid didn’t let him leave because of his lack of defensive diligence, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger dropped the German due to his ‘tiredness’.

After noticing Özil’s complete disinterest in tracking back, many critics saw this as a veiled signal to Özil that his work rate must improve.

As talented as Mata and Özil are, they are not the complete all-round footballer. They could even be considered a weakness if they do not perform to their high attacking standards because they offer little in defence.

This is where Bayern have excelled. They have changed the type of player needed to perform at the highest level and have quickly set up a squad containing players who are comfortable and capable of playing in several positions.

What used to be the utility player, a rare breed, is now a necessity.

Even goalkeepers are being asked to play as sweepers – good examples of those are Bayern’s Manuel Neuer and Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris.

Having such a goalkeeper allows teams have an extra layer of defensive security, and that is just one part of how the modern game is developing.

Defenders are midfielders, sometimes even attackers, midfielders are starting to flourish in any position across the width of the pitch and strikers are doing defensive duties too.

This hybridity will continue to reign in football for years to come and until then Bayern are the team to beat – just as Barcelona were when their tiki-taka football dominated the game.

The question is which team will be able to take football onto the next level and render the concept of hybridity a thing of the past?

Who are the best and worst football commentators?

Football commentators. The people armchair viewers love to hate.

There are plenty of atrocious and infuriating callers of the beautiful game out there, and also a handful of brilliant ones, but who makes my top 10 best and worst?

And before anyone pipes up about Andy Townsend, I’ve included co-commentators in the list too!

Let’s start with the good first:

10. Mike Ingham, BBC 5Live

Ingham is an entertaining commentator for those of you who are avid 5live listeners. Hardly ever culpable of making a mistake, he blends an enthusiastic commentary style with a thorough knowledge of the game. More importantly, he puts his 5live colleagues to shame.

9. Simon Brotherton, BBC

Brotherton is without doubt one of the BBC’s most underrated commentators. Experienced and articulate, he calls some of the biggest games on the Premier League calendar for Match of the Day with great success. Like Ingham, he hardly makes a mistake and is definitely worthy of a place on this countdown.

8. Clive Tyldesley, ITV

I’ve been known to call Tyldesley ‘Alive Clive’ due to his excitable style (he often sounds like a Dalek too), but generally he is a very capable commentator. His greatest work for ITV is probably the 1999 Champions League final, but can be prone to some occasional errors too. He gets bonus points for sitting next to Andy Townsend for two hours.

7. Rob Hawthorne, Sky Sports

Hawthorne is part of Sky’s respected commentary line-up, and has often called some high-profile matches. Not least the memorable Manchester derby where United’s Michael Owen snatched a 96th-minute winner in a 4-3 win. Looking back at Hawthorne’s commentary for that match on YouTube, it’s safe to say he did a fantastic job.

6. Jon Champion, ESPN

Perhaps the most respected commentator in the media, Champion is vastly experienced having worked for the BBC, ITV and most recently ESPN. His commentary of Owen’s wondergoal against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup will forever live in the memory of England fans.

5. Peter Drury, ITV & Fox Soccer

Often unfairly dubbed ‘Peter Dreary’, Drury is a well-spoken and entertaining commentator. He has a remarkable knowledge of the game and thrives in the big moments during the biggest games. Arguably his most thrilling work was during last season’s Manchester City 3-2 QPR match for Fox Soccer, where Sergio Aguero scored a late title-clinching winner for City.

4. Steve Wilson, BBC

Wilson has often been overlooked for the biggest games on Match of the Day in favour of the much-maligned Guy Mowbray, but his commentary style is perhaps the clearest of them all. He has the ability to keep up with play using quick, engaging and efficient language, and rarely makes mistakes.

3. Martin Tyler, Sky Sports

Head honcho of Sky’s commentary team, Tyler’s career has spanned across numerous eras of football. Usually understated and reserving his enthusiasm for the biggest Premier League and European games, Tyler’s most famous piece of commentary came in Manchester United’s 3-2 win over Aston Villa in 2009, where 17-year-old Federico “Machedaaaaaa!” scored a last-gasp winner.

2. John Motson, BBC

“Motty” is the godfather of commentary. Having retired from calling the action at international tournaments, Motson typically covers games in London for Match of the Day. He is nudged down from the top spot due to what many critics have correctly said about his increasingly frail and error-laden commentary – but that should not detract from the 67-year-old’s marvellous career.

1. Jonathan Pearce, BBC

Pearce beats his famed BBC colleague to top spot by virtue of some memorable and flawless commentary. Without doubt the BBC’s finest live commentator, some of the most enjoyable work in his career came in 2001 during England’s 5-1 ‘Müllering’ of Germany in Munich, where he worked for Capital Gold Sport. The line “England have gone naff in Germany!” was just one of many gems that night.

And now, the bad (and in Mark Lawrenson’s case, the ugly):

10. Guy Mowbray, BBC

It is baffling to many armchair and pub viewers alike why Guy Mowbray continues to be awarded the biggest gigs in football commentary. He cannot bring himself to make a definitive judgement on many controversial incidents and he is usually off the pace with his languid and dull style. He should be afforded some respite from his many critics for his famous “Agueroooooooo” line in the climax to the 2011-12 Premier League season.

9. Chris Waddle, ESPN

Waddle is not shy of making criticisms of current players, but when you are responsible for one of the most painful moments in English football history, you can hardly hide. Alongside Champion at ESPN, he has a tendency to state the obvious and offers tired, useless analysis of live matches.

8. Alan Green, BBC 5Live

Green is another opinionated commentator who has drawn criticism from far and wide. His style is actually listenable and articulate, but he lets himself down by hovering over his criticisms of players for too long – often to the detriment of his output.

7. Robbie Savage, BBC 5Live

Savage has cultivated a punditry career seemingly out of thin air. He certainly uses up a lot of air too, with his frenzied commentary style for 5Live, and offers little or no original analysis. He has also become the voice of 5Live’s 606, which is the perfect place for his dim comments to be hidden amongst others.

6. Craig Burley, ESPN

One of the more enjoyable co-commentators on the list, Burley gets onto the bad side due to his unprofessional nature. He is often guilty of bullying Champion during live matches and, given Champion’s well-respected and insightful commentary, his obvious misplaced dislike for his colleague makes him appear in a bad light.

5. Steve Bower, BBC

Currently being groomed by the BBC for a commentary place in football’s biggest arenas, Bower is unworthy of such a privilege. He rarely gets enthused by big moments in matches and has a distinctly monotone style which feels out of place on Match of the Day.

4. Martin Keown, BBC

Making the grade for the BBC’s Euro 2012 coverage, Keown should count himself lucky that the Beeb ignore the hundreds of tweets about his commentary every time he picks up a co-commentators mic. Littering his calls with errors, mispronunciation and recycled clichés, Keown’s commentary is every bit as cringeworthy as his punditry.

3. Andy Townsend, ITV

There are few plastic Irishmen in this world, and if they are all like Andy Townsend, I hope none of them get a commentary job in their lives. Constantly stating the obvious, Townsend’s only redeeming feature is that he is not afraid to say if a player is offside, rather than the usual “it’s marginal” sitting-on-the-fence attitude.

2. Mark Lawrenson, BBC

“Lawro”, or rather, ‘LOL-o’ is prone to making awful puns and jokes during live commentary for the BBC. A fond wearer of revolting shirts and a model of the balding mullet, a tirade of abuse was directed his way during the Euro 2012 final for what the Twittersphere correctly perceived to be an abhorrent lesson in commentary. That he was partnered with Mowbray for the same match caused many viewers to switch over to ITV or Flog It on BBC2.

1. Mark Bright, BBC

I have no doubt that ‘Brighty’ is a nice enough bloke, but his commentary is useless. He deflates rather than inspires, confuses rather than enlightens and, more importantly, bores rather than delights. It is perhaps testament to the dearth of co-commentating depth-in-strength possessed by the BBC that Bright continues to journey to World Cups and European Championships. Bright is the strongest reason to ditch ex-player co-commentators, but if we didn’t have them, over half of this list would be null and void and I would not be blogging. So thanks Mark, it appears you do have a use after all.