Red or dead – Are Rafa and Fergie losing the plot?

by Patrick Curry

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

So The Best League in the World bar none (copyright Barclays, Sky, Mars etc) finally also seems to be turning into the most open league in the world.  Points have been dropped left right and centre.  Formerly porous defences have shipped goals against the most modest of attacks.  Even Darren Bent has transformed himself into the kind of striker capable of finding the back of the net on a more regular basis than Sandra R.

But some things don’t change.  Rafa and Sir Alex continue to whine, whinge and rant at every perceived injustice.  As their respective charges stumbled ignominiously out of the FA Cup to lower division opponents they faced questions about the states of their clubs coming into the new decade.  The questions themselves are nothing new and it’s true that both Benitez and Ferguson possess the pedigree to extract themselves from their respective messes.  However, are these recent defeats just a blip in a difficult season or are they harbingers of a more endemic demise?  Indeed which of these two proud clubs is in more dire straits?
On the face of it, the answer is straightforward.  5 points from a Champions League spot, out of the FA Cup and Champions League, with off-field issues rife, Liverpool are, to paraphrase Walter Sobchak, in a world of pain.  Benitez admits that.  His key players are either unfit or woefully below par.  Tactically and personnel-wise they look desperately out of sorts, with the kind of patchy form that doesn’t suggest they will be able to string together the run of results needed to push them up to the Champions League holy grail.

The loss of Alonso last summer clearly damaged the midfield badly at Anfield.  The anticipated loss of Mascherano in the near future, not to mention Jamie Carragher’s dip in form, leaves Benitez with mountains of work to get Liverpool back on track.  His recent transfer dealings have not inspired great confidence with 20 million man Alberto Aquilani injured for the first 3 months of his Premier League career, while unrest swells within the ranks as Ryan Babel’s Twitter account will attest.  All sorts of issues confront the Spaniard but only a year into a lucrative 5-year-contract, he has stated he has no intention of walking away and the only way he’ll leave is if he is pushed.

A mooted ground share with Everton continues to rear its head and could be a potential solution to the financial constraints thrust upon the club by their American owners.  With the squad needing strengthening all over the pitch, not least up front, an overhaul will be costly though.  Fans point to a rich history in the red half of Merseyside but 20 years and counting since their last league triumph and with Man Utd’s recent hat-trick of titles, Reds fans will be all too aware of what they have been missing.  Following the arrival of Roberto Mancini, Man City look a genuine threat for the top four while Martin O’Neill and Harry Redknapp at Aston Villa and Tottenham respectively are moulding squads of great potential.  Coming into the final 3rd of the season, Benitez finds himself in a very real fight for his job and his club’s future as a member of the Big Four.

Just up the road in Manchester Sir Alex and his Red Devils sit happily in 2ndin the league, a point behind leaders Chelsea, with all seemingly well.  But that lofty position is papering over increasingly large cracks at Old Trafford in the wake of Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure.  With Chelsea having a game in hand on Untied, that solitary point could soon become 4.  Dumped out of the FA Cup at home to bitter rivals Leeds and unconvincing so far in Europe, United are not the machine of last year.

Injuries to key players have hampered Sir Alex badly at a vital time of the season.  However, the replacements bought in to fill the holes left by Carlos Tevez and Ronaldo have been inadequate and the squad has looked jittery at times this season.  Michael Owen never represented a huge gamble, arriving on a free transfer as he did, but nevertheless, an injury time winner against City aside, he hasn’t looked the poacher of old and United are increasingly reliant on Rooney to provide goals.  Valencia was always going to have an impossible job to fill Ronaldo’s boots but even so he has only shone in fits and starts.  Quite what Obertan represents is anyone’s guess.  With Giggs and Scholes another year older, Ferdinand looking evermore vulnerable, Berbatov a shadow of the player he was at White Hart Lane, and Vidic having his head turned by a move to Spain, all is not well in the Man Utd ranks.  More worryingly, the youngsters to have been blooded showed against Leeds that they are a long way from stepping up to replace the likes of Scholes, Giggs and Neville.

Furthermore, even by his usual cantankerous standards, Sir Alex has been in argumentative form this year, singling out every perceived poor decision to moan about, making a total mockery of his previous backing for the Respect campaign.  Is this highlighting of each officiating mistake just the continued mind games of a canny old campaigner or is it the desperate gripings of a man frantically trying to cover the shortcomings of an increasingly susceptible squad?

The emergence of Manchester City as challengers to the top 4 if not the title, added to their audacious swiping of Carlos Tevez has clearly got under Ferguson’s skin.  Like Liverpool, United now operate under shaky financial conditions with the sale of Ronaldo revealed to have saved the club from running a deficit in the past financial year.  Fergie may profess to consider Man City ‘a small club with a small mentality’ but he surely cannot help but cast envious glances at their bottomless pits when it comes to transfers funds this month.
Ferguson has been around long enough and has reinvented his squad often enough to expect himself to prove the doubters wrong.  However, with Ancelotti’s calm exterior, Mancini’s cool persona and the admirable restraint shown by the likes of Tony Pulis in the face of poor officiating this season, Sir Alex is beginning to public lose sympathy over his wild rants, looking ever more like a man losing his grip who might well decide enough is enough.  And if that were to happen what could be expected to happen at Old Trafford?

Liverpool’s situation is dire enough but we don’t need to look too far back to recall Gerard Houllier’s 5-trophy season when Michael Owen was the kind of player Fergie can only wish he were now.  Managers have come and gone and back room staff been changed and reinvented in the not too distant past at Anfield.  For United on the other hand, Ferguson represents everything.  But at the age of 68, retirement can’t be too far away from his thoughts, and what then?  With two proud clubs entering choppy waters, it seems change is in the air and tough times may be ahead.

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  • Dan

    as Wenger rightly points out, it’s only a matter of time before a very big goes bust! The amount of money they are all borrowing is crazy

  • JJ

    I think it’s time for change at both clubs. Fergie has been the best manager of all.

    Where as Rafa is still living of that Champions League win. The amount of money he has spent means they should of won the Premier League by now. They will NEVER win the league under him.

  • Darren

    I for one am absolutely loving it! It would be great for football if they both finished outside the top 4!

    Both clubs think they have a divine right to win all the trophies, which they don’t of course

  • dexylongshot

    Of course they don’t. West Ham will have taken their place in 7 years time if all goes to plan after the takeover. Olympic Stadium, 50’000 packed in every week, possibly more if we can get away with somehow getting the running track out of the way. They probably only want the track so they can have flirt on the dogs now Walthamstow has closed down.

  • Finn

    Liverpool are more immediatly in trouble (due to Benitez losing it, his post-match interviews are cringe-worthy and the sign of someone tipping over the edge) but United will have problems when Fergie leaves. Unless he has a ready made replacement it’s difficult to see anything other than trouble for United, especially as Giggs and Scholes will finally retire and players like Rooney and Vidic may get their heads turned by Spain. It’ll be good for the league though if both these sides drop out of the top 4 – its way too predictable nowadays, it needs shaking up.

  • Matt Quinn

    Fergie… overrated. Lucky to get the best crop of youngsters in decades. I could have managed Beckham, Scholes, Butt, Giggs, Nevilles (x2) et al to a league title.

    His signings have also been very hit and miss. Especially lately.

    Although i do think he is one of the best man managers ever. Even when you play a weakened United, they still play in a manner and style that suggests they cant be beaten. They never give up.

    Ive twisted myself in circles here. He’s overrated, lucky but a cracking man manager.

  • W.A.

    United are struggling because Ronaldo can’t be replaced. He wasn’t just the team’s most talented player; he came to determine how the team played. Ronaldo was only nominally a winger in his last couple of seasons at United. He started wide but would swap flanks or play through the middle, in search of the ball. The other forward players (Rooney included) took up positions according to where Ronaldo was on the pitch, and played off him. Rooney is having an exceptional season but he needs a foil or two to create space and link up with, as Ronaldo had with Rooney and Tevez. Berbatov and Owen slow the game down too often.

    Counterattacking used to be United’s strong point but, although the squad still has pace (Rooney, Evra, Nani, Obertan, Valencia, even Giggs still), they’re nowhere near as effective as with Ronaldo and (though it pains me to say it) Tevez in the side.

  • dexylongshot

    if i was Fergie or Rafa, i’d be keeping tabs on milner for the attacking midfield slot, he’s been fantastic tonight in the cup. he’ll be starting for fabio in the usa game if he keeps this form up.

  • Patrick

    Dexy, if I was Rafa I’d keep getting Howard Webb to ref at Anfield. What a joke. Spurs were bad last night but how he disallowed Defoe’s equaliser I’ll never know. Plus Mascerano shouldn’t been booked on about 6 separate occasions. Kind of comes back to that top four bias I mentioned a few months back. Either than or all the top refs are just intimidated by reffing at the top four, scared to give decisions against them. Speaking of which, how on earth did Gallas get away with that tackle in the lead up to Arsenal’s equaliser? If Owen Coyle can see it from 40 yards away then surely the ref can from 5 yards. Or maybe he didn’t want to.

    Also it’s nice to see the old spirit of fair play alive and kicking as Arsenal continue to attack as player lies prone with a broken ankle/snapped ligaments as a result of an atrocious tackle. If that had been a home player down I suspect the whistle would’ve been blown pretty quickly. I remember Wenger’s apopleptic reaction to a similar tackle on Diaby at Sunderland a few seasons back, plus his outrage after the Eduardo leg-break. He admitted this one was bad but then compared it to some from the game at Bolton the other day saying they were worse! His myopis is simply extraordinary – beggars belief.

    Finally a touching reaction from the Emirates faithful, booing Davies as he was carried off on a stretcher with a suspected broken ankle. It may be a great looking stadium, but most of those inside don’t have a clue about football.

  • Nev Nalier

    There is a lesson to be learned here, never sell your club to Americans, they know nothing about football and care little for it, a bit like me with American football. The only exception would be Villa, although Learner does seem suspiciously quiet, he will send them up the creek before long.

    Liverpool and Utd have similar financial problems, the difference between the two clubs is their managers, one is keeping his club afloat and the other is taking his under.

    The Premiership needs a re-shuffle, good luck to Tottenham, Villa and City, I welcome the new dawn.

  • Nev Napier

    That’s Napier to you and I.

  • Dave

    I think Randy Learner is doing well for Villa. There is always money to spend and the club are heading the right diection.

    I think United and Liverpool are completely knackered, if it was a small business that was so much in debt they would shut them down so why arent Liverpool and United being threathened with closure?

  • Nev Napier

    They should be, other clubs have been put into administration for much less, just look at Palace. A ten point deduction for Utd would shake things up a bit!

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