The strangest thing about the current band of Manchester United executives is this – they seem terrified of ceding control to anyone who wants to be manager, but are happy to take instruction from the one guy who doesn’t.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s appearance at the Manchester United training ground this week was interpreted as offering tacit support for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, even if it may just have been coincidence.
Certainly, his name was inserted into briefings that made plain Solskjaer would be keeping his job. And that’s how it should be. Ferguson was a brilliant manager. What sense would it make to not seek his counsel?
Manchester United chiefs appear scared of appointing a manager in Sir Alex Ferguson’s mould
Yet a man like Antonio Conte has an exceptional record, too. Ten titles, split evenly as player and coach, across two countries. Surely his thoughts would also be worth hearing? Yet United seem scared by them. One of the reasons Conte may not be Solskjaer’s successor is because he would want something called ‘control’.
He would like to decide who to buy and who to sell. Some marquee names may not fit his style. You know, just like when Ferguson was manager. Didn’t work out too badly, did it? Finding a good football man and letting him do the football. Doesn’t sound so outlandish put like that.
So why the fear? Who better is there to direct football at Old Trafford now? It is not as if the club has a Marc Overmars or Txiki Begiristain figure for a manager to rub against.
Antonio Conte (right) has been linked with succeeding under-fire Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (left)
Are they worried that while the marketing department schemes the second coming of Cristiano Ronaldo, a headstrong manager might ask impertinent questions like how does he play, where does he play and what makes you think he gets in my team? Isn’t that what Ferguson would have done in similar circumstances? Isn’t that exactly what a good manager is supposed to do?
There are those who think Ferguson’s presence places pressure on Solskjaer. This is nonsense. If anyone has the right to sit in that stadium it is the man who as good as built it, the man with the stand named after him. He did three decades and left them as champions, with 13 titles. He has the right to say whatever he wants. Ferguson has not uttered a single, public word that would undermine any of his successors.
Yet, equally, the idea that he remains the United kingmaker is bizarre given he relinquished the job in 2013. In his autobiography, Patrice Evra said that Ferguson spoke of giving David Moyes ‘the biggest chance of his life’. There is no denying his influence, yet that was eight years ago.
Surely, what United need now is another manager with a personality strong enough to embrace the challenge. Another Ferguson, in fact. Conte wouldn’t be around 27 years, but he might be there long enough to identify what is going wrong and address it. Is that what United’s board truly fear? That it isn’t just Solskjaer, or the players, who the new man would judge.
United need a leader that has a personality strong enough to embrace the task at hand
TUCHEL IS SPOT ON WITH KEPA
Having triumphed in his third penalty shootout this season, there has been much discussion about whether Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga can win his place back from Edouard Mendy.
Certainly, he will if Mendy departs for the African Cup of Nations with Senegal in January.
Thomas Tuchel clearly sees Arrizabalaga as his penalty specialist, which is partly why he plays in cups and also why he introduced him as a late extra-time substitute in the UEFA Super Cup final against Villarreal.
Then again, maybe Chelsea wouldn’t have needed penalties this week if Arrizabalaga hadn’t let a soft shot straight through his legs for the Southampton goal. Which is why Mendy keeps his place.
Thomas Tuchel has struck the perfect balance between his two goalkeepers at Chelsea
KANE GIVEN EASY RIDE
Harry Kane got off rather lightly as the man standing next to Michail Antonio when he scored West Ham’s winning goal on Sunday.
Sometimes it really is about wanting it more and only Antonio was engaged at that moment. If it had been Paul Pogba or Granit Xhaka on guard duty, interpretations would not have been so generous.
HAS SHAW SUFFERED FROM STAGE FRIGHT?
Might the dip in Luke Shaw’s form at Manchester United have anything to do with the return of crowds at Premier League grounds? Some players handle the attention better than others.
DIFFERENT TOON, BUT SAME TRIBE
Reports at the weekend said Newcastle fans marched towards Selhurst Park, taunting the locals with celebratory chants of ‘Blood money’. No doubt they were responding to similar accusations from the home fans, following the Saudi Arabian takeover.
So it was a very sensitive soul who later reported the Holmesdale End to the police on grounds of racism, after a banner was held up caricaturing Newcastle’s new owners as perpetrators of civil rights abuses, persecution, murder and censorship.
A fair comment defence would quite probably stand up in court and the police announced they would be doing nothing.
Newcastle supporters must understand that they are not a tribe apart from other fans
In other words, Newcastle fans are going to have to suck this up. They can celebrate their newly found wealth and the regime that has generated it but the wider football world is also entitled to its view. The perception of the club has changed.
Last week, interim manager Graeme Jones was talking about the culture and values of the area as if they were somehow more noble than the rest. Football people used to lap that up. Many had a soft spot for Newcastle. Yet everyone then saw how spitefully St James’ Park regarded Steve Bruce and recoiled.
Jones even put out a defence-oriented team and was celebrated for this. Fine. Newcastle supporters want to win and they don’t much care how they do it, or who pays the bill. That’s football and we all understand. But it’s not a tribe apart.
NORWICH SURVIVAL POLICY IS FLOORED
Some of the criticism aimed at Norwich this season is misguided. It is not true to say, for instance, that they’ve given up on trying to survive in the Premier League – as they did in the 2019-20 season.
Back then, Norwich, having won promotion, decided to use the money to pay off debts and build infrastructure rather than a team capable of survival. They were relegated 13 points adrift of 19th place and, indeed, prepared for that to happen. It was a poor show.
This time they invested £60million on the squad, making them the 11th-biggest spenders in Europe this summer. True, half of the investment was financed by selling best player Emiliano Buendia to Aston Villa, but it was still a change in strategy.
Norwich have defended their policy but it is not yielding them results in the Premier League
So Norwich were particularly upset when Jason Cundy and Jamie O’Hara suggested on talkSPORT that the Premier League might as well be reduced to 18 clubs because they won’t compete. At Norwich’s request, the head of talkSPORT then travelled east to calm the waters.
Norwich promptly lost 7-0 to Chelsea. Maybe they would be better off worrying about results like that, rather than media perceptions.
Whatever the policy, given they have taken two points and scored three goals in their last 19 Premier League games, it isn’t working.
GREG ON THE FAST TRACK
Greg Rutherford’s profile always suffered slightly by being perceived as the support act on Super Saturday. Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis were the headline names on the greatest night in British athletics’ history.
While it wouldn’t have been the same without Rutherford’s long jump gold, while he got his stamp and glittering post box in Milton Keynes, he was never afforded quite the superstar status of his contemporaries. That may be about to change.
Rutherford has made it his mission to qualify for the 2022 Olympics in Beijing as a member of the British bobsleigh team. Early reports suggest he is doing rather well. Lamin Deen, his team-mate, has been astonished by Rutherford’s progress.
Greg Rutherford is on the cusp of being a British Olympic great amid his bobsleigh exploits
‘People thought it was a publicity stunt, but it isn’t,’ he said.
‘Usually it takes four or five sessions. First session he got it and kept getting better.’ Already a gold medallist, to compete for Britain at summer and winter Games in two such different sports would place Rutherford among our greatest Olympians.
Only five Britons have ever done it and none of them have an Olympic medal. Rutherford should be in nobody’s shadow.
AUSSIES CAN GET THEIR OWN BACK
Julia Gillard , former prime minister of Australia, has been talking of what is known as the cultural cringe – the British perception of her country as artistically uncivilised. ‘I think it does get very frustrating for Australians when you’re confronted with an image that’s been developed from watching Neighbours,’ she said. ‘You feel held back.’
It could be worse, of course. England’s touring teams – particularly in rugby – often seem to be held responsible for some truly ancient history, such as the actions of the Redcoats, the original British army settlers. Gillard feels pained by a soap opera first broadcast in 1985, but at least she’s not dogged by events that happened in 1788.
Anyway, Australia can get its own back now it appears the winter Ashes tour will be broadcast on BT Sport with Australian commentary from Fox and Channel Seven. If you’ve ever heard what passes for impartiality out there, this could set Anglo-Australian relations back to the days of the First Fleet.
BARCA FACE A STARK REALITY CHECK
Stars aged, stars left, stars were sold and now Barcelona are a mid-table LaLiga side.
Whatever happened to the production line, the famed La Masia academy? When Barcelona were at their peak it was all we heard about. How it produced a seemingly endless supply of talent, all schooled in the beautiful Barcelona way, how it was a model for the rest of football to follow.
And since? The odd good player, yes, but not in the same number. And Barcelona will always produce talented individuals.
This is a region with football at its heart. To produce Pedri is no more a surprise than Marcus Rashford coming out of Manchester United. Yet the great Barcelona team under Pep Guardiola was also a matter of circumstance, as was United’s class of ’92.
Crisis club Barcelona are facing a stark reality check following Ronald Koeman’s departure
For the best part of a team to come along at the same time had an element of luck.
Of course, good practice, good coaching, a strong philosophy also create this fortune and Barcelona will always have those traits. What they will not have is such a happy coincidence.
It placed less pressure on their recruitment policy, too, which – as we have seen – isn’t always the smartest.
LACK OF COMPETITION HAMPERING LIONESSES
There was disappointment that the attendance for England Women’s 4-0 win over Northern Ireland was only 23,225.
The last time the team played at Wembley, in 2019 against Germany in a friendly, 77,768 turned up.
The profile for women’s football has never been higher, yet the national team has shed 54,543 followers. Why? Maybe what happened in the next World Cup qualifier offers a clue.
A low attendance for the Lionesses’ game this week can be attributed to a lack of competition
Latvia 0 England 10. Latvia didn’t even manage a shot at goal, England had more than 50.
‘We don’t like watching cricket scores,’ said Chelsea manager Emma Hayes. No, we don’t. And we certainly don’t like paying for them. Mismatches kill interest.
Meanwhile, FIFA has announced its new branding for World Cup 2023. ‘Beyond greatness’ is the slogan. England have now scored 32 goals in four World Cup qualifying games, conceding none. What’s great about that?
A BAD WEEK FOR THE ‘SUPER’ CLUBS
On Wednesday night, Juventus and Barcelona lost league games to Sassuolo and Rayo Vallecano, Real Madrid were held 0-0 by Osasuna, West Ham knocked Manchester City out of the Carabao Cup and Bayern Munich were beaten 5-0 by Borussia Monchengladbach in the German Cup – their biggest loss in 43 years.
Last week, Tottenham lost to Vitesse Arnhem, who were widely described as ‘minnows’ despite winning the Dutch league twice since Tottenham were last champions and triumphing in the Dutch Cup in 2017, more recently than Tottenham’s last trophy, the 2008 League Cup.
No wonder so many of these clubs – Munich are an exception, but are still hugely protectionist – wanted to form their own Super League.
They treat the rest with contempt. Juventus squeaked into the Champions League last season and now lie seventh. Tottenham, Manchester United and Arsenal are sixth, seventh and 10th. Barcelona are ninth. In a closed shop it doesn’t matter how good you are, year on year. That is what scares them – the trial of maintaining their status. They thought it should come by right. Nothing should, in sport.
It has been a bad week for the ‘super’ clubs and a reminder of why they wanted a closed shop