Can we play 10 every week?

Fast flowing, attacking football resulting in goals from all over the pitch – from striker, to right winger, to central midfielder and to right back. It’s the sort of football, Blackburn fans have wanted for a number of years now. The only down-side – it was against a side with ten men, who sat near the bottom of the table. Well, you can’t have everything.

The season started so brightly for Blackburn at Derby, were they bossed the opening exchanges, then disaster struck. An injury to the brightest player on the pitch, Blackburn’s spark: Ruben Rochina. It was almost as though the wind was knocked out of their sails, and there was a feeling of “what do we do now?” amongst the team. In the meantime, Derby grew in confidence and stupid decisions led to the first goal of the game. After getting in at half time only one goal down the troops rallied and pushed for an equaliser, which they got at the death, but I think most Blackburn fans would argue that it was two points dropped rather than a positive away point. That was the optimism of the first weekend of the season – a stark contrast to disappointing performances against Ipswich and Wolves in previous seasons; could this be the optimism which could help the club rise from the ashes and mayhem of the last 24 months?

If the game at Derby was viewed as two points dropped – with minutes to go in the first home game of the season against Nottingham, those same Rovers fans would argue that a point at home would be a bonus as Nottingham Forest had been much the more dominant team. But football is a cruel game and one mistake from Jake Kean led to a late winner for the visitors – a disappointment given the effort and battle the team had put in over the game to grind out a draw. On to new boys Doncaster, an away game on a Friday – not because of Sky but because of the jet-ski world Championship over the same weekend (has a football ever been moved for such an event before?).

What many would see as a formality was anything but, as Blackburn were left in the wake of Paul Dickov’s side – Bowyer argued that the first goal was offside and the second a fluke – but you have to take the game to them and win it before you lose it if you take that approach.

Sandwiched in between these four games was a disappointing Capital One Cup defeat on penalties to Carlisle, in a game were Blackburn came from behind to lead twice yet lose on penalties – surely the old confidence ghosts hadn’t returned? For a two week period, it definitely looked as though they had.

In fact, up until about the 14th minute against Barnsley it looked as though the ghosts had returned. After again starting the brighter, a relatively tame long range effort trickled in at the far post. It was reminiscent of the season Blackburn got relegated: starting brightly but failing to capitalise and ultimately suffering the sucker punch. The crowd, again, got agitated, and it looked as though this could transfer to the pitch. But in the nick of time, step forward Jean-Yves M’voto to bring down Jordan Rhodes as he was clean through on the edge of the box – and like that fortunes can change.

The referee adjudged him to be the last man and sent him off (if the fixture had been at Barnsley and without the home crowd, I don’t think a yellow would have been a surprise), with Blackburn scoring from the resulting free-kick. From here they pushed on and led a comfortable 4-1 at the break, finally finishing at 5-2. The quick equaliser was crucial, as without this Barnsley could have sat back and defended their lead with ten men back behind the ball. One player who did shine in the deficit was Josh King who seemed to find a confidence which had been lacking since he signed last year, and time after time he got the better of his man and got a ball in to the danger area, capping the performance off with a goal.

At times the football was brilliant, and Blackburn attacked well and with a purpose, but you have to remember this was against a ten man team rooted to the foot of the table. I’m not saying this to put a dampener on the result or the performance – in fact, if anything, I think this should be used as a positive.

The team should take the positives from the game: Rhodes got a brace; King his first for a long time; and first goals for Kane and Cairney. But further to this, they should take the positives of how much they dominated and where able to make the extra man count, how it let them express themselves, and show the talent that players in the squad have.

The result against ten men also demonstrated something else – Blackburn are struggling to concentrate at the back, and even against a ten man team 4-1 down they still managed to concede. Towards the end of last season, the defence played really well and became very hard to score past, but that mentality seems to have gone and it does look as though Blackburn could ship a goal at any time (conceding a combined seven to Carlisle, Barnsley and Doncaster demonstrates this clearly). So what is the answer? You can’t commit the opposition to getting a man sent off every week, so there has to be a more sustainable plan B.

The solution may seem very gung ho, but it has worked time and time again in both this division and world football. In Jordan Rhodes Blackburn have one of the brightest and best finishers in the business; in David Dunn they have an experienced professional with flair and creativity; in Josh King they have a pacey winger who is full off tricks and can beat his man 95% of the time; and in Todd Kane and Tommy Spurr they have full backs who like to get forward and support the attack. Combine this with a central midfield of Lowe and Cairney and/or Marrow which many have argued is too flat and too defensive and surely you have a good mixture of defence and attack to allow the attacking players to express themselves and not worry too much about the defensive side of their game. If you don’t score goals you don’t win games. Too often in the last two years Blackburn have been guilty of not losing before they win – you can’t get promoted from a division with 46 draws, you have go out and win games. Blackburn definitely have the players to take the game to the opposition, and arguably they have the players to do the dirty defensive work to allow them to play this way – so why not give it a go? So far this season Blackburn have yet to go in front and defend a lead, I think if put in this situation, the defence would perform much better with something to defend, as opposed to the men at back almost feeling a responsibility to help push on and get the goals.

It’s just a theory but it has worked for Brazil for decades by scoring more than the opposition – why not give it a try and see what happens. It is a no-lose situation. The club expects to be in and around the play-offs come May next year, if you finish 7th, you may as well finish 17th, but at least the fans will be entertained and we will have given ourselves a fighting chance of escaping this division (whether we are good enough to compete in the Premier League at this current time is a different question entirely!).

Manchester United: Welcome to the Real World

I’m going to put all my cards on the table from the off here: I am a lifelong Blackburn Rovers fan. I have followed them through thick and thin and in doing so have seen a Premier League title, a League Cup, multiple (and often short lived) European adventures, two relegations, two promotions and numerous cup semi-final defeats. We have never had it easy – at least not since the mid-nineties – and we currently find ourselves in the Championship, with relatively new owners and on the back of a relegation, a failed promotion attempt and 5 managers last season; not to mention the sale of numerous star players. Come the first day of the 2013-14 season the squad will be barely recognisable from that which was relegated at the end of 2012.

For many football fans across the country, the above sounds all too familiar, and it is a scenario many have witnessed since the birth of the Premier League. In fact, only a handful of clubs have yet to experience it, some have come very close to experiencing it, and others have continued along blissfully unaware.

One of those blissfully ignorant to the rigours of 99% of football fans is Manchester United. For the last 17 years whilst they have had Ferguson at the helm, they have competed on every front: league, domestic cups, European cups, big money transfers, and (front and) back page sagas. That is until now. I don’t think you’ll find many United fans who will argue that Moyes was definitely a candidate after serving his apprenticeship at Everton, what I think has shocked United fans, is the lack of activity over the summer.

Each summer every club in the Premiership (yes – even those in the top 6) brace themselves for interest from at home and abroad for their star players. A good summer for many clubs is retaining the majority of players from the season before. A good summer for Manchester United is at least one superstar signing and numerous others signing on again with big money contracts. This year however, the tables seem to have been turned somewhat.

Firstly, there’s the Wayne Rooney saga – does he want to leave? Doesn’t he? Do Chelsea or Arsenal want him? Do Manchester United want to sell him? On the surface it looks as though they don’t, but that fact that bids have been placed, mean he is potentially on the market. At their peak, you would never get a Cole, a Beckham or a Ronaldo wanting away after winning a league title, especially not to teams who haven’t won the league in at least two years, or even a trophy in many a year.

In the last few seasons we have seen Manchester United splash the cash on Van Persie, Jones, Kagawa, Young etc and there was a definite ease and power in the ability to do so. Fast forward to this year, and they are struggling to attract the players, and tempt the opposition to part with their assets – for a lot of money – meaning, to date have made one signing (a left back).

The peasants are revolting – I’ve lost count of the number of times I have heard Manchester United fans “wish that Fergie was back” or worry “they won’t be in the hunt for the title”, or complain that the “neighbours might get noisy again”. Whilst they have changed manager and pretty much nothing else, the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea, have changed their leader, spent the money, and are quietly getting excited about the prospect of the new campaign.

So Manchester United fans – welcome to the real world. For far too many summers you have had easy pickings and the chance to slowly stir towards the new football season. This season you have to suffer like the rest of us as your star players are tempted away and your top transfer targets slip through your grasp. The only difference being, that unlike us long-suffering fans, you have the experience and squad to mount an assault on the Premier League even without signing the likes of Fabregas and Thiago.

One of Manchester United’s reported summer targets is /was Gareth Bale following a scintillating season with Spurs last time out. They aren’t the only ones however, and Real Madrid have entered the race and used the likes of Zidane to stir the interest and pull at Bale’s heartstrings. The rumoured £85m may seem a little steep – especially considering that by Bale’s current age, Ronaldo and Messi had already won at least one Ballon d’Or – but by offering this amount, Madrid are effectively pricing Manchester United out of the talks. I don’t think the hierarchy would give a brand new manager a war-chest of that size to sign a player who has only had two impressive seasons in the Premiership. However, what the Bale transfer could signal is the potential departure from the Bernabeu of Cristiano Ronaldo. Rumours are he is not 100% happy at Madrid and is requesting a lucrative pay rise. Combine this with the fact that Real aren’t cash-rich, and this could hint at the money for Bale being raised by the sale of Ronaldo. In addition to this, Bale and Ronaldo are very similar players, and in recent seasons have both been moved from traditional pacey winger, to play through the middle – I can’t see either of them wanting a move back out wide. What this signals for Manchester United is that CR7 could be back on the market this summer, to help Madrid raise the funds for Bale – those holding the purse strings may be more inclined to give Moyes a war-chest to allow him to buy a constantly proven striker, who is loved still at Manchester United.

As the Bale transfer saga hots up, it looks as though this he will be the first domino to fall to start the transfers moving. With £85m Spurs could in theory have anyone they want, apart from the fact that they have sold their best player and cannot provide Champions League football in the year leading up to a World Cup. One player this small issue could rule them out from signing in Luis Suarez who has said he wants to move to either a) get away from the English press; or b) play Champions League football again. So this puts him on Arsenal’s radar, but at £40m, is Arsene Wenger likely to splash that cash on one player? In short, he needs to or else he will have an angry mob of Gooners after him again, especially after the club promised to break the club transfer record at least three times this summer (so far this hasn’t happened once). That said, were Wenger has spent relatively big, the signings have never really paid off – recently Andre Santos and Andrei Arshavin spring to mind.

Looking at the spending so far this summer it is interesting to see the likes of Norwich up there with the big spending City. At the end of last season I picked them, along with newly promoted Hull and Crystal Palace, to be the team to go down. But a little over two weeks ahead of the new season, I will be backing them to finish in the top half. Chris Houghton has identified where he was weak, and used the prospect of more TV money to invest in his squad to keep them were they are. In Ricky Van Wolfswinkel they have a striker who has scored goals on the continent both domestically and in European competitions; in Leroy Fer they have a midfielder who has won league titles and played in Europe; and adding Hooper to the front line brings an air of excitement and promise – both for the fans and the player. My only worry for them is that should the two new men up front not pay off – they may regret selling the ever dependable mechanic Grant Holt.

Another team who appear to be going for broke are Sunderland. With Paulo Di Canio steering the Mackem ship, they have signed 8 players – the majority of which are known in the European footballing world, and are also internationals. If this pays off for the Italian he could potentially be looking at a very good first season in the Premiership – if it doesn’t, he could quickly find himself under pressure to deliver. One player who stands out to me is the fellow Italian Giacharrini – if Di Canio can get him firing, they have definitely got a bargain.

Look down the A1 and there is definitely a different story playing out. Following narrowly avoiding relegation last term, Newcastle are yet to sign anyone, and the backroom turmoil of appointing Joe Kinnear and the failed recruitment of Mick Harford signal that all is not well at the Toon. At least they have got Papisse Cisse to wear the shirt and get back on the pitch, otherwise the Toon faithful would once again be hoping Shola Ameobi can live up to his potential (he’s 31 now). Worryingly for Newcastle, Mike Ashley seems to be flirting with the idea of buying in to Rangers New Co – if this is the case, he may in the next 12 months be looking to sell Newcastle United to raise the funds; in which case, Newcastle fans can expect a barren season with few players through the door and a bare minimum spent to ensure top flight survival.

So, back to Manchester United – in a weeks’ time they will make there somewhat routine journey to Wembley for the Community Shield were they will be expected to win comfortably against a relegated Wigan side. If they don’t win, and do it somewhat convincingly, the pressure will definitely be on Moyes from the start. Rewind back to May and you could say that playing Wigan at this ground was the beginning of the end for Bobby Mancini.

Wigan enjoyed their time in the Premier League and will undoubtedly be trying to get back there this season, but as they venture down Wembley Way, they will soak it all in and enjoy the day, enjoy the ground, and to an extent, be happy to relive that cup final day and just enjoy the occasion. The problem with some Manchester United fans is that they will never feel this way about a game so allegedly inconsequential. And there lies the issue of drifting away from the real world – they have no comparisons to make for these days, all they have known is cup finals and league titles and win win win and win convincingly. They should take a look to their sides during the Community Shield and realise how good they have had it for so long, and look at the trials and tribulations other clubs and their supporters have to go through each and every season; and realise that change happens and it takes time, and they should feel lucky that they have a stable club on a good financial footing, which already features world class footballers who could challenge for trophies in their own rights. Failing that, if Wigan do beat them, they may crash land back on earth with an almighty thud.