I parked a ½ mile away from Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, MA on Wednesday evening to catch the Revs against Manchester United. I did not realize just how bloody red the United shirts are in real life.
A full Old Trafford of such red would require beverages of the adult kind for visiting fans. Thankfully, there were a healthy helping of Revolution fans wearing the club’s navy blue jerseys, including yours truly, which made for a bold kaleidoscope approaching the stadium among 50,000 fellow footie fans.
Having poured an hour earlier, a clearing sky lent more electricity to a crackling atmosphere. People were excited at the number of fans, the idea of such a big club playing against the Revs, and the impressive structure that is Gillette when it is full of fans and not a cavern.
The mood was generally vivant with an amount of tension thrown in, for the Revs fans at least.
I found my seat in the end zone, which I was luckily able to purchase for little more than $60 the same day. I prefer the end zone seating as I like to see the game from the same vantage point as the players.
I was pleased to see a nice mix of supporters from both sides as well as fans of soccer generally; a very eclectic crowd, and up for a soccer match on a perfect, slightly misty summer night.
Although not sung live for some reason, we finally rose for the playing of the American national anthem on the impressive sound system after the cadet foursome in uniform and flags walked in synchronicity to midfield per custom.
I realized that I did not recall seeing the national anthem sung when watching European and South American club football, so perhaps this is a uniquely American tradition.
Once over, a cheer erupted carrying itself around the filling stadium as the teams appeared in line beside each other in the corner of the opposing end zone, with Vidic carrying the Championship trophy as captain for Manchester United.
As the teams took positions on the field to kick-off, to a quiet and expectant crowd, on reputation alone, one couldn’t help thinking for the Revs – those about to die, we salute you!
On the other hand, as die-hard New England fans know, our unofficial motto is “Rise Up!”, despite a dismal season, especially on the scoring front: and Rise we did with our starters in the first half.
Although I watch the EPL a fair amount, and have watched that league since near its onset, I am far more interested in the MLS and the Revs than the EPL games on TV.
I will take an improving, live soccer experience over games on TV on a regular basis even if it is some of the best club soccer in the world and in HD.
Therefore, take my assessment of Manchester United’s players for what it is; a soccer enthusiast finally getting a close, upfront view of players I have watched and seen electronically, but never seen perform in front of my eyes.
Having played the game most of my life, I enjoy taking in the performance of good players, and more importantly, as a midfielder and defender, how I would have taken them on if I still played.
I want to say at the outset, I saw enough quality in Manchester United to lead me to believe that they should win the EPL championship again, but this quality was not consistent in any way across the starters and substitutes.
I also want to posit that I am capturing part of the truth, not the complete assessment of any player. That being said, the following are my assessments of the United players that I studied on a very entertaining evening
Dimitar Berbatov – Dimitar is a player that absorbs pressure and carries the ball. He uses a light and agile frame, and sure control of the ball, to move with the ball and effectively shield the ball from defenders (and one thing a Steve Nicol coached team does is defend pretty well, at least when the starting 11 are playing) waiting for his teammates to make the forward runs – if they make them.
Dimitar does not have quick, gear shifting acceleration. He is not going to burn a defender by sudden movement with his lanky movement, and thus he relies on incisive passing and close dribbling to get through.
I imagine Sir Alex plays him up front because he will not do much defensively. But he cut a lonely and frustrated figure up front, unable to breakdown a well structured Revs defense, and not finding any players to make the streaking runs into the box for him.
Frankly, he does not look like he plays a style that works well with the way that United set-up and play. I think on the right team, a team that depended on him to play the role he naturally plays, without Nani and Rooney taking up creative space behind him, he could be effective.
Nani – Nani is an incredibly deceptive player. As a defender, I specialized in stripping forwards of balls (soccer). Especially as he sets up in his favored right corner above the penalty box – you do not know where he is going to go, down the side, or cutting in, and he has the speed and control to do either.
I was glad to see him unafraid to switch across the entire field looking for the ball and trying to find a way to be dangerous. He plays with a lot of confidence; he actually demands the ball of his teammates, and looks like a player who is simply improving every year.
He is one of the reasons United will win the league this year.
Rooney – Rooney carries a lot of weight on him. He is very strong and works very hard, but he is not the hardest player to defend against.
There is not much to figure out about what he is trying to do. There is the physicality when he rushed forward, but athleticism and physicality is a something the MLS does pretty well, at least the Revolution have it in defense.
I will give him the benefit of the doubt that he is in summer shape, but he is carrying far too much weight to threaten the idea of being one of the best in the world, let alone the best at United.
I would be surprised if he has a better season this year than in the near past because he does not look as dangerous as he was, and at 25, unless he goes on a Ronaldo type fitness regime, that weight he carries is already working against him.
Ashley Young – Of all the “name” players I studied, Ashley was the most overrated on the night.
He was out-hustling everyone on both teams on his introductory night, but even then he was not that effective.
His movement on the ball was not that great, his ability to take on players was not that great, even his speed down the flanks (negated by our very speedy right back Kevin Allston) would not trouble many MLS teams, which is a speedy and physical league.
His big tactical contribution was to send in lofty crosses, which negated any advantage Manchester United had over the Revs, and the Revs defense and our very trustie goalie, Matt Reiss, ate most of these chances up as they are not very special or unique in MLS.
The guy I saw playing for Aston Villa found room from deep for penetrating runs, but I saw a player playing an awkward, forward, wide left position on the night. I did not see him fitting in.
Anderson – Anderson is simply a competent, transition player. He makes few mistakes, but neither does he shine.
Like BASF, he does not make United anything other than make them better. He does fill a lot of what Scholes did giving United good movement on the shift to offense, but he does not have the additional, deadly offensive skills Scholes added to his transition role.
Scholes always had his own brilliance as an attacking player to call upon if his distribution was not enough. Anderson, at 23, still shows potential, but Sir Alex has serious development work to get him to approach Scholes’ level.
Now for the three players that tipped my hat to call for Manchester United to win the league.
Ryan Giggs – He came on in the second half. He actually did not really get engaged into the game in a big way, but what impressed me was the opportunity to observe his off the ball movement.
Despite graying hair on the sides, and 38 years, Giggs moves nothing like even a player 10 years younger. Ignoring his head shot, the lightness of his feet, the quickness of his feet, give him the movement of some of the speediest Arsenal youngsters.
Coupled with an intense focus, evident across the field, and obvious mental abilities on the field, to me, he evidently had a lot of resources on hand to turn on mentally and physically should he choose to. Often, on the night, he covered the field in idling mode for him, which was still more sprightly than most on the field that night.
Park Ji-Sung – Park Ji-Sung was one of two players that were simply extra-terrestrial to anything you will ever see in the MLS.
Expressionless, cool, very fast, and very mobile, he made his own team far better and simply did what he had to do to take apart any opposition in front of him (even if Nicol took off six of his starters and goalie for the second half when Ji-Sung came in).
He scored a wonder goal with great movement beforehand, but he did not try that hard to do it and his clarity of thought was evident.
Federico Macheda – The best for last – Macheda is a soccer assassin who is faster, smarter and more skillful than any player I have seen live.
You knew it as soon as you saw the way he moved his body with the ball at speed attacking the goal. When you think of players that could play at Real Madrid or Barcelona today and actually play themselves onto the starting eleven, this is the kind of player you imagine.
Couldn’t help smiling, as I am sure he did attacking our poor second string of defenders, but the first string would not have fared much better, even if they handled Man. United competently in the first half.
For the first goal, from my vantage point behind him in the end zone, he took not a great through-ball easily to his left side to score with minimal effort but ridiculous body movement.
He will have his way with most.
If Sir Alex plays a roster of Macheda, Park, Nani, Rooney, Giggs, Chicharito, Anderson, Vidic, Ferdinand, and a competent goalie and defender, or uses these resources wisely (I am not looking to do an expose on the team), he has the young guns (and experience) to give him the EPL again.
I think one of Sir Alex core strengths is shepherding young talent, and with his direction, this group can reach the top of English football.
One other parting thought though is United, on the whole, is not that far ahead of the MLS, the Revolution being the worst the league has to offer.
I will look with interest how United fares against other MLS sides. The All-Star team usually is a lamb to slaughter as the players will not know each other.
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