Friday, July 11, 2008

How Carlos Queiroz’s Departure Affects Manchester United

You can’t blame Carlos Queiroz one bit for answering the call from his country. He’s 55 years old, and if he didn’t take this job now, he may never have gotten another chance, especially with Jose Mourinho already on the record as saying he intends to finish his managerial career with the Portuguese national team.

His record in the past as the top man for both club and country has been less-than-stellar, particularly at the senior level. Again, you can’t blame him for seizing this opportunity to prove himself and to show that he can be successful outside of the large shadow of Sir Alex Ferguson.

Queiroz’s acceptance of the Portugal job has left Ferguson without his right-hand man just five weeks before the start of the Premiership season. There are several candidates in-house that will almost assuredly be considered by Ferguson to fill that assistant’s role — Brian McClair and Mike Whelan chief among them — but none that seem to have the same working relationship and mutual understanding that Queiroz and Ferguson have.

Manchester United will be seeking to win their third consecutive Premiership title, a remarkable feat that the club also achieved from 1998-2001. There is no doubt that United wouldn’t be in this position without Cristiano Ronaldo, who has developed into the best player in the world during his tenure at Old Trafford.

Queiroz was largely responsible for convincing Ronaldo to remain at the club after the incident with Wayne Rooney at World Cup 2006 threatened to permanently sour his relationship with English fans. Queiroz visited the star winger in Portugal immediately after that tournament, and the rest (back-to-back league titles and a a Champions League title) is history. Queiroz has also made his best efforts to drive Real Madrid off Ronaldo this summer, accusing the Spanish giants in no uncertain terms of tapping him up and comparing him to Christopher Columbus, who both Spain and Portugal claim sailed for their respective nations. Simply put, it’s well-documented that Ronaldo and Queiroz have a close relationship.

Queiroz, too, played a significant role in Manchester United’s acquisitions of Nani and Anderson, who both speak Portuguese, last summer. Nani is the natural successor to Ronaldo, if and when he does leave, and certainly has a bright future ahead of him. He’ll play more this season than he did last year, allowing the veteran Ryan Giggs to rest and conserve whatever he has left in the tank. Anderson will do the same for Paul Scholes, who simply can’t go box-to-box on a regular basis like he could in his prime. Anderson can, and is the central midfield general that Manchester United is really lacking.

At 66, there’s no way Sir Alex Ferguson is involved with the day-to-day affairs of the club as much as he once was. He can’t be expected to do everything 100% anymore, and that’s not a knock on him, that’s just the natural effects of age. Having Queiroz right by his side allowed Ferguson to concentrate on the big things, delegating the lesser but still important responsibilities to a man who was on the same page as him. Ferguson has also never been known as a master tactician by any means and again, at his age, it’s unclear how up to speed he is with everything else going on in the European game, knowledge that is necessary for United’s Champions League campaigns.

With Queiroz gone, Manchester United will take a hit. He is widely regarded as one of the top, if not the top, assistant managers in the world, and he can’t just be replaced like-for-like. He has significant influence in Portugal, obviously, a country that produces some of the best young players on the continent, which Manchester United has exploited in recent years. He is almost a second father to Ronaldo and while that may not change, his absence from Old Trafford may push Ronaldo over the edge in his desire to play for Real Madrid.

United fans would be unwise to not take this seriously and assume that the train to another Premiership trophy will simply continue full speed. The club has been able to stay at an extraordinary high level after parting ways with several high-profile players in recent years — Roy Keane, David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy, etc. — but I’m not sure they’ll be able to do the exact same without Queiroz at Ferguson’s side. Money can buy you more talent on the field, but it doesn’t work that way with coaches.

A Little Summer Reading

These are truly the dog days of summer. With apologies to Arena Football, baseball and cycling (Tour de France) are the only major sports going on right now, and we're waiting until late summer/fall when the sports calendar will really get busy again.

With this in mind, I'm sure you, like me, have an abundance of free time on your hands. Instead of wasting your lives away sitting indoors doing nothing, perhaps eating too much, sitting on the couch all day, or playing virtual games of some kind (which I do as well, so I'm not knocking it) for hours and hours, do something constructive.

If you're a college basketball fan like I am, then here's the perfect suggestion. Pick up a copy of Michael Litos' "Inside the Rise of Mid-Major College Basketball", which chronicles the 2005-2006 season and focuses on the Colonial Athletic Association, whose headquarters in Richmond are right in my backyard and a conference with teams stretching up and down the Atlantic Seaboard from Massachusetts (Northeastern) to Georgia (Georgia State).

There's a great foreword written by former Duke player and current lawyer and ESPN analyst, Jay Bilas, discussing the general state of mid-major programs in this country. Litos picks up specifically on the CAA as he's from Richmond and is a fan of VCU, one of the top two or three basketball programs in the conference in recent years. The '05-'06 season, of course, was the year of George Mason's miraculous run to the Final Four and Mason is part of the CAA as well, so there's plenty of ink devoted to the Patriots.

This book isn't just about games and on-the-court action, however, it's about more than that. It's about perseverance and dedication, trials and tribulations, the thin line between failure and success in a so-called "small" conference like the CAA. It's truly a fascinating, firsthand account of what was a special season in college basketball and for the CAA, so I recommend you head to your local bookstore or library and get your hands on this book. You won't be sorry.

Portsmouth Purchases Peter Crouch

Portsmouth has completed a $22 million move to bring Peter Crouch back to Fratton Park after seven years, during which Crouch played for four other clubs and earned his way squarely into the England setup.

Crouch, the tallest player ever to put on a Three Lions shirt at 6′7″, spent the last three seasons at Liverpool, where he scored 22 goals in 85 league matches but led the club in ‘06-’07 with 18 goals in all competitions, including a hat trick in Liverpool’s 4-1 victory over Arsenal.

He was obviously out of favor at Anfield with the emergence of Fernando Torres, and manager Rafael Benitez found a formation that worked towards the end of the year — playing Torres as a lone striker with Steven Gerrard right behind him. Crouch was relegated to long stretches on the bench, usually coming in very late in games when Liverpool needed a spark. His playing style and body build wasn’t suited for Benitez’s preferred gameplan, and there was no way Crouch was ever going to be more than a role player as long as he stayed on Merseyside.

He’s come back to the South Coast now, where he’ll immediately link up with fellow England international Jermain Defoe. The two have the potential to feed off each other brilliantly — Crouch is very good at holding up balls and playing with his back to goal, allowing others to come into the attack, and the speedy Defoe should be able to run off Crouch and benefit from the big man’s dirty work.

There is no doubt that Crouch has superb technical ability, especially for a man his size, and he provides options that many teams aren’t built to defend against. His stats at Liverpool don’t truly reflect how good of a striker Crouch is; he was never put in a position to succeed and was playing in a system that limits individual creativity for the most part and focuses on the team and playing as a unit.

Under ‘Arry Redknapp, for whom Crouch will be playing for the third time in his career, he’ll have an opportunity to thrive. Niko KranjĨar and John Utaka are very good crossers of the ball from the wings and will give Crouch service he just wasn’t getting at Liverpool. He should be able to build more chemistry with the English contingent at Portsmouth (David James, Glen Johnson, Defoe, Sol Campbell, etc.) than he ever could with a semi-United Nations delegation at Liverpool, and that will come in handy.

For $22 million, Portsmouth signed a player who can score anywhere from 15-20 goals a season and almost as importantly, brings the skillset to allow guys like Defoe and Sulley Muntari and Utaka to come into the play and collect what Crouch starts out of the air. This was a very good signing for ’Arry’s club, and the regular first team games Crouch will get and the chance to continue to play in Europe (albeit the UEFA Cup, not the Champions League) will benefit the player as well. Look for Defoe and Crouch to form a productive partnership, certainly at club level, but I have a feeling they could be leading England’s front line as well in World Cup qualifiers this fall and beyond.