x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Manchester defenders scapegoats or examples of poor strategy by football coaches?

Players such as Demichelis or Cleverley may be struggling but what is stopping the coaches from rotating them.

Martin Demichelis has been singled out for criticism among the Manchester City defenders, but continues to get chances on the field. David Klein / AP Photo
Martin Demichelis has been singled out for criticism among the Manchester City defenders, but continues to get chances on the field. David Klein / AP Photo

Football loves a scapegoat. There is nothing easier than to pick out a player who is underperforming, point at him and jeer: “It is your fault. You are the reason we have not won. You are the one who has let everybody down.”

It happens in all countries and across all cultures and it is almost never justified.

A player who has made a mistake is vilified and everybody can stop thinking about other reasons for the failure.

It is a ludicrous response, for two reasons: firstly, that a player who has lost his form needs his confidence built, not destroyed, and secondly, it is almost never the fault of one player alone.

By blaming an individual, deep-lying issues may be allowed to run on unrecognised and unchanged.

At Manchester United, Tom Cleverley has become the embodiment of the long-running failure to reconstruct the central midfield, which in itself hints at issues of investment, scouting and recruitment.

It takes little detachment to step back and see a decent midfielder struggling for form and confidence in a club that is suffering a catalogue of misfortunes.

Maybe Cleverley is good enough to play regularly in the Uefa Champions League and maybe he is not. It is not clear what his best role is.

He has had some awful games this season. But for him to be the subject of a petition – signed online, remarkably, disgracefully, by 15,000 people – demanding he should not be part of England’s World Cup squad is offensive and ludicrous.

He could retire from football tomorrow and it would not make Manchester United a brilliant football team or turn England into potential world champions.

Cleverley is just a player who possibly is not quite be good enough for the level at which he is playing and is struggling. No one who has played or trained with him has ever questioned his effort or professionalism.

If Cleverley is out of his depth at United, the issue lies with those who have created the situation in which David Moyes feels the need to play him as regularly as he does.

Manchester City have gone through the same with Martin Demichelis.

Twitter on Wednesday was awash with jokes that Barcelona had failed in a bid to have his suspension overturned. He is the hapless buffoon on which a season that will, probably, end with a single trophy can be blamed.

He has made mistakes, of course he has; every team to have played City in the past few months, from Barcelona to Wigan, has identified him as a weakness and tried to target him, which makes him even more prone to error as he has more to do.

But the bigger issue is why Demichelis has played so much.

The plan could not have been for him to play 23 games this season. City’s plan for last summer was always to make four major signings – something Ferran Soriano, the club’s chief executive, told me last March and something on which he delivered, bringing in Alvaro Negredo, Fernandinho, Jesus Navas and Stevan Jovetic.

Demichelis was an afterthought, brought in near the end of the window because of the injury to Matija Nastasic.

He was surely intended only as short-term cover and in that sense his signing was logical: a 33-year-old player whom Manuel Pellegrini knew and trusted, who probably would not mind winding down his career as a well-paid reserve.

Except Nastasic’s problems – an ankle problem, then a calf problem and then a knee problem – have continued and he has started only 12 games.

The question then is about why Joleon Lescott has played so little – just seven Premier League starts this season – and whether City’s leadership made the mistake of thinking Javi Garcia could operate as a reserve centre-back in the Premier League. Then there is the strange case of Jack Rodwell, who many believed would develop into a ball-playing centre-back.

He is 23 and should be emerging into his prime, but he has become one of the lost generation of English football: the gifted young players who move to a big club and then cannot get a game – just seven Premier League starts over the past two seasons.

City face Hull today, nine points adrift of Chelsea with three games in hand desperate for a win to keep the title race alive.

Demichelis may play or he may not, but if City slip up and their title challenge falters, you can be sure he will be blamed for the points his mistakes have cost City earlier in the season.

But it must be remembered that those errors are merely symptoms of wider miscalculations, just as Cleverley is the victim of wider mismanagement at United.


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