Why Roy Keane is right to attack Ed Woodward, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling
As a player, Roy Keane was best known – perhaps unfairly – as a ‘hard man’, who could intimidate his opponents with one ferocious glare or shoulder barge. The former Manchester United captain carries the same uncompromising approach to his off-field punditry, and on Tuesday he launched into a two-footed tackle on United vice-chairman Ed Woodward and utility player Phil Jones.
Keane was a vocal supporter of David Moyes throughout the Scot’s ill-fated 10-month tenure, and has criticized his sacking, suggesting that Woodward’s poor transfer policy last summer was more to blame for the mess United were last season.
“He [Moyes] had one transfer window, and it’s not always down to the manager when players don’t come in,” said Keane.
“I think Ed Woodward needs to look at himself. He’s got to get deals done. I was happy with David Moyes.”
Keane is not far off the mark there. The loss of two experienced operators in vice-chairman David Gill and manager Sir Alex Ferguson hit United badly last summer, with replacements Woodward and Moyes struggling to get any deals done. At different times, Moyes’ targets for central midfielder alone included Sami Khedira, Cesc Fabregas, Ander Herrera, Thiago Alcantara and Toni Kroos, as well as attacker Wesley Sneijder and left-back Leighton Baines. All the approaches were leaked to the media, and none could be completed.
The transfer budget was already depleted by the 15mp spent on Wilfred Zaha, a winger who has barely featured for United and has spent the last four months on loan at Cardiff. Worse, the one player Moyes did get, Marouane Fellaini, cost 4mp extra because United bid 2 months after a cut-off date in his contract. Moyes, who signed Fellaini as Everton manager, would certainly have been aware of that clause.
The January window was only slightly better. Juan Mata, signed from Chelsea for a United record fee of 37mp, was a panic buy. His quality is unmistakeable, but he adds to the one area United are already well-stocked: attack. Their central midfield is broken, and a defender often moved forward to fill that void, Phil Jones, was also the target of Keane’s withering assessment.
“Jones needs to toughen up,” says Keane.
“Every time I see him he is getting carried off. He’s got to toughen up – he’s playing for Man United.”
He went on to question the development of Jones and fellow defender Chris Smalling – another point fans will find hard to disagree with.
Jones is a decent defender, but his versatility has led to him being shifted around constantly, making it hard for him to grow tactically or technically. Yet he is one of the few United players who can emerge from this season with any credit, owing largely to a consistent run in his preferred role of centre-back.
Smalling is a harder case to evaluate. In his autobiography, Ferguson wrote about how difficult it is to find players who ‘like defending’ – players who like to fight for aerial balls and clear their area. He marked Nemanja Vidic out as one such player, then pinpointed Smalling as another. The Englishman has pace, strength and is comfortable on the ball. He has for long been groomed to take over Rio Ferdinand’s mantle as the ball-playing central defender.
Now Ferdinand will finally leave this summer – but Smalling doesn’t really inspire confidence as a first-class defender. His potential is unquestionable: a month ago, Arsenal were rumoured to be putting together a 13mp bid for his services. Halfway through his 25th year, he is at an age where footballers usually peak, so United may yet see the best years of his career. Like Jones he may benefit from a more regular run at his favourite position.
Yet, with 361 combined appearances, the central defensive trio of Jones, Smalling and Jonny Evans can hardly be called rookies any longer. Tipped to take over central defending when Vidic and Ferdinand left, they are yet to demonstrate the leadership skills or dependability United have been used to at the back. Evans was surprisingly spared his fellow Irishman’s wrath: he has had perhaps the poorest season of the three, and made several errors in the first half of the season.
Jones’ shoulder injury against Hull City last week is the latest to plague the 22-year old. Injuries come in different shapes and sizes, and it’s not fair to gauge his toughness accordingly, but Jones must know that the dual retirements have handed him the chance of a lifetime. Like Smalling, he needs to convince as a centre-back and convince United’s fans and board that they need not purchase a replacement.
Which brings us back to Woodward: replacing managers has become the easiest thing in football, but genuinely good players will be harder to find. Unlike most other PL managers, Louis van Gaal – if he gets confirmed – will join late due to his World Cup commitments with Holland, so Woodward will have to start the legwork on his own.
Ferguson rarely spent big, but he was spending from a position of strength. Woodward on the other hand will be asking clubs to let go of their best players, to join a club without Champions League football; ergo higher sums in fees and salaries. It will be a ride through very choppy waters, but he will have to negotiate it somehow. United cannot afford to waste yet another window.