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It is exceptionally easy to underestimate or overlook the significance of the Asian market of football fanship, and the figures continue to make startling reading. Recent research has estimated that 660million people within the continent consider themselves to be football fans, and both in terms of merchandising and television revenue, the Far East provides lucrativeness to a level previously unimagined.
The crucial importance of Asian-based supporters is that although fans express a passion for club support (and a more important inclination to spend their money on such a love) the standard of domestic football across the region as a whole has lagged behind immensely. Certain nations, South Korea most notably, have performed admirably in international tournaments but, broadly speaking, a colossal cohort of fandom are left without leagues or clubs of sufficient quality to provide adequate entertainment. Thus, this vast cohort has been provided with free will to choose a western club of their choice. Given the lack of geographical or historical tie, most have perhaps understandably opted for Europe's most successful performers.
Within modern football few commercial stones are left unturned, and Manchester United have been the most efficient exponent of the largely untapped resource. An initial step was missing the FA Cup in 2000 in order to compete in the inaugural Club World Championship in Brazil in front of an expected global audience. And this has been followed up with pre-season tours of Asia in 2001, 2005, 2007 and 2009. Games were played, girls screamed (particularly with the creation of Brand Beckham), and obsession and hysteria was established.
Such an approach has had an incredible effect. Estimates suggest that the club can boast over 300million supporters in Asia - almost 50% of the market share. Manchester United soccer schools are now operating in India and Singapore, the club has Chinese, Japanese and Korean versions of its website and have even been rumoured to be considering flotation on the Singapore Stock Exchange.
Through its instituting in the Far East, United is comfortably the most valuable brand in world football. Real Madrid and Barcelona have and will continue to strive to close the gap, but the red half of Manchester has forged an additional advantage over their rivals, namely buying Asian players over the last eight years. These are heroes with which fans can associate, and to which they can worship. In clichéd terms, the Manchester United brand has been further entrenched in the hearts of Asia.
In January 2004, Manchester United signed Dong Fangzhuo from Chinese side Dalian Shide for an initial £500,000, and the pacey forward was immediately loaned out to Royal Antwerp due to the impossibility of obtaining a work permit. After three years, he was finally able to obtain the clearance necessary to play in England, but was merely a peripheral figure. He made only one start in the Premier League (against Chelsea in May 2007, when the title was already won), a Champions League appearance (coming off the bench against Roma) and started in a League Cup defeat to Coventry. In August 2008 Fergie and Dong (a stand-up double act?) agreed to a mutual termination of the striker's contract, and he returned to China. The transfer was an unmitigated disaster on the field, but had Fangzhuo largely been a balance sheet signing, was his outlay of £500,000 more than vindicated in merchandising terms? This was a player signed by arguably the largest club globally before he had even received an international cap for a country ranked 86th in the world. There's a point at which cynicism merges into realism.
Then in July 2005 Park Ji-Sung joined the club, after impressing for PSV in the Champions League in the previous season. Whilst not an integral part of the midfield (Park has not played a part in more than 25 league games in a season since his first campaign), the South Korean is flexible, hard-working and professional, characteristics that Ferguson evidently holds dear. His transfer has undoubtedly been a success, and whilst United's stock in South Korea has been augmented considerably, Park has plainly not solely been a 'shirt-sale signing'.
If I were to notch up my cynicism levels however, I would remark that the recent signing of Shinji Kagawa from Borussia Dortmund completes the Far East perfect hat trick, the holy trinity of United's merchandising aims. They have now covered China, South Korea and Japan in three deals. It is music to a marketing manager's ears.
But this is where the scepticism ends. Because whilst Park has been an industrious servant to the club (stereotype alert) without ever approaching the bracket of world class and Dong was, at best, a gamble on potential talent, Kagawa might just be the perfect balance. He maintains heroic status in his homeland (second only to Keisuke Honda in these stakes), but more importantly may provide United with the missing piece in a jigsaw, so crucial after a disappointing season. 2012 will be only the third year without a trophy in their last fourteen. Is this where balance sheet improvement harmonises with on-field attainment?
Kagawa certainly has the credentials for success. Since his move from Cerezo Osaka to Germany in the summer of 2010 aged just 21, the midfielder has scored 21 league goals, an impressive return of almost a goal every two games (and the same rate at which Rooney has scored for United), and his eight assists made him the leading contributing midfielder in the Bundesliga. When German next-big-thing Mario Gotze was injured for a three-month period, Kagawa ensured that the youngster was not missed in a central role, despite often playing on the left wing for Japan. He was named in the European Sports Magazines' European Team of the Season, and achieved second place in the Bundesliga Player of the Season award.
Most importantly, Kagawa provides an answer to the most pressing question within the Manchester United squad. Last season they utilised a fairly rigid 4-4-2 formation, with Scholes and Carrick in central midfield, two of Young, Nani and Valencia on the flanks, and Rooney and Welbeck up front. Whereas Manchester City were able to rely on Yaya Toure and particularly David Silva to adopt a fluid 4-2-3-1 to help breach the gap between midfield and attack, a fluidity and interchageability that United lacked at times. The one high-profile occasion that United attempted such fluidity was in the derby at the Etihad Stadium. On that occasion Park was presented with this freer role, and United looked toothless.
Kagawa is not a replacement for Paul Scholes, but displays many of the qualities the magician offered in his early years at Old Trafford, being the fulcrum to link central midfield, wingers, and striker(s). With Wayne Rooney typically dropping deep to receive the ball, Kagawa can drift forward to avoid United becoming too cramped in the middle of the pitch, and if Ashley Young moves infield (a role he is carrying out for England), then Kagawa can fill the space on the left side.
The arrival of the Japanese player also provides Fergie with a selection headache. Assuming Rooney is a certain starter, the manager will be forced to fit Kagawa, Carrick, Cleverley, Scholes, Nani, Young, Valencia, Welbeck, Hernandez, Park, Fletcher and Giggs into five positions. A £17million player has not arrived to sit on the bench (although he may be eased in gently), but the beauty of Kagawa's versatility is that he could viably play the role of any of the aforementioned individuals.
Shinji Kagawa has evidently not solely been bought to sell Manchester United shirts in Asia (although that will certainly occur), and to suggest as much would be deeply disrespectful to his record in Germany and for his national team. In fact, he may well prove crucial in removing some of the rigidity that limited the side at times last season. In order to overcome the emergence of City, United need Plans B and C, and world-class versatility is a rarity.
After all, in the last five years there will not have been many decisions made at Old Trafford that have pleased all stakeholders. Kagawa's arrival should delight the fans (both United and neutral), manager, owners and marketing men. So what's not to like?
Daniel Storey - follow him on Twitter