Friday, 12 May 2017

UNITED LAND SECOND MAJOR FINAL DESPITE SEASON OF MARGINS


Technically, we've been here before. Nervy cum heart stopping situations are synonymous with the history of Manchester United. The territory should therefore be familiar. Except that whilst these situations have largely been about making a daring assault in a moment of adversity, this campaign has generated the same emotions out of a need to preserve the stats-quo.

As such, United have endured a season in which they've 'fought' to simply keep within margins. For instance, there is nothing spectacular that came out of United's 25 game unbeaten premier league run but it did keep the club's season alive domestically, until late April when the manager decided to tank the drab of the domestic season for Europe.

In doing so, Jose Mourinho narrowed the margin for error so much so that United were a sitter away from having their season turned upside down last night in the second leg of the semi-final.

Whilst the problem has been comprehensively diagnosed, the antidote remains elusive. Goals. Indeed, the narrative of last night fell perfectly within the narrative of the season. A failure to kill off an opponent resulting in a draw. Last night marked the club's 11th truce at Old Trafford alone.

On this occasion though, the draw was enough to see United through to the final, but only just! Nobody will remember that though if the club lifts UEFA's secondary competition for the first time at the Friends Arena in Stockholm a week on Wednesday. Indeed, few will care if United turn out as bad as they did in the EFL Cup final in February but emerge as winners over an Ajax side full of youthful exuberance.

Whilst the manager at the club has a huge job on his hands to make his side much better for the new season, it is what it is at the moment and you cannot begrudge him chasing silverware when the opportunity is there to claim it. Why? Because IF United are successful in Sweden, they'll have collected more trophies this season alone than Liverpool and Tottenham have collected combined in the past decade.

Victory in Sweden will also be a third major trophy in the 4 seasons since Sir Alex departed. The argument here is that whilst the club is ordinarily expected to be successful, 3 trophies in your worst period for more than a quarter a century is also not too bad.

The solemn reality is that winning a trophy is any kind in England is no longer the easy-peasy business of days gone by. There's up to six clubs now with genuine trophy ambitions every year and only three domestic trophies available. Indeed, at the start of the season, there were only four trophies that United could possibly win. They are on the brink of claiming 2 out of the 4 available. It's not been a great seaso

n but it could yet be the best since the fiery Scot was still around.

And yet, because the club has walked along margins all season, the season remains equally on the brink of disaster if somebody puts a foot wrong....or a fist wrong as was the case with Eric Bailly last night who will now miss the final. Against he fearless youthful attack of Ajax Amsterdam, United will play the final without their most consistent and, by far, best defender of the season.

It's all set for another nail biting affair in a couple of weeks in what will be the last game of our season. Incredibly, the past 8 months and 63 games will come down to those final 90 minutes. How's your nerve?    

Monday, 1 May 2017

EXCUSE THE EXCUSE?


On this International labour Day, let's spare a thought for Manchester United who have laboured to get through 9 games in April alone. Jose Mourinho has been quick to get in his excuses early, often pre-match and then ram them home in his post-match brief.

We lost players and we lost points, so yes today was a bad day,”.
“We did not look tired and exhausted, we are tired and exhausted.
“You cannot isolate the performance out of the context. This is the ninth match of April, it is not human.''
                                                     ---Jose Mourinho

As it is, the authority should be ashamed of itself for requiring United to play nine times in April! United do deserve the sympathy and a moment's silence their manager is asking for.

Perhaps while at it, we should factor in Real Madrid. And FC Barcelona. And FC Bayern Munchen. And Athletico Madrid. And BVB Dortmund! Plus AS Monaco. Then Olympique Lyonnais. Oh and that club we get to play on Thursday in the Europa League semi-final.....Celta Vigo, all of whom have had to share a similar experience to Manchester United's 'inhuman' 9 game month of April.

Not that the other 7 clubs are complaining, but we'll do them a favour and file their official complaints. I reckon they must be too tired from a 9 game experience to do it themselves anyway.

The sarcasm aside, the lessons here are simple; only with a 28 man squad can you successfully compete on multiple fronts. That's a quantity about Sir Ferguson's teams that is hardly mentioned. Our current manager prefers 22 players to work with, which is all nice and OK in an ordinary season but not quite in a 60 game season.

The Europa league is, by design, a hell of a slab of a competition. It's group stage draw alone exceeds the 60 available minutes in an hour. It has a 'Last 32' knock out phase, making it an essentially longer competition than the Champions League. Then there's the Thursday-Sunday schedule that has regularly formed part of pundit debates.

With that information at hand, Jose must have crossed his fingers at having a clean bill of health for the entire season in order to get by just fine with the 22 players at his disposal. It did appear to come to pass half-way through the season with hardly any injury up until that point. The temptation was there to sanction departures of the squad players who seemed in danger of suffering constructive ''unemployment'' for the whole  season.

And he gave in. Out went three members of his squad and almost immediately, his luck with injuries run out! Ahead of the final month of the season, Manchester United have just the 13-14 senior players available. It cannot be said to be an entirely an unprecedented turn of events by the Sports Scientists at the club.

It is a given that injuries are part and parcel of sport and particularly football. How the club deals with that is part of the job description of its employees. As such, it can be argued that nothing extraordinary has happened at Manchester United to warrant the world of football to take a moment's pause and reflect upon it with commiserations.

Unlucky? Absolutely. But therein the bad luck was some fortune as well to take the lead against Swansea. United just couldn't translate it into the three points that have incredibly become such a rare phenomenon at Old Trafford this season.

Thankfully for the manager, he had already filed his excuse, just in case things turned out the way they did. Indeed, in many ways, he gave his players reason to fail. The resulting listless, tired performance was the product.

Hands up if you're tired of reading this.           

Monday, 24 April 2017

INJURY RAVAGED UNITED LIMP ON

Anthony Martial and Wayne Rooney celebrate the club's opener at Burnley yesterday

Amidst that sulk, that poker-face, that seemingly 'unhappy' slump into his press-conference seat is a very desperate attempt by Jose Mourinho to attract, or at least influence, commiserations from the general public about the state of Manchester United's season.

These are the facts: United have suffered injuries to key personnel, most of which are long term, at the most crucial third of the season. In the case of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, potentially career defining, at least in terms of his stay at the club.

Ironically, at the half way point of the season, with United enjoying an unusual streak of health in the squad, the manager was keen to point out that he didn't have enough games going around to please a very large squad and as such had to let a few players leave in January.

Whilst any criticism of the above decision from the manager is largely aided by hindsight, the manager must be aware that he waived his rights to any sympathy as a result of injuries when he sanctioned the player departures in the winter window. The ill in United's luck is that they seem to be accumulating injuries to players in the same position. For instance, having three centre-backs out will stretch any team.

With potentially 10 games to play between now and the end of the season, Jose Mourinho is caught in a hustle to put out any XI that carries a semblance of freshness and match fitness to see out games. In some positions, such as the centre of defence, as earlier alluded to, the manager cannot make a change owing to the lack of bodies.

Eight changes were made between Thursday's Europa league quarterfinal win over Anderlecht and the premier league game at Turf Moor on Sunday afternoon. Whilst United were able to get away with it against Burnley, it is a major wonder as to how they will fare when the bigger games come calling. United for instance have their European semi-final ties against Celta-Vigo book-ended by premier league games at Arsenal and at Tottenham Hotspur. How then shall the manager set his side up?

The bold decision would be to play his strongest available side for each of the potentially 10 remaining games of the season. The danger of putting one's eggs in one basket at this stage of the season, and indeed in this sport is that there are simply no guarantees. Only last season, Liverpool threw away every league game from hereon to reach the final of this competition but lost the final having only finished 7th in the league.

There is a school of thought that United are better placed to be successful in Europe than to make the elite places via the league and yet ahead of the 174th Manchester derby, United sit three points off third with two games in hand on the third placed team. In other words, we're not quite yet at that stage where it makes economical sense in terms of player resources to throw away league games and go all out for the Europa league.

The other argument against optimism via the league route is that United have got a very difficult run in. Whilst the optics suggest so, I'm not entirely convinced by this given the season we've just had. Indeed, at the moment, I am more optimistic in a game involving a top four side than I am against a bottom of the table side.

We've seen it at least a dozen times this season when United have failed to beat the alsorans of the league despite total domination. Think of it this way: if our last six games were all home games against Burnley, Hull, Stoke, West Ham, Everton and West Brom, we'd come away from that with only six points! We might as well try our luck in games where the opposition will not sit back and defend. Much like how the club enjoyed a day out against a very high Chelsea defence last week.

In the grand scheme of things, everything in terms of the league standings potentially boils down to Thursday. United are running out of games to leap frog their rivals and get into the Champions League positions. The reverse fixture back in September was arguably the one that knocked United off their rhythm having started the season excellently. The club took ages to recover from it and momentarily slumped into a double digit deficit from Pep Guardiola's side. The football City played that first half had tongues wax-lyrical and had them nailed on for at least a trophy or two. Since then City have slowly but surely regressed into a situation that some will argue is worse than United's.

Imagine the brilliant sadistic poetry that could follow if United put the final nail in their rivals' poor season. Football eh?

Friday, 14 April 2017

'D' FOR D-RAW

Paul Pogba takes some time out to.....well, sit on the turf. 

A close look at the players' celebrations after Henrickh Mhkitaryan had scored United's away goal in Brussels last night will reveal that Zlatan Ibrahimovic gave a quick pep talk to his colleagues saying ''We need to score more..''. He repeated the statement long enough to ensure that players arriving late for the huddle celebration got the message.

Except that they didn't. For in the aftermath of the opening goal, Manchester United reverted to type. Anderlecht are at the summit of the Belgian league but they are hardly world beaters. On a comparative metric, they'd be that mid-table premier league side against whom United will dominate and create a plethora of chances but fail to kill of the game.

Whilst it's not entirely agreeable that a Manchester United manger should turn on his players, it is easy to see where Jose Mourinho's frustrations post-match came from. A 10th 1-1 draw of the season, having taken the lead but failed to see out any of the games is quite an itch for a manager to deal with especially when you consider how much better the season would be if the side were more ruthless.

At the moment, United are guilty of elaborate possession even in the final third of the pitch. There's not many shots taken in and around the box because of a preference to play through deep defences. A tad too predictable and easy to defend against especially if you're not as quick as most sides who use this formula are. Therein lies the pattern that has greatly contributed to the statistic of 14 draws this season.

A draw in Belgium is by no means the worst result in context. Indeed, United will kickoff at Old Trafford on Thursday in the return fixture with an advantage of an away goal but that is very much besides the point. Why? Because the competition that the club is striving very much to be a part of next season demands a much higher level of quality than United are holding out to possess at the moment.


If we are gong by the line that United will not be in the Champions League next season simply to make up the numbers, then there is a desperate need for more output. Dominance will continue to count for little if the club does not find a means to utilise its human resource to achieve a greater goal output.

We're at the point where it would make much more sense for the club to allocate the little training time available to shooting practice. Besides, we know that the side is more accomplished in the other departments. At least we have to believe they are, lest nothing else would explain why the Champions elect visit Old Trafford on Sunday and yet we're a harder team to beat than they are.

Jose Mouriho alluded to a ''mystique'' about Manchester United when he took the job. It's fair to say that there are mystical concerns about the state of the club today that have caused a solemn frustration upon the manager, so much so that he is now willing to single out his players. It's hard to blame him. Few other explanations make better sense.  

Thursday, 30 March 2017

APRIL IS COMING

Jose Mourinho will be without 2 of his four signings ahead of a crucial month
It is written (somewhere) that ''Unto whom much was given, a lot shall be expected in return.'' Or something along that line. You get the drill.

Ahead of the penultimate month of the season, we are at that point when the chicken get to come home for the roost. A sober reflection of what the season has been and whether there is any hope for salvation in the months ahead.

For Jose Mourinho and Manchester United 2016/17 was about restoring the club to its prestige on the turf by getting the club competitive in the league and back into Europe's premier club competition, the UEFA Champions League.

Even at this stage of the season, a very good lawyer could successfully argue that Manchester United have been ''competitive in the league'' this season. That they are firmly part of a top six that has pulled away from the rest of the league is one way of going about the argument but perhaps it is best served by the fact that United have become incredibly difficult to beat this term.

At three defeats suffered in the league all season, and on an 18 match unbeaten run, the statisticians often have to remind themselves that United are not visible in Chelsea's side mirror as far as the title race is concerned. Indeed, that subject was put to rest at the half-way stage when it became apparent that the club was desperately short of a ruthless streak infront of goal. 10 draws, most of which should have been an easy three points based on performance alone.

We are where we are though and the reward for improvement this season has been plenty left to fight for ahead of the final two months of the season. Few clubs have as much to look forward to. The caveat however is that there is a steep price to be met in order to finish the campaign on the high note fans anticipate.

Nine games await the Reds in April with each having a significant bearing on how the club's season finale shapes up. The club have two routes back into the Champions League next term; via the league and by winning UEFA's second tier competition.  At this stage, both routes remain a possibility and the numbers within United's squad suggest that the club can thrive but as it were in the FA Cup quarter-final at Chelsea, injuries and suspensions threaten to hamper that twin bid.

For Saturday's (rare) three o'clock kickoff against West Brom, United are without five of their regular starters. Whilst it's not necessarily a crisis of human resource, the absentees fit the list of vital cogs in the machine. Indeed, it has to be recalled that despite the strength in depth  available to Jose Mourinho, he has relied on a few ''ever-presents'' in his team selection to restore a balance to the squad that has previously been lost on the team. With the manager having already pencilled in who to ship out come the summer, perhaps it's a great time for one or two on the fringes to change his mind. The games will certainly be enough for everyone to be afforded a shot at keeping the ship sailing beyond the month.

Either way, April is when the club drives home the advantages it has retained all season long. The club should be able to negotiate a European quarter-final against Anderlecht whilst three premier league games against West Brom, Everton and Sunderland are an opportunity to get into the top four before the run of difficult games at the end of the month. The work put in to get the club in this position earlier in the season risks being wasted away if the application is lacklustre in the next month.


More importantly, the club risks forcing some folk like me to slit a wrist or two if a congested fixture list is going to mean an avalanche of depression. Regardless the ramifications, winter April is coming. It will probably be here already by the time you get to read this!

Monday, 20 March 2017

RUNNING OUT OF STEAM?


The siege mentality was in full swing this past week at Old Trafford. Jose Mourinho has not left anyone guessing about what he thinks of the football authorities, home and abroad, and their failure to fit within is expectations.

In Europe, the manager was irked by UEFA's indifference to the state of the pitch on which Manchester United played Russian side FC Rostov in the first leg of the last 16 Europa league match. The heat was quickly turned onto the FA and the Premier League for giving United a midday kick off on the Sunday following the second leg of the same tie. 

Whilst Jose is keeping within nature by taking on the authority, his squad has been dealt a severe test of endurance by the 3 game week schedule they've been had to cope with. Until last week Manchester United were still involved in all competitions. The club has already played 47 games this season. In context, that is 16 more than their opponents last Sunday, Middlesbrough. Incredibly, United could yet still play 17 games before now and the end of the season! 

Indeed, such is the fixture crisis about United's season run-in that premier league games are being arranged on Thursday! The Manchester derby will take place on such a day at the end of April but the club remains with at least one league match unscheduled. The Premier League have categorically dismissed any suggestions that the club will be allowed to play games beyond the official end of the domestic season, meaning that United will have to make do with the two months available after the International break.

For Mourinho, his otherwise strong squad has been tested by a plethora of injuries and suspensions, calling for a clever utilization of the club's human resource. There's only so many players you can rest through and since the EFL Cup Final, United have looked far short of the steam they had built at the start of winter. 

They struggled at home with Bournemouth and only just got past FC Rostov in the Europa league when the gulf in class between the sides should have made for a more comfortable aggregate scoreline. In the same period, the club lost its grip of the FA Cup and whilst defeat at Stamford Bridge was understandable in the circumstances, the performance on Sunday against managerless Boro was one of a side on its last legs. 

Thankfully, it was only Boro, but Manchester United looked like they desperately needed the international break. The two week break affords a couple of older heads to recover and get back into shape whilst for others, time with their National teams is a welcome break from the schedule and routine three games a week can do.

Whilst it should be expected that the modern footballer should be able to play thrice a week without complaint, in England the debate is somewhat punctuated with caveats. Such is the gruelling nature of England's top flight that it has become tradition among the top sides to treat every other domestic competition as a distraction. Had it been Manchester United with a 10 point league at the summit of the league, elimination from the FA Cup, or from the Europa League takes on minute significance. Whisper it, but in England, only the league really matters! Indeed, it now matters so much that even second place without a tangible trophy to show for it is widely regarded as having a successful season.  

As it were, Jose Mourinho found himself in a position where he cannot quite pick and choose trophies. United, by virtue of their summer spending have to make the Champions League. That means that the Europa League has had to be treated with the respect it can sometimes demand. In addition, the thirst for trophies of any kind at the club currently meant that he couldn't simply turn his back on the EFL Cup. Once United got the luck of the draw in the semi-final, the onus was on the club to go on and win it, if only because you can't be guaranteed of winning anything these days. The manager rightly pointed out that 'there are many sharks' in England baying for trophy success. Indeed, one has to simply glance at the line-up for the FA Cup semi-finals to get the point herein.

In all, the club has been left with a fixture list that has attested to the depth in quantity if not quality at the club. With a couple months left to close out the season, the club remains in pole position to reach the minimum target for the season.

Asked whether he would prioritize European competition or the domestic fight for a top four place, the manager pointed to the bonus success in Europe would bring for the club. Not since the late 1980s have United been at the quarter final stage of the competition that was formerly the UEFA Cup. More importantly is that success in the competition would enter United into another final at the start of next season with a chance of lifting another trophy, the UEFA Super Cup against whomever wins the Champions League. All that sounds better than merely walking away from a season in 4th place. 

Fans will therefore hope that the players and manager will take one deep breath during this break to gather all the energy reserves they have left and mount what should be a thrilling end to the season. United will have most of their squad problems regarding injuries, and suspensions over when the football resumes on April Fool's Day. The hope is that more than just a couple of players come fresh enough to continue what has been a marathon of a season. 

Domestically, United could yet finish the season as high as second in the league but all the sides engaged in a similar battle with them do not have any European commitments. In England, that is a major handicap, but not one that cannot be overcome if you have built a head of steam with the finish line in sight.   

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

THE SIXTH SENSE

The cast of the Saturday lunchtime brawl at Old Trafford
There is a feeling of inevitability starting to creep in about Manchester United and their destiny to finish 6th in the premier league this season. That, however, is not the sad part. The sadness in all this is that United have only themselves to look at when questions over the club's league position are asked.

Now, this is by no means an obituary for a Champions League finish. Indeed, United could still end up as far high as second place this season. Such is the frustratingly generous nature of the campaign. In fact, take the 14 points United have dropped at home in draws against lower league opposition that we should have won and you have yourself a title challenge!

It is at that point that Jose Mourinho's progress at Manchester United can be identified. The club is not far away from a league title and yet the fault margins are ever crucial in this unforgiving of all leagues. Fault margins, eh? At United, there's essentially one: Goals.

Of all the problems you can have as a football team, this is perhaps the most damning one! Goals win games. It's little wonder then that in the middle of March, United can only count 13 premier league wins this season. That equates to a base average of 2 league wins a month in the season so far. That is only as good as any upper mid-table form as you can find anywhere. The maths simply points to 6th place. United are therefore not handicapped by any laws of science in their bid to push up the table.

Identifying United's need for goals can be quite the irony especially when they boast a statistically prolific goal-getter in Zlatan Ibrahimovic. At 26 goals so far, there is every reason to believe that United will end up with a 30 goal striker fro the first time since Sir Ale Ferguson hung up his chewing gum.

And yet, beyond Zlatan, the numbers dwindle. Owing to a variety of options in the 3 behind the striker, Mourinho is yet to identify his first choice front three, or at least a very reliable trio. The uncertainty of combinations in midfield has accounted for a distinct failure to get the best from club's prize asset, Paul Pogba. Todate, it is difficult to say whether the Frenchman is or is not operating at excess capacity. Often times there seems a confusion among fans as to whether he has been asked to sit deep or to influence play ahead of him. His overall numbers suggest he definitely gets about and whilst he cannot be faulted for the transfer fee, it has been the subject of media scrutiny when the club under-performs.

Even so, his contribution at Manchester United wouldn't be such a bother if United's midfielders were generally contributing more goals. Juan Mata is arguably United's best midfield finisher whilst Mkhitaryan's numbers have suffered because of a lengthy time to settle into the club and most recently injury. Anthony Martial flourished as the team's focal point of attack last year but has found it a little harder wide left. As such, United are yet to find a solution to a problem whose roots date back to the latter years of Sir Alex Ferguson's tenure.

To score 5 goals from 130-something shots suggests a problem that needs more than merely Antoine Griezmann to solve. There has to be a greater responsibility from the supporting cast to put away chances from midfield.

United have a big game player in Zlatan Ibrahimovic to emerge in the absolutely big games as a goal threat. Ironically, what they are lacking is a common finisher who gobbles up chances against the lesser weights of the league. The kind whom social media will quickly rubbish because he scores against supposedly weaker sides. Only then can the club claim a balance in the attacking third of the pitch.

At the moment, it appears United are trying so hard to finish the most basic of chances. Akin to the kid who failed a cheap test because he only prepared for the most difficult of tests. An over-qualified approach to the most basic of problems. Perhaps a sixth sense?

Monday, 27 February 2017

IBRA-CADABRA

The EFL Cup looking privileged to be in the hands of Zlatan Ibrahimovic

League title or not, the signing and impact of Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Manchester United is steadily making a case to eclipse the impact made by the signing of Robin van Persie. Back in 2013, the Dutchman's arrival at Old Trafford was the single most important factor in the club regaining the league title from the vermin across the street.

However, where RVP was lauded for his exquisite finishing abilities and consistency, Zlatan is earning comparison with sacred names who have graced Manchester shores in memorable times before. Eric Cantona is one such name and few would claim to have captured fans' hearts as much as he did.

It was not so much about Eric's individual talent--and he had quite a stellar one---as it was about the lift his presence at Manchester United did for the rest of his teammates. Arrogance and ego have many a time been the downfall for many a professional but Cantona, like Best before him, used it to positively raise the standards of his teammates. 

Ibrahimovic's ego and arrogance have been well documented in a remarkable career but he has had to come a long way to convincing everyone, not least people in the country of his current employment, about his superior ability. The irony in all this is that he is doing it at an age when it is generally presumed that a footballer's powers have waned. 

If the really top tier players are the ones that decide the really big games, then how does last night's EFL Cup final fare when judged upon that standard. Manchester United could yet have bigger games in the season to come---it's only February but as it stands, the towering Swede has stood tall on just about every big occasion for United this season.

In the season's curtain raiser, United needed their big target man to win them the Community Shield against the reigning league Champions. Zlatan has also made his mark in games that the club categorise as 'big games' ---Manchester City and Liverpool. Each time hauling United above a level they threatened to settle for. 

However, all those occasions pale in comparison to the giant Swede's performance in the EFL Cup final. Here was a Manchester United team pressed hard and locked in by an organised and determined Southampton side that had used the same application to dump Arsenal and Liverpool from this competition. The problem with being under the cosh and decidedly inferior for so long in a final is that lesser players settle. They accept the dominance of the opposition and often times fail or at least forget to shake their heads clear and rise above it.

Luckily for United, Zlatan doesn't settle. And thank goodness we finally have someone in the squad who will pass that on to the younger players. It's a priceless commodity. Where Cantona inspired a club whose last title win had faded from memory, Ibrahimovic has lifted a club that has struggled to find its way in the wake of the retirement of its greatest ever manager. 

At 26 goals before the end of February, the 35 year old would have to go on a massive goal drought between now and May for the 30 goal mark to evade him. Chances are he'll surpass it by a few goals!

United were poor on the day and if football matches were decided on equity, the Saints would have carried the day. The only reason they didn't is that Manchester United have one of the few players in world football that can change the seemingly 'natural' course of events on a football pitch. His manager acknowledged as much. 

There's plenty of talk about how Manchester United intend to add much needed firepower to their attack in the summer but it will take a another record breaking transfer window and perhaps a little luck to get an improvement on the self-proclaimed 'god' of Manchester. Afterall, man knows no power above gods.       

Monday, 20 February 2017

PROGRESS IN THE CUPS WITH FIRST SEASON FINAL LOOMING LARGE

Ibrahimovic wheels away in trademark style to celebrate the winner

A 3-0 home leg victory over St Etienne should mean that Manchester United roughly have a last 16 Europa league place sorted. Wednesday's trip to France should be academic if recent form is anything to go by.

It was a lot closer on Sunday however with Blackburn providing the opposition in what has always been a local derby. Difficult and rainy games at Ewood Park had become synonymous with Manchester United when Owen Coyle's team when United made regular visits there in the recent past.

It turned out to feel a bit like de ja vu when United conceded within the first quarter of an hour. Jose Mourinho's 7 changes from the team that started on Thursday in Europe were evident in that shaky start but United have such an abundance of squad depth that the team selected was expected to get the better of the Championship relegation battlers.

As it were, Mourinho had to summon his A-list talent from the bench to put away a game that threatened to further clog United's schedule with a replay. In the words of the men themselves, it was a 'pogpass' by Pogba that inevitably led to a 'poggoal' by Zlatan Ibrahimovic. A 24th goal of the season from the Swede caps a remarkable tally six months into English football at the age of 35. He is now a genuine contender for just about every individual award come May. There is every argument for United to keep him beyond the summer regardless the happenings in the transfer window, if only because it is difficult to find a replacement of better let alone similar output in the current market.

Thankfully, United will get to play their away leg in Europe on the Wednesday, allowing for reasonable time to be recuperate for the EFL Cup final on Sunday. United's opponents will have had a full 15 days to prepare for the game---a luxury Jose can only dream on given United's schedule.

Ultimately, the week ahead promises a shot at glory for the club. A young squad, of United's like can only benefit from continuous trophy success of any kind. Fans are desperate for any trophy they can win and Manchester United are still in with a shot a three. Of the trio, Sunday's should be easiest one to collect, not because Southampton are light weight (they're yet to concede a goal in the competition) but because they're a few big boys in the other two who could more than match United.

For starters, in the FA Cup, United will travel to the home of the Champions elect, Chelsea in the quarter-final. United have won just twice in 15 years at Stamford Bridge. On the other hand, the Europa league is not even at its last 16 stage yet, making for a long uncertain journey between now and when the final two teams in the competition will be determined.

Factor in a premier league battle to finish in the elite positions and you can see why Sunday is an opportunity that cannot be frowned upon. In this fallow period as the club continues to come to grips with the departure of Sir Alex, any Wembley appearance should not be sniffed at. A second Cup triumph in four years post-Fergie will make for more decent reading when we eventually look back on this transition.

Hopefully, the players can translate that on to the pitch and give the fans another Wembley memory to cherish.           

Monday, 13 February 2017

CUP MONTH

Manchester United players celebrate Juan Mata's opener against Watford on Saturday in the premier league

It will not be until a month from hereon that Manchester United will be involved in a league game. Jose Mourinho'side are the only team still involved in all competitions and as such time has to be made to dispatch with Cup duties.By the time the league campaign resumes at home to Bournemouth, United will have played a fixture in each of the three Cup competitions they are involved in.

One of them is of course the EFL Cup final at the end of this month that offers a chance to bag the first pot of the season and what would be Jose Mourinho's first trophy at the club. For a side in the middle of a transition, trophy success of any kind cannot be taken for granted.

Cup competitions were very much the bread and butter of the team in the 70s when the club struggled to come to terms with the departure of Sir Matt. It allowed for a restoration of pride at a time when the league title was seemingly beyond the managerial means of the club.

Since Sir Alex retired, United have scratched one major itch by lifting the first gong in the post Sir Alex era. Last season's FA Cup win was the highlight of an otherwise dour season. Whilst this campaign has been anything but dour, the league title remains more than an arm's length away from United, largely because the team is a couple of tweaks away from being the title challenging machine that their creativity deserves.

Martial celebrates United's second on Saturday
The depth of the squad has allowed United the much needed bonus of long Cup runs in all competitions. Importantly, it has given the club more than one way of turning the season into a success. Whilst beating a very organised Southampton in a Cup final will not be a walk in the park, United will be favourites to do just that. St. Etienne in the Europa League is a draw that the club will be expected to negotiate to make the last 16 of the competition whilst Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup is another that the team should be able to overcome for a place in the last eight of the competition.

The opportunity is there to combine a decent league finish with at least a couple of pots. That would certainly equate to a job well done this year. Fans do care about trophies regardless of the public prejudices about the 'importance' of certain Cups. Given the average age of United's squad, it is important that the lads get into the habit of lifting trophies. The FA Cup triumph last year was a good start. We'll need to build on that this year.   

Monday, 6 February 2017

THE ONLY CONSISTENCY IS INCONSISTENCY

Juan Mata and Mkhitaryan turned on the style to help United ease past Leicester City

At least there is consistency in the fact that Manchester United are now 15 league games unbeaten in the premier league. In isolation, that is no mean feat considering the nature of the English top division. Indeed, United are the only club in the league without at least one defeat in the past 10 league games.

Ironically, that unbeaten run has not really been in tandem with the club's Champions league ambitions this term. The number of sterile draws that the club have suffered within that run has ensured that they have been in the same league position for the best part of five months of the season.

The projections for the final league standings in May have United in 6th place simply because a familiar trajectory of results in the first half of the season will leave the club firmly at the bottom of the summit's mini-league.

That predicament will in no minor terms be down to the club's profligacy. The Red Devils are the league's worst chance conversion side and as a result have scored less goals than all the teams above them and quite a few below them. Except that it hasn't always been the story even in this unusual of all seasons.

At the King Power Stadium last night, Manchester United were as ruthless with their chance conversion as we've known, so much so that the game was won within the final 88 seconds of the first half. A couple of sucker punches when it looked like the game was heading into the now familiar stalemate at halftime were enough to deflate the Champions. That venomous accuracy was maintained at the start of the interval to effectively render the second half useless.

What fans would give for consistency in putting away chances between now and the end of the season. Given the weaknesses that sit above us in the league, even a run of three or four wins from hereon would dramatically change our league campaign. Such is the inconsistency among the five of the top six clubs. Incredibly, United could still finish the campaign in second place with just five points separating second placed Spurs and sixth placed United.

All that though rests on finding a consistency in chance conversion that has eluded United up to this point of the season. It's difficult to come up with more than a couple of games this term in which United have been dominated to the extent of being denied chances. It is therefore frustrating that the club is miles off the pace when the software is in place to do so much better. At the moment it feels its a case of touch and go if United will drop their casualness and turn on the mean face. Like many of the sides above them, it has left inconsistency as the only thing consistent about 2016/17. We can't really put a finger on how and where it will end. But at least we can cross that finger and hope that the team finds its ruthless self consistently.
     

Thursday, 2 February 2017

PROFLIGACY, A NOUN

Wayne Rooney reacts to another chance gone begging last night

The numbers never really lie. At 33 goals scored by the turn of February, one who hasn't watched Manchester United this season would be forgiven for concluding that the team still suffers from the sterile Louis van Gaal approach at finding the net.

The premier league is currently split into a top six, middle eight and a bottom six. As a member of the top six, United should only be judged as against their peers in that mini summit league. The Red Devils rank bottom of the pile on goals scored among the top six and whilst LVG banked on a clean sheet every now and then, United have not been as efficient defensively either.

Not that all this takes into account that United are collectively a better outfit than during the reign of the Dutchman. Indeed, for the purist who is in for the thrill of watching the Reds play every Saturday, the season has panned out quite well. It is generally more entertaining to watch Jose Mourinho's Manchester United.

In that top six mini league I referred to, United rank top for 'clear-cut' chances created. The definition of a clear-cut chance has been passed on as ''one that carries a reasonable expectation of a goal''. Don't ask what 'reasonable expectation' means! But you get the drill. In a league as supposedly difficult as the premier league, it takes a very good team to create several clear cut chances in every game they play. Chance creation, and good chances at that, are a credit to the creativity of the midfield and attack. In other words, it suggests that whatever deficiency your team has got, a creative midfielder is not one of them.

Zlatan has missed the most clear cut chances in the league
However, in the same top six mini league, United rank bottom for conversion of chances. Hell, United rank bottom in the entire 20 team league for chance conversion. A quick glance at the attacking options at United suggests that it is not necessarily a want of quality of attackers that is causing such seismic levels of profligacy. Indeed, we are led to believe that there is not enough room in the team for all of them. And yet, it is turning out that the club just doesn't seem to have the ruthlessness required from its attack to guarantee the points that would have made a world of difference to the league season.

Whilst there has been an inquest into the games United have dominated but failed to win, a curious glance at the games in which United managed to put away at least one good chance to win the game ironically carry the same question mark. In the reverse fixture back in August, United had to wait until stoppage time to score what proved to be the winner. The New Years' Eve come back win against Middlesbrough will not be remembered for the wastefulness in front of goal because United eventually rallied to get the pair of goals that they needed.

Point is, even when United win, it's easy to pick out more than a handful of clear cut chances that go begging in-game. It's an indictment on the quality of finishing but more worryingly smacks of a casualness with which chances are taken. It's a terrible problem to have because unlike the problem of the style and system that was easily departed from under Louis van Gaal, this one is a tad more into the 'software' of a team's make-up and is therefore much harder to isolate and hence solve.

For fans, the worst part is that it has happened over and over again, so many times over the course of the season that you cannot out-rightly state that a result as frustrating as a 0-0 draw with Hull City at Old Trafford will not happen again between now and May.

We do have the riches on the pitch, but we're wasteful with them and not really making much of a case for our rich status.  Profligacy is very much the resident noun at Old Trafford and every few weeks fans are left mulling over it.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

SO WHERE SHALL WE FINISH?


It is unfortunate but quite in sync with the progress of the premier league that in the season when Manchester United have shown the biggest progress since the days of Sir Alex, the league is at its most competitive state.
Such is the competition this year that according to EuroClubIndex.com the club is projected to finish 6th with all of 71 points, three points off the Champions League.

It's easy to see how United will eventually be made to pay for all those draws in games when they've been utterly dominant. Had United justifiably picked up maximum points against Burnley, Stoke City (twice), Arsenal and at home to West Ham, the side could easily be challenging Chelsea for the league Championship. As it stands, the club is somewhere in between an over-reliance on Zlatan Ibrahimovic and a general profligacy infront of goal.

Perhaps what could prove to be more dear to the club is that they are 6th in the top six mini-league for results against the other members of the top six. This despite having already had games against Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool at Old Trafford. With the Manchester derby likely to be postponed if and when the club make the EFL Cup final, United's run in to the end of the season between April and May will feature trips to the Emirates, the Etihad, White Harte Lane with Chelsea also due to Old Trafford in between.

That run of games is essentially a 12 point swing that could go either way. Given United's form, or lack of it, against the top eight sides, it is results between now and the start of April that will determine if United have given themselves a fighting chance for the run in. However, the competitiveness of the current division means that even another run of wins could still see United struggle to get into the top four.

The only factor season projections can't really account for is results against the other members of the top six. It could therefore mean that United will have to beat each of their rivals within that last month of the season to replace them in the elite positions. A three points gap between 4th and 6th come May means that even one positive result in the 'unexpected' category could be enough to upset the odds. It's a complex metric that doesn't of course factor in the state of the season at the time. For all we know United could be looking at a Europa League final at the time which would by itself be a potential Champions League ticket.

Ultimately, the immediate challenge for the club is to find a way to curb their wastefulness infront of goal. United average 20 shots on goal per game, a marked improvement from the days of Louis van Gaal, but you wouldn't know it from the number of goals the club has scored. Ruthlessness is currently the difference between United in 6th and a genuine title challenge.   

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

UNITED ON A ROLL BUT FACE STERN DERBY TEST


You've had the banter by now. You should have because it's getting a little stale. Manchester United are on a run of six straight premier league wins and yet have occupied sixth place on the log throughout their reward!

Whilst the league table has not reflected United's form, it is a measure of how far off the pace they had fallen off during October and November when the club continuously failed to turn dominant performances into results. Ahead of December, United were starring at up to eight points off the Champions League places. That in itself was and is a measure of the challenge those ahead of them possess.

In emerging from that and becoming the country's in-form side, United have had to first claw back the gap between them and the elite positions. As it stands, just two points separate the club from 4th. That is the improvement that merits applaud.

This current Manchester United is much less a 'still-in-transition team' and more of a settled side that has taken to book their manager's ideas. That United impose themselves on the opposition has very much become the norm these days. They've purred in just about every one of those 9 straight wins, so much so that you cannot point at any one of those results as a 'lucky' one.This is the fruition of the domination that didn't worry the manager during the pre-winter run of draws.

The Manchester United juggernaut however faces it's toughest examination since that run started this Sunday. All the while, talk has been silent on the Old Trafford terraces about a title bid. And rightly so. Chelsea would have to lose four games (or lose points of the equivalent) between now and May whilst United win just about all theirs to win overtake the West London side. Even so, there's five sides ahead of United, better placed to take advantage of any slip by the current pacesetters.

Realistically, United can obviously still target a smart finish in the league. That by itself is a formidable challenge considering the form of the current top six. Indeed, United could still beat Liverpool this weekend and still start next week in sixth place! Forget the fairy tale of the season past, the top dogs are standing up for themselves this time and it's all too apparent when you consider the gap between 6th and 7th.

Regardless the collective form of the top six, six simply doesn't go into four! Two good teams will fail to qualify for the Champions league come May. It means that whilst their collective form against the rest of the league is good, the top six positions will be determined by their results against each other. This is what puts Sunday's fixture into context for United. The club has so far not fared quite well against its rivals and that is why they find themselves behind the lot. The victory over Spurs at Old Trafford is the only notable domestic result note. Sunday is an opportunity to improve on that.

More than that, it remains a derby of profound importance to fans. Victory would massively build on the confidence of the players to continue a winning run that could force statisticians to dig up a few club records. United have suffered a dearth of confidence after a few bad results this season. It took a great while to overcome defeat to Manchester City in September. The reverse was true when the club held out to beat Spurs at Old Trafford. A lot about what lies ahead therefore rests on the outcome this Sunday.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

UNITED AGAIN IN 2017

Manchester United are on a roll

At various points during Manchester United's 7 game winning run, it was tempting to make a conclusive observation about how far Jose Mourinho has taken the club so far. The urge of making one such observation has been tempered by the club's unconvincing start to the season. The desperate run of draws that saw the club fail to match excellent performances with results is largely why they remain 6th despite their best premier league form in three years. Perhaps a better judgement call can be made now that the premier league pauses at the halfway point to allow for the FA Cup.

United's six premier league wins on the bounce have come against Tottenham Hotspur, Crystal Palace, West Bromwich Albion, Sunderland, Middlesbrough and most recently West Ham United. Of the lot, the win over Spurs is the only eye-brow raiser and even that was at home, but they all count for three points!

The competition among the top six clubs is so intense at the moment that going into FA Cup weekend, five points separate Liverpool in second from United in sixth! A huge contrast to the 9 points between United in 6th and Everton in 7th. It means that even the occupants of second place could, in a matter of days of football fond themselves outside the Champions League places. There is now a mini-league at the top and thankfully, United sorted out their season in time to get the last available ticket for the party at the summit.

Forget the fairy-tale of last season, the big boys have returned to the fore of English football and more often than not, the smaller side has been on the end of a beating from a bigger side. That effectively explains the gap between 6th and 7th. What that also means is that league positions this season will more than ever be determined by results from games involving the top six!

Of the lot, United have only beaten Spurs and that is why they find themselves trailing in the mini-league. Whilst the consistent run of wins against lesser sides has helped United close the gap, it is their results against the very elite teams that will define which turn the season takes from hereon. Indeed, one good result can instill the last facet of confidence to propel this team up the summit of the league.

It is apt therefore that the clash against second placed Liverpool should come after the confidence instilling run of wins United are currently on. The reward for victory in that game is measured by the fact that in the following weeks of January, the rest of the top six play each other. In any event, we are destined for a photo finish come May.

As far as Manchester United are concerned, the club has at least shown progress. In Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba, United have restored about themselves the aura of winning games in the tunnel. There is a core of consistent players in the side across the spine that finally mark out the club as a genuine threat to any opponent. Indeed, it is a measure of the club's progress that they can match just about any threat in the league. It's been a while since we could confidently say that.

Crucially, all that has been heavily dependent on the success of Jose Mourinho's transfer business last summer. In the last three seasons, the club has struggled, nay, failed to justify its summer outlay. Too often we had to remind ourselves that a quarter of a billion pounds had been invested. In Eric Bailly, Henrickh Mikhitaryan, Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, United bought themselves a spine that has allowed them to dominate just about every game this season, even when the results have not gone their way.

If the momentum garnered in the recent past is carried into the second half of the season, there is every chance 2017 could yet be a successful year for United, at least in some form. The club have the FA Cup to defend but are already in a League Cup semifinal with a good chance to partake the final at Wembley next month. The club is also listed as the bookies favourite to lift the Europa league come May. The size of the squad means that if the manager rotates efficiently, the club could afford to make it far enough into the competition without going full throttle.

Finally, there is a feel of genuine progress at United and there is every chance that what seemed like a dead rubber season could be turned into a very meaningful one. Of course, there remains a long way to go between now and May but at least fans can count on the bounce-back ability of the side after a poor result. Just like in the old days. More than anything, it was always a run of consecutive poor results that undid the club in the recent past. There were more 'bad runs' than good ones and in the end, it reflects on the league table. More than ever, it feels that the club has more good days ahead than bad ones. It is a belief that should keep United in good stead in the new year.