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.     
 

Monday, 19 December 2016

MERRY CHRISTMAS TO OUR READERS


And it came to pass that in December 2016, Manchester United finally started to resemble the efficient machine that Sir Alex Ferguson bequeathed in May 2013. Three straight league wins have seen the club move to within four points of the elite positions ahead of the Boxing Day programme on Monday next week.

The belief seems to be back both on the pitch and in the stands. There's certainly plenty to look forward to in the new year. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to our readers!  

Thursday, 15 December 2016

FESTIVE CHEER AHEAD?


The ratio of chances created  to goals scored remains desperately loop-sided. United have created more chances than merit the tally of three goals in their last two league games. However, seeing themselves over the line against Tottenham Hotspur and Crystal Palace was a pleasant yet very necessary departure from the norm that has been to fail to close out games.

In the context of the league season, the last two games were a question of what is left of United's relevance at the summit of the league table. Fail to win both and United could have easily been on the wrong side of the divide that is developing between the top six and the rest of the league.

As it turned out, United have just about ensured they remain on the edge of the debate for the elite positions going into the Christmas schedule. At 7 points from third place, there is still light in United's season of the club can transform their dominance on the pitch to goals and eventually three points.

Indeed Jose Mourinho is blessed with such a relatively favourable fixture list over the festive season that it is tempting to tick off games right into January. If only it were that simple! The premier league has evolved into such an untamed animal that you will have to break sweat for each of the 90 minutes before you can be certain of a three points haul. This is why the frustration of United's dropped points amid their dominance has been tough to take.

The slight upturn in fortunes has coincided withe the manager's twitch of the 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3 that has allowed Paul Pogba reap the full benefit of having Micheal Carrick and Ander Herrera behind him. The initial sacrifice was Juan Mata who had to give way to the now indispensable Henrickh Mkhitaryan. Injury to the Armenian saw a recall of the Spaniard but it is slowly becoming evident that the manager has finally settled on an ethos for his team.

For a long while, it had been a conundrum how Manchester United boasted some of the best collection of midfielders on the continent and yet seemed to struggle to dictate games in the manner that sides with similarly endowed do. A team that can assemble a midfield to render unnecessary the talents of Bastian Schweinsteiger shouldn't be sharing company with Watford and West Brom on the log.

To be fair, the midfielders can point to a plethora of chances created this season as rejoinder. The balance however has not been quite right until the manager, by default or otherwise, found a way to use the talents of Carrick, Herrera, Pogba, Mkhitaryan and or Juan Mata in the same team. It is a solution hat should not be quickly departed from without taking into account how long into the season it has taken the manager to land on something that resembles a coherent approach in the middle of the park.

Perhaps the biggest compliment to the manager these past few weeks is that he has not really changed his approach despite the sticky run of results. Given the mental fragility still apparent among some of the players, it was instructive that nobody dropped their shoulders at Selhurst Park yesterday when it looked like it was going to go wrong again.

Often times in the recent run of stalemates, United have failed to rise above what they deem as unfortunate treatment by the referees. When the club was denied a clear penalty at 1-1 and had a goal wrongly disallowed for offside, the excuses for another stalemate were available to cash in. In a pleasant departure from old ways, the club kept at their creative verve and dug out another opportunity from which they profited an extra two points they duly deserved. It is cliche but building on that resolve will do wonders for the mental state that some of the players need to acquire to arrive at the next level.

The handicap United have is that the recent run of poor results means that the club cannot afford to take a false step. The urgency will be well and truly back on on Saturday at the Hawthorns. Like the league leaders did last weekend, United will have to step up another level to overcome the adversity that Tony Pulis and his side will cause the club. Indeed, last night was, in many ways a perfect dress rehearsal for what is to come. The only question is if United can keep at it to provide fans with much needed festive cheer. It's been 109 days since we had back to back premier league wins. It cannot be that sporadic if the club aims to achieve more. Consistency (albeit not the kind that sees games end in draws) ought to be the name of the game going forward. 

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

WHAT'S YOUR POISON?


Chronically depressing or mind-bogglingly frustrating?

At the height of the Louis van Gaal era, Manchester United fans were a depressed lot. After spending 150m quid on new players, some of whom were absolute world beaters, the Dutchman's much maligned philosophy had a star studded United team in a tight straight-jacket.

You paid for a matchday ticket for just one shot at goal. Your investment in that local pub for which you are a regular was usually rewarded with one shot at goal. Indeed, you'd be more than compensated if that shot at goal was on target and, better still, consider yourself extremely well rewarded if that shot on target found the back of the net!

The Dutchman's football was, in essence, the antithesis of the very principles upon which the club was built. Results took a back seat and shots on goal performances became the easy choice analysis by pundits.Where some fans tuned in to watch their club at the weekend as an escape from the troubles of the week, the activity was quickly re-defined as a weekly source of desperation.

Except that it wasn't always like that. Louis van Gaal did have his watershed moment. When his philosophy occasionally bought into the attacking instincts of the club. Those were mercifully necessary moments of reprieve. Unfortunately, the ''risks'' that come with open warfare proved too much to handle for him.

From the start he made it very clear that he prefer to watch a game of football without having to ''twitch his arse'' on the bench. Losing 5-3 to Leicester City having led 3-1 after 65 minutes was one such occasion. A 3-3 draw at St. James' Park last season was another. The 3-2 defeat at VfL Wolfsburg in the Champions League also comes to mind.

United have desperately lacked a spine in the centre of the pitch for a long time to combine the traits of attack and defence coherently and consistently over 90 minutes. That has no doubt been due to a failure in the transfer market since 2010 to address this particular concern.

Tasked with getting points on the board to quickly restore the club to its recent glory, van Gaal immediately realised how effective his style of play would be in negating the defensive deficiency of his side. Indeed, United, for all their dour football under the Dutchman boasted one of the club's best ever defensive records in the premier league era. But fans at the time were willing to endure defeat if it meant a departure from van Gaal's ways.

Under Jose Mourinho, the difference couldn't be more stark. The thrill is back! United play some lovely football again. Indeed, the club has broken the record for amount of shots at goal in the premier league era during the short reign of Mourinho so far. Those matchday going fans and the pub regulars will now tell you that this is at least value for money.

The manager has come out to explain that the club would have had a better start to the season if he had chosen to continue the establishment left by his predecessor. Indeed, the evidence suggests the club would perhaps be better off in terms of their points tally if they still had LVG at the helm. The depths of this season in terms of their points tally were hitherto unknown by the club. Indeed, van Gaal's frustrating side was 7 points better off at this stage last season!

The manager however, elected to depart from it because, and rightly so, he found it too defensive and possession based without carrying much of a punch at the other end. Except that there is a rather large caveat that has come with the new found philosophy: Can't find the back of the net! United have moved from being a depressing lot to a frustrating lot. United fans are in the middle of a catch 22 wherein the reminiscence about the old days carries a relief from depression about it whist the present is mind-bogglingly frustrating.  It's a cruel twist of fate! Very cruel! The hand of Lucifer himself!

Intriguingly, it is not as if we are hypothesising United's ability to score in the league. The club have easily racked up four goal totals in just about every Cup game so far this season.  The argument for weaker opposition in the Cups was laid to rest when the club emerged from a failure infront of goal against West Ham in two days to put four past the Hammers in the League Cup last week. The mystery remains unsolved. Unfortunately, the club is desperately short of time with which to solve it. The only available options at the moment are a pick between depression and frustration. What's your poison?

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

UNITED CAN FIND SOLACE IN THE CUPS

Jose Mourinho kicks what is now a famous water bottle on Sunday during the West Ham game
The frustrating aspect about Manchester United's form at the moment from fans' points of view is that you can't really put a decisive finger on an immediate solution. The problem is quite clearly a dearth of goals. Goals turn draws into victories. The obvious solution would be to create more chances. But Manchester United are not short of goal-scoring opportunities! Indeed, United's midfield easily ranks as one of the most creative in the league on the basis of chances created.

That, perhaps, modifies the problem to poor finishing. At the start of the season, this was the last concern on anybody's mind about the state of Manchester United. We expected talk of a failed season, if at all, to be centered around an unbalanced defence. United, however, looked well stocked up front with the star quality of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the emergence of Marcus Rashford. To this were the supplements of last season's star outfield player Anthony Martial. In new signing Henrikh Mikhitaryan, the promoted Jesse Lingard and the contribution of Juan Mata, United looked well stocked with goals from midfield as well.

More surprisingly, the frustration has largely been around the last four home games over the space of two months. Since United thrashed the Champions 4-1 at Old Trafford, they've dominated games against Stoke, Burnley, Arsenal and now West Ham but have come away with a point from each. In that time, they've shot no less than 91 times at the opposition goal (quite the improvement from the LVG days) whilst the opposition has shot 26 times at David De Gea.

Now, statistically, a mid-table, half-decent team will score 8-10 goals from the 91 shots United had. United scored a miserly THREE! The same number that the opposition got from their joint tally of 26 shots. This is the embodiment of the frustration that has caused Jose Mourinho into near meltdown and has turned a promising campaign into serious danger of going up in spoke well before Christmas.

And yet, United's form in the Cup competitions so far has seen them on the brink of one semi-final already. Whilst the club have not really put in the effort in the Europa league, they are a point away from making the last 32 of the competition. In Europe, the goals have gone in! 9 goals in the three home games is a far cry from the club's form on the same ground but in the premier league. The four goal blitz of Feynoord last week had United in the slightly bemusing position of being listed as favourites to win the Europa League despite having not yet made the next round.

On Wednesday, United have home advantage in the quarterfinal of the EFL Cup against West Ham United. Having dumped out Manchester City in the previous round, it's fair to say the luck seems more willing in this competition as well. One off Cup games have so far suited a side that looks great on paper but has so far fallen short of the consistency needed to sustain a title challenge.

Despite the frustration of fans at how things have turned out lately, they would gladly take a season that involved a sweep of the winnable Cup competitions. Ultimately, it comes down to how many pots you have come May. As it is, United's target of Champions League qualification is up for grabs in one of the Cups whilst they are an ear shot away from a major domestic semi-final. It certainly could be worse!

Monday, 21 November 2016

ILL-LUCK OR INEFFICIENY?


''At the moment I am watching the unluckiest team in the premier league...It is not possible that you are unlucky in every game, but in this moment, we are unlucky in every game, which is incredible.''
                                                        __Jose Mourinho

Strange isn't it? At Barcelona's Camp Nou stadium just after Manchester United 1-1 Arsenal, it was fascinating watching a Malaga side determined to leave the home of the Spanish Champions with a point. It was more enthralling late on when the away side were reduced to nine men, which is effectively eight outfield players and yet the Catalan side couldn't fathom a way through to goal.

Questions would abound at full time regardless the absentees in the Barca team but it certainly was not for a lack of trying. The Spanish Champions rained 29 shots at the opposition goal without success. It's hard to pick a one word review for the contest if given the choice between 'unlucky' or 'inefficient'.

Perhaps the same difficulty would arise if one was to evaluate Manchester United's performance against Arsenal on Saturday lunchtime in light of the result at full time. Except that in this case, United have previous! And quite recent previous.

Saturday was the first time since April 1992 that the 20 time Champions of England have failed to win three straight successive home games. Astonishingly, all match reviews after the games against Stoke, Burnley and indeed Arsenal have are synonymous with a touch of ill-fortune for the home side.

The question though is just how far can you stretch the argument of ill-luck and at what point does the answer lie elsewhere, such as say, inefficiency? Is it enough for well paid professionals and a world class manager to get behind the microphone each week and simply point to the imperfections of this world as the explanation? Does fate have a had in sporting results? We've heard commentators yell out over the microphone during in-game commentary with lines such as ''Some things are just meant to be!".

In fairness, there are games of football when, to the naked eye at least, it appears that the result has already been pre-written in the stars and therefore no amount of effort by one side can change the outcome. The kind of game that Louis van Gaal christened under Murphy's Law. The ball will bounce off the backside of the referee and out of play if it has to. But is that enough of an explanation? Is it even viable?

For Manchester United in 2016/17, the season is slowly leaning towards a succession of results that can be explained away logically or illogically to ill-luck. I do believe though that a title winning manager will engineer ways to make his own luck as soon as it starts to feel like the natural winds have changed course against his sail. Why? Because you're either a team that is so efficient in front of goal that any perceived bad luck at the other end is immaterial (winning scores of 3-2, 4-2, 4-3) or you're so efficient at the back that you can see out a narrow results (winning scores of 1-0 and 2-1) such that the profligacy in front of goal doesn't really hurt you.

At the moment, United are neither and therefore conveniently choose to blame luck or lack of it, anyway, as the reason for their poor run of results in the league. In a league where the margins are closer than ever before, what chance have you when you can neither succeed at the back nor the front?

Against Stoke, Burnley and Arsenal, United win the lot of they put away just half of the chances created in each of those games, giving them six more points than they currently do. Against Stoke and Arsenal, United see out a precious result if they efficiently shut up shop at the back giving them four more points than they do at this stage.

As it is, it appears to me that United have a fragile mentality at either end of the pitch, so much so that they cannot get through the crucial in-game periods that really matter. That seems like a more logical conclusion to the current situation than any allegations of ill-luck. Admittedly, to the naked eye, it does feel like something in the air is not quite in sync with what United are doing at the moment but we can't simply write off an entire season on that premise can we?

There is a term for persons that keep repeating the same things expecting different results. I'd like to think it's far from how to describe the current situation at United. What do you think?