Tuesday, 30 December 2014

GOAL SHY?

Manchester United have well documented problems but scoring a goal is not one of them, or at least should not be one of them. Therefore quite how to explain the scoreless stalemate at White Harte Lane on Sunday is rather incomprehensible. With a forward line that betters all but 2 in world football, finding the back of the net is supposed to be our go to for any failings of our defence. For once, it was the defenders that could shamelessly cash their cheques for Sunday's work.

Perhaps the biggest irony was that all our forwards had at least one good chance to score and yet none of them managed to. In fairness Hugo Lloris had a blinder of a performance but Juan Mata for instance has no business skying that second half sitter. That is not to take anything away from the Spaniard because I thought he had his best away performance with us this season. What's for certain is that the focus at Stoke will shift from how well the defence plays to whether we can find the net this time.

In isolation, a point against Spurs away from home is not the worst result to come away with but the context of this particular game means that it was 2 points dropped for us. Therein the last 4 dropped points at Villa and Spurs lies the reason why we cannot win the league title this year. Louis van Gaal made that point clear to the players in the dressing room post match. Again, that is not to say that we cannot make a title challenge of it. Because our result was suprisingly matched by the 2 sides above us, Sunday was not as bad as it could have been. However, the frustration is that when you factor in the 4 dropped points at Villa and then at Spurs, you wonder how close to the summit of the table we would have been if we had turned those draws into victories, as champions often do.

The biggest positive from the game was that for the first time since pre-season, we played the 3-5-2 and looked relatively comfortable. Whether that is down to doing the same thing over and over again or naming an unchanged line-up for the first time since November 2012, time will tell, but there was a risk in going to London and using it. Spurs, like most sides we shall visit in London always come out to attack us. It means games against them are squarely down to strength of the 2 sides on the day. It's why we've never lost a game there since the dawn of the millenium. With the Arsenal game in recent memory, I wondered how we would cope with them coming at our three centre backs regularly, exploiting the space between our wing backs and centre backs. As it turned out, Ashley and TonyV did well enough to track back at speed and cover their areas as well as denying Spurs any form of width. With Rafael and Luke Shaw making substitute appearances, it will be interesting to see who the manager goes with on New Years Day at Stoke.

The game at Stoke is now a pressure game for us in a different way. Our latest slip up has allowed the chasing pack to claw within 3 points of us. The one saving grace is that of the lot, Southampton and Arsenal are in direct competition next matchday so victory at the Brittania will have definite rewards. There's going to be some agricultural football and challenges on Thursday and a bit of blood will have to be spilled enroute to the final whistle. You hope that 3 days' rest should hold the players in good stead to start 2015 on the right note.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

AWAY DAYS TROUBLES

After what seemed like a routine three points at home yesterday, Manchester United embark on the real tests of their festive schedule tomorrow at White Harte Lane. It's not that Newcastle are not a test of their own but that the next two assignments are away from home.

Performances and results away from the M16 have been too few and far in between that our season so far is built squarely upon our home form. It's not even because we've had a tough run of away games as venues like the King Power or Turf Moor have also proved to be a tough ask for our players.

On Sunday, the task will be as tough as they come away from home. United have not beaten Spurs in the last four meetings, a run that stretches back to the jolly-good days of Sir Alex Ferguson. We've also been outplayed by them in a couple of those games. If winning on Boxing Day was achieved with something in reserve, Sunday will demand that the players go full throttle.

Spurs are not without their problems mind you. Our forward line should be able to cause them quite the headache but it's our own defence or lack of it that will make hearts travel the full body length from chest to mouth, back to chest, then to feet.

Neither of Evans or Jones instills confidence to the neutral and yet they shall be asked to keep a three man backline free of breach. With a 3-5-2 system affording the opposition acres of space between the centre-halves, the likes of Eric Lamela and Eriksen could be in for some late Christmas presents.

Spurs like to play at pace, breaking forward in unison and so are there for the taking on the counter attack. The caveat for us though is Juan Mata's form away from home as he's vital to our counter-attack. If we're without Di Maria and Herrera for this one as well then we'll need him to turn up big time.

It will be interesting to see how LVG manages his quickest game in succession. No matter the changes in terms of personnel, the expectations remain. In terms of the bigger picture though, United need to sort out their away form. Another victory in London is a start,

Friday, 26 December 2014

THE BETTER UNITED

In the end, the three points turned out to be a formality. United were probably as suspect at the back but despite Newcastle playing two forwards all game, we were hardly troubled and only lost the cleansheet because of a needless challenge by Phil Jones in the box late on. That was as good as it got for Alan Pardew.

Louis van Gaal on the other hand will be thankful that crucial elements of his team came to the fore. For starters, Radamel Falcao was a pleasant nuisance in Newcastle's side. He displayed the hunger and desire that you feel he will need on a consistent basis to lure United into paying another £43m for him next July. His unselfish assist for the opener will not go unrecorded from LVG's writing pad. One hopes that the only reason he was taken off today is because he is a shoe in to start on Sunday.

Juan Mata is the other player who crucially turned up on the day. He did his part in the Number 10 role as brilliantly as he seems to do at home. Question marks still hang over his ability to replicate that form away from home. He is one of those we need to maintain that form into Sunday if we are to record a similar result. Take nothing away though from his brilliant inter-passing movement today. His assist for the second was a peach.

The biggest disappointment was how United tailed off after that third goal. Maybe it was down to conserving energy for the programme ahead but it reinforced the manager's frustration that United are not dominating games for 90 minutes.

Ultimately, today was a further stat added to our brilliant home form that has seen us win all but a couple of games there this season. We might achieve little this season by our standards but making Old Trafford a fortress seems well enroute to being accomplished. There's an air of routineness about games at home these days. That's fantastic.

It therefore begs the question how much better off we would be if our away form was better, which leads nicely into Sunday's fixture. For starters it's an away game. Then it's at White Harte Lane. It will be interesting how LVG counters Spurs' strength but most importantly, how he manages the squad for a second game in 48hrs.

But we can be thankful for another Boxing Day win today----the 50th in English football. We've opened up a gap, albeit small, between us and fourth, and have kept the summit of the league table on the horizon. It was all we could ask for today.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

CHRISTMAS WISHES

For the first time in 27 years, Manchester United players will have Christmas Day off. How's that for a Christmas wish! With a Boxing Day fixture a traditional occassion in England, Christmas Day has always been about final preparations for the following day's work. Such has been the case at least since Sir Alex took charge and indeed during last season's traumatic David Moyes mini-era.

Christmas Day at work probably explains United's near flawless record in Boxing Day fixtures. United have only lost one game on December 26th in the premier league era. Fingers crossed that the day off pre-match does not upset that record.

United head into the meeting with Newcastle United on the back of a dropped two points at Villa Park last weekend. That result has put us under considerable pressure from the chasing pack and also probably fataly dented our title hopes. But this season was never about the title. The target remains to secure third place and hence automatic qualification to the Champions League. Anything beyond that is a bonus. We've got a rough run in at the end of the season, so between now and March, we have the all important clear run of winnable fixtures to make or break our season.

The frutstration though has been we've not been able to steer clear of injuries. If at first we struggled to put together a defence, now we cannot patch up a decent midfield. Wayne Rooney should deputise for Fellaini once again whilst the absence of Herrera meana that our bench on Friday will be thin in the middle. If Di Maria starts central midfield just on top of Carrick, we might have something going in that department.

It's no use challenging Louis van Gaal's choice systems. The 3-5-2, despite its obvious weaknesses seems destined to remain a part of United. Fingers crossed the bounce of the ball goes our way because in that system we shall need it.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, 22 December 2014

TEMPERING THE TITLE TALK

You just knew it was going to happen. After defying the odds to pick up consecutive wins over two months, it all ends at the ground where we almost always win. That's football. Nothing knew. Obviously it felt terrible not to keep that run going but if we had been offered 6 wins and a draw in October, we'd all have taken it in one breath.

The harsh reality is despite the improvement from last season, United are not yet in the frame of a title victory. Mind you, that does not mean United cannot challenge for the title. The two statements are different. United are still unbeaten since October and can still put on another run of wins to get closer to the top two. The caveat though is that somewhere down the line we shall drop unncessary points, as was the case at Villa Park. Using a template of the last 10 title wins, to be champions only affords you a maximum of 5 draws and 5 defeats over the entire season. It means there is a minimum requirement of 28 wins. As it stands we've already exhausted the draws category with our 5th draw coming last weekend. We can still afford to be beaten twice more, but I think by now you get the task that I'm driving at if we are to still harbour title hopes.

Our objective right now is to mind the gap between ourselves and the chasing pack. Ideally we're supposed to be only worried about Arsenal and Liverpool. However, West Ham's enduring form has now brought them to within a point of us. It means we cannot keep third place beyond another slip up. After getting in the mix of title talk, the last thing we need is to get ourselves in the scrumble for 4th spot that our rivals are currently sucked into.

Therefore for us, the lesson from Saturday is to get up and go again. There's 9 points to win before the league takes a weekend off to accommodate the FA Cup. Given that some of the sides in and around us are against each other in a couple of the rounds ahead, the opportunity is still there to keep our own decent run going. All the above though is in light of the way forward but it doesn't mask the fact that we were decidedly poor on Saturday.

Pre-match, Louis van Gaal was on about how he wanted the side to perform well alongside continuing the results streak. Whereas the Dutch coach's desire for a great team display is to be admired, he will have appreciated on Saturday that the result is perhaps of greater significance than the performance. Overtime, the manager can get to train United to a level of football that he desires, but the now requires winning results whilst enroute to that target.

Individually, I thought Jonny Evans struggled AGAIN. It's a shame that he has been overtaken by Chris Smalling in terms of defensive maturity. He's now vulnerable to replacement as and when United beef up their defensive options in the summer. It's not to suggest the rest fared much better. Ashely Young though did his job. His performance on the left could not be faulted and only tailed off when moved to the right.

The biggest irony of our season is that the three at the back system, designed to give us defensive security, has made us look so defensively insecure. It's  a shame that even with a fit Rafael, the manager is not prepared to ditch the 3-5-2. Now try to work out why when we struggle, we end games with 4 at the back, looking more secure, chasing results that the earlier system put beyond our reach. Whether it explains why the players were lacklustre on Saturday is up for debate. What is for certain is United cannot continue to have slow build up play, and only step up a gear when the opposition get the ball cue a scramble to defend.

In a twisted way of thinking about it, we might have gotten away with it as Falcao managed to salvage a point. Despite our domination, we of all clubs know Villa could have won the game with just the 3 decent chances they had all match. That we got the point in end was perhaps not the worst form of punishment that could have come our way especially given how poorly we played.

With home comforts in the next fixture, there is really only one acceptable result when Newcastle United visit on Boxing Day.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

IN SEARCH OF A 7TH HEAVEN

Every club has that one opponenet against whom they boast an impeccable record, against whom they'd be almost certain of victory even when below par. If there's more than one such opponent for Manchester United, Aston Villa definitely make that list. United head to Villa Park for a rare three o'clock fixture seeking an unprecedented (in this season at least) 7th straight premier league win.

If the pair of fixtures against Southampton and Liverpool were to be feared, Saturday's trip Paul Lambert's side was supposed to be the breather in between two further tests against Newcastle United on Boxing Day and Tottenham on the first day of 2015. As things turned out though, United came through those fixtures with maximum points to stir talk of a title challenge from a side many tipped to finish outside the top 4 when Leicester City recorded a 5-3 fluke in September.

It's hard to imagine United coming away from Villa Park without all three points as it is the proverbial happy hunting ground. Even David Moyes managed to look good there last December recording a comfortable 3-0 win. The resurgence in the side, you'd imagine, should just about be enough to put this one to bed. In fact, on paper, the next dropped points (if any) can only reasonably be expected tp be dropped at White Harte Lane on New Year's Day.

BUT, in the words of one great Scot, football has a way of kicking you in the teeth! The game is never played on paper. United's flaws, that have been apparent throughout the six game winning run, can still be punished by anyone if they remain uncorrected. Certainly you'd hope that our defence shall not be as generous to Christian Benteke as they were to Raheem Sterling.

Saturday marks the first of four fixtures over a busy festive period. The result at Villa Park will therefore set the tone. If Wayne Rooney actually meant that United are going for the title this season, then obviously the shackles are off. Every game from hereon is an opportunity to shake the very foundations on which the premier league is built.

Last minute injuries permitting, we should have a strong team out. Angel Di Maria should make his return whilst Radamel Falacao is desperately due a start. If he doesn't start such a fixture, when fit, with no derby pressure or anything like that, then goodness knows what it will take. With Michael Carrick back in the side, there is no need to start Marouanne Fellaini in such a fixture. We finally have all the players to waltz a side in the manner we did at the start of the season. Whether the boss thinks otherwise remains to be seen, but come what may, the three at the back system needs to be done away with as soon as possible. In fact, if Villa away suddenly proves to be tough, it could have everything to do with the 3-5-2. We've incredibly gotten away with it so far agaisnt some good sides, but you can only push your luck so far.

Nonetheless, a result regardless of the torture the formation puts us through during the game, will do just fine.

Monday, 15 December 2014

UNITED STUFF 'EM GOOD

So it goes on. Six wins in a row is not neccessarily alien to Manchester United but it's been a while since. I did blog earlier in the month that we were in for a run of tricky fixtures largely based on the trip to St Marys' and the home tie against Liverpool. That we've come from those fixtures with maximum points will take a while to sink in.

The irony is that whatever difficulty we faced enroute to those points was self-induced. It's there for everyone to see that United don't seem to understand how to effectively play a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-1-2 but Louis van Gaal has remained steadfast in that approach. At Southampton, moving the ball between defence and attack was akin to trying to find a solution to a complicated maths problem. If you factor in the performance at Arsenal in which we also used a 3-5-2, and contrast that with the times LVG has gone with a back four, the difference in performances couldn't be any more stark.

Whilst we'd come to imagine that LVG favours that system only away from home, Sunday proved to be the exception. United were going 3-5-2 at home against Liverpool. More amusingly, Liverpool were going to use the same system, but worse: they didn't have a recongised striker on the pitch. It didn't require any level of tactical analysis to immediately see where the game would be won. Both sides were going to get chances but United were going to be more clinical than Liverpool.

That David De Gea (who is already a favourite for Player of the Year) was given the Man of the Match award even after a 3-0 win is testament that United (not least because of the formation) were poor again. That particular frustration ends with the performance because beyond that it was joy watching United stuff Liverpool. A win against that lot, no matter how it comes is epic. That we've contributed to making their season even worse is all that a fan could ask of the players yesterday.

More importantly though, United are back to within 8 points of he summit. Now, although its 'greedy' to ask for a title this season, I can't help but recall that there are at least three seasons in which we've been 8 points off the top in mid December and yet went on to win the title. So its do-able, but because football has a way of kicking you in the teeth, you wonder whether we can continue to navigate our way through games. The chances that our defence affords teams means that at some point, De Gea will be wrong footed, or not be lucky enough to deflect goal bound efforts onto the post. Louis van Gaal post match said sometimes you have to 'force the luck'. If all this is down to forced luck then long may they work at forcing it because at the moment it's getting us past landmines. You know, like when Jonny Evans felt determined to hand Liverpool a way back into the match by passing it straight to Sterling with just De Gea left to beat; or when Marouanne Fellaini made a similar misplaced pass that led to Southampton's equaliser on Monday.

Whilst De Gea has been lauded most for the results lately, Michael Carrick deserves at least an honourable mention. In the frenzied chaos that is our defence, Michael has still managed to sustain a degree of sanity and composure at the back, picking out his teammates more accurately than anyone and serving as an unspecting 'quarterback'. His position on the pitch now means he will hardly be marked and yet he has the perfect eye for a pass to the forwards that has often caught teams offguard. One wonders where we would be if we hadn't lost him for the start of the season. De Ge has been there from the start but this run of wins dates to Michael's return to the starting XI. It's amazing how David Moyes failed to get these performances from him. Perhaps the biggest indictment on Moyes' time was that all players that started yesterday were available to him last season.

Next up is the start of the traditional fixture pile-up over the festive season. 18 points from the last 18 available has put us on quite a foundation to do something special. Whether we can continue to force the luck into 2015 is uncertain. There are many ways and many reasons to pour cold water over United's season so far. Indeed, there are still many caveats to the argument that United are back to the good old times but for as long as this run of results lasts, we'll continue to be drunk in love with United...and there's no room for rationalisation in drunkenness.

Friday, 12 December 2014

HATRED!

It doesn't get more bitter than this. Manchester United vs Liverpool is founded on hatred. It's not because this is England's premier football fixture, it's that we love to hate them as much as they love to hate us.

When Luis Suarez (God rest his teeth) scored Liverpool's third in this fixture last season, Old Trafford burst into  a chain of singing that bewildered neutrals. Here were the Scousers ratting all over Old Trafford and yet the chanting in the stands was as though we'd won the European Cup. The explanation is simple. Well, sort of. It was the equivalent of taking a mouthful of vodka to ease the pain during a circumcision operation without the relief of anaesthetics. For those fans at the stadium that day, the pain of watching Liverpool hold a three goal lead on our turf could only be erased by bellowing out their lungs in chanting their way to the full time whistle.
That result was one of only two in the nightmare reign of David Moyes that Sir Alex highlighted as being 'annoyed' at.

In a somewhat role reversal, Liverpool make the short trip to the M16 9 months on, looking every bit as poor as United were that Sunday in March. United on the other hand head into this fixture looking for a 6th league win on the trot and as the premier league's in-form team. It's a given that form doesn't count for anything in derbies but whichever patched up United side lines up against Liverpool on Sunday, confidence will be far greater in those in red.

Without really being consistent in performances, Louis van Gaal seems to be on that run of wins that usually follows a run of bad form in his early management of any side he's been in charge of. However, the nature of the premier league is way too toxic to muster 18 games on a winning run that he managed say at Bayern Munich or the 16 on the bounce at Barcelona. That is not least because there is not much of a gap between a strong team in England and a weaker side thanks to the equittable distribution of TV money. If Champions-elect Chelsea who apparently have a balanced squad have seen an 8 point lead over Manchester City cut to just three in the space of 4 weeks, then how much of a task is it for a United team that picks up an injury every week? The important thing though is to bounce back from every disappointing result with a new run of wins. It was always Sir Alex's post match interview message after a defeat that the next step is to bounce back. When our run ends, that ought to be the message, and not the negativity that will undoubtedly hit the media columns.

BUT it's still on and who's to say it cannot go on forever? (@£₩!) Anyhow, its about that time that we start counting our fingers and figuring out how far second place is for us. That ought to be the next target. You cannot rest on your laurels in this sport. Whereas Southampton and the chasing pack are not yet far enough from us to dismiss them, we finally have the top of the league in sight. Chelsea now only has an 8 point lead over us......LESS THAN THREE GAMES! Whereas its almost impossible for two sides to simultaneoulsy slip up to allow a third side to take initiative, it would be really fun giving those two a major headache in the title race. As the third placed side, we now have a major say in where the title ends up. It's increasingly becoming difficult to beat United which means that of the top 2, the side that fails to take maximum points off United will lose major ground...more like the role Chelsea played last season to determine where the title would end up.

Obviously there's no pride in playing side-kick to major honours but think about it....weren't we supposed to be fighting to get in the Champions League for the entirity of this season? If we feel that we've achieved that 5 months ahead of schedule, then why not take out practice sessions at the summit battles that will be on the expectation card for next season?

Ultimately, it comes down to one game at a time. Whereas it's pointless to second guess the manager's tactics for the game, we've been solid with a back four of any kind at home. If Angel Di Maria is passed fit, a diamomd formation in the middle featuring Carrick and Fellaini or Herera would see us at our explosive best. If he takes the cautious 3-5-2 approach, then like Monday night, we could be forced to live through a nail biting period in the match. That will not be because Liverpool are good but because the 3 at the back system is not yet quite home with many of our players.

To be fair to the boss, it is increasingly the case that in the absence of Shaw, he can only play Ashley Young in the wing back role. It seems like it forces his hand. There is a danger though when you have space on the wings and you are up against a winger of the pace of Raheem Sterling. Again, a detail you expect will not get past a manager as detailed in his preparation as Louis van Gaal.

All that notwithstanding, on a derby day of any kind, not least this one, the players owe the fans. It gets personal on Sunday.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

'MURDER' HE SAID

In the words of Louis van Gaal, 'ex-legend' Gary Neville has somehow emerged from Monday Night's premier league fixture as the focal point from the fallout of events at St Marys' stadium. Apparently, the 'ex-legend' thought United got away with murder from the South Coast. Spare a thought for United's Dutch manager: his limited comprehension of English metaphors and expressions meant that when the question was posed to him, he was bewildered out of his iron skin for  a second. He only brought a team down from the north to play a game of football and here he was being asked about his role in the commission of a capital offence!

Those more acquainted with the twists and turns of the English language were immediately aware that the ex-legend meant nothing of the sort. Neville was essentially referring to the general narrative of the game: United played poorly, Southampton played well, United won the match.

There's a reason why a league season is a better judge of the best team than a Cup tournament--endurance of consistency. Whereas a Cup tournament requires a side to put together as minute a run as 6 wins (as is the case with the FA Cup), 6 wins in a league will only take you as far as you can throw a rock. If you're lucky in a Cup competition for even just a couple of games, the chances of success are mathematically greater than if you're lucky for all of 6 games in a league format.

Endurance of consistency has many facets to it such as consistency in performances but the most important of all is consistency in results. The latter is the holy grail. Jose Mourinho would take 3 shots on target for every match throughout the season if it meant his team eventually won the match. At least Sir Alex relied on consistency of results ahead of performances in the latter years of his reign----and he didn't care a jot if it meant victory.

Now back to Neville's argument: In isolation, the comment is fair because United were that poor on the night, but that evaluation is devoid of the most important facet about last night's game---consistency in results. For all the attempts to fill this morning's columns with tales of how United were basically a Sunday pub team, the only thing that will live beyond this week from last night is that Manchester United are now third in the Premier League, a place above the season's expectations, despite an injury list that would overwhelm Florence Nightingale. Indeed, getting away with murder is a crime that is so common in the league that we do not always notice when someone commits it. For instance Manchester United put on a worthy performance on the opening day against Swasea at Old Trafford: 68% possession, 12 shots on goal. Swansea on the other hand had 32% possession and 2 shots on target, let alone the 3 United had last night. Result: Manchester United 1-2 Swansea City. If that isn't 'murder' in Neville's context then I don't know what is.

Make no mistake; Gary was simply doing his job as a pundit. Again, on the night, the comment is fair, but to attempt to define United this season with it is to err. United have blown us away with enthralling performances this season, but by the dawn of November and coming away from the Etihad without a point despite putting on an admirable performance with a man less for 52 minutes,  firmly in 8th place on the log, we had all made up our minds to toss the performances and urgently string results together to keep in touch with our top 4 rivals. Remember?

Even so, that United can turn on the show is not in doubt. Only last week, Hull City were on the end of a hiding from a United team in full flow. However, to be consistent in performances when we get a new injury every week and can't name a similar starting XI for 2 straight games is asking too much of a side still taking off to a new philosophy. So if the available players can still guarantee consistency in results, then thank you very much, that will do just fine for me. Manchester United cannot be asked to apologise for coming away from St Mary's with three points if how they achieved it was not illegal.

If football is a results based business, then consistency in results and not consistency in performances is what it's all about. United delivered in that respect, and just to confirm, they didn't kill anyone.

All the above notwithstanding, given that the vermin visit on Sunday, I'd be more than pleased if we get away with actual murder this weekend.

Friday, 5 December 2014

MNF AT ST MARY'S

It has gone unnoticed, amind the euphoria of their latest run of form, that Manchester United start a run of tricky fixtures over December. Before 2015 is in, United have to negotiate fixtures against Southampton, Liverpool, Newcastle and Spurs. There's a couple of winnable games in that run but none of the enlisted ones is a walk in the park by any means.

First up; the trip to St Mary's stadium on Monday night when United will look to win a 5th game on the bounce for the first time since Sir Alex hung up his chewing gum. It's game with everything to lose given that we could end up on either side of the spectrum come bed time on Monday.

Results from the sides below us over the last couple of rounds have meant that we've not really pulled away from the chasing pack despite our excellent form. Southampton on the other hand have seen their bubble burst and sufferred 2 defeats in the space of 3 days to City and Arsenal. As a result, we're within a point of the Saints ahead of our clash against them on Monday. It means the reward of 5th win on the bounce shall be the comfort of 3rd place on the log. It's a measure of United's progress over the last month but perhaps more crucially, an opportunity to cement their status as a top 4 side this season. The other side of the spectrum holds that we drop back into the midtable mire if we fail our next assignment.

Add to that the fact that its a first meeting between two Dutch managers who do not or at least have not gotten along and you have yourself a spicy Monday Night clash that Sky will milk to their full.

Southampton have not picked up any of the last six points on offer but they only failed at the Emirates because they had to negotiate the last few minutes a man down because of injury. Before then though, they had the measure of Arsenal. If we've learnt anything from their last two defeats is that they struggle when the opposition moves the ball quickly. Their third game in a week should further test their fitness levels. It's a detail that you feel shall not bypass Louis van Gaal given his meticulous preparation. Ultimately though, there is every opportunity for us to continue a run of form that has seen us merit a mention from premier league managers on the subject of the title race.

Injuries permitting we should be able to put out a stronger side than we did on Tuesday night, but the performance needs to match the Saturday victory over Hull. Anything less and we could be in for a nail biting affair on Monday night.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

WASTEFUL UNITED EDGE PAST STOKE

First it was Herrera presented with a virtually open goal, then Fellaini casually tried to place it past Begovic, then Wilson failed the easy part after doing all the hard work, then Fellaini replicated Herrera's earlier effort when all he had to do was hit the target......it goes on and on. As the clock ticked towards the 90 minute, you got the sinking feeling that Stoke were going to grab a second equaliser. And credit to them. They kept having a go at United despite being under constant threat of conceeding a two goal deficit. Against any other goalkeeper in the league, they would have got their leveller. Thankfully though, we have just about the only stopper in the league with points saving reflexes of that quality. Amazingly though it was not De Gea that got the loudest cheer from me on the night. Ashley Young did.

If for any ludicrous reason FIFA decide to suddenly come up with a golden foot award this season, Ashley Young should be a top three nominee if only because his foot was ultimately the difference between us collecting three points last night and just the one. He's nobody's cup of tea but last night, he applied himself well in the game. I lost count of how many times he beat two Stoke defenders by cutting in and skipping past challenges. He's emerged as a capable emergency left back in the same way Valencia has ably deputised for Rafael. If we're talking about players who have upped their game under the new manager, he's one. He's come in against Arsenal, Hull and Stoke and not once have we complained that we miss Luke Shaw. This is not to suggest that he's set the world alight in that role. It is rather an acknowledgement of the mitigating role Young has done on the left side of defence.

Juan Mata had his second brilliant game in two days and was worth the standing ovation he received at the end. His link up play with Carrick and Herrera has made it easy for the otherwise slow Fellaini to pick a pass as they make themselves available. Alongside Fellaini, they're on a mission to improve United's goal scoring record from midfield. It's been a while since we had a high scoring midfield. It's increasingly becoming less worrying when our forwards do not score.

And while we're at it, James Wilson, besides his poor finish after a great run, impressed. He seems blessed with decent pace for a striker and can beat a man easily. If he can keep his head down, he could be quite something at the club. His presence though was a testament of the injuries that United have at the moment. Wayne Rooney faces a race against time to male it on Monday whilst the manager seems to have ruled out Angel Di Maria for that one as well. More than anything, it is the fact that the manager has galvanised the players to work around the injury crisis that jas filled Old Trafford with optimism lately. It goes without saying that Louis van Gaal has finally got his team. This is no longer aside reeling from the loss of Sir Alex Ferguson or a side smarting from the confidence sapping team talks of David Moyes.

In the end, 6 points from the two home games was the minimum requirement and we've achieved that. It's pleasing that we've now put ourselves at within a point of Southampton ahead of our meeting next week. Subject to their result against Arsenal tonight, we could be third by bedtime on Monday. That though is a permutation for next MatchDay. For now United can bask in a run of consistency that has seen them amass 12 points out of the last 12 on offer.

It is just as well then that the Manchester United Christmas Party is tonight. I take it then that nobody will still be hungover on Monday evening.

Monday, 1 December 2014

STOKE VISIT ON A COLD TUESDAY NIGHT

There's a funny-odd metaphorical belief among Premier League fans that the true measure of a capable footballer is performing at your usual level on a cold night at Stoke. The essence is around the fact that the Brittannia is infamous for its elements and gale conditions that effectively alter the natural traits of a game of football. In absolute monsoon winds, it will rain, hail, and if you're unlucky snow, all in a 90minute episode in which you are still expected to control, pass and shoot the ball as though you're playing in a closed door stadium on artificial grass.

Thank goodness then that it is Stoke that make the visit and not us. At Old Trafford, United have everything going for them to subdue Stoke over 90 minutes.
The 3-0 success at home against Hull made it a first three on the bounce for the first time this season and maintained Champions League status. The expectation will be there tomorrow to keep that run going if only because we're at home.

Whereas we managed to notch up a first away win in London last week, it's at home that our season has been built so far. With 2 home games in quick succession, it is an opportunity to inch away from the sides immediately below us and eat into Southampton's lead over us. We're now 4 points off the Saints which means if results go our way over the next 2 rounds of fixtures, we could be third by Monday next week.

That though is a permutation that is hugely dependent on the result tomorrow night. Stoke will offer more fight than Hull did. They'll be better defensively and more potent on the counter attack. They're one of the lesser sides with a measure of the big boys and so they can go to the Etihad and win. In some ways therefore, you hope the standards will not have dropped given the stroll in the park the boys had on Saturday.

Injuries mean that it's difficult to keep the same line-up at the weekend, but given the performance, you suspect that the only changes that will be made will be enforced. But like Saturday, regardless of the team that goes out, the expectation will be to pick up all three points and make it 4 wins on the trot.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

THREE AND EASY

A few things changed about Manchester United against Hull yesterday, but it was mostly the usual. Take for instance, the injury curse that has booked itself front row seats on a season ticket for United games. For a while it seemed the likes of Wayne Rooney and Angel Di Maria were vaccinated from this particular injury ailment at birth. Turns out they weren't as the pair became the latest concerns for Louis van Gaal ahead of Tuesday's fixture against Stoke.

Di Maria is a certain miss while Wayne (who has found a seductive level of consistency lately to his credit) might just force himself to play given he cannot stand the sight of anyone else wearing his armband and sitting on the Captain's spot in the dressing room.

That however was as gloomy as it got on the night with United recording a comfortable home win against Steve Bruce's Hull. It was nothing more than it should be. United were as comfortable as they would have been under Sir Alex for this fixture except that they achieved it with a sparkle. The build up play, the inter-passing and movement told of something being worked on in training. Old Trafford yearns for a day when United will be out at full strength, but it is already apparent that half-strength will do against most sides of United can play to their potential.

Individually, Ander Herrera stood out despite only playing because of an injury to Di Maria. It was always going to be interesting how he would play with Michael Carrick behind him and that security told....well, confirmed his class on the ball enroute to winning yet another Man of the Match award. His midfield combination with Juan Mata is quite a beauty to behold. Most importantly though was that the two combined to ensure that we did not lose our way when Angel exited. That in itself is a measure of the depth in talent in advanced central midfield that we now possess.

Robin van Persie played himself into form with a much better effort than we've seen this season. That he was involved in all the goals was someway to respond to the criticism he received last week. He needs to maintian that though. It cannot be the exception but rather the norm that he puts in such displays every week. As already pointed out, the captain is, on his part, enjoying a run of decent displays for the first time in a while. If he keeps this up, he might start to win over a couple of more fans that had written him off following his performances at the start of the season culminating in that red card against West Ham.

But not to get carried away, it was as it should be. Stoke City visit on Tuesday. It will be a tougher examination but one which we must pass, not least because all the sides around us matched our result, leaving 4th place still unsecured.
The week's job is therefore only half done so far.

Friday, 28 November 2014

HOME COMFORTS

It's been a while since it felt like this as a United fan. Understandably so perhaps because in the period since Sir Alex hung up his chewing gum todate, Manchester United have not managed to string together 5 straight league wins. The next 13 days of premier league football however offer a feasible opportunity at addressing that trend.

Whereas Southampton away on Monday Night Football a week on is not quite the straight forward fixture, United have an opportunity to make it four wins on the bounce with two fixtures at home in quick succession against the two cities of Hull and Stoke respectively and hence equal their best run under David Moyes.
In what has so far been a bumpy season, United have fared better at home than away. Indeed, last week's Italian job at the Emirates was our first away from the M16 this term.

Granted therefore that United should pick up the next 6 points available and hence cement their status as a Top 4 side. Not quite as easy it sounds. The premier league is notorious with sides that always fancy their chances at ripping up scripts and producing results against the odds. The new found resolve in the side, you hope, will awaken the players to the reality of a job to do first on Saturday and then on Tuesday night.

It is slowly eating into the minds of everyone that cares to know that United are in fact up for the battle to restore their status as a Champions League side. And why not given their position after a lacklustre start. Having negotiated fixtures against Chelsea, City and Arsenal with 4 points, the onus is now on United to prove that they justified their performance in those games by going on a run of wins between now and the visist from Liverpool in December.

The need for that run is underlined by the fact that so far, no side has been able to keep 4th place two weeks running. The topsy turvy nature of the league has ensured that. Arsenal, in 8th place are just two points behind us in 4th. That in itself speaks of a need to pull away from the black hole that is midtable so as to give ourselves a cushion for the festive marathon when more often than not the league table starts to take its final shape.

We've not dropped a point to Hull in all our 6 games against them in the league. They'll no doubt keep many behind the ball and look to hit us on the break. It worked for them at the Emirates. United must therefore keep a shape about them as they search for goals. We were let off against Crystal Palace when Fraizer Campbell dinked it over De Gea but you can't always be lucky.

Luke Shaw joined the list of long term absentees so it will be interesting to see whether the manager addresses that problem with Ashely Young as a wing baxk or simply ask Blackett to slot into left back.

I'd like for the Spaniard duo of Mata and Herrera ro start not least because when you are seeking to score against a side with plenty behind the ball, you need the genuis of their kind to pick out the passes that matter. It's the problem we faced against Crystal Palace a couple of weeks ago until Mata came on.

Whichever the case, the players selected tomorrow know the expecations are slowly creeping back into the stands and 76,000 will expect nothing less than 3 points tomorrow.
As usual, I'll be biting my nails until full time.

Monday, 24 November 2014

THE MORE THINGS CHANGE...

So this was supposed to different. United are vulnerable at the back, short on confidence and Arsenal are....well, they have Alexis Sanchez. This was Arsenal's best chance in aeons to beat Manchester United. A chance to finally reverse that stinky trend that has followed them lately--an inability to beat the top sides.

In the end though it turned out that Arsene Wenger is perhaps the most stubborn manager that ever lived. His constant refusal to plan for games individually means that Arsenal have the most predictible style of play in the league, possibly in the entire football league. Beautiful but very predictible. So predictible that even 8 minutes of stoppage time did not seem enough for them to conjure up the goals they needed to get a point from the game.

Pre-match, I was nervous about Louis van Gaal going to the Emirates and trying to show off our attack. It turns out I shouldn't have worried. For a manager that pays as much attention to detail as him, Arsenal's vulnerability was not going to pass him by. The 3-5-2 formation was probably not ideal, but at 40 injuries this season and counting, including an early one to Luke Shaw, United are at the point of making do with what is available. At the time though, I was slightly relieved to see Ashley Young come on for Shaw because for some inexplicable reason, he plays the wing back role better than anyone at the club. Shaw was already struggling by the time he was forced off. But it will not be many occasions that this system shall be employed so Luke needn't worry.

Whereas the story could have been different had Arsenal scored from one of their early 89 chances, it is a credit to the players that they stuck at it and patiently picked off Arsenal. That is where the credit stops because to be honest, Arsenal dug their own grave in that second period by not making a contigency plan for United on the counter attack. That it took just three passes from our penalty box to get the second goal is testament to the basics of it really. Once Fellaini had passed that ball to Di Maria, there was just the one Arsenal player to beat in a 2 vs 1 situation. To think that we've scored similar goals in 2009 and 2010 at the Emirates puts into perspective Wenger's stubborness at addressing the weaknesses in his game plan.

Enough of them though. Individually, I thought Paddy McNair was a bit of an unsung hero at the back. Its 4 games and 4 wins so far with him so I guess its now as simple as putting him in the starting line-up and the rest will fall into place. David De Gea's praises are now well documented whilst Marouanne Fellaini continues to be a nice nuisance in the middle. You wonder though whether the Spaniard duo of Mata and Herrera will be best suited for the games against Hull and Stoke as it is intelligence more than anything that is required to break down such sides, as was evidenced in the game vs Crystal Palace.

In the grand scheme of things, this was a huge result for us. With 2 wins on the bounce and 2 home games to come, we have a really big chance to go on a run of wins and address our early season form. That we are level on points with Newcastle United shows we need to to do a job to avoid slipping back into that mid table scram. Perhaps targeting third place might not be such a bad idea afterall. With City just a few points ahead of us, I think it would be healthy for our league form to target them rather than be satisfied at who is below us.

It was beginning to look bleak with great performances and poor results so itwas great seeing that we can still play poorly and win.

Onwards & Upwards!

Friday, 21 November 2014

OF INJURIES, MORE INJURIES AND LE ARSE

Is it the training methods? Perhaps the intensity? Faulty medical department? Fragile players? Or simply good ol' plain bad luck? Whatever it is, Louis van Gaal has got to get to the bottom of it because what could easily be an 'okay' season is seriously being threatened by a catalogue of injuries. United have had up to 9 players injured at nearly every match week. Just when the club was about to achieve a clean bill of health, the International break made sure the status quo was quickly restored with injuries to Michael Carrick, David De Gea, Luke Shaw, Daley Blind and Di Maria to add to an illustrious list already boasting Radamel Falcao, Marcos Rojo, Jonny Evans, Rafael, and Phil Jones.

As it stands from the above list, De Gea, Carrick and Di Maria are certain to pull through Saturday's trip to the Emirates whilst we await confirmation on Luke Shaw. Daley Blind joins Rojo on the list of long term injuries while for the rest it is as you were. Whereas it is expected that at various points during a season you are bound to lose players due to injury, losing them in catalogues is never on the script.

Having endured a lucklustre start to the season, it is almost imperative that United make hay between now and Christmas to rack up a points total to build upon in the new year. At the moment, that prospect is looking bleak ahead of the winter schedule not least because of the injuries earlier alluded to. If it is indeed true that adding more players to this squad would affect the chances of fringe players, then those players have an almighty chance to show what they can do whilst this injury crisis lasts.

If nothing changes between the manager's press conference yesterday and tomorrow evening, it will be interesting to see the kind of defence we put out at the Emirates. Having already used 13 different centre back combinations in 11 games, there's every chance the one we shall see on Saturday is novel as well. Arsenal, for all their problems are blessed with pace in their team. The combination of Sanchez and Chamberlain supported by Welbeck upfront means that whatever the backline tomorrow, they shall be tested for speed and concentration.

Arsenal are perhaps the one side of the 'traditional big four' against whom we boast an impressive record in recent history. Our last defeat against them was an isolated result in 2011 when a substitution by Sir Alex allowed Aaron Ramsey to ghost in the area unmarked and poke home what proved to be the winner before Park Ji Sung could get in position and pick his man. However, because of their singular minded game plan , the top teams have learned to play against Arsenal.

Under Louis van Gaal however, United seem to be moving away from their pragmatism that served them so well in this fixture. Arsenal love it when teams go to the Emirates and try to beat them at football in its purest sense. I'd like for the boss to keep it at pragmatic tomorrow because such fixtures are more about the result than the performance.
With 4th place and probably third place in the league still very much up for grabs, it is down to these two sides to pull together a run of consistent results to lay claim to those places.

The nature of the league table is that only a handful of points separate the fourth placed side from the 12th side. At the moment, we're only still in charge of our destiny because so many other sides seem to have problems of their own. We have a run of fixtures between now and Christmas that are winnable and can aid the turn around of our season. That said, look how the start of the season panned out! It's becoming quite a strain on many fans waiting for that turn at the corner only to find out that it was a false turn. That we do not have an away win this season heading into the close of November is by itself a failure this season.

It's not like the remedies are not there because they are. For starters, Di Maria should not take our corner kicks. I do not know whether price tag dictates who takes the set pieces, but our best ball swingers at the club from a corner are Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney in that order. A corner kick, by default must beat the first defender at the near post. Di Maria hardly accomplishes that. His talents are undoubted but I think that particular duty should be reassigned just to give effect to making selections such as Fellaini in the team.

With the apparent risk of losing touch with our season's target, it is imperative that we get a result tomorrow. This fixture used to determine the destiny of the league title but in 2014/15, it could significantly determine who makes the Champions League places. A shame, but still as fiesty as ever.

Monday, 10 November 2014

JOB DONE

A few of my mates found humour in my reservations about the Crystal Palace fixture. Whereas it was firmly in the category of "possible thrashings" i took issue with the fact that we've dropped so many points against the lesser sides of the league. Caution was therefore advised ahead of a must win game against the Eagles.

By the close of the first half, those fears were justified as Palace set out to sit deep and hit United on the counter. The tactic could have yielded a goal for them in the first half had Fraizer Campbell fully capitalised on an error from the makeshift centre back pairing of McNair (who was otherwise brilliant again) and Daley Blind. In the end though it took Juan Mata from the bench to score what turned out to be the winner. Although the Spaniadd has not lit up Old Trafford in the way he did Stamford Bridge, his goal return makes him quite a handy player to have. Goals win games. More than anything, its a great asset to have.

To be fair to Louis van Gaal, the current crop of players are asking him to make a tough choice between two systems. The first that was employed after the transfer window shut comprisied a free flowing 4-4-2 diamond attack that proved to be a goal-laden system. It thrilled us and is responsible for perhaps what could unfortunately turn out to be the game of the season. 5-3 defeat at Leicester. It's weaknesses were laid bare by in that game though. Bar the 4-0 win vs QPR, we couldn't keep a clean sheet in all the games we used that system.

The system was changed to a 4-1-4-1 system from the visit of Chelsea and has remained the same since. Its report card reads: Less goals conceded, less goals scored. Indeed, United has looked far more defensively assured since that game against Chelsea but have beenngoal starved since. That the system limits supply to the striker has shone unfairly on Robin van Persie who now lacks the constant service that every stiriker craves. All that notwithstanding, that we've conceded a total of just 2 goals since when we've faced both Chelsea and City in that period is in stark contrast to letting in 3 goals in 10 minutes in one match let alone three matches.

So when LVG keeps hammering in the need to get the balance right in press conferences, it is this puzzle he's trying to solve. Against Palace, he went for defensive security ahead of romping attacking football. Not the United way some might say but given the need to start posting results on the board, it is in our best interest short term that we string a few results together. With just the three points separaring us in 7th place and 13th, it is imperative that we build on the two decent performances against Chelsea and City to go on a flawless run.

The change in systems has also confined the creative wealth of Juan Mata and Ander Herrera to the bench and possibly rendered Di Maria a bit subdued as there is less inter-play in the middle where he enjoyed much joy at the start of the season. Fellaini has been preferred to add steel in the middle and act as a decoy to RVP upfront.

It remains to be seen how the manager shall get the balance right in time to get a settled formation for the rest of the season. With an international break coming up, perhaps there is an opportunity to get a few bodies back from iniury so as to allow the manager pick from a complete pool of players.

This weekend, results from just about all the sides around us went our way, allowing us to move to within 2 points of 4th place. The rewards are certainly there if we can muster a run of victories. Next up is Arsenal at the Emirates in a fortnight. If games between relegation candidates are six pointers, this one is such, for the Champions League battle will heavily feature us and them.

Till then though, cheers.

Friday, 7 November 2014

THE NEED TO POST RESULTS

Saturday marks the start of the second third of the season. We now have a pretty decent idea of how the season will pan out for most teams. We now know where United are in terms of a second season in transition and what they must do to count the season a success.

Forget the negativity in the media. United are just four points from the season's target. It'all up for grabs beween second place and 4th on the log. City, Arsenal and Liverpool are expected to be our competitors for those positions but none of them has so far displayed a consistency to worry United much. The catch therefore shall be in how many points against the alsorans that each side shall pick up. At the moment, we are worst placed of the lot because we've picked up the least points against the sides from the bottom half of the table.

Having done away with the two difficult games of the past fortnight, we now have an opportunity to get back in the recknoning with as merely as the next two wins. With the sides above us playing each other this weekend as well as a trip to the Emirates after the International break, we could easily be in 4th by the end of the month if the players keep up the attitude with which we approached the last two games.

Crystal Palace provide the opposition this weekend at Old Trafford where we have been most comfortable so far. With no wins between the last International break and the upcoming one, surely Saturday should be a formality. Palace are by no means fodder for any team as demonstrated in their performances against Arsenal and Chelsea earlier this term, but United just cannot afford anything other than the three points tomorrow.

There is a truth that United are probably yet to come to terms with. Attacking United at will used to be a preserve of sides that held themselves as equals or for sides that trusted their defences to bail them out of counter attacks. Today, because of the public knowledge that is a shaky defence, even with such a fearsome attack, lesser sides now know that it's not just about keeping it tight at the back against United. You can get a goal almost as surely as you attack United. It's a truth that United have got to deal with. Seeing out games as opposed to trying to outscore the opposition is perhaps the wise thing to do for now.
Football is ultimately a results based business. Therefore, although we've put in some admirable performances in some games so far, it is the results that we should ultimately aim for in the upcoming pre-Christmas run.

We've not built a strong enough foundation so far to launch ourselves to May after Christmas with our targets still in sight. It's not yet too late to build on what we have but it's imperative we go on a run of results now. The rewards are great, largely because of the inconsistency of our rivals. There's no side in the league that you can  beat even on an off day so you hope that the attitude levels are not dropped tomorrow.

Injuries and suspension mean that we shall be light weight at the back tomorrow. It will be interesting to see how the manager copes with that. Unless Jones or Evans recover in time, Carrick and Mcnair could be asked to do a job. You can bet Palace will test that vulnerability but it can be overcome if people follow their markers so as to avoid one on one situations.

It's another couple of weeks without football after this so you hope there is something positive to look back on just as we had over the last international break.
Cheers.

Monday, 3 November 2014

UNITED FAIL SECOND BIG TEST, BUT PASS THE REMEDIAL

There are days when you really have to feel for managers. Yesterday was one of them. Managers can only offer instructions to players, but cannot execute them individually on the pitch. Louis van Gaal, two days from kick off, in the full glare of the media, said that he had warned his players to keep their heads and avoid red cards in the upcoming derby. It was the first time he had cautioned the players about discipline ahead of a fixture, probably because he worked out that all it would take us to get a result in the fixture was keeping 11 men on the field.

Come derby day, and it took Chris Smalling all of 28 minutes to forget that instruction. What is the manager supposed to do? Is he now a bad manager because a player couldn't follow a basic instruction? Now Smalling, like Evans and Jones cannot be held as inexperienced defenders anymore, not with all those games under their belts. We'll leave that tag to the likes of Luke Shaw, Tyler Blackett and Pady McNair...all of whom can be excused for school boy errors. Not Smalling. Quite how he redeems himself from this, only heaven knows because the only route available to him seems steep. Unless he returns from suspension in imperious form to negate the long term absence of Marcos Rojo, every error from now on could be a final page in his Manchester United career.

Individually, I thought Fellaini was the biggest let down on the day. He actually did a great job marshalling the midfield and supporting upfront but he failed to deliver on his biggest asset. Getting his head and or hair on to the ball. Accurately. Our best aerial chances fell to the right person and yet he failed to get them on target. I've loved his new role in the first team, but I think he needs that one chance one goal instict to make him the cult hero he can be. I would gladly ignore all his antics on the pitch if he could keep making lethal use of his head and chest in ways that benefitted us at West Brom and against Chelsea last week.

I also found it pleasing that in a week against the most dificult opposition we shall face this season, we let in just the odd goal with a defence that every pundit freshly criticises every matchday as if to suggest we might not have gotten the point the week before.

It's unfortunate that on a day when City were there for the taking, an individual mistake cost us the game. That the 10 men that remained on the pitch managed to restore pride to the red half of the City is testament to what could have been. Make no mistake, this is not to suggest that we've turned a corner, but if you can't decipher the difference between this fixture last season and this season then you might as well stop reading this from this point. The issue most Reds had with the previous regime was an abject lack of will to fight even in periods of adversity. The last few games are underscored by a resilience to fight to the death that was almost non-existent last season.

The danger though is continuously looking back on last season as a measure of success. We finished 7th last term and although 6th would be an improvement, the target has to be much higher given the level of investment. 1 point from the top 2 is not the return we expected, but we can make up for that if we go on a long overdue run now. If we consider Liverpool and Arsenal within our means, then with the right focus and attitude, we could sweep all between now and Christmas. The opportunity is still there to drastically improve our season. The question is whether we can take it with both hands. I hope we do. The performances in the last couple of games have added to the belief that this United side is not so far from being the finished article. We seem to be just that one crucial step away. Except that it is a crucial step and until we make it, positions such as 10th place will continue to feature throughout the season.

Therefore, in the spirit of bouncing back, a great result at home to Palace is now a must.

Friday, 31 October 2014

MOST DIFFICULT GAME OF THE SEASON--EPISODE II

Having passed the first test last weekend, Manchester United will go into their next domestic test with a right load of confidence. In a somewhat bizzare twist of events, the Bitters have sufferred the kind of form we were supposed to be recovering from ahead of this fixture. Suddenly, there is an expectation that come Sunday, the pressure will be more on the hosts than the team in 8th place in the league.

In perspective, it all bodes down to the fun of the irony: Manchester United have officially had their worst start to a season this year, and yet it doesn't quite feel like it. Talk to most Reds and the impression that you will get is that Louis van Gaal is leading the team in the right direction. Stark contrast to when the record was initially set by David Moyes last year.

In truth, United are different proposition to last year. Every top team shall leave Old Trafford this season in the knowledge that they have been given a game or for some, a lesson in attacking football. The results against Everton and Chelsea are a foreboarding to that. It leaves to reason therefore that our performance and attitude towards the smaller come easier games has cost us points that would have placed us more favourably after 9 games.

So maybe one should feel a little easy given the opposition this weekend. Well, not quite. For all their current troubles, City possess the kind of arsenal that on its day can run you to ruins. We've been on the end of a few of those in the recent past but Sunday should not be one of those days. Not with Marouanne Fellaini putting in displays that finally make him an equal to Yaya Toure in more ways than just size. Everything points to a narrow win for either side on the day.

The captain is back for us from suspension. You do hope though that during his time off he has finally learned how to make a professional foul. I have my reservations about Wayne Rooney but if there's one fixture where he'd be the first name on the team sheet, its this one. The Manchester derby. For an Everton lad, and hence Scouser, its amazing how this fixture lights up his eyes. Watching him over the past decade in these games, its been a wonder how he saved his best form and indeed goals for them. Little wonder then that he is now the leading goal scorer in Manchester derbies. I'll take my seat on Sunday hopping Wayne can yet again take my breath away in this fixture.

Come kick off Sunday, we could be anywhere between 8th place and 11th on the log. Although the points gap between us and 4th place is not that big, we cannot afford to allow ourselves to slip away. I mean only recently, we were in the safe haven that is 4th. Coming away from the Emptyhad empty handed is therefore to our sore detriment. The win is very much in our means though, and you do hope that the players can finally get a result to reward some of the good performances we've had this season.

Cheers.

Monday, 27 October 2014

UNITED PASS FIRST TEST, SALVAGE PRIDE

More than anything, you hope that yesterday's result provides the rock upon which we can build the rest of our season. But that is not the only possible positive from last night. If Manchester United were going to restore the fear factor for teams coming to Old Trafford, they had to stand up to the champions elect and league leaders Chelsea. That in the end the spoils were shared is reward for achieving that.

The news that Falcao, Jones and Herrera would not be involved or start respectively rocked many fans including yours truly, but the cruelty or otherwise of sport is that a door slamed in your face is an open one for another professional. And credit to Marouanne Fellaini for keeping his head amidst all the negativity around him and making the most of his chance. The big Belgian was easily our best player on the night. His man marking role on Fabregas is perhapsna DVD that all footballers might have to take a lesson from. Coming into this fixture, Fabregas was statistically the most accomplished passer of the ball in the entire league with an astonishing total of pass completiton and assists. In many ways therefore, he is the man that makes Chelsea tick despite the change in personnel around him. However, by half time yesterday, Fabregas had completed just 11 passes. By the 90th minute, Fellaini, had run 21.7km, the highest on the pitch, clearly illustrating the thorn he was in Chelsea's game plan. If they didn't feel the pinch up to that point, they certainly did when he met Di Maria's 94th minute free kick that ended with RVP smashing in the equaliser with virtually no time left.
It's a credit to the Belgian that he has overcome the negativity about his role at the club to make a case for himself for a first team berth. What is for certain is that the manager now has a big decision to make in terms of the starting XI on Sunday. So far, injuries and suspension has made that job easy. Unless somone twists an ankle in training this week, it's now become a complex decision.

There's no point blogging about defensive errors and what might have been because enough inches have already been dedicated to that in previous blogs. It's important however that we take lessons and confidence from the game ahead of another equally difficult game this Sunday. Our strength is going forward and I think we need to make the most of that given the inconsistency with which we line up at the back.

We are 8th in the log, not because we didn't win last night but because we've dropped points at Burnley, Leicester, West Brom and the like. Our qualification for a top 4 place hugely depends on how many points we take from the alsorans of the league. The reason they turn out to be tricky games is because of the mentality with which top sides approach those games. I marvelled at the adrenaline with which we went at Chelsea. The question is whether we can match those levels of desire when the opposition is not as strong. It's what league football is all about. Every game, regardless of the opposition is worth 3 points. Consistency is rewarded. Inconsistency is worthless.

Ultimately though, in terms of the here and now, I don't think we could have gone into the game on Sunday with more confidence. If similar levels of desire and commitment to the cause are shown from the collective unit, there's every reason to believe.



Friday, 24 October 2014

MOST DIFFICULT GAME OF THE SEASON---EPISODE 1

The fact that we are not involved in Europe this season means that we do not have to look far or wait long before we come up against the toughest opposition we can face this season. The challenge this term is solely domestic so the best at home shall invariably provide our most difficult fixture of the season, at least on paper.

Chelsea and City are widely recognised as the strongest pair of sides in the premier league. It's therefore anyone's pick which of the pair fit the dub of our most difficult opponent this term. The title of this preview should at this point make sense.

United have mostly so far been up against sides that finished below 11th in the league last year and yet have a mere 12 points from 8 games. The visit of Chelsea is therefore supposed to spell doom for us. In fact, anything other than a Chelsea win on Sunday has been taken as beyond the realms of possibility. Such is the unbalanced nature of our squad that the expectation is that a very balanced Chelsea outfit shall easily pick off United at will.

The reality is we cannot kid ourselves that we are at the level of Chelsea. The one thing that they can do better than us is perhaps the most crucial in a football match....defend. In effect, comeback wins against Chelsea are not the kind of thing we shall hear of often. They protect what they have, and merely add to that by opportunity rather than design. Jose Mourinho has always set out his team to score the first goal, as he is a master of organising his teams to suck up pressure and then hit on the counter for the killer blow.
It's no suprise then that the likes of Oscar and Fabregas have impressive defensive and tackling statistics and yet we know them as creative flair players.

Chelsea are therefore helped defensively by the ability to defend as a team but attack in smaller units. It's a philosophy that has made Mourinho a winner even when his side do not entertain or are over whelmed in possession.
The 2010 Champions League final between Inter coached by Mourinho and Bayern coached by van Gaal is a typical example. Jose's game plan revolved around getting that first goal. Inter therefore started off with shots from just about anywhere on the pitch. When Milito put them ahead, it was very basic from thereon. Defend deep and hit on the break. A 2-0 victory with just 34% of possession.

This, however, is not to suggest that Jose's teams are low scorers. Far from it. They do score more than 2 often, but as mentioned earlier, by opportunity rather than design. It is therefore not uncommon for them to hit 5 on the counter owing to availability of space left by their opponents who are searching for the equaliser. Their 6-3 result at Goodison Park is a perfect illustration of this.

Louis van Gaal must at least be remotely aware of all the above. How he plans to counter it is what makes for intriguing viewing on Sunday. More than anything, Sunday is about how the premier league's best tacticians match up. On his part, Jose has to neutralise a United attack that boasts numerous facets on unpredictibility as well as the simply unplayable as Gary Cahill and Terry will remember what Falcao did to them almost 3 years ago.

Our home form has been the saving grace so far this season so one hopes we can get something out of it before the game away next week.
There is a sense that United have been judged a little harshly. Sunday is an opportunity for a lot of those players to show that they are a level above what some perceive them to be.

The star quality on the pitch together with United's responsibility to go for it should make Sunday worth every penny at the stadium for those lucky to be there or pub for those unfortunate like yours truly.
I certainly can't wait.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

AWAY DAY TROUBLES CONTINUE

For a second or two....or three, last night felt every bit like one of those we endured under David Moyes. The effort was there, the will was there, but the luck was not quite forthcoming. It's a no brainer that under Sir Alex, United would have found that elusive winner last night. Maybe that's because we would have been awarded the penalty we deserved to level it 10 minutes before full time, or perhaps that chances like the late RVP volley that struck the frame of the goal would have nestled in the back of the net. None of that  however, came our way on a typical MNF night.

West Brom took full advantage of their modest pitch to defend tight and deep with the option of hitting United on the counter at will. Credit to them, it worked. They had to ride their luck a few times, but you get the feeling they were comfortable defending what they had in the knowledge that United's leaky defence would oblige if they needed another. Indeed, they collected themselves after conceding the first equaliser and made a rare foray into the United half, and easily found a high way to De Gea's goal.

Not unlike the defeat on the opening day to Swansea, United again allowed themselves to be vulnerable to a couple of counter attacks from a game they totally dominated and perhaps should have won. There is still a solemn lack of responsibility when we lose the ball. Too many times the midfield is caught so far away from the defence that its easy to run at our box unchallenged. It is a discipline that has so far proved to be the obstacle to a would be title chasing team.

Swansea, Burnley, Sunderland, Leicester City and now West Brom have benefitted from this deficiency to cause us uncertainty of Biblical proportions whe  we do not have the ball. Points dropped against that kind of opposition are often the difference between achieving a season's target and not.

On the plus side, it was great to watch Fellaini and Blind open their accounts for the club in the league. Already, the number of goals from midfield is encouraging given the over reliance on strikers in the recent past. Indeed, this term, goals will not be the problem as we are averaging 2 per game lately. The question has always been if we can keep clean sheets. At the moment, it's proving hard to out-score opponents on a weekly basis. One hopes that deficiency is corrected before our rivals slip further away from us.

Depending on which paper you read, doom is finally upon us ahead of the next fortnight. Personally, I was more worried about last night than I am about Sunday. Games such as the ones we shall play over the next two weeks take care of themselves when you win the 'easier' ones like last night. That's largely because none of our players will need motivating for Sunday. Skysports will do enough alone to motivate them by Sunday if  any of them need it. The question is whether the same amount of dedication, sacrifice and commitment on the pitch will be shown when we play Crystal Palace after the 2 'difficult' games, or whether we shall see the same levels of dedication we've so far displayed at Sunderland and Burnley.

Even so, winning on Sunday and then beating City at the Etihad will count for lkttle if we drop points againat Crystal Palace the following week. It's the simplest formula to having a successful league campaign simply because all games are worth three points regardless of the opposition. Chelsea are not top of the league because they've beaten any top side....no in fact they drew their biggest test yet at City. They are top because they went to Burnley and won, went to Crystal Palace and won. If we beat them next Sunday, they will still be top come the end of the month because the following weekend, they will go to QPR and make sure to win.

That's not rocket science, although everyone else would have you believe they've done novel things to attain their position.

But I digress. United last won away from home in April, and last won three on the bounce in December last year. It therefore makes sense to temper expectations for the season, but this squad should have already done so much better so far.
The jury is still very much out on them.

Friday, 17 October 2014

MONDAY NIGHT IN THE BLACK COUNTRY

Manchester United make the short trip to the Black Country in their latest premier league fixture. West Bromswich Albion provide the opposition on what is usually a tricky Monday night football evening. The nature of 'MNF' as is dubbed by Sky is that a league fixture played under floodlights takes on a Cup atmosphere. If you're away from home, it will not take long before rival fans are up for it, which invariably transmits onto your opponents.

Football games are usually dictated by the atmosphere under which they are played. It means therefore, playing West Brom away on a Monday night is not quite the same as playing them on Saturday at 3 o'clock. Smaller grounds such as the Hawthorns or Selhurst Park are difficult to navigate when the fans get going. Liverpool were (thankfully) undone at one such ground last term in the final lap of the title race. It's worth noting for purposes of this context that it was a MNF fixture and as such Selhurst Park didn't need much else to get going.

None of the above reasons are scientific of course, but games are officiated by humans called referees who have developed a nasty habbit of sending off our players or awarding penalties against us for the most innocuous of offences lately.

For United though, Monday is one that we cannot let slip. The nature of our fixture list over the next month or so means that Monday is an opportunity to make up for ground that will almost certainly be ceded over the next fortnight. This reality shall only be emphasised by a look at the league standings on Monday morning. Given that 3 points separate about 8 sides in from 4th spot that we currently occupy, we could easily find ourselves closer to the bottom half than the top 2 by kick off on Monday.

We've done a lot so far to rectify our home form. It's a shame that we're yet to win away from home this season. Monday is another opportunity to arrest that run. Letting that particular statistic rumble on will only serve to increase the pressure on us heading into future away fixtures.

Football is largely a game of confidence. United have turned a corner since that defeat at Leicester. Heading into a fortnight of tough fixtures can only be softenend by having the club at full confidence. We've done well to build it up to this level, but it only takes a second to destroy it. You can imagine confidence levels on Sunday next week if we lose at the Hawthorns. On the flip side, making it 3 wins from 3 on Monday gives Sunday a different complexion.

Ander Herrera should be back to offset Antonio Valencia's injury whilst the captain serves the second of a three game ban. Mata will therefore get another chance behind the duo of RVP and Radamel Falcao. The rest of the squad should virtually pick itself bar injuries sustained over the weekend's training.
Unlike the problem of fatigue that most clubs shall face this weekend, we can draw comfort from playing on Monday because it affords us an extra couple of days to get the players rested.

It's therefore hard to put an excuse as to why we shouldn't win on Monday, except of course the 'boogey' reasons I mentioned at the start of this preview.

Monday, 6 October 2014

INTO THE TOP 4

To think that United are playing poorly according to the manager and yet are above all their top 4 rivals makes you wonder what they are capable of when all boxes eventually tick.
United have certainly shown that goals will not be the problem this season. It's shipping them that will. It's a credit to the defence, though, that we have managed to win the last 2 games by the odd goal meaning we've had to collectively see out the last few minutes under pressure from our opponents.

If it's right that you must always play to your strengths, then I'm glad our strength is in attack. It's quite a while since we've been treated to the kind of entertainment United give us on a weekly basis. First halfs in particular have seen us batter teams almost to submission with a verve of exhilarating attacking football. I thought we were unfortunate to go in just the 1 goal up at halftime because Radamel Falcao could have had a hattrick on another day.

The turning point, or lack of it, was that penalty save by De Gea from Baines. Ironically, it was not the best save of the match but given the narrative of the first half and how excellent we were, to lose our lead at the tail of the half would have 'smashed' the confidence of the players ahead of the second half. Everton did eventually equalise but that could have been their second if De Gea had not kept out that spot kick.

The Spaniard's saves late on have seen him earn the plaudits of just about everyone that can tweet. I still feel though that he needs competition in that position. At the moment, we only have one good goalkeeper and at his age, he could yet suffer from complacency as he never has to compete for his place. That is not to suggest that all good goalkeepers need competition, but it takes an exceptional keeper to keep improving without competition. So far, he seems exceptional, but like we've learned from Iker Casillas, even the exceptional are not immune to complacency.

Finally about the game; Angel Di Maria is one hell of a footballer!

Moving on, we struggled to get points off the top 6 last season so it will do our confidence a world of good that we've bettered one big result already ahead of the games against  Chelsea and City. Also, breaking into the top 4 for the first time in more than a year should challenge the players to aim higher. The nature of the league standings is that about  10 sides are separated by just 3 points. It means losing a game could just as easily see you drop way down as much as winning one can take you places.

West Brom away is now a must win because of the difficulty of the next 2 fixtures. Until then, we can enjoy the fact that we're already looking down on the three sides we must finish above.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

BELATED POST WEST HAM NOTES AND A LOOK AHEAD TO EVERTON

In the end, United were able to pick up their second win of the season with a 2-1 home victory over West Ham. What happened in between though, is a story of extremes. For starters, Wayne Rooney scored a brilliant opener for us relatively early to kill the tension about the match, but was later forced to take the walk of shame when Lee Mason adjudged his kick on Stewart Downing as violent conduct. This blog is not the kind that will make a fuss of something because Wayne is involved, so that bit about him ends there.

United were so brilliant in the first half that going into the break at 2-1 flattered Sam Allardyce's boys. I blogged here last week that this Manchester United side needs to learn, above all else so far, how to deal with taking 2-0 or 3-0 leads in the first half and finding a way of killing off the remaining minutes on the clock in a manner that will not allow a collapse of the kind we saw at Leicester.
So you can imagine my resignation whe  Rooney got himself sent off at 2-1 after comfortably leading 2-0. That we held on for the win was therefore the biggest triumph on the night. Since QPR, some of our attacking moves have boardered sensational or mercurial. It goes without saying therefore that we are a complete attack with a sub standard defence. That is nothing new.

The question though is if we can keep our heads decisively enough to maintain the leads we shall undoubtedly build in games, or at least maintain the concentration in periods after we score. At Leicester, our first 2 goal lead lasted all of 8 seconds. West Ham were also quick to halve the deficit as soon as they went 2-0 down. It's a no brainer that you are most vulnerable just after you score. That vulnerability is usually offset by great leadership or good defences. At the moment we lack in both.

Anyhow, we still managed to get the three points that have set us up nicely ahead of the game on Sunday against Everton at home. Given that we've not won away from home yet, it should be comforting that this fixture will be played at the scene of our only 2 wins so far this season. Except that this game comes with new pressure. Seven games into the season without back to back wins will reflect badly on our consistency if we do not win on Sunday. The league is always about consistency of results. Winning just once every fortnight will therefore only set us up for another midtable finish. The new pressure should therefore be about putting 2s and 3s and then 5 wins on the bounce.

The big caveat to all that is how United have treated us to both extremes in the space of matches, let alone weeks. You could argue we played our best football so far this season in that first half at the King Power stadium but look how it finished; or that after half an hour last week, West Ham were going to be on the end of a hiding, and yet by full time, the corner flag turned out to be the holy grail. Such are the joys and trials of being a Manchester United fan these days.

Still, I find it every bit more exciting than what we were treated to last season if only because of the guarantee that every side that we come up against shall, by close of business, have felt the full force of Manchester United's attacking prowess. It means every week we shall now play to our strengths as opposed to our obvious weaknesses.

Wayne Rooney misses out on Sunday, but I feel we shall miss Ander Herrera more. You will notice that talk about United's midfield has died down a little since he pitched up camp in our midfield. Pundits would rather talk about our defence now because Ander has pluged 8 out of the 10 holes in our midfield. That he ranks high in tackles, assists and, by our midfielders' standards, goals tells you about what we shall have to do without.

All that notwithstanding, we should still beat an Everton side that have just returned from a game in Russia on Thursday night. And for once, in  awhile, it would be great to finish a game with 11 men. It helps, or so I've heard.

Cheers.