Wednesday, 30 July 2014

LOUIS VAN GAAL GETS UNITED LOOKING AT THE BALL

The events that unfolded before fans at an open training session in Los Angeles before the first tour game could have shocked a few on lookers, maybe a few of the players as well.

LVG was taking his new team through a shooting practice session. Under no pressure, all the players seemed to take decent shots....until the fiery Dutch boss marched to Darren Fletcher and Chris Smalling. He demanded to know why they were not looking at the ball whilst taking their shots and followed that up with an earful. The point had been made: look at the ball when shooting if you value your employment.

It does beg the question though; why would a professional footballer not look at the ball before striking it? Or; do footballers really have to look at the ball whilst taking a hit? You've probably heard of the phrase 'he took his eye off the ball' used in columns that are not neccessarily on the back page, or not even in the context of football. I mean, if you fail your final exam after doing so well throughout the year, chances are that someone will tell you that you took your eye off the ball.

The conclusion is hence obvious; footballers are better placed to execute a pass/goal with their eye on the ball. However this begs another question in the mould of the chicken and the egg paradox; what should come first and what should come last? A visual of the recipient of the pass/visual of the goal or a visual of the ball?

According to what LVG was belting out to a shell schocked Smalling and Fletcher, the eye on the ball is the final visual activity before striking the ball, meaning you must have a pre-established idea where the goal is and perhaps more crucially where the goal keeper is. It means before the Dutchman's intervention, the 2 United players and possibly many others had little regard for the minute detail of looking at the ball before you take a swing at it. The final question is, does it matter anyway?

We've all heard a pundit or commentator lauding a striker's finish by sayin "He knows where the goal is..."  The story behind such praise is that a striker of that caliber need not look at the goal or the goalkeeper for that matter because experience in positional play will give you an idea where the goal is regardless of where the ball finds you on the pitch. Crucially however, you will hardly hear pundit or commentator say " He knows where the ball is".  Even the best strikers that ever graced the game were always mindful of where the ball was as opposed to where the goal was. The logic is simple. There's more of a goal to aim at than there is of a ball. Scoring a goal is primarily dependant on your connection with the ball, not quite where the goal is, for one has got be accomplished before the latter is realised. The simple point LVG made was that first get a clean strike of the ball, then worry about the goal or the goal kepper later.

In a litmus test of whether LVG makes a crucial point or not, let's look at 2 penalty shoot outs that United have recently been involved with. There's the Capital One Cup semi at OT last season vs Sunderland then there's last night vs Inter Milan in the pre season tournament. Obviously the pressure of the 2 games is not similar but the point from the League Cup semi is drawn from both Sunderland and United. Out of nearly 10 ten penalties between the 2 sides, the shoot out score read 1-2 to Sunderland. In what turned out to be the worst penalty shoot out in the history of mankind, the nervy glances by the takers to the keepers trying to figure out where they wouldn't dive contributed to miskicks and indecisive-come tame efforts that made for a very low scoring shoot out. Succinctly put, there was more effort to outwit the keeper than there was at making decent connection with the ball.

A penalty is as good as if the keeper dives the right way he should still be unable to get it. This brings us nicely to the second shoot out; the one vs Inter Milan. With an emphasis of eye on the ball instilled by the manager, United's penalty takers on the night were more about the conncection with the ball than out witting the keeper. It is notable that they insited on keeping an eye on the ball enroute to striking it as opposed to waiting for the keeper to make his move.
This method allows for greater accuracy and crucially the desired power in the shot to get it past the keeper.

In the grand scheme of things, there is nothing new to learn here, save for the fact that a great manager has made a seemingly minor detail a big part of the execution of the big mission. When LVG talks of coaching the player's brains as opposed to their legs, it's the details he is looking to iron out. Perhaps it's just as well that there's a lot of devil in the details for the Red Devils.

VICTORY IN STALEMATE

The nature of the so called ICC tournament is that stalemates are unacceptable. Penalties were therefore required to establish a winner from last night's tie with Inter Milan. United did eventually win but the Italians will take home the fact that for 90 minutes, they kept out United.

The run of play was that United had most of the ball, played more passes, were more incisive but equally blunt in the final third as Inter were. The refreshing thing in all this is that it is already apparent that LVG has already made us a better team with the ball than we've been in a long while. Forget the LA Galaxy opener, but the games against AS Roma and last night vs Inter see us coming off as better with the ball than our opponents. Granted, the Italian sides are not the best at denying the opposition the ball, however, when you factor in the fact that sides like Southampton, Swansea and even Sunderland out passed and out possessed us at different stages last seaaon, the point comes home.

LVG was frustrated that in the second half vs Roma, the players did not execute his plan of tiring Roma by denying them the ball. Last night, in the 38th minute, United nearly scored from a 22 pass move that had just about every player touch the ball enroute to the chance. It's a fantsatsic trait to take into the season. The challenge though is to now become good without the ball.

Pressing has so far been another welcome addition to our game. Note that in the three games played so far, we've had less penalty box clearances than any 3 game combination at any stage of last season. Pressing in a 3-5-2 system has allowed us to get control of possession before the opposition mounts attacks into our penalty box. As a result, the 3 dedenders at the back and indeed the goalkeepers have not been as much under pressure as we had become accustomed to. It is no wonder that the only goals conceded so far are from a 63 yard strike and a penalty wrongly awarded for an offence committed outside the box. Compare that with the deep defending employed by David Moyes and Sir Alex's last few years at the club.

Saturday's game against Real Madrid now makes for fascinating observation. In many ways, it is likely to be the hardest game we shall play in a year. The European champions are still short of a few world cup stars but so are United. In any case, it will be interesting to see how our new found tactics and philosophy match up against Real Madrid's swift and decisive counter attacks. More importantly is how comfortable our players will be with the ball in the presence of equally good and in some areas even better players. It's the ultimate test of pre season and perhaps a good indication of how far we've come since the off season started.

The downside of all this is that topping the group, as we currently are, means that we get to play another tie in Miami for the final. It's the last thing LVG would have wanted but given that it could potentially be against the vermin or the bitters, it all makes for great anticipation.

Cheers!

Sunday, 27 July 2014

PERFORMANCE DIPS, RESULT REMAINS GREAT

For a lot of the time during the LA Galaxy match, it seemed too good to be true that United would dominate an opponent in that manner with the limited human resource available. However, that the MLS league is still a few notches behind most of Europe's top leagues explains the dominance.

Last night however, United started a schedule of fixtures against some of Europe's top clubs. Seria A runners up AS Roma provided the opposition in Denver. We all expected it to be harder than Thursday's cruise control against the Galaxy and tougher it was.
Roma started better, threatened more, in 33 degrees heat that visibly affected United. When United got into it after the first half hour, 3 goals in 9 minutes against the run of play took the wind out of the Italian side.

Wayne Rooney has done great starting off preseason with 4 goals in 2 games, and just as well for him. With RVP the now favoured son under the new manager, he had to start pre season by giving the Dutch boss reason to play 2 strikers as opposed to the conventional 1 under the 4-3-3. It appears though Wayne has passed this challenge as LVG has picked a 3-5-2 formation for the seaaon ahead. In particular, he seems to have a consensus ad idem with Juan Mata in the hole. Their combined brilliance accounted for two brilliant goals in the first half.

The catch though in all this is who shall be shipped off when LVG thinks he has had a proper assessment of all players? Most of the answers to that might have come to him in the second half as the 9 new players introduced seemed to come through worse off than their first half compatriots. The boss, true to his nature has already laid into Ben Amos for conceeding a goal from all of 63 yards out by claiming he could run 50 yards whe  the ball is in air for 4 seconds. Nani and Hernandez didn't do much to improve their plight, but conditions under which the game was played could absolve many of then until Wednesday's tie with Inter Milan.

In all this though, it can easily be lost that there's a tournamnet under which all these games are being played. United top Group A consisting of Roma, Real Madrid, and Inter Milan. Not that anyone cares about the details, it's getting psychologically and physically ready for the season that ultimately matters.

2 wins from 2 so far, one a great performance, and another quite laborious and unconvincing, Wednesday night vs Inter will say a lot about which direction we're headed.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

UNITED EASE PAST GALAXY IN FIRST GAME OF NEW ERA

Not since the 74/75 season have Manchester United radically changed their footballing philosophy. Luis van Gaal has ensured a break in that line by announcing a 3-5-2 formation, come 3-4-3 for the season ahead. The boss was calculative enough to make this announcement after United had recorded a 7-0 thrashing of MLS side LA GAlaxy.

It was hard to say whether the performance was down to the system or this particular player, Ander Herrera, but something about the performance has gotten us looking forward to tougher tests on tour as well as the season ahead.

For starters, to come through 90 minutes of a footballing match and have no laments about a Manchester United midfield is a first in this decade. It's even more startling that this happened without Michael Carrick. Enter Ander Herrera, new signing from Athletic Club Bilbao for what seemed like a hefty sum. Not anymore now, in 90 minutes he has produced the kind of midfield performance we last witnessed when Scholes was in his prime. Tackling, great. Passing, excellent. Shooting, brilliant. What more can one ask of a midfield player? Think of a blend between Sergio Busquets and Andres iniesta. Herrera might not possess the entire repertoire of the 2, but he's got a great deal of what both can offer in his arsenal.

That he got 4 assists in is more a measure of his quality than the opposition for he made scoring easy for the kind of playees we are not used to seeing rack up goals as easy as they did. If LVG manages to get Vidal playing next to this kid, United's midfield statistics for the season ahead could be eye watering.

It was great to see the manager pick a lot of youth for the tour. Last season saw Lingaard stake his claim, this season Reece James seems to have caught the eye of LVG. A couple of goals to go with it will do him no harm for his future prospects. Antonio Valencia's new contract seems to have been with that wing back role in mind, so it will be interesting how he develops there. Also, a dedence of Jones, Evans and Smalling, seemed water tight because of the cover from midfield and wing backs Shaw and Valencia. A 3-5-2 means when defending, you are effectively 5. It's weakness though is that it hugely depends on the hardwork of the wing backs to get back and forth quickly and often. Anything less, and you are badly exposed on the counter. Ultimately though, there was a fluidity about United that made it the best performance in quite a while.

Obviously pre season is nothing to get carried away by, but next season our strongest opponents are the traditional big sides in the EPL, therefore pre season against the likes of AS Roma, Real Madrid and Inter Milan is a good measure of how good the side is ahead of the kick off. It will be interesting to see how the system fares against a more organised Roma side this weekend.

Monday, 21 July 2014

THANK YOU PAT

The club has confirmed today that Deputy Captain Patrice Evra has left the club and signed for Juventus.
It's hard to believe that it has been 8 years since we all looked on in amazement as Evra made that horror show of a debut against City. At the time, one would have been certified insane if they thought Pat would finish his United career a club legend.

5 league titles, a European Cup and and a World Club Cup to go with a trio of League Cup successes make for a very successful career. Pat was THE LEFT BACK in arguably United's most successful period in history. At the peak of his powers, he was the world's best left back, a claim he held on to for at least 3 years. He made it vrtually needless for United to purchase another top quality left back, if only for the fact that he had an incredible record of fitness.

His departure means that the club has lost 3 of its captains in one transfer window, 4 if you count Giggs. It remains to be seen whether the young guard of Smalling, Jones, Evans can step up to the plate or whether LVG will seek to add established cover from the market. Ultimately, the decision is his, but what can no longer be in doubt is that next term, United will be born anew.

Friday, 18 July 2014

THANK YOU RIO

I remember when the Rio Ferdinand transfer to United story broke in 2002. Lots of folks buckled at how we would allow to spend £30m on a centre half in that market. 10 years later, and it has proved to be a bargain.

Captain Rio turned out to be an inspired signing, leading the club to its third European Cup back in 2008, and affording himself a testimonial at the start of last season. All that has not come with unforgettable memories of our one time captain.

He joins QPR in the EPL for the next season, but he will always be a candidate for the MUFC All Time Greatest XI. For a club like ours, that says something.

Good luck Rio, and thanks for the memories.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

LUIS VAN GAAL MAKES ALL THINGS NEW

It's not quite the salvation and reincarnation promised by Jesus Christ but there's a lot going about that gives the impression that new boss Luis van Gaal intends to make everything new at Old Trafford.
The United manager that will be unveiled tomorrow at the club, has already ordered double training sessions even before touring the very ground at Carrington on which United train.

Training will no longer be followed by separate lunch for the first team and the youth team. It is apparent that this particular move is intended to bridge the gap between the first team and the reserve side. Judging from the comments fellow professionals are saying about LVG, you get the feeljng that his methods rely heavily on team spirit, pulling together in one direction. The whole group has got to buy into his philosophy and follow his instructions to script. It's just about the only way his methods produce results. 100% committment to him or you're  shown the door. Does that ring a bell?

The biggest plus from all this is that even with a squad as limited as the one we've got, LVG is capable of getting more than sum of its parts from it. That said, it's difficult to see how United can do worse than last season.

The club has already brought in Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera, meaning that besides the loss of experience, United are already better than they were last term. Hell, with a new coach, we're already better than last term. The catch though is that LVG secretly plans to guide the club to a league title in his first season. With just the league to concern ourselves with this season, it is possible, but you do feel that more work is needed if that dream is to be actualised.

The club flies out for the annual money minting tour, this time to the US of A to contest the International Champions Cup. The level of opposition we shall face there should ensure that we quickly get a clear picture of where we are before the season kicks in.

Until then of course, it's back to refreshing twitter timelines hoping for some positive development on the transfer front.