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.