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.