Tuesday, 29 December 2015

JUST CAN'T SCORE


Almost everything was restored about Manchester United yesterday, except that they failed to rediscover the route to goal. As such the club remain winless in eight games and slip another two points off the pace from the sides above them in the league. At least though, there was a modicum of something to cling to yesterday at Old Trafford.


On The Match
Louis van Gaal, either in a last throw of the dice or under the impression that he had nothing to lose, set out the side in a no holds barred system. The much missed protection of the back four returned with Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger in the middle in place of Michael Carrick and Marouanne Fellaini.

The German was returning from a three match ban but it was the omission of the former from games against Bournemouth, Norwich and Stoke that left many fans puzzled. Certainly, United would have picked up more than zero points from those three games if the manager had played the Frenchman in just two of them. Indeed, for someone of his importance, 13 starts this season is a very underwhelming stat.

The pair guaranteed United security at the back which they have so desperately missed over the past month. Even before kick-off, the confidence of keeping a clean sheet in this one was much higher than it has been over the past four weeks.

In a rare bit of team selection, van Gaal also went with Herrera, Mata and Martial as the creative three behind Wayne Rooney. It allowed United to have a verve and impetus about their forward play that has been painfully lacking. Suddenly, United were creating chances at will and shooting more, even from range. Quite why it has taken the manager this long to work out such a line-up on a more regular basis remains to be seen.

Ultimately, the story still held root that United's biggest flaw is chance conversion, even when they come at a relatively regular rate like they did last night. Wayne Rooney is a percentages player and given his current plight will not often get you the goal you need from the chance of the game. Martial is always too busy making something happen for the team out-wide to be on the end of balls in the box. It leaves United rather light-weight up top and easy to defend against.


Despite the need for backup in other departments of the team, a striker in his prime is by some distance United's greatest need. The number of goalless performances this season suggests that even with the rigidity in style under van Gaal, United would be much better off if they had one. It remains an indictment on the manager that it was a hole not plugged by the club in the summer despite letting a myriad of forwards leave the club.


On the Sub-Plots
It appears Louis van Gaal has ridden on the minute positive waves of yesterday's game to earn himself a stay of execution. Whether that translates as a vote of confidence until the end of the season remains to be seen. What is for certain is that United have left themselves with a minor mountain to climb if they are to regain a place in the top four, let alone challenge for the title. Spurs have planted a small flag among the elite this season and Liverpool are just a game away from catching up with United.

Louis van Gaal's task, if it is set to continue, can only get harder from here. In hindsight of that performance though, it should, in theory, be easier. All that he has to do is get his players playing with the same levels of confidence, desire, passion and ambition every week regardless of the opposition.


It appears Louis van Gaal is more a slave to sports science than we thought. After an hour or so yesterday, the Dutchman, mindful of the strains of a returning player from injury opted to replace Matteo Darmian with young Borthwick-Jackson. It's a substitution that had sports science details written all over it and was favoured in place of the gambler's trade that Sir Alex had gotten the fans used to. As such, from a distance, it appears that LVG often makes negative substitutions even when United are chasing a game. Overloading the attack for a winner, is not exactly his trade.

Less theatre, more predictability. Just like it was not too difficult to foresee the final score of this one way before kickoff. There are those who yearn for the days when they just didn't know what to expect even when it appeared obvious.


On the Bottom-Line
United need wins, from somewhere, and fast!

Sunday, 27 December 2015

UNITED MANAGE TO ACHIEVE NEW DEPTHS


At a glance, yesterday's result at the Potteries was not out of the wider script in this most unpredictable of premier league seasons. Only one team won away from home on Boxing Day and, for good measure, the top two lost their games as well. It incredibly meant that despite suffering a third straight league defeat, United are technically no worse off than they were before kick-off. Unfortunately, that is as optimistic as it gets.

A closer look makes for a grim picture. The worst run of form for 54 years. The worst ever points tally at this stage in the premier league era. Everything has managed to be worse than the wretched season under David Moyes. Quite simply, it is a a credit to the patience of the Board that the manager is still in his job at this point, at least so far. At least nobody can accuse them of impatience. There is a general desire to get this to work. However, patience, no matter how great, can always run out.


On the Match
Louis van Gaal only made the one mistake yesterday; to play Fellaini ahead of Morgan Schneiderlin. Everything else, on his part, he got right. However, there seemed little will among those on pitch to turn the club's fortunes around. It was yet again all too pedestrian, so much so that Wayne Rooney managed to appear half-decent when he came on in the second half by showing some commitment to the cause.

At times, making a pass to another black shirt was too much of a task. It's difficult to assess whether the manager still has the backing of the dressing room. The players exude fighting talk and everything of that ilk on social media and interviews and yet there is hardly any fight in them on the pitch. Memphis for instance came out with a defiant interview this past week but his attitude was not for the man behind that fighting talk. 

Stoke City were not exactly beyond United's means on the day but two individual errors from Memphis Depay and Ashley Young accounted for United's loss of confidence, United did improve in the second half but there was hardly a sense of urgency to retrieve the game. The casual manner in which Fellaini took and missed his sitter baffled. Not for the first time, the Belgian has looked disinterested in scoring from a few yards out. 


On the Sub-Plots

For some unknown reason. Morgan Schneiderlin has sat out Bastian Schweinsteiger's suspension. Considering the singular value of the Frenchman, Louis van Gaal has let himself down with that particular omission. United's defence no longer enjoys the protection that it did earlier in the season and suddenly, we're letting in an average of a couple of goals per game. 

It baffles that this obvious deficiency in the middle, has somehow been ignored by the manager. Not out of a lack of resources but as a matter of choice.


On the Bottom Line
United are now three points off a Champions League place having led the league a month ago. Even for the patient men in the boardroom, the slide can only be tolerated for so long. Chelsea at Old Trafford tomorrow has the look of a defining moment. Three straight home games next means that the mutiny among the match going fans could reach definitive scales if the club do not drastically improve. 

Thursday, 24 December 2015

LVG WITH A BOXER'S CHANCE ON BOXING DAY


Has it all come down to this? If you are to believe the vibe in the media and indeed in the air, Louis van Gaal's era at Manchester United has come down to a matter of 90 minutes at the hostile Britannia Stadium in the Potteries at lunchtime on Boxing Day.

It is a minor miracle in itself that the Dutchman gets to preside over this fixture because the wake of the defeat against Norwich was filled with briefing and counter-briefing about the inevitability of Louis van Gaal's sack at the club.

The entire predicament has been mishandled by the club by its standards. Having failed to publicly back their manager, it has left the Dutchman vulnerable to any social media ''source'' that can put out a half-decent theory about his future.

The expectation was that the manager would offer a lot more calm to the situation at his pre-match press briefing yesterday but that walkout from the Jimmy Murphy Media Centre has not really helped his plight at the club.

The allusion to speeches and support from the players and staff will come under severe examination on Saturday. If the word is his future depends on the outcome of the visit to the Potteries, then the attitude of the players and their application on Saturday will effectively mirror their commitment to the manager's cause.


The Match
Stoke are not the Stoke of yore. Mark Hughes has got them playing some of their best ever football. In Bojan, Anautovic and Shaquiri, Stoke possess one of the most lethal frontlines in the division, if not on paper, then on their day. They took Manchester City apart a couple of weeks ago in a manner that dropped jaws.

Given United's default approach of retaining possession, the game will quickly descend into a spectacle of counter-attacking by the home side, and defending the counter-attacks for the away team. Whether United can keep a clean sheet in this one depends on the priority Louis van Gaal places on his defensive midfield.

Morgan Schneiderlin has been ready for a couple of weeks and yet the manager has preferred to play Marouanne Fellaini in the middle of the park. When the Belgian inevitably drifts forward, United are left with a huge hoe in the middle and hence vulnerable to the counter-attack. It's a weakness that saw the club concede twice easily against Norwich. Plug the hole Louis!


Team News
He might have walked out of the media briefing but Louis van Gaal did reveal that the club's injury list has not really relented. Matteo Darmian could return for Chelsea but that is it. Ander Herrera should be involved from the start having made his comeback last week.


The Bottom Line
If United still look 'in it' in fifth place, defeat at Stoke could see United slip to as far as 7th on the log if results elsewhere go against the club. Then it might really be time to push that proverbial panic button. What is not in doubt though is that this time, the pressure is really on! 

Monday, 21 December 2015

LOUIS VAN GAAL ON THE BRINK


At full time on Saturday, defeat to Norwich City felt like 'a manager's moment'. Perhaps not quite as decisive as it felt when David Moyes succumbed 2-0 to Everton at Goodison Park but the prevailing circumstances got it close.

On Thursday, Chelsea parted company with Jose Mourinho for the second time adding yet another elite name to the plethora of managers out of work in the summer. We now know that Carlo Ancelotti is spoken for having accepted to replace Pep Guardiola in the summer.

The bookmakers have not wasted time in installing Mourinho as a favourite for the United job if and when Louis van Gaal is relived of his duties. The media campaign to get Jose at Old Trafford is borne of firstly, a desire to retain one of the most quotable managers but also to create an artificial five way tussle for league superiority next season featuring Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, Jurgen Klopp, Arsene Wenger and Diego Simeone at Chelsea.

Whilst Jose Mourinho would not bring back the swashbuckling football to Old Trafford, his style remains effective and successful. Such are the constraints of being a United fan that the fans are willing to take a comprise on the cons that the 52 year old Portuguese would attract in his tenure.

It ultimately remains conjecture for as long as Louis van Gaal retains the support of his employers. On Saturday, Ed Woodward had a chat of support to van Gaal in the aftermath of defeat but results like that do little to secure his position.

In a way therefore, it feels like the Dutchman is doing little to help himself. Two wins against Bournemouth and Norwich City would have negated the availability of Jose Mourinho or any top manager for that matter. Not quite too much to ask for, is it? A winless run in six games now makes the club leadership look negligent by continuing to support the Dutchman.



The Match
United went about the fixture against Norwich in pretty much the same pattern as they went about AFC Bournemouth. United started brightly, but often failed to be imaginative up top enough to trouble Norwich's well set up backline.

For Alex Neil's side, the plan was to hit United hard on the counter attack--and boy did it work a treat! The continued absence of Morgan Schneiderlin from the starting line-up has made United vulnerable to any attack of sort. United have conceded at least a couple of goals per game since he injured himself. Chris Smalling has improved this season but the argument remains that the defensive strength of midfield has aided his cause until this point.

Defeat on Saturday was damaging in more than one way for the club. United's weaknesses are now well documented ahead of a run of tricky festive fixtures. The briefing from the club is that van Gaal has been given at least until Stoke City on Saturday to save his job.

I never really understand the sense in such ultimatums. Does he then keep his job if United win the next two and lose the following two? Are they effectively asking the players to play for their manager because we all know what will happen if the result goes South? What does the hierarchy hope to see between now and the next result before making a decision?

It's simple. Either you back your manager, or you fire him. Either choice can be reasoned out to send the message that you want to send out to players and fans. Dithering in between decisions effectively gives the players an excuse to crumble at the first sight of adversity in the next game.    

Friday, 18 December 2015

BACK TO BASICS


Forget the performances and desired tactics, Manchester United seem to have forgotten how to win a game of football! It's five games since United last won a game of any kind--a pretty damning statistic considering the kind of football fans have had to sit through.

Five winless games with breathtaking entertainment would be bad enough, but that they have tallied up without so much as the impression of an effort by the team has made match going fans feel cheated.

It's a period that has seen the manager's position come under severe scrutiny from fans who had since ridden on the results as justification for progress this season. Now that the results have followed the performances out the door, it has left pretty little for defenders of Louis van Gaal to work with.

The arguments for van Gaal's tenure are largely, if not entirely, premised on a reputation that he has been buillt throughout his 25 years in management, but mostly in his first decade as a manager. Ironically, the case for his defence has it that what is happening at Manchester United is not entirely unexpected. Indeed, if anything, it was always going to be part of the job.

The Dutch media for instance remain amused at the amount of bile and abuse that has been directed at the Dutchman 20 months into his tenure. Indeed, only this week, former Arsenal midfielder Marc Overmars launched an impressive defence of the beleaguered Manchester United boss.

Overmars essentially pointed to the youth of the squad LVG has chosen to use as a mitigating factor in his quest for results. Indeed, from a distance, it appears van Gaal is moulding the 2017 premier league champions. Without hindsight, it seems a laughable proposition but the future is not really the concern for those calling for van Gaal's head. It's the present.

For the amount of money spent at attempting to rebuild the club from the image of Sir Alex Ferguson, it seems a reasonable demand that United are at least competitive on the pitch. Too often this season, United have appeared laboured when the opposition shuts up shop or been easily turned over when the opposition have a go at them.

United were certainly lacking in effort and endeavour last week on South Coast, so much so that AFC Bournemouth picked them off easily at pace. Perhaps the suspension of Bastian Schweinsteiger mitigates because it effectively left a young team without a vocal leader but if the players on show last week required inspirational leadership to beat Bournemouth, then it says a lot about their mentality.


In his post-match briefing last week, van Gaal pointed to the need to win the next three games in a row to make up for the surprise defeat to Eddie Howe's men. Whilst winning three league games in a row wouldn't have merited more than a few column inches in the past, for this United team, it would be quite something considering how difficult they seem to make wining any game of football, let alone three.


How else should fans feel after failing to pick a win in a run of games involving West Ham at home, Leicester City and newly promoted Bournemouth? Whereas United have conceded just the one goal at Old Trafford in the league this season, Norwich City are entitled to fancy their chances of coming away with a result this weekend. Certainly, 0-0 would do them just fine.


United on the other hand have seen themselves move from the summit of the league to six points off it in a matter of weeks. The irony is that the last minute win at Watford was supposed to have galvanised the side with confidence ahead of very winnable fixtures, but quite the opposite seems to have happened since.

Suddenly, any win of any kind would provide much needed soothing of the soul that fans have yearned for. It has been, afterall, five weeks of unrelenting frustration at the club.

After this weekend, Louis van Gaal will have left himself with a run of tricky looking fixtures ahead of the festive season that will further test the strength of his squad. Perhaps more crucially, the relative comfort of top four is no longer a certainty for the club starting this weekend. Spurs have now come to within a win of overtaking us on goal difference.

Indeed, United's failure to win since Watford means that 4th place is the best they can achieve even if results go our way this week. Louis van Gaal may retain the board's backing but what could really tip the scales is if United start to descend outside the top four. The failures of the rest have so far aided our cause in keeping it top four so far, but the rest can only slip up for so long. Sooner or later, United are going to have to get going, with or without an injury crisis.

Saturday, in a rare three o'clock kickoff, at Old Trafford, against Norwich City, is a start.      

Sunday, 13 December 2015

UNACCEPTABLE!


In any narrative of a below par season for Manchester United, defeat at the home of a promote club does not rank as an acceptable result, regardless the circumstances.

At nine injuries prior to kick-off, and ten when Jesse Lingard was forced to withdraw form proceedings, United were supposed to be cut some slack at the Vitality Stadium. Except that sympathy in such a predicament is duly deserved when the team that seeks it betters or at least matches the opponent for effort.

Yesterday on the English South Coast, United approached a game of football with an air of expectation. Perhaps the feeling was that they didn't have to work as hard as they did on Tuesday in Germany to collect all three points. In doing so, United underestimated the occasion for AFC Bournemouth.

Yesterday is as big a game as they will play this season. For them therefore, it wasn't just about relying on hard work but riding on adrenaline that comes with the nature of the occasion for them. It's therefore easy to work out why United left the South with a third league defeat of the season.


The Match
An individual error within the first 100 seconds allowed the hosts to go ahead. David De Gea does not make many mistakes anymore but any goalkeeper that is beaten from the corner flag will be disappointed with himself, the strength of the wind notwithstanding.

The early lead allowed the home side to play on the counter-attack from the off. United did however manage to claw themselves level midway through the half and from then, the expectation was that United would go on to assert their dominance to get the winner.

Much like on Tuesday though, United failed to remain solid at the back to deny the hosts chances and ruthless up top to take the lead. Indeed, it was Bournemouth that showed more incisive initiative for a second goal. That it arrived from another set  piece confirmed the lack of desire within the United ranks to see the mission through.

United were yet again single-paced by a systemic inability to make use of the speed of their attack by playing balls in behind the Bournemouth back four. It's baffling how the club remains content with playing and attempting to score in front of a sea of defenders when it is the through ball or over the top that causes defenders nightmares.

More amazingly, the one time they attempted it in the first half, United scored. Michael Carrick found Memphis with a superb diagonal in behind the Bournemouth defence. It was frustrating that the same obviously effective ball was not pinged for the remainder of the match.


The Sub-Plots
Louis van Gaal continues to baffle with his substitutions. Yesterday, Marouanne Fellaini, the biggest goal threat we carried was hauled off at the stage of the game when United sought to be more direct. Nick Powell has so far come on to little effect to impact the game plan in the closing stages of the two games he has made an appearance.

Ashley Young yet again remained on the bench when it feels like he would make a more positive attacking contribution even from full-back with his range of crosses.


The Bottom-Line
The result undoubtedly exposes the club and the manager in particular to questions as regards his methods at this stage of his tenure. In all fairness, those are legitimate questions. United have now exposed themselves in regard to that fourth place thanks to a period of no wins in five games. It's fast descending into a mini-crisis at the club.

Victories can change the mood at a club drastically. At the moment, United are not helping themselves in even the most basic of fixtures and that is just bang unacceptable.

For Louis van Gaal, results in the absence of performances have kept the wolves at bay so far this season. Suddenly, even the results have taken a downward spiral to leave him and his methods exposed to anyone who can string a sentence together. He certainly can't say that he didn't see this coming.

Friday, 11 December 2015

UNITED UNDER THE MICROSCOPE


It's been a miserable week at Old Trafford. The club have followed up a disappointing result at home against West Ham with a defeat in the Champions League at VfL Wolfsburg that saw them relegated to the second tier of European football.

Individually, most of the players have suffered personal nightmares. The injury list saw Matteo Darmian and Chris Smalling have their names added to it and in some ways, Bastian Schweinsteiger's personal plight has encapsulated the club's.

The German captain came under fire from his manager for a below-par display on Tuesday and has since been charged and banned by the Football Association for an apparent elbow dished out to defender Winston Reid in the weekend clash with West Ham.


If the players have had it tough, then the manager has had it rough. Louis van Gaal came under such criticism in the wake of United's elimination from the elite competition that he declared he was unable to defend himself. The Dutchman has had his methods questioned right from the transfer policy that has seen him spend a quarter of a billion (the cost of a small country) and yet appear to be leading a side that is short of an identity, ideas and ideology.

The narrative proceeding from the Board's backing of van Gaal has seemingly led to a disconnect between most fans and the leadership of the club. With top tier managerial quality available in the close season, there is concern as to why the club is not just looking to allow van Gaal to see out his contract in 2017 but also looking to extend that deal beyond 2017. Indeed, it is increasingly looking like it will be incredible negligence for the club to pass up the chance of elite managerial quality whilst the opportunity lasts.

It was always going to get messy at the first hint of a lack of progress under Louis van Gaal. Certainly, the Dutchman has not helped himself by failing to navigate a very winnable Champions League group. The club's league position suggests that if van Gaal had succeeded in the minimum requirement of a last 16 appearance, the club's season would, on the whole, still stand at reasonable success so far.


As it stands, the club have put a spin on events. The suggestion from the Board is that they viewed the target for this season as 80% domestic success and 20% Champions League success. It's easy to see why the Board are therefore relaxed about the manager's position.

Think about it: We know that the Glazer family have only really been it at Manchester United for the money. Next season's new TV deal with the premier league offers such staggering sums that a league game next season will be more valuable than a Champions League fixture. Indeed, from 2016, there will be no more economics about qualifying for the Champions League for English clubs.


In England, the Champions League will soon be about the prestige and less about the money. For a businessman therefore, the Champions League takes on the status of a necessary distraction. Winning the premier league is already far more lucrative than winning the Champions League.

Astonishing when you think about it, but therein lies a truth about the alleged 'spin' the Manchester United PR sent out on Monday this week. It was a well reasoned argument from a business point of view, not quite from a fan's perspective for whom success on the pitch not the balance sheet is a target.



So where does all this leave Manchester United and Louis van Gaal: For starters, the card played by the Board suggests that the league form is going to be the yardstick upon which the Dutch coach is evaluated from hereon.

What a relief for the manager then that this season of all seasons is so competitive at the top that despite the club's struggles, they are very much involved in a title race. If Louis van Gaal wins the premier league this season, and that is far from unthinkable this season, he gets to have the last laugh and restores his power to leave the club on his own terms. A close second finish would also be good enough given the projection at the start of the season. However, it's hard to imagine that the boss will be in a job if United altogether drop away from the summit of the league and struggle to make the Champions League places.

The first opportunity at redemption heralds from apart of the country that many away fans have probably never visited. AFC Bournemouth will be glad that like last week at Chelsea, they are up against a giant seemingly out of sorts.

Eddie Howe has got his side well drilled in his methods, ready to give it a go no matter the opposition. It's a philosophy that has won them many admirers and indeed points despite losing four key first team players to injury.

It means United cannot afford to use injuries an excuse on Saturday evening. van Gaal could be without up to 10 players tomorrow, but the need to post a result of some response to events this week means that the pressure to win will be as immense as if we were travelling at full strength.


Certainly, the next six points are a must win. In a fortnight when our title rivals come up against each other, it is imperative to take advantage of a double header against two promoted teams. The adage remains true that there's no easy games in this league, but if the new boys prove to be a tough nut to crack, then the question has to be where then shall United get the points to stake a title claim in the new year, for the fixtures do get reasonably tougher into the new year.


The manager will hope to have Ander Herrera and or Morgan Schneiderlin available to ease the midfield gap left by Bastian. It will be interesting to see whether he keeps Varela and Borthwick-Jackson as his full-backs as that is where the club have been hit most by injuries.

Regardless of the personnel, United are in desperate need of a response. They've got to find a way to win games again.  

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

UNITED FALL OFF THE EDGE


Remember them margins that Manchester United have tailed throughout the campaign so far? Turns out, United just couldn't cling on any further, at least not for the remainder of this season's UEFA Champions League.

In many ways, United played their most entertaining game of the season last night. Indeed, 3-2 scorelines of any kind suggest an all out attacking game with chances aplenty for both sides. The kind of games fans have longed for since the start of the Louis van Gaal era. That it ended in a painful defeat is therefore ironic. Not that it would change the ultimate outcome but would we trade that thrilling game for a bore 0-0 draw? Probably not in the circumstances.


The Group Stage
As far as the Champions League is concerned, United were as good as damaged by that failure to beat PSV Eindhoven in that home game two weeks ago. The Group stages carry a simple formula for qualification: Win your home games, get the point away. United, in the end were short by the two points they dropped against the Dutch Champions.

Travelling to Germany searching for a win was always a dangerous margin to tread. Like in 2005 and 2011, United suffered from a Champions League group in which they failed to rise above the mediocre level of the group. Like in 2011, United will have to contend with at least two fixtures in the Europa league.


Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the group stage has been that it ended just like it started. Louis van Gaal seemed intent to set up United to thrill in attack in the opening group game in Holland. United led but lost 2-1 after creating enough chances to win three games of football. In between that opener and yesterday's fixture, van Gaal went solid again as United claimed hard earned points against Wolfsburg and CSKA Moscow. The failure to beat PSV at home to secure qualification meant that van Gaal had to open up and go for it yesterday.

Just like it turned out in Eindhoven, when United opened, up, their defence became less than ordinary. Without the protective cover of Morgan Schneiderlin, Wolfsburg curved United open at will. Worse, a team supposedly drilled in set pieces conceded two from dead balls. That both set piece goals came quickly after United had gotten their goals was more baffling.


In hindsight, it now looks like van Gaal cannot send out his team to be offensive without being loose at the back, or solid without being blunt up top. What a predicament 18 months into his tenure!


If Louis van Gaal privately knew this beforehand, then (after lambasting him) he needs to be applauded for opting to go solid with United for premier league games. If United can defend this poorly when let off the leash, then it is arguable they would not be this close to the summit of the league if they were set up to go forit domestically. There is but one way you can be that poor defensively and still attack with abandon---if you can get the goals at the other end!

In Sir Alex's final season, United were as poor defensively as they had ever been under the Scott and yet remained successful that season because he had Robin van Persie at his prime best, fit throughout the campaign to get United of holes such as conceding three first half goals to Reading.

Louis van Gaal has a very youthful forward line that cannot be trusted to take the chances that they create. That, perhaps, is the biggest indictment on his transfer strategy.


The Sub-Plots
It comes in mitigation that van Gaal has been desperately unlucky with injuries this campaign. The Dutchman chose to go with a much smaller squad than United usually have at their disposal and it has come to haunt the club at the halfway stage of the season.

It's fantastic for the Academy graduates who couldn't have dreamed of representing United at the highest level this season. Borthwick-Jackson for instance didn't start the season expecting to feature in United's most important game of the season so far. For United's cause however, it has come to cost the club of experienced heads in the most demanding of situations.


Talking of experience, there was further irony in the fact that all three goals conceded on the night were as a result of mistakes from experienced players. Chris Smalling and Daley Blind contrived to lose Naldo for the equaliser whilst Michael Carrick lost the Brazillian for the winner. Bastian Schweinsteiger was also uncharacteristically careless in possession throughout, attracting criticism from his manager in the post match press conference.

More importantly going forward, the concern will be how soon United can patch up injured duo Matteo Darmian and Chris Smalling in time for a packed Christmas schedule of fixtures in the premier league.

On the plus side, Varela recovered from a shocking start to put in an impressive shift at right-back. He might just soften the blow to losing Darmian for a spell on the sidelines.


The Bottom-Line
When all is tallied, United were never going to win the UEFA Champions League this season. It's just that people prefer getting knocked out by FC Barcelona 6-0 on aggregate than being booted out by VfL Wolfsburg.

For all their poor showings this season, the club remain with a good shout for a title challenge in the league. Certainly, a response is required.

Monday, 7 December 2015

UNITED ON THE BRINK


Of the four English clubs in the group stage of the Champions League, Manchester United's plight is the most precarious. In a season that has trailed and tailed the margins so far, Louis van Gaal's side are involved in a first make or break tie of the season in Germany at VfL Wolfsburg.


The Opposition
VfL Wolfsburg had been unbeaten at their Volkswagen Arena for the last 29 games until Shinji Kagawa scored  for BVB Dortmund over the weekend to end that streak. March 2014 was the last time a visiting side won there.

Despite the German side's indifferent start to the Bundesliga season, they are the best placed side to progress from the water tight Group B. A draw tomorrow evening would see the German side progress to the last 16. By the same token, they could end up third on the night if United get the win they need and PSV beat CSKA Moscow in Eindhoven. Such are the margins.

Having given United more than a game in the reverse fixture at Old Trafford, the Germans will fancy their chances on the night.


United
Louis van Gaal says he will have someone on the bench updating the staff of the score in the PSV-CSKA game. Unless CSKA race into a secure three goal lead in the first half, United's task on the night will remain to get the win that guarantees safe passage into the last 16.

Talk of a win for United though has to be tempered by their first desperate need which is to score a goal. Indeed, United find themselves in this position because of their failure to score enough. Any goal of any kind against PSV in the last round would have seen United through by Match-Day 6. Thankfully, qualification remains within the club's hands. All that has to be done is win, not draw, a game of football.


The Sub-Plots
Louis van Gaal went with Marouanne Fellaini in attack at the weekend. His culpability infront of goal and Memphis Depay's industry late on could see a role reversal tomorrow. With Lingard and Martial as the other options, there is a solemn lack of experience upfront in the club's biggest game of the season so far.

Bastian Schweinsteiger returns to Germany with United for the first time. A lot of the leadership required will rest on his shoulders. He won't have much to do though if the players match their performance in the reverse fixture. At Old Trafford that day, Memphis, Martial, Mata and Smalling were among a cast of good performers.


The Bottom-Line
The importance of Tuesday's fixture cannot be understated. A drop into the Europa league would go as far as affecting the club's domestic fixture schedule into the new year. There is every chance therefore that when looking back at the season in May, most of what will have transpired by then would stem primarily from the game tomorrow.

United are suddenly out of margin. It's sink or swim time.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

ANOTHER BLANK


On The Match
Fifteen games into the league season and it is arguable that the worst league results for United so far have been the pair of 0-0 results at home against Newcastle and yesterday's against West Ham. It is not that United have been at their worst in those fixtures, but that these are the sort of fixtures you gobble up if the target is a title.

Perhaps the biggest frustration is that for all United's 'transitional problems' they could easily win the league if they simply win the winnable games. Yesterday was one of them. The fat that the result was anything but a win leaves our season yet again trailing on the margins of success and failure.

 Again, United will benefit from the general sickness in the top tier of the league that keeps them within a win of top spot despite dropping four points in their last two games. Indeed, it is far from a crisis as far as the league is concerned.

The worry though is that there is a growing disconnect between the manager and the fans. In his post match brief, Louis van Gaal was at a loss of cause behind the fans' calls for attacking football when to the Dutchman, United were attacking with every fibre in their system. It culminated in volley of boos from those who bothered to wait for the final whistle.


According to the manager, possession is a subtle form of attack, simply because in absence of it, you are essentially on the defensive. Secondly, the boss feels that the elaborate procedure of working out the space to create a chance is part of an attacking philosophy. It's therefore easy to relate with the Dutchman's confusion about calls to attack from the fans.

From the stands however, the fans work with percentages and not margins. It is the unrelenting push for balls into the box, at times with reckless abandon, that translates into an attacking philosophy.In van Gaal's book, that exposes the team on the counter-attack and is therefore a no go. The irony though is that for all the impressive clean sheets United have racked up at Old Trafford, United were carved open by West Ham yesterday almost at will. Indeed, that the Hammers came closest to scoring on numerous occasions defeats the manager's approach.

Ironically, United were better than they've been recently. A case can certainly be made that they were just unfortunate on the night not to convert one of the 20 attempts they had. On another night Marouanne Fellaini scores from three yards out. United did show more will to score than we've come to expect lately and so unlike the PSV performance, there is a ray of light therein the grey.

Slaven Bilic could also rightfully point out that on another night, they would have converted one of the break away opportunities to snatch all three points just as they did at the Emirates, Anfield and the Etihad.

In theory, United could do with more attacking resources, but even that is no guarantee if the approach remains to be a margins game and not a percentages game. Perspective could be drawn from happier days. In 2009, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez in the side, United managed just 68 league goals---one of the worst totals in the Sir Alex era, certainly the worst since the first premier league title.

Like that side, van Gaal prefers that the source of his goals is more diverse than a pair of strikers. Yesterday, anyone among Martial, Fellaini, Mata, Lingard, Schweinsteiger and Smalling could have walked away as a match winner. Its what makes it a tad unfair to generally criticise the side for a failure to attack yesterday.

Intricacies ifs aside, United should be winning at home to West Ham regardless of the circumstances. That was always going to be the frustration that cannot be cured by any rationalisation.


On the Bottom Line

United have a matter of hours to regroup before arguably the club's biggest game of the season on Tuesday in Germany. Win that, and secure progress in Europe and the mood quickly changes. This time, a clean sheet will be of no use to United's cause if the goals don't come at the other end.



Friday, 4 December 2015

GIANT SLAYING BILIC VISITS


Ultimately, it boils down to whether you're a football purist or realist. There is little doubt that Louis van Gaal's methods have secured results for Manchester United but by the same currency, it cannot be outrightly stated that United are themselves again.

Pragmatism was probably what United needed after the David Moyes debacle. Indeed, the manager was praised in most quarters for guiding United back into the European elite last season but questions now abound as to whether pragmatism has run its course.

The reality is that football is a results based business and for as long as van Gaal keeps them coming, the pressure will remain just under the surface. If anything, those he works for can have little complaints about his tenure so far. For the fans however, the frustration is seemingly growing; not at the plight of the season but at the edge on which the football renders the campaign.

For starters, lose against West Ham tomorrow and the league standings will not look as rosy as they seem at the moment. Fail to beat VfL Wolfsburg in Germany next week and United will suffer the ignominy of Europa League football in the new Year. And then we shall spend the start of the year listening to the manager's complaints about a Thursday night and Sunday afternoon football schedule.

On the flip side, win both games and the criticism of Louis van Gaal suddenly lacks locus standi. Such are the margins. A school of thought suggests the egg shell approach to games is what has gotten United on the margins of success and failure. The money that has been thrown at the problem suggests that we should, in fact, be expecting the current situation as the minimum achievement. Perhaps that is the source of the frustration; that it can be better with the available resources.

Half-way into the current manager's contract, it is increasingly the case that Manchester United might be yet again strained by the decision of the next managerial appointment. Indeed with Pep Guardiola's future at Bayern Munich up in the air and Gary Neville taking up the reigns at Valencia, there will be nerves as to whether United will be without many options left to pick from in 2017 when the top choices are already picked off by rival clubs.

We are led to believe that Ryan Giggs will follow van Gaal and yet it remains more of a theory than a fact. A lot, it seems, depends on whether the van Gaal project is seen as progress by the club or a threat to their finances.


The Match
A busy festive schedule for Manchester United kicks off this weekend with the visit of West Ham United. Slaven Bilic has gotten his side about beating the big boys away from home in a sort of FA Cup third round mode. Certainly, victories at the Emirates, Anfield, Etihad and at home against Chelsea (although everyone beats them lately)  mark them out as tricky opposition for United.

Whereas United have become masters at dictating the flow of the game, West Ham are just as content without possession and playing on the counter-attack. Successfully defending at the largest pitches in the country already will give them confidence that they can shut out United at Old Trafford.

United themselves are in the middle of a minor injury crisis. Marcos Rojo's dislocated shoulder could mean that the much vilified 3-5-2 formation could be well and truly be back to stay. In attack, Wayne Rooney's struggles to adapt to the Louis van Gaal system continue with Anthony Martial seemingly in need of an equal up top.

The narrative has recently been that the Frenchman runs the channels in a bid to create whilst Wayne drops deep leaving the opposition box unmanned. West Ham would gladly take an afternoon in which they don't have to chase anyone running in behind them.


The Sub-Plots
The captain will join an elite group of players who have represented the club for 500 games if he starts. He might have his faults on current form but Wayne remains one of the club's most accomplished servants. It starts to say a lot though when your past starts defining your current value.


The Bottom Line
A blunt November that was no doubt a response to the shipped goals at Arsenal leads to a December in which United could easily stake a claim for the title with a run of very winnable games. Coupled with a make or break Champions League tie in Germany, this is the month when those margins alluded to earlier could be crossed, for the better or for the worse!

Sunday, 29 November 2015

LEARNT NOTHING, FORGOT NOTHING


In many ways, Manchester United's much anticipated fixture against Leicester City yesterday was supposed to answer many questions about this current United set up. Would United's rigid approach flourish against a side that trust their attacking game and don't sit too deep? Would United be forced to speed up their game by a side that plays at pace?

In the end, we didn't learn much from proceedings yesterday. Louis van Gaal managed to eventually draw the hosts into his lull, if only to avoid the kind of collapse that befell the team in this fixture last season.


On the Match
True to the fears of fans, Louis van Gaal lined up United in the much despised 3-5-2 system partly because Marcos Rojo withdrew from the team due to injury but also because the three at the back provides an extra man to mark the scoring sensation that is Jamie Vardy. A tribute to the Englishman perhaps because there's not many strikers United make contingency for.

As it turned out, it proved to be a false sense of security because Vardy managed to stroll through United's defence on the break to slot in his record breaking goal. The Dutchman was livid largely because one of the 7000 team meetings the squad has during the week centered on stopping Leicester on the break.

I do feel though that to afford Vardy's goal too many column inches from a United perspective is to succumb to the LVG spell. It's not entirely uncommon for United to concede a goal or two in a game of football. It would make no difference to United's cause if Kasper Schemicheal had been the one to score it. The question that had to be answered was whether United would recover to get the couple of goals they needed to win the game from that point.


In drawing level through a thunderous Bastian Schweinsteiger header just before the break, it appeared United were on course to seal another important league win. When United got absolute control of the game after recess, the attack seemed to become even more blunt. There was hardly any meaningful chance to write home about despite the dominance and the hosts could rightfully argue that they had the better chances to win the game in their sporadic counter attacks.

In the end, United appeared to make the game easier for their hosts, seemingly inhibited by the straight jackets of their manager and perhaps envious of the freedom of spirit in Leicester City's ranks.


On the Sub-Plots
Louis van Gaal will argue that injury has forced his hand, but you cannot help but shudder at the possibility that the three at the back system is well and truly back. When executed perfectly, it remains the best system that guarantees defensive security whilst allowing attacking play. United however, despite training in it for a number of months, have not yet mastered it to thrive as a unit in it.

Got to feel for the finger nails if the manager keeps using it.

Leicester City are hardly the best defensive unit in the league and yet between Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial, there was barely a moment of attacking invention and thrill up top. Martial's mazy run in the first half perhaps stands out and then nothing else of note.

Louis van Gaal says that the squad has been training how to play in the final third of the pitch a lot but there was little to suggest an improvement from the midweek performance. Strange times indeed at Old Trafford!


On the Bottom-Line
There would have been calls for United to be seen as favourites for the title if they had won the game, however, the failure to achieve that does not necessarily rule them out. It is so congested at the top four are separated by just two points! Indeed if Arsenal displace us to 4th by the end of the weekend, that gap reduces to just one point between four teams!

It's that close fought battle that makes  it all the more difficult to evaluate United's domestic season so far. In essence we're no wiser about it yesterday than we are today. Louis van Gaal is a slave to repetition of drills. It appears we're caught in a time-warp of the effects of his methods. Whether its for the better or worse has not yet been determined.

But if we're strictly speaking numbers, a point gained where we lost all three last term plays into the positive column. United remain a tough side to beat but that is as good as it gets at the moment.

Friday, 27 November 2015

THE UNLIKELIEST OF TOP OF THE TABLE CLASHES


Whilst Manchester United are wallowing in a sea of criticism for their style of play under Louis van Gaal, they sit highest among any of the traditional big names in the premier league after 13 games. If United are misplaced in second place, then Leicester City are nothing more than a mirage in first place.

In the one million permutations of the narrative if the premier league title race this season, Claudio Ranieri's team lifting the big silver in May would rank at 1,000,001. Not that they're least deserving of their lofty position. Heck, it is arguable that Jamie Vardy Leicester merit top spot ahead of Manchester United if only for their good old fashioned English style football in a squad of United Nations members.


The Match
Saturday's most unlikely top of the table decider is a stark contrast of styles. Where Leicester play and attack with abandon and expression, Louis van Gaal has his United side well protected defensively and and cautious if not conservative in attack. Indeed, whilst Ranieri's side retain a loose defence because of that approach, United boast the meanest defence in the top division.

So what happens when a tornado meets a volcano? Deuces maybe. What is for certain though is that there is more chance of David De Gea scoring the winner than Louis van Gaal approaching Saturday's fixture in the same way he did a little over 12 months ago. In that game, a United side set up to play to its strengths in a very attack minded formation led 3-1 into the second half before losing 5-3 eventually. Three strikers started for United that day alongside a cast of attacking midfielders in Ander Herrera and Angel Di Maria. No marks for predicting that those attacking resources will not be reflected tomorrow.

Perhaps it works against Leicester that they are now so deep into their unbelievable run of form that they'll now be respected more than teams have been affording them. Jamie Vardy for instance will be a marked man from the warm up tomorrow.

United's supposedly 'boring style' football has been abated by teams that sit back and defend deep against the Reds. It's hard to imagine that Leicester will do the same when their strength is in attacking with abandon.Whether that plays into United's hands or causes them to step off further back will make for great Saturday evening viewing.


The Sub-Plots
As fate would have it, Jamie Vardy will go past Ruud van Nistelrooy's premier league record of scoring in successive games if he scores tomorrow against Manchester United. Chris Smalling, already with an impressive campaign, will see his ratings soar even higher if he can do what no centre forward has managed to do so far: keep Vardy out.

We know they'll probably keep a clean sheet, but will Manchester United score? They used to always score.

Ranieri sets up his side to play a more traditional 4-4-2 to exploit the width of the King Power Stadium. This is what will make van Gaal' selection in the wide areas interesting. Ashley Young is used as a point of attack on the flank when he plays full back but the manager might elect to go with a more conservative Matteo Darmian to double up on Leicester's plan of width. Ditto on the left flank with Marcos Rojo and or Daley Blind supported by Jesse Lingard. Certainly, the 3-5-2 used last season that allowed Leicester plenty of space out wide should be a non-starter.

The question however arises as to whether United should be making contingency for Leicester City or whether it should be the other way round!


The Bottom Line
With no point in this fixture from last season, a point gained tomorrow would technically be an improvement but United look desperately short on confidence. If ever there was a game that they needed to restore that then its this one. A game that stakes the leadership of the league. Win that and the confidence levels will soar again after the soul sapping episode on Wednesday night. Lose, and suddenly Louis van Gaal will have an even harder job convincing fans of his methods.

The manager has so far succeeded in putting up results when mutiny seems to draw near. Tomorrow would be a good time to offset mutinous sentiment for another week.    

Thursday, 26 November 2015

ON BENDED KNEES IN PRAYER


There was always the chance that Group B would end in the mathematics of a Matchday six in the Champions League after the second round of group fixtures had all teams on three points. Following last night's dour draw with PSV Eindhoven at Old Trafford, United have left themselves in dangerous territory as they bid to get out of the group.

Certainly, VfL Wolfsburg, for all their impressive results in the German Bundesliga are no world beaters and United have it in themselves to get an away win in Germany but the method of the current crop under Louis van Gaal has no guarantees. Indeed, the only near certainty about United at the moment is that they will more likely than not keep out the opposition,


On the Match
The trouble however stems from an attack that often times appears decidedly short of ideas. The biggest indictment on United last night was that Eindhoven did not have to defend particularly well on the night. Indeed, United did manage to create chances in the first half to win the game but the finishing, as it were in Holland was poor. 

Ironically, it is not that United were not attacking the Dutch Champions at will. Indeed, often times Chris Smalling was past the half-way line into the PSV half but United hardly played a ball in behind the PSV defence to rattle the visitors.

On a night when Old Trafford paid tribute to the legendary George Best on the 10th anniversary of his passing, the football on display was simply not up to the edge of your seat dazzling stuff of the Northern Irish legend. 

Perhaps more hurtful was the apparent manner in which United seemed to give up as the match drew to an end. There was no will to win the game that was at least evident in the CSKA Moscow game or more recently in the Saturday win at Watford.

The round of boos at the end were perhaps merited but these are strange times at United. A win on Saturday takes this United team top of the league and Louis van Gaal could argue that qualification from the group remains in their hands. United's second season under van Gaal is shaping up to be one giant paradox. 


On the Sub-Plots
Ironically, the return of Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial did not really better United's attack from the weekend. Memphis Depay and Lingard were much more fluent on Saturday than they were in wide roles last night. How to solve a problem like that.....?

Louis van Gaal bemoaned the failure of his substitutes to have an impact on proceedings. He will shudder at Phillip Cocu's revelation that United's Plan B in Marouanne Fellaini gave the Dutch side an easier time defensively than Plan A. How depressing!

Whilst on the subject, it must also be pointed out that Cocu has long running unbeaten streak against United and indeed Louis van Gaal. For the superstitious, that should explain events last night.


On the Bottom Line
The last thing United need right now is Thursday Europa league football to derail an otherwise solid foundation in the premier league. The importance of the final group fixture in Germany cannot therefore be overstated. 

It's ridiculous that it has come to this, but for Louis van Gaal and his current set up, its getting to a point where they'll have to turn in more than 6/10 performances to keep the campaign alive on major fronts.

Saturday at Leicester City is a good place to start!


Wednesday, 25 November 2015

UNITED REDISCOVER THEMSELVES IN FERGIE TIME WITH A LOOK AHEAD TO PSV


Manchester United recorded an important 1-2 away victory over Watford on Saturday in the premier league to move up to second in the standings. In a rare occurrence of events lately, United rallied after conceding a penalty with just five minutes left to haul themselves into the lead in stoppage time---the first time it has happened in four years!

When taken in context of the rest of the fixtures at the weekend, United's result was all the more important. Whereas United had created enough chances to win the game comfortably, the circumstances by the end of the game were more in tune with two points saved than anything else.


Injuries appear to be stretching Louis van Gaal's resources and Ander Herrera and Phil Jones joined what is an ever growing list. Not that Louis van Gaal is going about it in predictible fashion. Memphis Depay, restored upfront where he spent pre-season, appeared much sharper with the freedom  that came with playing up top. His failure to adapt to the restrictions of van Gaal's dossier out wide means that he could retain the false 9 role from hereon. Certainly, the manager indicated as much post match.

The underlying fear surrounding the Watford game however is that the adopted 3-4-1-2 or 3-5-2 formation after the injury to Ander Herrera will not be common in the future. Whilst United remained strong going forward in the system, Watford were gifted a number of chances late on in the system. David De Gea produced yet another fantabulous performance to keep Watford at bay--in open play at least.

The performance on Saturday did not deviate from the narrative of boring football under Louis van Gaal. The pragmatic Dutchman undoubtedly has his faults and few fans, but he will have looked at the league table in his office on Monday morning and seen that after the first third of the season, United are ahead of all their traditional title rivals. If the old adage is true that the the league table does not lie then we can fairly conclude that United are so far the second most consistent team in the league at picking up points, It remains true that nothing is won in November let alone this side of Christmas but the trajectory at the moment points to progress in the right direction, at least in terms of results.


Sky will not have known it when they picked fixtures for next weekend but they've suddenly got the a top of the table clash for game 14 on Saturday when United return to the scene of their darkest day under Louis van Gaal. Win that, and United will claim league leadership again this season.


Before that though is a crucial Champions League tie against PSV Eindhoven at Old Trafford. PSV can rightfully wallow in the confidence of being one of only three sides that have beaten United this season in all competitions. United are also yet to feel an element of closure since the horrible injury suffered by Luke Shaw in Holland. One feels that victory today will all but see to that.

Three points will see United through to the last 16 which would be half the target in European competition achieved, Given the close nature of the Group, United cannot afford to put themselves in a position where they'll need a win on Match Day 6 in Germany. The plan was always to win the home games and nick a point away. Half of that plan has been achieved, the other will be determined tonight.

United at least will have Anthony Martial available for tonight to ease the injury nightmare up top. PSV, as we found out in the first leg are a very fit side that will come out to attack United even at Old Trafford. It's a modus that leaves them exposed at the back. In Holland, we failed to take the numerous chances we had to kill off the game. Tonight, the finishing simply has to be better.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

INJURIES THREATEN STRAIGHT-FORWARD TRIP TO VICARAGE ROAD

It's non-stop from hereon. International football takes a four month break to allow for clean run of club football until March next year. As it stands, United have performed somewhat to expectations so far this season. The performances might not have been as Old Trafford is accustomed to, but the results have been coming in with more-or less regular frequency.

Indeed, that United could hit top spot by full time of Saturday's lunchtime fixture is testament to the improvement in results Louis van Gaal has engineered from his team. This time last year, title talk was firmly off the table. In a way probably nothing has changed since in that regard. Few, if any, would bet their bottom dollar on United coming out on top in May but it helps that the club is in a position where title talk is at the back of the mind, as opposed to completely out of it.

Having come through a sticky run of fixtures with one defeat---albeit a bad one, United can now look ahead to a run of winnable games between now and the end of the festive period starting with newly promoted Watford at Vicarage Road.

The premier league remains philistine to any complacency but these are games you feel United have to win if they are to lay a stake of the title battle in the second half of the season. Indeed, Saturday's trip to Watford is already under considerable threat after a couple of first team injuries whilst on International duty.

Louis van Gaal though does have an incredible tally of results after International breaks. United have gathered a total of 16 points from 18 available in the week following International breaks under Louis van Gaal. Fingers crossed there's three more to add to that this weekend.


The Opposition
Watford are the best performing of the newly promoted teams managing 4 wins and 4 draws from 12 games. That form is largely down to the free scoring Nigerian Odion Ighalo who has found the net 7 times in the premier league already. He and Englishman Troy Deeney are the offensive threat that accounts for 99% of the goals Watford have scored so far
in the top division. Suffice it is to say then that keeping the pair neutralised will effectively keep the clean sheets coming.


United
Anthony Martial will form the headline news at Louis van Gaal's Friday press briefing as the faithful await an update on the teenager's bruised foot. In the event that he fails to recover in time for the match, Memphis Depay could be restored to the starting XI having been frozen out since the defeat at the Emirates.

Michael Carrick is the other casualty from the International break. Whereas it is not known the length of time he will be absent, ankle ligament damage doesn't sound like he will return anytime soon. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin should comfortably keep midfield duties though.


The Sub-Plots
Wayne Rooney returned to scoring ways in midweek for his country causing many to yet again hold their breaths about his possible return to form. In the event Martial fails to make the cut, the captain will have to shoulder the goalscoring burden on Saturday. No pressure then Wayne.

Jesse Lingard is enroute to cementing a place in the first team after opening his account for United last time out. A possible return of Memphis could see him pushed central, another position he is comfortable in. How van Gaal manages a possible shuffle of his attacking options remains to be seen.


The Bottom Line  
United's rivals for the title will win at Vicarage Road. Arsenal have already won there. It is imperative that United pick up momentum ahead of the festive schedule and pick up the points that they should pick up. Watford away are three of such points. Anything else would be unacceptable for a title challenger.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

THE STORM IS OVER?


Manchester United got back to scoring ways, let alone winning ways, in the premier league yesterday with a 2-0 home victory over West Brom at Old Trafford. Second half goals from Jesse Lingard and a late Juan Mata penalty kept United in touch with the league summit.


On The Match
Predictably, Tony Pulis set his side up to sit back and get the nought that United usually grant opponents these days. The point would have done for West Brom so it was up to United to earn more for themselves.

As the Red Devils went about patiently looking for an opening, there was not much dissent from inside the stadium. Only till the end of the first half did the first chant of ''Attack. Attack. Attack'' ring out. United were in fact attacking but with what you could describe as ''solid football'' and not the ''liquid football'' that the fans perhaps meant.

Still, and very much like Wednesday, the goal, when it arrived, was worth the wait. In the 52nd minute, Academy graduate Jesse Lingard took advantage of the space left by Yacob and curled a brilliant finish into the bottom right corner. It was a genuinely lovely finish. Having grown up in Warrington, supporting United all his life and come through the ranks, you could see what the goal meant to player and fans. That it came at the Stretford End will add personal joy to Jesse.

Perhaps what will please Jesse is that it was not a goal in a 4-0 triumph but the much needed breakthrough that United craved for yesterday.

United's rearguard was largely untroubled but Sadio Berahino scores on another day having been granted the freedom of the six yard box in the 75th minute. It sobers up perspective on how good United are defensively despite the impressive figures racked up by the individuals in the back five.

To think that this week could have gone differently if Doumbia makes it 0-1 on Wednesday for CSKA Moscow or Berahino equalises late on for West Brom. Such are the margins that Louis van Gaal's approach attracts.


On the Sub-Plots
Cameron Borthwick-Jackson joined the list of Academy players to make their debut for the club under Louis van Gaal. The Dutchman can rightly be accused of many things but he has stayed true to the club's ethos of bringing through youth.

Having sold/released a large chunk of the players that kept United's impressive record of an Academy player on the bench in every game since 1937, this was the season in which that record was bound to come to an end. As it turned out, two of them are permanent members of the first team whilst Borthwick-Jackson and Axel Tuanzebe have been involved in the side this week alone. Great stuff!


The Bottom Line
When the fixture computer did its thing back in June, October was the month we all looked at with a shiver down the spine. It's not been great but it's not been a disaster either. As Sir Alex always said, the target this side of the season is to stay within five points of the top come New Years Day.

United now have a run of very winnable games between now and when Chelsea come to Old Trafford on December 28th. You could say the proverbial storm is over and the house is still standing. Of course the premier league remains one in which games are always far from a foregone conclusion but neither can the upcoming games be said to be too difficult.

16 points from the next 18 available would see us in a great position for the second half of the season. Perhaps even top of the league by the start of the new year. Anything less than that and we'll have left ourselves with too much to do when the next round of games against sides in the top half of the table comes round.      

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

UNITED SCORE

.....And win!


Group B remains ever tight but up until the 79th minute at Old Trafford last night, Manchester United were in real danger of leaving themselves with no margin for error ahead of the last two group-stage fixtures.

Predictably, CSKA Moscow sat back and allowed United plenty of the ball. Except that United failed to make much decent use of it. Perhaps the biggest surprise from the visitor's team news was the omission of Ivory Coast striker Doumbia from the starting XI. The problems he caused United when he eventually came on made it an intriguing decision to keep him on the bench. Indeed, the big Ivorian could have won the game in the moments preceding Wayne Rooney's opener.

As it were, a combination of heroic goalkeeping and defending from David De Gea and Chris Smalling kept United within a goal of the victory. When Michael Carrick found Jesse Lingard with a lofted pass, the otherwise dynamic Englishman cross-volleyed into the path of his captain. With every neck muscle he could summon, the hitherto ineffectual Rooney powered a close range header past Igor Akinfeev to send the Stretford End wild with joy and relief.


On The Match    
Unfortunately, for the neutral, CSKA Moscow came off the bus with the same mission United had in Russia, to get a point. It made for a 90 minute contest of Attack vs Defence. Somehow, United fans in the stadium didn't seem to see it that way, calling for the team to Attack at the halftime whistle.

It's almost impossible to fathom how Louis van Gaal could have set up this United team in a more attack minded way. Anthony Martial was effectively in a twin striking role with Wayne Rooney. Ashley Young at right-back in place of Darmian was an attacking change. Rojo was essentially an auxiliary left back, getting in plenty of crosses and being on the end of four chances to score. It doesn't get more attacking than that!



Indeed, United were much quicker and slicker on the ball than on Saturday at Selhurst Park. The downside was that too often United were limited in their ability play through the middle of the CSKA defence. With Ander Herrera sacrificed to keep the captain playing, there was almost no invention down the middle. Too often, United sought the width of the energetic Jesse Lingard, the overlapping Ashley Young and Marcos Rojo. It didn't take long for the Russian Champions to figure it out and when they did, United were reduced to hoping for mistakes from their guests rather than forcing the issue.

In the end, it was combination of accuracy in the air that undid the defensive shift of CSKA. From the moment that the ball was lifted off the turf off the boot of Michael Carrick, 40 yards diagonal from goal, it did not hit the turf again until it was in the back of the net. Lingard did well to read the pass well enough to divert it mid-air and accurately into the path of an unmarked Wayne Rooney.


On the Sub-Plots
Ashley Young dived for a penalty. Thankfully, he did not succeed in getting United to benefit from his dark art.

Louis van Gaal was the target of dissent from the Old Trafford crowd when he elected to take off Anthony Martial for Marouanne Fellaini. He almost made it to 18 months without so much as a boo from the stands. That Wayne Rooney grabbed the winner will have served his decision more legitimacy given that the fans no doubt would have wanted the England captain off instead.

Jesse Lingard did not set the world alight with his performance yesterday. At times he was rash, at times his first touch and decision making failed him but goodness me, what energy and commitment levels! He is now 22 years old and has earned his shot after being patient for a couple of seasons and already, it appears Memphis has a job on his hands to get his place back.

Lingard, despite his limitations when compared to the Dutchman provides directness that complements the otherwise tentative approach of Louis van Gaal. For a young lad growing up a few miles from Old Trafford, it was pleasing to see him collect a Man of the Match award in the Champions League.


On the Bottom Line
Make no mistake about it, Wayne Rooney scored a big, big goal for United last night. The dynamics of the group are such that all four teams could still qualify for the last 16 with just two games left. The win however puts the Red Devils within three points of European football after the winter. With PSV Eindhoven to come to Old Trafford at the end of the month, qualification should be assured before the tricky away game at VfL Wolfsburg in December.

Now that the clock has stopped ticking up that goal drought, perhaps Saturday will see a more ruthless United in the final fixture before the last International break of the year.  

 

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

OF BORO, PALACE, LVG & A LOOK AHEAD TO CSKA MOSCOW


Manchester United have not scored a goal since I last visited this column. It's fair to say that there's not much to debrief about what has happened since.

This self-proclaimed cleansing blog seeks to 'qualify' the media narrative about the plight of the club, affording events what yours truly thinks would be a more 'balanced' yet red tinted perspective. So what has happened since?


Middlesbrough in the Capital One Cup
Perhaps the club's biggest opportunity to win their first post-Sir Alex trophy went begging when United failed to score against a Championship club and lost out on penalties. So how much were the usual suspects responsible for the result?

In the third round fixture against Ipswich Town, Louis van Gaal came under considerable criticism for playing virtually the entire first team in what was eventually a comfortable 3-0 home win. For this tie, the manager did what was, on a scale of reasonability, reasonable. There was a healthy blend of our brightest Academy prospects as well as seasoned regulars of the first team. Andreas Pereira, Jesse Lingard and James Wilson will certainly not weaken a United side against Championship opposition. 

Indeed, United were as fluid as they could possibly be under the straight jackets of the Louis van Gaal system. In football however, there are occasionally 'one of those nights' games. United could have played that game for five hours with chance after chance without scoring. Admittedly, Boro did have many chances to score themselves but it adds to the narrative of the evening that even they couldn't score despite probably having the better chances.

For that particular result, it would be harsh to come down too hard on the usual below par suspects even though it's damning that players of that level cannot score even from 12 yards. A determined Boro side would have definitely been brushed aside if van Gaal had started his strongest side. We need, though, to examine ourselves on how we would have felt if the manager had named an unchanged line-up from the team that drew with City for this game. 

Hindsight is such a wonderful thing. We can now convince ourselves that we wouldn't mind an unchanged team now.


Crystal Palace in the League
I did mention in the last blog post that the point against City will be a great one if we could go on to win at Crystal Palace. The 0-0 drub draw effectively marked the City game as a poor result. United have now failed to win two fixtures that they won last season. So how do we apportion the blame for that one?

The buck stops with the manager and so he shall be evaluated. His methods and decisions invariably bring back the captain, Wayne Rooney into unwanted spotlight. This is not to suggest that no other player was poor on the day (Matteo Darmian for instance had another stinker), but if we are to believe that the captain is a representation of the manager's philosophy on the pitch then its hard to fault other players when their leader is consistently the worst player on the pitch.

Wayne Rooney's troubles have already been well documented this season. There is little need going over them again. Because of his position both on and off the pitch, United's success is intertwined with his form. In a way both he and club can rightly claim that they've imprisoned each other and swallowed their respective keys.

Louis van Gaal
However, it is the Louis van Gaal side that I feel has not yet been understood by many United fans. There are managers in world football who you can employ and expect that they abide by the existing structure and ethos of a club. There are those however, who feel that they can only get the job done if everything is done their way, to their taste and modus operandi. Louis van Gaal falls in the latter category.

Almost 18 months into his regime, fans still yearn for the day Manchester United will turn out and play like a Sir Alex Ferguson team in the 1990s. I think it's time fans made their peace with the new man's idea of football. In fact, when it is ripe, Louis van Gaal's style tops the thrill of Fergie's style, for both results and entertainment. Whether he can achieve it in the philistine environment that is the premier league is another debate.

However, just like an unfinished building, the build up to that style is quite the ugly. The modest United fan is increasingly growing frustrated with a building project that looks like will never be complete whilst also sporadically showing signs of the beauty that it could become when it is done. Baby steps, albeit in the right direction. Frustrating considering the investment.

It has led to calls, especially from the away end at Selhurst Park to rip it apart and just go for the jugular (Chants like ''We don't often score, but we seldom score none'' were audible). To force the issue if you like if only for the entertainment value that would come with it. 

There is no harm in yearning for that but if that is the genuine feeling among most fans then they are probably backing the wrong manager. I feel there is a disconnect between van Gaal's methods and what the fans thought he will bring. And while we're at it, it might serve a couple of fans to pause and rethink their choice of manager after LVG because of all the names thrown about regarding potential replacements, only Ryan Giggs would set up the side to play the way fans want the club to play. 

I digress.

 Louis van Gaal's methods seek to eliminate risk by upholding positional play and carefully working your way down to a certain conclusion. Just like a composed mathematician would go about solving a complex equation. The 'luck' van Gaal refers to is the same luck the mathematician would need to carry down the 'x' and 'y' and correctly compute his digits so as not to make the error along the way that will render the whole equation a failure. 

It's the Louis van Gaal way. 0-0 is the default result, especially when the opposition work out that you need to sit back against United and hit hard on the counter-attack. For van Gaal, in his cosy little world, that is a small victory.

Manchester City under Pellegrini, for instance, never change their game for anyone. This is a side that feels that they can play 4-4-2 against Barcelona and get away with it. Stupid, but slightly admirable and yet they came to Old Trafford in a shape that fully adjusted with the sole aim of not losing the game. Pellegrini, like any manager should against this United side, opted to hit United on the break. 

Louis van Gaal probably privately feels that he is being let down by the players he has shown faith in and none is bigger than his captain who he has backed strongly since the start of the season. He felt that Ander Herrera should have stabbed that first half chance in and approached him at full time to ask what had happened. The Dutchman's style is rarely comprises a chance after chance game. The three half chances created are expected to be put away by the player the chance falls to with no margin for error because the elaborate process used to arrive at that chance has been free of error. 

The point is, it might be slow, boring, energy sapping, difficult to watch, but that has been the man in charge's way of ding things for over 20 years. That it has worked elsewhere makes it all the more difficult to change it for Manchester United. It has cost him his job at clubs of similar stature and so there is but one option the fans are calling for if they have failed to buy into the manager's style of football. At the moment, it feels like there is a lot of love for LVG and his idiosyncratic press conferences but little for it on the pitch. 

If fans would have their way, they would like to keep van Gaal and change the way the team plays. The best of both worlds if you like. A Chelsea mate of mine recently told me he would prefer to keep a Jose Mourinho that had the personality of Manuel Pellegrini.  Unfortunately, it never plays out that way with managers that big. It is, usually, what it is.

Since the powers that be made their decision regarding choice of manager ahead of other available options, United fans need to get themselves accustomed to the possibility that the club's style of play could be subject of change as often as they change their managers. Louis van Gaal, however, and rather unselfishly is attempting to build a style of play that would out-last the reign of any domestic or continental manager after him in a way that the English helter-skelter style wouldn't survive if say United appointed a Pep Guardiola or a Diego Simeone in future after Ryan Giggs. 

This, mind you, is not an official backing of the manager, but an explanation of a disconnect that i felt was prevailing. As usual, you can express your opinion in the comments section below.


CSKA Moscow
Which brings us to this evening's entertainment, or lack of it, against the Russian Champions at Old Trafford. I guess it helps that our last goal was against them. We should be a shoe in for another goal, right?

CSKA manager, Leonid Viktorovich Slutsky, has in his pre-match presser let loose his approach to the game. They will play as compact as they did in Moscow and hit United on the counter-attack. Hmmm... I wonder where he worked out those brilliant tactics from?

The onus is squarely on Louis van Gaal to, A) Set his team up to score on the night, B) Nullify CSKA on the break and perhaps more crucially C) Find a way to win the match to stay on course for qualification.

The Bottom-Line
Group B is shaping up to be a fine case for the calculators come Matchday 6. However, two straight home games before the difficult trip to VfL Wolfsburg should see United qualify before then. Win today and the result in Russia is a good point. Fail to do so and United will have left themselves a 'rat race' to get out of what was not the most difficult group when the draw was made.