Friday, 16 October 2015

UNITED RETURN BUT GOODISON BECKONS


After another defeat to mull over during a two week-long International break, Manchester United return to domestic duty in the premier league on Saturday. In only the second three o'clock kickoff of the season, United are on the road for the second straight match in the league---this time on Merseyside at Goodison Park.

They say your enemy's enemy is your friend but United and Everton have always had a spiky relationship not least because Saturday's hosts are by default Scousers! That our captain's roots are in enemy territory remains a facet that doesn't sit well with a few Reds to this  today. Football rivalries are, afterall, personal.

Wayne Rooney, fitness permitting, will return to his most philistine venue in the premier league in a more competitive spirit than he did when he featured in Ducan Ferguson's testimonial at the beginning of August. The captain has, in the past, endured vitriol and bile from supporters of his former club, so much so that Sir Alex once (in 2008) withdrew him to keep his temper in check.

Of course Wayne has matured to a level that should see him hold his temper much better but on current form, the Goodison faithful needn't worry about winding him up. He retains a wretched record of scoring at Goodison (2 strikes against Everton since his shift further West)----and indeed Merseyside at large---that in the wicked world of football predictions, he should be odds on to net a brace on Saturday if he takes part.

The Opposition
Everton, like Swansea City, are quickly building a run of decent results against United especially on their own perch. United have suffered an aggregate defeat of 6-0 over their last three visits to Goodison. Goodison Park is one of the traditional tight venues with fans so close to the pitch that it is easy to generate an atmosphere for the home side to work with.

As such, going behind at Goodison is virtually half the job done for the home team. Roberto Martinez has such a well drilled out-fit on the counter-attack that they are almost willing the opposition to get a head-start on possession.

Indeed, only in March this year, United kicked off at Goodison and attempted to impose their game on the opponents. Everton scored on their first attack---a counter-attack and by halftime, few were left to convince that that game was over.

Having been comprehensively caught flat-footed by a dazzling display in the opening 20 minutes at Arsenal a fortnight ago, it is hoped that Louis van Gaal will not be caught out by another team that likes to get off on the front foot.

At times, Goodison feels so tight a venue that the football is akin to pin-ball. Indeed, Romelu Lukaku's equaliser against Liverpool just before the break was as a result of fortunate ricochets that allowed the big Belgian a free hit.  The size of the pitch also allows the home side to get up and down the pitch efficiently with very little space to craft anything.

In effect, Louis van Gaal's patient approach is exactly the sort of game you do not present to a team that will defend as a whole and attack you with equal numbers. Roberto Martinez has a decent idea of what he will expect from United. The question is whether Louis van Gaal can vary his approach to neutralise the obvious flaws in United's game.

United
Having come unstuck with an immobile midfield at the Emirates, it will be interesting to see whether Morgan Schneiderlin is restored to the starting line-up. Certainly, the Frenchman offers more mobility in the middle. There have been concerns though as to whether his inability to hold down a place has more to do with his difficulty in coping with the manager's instructions than being about the rotation game van Gaal has preached.

It already appears that for as long as Luke Shaw is injured, the full back questions will remain. Even Matteo Darmian seems to have dropped a level of confidence because of the chopping and changing. We forget that every full back develops a relationship with his winger. The Italian has unfortunately been denied that by the constant movement from left to right full-back positions.

His class though remains unquestioned. Indeed, his selection in the Euro 2016 qualifiers team of the round attests to this truth. The manager has to earn his pay by sorting out the full-back situation. Pick a man, stick with him much longer than the 45 minutes.

One way of going about it is to reduce the number of squares in round holes. By conceding the importance of Blind as a quarter-back, he could play him in a left-sided role in which he excelled last season and bring Jones in the middle to partner Smalling such that Darmian remains in his favoured right-back role for the long term. That is, but, one way!

The Sub-Plots
Memphis Depay has been the subject of debate during the break because of his failure to consistently do a job. Whereas he seems ripe for a drop to the bench, it appears the need to use Ashley Young in one of the full-back positions has kept his place in the team free from competition. The Dutchman though is long over-due a decent performance. Ryan Giggs has already made a comment about how his lifestyle could affect what could yet be an outstanding career. Giggs would know a thing about it given that it was he who Fergie was looking for at a night out back in 1991/2 and gave the same advice.

United's defence will yet again come up against a big man up top with a mixed bag of success and failure so far when they have had to. You could argue that Christian Benteke was starved of all service as Liverpool hardly attacked United last month but Bafetimbi Gomis exposed United's physical flaw at the back. Lukaku will be just as physical and could easily be just as clinical if nobody stands up to him. Certainly Smalling has his work cut out!

The Bottom-Line
United have been so inconsistent this season that going to Everton and handing out a thrashing is not beyond them. In the same breath, coming away with a heavy defeat is also not beyond the realms of possibility.

However, the capitulation at the Emirates cannot go unanswered in a month when United's resolve will be tested in the extreme. Having dropped points at venues where they picked them up last season, the pressure is on to pick them up at grounds they dropped them last season, starting tomorrow.

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