Sunday, 22 February 2015

THE POST MORTEM

It was sickening wasn't it? It was appropriate that in the away game that we seemed most comfortable in we would end up losing. That's football, the manager acknowledged as much----it has a way of kicking you in the teeth. Yesterday in Wales was one of those days.

That though does little to address the issues about the elephant in the room. Not unlike the opening day of the season, United dominated the game but Swansea picked up all three points. Not unlike the opening day, United had fewer shots on target with more possession (65% to be exact) and yet could not make meaningful use of it.

Following the defeat at home to Southampton, it is becoming a notable pattern that if you sit back deep, you can actually nullify most of what United will throw at you--simply because of the preference to cross balls into the box rather as opposed to making inroads central or having shots at goal from outside the penalty area. This is the variation in play that I alluded to in the preview. United need more Scholes-cum-Herrera moments. The Spaniard is the closest we have to Paul Scholes in the team and yet for some reason has had to sit out the majority of the season because of one unjustified reason or the other. He is the perfect combination of energy and skill in the middle that we seem to be desperate for. He is 80% Paul Scholes----and there's not many who can claim such figures. The point is, he is the perfect variation to our play because he can make late runs into the box and score from anywhere within a 20 yard area from the goal. It is a trait that has been lost on almost all our forwards as everyone seems intent on helping the ball wide hoping for a delivery into the box to find them unmarked.

It's all too easy and predictable defending against the current mode of attack. Little wonder then that the opposition finds it easy to limit our shots on target. The English game rewards gamblers more, which is why Swansea got their win yesterday....having a go from 25 yards.
Alternatively, if you are to be more elaborate, then do it at such speed and tempo that the opposition cannot keep up or are forced to making errors. United are too lethargic at the moment. The irony is that the one time we broke with pace and purpose, we scored. Therein lies the frustration. The solutions are readily available to the players but everyone would rather win the contest of who finishes the 90 minutes without breaking sweat.

Whereas our defending as as suspect as usual, it is quickly becoming apparent that our attack might not be free from requiring surgery as well come the summer window. It was supposed to get us out of jail this season but the final third seems to where we ran out of ideas most. Robin van Persie was the equivalent of Radamel Falacao yesterday and suddenly, possibly worse, given that we actually created a number of half chances throughout the match. He left the stadium in a protective boot which could mean that he faces between a couple of weeks and a couple of months out until we are certain on Monday. It speaks volumes about the pair's contribution this season that we might not be too excited that Falcao is our next option up top. Baffling. Simply because no side in world football has the luxury in attack that we have, but there's that stuff about things on paper and then on pitch.

In all probability, we shall lose our top 4 status after the weekend schedule is done. We always ran the risk. Such are the margins in the race for that top 4 spot. With the fixtures remaining, we now need to pick up difficult points at places we might not have needed to if we are to make the season's target.

Two quick games follow an upcoming long week in which the media will have enough time to throw stones of all sizes at the club and the manager. At home against Sunderland and away at Newcastle have now taken on much more importance. United have to improve, and fast because for all the ground work still being laid on by the manager, there are standards below which we cannot afford to fall.
 

Friday, 20 February 2015

SET FOR MORE NAIL BITING AWAY DAYS

Winning away from home has, everything else considered, been the detriment to having a much better season. The curse is so strong that United have struggled at venues like the Huish Park of Yeovil Town and Cambridge United's Abbey Stadium. It follows now that every away game in the premier league is now seen by pundits as potentially dropped points for United (the popular opinion is a draw in tomorrow's fixture against Swansea City). It's not so much that United are losing away games but that that they are failing to win them. Indeed, United have, in the circumstances done very well to lose just 4 games in the league all season. It's the draws column that is frustrating our desire to pull away from the other Champions League chasing sides.

The last time we made the journey from the Liberty Stadium in Wales, we had just beaten tomorrow's opponents 1-4 with Wayne Rooney attracting a handful of jeers from a section of the United fans despite setting up two goals. The captain was at the time subject of a transfer to Chelsea. More damningly, the result that day sent us to the top of the premier league. It was David Moyes' first league game in charge.

Suffice it is to say that a lot of water has passed under the bridge since. Wayne is now the captain of the club and now has an army of fans on his side to get him playing up top as opposed to being a makeshift midfielder. David Moyes has since been sacked and United have, since that day, not seen the summit of the premier league. In fact, the summit of the league will be the last thing on United's minds come Saturday because the club has since embraced a new challenge--getting back into the Champions League.

At Christmas, it appeared United would easily pull away from the chasing pack and launch a pseudo title challenge. As it turned out, the race for the final two Champions League places is already more intriguing than the title race itself. Chelsea will win the league but you can't really put your finger on who of Southampton, Arsenal, Liverpool and Spurs alongside ourselves will miss out on elite football next term. With the gap between all sides within a 5 point margin, it's easy to relinquish a seemingly comfortable position.

Ahead of the run-in, the gauntlet is very much available for the side that puts together a consistent run to pull away from the rest. On paper, United are best equipped to do that simply because most of the other sides have European commitments between now and at least the end of March. Financial implications and indeed the desire to return to the big time means that Champions League football shades the FA Cup in terms of priority.

A run of one defeat in 19 in all competitions means that United have been at least good enough to pick up a point every game----although the absence of an element of risk in our football has denied us all three points if we had approached certain games in a  no holds-barred fashion.

Swansea City shocked the footballing world by beating Louis van Gaal back in August on his Old Trafford debut but even they will acknowledge that a lot has changed since. For starters, half the players that will line up against them tomorrow did not take part in those August proceedings. That is not to suggest Gary Monk's side are easier to beat. Not by a long shot. We have struggled almost every time we've come up against a side that can mix the counter attack with deep lying defending. United need to vary their movement upfront to fashion more opportunities.

The 4-4-2 diamond has quickly become a disguised 3-5-2 hence the almost similar lethargic displays but at least Di Maria is running from deep at defenders. That can only help our cause as it did against Burnley when he won us our first penalty of the season. Imagine how many more we could have won if he can been running at defences since September. Ultimately though, if the winner comes from a ma


zy run from the Argentine or a long ball to Fellaini lashed in, three points will be massive on a weekend where our rivals seem to be facing awkward fixtures.

We have a decent record at the Liberty Stadium, at least there's a reason to go easy on the nails come kickoff tomorrow.









Wednesday, 18 February 2015

A LOT ABOUT THE WEEK


Since I last blogged, little has changed in light of the criticism Manchester United have faced recently, but this weird season moves on with United sitting pretty in third place in the league, albeit under considerable pressure, and now within a game of making an appearance at Wembley in the FA Cup.

Preston North End was always going to be an awkward fixture, but the expectation was that regardless, United had to win to avoid the humiliation of having no trophy to play for with three months of the season left for the first time in 28 years.

As it were United somehow rode the storm to win at Deepdale in the unconvincing fashion we have come accustomed to. Therein lies the check though. This season was always about the results, not the performances. That United are being criticised for their performances and not their results points to something being done right at Carrington. Louis van Gaal has not made much of this Manchester United team and but he has certainly made them devilishly hard to beat.

Admittedly, we're not in many competitions this year, but counting 5 defeats in all competitions since the season started despite all our problems is quite something. Since City narrowly beat us at the Etihad at the start of November, United have now gone on a run of one defeat in 19 games. Even more remarkable is that since Berainho raced clear to score West Brom's second in a 2-2 draw at the Hawthorns in late October, United have not conceded more than one goal in a game since.

It is in the above two statistics that LVG's pragmatism comes to the fore. In climbing up to third in the table with a 3-5-2 system, the manager ensured that in the games that United would ordinarily lose given their limitations this season, we've picked up a point. That is largely because we've not been in the predicament of being more than just a goal down often. Admittedly, the pragmatism has also meant that we have not been able to entertain on a weekly basis and that we have not been able to win games when we fall behind because we've remained to cautious for our own good. Monday night at Deepdale was the first time United had won a game under Louis van Gaal after having comes from behind. Ironically, the type of ponderous football that has become synonymous with us this season is suited to the Champions League and not the helter skelter premier league.

Thankfully though that in all our struggles this season, the manager has managed to learn a lesson or two whilst keeping United above water. He is know fully acquainted with the demands of English football, so much so that Fellaini is now very much a part of his plans going forward. Contrast that with a manager who privately asked Ed Woodward to sell the big Belgian in August because he was not a Manchester United player. Suddenly, we have a weapon on our hands to use in desperate moments that most defenders in the world would rather not face.

The FA Cup sixth round draw pitted us against Arsenal at home in early March. The Gunners are in some kind of fearsome form that has seen them blink only n the North London derby recently. We would definitely need to be at our best either defensively or in attack to nullify their threat and make the last four with a Cup final against Liverpool looking very much the possibility.
We've been due a defeat every 7 straight wins against Arsenal in the recent past and this Cup tie falls exactly 7 wins since our last defeat against them. Fingers crossed superstition has has nothing to do with it.

This weekend is defined by a trip to Wales to face Swansea City. It seems like ages ago but it's only this season when the Swans marched into Old Trafford and burst the aura surrounding the tenure of LVG. Gary Mowbray has got his side playing a mixture of the passing game and the pragmatism of the old Wimbledon. United have got to make the most of the fatigue that will hinder top 4 rivals after a week of European football. If things are not going according to plan with 20 minutes to go, get Fellaini up top!    

Thursday, 12 February 2015

FIFTEEN SHADES OF RED

Again, apologies for the inconsistent blogs, but since I last did this, there's a little over a dozen things that have emerged at our club. All have left us red faced in varying shades. Depending on how red your face can get, the following must have altered your facial complexion over the past couple of weeks.

1. THE DOSSIER
Where else to begin? At his pre-match presser ahead of the visit of Burnley, Louis van Gaal fell prey to a mind game of a West Ham manager. The Dutchman produced four sheets of A4 paper detailed with statistics to prove that Manchester United football club are not a long ball team. Now, this is nowhere near the implosion of Rafa Benitez in 2009 with his 'facts' rant but you cannot deny that the whole episode bore shades of that laughable day in the Liverpool press conference room.

The media and indeed legends of the club have rightfully pointed out the flaw in responding to comments of a West Ham manager (with all due disrespect). The reality though is that men with an ego he size of van Gaal's are easily hurt by a comment that threatens to tarnish a reputation built over 30 years. Perhaps he could not stomach the possibility of the 'long ball manager' tag hanging over his tenure at Manchester United. Perhaps he lacks the sense of humour to take Sam Allardyce's comments with the light heartedness they deserved. Ultimately though, his dossier of a response has watered an argument that would have died out if he had chosen to ignore the jibe. Suffice it is to say that his dossier will always be used as a stick to hit him as and when anyone sees fit.
 
2. WAYNE ROONEY
Here's a few blunt statements from me about the captain. First of all, I love him (as a player). Anyone who plays for that long for a club you follow religiously is bound to grow on you simply because he will always feature in some of your most cherished moments in life.Secondly, I hate what he stands for. Modern day legends who expect to be loved by the fans despite holding their clubs at ransom.
My biases aside, Wayne Rooney is not as good a footballer as he or indeed people think he is. Of course he is a great goalscorer but he is not intelligent enough to suddenly make a great midfielder. It's a shame having him start in our midfield at the expense of better qualified midfielders in Ander Herrera and Juan Mata. Wayne's talents are best utilised near the goal. If I were to pick my best United XI with the current crop, Wayne would start up top alongside one of Radamel Falcao or Robin van Persie. It's simple: either drop him or start him up top. It made sense when Fergie used him in that role given our limitations at the time because we didn't have Mata or Herrera then.
 
3. ANDER HERRERA
This little lad is a world beater in my opinion. His understanding of the game is a product of the hardwork of Bielsa's excellent work at Atheltico Bilbao. He is everything we need Wayne to do in midfield and yet better. Word on the street is that his love for a party and the up coming match fixing case in Spain which he is a witness have ultimately led to his minimal involvement. My view is that Herrera is a victim of the early season imbalance in the side---when we played spectacular football, scored a bunch of goals and yet shipped them in the other end. With Blind and or Carrick now available to sit in front of the back four and given that Ander does not shy away from a tackle, it's hard to make sense of his exile on the bench other than the fact that Wayne has the arm band. The manager diplomatically explained this by equating Wayne to a football god and Ander to a misplaced Havard Law Professor playing football. The reality is that it's the captain who is misplaced. Wayne is a brilliant forward, but is also anything but a brilliant midfielder.

4. ANGEL DI MARIA
This is an even simpler one: let him switch roles with Wayne and everybody will go home happy.

5. RADAMEL FALCAO
Something tells me he will bag 40 goals for his next club, and boy will that hurt so bad.

6. AWAY DAYS
At the moment, it's win at home, draw away. Wheres points salvaged in difficult games are always welcome, United need to take more risks to win away games. It will not be enough to win just the home games. 

7.BURNELY
When was the last time a side that lowly ranked came to Old Trafford and made us look the side lowly ranked? Jesus Christ! We need to pull our shit together before someone jumps off a building because of games like that!

8. THE LONG BALL
Statististically, (van Gaal started it) 12% of our balls go long so far this season. In the 2008/9 season that featured Carlos Tevez, Cristiano Ronaldo e

t al, our long balls average was 13%. End of.


9. THE PARTNERSHIP
Similar age bracket, similar speed, similar game, similar pressures, Falcao and van Persie are easy to defend against because they are just too similar to play as a partnership. Add Wayne to any of them and the results will shock you at how good both still are. 

10. THE WHISTLES
The first signs of discontent among the Old Trafford faithful were heard during the game against Burnley. Sections of the crowd whistled the players off at halftime. That can't be good. The manager acknowledged as much. I prefer to take out my frustrations at United in other ways. I just can't bring myself to boo something as dear to me as the club.   

11. JUAN MATA
Will gladly welcome the idea of him on the bench IF the selected midfield trio is better than him. 

12. MAROUANNE FELLAINI
Forget the long ball jibe, his best position is up top on the end of long balls. It's literally massive tool to have as a manger especially when the tiki taka has not yielded much. Keep hoofing them up to him please!

13. PHIL JONES
Been a while since he was mentioned in the same sentence as the word 'injured'. Well, we only had to wait 4 minutes into the match last night. His record in the treatment room is fast becoming farcical.

14.RIVALS
The sides below us in the league seem to have picked up form at the worst possible time for us....ahead of the run in. Liverpool for instance have picked up 20 points since Christmas. In the same period we've gotten just the 12. Again, we need to get our sh*t together.

15.50 SHADES OF GREY
Does anyone know why they used the colour Grey?

Friday, 6 February 2015

LONDON COMFORTS

In recent seasons, Manchester United have developed a wonderful habit of making light work of assignments in London. It's a great habit considering some of the league's finest sides reside in the capital. Bar Stamford Bridge, United have a more than decent record at Spurs, Arsenal, QPR and Sunday's opponents West Ham United.

Having already come away from the Emirates with maximum points, United were desperately unlucky to get just the one point from White Harte Lane. That our last away win this season was from Loftus Road---another London ground should just about put us in confidence mood ahead of the trip to the Boleyn Ground or Upton Park or whatever its called these days.

In the grand scheme of things, this weekend seems pivotal in the race for the Champions league places. In fact, most of the sides in that particular race are up against each other with the North-London and Merseyside derbies taking place a day before our game against Sam Allardyce's side. With just 3 points between us in third and 6th placed Spurs, the league table could easily adopt a new look by Sunday bed time.

For Manchester United though, the task is much more than a game of football. Pundits have come to accept that Manchester United are a different proposition at home and indeed away. The away form this season makes it a bother going to places like Upton Park and expecting three points. You get the feeling though that if the manager sticks with the recent reversion of a four man defence, we should be good to go. Unfortunately, the more likely set up could be a 3 at the back formation simply because van Gaal might be daunted by the prospect of a physical battle at the back. Fingers crossed he goes with the no holds barred approach.

West Ham enjoy the comfort of a smaller, tighter pitch and hence find it easy to defend and attack in numbers consistently. United will have to move the ball a lot quicker and be more decisive in the final third if they are to catch them out.
In all probability, we could be looking up at more than two sides above us come kick off, so the pressure is very much on to defend the last automatic qualification spot for the Champions League.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

CATCH UP

Whilst I am unable to blog on a consistent basis for now, the odd post here and there should keep this forum at bay. 

So let's see, we beat Leicester City at home in a game that was dubbed a revenge mission for that dark day in September, when in truth, anything less than three points would have had us packing it in for the season. We're supposed to beat Leicester City away everyday let alone at home. In fact, we might yet regret our inability to win games 5-0 anymore. Although the lesson from September was to kill off matches hat are won, you cannot ease off in this league with a full 45 minutes left to play. What were Leicester supposed o do in the second half? It was thence a bit nervy seeing us let them off the hook in that second period.

We might be the top home goal scorers in the division but there's a few sides below us who have a better goal difference than us because they tend to put more than a fair share of goals past opponents they're cruising against. Take for instance what Arsenal's 5-0 demolition of hapless Villa on Sunday could do for them if that Champions League battle comes down o goal difference. We've already suffered in the recent past because of having an inferior goal difference to a rival. It's effectively an extra point.

On the bright side, we're third in the league again! 5 points off City in second place means that we're still capable of achieving our league target ahead of schedule if we put on another run of wins.

As far as silverware is concerned, the FA Cup has never been on a silver platter before for us. Cambridge United visit Old Trafford tonight in search of swapped shirts more than anything else. Just so as we can sleep with the guarantee that the sun will rise tomorrow, like it's been doing for the last 4.6 billion years, United have to end the night as victors. Any other result and kingdom will finally come.

Beyond that is the tricky trip to West Ham on Sunday evening. Another tight, bubbly away pitch to haunt our away record this season. 

Finally this blog owes a special tribute to the departing Darren Fletcher who has joined West Brom. It's testament how vital he turned out to be in his prime that he is remembered for the game he never played...the 2009 Champions League Final. Darren is one of those rare breed professionals who never raised dust at the club and always left it all on the pitch. He's a role model to young professionals for having battled his way into the United team against all odds and is now a hero in the medical sphere for battling his way out of a life threatening bowel condition. 
We can only wish him well....when United are not playing against his new team.