Monday, 30 March 2015

TEMPERING THE GAAL-ACTICOS POLICY

Manchester United are the world's most popular football club. As such, the club has used its commercial pulling power to dig itself firmly in the riches of global sport so much so that they can now afford to sign a couple of world class players every summer transfer window and still remain well within the stipulated financial limits.

It's a muscle that the club that has so rarely flexed with Sir Alex Ferguson rarely stretching the $30m mark for any player. Such was the frugality of the old boss that it we often struggled to remember our reigning record signings. Dimitar Berbatov, at $35m was the largest outlay Sir Alex spent on a player in all of his 27 years in charge. Admittedly, the Scot did pay what were at the time huge sums for players such as Andy Cole and Juan Sebastian Veron but for every huge chunk splashed out was a bargain for an Eric Cantona (1m) here or Dwight Yorke there (12m). Sir Alex loved to mix it up. His sides often amounted to a mixture of raw talent and pure genius.

At the height of the emergence of Manchester City in 2012 to add to the already developed challenge from Chelsea, fans got frustrated with the Glazer family for apparently hoarding the club's financial resources at the expense of the football team. It did not go down well with fans that for instance Cristiano Ronaldo was replaced by signing Antonio Valencia, Gabriel Obertan and a Michael Owen on his last legs. Sir Alex sold it to the fans that he did not see value in the market cue confirmation of fears that the old Scot was truly in bed with the owners.

The arrival of Louis van Gaal has been punctuated by a plethora of world class players in quick succession in a manner that is unprecedented at United. Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria arrived as genuine world class players at a time when we had all but given up competing with Real Madrid for the best players in the world. Whereas the Spanish giants remain the big fish in the transfer pool, there was a feeling that the shackles were finally off and that United could attract the best players in the world....more shockingly, even without Champions League football. With another 150m available to spend in July, we could yet be on the verge of another summer clearout of players ahead of the next league season.

Word from the club to journalists who have undoubtedly been briefed by the hierarchy at Old Trafford is that United are now more than ever willing to tap into their sheer financial strength to bring in the very best players in the world regardless of their age and price. Succinctly put, if a 28 year old who is among the very best is available for huge money and a 22 year old with huge potential is also available for a modest sum, United will sign the 28 year old for huge money.

It's a seismic shift in transfer policy that could easily see United boast of the very elite squads on paper man for man in the near future. The implications in all this could be damning as far as to the England National team (albeit who cares?). Will it rob us of the odd cult hero though? Shall we still be able to relate so fondly with some of the players that will don the club's famous shirt? Shall it feel the same as when we had an Ole Gunnar Solskjaer or Patrice Evra in the side? Foreign signings but who felt like Academy lads to us because of the really low transfer fees involved in their purchases.

We've been lucky to have a relative continuity of squad with a lot of older heads hanging around until the new lads establish themselves at the club to take over. Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney embody that at the club currently, and so we do not yet have to undergo the embarrassment of naming a player as captain who could be off in the summer.....much like what Arsene Wenger endured in attempting to keep his players.

You would imagine or at least hope that in the frequent turnover that will soon characterise the club, the scouting system shall be alive to the talents both at home and abroad that do not necessarily command huge transfer fees but could easily be cult heroes at Old Trafford!

*Finally, if you haven't realised by now that this article is a means of killing time off in this International break, then you really do love reading this blog.



    

Monday, 23 March 2015

UNITED TAKE THRESHOLD OF ELITE TICKET

What a time to be alive! There's so much fall out from the victory yesterday at Anfield that one wonders where to begin. For starters, with just eight games left to close another premier league season, it's fair to say that Manchester United have put themselves in one of the box seats for the big time in Europe next season. That, is the most important of all take-outs from the game yesterday.

Now that we've gotten that out of the way; let's talk about Manchester United playing Liverpool off the park at Anfield: Off the top of my head, I can recall 1997 as the last time we went there and sort of dominated the game in the way we did yesterday. Even then, Liverpool were very much in that game. Yesterday, it was only by illusion that they were in it. At 1-0 up, it felt like United did not need to score again to win the match. At 2-1 up, Liverpool were more worried about conceding on the counter than troubling United the other end. At the peak of our powers under Sir Alex Ferguson, we never went to Anfield and dominated the game like we did yesterday. If this is Manchester United still in transition under the van Gaal's philosophy then my word, what a treat we are in for when the job is complete!

We've faced mediocre opposition in the league and had to work De Gea overtime to keep us in games. After two games into this supposed horrible run of fixtures, De Gea has hardly earned his weekly wage. The only blot is obviously how he allowed Sturridge to beat him at his near post.

In rationalising what we saw yesterday, two things must be considered: Firstly, that all that possession based football United have been playing and indeed learning this season under the management of Louis van Gaal is aiding the side but going unnoticed. In finally learning how to keep the ball well, United are denying their opponents possession and there's not much you can do without the ball. We've had more possession against Arsenal, Spurs and Liverpool and that has held us in good stead in these games. Liverpool just couldn't hurt United in that first half because, they couldn't get anywhere near the ball. It's a style that will suit United more in Europe next season because it is unlike the kind offered traditionally by English sides, and perhaps explains their shortcomings this season in the Champions League.

Secondly, Ander Herrera and Juan Mata have confirmed, not revealed, that they should be part of any United line-up, any formation, that the boss finally settles on. It doesn't matter that Mata comes in from the left because the understanding between the two Spaniards is by telepathy. With Marouanne Fellaini doing the agricultural bit on the left with Ashley Young, the mix-mash in United's midfield is at the moment difficult to cope with. If the big Belgian does not pummel you into submission as he did to Emre Can and Jordan Henderson, the flair of the two Spaniards will cut you to shreds.
At last there is an understanding in play among the players that makes it look like something has been going on in training during the week.

Juan Mata though! Take a bow son. Regardless of what he achieves between now and the end of his United stay, he has burned his name on United's heart. Like Diego Forlan in 2002, his name will be sung on the terraces for years to come. Few United players score twice at Anfield in a game, even fewer will score a goal of such arrogance and class as his second.

Ashley Young did a good job keeping Raheem Sterling tracking back to defend in the wing-back role. It was a treat watching United maximise the flaws in a system that they have suffered under as well this season. Maybe the chopping and changing of formations has given the players an understanding of how to counter the various deviations in formations against teams.

Wayne Rooney's first touch yet again let him down and there is a real question as to whether he should be our penalty taker even in the absence of Robin van Persie. The evidence is that he has a very predictable technique and his penalty goals ratio is not as high as it should be for a leading penalty taker. Juan Mata for instance has a better scoring ratio from the spot attained during his time at Chelsea. Although it will go unmentioned because of the eventual result, with three minutes to play, that miss could have been a turning point in the season if Liverpool had gone up the other end and equalised. One of two things needs to happen: Either he changes his technique and adapts a less predictable one or he delegates penalty duties.

Few things experienced in the thrill of dreams at night ever come to pass in reality. So you can understand the pleasant shock when Martin Atkinson showed Steven Gerrard a red card, within 38 seconds of coming on as a substitute. That it happened at Anfield, in his final game against us was simply the stuff of dreams. How he easily makes himself the subject of perfect banter is baffling to say the least. Aside the fact that he departs with no premier league medal or that he slipped last season to let the title slip after instructing his players not to let it slip, we now have to find a new chant to immortalise that beautiful moment yesterday for when we next visit Anfield, even in his absence. That he came on charged having been the subject of abuse from the yet again brilliant following away, shows how much the chants get under his skin. They're certainly worth the trouble then.

In all, yesterday could also simply be further proof that United's style is more suited to the big games than the smaller ones. At the moment we're finding it easy to poke holes in opponents because they come out and attack us. Our problem this season has been getting the points of the feather-weights and not the heavy-weights. At home against Villa after the International break will be a good pointer as to whether we've finally come to terms with how to win when the opposition lines up two banks of 4 infront of their goalkeeper and play on the counter-attack.

The boss will be under immense pressure to keep the same line-up for as long as the same players are fit. We're at that point of the season where you don't want to find out if the players make the system or the system makes the players. That can be found out in pre-season. At the moment, it's still very much about consolidating our status in the big time---a feat that despite all failings this season, could still make this campaign a successful one.



Friday, 20 March 2015

THE DECIDER

Come close of leisure business on Sunday evening, we shall have a pretty good indication as to whether we shall be playing Champions League football next season.


With just 9 games left of the season, chances are there will be no more than three points between ourselves and Sunday's opponents Liverpool when the final league table is revealed in the penultimate weekend of May. Liverpool are the form team in the league and will therefore gather enough points to be up there whilst United, well, have spent quite a huge chunk of the season in the top 4 despite all their problems. It goes without saying therefore that the points on Sunday will be humongously vital in answering the most important question left in this season's league.

United showed a lot of their old selves last week in what was a pretty must win encounter against Spurs, and in doing so, knocked out one rival from the rat race. The fixture list between now and May presents United with an opportunity to do the same to every one of their top 4 rivals. The catch though is that United will be going into every one of these games as underdogs unless they can put away Liverpool on Sunday with the directness and verve that witnessed last week.

Brendan Rogers' side play the ultimate 'speed over thought' football in England. The youth in his squad allows him to play a brand of football that blows away opponents that are not up to the task of matching their energy. It is foolish however to put it all down to the style because in keeping 7 straight away clean sheets since we beat them at Old Trafford, the Dippers have exhibited a level of grit and determination to pull through some tricky assignments. It is only in their recent fixture that they dug in so deep to come away with all three points at Swansea. We know all too well, United couldn't muster the same determination to win there a month ago. Whereas Louis van Gaal has struggled to get things flowing with three at the back, Rogers, has found a way to get the best out of his group in a 3-4-3 formation that ironically was enhanced by our manager in 1995 whilst managing Ajax. The question our Dutchman put to himself then was: How can we get to play with the least amount of defenders without leaving ourselves exposed? Contrast that with his substitution last week on Monday in the FA Cup at halftime to replace Ander Herrera with the more defensively assured Michael Carrick when we already had Daley Blind supposedly screening a back four.

Anyhow, suffice it is to say then that the side we easily beat 3-0 at Old Trafford is not the same side we shall be up against on Sunday. For all their strengths however, Liverpool have obvious weaknesses. For starters, the same 3-4-3 formation that has worked wonders for them also leaves them vulnerable to width, much like the 3-5-2 did for us. The difference though is that they are so willing to defend deep and start attacks from their own defence that at times you struggle to keep up with them. Sterling for instance often picks up the ball deep into his own half. That in itself makes it difficult to man mark him because he could easily drag a player out of position.

What one really hopes for is that United avoid being open to the extent that they were last week (yes, despite our perfect performance vs Spurs). Even in the best of times, you know, the glory years under Sir Alex, we've never gone to Anfield open. The first 15-20 minutes will be crucial. Rogers likes them to blow teams away in that opening period, so it is crucial we keep our heads and steady the ship early on...more like withstand the pressure we shall inevitably be under right from kick-off. Indeed, it only took the first 60 seconds for us to lose this fixture last season.

As if the test of the form team in the league is not enough to mull over, our away form also begs of confidence. In fact, it remains to be sen whether United's performance last week as merely a fallout from the fact that we were playing at Old Trafford as opposed to one of those away grounds that has been the source of our misery this term.

For LVG though, the dillemma of what team to start on Sunday might have had his waste paper basket full all week with formations and how to fit in a couple of returning egos into the fold. I mentioned on Monday that the manager has a choice to make in light of Juan Mata's excellent link up play on the right wing with Ander Herrera all in  Angel Di Maria's absence. This is where management becomes a thankless task, but also why managers like him are on the end of high incomes. In all honesty, it can only be viewed as a win-lose decision.

If he keeps Juan Mata in the team and United get beaten, questions will be asked as to why he did not trust the club's record signing in our most important game of the season. On the flip side, if he recalls Angel and we lose, the argument will obviously be why he changed the team after United FINALLY seemed to play both to his and the fans' satisfaction last week against formidable opposition.

Of the two scenarios though, chances are that keeping the formula of last week will be less brutally analysed than changing everything all over again. However, I would argue that Rafael must at least have it in himself to do a better job than Valencia at right back. The need to use width to expose Liverpool back three is probably what will give the Ecuadorian the edge over the Brazillian. The other change I would argue for is for Di Maria to replace Fellaini in the side and play centrally ahead of the defensive midfielders. The speed of the game, and the close control of our opponents, much like the in games vs Swansea and Arsenal could put the big Belgian out of the game. Di Maria, however, in a free central role could be priceless on the counter-attack since it is likely to be our default form of attack on Sunday. He also obviously presents a bigger threat to whoever will be marking him than what Fellaini could muster. Mind you. It is not that it is a simple job to mark the big chest lad. It's just that teams have learned that you mark him by going to ground and feigning injury at every challenge for the ball. His reputation with his elbow goes before him. It is such minor details that can constantly frustrate what would be useful attacks.

Ultimately, and perhaps above all else, this is a derby. There's not been many occasions throughout the premier league years in which England's biggest sides are in direct competition for something. Certainly, the 2008/9 season is the last time and only time in premier league memory that United and Liverpool have really been neck and neck for the same thing in the domestic league. The bragging rights therefore are tinged with schadenfreude this time round. You'd imagine that the players will have the heart of fans on the day.

So far this season, the adage is holding firm that United have been most comfortable against top opposition. That will not fill any Red with any amount of confidence given that above all, this is an away fixture, but our two point lead over Liverpool should give us the confidence that whereas two out of three results are good for us, just the one will do for Liverpool, being the home team.

The International break follows fast from this fixture so you can imagine the pain of nursing a derby defeat over a fortnight. Fingers crossed, it will be a fortnight of endless replays of our latest victory at Anfield (with a winner at the Kop end!).

  

Monday, 16 March 2015

AND JESUS LAUGHED...

Because the answers we've been seeking all season were there all along. Because the players have it in themselves to do more than show up dumb squibs week in week out. Because this team is not as far off the pace as we've been led to believe.

In theory though, it comes down to one quiet statement Louis van Gaal made in his post-match interview.

''Tottenham are are team that like to play and so we had a lot of space..'' 

It perhaps affords an explanation as to why United, despite their faults, have not really been toasted by any of the bigger sides in the Premier League. It equally baffles that we've been toasted by Leicester City (of all teams) and similar teams of that kind have caused us all sorts of problems. It is therefore not illogical to conclude that United are still short on how to unlock teams that sit back in banks of 4 and hit on the counter.



In what turned out to be our best performance of the season, Louis van Gaal lined up United in perhaps the only shape that suits the talents of most of the players we have at our disposal. The suspension of Di Maria allowed him to name Juan Mata in the same team with Ander Herrera, effectively catering for the creative department whilst Fellaini and Rooney up top mixed Agriculture and finesse to deadly effect. With Carrick dictating play from deep, United were able to play with most players in their best positions hence ridding the side of the functionality and rigidity that has hand-cuffed us for swathes of the season. Mata played inside right in a way that is not akin to the traditional wing play of looking for the touchline and making a cross but in a technically astute way that provided an outlet for the midfield when it was crowded and then driving back in field diagonally to find spaces up top. It allowed for a variation of play between our wings and the midfield and as a result Spurs quite simply couldn't cope.

Questions will now be asked as to whether United are better off without another big name, Di Maria in the side. The starting XI vs Liverpool on Sunday cries out for the similar 4-1-4-1 formation we saw last night. Juan Mata certainly merits a place in the side again but at whose expense? LVG will certainly not want to chance the winning formula that has brought him his first excellent victory and performance rolled in one. Spurs were awful, but making them as such still takes some doing.

Wayne Rooney is an instinctive striker and he's good at it. His understanding of most roles on a pitch doesn't make him good at every role so you really wonder if the manager will make the mistake of entrusting him with midfield duties that are proper suited to better players in those positions. His midfield appearances were in a period when the 'twitterratti' bayed for a run of games for Radamel Falcao. Now that that thirst has been quenched, it's a no brainer that we should make use of the best goal-scoring talent the club has at it's disposal to maximum effect in this of all periods.

The only downside on the night was the accident waiting to happen that is our defence. Phil Jones has somehow fallen down the pecking order to below Chris Smalling. He's only second to Jonny Evans when it comes to how many nerves they can bag. The game was hardly a minute old when Jones gave a nervy, ill-timed, ill-directed back pass to David De Gea. It is only last week on Monday that we had the back pass debate on this blog and yet Jones quickly set United into the back pass mindset at the very first opportunity and with limited accuracy at that. He improved as the game wore on, but boy oh boy do we need some certainty in that department.

Chris Smalling was asked to keep tight on Harry Kane and boy did he do just that, and then some. Not many centre halves in the league have managed to keep the budding talent at bay but it seems Chris shall be handing out memos to defenders around the country on how to deal with England's next big thing.

Daley Blind was surprisingly untroubled by Andros Townsend for the opening half hour on that left hand side but wit appeared to be largely because Fellaini and Young tag teamed effectively to cause Spurs all sorts of problems on that wing.

Make no mistake about it though, this was a much needed win. It's hard to imagine how United would take in the rest of the season if we had lost our second straight game against top opposition with even bigger tests ahead. But we'll worry about that on the weekend. For now, we can only imagine ourselves laying claim to that second spot that has suddenly come into view. With all sides above and directly below United providing the opposition between now and May, you can see how United can easily dictate the shape of the final league standings, both to their detriment and advantage. It's at least reassuring that we shall kick-off at Anfield still in 4th place, and still in charge of our destiny.

Friday, 13 March 2015

FOOTBALL CAN BE S**T BUT SPURS VISIT


United players in the centre circle after conceding against Arsenal in agreement with the writer that Football can be S**te!
That general feeling of hopelessness and loss when your club has just suffered a major defeat in a season devoid of joy.It harms one or two vital organs of the body. It kills the point of life.  It's evil. Sadly, you cannot escape it. The newspapers, the podcasts, the TV Shows are all over the place these days that unless you rid yourself of all the human senses, you will sooner or later be reminded of a night that you cannot forget fast enough.

That's football. The only sure medicine to it moving on. Bouncing back. It's not a permanent cure because we shall for instance always remember that Portsmouth knocked us out of the FA Cup quarterfinal in 2008 at Old Trafford to deny us an historic second Treble that season. We moved on. It's time we moved on from Monday's defeat.

Among the many frustrations with Louis van Gaal from the terraces and the like is a tendency to fix things when it isn't broke. It's far from deliberate, because his stature as a perfectionist means that he is alive more to the flaws than anything else. The pragmatism that has defined his latter years as a coach does little to help ease the burden of watching United these days. It's different from last season because you know he will get it right when he stops being misunderstood by the rest of the world (that includes the players and fans).

The danger though is more imminent than that. Much more imminent. Tottenham Hotspur provide the opposition on prime time Sunday in a start of a run of game that will ultimately define our season. We're just a point off Arsenal in third place but it is Liverpool that are the biggest threat to us and Champions League football next season. We will still be 4th come kick off on Sunday because the Dippers play on Monday, but given the next fixture is at Anfield, there is a real possibility of dropping out of the elite places between this weekend and the next, never mind May.

And so, in a shootout for a season's target, does LVG get his players to continue along the line of progression of mastering his own philosophy or is time to put the brakes on that particular project and play to the truism that the players embody and understand if only just to get the results that could yet save our season. The decision is his to make, and ours to ponder over.

Spurs are by no means an agricultural side and so in the least, one hopes the manager will trust the footballing talents of our more creative midfielders as opposed to going with the big Belgian from the start. It's a welcome tactic towards the end of proceedings but it is disgusting to watch in the first half. The London side have a remarkable record at Old Trafford in recent years beating us in each of the last 3 fixtures after having recovered from 25 years without a win on our ground. Pochettino is too brilliant a manager not to be alive to our weaknesses in defence and attack so it is no use attempting to hide them. United are better off going for the kill on Sunday.

LVG (Pictured) needs to stick to what is working albeit inefficiently for now.
Spurs themselves still have Champions League ambitions. It means in perspective, qualifying for the Champions League is very much in our hands. We have a chance to dent the prospects of each of our rivals in what should be 10 Cup finals for us between now and May. It is imperative that the players leave everything onto the pitch. At least we as fans will take whatever results come our way if we've not been treated to watching folks stroll through the park only concerned about getting the next pass accurate.

Di Maria is suspended for this one so Juan Mata should not find it difficult to get back in the side. The feeling though is that Januzaj might be preferred. Regardless, it will mater naught if Ander Herrera, the best at the club in his position, starts and finishes the game. Goodness knows we would be in the FA Cup semi if he had played beyond half time.

With Arsenal having the fodder of West Ham at home on the Saturday, the pressure will be very much on come Sunday both from the top and the bottom. United need to stand up and be counted at this of all times in the season or God help us all we might need morphine come Monday, because Football can be S***e!


Tuesday, 10 March 2015

FINALLY THE BACK PASS BITES

A back pass in football is not one of the most obvious features in the game and yet it is a crucial element of defending. It affords a defence under pressure to use the advantage of a goalkeeper facing play to best deal with an uncomfortable situation. It's an important facet of defending...when executed perfectly. It is not, however, a foundation play. It is a form of last resort option---and goodness knows those situations do not come so often in a football match.

The crisis in United's play at the moment is that the back pass is being used as a foundation of play/attack. Manchester United account for the highest number of back passes in the top division in English football, which is damning considering that we are never under that much pressure in games to pass the ball back to the keeper, say, more than Leicester City or QPR or Burnley.

It is a highlight of the abject lack of confidence among United's defenders that they cannot fathom the idea of a defender being inches from them and getting out of that situation in a way devoid of passing the ball to David De Gea. It's a dream situation for any striker to be up against a side that often times knocks it back to the keeper because you live in hope that one of them passes will either be under hit or blind to your run through on goal.

In keeping with the norm, last night Antonio Valencia attempted one of the may back passes he and the rest of the defence had made throughout the evening, only that this time, it was under hit. Danny Welbeck is not a prolific finisher and wouldn't have scored last night if things at the back were in situ, but even by his awful standards, missing the target with an open goal was always going to be a tough ask. And that is how United extinguished their own hopes of silverware this season.

It's by no means a dead end from hereon, because we still have our season's target in tandem but something surely has got to change. Marouanne Fellaini is one hell of a player suited to the agricultural demands of the premier league but there are sides against whom he would readily struggle because of his inability to play with his feet. Swansea is one of them, Arsenal is another. In learning about the physicality of the premier league, LVG has got to get this straight. When United went to Stoke on Boxing Day, there was hardly a need to use Juan Mata simply because he was never going to be suited to the nature of the game. Fellaini would have loved the monsoon winds of the Britannia and the football (if any) that was played on the day. When United went to Swansea, the close control abilities and speed of the Swans meant every time Fellaini tried to be physical, he gave away a foul. It was the same old story last night.

Even so, United could still afford a poor Fellaini upfront if the manager had kept on the club's best midfielder beyond halftime. It's easy to see where LVG was coming from because our midfield was exposed to Arsenal on the break but what he forgot to jot down in his giant clip board is that Herrera's presence in the middle also poked holes in the Arsenal midfield throughout that first half. In opting for the solid foundation that was Carrick after the break, van Gaal ceded the freedom of the midfield to the London side and in effect made it more urgent that United pummel long balls to Marouanne. Against sides that are aesthetically good on the ball, the Belgian is better off a Plan B not a Plan A.

When Spurs visit on the Sunday, it is imperative that we match skill for skill and not attempt to undervalue the abilities of our own players with the type of football that hardly plays to their strengths. If United are to keep passing it back to their Number 1, then the players must have the presence of mind to execute it perfectly as often as they do it because of all the misplaced passes you can make in a match, a poor back pass is an almost certain fatal error.

Angel Di Maria, like Radamel Falcao, ought to have gotten into their heads by now the reality that in English football, you do not go down as easily as you can in other leagues to win a foul. You only have to look at the punishment Eden Hazard gets to understand how much of a thumping you have to endure in this league. Adnan Januzaj perhaps needs to read from the same script. Fairly or unfairly, it is damning when you boast more yellow cards for simulation than goals. Stay on your feet lads!

We've passed up our best chance to win the Cup in more than decade and Arsenal now have an opportunity to go past the record tally of 11 wins. It starting to feel that it will be ages before the famous old trophy gets back into our hands. A shame really, but not quite if in the meantime we somehow manage to get our hands on bigger prizes. Whether that will come to fruition is another debate. As it stands though, we have a clear 10 game fight for points to stake our claim for the big league next year. The psychological blow last night cannot be ignored but Sunday is an opportunity for the club to respond. Failure to win that and we could really come down crashing on our own weight before the season is out.

Friday, 6 March 2015

AND SO IT BEGINS...

Of the two tough draws we could have gotten in the FA Cup last eight, a home tie against Arsenal was the easier of the two. That conclusion has nothing to do with the current form of the two sides with Arsenal very much the form team heading into Monday's tie but everything to do with the fact that it's coming to a decade since Arsenal last won a game at Old Trafford. It's almost 4 years since they've beaten us in any form of fixture, hell, even during their most golden generation in 2004, we were the only side Arsenal did not beat throughout their unbeaten run---and ended it just for good measure.

In all, it boils down to a more than decent record against the Gunners. That is largely because Arsenal are one of the most predictable sides in world football in terms of how they will play. The rule is, if you are going to be predictable, be perfect at it so that whatever the opposition, you're play prevails. It's why Barcelona can be successful with that model of football but Arsenal can't quite. Similarly, Arjen Robben is one of the most predictable footballers in the game in terms of how he cuts in and lets fly into the top corner. So you know what he's going to do, but try stopping him!

That tactical naivety has cost Arsene Wenger in many of the big games he has been involved in but here's the worry: Not so long ago, Arsenal went to the Etihad and played for instance how United would play there and won the game. That performance was everything against the script that Arsene usually preaches from and it got them a most unlikely win. Less possession, less chances, but a 0-2 victory. The concern for United is that whilst we've been comfortable letting Arsenal play the football with us winning the games, we've since become a more possession based side with no teeth upfront as Arsenal seem to have assumed our style of smash and grab when it really matters. 

The danger for LVG is therefore to attempt to play Arsenal at their game on Monday night. United have a very successful blue print for Arsenal games that involves playing beautiful football but denying them the joy they usually crave for in matches. I mean, the last time we met them in this competition in 2011, we still managed to win 2-0 despite fielding a starting XI that comprised 7 defenders. Even before that, back in 2009, Luis Nani still managed to look like Ronaldinho by playing keepy-upy against Arsenal in a 4-0 4th round win. 



United have the psychological edge ahead of this one and the confidence of playing at the ground where we seem to click best. The first of the many tests to come in the next 6 weeks is an opportunity to build confidence ahead of the next. Goodness knows all manner of confidence in achieving the season's target could go up in smoke if we fail at the first hurdle.

The boss has described the game as an important facet of the 'rat race' for qualification for Europe and rightly so because these two sides reconvene on the penultimate weekend of the premier league season in what could yet be a straight shoot-out for a top 4 spot.

It's been a while since we were at Wembley in the FA Cup. Our last contribution there must have been Dimitar Berbatov's back pass of a penalty to Tim Howard in 2010/11 or thereabouts. Our last appearance there in all competitions was (can you believe) David Moyes winning silverware in his first game in charge (which he at the time attributed to Sir Alex, but you'd reckon he'd take it now) against Wigan Athletic. It would be great to see the lads out there again.

      
   

Thursday, 5 March 2015

WINTER IS COMING BUT UNITED ARE BARELY CLOTHED

In the end, it followed the narrative of away wins at the Emirates and St Mary's Stadium this season; United somehow won the match inspite of all the elements (including a minor storm of saliva). Had Anthony Taylor not been blind sighted and rightfully awarded a penalty to Newcastle in the 11th minute, we might all have been in a different mood this morning. United have been rather poor at coming from behind this season (in terms of going on to win the match) so falling behind that early on would probably have 'smashed' the confidence in the side.

It says a lot about the game-proper that off-pitch incidents have taken on much more significance. Jonny Evans and Papis Cisse were not about to wait for another 350 odd days for another Valentines Day to come around and so sought to exchange spit last night. Then Ryan Giggs became that dude that deliberately refuses to laugh at a funny joke when Louis van Gaal tagged his cheek in the euphoria of Ashley Young's (Bless him) winner.

The former incident will probably end up in a ban for the players involved whilst the latter has got them conspirators suggesting that it was evidence that Ryan Giggs does not buy into the philosophy of Louis van Gaal. An alleged disharmony that has come just in time to replace one that was extinguished earlier this month and indeed last night when David De Gea and LVG looked very much on speaking terms and far from the concoction that social media came up with. But I digress.


Here's the thing: The possession-based system that the manager has got us currently playing is not 'English' and as such is vulnerable to the unforgiving nature of the Premier League. It's why United are the most vulnerable of the lot competing for those Champions League spots. So much possession but devoid of ideas on how to use it. The familiar pattern is that United will win possession and camp around the penalty area of the opposition and switch the ball from one wing to the other hopping for something to happen. It is too predictable and easy to defend against. I personally feel that we should at least get the tempo up by a notch or two.

However, the feeling I get from the manager however is that he does not trust a lot of the players available to him, especially in the centre of that defence. Think of it this way: LVG was so shaken by the injuy sustained by Kevin Strootman prior to the World Cup that having Nigel De Jong (a not so bad holding player) was not enough to convince him to go ahead with the attacking 4-3-3. It comes down to trust, in the same way employers have those employees they would rather are doing particular jobs and not someone else however similar in traits.

I think LVG has played it safe. It's not ideal, and not within the club's DNA to be defined by anything 'safe' but here is a man whose success or failure this season hinges on a single goal---one that could be achieved or missed by the skin of the teeth in light of the league standings.

It's been easy for him to justify his methods with most of the results and indeed statistics but the litmus test is round the corner. Sometime between next Monday and the end of April, we shall be certain of what to make of United's season. The tests upcoming in both the league and the Cup are in many ways End of Term Exams for Machester United, because for all the weekly and monthly assessment tests done throughout the season, it will all count for little if the side is finally exposed at this stage of the season by the quality of opposition.

What LVG has in his favour is that he is a master at adopting to the opposition. United have not been shown up so much in the big games so far (in terms of results anyway) because the Dutchman has his team drilled to the opposition weekly by the minute detail. But just like the Netherlands went into the world cup as nowhere near favourites status, so will United head into the winter of the upcoming schedule. What is for certain is that it is bound to make for intriguing viewing as the boss attempts to protect the flaws of the current side whilst looking for an Achilles heel in the opposition. Everything about it is bound to be box office stuff because whereas David Moyes showed us all his cards too soon and hence made himself subject of judgement and sentencing, LVG has kept a solid majority onside, leaving many uncertain of how good he can be. Goodness knows you cannot let something go before you are fully aware of the full extent to which it can benefit you.

We'll know soon enough.

It is just as well then that the first of these battles is a matter of Death or the 'Gladiolli' on Monday night prime time.    


Tuesday, 3 March 2015

AHEAD OF THE TRIP TO NEWCASTLE

It's that time of the month folks! We're away from home in the premier league. Not even our best performance away from home last time out was enough to change the narrative of away days. The defeat at Swansea threw us in the middle of a rat race (according to the manager) for the Champions League spots.

It's smartly turning into a throw of the dice between Arsenal, ourselves and the Dippers for two places up for grabs. There are whispers that City could soon join the dog fight but a look at their next five fixtures before the Manchester derby in April suggests they'll more likely put more distance between themselves and the chasing pack than losing further ground on them.
There's obviously more threat from London in the shape of Tottenham Hotspur on the other side of the scale but they are more inconsistent than a very inconsistent Manchester United. They could easily come to Old Trafford next week and win the game but will just as surely drop the next three. With Southampton seemingly out of bubbles, it leaves three to go  into two.

For starters, we occupy one of those two spots so we can accurately assert that ahead of March's schedule, it is very much in our hands to achieve the season's target. The sobering reality though is that United are going to have to improve on performances away from Old Trafford if they are to hold off the challenge of Liverpool. Among ourselves, Arsenal and the Scousers, the latter two are higher up the form table than us. More than enough cause for concern, especially as we can only be certain of just maximum points every fortnight of games.

With games running out faster than a cheating husband leaves his mistress' house in the morning, the game at St James' Park tomorrow represents a clean shot at getting ourselves closer to the finish line. The closer that line gets with us still in the green, the better our odds. Tomorrow represents the proverbially last 'winnable game' of the very many we have had since the turn of the year as we embark on a series of tough challenges in March that will determine where we will finish.

Ideally, these games were not supposed to matter because the opposition we've been up against lately should have put us in a position with leverage. If United have not really been under pressure since they got into the top 4, now they really are.

We won this fixture last season 4-0 to continue our impressive away run then. Newcastle have not improved since that day and their of field uncertainties regarding the future of their ownership have left them rather uninspired on the pitch. Unfortunately for us, Manchester United in town is enough to inspire a football team of Sunday League players to perform on adrenaline. It's their Cup final and they'll be up for it.


Which bring us nicely to what we shall be up for ourselves. United have to increase their energy levels on the ball. The only reason Ashley Young has looked an adopted brother of Ronaldinho this season is because he has added an astonishing level of energy and will to his game. The calm passing that has personified the LVG era has enabled the opposition to easily get back behind the ball as United ponder on how best to cut through them. It's got to be faster. If it's going to be as ponderous as usual, then Juan Mata needs a game alongside Ander Herera. If you have to cut through butter, then get your sharp knives out. No point in trying to cut through butter with long Afro hair then.

    

Monday, 2 March 2015

OF PTS, LVG & UEFA CL

There's a nagging narrative going around through the media that because of the way Manchester United are playing and given the opposition in the run-in, it is still very much a crisis at United and therefore top 4 is beyond their reach.

Whereas everything about those opinions holds water, I feel that something about the narrative has been lost in transition when it comes to Manchester United. These are the brief facts: United invested 150m quid in the transfer window and signed a proven manager and are 1. expected to qualify for the Champions League 2. play the type of football that does justice to the calibre of footballers on their books. Never mind the FA Cup, the above two objectives are what the general public expected and still expect of Manchester United this season.

Now, 27 games in and the first objective is still intact because United have spent longer inside the top 4 this season than out of it. However, because United are unconvincing in games in terms of performances, the watching world believes that the first objective is in danger because the second one has not been met. It's not entirely an unreasonable conclusion because most times performances determine results but it is not a definite conclusion.

That however is not the argument here. Louis van Gaal was never going to do things the Sir Alex way or the Manchester United way if you like. He was always going to be his own man. That meant most of the things we've come to love or admire about United were going to be subject to his ways....to use a word we all hate, subject to the philosophy he's embedding in the club.

Here's the thing: United's no holds barred approach during the Sir Alex years was a reflection of the traits of the man himself. That Scottish-cum-English bravery that made him the ultimate risk taker, the gambler. There's nothing bad about gambling if you are good at it, and boy wasn't the Old Scott good! Instinct rather than ration was the order of the day in his days. It's why many of the decisions he made seemed irrational at times, and outrig

htly bang out of order at other times. From signing a player like Eric Cantona or Eric Djemba Djemba to letting a player go like Ruud van Nistelrooy or David Beckham, it usually was down to instinct----HIS instinct. Whether borne out of his ego or otherwise is another debate for another bank holiday but in Sir Alex's world, 1+1 can be equal to 3. I mean how else would one explain an FA Cup quarterfinal against Arsenal in which he puts out no less than 7 defenders as part of his starting XI and still nets a 2-0 victory!


No marks then for guessing that the decision to appoint David Moyes as successor was down to one man's instinct. Be that as it may, you can totally understand why the decision was made. Replacing a man that thrived on personal instinct could only be mitigated by a man that prides himself in sort of similar levels of bravery and instinct. David Moyes was as close to Sir Alex as they could muster. The big difference though is that Moyes is NOT a gambler....in fact he wouldn't even be allowed in a Casino.  

The crux of it all is that LVG is neither a gambler nor a man that operates on instinct. Ladies and Gents, here's a man that like the Scientist, believes in ration. In his world, everything can be defined and explained down to the minute detail. In his world, 1+1= and is always 2. You cannot possibly expect to keep with the norm when you hire this type of manager. What we've all come to love about United has to be tempered by this one truth. He's dug up the pitches at Carrington and yet we expect the same ethos. Not going to happen. In curing the Post Traumatic Stress (PTS), the Dutchman is firstly attempting to rid us of our pragmatic love of the past as we get introduced to his kind of pragmatism. 

Admittedly, LVG has in recent years learned to be pragmatic enough to achieve results when he feels that the tools at his disposal are not up to the task but that is not to suggest that he has trashed his traits of building up major club institutions to own a brand of football that will outlast him at the club.

The reality is even in the rebuilding, there are bottom lines. The above two objectives alluded to earlier are the essential bottom lines set for the club but to the fans and indeed to the wonders, only the first objective really matters. Regardless of how they do it, if United are in the top 4 come May 24th, it will have been a successful campaign.

The elephant concern however still remains in the room: Will the current performances cost the club in the more difficult games to come? The answer is who knows? We'll just have to wait it out because the evidence can be misleading. Against Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal this season, United have a 56% win record. It's nothing next to brilliant but it is also far from the shambles people are predicting it to be like. In fact, United's problems this season have been largely caused by the alsorans of the league. It is conceivable for instance that United will have a tougher time at St James' Park on Wednesday than at home against Arsenal in the Cup on Monday week.

At the moment, the club's home form is keeping them in the green. That much is clear. What has been conveniently swept under the carpet is that Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City are worse off points wise this season than they were last season and yet United are both positionally and points-wise better off than last season. It will not matter to any of those sides if they make the top 4 and neither should it matter if United crawl into the top 4 by the skin of their teeth!

Finally special mention to Ashley Young for, you know.....doing stuff.