Wednesday, 29 April 2015

AND FLOM'S PLAYER OF THE YEAR IS.....

It's that time of the year folks. The season climax is fast approaching and we are back to that predicament in which we have to select the most outstanding player of the year. In a season where you do not win the league or at least have an outright top scorer in the league, it is, admittedly, difficult to single out op performers.

Case in point, after the horror show that was last season, there were so  many mediocre performances from the outfield players over the course of the season that David De Gea easily dominated the club's Official POTY gala. He was the only logical and yet safe choice. To award it to anyone would have been farcical to say the least.

Moving on to 2014/15, and one can rightfully draw comparisons between last season and this season. Regardless of the improvements that the club has made in recent weeks, United looked very much as clue-less on the pitch as they did last season for most of this season, albeit with a touch of twitch about them. The football was as dire but crucially the faith hardly wavered, at least not to the levels it did 12 months earlier. With a poorer away record than David Moyes and a heavier defeat at Goodison Park, Louis van Gaal has retained the benefit of the doubt over the course of the season. His personal achievement is not that United are almost certainly going to achieve the club target of a top 4 finish but that he gets to get another shot at it without much heresy.

In a second consecutive trophy-less season, here are FLOM's nominees for Player of the Year.

1. DAVID DE GEA
Where else to begin but the number 1. With speculation rife that the Spaniard is off to Real Madrid in the summer, the Number 1 has proved his class over the season and made a case form himself as one of the best goalkeepers in the world. Perhaps the perfect testament to his talent is that even at his level, he is destined to get better as goalkeepers, much like wine, tend to get better with age. That he has developed a nasty reputation of getting beat at his near post recently is evidence of room for improvement.

He is probably responsible for about 10 of the 65 odd points we have accumulated so far. It is not often that United concede as a result of his individual errors. His best performance of the season was early in October in a 2-1 home win over Everton. Despite having four games left, it is unlikely that he will better the top class saves at the death that essentially won United all three points that day.

2. CHRIS SMALLING
That we are two names into the nominees and it's only members in the back-five in contention is a sobering reality of the times at Manchester United now. Chris has matured into the kind of defender that Arsene Wenger would gladly put in a bid for. He was a shoe in to be out in the summer alongside Jonny Evans in the manager's predicted rebuilding plans. The England International has however emerged as the fastest learner of the Louis van Gaaal defensive model so much so that he has played himself into a new contract in a season when United's defence has been the sole focus of their weakness. He recovered from his lowest point of the season after that red-card in the City derby in November to score a 4th goal in the reverse fixture almost 6 months on. Mind, that is only one of four goals contributed over the season, a tally identical to that of Danny Welbeck in the league this season.
As far as defenders go, he is the Club's defacto Defender of the Year this season.

3. ASHLEY YOUNG
How is it even possible that come the end of the 2015 season, Ashley Young is still a Manchester United player? If you genuinely thought L

ouis van Gaal was going to put up with the 29 year old winger especially after getting rid of possibly better players albeit in different positions then you must be the ultimate optimist. After naming him a 'senior player' over in pre-season in the States, Ashley has gone from literally stealing a wage (like Anderson used to) to being one of the most crucial players to the first names on the team sheet. That he has todate been involved in the last 4 goals that the club as scored is testament to how crucial he is now to the club. It might be a tad to late for him to cement his status at the club especially if the club has another heavy transfer window but credit where it's due, Ashley has fought for and won his place in the side inspite of competing against the club's most expensive purchase. He has had to improve more than most; mentally and physically. The greatest compliment Louis van Gaal has given him is that he is one of the few players that have kept their places in the team despite the 78,67,678 formations that the manager experimented o this season. As a full back, wing-back, winger, forward, Ashely has not attracted the same criticism that those who have not had to prove themselves have.

AND therefore, with credible mentions to Ander Herrera, Wayne Rooney, Marouanne Fellaini and to Michael Carrick (all of whom are let down by form, injury or lack of sufficient playing time over the season), it is with a slice of humble pie that this blog names ASHLEY YOUNG as United's Player of the Season for 2014/15. He shades David De Gea simply because the Spaniard is the defending champion of this award and that it's hard to imagine when the ex-Villain will next be in a position to claim this award.

Congratulations Ashley!    

Sunday, 26 April 2015

WEAKNESSES IN THE PHILOSOPHY EXPOSED


Let's get a few things straight: In playing 'easy on the eye' football, United are not different from the Arsene Wenger model. Yes I said it! Arsene prides himself in pretty football that is supposed to be winning football against any opponent that dares comes at you without a plan or with an unsure backline. It is the model against which his and one of the greatest sides in football history was built. The Invincibles of Arsenal in 2004 had the combination of grit and flair to such optimum levels that in games against them you were never sure where you lay in terms of wining either battles.

Fast forward to Louis van Gaal and his philosophy at United and you get the immediate idea that what he intends for United's style is not far different from what Arsene has been preaching all along in England. In dominating possession in just about all their fixtures this season, United have all but mastered one of the facets to winning a game of football.

There are a maximum of five different ways of scoring a goal in this sport: Eye of a needle pass, set-piece, pile-driver,counter-attack or simply absolute luck. In whatever style you choose to arrive at any of these means, you must be convinced that your favored style is supremely efficient so much so that you can always rely on it to produce for you. It's why Barcelona and by extension Arsenal will patiently pass the ball around you in the final minutes of the game still chasing that goal even when you 'park the bus' against them. You have to be an excellent side on the ball to rely on the eye of a needle pass. United are not YET there. You need a physical presence to make set-pieces count. Bar Fellaini, United not quite a physically accomplished side and van Gaal acknowledged as much recently. However, United are blessed with a few who can hit the target from range. In fact all forwards in the full squad can achieve this but it is, unfortunately, rarely seen as an option and so the pile-driver option often fizzes out as well. In getting acquainted with LVG;s style of play, United have the advantage of mixing it up to cause plenty of problems for the opposition. They can still score the perfect goal as games against tough opposition have shown and they can still get physical when they play to Fellaini's strengths (which at the moment amounts to having a good game on his behalf). United also have Ander Herrera and occasionally Wayne Rooney who can have a go from range. It is variety that United failed to explore at Goodison Park today.

LVG is not alien to the Ajax-cum-Barca Academy that invented tiki-taka football at the dawn of the 21st Century. When he talks about 'the philosophy', he is therefore not far from a school of football he perhaps invented or at least helped develop. It is no wonder then that United are currently playing the best football since they were last held as European and then World Champions. Easy on the eye if effective and a joy to behold once effective. Except that the kind of football United purport to play going forward is not alien to the Premier league. Arsenal have been here before and there is no need going through their decade long search for a league title before we realise a twitch to it may be necessary to get United faster to the target.

In winning the possession battle and yet failing to find a way past 2 banks of 4, United were no different from the away days we have been treated to this season--Nobody willing to roll their sleeves up for a dog-fight in a league where you shouldn't come off the pitch with clean shorts. In the preview, I clearly alluded to how United had previously struggled to deal with Everton on a tight pitch that enabled them to easily play on the counter-attack. United had to be sharper in their passing and faster at that too. United had to respond to Everton counter-attacks with their own counter-attacks. As it was however, Everton always had their shape intact whilst United struggled to muster chances of note. It was a blatant failure of countering the opposition game plan. The worry is that United had at least 6 days to work on this.

Anyhow, the pattern of the season of dropping points at teams in the bottom half of the table was in full flow from the opening minute when United sought to pass their way through Everton. By having Fellaini in the starting XI, United are blessed with an ability to have two systems at play at the same time. However, none of the creative nous of Mata, Herrera, Young and Fellaini came to the fore. The 'working system' has so far depended on those midfielders getting goals and yet none of them seemed close to one today. Perhaps the absence of Carrick is more crucial to the system than we imagined. The big Belgian missed a sitter in the opening period whilst Mata got his contact horribly wrong in the second half.

Whilst it could all be dismissed as a bad day at the office, the question will linger this week as to where United go from here. Robin van Persie certainly has a look-in again especially after injury to Wayne Rooney whilst you feel Di Maria can now build a case for starting against West Brom next Saturday in what is now a must-win game. What is for certain though is that LVG has a decision or two to make, and they are big ones. Very big ones.          

Friday, 24 April 2015

AT THE ENEMY'S ENEMY

In the week during which Manchester United marked 12 months since the sacking of David Moyes, it was defeat in Sunday's upcoming fixture last term that cut the string between the Real Soceidad manager and Manchester United.
Word is that the display in Greece at Olympiakos was the final straw for the bosses up top but defeat on Merseyside against his former club mathematically ruled out United's chances of making the Champions League and activated one of the clauses of Moyes' six year contract to his detriment.


As it is, it will be a different Manchester United that walks onto Goodison Park on Sunday lunchtime with the Red Devils having secured one foot in the Champions League next season. Defeat at Chelsea last week has quietly drawn United back into a mini rat race with Manchester City for the last automatic qualifying place to the elite competition. Indeed City play on the Saturday and so there is every chance that come kickoff on Sunday, United will be the ones occupying 4th place on the log.
That in itself should be incentive enough ahead of the game.

The 6 game winning streak is gone and with it the tough run of consecutive fixtures against the top sides in the league (bar Aston Villa). It's fair to say that in the big games, United have established themselves as 'the current team'. As Chelsea strode to third place in the league last year, it went slightly unnoticed that they had come out on top in the mini-league of the country's top 5 teams with 16 points out of 18. United are currently joint top of that league with Chelsea and hence have put themselves in position to launch an assault on the title next season without fear.

However, as the last two campaigns show, topping that mini-league is not the prerequisite for being the Champions. The consistency of doing it against the alsorans of the league is the jackpot. Last season, Chelsea were ultimately hurt by the points they dropped to sides they should be beating. Dropped points at places like Crystal Palace or at home to Sunderland ultimately cost them the big prize. It's hard to think of United's season today differently. Don't get beaten home and away by Swansea and imagine where United would be on the log. Add to that the priceless points dropped at Leicester, Burnley, Sunderland, et al and United would be at least level if not ahead of Chelsea in the log ahead of this weekend's fixture.

Therein that lament lies the context of the game on Sunday. Everton are not having the best of seasons but it United have found it difficult to travel and breakdown teams that sit back with two banks of four. United have been allowed to retain possession of the ball in harmless areas. The crux on Sunday will lie in playing in and around the penalty box of Everton to sustain pressure on them. In all likelihood United will yet again come out on top in the possession and passing stats but lessons from last week should be taken on board on how to score through a congested penalty box. The shooting from range has to be better, the balls into the box must improve while the speed at which United break must better the resolve of the opposition to get as many bodies behind the ball as possible.

We should have Marcos Rojo and Daley Blind available to ease the need to have Wayne Rooney play in the middle. Despite the captain's poor return of goals on Mersyeside, he remains the best bet for one if up top. If Michael Carrick is available, the team pretty much picks itself bar any new injuries.
Goodison is an old fashioned tight pitch that will make it easier for the home team to get bodies up and down the pitch. The speed and precision of our play will therefore play a huge part in the result.

We are still very much involved in yet another mini-battle with Arsenal for second place. With the Gunners coming to Old Trafford on the penultimate weekend of the league season, the build up to however finishes second starts this weekend, especially considering that they host Chelsea after our game.

Last week was a 'free one'. The pressure was never really on United to get a result at Stamford Bridge. This weekend, is back to the expectation business.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

TRANSITION IS OVER, THE PRESSURE IS BACK ON


With great abilities comes great responsibility. The targets have been modest since David Moyes successfully dragged a team of Champions into mid-table Premier League status. Having missed out on European football altogether, Manchester United would be afforded the 'luxury' of going into a season with the prime objective of a top 4 finish.

In that regard, it is true that the job after the successor of Sir Alex was the one you would want as a manager. With the club still coming to terms with the new realities of lowly finishes, the man after the man after the man was always going to be given; A) time to sort it out and B) perhaps more crucially, a target relatively easy to accomplish.

At Manchester United, it has taken Louis van Gaal the longest time at club level to get his much famed philosophy into the veins of the club. Everything at United works in a process now. In fact, one can argue that the spiky press conference after the game on Sunday in which he blasted a reporter for interrupting his response was in irritation at having the thought process of Q & A disrupted. Perhaps the most revealing testament to his determination to stick to the modus operandi of his Philosophy was in drafting Robin van Persie in the U-21s fixture with Leicester City at the King Power Stadium last evening. The Philosophy rises above compatriotism, we learnt.

Juan Mata reports that in the dressing room post Chelsea when the players sought answers from the Dutchmaster as to why they had come up short despite sticking to their instructions, he praised them for sticking to his and now their footballing idea. Indeed, more than anything else, United won more admirers for their performance at the home of the Champions elect. Reducing Chelsea to a Championship looking side trying to sneak a result in the third round of the FA Cup was no mean feat for a side who only 12 months back could not stand toe to toe with Everton.

United are back in the big time. That much we now know. However, being there comes with added responsibilities, the kind that Liverpool could not meet this term. Another transfer window of ins and outs will mean that United will now be held to a higher standard. Come August, United will be required to represent the biggest threat to Chelsea's crown. It will no longer be deemed 'okay' to finish in the top 4. In fact, the fact that we have managed to put up some minute sort of title challenge for all of 1 week this term means that the bar will be so high next year that only the league title will do for United next season.

This is why United have to get the next transfer window right. The squad has various weaknesses but most are negligible, because for instance Antonio Valencia, for all his weaknesses, is rarely mentioned in opposition circles as a weak link when coming up against United whilst Daley Blind possesses enough football intelligence to cover in numerous positions with discipline. With Chris Smalling having come of age under Louis van Gaal, central defence is suddenly not as badly off as it looked mid-season when none of Evans, Jones and Smalling looked capable of doing half a decent job there.

What should concern van Gaal and Ed Woodward by extension is that United do not have a player in their ranks that can replace Michael Carrick. Carrick, being a 30 year old plus is on 1 year contract extensions as part of the club's policy. It means we are way off in getting someone in there to ease the transition of moving away from dependence on Carrick. At the moment, the entire shape and effectiveness of the system seems to depend on his availability. Wayne Rooney cannot keep being asked to do a job at which he is not the best at when nobody is doing the one job at which he is 'fantabulous' at.We also risk compromising the brilliance of Ander Herrera in his position because we do not have a ready made replacement for the slick Geordie. It effectively makes finding a replacement top priority this summer.

Unfortunately for van Gaal, he had already penciled in Kevin Strootman to fill that void next season but his cruciate ligament injury set-back at AS Roma means that United have to look elsewhere. Paul Pogba could be on the market again, but there's a job on Ed Woodward's hands if he is to beat off competition from some of Europe's other giants for the Frenchman. He's certainly one for whom crazy money shall be thrown about this summer.

Ultimately, the pressure is now squarely back on United to add onto their trophy haul. The first trophy of the post-Sir Alex era is the launchpad upon which United can build on the Great Scot's era. In whatever capacity that comes, it will be crucial. United still boast a very young average age in their squad (24) and so have in them a generation to grow successful together. Having come to terms with the Philosophy of the manager, the final step, the one that distinguishes successful eras and unsuccessful ones, is cementing those beliefs with trophies to instill inherent confidence in the group ahead of challenges from both the domestic scene and on the continent.
  

 

Sunday, 19 April 2015

PRIDE IN DEFEAT

These are the facts: Chelsea beat Manchester United 1-0 today. Chelsea will win the league title, possibly within the month. But Manchester United can be proud of where they are in terms of restoring the glory days.

Saturday's trip to Stamford Bridge was the most difficult opposition the country has to offer and yet United put on a performance that was a two-fingered salute at all those that claimed this United team are light-years behind the England's Champions-elect. Forget the fact that Jose brought out his largest bus to camp just ahead of Thibaut Curtois, United had the chances to score two or three today and better finishing would have easily won United the game on another day.


To put it into perspective, it is difficult to recall the last time Chelsea were played off the park on their own turf in the league. There was no Samuel Eto'o hattrick with 50 minutes played and United looking all over the place. The shame that was last season's reverse fixture had long been dispelled form the minds. United were supposed to be taken to be taken to school here and the difference in class was supposed to be almost tangible. Far from it, Chelsea were rightfully in awe of the improvement United have made and so set about not to lose the game. Up to the 38th minute when Eden Hazard scored with Chelsea's first shot in target, Stamford Bridge observed in disbelief as last season's 7th placed side reduced Chelsea to defending corners and hoofing it long to Didier Drogba. Perhaps they deserve credit for having the best defensive structure in the league but it is a truth that was public knowledge even before kick-off. What was uncertain was whether United can dominate a game at Stamford Bridge in a manner similar to the way they dominated one at Anfield. 

We shall never know whether United could have gotten a better result had they not been struck by an injury crisis in the most vital areas of their team. As it was, a few players had to temper their usual roles with the discipline of covering the team's deficiencies in the absence of Daley Blind and especially Michael Carrick. That United still won the midfield battle is testament to the genius of Ander Herrera who is increasingly playing himself to cult-hero status at the club. The Spaniard was denied what some referees would interpret as a stone-wall penalty right at the death but Mike Dean chose not to add fuel to the fire that is the 'campaign against Chelsea' according to Jose Mourinho. 

As predicted on this blog, Jose Mourinho had Kurt Zouma all over Fellaini and it served him well. Ashley Young meanwhile found himself up against a couple of opponents everytime he tried to get space to cross. He so often opted to lay it off to the brilliant Luke Shaw on the gallop. Wayne Rooney should have buried one such cross in the first half but his left foot is distinctly not as good as his right. Radamel Falcao was unlucky to smash the frame of the goal late in the second half. On what proved to be another tough outing for the Colombian, he was unfortunate not be awarded a foul when Terry barged into him with an elbow to win the ball that eventually led to the goal from Chelsea won the game. 

United struggled to make decent of the final ball as so often the crossing from out wide was poor whilst when it was good, the finishing was badly wanting. The law of averages counts for so much in sport that you felt that this was the game in which the penny would not drop for United. 

Still, 9 points out of 12 in the so called tough run of fixtures that was supposedly destined to rule United out of the Champions League is a dream return. Improve the backline of this team and the sharpness up top and United would easily walk the league next season with a brand of football that will make a mockery of Chelsea's title triumph. The pattern of the game suggests the system (or philosophy for that matter) is well embedded in the players so much so that we were not all at seas because we missed a couple of better players in certain positions. Shout outs to Paddy McNair and Luke Shaw for seamlessly slotting into the team after lengthy spells out of the side.

It's comforting to be the team that other top sides adapt to in big games. That is the signature of a top team at the peak of their style of play. Manchester City dropped their traditional 4-4-2 against us and opted for the cautious 4-5-1 whilst Chelsea played virtually 7 defenders infront of Curtois to keep out United. In the latter years of Sir Alex's reign, we found ourselves in a position of having to adjust our play to adapt to the top sides in the league. This game smacked of the 2010 Champions League final at the Bernabeau in which Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan needed 27% possession to beat van Gaal's Bayern Munich 2-0. If we are where Bayern Munich were at the time, then it's hard not to marvel at the job Louis is doing at the club. Louis van Gaal intends to leave United in a position where they do not have to answer to anybody in terms of how they play. Subconscious and Capable. Not far away on this evidence. 

Manchester United might have come away from London without a point, but the rest of the premier league has taken note of an inevitability: United are back in business. You have your work cut out to try and beat them. Chelsea certainly know that they were in a game today but most crucially will be unnerved by how quickly United have become as good as they are.     

Friday, 17 April 2015

FOR SECOND PLACE

So there is minute chance that Manchester United, against all human odds, could yet become Champions of England this season. In what would be the greatest comeback to league success in football history, United would require both Chelsea to mess it up big time in a manner not too dissimilar to how we let City back in it 3 years ago.

At the time, United held an eight point lead going into the last 7 games until we somehow contrived to lose at Wigan Athletic and the rest is bad history. Notably though, City were favoured by the fact that they had to play us in one of those final games and so our biggest mistake was going into that game just the three points ahead of them.

Jose Mourinho's Chelsea are miles, not three points, ahead of us in the league ahead of our meeting at Stamford Bridge at tea-time tomorrow. The only way Chelsea lose the league from this position must involve a tag team effort between Manchester United and Arsenal, the league's form sides. Both would have to claim wins against the Blues to draw them 6 points closer (1 point ahead of Arsenal, and 2 from us) and make rat race for the title. It is a most unlikely scenario, not least because of Jose Mourinho's know how to get over the line but there's almost nothing else to get us excited for the last 6 games of the season.

Perhaps defeat at Stamford Bridge will breathe life into the race for the Champions League places, but last week's tremendous victory against City and the manner of it all but booked a place in the Champions League next season. The way United are playing at the moment seems to have a touch of auto-pilot about it and that is not least because of more or less a settled team for the first time in ages. Everyone seemed to understand their roles so much so that it is no longer necessary to second guess and double-analyse the pattern of play.

But therein lies the challenge ahead of us at Stamford Bridge. Jose Mourinho is many things but he is no fool to be caught unawares by a problem he has had all of a month to ponder over. In many ways, Saturday will be the ultimate tactical test against the new found 4-3-3 fluid system under which the penny has suddenly dropped for us.

In all probability, Jose shall put someone like  Zouma, as an extra defender on that left hand side of Marouanne Fellaini and possibly along with Ramirez to double up on him and keep him. It is already apparent that the left hand side has been a channel through which United have stormed to all those victories against top sides. Blocking that is but one of the means of cutting off the danger lines. If Zouma and Ramirez get that right, Nemanja Matic will simply be left with the task of nullifying the threat of Carrick and Herrera in the middle. After sucking all that in, he will rely on the brilliance of Hazard or Fabregas to win them the game or hold on for a draw.

It might not play out like that but the Portuguese pragmatist will have spent the week working out exactly how to stop United. It is testament to the leaps and bounds we have made this season that we head to the home of the Champions-elect with our hosts sweating with tactics to stop us as opposed to us working on ways to contain them. The best sides in the world do not adapt to opponents, opponents adapt to them. We shall see who blinks on Saturday.

For Louis van Gaal, Plan B may need to be the focus ahead of this tie because so far, United have not been forced by any opponent to change it from a 4-3-3. If we play an hour with nothing doing, the temptation to try something different and give Chelsea more to think about will increase and hence the need for a ready Plan B. We've played more systems than the stars in the night sky this season so changing it in-game should be child's play to the players involved. With a bench that should include the likes of Di Maria et al, Take 2, should not be too difficult to fathom.

Chelsea are very much likely to play on the counter-attack right from the off, and so Phil Jones and Chris Smalling have their work cut out to halt the Belgian's progress. With a high pressing line adopted recently, expect a few long balls over the top to the mercurial winger. It means there could be a couple of one on one races with Hazard vs any of our centre-backs, a race that has only one winner all over it. His desire to dribble his way into the penalty box gives him an advantage of using his quick feet to win penalties for his side. In fact, Jose is so reliant on his enterprise that taking him out of a game is about half the job done against his Chelsea side.

Regardless of the tactics, Saturday evening is odds on to be a very entertaining time for the arm chair viewer, it is afterall Jose Mourinho vs Louis van Gaal, perhaps the league's 2 most tactically astute managers. United can dream of the title if they come away from London with all 3 points. It is a predicament that Jose would very much want to avoid. With Arsenal not involved this weekend because of the FA Cup, United could claim second place for the first time this season.

 Ultimately though, Saturday is a first big test for where Manchester United are in terms of their ability to challenge for the title next season. Having not tested ourselves this term against the cream of Europe owing to our absence from European competition, Saturday's opponents are the toughest we can possibly face in the country and so it is a very welcome yardstick to measure just how much more United need to make it to the summit of English football once more. It will definitely send shock waves through the premier league if United do to Chelsea what they have done to the rest of the top sides in the league.


Tuesday, 14 April 2015

HOW LOUIS VAN GAAL HAS REVOLUTIONARISED UNITED'S GAME

The biggest challenge facing the manger after Sir Alex Ferguson was whether he would keep United playing the Fergie way or try to assimilate his methods into the Sir Alex model. Either way, the decision would have to be a tough one because Sir Alex's football had kept Manchester United at the summit of English football and so there would be little sense in altering it.

Perhaps the biggest mistake David Moyes made during his time at United was to try to do both. The Scot sought to assimilate his methods into the Sir Alex model while trying to keep what was working under Sir Alex in motion. As such, he often found himself where he was at logger heads with the senior players in terms of telling them what to do or reminding them of what they are used to doing under Sir Alex. In the end, the Scot only succeeded in creating a double-edged sword for himself, the very sword he fell on 9 months into the job.

In came Louis van Gaal, a single-minded Dutch tactician who has gained a reputation of saying he is right, getting about to working on it, and in the end proving that he was right afterall. If United were looking for a manager who would take on the shadow that Sir Alex and indeed his stand casts upon Old Trafford, the PE teacher turned 'trainer coach' was their guy.

Coming from a similar generation of coaches as the Great Scot and boasting a CV that would rival any manager in world football, Luois van Gaal was hardly awed by the task at hand. In fact, he sought to use his appointment to taunt a few names, not least Jose Mourinho because his CV now read calls from Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United. Therein that taunt perhaps lay a shrug of appreciation of the job he had just entered into. Not unlike a surgeon about to partake major surgery on a client, van Gaal probably thought to himself that the job was a steep one, but was not beyond his tried and tested skills of management. van Gaal would attempt to do the one thing that everybody thought didn't need changing at United after Sir Alex, the football.

There was talk at the height of Manchester United's unconvincing start to the season that the players were getting bored with the ''repeat! repeat!'' training sessions. When van Gaal laid out his plans to the players, it was all about repeating the same drills, same style, same instructions over and over again. Rehearsing is a means of storage of information in the long-term memory. It falls just in sync with the summary of the Dutch trainer's philosophy: Unable and Unconscious, Able and Conscious, Able and Unconscious.

In repeating training drills of his style of play, van Gaal aimed to achieve a style of play that was embedded in the minds of the players so much so that the game was played in the mind. It's why he repeatedly referred to coaching methods as 'coaching the mind' back in pre-season.

In the last few fixtures, the fruits of his much claimed philosophy have come to the fore. Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher emphasised the details of this yesterday. United have adopted a narrow packed system when they do not have the ball. The defenders have been asked to push up so high up the pitch that at kick off in the Manchester derby on Sunday, there were no more than 25 yards between Chris Smalling at centre-back and Wayne Rooney. As such United have added a high pressing game to their play that effectively denies the opposition of peace on the ball. It is not to dissimilar to the compact nature of Barcelona's style of play when the Catalans lose possession. Jamie Carragher noted the 25 yard distance between the entire Barcelona team in the recent El Cassico. van Gaal did the ground-breaking of that philosophy at Barcelona and so it was easy to see where he was going with this Manchester United side.

Secondly, it was interesting watching Wayne Rooney record his lowest number of touches in a game (35) ever for Manchester United. Neville rightfully pointed out that the Wayne we have come to know is one that will not allow himself to be starved of the ball even if it means dropping as deep as the defence to get involved. What Louis van Gaal has successfully done is to keep Wayne in between the two central defenders of the opponents and in effect, deny the opposing full-backs help from their centre backs. It is such a discipline-demanding job that you wonder how LVG managed to get the all-action Wayne Rooney to tuck in and sit tight while all the action was going on around him.   The reward has been to afford Ashley Young, Marouanne Fellaini 2 or 3 v 1 situations down that left hand side or leave Juan Mata free of central attention on the right hand side to race onto through balls unattended to. Guessing LVG's thoughts post-match, he probably must have had Wayne Rooney up for his best game of the season despite having the fewest touches in a game in recent memory.

Questions remain abound as to whether the players in the first team are currently the best at executing those instructions or whether the system would still rip most sides apart regardless of what they do For now though, the credit has to rest with the Dutchman for successfully changing the Sir Alex model of playing football at United and being successful at it, all in his debut season.
    

Monday, 13 April 2015

UNITED TAKE BACK THEIR CITY











If ever we needed a moment to truly find out when the Manchester United of old was back, Sunday was surely it. Forget Louis van Gaal and tactics, Sunday was about passion, verve, a will to win---traits that whichever side demonstrated in abundance would win the match.

United and City are both suspect defensively and so it was never going to be about which side kept out the other, but about which side wanted it more. When Sergio Aguero made it 1-0 City inside 8 minutes, you could immediately see that this was set up to be a high scoring affair. It made for a brilliant spectacle because City relied on recent history to get at United right from the off, while United, all too aware of City's deficiencies and exuding a belief in them were not about to hang around and tend to the problems at the back. Therein lies the mental shift of the old United.

We can now say that Louis van Gaal has not only brought United back to playing exhilarating football, but has also successfully planted seeds of belief among the players. Going behind that early against a side that has dominated this fixture recently was a test that could have easily been failed by the United we've come to fear for in games of this magnitude. The hunger and desire shown by Ashley Young in particular in that opening 20 minute period was a joy to behold. The England winger has really come leaps and bounds from his form last season and suddenly he is dislodging talent worth 60m quid from the team and putting in man of the match performances in games of this magnitude. He is very much up there in the reckoning for Player of the Season.

It is though about the collective unit as it is about individuals in this United side. Questions will abound when decisions have to be made about  places in the first team for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria, and Robin van Persie in the near future, but the side that has gate-crashed United into a late summit tussle with Arsenal for the runners-up spot has hardly put a foot wrong to warrant being changed for individuals. Certainly, at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, bar any late injuries during the week, the vote lies firmly in keeping the side unchanged.

Why? Because the  would-be vulnerable people in the side are in fact our best performers. Juan Mata, Ander Herrera, Ashley Youn and Marouanne Fellaini are performing at a level that none of the replacements from the bench can guarantee so it's really a no brainer! If it ain't broke, don't fix it!

Nine point from games against Spurs, Liverpool and City is a dream scenario. Not even the most optimistic fan had United down for that tally after that run of games. Champions League football is virtually secure now. In beating each of the sides in that run of games, United have secured one place after another. With third place in the bag now, the task very much shifts to second place, a feat that is very much within our means considering that: A) Arsenal are the ones occupying that position and B) That we are just one point off them.

Talk of the title has to be tempered for now, but United have the opportunity to build on the belief in the side ahead of a season in which they shall be required to win the title. Beating all the top sides in the division is one way to about it and United are making it one hell of a ride for fans so far!

Supremacy in the England has recently been synonymous with supremacy in the City of Manchester. Whereas it might not be the case this year in terms of the league title, it's certainly great to have the City back. Manchester is once again, UNITED!

  

Friday, 10 April 2015

FOR THIRD PLACE

Manchester United's fixture list, albeit daunting, has given them an opportunity to cement their place on the log by directly impacting on the results and form of their rivals. The victory over Tottenham effectively ended the London club's Champions League hopes while defeat of Liverpool at Anfield also effectively took Brendan Rogers' side out of the equation for the elite berth. It would take a cataclysmic collapse by one of the current member of the top 4 to let them back in.

Going forward, the challenge has been to look up rather than down on the log. United were therefore able to capitalise on the awful form of our noisy neighbours last week to move into a season-equaling high third place in the standings, a point off second place. With the gap between second and fourth a matter of a couple of points, United have a job on their hands to next seal third place.

What an opportunity then that Louis van Gaal and his side have on their hands this weekend. City are rocking, rattled at how far off the pace for the title they have fallen. They have lost the invincibility about them that helped them put away sides with ease. After dominating this fixture in the league for the last few seasons, City look vulnerable heading to Old Trafford on Sunday and it's a chance you feel Manchester United ought to take. 

Beat City, and suddenly United will have created distance between third and fourth. It is a rarely discussed topic but fourth place is only half a ticket to the Champions League. The new draw format of the qualifying rounds means you have a double header against a very decent European outfit at the start of August. Anyone who saw Arsenal take on Besiktas earlier this season to earn their place will have known that the Gunners left blood on that pitch to come away with a 1-0 scoreline on aggregate.
The point is though that when it comes to the final reckoning, getting third place will be an even better achievement than merely making it into the top 4 places. That status will be on the line this Sunday.

As mentioned City have triumphed at Old Trafford more often than any other side recently. They will know exactly how to play at Old Trafford. Their 4-4-2 system, despite working against them this season, can establish dominance in games when the opposition stands off them. For all their troubles, City are the league's best side at keeping the ball. It's a trait that should make for an interesting spectacle come Sunday because Louis van Gaal has his United side using ball retention as a means of keeping the opposition at bay. It means the side that is more effective in their moments of thrust shall do well in the column of the most important stat---the score. United have been mixing it up well lately in terms of executing their chances by method of precision as well as having the agricultural nous of Marouanne Fellaini to mop up set piece opportunities. Fingers crossed that continues.

Yet again, the expectation is that the manager shall stick to the same players and the same formation that has worked well for us recently. The suggestion is to include Angel Di Maria in the side from the start but one has to understand that until confidence in the team is restored to unshakable levels, United cannot go into games of this magnitude with a style that easily gives the ball back to the opposition. Yes, Di Maria is the embodiment of risk and all at United but you only had to see the difference in that second period at Anfield when he came on to realise the difference having the ball and losing it cheaply can do. He has been coming on and contributing an assist which makes him quite the weapon to have on the bench for the last 30 minutes. It is for the same reason that Valencia (who has been unsung this season despite holding his own)  has been a safe bet for LVG in that right back position for all the talents and abilities of Rafael. van Gaal is not a poker player, he is a scientist and so will not throw caution to the wind when he has a tried and tested formula available. It's all because United are currently still fragile in terms of confidence. We are not yet a team where for instance in bad times the goalkeeper and midfield can say they trust the defence. Therefore, the soldiers that can be trusted to strictly execute the manager's instructions shall be trusted for the most important of assignments. It's that simple.    

The season implications aside, this is a derby above all else. There has been a psychological shift of superiority that has been bestowed upon our rivals since Sir Alex retired. Sunday is an opportunity to address that at a time when there is a genuine feeling among us and indeed them that United have turned a corner and are re-charging the machine that was so desperately damaged in the earth-shocks and tremors that rocked the foundations of the club when the great Scott departed.

The saying back in August was that the team that finishes above City would win the league. Well in hindsight, we might not win it even if we finish above them but we could yet win the mini-league of Manchester and restore our lost pride on the pitch against them.
    

Monday, 6 April 2015

FULL SPEED AHEAD

AT A GLANCE
It is a most known trait that confidence is perhaps the most crucial element in sport. Often times the belief in your own abilities trumps the challenge before you. It is a truth that is moreso relevant in football.You only needed to see Nemanja Vidic perform in the immediate fixtures after Fernando Torres got the better of him in 2009 to see how much of a role confidence can play regardless of the inherent talent in an individual.

Manchester United are now oozing a level of confidence that was last seen a couple of seasons back. There is an aura about the way United have gone about their fixtures of late that makes it difficult to comprehend a few individuals that still think there is not much difference between David Moyes and Louis van Gaal. The ultimate difference perhaps lay in his post-match press conference. The Dutchman told journalists that his aim for the last 7 games was a late title charge to eat into Chelsea's 8 point lead over United (despite the still tough run of fixtures left). Compare and contrast that with Brendan Rogers who publicly gave up hope of Champions League football after defeat at the Emirates put his side eight points behind United.

Confidence is but one of the good things about United lately. There is method to the way United have gone about dispatching teams lately. The level of control that United have been able to establish in games lately is the stuff of Champions. Tim Sherwood was at a loss to explain why his side never looked like they would get anything from the game. He did explain though that United 'managed' the game. They picked out the moments they would attack with abandon, sit back and retain possession, then see the game out without losing control of proceedings. Add that to the precision of execution that United have applied in scoring their goals in the last few games and it's simply the stuff of dreams.

THE MATCH
As is the norm under Louis van Gaal, United hogged possession and hardly let Villa have a sniff. The irony though is that in this period when the club looks like it would walk the league if we still had five months of the season to play, David De Gea has been one of the few liabilities. He followed up his error of allowing Sturridge to beat him at his near post last time out with another in allowing  a Benteke shot to creep under him. Good work Dave, a couple more and Real Madrid will be forced to wait yet another season.

Having a number of players that are ready to pull the trigger from in and around the penalty area means that we no longer have to burden ourselves with breaking down entire defences right up to the six yard box. It's a welcome addition to the style of play that will go a long way to improving our lives.

Either side of Ander Herrera's goals was a Wayne Rooney cracker that further attested to his instincts as a striker. He's no midfielder, at least not a decent one for a top team, but he's quite useful further up. In fact, at the moment, it's hard to make a case for Robin van Persie in terms of being restored to the starting line-up when he makes his come-back. The Dutchman has scored double digits again but there is no real deficiency of goals at the moment to warrant an immediate restoration that could upset the balance attained.

ANDER HERRERA
It's amazing how everything we knew about this lad has come to fruition and then some. That it has taken him this long to convince the manager that he is a 'line-up' player has been one of the mysteries of our season. At a time when we were getting bored with the decade-long question of who would United replace Roy Keane with in the midfield, along came the question of who would replace the departed Paul Scholes after 2013. I've blogged before that Ander is 80% Paul Scholes but I might have to revise that figure to 90%. Think about it. Here is a midfielder that is not afraid to get stuck in, presses the opposition so vigorously in a perfect execution of the manager's philosophy, has joint-high passing accuracy in the team, joint second number of assists in the team, and scores goals from midfield with an accuracy that we've not known before (100% in the league). Look around all of Europe and you will only find a handful of midfielders that can give you that total package in that quantity.

United have had a long term problem of goals from midfield since the ginger prince departed. Michael Carrick proved not to be the type that ghosts into the box and that left a huge burden on the front one or two to provide the goals. A lack of variety of goalscorers in a side makes the team predictable to defend against. Herrera has since solved that problem. With 7 goals this season, despite only starting little more than a third of the season, he has become a wild card goalscorer for us. It's not just the goals though, the variety of net busters in him is quite diverse. From the straight forward shots like he hit on Saturday to the sumptuous volley at Yeovil Town to the criff-tithe flick early in the season at Leicester or the extreme improvisation of body adjustment to score at Preston North End in the Cup, the lad has them all.

That he celebrates his goals with the passion of a fan and speaks like one to the media, the little Spaniard has already made a strong case for our signing of the season. It would be amiss if the Manchester United midfield going forward is not build around this lad.

IN CONTEXT
Ahead of the derby next weekend, United could not have been in better shape. The manager appears to have a settled team from which he can plan a methodical approach to games. Five wins on the bounce in this league is no mean feat. To think this the first time since 2011 that United have gone into a Manchester derby as the favourites is a measure of the strides made. (I blog this as City are currently 2-0 down at Crystal Palace). We've gotten such a poor recent record in this fixture that you would be hard pressed to imagine a time when we shall be better placed to get the result we want from this fixture.
More on that later this week, but for now it's full speed ahead for United!



Thursday, 2 April 2015

UNITED SEEK EASTER JOY IN WATERSHED FIXTURE

The first half of the gruelling fixture list was accomplished at aplomb with Louis van Gaal outwitting two of the most tactically astute managers in the league, Mauricio Pochettinho and Brendan Rogers. In doing so, Manchester United effectively resigned both sides from Champions League contenders to Champions League hopefuls. As it stands, one of Arsenal and or United will have to suffer a meltdown in the space of 7 games to lose their status.


It's a well earned reward then that in the watershed fixture ahead of games against the top two sides, United are at home against a side in the lower half of the table. At home against a lower tier side is a combination that has worked well for us this term enroute to establishing the best home record in the league. Our home form is just about the only reason our reason still has life in it.

The biggest draw this weekend is not that we are at home against Aston Villa but that the two teams either side of us in the log are facing off in the early fixture before our game on the Saturday. It means, if the form book and indeed the script are to be followed, we could be looking at real daylight between ourselves and that dreaded Europa league spot. 8 points to be exact if Liverpool lose at the Emirates, a gap that will be decisive regardless of the fixtures we still have to play.

But first to the matter at hand: Tim Sherwood has transformed Aston Villa since he took charge about a month ago. It is notable that even when Villa were at their worst back in December, we still failed to beat them at Villa Park. But such has been our away form that relegation certainties like Leicester City looked like Barcelona when we visited them back in April. Although the joke is on us that Tom Cleverley is going to Wembley and not us, Aston Villa should be there for the taking on Saturday.

However, unlike the duo of top games we've just won, possession will not be up for grabs on Saturday. As sure as the sun will rise from the East on that day, so shall we boss the ball on matchday. The question is what we shall do with it. We've struggled to break down sides that sit back with two banks of four against us, especially away from home. It's been easier at Old Trafford because of the sheer size of the pitch that has made it quite difficult to keep United out for 90 Minutes.

Our struggles were down to the absence of our two genius midfielders in tandem. Ander Herrera and Juan Mata are now very much apart of the furniture of the first team that it shouldn't be a problem finding inroads in the Aston Villa defence that could yet feature just one recognised defender.

The International break could have yet cost us a couple of players.Chris Smalling was ill for England and so had to come off so that could be the one change from the side that performed so well in the last couple of games. It was interesting watching him bring out the ball from defence for England in his brief cameo on Tuesday. He is learning the art of a cultured defender fast and so it will be a shame if injury yet again halts his good progress.

In the main though, it will be the general expectation from fans that the boss keeps the same line-up for the third game running to continue to harvest the understanding and continuity of first fully balanced side/formation that he has come up with this season. As I've blogged before, this is not the time to find out whether the players make the system or the system makes the players. With only a month left of the season after this, the points are dear. You do not want to flirt with experimentation at this stage. That can be saved for pre-season. The fear though is that a Saturday fixture might come too soon for players that will travel 15 hours to Manchester from South America and the like. That remains the only likely cause for numerous changes to the team.

It's a measure of the expectation in this fixture that a worried colleague of mine who is the ultimate pessimist predicted a 2-0 win for United as opposed to the 7-0 and 9-0 of my other colleagues. Of course football has a way of kicking you in the teeth and turning the world as we know it upside down but United have just one job on Saturday, win!

Confidence is sky high heading into derby week, but goodness me it will be deathly nerves all over again if United somehow bottle-up this fixture. It's a mini-holiday this Easter period, and hence quite a load of time off work to digest the next result, chances are it will be a great one!