Tuesday, 26 May 2015

THE COMPLETE 2014/15 SEASON REVIEW




For many reasons, Manchester United's 2014/15 season can only be accurately labelled at the end of 2015/16. Having been 'excused' with a transition season under David Moyes, the stay of execution was extended into the Louis van Gaal era, albeit with modifications. United were not expected to win the title but this time had to make the Champions League places as a matter of necessity in terms of the implications on and off the pitch.

Louis van Gaal arrived at Old Trafford just days after he had guided Netherlands to an impressive punch-above-their-weight 3rd place finish at the World Cup in Brazil. Taking the reigns officially on 16th July meant that for the second season in a row United were left way behind by their rivals in terms of the meticulous planning that should go into the transfer window. With a squad full of dead wood from the David Moyes era and desperate for balance, the manager had a job on his hands to get the squad in shape within a month that also included an unhealthy number of commercial-filled pre-season friendlies across the pond.

United did find time though to complete the club's most lucrative transfer window with Luke Shaw, Ander Herrera, Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind, Angel Di Maria and the shocker of them all, Radamel Falcao (loan) each putting pen to paper for a total of 150 million pound sterling. If nothing had happened to usher in the new regime at that point, the flood of new arrivals right to the death of the transfer window and the numerous departures that included (but was by means limited to) Javier Hernandez, Shinji Kagawa, and local lad Danny Welbeck definitely did.

Suffice it is to say then that the playing personnel at Manchester United became finite on the 2nd of September, some three games into the new season. Not without consequences though. United would get off to their worst start in the Premier league era that included an opening day home defeat to Swansea City. When MK Dons thrashed a decent United side 4-0 in the Capital One Cup, you'd have been forgiven for thinking that Louis van Gaal was determined to out-do David Moyes. Indeed, 10 points from the opening 13 games saw United ruled out of any title race at the dawn of November.

It has to be mentioned though that it was very apparent from early on that United had not quite got the balance in the squad that they would have addressed with a more meticulous summer window. The 4-0 home victory over QPR that had many of the new signings make their debuts was the exhibition of attacking talent available. That exhibition would spill over into the first 65 minutes at the King Power stadium. United suddenly had an exhilarating verve about their approach play that a that moment, yours truly thought we were going to walk the league.

What happened beyond that 65th minute at Leicester defined 2/3 of the rest of the season. Having started the campaign with a back 3 that had treated us so well in pre-season, van Gaal modified it to include 'defensive wing-backs', if you may, in Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young. Rafael's injury list made it easy to relieve him of right back duties whilst Luke Shaw was told that he was not up to the required Manchester United fitness levels. In making those choices, van Gaal quickly developed trusted generals, in a formation (that changed when defending and changed in attack) that was designed not necessarily to win games but definitely not to lose them. Into the wilderness of the bench went Ander Herrera and Juan Mata and in came the hitherto injured Michael Carrick and Marouanne Fellaini who suddenly became useful in the eyes of the boss after one Monday night second half display at the Hawthorns on at the end of October.

As fans cried out for the manager to reflect the club's traditions of risk and reward, van Gaal stifled Angel Di Maria, emphasised ball retention and steered United through a run of just 2 defeats in 23 games to take and then keep United into the top 4 albeit without looking likely to mount a title challenge. In contrast to the thrilling stuff at the start of September, this was dull and lifeless football that was geared towards safe results more than anything. Unfortunately for the fans, this was to remain the case for the longest chunk of the season.

We drew with Tottenham Hotspur over the festive season (in a game we admittedly should have won) and lost at home to Southampton. Every other opponent was well within our means (yes including Arsenal at the Emirates!) and yet we still contrived to drop points at a hapless Aston Villa, at Stoke and at West Ham.

The common denominator in those dropped points is being away from home. Old Trafford quickly became our points haven-cum-heaven. Indeed, our first away win of the season came in the most fortuitous circumstances at Arsenal. The Gunners had United under siege for the entire first half before a Gibbs own goal via a deflection from an Antonio Valencia drive opened the scoring. That luck revisited us at St. Mary's stadium to come away with 2 goals from our only two shots on target by Robin van Persie. The highlight of the first half of the season however was a glorious 3-0 thumping of Liverpool at old Trafford in a revenge-scripted encounter. It was those results, added to a credible draw at home with the Chelsea that, more than anything, kept buying Louis van Gaal just enough credit in the bank at a time when the fans were slowly getting unnerved by his persistence with a 3 at the back system. It wasn't just about the 3-5-2 though, many players were desperately out of position, no least the captain Wayne Rooney who is not up to the task in midfield in ways that say Ander Herrera, sat on the bench at the time would have been. And so by the time the fans chanted for a 4-4-2 in a drab-looking away match at QPR, the sight of Phil Jones preparing to take a corner kick must should not have shocked us as much as it did.
   
And then. Everything suddenly clicked. The penny finally dropped or call it what you like but all the work into the manager's much proclaimed and acclaimed philosophy (Can't believe I got this far without mentioning it) bore fruit. The irony is that this happened at the most daunting phase of our season. In truth, that run of 2 defeats in 23 games hardly manifested top tier opposition. United were suddenly faced with a run of fixtures that included Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal (FA Cup), Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal (league) in the space of 7 weeks!

If any of us had been given a pick of the period in which to suddenly click into life, we'd all have taken that run. In hindsight, that run of wins saved our season. In beating Spurs at Old Trafford, we effectively took them out of the race for the Champions League. In beating Liverpool at Anfield, we knocked them off their newly-acquired bearings that had threatened to aid them to displace us in 4th. Between Juan Mata's brace at Anfield and the end the season, Liverpool won just 2 games to the end, having been unbeaten since they left Old Trafford in early December. In winning the Manchester derby quite handsomely, we restored pride and made our trip to Stamford Bridge irrelevant in the context of a top 4 finish.

The downside is that we seemed to tail off at the end when the games became easier and a top 4 place seemed a formality. Losing consecutive games to Chelsea (understandable), Everton (unacceptable) and West Brom (unacceptable) led to a confirmation of observations and indeed an admission by the manager that his philosophy was so far suited to games when the opposition attacked United. Breaking down teams that sit back and hit on the counter remains the only incomplete phase of Louis van Gaal's methods. It is something that you hope is addressed in pre-season and by extension the transfer window so that it is not carried into the new campaign.

United's golden victory in the context of the season's target came at Crystal Palace when a hard-fought 2-1 victory all but sealed our place in the Champions League for next term. To achieve it with a couple of games to spare was probably down to the manner in which our rivals for that position fell apart but United, in finishing top in the elite league of games against the top six, fully merited their place.

When the post-mortem was tallied, Radamel Falcao's 4 goals for the season were not enough to earn him permanent terms. Angel Di Maria, despite 10 assists, struggled to justify his club and league record transfer fee for various legitimate reasons whilst Luke Shaw struggled to remain injury free despite his obvious talent.  Ander Herrera and Marcos Rojo proved to be the best value for money purchases in that order with the Spanish midfielder earning the vote of confidence from a one Paul Scholes. Daley Blind is not Michael Carrick but he has proved to be a valuable utility player after making light-weight of the task at left-back during the run of important wins in late March and April.

Collectively, United struggled to score as many and as ruthlessly as their talent demands. United's weaknesses in defence have been well documented throughout the season but we were heavily out-scored by the rest of the members of the top four. That Wayne finishes as our top scorer with 12 is in itself an indictment. Whereas Wayne can be excused having had to contend with midfield duties most of the season, he has not really lit up the world when he has played there. The following campaign will be three games old when he hits 29. Robin van Persie is already on the wrong end of 30 whilst James Wilson could yet be loaned out next season. It leaves United, for all their attacking prowess on paper, short of a consistent goal threat for next term. Indeed the midfield has been the highest contributor of goals this season for the first time since 2007 (when Cristiano Ronaldo made it difficult to categorise strikers and midfielders).  All the sides above us in the league have had a main striker that has notched 15 plus in the league and 20 plus in all competitions. The arrival of Memphis Depay probably goes a mile into solving that problem but you feel there is need for a more consistent goal threat up front.

It will not have gone unnoticed that United seemed to lose an attitude about them that has defined the club. Even though the boss made reference to the 'spirit' of the players over the course of the season in getting United that 4th spot, there were hardly any 'spirited' comebacks over the course of the season. All too often, United seemed to crumble into their shells whenever they went a goal down. It is not to suggest that there was no in-game come-back at all. Far from it. The desire shown to get back after going behind in home games against Chelsea and City as well as the late points secured at the Hawthorns and at Upton Park was commendable but that is barely a handful of games and yet we've needed that never say die attitude more times than we can care to remember during the season.
Indeed, it was not until Preston North End in the FA Cup Fifth Round in February that United won a game under Louis van Gaal in which they had gone behind first.  

The Cup runs were poor even though we exited the FA Cup at the quarterfinal stage at the hands of the potential winners, Arsenal. MK Dons made sure our League Cup run was over even before it started. Regardless Arsenal's lucky scalp at Old Trafford to take our place in the FA Cup semi-final, Yeovil Town, Cambridge United and Preston North End had done enough to expose our flaws even with their collectively meagre resources.

The club also suffered a plethora of injuries throughout the season to key players. It is an issue that has not been addressed at the club for quite a while since Sir Alex's final years. There is no doubt for instance that United would have easily made the top two if they had Michael Carrick fit for as long as Chelsea have had John Terry. Often times it is such details that make the big points difference between clubs at the end of the season. Here's to better luck next term.  

Ultimately though, Manchester United and Louis van Gaal achieved the season's target in making the top 4 but 2014/15 should ideally be looked back on as a transition season; a first step in recovery from the wretched season under David Moyes. Whether we shall accurately look back on it as such however, depends on whether United kick on in 2015/16 and mount a title challenge next year in a bid to win our trophy back.

Player of the Season - Ashley Young

Goal of the Season - Juan Mata vs Liverpool (a)

Signing of the Season - Ander Herrera

Best Academy Breakthrough - Patrick McNair

As has been the policy of this blog, there shall be no reaction to rumours throughout the summer regarding the club's transfer business. However, as always, an evaluation of the window is provided just before the season gets underway. United head over the United States again in 50 days or so for a shorter pre-season for games against Club America, San Jose Earthquakes, Paris Saint Germain and Barcelona.

Till then, cheers!

 

     

      

Monday, 25 May 2015

DAMP SQUIB

Well that was energy sapping wasn't it? We tried and failed to kid ourselves that Manchester United would put up an end of season ball of a performance to sign off 2014/15 and yet the reality was that a team devoid of motivation to go for the kill was always going to, well, not really go for the kill.


Louis van Gaal, probably in defiance of any suggestion of having settled on formation, sent out United in a 4-1-3-1-1 with Daley Blind as close to the back four as Phil Jones' shadow. Victor Valdez made his full debut whilst Angel Di Maria made a rares start wide left in a somewhat mish-mash shape that saw Ashley Young inside-left.

Suffice it is to say that for all the pace and attacking intent in the team, United hardly got going. Take Wayne Rooney's first half shot that tipped over the crossbar and Ander Herrera's couple of drives out of the highlights reel and you will be left with pretty much nothing else of note regarding United. Except of course the season wouldn't be complete without Marouanne Fellaini getting himself sent-off at least once. The elbow-heavy Belgian has had a few let off this season but it was hard to make a case for his defence this time when he stuck one in, late, on Paul McShane. Given the size and hence obvious weight of the hair-laden number 31, it was easy to see why his victim needed all of 8 stitches before he could resume play. Louis van Gaal rightly slammed his second substitute and confirmed that he would start the season in the stands. For Marouanne, his sole prayer should be that United do get to miss him in August, for he has made it easy for the manager to work around his inclusion in what could yet be a new look team at the start of next season.
It was awful for a lot of the players on show yesterday. Victor Valdez and his central defence plus Ander Herrera were probably the only ones that deserved a pat on the back. The former Barcelona custodian showed all his experience in dealing with more pressure situations in a match than he would have in all of his time at the Camp Nou. His performance was topped off by a couple of top class saves that did enough to blur our memories of a first half clanger in which he dropped the ball from a cross. He did do enough though to win the highest rating on the day. 

Angel Di Maria lasted all of a few first half minutes and had to be withdrawn because of a hamstring injury. It's fair to say this league has taken a right old toll on him. Wayne Rooney, just from injury, had another stinker of a game in what we have come to believe as his best position, upfront while Adnan Januzaj tried to to flicker but was all too often repelled by the sheer raw effort of Hull.

There shall be a wider and more contextual look into Manchester United's season this week but little of it shall have anything to do with this particular game. The job was done well before yesterday and the verdict on Louis van Gaal was handed out last week. There is no point therefore in looking any more into Hull vs Manchester United yesterday if only because of the damp squib it was.

Friday, 22 May 2015

THE SEASON FINALE

In more ways than one, Manchester United's final fixture of the season has taken on a broader significance for the TV camera than we would have expected when we had a glance at the fixture list last summer. In fact, it would be fair to argue that in terms of the remaining 'issues' in the league standings, it is proceedings at the KC Stadium that will be most closely monitored by neutrals and respective fans alike.

Not so much for Manchester United though as it will be for Hull City (or is it Hull City Tigers?). Last week's stalemate against Arsenal all but answered the 3rd and 4th question so bar a totally unscripted tally of results and swing in goal-difference, United have little motivation to win. What is even more unlikely though is Louis van Gaal turning up with the sole ambition of doing former United captain Steve Bruce a favour by rolling over. Not with the chance of still finishing third available however remote it might be. Expect the Dutchman to have fully recovered from any alcohol-induced actions on Tuesday night to get his side beefed up as always to win a game of football.

The expectation is that there shall be a mix of youth and experience on a day when Louis can potentially extend his record of the number of players he has given a debut in his first season in charge. Certainly, with the U-21s winning a third league title in 4 years, there is a talent pool just above the Academy level that is awaiting its chance. They'd still have to contend with already established breakthroughs in Adnan Januzaj, Tyler Blackett and Patrick McNair taking their places in the team ahead of any of them. It's a shame Perreira is away on national duty because he is one of those you'd imagine would have gotten 90 minutes on Sunday.

As far as the 'Selecao' for the regulars is concerned, Wayne Rooney and David De Gea are the only question marks in terms of those that were not hitherto ruled out for the rest of the season. It means Robin van Persie or Radamel Falcao could yet be blessed with 90 more minutes of this season. Also, at a time when the future of the goalkeeping position at Manchester United is up in the air and indeed in the balance, Victor Valdez could make his full debut for the club in what could be an audition for more permanent terms of his employment as the new Number 1. For van Gaal, there's nothing to lose in starting the veteran Spaniard here even if De Gea is fit. The two know each other well but it remains to be seen whether Victor can hold his own in the terrains of the Premier League.  For the rest, it's about how they got through the week's festivities (POTY, Golf, et al) and who the boss wants to pick.

It's been a topsy-turvy season (and we'll get into the detail of that in the season review) but one where United can kick their final ball with a look back on it with a merited degree of satisfaction, if only for the fact that we are back in Europe's big time next year. Whereas it would mean relegation for good ol'Steve, we would love an end to the campaign in the signature mode that can only be right for Manchester United. Win.
  

Monday, 18 May 2015

STALEMATE

The performance was good. The result was not as. Where have we heard that before? Louis van Gaal bemoaned the fact that Manchester United are yet to muster a formula for killing of games after losing a lead yet again this season. The boss was modest enough to admit that it is the sole difference between his side and Champions Chelsea.

After dominating Arsenal for the best part of an hour, the boss was critical of his side for remaining open in the final stages of the game when instinct should have been to close out the game. In truth though, United would have even seen out the game in their open state had the manager not bizarrely brought on Tyler Blackett for Marcos Rojo. Rojo was not injured but the boss claimed a lack of 'match rhythm' forced the substitution. Surely he could have lasted the final 10 minutes without requiring an oxygen mask. It was another case of van Gaal over-thinking and over-qualifying situations. It usually leads you to 'fix' things that are not broken and perhaps therein lies part of the reason why United have not been able to close out games.

The boss also bemoaned a lack of taking of chances by his side to kill off the game. Chance conversion has been a bit of a bother this season as a whole. Perhaps the genesis of the problem is the lack of a reliable 20 goal striker. For different reasons, Wayne, Robin and Radamel have not been that for United this season. As a result, the midfield has taken up goal scoring duties. In fact, so reliant have we been on our midfield for goals that over the past two months, I can only recall Wayne's goals against Tottenham and Aston Villa as the only goals scored by a striker for us. Quite a damning verdict.  

Thankfully though, that was as bad as it got for United yesterday. It was a party atmosphere at the ground on the final home game of the season but not short of sub-plots. You do not need to read in-between the lines to interpret from the manager's comments that David De Gea could have played his last game for the club. How apt then that Victor Valdez made his home debut, albeit for just the closing stages. Old Trafford might have just witnessed a ceremonial hand-over. A passing on of the gloves if you will.

Radamel Falcao also took opportunity to 'wave goodbye' to the fans that have supported him throughout a nightmarish season for him. It will be a minor shock if the club exercise the option of keeping him given what we've seen this season. At the moment, it feels that only a drastic re-negotiation of his transfer fee would salvage his United career. Short of that, he was the right player at the wrong time.

In terms of individual performances, Ashley Young topped the lot. He turned it yet another 8/10 performance that backed up why he is this blog's player of the season. I honestly hope that he gets some form of recognition at the Player Of The Year Gala on Tuesday evening. Imagine how dire our season would have been if he hadn't stepped up to absorb the shock of Angel Di Maria's dip in form.

Ander Herrera took his goal well to make it 8 for the season, a decent tally given the amount of time he has been out of the team. United should be desperate to get some defensive midfield cover to allow this lad to thrive further up the pitch. A midfielder with an eye for goal, with that level of accuracy has no place mopping up at the base of midfield. Not that he doesn't do that job neatly as well. He has been the signing of the season, quite a remarkable feat considering that names we got in on the back end of last August.

Chris Smalling captained the side to mark the long way he has come since that dreadful decision at the Etihad in November. A fine defensive performance to go with the honour on the day confirmed that he has really matured into the role this season. If he can remain fit, there's every chance he can make the number his own ahead of a summer that should see United add at least one central defender.

There's not much cheer you will hear for Phil Jones after another nervy display but I though that crawl and breast-stroke clearance onto the sheen of Olivier Giroud to divert imminent danger is up there with my wacky moments of the season. Right up there with an image of Phil waving up at the corner flag ready to take a corner-kick. What a defender he would be if he takes the nerves out of his game and the injuries. He puts his head where some would be afraid to put their feet. Again though, it's probably because of such battle front bravery that he gets himself injured a lot. What he cannot be faulted for though is 100% commitment.

The most important take from yesterday though was that United will have to contend with a Champions League play off in August for the first time in a decade before confirming a place in the August 27th draw. It is a bit of a shame in a way that we have had the beating of the City and Arsenal above us. We've let ourselves down in very winnable games against some teams bottom half of the table. Finishing top of the mini league against the top 6 teams points to what needs to be improved before the start of next season.

Cheers!




Friday, 15 May 2015

OLD TRAFFORD BIDS GOODBYE TO 2014/15


In what will be the final home game of the season, Manchester United entertain Arsenal with perhaps a last shot at third place in the league. Should United continue their impressive record against Arsenal in the Premier League, the Red Devils will spend Sunday night third, in the last automatic Champions League place, pending Arsenal's game in hand at home to Sunderland in mid-week.

With Champions League football all but secured, United can thank their home form for what has in essence been a successful campaign in terms of the Chief season's target. The irony of our home form though is that it is Swansea, Southampton and West Brom that have come away from Old Trafford with all three points. The theme therefore is that United have established themselves against the top sides that come to Old Trafford and want to play. Therein though lies the landmine ahead of the Premier League's signature fixture in the recent past.

United's dominance over Arsenal, in this fixture has been built on preying on Arsenal' weaknesses and destroying whatever strength there is in them. It is not far from the truth to suggest that the brand of football that van Gaal is implementing at United is more or less the kind that Arsene Wenger has instilled in the Arsenal. The difference is that Wenger no longer has the calibre of players to drive his style through the nitty gritties of a season. Van Gaal has coached at clubs that have allowed him to retain those players and hence make a success of it. Arsenal are however ahead of United in the league because their players are accomplished in that style of football. United are admittedly, not yet there, as evidenced in  the inability to break down sides that sit deep.

Taking on Arsenal at their own game therefore will carry with it an element of risk. Indeed, the Gunners have already won at Old Trafford in the FA Cup this season in what was punch for punch an even game except that our backline is not as good as theirs and so you can almost see why the vital mistake in the game was made by our defence. Francis Coquelin has added a bit of defensive steel to their midfield and allowed more of their creative players to thrive. Now, it's one thing having United all over a side that is not interested in coming at them, but quite another having to constantly hold out a four man creative midfield of Arsenal. It's not that the task is rocket science or anything of the sort but that our defence never leaves you confident enough to trust it to hold out in such games.

You only need to look at the race for the Golden Glove to see why our defence doesn't inspire confidence. David De Gea is considered by his fellow professionals and indeed by most of the rest of us as the best goalkeeper in the league and yet clean sheets are not easy to come by for him. For all his world class saves in-game, he lacks a stable and able backline to keep out the opposition at all costs. Such are the concerns ahead of this fixture.

A performance with the heart and passion of the Manchester derby though will go a long way to nullifying those fears. United let in 2 that day but at no point did they look like they would be beaten for passion and sheer will to win. It's a last home game of the season and a final chance to show the home support that next season will be different. Beat Arsenal, and it will be clear that United have matched all the big boys in the league. Lose, and concerns will over around the club over the summer as to whether they cam really make that step up to challenge for the title next season.

With Michael Carrick done for the season, again the jury will be out on Daley Blind in that holding role. It should be easier on them though this time because Arsenal will come out to play. The question is whether we shall be as neat and as clinical in the final third.

Closing a season on the back of two home defeats will leave a bad taste in the mouth. If ever there was a call for one last hurrah from United this season, this is it!

 

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

DOES VAN GAAL TRUST HIS PLAYERS?

Disclaimer:
The following is not necessarily a black and white account of the writer's views, but a presentation of another perspective out there somewhere in the cold.


By virtue of Liverpool's result at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, Manchester United effectively secured a place in next season's Champions League...even if it could only be for a couple of games if they lose the qualifier in August. In essence though, a season high target has been reached.

Lulling in the comfort of that knowledge, we can now examine Manchester United at a glance, devoid of the pressures of being a fan (who I'm I kidding, it never goes away).
In a season when Manchester United have explored just about every formation in a manager's manual, there is a relationship between a manager and his players that has to be explored. Trust.

After the debacle at the King Power stadium back in September, Louis van Gaal seemed intent on sending out only those players he could trust to stick to particular jobs. In many ways, the fate of Angel Di Maria's was probably sealed by this resolve. The Argentine would still go on to have further impact against Everton (scoring and setting up another) but from the moment Chris Smalling stupidly got himself sent off in the first leg of the Manchester derby, it appeared more than ever that the boss was going with trust more than anything for the games that would follow.

Little surprise then that United went on a joy-sapping run of just two defeats in 23 games. If United couldn't a win a game (and there were quite a bunch of them), they drew it. It's a run that would account for a prolonged stay in the top 4, third over Christmas, a position that kept the iron tulip insulated from criticism. His season-target was always locked-in during that painful but results oriented period.

Few things were constant during that run of games. In any event none of player personnel, tactics, formations and roles were consistent over 90 minutes let alone a couple of games. The chopping and changing had a lot to do with discovering the best system that suits the players LVG has had to work with this season and invariably suggest the best players tuned to execute the philosophy he proclaimed throughout the season.

The popular view is that the penny dropped in that Spurs fixture that started a run of wins against some of the top sides in the league. Since then, it's been easier to predict the style and formation that United have used to go about games. One would be forgiven for thinking at the time that finally manager and players had come to a consensus ad idem and thereby developed a bilateral confidence in the modus operandi. 

Fast forward to the recent run of consecutive defeats, and a closer examination of the matches reveals a tale or two about the trust relationship between players and manager which has been apparent all season. The speed at which Louis van Gaal easily loses faith in his own tactics is quite amusing. Whereas it is incumbent upon a manager to shake things up when Plan A is not working, it is also a responsibility of the manager to give Plan A time to come to fruition, especially when it is still obvious that Plan A could still work.


At home to West Bromwich Albion, it is fair to say that the fiery Dutchman probably panicked and a little too early. Even when West Brom somehow sneaked ahead early in the second half there was nothing on offer from the visitors to suggest that they would hold out for the best part of the remaining half an hour against Plan A. Changing to Plan B so soon probably made it easier for the visitors to see out the match. Why? Because Plan B involved pushing Fellaini upfront with Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie dropping deep---which is all nice and lovely except that for the period when Fellaini was up top, United did not exactly rain aerial balls in the box for the elbow-laden Belgian. This at a time when the personnel on pitch accounted for a 3-1-6 formation. It's hard to believe that in the helter-skelter last quarter of that game many United players knew their roles. What with RVP, Wayne Rooney, Radamel Falcao, Adnan Januzaj, Angel Di Maria, Marouanne Fellaini all on the pitch at the same time?  It was all messed up. Hardly the sort of mix to stir a comeback It's easily forgotten that even in the comebacks during the Sir Alex days, there was always an element of organisation about the onslaught in the final moments of the match. For instance the kind of organisation that gets Ryan Giggs to hit a measured pass to Michael Owen in the 96th minute of a Manchester derby despite a crowded penalty box.

I digress though. The point is, if it is true that the players spend up to a week preparing for Saturday's opposition in one way, then abandoning the tactics at halftime or before the hour mark all too often is perhaps the most blatant indication that there remains a level of trust to be built between the players and the manager. Football is one of those sports that can be won in a minute. There's 90 of them in which to do it. It is not a given that the 'Selecao' shall always make use of the first 45 to achieve a goal of 90. Sometimes, it takes the full 90 to achieve it. Sometimes, the space within which to execute a move worked on in the training ground avails itself in the 90th minute. If the personnel who can best execute it are continuously not available at the time or if the system in which it was worked is completely miss mashed then you risk selling yourself short. For Manchester United this season, Plan A has had just about 45-50 minutes to work and then out the window if it's nothing doing.

I've always thought it is harder to defend in the last quarter of a game against a passing team (which United are now) because the legs are much more tired to keep moving around chasing the ball and intercepting passes. It is easier to defend long punts upfront in the closing stages because as a defender you have all of three or four seconds to prepare yourself to head away the danger.  Again, this is not to suggest that the long ball approach in the closing stages of games cannot be occasionally effective.

Conventional wisdom is, all factors constant, to make changes after the hour game if there is a need to shake it up. United, and primarily van Gaal, has been guilty of abandoning Plan A almost as soon as they go behind. On the one hand, it looks smart as the manager appears to make changes to alter the trend of events whilst on the other, it can also be argued that it is a blatant lack of trust between the coaching staff and the players. Making a change at half time is not uncommon to address a tactical imbalance, however, doing it every single time in the face of adversity is, in my eyes, a tactical weakness and a vote of no confidence to the selected XI.

Perhaps after a transfer window when he will finally be allowed to get in his payers, we shall see more trust between the playing personnel and the manager next season to allow for a more settled approach to games and during games even in the face of adversity.            

Sunday, 10 May 2015

UNITED TWICE A WEEK NEXT SEASON

On an evening when David Moyes' signings virtually secured Champions League football next season, Manchester United showed the grit and fight that was all too absent on Merseyside a couple of weeks back. The fortune was back too in place of the witchcraft pure bad luck in attendance last week against West Bromwich Albion.

Admittedly, United were probably poorer yesterday than last week. The three points can only be justified by a couple of outstanding individual performances and sheer will, little else. That United stood toe to toe with the force at which Crystal Palace came at them in the second period will have pleased the manager. But even that would have counted for little if Ashley Young and David De Gea didn't have the performance levels they showed yesterday.

Ashley, besides assisting the two goals was like an itch in that area you cannot scratch in public to Joel Ward all game. You almost have to decide whether Ashley was brilliant or whether Ward was poor but any winger would be pleased to leave a defender on his backside en route to putting in a decent delivery.

It's been a while since De Gea put in a spectacular performance. Our winning run over the last month meant he was rarely tested to his limits and he seemed to tail off with a series of goals at his near post. Not yesterday though. He was beaten by a deflection off Blind's hair body so maybe he was handicapped for the free-kick. He however made himself big when he had to to deny Palace the lead at a time when United looked vulnerable for 20 minutes of the second half. Fellaini scored the winner seconds after De Gea pulled off one for the You Tube reel that Real Madrid fans will someday watch. For now, we can thank goodness that he plays for us.


In a further demonstration of the no nonsense approach that van Gaal has taken to the task, Juan Mata stepped up to take the penalty assuming the position from first Wayne Rooney and recently Robin van Persie. The manner of execution was so text book that you feel he might hold the role for a longer period than his 2 predecessors. That aside though, he seemed to be suffered along with Herrera from Michael Carrick's absence. The pair do not seem as close to each other on the pitch as they would like owing to the added defensive responsibility that the Gerodie's absence does to the them. Blind, for all his versatility, seems to be a tad too pretty positionally undisciplined for the holding role. That shot he took that Speroni did well to turn onto the post sums up his ambition in that position. He has scored some crucial goals for us by moving up top and using his ability to shoot from range but it makes us vulnerable to the counter-attack. This is not to suggest Blind should not occasionally move closer and have a go from range, but that given how many bodies we commit forward, and the lack of the pace in our midfield, it would be safer if the Dutchman kept his counsel when in the holding role.  

Credit to Marouanne Fellaini for applying himself onto what I thought would be a difficult game for him. The elbow-dishing Begian has now scored 6 goals this season, 5 of which have put us in the lead in games. The other one was an equaliser at West Brom that earned us point back in October. No matter how you look at it, that's an incredible contribution. His goals carry the weight of points. There's talk that he is among those who will lose their place in the side this summer but whoever comes in, has a job on their hands to match or better that contribution.

It was laboured, unconvincing and nervy at times but United can look back on a weekend in which they sealed their return to Europe's top table with satisfaction. It's a season goal achieved and now they can move on from here. Certainly more improvement is needed if we are to make it back to the summit but we can gauge that in August. This weekend was about correcting the biggest flaw of last season. Bar a collapse of apocalyptic proportions in the final two games, it's mission accomplished.    

Friday, 8 May 2015

LIMPING TO THE FINISH LINE

In the season of the 20th anniversary since His Royal Highness King Eric Cantona famously infamously did the above, Manchester United travel to Selhurst Park in perhaps similar levels of frustration after three defeats and three games without a goal. What fans would give for similar folklore drama tomorrow evening. If the football is going to be ponderous, the least we deserve is a kung-fu kick bit of entertainment here or there.

To say that United have deserved more than nought from those fixtures is to plainly state the obvious but football does not reward in the same way that natural justice does. The bare facts are that for all the chances created over the past 3 weeks, United have lacked the ruthlessness to finish them off and, more crucially, have been devoid of the defensive nous to keep out the opposition at the other end of the pitch.

Again, as the narrative went last week, United will dominate possession and chance creation. That much is as certain as the fact that the sun will rise from the East tomorrow. What we all cannot say for sure is if they will have the invention and diversity to cause Crystal Palace the kind of problems to merit a goal. Tony Pulis will get them deep, tight and ready to hit on the counter.

Selhurst Park, like Goodison Park is a small tight pitch that leaves you with little room to breathe. For instance Marouanne Fellaini could struggle again to get his game going as he will be easily dispossessed for a lack of close control and speed of movement.

It will be a shame if United go about this in the same way they have gone about the last three games. The key has to be diversity in attack at speed. The ponderous footbal
l will not be of much help because Palace will have the time to get back into a shape that will protect their keeper. United have to be direct and more ruthless in the box.

Michael Carrick's return is key to all this though. The Geordie's return would allow Ander Herrera to be much closer to goal and allow for more defensive stability on the counter-attack. It is a position that will dictate how we deal with the counter-attacks from the opposition. So far, it has dictated that we've lost rather than drawn the last three games. Paddy McNair does not make that tackle on the edge of the box last week if we had someone in there to intercept the passage of play that West Brom used to get that close to goal. The devil is in the details.

It's 6 points from 9 for Champions League football next season. With Arsenal due at Old Trafford next week, United have little margin for error tomorrow. Certainly, top 4 will be ensured if we win and Liverpool get beat at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. With Chelsea already Champions though, do not bet on it.

Ultimately though, it's turning out to be a damp-squib of a season end. In fact, at the moment it feels like only transfer activity is getting the tails up at United. The football seems to have already packed its bags for the beach. Hopefully there's a few strides in there to pull United over the line in a season that is has repeatedly been in the least difficult to surmise and at lengths discombobulating.




Monday, 4 May 2015

NIGHTMARE SCENARIO LOOMS LARGE

Goodness me Manchester United are making a tough job of sealing that final Champions League place! Amazing the difference 3 weeks does to a narrative. Talk of a strong finish to the season and a title challenge next season has quickly been replaced by fears that United may yet be some way to recovering from the traumatic era of Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement.

The lazy opinion is that United have now been found out. It is becoming a bit of a theme that opponents from the alleged majestic echelons of Chelsea to the lowly ranks of West Bromwich Albion have readily worked out an adaptive style to nullify the threat that United pose. Not that it took them too much time to ponder over and crack. Defend deep, cede possession and hit on the counter is one of the oldest tricks in the book (if you honestly believe managers read about things like this in books) but it can work effectively against a side that tries the same thing over and over hopping for different results. And there's a word for such behaviour or such people for that matter.

There is not much variety to the approach that Louis van Gaal has ingrained into his players. At the moment, United are primed to play against opposition that comes at them in the same daring way that we come at them. It has already made us look like world beaters in the more difficult games of the season. The problem, as alluded to in the preview and indeed throughout this campaign is how to score when the opposition has two banks of 4 lined up infront of their goalkeeper.

Now get me right; it is not that Louis van Gaal's easy on the eye style cannot better those tactics, it can, but only with speed and precision. The kind you arrive at when the team has graduated to 'Unconscious and Capable' stage of the Philosophy. United are slow and predictable in attack so much so that even if the game was still going on now, the score would still be 0-1. In sticking with the philosophy of building from the back, United are granting defensive opposition the time to get back their shape and stop anything thrown at them. This is where the ability of Michael Carrick to quickly switch from defensive mode to attack has been sorely missed. Defensive sides do not keep their shape all the time, so the onus is on you to exploit the moments when they do, none moreso than when they launch counter-attacks. In recovering the ball from successfully defending a counter-attack, the speed at which you launch your next attack is often the most decisive variable in determining whether you score from it or not.

It is a truth that LVG recognised in his rather sombre post-match presser. He said it was the final process of the philosophy and so we can expect that United are still working on that. In truth, it might even require squad adjustment to solve it because speed and precision are not readily trained to a certain calibre of players at a certain age. Marouanne Fellaini and Ashley Young or even Juan Mata are not suddenly going to develop top speed in the way you can acquire it on a computer-game. But in essence, that is the scientific explanation to what happened at Old Trafford yesterday.

The other way of looking at it is purely from a superficial perspective. Sometimes football has a way of defying the laws of logic and science and so even science may not fully account for all the events in a football match.

Take this for instance: If West Brom are to only have 20% ball possession in the game, and spend it simply defending, with no real cutting edge of a counter-attack, United should at least get a point from the game in a 0-0 draw. If West Brom are to win a free-kick from their only meaningful attack in the second half, it would have to be brilliantly struck to beat De Gea. If West Brom are to get lucky and score via a deflection from a poorly struck free-kick and United are to then be granted a penalty to at least reflect their superiority, United would definitely score. If United miss the penalty, then one of the one million attacks launched at the visitor's goal in the last 20 minutes would yield at least one goal if only by the law of averages....It could go on and on, but the fact that each of those hypotheses can now be answered in defiance of logic and probability, then it leaves only superficial explanations to work with.

One such is witchcraft!  pure bad luck.

Moving on. It's scary to fathom that after all that we have been through this season, the last Champions League place has gone down into a dog fight with Liverpool. Three defeats in a row have allowed them to eat into a 7 point lead we had over them a couple of weeks back. And that is despite their own poor form. With 3 games of the season left, it is not unlikely that the nightmare scenario could come to pass. Goodness knows stranger things have happened like the witchcraft pure bad luck at Old Trafford yesterday.

In all seriousness though, away at Crystal Palace now takes on more importance. It will be a difficult game but United cannot go to Hull on the final day of the season needing something as the Tigers could themselves be a different cup of tea on a day when they might need all three points to stay up. With Arsenal concluding business at Old Trafford on the penultimate weekend, it really is, in it's own minute way, 'squeaky bum time' for Manchester United. It shouldn't have come to this, but hey maybe it's the old adage that we have a knack of doing things the hard way.

It had better be a bluff, or we might have to get the witchdoctors club Chaplain in.

Cheers!

Friday, 1 May 2015

HOME COMFORTS

There's quite a number of articles this season that have shared a similar title with this. Such has been United's dismal record on the road this season that you shudder to think where we would be without a near excellent record at home. Only Swansea (somehow) and Chelsea have stopped us winning at Old Trafford.

After enduring yet another insipid display on the road at Everton last week, surely United will rediscover themselves in Saturday's teat-time fixture against West Brom. Ahead of the penultimate home game of the season, United require a maximum of six points to secure Champions League football next season. The tally required could yet reduce if Liverpool keep up with their determination not to challenge for the Champions League but after two defeats on the bounce, we could have been heading into this fixture only a point ahead of 5th if the Scousers were not having a worse season than us.

Still, after threatening to end the season in title-winning form, the last two games have seen us put our season in danger of ending in a whimper. The good news is that we still have it in our hands to end the season as high a s second with 12 points from the remaining 4 games. Avoiding that August qualifier in the Champions League next season should at least be the target from hereon.

First though, United have to get back to winning ways this weekend. Regardless of the fitness of Michael Carrick, a home win over West Brom who have nothing much to play for should not be too big an ask. The Baggies won this fixture last season and have already held us to a draw at the Hawthorns so they do not really have any recent bad memories against us to send them in a cold sweat. Tony Pulis will have been pleased how Everton went about nullifying United last weekend by gifting them all the possession they desired and hitting them decisively on the break. It's a strategy that you feel will be readily employed by the midlands club tomorrow.

The question is how does Louis van Gaal counter it? Shall we be treated to another afternoon of United struggling to break through two banks of 4? Shall we be content to play around the box again as the opposition wait for us to give the ball away and hit us on the break with knowledge of our soft centre both in midfield and defence? Shall the boss mix it up by adding Angel Di Maria from the start at the expense of one of Fellaini or Ashely Young? Whatever the case, United cannot afford to be as lacklustre as they were (right from the warm up according to the boss) last Sunday. Every game is worth three points whether its the Manchester derby or the visit of West Brom. Therefore the desire and hunger should be as great.


Robin van Persie completed his procedural return from injury with the U-21s at Craven Cottage during the week in which he scored a brace. With a full three weeks regime under his belt in trying to regain fitness, the question will be asked more than ever whether he gets to start at the tip of United's attack on Saturday. With Wayne Rooney struggling for fitness after succumbing to a knee injury on Merseyside, that question could yet be academic. The Dutchman seems likely to remain at the club beyond the summer and so you wonder whether the boss would like to see how he copes with the system that we have been thriving with lately. He is, lest we forget, still harbour one of the deadliest left foot belters in world football. Therefore unlike Radamel Falcao, there is something obvious about the Dutchman to work with.

With Arsenal and City not in action till Monday and Sunday respectively, how do United fancy looking down on all but one club overnight Saturday? We'll find out soon enough.