Friday, 31 July 2015

LESSONS FROM THE UNITED STATES


Manchester United flew home as soon as the 90 minutes were up in Illinois to call time to an eventful summer tour of the USA ahead of the new league season. In perhaps a timely dose of antidote, Paris Saint Germain inflicted a professional 2-0 defeat to the Red Devils to halt what would have been another procession of victories across the pond  over a summer.

It's not lost to memory that last year, United just about made a clean sweep of many of Europe's power houses in pre-season only to find Swansea City a significant step up from what they prepared for. Midway through the match commentary on Wednesday night/Thursday morning, MUTV's David Stowell did well to point out that it is never healthy to have everything go your way in pre-season. Indeed, Matuidi's poke beyond a hapless David De Gea was the first time United had gone behind on tour. When Zlatan Ibrahimovic made in 2-0, it thankfully gave us a chance to examine the character of this Louis van Gaal team.

As it were, PSG displayed a defensive tactical acumen in the second half to nullify everything United had going forward. It was the kind of game management that you will find at Champions League semi-final level. Get yourself ahead to allow you to play on the counter then see the game out when you have no need for further goals.

That United came up short only tells us a few new things and not much that we didn't know about pre-match: Louis van Gaal has built a great footballing side that will pretty much brush side most opponents but struggle against sides that can park the bus  are defensively astute. Little surprise then that in his post-match comments, he likened PSG's style to the game at Stamford Bridge late last season. Why? Because in truth, United, in a footballing sense, played very well on the night. In fact, had United, just like in that Chelsea game, converted at least one of their chances in the opening 20 minutes, chances are we would be mulling over a different result!

Therefore we can already make one conclusion ahead of the big kick-off next weekend: United are still short of the cutting edge at both ends of the pitch. We're not yet a one-chance-one-goal side upfront and are hardly assured of keeping a clean sheet at the back. It's a worrying conclusion because whereas games are usually won in midfield, it is the statistics at the back and the front that really decide matches. In lamenting the absence of a Neymar-kind of player, Louis van Gaal is bemoaning the absence of a creative genius who will break down the kind of defensive shield PSG put up yesterday. Because, let's face, it, United could easily be up against the French side in the Champions League next term and it's hard to imagine a different result if both sides approach the game in similar fashion.

Make no mistake though, the type of football Louis van Gaal has gotten United playing will floor just about anybody on their day. The worry though is that the Dutchman's philosophy assumes that the opposition will also come out all guns blazing against United. Little wonder then that United could easily fare better upfront against the all-guns blazing Barcelona and indeed many of the top sides that came at United last season. Chances are that from the visit of Spurs next weekend, just about all sides in the premier league will secure their backline first and seek to exploit United's defensive vulnerability in a counter-attack based approach. Indeed, I'd be surprised if anybody but Arsenal and Manchester City come to Old Trafford with a different game-plan.

You would imagine then that at least one of two things must give before the transfer window shuts on 1st September: Either Louis van Gaal adds to the attacking options or succumbs to the need for an experienced leader in defence. So far, it seems the latter is less likely than the former.

It does, however, remain damning that United have already made five signings and yet there appears to be a need for a couple more. If you had mentioned at the close of last season that United will add 5 players to their side, few would have asked for more. Luckily for Louis this time, he had most of his new players on tour with the side ahead of the new season.

Already Matteo Darmian is looking like the best bit of scouting business the club has done in a while. Meanwhile the addition of Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger has finally put to bed concerns about the midfield. At least United finally have the balance that the manager so desperately yearned for last season.

In asking for the very best players in the world as the next level, perhaps it went past us that this United squad has evolved so quickly that it is no longer about patching holes but increasingly the quality of the side. That in itself is a measure of progress.

It does however come with added responsibilities. Louis van Gaal will no longer be excused to mere tallying the amount of chances United created in comparison with the opposition post-match. A decent manager ought to make do with the current players United have in their ranks to some credible effect over a season. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the pressure ahead of the new campaign.

It's good to have the real stuff back!

Monday, 27 July 2015

OF SERGIO, ANGEL & PSG

Manchester United have secured the signing of Sergio Romero on a free transfer
Manchester United overnight completed their fifth summer signing with the addition of Argentina International goalkeeper Sergio Romero. Having effectively sacked Victor Valdez over the microphone in a press conference across the pond, there was an even bigger hole in the United goal to contend with owing to the imminent departure of David De Gea to Real Madrid. Whilst the Spaniard could yet see out the remainder of his contract at United next season, Romero would still be required as ready cover in a position that could once again become a revolving door after the security of tenure of Edwin van der Sar.

The biggest news surrounding the club however is the expected departure of Angel Di Maria to Paris Saint Germain. A reading from both parties, especially from Laurent Blanc, in this particular saga suggests that there is likely to be one conclusion and it involves the premier league's record signing jumping ship and crossing the channel to France.

Di Maria struggled with the physicality of the premier league
It is quietly understood that Angel Di Maria favoured a move to Paris before FFP constraints made Old Trafford the only viable destination. Having had those constraints relieved, the Paris based club have made Angel their marquee summer target and looked to exploit his unsettled life in Manchester to prize him away after just one season. Perhaps the writing was on the wall when Louis van Gaal started entertaining questions about the Argentina winger as early as January this year.

As far as Manchester United are concerned, Di Maria was never going to be up for sale unless he expressly asked to. It's increasingly the case that the player has made such a request to the club. More crucially is the feeling that perhaps Louis van Gaal is a tad relieved that his most valuable signing of his managerial career has a readily available suitor.

The hard facts are that despite an impressive output of 10 assists over an injury-laden season, Di Maria has struggled to fit into the mould that Louis van Gaal envisaged him in when he sanctioned the purchase. It's fair to say that Angel shone brightest at United during the early 'spectacular football-arse twitching' days when United were horribly exposed for a lack of defensive cover but enthralled with some exhilarating attacking stuff! Since then, the manager has gone about working out various formations and systems to negate the absence of reliable defensive cover and to get all his star players in the team. It's a conundrum that failed to produce anything that suited the former Real Madrid winger. He was tried on both wings, in a central wide left, up top but each new trial seemed to expose the winger more to the physicality of the Premier League. Off the pitch, that his home was broken into whilst he was having dinner with his family at home did not help. Indeed, when the philosophy finally bore fruits for the club towards the end of the season, it was achieved largely without the presence of the winger in the team.

The premier league is admittedly a tough choice of employment for a creative wide man. Cristiano Ronaldo had his fair share of cuts and bruises sustained in England before he departed, but he rose to it and came out a better player. Eden Hazard, arguably the best in his position in the league, often leaves football matches with blood cuts visible on his socks. In England, the protection you get from the referees is relative to how much you have convinced them that you in fact need it.

Di Maria after being sent off against Arsenal in the FA Cup
For Di Maria and van Gaal, it appears to be a solution of convenience has presented itself. United feel that they are entitled to a substantial part of the £59.7m  that they paid Real Madrid for him. PSG appear to be ready to pay the 'substantial fee'. The obligation to replace ADM obviously creates another transfer situation unresolved around the club but you would imagine van Gaal might be pleased to trade something expensive that doesn't work for him for something cheaper that works.




Certainly it was the case during last season when Ashley Young beat Di Maria for fitness and understanding of what his manager wanted from him. The Englishman remains miles below the level of a world class winger but he has thrived on the left hand side and helped make it United's go-to wing for attack.

Make no mistake though, Angel Di Maria is among the elite players in world football and Zlatan Ibrahimovic was not far off the mark when he said Angel could help PSG win the Champions League. He is that good when he fits in. Whereas he could have forced the issue and thrived in the premier league, the heart seems not to have been in it, and quite frankly, few things work for us in absence of commitment from the heart.

Wayne Rooney will lead United against PSG on Wednesday
Ironically, it is PSG that provide the opposition for United in their last game on tour before the season kick-off. Having racked up three wins out of three, United will defend their International Champions Trophy if they get the better of the Ligue 1 side in Chicago on Wednesday night (local).

I do feel though that the club has not built up the fitness levels of the side over 90 minutes. The Barcelona tie saw some players play 60 minutes for the first time on tour and yet at the hour mark, it appeared that a lot of them had grown leggy. Therefore if there is one thing I hope United can take from the PSG game is to have a few seniors play the full game and see how they can cope over the 90 minutes because it's just this then Spurs in a game we shall only be allowed a trio of substitutions.

Having ended the tour with no new outfield players added to the side that departed Manchester, our season start is seemingly going to be defined with the resources we have now. The chance to make do with this lot before then has come and will soon be gone. If Daley Blind at centre-back is part of how this will work then blimey! We probably need the start of the season to be pushed a couple of weeks further. The managerial staff seem to comfortable with the situation so maybe I'm getting a little ahead of myself.

Cheers though!

Sunday, 26 July 2015

UNITED GETTING THERE, BUT...

Levi Stadium in Santa Clara beams the scoreline at the end of an entertaining match
In terms of the impression formed from Manchester United's 3-1 victory over Barcelona, Louis van Gaal has succeeded in getting 22 of his playing staff to a competitive level of fitness ahead of the new league season. If pre-season is solely about that, then its pretty much job done! Playing Barcelona in soaring temperatures was not simply about whether United could get a scalp over the European Champions but about severely testing the players' ability to keep their shape against a Barcelona side that was always going to give United the run-around.

United passed it, at least according to the manager's post-match comments, but the unforgiving nature of the premier league means that we cannot be entirely sure that this United side is ready for when the serious business starts in a fortnight.
Ashley Young congratulates his captain

For starters, not one senior player has played the full 90 minutes of any game on tour. Whereas it is just as wise for the manager to first rotate the players on a 45-minute basis and then the 60-30 minute basis we saw last night, you wonder if there's not been enough games scheduled this pre-season to get a few of the players playing 90 minutes ahead of the new season. The point is simple. Manchester United are 90 minutes away from the first league game of the season and yet the business stuff allows for just the 3 substitutions in a game and not the XI we've been making on tour.

Last season, there was a pattern of United failing to 'turn-up' for the duration of the 90 minutes in games. The manager consistently pointed out at the time that there was a need to 'kill-the-game' or 'finish the game' when United gave up leads by conceding goals late on in games they otherwise dominated.

Last night, approaching the hour mark, United began to tire, and dropped off a notch, granting Barcelona a flurry of chances right before the boss made XI changes. Understandably, it was because none of the players had played more than 45 minutes since the start of pre-season but the worry was that Barcelona, playing just their second game on tour, with their season still a month away, looked much fitter than United at the hour mark, with the Red Devils in their third tour match and with just one more friendly match left.
Whereas it is true that United are decent enough to start the season tomorrow, there is every chance that we could dominate Spurs for the best part of an hour come August 8th and tail off for the last 30 minutes. At that point, if we have not made our chances count, it could make for a very nervy finish.

In context of the above concerns, one wonders whether United are better off playing a few more players for the 90 minutes in the last warm-up fixture against Paris Saint Germain in Chicago on Thursday morning. Certainly, I'd imagine it would not be a healthy predicament to have our players play the 90 minutes for the first time in the first competitive match. If Luke Shaw pulls his hamstring in the 75th minute of the first game of the season, it will hardly be because of bad luck.

Game proper though, United AGAIN, lined up 4-2-3-1 with Memphis Depay supporting Wayne Rooney up top. It's increasingly becoming the case that the manager will not start United out in a 4-3-3 on August 8th but in a rather lesser modification. Admittedly, Ashley Young and Luke Shaw have struck a devastating partnership down the left that has been the source of our attacks throughout pre-season, in a continuation with the end of last season. Once again, it appears if an opposition manager works out how to stop United's left flank, we could be left short of attacking ideas upfront.

That said, it seems to strike up a good balance about United in the sense that whereas United are free flowing on the left, they are solid on the right owing to the brilliance of Matteo Darmian who consistently makes defending a first priority. It means United are now far less likely to be caught in behind like they were when Antonio Valencia was caught out of position thrice in his half-hour cameo.

United players congratulate Wayne Rooney after netting the opener
Finally, it cannot have gone unnoticed that Daley Blind was, for the third game running, chosen to start at centre-back ahead of Chris Smalling. In the spirit of continuously leaving us open-mouthed, Louis van Gaal could yet start him there at the beginning of the season. What is less uncertain is that he is perhaps one of the most trusted of his manager's players. He seems to please the boss regardless of whether he is deployed even though the fans could do with a bit more certainty in terms of the make-up of the defence.

In the grand scheme of things though, I imagine confidence will be high among the players after getting a result against the kind of opposition they will face more regularly in the Champions League next season. Yes, it could have been a different story if the width of the frame of goal was much thinner, but you couldn't help but marvel at the youthful exuberance of the second string side that took up the mantle from their superiors admirably to finish off the game in some style. If the quartet of Pereira, Lingard, Januzaj and Wilson (if not loaned out) doesn't get a few games next season, then it will be a long time before Academy graduates breakthrough permanently into the first team. These lads seem to have harnessed their development together, so much so that they look like they can all make the step up at the same time or near around the same time. They'll have some serious competition when United get done with their transfer business but those heading for the top have never shied away from competition.

Three wins from three on tour in the US of A (including one against the European Cup holders) has already given this summer a spooky feel given the similarities with last summer. It's increasingly becoming the case that if Louis van Gaal can take the premier league as seriously as he does friendly games, then United will win the league by some distance next season!  
  

Thursday, 23 July 2015

LOOKING BACK TO SAN JOSE AND AHEAD OF FC BARCELONA

In the end we can only hope and indeed assume that Louis van Gaal got what he wanted from Manchester United's second pre-season fixture. As I blogged in the preview, San Jose Earthquakes were by no means an improvement in opposition from the club's first fixture. As such any conclusions drawn from the fixture must be tempered by that bottom line.

Pre-season, however, is not about results but rather impressions. In what was a role reversal from the opening game, this time, it was the first half team that impressed on the night ahead of the second half team. Indeed the manager could only sum up the second half as 'bad' with 'only one highlight'. Despite taking the brunt of the criticism, I didn't think Bastian Schweinsteiger played as bad as was made out. Having decisively lost the midfield battle, the MLS side played five across the middle in the second period to add to United's own five. It made for a midfield scrap of sorts with no real winner of the midfield battle in the second period. The German veteran still managed to pick out a couple of Scholes-esque passes to James Wilson as a means of negating the midfield scrap.

The more obvious positive impressions came in the first half. Luke Shaw stood head and shoulders above the rest by turning on the turbo engine down the left flank. So many of what was good about United before recess came with the young Englishman combining well with his compatriot Ashley Young down the left. The latter seems to have maintained the directness that earned him a regular spot in the side last season. Perhaps just as well because Memphis Depay was touted as his competition in the side.

The Dutchman himself was on hand to bag his first goal for the club pouncing on an under-hit back pass to double United's lead close to half-time. He showed enough instinct and nerve in the build to his goal that he seems to have the natural repertoire of a finisher added to his wide-man abilities. If United are not in the window for another striker then just maybe Louis might in fact have him down for that role permanently ahead of the season.

It's not just the Dutchman who has to share in the goal-scoring burden though. Juan Mata, has in two games continued his impressive contribution the opposition box. The diminutive Spaniard is rearely mentioned as a goal threat but his tally and indeed the number of shots he registers are well within the figures of a centre forward. In the conundrum that is what is United's best XI, his statistics make it continuously difficult to overlook him.

Despite the positives of the opening half, it was also the one in which United let in their first goal on tour. Having put up another remarkable midfield shift, Morgan Schneiderlin, perhaps taken aback, by the waltzing run of his opponent got skinned before the ball run into touch. The resulting cross was tapped home for the home-side. The goal conceded was not by itself cause for concern at the back for United but that for the second game in a row, Daley Blind started at centre back. It remains a minor wonder how this close to August, United have not yet signed a centre back of genuine quality.


The drop off in quality and rhythm in the second half can easily be attributed to 10 changes at the break but was still a joy to behold watching Jesse Lingaard swing one in for Andreas Pereira to nod home. The Brazillian forward in particular has undoubtedly showcased his talent to the manager on this tour. It is to be hoped that the boss gives him enough game time next season to fast-track his development into another 10'.

 Ultimately though, this was but another fitness exercise for United. The level will be as enhanced as it can possibly be in each of the next two games. United end the tour with a tough test against Paris Saint Germain but first, clash with European Champions Barcelona in Santa Clara on Saturday (lunchtime, local).

There's so many reasons why Saturday could be the first real indication of where United are this season. First, the manager has revealed that it will be the first game where he names close to his strongest possible side with the starting XI guaranteed at least 60 minutes. We are therefore bound to know whether the manager will stick with the current 4-2-3-1 cum 4-3-3 shape for the long term. Most crucially though will be how United, having spent more than a week in training with a couple of games will stand to the test of far better players than they have so far dealt with on tour.

Admittedly, there is no Lionel Messi or Neymar to deal with but the vampire upfront is still supported by the stardust in the Barcelona midfield, and will therefore be more than well equipped to test United's midfield and defence. For a certain type of audience, it will also be interesting to see who of the sides dominates possession since we've come to appreciate Barca as one of the best on the one hand and also since it requires a Google search to find out the last time United lost a possession battle in Louis van Gaal's tenure so far on the other hand.

For United though, its just down to 90 minutes of preparation game-time left after this. The manager has quietly mentioned an indoor game in the week leading up to the premier league opener but it is to be hopped he is still not finding about his team then.

Again, it won't be so much about the result as it is about impressions come Saturday evening. You would imagine though that confidence in the squad will reach sky-high if they get one over the reigning kings of Europe!


     

Monday, 20 July 2015

AHEAD OF THE SECOND PRE-SEASON FIXTURE VS SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES

The LA Galaxy (Open Cup), Portland Timbers (MLS), Houston Dynamo (MLS), Club America (ICC), and the LA Galaxy again (MLS), have all enjoyed straight forward wins against Manchester United's next pre-season opponents the San Jose Earthquakes, in that order. Earthquakes they may be but the California based side have not shaken any ground with wretched form over their last 5 games in all competitions.

In effect therefore, and regardless of the fitness levels of the Major League Soccer side, United might be taking a step down in level of opposition for their next fixture in the International Champions Cup. The popular understanding is that pre-season is supposed to be built gradually upwards in terms of level of opposition but it seems United will have to jump from mid-table MLS level to European top dogs when Barcelona come calling on Saturday lunchtime (local time).

Certainly a side that can still make Stevie Slip look like a world beater should struggle to come to terms with dealing with what United will throw at them in a couple of days. Perhaps it's just as well for them that Louis van Gaal intends to employ the same disruptive strategy of 45 minutes per player in the club's second pre-season game. Lest we forget, it is the manager's ultimate task to get all his players in peak physical shape ahead of the new season. With just two games left after this, it is understandable why, regardless of the effect of an overhaul of XI players does to a team, it is necessary.

Having largely impressed in the opening tour fixture win over Club America, Louis van Gaal's new look side will come under the microscope again from the media and fans alike, if only, to get a sharper perspective of where this United team are in terms of taking on the challenge to win their trophy back from West London.

Tactics:
If we are to consider the opening fixture on Friday/Saturday morning and the word coming out of the training camp from players and manager, we'd still be unsure whether the use of Memphis Depay as a decoy forward alongside Wayne Rooney is part of the manager's long-term thinking. Certainly, the much talked about 4-3-3 hardly took shape in either half against Club America and yet we're expected to line-up against Spurs on August 8th in a 4-3-3.

Louis has briefed the media that he intends for Wayne Rooney to be the main man upfront for United next season and yet even the England captains most ardent defenders are not sure whether it would be wise to head into the season with just him leading the line. At the moment, United are having to rely on the midfield for goals as much as anything. Little wonder then that a lot of the chances to score at the weekend fell to midfielders with just the one apiece falling to Wayne Rooney and James Wilson. The point here is that it remains to be seen how the manager intends to set-up the side attacking-wise for the long term. Maybe we'll get another clue on Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning.

Unusually, we did not sustain any new injuries from the opening game, but true to tradition we went into that game with a couple of injuries to David De Gea and Tony Valencia. Luke Shaw has briefed the media about his Dubai training regime with Adnan Januzaj to boost their fitness levels ahead of the new campaign. For the 2 teenagers, it's hard to see what their future at the club will be like if they do not cement themselves into the manager's thinking this season.

The pressure to deliver the first trophy in the post-Sir Alex era is increasingly taking its toll on the playing staff at United. There are only so many chances you can give a player to make it at the club nowadays. It's not a careless choice of words that Robin van Persie for instance feels the chance to get back in the team was denied to him or that Radamel Falcao feels that the patience was never really there (even though it was).  After effectively sacking Victor Valdez over the microphones, van Gaal joking (but truthfully) explained that even his job was not safe in the current climate of 'top-sport'. The growing list of sponsorship and the demand to keep the brand as successful on the pitch as it was during the Ferguson regime is slowly sucking the club into a panic the longer that title post Sir Alex stays away. You would imagine therefore that there shall be less patience with players more than ever at United given that the club i no longer blessed with a manager of the job security as the great Scot.


This though, was supposed to be about the training exercise against San Jose Earthquakes tomorrow. Let's get them goals raining shall we?










Saturday, 18 July 2015

WHAT WE LEARNED FROM MAN UNITED VS CLUB AMERICA

United players congratulate Morgan Schneiderlin on his debut goal
There's a lot of mystery encompassed therein the expectation from Louis van Gaal's new-look Manchester United. A lot was therefore revealed earlier today when the club par-took their opening pre-season fixture against Mexican side Club America. Here's what we learned, or rather some questions that remain unanswered.

1. 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1?
The brief-script reads that Louis van Gaal shall employ his much favoured 4-3-3 system when United resume the serious business next month but with now just three games before it gets real, van Gaal went with a 4-2-3-1 with Memphis Depay supporting Wayne Rooney in attack. Granted, pre-season is a manager's play-thing to try whatever he dreamed of the night before but that freedom has to be tempered by a need to implement future plans to give the players headway into your ideas.

Wayne Rooney leads out the side
This is not to suggest that the system didn't work. Far from it, but you would imagine next season should see less of the tactical adjustments United had to make in-season to discover what worked for the team. Given the targets of next term, there will be no room to 'learn on the job' for van Gaal and the players. Suffice it is to say then that it is important that the manager sticks to something similar throughout pre-season. It would be mental, for instance, if United set out with 3 at the back for the clash with San Jose Earthquakes.

 2. No more Antonio Valencia at Right-back?
I did suggest in the assessment of the transfer window that in Matteo Darmian, Manchester United might have finally replaced Gary Neville. I know it was just Club America but there was a huge difference in feeling having Matteo down the right than the Ecuadorian. For starters, his energy levels meant that he could easily get up and down the flank almost effortlessly. His Italian defensive instincts make it easy for him to do the most crucial bit about his job, defending.

Valencia's injury meant that we could not compare notes for the second half but we've seen enough of the Ecuadorian in that position to judge his abilities. To be fair to him, he doesn't choose to be played out of position, but even he will acknowledge that he'd be better off without those few albeit crucial moments of lapses in concentration last season.

The boss has said Matteo has to complete with Antonio for the right-back spot but on this evidence, it's hard to see where the competition against the Italian is.

3. United need a centre-back, and fast!
Not that we didn't know this before this fixture, but the only chill that went down my spine after the team news announcement was Daley Blind at centre-back with Phil Jones. The Dutch model man was fortunate not to concede a penalty for what was a most agricultural of tackles in the penalty-box. Phil Jones failed a couple of tests in the first half and his misjudgment could have been punished by a better team but it was only the first game of pre-season.

The bottom line though remains. United need at least one quality centre-half in the window to supplement the lot of 'maybes' in the squad.
Schneiderlin wheels away to celebrate his looping headed goal
4. Hakuna-matata in the middle!
After almost a decade of a blatant lack of real steel in the middle of the park, Louis van Gaal and Manchester United might have finally struck gold. A Southampton mate of mine once tweeted to me that he was surprised that of all the business Liverpool had done at St. Marys' recently, they never once thought of taking their best player, Morgan Schneiderlin. The feeling is that Morgan does not come with the aura of Bastian Schweinsteiger but he is easily one of the best defensive midfielders in Europe. As it was, a lot more fans discovered the same when the Frenchman unlocked the package of composure, steel, and finesse with a pass at the heart of United's midfield.




His 5th minute goal, that turned out to be the winner, was a demonstration of his physical presence in both boxes, an added threat at set pieces that a 'small' United team hardly capitalised on last season. In the half he played, he was Man of the Match! That should just about sum up his debut.

Perhaps the most crucial note in the middle of the park was that when Morgan came off at half-time, his replacement, Bastian Schweinsteiger made it just as comfortable for United in midfield. That he was accompanied by Ander Herrera in there made for an eye-watering reading of the resources United now boast in midfield. It's simply astonishing that from being United's Achilles heel, midfield is now the club's strength! Some transformation that.

5. Memphis Depay still has a rough edge about him
Depay was busy
  He's only 21 and even at his worst, he is better than Nani, but for all the comparisons with a certain boy from Madeira, Memphis Depay remains the unfinished article. He is fortunate, though, to work with one of the few managers that can harness his potential and add to the little traits lacking in his otherwise excellent game. What he is definitely not lacking is self-confidence, but he showed the flaw of having too much in it when he chose to shoot at a time when the ONLY logical option was to play in Ashley Young through on goal.

I'd still like him to try the extra-ordinary, because, like that boy from Madeira, he could just as easily be lining up a free-kick at the Emirates 42 yards out and going for goal when the ONLY logical option would be to swing it into the box. However, whether, like the Madeira boy, he would score is only down to how much he believes in himself!

 6. What happened to ruthless Manchester United?
For all the cries about United's shaky backline last season, it was in the goals department that United came up considerably short when compared to their previous league campaigns. It's damning that United scored more under David Moyes than they did under Louis van Gaal last season. Admittedly, it is the Dutchman's philosophy to 'kill games' when he sees that his team is in a position to win the match but it's worrying how often United hit the target with menacing accuracy.

I mean shouldn't it be a bad thing that I had a gut feeling when Morgan scored in the 5th minute that it would also be the last goal we would muster on the night. I just didn't want to believe it but the worrying pattern of chance after chance gone begging returned for the remainder of the match.
Again, one cannot get their panties in a twist over the first game of pre-season but there are coincidences (like Wayne Rooney reading a clever chipped pass from Memphis Depay) and there are patterns!
Bastian Schweinsteiger with a trademark pass
7. Promote them kids!
The second half scoreline reads 0-0 but it was during that period that United looked more electric and more likely to add another goal. The energy and enterprise brought by Andreas Pereira, Jese Lingaard and Adnan Januzaj made for much better viewing. It helps though that they have played together for the reserves a number of times but there is enough talent among them three lads to warrant much more game-time next season. That they look like they can get better should be enough motive to keep them from preying eyes of scouts that are looking out for the next Pogba-situation.

Special mention to goalkeeper Sam Johnstone for finally settling the debate to the conclusion that he is much better than David De Gea. Anders Lindegaard  the departed Ben Amos.


Next up is a trip to California where United will face the mighty San Jose Earthquakes at another ungodly hour in these parts. More on that in the middle of the week.

Cheers!


   


Friday, 17 July 2015

AHEAD OF THE PRE-SEASON OPENER VS CLUB AMERICA

Manchester United playing staff on tour pose for a photo in the plane before take-off to the USA on Monday
Century LinkField Park, home of the Seattle Sounders and Hawks will host Manchester United's first pre-season outing of the summer. Under the umbrella of a tournament dubbed the International Champions Cup, Louis van Gaal and his side get to defend the trophy they remarkably won last summer somewhat against the odds.

 United will in fact play less games this time round, with much less travelling, but such was the desperation by the organisers of the tournament to get English football's biggest side to partake that they were willing to tailor the tournament according to van Gaal's demands.

In his pre-tour interview, Louis van Gaal revealed the structure of the tour games. The boss intends to use the first couple of games to ease the squad into the playing side of things. As such, for Friday evening's opener against Mexican side Club America, no player will take part for more than 45 minutes. Understandably, it's about fitness and not results at this stage and so the more players you get fit, the more useful pre-season becomes for the club.

In terms of the opposition, Club America have already had much more game-time (2 games in the ICC tournament) than United and will probably be a tad sharper off their heels. Indeed, whilst United were up in the air on Monday heading to Seattle, the Mexican side were fresh from a 2-1 victory against the Sounders. The Mexican outfit play a straight forward 4-4-2 and Louis van Gall, in his usual meticulous approach, claims to have done the complete homework against them.

Expected home shirt for the New Season
Having elected against playing a further friendly back at home before the start of the season, it's just as well that the fixture difficulty improves as pre-season moves on. Unlike most sides, United have just the four games to ready themselves ahead of the new league season in week 2 of August. It means only the games vs Barcelona and Paris Saint Germain shall give us a clear indication as to where United are before the real business kicks in.

TACTICS:

Louis van Gaal surprised many a faithful last summer by starting out United in a 3-5-2 formation that formed the ethos around which majority of last season was played out. It worked such wonders in pre-season that even the likes of Real Madrid succumbed, but not quite when the season got underway.

This summer, the Dutch coach was intent on making early purchases and additions to the playing staff so as to work out the approach to next season with a good majority from the very beginning.
Having to fit 12 midfielders in a maximum of 5 positions in the middle of the park has already led to speculation about the formation and tactics that shall be employed this season.

We know that the fiery Dutchman prefers the classic 4-3-3 which informs the signing of Memphis Depay but we also know he is not one to be rigid when something is not working out for him hence the multi-functionality of his playing squad. You would imagine though that the 4-3-3 shall be the first try. The biggest conundrum remains how he picks his central midfield partnership now that the club is blessed with an embarrassment of riches in the middle. Juan Mata has flourished an 'inside-right' midfielder under the manager whilst Ander Herrera has made a telling contribution in the final third. Increasingly, it appears that one of them will have to make way. Regardless the combination, it is expected that central midfield should no longer appear an area of weakness from the touchline, up in the stands or via the telly. And therefore, if it is true that the winner of the midfield battle usually wins a football match, then United should be able to win more than they lose going forward.

As alluded to already, and with hind-sight of last summer, results count for little in pre-season. On Friday evening-cum-Saturday morning, the most important thing to look out for from a manager's perspective will be what shape we shall take going forward and by how much, in any, the the team has gelled in the short period together so far.

Above all, it will feel like back-sliding into a nasty addiction when United kick-off at 04.00 am in the UK, Saturday morning. What a time to be alive!

Thursday, 16 July 2015

EVALUATING THE TRANSFER WINDOW SO FAR

Mephis Depay unveiled by Louis van Gaal at Old Trafford earlier this month
Unlike most blogs, this one sleeps during the summer break, and there are no apologies for it. Yours truly is only motivated to react when Manchester United are in the business of playing football. After 50 odd days of pretending to love tennis, golf and all those other sports that expend more energy watching them than playing them, it's great that footie is back!

The club flew out across the pond again on Monday for this year's pre-season tour that kicks off in earnest this Friday night (local time) but more on that later. Having resisted the temptation to get stuck into the silly season that is the transfer window throughout June, it's only fair that we start with an assessment of Manchester United's transfer business so far.

THE NEED
At the end of 2014/15, United were, as a matter of expectation, inclined to address the much talked about 'imbalance' in the side especially in the absence of Michael Carrick. It was also expected that the club would finally purchase a right-back to relive Antonio Valencia of the burden of plastering that side of the pitch. Whereas United ended the season just shy of 3rd best defence, there had to be an improvement on Chris Smalling and Phil Jones if United were to compete for the title next season.

The rest of the requirements depended on departures. Having correctly elected against taking up Radamel Falcao on permanent terms, the club also allowed Robin van 20th Persie to leave for Turkish side Fernabache creating a somewhat desperate need for a new striker.

Finally there was always the need for a new goalkeeper if and when David De Gea calls time on his short stay in England.

THE ACQUISITIONS
Having asked for early summer business to allow for adequate preparation ahead of the new season, it's fair to assume that Louis van Gaal is more than half-way through with his expected additions.
As of mid-July, United have added Mephis Depay, Matteo Darmian, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin.

Memphis Depay - The best?
Manchester United's latest Dutchman was confirmed as a new signing before the end of the last campaign in a move that was solely designed to prevent Paris Saint Germain from getting to him first. His, in my opinion, should be the most exciting transfer of the lot. If attacking with width, speed and a goal-threat are the requirements for a Manchester United winger, then we might have ourselves the most exciting prospect since Cristiano Ronaldo.

Like the Portuguese in 2003 when he first joined, Depay is hesitant to be compared to any past heroes of  the club but therein the sleepy-eyed Dutchman is an innate confidence about him, a will to achieve all in the game. It's a trait that could easily land him a place in Real Madrid fans' hearts instantly. His 22 league goals for PSV Eindhoven last season mean that it is in his goal tally that he will be judged. No pressure then, but his manager and compatriot suggested at his unveiling that he would complement Wayne upfront. It's a suggestion that will take on more weight if United fail to add a striker between now and the start of the season.

Matteo Darmian - The bargain
Matteo Darmian
If Depay was not necessarily what United needed, Italian wing-back-cum-right-back Matteo Darmian was the first real address to the issues about the United team last season. For starters, during the Dani Alves contract dispute at Barcelona leading to Champions League final, it was privately revealed that Darmian was being quoted at Barca as the replacement for the Brazilian right-back. His rise from at Torino and into Italy's first team at the World Cup last summer meant that he would only be captured on the cheap if you were buying from Torino and not the club he transfers to after Torino. Thankfully that club is United. He comes off as a very likeable guy largely because of that smile but is still a bit limited in English. His first interview does however give off the impression that he can speak 'football English'.

The good news about Matteo is that his attacking prowess down the right flank are not in doubt and yet we can also be rest assured of his defensive nous because, and only because, he is Italian. His ability to excel in the middle and at left-back have earned him comparisons with Paolo Maldini back home. Whereas it would be expecting too much to expect the same contribution as the Italian legend did for AC Milan, it's heartening that he attracts such endorsement. The Premier League obviously plays no host to such sentiment but Matteo is the product of efficient scouting. So have Manchester United finally replaced Gary Neville? We'll see.

Bastian Schweinseteiger
Bastian Schweinsteiger - The Kaiser  
For all the praises lauded to our scoring midfield last season, it's fair to say that we remained a midfield short on authority. Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera are simply too nice. The former hardly smiles but has such a caress on the ball that its impossible to be a hard man. Not that he has to anyway. The latter smiles only a little less than Chicharito even though he gets stuck in more than anyone else in the squad.

Enter 30 year old injury prone Bastian Schweinsteiger. Any attempt to describe the World Cup winner would be an insult to the readers. We all know who he is and more importantly what he brings to the side. Perhaps a less known virtue is that Bastian's arrival immediately adds swagger to a United midfield that was perhaps a little short of it last season. Bastian is the kind of player you look at in the tunnel and think'F***!' His presence in that midfield is enough homework for any opposition and consequently improves the prospects of those playing besides and ahead of him.

You would imagine Louis van Gaal has such an understanding with him to know when to use him and when to rest him at keep him fit for as long as possible. There are no winter breaks in England, something he will not have experienced in his playing career despite 500 games for Bayern Munich. Easily an A-list signing if United keep him fit for most of the season.

Morgan Schneiderlin
Morgan Schneiderlin - The insurance
Remarkably, United have also ensured that the Kaiser is not their only midfield go to guy to ease the burden on Michael Carrick. In Morgan Schneiderlin, it is assumed that United have finally got the like-for-like replacement for Michael Carrick. Morgan, at 24, remains developing but he is easily one of the more accomplished midfielders in Europe. The biggest attraction about him is that he is categorised as a home grown player comes as a tried and tested Premier League player having made Southampton one of the most difficult sides to beat in his time there. Bar a radical shift in systems and tactics, he should be the one that gets to slot in much easier and get comfortable much faster. The boss has already made it clear to Morgan that among all his signings so far, he is the one that shall not be expected to struggle because of his familiarity with the league. No pressure then, Morgan.

THE VERDICT SO FAR
In comparing the need as against the acquisitions, United have addressed most of their pressing concerns ahead of the season. The club now boast one of the best midfields in Europe let alone England and the defensive cover from midfield almost certainly means the defence, however, fragile, is now under much more protection.

There is however popular concern about the attack and the injury record of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling at the back. If midfield improves its goal tally from last season owing to better security at the back and a licence to roam, that need may yet be negated. The important question though should be whether United can still afford to go into another season with 'ifs' and 'maybes' hanging around the team. It's now 24 players out the door since Louis van Gaal took charge of the team. This is now very much his team and therefore the margin for error/excuse has considerably shortened.

It is therefore just as well that United's transfer business is, presumably, not yet done.