Monday, 31 August 2015

UNITED FAIL FIRST REAL TEST


Manchester United suffered a first premier league defeat of the season at Swansea on Sunday to bring into sharp focus the state of the club ahead of the close of the transfer window and in view of the rest of the season ahead. In what was Louis van Gaal's 50th game in charge of the club, United failed to respond quickly to a change of shape by the home side early in the second half to cede their unbeaten status this season.

On the Team News
Ander Herrera's start in the Number 10 position was greeted with much cheer but more so because Louis van Gaal set out what on paper looks looked like our strongest XI. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin won the midfield vote ahead of Michael Carrick while the manager resisted the temptation to start Fellaini from the off.

On Wayne Rooney The Match
United started brightly and should have scored at least twice within the opening 20 minutes. Juan Mata sliced a clean shot wide when he really should have aimed for the far post. At least he managed to get the shot away. The same however cannot be said about Wayne Rooney. The captain was put through twice in the opening half but failed to capitalise. When he wasn't hesitating to take a goal-bound shot, he was trying to chip Lukas Fabianski with the goalkeeper firmly on his feet. Wayne would get to repeat the former tick in the last few minutes by hesitating long enough to yet again allow Ashley Williams a chance to make a recovery tackle.

Yes, the system has its flaws but it assumes much more of the player leading the line than he really is. Wayne, bless him, might yet break the club's all time goalscoring record but should start getting to terms with the burn-out that is affecting his game. There is no doubt that the Rooney of old wouldn't have thought one bit about bringing the ball under control with only a goalkeeper in his way. Indeed, at this level, you are never going to get as much time as two touches in the penalty box to get a shot a

way. It's 4 games in and the tally is now three times Wayne has been caught in a time-warp inside the box waiting for calm and composure to finish what would ordinarily be bread and butter for him. Now there's a yardstick for his confidence levels!

In a system that dictates that United will fashion one chance every ten to fifteen minutes means that the striker needs to be as sharp as Bafetimbi Gomis they get. Certainly, Swansea's attackers were everything Louis van Gaal probably wants in his. Sharp and clinical at every time they got sight of Sergio Romero. At times, it felt like United admired the composure with which Swansea went about their possession. For all the possession dominance, United, not for the first time, seemed nervy, uncomfortable, tetchy, almost too afraid to make the wrong pass or cede possession. It accounted for another session of predictable football that was slow and easy to defend against.

On The Sub-Plots
Chris Smalling and Daley Blind have been an exceptional unit as a defence so far, but it was always going to take a big man in their midst to render them all over the place. They've been shielded so far by an otherwise excellent midfield but their ultimate test was always going to be when a big man stood right in their midst. As it were, they came up horribly short with Gomis enjoying probably one of his more successful days up top.

The worry for United is that in the absence of a new central defender to bolster options, teams will now look at that and develop a template to cause uncertainty in the heart of United's defence. Whether Marcos Rojo would fair any better remains debatable as the Argentine also suffered from similar treatment last season.

Defensive problems on the day were exacerbated by the confidence levels or lack of that Sergio Romero exhibited. His goal-kick remains as suspect as his positioning. Louis van Gaal rightly protected him from the media inquest that followed but it will not do his cause any good that he got beat at his near post for the winner. Besides catching a ball (not saving a shot) and passing it out from the back, there seems little else he is competent to do. The goalkeeping situation largely hinges on the last 24 hours of the window. Keep De Gea for another season and its sorted for now, lose the Spaniard and United will need to score more goals to compensate for the ones they'll inevitably lose as the Argentine is built up into a decent keeper.

Memphis Depay yet again failed to rise beyond the irritation of premier league attention. Whereas he remains the most exciting player in the squad, he is not being as direct as his talent demands. His job description should include to get into the box more frequently than he is doing at the moment. One feels though, that in the absence of an attack that can complement his abilities and thought process, he will remain blunted for the most part.

On the flip side, I thought Luke Shaw was our most accomplished player on the park. The strides he has made since last season are testament to how attitude and determination are often the difference between success and failure.

On The Bottom Line
A third straight 2-1 defeat to Swansea might be somewhat misleading in terms of evaluating Louis van Gaal's first 50 games in charge. On the surface, it reads zero progress. A closer look however suggests that United have grown from all over the place to needing just a couple of signings to complete the turn-around. Popular opinion remains that another striker and a defender/goalkeeper would elevate United to title winners. However Louis van Gaal's Minority Report indicates that he can make it work even without the much vaunted additions. What's for certain is that en route to proving us wrong, LVG will have to answer some uncomfortable questions.

7 points from 4 games is not the worst start to a league season but now, more than before, the pressure is on to respond to two games without a win after the International break. That the next fixture is a North-West derby against Liverpool builds it up as some sort of Judgement Day for both Louis van Gaal and Brendan Rogers. Just when both thought it was all going North, it could easily go South for either of them on that day. Intriguingly, there is only one unwanted ticket for the South train on September 12th.  
    

Friday, 28 August 2015

FIRST REAL TEST OF THE SEASON


Yes, we've had Spurs at home but Sunday will be the first real test Manchester United will have faced this season. Swansea City represent one of the few clubs in the premier division that on any given day can stand toe to toe with any of the established names of English football on the pitch. The Welsh club are beneficiaries of a fluid football philosophy but have now added a touch of doggedness about them to make for a difficult side to break down, let alone beat.

Team News
Louis van Gaal rotated his entire midfield for the first time this season for the mid-week trip to Belgium, handing a rest to linchpin Morgan Schneiderlin. The Frenchman is quickly becoming an indispensable part of the team-setup if only because of his excellent ability to shield the back four. His should be the most expected change from the starting line-up on Wednesday.

Ander Herrera yet again proved his worth to the manager in his 64 minutes of game time against Club Brugge in mid-week and so the Number 10 position could be the other spot of bother. Adnan Januzaj has been preferred lately from the start but going by current form, the expectation would be to drop him for Ander Herrera and export the exciting forward play from Belgium to Wales on Sunday.

The Opposition

Swansea City claimed maximum points from United last season so they will be under no illusions about what lies in store at the Liberty Stadium. The Swans defend deep into their box, limiting the space between the defence and goalkeeper so much so that it is impossible to build up play through them. That is essentially how United played into their hands last season. That philosophy is complemented by a menacing counter-attack through the pacy Montero. Montero now has the equally pacy Ayew to feed off his balls into the box. With the added physical presence of Bafetimbi Gomis to put away chances up top, the Swans have the tools to make life as difficult and as miserable as possible for unsuspecting opponents.

Gary Monk will have studied the laborious build up play of United and the uncertainty with which they respond to speed on a counter-attack. It's important therefore that United are not as predictable as they've been in the league so far.

United
It's almost a given how United will approach the game on Sunday given that few things change about van Gaal and his philosophy but there will be a profound shame if Manchester United approach the game in similar fruitless fashion to last season. It just won't work if United take up their usual predictable positions of pass without much movement in a bid to 'dominate the opponent'. Like the couple of games last season, possession will be ceded to Louis van Gaal's side if only because it will suit Swansea's approach of hitting United on the break.

Indeed, keeping a clean sheet in this one will be quite remarkable. Montero will undoubtedly be Matteo Darmian's biggest test yet (he made Branislav Ivanovic consider retirement the other day) whilst Gomis will fancy himself all-game against the slighter frame of Chris Smalling. The freedom United attacked with on Wednesday will obviously be curtailed which should afford the boss no choice but to start another consistent goal scoring player alongside Juan Mata. Quite how Herrera misses out on Sunday will baffle to say the least.

United need to vary it. I blogged in mid-week that the Ander Herrera goal scored on Wednesday is something we've missed, simply because not to many players in the side are looking to break away into space for a through ball. It's a dimension that could come in handy especially when the opposition mix up playing a high line in possession with defending deep without possession.

Bastin Schweinsteiger and Michael Carrick will jostle for the extra midfield spot although the German is the favourite having played 45 minutes less than the Geordie on Wednesday. It remains a wonderful choice of options available to the manager.

Last season, United went full throttle at Swansea without much cover at the back and were resultantly vulnerable to the counter-attack. It should be safer this time. van Gaal effectively has six players designed to do defensive work at any given period in the game and just four licensed to share the burden of getting goals. Consequently, United are very hard to beat but because of a lack of insurance policy for goals, the club is almost always within striking range.

Sunday will be nervy. With an International break set to follow, a less than positive result will leave a 10 day window of inquiry into United's prospects this season. The upside though is that confidence ahead of future tests will sky rocket if the Reds can go to Swansea and pick up three points.  

The Sub-Plots
Marouane Fellaini is now available to Louis van Gaal having served his three match domestic suspension. It baffled a bit as to why he was left out on 'Rotation Wednesday' but maybe the plan is to start the Belgian up top ahead of Wayne Rooney on Sunday! Certainly stranger things have happened. Ideally he ought to be an impact sub when the football on the carpet has failed to come to fruition. Warning though: His style of play makes it easy for the opposition to win a free-kick off him and hence make him an easy target to break-up play. He remains susceptible to yellow cards because of his giant elbows, moreso when the game is not going according to plan. It's also common knowledge in the premier league that if you move the ball on the carpet quickly around him, you can easily get away from him and render him an ineffective out-field player.

Daley Blind will occasionally be asked to take care of Gomis. It's fair to say they rarely come much more handy or dreadlocked than that in the league. Another player who will be subject to a big test, if you will pardon the pun.

Wayne Rooney might have ended his general goal-scoring drought on Wednesday, but the clock in the league will continue to tick away until he registers one. Was it a false dawn? We shall soon find out.

The Bottom Line
Playing last on the weekend means that we'll be starring up at a few teams at kick-off on Sunday. No pressure then! Just like City's victory at Goodison Park marked them out as the force to reckon with, United's season could easily be judged on how they will cope at one of the most difficult places to pick up three points in the league. Lose, and suddenly United look ordinary again. Win, and Louis van Gaal's pragmatism will start to raise eye brows if only because he would have won 10 points in 5 games fewer than last season!

Thursday, 27 August 2015

UNITED CRUISE INTO CHAMPIONS LEAGUE PROPER


Manchester United cruised into Pot 2 of the Champions League draw last night with a comfortable 4-0 victory over Belgian side Club Brugge in the second leg of the final qualification round. In what turned out to be one of the club's most emphatic performances away from home in the Champions League, Wayne Rooney scored a hattrick before Ander Herrera rounded off the scoring in the 63rd minute.

The Match
United kicked of with the usual desire to establish control of the match by dictating the tempo of the game at walking pace. In effect, they were passing an invitation to Club Brugge to commit in search of the unsettling first goal with a hope of hitting on the break. As it turned out, Brugge made a waste of their early chances to take the lead on the night. United were visibly lacking the defensive shield of Morgan Schneiderlin as for the first time this season, the defence looked all over the park at times. Credit though that they still managed to ride the early mini-storm and keep Sergio Romero's goal virgin.

Ander Herrera struggled in a withdrawn role in the first half and his job was not made easier with an early booking for a clumsy challenge. The uncertain start though didn't matter when in the 20th minute, Memphis Depay run at the home side's defence, feigned the eye, and poked Wayne Rooney through to end his goal drought at 10 games. The captain went on to score a hattrick in what turned out to be a comfortable 70 minutes for Manchester United.

It will not go unnoticed that United only seemed good value for a 9/10 performance when Bastian Scchweinsteiger replaced Adnan Januzaj at the break, allowing Ander Herrrera to push further up in the Number 10 position where his talents are much more useful. The diminutive Spaniard put Wayne Rooney through for an easy tap in and then rounded off the scoring by doing justice to quite sumptuous pass from Bastian Schweinsteiger. It was the kind forward run that United have lacked all season with the club currently intent on playing their way to the penalty box. Indeed, goodness knows we could have done with such a run at Old Trafford last Saturday instead of continuously seeking to break down Newcastle from within their own box. Fingers crossed he features more in Louis van Gaal's plans going forward.

And then there was Javier Hernandez! The Mexican striker was afforded a penalty to score his first goal for the club in a year but ended up doing a 'John Terry'. Louis van Gaal doesn't take penalty misses lightly, but with just Wayne Rooney ahead of him in the pecking order, we cannot read too much into the manager's poker-faced reaction with Ryan Giggs to that miss. Worringly though, the Mexican cut a disinterested figure in his cameo and contrived to miss a sitter from 6 yards out. Confidence plays a huge part in sport and suffice it is to say that Chicharito is desperately short of it.

The Sub-Plots
Adnan Januzaj has been afforded the chance to hit the ground running in what is a big season ahead of him, but his failure to build a relationship up top with Wayne Rooney could be his undoing. Indeed, the link between Memphis on the left and Rooney up top is stronger than that of his Number 10. That United improved by a country mile when the young Belgian was replaced after the break will not go unnoticed to the meticulous Louis van Gaal.

Memphis Depay looked a tad frustrated that Chicharito got the benefit of the penalty as he also searched fruitlessly for a goal but like the first leg, he played better than the weekend before. He's only 21, moving from an inferior league, but so far the pattern dictates that he has been comfortable against opposition closer to what he is used to in the Dutch league. Club Brugge are that. He'll quickly have to get his mojo running in the much tougher premier league games where so far, he's blown lukewarm.

Sergio Romero hasn't done anything spectacular in his five games for the club this season, but he seems to carry a charm about him that has somehow prevented the opposition from scoring against him. You felt his luck had finally run out when Abdoulay Diaby raced clear one on one with the Argentine but somehow he managed to put the forward off and allow United to clear. It's a little bit funny watching Romero keep clean sheet after clean sheet when the media are desperately waiting for him to drop a clanger so that they can get a new angle to a David De Gea story that is desperately growing cold. Of course Romero will one day be tested beyond his obvious limits, but for now, he's riding it pretty well. If you can't be good, be lucky!

The Bottom Line
For all the plaudits that will go the club's way following an impressive away result, it is games like Sunday when United's mettle will be severely tested. Where they will have much less space to manouvre against a better defensive unit, against a more clinical side, and against more daring opponents. If anything, last night was simply about getting the confidence ahead of sterner tests. United have now got that. Question is will they build on from here?

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

AWAY IN BELGIUM


Perspective was yet again shone onto Manchester United's apparent toothless-ness on Saturday following a goalless stalemate at home. For the club's fifth game of the month, the focus will not change. Manchester United need to go to Belgium and protect a two goal advantage to complete the long mission of getting into Friday's group stage draw of the Champions League.

The Match
Well it's simple. That late Marouanne Fellaini goal in the home fixture last week has given United the all important cushion ahead of Wednesday's decider. Before that goal, lose 1-0 and the European adventure would have been over before it started. As is it stands, United can afford to progress by the same scoreline now.

With a little bit of relief in that aspect, it will be interesting if the manager therefore affords some of the 'less trusted' players a run out in what are surely going to be hostile conditions in West Flanders. With a fixture-loaded opening month to deal with, the manager has so far kept more or less the same team throughout. However, testing premier league business to sort out in Wales on Sunday means that Louis van Gaal needs to be clever about sending out a side that is good enough to get a result whilst not necessarily risking all his key players for a fixture that will carry much less pressure than the weekend one.

Indeed, United are so light-weight at the back that we all hold our breath in anxiety over the fitness of Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw. Admittedly, they've looked very fit so far, but we've had our finger burned enough times to sit comfortably.

We saw enough about Club Brugge last week to know exactly what to expect and it's not as daunting as it could have been if we had just the one goal lead. United simply need to score to effectively put the tie to bed. The defensive performances so far this season suggest that we shouldn't let in more than the odd goal, certainly not three! Stranger things have happened though.

The Opposition
Michel Preud'homme suggested that he had no solutions to United in the first leg so we should hope that he hasn't found that solution yet. What we can be sure of is that Club Brugge have nothing to gain from defending and will therefore come at United from the off, if only to unsettle us with an early goal.  Louis van Gaal's 'control' philosophy will therefore be key here. Sometimes he has gone about the simplest of domestic tasks with complicated approaches. He should find it exciting to counter the plans of Preud'homme on foreign territory.

The Sub-Plots
Wayne Rooney equaled his record of 10 club games without a goal on Saturday (albeit unfortunate with the disallowed goal) and so the focus shall yet again be on whether he finally finds the back of the net. I'd imagine though that the smart move would be to play Javier Hernandez up top with Wayne just behind him and at least allow him the joy of pinging balls to someone ahead of him. He seems to have missed that. The other alternative is to bring in Ander Herrera and or Ashley Young for Adnan Januzaj or Memphis Depay. Certainly Fellaini will get minutes at some stage. Whether his involvement will be a plan A or B remains to be seen.

United were unlucky poor in the final third on Saturday against Newcastle United but seemed to find much joy behind the North West Belgian side in the first leg. Perhaps tomorrow is another opportunity for them to build up their confidence in front of goal ahead of a difficult assignment on Sunday.

Marcos Rojo has to get match fitness soon and sooner or later he has to feature to get his season underway. Is this the game? Or still too soon? 

The Bottom-Line
There is but one bottom line ahead of this one: Manchester United must be in the Champions League pot and not the Europa league pot on Friday for the draw. Any other outcome will be of cataclysmic standards.  

Sunday, 23 August 2015

UNITED SERVE UP FRUITLESS DISPLAY AT HOME


Louis van Gaal opened himself up for criticism at the end of a listless performance at home against Newcastle when he suggested that it was one of his better games in charge of the club. In truth, the single-minded Dutchman was right but his answer also gave leeway to questions over his much vaunted philosophy in the aftermath of two points dropped vs one point gained.

On Team News
Bastian Schweinsteiger was handed his first start of the season in a sort of 'promotion' having been excellent in all his cameos so far. The German captain replaced Michael Carrick but the rest of the team was similar to the one that had taken to the pitch for the opening couple of fixtures. Which, I should add was a shame, not in terms of structure or formation, but personnel.

At home against mid-table Premier league opposition, van Gaal does not have to go with more than one midfield anchorman. Whereas Bastian can burst forward from the middle to complement attack, he is more likely to keep within the out-skirts of the penalty area than in it. It follows therefore that in Morgan Schneiderlin and the German, United were again, unnecessarily, very secure defensively.  

On The Match
True to expectation, the match quickly turned into an exercise of defence vs attack. With the excellent security behind them, the front four of Adnan Januzaj, Memphis Depay, Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney went about prising Newcastle open. Except that there seemed to be a genuine failure to execute in the final third, in part because of their wastefulness but also because the final ball often times went begging. That essentially was the theme of the game.

The final whistle was met with a further inquisition about the lack of firepower in United's attack and yet closer scrutiny reveal that that conclusion does not necessarily address what went wrong yesterday. It's hardly that United lacked the personnel to put away the chances, far from it. The penetration on offer though was decisively blunt.

Louis van Gaal's philosophy seeks to eliminate risk as much as possible. It's why for instance Ander Herrera cannot be preferred at the expense of one anchorman as opposed to the expense of one forward. The manager mentioned last week that Ander was not in the team because Adnan, a second striker of sorts, was a better option in the hole. By placing Adnan and Ander at odds for a place in the team, the manager is effectively taking the argument away from his two holding midfielders.

Granted, United probably do not have the defensive personnel to play with just one anchorman, but there are games when United can easily get away with it. Yesterday was one such game. Newcastle were so busy defending their six yard box that United could have sacrificed one extra anchorman for a goal-scoring midfielder sat on the bench but deemed a risk deployment by the manager.

So whereas United, like the other games played so far this season, 'dominated the opposition', there was not much about the most important statistic in a game of football. The criticism Louis van Gaal opened himself up to was in a satisfaction with the domination in a manner that suggested there was nothing about his philosophy that was flawed on the day. Granted, it's admirable that the Dutchman seems steadfast in applying long-term solutions to the club by working his methods so consistently that at some point, United will 'subconsciously' click but there is an immediate dilemma to contend with: The pressure of a title challenge.

Logic dictates that if United are to win the league or even mount a title challenge, games like Saturday are a must win. Winning them will require either a tweak of the philosophy to allow for more risk taking or more luck than the club have already enjoyed this season. Indeed winning the first couple of games was down to the latter. There was always the danger in inquest would follow when results dipped to performance levels.

On The Positives
There is however a need not to lose context and perspective here. The only thing wrong about Saturday was that United did not score, which is why all post match mourning is centred around the box. And not for a lack of trying! Indeed, it was by margins more than anything else. On another day, the linesman does his job and Wayne scores in the 4th minute and from that point, you can bet United would have turned it into a rout. On another day Juan Mata catches that second half volley on the meat and ripples the net open. On another day, Javier Hernandez buries that one on one chance. On another day, Chris Smalling heads that stoppage time corner into the net instead of the goal post. There were always going to be games like this. Thankfully, we didn't suffer the total punch because Newcastle came closest in the first half when Alexssander Mitrovic found the crossbar with a looping header. Worse, Papis Cisse, with a lot more composure could have completed a remarkable smash and grab with a last minute breakaway attack.

I think its worth a pint that defensively United have not been bothered three games into the new season. Sergio Romero must be thinking to himself what the fuss was all about keeping goal for Manchester United. 35 more clean-sheets and he could also win Player of the Year. Chris Smalling though might just beat him to it!

On The Sub-Plots
There were boos ringing around Old Trafford at the final whistle. I'm one of those that thinks it's an embarrassment to boo your own team no matter how bad the day turns out to be. It should be a pleasure to watch them every week regardless the circumstances in which you do. I don't get how you can boo individuals one week and then celebrate with them the next. Good times are not always a given. Sometimes you need the bad times to appreciate the good times even more when they come around.

United tailed off mid-way through the first half when Bastian suffered an injury. He seemed to walk it off but it was telling how his influence dropped from the moment he hurt himself. Was it a case of playing brave to avoid the inquisition into his fitness levels that would follow? Michael Carrick replaced him on the hour-mark and the Geordie seemed back to his best with an impressive last half hour. His pass to locate Chicharito for the late chance was his usual sublime. United seemed to pick up again when he joined further attesting to the midfield resources we have at our disposal in the middle.

Speaking of which, there were plenty of calls for Fellaini on Social Media site Twitter to be brought on as a late substitute. The poor souls were obviously oblivious of the fact that this was the third and final match for which the big Belgian is suspended. I guess it's true what they say about absence and the heart and fondness.

On The Bottom Line
Every season, a title challenger is let off with a couple of 'stinky' home results, if only you can make it count in the return fixture. United have used up one of theirs. It's only August and there's some way to go before we can start ruling out teams for the title, but it's in games like this that United relinquished their bid last year. It cannot happen again that United fail to be consistent. Consistency is what sustains challenges. More accurately for the benefit of Louis van Gaal, consistency in results more than consistency in performances!  

Friday, 21 August 2015

RIBBON & SCISSORS AGAIN FOR UNITED AT OLD TRAFFORD

Manchester United's victory over Club Brugge in the Champions League fizzed out quickly in the newspaper columns because the following day the club was beaten to the signature of Pedro from Barcelona by league rivals Chelsea. That particular vigil seems to have carried on throughout the rest of the week, so much so that for some, it will come too soon that United have a premier league game to sort out on Saturday lunchtime.

For the third week running, Manchester United have the opportunity to set the pace ahead of another weekend of league football. Having secured maximum points with only a couple of goals so far, Newcastle United provide the opposition this week.

The Match
Louis van Gaal is slowly but surely settling on a team of preference. It's not that he will admit it, but that he is quickly developing a nucleus of personnel around whom the season is likely to be built. The unchanged team in midweek could possibly take to the field again with the only question mark surrounding who to pick between Michael Carrick and Bastian Schweinsteiger. The German impressed in his second half cameo in mid-week and it appears he will get the nod from the start alongside the ever impressive Morgan Schneiderlin.


Memphis Depay, hot off that 'I have arrived' performance in midweek will be desperate to keep his place on the left of attack and open his account for the domestic season. United were free flowing in mid-week, and that helped, but one wonders if the shackles could return to navigate the unforgiving waters of the premier league.

Ultimately, a home game against a mid-table side equates to an expectation that United should pick up all three points. This would not fall in the category of games that could be written off if the club failed. Therefore much like the 'cannot fail' mentality on Tuesday against Brugge, United have it all to do against Newcastle.

With a plethora of columns saved and bookmarked for the day that United drop their first premier league points, the jury remains firmly out on the defence and attack to prove that club has enough resources from within to sustain a challenge on all fronts. Moreso, the need for goals up top will be reinforced if the club struggles to get them for a third straight league fixture.  

The Opposition
Steve McClaren returns to his one time home in charge of the visitors on the back of growing pressure and criticism from the Geordie faithful after a dismal start to the season. A 2-2 draw with Southampton on the opening day was seen as a decent result but the 2-0 reverse in Wales last week was far from ideal.

Despite making a few additions in the transfer window, Newcastle still look a far cry from the side that could pack a punch under Alan Pardew. It must really hurt the Geordie fans watching Yohan Cabaye playing for Alan Pardew at Crystal Palace. I digress, but suffice it is to say then that Old Trafford was not high among their priorities in a week they needed to bounce back.

The Sub-Plots
Wayne Rooney remains without a goal of any kind since he nodded home against Barcelona in pre-season over in the USA. Failure to score at the weekend, against a club he usually scores against, will do little to abate the knives that are in full force out against him.

It should also interest to see whether Adnan Januzaj starts a third game in a week in a season where the Belgian really has to make it count. Already, he has turned out to be a better foil for Juan Mata by dropping to the right and allowing the Spaniard to come inside to his natural position. The Belgian's promotion in recent times smacks of similarities with van Gaal's experimentation of Frank Ribery in the Number 10 role and when it didn't work promoted a certain Thomas Muller to the first team for that position, pushing Ribery to his favoured wide position. It's a tad similar to Memphis' initial experimentation in the middle and then suddenly restoring him wide and picking an Academy lad to do the central role.

It's not to suggest that any of those have been afforded their final positions for the long term. Far from it in fact given that the transfer window remains open and the club are still expected to add to their attacking resources.

The Bottom Line
United have so far played their games without having to watch other sides make forward steps. Playing first again is another chance to set the pace again ahead of another weekend with two rivals in direct opposition. It's a chance that United need to take with both hands if only because it will hold the club in good stead when the more trickier days come around.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

LVG TAKES THE SHACKLES OFF TO SET UP THE MEMPHIS SHOW



Manchester United effectively penciled in their name in the Champions League group stages with a 3-1 victory over Club Brugge at Old Trafford last night. In what turned out to be the club's highlight game of the season so far, Memphis Depay's virtuoso brace and Marouanne Fellaini's late third sealed an entertaining victory.

The Match
Given the choice, would we have it any other way? Save for the unfortunate own goal that Michael Carrick scored, most of what happened at Old Trafford last night seemed to play into the fairytale of what we could have only hoped for ahead of kick-off.

For starters, Louis van Gaal retained the same team that got the away win at Villa Park on Friday night. Although it meant that there was no place in the team for fans' favourites Ander Herrera and Bastian Schweinsteiger, it laid method to van Gaal's plans for Manchester United's plans this season. Only this time last year, the Dutchman was trying out formation number 4 of 878 to come throughout the season. Expensive new signings were still coming in and we were far from knowing who of the players were trusted to do what by the manager. Therefore seeing United last night line-up in a 4-2-3-1 with similar personnel from the game before, finally gave the impression that for all United's successes and failures to come this term, it will at least be with a plan. Now we can say with confidence and evidence that LVG knows what he is doing.

The biggest relief though came with a chance crafted within the first minute of play when Juan Mata played in Adnan Januzaj to provide a cross for Wayne Rooney. Although the chance went begging, it was a first glimpse of the zip about United's play. There was not much about the control and cautious possession that had characterised United's opening couple of games. This was end to end stuff, plenty of chances and finally the style and entertainment that we have longed for under Louis van Gaal.

It seemed though to have been partly the doing of the visitors. Club Brugge, for all their miserly statistics, came out to play. Their pressing game unnerved United at the back in the first half and there seemed to be an ever present danger that United would give away more than just the one away goal. Thankfully, Mike Chris Smalling was, according to Rio Ferdinand, in beast mode to snuff out most of the danger at the back. Indeed, that Sergio Romero, despite trying hard to cause himself a problem or two, had little to do is testament to the leaps and bounds United's defenders have made. Here was them faced with real pace through the middle and on the flanks and yet they seemed to hold their own. Certainly, this is far from a makeshift defence. Daley Blind's seamless fit alongside the Englishman with able cover on the flanks in Darmian and Shaw has made United look better at the back than the evidence suggests. The worry remains that there was, for instance, no cover for the central defence positions on the bench.

United were not as comfortable in the middle in the first half as they were in the second. Michael Carrick was replaced by Bastian Schweinsteiger at the break and suddenly Brugge couldn't lay a finger on United, at least not with the frequency they seemed to do in the first half. It should count for something when you are the premier league's most decorated player and perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised at the impact the German had in the second half. Having lasted a first full competitive 45 minutes, expectations will grow even further to see his name included from the start when team-news for Saturday is released at 11.45am BST.

For all the above positives, none was bigger than the performance of Memphis Depay on his European debut for the club. The Dutchman was among those to suffer when the shackles were fully on in the opening two games but last night, he finally had the stage to answer the question about why United pushed out the boat for him. And boy did he do so! And then some!

Not since the days of Cristiano Ronaldo have United had a Number 7 that could lift his team, lift the fans and become a genuine game changer in a virtuoso display. There are times under David Moyes and certainly last season under Louis van Gaal when that Michael Carrick own goal would have seen United feel sorry for themselves, sink into their shells to reflect on the misfortune that had befallen them. Memphis ensured United were behind for just the five minutes with a couple of goals that should effectively close the selection for the club's Goal of the Month.

We shouldn't have to compare him with Cristiano Ronaldo, but it's a comparison that will inevitably keep surfacing as long as he keeps putting up such performances. Certainly, the fact that he's only 21, an age when Cristiano was barely a fraction of what he is now, adds to the weight of expectation. Ronaldo though is a man of inhuman belief in his abilities. We know Memphis has a belief about him but, as in everything else, the pudding is in the consistency. The reason Jose Mouriho looked foolish placing Eden Hazard above Ronaldo was simply because of that bottom-line. Hazard will score and assist a hat-full of goals en-route to guiding his team to a title, but Ronaldo will score and assist a dozen hat-full of goals en-route to breaking his own record charts as well as lead his team to a trophy. At some point in his career, Memphis will have to face that jury of consistency. He still has age on his side to develop into whatever he wants to become and there is an admirable arrogance about him. Certainly, lining up a 37 yard free-kick and going for goal last night was every inch Cristiano-esque arrogance.

Ultimately though, it should hold the lad in good stead that his European debut is being compared with that of Wayne Rooney back in 2004. The joy he enjoyed with Luke Shaw on the left should soon be of particular concern to opponents coming up against the pacy forward.

Sub-Plots
It wasn't all about Memphis last night you know! Javier Hernandez finally made a playing return for Manchester United, replacing Adnan Januzaj for the last quarter of the match. I thought it was the kind of substitution that Louis van Gaal should have made in each of the opening two games. Why?

For starters, Club Brugge seemed to struggle with the mobility of United's flanks but there was not so much trouble being caused by Wayne Rooney's movement. He is not the off-the-shoulder striker anymore but Chicharito is just that. It was evident that he stretched the Club Brugge defence so much so that his movement (albeit away from goal) resulted in a second yellow card for defender Brandon Mechele. From the 75th minute, Chicharito is hardly the striker you want to see coming on and that is perhaps why van Gaal might have pocketed a trick by opting to keep the Mexican as a reserve striker as opposed to selling him.

Marouanne Fellaini came on to add a crucial third goal that had proved elusive all second half. That United opted to hoof the ball up in the final stages rather than keep playing their way into Brugge also highlighted a third dimension of play available to LVG. More than anything, it will hold the club in good stead going forward that the manager has Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C--as all good managers should have.

Wayne Rooney improved from his showing at Aston Villa but has now gone on a record 9 match scoring drought. His performance on the night at least afforded him complements from the manager but it is worrying that the highlight of his match was a deft back-heeled flicked-on to provide Memphis with a glorious chance to score a hattrick.

Old Trafford lived up to its famous atmospheres on European nights but that a apart of that was due to the excellent away following for the visitors. What with the away fans chanting Liverpool's 'You'll Never Walk Alone' to the United faithful, setting the stage for a battle in the stands as well as on the pitch.

Bottom-line
It could, in all probability, turn out that the third goal by Fellaini is the one that will ultimately send United through. Club Brugge showed enough on the night to cause concern to United defending a 2-1 lead next week. The pressure ahead of that game is now fairly absent and should therefore allow United execute their counter-attacking game plan away better.

Attention quickly returns to domestic business on the Saturday in yet another early kick-off for the visit of Newcastle. Different test, same levels of application required.              

Monday, 17 August 2015

UNITED IN EUROPE AGAIN!




From the moment the Champions League anthem rings out at Old Trafford tomorrow night, Manchester United will have effectively overcome the knock-on effects of the David Moyes era. Albeit just a qualifying round, it's been long since United have had to play competitively under the lights against European opposition. Belgian side Club Brugges provide the opposition in what should, on paper, be a negotiable fixture into Europe's premier club competition.

The Match
United kept things tidy domestically with another assured defensive display in a 1-0 victory over Aston Villa to remain with a 100% record in the league. Ideally, in these European ties, you'd rather that the second leg, the one that really matters is the home leg. As it turned out for us, United will have to take a considerable advantage into the second leg to avoid the nerves that will come with having a narrow lead in a Cup tie.

Unfortunately, so far this season at least, goals have not been something synonymous with the club. Having opened with just a couple of goals and relatively few clear cut chances in the opening two games, United will have to improve considerably up front if they are to make hay in the first leg. The defensive structure preferred by Louis van Gaal this term seems to have caveated the joy that United will have in the opposition penalty box. The entire XI these days seems to go on about a strict execution of their duties with very limited abandon.


It's just as well though that United's approach could in fact protect them from shipping in what are very costly away goals to give away in two-legged Cup ties. You would rather that if it's to be an even high scoring game, the scoring should be done away from home.

Still, Club Brugge are not the sort of opposition United should struggle to get past. The expectation will therefore be on one team and the onus is therefore on that team to confirm, not prove their right to contest the Champions League group stages.

The Opposition
Club Brugge overcame Panathinaikos in the second round of the qualifiers to make it to this stage of the competition. The Belgian side are in a decent run of form coming into this fixture but were most impressive in a 3-0 second leg victory over the Greek side having had to overturn a deficit of a 2-1 scoreline from the first leg.

Like United, Club Brugge settled their domestic commitments on Friday in the Pro League, beating Kortrijk 2-1 at home setting them up in good stead for their first ever meeting with Manchester United. A 4th place position on their domestic log is however more down to their European commitments than their inability to make light of a less than testing league.

Sub-Plots
We've never really had the opportunity to see how Louis van Gaal would fare with his extravagant tactics in Europe. Often times, he has been criticised for treating basic domestic games with the same tactical sophistication as managers normally reserve for European games. It'll therefore be interesting of United set up differently from how they do in the league and if not, whether the tactical sophistication adopted is ripe for Champions League football.

Wayne Rooney has fairly come under some criticism after the lethargic start to the season he has had. Playing as the club's prime goalscorer, it was a bit of a shock-stat seeing that he first touched the ball in the Villa penalty area in the 93rd minute, even so, just to run down the channel and waste time. Already firmly en-route to a scoring drought, the captain wouldn't want to start the season when he should be breaking goal-scoring records with barren statistics.

Admittedly, Wayne has come a long way in terms of games played and the effect of burn-out slowly descending upon him. However, one would imagine taking away the need to run channels and hustle all over the pitch for possession would relive him of the needless running he has been accustomed to. Not so it seems as the England captain still racked up top miles coverage for the game more than any other United player. Chances are, in fear of being left isolated up top by a midfield that is content to pass the ball securely between themselves and the defenders, Wayne can't bring himself to sit it all out often times gets drawn into the midfield bonanza. Whether that is part of the Louis van Gaal philosophy or not remains subject of debate.

 I do remember though midway through the second half of the PSG pre-season game when he seemed to be fed up by David Luiz's attention up top. He ran so deep, picked up possession and pinged a 35 yard ball across the field for, well, all time's sake!

You do hope though that he pokes one in tomorrow night, if only to put some of the knives away. Lest we forget, he remains the captain!

The Bottom-Line
Ultimately, there will be no excuse under the sun if Manchester United fail to win on the night. Given that the punishment for failure to progress is the Europa League, there is no respite out of this particular predicament.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

HUMDRUM WILL DO FOR MANCHESTER UNITED

Manchester United made it their best start to a premier league season since 2011 with an assured 1-0 away win at Villa Park on Friday night.

Selection/Formation
Keeping in tune with his consistent inconsistency in player positions, Louis van Gaal dropped Ashley Young and selected Adnan Januzaj behind Wayne Rooney. It meant a shift to the left for Memphis Depay despite briefing us that the Dutchman is onto forging a partnership up front with Wayne Rooney.

Quite simply, it appears there is much uncertainty about the forward areas with the rest of the team pretty much settled in the opening two fixtures. The manager's pragmatism came to the fore once again with the selection of two holding midfielders in Michael Carrick and Morgan Schneiderlin.

The Match
United played with similar composure and control to the opener last week except that they were neater with the ball. It appears though that Louis van Gaal is determined to arrest the helter-skelter of premier league games that got his arse twitching last season. Here were an Aston Villa side clearly geared up for a right old breathless 'Cup final' fixture under the lights, but the Dutch coach effectively refused to play into that script.

The Villa game plan seemed hinged on fast paced counter-attacking football and yet United refused to commit into any attacks early on. Passing the ball between midfield and defence repeatedly threw the home side's game plan out of the window because here they were, invited to attack first and expose themselves. Whenever Villa re-organised, the same pattern was repeated.
By selecting two holding midfielders, van Gaal has ensured that games are almost played to the rhythm and control of his midfielders. The two holders hardly made any forward ventures, ensuring that at all times, United's supposedly weak central defence was shielded from virtually every Villa attack.

Indeed if Sergio Romero had opted to stay behind with David De Gea, it wouldn't have mattered that United had an unguarded goal. Such was the control United had over proceedings that Villa had to come up with something extra-ordinary to get close to United. Keep the opposition at arms length appears to be the direction van Gaal is taking his side this season. It is unlikely therefore that United will be anything more than functional this season. They look like an assembly of players with specific instructions to execute and with little room for self-expression. It's brilliant for the coaches to watch. Maybe not so for the fans or at least neutrals.

Thankfully, United retain players up top whose genius overrides most of their functionality. Juan Mata temporarily abandoned his wing-role and dropped inside to pick out Adnan Januzaj with the pass of the game. The Belgian made his selection count by showing dexterous footwork, cutting in to render Micah Richards a nullity and down on his backside before planting a shot far post that deflected off Ciaran Clark. It was, whichever way you look at it, quite a brilliantly crafted goal.

That once again, it turned out to be the winner made for uncomfortable questions to the manager in his post match presser but in truth, Villa never really looked like they would level the game at any one point. Memphis Depay though should have made it 2-0 mid-way through the second half but saw his shot beat Brad Guzan but zip wide.

Sub-Plots
Matteo Darmian put in another excellent display at right-full back to earn himself a nomination for Man of the Match. There is an aspect of his game that has helped Chris Smalling look even better than last season. The Italian defends 'inside right' allowing him to double up with Chris several times when United are defending. It means the pair are never really isolated, effectively making the right side a no-go area to hurt United. Certainly, it appears Matteo did really mould his game around his hero Paolo Maldini. It makes for an interesting throw-back watch, especially given the great Italian's recent laments about full-backs that don't defend these days.

It really does seem that Luke Shaw has come leaps and bounds since his injury nightmares last season. To get two consecutive 90 minute performances is a hard stat to find last season. Now, it looks like he is determined to hold down his place on the left with excellent fitness levels. Amazing what taking a coach on holiday to Dubai can do for you eh?

On the whole, it also a bit of a surprise how many players United have fit. Last year, every game was punctuated by a new injury and yet so far, it seems the manager is struggling to find a place in the team for each of his 25 man playing staff. It's a welcome headache for him I imagine.
  
Bottom-Line
Forget the caveats though! Manchester United have yet again successfully disappointed most of Her Majesty's press. There seems to be a good few holding their breath for Romero to make a blunder or for Daley Blind to be caught out in defence or for United to fire blanks in front of goal to give credence to the early season prejudices about Louis van Gaal's team. We're now told that this United team will be exposed for what it really is when the 'big games' come around and yet it is at venues like Villa Park that the side struggled last season.

Do United owe anyone an apology for starting the season with a maximum 6 points out of 6? Have United offended the spirit of the game by doing so with just two goals, one an own goal and another via a deflection?

If we're supposed to believe that United are not yet accomplished enough to win the league title, then they've not done badly for themselves starting off with a couple of wins. Yes, improvements will be needed but to expect improvements while you're winning is the hallmark of a team heading in the right direction!

Thursday, 13 August 2015

UNITED, VILLA, FIRST UP FOR EPL's FIRST FNF LIVE!


It wasn't supposed to happen until next season but the English Defence League protest scheduled for Saturday in Walsall, coupled with United's involvement in the Champions League qualifying round next Tuesday, have ensured that English Football's first Friday Night Live will take place at Villa Park this week.

The Match:
Despite an spirit-sapping 1-1 draw at Friday's venue last season, Villa Park is one of United's happiest hunting grounds in the Premier League era. Indeed, the Old Trafford club last got beaten at Villa Park on 13th October 1999 in the then Worthington Cup (remember that?). A look at the overall record against Manchester United and Aston Villa in all competitions makes for sore reading for the Villa faithful. Some might therefore say that United couldn't have picked a better second league fixture to build on their solid start to the season.

Having looked largely unconvincing for the opener against Tottenham Hotspur, the jury remains firmly out on how fluid and cohesive United will be in far less scorching temperatures on Friday evening. It took United more than an hour to register their first shot on target of the season. A repeat of a similar statistic for Game 2 would create an unwanted pattern. All the passing from defence to midfield to defence again will count for nothing if the penetration stats are poor. Certainly, the speed of play has to improve to offer the attackers room to manouvre up top.

The Opposition:
Aston Villa started their 28th consecutive season in the top flight of English football with a 1-0 away victory over newly promoted AFC Bournemouth thanks to a goal from Rudy Gestede on his debut. Tim Sherwood also handed debuts to Michah Richards, Jordan Ayew, with the former starting at centre half.

Having made the most of an opener against a side still feeling its way around the premier league, the hosts will have very little pressure ahead of this one. Tim Sherwood might just benefit from having to tell his players to approach the fixture with a Cup final attitude. Indeed, if Villa can defend as resolute as they did in the reverse fixture last year, United could be faced with numerous questions and few answers if ball possession shall be prized ahead of penetration.

The Sub-Plots:
Having watched a couple of their rivals drop early points last weekend, United, are already in a position to inch further away this weekend given that the the top two sides last year are in direct opposition this Sunday. I imagine, for instance, the eye-brows will start to rise, albeit slowly, if come Sunday evening, United sit 5 points above Chelsea after just a couple of games. Certainly, the opportunity is there for Louis van Gaal to build a small grass thatched hut of pressure early on form the start.

Team-news on the night should also make for interesting observation. Whilst the expectation shall still be that Marcos Rojo is not yet fit to start, it remains to be seen whether the midfield duo of Carrick and Schneiderlin shall get the nod once again ahead of Bastian Schweinsteiger. With Villa likely to be dangerous primarily on the counter-attack from and set-pieces, you'd imagine that United may not necessarily need a second holding midfielder for this one. Chances are United will need more of creativity than muscle on Friday.

Often times last season, van Gaal failed to read into the script that not all premier league games should be approached with the same tactical acumen. As such, United failed to make much hay away from home against, with all due respect, lower-table opposition. Against certain sides, attacks do not have to be built with the same meticulous method as you would do in a game against top opposition. Sometimes, the more you over think it, the easier it becomes for the opposition. Sometimes instinct triumphs over method, especially when the opposition can only stifle your method. This time I'd like to see United vary their play often enough to make it as less predictable as possible.

The Bottom Line:
United primarily failed to mount a challenge last season because of an incredibly poor record away from home. Friday is a first opportunity to address the points tally picked up at some of the grounds we ought to, as a matter of necessity, pick up points.

Indeed, whilst the dark clouds of October remain more than a month away, United owe it to themselves to make a lot of hay while the sun still shines! They'll be no sunshine on Friday when both teams take to the pitch, but Villa Park has a pseudo status of being United's second-home given the run of results down the years there.

With a Champions League qualifier to follow soon after that, United will be desperate not to shatter their confidence ahead of a crucial week.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

NERVY SPOILS, BUT WE'LL TAKE IT


Manchester United opened their 2015/16 Premier League season with a nervy display but ultimately salvaged three points to ensure a better start than 12 months ago.

The Match
United started nervy of the two sides which was a bit of a surprise considering all that Spurs have had to contend with since their couple of fixtures in Munich. As it were, Juan Mata lost possession in his own half to grant Spurs the honour of the first chance of the new season. Thankfully, Christian Ericksen lobed the ball over Sergio Romero to ensure the first defensive mistake United made was not punished. It proved to be a costly mistake for Spurs though as United scored (well, sort of) from their first real meaningful attack. Juan Mata found Ashley Young from an under-hit Bentaleb pass. The Englishman found his compatriot Wayne Rooney in acres of space in the area but the captain's lack of sharpness meant that he couldn't make the most of the opportunity first time. Luckily, the captain applied his Jedi mind-trick and Kyle Walker was at hand to poke the ball home on his behalf and spare his blushes that were very evident in the goal celebration.

Sergio Romeo
The breaking news ahead of kick-off was that Louis van Gaal had opted to go with Sergio Romero instead of Sam Johnstone in goal. Having ruled out David De Gea from proceedings, the starting position in goal was very much up for grabs right from the off but it's hard to see how Romero loses it from hereon. Unless David De Gea stays for the season, Romero should easily keep his place in goal after Day 1, if only because he largely held his own today. His only errors seemed to stem from Louis van Gaal's instructions to have the goalkeepers pass the ball from back as opposed to clearing their lines. He didn't, for instance, seem vulnerable at set-pieces the way De Gea did when he first arrived and was quick off his line to remedy any uncertainty from his defenders. His couple of saves late on will have enhanced his confidence but more than anything, the fact that he caught most of his touches on the ball will have delighted Louis van Gaal. Perhaps, his biggest compliment on the day is that against a Top Six rival on the opening day, De Gea was not missed!

The Debutants
Louis van Gaal handed debuts to all our new purchases today with Matteo Darmian predictably getting the biggest plaudits. The Italian, first a defender, showed ensured that if Spurs were to score, it was going to be through a blunder directly from central midfield and yet he even found the lungs to aid Smalling and Blind in the middle. It's easy to see why van Gaal branded him as a defender 'first'. The curious thing about it all is that: Why is van Gaal interested in a defender first at full back position when he prefers footballer first in Daley Blind at left-centre half? The genius in me thinks it should be the other way round. Maybe that's why I'm not the one being paid thousands per week to make those decisions. Excellent ball player he might be but logic, however, dictates that Blind could struggle when up against more physical forwards than Harry Kane. It's a fact that the versatile Dutchman somewhat recognised in a post-match interview during which he correctly reminded us that being a defender is about more than just physical strength!

I thought on the whole Bastian Shweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin had impressive debuts as well, stacking up 88% pass accuracy. The Frenchman, like the team as a whole, started off nervy, but his fouls tally without conceding a yellow card told of a player United have dearly missed since Roy Keane and (to a lesser extent) Owen Hargreaves. Indeed, the reason why United were able to keep Spurs at arms length for most of the match was because of the screening job Micheal Carrick and Morgan Schneiderlin did in-front of Blind and Smalling.

Goals?
That United had their first shot on target at minute 63 tells the quite a story about United's attacking prowess. Juan Mata accomplished his designated duty of providing support in attack but the current set-up doesn't seem to suit United going forward, at least in terms of giving Wayne Rooney the service he now craves. Besides manufacturing attacks down the left, there seems very little else in varying United's attack at the moment. If Ashley Young is happily blocked off, as Kyle Walker did today, and Wayne Rooney starved of service as was done today, goals might yet again come hard for United. The team seem pre-disposed to making so many passes from defensive and midfield positions with very little directness going forward. Questions will have to be asked in the near future. For instance are United better off creative-wise with Herrera and Mata in the same team?

The slow build up play on display yesterday allowed for Spurs to easily get back and foil United's moves way before we got their penalty box. Indeed, the one moment when United showed urgency and speed of attack resulted in the only goal of the match. Juan Mata and Ashley Young broke at speed to capitalise on a misplaced Bentaleb pass and afford Wayne Rooney enough time to place a shot. The irony is that on tour, speed seemed to define the new ethos on poor American pitches and yet, here, United almost seemed uncomfortable with an excellent Old Trafford pitch.

Memphis Depay seemed the one lively aspect upfront with an excellent first touch but it often appeared that he and Wayne Rooney were at different wavelengths, at least in terms of the first touch! Devoid of world class quality up top, these two need to consistently be in tandem if United are to make something of their season.

Bottom line
Having picked two points from their opening three games last year, Manchester United have got off to a better start in picking up three from one so far. Squad-wise, they still have some tweaking to do before the transfer window ends but least they have already registered one of those grind-out results that are very necessary to accomplish a season's target!

Goodness knows if we had provided an entertaining 2-2 draw with Swansea City at home and Chelsea had unconvincingly beaten Tottenham 1-0 at Stamford Bridge, the headlines would have praised Jose's results-based attitude while slamming United's defence for letting in two goals on opening day!

So cheers people!

Friday, 7 August 2015

LUNCH AT OLD TRAFFORD


Excitement or Nerves? Maybe a bit of both. Personally I'd say a lot of both! On the occasion of the start of the new premier league season, a day when everyone is optimistic, Manchester United are first in front of the cameras, in their new Adidas kit, at lunchtime on Saturday for the visit by Tottenham Hotspur.

The build-up:
United last played a game of football on July 30th but there has been a behind-closed doors match earlier this week. We understand now that the match was comprised solely of United players and that Louis van Gaal selected the Starting XI for Saturday on the one side and the one that wouldn't start on the other. From journalists close to the club, it's also understood that the problematic right-sided centre-back position which he flagged problematic at the end of the PSG game will be awarded to Chris Smalling and not Phil Jones because of the latter's poor display in the PSG match.

On the injury front, and any last minute announcements at the pre-match presser on Friday permitting, United have a clean bill of health ahead of Saturday. To put into perspective, United went into last season's opener with Swansea missing up to 9 players, forcing the manager to hand Tyler Blackett, Jesse Lingard and Patrick McNair their club debuts!

The Match:
Of all the season predictions going around ahead of the new campaign, United's is the most tricky to get right. Such is the delicate poise around Louis van Gaal's squad that predictions border from wildly successful to a shambles in certain departments of the team. For starters, few inside Old Trafford itself are certain about who will line-up in goal for the Red Devils on Saturday. Shall we see the 'unfocused' David De Gea or shall the manager root for new signing Sergio Romero, who is untested in the premier league but comes with a wealth of experience at International level.

Further ahead, Daley Blind will start at left centre-half, a selection that, despite attracting concerns over pre-season, will remain responsible for half the nerves fans will endure ahead of kick-off on Saturday. His partner will in all probability be Chris Smalling, together, forming the most unconvincing aspect of United's squad at the moment. Still, Louis van Gaal has surprised many with faith in his options, but whilst the transfer window remains open, the scrutiny of United's rearguard shall be unrelenting. The cynic in me feels that this is the one area where Louis van Gaal wants to prove us all wrong, just as he has done over the years on many occasions in his illustrious career.

The Opposition:
Tottenham Hotspur are in a bit of a mare at the moment. They were a victim of the television schedule when BT Sport selected their trip to Old Trafford as the midday kickoff after a week in Germany partaking the Audi Cup. Pochettinho thought he had solved that problem with a late flight back home on Wednesday night but they were told, whilst in Munich, that they couldn't get on a flight until Thursday afternoon. It means Spurs will have been in England for just 24hrs when they board another flight up north to Manchester on the Friday. It's hardly the preparation ahead of a season-opener but they will have been served up well by the rotation of the squad in the Germany.

The Sub-Plots:
At the start of the transfer window, there was money staked on which side Spurs duo Harry Kane and Hugo Lloris would line up on Saturday. Nothing seems to have changed on that front and so the bookies should keep a lot of their money. Lloris made a return from his injury on Wednesday to feature as a substitute in the Audi Cup against AC Milan. Of the two, (and if he starts) he'll be the one most eager to impress a watching eye or two at Old Trafford.

The biggest attraction from the fans' point of view should be the club debuts for new signings Matteo Darmian, Morgan Schneiderlin Bastian Shweinsteiger and Memphis Depay. Of the lot, much will be expected of the latter because of the apparent concern about United's goal-getters this season. His partnership with Wayne Rooney has looked impressive in terms of understanding while on tour and now its time to deliver an early verdict in an environment when it really matters. Also, it will be interesting whether manager goes with the 'Schmidfield' or tempers one of them with Michael Carrick. Certainly, there's still a lot to learn about combinations and triangles of the new midfield set-up.

There is a feeling that all, if not most of United's transfer business can thrive in the league and therefore add something to what we already had last season. If that turns out to be the case, Louis van Gaal's summer business, above everything else, could be the reason why he seems to be reading from a different script in terms of additions to his side.

Last Time Out:
Spurs were in the unfortunate position of being the first victims of United's renaissance under Louis van Gaal last season. Unsuspectingly, they came out to attack United in an open contest seeking to build on their consecutive wins at the M16. By the end of the first half, the result was not in doubt. United stormed to a 3-0 lead with goals from Marouanne Fellaini (after the cameras played a trick on us and speeded up his acceleration), Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney.

More of the same would just about get us to the perfect start ahead of a fixture-filled August month. Asking too much? Not I think!

The Bottom Line:
Last term, Manchester United were given an easy ride from all concerned because the season hinged on a mere return to the Champions League. For Louis van Gaal and indeed for Manchester United, the grace period is over. Expectations are not yet at peak level but given the resources on which the club built its success in the Sir Alex Ferguson era, the figures invested in the current crop warrant an immediate return on investment if only to prove to the supporters and the Board that the club is heading in the right direction.

One of the steps in that direction was to make Old Trafford a fortress once again. It should therefore be a matter of expectation that the club shall win just about every home game. Such are the standards if you intend to challenge for a league title!

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

THE COMPLETE 2015/16 SEASON PREVIEW


For a second consecutive season, Manchester United will cut the the ribbon to the new premier league season at Old Trafford on Saturday lunchtime. However, fans will be hoping that Louis van Gaal and his players get off to a much better start than they did last summer.

The New Boys 

Having already spent the best part of £80m on new players, United are one of the big spenders in the market again. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderlin, and Matteo Darmian have, notwithstanding anything else, made United stronger than last season. Sergio Romero will provide the insurance cover in goal, pending the sale of David De Gea and or the signing of a replacement for the Spaniard.

It's not to suggest that the squad is free of blemish but with five new names added to the side, and ahead of the third season post Sir Alex Ferguson, there is a growing pressure around the club to finally deliver a season that will put all references to the great Scot to bed.


The Formation

Having tried and tested no less than 8786 different formations last season, Louis van Gaal has finally settled for the 4-3-3 varied to a 4-2-3-1 formation ahead of the campaign. Contrary to what we believed, it appears that the manager brought in Memphis Depay to make a direct contribution in front of goals opposed to making inroads for the team out wide. If that is the genuine case, then perhaps it makes sense why LVG has not pushed out the boat for a 30 goal centre-forward that he yearned for towards the end of the previous campaign.

United should at least benefit from starting the season with formation that they will stick to throughout the season as opposed to the in-game experimentation for 7 months of the last season.


The Enemy

Of the sides that finished above the Red Devils last season, only Arsenal have made 'an improvement signing' so far. Petr Cech might have solved a decade long problem for them. I don't however believe that across the street City have made significant improvement with the addition of Raheem Sterling. In any event, their problem was never scoring goals. Chelsea have also remained pretty still meaning that for all the problems that still exist in Louis van Gaal's squad, United at least have not fallen further behind their rivals.

The downside though is that whereas those above us do not need to bed in many new faces, the jury is is still out on how United's new boys shall fare especially those making their premier league debuts.


The expectation

In his 3 year plan for Manchester United over the course of his contract, Louis van Gaal had United pencilled in for a league title in his second season but definitely in ink after his third season if the second didn't go according to plan. The general expectation is that in the least, United must put up a fight for the league title going into April 2016. There will not be any champagne on offer because United are in the Champions League positions. The target will be steeper this time.

In his last interview ahead of the season, Louis van Gaal bemoaned the lack of speed and creativity among his playing staff as prevailing hindrances to wining our trophy back. Whereas we're definitely not blessed with the genius of Messi, Neymar or Eden Hazard, United do have speed and creativity up top to pack a size-able fist of the new season. Already, its been quick enough in pre-season with the only downside the being the elaborate build up to the opposition box as opposed to sheer directness. In this regard Ashley Young and Luke Shaw already look like they'll form the fastest left wing partnership in the division. Memphis Depay has allowed for speed of attack through the middle whilst the creative talents of Mata and Herrera will fathom a decent tally of chances created every 90 minutes. Moreover, with a finally balanced midfield of Schneiderlin, Schweinsteiger and or Carrick, there is much less need for the attacking midfielders to drop deep and help out recover possession. It baffles therefore why Louis van Gaal seems unappreciative of the resources at his disposal.

In any event, winning a league title has almost always been about endurance of squad over 10 months and hardly about the presence of a world class player in a team. Liverpool found that out to their cost a couple of seasons ago. Chelsea became more about their defence than den Hazard in the second half of last season.


It is understandable though to figure what van Gaal probably meant. The games that are beyond United now are those when the opposition 'park the bus' and hit United on the break. It's a tactic that has been used to frustrate Arsene Wenger for a decade and one that Sir Alex has himself employed to get the better of his opposite number. LVG has got to get United to vary it a lot more often to avoid United being predictable. The English Premier League thrives and rewards directness (which is why Ashley Young's style makes him a vital cog in the mix these days) and therefore, it will be a tad naive to approach all games next season without the necessary variety to overcome 38 different challenges.


The 'Kids'

It's not yet clear who the club intend to push out on loan and who shall remain to supplement the senior side but Louis van Gaal cannot complain about the youthful talent at his disposal. Having handed a record number of players their debuts last season, it remains to be seen whether the fiery Dutchman has first team plans for many of the players on the fringes of the first team.

Adnan Januzaj, Jesse Lingaard, Paddy McNair, Tyler Blackett and Adreas Perreira already look like they can make the step up to the first team if only to supplement the squad when the manager rotates his team. Certainly, a good League Cup run will aid them beef up their tally of appearances.


Last term, injuries made certain that Paddy McNair and Tyler Blackett enjoyed more football than they would have hoped for at the start of the campaign. Given that United have not added to their options in central defence and that the injury-prone duo Phil Jones and Chris Smalling remain a tear away from the treatment table, the Irishman and Englishman should yet again see more action this season.


Januzaj seems likely to adopt the 'Memphis Depay route' upfront as Louis van Gaal's other decoy striker. Again, given that United have not strengthened in terms of an out and out striker having got rid of Radamel Falao and Robin van Persie, it is conceivable that the Belgian shall see a lot more game-time than he did last season.


It is Lingard and Perreira who have it all to do to break somewhere into a midfield that now boasts 12 players. Ironically, of the lot, it is the pair that looked the most promising on tour. Lingaard has already served and excelled at more than a season on loan and it feels like he should be kept as part of the first team whilst Perreira is a natural talent that can be harnessed into something really special at the cub for a long time. Given the ever increasing prices of talents these days, United would be smart to keep a hold of theirs this time.


The Fixture List 

The fixture list has been reasonably kind to United but there's hardly an 'easy' game in the Premier League. That said, United have it in them to make a perfect start in August and  September. In fact, bar the visit to Wales in late August and St. Marys in mid-September, on paper, United do not have many problems. Games against Spurs and Liverpool are at Old Trafford where the expectation will be to win. It does get rocky in October though, with the only home game being the Manchester derby. It promises to be a testing month with the possibility of Champions League football in between.

Ultimately, United have an easier last 7 games than they did last season. If up to April 2016, United are still in it, the fixture list suggests we should fancy them for a crack at the title.


The target

Having achieved the minimum requirement of getting United back in Europe, Louis van Gaal will be under considerable pressure from the media, fans and indeed his employers to make a second season in charge count for progression. At the moment, that stands at anything between challenging for the title and winning it. If a bad start ultimately proved the undoing of United last season then the impetus should be on getting United to start well this time round. 2015/16 will be the first season since 2013 that United have started a campaign with the same manager who finished the last. It is therefore a matter of expectation that the patience the Old Trafford faithful have shown the new man in each of the seasons before will not be a requirement this time round. Even so, United in their current shape are good enough to win at least one of the two domestic Cup competitions on offer. They were good enough for the FA Cup last season and bar a terrible back pass from Valencia, would have won it. Delivering a first trophy post-Ferguson is quickly becoming an itch that must be scratched.

To sum up what would be expected of United this season would be to attempt to define something between success and reasonable success. It's just as well then that the catch phrase for the new Adidas shirt is ''Breaking Expectations''; for 2015/16 can only be seen as such if United achieve beyond our respective hopes in the new season!