Monday, 28 September 2015

EUROPEAN TRIAL


The highs of Manchester United's domestic form will be quickly caveated by the return of the UEFA Champions League this week for its second installment. On Wednesday, Old Trafford will host its first proper European game since 2014 when German side VfL Woflsburg make the 'short' trip across the channel to Manchester.

United's European campaign could not have possibly gotten off to a worse start than losing to PSV Eindhoven on top of losing one of their key players for virtually the rest of the season. That our guests will kickoff three points better off on t
he night makes it impossible to overstate the importance of Match day 2. The Group stage, in the least, requires that a team wins all its home games and gets a point away in order to qualify.

The Match
A seemingly straight forward group has quickly become a series of banana skin fixtures. It is conceivable for instance that at the close of proceedings on Wednesday, all four teams could easily be on three points after two games played. It is, to quote Louis van Gaal, quickly becoming a rat race to qualify in Group B.

United were wasteful infront of goal in Holland, often times making the wrong pass and failing to turn domination into clear cut chances. At the continental level, reading and then countering the opposition's game plan is what has made the Champions League a difficult affair for the often one-paced English sides. Phillip Cocu, for instance, would argue that he cannot see how United dominated the game when his side defended their territory ever so well and picked off United almost at will.

The Opposition
Wolfsburg might have lost star man Kevin De Bruyne to the lot across the street but they've been just as impressive domestically, starting the season unbeaten and sit comfortably in third place after four matches. They held off CSKA Moscow on Match-Day 1 to record a vital 1-0 win and are definitely an improvement in terms of opposition to PSV.

In Bas Dost (5 goals this season), Wolfsburg have the perfect target man to make the most of the attacks the German side shall muster. They did drop points at home to Hanover 96 but that was no doubt with an eye on Wednesday. It is imperative therefore that United quickly wake up from the slumber that was a stroll in the park on Saturday and be braced for a accomplished test of their European credentials.

The Tactics
A fortnight ago, Louis van Gaal seemed to go against his instincts when the team news was released. United were almost set up in the attack minded fashion that you would prefer in the domestic league. It will be interesting to see whether the Dutchman once again throws out conservatism for an all out attack in Europe. Ironically, it is the reverse that you feel would serve United better especially in Europe.

In Holland, United were loose in the middle of the park, immediately exposing the defence whenever PSV attacked. Given the abilities of our current front four, it is not necessary to add a third creative midfielder in Europe. The level of opposition at this level requires more caution than you would ordinarily require domestically. Even so, if van Gaal opts to have Memphis, Mata, Rooney and Martial in the same team, you do not need to complement that with another creative player at the expense of solidity in the middle.

The Sub-Plots
Saturday marked the third straight game in which Louis van Gall has gone with a different pairing of full-backs since the injury to Luke Shaw. This time, Matteo Darmian guarded left whilst Antonio Valencia resumed right-back duties. It's fair to say that we cannot say for certain which combination will suit United against better opposition than Sunderland but the feeling is that he will retain the combination at the weekend, if only because it means he does not change the centre-back pairing of Chris and Daley.

Memphis Depay has found the European stage more comfortable. Another goal is not asking too much, is it?

The Bottom-Line
The Champions League aside, United have had a great September. Put the Champions League in the equation and the Red Devils would need a win on Wednesday to keep it that way.

October is already tough enough for the squad, but failure to win on Wednesday night will add an extra tonne of pressure to the games in October against CSKA Moscow. It's a predicament that United could do without considering the weekend fixtures leading to and after those games.

Quite simply; win, United must.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

THE VIEW FROM THE TOP


If Louis van Gaal's second season was supposed to be about putting up some sort of challenge for the league title, then he has probably already delivered in one minute respect. Manchester United can now out-rightly claim leadership of English football's top division for the first time since May 2013.

Not since after the opening game of the ill-fated David Moyes reign have United fans sang ''Top of the league!'' with as much confidence as they did yesterday. Even then, it was only because our rivals had not yet played that saw us top. This time, United cannot be overtaken at the top until the next round of league fixtures, giving the premier league table a more traditional look for at least a week.


On the Match
In perhaps the most blatant evidence of the impact Luke Shaw's injury has had on Louis van Gaal's selection, the Dutchman picked his third straight different combination of full-backs since Luke was stretchered off. This time, it was Matteo Darmian taking over from Ashley Young and Marcos Rojo before at left-back whilst Antonio Valencia replaced the Italian at right-back.

It was only Sunderland though and so no amount of 'disturbance in the force' at the back was going to be of cataclysmic consequences. Indeed, the game quickly set up into the Attack vs Defence it was always predicted to be. The plan to get to half-time level nearly worked for Sunderland except that there was all of four minutes of stoppage time added on. Juan Mata was picked out by another heavenly pass from quarter-back Daley Blind before squaring for Memphis Depay to tap in his first domestic goal.

It was obviously important for the Dutch winger to finally break his duck in the league but more crucially important that United score before the break. Getting into the second half level would have suited the visitors as that was the foundation of their game plan all along. Indeed, under van Gaal, United have been found wanting when it comes to breaking down sides that set up to defend with two banks of four and five respectively.

The patient or 'positional' approach of the manager means that unlike it was in the past, United no longer seek to overwhelm such teams with wave after wave of attack. No. The strategy is more measured and calculative, informed by sterile possession of the ball with a view to wear down the opposition and eventually create gaps in the opposition. The burden of identifying those gaps falls not just onto the creative players but also onto the quarter-back who in this team is Daley Blind. When the versatile Dutchman identified space into which Mata could run, the penny finally dropped at the very end of a half that yet again tested the patience levels of the Old Trafford faithful.

Because van Gaal's mission every game is to seek to score one more than the opposition, Memphis' opener was pretty much game over because there was not much about Dick Advocaat's side that threatened United's status from that position.


On the Sub-Plots
Barely two minutes of the second half had gone when something that used to be a common occurrence happened. Wayne Rooney scored. The circumstances of his goal do not say much about any football skill required to score that goal but at least he was in the right place to get his knee to divert the ball via Pantillimon into the net. It puts a stop to a clock that had covered exactly 999 minutes since his last premier league goal for the club. On a personal level, it drew the captain level with Dennis Law at 171 league goals for the club--which is no mean feat.

It will help the club that the focus on his scoring record, or lack of it domestically, will abate but for most fans, it was not so much about a lack of goals as it was about his all round performances. His numbers in terms of retaining possession, passing to a red shirt or creating a chance still tell the same old story. He was at least helped by the presence of Antonio Valencia who is willing to fall into space and hence make himself available for the now famous 'hollywood' ball. It served to mask the number of times United's attacks broke down because Wayne didn't control the ball, or give an accurate short pass over a few yards or was not in sync with his fellow front-men.

In mitigation, he has only started developing a partnership with Anthony Martial up front and therefore it cannot be expected to blossom from the off. Hopefully, with time, it shall come.


Because of the amount of money United have splashed around lately in the transfer window, it is quickly forgotten that Juan Mata joined United for what was then a club record signing in January 2014. So how has he fared in justifying it?

Well, his brace at Anfield on the back-end of last season effectively paid back all the 37.1m quid with interest. Yes. That's that about the money!

Intriguingly though, Mata has, despite being played out of position on the right made himself statistically, United's most important player. The numbers are quite impressive. 18 goals for Chelsea in 82 premier league games and yet yesterday he scored his 18th premier league goal for United in just 55 league games. He is United's premier league top goalscorer in 2015 and has quite a healthy load of assists to compliment his goal-return. His man of the match award yesterday was in recognition of his assist and goal but also scored and assisted last week at St Mary's without getting similar attention. It's about that time that the club opens negotiations for a contract renewal.

Anthony Martial finally took a break from scoring duties but managed to impress yet again, this time, with a proper centre-forward's display. His footwork and close control created Wayne Rooney's goal early in the second half to effectively put the tie to bed. The Frenchman could have scored his fifth goal running if Memphis Depay had played him in on another occasion in the second half but at least now we know he doesn't need the goals to prove his quality.

On the Bottom-Line
There will be pessimism from even United fans let alone rivals about how this team does not have the bottle to retain top spot for longer than a week never mind the rest of the season. It is an argument that defeats logic and reason because it's hard to fathom why topping the league at any stage should attract criticism. Take it this way, there is no better position United could be in and so regardless of the challenges ahead, they will be taking them on from the most advantageous position---the higher ground! If you still don't get it, watch Star Wars Episode III and observe how Master Obi One Kenobi illustrates this point to Anakin Skywalker shortly before he became Darth Vader!

Friday, 25 September 2015

ATTACK VS DEFENCE WHEN SUNDERLAND VISIT


Manchester United return to premier league duty on Saturday in a rare three o'clock kick-off (the first of the season) against rock bottom Sunderland.

The Opposition
Dick Advocaat must be kicking himself over why he elected to remain in the job at the Stadium of Light. Sunderland are about as inept as they come in the premier league with problems in all departments. Sebastian Coates and Jonas Kaboul have, in particular, not provided the solidity at the back that was expected when they were brought in. United old boys Wesely Brown and legend John O'Shea incredibly remain at the club still doing their thing at this level.

After years of defying the odds, it feels like this is the season in which the Black Cats will finally go down. It's still early days in the season of course but how they recover from this position will be nothing short of another remarkable turn-around story in the premier league.

The Match
Sunderland's apparent and current inferiority complex and United's desire to hog possession and ponder over their attacks sets it up nicely for another afternoon of attack vs defence at Old Trafford. Anthony Martial's instant impact in the team has given United's attack a new dimension for opposition defences to neutralise. The teenage Frenchman's turn of pace has forced defences to push much further back and hence afforded United's midfield more space in the second third with which to work with. United found it harder to break down Newcastle for instance because of Wayne Rooney's now apparent limitations in terms of acceleration over short distances.

There is only about two predictable ways that the game will go on Saturday. If United manager to break down Sunderland and score in the first half or early in the second half, we could be three or four goals to the good before the final whistle. The second scenario is that if the Black Cats, like Newcastle, hold out for long enough into the second half, the game will descend into an exercise of frustration that will undoubtedly be informed by chants from the Stretford End of ''Attack! Attack! Attack!''

United
Manchester United have defensive problems no least because of the long term injury to Luke Shaw but also because Marcos Rojo is nursing a hamstring. Ashley Young will fill in at left-back so that Daley Blind and Chris Smalling can keep up their defensive partnership going.
Sunderland should only cause sporadic problems on the counter attack so that particular deficiency should not be of major concern at least until VfL Wolfsburg visit in the Champions League on Wednesday.

The Sub-Plots
United are bound to have enough of the ball to send Louis van Gaal into 'domination' mode post-match. The question is whether despite the expected domination, van Gaal will field two holding players in the middle at the expense of another creative/attacking out-let. We know which option we would prefer as fans but the Dutchman might not be having any of it!

Wayne Rooney scored in mid-week to break his domestic duck. Sunderland at home surely represents his best opportunity yet to break that duck in the premier league.

The Bottom-Line
United registered an important win last week away at Southampton but were lacking in terms of overall performance. October promises a host of difficult tests both in Europe and domestically, making the three points tomorrow a must-get.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

A GLIMPSE INTO THE FUTURE


Manchester United, without really getting out of second gear, eased past Championship side Ipswich Town to book a place in the last 16 of the League Cup. Louis van Gaal selected a very strong side to start the Capital One Cup campaign perhaps a little mindful of what MK Dons achieved against his side some 13 months ago.

There was however room for 17 year old Brazilian midfielder Andreas Pereira. The diminutive play-maker started out on the left, one of his many positions across the forward line, and immediately proved to be United's brightest player in the opening exchanges. His eye for goal was evident with the number of times he stung the palms of Bartosz Bialkwoski albeit with no success. His moment however arrived in the second half off a free-kick won by Juan Mata. The Spaniard was kind enough to give the Brazilian the set piece, especially because up until that point, the game had not been won. United had endured a nervy start to the second half, adding to the importance of that particular free-kick.

Pereira struck a beauty of a dead-ball finish, leaving Bialkwoski rooted to the spot. That it came at the Stretford End on his first start for the club made the youngster tick all the boxes of a dream debut. Louis van Gaal, always careful not to glorify the individual ahead of the group (another facet of his philosophy), made the point afterwards that Andreas was competing with Mata, Memphis, Young, among others, for a place in the starting line-up. It came off as an explanation in advance in the event that team news on Saturday is released and United's man of the match yesterday is nowhere near the line-up.

Regardless, United can pride themselves in the fact that they have within their ranks another young player that could reach the very top of the game. It's an admirable pool of young talent that Louis van Gaal can mould and take credit for half a decade or so from now. United have not had much success with Brazilians in the side down the years, but having grown within the club set up, there is a genuine feeling that the reigning Jimmy Murphy Player of the Year will light up Old Trafford very soon and every week.

However, there are those meant for the future that are doing their very best to be for the here and now. Anthony Martial, signed as a long term option in the United attack came on and scored yet another goal taking his tally to four in four since he was declared a 'Waste of Money' before kicking a ball. Again, there was the turn of pace and again there was the coolness of head and composure to slot past the goalkeeper. At some point, the goals will dry up, but he has bought himself enough credit in the bank to allow him to recover. Certainly, for the 'unreasonable' ultras for him logic is not a thing, that goal against Liverpool effectively paid back his obscene transfer fee. 

Speaking of recovery, Wayne Rooney finally ended his domestic duck, opening the scoring with goal number 235 of his Manchester United career. He didn't look like much of an improvement from what we have seen so far this season but least he scored. Goals do bring confidence and the opposition on Saturday suggests that he should also end his premier league goal drought then, before it becomes tough again.  


It didn't go unnoticed again that Daley Blind provided an assist, pinging Wayne Rooney through this time. If anybody still questions United's transfer policy in terms of central defenders in the last window then you might want to work out why Blind has three assists and a goal to his name from centre back. van Gaal clearly still holds on the notion that in the modern game, the centre back has more space before him than the Number 10 and can therefore dictate the flow of the game much better. All play-makers in world football would associate themselves with Daley Blind's numbers in 8 games. Except that they are play-makers and he is the centre-back!

It's Middlesbrough next in the Fourth Round of the Cup. The Championship pacesetters represent an improvement in quality of opposition but a home draw again makes progress a matter of expectation. Louis van Gaal made it clear that the intention is to win the competition in his programme notes last night. It is one of his best shots at a trophy before he departs the club.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

OF MICK McCARTHY AND LOUIS VAN GAAL


Not many will think of Wednesday's League Cup meeting between Manchester United and Ipswich Town at Old Trafford to have any significant bearing in regard to the two managers. Mick McCarthy and Louis van Gaal are miles apart in terms on any scale of measurement in world football but there is an anecdote that makes the handshake between the two managers on Wednesday worth a TV moment.

Back in September 2001, the Republic of Ireland and Holland were due a face off in a straight shoot-out for the a final berth at the World Cup due in Korea/Japan the following year. Pre-match, Louis van Gaal suggested that McCarthy was likely to be sacked in the event of a Dutch victory.

McCarthy responded in his World Cup 2002 Diary;

''Louis van Gaal is starting to annoy me. he has been quoted on my employment prospects if Ireland lose and he seems none too concerned at the prospect of Ireland sacking their manager and me losing my job. That disappoints me. There is no need for Louis van Gaal to get involved in Irish football politics. Hopefully we can wipe the smile off his face.''

McCarthy's team-talk ahead of the game is well documented;

''It's about passionate hearts and calm heads! I'm asking you to give me the opportunity to walk up to Louis van Gaal afterwards and say: Unlucky.' Just give me the chance to look him in the eye, shake his hand and say: Bad luck'.''

The then Manchester United captain Roy Keane turned in a powerhouse display in that fixture almost as if he was on a one man mission to salvage his manager's vengeance. From kickoff, Keane went through Marc Overmars with a hard boot that effectively took the soul out of the Dutch team.

Ireland finished that game with 10 men but Louis van Gaal couldn't get any of his four strikers by the end to score. The Irish booked their Korea/Japan ticket, van Gaal returned home to face questions about his philosophy.

In a solemn twist of fate, it was the Iron Tulip that was eventually relieved of his duties. Except that it was to go and manage FC Barcelona. And so it felt like Louis van Gaal had had the last laugh when the two managers met at an airport with the Dutchman heading to Catalunya. McCarthy later remarked and implied that if their roles were reversed, there was not a chance in hell that he would get the Barcelona job after failing at the Irish job or any job for that matter.

It is the difference in stature that still holds the two men apart and it will be no more emphasised than on Wednesday when one will walk into Old Trafford in charge of Ipswich Town and the other in his second year of a three year contract at Manchester United.

On the pitch though, it is McCarthy that has the lead over LVG. No doubt he will be asking his players to give him the same opportunity to walk to van Gaal after the final whistle and twist the knife.

Manchester United have already had their fingers burned in the League Cup by a minnow under van Gaal's reign. Milton K. Dons away last year in the second round remains the Dutchman's darkest day (or night as it were) at the club. Town will be looking to take full advantage of any complacency by their hosts.

LVG on his part has a job to do in terms of selecting a side that will be good enough to represent the club and to rest some of the players that have been a mainstay in the team since the start of the season. Regardless of who he selects, majority of the fans would love to see Andreas Perreira, James Wilson and Jesse Lingard given a chance. The latter two were involved in the U-21s victory over Everton on Monday but shouldn't really preclude them from taking part.

Manchester United might be second in the league, just a brace of points off the summit but it is in the domestic trophies that the club has the highest chance of silverware this season. A post-Sir Alex trophy will go a long way to enabling the club to move away from the old dynasty. It is imperative that the club is seen to make a real push for one this season. Certainly, a home draw in the third round of the League Cup against inferior opposition fits the category of 'must win'.

Monday, 21 September 2015

''WHAT A WASTE OF MONEY!''


Manchester United overcame adversity, ineptness and a bit of nerves in the end to register an important 2-3 win over Southampton yesterday in the premier league. A brace from teenager Anthony Martial and a third from Juan Mata ensured that what was good about United in between a torrid opening and end of the game was enough to come away with all three points.

On Anthony Martial The Match
Twenty minutes into it and boy was it a mess! United were ponderous. Southampton were decisive. Where United were willing to give the Saints time to recover and regroup into defensive shape, their hosts were in no mood to return the favour. If United have attracted praise for being a solid defensive unit this season, the last couple of games have been anything but.

Ronald Koeman let it be known pre-match that he would get his centre- forward Pelle to target and exploit the weaknesses of Daley Blind. And boy did it work a treat! Indeed, had the Italian been fortunate enough to make it 2-0 instead of finding the base of the upright, we might have been mulling over a different result.

As it turned out United grew in stature and finished the half composed if not stronger. The equaliser might have come with a touch of more fortune given that Juan Mata was offside but it takes nothing away from the exhibition of composure and finesse of Anthony Martial. It's three goals in three games for the young Frenchman but each of those goals has been an arrogant display of coolness that cucumbers can only envy. After embarrassing Martin Skirtel before women and children at Old Trafford last week, the world's most expensive teenager twisted Virgil van Dijk inside out with a sharp drag back before slotting in the leveller.

When he was put through on goal inadvertently by Maya Yoshida, it appeared he was on hand to score his first 'straight forward' goal for United. Not this kid though. In a feign of intention after the briefest of glimpses at goal, Martial wrong-footed Marten Stekelenburg and caressed the ball casually past the Dutch goalkeeper. This was calmness personified. Certainly, few would have blamed the 19 year old if he had put his foot through the ball and missed the target. His composure belies his years and the questions are quickly changing from 'Why Manchester United paid so much for a rookie to why Olympic Lyonnais and AS Monaco did not use him more often than his appearance record suggests. Indeed, the Away fans couldn't help but offer sarcasm chanting ''What a waste of money!''

All is obviously tempered by the reality that at his age, consistency might not yet be part of his game, but my word, United dug themselves out of a hole on deadline day possibly without knowing that they did!

On the Sub-Plots
Louis van Gaal couldn't hide the big smirk on his face when he was asked about Juan Mata's goal that came on the end of no less than 45 passes. ''This confirms our philosophy,'' he said. In truth, there was little joy about United's pass and move game as Southampton successfully disrupted United's 'positional game' for much of the first half. It takes nothing away though from a well worked move that will form 90% of the Television van Gaal will watch this week.

Wayne Rooney clocked 16 hours without a premier league goal and fared probably worse than before his hamstring injury. In mitigation, his form, like for many players, takes a huge hit with injuries. Except that he was not in what we generally accept as 'form' before his injury. Statistically, his contribution was irrelevant to the game. Indeed watching Mane school United at Number 10 and watching our Number 10 was a painful experience. However, it feels like the hole behind the striker is the one position in which he can still make a huge contribution to United both in terms of scoring goals and assisting. That is obviously despite the fact that we have better Number 10s than him in the squad; but hey! Captain and all that.

Matteo Darmian was relieved of his duties midway through the game because of he had a bit of a nightmare keeping Dusan Tadic quiet. Louis van Gaal rightfully gave himself a proverbial pat on the back when he cheekily enquired from journalists whether they had seen Tadic in the second half. Credit to the Dutchman for making the change that secured the right channel but in that euphoria, it is hopped that the manager doesn't suddenly think Antonio Valencia should retain the right-back slot.

The Italian remains a candidate for signing of the summer and will undoubtedly require more bad games than one half of football to lose that status. Valencia on his part might be further along in terms of understanding the philosophy of van Gaal but his abilities as a defender are desperately limited, if only because he was never a defender in the first place.

On the Bottom Line
It wasn't as assured as we'd have liked and maybe we rode our luck more than anything but in this league of leagues, you take the win no matter what shape or circumstances it comes. We're supposedly still an unbalanced side incapable of mounting a title challenge so two points off the top of the league is not bad eh?

Friday, 18 September 2015

MORE AWAY EXAMINATION


At best, Manchester United can be currently described as inconsistent. Defeat in the Champions League on Tuesday has been masked by the unfortunate leg break suffered by Luke Shaw, so much so that the club has given a 'bye' into their next fixture without so much as a column dedicated to an inquisition into why the club failed on their return to Europe.

No doubt, the wave from the win over Liverpool will ride the club into the weekend's premier league action where the expectations will be for an immediate response from the mid-week lull. United let themselves down in Europe but victory over Southampton Sunday would be a major shot in the arm.

Having dropped premier league points on the back of their first away trip in Europe, there will be another examination of United's credentials as a two games a week side when they make another away trip, this time down to the South coast.

United
Louis van Gaal must have been hard at work on the training ground this week attempting to work out the best possible formula to neutralise the absence of Luke Shaw. Marcos Jojo and Daley Blind are the candidates. Blind deputised in midweek but it left United short of the understanding he and Smalling had developed already this season.

On the other side of the coin, Rojo has generally not been trusted enough by van Gaal to execute duties of a left back despite him playing there regularly for his country. Elsewhere, the manager is likely to prefer Wayne Rooney in attack if he makes his expected recovery from injury. What the fans would undoubtedly want to see is Wayne playing a withdrawn role and allowing Martial to keep his place upfront. His pace and movement up top is something we cannot get from any other player and so it would be amiss not to use him.

Michael Carrick seems to have played himself into the form that made him such a vital cog last season. He was immense against Liverpool and he was missed in midweek. Whereas we cannot play him twice a week often, it is increasingly becoming the case that we shall require one of him or Schneiderlin beside Shweinsteiger in every game. United were so easy to get at in midweek largely because van Gaal went against his instincts and had United fairly loose in the middle to allow for more attacking intent.

As it is, United remain short of clear cut goal scoring opportunities. The score against Liverpool masked the reality that United had just the three shots on target despite their dominance of play. As such, it feels like United need to score from the couple of good chances they make in the game to stand a chance of winning it. It gives little margin for error to a forward line that is anything but firing on all cylinders.

There is a mixture of frustration and hope among fans because United on pitch look like a side that is just a couple of twitches away from being a great team. Whether that is a result of having many young players in the team remains up for debate. Certainly, Louis van Gaal feels the league table vindicates his argument of progression.

The Opposition
Ronald Koeman and Louis van Gaal renew their rivalry again after another summer in which United had to pinch a player from the Saints. The relations between the clubs were strained further by the deliberately leaked news from United that they were after Sadio Mane on the morning of their failed pursuit of Pedro Rodriquez.

Southampton have since endured a difficult start to the season, winning just once all season at home to 10 man Norwich City. Having survived loss of major players to bigger teams for the last couple of seasons, it seems to finally be catching up with them. They no longer overwhelm teams with disciplined possession. Certainly, it feels like Morgan Schneiderlin was much more important to them than we ever imagined.

Ronaldo Koeman, however, will have been alive to the couple of games United have lost this season. Swansea and PSV Eindhoven played worked a similar game plan to exploit the weaknesses of United in full. The problem the Saints have is that they only have a few decent personalities left to execute a perfect game plan. Still, there is plenty of venom to hurt United between Tadic, Mane and Pelle.

The Sub-Plots
Daley Blind or Marcos Rojo? Logic dictates that United should keep the central two that have done well so far this season but van Gaal appears to have a different mindset to his idea of a left-back. Indeed, it was lost on many people that Daley Blind, while at left back provided the assist for Memphis Depay's goal in midweek. A goal made by Dutchmen, scored by a Dutchman in Holland!

Now that the captain is back, it will be interesting how Louis van Gaal juggles his attack having seen what Anthony Martial can give the team.

The Bottom-Line
United's form at the moment is leaning towards a pattern of WLWL. There is no reward for being sublime one week and then clueless the next. Consistency must improve and it is already, and indeed yet again, the away record that is letting the club down. Sunday is an opportunity to address that.

  

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

NIGHT OF BREAKS TO BONE & HEART


Manchester United succumbed to a 2-1 defeat to Dutch Champions PSV Eindhoven in their opening game of Group B in the Champions League. Nothing about the game though will eclipse the tragedy that befell Luke Shaw. The England left-back suffered a double-fracture from a challenge by Moreno (himself a victim of the injury at the 2014 World Cup) that looked innocuous at first glance.

On Luke Shaw
Shaw has been one of United's most improved players this season and has already been a part of most of the good we've seen from United so far this season. It was therefore heartbreaking to learn that this could easily be the season for him. His recovery period has tentatively been put at 6 months but so often with long term injuries, it takes much longer to recover the spirit of the player. Any comeback this season will surely be with a view to prepare to represent his country at the European Championships next summer.

Admittedly, sport can be cruel at times but for Luke, it feels like he is being sinned against more than he has sinned. His only fault was that he was such a quality player that the club had to pay Southampton an incredible sum for a teenager. Unfortunately, it appears the club will only start consistently reaping from their investment at the start of his third season. It's a remarkably unfortunate injury record for a player who in his final season for the Saints played 35 of the 38 league games available.

United will recover from the defeat last night, but we cannot be certain how the absence of Shaw will affect the club. Daley Blind came in to cover but that also meant that we lost the understanding that he had forged with Chris Smalling in the middle.

On the Match
There were no shackles evident about Louis van Gaal's team when the team news was announced. As far as attacking is concerned, this was as attack minded as United could get. Marouane Fellaini's pre-match illness meant that Anthony Martial was handed his full debut.

True to the selection, United did their part to produce their most consistent attacking performance in a game this season. This time, it was not merely about getting to the edge of the box and spraying the ball backwards. No, United did get behind PSV several times and should have scored at least three goals on the night.

Losing 2-1 in the end was more baffling than the defeat at Swansea. There were plenty of out-of-character performances in the final third. Philip Cocu's team are a limited side but at least they make up for it by having a right old go. As such, United's control counted for little because they were not as ruthless in the final third as the Dutch side were.

United seemed loose in the middle when defending counter-attacks. Given that the personnel in defence will take on new roles in the wake of Shaw's injury, playing two in the middle to hold especially away from home could be Louis van Gaal's go to plan.

Certainly, Marcos Rojo will need more than a sub-appearance to slot in comfortably. He was caught out for the winning goal by Narsingh. With games coming thick and fast over the next 14 days, how quickly United get their act together at the back again could shape most of what's left of the season. Perhaps locking it up again might be the immediate solution for van Gaal.

At the other end, Anthony Martial struggled to get off his one twos and flicks. His movement up top though was good enough to keep United alive in the final third. Whether he was still recovering from nearly missing the bus from the team hotel to the stadium is open to debate. Juan Mata perhaps had the best chance to nick what would have been a deserved point for United but also unusually hesitated to put his foot through the ball when presented with a chance he usually puts away.

Such were the fine margins on the night and so perhaps United can take solace from the fact that they were not beaten by absence of ideas but by the 'bounce of the ball'. The number of instances when the game could have swung considerably in United's favour tell the story: Had United been awarded a penalty for the challenge on Shaw and a red card to Moreno by extension, or had Memphis buried his great chance to put United 2-0 up, or had Chris Smalling been luckier than to find Zoet's limbs, it's hard to imagine a similar score to the one we ended up with.

'Ifs and buts' though count for little at this level. It's the lesson you hope United will take from yesterday.

On the Sub-Plots


Matteo Darmian finally showed his human side last night after being at fault for the opener. Italians get tight and so it was another out-of-character moment for a United player.

Yet again, Memphis Depay seemed very much at home against the level of opposition he has been accustomed to. His three goals so far in Europe speak of a player at another level and yet he seems to hide into his shell when premier league defenders deny him the space he enjoyed last night. It's a good thing that the talent is there. Fingers crossed the consistency rubs on soon.

The Bottom-Line
Losing the opening group game immediately puts you under pressure n the group. United now have a job on their hands with two teams three points ahead in the Group. Beating Wolfsburg at home at the end of the month has now taken on tremendous importance.

Monday, 14 September 2015

DUTCH THEME IN EURPOPE


Holland's greatest export to England, Manchester United, travel to Eindhoven today for their Champions League Group B opener tomorrow. You cannot help but wonder whether people in the Netherlands feel that United are their team of choice abroad.

Down the premier league years, there has been a Dutch theme about United from the days of Jaap Stam, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Robin van Persie and now, more than ever, a plethora of compatriots plying their trade in Manchester. On the travelling party today, United will have no less than three Dutchmen, including the Philips Sporting Vereninging's reigning Footballer of the Year for the last campaign.

The Group
According to UEFA's seeding system, the Dutch Champions are supposed to be the most difficult opponents for United in the group. However, the strength of the German league and seasoned participants in CSKA Moscow suggests otherwise. Indeed, it is the skewed nature of this particular group that makes it the most tricky group of the bunch.

The absence of an outright u
nderdog means that qualification from this group might not be as straight forward as it seems. We know the threat posed by CSKA but Wolfsburg and PSV remain a right bunch of party crushers.

The group stages, much like in a domestic league, require that you ensure to win your home games and steal a couple of results away from home to guarantee qualification. Of the three away venues, Eindohoven ranks as the best bet of an away victory.

The Match
Louis van Gaal, and indeed, his entire coaching assembly cannot fail to decipher how to get the best of the hosts tomorrow. It ranks as the fixture in which they ought to be best prepared for because of the depth of knowledge about PSV, and Dutch football by extension, that they already have.

Memphis Depay has struggled to light up the premier league but the Dutch Champions are at a level he starred in last season. He should be able to get much joy from the space and limited attention that he will be afforded.

Louis van Gaal's patient approach and tactical discipline will hold United in great stead in Europe. English sides have been accused of treating European games like the helter-kelter premier league. van Gaal treats the helter-skelter premier league like a European competition. There is an arguable case therefore that the Dutchman may yet fare much better in the competition than we expect. Certainly, Tuesday evening should tell us more about this argument.

The Opposition
Philip Cocu's team are unbeaten in their last five in all competitions with just the two away draws in the league preventing them from joining Ajax Amsterdam at the summit of the Eredivisie. They warmed up for the visit of United with a 6-0 away win over Cambuur albeit heavily aided by a red card conceded by the hosts in the 8th minute to Sander van de Streek.

Dutch teams are not known for trading their attacking principles for any fixture and so United can expect much more than the bluntness offered by Liverpool at the weekend. The 35,000 capacity Philips Stadion will be eager to see their team have a right old go at United.

The Sub-Plots
Ashley Young did a job for Louis van Gaal when he replaced the Dutchman at halftime on Saturday. Whereas it is expected that Memphis will start again ahead of the England winger, Marouane Fellaini up top dictates that the crosses should be coming into the box a lot more with much less emphasis on trying to beat three defenders. Depay proved in the first leg of the qualifier against Club Brugge that he does pack a wicked cross for the big Belgian to nod in. Until he can play with a forward with whom to exchange intricate passes, he serves the manager's choice upfront better by being as direct as possible.

Anthony Martial remains under the protection from failure by Louis van Gaal, but that goal scoring debut should have him brimming with all the confidence in the world. He is no stranger to the Champions league though, having featured heavily in Monaco's run to the last 8 last season. To score again in successive games for United could give the manager a lot to think about in terms of holding back a player that is brimming with all the qualities United have desperately lacked in their attack for quite a while.

The Bottom Line
Manchester United have not been handed the most difficult passage to the knock-out rounds. Indeed, it could have been worse, much worse. There will be no prizes for posting six wins out of six in the Group stages because they are expected to have the beating of every other participant in the group.

Regardless the hurdles and trials along the way, United will ultimately be expected to book one of the two tickets available to the last 16 of the competition.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

MARTIAL ARTS


It's the headline that has captured the imagination of the Sunday press, so why not?

Manchester United recorded a third straight victory over the arch rivals Liverpool on Saturday. Goals from Daley Blind, Ander Herrera, via the penalty spot, and debutant Anthony Martial sealed a memorable victory over the old enemy.

On The Match
The post-match euphoria has ensured that it has gone unnoticed but Louis van Gaal is the only soul in world football that was pleased by the first half. United set about in their now routine sterile possession game, keeping control of proceedings, without doing so much as ruffle a hair strand on Liverpool.

Wayne Rooney's absence incredibly meant that Marouane Fellaini would play up top. Whereas the Belgian excelled in linking up United's play further up the pitch, United's deficiency in that department was exposed by the failure to get anybody in behind Liverpool. Fellaini's ineptness at the articulate touch required of a striker merely confirmed what we knew all along. It is a truth that tempered frustration when the Belgian was presented with a poor clearance by Simon Mignolet and failed to hit the target.

The game eventually came to life in the second half when Ashley Young's directness offered United more zest down the left hand channel. He won the free kick from which United crafted the opening goal in what was a training ground rehearsed set piece. The advantage van Gaal retains in playing Daley Blind at centre back is that it disguises his qualities as a natural ball passer and, as Liverpool were reminded, he does pack a punch from distance because of his excellent technique on the ball.

The versatile Dutchman didn't look like he posed any danger to Liverpool when he stood sheepish wandering around the edge of the penalty area. With Fellaini firmly in the thick of the Liverpool defence awaiting a cross, it would have been a blatant wastage of human resource picking out Daley Blind miles away from the rest of the group. The cross never came, or at least when it did via Blind's boot, it was heading straight for the top corner of the net.

The story of the game however would not be defined until six minutes of normal time were left on the clock. Anthony Martial might not end up winning the Ballon D'or as one of his 'add-ons' clause suggests, but his finish last evening, at a time when the game seemed to be moving away from the grasp of United, will be remembered long after he is gone.

Most intriguingly is that the finish had everything about Thierry Henry written all over it. The blitz past Clyne, the dummy he sold Skirtel to leave him for dead and the placement in the far corner. All done in a waltz of a few seconds! Given the infrequence with which United score goals these days, the goal of the month competition might have been sorted at the first attempt.

On the Sub-Plots
Aided by the tactical ineptness of  Brendan Rodgers, Chris Smalling and Daley Blind could have played with a cigar yesterday. Indeed, it had to take the Belgian forward to pull off a goal as extra-ordinary as he scored. He barely had a sniff of the conventional. An improved showing from the display in South Wales a fortnight ago.

David De Gea didn't have as much to do as he did in this fixture last season but he did make one crucial intervention. Danny Ings effort on the bounce was the kind that Sergio Romero couldn't keep out last time out. At 1-0, it was a crucial intervention that was not remembered in the end because of the margin of victory.

Memphis Depay got hooked at halftime by the manager because the boss was looking for a 'better final pass'. Like Angel Di Maria, the young Dutchman is developing a pattern of discarding the simple things to pull off the more complex. Ashley Young merely provided directness and caused Clyne more problems than Memphis did in the first half. Admittedly, he is still only 21, but we now know that Louis van Gaal is not one for sentiments when you are not doing a job for him. Careful Memphis! It will be interesting how that left-forward battle between the two wide men progresses.

On The Bottom Line

Having dropped five out of the last six points available, yesterday was a must win if only to address the storm that was being artificially engineered by the media around the club. More than anything though, Louis van Gaal has yet again bought himself credit in the bank with the fans by registering a third straight victory over the old enemy. It's results like this that afford him a stay of execution at a time when his expenditure is birthing a degree of expectation among fans.    

Friday, 11 September 2015

EVERYTHING TO LOSE IN THE NORTH WEST DERBY


Different problems, similar predicament. Little else can describe Manchester United and Liverpool's start to the 2015/16 premier league season. With both clubs starting the campaign with an unconvincing couple of 1-0 wins and defeat in their most recent matches, Saturday's North-West derby, English football's biggest fixture, has taken on more significance than it should at this stage of the season.

 United
Manchester United over the next 48 hours should be box office watch. Louis van Gaal entertains the media at Carrington with a host of questions desperately in need of an answer. Does David De Gea resume his duties in goal after a false-transfer (at least mentally) to Real Madrid? Is he up for it? Does he pen a new contract? Does Martial go straight into the starting XI to boost an attack that is desperately short of pace and diversity? Is the reported 'payer-revolt' as significant as has been played out in the media?

For what it's worth the Dutchman has already tempered many of those questions at an event on Wednesday night with executive season ticket holders. Martial is, but a bit-part player, for the future. Given the consistency of comment, it's hardly likely the fiery Dutch coach will depart from that tune on Friday. It means at best, United's latest acquisition could start on the bench and allow for an 'as you were approach' to the derby. Certainly, he could fare better coming on late to stretch the opposition when fatigue starts to crop in.

It means United will be stuck blessed yet again by the presence of Wayne Rooney up top. The captain needs no motivation in a fixture he grew up relishing from his Everton days. Fresh from record-setting penalty  goal-scoring duties for his country in the week, the spotlight will yet again be on him to score the goals that Manchester United crave. Failure to find the net on Saturday would extend the unwanted record of 11 games without a goal for United. He's just 17 from Sir Bobby's club record of 249 but as it stands, and in this form, getting the 5 goals to level and then get past Dennis Law should be the immediate target, for goodness knows United could do with just 5 goals from him over the next month.
Louis van Gaal rarely breaks up anything until it is disrupted with defeat. The tactical pants-down humiliation suffered in South Wales will have been observed by Brendan Rogers. Post match, the manager said that he couldn't respond to the tactical shift in Gary Monk's side that caused United to capitulate in just five minutes. A similar comment cannot be countenanced post-match on Saturday especially if Liverpool set up to exploit that flaw.

Having played them twice and twice come out on top, Louis van Gaal could reasonably be expected to get the game plan over the Scousers right. Indeed, he put his neck on the line by promising fans victory at tea-time on Saturday. There's no mincing words with the Iron Tulip, so maybe we should just sit back and relax! 

The Opposition
Of the two managers, it is Brendan Rogers whose clock could be set ticking again if he comes away from Old Trafford empty handed. Liverpool were considered defensively astute before West Ham ruthlessly exposed their flaws at Anfield before the International break. Worse, Rogers will have to do without, arguably, his best player Felippe Coutinho who was sent off in that match. Whether Danny Ings comes in as a replacement remains to be seen but he can at least count on Christian Benteke to do the job Gomis did for Swansea against United. The Belgian came under fire for a lacklustre performance for his nation in midweek. Fingers crossed he's just as inept.

The Sub-Plots
Sergio Romero or David De Gea? 

Daley Blind and Chris Smalling were terribly exposed by the directness of a big bully up top last time out. They've  been largely untroubled since. Whether the manager sticks to his working formula or recalls Marcos Rojo remains to be seen, but whoever starts can expect a full time job keeping out the Merseysiders.

Saturday marks the start of a sequence of fixture schedules that more often than not define a season. The Champions League trip to Eindhoven on Tuesday followed by next week's trip to Southampton mans that the club are suddenly in the pressure proper situation of three games a week from hereon. 

Unfortunately, the squad seems a little too thin to allow for much rotation. Ironically, it is a situation artificially engineered by van Gaal in letting so many squad players leave on loan. How he copes remains to be seen.

The Bottom-Line
Part of the reason Louis van Gaal remained tolerated throughout last season was because of the results he posted against United's direct rivals in the league. Unlike David Moyes, the Dutchman almost seems to relish contests against the big boys.

Saturday is another chance for him to bank more credit with the fans over a third straight victory against the old enemy.   

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

EVALUATING THE TRANSFER WINDOW---PART II


Having done the bulk of the transfer in-comings before the squad departed across the pond to the States, there was a need to evaluate United's transfer business up to that point. The British transfer window was slammed shut on Tuesday last week because of a bank holiday on the Monday. Manchester United have since been active in the market although the majority of business centred around who would leave the club as opposed to who would join.

There was a feeling that given the purchases before the summer tour, Louis van Gaal was considerably comfortable with his options. Just about every newcomer up to that point satisfied the manager's craving for control and minimising of risk. Matteo Darmian, Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger have added such security defensively that it took us all of 5 games to finally get worried about Sergio Romero in goal.

Since then United have brought in just the one significant addition; Anthony Martial from AS Monaco for an eye watering 36m rising to 54.7m. If you believe what the club is briefing, Martial was a target for most of the leading European clubs with the likes of FC Barcelona, PSG, Chelsea and Manchester City entering into pre-contract agreements with Monaco. The idea was that the French club would not put him on the market until next summer. We are therefore led to believe that United have stolen a march on the European rivals with this signing.


These are the harsh realities: 1. Manchester United now have one senior striker. 2. That senior striker cannot be relied upon to get the 25 goals the club would need from its centre forward to guarantee a credible league finish. 3. United have added potential to their forward line in Martial with no guarantee of a consistent supply of goals. 4.An perhaps most crucially, Louis van Gaal has added the one thing he lacked and craved from his forward-line, pace!

However, we have to temper those realities with the system and style of play that Louis van Gaal has successfully bedded into the DNA of the club. It hardly plays to the strength of an attacker, let alone a striker. Indeed, the number 9 plays with his back to goal for most of the time despite being in a side that will dominate possession for the majority of the match. As it stands, the manager will get the most of his attackers if, and only if, he withdraws Wayne Rooney to the Number 10 role (even though he's far from the best we've got in that position) and playing Martial up top with the freedom to use the flanks as and when it suits his game.

Unfortunately for the French teenager, his price tag means that the media criticism will be anything but kind on him. Indeed, the 19 year old has already been dismissed by many before he has even set foot on the Old Trafford turf, let alone the bench. Amazingly, there are those who honestly believe that a man of the ruthlessness of Louis van Gaal can sanction a signing as a 'panic-buy', moreso a teenager! Martial may not turn out to be the Thierry Henry that others expect him to be but I think its overstepping our boundaries to expect that the club will bring in one of the names linked to it through the media or a player with a high rating on FIFA 16! Manchester United employs scouts around the world to identify talent they think can make the grade at Old Trafford. Now there wouldn't be much of scouting if the said scouts simply forwarded the same names in the media, would they? Time and time again, we expect the club to bring in a name we've never heard of before; Roy Keane, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Cristiano Ronaldo, or Bebe. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't. No harm in that.

For 36m? Ed Woodward has been hawking the club around the world getting all sorts of sponsors to partner with the world's most popular football brand. If that money is not spent on the football team, you can bet your house it's being wired into the Glazers' personal accounts. Given that I, like many of the fans do not stand to benefit a penny from it, I'd rather it's wasted on panic buys, young players, unproven potential et al. The mourning in the media will however have you believe that it was their money that was spent. Never mind John Stones is valued at more than 40m!

Ultimately though, United's season is likely to be affected by departures more than arrivals. Indeed, many of the signings made have been to replace rather than improve. This is the first time in quite a while that United do not have as deep a squad as any other in the league. Jose Mourinho, last season, pointed out how difficult it was to prepare for games against United because of the number of options we had in our squad. This time, I imagine it cannot be too difficult to plan for the couple of options United have up top and at the back. Given the number of competitions that the club is involved in this season, van Gaal will have to be clever about how he utilises his squad going forward.

Certainly, I'd imagine that the likes of Jesse Lingard, Andreas Perreira and Patrick McNair feature more prominently than we expect. Michael Carrick seems to be the only player from last season reading the injury script to the letter, but thankfully, he is now adequately replaced. Fingers crossed the light-weight areas remain in full-health.

Perhaps the one facet that seems to have escaped everyone regarding the transfer window is that 12 months in, Louis van Gaal has finally made the Manchester United squad his. It cannot therefore be said that he remains with too many sympathisers outside the club (not that he every needed any). Indeed, despite the pessimism among fans, the manager claims that he is happy with the balance of the squad that he has got. There's nothing more you can demand from a transfer window if the manager is happy with his options. The Dutchman now needs results from his players.