Monday, 26 October 2015

UNITED MISS A TRICK IN DERBY STALEMATE


In the modern era of the Manchester derby, not many times will City be there for the taking. At full-time on Sunday, it really did feel like United had missed the opportunity to record a consecutive derby victory over their noisy neighbours. As it turned out, both teams tactically cancelled themselves out and matched each others' problems infront of goal.

The Match
Louis van Gaal raised eye-brows by picking Antonio Valencia ahead of Matteo Darmian. The thinking was no doubt that whereas Darmian is an all round better defender, the Ecuadorian is a better 1v1 defender. Therefore in a bid to avoid making the same error as he did at the Emirates when Sanchez tore through Darmian regularly, Valencia was tasked with keeping Raheem Sterling quiet. It worked a treat! Decisions such as these are often forgotten in context but it was at least comforting to see that van Gaal did not make the same mistake twice.

Where United were thought-less up top, City were toothless. As such, most of the derby went by with nothing to write home about. Morgan Schneiderlin for United and Fernandinho for City emerged as the most important if not best players for their clubs. It was one of those big games where neither side won an evenly  matched midfield battle. The result of such a rare phenomenon is often a draw in the absence of a huge slice of luck.

Turns out, United were just a little short of it when Jesse Lingard's late improvised shot was parried onto the crossbar by Joe Hart and Chris Smalling was desperately unlucky to have his close range drive pushed wide by a super save from the England goalkeeper.

For the neutral arm chair viewer, it turned out to be a case of what might have been if both sides had competent strikers through the middle. City were spared the threat of Anthony Martial up top but even so found him a nuisance out wide. On the other scale, given Sergio Aguero's derby record (8 goals in 4 seasons), it was essentially a day off for Chris and Phil taking turns to mark Wilfried Bony.

The Sub-Plots
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Wayne Rooney is yet again forms the debate of what was not good about United. Louis van Gaal has a problem on his hands. He might be sick of the questions about his captain but it's reached a point where even his most ardent fans are struggling to find a case for his defence.

This time, the groans could be heard all around Old Trafford when the England captain lost possession or made an underwhelming pass. If you asked Bacary Sagna and Vincent Kompany how they fared against Anthony Martial and Wayne Rooney respectively, the contrast in answers would just about sum it up. Indeed Kompany even found time to leave Rooney and go out wide and cut Martial in half. From the moment the City captain got himself booked in the first half for that tackle, you wondered if he would last the 90 if Martial been moved up top to cause him problems with his pace.

For Louis van Gaal, sticking with his captain amidst this storm is admirable but with each passing week, it increasingly appears that United will win the league inspite of Rooney rather than because of him and lose the league because of him rather than lose it despite his best efforts.

Wayne's history of going through such spells have left the manager in a fix over whether to play him into form or drop rest him for a couple of games and see how the team fares. Louis van Gaal appears to be going with Option A. Perhaps Rooney's form would go less under the radder with fans if the club didn't have a ready-made solution. The frustration is that the solution is right there in September's Player of the Month who was presented with his award ahead of kick-off.

I don't buy the idea that van Gaal doesn't have the stomach to drop his captain because he has dropped a World Player of the Year before, but I do believe that he has handed him every opportunity to recover his form and is holding on to the hope that he clicks into form soon. As the captain starts his fourth decade of his life, there are stark comparisons with players who started as early as 16 when they reached 30. Think Michael Owen. Think Fernando Torres. To name but only two players who became different as the mileage stacked up early.

Paul Scholes in mid-week after the CSKA Moscow game argued that Wayne needs quick players around him to make himself useful to the cause. On Wednesday he was either side of Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard. How quick are we talking exactly Paul?

Going forward, given the stance the manager has taken with Wayne, we can only rally behind because the circumstances are that United's destiny this season has been inter-twined with Wayne Rooney's form. The faster he recovers, the better for the club. So I guess this is the part where we all say ''Come on Wayne!''

The Bottom-Line
In context, Sunday's result was not as bad as it felt. United's excellent defensive record at Old Trafford was supposed to come under scrutiny but they had the measure of the title favourites throughout. United remain at just one goal conceded at home since the season started. Not bad.

It is already shaping up to be a three way early tussle for the title between City, Arsenal and ourselves. Results like yesterday mean that it will be results against the 'lesser' sides in the division that will separate the teams. City for instance know they've got the fodder of Norwich City and Aston Villa to come whilst Arsenal have what on paper seems like a clear run of games until December when they face City. It's squarely up to United to match that consistency against the also rans of the league.

For instance, both City and Arsenal win at Crystal Palace earlier this season. United have to match that result this weekend if they are to keep in touch with the summit. Only then does Sunday's result become a good one.      

Friday, 23 October 2015

FOR MANCHESTER & ENGLISH SUPERIORITY


Manchester goes tribal this Sunday ahead of the 170th Manchester derby. It's been a while since both sides of the Manchester divide contested a derby from the summit of the league table. Whereas its cliche to suggest that the next derby is more important than the last, there is no underestimating the significance of Sunday's main event.

The very leadership of the league summit on Monday morning depends on the outcome of Sunday's disagreement. The stakes couldn't be higher in October.


United
The focus around United's preparations for this one are primarily around their recuperation from Wednesday's Champions League away trip to Eastern Europe. It will be less than 72 hours between their touch-down back in Manchester and kick-off on Sunday. At least, Louis van Gaal doesn't have the added strain of travel as United play as hosts on Sunday.

Louis van Gaal wallows in the fact that his record in derby games against Liverpool and City is near perfect, currently boasting a 4-3 aggregate lead over Sunday's opponents and a flawless one against the Scousers.

Team news ahead of the game will be dominated by whether the so far successful midfield combination of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin will retain its place and whether Juan Mata makes a return to the side. Ander Herrera's form and performance in this fixture last season will demand inclusion, a scenario that would mean Anthony Martial and Wayne Rooney retain their positions from Wednesday.

It will be important though for the manager to work out how to keep Kevin De Bryune and Raheem Sterling quiet on the flanks. As such, having Mata and Martial as the men to track back on the flanks could make for an uneasy game. Expect a surprise selection in one of the wide areas. City though are weak at left-back with Bacary Sagna, a right-back by trade, likely to be asked to fill in. It's a position United can look to exploit.


City
The league leaders are without Sergio Aguero, often times the scourge of United, and David Silva. However they remain a potent force going forward. Kevin De Bryune and Raheem Sterling have the pace to threaten any defence. Manuel Pellegrini's boys have been in great goal-scoring form domestically, netting 11 times in their last two league games alone. Keeping them out certainly won't be a mean feat.


The Sub-Plots
Wayne Rooney is the leading goal-scorer in Manchester derby history. Fancy him getting a brace on Sunday eh?

Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo will tussle it out for the left-back berth after the Argentine dipped yet again in mid-week. Certainly, the central defence partnership should remain the more natural Phil Jones and Chris Smalling partnership.


The Bottom-Line
Passion more than anything won United this fixture last time out. It's often been about the side that wants it most. The reward for victory is as big as it could possibly be for United. Leadership of the league for the second time in a season having spent a couple of years without achieving it is worth breaking a limb for.

Perhaps most crucially, Sunday is the ultimate examination of United's title challenge this season. Win that, and the confidence that will follow will carry United beyond most hurdles this season, lose and Louis van Gaal will be left to pick up the pieces again.

The bragging rights are firmly in the red half following the most recent result. It is imperative for the locals that in the least we defend those rights.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

UNITED SALVAGE POINT IN SUB-ZERO MOSCOW


Ahead of kick-off, we would all have taken it. Louis van Gaal would have taken it. Perhaps CSKA Moscow would have taken it. It reasons with logic therefore that Wednesday night produced the 'diplomatic' result in minus two degrees temperatures.

Anthony Martial was, again, at the centre of the goals, but perhaps one too many this time. His handball that gifted CSKA a penalty was more down to his unsual placing in a temporary wing-back defensive role when the hosts attacked down his channel than it was about his naivety or 'stupidity' as the manager would have it.

He did however redeem himself with a rather expertly directed header past Akinfeev, in off the post, to spare United's blushes on what was an otherwise fruitless display. The conditions in Moscow can be philistine to visiting teams. Indeed, Barcelona and Manchester City have fallen before there, and so context must be afforded when evaluating the events of last night.


On The Match
United, as usual, set out to hog possession and patiently break into CSKA's well organised defence. It's a tactic that worked a treat for the home side who thrive on the counter-attack to compliment their compact shape. Indeed, often times in that first half, United looked vulnerable to a break away goal by the home side but at least they had Morgan Schneiderlin to neutralise that threat. The Frenchman's stock has grown since sitting out that Arsenal debacle but you cannot deny that he has justified his place as United's main-stay in the heart of midfield.

Whilst Martial was at fault for the penalty that led to the eventual goal, Phil Jones was caught flat footed when David De Gea parried the penalty onto the goal-post. It allowed the more alert Doumbia to poke in the opener. United were slow in their build up play so much so that they hardly looked like they would get back in it.

Louis van Gaal, never shy of making a substitution at halftime, replaced Bastian Schweinsteiger with Marouanne Fellaini in a bid to get United more direct. United were suddenly better, not least because the big Begian attracted the attention of most of the home-sides's defence, allowing for more space for the rest of United's front three.

Suddenly United were creating chances. Rooney glanced a header straight at Akinfeev, then Lingard showed inexperience by opening up his body far too early to allow the Russian goalkeeper to read his placed shot. The pressure finally told when Martial directed a Valencia pass onto the inside of the frame of the goal and into the net.


On the Sub-Plots
Wayne Rooney will be 30 by the next time United take to the pitch but the captain, and indeed his apologetics will have you believe that he is as good as ever. It without a doubt that he tries with every fibre of his body. He is merely suffering under the weight of his own success story. Because we have come to believe that he picks up form in bursts, its given the impression that he will eventually come good.

It sums up his night that Daley Blind came on in the 63rd minute and yet made and completed more passes than him. It's not about his goals but that the Wayne of old used to influence proceedings much more than he does nowadays. It helps though that the team still believes in him.

Marcos Rojo struggled at left-back after appearing invincible there on Saturday at Goodison park. It was an unwelcome observation especially considering the turbulence that we've had in that position since the injury to Luke Shaw. Daley Blind replace him midway through the second-half and intriguingly his numbers fare better than Rojo's. It will be interesting to see who the manager goes with for the derby.

On the Bottom-Line
As far as the Champions League is concerned, the manager feels that we are on schedule to get out of the group. Ahead of this one, the one result we couldn't afford was a defeat. A draw was therefore, in the main, a job done. With two home group games to follow, qualification should be assured before United travel to Germany in December.

The City goes tribal now.  


Monday, 19 October 2015

UNITED TRAVEL FAR, FAR AWAY TO MOSCOW


Manchester United resume European duty on Wednesday when they travel to Moscow to face Russian Premier League leaders CSKA Moscow. It's the trip that just about every club in Europe dreads simply because of the mileage to and from the very ends of Eastern Europe. For United, it's most unfortunate that his trip takes place during the week leading up to the Manchester derby.

Indeed, the Red Devils jet into Manchester from Russia on Thursday tea-time, allowing for little recuperation and preparation for Sunday. For Louis van Gaal therefore, keeping a clean bill of health during the week will be a minor success story given the obvious personnel limits of his squad.


The Opposition
CSKA Moscow are a perennial Champions League participant. On paper, this is our most difficult assignment of the six group stage games. They've started their domestic campaign unbeaten in 12 and warmed up for the visit of United with a 3-2 home victory over Ural in the Russian Premier league.

CSKA are blessed with a reasonable mixture of raw energy, sheer grit and finesse. In Ahmed Musa and Seydou Doumbia, they've got the energy up top to trouble most defences. Certainly, Smalling and Jones will know they're in a game on Wednesday. The pair get their raw materials from a familiar face, Zoran Tosic. Remember him? Yeah that one. One for the central axis in midfield to keep a hold of.


United
United got back to winning ways at the weekend with a comfortable and yet important away win at Everton. The structure of the team appeared to be more balanced since before Luke Shaw suffered his injury. There will be desperate calls for the manager to retain most of the team, especialy defensively and in the middle.

United left themselves open in their other away European tie at PSV Eindhoven. Whereas it afforded the team more goal-scoring chances, it left the team vulnerable on the counter-attack. It was an out-of character tactical flaw by Louis van Gaal who we've come to expect to have his football more suited to the European game.

Keep Morgan in there, eh Louis?


The Sub-Plots
Memphis Depay and Daley Blind were victims of the 'Total Human Being Principle'' over the weekend. Holland's failure to qualify for next summer's European Championships deemed them in less than an ideal mental state to participate on Saturday. Having seen the sync with which Phil Jones and Chris Smalling worked, you wonder whether van Gaal will attempt to fix what is not broken, at least not yet!

It brings back fond memories of United's most memorable time in Moscow whenever the squad travels there. However, unlike the last time we went there, Wednesday's fixture will not be held at the Luznikhi stadium. CSKA now play their home games at the Arena Kimkhi. Not that it's any warmer there!


The Bottom-Line
Group B appears to be the one where the calculators will be in full flow on Match-Day 6. All teams appear to be capable of winning their home matches. It is a scenario that has already accounted for all teams on three points after two matches. It logically follows that the team that will be able to nick an away win or two will win the group.

With CSKA Moscow visiting Old Trafford in the following fixture, winning both games effectively puts United a foot in the knock-out stages.

Optimism has returned after Saturday's win and the task is to go into Sunday's derby on the back of another great result. It is a difficult trip to make, but CSKA are not anywhere the level of opposition United that should bend United's knee in Europe. If United apply themselves at a tactical level that does justice to the quality of their player personnel.        

Sunday, 18 October 2015

REDEMPTION AT GOODISON


Manchester United put their defeat at Arsenal firmly behind them with a professional 0-3 victory away at Everton yesterday. Goals from Morgan Schneiderlin---his first for the club, Ander Herrera and Wayne Rooney ensured that United kept pace with their local rivals at the summit of the league.

On The Match
Louis van Gaal dropped  opted to go without the disillusioned Dutch pair of Daley Blind and Memphis Depay and summoned Ander Herrera and Phil Jones to the first team. With Martial out wide on the left and Wayne Rooney up top, it afforded the team more square pegs in square holes. As such, United were more in sync than we've come to expect.

It was Marcos Rojo's turn to attempt to solve the left-back conundrum (no doubt aided by injury to Ashley Young) but the Argentine was adept at the task. Indeed, left-back has been his more natural position throughout his career. A fit Phil Jones should indirectly solve the left-back problem in the absence of Luke Shaw with Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo more accomplished in the role than anybody else.

Goodison Park is one of the more difficult venues to pick up three points from but to play well there was perhaps the biggest plus for Louis van Gaal. There was hardly anything to fault about a performance that ranks as good as any away from home in the last few years. Certainly, not since 2007 have United been comfortable in the closing stages of a match at Goodison (And there have been some good United squads that went there in between).

Perhaps the improvement in Wayne Rooney, albeit minor, was enough to restore the shine to van Gaal's class of 2015. With the captain up top, it allowed Ander Herrera to pay his more natural Number 10 position. It was an opportunity that the Basque-born Spaniard took with both hands (and his head) to score United's first headed goal of the season. Sometimes it's hard to fathom why Ander makes more appearances on the bench than in the first team and yet the sum of his qualities are unmatched by his teammates. His goals per game ratio, for instance, is excellent for a midfielder.

The most unsung contribution yesterday was by Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin. Often times at Goodison, United are caught out by a counter-attack by the home-team. Indeed, it could be argued that United's wretched record at Everton was down to the midfield, or lack of it. Yesterday, while the Frenchman went about legally butchering, the German cleaned up, effectively isolating Lukaku and giving Chris and Phil little to deal with at the back.  

On the Sub-Plots
Wayne Rooney scored his first away goal for United since that break-away winner at Arsenal last November. It only took 11 months! Despite his obvious decline, the captain at least continues to crawl towards more record breaking history. It's 187 now in the league, past the legendary Dennis Law and level with the great Andrew Cole in second place in the all-time premier league charts. Alan Shearer should be safe though at 260.

Chris Smalling is already a mile or two ahead of his teammates in the running for Player of the Year. His performance yesterday effectively put to rest the notion that Daley Blind made it easier for him. Romelu Lukaku will give the best defender in the league a tough afternoon and so it was impressive seeing the Englishman keep the Belgian in check.

Phil Jones, it has to be said, is a very welcome addition to the team, if only because it potentially solves the club's left-back problem. If he stays fit to partner Chris, perhaps Daley and Marcos (who provided a delicious cross for Herrera's goal) will tag-team to sort out the left-back issue. It also means Matteo Darmian gets to continue his impressive start at right-back with no need to fill in on the left.

Morgan Schneiderlin has a knack of getting in at the far post for set-piece deliveries. It's a welcome habit that finally reaped rewards by being well placed to guide a lovely finish past Tim Howard. His pre-season goal for the club against Club America was from another far post venture. He was unfortunate not to net in a similar position against Aston Villa in August but thankfully he stuck to it.

On The Bottom-Line
In a month that threatened to bury United's season, the importance of picking up three unexpected points at Everton cannot be overstated. It also adds context to the defeat at the Emirates as a kick up the backside that the team probably needed.

Ahead of the Manchester derby next week, it was important to remain in touch with them lot down the street. Instead of approaching the derby with a fear of dropping further away from the top, United will now go into it with the joy of having to contest for top spot with their closest rivals! It's a scenario that we would have all taken before August. Perhaps it has not been as bad as you read in the papers.

Friday, 16 October 2015

UNITED RETURN BUT GOODISON BECKONS


After another defeat to mull over during a two week-long International break, Manchester United return to domestic duty in the premier league on Saturday. In only the second three o'clock kickoff of the season, United are on the road for the second straight match in the league---this time on Merseyside at Goodison Park.

They say your enemy's enemy is your friend but United and Everton have always had a spiky relationship not least because Saturday's hosts are by default Scousers! That our captain's roots are in enemy territory remains a facet that doesn't sit well with a few Reds to this  today. Football rivalries are, afterall, personal.

Wayne Rooney, fitness permitting, will return to his most philistine venue in the premier league in a more competitive spirit than he did when he featured in Ducan Ferguson's testimonial at the beginning of August. The captain has, in the past, endured vitriol and bile from supporters of his former club, so much so that Sir Alex once (in 2008) withdrew him to keep his temper in check.

Of course Wayne has matured to a level that should see him hold his temper much better but on current form, the Goodison faithful needn't worry about winding him up. He retains a wretched record of scoring at Goodison (2 strikes against Everton since his shift further West)----and indeed Merseyside at large---that in the wicked world of football predictions, he should be odds on to net a brace on Saturday if he takes part.

The Opposition
Everton, like Swansea City, are quickly building a run of decent results against United especially on their own perch. United have suffered an aggregate defeat of 6-0 over their last three visits to Goodison. Goodison Park is one of the traditional tight venues with fans so close to the pitch that it is easy to generate an atmosphere for the home side to work with.

As such, going behind at Goodison is virtually half the job done for the home team. Roberto Martinez has such a well drilled out-fit on the counter-attack that they are almost willing the opposition to get a head-start on possession.

Indeed, only in March this year, United kicked off at Goodison and attempted to impose their game on the opponents. Everton scored on their first attack---a counter-attack and by halftime, few were left to convince that that game was over.

Having been comprehensively caught flat-footed by a dazzling display in the opening 20 minutes at Arsenal a fortnight ago, it is hoped that Louis van Gaal will not be caught out by another team that likes to get off on the front foot.

At times, Goodison feels so tight a venue that the football is akin to pin-ball. Indeed, Romelu Lukaku's equaliser against Liverpool just before the break was as a result of fortunate ricochets that allowed the big Belgian a free hit.  The size of the pitch also allows the home side to get up and down the pitch efficiently with very little space to craft anything.

In effect, Louis van Gaal's patient approach is exactly the sort of game you do not present to a team that will defend as a whole and attack you with equal numbers. Roberto Martinez has a decent idea of what he will expect from United. The question is whether Louis van Gaal can vary his approach to neutralise the obvious flaws in United's game.

United
Having come unstuck with an immobile midfield at the Emirates, it will be interesting to see whether Morgan Schneiderlin is restored to the starting line-up. Certainly, the Frenchman offers more mobility in the middle. There have been concerns though as to whether his inability to hold down a place has more to do with his difficulty in coping with the manager's instructions than being about the rotation game van Gaal has preached.

It already appears that for as long as Luke Shaw is injured, the full back questions will remain. Even Matteo Darmian seems to have dropped a level of confidence because of the chopping and changing. We forget that every full back develops a relationship with his winger. The Italian has unfortunately been denied that by the constant movement from left to right full-back positions.

His class though remains unquestioned. Indeed, his selection in the Euro 2016 qualifiers team of the round attests to this truth. The manager has to earn his pay by sorting out the full-back situation. Pick a man, stick with him much longer than the 45 minutes.

One way of going about it is to reduce the number of squares in round holes. By conceding the importance of Blind as a quarter-back, he could play him in a left-sided role in which he excelled last season and bring Jones in the middle to partner Smalling such that Darmian remains in his favoured right-back role for the long term. That is, but, one way!

The Sub-Plots
Memphis Depay has been the subject of debate during the break because of his failure to consistently do a job. Whereas he seems ripe for a drop to the bench, it appears the need to use Ashley Young in one of the full-back positions has kept his place in the team free from competition. The Dutchman though is long over-due a decent performance. Ryan Giggs has already made a comment about how his lifestyle could affect what could yet be an outstanding career. Giggs would know a thing about it given that it was he who Fergie was looking for at a night out back in 1991/2 and gave the same advice.

United's defence will yet again come up against a big man up top with a mixed bag of success and failure so far when they have had to. You could argue that Christian Benteke was starved of all service as Liverpool hardly attacked United last month but Bafetimbi Gomis exposed United's physical flaw at the back. Lukaku will be just as physical and could easily be just as clinical if nobody stands up to him. Certainly Smalling has his work cut out!

The Bottom-Line
United have been so inconsistent this season that going to Everton and handing out a thrashing is not beyond them. In the same breath, coming away with a heavy defeat is also not beyond the realms of possibility.

However, the capitulation at the Emirates cannot go unanswered in a month when United's resolve will be tested in the extreme. Having dropped points at venues where they picked them up last season, the pressure is on to pick them up at grounds they dropped them last season, starting tomorrow.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

POST ARSENAL DEBRIEF


If you are reading this, then congratulations upon resisting the temptation to slit your wrists after Sunday's events! Three cheers!

Now that everyone has had a chance to calm down and emotion has subsided a little, we I can deconstruct the pants-down happenings of Sunday afternoon in North London and replace emotion with reason.

Football has a way of kicking you in the teeth especially when you least expect it to. It's why this particular sport retains a romance-drama feel to it that gives it an edge of Home Box Office special. Sunday though cannot be categorised as the kick in the teeth that if only because there were, admittedly in hindsight,  obvious oversights in the Manchester United set-up that allowed Arsene Wenger to hold a check-mate with within the first few seconds of the chess game.


Tactical De-Brief:
Louis van Gaal, bless him, is a meticulous man who will think, double-think, triple-think and then cross triple-think out in-game situations to allow himself the benefit of preparedness to neutralise every possible threat.

There is but one danger in an otherwise flawless philosophy; the likelihood to over think it! So much so that when it looks like you couldn't be more prepared, you have in fact gone full circle with permutations and effectively failed to meet even the most basic of challenges from the opposition.

Even before apportioning individual blame, it was on the whole a toxic strategy to use the high line, leaving lots of space in behind, on a pitch that is one of the widest in the division. Arsenal's pass and move game thrives when there is space in behind to allow their runners a race against the opposition.

It's easy to see at what point van Gaal made the decision. The cross triple-think stage. The Dutchman at that point must have worked out that Arsenal play the ball in to feet and therefore would be undone by a high-line that would leave the defence with enough pace behind to snuff out their moves. Unfortunately though, it took little account of the pass and move game at speed that Arsenal play, a threat the Dutchman might have already worked out at the double-think stage.

Indeed, the Dutchman had already been successful with this approach a year ago even in a shambles of a 3-5-2 formation. In fairness to the manager, the high-line had served him well in the 3-1 success over Liverpool last month but the Merseysiders barely showed interest to get at United. As such, it was easy for Michael Carrick and Bastian Schweinsteiger to dictate proceedings against an unwilling team.


Individuals' Appraisal
Where the system failed as a whole, it was not aided by the individual performances. It is unfortunate that almost a month on, we still have to make reference to the injury suffered by Luke Shaw. The manager has already admitted that it was the one position in which the club was short of a replacement.

Matteo Darmian, out on the right, was twisted and turned by Alexis Sanchez, no doubt unaided by the space in behind with which the Chilean could work with. For the Italian, it was a second personal chastening at the hands of the former Barcelona forward, having come against him, in a 0-7 romp at the hands of Udineese during his time at Parlermo. Then, Matteo was only 21, learning. The learning curve has steepened since. The good news is that Darmian retains the class to do the job in his favoured right-back role. Indeed, he was the club's best player in August as voted by fans. The second month though has been more inconsistent. It hasn't helped that he was been moved from right-back to left-back, sometimes in the middle of games. He is however our best natural full-back option available who looks like he could do with much less chopping and changing.

Over on the left, Ashley Young fared no better. His problems however were compounded by the unwillingness of Memphis Depay to do his fair share of defensive work. The Dutch winger, also hooked at half-time seems to be bordering on the periphery of a bench role.

Wayne Rooney, who usually saves a performance for Arsenal, was as labored as we've come to know him recently. This time though, he had the company of at least ten of the XI on the pitch. Only Anthony Martial emerged with credit on the day.


On The Sub-Plots
The danger of being shown up defensively in a game of that magnitude is that it allows future opponents to study areas of weakness and quite simply attempt to repeat the damage. Louis van Gaal, over the next 10 days or so will probably ponder over whether to recall the now fit Phil Jones to partner Chris Smalling at the back and move the more assured Daley Blind on the left such that Darmian can keep right-back. That way, he reduces the number of round holes in square pegs around the team.

Forget being defeated, this was only the second time in Louis van Gaal's tenure that United have lost a league game by a three goal margin. The last team to do that? Everton who are next up.


On The Bottom-Line
In football, you are as good as your previous result. As such from being acclaimed for title glory last week, United are now the easy target for everyone that can string together a couple of English sentences.

As such, it is easy to lose context. Manchester United were not favourites to win the title this season and therefore will still suffer some harsh lessons this season. The target was to be competitive in the league and the Cup competitions. Two points off the top in the league after 8 games is a position we would all have taken going into the season.

Further, United do not need to beat potential members of the top four to do well or even win the league. Indeed, last term, United's dominance in the games against top opposition counted for little because of the points dropped to sides in the bottom-half of the table. As such, United have only registered one poor result domestically---the home draw with Newcastle.

Whereas it was alleged that United have not been tested prior to Sunday, it is their run of results against teams that apparently have not tested them that saw them rise to the top of the table ahead of the other 'stronger' contenders.

If Louis van Gaal can get his side to notch up the winnable points, it will matter very little how United do in the big matches! More than anything, that will show progress.

Friday, 2 October 2015

AND SO IT BEGINS


It is the dreaded run of fixtures that has gotten fans and rivals alike looking forward to the litmus test that is October's run of fixtures for Manchester United. Arm chair pundits and commentators have rightly reserved judgement about Louis van Gaal's side pending what is, on paper at least, the club's most difficult month of the season.

United are away at the Emirates this Sunday and travel to Goodison Park immediately after the International break. The Champions League trip to Russia at CSKA Moscow is quickly followed by their first home game of the month---the Manchester derby!

Ironically, United's best spell last season came during their toughest four weeks that involved games against Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea. The impressive run of results in that period quickly followed by a run of defeats against inferior opposition led to the birth of the notion that United were much better against top teams that have a go than against inferior opposition that set out to defend deep and hit on the counter.

United however, have already been exposed by decent opposition this season. Swansea City and PSV used every strategy in the book that United are not comfortable with. At Swansea, van Gaal, incredibly admitted that a five minute tactical shift by Gary Monk (midfield diamond) beat his set-up of United hands down. It will be interesting to see whether the Dutchman's style still holds the club in good stead in the big time.


On the Match
Arsenal vs Manchester United once upon a time used to be the premier fixture of the English football calendar. The decline of the pair of clubs put paid to that but the irony is that this particular clash, despite the recent failings of both clubs, is as close to a summit meeting we've had between the two. United are top of the league but just three points ahead of fourth placed Arsenal.

United
Louis van Gaal has guided his side to three straight wins in the league taking them top of the log outright for the first time since May 2013. United will extend their leadership of the league table to at least three weeks if they overcome the Gunners on Sunday because of the International break following soon after.

There were cries of fatigue at the back end of the Champions League clash with VfL Wolfsburg in midweek and Louis van Gaal, speaking yesterday to the media, said his fatigue specialist will look at the players on Saturday and decide who to play. The Dutchman has hardly rotated his squad over the season so far with many players notching up maximum appearances. It remains a criticism of Louis van Gaal's selection that he is short of a depth in quality to complement an injury crisis or fatigue.

More than any other department, it is in defence that United are blatantly short. Luke Shaw's injury has with varying results caused a chopping and changing in the full-back positions, so much so that it has been directly or indirectly responsible for the goals United have conceded since that fateful night in Eindhoven.

Ashley Young replaced Antonio Valencia on Wednesday at right-back and you feel that the Englishman will keep his place for Sunday, if only because he is marginally better than the Ecuadorian. Expect Arsenal to test United out wide whenever they get the chance. As such, Louis van Gaal will have to work out how to neutralise Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott. Sanchez in particular has scored more goals with his head lately than you would expect from a player of his height. There is more diversity than meets the eye in his game.

United ceded possession to the Gunners last time out in a smash and grab win at the Emirates but were more in control of proceedings in the return leg at Old Trafford in May. It is more likely that they shall have a foothold of proceedings this time round at the home of the Gunners.

Arsenal
Arsene Wenger is back under the microscope after his decision making was largely responsible for his side's shocking 2-3 defeat by Greek champions Olympiacos on Tuesday. Petr Cech sat out the game and David Ospina dropped a clanger that sapped the confidence out of Arsenal.

In conceding goals on Tuesday just after taking getting back into the game, Arsenal displayed a mental frailty that has haunted their recent campaigns. When the pressure is on, when it really matters, they tend to fold.

However, the Champions League form aside, Arsenal have been okay in the league. Their 2-5 victory away at Leicester City last week was an excellent result by any standards and hauled them back into the reckoning for the summit positions in the league. They remain a potent attacking force whose method could easily prize open the meanest of defences.

Arsenal will not have Laurent Koscielny available after the defender injured himself in the mid-week defeat. It breaks up the budding partnership between him and Gabriel Paulista. Per Metersacker is not a terrible replacement but it will be interesting to see how the big German copes with the pace of Anthony Martial.  


The Sub-Plots
Wayne Rooney, yes him, has a knack of getting his act together in games vs Arsenal. His record against the Gunners suggests that he could be due a goal on Sunday. It would certainly be more than welcome for both player and fans.

Manchester United completed the third league game in succession last week without picking up a yellow card. There is therefore a sense that United are probably becoming a little too 'nice' but on the flip-side, credit to Louis van Gaal who has improved the discipline of his side after three red cards at this stage last season. You do stand a better chance in games when you are XI. Whether that record will extend to four matches is very unlikely simply because of the number of yellow cards United picked up in mid-week trying to stall a very good passing side in Wolfsburg. Arsenal are just as nippy zappy on the ball and so it is unlikely that the cards will be blank come Sunday evening.


The Bottom-Line
United have not lost to Arsenal at the Emirates stadium in the league since 2011. A disciplined approach as well as precise counter-attacking has been the yardstick on which success there has been built. Because Arsenal are such that you know what is coming, losing to them feels like a touch of negligence.  

Thursday, 1 October 2015

UNITED UP AND RUNNING IN EUROPE

Chris Smalling wheels away to celebrate his match winner


Make no mistake about it; this was, in many ways, Manchester United's most crucial game of the season to-date. There's still four Group-stage matches to play before winter but the context of those four games was heavily reliant on the outcome of the Match-Day 2 last night.

That the fourth seed in the group is the third best German team always meant that United were in a trickier group than it appeared. Indeed, after two games, and true to prediction here, all teams are on three points with a similar goal-difference. The current standings could be a foreboding of the tussle to get out of the group that we could be subject of in December.

At least though, United have avoided the doomsday scenario of no points after three matches. Juan Mata from the spot and Chris Smalling ensured that the Reds got their Champions League campaign back on track.


On the Match
United started nervy, uncertain in just about all departments and it was shocking but also of little surprise when Wolfsburg took the lead in the 4th minute. Caligiuri took his goal as calmly as you would expect at this level but Antonio Valencia was so miserably out-of sync with his defence that he could have played the entire Old Trafford on-side if they were on the pitch.

The Ecuadorian does 'a job' at right-back but at this level, his ineptness at defending is so blatantly exposed. Not that Louis van Gaal was willing to risk it into the second half. Ashley Young came on in the second period to allow Matteo Darmian a return to his favoured role with the Englishman filling in at left-back.

The visitors' goal served to settle United who went about getting back into the game----a mission that was accomplished within the next 55 minutes since going behind. The frustration, highlighted by the manager at the end, was how wasteful United were infront of goal. Memphis Depay twice shot/headed at the keeper whilst Wayne Rooney denied Anthony Martial what would have been a brilliant assist when he blazed over an unguarded net. Juan Mata was unlucky to find the head of Dante with a drive otherwise destined for goal whilst Martial himself pulled a shot wide after creating for himself space with fancy footwork.

All were good chances in open play but it was a penalty that brought United level. Juan Mata, still enjoying his run as penalty-taker supreme, placed his shot so far to Benaglio's bottom right corner that even if he had dived the way, he wouldn't have gotten to it. A penalty is as good as if the keeper guesses right, you should still score. So far, Mata's technique gives little room for a save which means it might be a while before he loses his status as the number one choice.

The Spaniard turned provider eight minutes into the second half with a sublime flick into the path of Chris Smalling to score what turned out to be the match winner. Mata's contribution to the side since March has been ever so consistent that he is now firmly one of those players the manager cannot afford to leave out of the team. He has thrived as an inside-right winger that gives him the freedom to roam into his favoured number 10 role but perhaps more crucially make him a difficult player to man-mark for the opposition.


On the Sub-Plots
It's three times now that I have watched Chris Smalling land with his leg at an obtuse angle causing a painful impact with the turf. The Englishman seems to go airborne without a contingency plan of getting back to the ground. Careful Chris!

Fans join Rooney to react to a bad miss
Wayne Rooney yet again served up a below par performance, so much so that it increasingly appears that the team is performing in spite of him rather than because of him. Take it this way: Any other player would have been dropped if he put up as many lacklustre performances as the England captain. However even a Wayne Rooney on poor form should score when presented with an unguarded net. The biggest let-down about that chance was that Martial had done ever so brilliantly to create a good chance.

Most fans would rather see Wayne Rooney dropped now. My biggest concern for him though is that Louis van Gaal, despite being protective of him so far, is also a ruthless man. IF, and that is a big 'if', Wayne were to be dropped from the side, I find it hard to believe that van Gaal will let him back in if the team is doing well without him. It could invariably be the beginning of the end for him. Robin van Persie was seemingly well placed in the van Gaal hierarchy of strikers until a run of dire performances saw him shipped out at the first opportunity. van Gaal has a track record of not looking back on his decisions.

Sometimes decisions with the manager appear to move slow, but when they get into their stride , it's at the speed of light! The captain is lucky that he retains a blank cheque to 'buy' his way back into grove but after throwing a drink at the telly over that missed chance, I immediately felt a shade of sympathy when I saw how Louis van Gaal furiously scribbled into his note-book in the immediate aftermath.

Matteo Darmian dipped in form for games against Swansea and PSV but he has come along just fine in the last few games. He has slotted in comfortably when asked to play left-back and has now switched between left and right twice in a row including in-game without dropping in quality. We forget. Class is permanent.


On the Bottom-Line
United have done pretty well in September. That PSV freak result stands out as the only low point and they can now look forward to taking on the challenges of October head-on with confidence from a number of wins under their belt already. If the performances are not consistent, at least the results are and that is by itself good enough for now.