Tuesday, 29 December 2015

JUST CAN'T SCORE


Almost everything was restored about Manchester United yesterday, except that they failed to rediscover the route to goal. As such the club remain winless in eight games and slip another two points off the pace from the sides above them in the league. At least though, there was a modicum of something to cling to yesterday at Old Trafford.


On The Match
Louis van Gaal, either in a last throw of the dice or under the impression that he had nothing to lose, set out the side in a no holds barred system. The much missed protection of the back four returned with Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger in the middle in place of Michael Carrick and Marouanne Fellaini.

The German was returning from a three match ban but it was the omission of the former from games against Bournemouth, Norwich and Stoke that left many fans puzzled. Certainly, United would have picked up more than zero points from those three games if the manager had played the Frenchman in just two of them. Indeed, for someone of his importance, 13 starts this season is a very underwhelming stat.

The pair guaranteed United security at the back which they have so desperately missed over the past month. Even before kick-off, the confidence of keeping a clean sheet in this one was much higher than it has been over the past four weeks.

In a rare bit of team selection, van Gaal also went with Herrera, Mata and Martial as the creative three behind Wayne Rooney. It allowed United to have a verve and impetus about their forward play that has been painfully lacking. Suddenly, United were creating chances at will and shooting more, even from range. Quite why it has taken the manager this long to work out such a line-up on a more regular basis remains to be seen.

Ultimately, the story still held root that United's biggest flaw is chance conversion, even when they come at a relatively regular rate like they did last night. Wayne Rooney is a percentages player and given his current plight will not often get you the goal you need from the chance of the game. Martial is always too busy making something happen for the team out-wide to be on the end of balls in the box. It leaves United rather light-weight up top and easy to defend against.


Despite the need for backup in other departments of the team, a striker in his prime is by some distance United's greatest need. The number of goalless performances this season suggests that even with the rigidity in style under van Gaal, United would be much better off if they had one. It remains an indictment on the manager that it was a hole not plugged by the club in the summer despite letting a myriad of forwards leave the club.


On the Sub-Plots
It appears Louis van Gaal has ridden on the minute positive waves of yesterday's game to earn himself a stay of execution. Whether that translates as a vote of confidence until the end of the season remains to be seen. What is for certain is that United have left themselves with a minor mountain to climb if they are to regain a place in the top four, let alone challenge for the title. Spurs have planted a small flag among the elite this season and Liverpool are just a game away from catching up with United.

Louis van Gaal's task, if it is set to continue, can only get harder from here. In hindsight of that performance though, it should, in theory, be easier. All that he has to do is get his players playing with the same levels of confidence, desire, passion and ambition every week regardless of the opposition.


It appears Louis van Gaal is more a slave to sports science than we thought. After an hour or so yesterday, the Dutchman, mindful of the strains of a returning player from injury opted to replace Matteo Darmian with young Borthwick-Jackson. It's a substitution that had sports science details written all over it and was favoured in place of the gambler's trade that Sir Alex had gotten the fans used to. As such, from a distance, it appears that LVG often makes negative substitutions even when United are chasing a game. Overloading the attack for a winner, is not exactly his trade.

Less theatre, more predictability. Just like it was not too difficult to foresee the final score of this one way before kickoff. There are those who yearn for the days when they just didn't know what to expect even when it appeared obvious.


On the Bottom-Line
United need wins, from somewhere, and fast!

Sunday, 27 December 2015

UNITED MANAGE TO ACHIEVE NEW DEPTHS


At a glance, yesterday's result at the Potteries was not out of the wider script in this most unpredictable of premier league seasons. Only one team won away from home on Boxing Day and, for good measure, the top two lost their games as well. It incredibly meant that despite suffering a third straight league defeat, United are technically no worse off than they were before kick-off. Unfortunately, that is as optimistic as it gets.

A closer look makes for a grim picture. The worst run of form for 54 years. The worst ever points tally at this stage in the premier league era. Everything has managed to be worse than the wretched season under David Moyes. Quite simply, it is a a credit to the patience of the Board that the manager is still in his job at this point, at least so far. At least nobody can accuse them of impatience. There is a general desire to get this to work. However, patience, no matter how great, can always run out.


On the Match
Louis van Gaal only made the one mistake yesterday; to play Fellaini ahead of Morgan Schneiderlin. Everything else, on his part, he got right. However, there seemed little will among those on pitch to turn the club's fortunes around. It was yet again all too pedestrian, so much so that Wayne Rooney managed to appear half-decent when he came on in the second half by showing some commitment to the cause.

At times, making a pass to another black shirt was too much of a task. It's difficult to assess whether the manager still has the backing of the dressing room. The players exude fighting talk and everything of that ilk on social media and interviews and yet there is hardly any fight in them on the pitch. Memphis for instance came out with a defiant interview this past week but his attitude was not for the man behind that fighting talk. 

Stoke City were not exactly beyond United's means on the day but two individual errors from Memphis Depay and Ashley Young accounted for United's loss of confidence, United did improve in the second half but there was hardly a sense of urgency to retrieve the game. The casual manner in which Fellaini took and missed his sitter baffled. Not for the first time, the Belgian has looked disinterested in scoring from a few yards out. 


On the Sub-Plots

For some unknown reason. Morgan Schneiderlin has sat out Bastian Schweinsteiger's suspension. Considering the singular value of the Frenchman, Louis van Gaal has let himself down with that particular omission. United's defence no longer enjoys the protection that it did earlier in the season and suddenly, we're letting in an average of a couple of goals per game. 

It baffles that this obvious deficiency in the middle, has somehow been ignored by the manager. Not out of a lack of resources but as a matter of choice.


On the Bottom Line
United are now three points off a Champions League place having led the league a month ago. Even for the patient men in the boardroom, the slide can only be tolerated for so long. Chelsea at Old Trafford tomorrow has the look of a defining moment. Three straight home games next means that the mutiny among the match going fans could reach definitive scales if the club do not drastically improve. 

Thursday, 24 December 2015

LVG WITH A BOXER'S CHANCE ON BOXING DAY


Has it all come down to this? If you are to believe the vibe in the media and indeed in the air, Louis van Gaal's era at Manchester United has come down to a matter of 90 minutes at the hostile Britannia Stadium in the Potteries at lunchtime on Boxing Day.

It is a minor miracle in itself that the Dutchman gets to preside over this fixture because the wake of the defeat against Norwich was filled with briefing and counter-briefing about the inevitability of Louis van Gaal's sack at the club.

The entire predicament has been mishandled by the club by its standards. Having failed to publicly back their manager, it has left the Dutchman vulnerable to any social media ''source'' that can put out a half-decent theory about his future.

The expectation was that the manager would offer a lot more calm to the situation at his pre-match press briefing yesterday but that walkout from the Jimmy Murphy Media Centre has not really helped his plight at the club.

The allusion to speeches and support from the players and staff will come under severe examination on Saturday. If the word is his future depends on the outcome of the visit to the Potteries, then the attitude of the players and their application on Saturday will effectively mirror their commitment to the manager's cause.


The Match
Stoke are not the Stoke of yore. Mark Hughes has got them playing some of their best ever football. In Bojan, Anautovic and Shaquiri, Stoke possess one of the most lethal frontlines in the division, if not on paper, then on their day. They took Manchester City apart a couple of weeks ago in a manner that dropped jaws.

Given United's default approach of retaining possession, the game will quickly descend into a spectacle of counter-attacking by the home side, and defending the counter-attacks for the away team. Whether United can keep a clean sheet in this one depends on the priority Louis van Gaal places on his defensive midfield.

Morgan Schneiderlin has been ready for a couple of weeks and yet the manager has preferred to play Marouanne Fellaini in the middle of the park. When the Belgian inevitably drifts forward, United are left with a huge hoe in the middle and hence vulnerable to the counter-attack. It's a weakness that saw the club concede twice easily against Norwich. Plug the hole Louis!


Team News
He might have walked out of the media briefing but Louis van Gaal did reveal that the club's injury list has not really relented. Matteo Darmian could return for Chelsea but that is it. Ander Herrera should be involved from the start having made his comeback last week.


The Bottom Line
If United still look 'in it' in fifth place, defeat at Stoke could see United slip to as far as 7th on the log if results elsewhere go against the club. Then it might really be time to push that proverbial panic button. What is not in doubt though is that this time, the pressure is really on! 

Monday, 21 December 2015

LOUIS VAN GAAL ON THE BRINK


At full time on Saturday, defeat to Norwich City felt like 'a manager's moment'. Perhaps not quite as decisive as it felt when David Moyes succumbed 2-0 to Everton at Goodison Park but the prevailing circumstances got it close.

On Thursday, Chelsea parted company with Jose Mourinho for the second time adding yet another elite name to the plethora of managers out of work in the summer. We now know that Carlo Ancelotti is spoken for having accepted to replace Pep Guardiola in the summer.

The bookmakers have not wasted time in installing Mourinho as a favourite for the United job if and when Louis van Gaal is relived of his duties. The media campaign to get Jose at Old Trafford is borne of firstly, a desire to retain one of the most quotable managers but also to create an artificial five way tussle for league superiority next season featuring Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, Jurgen Klopp, Arsene Wenger and Diego Simeone at Chelsea.

Whilst Jose Mourinho would not bring back the swashbuckling football to Old Trafford, his style remains effective and successful. Such are the constraints of being a United fan that the fans are willing to take a comprise on the cons that the 52 year old Portuguese would attract in his tenure.

It ultimately remains conjecture for as long as Louis van Gaal retains the support of his employers. On Saturday, Ed Woodward had a chat of support to van Gaal in the aftermath of defeat but results like that do little to secure his position.

In a way therefore, it feels like the Dutchman is doing little to help himself. Two wins against Bournemouth and Norwich City would have negated the availability of Jose Mourinho or any top manager for that matter. Not quite too much to ask for, is it? A winless run in six games now makes the club leadership look negligent by continuing to support the Dutchman.



The Match
United went about the fixture against Norwich in pretty much the same pattern as they went about AFC Bournemouth. United started brightly, but often failed to be imaginative up top enough to trouble Norwich's well set up backline.

For Alex Neil's side, the plan was to hit United hard on the counter attack--and boy did it work a treat! The continued absence of Morgan Schneiderlin from the starting line-up has made United vulnerable to any attack of sort. United have conceded at least a couple of goals per game since he injured himself. Chris Smalling has improved this season but the argument remains that the defensive strength of midfield has aided his cause until this point.

Defeat on Saturday was damaging in more than one way for the club. United's weaknesses are now well documented ahead of a run of tricky festive fixtures. The briefing from the club is that van Gaal has been given at least until Stoke City on Saturday to save his job.

I never really understand the sense in such ultimatums. Does he then keep his job if United win the next two and lose the following two? Are they effectively asking the players to play for their manager because we all know what will happen if the result goes South? What does the hierarchy hope to see between now and the next result before making a decision?

It's simple. Either you back your manager, or you fire him. Either choice can be reasoned out to send the message that you want to send out to players and fans. Dithering in between decisions effectively gives the players an excuse to crumble at the first sight of adversity in the next game.    

Friday, 18 December 2015

BACK TO BASICS


Forget the performances and desired tactics, Manchester United seem to have forgotten how to win a game of football! It's five games since United last won a game of any kind--a pretty damning statistic considering the kind of football fans have had to sit through.

Five winless games with breathtaking entertainment would be bad enough, but that they have tallied up without so much as the impression of an effort by the team has made match going fans feel cheated.

It's a period that has seen the manager's position come under severe scrutiny from fans who had since ridden on the results as justification for progress this season. Now that the results have followed the performances out the door, it has left pretty little for defenders of Louis van Gaal to work with.

The arguments for van Gaal's tenure are largely, if not entirely, premised on a reputation that he has been buillt throughout his 25 years in management, but mostly in his first decade as a manager. Ironically, the case for his defence has it that what is happening at Manchester United is not entirely unexpected. Indeed, if anything, it was always going to be part of the job.

The Dutch media for instance remain amused at the amount of bile and abuse that has been directed at the Dutchman 20 months into his tenure. Indeed, only this week, former Arsenal midfielder Marc Overmars launched an impressive defence of the beleaguered Manchester United boss.

Overmars essentially pointed to the youth of the squad LVG has chosen to use as a mitigating factor in his quest for results. Indeed, from a distance, it appears van Gaal is moulding the 2017 premier league champions. Without hindsight, it seems a laughable proposition but the future is not really the concern for those calling for van Gaal's head. It's the present.

For the amount of money spent at attempting to rebuild the club from the image of Sir Alex Ferguson, it seems a reasonable demand that United are at least competitive on the pitch. Too often this season, United have appeared laboured when the opposition shuts up shop or been easily turned over when the opposition have a go at them.

United were certainly lacking in effort and endeavour last week on South Coast, so much so that AFC Bournemouth picked them off easily at pace. Perhaps the suspension of Bastian Schweinsteiger mitigates because it effectively left a young team without a vocal leader but if the players on show last week required inspirational leadership to beat Bournemouth, then it says a lot about their mentality.


In his post-match briefing last week, van Gaal pointed to the need to win the next three games in a row to make up for the surprise defeat to Eddie Howe's men. Whilst winning three league games in a row wouldn't have merited more than a few column inches in the past, for this United team, it would be quite something considering how difficult they seem to make wining any game of football, let alone three.


How else should fans feel after failing to pick a win in a run of games involving West Ham at home, Leicester City and newly promoted Bournemouth? Whereas United have conceded just the one goal at Old Trafford in the league this season, Norwich City are entitled to fancy their chances of coming away with a result this weekend. Certainly, 0-0 would do them just fine.


United on the other hand have seen themselves move from the summit of the league to six points off it in a matter of weeks. The irony is that the last minute win at Watford was supposed to have galvanised the side with confidence ahead of very winnable fixtures, but quite the opposite seems to have happened since.

Suddenly, any win of any kind would provide much needed soothing of the soul that fans have yearned for. It has been, afterall, five weeks of unrelenting frustration at the club.

After this weekend, Louis van Gaal will have left himself with a run of tricky looking fixtures ahead of the festive season that will further test the strength of his squad. Perhaps more crucially, the relative comfort of top four is no longer a certainty for the club starting this weekend. Spurs have now come to within a win of overtaking us on goal difference.

Indeed, United's failure to win since Watford means that 4th place is the best they can achieve even if results go our way this week. Louis van Gaal may retain the board's backing but what could really tip the scales is if United start to descend outside the top four. The failures of the rest have so far aided our cause in keeping it top four so far, but the rest can only slip up for so long. Sooner or later, United are going to have to get going, with or without an injury crisis.

Saturday, in a rare three o'clock kickoff, at Old Trafford, against Norwich City, is a start.      

Sunday, 13 December 2015

UNACCEPTABLE!


In any narrative of a below par season for Manchester United, defeat at the home of a promote club does not rank as an acceptable result, regardless the circumstances.

At nine injuries prior to kick-off, and ten when Jesse Lingard was forced to withdraw form proceedings, United were supposed to be cut some slack at the Vitality Stadium. Except that sympathy in such a predicament is duly deserved when the team that seeks it betters or at least matches the opponent for effort.

Yesterday on the English South Coast, United approached a game of football with an air of expectation. Perhaps the feeling was that they didn't have to work as hard as they did on Tuesday in Germany to collect all three points. In doing so, United underestimated the occasion for AFC Bournemouth.

Yesterday is as big a game as they will play this season. For them therefore, it wasn't just about relying on hard work but riding on adrenaline that comes with the nature of the occasion for them. It's therefore easy to work out why United left the South with a third league defeat of the season.


The Match
An individual error within the first 100 seconds allowed the hosts to go ahead. David De Gea does not make many mistakes anymore but any goalkeeper that is beaten from the corner flag will be disappointed with himself, the strength of the wind notwithstanding.

The early lead allowed the home side to play on the counter-attack from the off. United did however manage to claw themselves level midway through the half and from then, the expectation was that United would go on to assert their dominance to get the winner.

Much like on Tuesday though, United failed to remain solid at the back to deny the hosts chances and ruthless up top to take the lead. Indeed, it was Bournemouth that showed more incisive initiative for a second goal. That it arrived from another set  piece confirmed the lack of desire within the United ranks to see the mission through.

United were yet again single-paced by a systemic inability to make use of the speed of their attack by playing balls in behind the Bournemouth back four. It's baffling how the club remains content with playing and attempting to score in front of a sea of defenders when it is the through ball or over the top that causes defenders nightmares.

More amazingly, the one time they attempted it in the first half, United scored. Michael Carrick found Memphis with a superb diagonal in behind the Bournemouth defence. It was frustrating that the same obviously effective ball was not pinged for the remainder of the match.


The Sub-Plots
Louis van Gaal continues to baffle with his substitutions. Yesterday, Marouanne Fellaini, the biggest goal threat we carried was hauled off at the stage of the game when United sought to be more direct. Nick Powell has so far come on to little effect to impact the game plan in the closing stages of the two games he has made an appearance.

Ashley Young yet again remained on the bench when it feels like he would make a more positive attacking contribution even from full-back with his range of crosses.


The Bottom-Line
The result undoubtedly exposes the club and the manager in particular to questions as regards his methods at this stage of his tenure. In all fairness, those are legitimate questions. United have now exposed themselves in regard to that fourth place thanks to a period of no wins in five games. It's fast descending into a mini-crisis at the club.

Victories can change the mood at a club drastically. At the moment, United are not helping themselves in even the most basic of fixtures and that is just bang unacceptable.

For Louis van Gaal, results in the absence of performances have kept the wolves at bay so far this season. Suddenly, even the results have taken a downward spiral to leave him and his methods exposed to anyone who can string a sentence together. He certainly can't say that he didn't see this coming.

Friday, 11 December 2015

UNITED UNDER THE MICROSCOPE


It's been a miserable week at Old Trafford. The club have followed up a disappointing result at home against West Ham with a defeat in the Champions League at VfL Wolfsburg that saw them relegated to the second tier of European football.

Individually, most of the players have suffered personal nightmares. The injury list saw Matteo Darmian and Chris Smalling have their names added to it and in some ways, Bastian Schweinsteiger's personal plight has encapsulated the club's.

The German captain came under fire from his manager for a below-par display on Tuesday and has since been charged and banned by the Football Association for an apparent elbow dished out to defender Winston Reid in the weekend clash with West Ham.


If the players have had it tough, then the manager has had it rough. Louis van Gaal came under such criticism in the wake of United's elimination from the elite competition that he declared he was unable to defend himself. The Dutchman has had his methods questioned right from the transfer policy that has seen him spend a quarter of a billion (the cost of a small country) and yet appear to be leading a side that is short of an identity, ideas and ideology.

The narrative proceeding from the Board's backing of van Gaal has seemingly led to a disconnect between most fans and the leadership of the club. With top tier managerial quality available in the close season, there is concern as to why the club is not just looking to allow van Gaal to see out his contract in 2017 but also looking to extend that deal beyond 2017. Indeed, it is increasingly looking like it will be incredible negligence for the club to pass up the chance of elite managerial quality whilst the opportunity lasts.

It was always going to get messy at the first hint of a lack of progress under Louis van Gaal. Certainly, the Dutchman has not helped himself by failing to navigate a very winnable Champions League group. The club's league position suggests that if van Gaal had succeeded in the minimum requirement of a last 16 appearance, the club's season would, on the whole, still stand at reasonable success so far.


As it stands, the club have put a spin on events. The suggestion from the Board is that they viewed the target for this season as 80% domestic success and 20% Champions League success. It's easy to see why the Board are therefore relaxed about the manager's position.

Think about it: We know that the Glazer family have only really been it at Manchester United for the money. Next season's new TV deal with the premier league offers such staggering sums that a league game next season will be more valuable than a Champions League fixture. Indeed, from 2016, there will be no more economics about qualifying for the Champions League for English clubs.


In England, the Champions League will soon be about the prestige and less about the money. For a businessman therefore, the Champions League takes on the status of a necessary distraction. Winning the premier league is already far more lucrative than winning the Champions League.

Astonishing when you think about it, but therein lies a truth about the alleged 'spin' the Manchester United PR sent out on Monday this week. It was a well reasoned argument from a business point of view, not quite from a fan's perspective for whom success on the pitch not the balance sheet is a target.



So where does all this leave Manchester United and Louis van Gaal: For starters, the card played by the Board suggests that the league form is going to be the yardstick upon which the Dutch coach is evaluated from hereon.

What a relief for the manager then that this season of all seasons is so competitive at the top that despite the club's struggles, they are very much involved in a title race. If Louis van Gaal wins the premier league this season, and that is far from unthinkable this season, he gets to have the last laugh and restores his power to leave the club on his own terms. A close second finish would also be good enough given the projection at the start of the season. However, it's hard to imagine that the boss will be in a job if United altogether drop away from the summit of the league and struggle to make the Champions League places.

The first opportunity at redemption heralds from apart of the country that many away fans have probably never visited. AFC Bournemouth will be glad that like last week at Chelsea, they are up against a giant seemingly out of sorts.

Eddie Howe has got his side well drilled in his methods, ready to give it a go no matter the opposition. It's a philosophy that has won them many admirers and indeed points despite losing four key first team players to injury.

It means United cannot afford to use injuries an excuse on Saturday evening. van Gaal could be without up to 10 players tomorrow, but the need to post a result of some response to events this week means that the pressure to win will be as immense as if we were travelling at full strength.


Certainly, the next six points are a must win. In a fortnight when our title rivals come up against each other, it is imperative to take advantage of a double header against two promoted teams. The adage remains true that there's no easy games in this league, but if the new boys prove to be a tough nut to crack, then the question has to be where then shall United get the points to stake a title claim in the new year, for the fixtures do get reasonably tougher into the new year.


The manager will hope to have Ander Herrera and or Morgan Schneiderlin available to ease the midfield gap left by Bastian. It will be interesting to see whether he keeps Varela and Borthwick-Jackson as his full-backs as that is where the club have been hit most by injuries.

Regardless of the personnel, United are in desperate need of a response. They've got to find a way to win games again.  

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

UNITED FALL OFF THE EDGE


Remember them margins that Manchester United have tailed throughout the campaign so far? Turns out, United just couldn't cling on any further, at least not for the remainder of this season's UEFA Champions League.

In many ways, United played their most entertaining game of the season last night. Indeed, 3-2 scorelines of any kind suggest an all out attacking game with chances aplenty for both sides. The kind of games fans have longed for since the start of the Louis van Gaal era. That it ended in a painful defeat is therefore ironic. Not that it would change the ultimate outcome but would we trade that thrilling game for a bore 0-0 draw? Probably not in the circumstances.


The Group Stage
As far as the Champions League is concerned, United were as good as damaged by that failure to beat PSV Eindhoven in that home game two weeks ago. The Group stages carry a simple formula for qualification: Win your home games, get the point away. United, in the end were short by the two points they dropped against the Dutch Champions.

Travelling to Germany searching for a win was always a dangerous margin to tread. Like in 2005 and 2011, United suffered from a Champions League group in which they failed to rise above the mediocre level of the group. Like in 2011, United will have to contend with at least two fixtures in the Europa league.


Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the group stage has been that it ended just like it started. Louis van Gaal seemed intent to set up United to thrill in attack in the opening group game in Holland. United led but lost 2-1 after creating enough chances to win three games of football. In between that opener and yesterday's fixture, van Gaal went solid again as United claimed hard earned points against Wolfsburg and CSKA Moscow. The failure to beat PSV at home to secure qualification meant that van Gaal had to open up and go for it yesterday.

Just like it turned out in Eindhoven, when United opened, up, their defence became less than ordinary. Without the protective cover of Morgan Schneiderlin, Wolfsburg curved United open at will. Worse, a team supposedly drilled in set pieces conceded two from dead balls. That both set piece goals came quickly after United had gotten their goals was more baffling.


In hindsight, it now looks like van Gaal cannot send out his team to be offensive without being loose at the back, or solid without being blunt up top. What a predicament 18 months into his tenure!


If Louis van Gaal privately knew this beforehand, then (after lambasting him) he needs to be applauded for opting to go solid with United for premier league games. If United can defend this poorly when let off the leash, then it is arguable they would not be this close to the summit of the league if they were set up to go forit domestically. There is but one way you can be that poor defensively and still attack with abandon---if you can get the goals at the other end!

In Sir Alex's final season, United were as poor defensively as they had ever been under the Scott and yet remained successful that season because he had Robin van Persie at his prime best, fit throughout the campaign to get United of holes such as conceding three first half goals to Reading.

Louis van Gaal has a very youthful forward line that cannot be trusted to take the chances that they create. That, perhaps, is the biggest indictment on his transfer strategy.


The Sub-Plots
It comes in mitigation that van Gaal has been desperately unlucky with injuries this campaign. The Dutchman chose to go with a much smaller squad than United usually have at their disposal and it has come to haunt the club at the halfway stage of the season.

It's fantastic for the Academy graduates who couldn't have dreamed of representing United at the highest level this season. Borthwick-Jackson for instance didn't start the season expecting to feature in United's most important game of the season so far. For United's cause however, it has come to cost the club of experienced heads in the most demanding of situations.


Talking of experience, there was further irony in the fact that all three goals conceded on the night were as a result of mistakes from experienced players. Chris Smalling and Daley Blind contrived to lose Naldo for the equaliser whilst Michael Carrick lost the Brazillian for the winner. Bastian Schweinsteiger was also uncharacteristically careless in possession throughout, attracting criticism from his manager in the post match press conference.

More importantly going forward, the concern will be how soon United can patch up injured duo Matteo Darmian and Chris Smalling in time for a packed Christmas schedule of fixtures in the premier league.

On the plus side, Varela recovered from a shocking start to put in an impressive shift at right-back. He might just soften the blow to losing Darmian for a spell on the sidelines.


The Bottom-Line
When all is tallied, United were never going to win the UEFA Champions League this season. It's just that people prefer getting knocked out by FC Barcelona 6-0 on aggregate than being booted out by VfL Wolfsburg.

For all their poor showings this season, the club remain with a good shout for a title challenge in the league. Certainly, a response is required.

Monday, 7 December 2015

UNITED ON THE BRINK


Of the four English clubs in the group stage of the Champions League, Manchester United's plight is the most precarious. In a season that has trailed and tailed the margins so far, Louis van Gaal's side are involved in a first make or break tie of the season in Germany at VfL Wolfsburg.


The Opposition
VfL Wolfsburg had been unbeaten at their Volkswagen Arena for the last 29 games until Shinji Kagawa scored  for BVB Dortmund over the weekend to end that streak. March 2014 was the last time a visiting side won there.

Despite the German side's indifferent start to the Bundesliga season, they are the best placed side to progress from the water tight Group B. A draw tomorrow evening would see the German side progress to the last 16. By the same token, they could end up third on the night if United get the win they need and PSV beat CSKA Moscow in Eindhoven. Such are the margins.

Having given United more than a game in the reverse fixture at Old Trafford, the Germans will fancy their chances on the night.


United
Louis van Gaal says he will have someone on the bench updating the staff of the score in the PSV-CSKA game. Unless CSKA race into a secure three goal lead in the first half, United's task on the night will remain to get the win that guarantees safe passage into the last 16.

Talk of a win for United though has to be tempered by their first desperate need which is to score a goal. Indeed, United find themselves in this position because of their failure to score enough. Any goal of any kind against PSV in the last round would have seen United through by Match-Day 6. Thankfully, qualification remains within the club's hands. All that has to be done is win, not draw, a game of football.


The Sub-Plots
Louis van Gaal went with Marouanne Fellaini in attack at the weekend. His culpability infront of goal and Memphis Depay's industry late on could see a role reversal tomorrow. With Lingard and Martial as the other options, there is a solemn lack of experience upfront in the club's biggest game of the season so far.

Bastian Schweinsteiger returns to Germany with United for the first time. A lot of the leadership required will rest on his shoulders. He won't have much to do though if the players match their performance in the reverse fixture. At Old Trafford that day, Memphis, Martial, Mata and Smalling were among a cast of good performers.


The Bottom-Line
The importance of Tuesday's fixture cannot be understated. A drop into the Europa league would go as far as affecting the club's domestic fixture schedule into the new year. There is every chance therefore that when looking back at the season in May, most of what will have transpired by then would stem primarily from the game tomorrow.

United are suddenly out of margin. It's sink or swim time.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

ANOTHER BLANK


On The Match
Fifteen games into the league season and it is arguable that the worst league results for United so far have been the pair of 0-0 results at home against Newcastle and yesterday's against West Ham. It is not that United have been at their worst in those fixtures, but that these are the sort of fixtures you gobble up if the target is a title.

Perhaps the biggest frustration is that for all United's 'transitional problems' they could easily win the league if they simply win the winnable games. Yesterday was one of them. The fat that the result was anything but a win leaves our season yet again trailing on the margins of success and failure.

 Again, United will benefit from the general sickness in the top tier of the league that keeps them within a win of top spot despite dropping four points in their last two games. Indeed, it is far from a crisis as far as the league is concerned.

The worry though is that there is a growing disconnect between the manager and the fans. In his post match brief, Louis van Gaal was at a loss of cause behind the fans' calls for attacking football when to the Dutchman, United were attacking with every fibre in their system. It culminated in volley of boos from those who bothered to wait for the final whistle.


According to the manager, possession is a subtle form of attack, simply because in absence of it, you are essentially on the defensive. Secondly, the boss feels that the elaborate procedure of working out the space to create a chance is part of an attacking philosophy. It's therefore easy to relate with the Dutchman's confusion about calls to attack from the fans.

From the stands however, the fans work with percentages and not margins. It is the unrelenting push for balls into the box, at times with reckless abandon, that translates into an attacking philosophy.In van Gaal's book, that exposes the team on the counter-attack and is therefore a no go. The irony though is that for all the impressive clean sheets United have racked up at Old Trafford, United were carved open by West Ham yesterday almost at will. Indeed, that the Hammers came closest to scoring on numerous occasions defeats the manager's approach.

Ironically, United were better than they've been recently. A case can certainly be made that they were just unfortunate on the night not to convert one of the 20 attempts they had. On another night Marouanne Fellaini scores from three yards out. United did show more will to score than we've come to expect lately and so unlike the PSV performance, there is a ray of light therein the grey.

Slaven Bilic could also rightfully point out that on another night, they would have converted one of the break away opportunities to snatch all three points just as they did at the Emirates, Anfield and the Etihad.

In theory, United could do with more attacking resources, but even that is no guarantee if the approach remains to be a margins game and not a percentages game. Perspective could be drawn from happier days. In 2009, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez in the side, United managed just 68 league goals---one of the worst totals in the Sir Alex era, certainly the worst since the first premier league title.

Like that side, van Gaal prefers that the source of his goals is more diverse than a pair of strikers. Yesterday, anyone among Martial, Fellaini, Mata, Lingard, Schweinsteiger and Smalling could have walked away as a match winner. Its what makes it a tad unfair to generally criticise the side for a failure to attack yesterday.

Intricacies ifs aside, United should be winning at home to West Ham regardless of the circumstances. That was always going to be the frustration that cannot be cured by any rationalisation.


On the Bottom Line

United have a matter of hours to regroup before arguably the club's biggest game of the season on Tuesday in Germany. Win that, and secure progress in Europe and the mood quickly changes. This time, a clean sheet will be of no use to United's cause if the goals don't come at the other end.



Friday, 4 December 2015

GIANT SLAYING BILIC VISITS


Ultimately, it boils down to whether you're a football purist or realist. There is little doubt that Louis van Gaal's methods have secured results for Manchester United but by the same currency, it cannot be outrightly stated that United are themselves again.

Pragmatism was probably what United needed after the David Moyes debacle. Indeed, the manager was praised in most quarters for guiding United back into the European elite last season but questions now abound as to whether pragmatism has run its course.

The reality is that football is a results based business and for as long as van Gaal keeps them coming, the pressure will remain just under the surface. If anything, those he works for can have little complaints about his tenure so far. For the fans however, the frustration is seemingly growing; not at the plight of the season but at the edge on which the football renders the campaign.

For starters, lose against West Ham tomorrow and the league standings will not look as rosy as they seem at the moment. Fail to beat VfL Wolfsburg in Germany next week and United will suffer the ignominy of Europa League football in the new Year. And then we shall spend the start of the year listening to the manager's complaints about a Thursday night and Sunday afternoon football schedule.

On the flip side, win both games and the criticism of Louis van Gaal suddenly lacks locus standi. Such are the margins. A school of thought suggests the egg shell approach to games is what has gotten United on the margins of success and failure. The money that has been thrown at the problem suggests that we should, in fact, be expecting the current situation as the minimum achievement. Perhaps that is the source of the frustration; that it can be better with the available resources.

Half-way into the current manager's contract, it is increasingly the case that Manchester United might be yet again strained by the decision of the next managerial appointment. Indeed with Pep Guardiola's future at Bayern Munich up in the air and Gary Neville taking up the reigns at Valencia, there will be nerves as to whether United will be without many options left to pick from in 2017 when the top choices are already picked off by rival clubs.

We are led to believe that Ryan Giggs will follow van Gaal and yet it remains more of a theory than a fact. A lot, it seems, depends on whether the van Gaal project is seen as progress by the club or a threat to their finances.


The Match
A busy festive schedule for Manchester United kicks off this weekend with the visit of West Ham United. Slaven Bilic has gotten his side about beating the big boys away from home in a sort of FA Cup third round mode. Certainly, victories at the Emirates, Anfield, Etihad and at home against Chelsea (although everyone beats them lately)  mark them out as tricky opposition for United.

Whereas United have become masters at dictating the flow of the game, West Ham are just as content without possession and playing on the counter-attack. Successfully defending at the largest pitches in the country already will give them confidence that they can shut out United at Old Trafford.

United themselves are in the middle of a minor injury crisis. Marcos Rojo's dislocated shoulder could mean that the much vilified 3-5-2 formation could be well and truly be back to stay. In attack, Wayne Rooney's struggles to adapt to the Louis van Gaal system continue with Anthony Martial seemingly in need of an equal up top.

The narrative has recently been that the Frenchman runs the channels in a bid to create whilst Wayne drops deep leaving the opposition box unmanned. West Ham would gladly take an afternoon in which they don't have to chase anyone running in behind them.


The Sub-Plots
The captain will join an elite group of players who have represented the club for 500 games if he starts. He might have his faults on current form but Wayne remains one of the club's most accomplished servants. It starts to say a lot though when your past starts defining your current value.


The Bottom Line
A blunt November that was no doubt a response to the shipped goals at Arsenal leads to a December in which United could easily stake a claim for the title with a run of very winnable games. Coupled with a make or break Champions League tie in Germany, this is the month when those margins alluded to earlier could be crossed, for the better or for the worse!