Monday, 19 December 2016

MERRY CHRISTMAS TO OUR READERS


And it came to pass that in December 2016, Manchester United finally started to resemble the efficient machine that Sir Alex Ferguson bequeathed in May 2013. Three straight league wins have seen the club move to within four points of the elite positions ahead of the Boxing Day programme on Monday next week.

The belief seems to be back both on the pitch and in the stands. There's certainly plenty to look forward to in the new year. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to our readers!  

Thursday, 15 December 2016

FESTIVE CHEER AHEAD?


The ratio of chances created  to goals scored remains desperately loop-sided. United have created more chances than merit the tally of three goals in their last two league games. However, seeing themselves over the line against Tottenham Hotspur and Crystal Palace was a pleasant yet very necessary departure from the norm that has been to fail to close out games.

In the context of the league season, the last two games were a question of what is left of United's relevance at the summit of the league table. Fail to win both and United could have easily been on the wrong side of the divide that is developing between the top six and the rest of the league.

As it turned out, United have just about ensured they remain on the edge of the debate for the elite positions going into the Christmas schedule. At 7 points from third place, there is still light in United's season of the club can transform their dominance on the pitch to goals and eventually three points.

Indeed Jose Mourinho is blessed with such a relatively favourable fixture list over the festive season that it is tempting to tick off games right into January. If only it were that simple! The premier league has evolved into such an untamed animal that you will have to break sweat for each of the 90 minutes before you can be certain of a three points haul. This is why the frustration of United's dropped points amid their dominance has been tough to take.

The slight upturn in fortunes has coincided withe the manager's twitch of the 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3 that has allowed Paul Pogba reap the full benefit of having Micheal Carrick and Ander Herrera behind him. The initial sacrifice was Juan Mata who had to give way to the now indispensable Henrickh Mkhitaryan. Injury to the Armenian saw a recall of the Spaniard but it is slowly becoming evident that the manager has finally settled on an ethos for his team.

For a long while, it had been a conundrum how Manchester United boasted some of the best collection of midfielders on the continent and yet seemed to struggle to dictate games in the manner that sides with similarly endowed do. A team that can assemble a midfield to render unnecessary the talents of Bastian Schweinsteiger shouldn't be sharing company with Watford and West Brom on the log.

To be fair, the midfielders can point to a plethora of chances created this season as rejoinder. The balance however has not been quite right until the manager, by default or otherwise, found a way to use the talents of Carrick, Herrera, Pogba, Mkhitaryan and or Juan Mata in the same team. It is a solution hat should not be quickly departed from without taking into account how long into the season it has taken the manager to land on something that resembles a coherent approach in the middle of the park.

Perhaps the biggest compliment to the manager these past few weeks is that he has not really changed his approach despite the sticky run of results. Given the mental fragility still apparent among some of the players, it was instructive that nobody dropped their shoulders at Selhurst Park yesterday when it looked like it was going to go wrong again.

Often times in the recent run of stalemates, United have failed to rise above what they deem as unfortunate treatment by the referees. When the club was denied a clear penalty at 1-1 and had a goal wrongly disallowed for offside, the excuses for another stalemate were available to cash in. In a pleasant departure from old ways, the club kept at their creative verve and dug out another opportunity from which they profited an extra two points they duly deserved. It is cliche but building on that resolve will do wonders for the mental state that some of the players need to acquire to arrive at the next level.

The handicap United have is that the recent run of poor results means that the club cannot afford to take a false step. The urgency will be well and truly back on on Saturday at the Hawthorns. Like the league leaders did last weekend, United will have to step up another level to overcome the adversity that Tony Pulis and his side will cause the club. Indeed, last night was, in many ways a perfect dress rehearsal for what is to come. The only question is if United can keep at it to provide fans with much needed festive cheer. It's been 109 days since we had back to back premier league wins. It cannot be that sporadic if the club aims to achieve more. Consistency (albeit not the kind that sees games end in draws) ought to be the name of the game going forward. 

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

WHAT'S YOUR POISON?


Chronically depressing or mind-bogglingly frustrating?

At the height of the Louis van Gaal era, Manchester United fans were a depressed lot. After spending 150m quid on new players, some of whom were absolute world beaters, the Dutchman's much maligned philosophy had a star studded United team in a tight straight-jacket.

You paid for a matchday ticket for just one shot at goal. Your investment in that local pub for which you are a regular was usually rewarded with one shot at goal. Indeed, you'd be more than compensated if that shot at goal was on target and, better still, consider yourself extremely well rewarded if that shot on target found the back of the net!

The Dutchman's football was, in essence, the antithesis of the very principles upon which the club was built. Results took a back seat and shots on goal performances became the easy choice analysis by pundits.Where some fans tuned in to watch their club at the weekend as an escape from the troubles of the week, the activity was quickly re-defined as a weekly source of desperation.

Except that it wasn't always like that. Louis van Gaal did have his watershed moment. When his philosophy occasionally bought into the attacking instincts of the club. Those were mercifully necessary moments of reprieve. Unfortunately, the ''risks'' that come with open warfare proved too much to handle for him.

From the start he made it very clear that he prefer to watch a game of football without having to ''twitch his arse'' on the bench. Losing 5-3 to Leicester City having led 3-1 after 65 minutes was one such occasion. A 3-3 draw at St. James' Park last season was another. The 3-2 defeat at VfL Wolfsburg in the Champions League also comes to mind.

United have desperately lacked a spine in the centre of the pitch for a long time to combine the traits of attack and defence coherently and consistently over 90 minutes. That has no doubt been due to a failure in the transfer market since 2010 to address this particular concern.

Tasked with getting points on the board to quickly restore the club to its recent glory, van Gaal immediately realised how effective his style of play would be in negating the defensive deficiency of his side. Indeed, United, for all their dour football under the Dutchman boasted one of the club's best ever defensive records in the premier league era. But fans at the time were willing to endure defeat if it meant a departure from van Gaal's ways.

Under Jose Mourinho, the difference couldn't be more stark. The thrill is back! United play some lovely football again. Indeed, the club has broken the record for amount of shots at goal in the premier league era during the short reign of Mourinho so far. Those matchday going fans and the pub regulars will now tell you that this is at least value for money.

The manager has come out to explain that the club would have had a better start to the season if he had chosen to continue the establishment left by his predecessor. Indeed, the evidence suggests the club would perhaps be better off in terms of their points tally if they still had LVG at the helm. The depths of this season in terms of their points tally were hitherto unknown by the club. Indeed, van Gaal's frustrating side was 7 points better off at this stage last season!

The manager however, elected to depart from it because, and rightly so, he found it too defensive and possession based without carrying much of a punch at the other end. Except that there is a rather large caveat that has come with the new found philosophy: Can't find the back of the net! United have moved from being a depressing lot to a frustrating lot. United fans are in the middle of a catch 22 wherein the reminiscence about the old days carries a relief from depression about it whist the present is mind-bogglingly frustrating.  It's a cruel twist of fate! Very cruel! The hand of Lucifer himself!

Intriguingly, it is not as if we are hypothesising United's ability to score in the league. The club have easily racked up four goal totals in just about every Cup game so far this season.  The argument for weaker opposition in the Cups was laid to rest when the club emerged from a failure infront of goal against West Ham in two days to put four past the Hammers in the League Cup last week. The mystery remains unsolved. Unfortunately, the club is desperately short of time with which to solve it. The only available options at the moment are a pick between depression and frustration. What's your poison?

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

UNITED CAN FIND SOLACE IN THE CUPS

Jose Mourinho kicks what is now a famous water bottle on Sunday during the West Ham game
The frustrating aspect about Manchester United's form at the moment from fans' points of view is that you can't really put a decisive finger on an immediate solution. The problem is quite clearly a dearth of goals. Goals turn draws into victories. The obvious solution would be to create more chances. But Manchester United are not short of goal-scoring opportunities! Indeed, United's midfield easily ranks as one of the most creative in the league on the basis of chances created.

That, perhaps, modifies the problem to poor finishing. At the start of the season, this was the last concern on anybody's mind about the state of Manchester United. We expected talk of a failed season, if at all, to be centered around an unbalanced defence. United, however, looked well stocked up front with the star quality of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the emergence of Marcus Rashford. To this were the supplements of last season's star outfield player Anthony Martial. In new signing Henrikh Mikhitaryan, the promoted Jesse Lingard and the contribution of Juan Mata, United looked well stocked with goals from midfield as well.

More surprisingly, the frustration has largely been around the last four home games over the space of two months. Since United thrashed the Champions 4-1 at Old Trafford, they've dominated games against Stoke, Burnley, Arsenal and now West Ham but have come away with a point from each. In that time, they've shot no less than 91 times at the opposition goal (quite the improvement from the LVG days) whilst the opposition has shot 26 times at David De Gea.

Now, statistically, a mid-table, half-decent team will score 8-10 goals from the 91 shots United had. United scored a miserly THREE! The same number that the opposition got from their joint tally of 26 shots. This is the embodiment of the frustration that has caused Jose Mourinho into near meltdown and has turned a promising campaign into serious danger of going up in spoke well before Christmas.

And yet, United's form in the Cup competitions so far has seen them on the brink of one semi-final already. Whilst the club have not really put in the effort in the Europa league, they are a point away from making the last 32 of the competition. In Europe, the goals have gone in! 9 goals in the three home games is a far cry from the club's form on the same ground but in the premier league. The four goal blitz of Feynoord last week had United in the slightly bemusing position of being listed as favourites to win the Europa League despite having not yet made the next round.

On Wednesday, United have home advantage in the quarterfinal of the EFL Cup against West Ham United. Having dumped out Manchester City in the previous round, it's fair to say the luck seems more willing in this competition as well. One off Cup games have so far suited a side that looks great on paper but has so far fallen short of the consistency needed to sustain a title challenge.

Despite the frustration of fans at how things have turned out lately, they would gladly take a season that involved a sweep of the winnable Cup competitions. Ultimately, it comes down to how many pots you have come May. As it is, United's target of Champions League qualification is up for grabs in one of the Cups whilst they are an ear shot away from a major domestic semi-final. It certainly could be worse!

Monday, 21 November 2016

ILL-LUCK OR INEFFICIENY?


''At the moment I am watching the unluckiest team in the premier league...It is not possible that you are unlucky in every game, but in this moment, we are unlucky in every game, which is incredible.''
                                                        __Jose Mourinho

Strange isn't it? At Barcelona's Camp Nou stadium just after Manchester United 1-1 Arsenal, it was fascinating watching a Malaga side determined to leave the home of the Spanish Champions with a point. It was more enthralling late on when the away side were reduced to nine men, which is effectively eight outfield players and yet the Catalan side couldn't fathom a way through to goal.

Questions would abound at full time regardless the absentees in the Barca team but it certainly was not for a lack of trying. The Spanish Champions rained 29 shots at the opposition goal without success. It's hard to pick a one word review for the contest if given the choice between 'unlucky' or 'inefficient'.

Perhaps the same difficulty would arise if one was to evaluate Manchester United's performance against Arsenal on Saturday lunchtime in light of the result at full time. Except that in this case, United have previous! And quite recent previous.

Saturday was the first time since April 1992 that the 20 time Champions of England have failed to win three straight successive home games. Astonishingly, all match reviews after the games against Stoke, Burnley and indeed Arsenal have are synonymous with a touch of ill-fortune for the home side.

The question though is just how far can you stretch the argument of ill-luck and at what point does the answer lie elsewhere, such as say, inefficiency? Is it enough for well paid professionals and a world class manager to get behind the microphone each week and simply point to the imperfections of this world as the explanation? Does fate have a had in sporting results? We've heard commentators yell out over the microphone during in-game commentary with lines such as ''Some things are just meant to be!".

In fairness, there are games of football when, to the naked eye at least, it appears that the result has already been pre-written in the stars and therefore no amount of effort by one side can change the outcome. The kind of game that Louis van Gaal christened under Murphy's Law. The ball will bounce off the backside of the referee and out of play if it has to. But is that enough of an explanation? Is it even viable?

For Manchester United in 2016/17, the season is slowly leaning towards a succession of results that can be explained away logically or illogically to ill-luck. I do believe though that a title winning manager will engineer ways to make his own luck as soon as it starts to feel like the natural winds have changed course against his sail. Why? Because you're either a team that is so efficient in front of goal that any perceived bad luck at the other end is immaterial (winning scores of 3-2, 4-2, 4-3) or you're so efficient at the back that you can see out a narrow results (winning scores of 1-0 and 2-1) such that the profligacy in front of goal doesn't really hurt you.

At the moment, United are neither and therefore conveniently choose to blame luck or lack of it, anyway, as the reason for their poor run of results in the league. In a league where the margins are closer than ever before, what chance have you when you can neither succeed at the back nor the front?

Against Stoke, Burnley and Arsenal, United win the lot of they put away just half of the chances created in each of those games, giving them six more points than they currently do. Against Stoke and Arsenal, United see out a precious result if they efficiently shut up shop at the back giving them four more points than they do at this stage.

As it is, it appears to me that United have a fragile mentality at either end of the pitch, so much so that they cannot get through the crucial in-game periods that really matter. That seems like a more logical conclusion to the current situation than any allegations of ill-luck. Admittedly, to the naked eye, it does feel like something in the air is not quite in sync with what United are doing at the moment but we can't simply write off an entire season on that premise can we?

There is a term for persons that keep repeating the same things expecting different results. I'd like to think it's far from how to describe the current situation at United. What do you think?  

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

ONE LAST INVITATION TO THE TITLE PARTY?


For optimists and believers in the optics, Hilary Clinton's early vote count deficit to Donald Trump in the recent US election was but a mere reflection of 'early days' in the vote count. As the clocks hit 11pm on the West Coast, when the projected winner is usually called, it was the Republican candidate still ahead on the electoral votes count if not the popular vote.

In the blue corner, optimism quickly gave way to depression and what is now known as  the 'Trump Acceptance Resistance Disorder (TARD)'. The unstated mathematical law of averages is that whilst an average is difficult to improve, it can also be difficult to overhaul once you fall off the pace.

Ander Herrera's argument about the swing in the points gap in the premier league makes for a compelling counter argument. Speaking to the Mail this week ahead of his debut for Spain against England, the 27 year old said;

''And in the league, the thing is that in the 2011-12 season, we gained eight points on City towards the end and then lost eight points on them and lost the league on the final weekend with the same number of points.''

Herrera's allusion can be distinguished in light of the present circumstances in 2016/17 season. Manchester United, in sixth place on the log in November, have at least four genuine title contenders ahead of them. Five if including Tottenham Hotspur suits you. Not just the one as it were in 2012. Whilst Ander was well meaning in his interview, unwilling to throw in the towel barely past the first third of the season, the reality is that United's distance from the summit of the league is not in the points gap from the top but in the number of sides they have to get past.

Indeed, nothing underlines this more than the reality that even if all results go their way, United will not move a place higher in the standings. Such is the photo-finish look of the premier league this season that results against Stoke City and Burnely at home will continue to hurt throughout the season because it looks like come May, everything will be down to the odd point or two!

But despite the hits United have taken this season so far, the remain with a puncher's chance at gate crashing the title contenders' bonanza taking place in the top four places of the league. So far, Jose Mourinho's side has fallen short when the big boys have come calling. City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool can point to a major scalp over a rival so far whilst United have just the Anfield point to show for their clashes with the big boys.

Could this weekend present a last chance saloon for United to haul themselves back in the mix with a statement result? If the Old Trafford faithful were asked to pick a choice candidate in the top four to visit on Saturday at noon, fans would unequivocally point at Arsene Wenger's team. Not since the days of Cesc Fabregas and Emmanuel Adebayor have Arsenal left Red Manchester with all three points. Indeed, so long ago was that particular day that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer featured in that fixture. At Old Trafford, they like to think they have the beating of the Gunners. This particular form book was not even undone by the reigns of David Moyes and Louis van Gaal.

Indeed, it was only until February 28th this year when Arsenal came to Old Trafford as favourites. A Manchester United team decimated by injuries and confidence shot took a strong Arsenal side eyeing a chance to avenge the 8-2 drubbing a couple of seasons earlier. United were so thin in terms of player personnel that 18 year old Marcus Rashford was drafted in to lead the line on his premier league debut. Michael Carrick had to start in central defence alongside Daley Blind with Guillermo Varela filling in at right back duty. Incredibly United still managed to beat Arsenal on the day 3-2 with just 39% ball possession.

 Such is the trajectory of this fixture that until Arsenal, recorded a 3-0 win at the Emirates last season, United were last beaten by Wenger's side in any league fixture between the teams in 2011. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it has to be added that this is a different Arsenal this term. Alexis Sanchez through the middle plus a rejuvenated Theo Walcott has given the London club an attacking threshold to behold. Jose Mourinho will not have it all his way on Saturday lunchtime and the undue pressure shall be on him to salvage his ego in a contest against the team he loathes most in the division.

For Manchester United on the wider scale, hauling themselves to within three points of Arsenal will do well to resurrect their title challenge. As it is, the title party looks like it will soon be constituted. United will not fancy being the bloke that gets to look on from a distance as the rest of the sides battle it out at the top. 

Thursday, 3 November 2016

CORPORATE-DAB CULTURE THREATENS UNITED'S PROGRESS ON THE PITCH


Forget their ranking in UEFA's coefficient system, Manchester United are the biggest brand in world sport! In the football world, they lead that particular race by a country mile or two, and for good reason as well. The club boast the biggest shirt sponsorship deal in any sport that itself guarantees money worth a world class addition to the side every summer without so much as a tremor on the balance sheet.

Indeed, Manchester United are so well backed up financially that their official website has categories of ''partners''. There's the financial partners that include the Commercial Bank of Qatar, the Media Partners that include Globacom based in West African states such as Nigeria and Ghana, the Regional Partners that include Donaco; an ''official casino resort partner'' in places like Vietnam and Cambodia, and of course the big daddies; the Global partners that incredibly include 20th Century Fox as an ''official feature film partner''!.

In all the club can boast up to 70 sponsors in all manner of the fields from which you can rake in a dollar. Not that Ed Woodward and Richard Arnold together with the suits in the club's London office are close to calling it a day in this regard. Far from it! There are active efforts daily at the club to further hoard the club to anyone that cares to be associated with what is one of the world's most recognisable club names.

Whilst its not of recent that United got these partners, it is very much a new phenomenon that he club has immersed its playing staff into the same so as to further its corporate image. Players at United are now encouraged to join social media platforms---a move that wouldn't have seen the light of day had that Old School Wily Scott still been in charge. Whilst some United players were on social media by the end of the legendary manager's career there, it was not with the spirit and pomp characteristic of tweets from players today.

The club has since moved on to actively partaking in making blockbuster-esque productions to hail arrival of big signings. Some would say Jesus Christ will do very well to better the glitz and fanfare on the occasion of His Second Coming. Only the US Presidential Election next week will better the unveiling of Pogba and Zlatan for twitter mentions and conversations this year. In this particular regard, United were helped by the fact that these events not only caught the attention of their alleged 659m fans worldwide but also their rivals (who are quite a bunch mind you!).

Crucially, in all this, the stardom doesn't end at the unveiling. It is carried on right to the said player's debut and the first goal celebration that, going by standards these days, should take a while to get through. With all the finger locking, clicking, dabbing, et al, broadcasters are guaranteed an extra half a minute to replay the scored goal. Their only worry would be if the said scored goal was a simple tap in that didn't require 10 angles of a replay! But no worry! The club's official channel and app has ensured all angles of a goal are shown...just in case you want to see how the goal viewed from the J-stand!.

Players at the club have bought into this permissiveness to concentrate on their personal brands even whilst on the pitch. Where you once had a collective effort of 11 individuals fighting for a similar cause, you now have individual efforts among 11 aiming for a similar cause. Unfortunately for United, football is such a team sport that you are as strong as your weakest link. The sum of the parts is therefore much tougher to beat than a collection of shiny incoherent toys. This is the art that Sir Alex bought into to dominate English football with players that were not always considered the best in their country let alone Europe.

Sir Matt often reminded the Busby Babes of how hard the fans in the stands had to work during the week so as to be able to come to the game and watch them. If the players did not replicate that hard work on the pitch, somebody was not getting fair trade. No wonder the Babes did not just put in a shift for their fans, they sought to entertain them every Saturday and football was what it should be....a timely pill to ease the burdens of a long work week!

These values of hard work and team ethos have been compromised for the need to enhance individual brands. The sight of Jose Mourinho in the stands asking Eric Baily not to take a photo during the game against Burnely on Saturday was a nadir of its own. As it is, one imagines that playing for Manchester United should get you photographed so much so that you hate the idea, let alone the sight of a camera! But not the modern day footballer.

It follows then that a club in this predicament need a strong captain to remind a wayward dressing room of the values on which the club they represent is built. Unfortunately for United, their captain has had his own personal crisis that has been all too well documented. His confidence is hardly at the level to tell an 89m quid player not to act out every game as though he is following a script to a rap music video shoot! Michael Carrick would ideally be the man to step in the shoes of the voice of reason but he is a man whose actions speak much louder than what he is supposed to say. Not one to really let loose in the changing room. Chris Smalling could pass for the same passive nature.

It has left many fans pondering the possibility of Ander Herrera as club captain. Whilst not physically built to give Pogba or Zlatan reason to bat an eye lid, the Spaniard boasts the qualities to lead on the pitch. His game has been modelled around getting the team going in the middle whilst his comments to the media are just the sort of stuff a captain says. His basque roots in Zaragoza and then Athletic Bilbao have allowed him to carry a loyalty tag to his personality that his former clubs pride in their players. He is one of possibly just a handful of individuals whose game retains a Musketeer feel to it. In it for the cause. All for one and one for all! At this rate, it will not be too far long before he leads out United on to the pitch.

Until then, the buck is left with the manager. Poor Jose Mourinho! His is a task of learning and adaptation as much as anything else. His contract duration of four years will in the least require him to learn how to deal with this corporate-dab culture whilst building a team, mean enough to go all the way and win the club's 21st league title. As such, he might have to moult some of his skin to allow for new methods and new ways of man management. Individually, his team will still be capable of some great results because of the sheer talent within but as a team, it is very much a work in progress. Sadly, the most important prizes in May are usually handed out to teams. Not that the dab culture will be too bothered as they could easily dab to a goal of the season contender that carries an individual award in May! 

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

OF JOSE & UNITED'S FADED CHUTZPAH

Jose Mourinho stares on as United fall to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge

Chutzpah! Now there's a word eternally associated with Manchester United and Jose Mourinho. At least, for the latter, in the earlier days of his managerial career. It's why many ''Einsteins'' have long thought that he two were meant for each other. Jose Mourinho's employment at Manchester United last July was therefore lauded as one of the greatest marriages of the modern game. Finally gotthe right fit for a club of United's stature since the fiery Ol' Scott called time on his gum.

Nine league games into this marriage and the post mortems have been justifiably brutal. It's not as it was thought to become at Old Trafford and neither is it as it should be. It was all supposed to kick off in gear five at least until there was no more gas in the tank so as to give way to another Mourinho self-implosion...somewhere along his third season.

Intriguingly though, there has been more than the suggestion so far that the current Manchester United manager is not the same as the one that initially graced English football all those years ago. With every passing game, it is being schooled into the minds of the arm chair viewers that there is a modern wave of football management that has overtaken the skills of the Portuguese so much so that he is soon to be confined to the class of the dinosaurs.

The wonder is whether Jose Mourinho has failed to come to terms with the expected behaviour of a Manchester United manager vs the character that defines Jose Mourinho. We are led to believe that it is this particular facet that caused the club to get cold feet whenever the decision to hire him reached the Board. That therein the calm body of a man who has looked assured in if not ponderous is a fiery clash of personalities. The desire to look like a Manchester United manager and the desire to be himself so as to get his players rallying to the cause of the club.

Is it that he, like Wayne Rooney, simply has too many miles on the clock or that he lives in fear about his personality in what could yet be his last big club job? Maybe it's neither.

Here is Manchester United after nine games with the same number of points they did at this stage under David Moyes. The optics are bad. Really bad if you especially factor in the quality at his disposal. But the case can be made that Manchester United are simply victims of bad optics.

In the league this season, the club's only poor results were at Watford and at home against Stoke. All the title contenders this season have already had at least a couple of stinkers in ''winnable games.'' Jose's problem is that the nine games feature three games against title rivals against whom the club has not looked better than their opponents.

The accusation is that United are less of a team than their title rivals. Perhaps so. But to conclude that Jose has not made this his team is to quickly forget that the ''dead'' fixture at Anfield was evidence that he can get his team to play in a manner he wants to play so as to achieve the result he needs in the big games. The problem he faced at Stamford Bridge was that the game didn't start like ordinary football games do at 0-0. United were against the tide before they registered a touch on the ball.

Like we've seen all too often, the club has suffered in each of the last three seasons when they've had to chase games. Under Sir Alex, going behind as early as they did at Chelsea was not uncommon but the manager's personality usually won the game for the club. It's a resolve and spirit that has been lost on the club for quite a while.

As such, United only plays with genuine confidence when they are at par or leading in games. It is noticeable for instance that in the games against Leicester City and Fernabache that rank as the highest score victories so far, there is not much about the confidence of the side until United got infront. At Chelsea therefore, United were confidence short from the off.

The buck, as always stops with the manager. Only he can build the confidence in his players. He has pointed to a seemingly comfortable run of games in which the club are expected to pick up the lion's share of points. Indeed a trio of wins here and there could mean the world in this season's premier league considering that United have picked up two points in six games and yet are only six points off the top. However, the challenge this season will not be how many points you are off the top but how many teams are ahead of you. For United, that number currently stands at six. That is the true measure of the club's woeful run of form heading into the 10th league fixture of the season.

The job at hand is to put up a run of results before winter that will significantly reduce the traffic ahead. In the new year, it's one thing surging past one or two teams ahead of you but it's a difficult ask all together getting past six! The time to restore that Chutzpah is now. 

Friday, 21 October 2016

UNITED BREEZE PAST FERNABACHE BUT CHELSEA LIE IN WAIT

Another game and yet another catalogue of conclusions as to where Jose Mourinho and Manchester United are in terms of progress this season. Crucially though, we are no wiser today than yesterday over the same subject. United continue to blow hot and cold this season without really settling on either.

Yesterday's demolition of Turkish giants Fernabache was the second time the Reds have scored four times this season but United cannot yet term themselves as an efficient side in front of goal. Fans will not be confident of seeing chances put away in the next game for as long as the inconsistency in front of goal continues.

Thankfully though, last night edged towards the side of efficiency and United eventually made light work of what should have been a tricky fixture. At six points in the group with a home game among those left to play, United should (unfortunately) make it to the knock out stages of the competition next year.

However last night was not about United's progress in the competition but rather their progress under their new manager. A second rate competition such as the Europa League allows the new manager a chance to work with risk with personnel and systems he would not ordinarily use in the more serious business that is the Premier league.

Last night for instance was the first time the manager got to start his prize signing with Michael Carrick. Paul Pogba was finally neither asked to drop deep nor pushed up the midfield but given license to roam from deep midfield, effectively a free role. As such, the Frenchman turned in is most complete performance todate in a performance that moved his confidence levels a gear up or two.

Indeed, the missed chances against Stoke followed by the blank at Liverpool would have left the side lacking in confidence in front of goal ahead of another tough trip, this time to London on the Sunday. Again, there can be no guarantees as to what form or mood United line up against the manager's ex employers. Indeed, eight changes for Thursday's game mean that we could almost see a similar turnover for Matchday 9 in the league.

Jose confirmed post match that he would treat the weekend clash independent from the mid-week game. What is likely to last beyond Thursday's fixture is the difference Michael Carrick had on Paul Pogba. It's a combination he will soon turn to if he fails to get it working with the solution he has at hand right now.

United have so far come off worse in games soon after their Europa league exploits. So far, United are yet to win a game in the premier league after a Thursday night fixture. Defeat atWatford and profligacy against Stoke at home are the reason the club remain five points off the pace. The same cannot be afforded on Sunday against Chelsea. The margins in the league this season look like they shall be a lot closer than they've been in recent seasons. As such, United cannot afford to fall any further off the pace than they are already.

Morestill, victory on Sunday against a rival could give the squad the necessary arrogance with which to approach the rest of the campaign. The reverse is true. Once again the stakes are high but we should be in auto pilot in that regard given the week we've had.

Games against Chelsea have in recent seasons been closely fought with plenty of stalemates and victories of no more than a single goal margin. United have to be on the right end of the result this week. You would expect that if there's one team Jose should have all the low down on about their approach, it is Chelsea. The London club have changed managers many times but have not really departed from the template their legendary coach installed at the club. Liverpool and Arsenal have taken on the 2015 Champions and easily picked up the three points. This is not to suggest that it will be just as easy for United but to add that we'll know more about where United are this season on Sunday evening.   

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

UNITED MAKE THEIR POINT


And it was just the one: ''We can deal with anything you've got.'' Ahead of the game, some fans, including yours truly was unnerved by what a high energy pressing Jurgen Klopp team could do to a more laborious and ponderous Manchester United team that are still finding their best form.

As such, the popular favourite to emerge as victors on Sky's prime football slot, Monday Night was Liverpool. For United, this wasn't just about a trial for three points--manager Jose Mourinho also had his credentials on trial amid suggestions that he has peaked as a manager and is therefore behind the times of modern day football management. Lose, and it wasn't just United's title ambitions that were going to take a major hit.

What was lost in all the build up was that these are the type of situations that Jose has had to put up with all his career. Indeed, you can take a pick from a myriad of Category-A matches across his career in which his genius has been on trial, either owing for style of play or simply for the top prizes. Some might say he relishes an opportunity to prove everybody else wrong because of a desire to make things seen from his point of view.

We shouldn't therefore be surprised that last night after the game, he was intent on pointing it out to everyone that Liverpool are not quite the attacking force the media has made them out to be. Whilst that will do little to change opinions about Klopp's attack, you could easily tell Jose's drift. He was not about to play along and allow the home side the freedom of Merseyside on the pitch to blitz his team away. The ramifications to his team and his person would have been damaging in the extreme.

As such, the boss sent out no less than six players towering over 6 ft, in a bid to cast a shadow over the lesser built Liverpool players. United killed the home side's midfield joy that has formed a foundation of their attacks. With Jose, winning the midfield battle is existential to more than half the job being done. So he asked, to many's shock, Fellaini to sit deep with Ander Herrera and push Pogba forward, albeit in the mould of a high-end shield to his midfield rather than a point of attack.

In the end, it reflected well on the Portuguese that he could tactically achieve his aim in a top end fixture. The argument has been that Jose has struggled to build United in his image. Perhaps the question is what do people actually think that image is?__Because if that structural organisation last night bares no resemblance to a Mourinho team, then I doubt there is even such a thing as a ''Mourinho team''.

The obvious difference between what we saw last night and a fully developed Mourinho team is that United are not quite as cute with the ball in administering effective counter-attacks. United's use of possession remains below par with plenty of players not as sharp and neat in possession. As such, what is usually left of the team when it lines up that way a functional resilient side. The solution remains to include Juan Mata in the mix to help the side keep the ball more and open up defences but that is the last direction Jose will look to away from home in an A-list fixture.


Ultimately, United's chief aim was to come away from one of the most difficult venues they shall visit this season without defeat. Whilst the result means that the tea has not taken advantage of the dropped points by the table leaders, United are also no worse today than they started the weekend. That said, it is imperative that Jose seeks to achieve more than a truce when he takes his side to his old stomping ground on Sunday.  

At least he gets to prepare for that with the satisfaction that he has made the point he wanted to put across this weekend.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

HOW WILD CARD STATUS COULD SUIT ROONEY & UNITED


Wayne Rooney could be United's secret weapon
Luckily at Manchester United, we've seen it all before. David Beckham was dropped from the England national team at age 31 only to be quickly recalled by manager Steve McClaren after it became all too apparent that the British statesman still had plenty to offer to the National team.

Paul Scholes retired and yet managed to make a return into the team as a midfield quarter-back with less emphasis on making late runs into the box and mostly spending his time on the pitch dictating play from deep with less running work to do.

Ryan Giggs dipped in form in his early 30s out wide, so much so that it became obvious that he'd have to re-invent his game to remain relevant at Manchester United. By his mid-thirties, he was a fully fledged central midfielder/forward at Manchester United. The trick however was not just in the inherent talent of those players but in the man management of them.

Sir Alex Ferguson often asked Ryan to prepare three weeks in advance for a big game in which he was a definite starter. It allowed a 38 year old Giggs time to tune and tone his body for the clash ahead, all the while bidding his time on the bench or out of the team together. His incredible performance in the 2008/2009 season in a 3-0 victory over Chelsea was one such product of brilliant man management.

In Fergie's book, asking a player to prepare for all that time for a big game kept the player in question feeling relevant to the club, moreso that they were asked to do so in the very big games. The double benefit to it all was allowing his starting XI to get the necessary addition of experience and leadership on the pitch for the very big games.

It gets lost on modern fans but there are times and games throughout the season when all you need are the very raw British qualities in players to get over the line. Wayne Rooney at his peak was the embodiment of a combination of said qualities and in-born talent. Whilst the latter may fade owing to a career long stay at the top level, the former tend to last much longer.

Manchester United are currently not blessed with many players that can wear their heart on their sleeve and dig the club out of a desperate situation. Wayne Rooney is one of them and we've still got him. Whilst he rightly no longer merits a place in the first team, Jose Mourinho can utilise the captain's will to his advantage if he tailors his man and squad management around the qualities Wayne still possesses.

We've been reminded of these only too recently. The FA Cup final was turned in our favour because the captain chased a labyrinth down the touchline and managed to turn a seemingly fruitless venture into a great chance that was taken. Earlier this season, none of the quality United had at Hull City bore any fruit until Wayne improvised.

Jose Mourinho has a player he can still choose to do with what he wants. Whether it's asking him to prepare get stuck in when City visit in the EFL Cup or simply bide his time for a place in the team, the manager now has a wild card that he can use to unpredictable reward (or failure). Besides, Wayne is the guy on whom the ball bounces off (usually owing to a poor first touch) and suddenly United have a chance to score! Ultimately though what's for certain is that there is still some juice to be sucked out of this one.

*(Sorry about that last part.)

Monday, 10 October 2016

UNITED REQUIRE ANOTHER LEVEL FOR ANFIELD VISIT

Manchester United have to match Liverpool for effort on Monday night
The North-West derby will be the main attraction next weekend as club football resumes on the back of another disruptive International break. Incredibly, the authorities have risked with a Monday night schedule for England's most volatile fixture but the clubs will not mind it one bit given the late arrival of players from their national teams.

Ander Herrera recently made the point that United will be better prepared for the fixture than they were for the Manchester derby because the South American contingent get an extra two days to join up with the squad and prepare for the game. Certainly, this particular issue will not form part of the lamenting from either manager's press conference later this week.

Of the two sides though, the feeling is that Manchester United are the ones under-cooked for Monday for intensity if not quality. Man for man, United have a better squad than Liverpool. Indeed, only recently, the club's squad value was declared above the likes of FC Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. The monetary investment at the club therefore warrants much more than United's projections for this season. That United have spent such an outlay on the squad and yet appear to be inferior to some opposition betrays the logic of the investment. The gauntlet falls squarely on the manager to make it work and reflect the investment.

Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool looks like he has justified the hype about him by transmitting that chest-forward brave in battle intense style to the old enemy. As such, the Merseysiders burn the highest amount of energy in the division. It bodes well for them that they do not have the distraction of European football to tire them. Indeed, the flaw with the gen gen-pressing style of play is that it burns out a team over the course of the season, or at best within a couple of years. That failure to keep the endurance levels when the trophies come calling between February and May is what often fails otherwise decent sides.

Sir Alex Ferguson often used a big squad to keep personnel relatively fresh even at the close end of the season. Klopp seems to have bulked up on squad size and that is why the bookmakers currently have them in the top four. Whilst the future danger is that the hard pressing game will cause burnout for Liverpool, they are currently fresh and up it.

And that is the reality that Manchester United will have to deal with on Monday night. Liverpool will run at and hassle United at every opportunity. United will not be afforded the casual build up play that has characterised their game this season. Jose Mourinho has to prepare his side not to suffer from the shock they experienced in that first half of the Manchester derby when his side had to go 0-2 down before they came to terms with the challenge before them.

As such, the preparation for Monday will require Manchester United to step up a level. Like the derby, premier league games against top four rivals are the highest level games that the club will be involved in this season. The measure of United's progress under the new manager can therefore be deduced from their performance in these games. Dropping out of the Champions League even for just a season can sometimes mean that a club gets out of touch with top European standards.

The culture shock is usually evident when the said club makes a return to the competition the following season. It is performances against the big boys that will mark out whether United are ready to join the big boys next year, Indeed, for a place in the big time, United will likely have to finish ahead of Monday night's opponents.       

Monday, 3 October 2016

THE ONE WHERE EVERYTHING WENT WELL EXCEPT THE RESULT

Paul Pogba reacts after one of his chances goes begging
If ever there was a result that didn't warrant any knee jerk reaction it is this. Manchester United 1-1 Stoke City on Sunday afternoon went pretty much according to plan except that in the end, United walked away with the result they didn't want. The result that didn't mirror their effort and enterprise over the course of 90 minutes.

Call it luck as the manager did or profligacy as it really was, United all but overrun the Potteries yesterday. Like the last gasp win over Hull, yesterday was eventually set up to be that game in which nothing goes your way, but which you must find a way of winning. Indeed, the case can be made that United tried to force the issue and the blame can be shared equally between Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic for failing to let their world class quality shine over the challenges of this game.

The expectation is that given the quality between those two, and the investment therein, any one of the half-dozen chances they had between them should have found the back of the net to make for an easier afternoon. Instead, it felt like with every chance that went begging, Stoke got more confident about themselves.

In this league, when you fail to make hay while on top, things can quickly change to your detriment. A two goal lead is by no means a safe lead in this division, so you can imagine the nerves in the 12 minutes of our lead whenever Stoke broke forward. If luck is not in your corner when the opposition go for it, you will experience what Louis van Gaal called Murphy's law.

Yesterday, a seemingly tame shot by Walters got a slight deflection that made an otherwise routine save for David De Gea slightly awkward. The Spanish stopper spilled his shot and from the resulting follow up, United were saved by the crossbar but it fell so kindly for Joe Allen that all he had to do was drive the dagger into United hearts.

Beyond that, Ander Herrera and Marcus Rashford worked well on the flank to deliver a sumptuous cross for Paul Pogba to head into the net from point blank. The heart-break inside Old Trafford was tangible over the telly when the ball crashed off the crossbar. Incredibly unlucky or was it profligate from the world's most dear player?

Regardless the answer, the margins are so thin in football nowadays that United need to become more ruthless if they are to keep in touch of the top positions. United have improved their goal average so far but it still pales in comparison to the other contenders. Perhaps it will get even better with time. But yesterday left a sour taste in the mouth for all who expect that the quality of the team should be able to rise above the wastefulness within the ranks on display yesterday. Chances against a title rival and against Stoke need to be treated with similar reverance and ruthlessness because the points at stake are of equal number.

It shouldn't also be lost on anybody that yesterday was in fact United's best outing of the season. In no other game this term have we been so easy on the eye consistently over the 90 minutes. The manager was right therefore in assessing it as such. Wayne Rooney's absence from the first team continues to have a positive influence on the team. Amazingly, United performed even better than they did in their four goal demolition of the champions. Whilst it is no longer a winning team anymore, it will be difficult for the manager to change much from hereon in the first team set up. 

Incredibly, United managed to come away from the weekend one point closer to the summit owing to results elsewhere. Unfortunately for the club, the points thrown away at Watford and yesterday at home mean that the club will be left with little room to maneuver in October with tough tests both domestically and in Europe.

Indeed, United's poor results in September mean that the club's season will be on trial on the other end of the International break. Come away with some fine results at Anfield and against Chelsea and United will haul themselves back into the mix. Two bad results however will quickly change the debate from title challenging to to a top four battle. A price United could have to pay for dropping two vital points at home.

Friday, 30 September 2016

UNITED LABOUR PAST ZORYA WHILST STOKE LIE IN WAIT

Zlatan Ibrahimovic was on hand to spare United's Europa League blushes
Zorya Luhansk. It comes off as potentially useful password that would give hackers a good sweat for their money. Manchester United made it seem as difficult on the pitch against the Ukranian side. Again, the ponderous attitude to solving a problem of a team that sits back characterised much of the 90 minutes at Old Trafford.

Stats like 80% ball possession with only two shots on target are the reason we grew dissatisfied with the previous management of the club. Perhaps this was another example of lasting traits of that regime. United dominated play and yet seemed vulnerable on the counter-attack after a break-down in possession in the final third.

With the International break affording Zlatan Ibrahimovic a week off, Jose Mourinho started the Swede in what ultimately turned out as a strong selection for a competition that hardly gets Old Trafford full. Indeed, this was Old Trafford's first Group stage fixture of the competition. A strong set up meant that United were better for it than they were in Holland for the opener against Feynoord if only because of their dominance.

The Europa league remains an itch that United are struggling to scratch on this end of the football calender as manager and players come to terms with Thursday and Sunday afternoon fixtures. The first sequence of such games this season saw United lose both their European fixture and the premier league clash to Watford early on the Sunday.

United successfully negotiated the first leg of this next sequence last night. Wayne Rooney turned in a spectacular accidental assist borne of a complete miscue to tee up the big Swede to node in his first Euro goal for the club. Astonishingly, that was only United's first shot on target. Louis van Gaal would have been pleased.

United now have to contend with a Sunday midday tie against a struggling Stoke City side within the next 48 hours. Thankfully for Mourinho, it eases the pressures of preparation given that it is in fact another home game. However the same luxury will not be afforded on the other side of the International break. In a space of two weeks, United will have to contend with trips to Anfield and Stamford Bridge with a game against Fernabache drafted in between and an EFL Cup fixture against City soon thereafter. It's easy to see how next month could easily define the first half of United's season.

For now though, another three points at Stoke will make it four straight wins and will firmly put the club past the torrid week in which they suffered three defeats in a week. It also helps to go into recess on the back of a win as opposed to a fortnight-long bitter taste in the mouth following defeat.

Monday, 26 September 2016

UNITED BREAK FREE OF ROONEY TO TOUCH EXCELSIS

Paul Pogba celebrates his first senior Manchester United goal

Not quite meriting the Gloria in Excelsis hymn but Manchester United did reach a level they have hitherto not reached for many a season at Old Trafford on Saturday. That it came on the back of a manager finally consciously dropping a fully fit Wayne Rooney was not lost on anyone. Certainly not on the club skipper.

If Jose Mourinho has been looking for a template upon which to build his ethos at United this season, then Saturday against Leicester City was it. The Champions are the typical premier league team you have to overcome every week. That hard running, grit and determination were all nullified by a Manchester United midfield equipped with the necessary silk and steel. Traits that were all too apparently absent last week at Watford.

Wayne Rooney has and indeed retains some firmly in his corner. They've been trumping up the allegation that an agenda has been formed with the intention of getting the club captain out of the team. It has reached a point where the evidence has had to be so overwhelming that Jose Mourinho would have caused a minor revolt within Old Trafford if he had named the England captain in his first XI. It's hard to remember the last time team news at Old Trafford was as eagerly anticipated as it was on Saturday.

This is not to suggest that Wayne Rooney's talents are no longer required at Old Trafford. Far from it! He retains a fire in his belly that can still force the issue. His part in the FA Cup win and that late win at Hull are recent examples of that. The question though is whether he forms part of our best selection.

In the absence of the Captain, the club's 89m quid investment is allowed to play to his world class potential and goodness me do we need that from him. His absence also affords the club to fully exploit the talents of Juan Mata. It's arguable that nobody scored a better goal than him last weekend. His was the cherry on a perfect team goal on the end of  move comprised of 18 passes.

Having looked a disjointed outfit in the first half against City and in the Watford game, it helps the team chemistry when at least some important players are allowed to play in their natural positions. The evidence on Saturday makes it even much harder for the manager to change what looks like a working template. How now does Jose justify including the captain when the result goes south again?


Wayne Rooney, even at 30, has already had a full career by the average professional standard. His own manager chose to justify his omission by explaining that he needed faster players around Zlatan. In effect, the admission there was that Wayne is no longer as fast as he should be. That in itself is no fault of his but he could do with tailoring his game to his remaining strengths on the training ground in the same way Ryan or Paul did when their legs had gone. The adage afterall is that class, if any, will be permanent.

Louis van Gaal's greatest success story, Daley Blind, reminded the home fans of his quality having suffered a dip in votes for him after his blunder in the Manchester derby. He does have his weaknesses but a look into the ranks at Manchester United suggests that the club do not have a player as useful on the ball as he is. At left back, the Dutchman managed to set up three exquisite set pieces that led to goals in the first half. Forget the Wayne conundrum, Jose Mourinho might soon be faced with making a decision between Blind and Luke Shaw and or Chris Smalling, with the Dutchman's ball retention and distribution an asset that the team could do with retaining. With plenty of six footers in the side, it makes sense to have someone who can deliver the type of crosses that allow the team to make use of their height advantage.

Having failed the first time, United are again faced with a Thursday night--Sunday afternoon double header of games. It's a routine that the club needs to get their heads around. The more important fixture of the lot will no doubt be Sunday at home to Stoke but as we quickly found out last week, the habit of losing can catch on quite quickly. United are at home for both games and so the expectation will be to carry on the momentum now that the feel good factor is slowly returning among fans.        

Thursday, 22 September 2016

UNITED FIND THEIR FEET IN SHOE-MAKING COUNTRY

Ander Herrera celebrates another special Manchester United goal

At least the hemorrhage has been curbed if only for a few days. Manchester United have played a game of football in September and not lost. Perhaps it was necessary that the level of opposition dipped to League One so as to get United back on track but even that was not without wobbles along the way last night.

Whilst in Cup football the result is all that matters, United cannot claim to have found long standing solutions to prevailing concerns about them during the performance last night. For starters, Wayne Rooney. The question remains and drags on even though it's becoming something of a boring topic. In truth, it is hard to ignore when he is the embodiment of Manchester United's current plight.

Included in the starting line-up as a striker for the sole purpose of giving him confidence against lesser opposition, the England captain cut out another luckless if not sorry display. There was the missed sitter in front of a very wide net to tap into. There was the loss of possession that eventually cost United a goal. There was the straying out of position, deep into midfield to get a sense of involvement when the ball continuously evaded him up top. Indeed, on one occasion, Wayne could be seen picking up possession in a position that linearly was between Blind and Smalling-- the centre-backs!

The uncertainty about his playing position is not simply down to him. His manager for instance told us that Wayne was not a midfielder in his books but was just off the main striker---a number 10. Last night, he was deployed right up top, having served as wide midfielder (never mind the team sheet) on Sunday at Vicarage Road at least according to his actual position on the pitch. The captain's position in the first team may be uncertain but what is certain is that Jose has a few decisions to make to get his team selection right for Saturday lunchtime.

What will have made his team selection harder for the next game is that Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera had impressive performances last night. Each got a goal, but more importantly complemented each other in the middle of the Park. Herrera, in particular displayed the shoot on sight qualities that are desperately lacking within the current first choice set-up. How Jose rewards those performances whilst keeping his captain in the team will make for interesting team news this Saturday.

It would of course be unfair to suggest that United's problems begin and end with their captain. Far from it. Whilst dropping the captain would solve a large of the puzzle, there is an inherent structural problem within the side that goes beyond him.

Manchester United have struggled to retain possession against opposition that have pressed them high up the pitch. Southampton, City, Watford. Because the fear reigned in by Louis van Gaal after losing possession still exists, many players are uncomfortable when faced with the threat of losing possession. As such, United are generally uncomfortable on the ball when being hunted all over the pitch. Rather than take up spaces to create options for players in possession, there is a general fear to take responsibility on the ball hence the finger pointing to the safe choice which is usually back into defence. Therefore United have been forced to wait for 'comfortable possession' before they start an attack. That allows the opposition to get back into position which makes it very difficult to break down especially when you have individuals that are not excellent at retaining possession. 

This has made it difficult for Jose to play to his strengths--punishing the opposition in transition. It is this weakness that calls for the utilisation of talents within the team that are better off at retaining possession. That way, at least United could be afforded greater control over opponents that press high up the pitch. Zlatan's pace means that defenders are not necessarily worried about a ball over the top and yet United's midfield has been found too slow to run off the attackers from deep. All seemingly very obvious shortcomings with available solutions. But hey, I'm the Blogger here. Others have actual qualifications in this industry. Anyhow, it's a very small matter of City in the fourth round of a competition whose name changes almost each season. 

It's three straight home games over the next couple of weeks before another International break. A chance to turn a corner perhaps? 

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

UNITED CHOKE THEMSELVES INTO SUBMISSION AT VICARAGE ROAD

United were not up to the minimum standard on Sunday at Watford

With the greatest of respect to Walter Mazzari and all the good meaning folk at Watford, Manchester United should not be losing to them. The manner of it was all the more appalling.

Here is a team blessed with solutions to various game-requirements throughout the squad but currently struggling to find the right solution for each game. As with most things about a football team, the buck stops with the manager but the players on display did little to absolve themselves from the fallout of the club's second straight league defeat.

Whilst the superstitious curse the timing of the first International break of the season (United are yet to win since), the are more scientific explanation around the current mess that is Manchester United. For a team that is supposed to be blessed with one of the more accomplished midfields in the country, something is not quite right in the middle of the park.

At the risk of scapegoating we need to consider the individual personnel. Marouanne Fellaini and Paul Pogba are, on paper at least asked to cover the back four with the Frenchman having license to roam from box to box. It leaves a very immobile Belgian who is vulnerable to opponents quicker on the ball. Cue vulnerability No.1.

Wayne Rooney is, at least on paper and indeed shirt number, the Number 10 of the team. Whilst his duties primarily lie in attack under the new regime, he has struggled to shed his 'midfield colours' so much so that his heat map has him looking for passes behind Fellaini and looking to spread them anywhere between a United player and lots of grass around. As such, United are often times lacking a link between the midfield and attack when in transition. It slows down the team's ability to hit on the break.

Whilst Jose Mourinho said he preferred to have specialists in his team, playing to their strengths, it is hardly the case with this United team. There seems to be more of an inheritance of the positional improvisation the club has been about since the days of Sir Alex as opposed to a strict adherence to specialisation.

United for instance still have Antonio Valencia as a right back, something you thought would never happen again after Wembley 2011 against Barcelona. The same positional uncertainty could be said about Daley Blind, Marouane Fellaini, Paul Pogba but most crucially Wayne Rooney.

United have had four managers since Sir Alex retired but none of them seem to have addressed the big elephant in the room surrounding the club captain. Formations and tactics have been switched to accommodate the England captain the team even at the expense of more accomplished players but little seems to have changed about United.

At Watford on Sunday, United looked every bit as bad as they could tactically be. Conceding two goals borne of the same tactical flaw was perhaps more concerning that anything. There was no sophistication to the method Watford used to get two shots at David De Gea's goal with no pressure applied to the ball.

There is a slackness about United that flies in the face of the wages the squad are on. Consider that Liverpool have run 55km more than United in the league and it starts to make sense. Thankfully for United, all is not doom and gloom for them. They have within their ranks the solutions to snap out of their slumber. This makes it double as frustrating as well.

A trio of quick intelligent playmakers will form the heart of whatever good Jose Mourinho does with this Manchester United side. Two of them were available for the opening weekend against Bournemouth and it told. They've since struggled to get in the side because somewhere in the middle of the park or just off the striker, we need to accommodate the captain.

There is a school of thought that rather than come out and drop his captain, Jose Mourinho would allow the Englishman to play himself out of the team. Whether the Portuguese would go that far to making a point remains debatable but at the moment, with or without Wayne Rooney, United are in free fall. Mourinho himself had a bad last spell at Chelsea but he never lost three on the bounce!Something's got to give.

If that run stretches to four, then come Wednesday evening, the club could already be looking back at the first exit from a Cup competition this season! And it's still September!

Friday, 16 September 2016

WATFORD TEST LOOMS LARGE FOR TROUBLED UNITED

Martial reacts to a missed chance against Feyenoord last night
Not quite the fabled crisis time yet but you are only as good as your last game in this industry and Manchester United have to trace back to last month for a time when they can allude to better things about them.

Two defeats in six days on the surface looks like the start of a major dip in form. Jose Mourinho however will argue that there are mitigating circumstances upon closer examination of the two games. United improved on their second first half performance against City, so much so that in the end, it felt like they deserved at least a point from the game. Last night in the Europa league, there were eight chances from the starting XI against City and none of those who came in did much to suggest that the manager will have a selection headache for the visit to Vicarage Road on Sunday at noon.

That, however, is as far as the case for the defence can go. The reality is that as it stands for United under the new regime, there is little certainty about the progress made so far in light of the expectations come May. It is a given that doing better that Louis van Gaal last season will come easily for Jose simply because it was that bad. In that sense, progress will be easily accounted for.

However, if the target is to be Champions of England for the 21st time, then the yardstick for measuring progress is subjected to more intense scrutiny. For starters, does Jose Mourinho know his best Manchester United team? Does that team include all four 'necessary' summer signings? Has he worked out how to efficiently utilise his world record signing? Is there discernible method? Clarity of thought?

The risk in seeking answers to all those questions in September is in being judgemental too soon. Uprooting the infamous philosophy of Louis van Gaal was never going to be that easy considering the amount of time it took to sink in. Indeed, last night in Rotterdam, United were very much leaning towards the kind of performance in built in them under the old regime.

Feyenoord let United enjoy possession and control of proceedings for as long as United played infront of the hosts. As such, there was little or no penetration in behind the Dutch side. United traded the directness they've come to be associated with under Jose for more ponderous yet conservative passes. You knew therefore that it would only take one break-away goal, however unfortunate, to clinch the deal for the hosts. A very familiar script for United fans.

Not that there will be much time to dwell on that. A run of 7 games in 17 days means that the depth in quality within the squad will be severely tested. Watford away in the premier league on Sunday, so early that it will clash with some church services, awaits United.

The real chance to respond to what has been a forgettable week is then. In all probability, United will be six points off the pace at kick-off. Given the margins this season, it is a gap you don't want to create so early on as there will be limited opportunities to recover.

There'll be nothing new on Sunday that the players aren't briefed about. A good old fashioned premier league battle away from home. What might have eluded them though is that unlike in the old league when a top team turned up at Vicarage Road and picked up all three points without getting a shirt dirty, the modern version requires that every point is hard earned. The gap in quality has been greatly reduced by effort. United need to get their hands dirty in much the same way they played that second half in the derby. There's simply no points for a huge wage bill.  
 

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

UNITED LOSE DERBY BUT IN THE RIGHT WAY


At the close of City's dominant first 40 minutes of the game on Saturday lunchtime, the most frustrating this about Manchester United was not that they were suddenly 0-2 down at home to their bitter rivals but that it felt like United were not even half-trying.

Here was the biggest game of our season between now and when the trophies are finally handed out next year and yet United were treating the tie as a one in which the club were defending a 1-0 first aggregate lead in a Champions League tie semi-final. More painful was that City's less Mancunian set up had their sleeves rolled up for a nasty tackle here and there and were generally much stronger in the challenge.

The redemption in the second half of those traits was perhaps the biggest take away from the game by the home side. Often times under Louis van Gaal and David Moyes, there was such a half-hearted attempt in games that United rarely looked like recovering from adversity in games. United fans have become accustomed to seeing their team give it a go regardless of the circumstances. Indeed, for us, there is such a thing as 'losing the right way'.

In that first half on Saturday, United were admittedly played off the park by City but it did not go down well with fans that the team seemed almost unbothered about events on the day. The passing was lacklustre at best and the passion was decidedly lacking in the tackle. United were the architects of City's first half domination.

It changed for the better in the second half after some much needed substitutions. Suddenly, City were finally in a game like no other they've had this season. It bodes well for them that they managed to find the graft to ride out the storm when they had to but United can take comfort that they made the finest team in the land choke out every ounce of their reserve energy before Mark Clattenburg allowed everyone to go home. That in itself represents progress. United are miles ahead of where they were at this stage last season even though they picked up four points from City last term. 

That second half resolve will go a long way to repair some of the confidence lost in the first half. It's only September and therefore the lessons are still vitally important at this stage. For Jose Mouirnho and his players, the next couple of games are important in as far as responding to the defeat at the weekend is concerned. How quickly they get their mojo back will be another trait learnt about Manchester United in 2016/17.     

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

MANCHESTER GOES TO WAR


Once upon a time, Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho once read from the same script
In the premier league season that has been dubbed a battle of the galactico managers, its ultimate battle is scheduled for Saturday at Old Trafford in the 171st Manchester derby. Whether it is by coincidence, fate or design, the managers in the respective dugouts at Old Trafford are at the epitome of a rivalry that has dominated European football for at least the last decade.

Incredibly, they both started out as the best of mates way back. Under the management of the late Sir Bobby Robson, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola enjoyed a friendship that translated into tactical clarity and flexibility at FC Barcelona. The pair are famed for reducing Sir Bobby's written tactics into a very understandable formula for the players.

Indeed, so close was the relationship between the pair that when Jose Mourinho was interviewed for the FC Barcelona job in 2008, he pledged to a Barcelona board that included current City executive Txiki Begiristain that he would promote a young Pep Guardiola from Barcelona B to work with him as his assistant.

To the surprise of both men, the Barcelona board picked the 'understudy' Guardiola citing the abrasive and at times poisonous effect that Mourinho seems to harbor about him. The Spaniard's tactical wonders saw his side claim Champions League from Manchester United and effectively justify the punt that the club had made in making their managerial choice. And henceforth a cold war was born between the pair, underlined by a difference in their tactical modus operandi. The idealist in Pep played to the hearts of purists who dubbed his style the ultimate form of the beautiful game started by Barcelona and Dutch legend Johan Cruyff. The pragmatist in Jose played to the minds of realists who appreciated the bottom line in the football industry; results!

The stage was therefore set at the Camp Nou in 2010 when Jose Mourinho brought his Inter Milan side to defend a 3-1 first leg semi-final victory for a place in the Champions League Final. The clash of styles was bared for all to see. Gerald Pique scored in a 1-0 win for the home side but Mouirnho, always chasing the result mentally, won the war as his side hung on to win on aggregate 2-3. In his Old Trafford office, as was in his Real Madrid office, a life-size image of his celebration of that triumph at the Camp Nou hangs by the wall.

That in itself is testament to how rare the victories against Pep were for him during his time at Real Madrid. At the end of their two seasons of battle in Spain, the El Classico record was firmly in Guardiola's corner reading W5 L2 D4. Indeed, the banter lines ahead of Saturday will read that Jose Mouirnho has been sacked more times than he has beaten Pep. Except that there is another dimension to the battle on Saturday lunchtime----Zlatan Ibrahimovic!

The Swede was apart of FC Barcelona's initial side under Pep Guardiola. Despite his popularity, he was, for Lionel Messi at least, a major obstacle to obtaining the number of goals his and status in the team he desired. Messi had the ear of Guardiola and the Argentine's talent merited a squad built around him. Pep gave in and it rubbed off Zlatan the wrong way. He thought his manager was weak for it and he was soon shown the door.

At Inter, Zlatan found a soul-mate. Jose Mourinho was everything Pep was not for him. The pair enjoyed success in Italy before parting ways amid mutual respect. Coincidence? Fate? or design? It's amazing how events have unfolded to the extent that on Saturday, Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be out on the pitch trying to make a point or two to Pep for what happened at Barcelona all those years ago.


The premier league has three 100% records left this season. By the end of proceedings on Saturday, that number would have been reduced to a maximum of just two. In a league season that is increasingly looking like it will be decided on fine margins, you feel that the two managers would just settle for the point on Saturday before kickoff.

That the fixture comes so soon after the International break means that none of the teams will be as strong as they would have hopped for the game. Injuries and late arrivals will count for interesting team news other than what we already know.

In many ways, you could argue that the result will not really mean much in the context of a potential premier league title race between now and May. It's still just three points on offer and with 34 games left after Saturday, there is plenty of time for the winner/loser to make up ground even before Christmas. But football is a confidence sport as much as anything and you feel that the victor will get a timely shot in the arm. Keeping a 100% record after seeing off your most difficult opponent makes it ominous for the rest.

That takes nothing away from the reality that is the premier league though.  These two managers will know by now that the game will bear much less consequences as the equivalent did in Spain. This season is more than just about the pair. The victor on Saturday will not be guaranteed the three points on the next MatchDay in a way it was in the La Liga. Short term, the biggest take-away from this will be bragging rights. Derby pride. In order to reap the long term rewards, the work must be put in every week!

Not that the neutral will want the details. For him, this is box office television come early on Saturday. It's fair to say that the league cannot possibly come up with a more mouthwatering fixture!