Tuesday, 25 October 2016


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


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


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


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


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


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.