Monday, 29 February 2016

UNITED KIDS UNITE TO BREATHE NEW LIFE INTO SEASON

Marcus Rashford celebrates his premier league debut goal

Just when Manchester United's season was ripe for its last funeral rites, up stepped the kids. Like the ones the club is famed for bringing through their ranks and assimilating them into the first team. Like the ones that demystified the myth that you cannot win anything with kids.

In Manchester United's most important week of the season so far, United's status in all competitions was up for examination. Despite the importance attached to the last three games, Louis van Gaal has awarded club debuts to five more players in this week alone. Joe Riley, Regan Poole, James Weir, Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Marcus Rashford have made their Manchester United bows this week. Added to Cameron-Borthwick Jackson, Guillermo Varela and Jesse Lingard, Old Trafford is witnessing a pool of talent blood before them.

It is not that the youth are simply making up the numbers in a United squad that is desperately injury ravaged. Louis van Gaal's group of debutants are actively shaping the destiny of United's season in a most unprecedented fashion.

Marcus Rashford, for instance, has seen his stock rise from an U-21s debutant to potentially Manchester United's greatest goal-scoring asset in the current set up. What with four goals in two games? Whilst it was easy to brush aside that he could manage a brace on his debut against FC Midtjylland in the Europa League, repeating the feat against a side that van Gaal considers 'the best in the premier league' is something else.

At 18 years and 120 days, the teenager matched the debut scoring feat of Wayne Rooney at the club. Like the captain had then, Rashford has a fearlessness about him that leads him to run at defenders with or without the support of his teammates. His intelligent movement in the box has made it all the more easier for him to be in the right place at the right time to put away every half-decent chance that has found him in the penalty area. It's a package that has made him, so far, a defender's nightmare. Where does his story go from here? Regardless, he will never forget how it all started, Frankly, neither will we...or Leicester City fans.


In the grand scheme of things, Manchester United recorded three straight wins for the first time since November, and threreby reigniting their hopes of landing a top four finish. Their biggest enemy in that quest remains their consistency especially against teams from the bottom half of the table. 15 points against sides in the top six of the league is an incredible return for a side aiming for the title, except that it is points against the alsorans that really matter over a 38 game season.

It's astonishing that United have picked up points from Chelsea (1), Arsenal (3), Manchester City (1), Liverpool (6), Tottenham Hotspur (3) and Leicester City (1) whilst have dropped more to the likes of Bournemouth (3), Swansea (3), Newcastle United (4), Norwich City (3) and Sunderland (3). Therein lies the challenge ahead for United at home to Watford on a Wednesday night. The opportunity to build on an important league win. It's an opportunity that has not been taken often by the club this season leading to a run of just three wins in 13 league games since November before kickoff yesterday.


Louis van Gaal throws himself to the ground in protest to the amusement of Old Trafford and indeed Mike Dean
For Louis van Gaal, the will to back him in what is turning out to be a long goodbye was shown to be evident yesterday when the fans chanted 'Louis van Gaal's red army' at Old Trafford for the first time in a long, long while. It was spurred by what will go down in history as one of the most bizzare moments by a Manchester United manager when he threw himself to the ground infront of fourth official Mike Dean to protest the ease with which Alexis Sanchez threw himself to the ground to win the latest of a series of soft free kicks for Arsenal. Finally he was out of his seat protesting apparent injustice to his side! After seeing his side score 11 in a week, 8 at Old Trafford, he was due some slack from an arena that had since turned poisonous for him and his players.

Unfortunately, United's season has tailed off so much that he remains on trial on a game to game basis. Fail to get a result at home to Watford in the league and the house of cards will come crumbling down after what has been a very positive week.

Friday, 26 February 2016

UNITED KEEP EURO CAMPAIGN IN SITU BUT ARSENAL LIE IN WAIT

Teenage debutant Marcus Rashford wheels away to celebrate a scoring debut

At the start of the week, the state of affairs at Manchester United put the club's season on trial. United were in real danger of exiting two Cup competitions in a week to effectively put to bed any interest in their season. I blogged that the club would do well to remain in both competitions by the end of the week.

It turns out that they did manage it in the end but for long periods last night, it seemed like a major European upset was on the cards. Certainly so when the Danish club opened the scoring at Old Trafford to extend their aggregate lead over United to a couple of goals.

United's early plight in the first half, coupled with news of injury to Anthony Martial in the warm-up had the feel of Murphy's law in operation. Louis van Gaal has been unfortunate with injuries--15 at kickoff yesterday--but it is by his design that the club's human resource is feather-weight. The reasoning is that it affords him to give more young players an opportunity, which is fine and all, but he cannot in the same breath use it as an excuse when things go wrong.

Last night though, more things went right for the Red Devils who lined up with such a plethora of youthful players that if you'd just been from under a cave, you would think that the Dutch manager had opted for a second string selection in Europe's ugly duckling competition.

Often times this season, a dearth of experience in the squad has seen the players lose confidence at the first turn of adversity during a game. There were plenty of points during the game last night that examined the mental strength of the kids on show.

In the first half alone, FC Midtjylland scored with their first attack, Schneiderlin struck the post and Mata missed a penalty. And yet to their credit, United kept at it, plugging away until they---to use a van Gaal coin, 'forced the luck'.


It's a determination that was embodied by the debut of Manchester's latest along the production line, Marcus Rashford. In for the pulled up Martial, the 18 year old turned in a performance that he will never forget regardless how his career pans out from hereon.

Pace, strength and directness in a centre forward is what United have lacked this season and yet Rashford seemed to have them in abundance. Indeed the couple of excellent finishes in the second half were what we know as a typical centre forward's goal, borne of the kind of movement and positioning in the box that we've not seen too often this year.

Louis van Gaal will be accused of many things when his time is up at Old Trafford, but the number of debuts he has handed out to the youth has provided fans with some decent memories to hold onto. Of the young lot, and for various reasons, Old Trafford will remember impressive debuts from Andreas Perreira, Cameron-Borthwick Jackson, Marcus Rashford from the club's ranks and Anthony Martial from the transfer window.

It also helped the club's fortunes yesterday that Memphis Depay was at the races yet again in European competition. His performances against more accomplished opposition in the premier league however gives the impression that he is yet to make the step up in quality required for assignments such as Sunday's league meeting with Arsenal.     

Ultimately, for a game that struggled to sell, it was the most entertaining United have been at home in a long while. Certainly the best of the season. There was more panache and verve about United's going forward. Perhaps the youthfulness on this occasion worked to negate the baggage of nerves and pressure that the senior players often exhibit. As such, United ended up creating chance after chance and posting the biggest win under Louis van Gaal. Not once had United managed five goals in a game under van Gaal's leadership. That, in itself is an indictment on United's fortunes under the Dutchman.

United will definitely come up against more stern examination in the competition than a third placed team in the  Danish league, but at least they've avoided a humiliation that would have scaled unknown heights. Two positive results on the bounce are no longer a given at United but there will be no eyebrows raised during a week in which United have come up against opposition they are expected to sweep aside. No. The brows will be raised if United close the week with victory over Arsenal at Old Trafford on Sunday.

United's successful template against the Gunners had been built around a competitive, aggressive approach to games against them. Under LVG, that template has since been ditched for a softer, less abrasive approach. The results have since dipped against them. The pain of losing to Arsenal is often underscored by the fact that there is an existing and well known template of how to go about games against them. Unfortunately, LVG never got that memo. At least not quite well anyway.

The 3-0 defeat to them in October was record premier league victory for them against us, highlighting how rarely it has been for Arsene Wenger's side to totally dominate United in a game. We'll find out if van Gaal learnt a few lessons from that on Sunday. 

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

SHREWSBURY PROVES A CHALLENGE TOO LOW FOR CONFIDENCE SHOT UNITED

United players celebrate Juan Mata's goal, off a clever free-kick

In the end, we learned that there is in fact a bottom line to United's crisis. Perhaps League Two is more or less the level at which this confidence shot side can be comfortable in a game of football.

The Bt Sport cameras made their way to the Shopshire town of Shrewsbury for what was, for the neutral at least, a potential giant killing in the offing. The League Two side simply had to match United for effort, if not skill, and the 11 time FA Cup winners would have succumbed. Such are the confidence levels among Louis van Gaal's players.

It was therefore a tad anti-climatic for the TV audience when it became apparent that the hosts were overawed by England's biggest Cup draw. Indeed, the home side managed just the one appearance in the United box in the entire opening half. Sergio Romero could have taken a newspaper with him to his goalline and it wouldn't have really mattered.

Perhaps the biggest indictment of the hosts' efforts was that Chris Smalling opened the scoring from open play, underlining the dearth of urgence to retain a constant presence at the back. The England defender has been wasteful with his head lately despite getting into good scoring positions but at least found it in himself to put away a forward's finish. Juan Mata's free kick, the subject of controversy, gave United an extremely rare commanding lead before halftime and Jesse Lingard took his now trademark bow (also known as 'the dab') after effectively ending the tie with a third goal off a deft Ander Herrera cross. As is the norm under Louis van Gaal, three goals is the statutory maximum United can muster regardless the opposition.  

Not that there were no opportunities to score more goals. Memphis Depay continued his wretched form in front of goal by attracting the laughter of the home fans with a number of wayward shots. Now there is one player whose confidence is so low that he doesn't know it. At times it feels like he has over estimated his abilities and underestimated his opponents. At least on this occasion, the team never suffered from his ineptness. 

Louis van Gaal, no doubt because of the amount of pressure he is under, has taken advantage of every positive result to paint a rosy picture about United's season. The Dutchman, back into his confident skin, went on about how United are 'just six points' behind the top four, how they remain with 'a lot of competitions to win' and how they will regain their top dogs status when players return in March.

Whilst on the one hand, van Gaal was technically right to enthuse about a saved season so far, it is the consistency, or lack of it from his side that has him clutching at straws to convince the world media and fans that United are 'not that bad' after the most basic of wins. Often times under the Dutchman, van Gaal's United have been on a run that threatened to revive their fortunes, only to slip into comma at the next half-decent opposition.

Jesse Lingard celebrates United's third goal
Indeed, last season's 5-3 defeat at Leicester City aptly summarises the Dutchman's reign at the club in 90 minutes. For 65 minutes, United were cruising, top of their game, and leading 1-3 at the King Power Stadium. For the last 25 minutes or so, United crumbled under the most basic pressure from Leicester and the rest, we know, is history.

The popular line in the media ahead of the match on Monday night was that Louis van Gaal's job depended on the result (a theme that has reigned over the club for two months without baring its claws). There is, as a result, a section of fans that are torn between supporting the club and wishing for a result that would end the Dutchman's tenure. As such there is a growing frustration that whenever van Gaal appears on the edge, he gets the required result to keep him in the job. To live to fight another day, if you will.

Thursday's meeting with FC Midtylland, in which United trail by a goal is slated to be the next point at which van Gaal's latest alleged stay of execution is evaluated. The Danish club will certainly offer more of a game to United than Shrewsbury Town did last night. Whether United can step a level is much less certain.    

Monday, 22 February 2016

UNDERDOGS AGAINST SHREWSBURY TOWN? YOU BET!

United players look dejected after defeat on Thursday in the Europa League
Whilst it is the scenario that is not reflected in the Bookmakers' odds, it is certainly not beyond the realms of likelihood, that Shrewsbury Town could be in for an easy night out in the FA Cup fifth round tonight. It's a predicament that is borne of a difficulty to put a finger on just how bad Manchester United are at the moment.

Defeat on Thursday in Denmark to FC Midtjylland in the Europa league plunged the club to new depths. Louis van Gaal's side keep throwing up a mini-competition of the club's most embarrasing result in their history. Their first defeat to Sunderland at the Stadium of Light last weekend was quickly put in the shadows by a shocking result in Denmark on the Thursday.

It sent the media into a comparative analysis of United's worst ever showings on the pitch. Under Louis van Gaal, defeats to Milton Keynes Dons in his first season and to Middlesbrough in this were debated. The most recent against FC Midtjylland was a shoe in. Tonight, defeat at Shrewsbury Town in the FA Cup will stake a claim for a spot on that list.


Louis van Gaal remains in a job because of egos among his employers. His sacking would not just reflect bad on him but would also paint a picture of ineptness by the Executive vice Chair Ed Woodward. The expectation is that United will not make a change in the managerial department until at least the summer. Even that is not a guarantee by any means.

Not that Louis van Gaal has taken advantage of this remarkable show of loyalty to improve the club's fortunes. It is an indictment on his reign that United keep finding new depths even after appearing to recover from a prevailing slump. There is hardly any credit left in the bank for the Dutchman. Even the local paper has since joined the wagon for calls to replace him.

Sometimes, regardless of the stance and goodwill behind a manager, there comes a time when you just have to cut your losses and let loose. One such circumstance is when the manager appears to have lost the players. Reports suggest that the players already have their heads turned by the allegation that Jose Mourinho is going to take charge of the club. The Danish press noticed the ability of Anthony Martial on Thursday night but concluded that even though he had the tools to destroy their club, he seemed like he didn't want to. When a manager has lost faith in his human resource, it's hard to expect decent results at the end of the production line.


The opportunity however remains that United are playing for a last 8 berth in the FA Cup. With a home draw against West Ham to follow in the sixth round, the challenge between United and a date at Wembley Stadium for the semi-final is ordinarily very much within United's powers. Except that this is no ordinary season for Manchester United. As such, not many fans have faith that the club will end it's 12 year wait for an FA Cup triumph.

Ahead of a week in which United's season could effectively be written off, the pressure couldn't be possibly higher for the club. United could be evicted from both Cup competitions this week and have their Champions League hopes effectively over with defeat to the Arsenal at home on Sunday. Extending a relevance to their season beyond this week will be some feat....no really, it will.

What a time to be alive, eh? 

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

UNITED DROP INTO THE MUD-PITS


FC Midtjylland. Where in Europe are they?

If Manchester United set out this season to break expectations, they've certainly done that by finding a way to play at the 11,800 seater MCH Arena, at a club formed just three months before United completed an historic treble in May 1999.

The irony is that there is in fact no shame for this Manchester United team in the Europa league this season because that is indeed the level at which the club are at this point in time. Currently in fifth place in the league, United are set to make the group stages of the competition next season if they fail to make up the ground for the elite positions.

Indeed the Europa league now represents United's 'best' shot at a Champions League place next season. Even that remains a long shot by any stretch of the imagination considering the number of sides left in the competition that are arguably better placed than United to win it.

The Cup competitions however represent the remaining solace for Louis van Gaal in this troubled season. The trip to Denmark is quickly followed by a fifth round meeting with Shrewsbury Town in the FA Cup on Monday, allowing for progression in both Cup competitions by next week.Indeed, by the time United return to premier league duty next week at home to Arsenal, they should have registered three Cup wins (twice in the Europa league) to give a semblance of confidence ahead of an important meeting with Arsene Wenger's high fliers.

Louis van Gaal would ideally want to rotate his squad over the three Cup games to allow for a freshness ahead of a return to league duty but the injury situation, particularly at the full back positions. It will though allow for the younger players an experience in European football, albeit at a very limited level.

The Superligaen club have won just the one game in their last five matches, although they also remain unbeaten in that period. However, a third place placing in the league behind Aalborg and FC Kobenhavn accounts for what has been an indifferent season so far. The Europa league run so far has lit up their season. Indeed, rubbing shoulders with one of Europe's most recognisable powers is testament to the strides they have made as a club over the last two decades since their formation.  

United remain a side that is vulnerable to the first half decent challenge they encounter. FC Midtjylland shouldn't be one of the sides that causes them too many problems.   

Monday, 15 February 2016

SEASON TAILING TOWARDS A WRITE-OFF

United were stunned by conceding early to the Black Cats

There's so many things that could ordinarily be faulted in a team on a matchday. You could have underestimated the quality of your opponents and hence struggle to keep up. The team could suffer from one player's mistake or a rush of blood to the head causing them to see out the game a man less. A lack of fight in the team is however one of those damning verdicts on any team's performance.

It was an indictment of Manchester United's season that Louis van Gaal bemoaned his side's failure to match the 'aggression' of Sunderland on Saturday. Indeed, the beleaguered United boss used the word 'aggression' to negatively define his side's performance more than three times in his various post match briefings.

Often times, and indeed when up against the sides in the lower echelons of the league table, English league games simply come down to who offers more fight in them. Last week, Manchester City made the trip to the Stadium of Light expecting not hopping for a simple three points. By the '90th, City had been drawn into a mud-bath battle with the relegation threatened Black Cats. Pellegrini's men rolled up their sleeves and matched the hunger in Sam Allardyce's side to preserve a 1-0 lead.

On Saturday, whilst United expected Sunderland to cling on for the point in the second half, the Black Cats came out fighting for all three points. Often times this season, Louis van Gaal's side have failed to stand up to a test when the opposition has brought the game to them. The Dutchman might boast of having reduced the average age of the side but it has come back to haunt the side in games when the club requires leaders.

Martial & De Gea fail to keep out Sunderland's winner
United are so brittle in confidence that at the sniff of a bit of adversity, the team crumbles. As such, the club has struggled to put up any semblance of consistency that is required to mount a challenge for the elite places in the league. Any two or three positive results are quickly followed by a damaging defeat at a time when the pessimists are being converted.

As a result, the season is in serious danger of being declared a write off. The boss and indeed his captain have already declared Champions League qualification as out of reach in February with almost a third of the season to play. Whilst a six point turnover is not impossible, United have been unable to win three straight games in the league since November. Hardly a case to make there for an end of season flourish.

The Europa League remains an available route to Europe's top table but even that would be a long shot from this position. The second tier of European football remains a difficult competition to win, certainly for English clubs. Indeed, the likes of Napoli, BVB Dortmund, and even Tottenham Hotspur appear to have a greater claim to that trophy than United on current form.

A season that promised so much is quickly turning into one in which the fans are being asked to hope for mere scraps. It is afterall, Manchester United's worst ever performance in the premier league era so far. Whilst van Gaal can mitigate with what for him is an unprecedented injury crisis, his decision to trim the squad to a handful of players effectively stops the buck at him.

It remains fascinating to see just ho low Manchester United will stoop before it gets better. Louis van Gaal appears to be enduring a long goodbye with the club. Even so, here is a man whose ego should ordinarily ensure that he retains a semblance of respect to his legacy when he is eventually gone. Except that given that it has hardly gone his way in England, it could, in all probability, get much worse for him.

Seasons come and go, and therefore fans can recover from a bad couple of seasons. Unfortunately, for Louis, this is it!   

Thursday, 11 February 2016

UNITED FIRST UP AHEAD OF CRUCIAL WEEKEND


Louis van Gaal would have to pull off the most astonishing turn around from this position if Manchester United are to overcome the odds and secure a top four finish. Indeed, since the start of the premier league era, the top four teams going into this round of matches have almost always been the top four teams in May.

United find themselves trailing in form and confidence to the four sides above them, all of whom are involved in a title race. The failure to match the consistency of Tottenham Hotspur or Leicester City this season has seen United lose their elite placing in the league with just the 13 games left.

Whilst United still get to meet all the sides above them between now and the end of the season, they have only rarely managed to string together a few wins to build a semblance of consistency over this campaign. Indeed, United last won two straight games in the league in November.

The failure to hold on to the three points on Sunday all but confirmed one thing we can be certain about this campaign: United will not win the league for a third straight year. The remaining question as far as the league is concerned is whether United can overcome a six point margin (seven if you factor in goal difference) to claim a Champions League spot.

With the top four in direct opposition this weekend, chances are United could be as close as three points from that target if results go their way. It all adds importance to Saturday's lunchtime trip to the Stadium of Light against Sunderland.

United have never been beaten at the Stadium of Light in the premier league era but a point would not really help their cause this Saturday. Sam Allardyce's side might be on the wrong end of the table but they're formidable opposition especially for the top sides. Over the last week, they gave Manchester City a run or two for the points and recently came away from Anfield with a point despite trailing 0-2 with ten minutes to go.

United have been 'superb' according to Louis van Gaal in the past few weeks. In truth, the Reds have been entertaining, something we could not have dreamed to associate with them this season. There is a vibrancy about the side going forward nowadays. Southampton and Sheffield United aside, United have been decent in every other game this year.

Coming away from Stamford Bridge disappointed with a point should hold the club in good stead confidence-wise ahead of a week in which United will first test the awkward schedule of premier league football and Europa League football on the Thursday.

Louis van Gaal remains a man on trial at the club, at least according to the papers, but if the club can push on to a run of results in the final third of the season, the Dutchman might yet be allowed to extend into his final year of his contract with the club if only because there is no known written agreement between Manchester United and Jose Mourinho.  

Monday, 8 February 2016

HAVE UNITED TURNED A CORNER UNDER LOUIS VAN GAAL?


I signed off the last blog a couple of weeks ago calling for a consistency in performances if not results to mirror the excellent showing at the iPro stadium against Derby County in the FA Cup. I thought United showed on the day that they had it in them to not only entertain but also score enough goals to win games. That performance was bettered by Lous van Gaal's side on the following Tuesday against Stoke City.

Whilst the wheels have somewhat fallen off for the Potteries since their Boxing Day victory against us, the manner in which Mark Hughes' side was dispatched suggested that United have finally come out of hiding. Indeed, it has not been often this season that United have turned in two consecutive good performances.

Anthony Martial's goal particular was set up by one of the best counter-attacks United will execute this season---if not for the ingenuity of Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata---for the number of players involved in executing the move. Counter-attacks are mostly effective when executed by a couple or trio of players. Less numbers minimise the chances of a pass or a touch going wrong. That United had up to six players involved without either of them putting a foot wrong was a marvel to watch.


Even so, there was always the suspicion that United wouldn't be able to keep up the upturn in performances let alone results when they visited Chelsea this past weekend. That we are disappointed having come away from Stamford Bridge with a point and another accomplished performance is the latest response by Louis van Gaal to the speculation surrounding his future next season.

Chelsea might not be anywhere near the succulent positions of the league table but they remain a side with an elite selection of players, winners--heck, they are still the Champions of England--so for United to maintain their level against them to three games in a row now is timely for Louis van Gaal.


Media speculation is rife that the club have been in contact with Jose Mourinho over a potential summer switch, meaning that the manager would not be allowed to enter his final year of his contract. Van Gaal has reacted brutally to the speculation and it appears his margin of error has virtually been wiped out.


Therein that speculation however is where the current upturn of United's performances have been lost. Ganted, this weekend, United fell all of six points behind the Champions League places, a less than ideal scenario with just over a dozen games left, but it's been so long since United had consistent method to their play that one wonders what the permutations next term could be if the club does in fact end the season on the high that is ever more likely.


Suddenly, the return of Michael Carrick seems to have added the composure to our midfield that we've lacked for the past two months. Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial seem to relish the freedom on the flanks and Wayne Rooney seems to love Juan Mata just off him. Even Marouanne Fellaini seems to have turned a corner in the middle of the park.


If this is a case of the players are finally understanding and enjoying their roles, then Ed Woodward might want to hang on and see how far this revival can take the club. Louis van Gaal remains a man on trial 20 months into his reign but he seems to have found a formula to work with albeit belatedly. The balance between attack and defence has never been as good as these past three weeks under him. United last turned in an un-United performance against Southampton. It's been entertaining since. For how long though? 

United are first up next weekend at Sunderland on a weekend when the top four are in direct competition. Win that and suddenly the complexion changes ahead of a relatively comfortable run in to May. Lose however and it will all come crumbling down again.