Monday, 21 March 2016

WHERE IS THE CONSISTENCY?

United's teenage sensation Marcus Rashford wheels away after opening the scoring in the Manchester derby

You just knew it, didn't you? From the moment that Liverpool confirmed United's exit from Europe, Manchester United suddenly had their backs up against the wall as far as interest in their season is concerned. Perfect tonic then for Louis van Gaal to get in a big result and mask it all over again. Forget the catalogue of mistakes Demichellis did yesterday, Manchester City were simply in the right place at the wrong time.

In a week in which United could have been put out of their misery as far as hoping for a top four berth is concerned, the club are firmly back in the equation of Champions League football. It is testament to the crazy nature of this season that despite appalling levels of inconsistency, United are still in with a shout for the Champions League. Indeed, more baffling is that with just eight games to go, United could still mathematically get relegated!

Louis van Gaal seems at home whenever the club is faced with top opposition but loses his way when the alsorans come up against United. Indeed, 18 points from the top six sides is a record that ordinarily should win you the league. Except that the manager's methods have come up short against the likes of West Brom, Norwich, Bournemouth and the like. Take away results against the bottom six clubs and United would be comfortably sat in second spot in the league.
 
For fans, it is frustrating that often times this season, they've watched their club turn in results worthy of a league title and yet fail to repeat the most basic of tricks the following week. For the truly elite teams, consistency is their hallmark. Until United re-discover it, it will continue to be one step forward and two steps back.

On the bright side, yesterday was yet another occasion for the old school romantic to savour. Marcus Rashford became the first Mancunian to score in the Manchester Derby since Danny Welbeck in 2012. The 18 year old also became the youngest goalscorer in the derby in premier league history. It will also go down well that much of what was good about United came from a very young front three of Lingard, Rashford and Martial.

For the lovers of youth in United's first team, these are moments to behold. Modern trends in football dictate that not many clubs have one of their own to single out in their teams. Indeed, even for United, it is conceivable that it could easily change in the near future when the demand for success eventually overtakes reason. An Arsenal mate of mine couldn't help but wonder what such a front three, if nurtured, could develop into in five years' time.

Unfortunately football has degenerated to a level where you must spend 50m quid to get public approval of a genuine signing. The irony is that the league is about to be won by a bunch of rejects pooled with a few purchases worth loose change. Indeed, even West Ham United are threatening an eternal embarrassment of denying the two wealthiest clubs in the country a Champions League berth.

Perhaps we ought to take a step back and look at the old school values that made English clubs a European force to reckon with. Marcus Rashford is a Manchester United fan and therefore his dedication to the cause cannot be priced, let alone purchased in the transfer window. Not even a touch of cramp will derail his mission to see out a derby game. There was not a single City player on the pitch who seemed to understand the context of the game more than him. There was a time when we had six or seven of the starting XI in full derby mode, committed to the cause.

It is fair to conclude that outside the manger's failings, the absence of a bunch of lads fully committed to the cause is one of the main reasons United are inconsistent. As it is, folks will turn up only when it suits their profile or ego. Perhaps, another pointer as to why United are better off in the bigger games than when they're asked to grind out a result against the lesser teams!

A shame really, that the club has been reduced to a celebration of big one-off results! It takes away nothing from the achievements of those coming through the Academy to take charge of the situation. At least part of the solution is right before the club's eyes. Whether the people who matter can see it or not is another debate altogether.

Friday, 18 March 2016

UNITED TURN UP LATE


If we genuinely believe that Louis van Gaal's Manchester United side are still learning a lesson or two, then perhaps they finally got it drilled into them that a European tie is over 180 minutes and not just 90. If United had shown just half the bottle they did last night at Anfield last week, the club wouldn't have been on a knife-edge position throughout the evening against the old enemy.

Admittedly, there was plenty good about United in isolation but fans just can't quite put a finger on which United they'll be served up on matchday. That the manager doesn't sync with the fabric of the club is perhaps one explanation. Indeed, at a time when United needed to score three goals to advance, Louis van Gaal picked out defensive substitutions from the lot on the bench. It's all nice and lovely claiming to be in line with the requirements and precautions of sports science but fans will not have it if it comes at the expense of the ingredients that relate fans with players on the pitch in a European game against the eternal enemy.

The totality of the situation is a bleak and painful scenario of a manager sat in his chair, locked in solo conviction, over a job he morally hold in trust of millions, thousands of whom are watching beside him in the same cathedral. Forced to live and eat the food of someone you've come to loathe. It's a desperate situation that those on the terraces would give anything to be absolved of.

As far as the season that just won't end is concerned, United are left with an FA Cup last eight replay at West Ham and the scramble for a fourth place in the league. Bar a minor miracle in the league, United are set to miss out on European football for the second time in three years. For a club that will soon announce record heights commercially in the summer, their plight on the grass is a wonder.

Getting knocked out of Europe by your most bitter rivals is something that takes a while to get over. Whether a Manchester derby round the corner is the perfect tonic remains to be seen come Sunday.

Monday, 14 March 2016

UNITED JUST ABOUT KEEP CUP DREAM ALIVE...FOR NOW

Anthony Martial wheels away to celebrate his equaliser for United

Incredibly, Manchester United, visibly limping, are in the hat for the semi-final draw of the FA Cup. Perhaps more intriguing is that despite being the last traditional giant left in the competition, United are not considered favourites to win a first FA Cup in over a decade.

Such is the mire into which United find themselves that West Ham United are favourites going into the quarterfinal replay in what will be the last FA Cup tie to be played at Upton Park. What a fixture in prospect for the neutral!

Indeed, it counts for a positive that the Red Devils have somehow come away from the game yesterday still in the competition. West Ham were tipped to get the better of United even at Old Trafford, having already won at Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool this season. Sir Alex Ferguson thinks the Slaven Bilic will guide his team into the Champions League ahead of the two Manchester clubs. On current form, the Scot has more than reason enough to thinks so.

United predictably turned in another impotent Old Trafford display, dominating much of the possession but hardly troubling the opposition goalkeeper. Ironically, West Ham, with plenty of the ball, made De Gea work more. By now, you feel that the Spaniard is just about always expecting a busy afternoon.

With just the two shots on target, its amazing that United came away with a goal, never mind parity. For a side that needs to score at least three times to progress in Europe on Thursday, those shooting statistics are damning! Anything other than a direct approach will cost the side valuable time in clawing back a two goal deficit suffered at Anfield last week.

Until then, Louis van Gaal still gets to address the media to remind them that the club are still in three competitions. He has avoided, or at least postponed the ignominy of exiting two competition in a week.
Ironically, it is difficult to recall the last time United had a better chance of winning the FA Cup. Only West Ham, Crystal Palace and Everton stand between them and a record equalling 12th FA Cup triumph.

This season though has been for the underdog. The existing order has been emphatically toppled by the also rans. A new order seems to have taken root, albeit surely temporarily. United would have to go against the grain to succeed in any competition in a season that bears no fortune for the traditional elite. Above all, it is this turn of events in 2015/16 that makes West Ham United favourites to progress to Wembley next month for the FA Cup semi-finals.

Fortunately for United, that replay is not until the new month. Who knows? By then United could be on one of them runs of successive wins that keep Louis van Gaal in the job at his most desperate hour. Before then though is a reality of an exit from Europe that United must counter against their greatest rivals. It is not so much the result that United fans will be desperate for at Old Trafford but rather a performance of guts that shows a deeper care for the fixture than we were served up at Anfield last week. 

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

UNITED REDISCOVER THEIR DAMP SQUIB WAYS



It is now the settled trend that Louis van Gaal always has a four game span of decent results before the club quickly returns to crisis mode. Only once this season have the club had a five game span of positive results. Never in the Dutchman's tenure have United pulled together more than five positive results in all competitions.

On Wednesday, United simply got out of jail against Watford by coming away with a 1-0 win at Old Trafford. Unless the level of performance was improved it was always going to be a difficult time at the Hawthorns for the Red Devils.

Except that Juan Mata contrived to make it even more difficult by getting himself sent off with more than an hour of the game left to play. That it was a sending off out of character (his first in his career) made it even more baffling. The average age of the current United side and the fragile levels of confidence makes playing with 10 men for such a length of time a tough ask.

In typical Louis van Gaal fashion, out went the industrious talents of Guillermo Varela, Memphis Depay and Morgan Schneiderlin, who were high on confidence and in came Michael Carrick, Jesse Lingard and Matteo Darmian. Of the lot, it was Schneiderlin's exclusion that made for the biggest concern taking into account United's record without the French anchorman from the start. Ander Herrera seemed to perform better in a combination with Schneiderlin than with Michael Carrick. One would have hopped that their last couple of performances as a pair would have convinced the manager to stick with the pair for much longer.

It turns out that the manager had half an eye on Thursday's Europa league meeting with Liverpool at Anfield. What a time to be alive then! Risking qualification for the Champions League via the league so as to earn qualification for the Champions league via the Europa league.

Most worrying for United will be that at a time when the senior players are returning to injury, the club's performances seem to have adopted their default outlook. The verve of playing with youth seems to have gone with the departed youth. Suddenly, we're back to the damp squibs that we've been served for the majority of the season.

Yet again, it appears that the manager has landed on a winning formula by default of injuries and has quickly been exposed again as soon as his senior players returned---the ones that understand his methods best! It's now predictable that there shall be more highs/wins of note under Louis van Gaal between now and the end of the season but it also the case there shall be more lows ahead for the club.

A confidence shot United travels to Anfield on Thursday in the Europa league. Van Gaal led his team out of jail on the last visit there. A penny for your thoughts on how you feel events on Thursday will unfold. 

Thursday, 3 March 2016

UNITED MAKE LATE TOP FOUR ENQUIRY

Juan Mata is mobbed by his teammates after scoring the winner

Not 10 days ago, you could authoritatively dismiss the notion that Manchester United were a candidate to compete for a top four place. The poor run of results in December had seemingly put to rest any argument that United were good enough to challenge for the elite places.

Having put together two straight wins in the league over the past four days, United are now firmly back in the equation of a Champions League place via the league, largely due to the wobbly form of at least two of the four sides above the Red Devils. Arsenal and Manchester City have hardly won a league game over the past month, allowing United to eat into their leads with just a couple of positive results.

Such has been the general inconsistency of this season's top clubs that even a semblance of consistency from hereon would comfortably land United third place in the league, let alone fourth. It's now down to four points between 5th and 3rd and with 30 points still to play for, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the season target may yet be achieved via the league.

Last night, at home to Watford, United rode their luck for long periods and struggled to contain the pressing game of the visitors. Indeed, Odion Inghalo contrived to miss a plethora of very decent chances in the box. That failure of ruthlessness was always likely to be punished by the prevailing quality within United's ranks. Anthony Martial was scythed down 20 yards from goal, perfect range. Up stepped captain of the night, Juan Mata to seal what turned out to be more than three points considering the trend of results elsewhere on the night.

With an average age of just 23, United's youthful line-up was always bound to come under intense examination from a very physically and tactically demanding assignment. Full debutant Timothy Fosu-Mensah for instance and Daley Blind seemed bewildered by having to deal with two strikers in Deeney and Inghalo. There's not many times either of them could have come up against a twin pair and yet the 4-4-2 is quickly regaining prominence among premier league sides. Indeed, it is arguable that Leicester's success story this season has a lot to do with that system.

Of the Dutch pair, it was the younger who fared better on the night, using his strength to good effect often and showing maturity beyond his years to remain steadfast in the tackle despite picking up an early yellow card. Goodness knows we could do with another emerging centre back! His teen colleague Marcus Rashford didn't score but cannot be faulted with a bad game having suffered a dearth of service. He did though clear a header off the line---which is as good as a goal I guess.

Memphis Depay on the other hand failed to hit the heights of his last two performances. His efforts were summed up by a first half shot on goal that went out for a throw in.

In the end, United got there. With West Brom away looming on Sunday, the opportunity is there to win three on the bounce for the first time this season. With West Ham United firmly in the reckoning for a Champions League place, we could be in for an enthralling fight for the elite places in the final third of the season. However, because we've had our fingers burned before, we cannot be certain that Louis van Gaal has finally got his act together for a late surge. United remain a poor result from a crisis. It should, however, be of some comfort that they seem to be making strides in the right direction.

On Sunday, Tony Pulis' side will present the same physical and direct challenge that United were uncomfortable with last night. Suffice it is to say that lessons must be learnt from yesterday if the club is to have a more convincing afternoon in the West midlands.