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!