Tuesday, 29 November 2016

UNITED CAN FIND SOLACE IN THE CUPS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 21 November 2016

ILL-LUCK OR INEFFICIENY?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

ONE LAST INVITATION TO THE TITLE PARTY?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 3 November 2016

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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