Monday, 19 December 2016

MERRY CHRISTMAS TO OUR READERS


And it came to pass that in December 2016, Manchester United finally started to resemble the efficient machine that Sir Alex Ferguson bequeathed in May 2013. Three straight league wins have seen the club move to within four points of the elite positions ahead of the Boxing Day programme on Monday next week.

The belief seems to be back both on the pitch and in the stands. There's certainly plenty to look forward to in the new year. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to our readers!  

Thursday, 15 December 2016

FESTIVE CHEER AHEAD?


The ratio of chances created  to goals scored remains desperately loop-sided. United have created more chances than merit the tally of three goals in their last two league games. However, seeing themselves over the line against Tottenham Hotspur and Crystal Palace was a pleasant yet very necessary departure from the norm that has been to fail to close out games.

In the context of the league season, the last two games were a question of what is left of United's relevance at the summit of the league table. Fail to win both and United could have easily been on the wrong side of the divide that is developing between the top six and the rest of the league.

As it turned out, United have just about ensured they remain on the edge of the debate for the elite positions going into the Christmas schedule. At 7 points from third place, there is still light in United's season of the club can transform their dominance on the pitch to goals and eventually three points.

Indeed Jose Mourinho is blessed with such a relatively favourable fixture list over the festive season that it is tempting to tick off games right into January. If only it were that simple! The premier league has evolved into such an untamed animal that you will have to break sweat for each of the 90 minutes before you can be certain of a three points haul. This is why the frustration of United's dropped points amid their dominance has been tough to take.

The slight upturn in fortunes has coincided withe the manager's twitch of the 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3 that has allowed Paul Pogba reap the full benefit of having Micheal Carrick and Ander Herrera behind him. The initial sacrifice was Juan Mata who had to give way to the now indispensable Henrickh Mkhitaryan. Injury to the Armenian saw a recall of the Spaniard but it is slowly becoming evident that the manager has finally settled on an ethos for his team.

For a long while, it had been a conundrum how Manchester United boasted some of the best collection of midfielders on the continent and yet seemed to struggle to dictate games in the manner that sides with similarly endowed do. A team that can assemble a midfield to render unnecessary the talents of Bastian Schweinsteiger shouldn't be sharing company with Watford and West Brom on the log.

To be fair, the midfielders can point to a plethora of chances created this season as rejoinder. The balance however has not been quite right until the manager, by default or otherwise, found a way to use the talents of Carrick, Herrera, Pogba, Mkhitaryan and or Juan Mata in the same team. It is a solution hat should not be quickly departed from without taking into account how long into the season it has taken the manager to land on something that resembles a coherent approach in the middle of the park.

Perhaps the biggest compliment to the manager these past few weeks is that he has not really changed his approach despite the sticky run of results. Given the mental fragility still apparent among some of the players, it was instructive that nobody dropped their shoulders at Selhurst Park yesterday when it looked like it was going to go wrong again.

Often times in the recent run of stalemates, United have failed to rise above what they deem as unfortunate treatment by the referees. When the club was denied a clear penalty at 1-1 and had a goal wrongly disallowed for offside, the excuses for another stalemate were available to cash in. In a pleasant departure from old ways, the club kept at their creative verve and dug out another opportunity from which they profited an extra two points they duly deserved. It is cliche but building on that resolve will do wonders for the mental state that some of the players need to acquire to arrive at the next level.

The handicap United have is that the recent run of poor results means that the club cannot afford to take a false step. The urgency will be well and truly back on on Saturday at the Hawthorns. Like the league leaders did last weekend, United will have to step up another level to overcome the adversity that Tony Pulis and his side will cause the club. Indeed, last night was, in many ways a perfect dress rehearsal for what is to come. The only question is if United can keep at it to provide fans with much needed festive cheer. It's been 109 days since we had back to back premier league wins. It cannot be that sporadic if the club aims to achieve more. Consistency (albeit not the kind that sees games end in draws) ought to be the name of the game going forward. 

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

WHAT'S YOUR POISON?


Chronically depressing or mind-bogglingly frustrating?

At the height of the Louis van Gaal era, Manchester United fans were a depressed lot. After spending 150m quid on new players, some of whom were absolute world beaters, the Dutchman's much maligned philosophy had a star studded United team in a tight straight-jacket.

You paid for a matchday ticket for just one shot at goal. Your investment in that local pub for which you are a regular was usually rewarded with one shot at goal. Indeed, you'd be more than compensated if that shot at goal was on target and, better still, consider yourself extremely well rewarded if that shot on target found the back of the net!

The Dutchman's football was, in essence, the antithesis of the very principles upon which the club was built. Results took a back seat and shots on goal performances became the easy choice analysis by pundits.Where some fans tuned in to watch their club at the weekend as an escape from the troubles of the week, the activity was quickly re-defined as a weekly source of desperation.

Except that it wasn't always like that. Louis van Gaal did have his watershed moment. When his philosophy occasionally bought into the attacking instincts of the club. Those were mercifully necessary moments of reprieve. Unfortunately, the ''risks'' that come with open warfare proved too much to handle for him.

From the start he made it very clear that he prefer to watch a game of football without having to ''twitch his arse'' on the bench. Losing 5-3 to Leicester City having led 3-1 after 65 minutes was one such occasion. A 3-3 draw at St. James' Park last season was another. The 3-2 defeat at VfL Wolfsburg in the Champions League also comes to mind.

United have desperately lacked a spine in the centre of the pitch for a long time to combine the traits of attack and defence coherently and consistently over 90 minutes. That has no doubt been due to a failure in the transfer market since 2010 to address this particular concern.

Tasked with getting points on the board to quickly restore the club to its recent glory, van Gaal immediately realised how effective his style of play would be in negating the defensive deficiency of his side. Indeed, United, for all their dour football under the Dutchman boasted one of the club's best ever defensive records in the premier league era. But fans at the time were willing to endure defeat if it meant a departure from van Gaal's ways.

Under Jose Mourinho, the difference couldn't be more stark. The thrill is back! United play some lovely football again. Indeed, the club has broken the record for amount of shots at goal in the premier league era during the short reign of Mourinho so far. Those matchday going fans and the pub regulars will now tell you that this is at least value for money.

The manager has come out to explain that the club would have had a better start to the season if he had chosen to continue the establishment left by his predecessor. Indeed, the evidence suggests the club would perhaps be better off in terms of their points tally if they still had LVG at the helm. The depths of this season in terms of their points tally were hitherto unknown by the club. Indeed, van Gaal's frustrating side was 7 points better off at this stage last season!

The manager however, elected to depart from it because, and rightly so, he found it too defensive and possession based without carrying much of a punch at the other end. Except that there is a rather large caveat that has come with the new found philosophy: Can't find the back of the net! United have moved from being a depressing lot to a frustrating lot. United fans are in the middle of a catch 22 wherein the reminiscence about the old days carries a relief from depression about it whist the present is mind-bogglingly frustrating.  It's a cruel twist of fate! Very cruel! The hand of Lucifer himself!

Intriguingly, it is not as if we are hypothesising United's ability to score in the league. The club have easily racked up four goal totals in just about every Cup game so far this season.  The argument for weaker opposition in the Cups was laid to rest when the club emerged from a failure infront of goal against West Ham in two days to put four past the Hammers in the League Cup last week. The mystery remains unsolved. Unfortunately, the club is desperately short of time with which to solve it. The only available options at the moment are a pick between depression and frustration. What's your poison?