Wednesday, 25 January 2017

SO WHERE SHALL WE FINISH?


It is unfortunate but quite in sync with the progress of the premier league that in the season when Manchester United have shown the biggest progress since the days of Sir Alex, the league is at its most competitive state.
Such is the competition this year that according to EuroClubIndex.com the club is projected to finish 6th with all of 71 points, three points off the Champions League.

It's easy to see how United will eventually be made to pay for all those draws in games when they've been utterly dominant. Had United justifiably picked up maximum points against Burnley, Stoke City (twice), Arsenal and at home to West Ham, the side could easily be challenging Chelsea for the league Championship. As it stands, the club is somewhere in between an over-reliance on Zlatan Ibrahimovic and a general profligacy infront of goal.

Perhaps what could prove to be more dear to the club is that they are 6th in the top six mini-league for results against the other members of the top six. This despite having already had games against Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool at Old Trafford. With the Manchester derby likely to be postponed if and when the club make the EFL Cup final, United's run in to the end of the season between April and May will feature trips to the Emirates, the Etihad, White Harte Lane with Chelsea also due to Old Trafford in between.

That run of games is essentially a 12 point swing that could go either way. Given United's form, or lack of it, against the top eight sides, it is results between now and the start of April that will determine if United have given themselves a fighting chance for the run in. However, the competitiveness of the current division means that even another run of wins could still see United struggle to get into the top four.

The only factor season projections can't really account for is results against the other members of the top six. It could therefore mean that United will have to beat each of their rivals within that last month of the season to replace them in the elite positions. A three points gap between 4th and 6th come May means that even one positive result in the 'unexpected' category could be enough to upset the odds. It's a complex metric that doesn't of course factor in the state of the season at the time. For all we know United could be looking at a Europa League final at the time which would by itself be a potential Champions League ticket.

Ultimately, the immediate challenge for the club is to find a way to curb their wastefulness infront of goal. United average 20 shots on goal per game, a marked improvement from the days of Louis van Gaal, but you wouldn't know it from the number of goals the club has scored. Ruthlessness is currently the difference between United in 6th and a genuine title challenge.   

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

UNITED ON A ROLL BUT FACE STERN DERBY TEST


You've had the banter by now. You should have because it's getting a little stale. Manchester United are on a run of six straight premier league wins and yet have occupied sixth place on the log throughout their reward!

Whilst the league table has not reflected United's form, it is a measure of how far off the pace they had fallen off during October and November when the club continuously failed to turn dominant performances into results. Ahead of December, United were starring at up to eight points off the Champions League places. That in itself was and is a measure of the challenge those ahead of them possess.

In emerging from that and becoming the country's in-form side, United have had to first claw back the gap between them and the elite positions. As it stands, just two points separate the club from 4th. That is the improvement that merits applaud.

This current Manchester United is much less a 'still-in-transition team' and more of a settled side that has taken to book their manager's ideas. That United impose themselves on the opposition has very much become the norm these days. They've purred in just about every one of those 9 straight wins, so much so that you cannot point at any one of those results as a 'lucky' one.This is the fruition of the domination that didn't worry the manager during the pre-winter run of draws.

The Manchester United juggernaut however faces it's toughest examination since that run started this Sunday. All the while, talk has been silent on the Old Trafford terraces about a title bid. And rightly so. Chelsea would have to lose four games (or lose points of the equivalent) between now and May whilst United win just about all theirs to win overtake the West London side. Even so, there's five sides ahead of United, better placed to take advantage of any slip by the current pacesetters.

Realistically, United can obviously still target a smart finish in the league. That by itself is a formidable challenge considering the form of the current top six. Indeed, United could still beat Liverpool this weekend and still start next week in sixth place! Forget the fairy tale of the season past, the top dogs are standing up for themselves this time and it's all too apparent when you consider the gap between 6th and 7th.

Regardless the collective form of the top six, six simply doesn't go into four! Two good teams will fail to qualify for the Champions league come May. It means that whilst their collective form against the rest of the league is good, the top six positions will be determined by their results against each other. This is what puts Sunday's fixture into context for United. The club has so far not fared quite well against its rivals and that is why they find themselves behind the lot. The victory over Spurs at Old Trafford is the only notable domestic result note. Sunday is an opportunity to improve on that.

More than that, it remains a derby of profound importance to fans. Victory would massively build on the confidence of the players to continue a winning run that could force statisticians to dig up a few club records. United have suffered a dearth of confidence after a few bad results this season. It took a great while to overcome defeat to Manchester City in September. The reverse was true when the club held out to beat Spurs at Old Trafford. A lot about what lies ahead therefore rests on the outcome this Sunday.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

UNITED AGAIN IN 2017

Manchester United are on a roll

At various points during Manchester United's 7 game winning run, it was tempting to make a conclusive observation about how far Jose Mourinho has taken the club so far. The urge of making one such observation has been tempered by the club's unconvincing start to the season. The desperate run of draws that saw the club fail to match excellent performances with results is largely why they remain 6th despite their best premier league form in three years. Perhaps a better judgement call can be made now that the premier league pauses at the halfway point to allow for the FA Cup.

United's six premier league wins on the bounce have come against Tottenham Hotspur, Crystal Palace, West Bromwich Albion, Sunderland, Middlesbrough and most recently West Ham United. Of the lot, the win over Spurs is the only eye-brow raiser and even that was at home, but they all count for three points!

The competition among the top six clubs is so intense at the moment that going into FA Cup weekend, five points separate Liverpool in second from United in sixth! A huge contrast to the 9 points between United in 6th and Everton in 7th. It means that even the occupants of second place could, in a matter of days of football fond themselves outside the Champions League places. There is now a mini-league at the top and thankfully, United sorted out their season in time to get the last available ticket for the party at the summit.

Forget the fairy-tale of last season, the big boys have returned to the fore of English football and more often than not, the smaller side has been on the end of a beating from a bigger side. That effectively explains the gap between 6th and 7th. What that also means is that league positions this season will more than ever be determined by results from games involving the top six!

Of the lot, United have only beaten Spurs and that is why they find themselves trailing in the mini-league. Whilst the consistent run of wins against lesser sides has helped United close the gap, it is their results against the very elite teams that will define which turn the season takes from hereon. Indeed, one good result can instill the last facet of confidence to propel this team up the summit of the league.

It is apt therefore that the clash against second placed Liverpool should come after the confidence instilling run of wins United are currently on. The reward for victory in that game is measured by the fact that in the following weeks of January, the rest of the top six play each other. In any event, we are destined for a photo finish come May.

As far as Manchester United are concerned, the club has at least shown progress. In Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba, United have restored about themselves the aura of winning games in the tunnel. There is a core of consistent players in the side across the spine that finally mark out the club as a genuine threat to any opponent. Indeed, it is a measure of the club's progress that they can match just about any threat in the league. It's been a while since we could confidently say that.

Crucially, all that has been heavily dependent on the success of Jose Mourinho's transfer business last summer. In the last three seasons, the club has struggled, nay, failed to justify its summer outlay. Too often we had to remind ourselves that a quarter of a billion pounds had been invested. In Eric Bailly, Henrickh Mikhitaryan, Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, United bought themselves a spine that has allowed them to dominate just about every game this season, even when the results have not gone their way.

If the momentum garnered in the recent past is carried into the second half of the season, there is every chance 2017 could yet be a successful year for United, at least in some form. The club have the FA Cup to defend but are already in a League Cup semifinal with a good chance to partake the final at Wembley next month. The club is also listed as the bookies favourite to lift the Europa league come May. The size of the squad means that if the manager rotates efficiently, the club could afford to make it far enough into the competition without going full throttle.

Finally, there is a feel of genuine progress at United and there is every chance that what seemed like a dead rubber season could be turned into a very meaningful one. Of course, there remains a long way to go between now and May but at least fans can count on the bounce-back ability of the side after a poor result. Just like in the old days. More than anything, it was always a run of consecutive poor results that undid the club in the recent past. There were more 'bad runs' than good ones and in the end, it reflects on the league table. More than ever, it feels that the club has more good days ahead than bad ones. It is a belief that should keep United in good stead in the new year.