Monday, 20 February 2017

PROGRESS IN THE CUPS WITH FIRST SEASON FINAL LOOMING LARGE

Ibrahimovic wheels away in trademark style to celebrate the winner

A 3-0 home leg victory over St Etienne should mean that Manchester United roughly have a last 16 Europa league place sorted. Wednesday's trip to France should be academic if recent form is anything to go by.

It was a lot closer on Sunday however with Blackburn providing the opposition in what has always been a local derby. Difficult and rainy games at Ewood Park had become synonymous with Manchester United when Owen Coyle's team when United made regular visits there in the recent past.

It turned out to feel a bit like de ja vu when United conceded within the first quarter of an hour. Jose Mourinho's 7 changes from the team that started on Thursday in Europe were evident in that shaky start but United have such an abundance of squad depth that the team selected was expected to get the better of the Championship relegation battlers.

As it were, Mourinho had to summon his A-list talent from the bench to put away a game that threatened to further clog United's schedule with a replay. In the words of the men themselves, it was a 'pogpass' by Pogba that inevitably led to a 'poggoal' by Zlatan Ibrahimovic. A 24th goal of the season from the Swede caps a remarkable tally six months into English football at the age of 35. He is now a genuine contender for just about every individual award come May. There is every argument for United to keep him beyond the summer regardless the happenings in the transfer window, if only because it is difficult to find a replacement of better let alone similar output in the current market.

Thankfully, United will get to play their away leg in Europe on the Wednesday, allowing for reasonable time to be recuperate for the EFL Cup final on Sunday. United's opponents will have had a full 15 days to prepare for the game---a luxury Jose can only dream on given United's schedule.

Ultimately, the week ahead promises a shot at glory for the club. A young squad, of United's like can only benefit from continuous trophy success of any kind. Fans are desperate for any trophy they can win and Manchester United are still in with a shot a three. Of the trio, Sunday's should be easiest one to collect, not because Southampton are light weight (they're yet to concede a goal in the competition) but because they're a few big boys in the other two who could more than match United.

For starters, in the FA Cup, United will travel to the home of the Champions elect, Chelsea in the quarter-final. United have won just twice in 15 years at Stamford Bridge. On the other hand, the Europa league is not even at its last 16 stage yet, making for a long uncertain journey between now and when the final two teams in the competition will be determined.

Factor in a premier league battle to finish in the elite positions and you can see why Sunday is an opportunity that cannot be frowned upon. In this fallow period as the club continues to come to grips with the departure of Sir Alex, any Wembley appearance should not be sniffed at. A second Cup triumph in four years post-Fergie will make for more decent reading when we eventually look back on this transition.

Hopefully, the players can translate that on to the pitch and give the fans another Wembley memory to cherish.           

Monday, 13 February 2017

CUP MONTH

Manchester United players celebrate Juan Mata's opener against Watford on Saturday in the premier league

It will not be until a month from hereon that Manchester United will be involved in a league game. Jose Mourinho'side are the only team still involved in all competitions and as such time has to be made to dispatch with Cup duties.By the time the league campaign resumes at home to Bournemouth, United will have played a fixture in each of the three Cup competitions they are involved in.

One of them is of course the EFL Cup final at the end of this month that offers a chance to bag the first pot of the season and what would be Jose Mourinho's first trophy at the club. For a side in the middle of a transition, trophy success of any kind cannot be taken for granted.

Cup competitions were very much the bread and butter of the team in the 70s when the club struggled to come to terms with the departure of Sir Matt. It allowed for a restoration of pride at a time when the league title was seemingly beyond the managerial means of the club.

Since Sir Alex retired, United have scratched one major itch by lifting the first gong in the post Sir Alex era. Last season's FA Cup win was the highlight of an otherwise dour season. Whilst this campaign has been anything but dour, the league title remains more than an arm's length away from United, largely because the team is a couple of tweaks away from being the title challenging machine that their creativity deserves.

Martial celebrates United's second on Saturday
The depth of the squad has allowed United the much needed bonus of long Cup runs in all competitions. Importantly, it has given the club more than one way of turning the season into a success. Whilst beating a very organised Southampton in a Cup final will not be a walk in the park, United will be favourites to do just that. St. Etienne in the Europa League is a draw that the club will be expected to negotiate to make the last 16 of the competition whilst Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup is another that the team should be able to overcome for a place in the last eight of the competition.

The opportunity is there to combine a decent league finish with at least a couple of pots. That would certainly equate to a job well done this year. Fans do care about trophies regardless of the public prejudices about the 'importance' of certain Cups. Given the average age of United's squad, it is important that the lads get into the habit of lifting trophies. The FA Cup triumph last year was a good start. We'll need to build on that this year.   

Monday, 6 February 2017

THE ONLY CONSISTENCY IS INCONSISTENCY

Juan Mata and Mkhitaryan turned on the style to help United ease past Leicester City

At least there is consistency in the fact that Manchester United are now 15 league games unbeaten in the premier league. In isolation, that is no mean feat considering the nature of the English top division. Indeed, United are the only club in the league without at least one defeat in the past 10 league games.

Ironically, that unbeaten run has not really been in tandem with the club's Champions league ambitions this term. The number of sterile draws that the club have suffered within that run has ensured that they have been in the same league position for the best part of five months of the season.

The projections for the final league standings in May have United in 6th place simply because a familiar trajectory of results in the first half of the season will leave the club firmly at the bottom of the summit's mini-league.

That predicament will in no minor terms be down to the club's profligacy. The Red Devils are the league's worst chance conversion side and as a result have scored less goals than all the teams above them and quite a few below them. Except that it hasn't always been the story even in this unusual of all seasons.

At the King Power Stadium last night, Manchester United were as ruthless with their chance conversion as we've known, so much so that the game was won within the final 88 seconds of the first half. A couple of sucker punches when it looked like the game was heading into the now familiar stalemate at halftime were enough to deflate the Champions. That venomous accuracy was maintained at the start of the interval to effectively render the second half useless.

What fans would give for consistency in putting away chances between now and the end of the season. Given the weaknesses that sit above us in the league, even a run of three or four wins from hereon would dramatically change our league campaign. Such is the inconsistency among the five of the top six clubs. Incredibly, United could still finish the campaign in second place with just five points separating second placed Spurs and sixth placed United.

All that though rests on finding a consistency in chance conversion that has eluded United up to this point of the season. It's difficult to come up with more than a couple of games this term in which United have been dominated to the extent of being denied chances. It is therefore frustrating that the club is miles off the pace when the software is in place to do so much better. At the moment it feels its a case of touch and go if United will drop their casualness and turn on the mean face. Like many of the sides above them, it has left inconsistency as the only thing consistent about 2016/17. We can't really put a finger on how and where it will end. But at least we can cross that finger and hope that the team finds its ruthless self consistently.
     

Thursday, 2 February 2017

PROFLIGACY, A NOUN

Wayne Rooney reacts to another chance gone begging last night

The numbers never really lie. At 33 goals scored by the turn of February, one who hasn't watched Manchester United this season would be forgiven for concluding that the team still suffers from the sterile Louis van Gaal approach at finding the net.

The premier league is currently split into a top six, middle eight and a bottom six. As a member of the top six, United should only be judged as against their peers in that mini summit league. The Red Devils rank bottom of the pile on goals scored among the top six and whilst LVG banked on a clean sheet every now and then, United have not been as efficient defensively either.

Not that all this takes into account that United are collectively a better outfit than during the reign of the Dutchman. Indeed, for the purist who is in for the thrill of watching the Reds play every Saturday, the season has panned out quite well. It is generally more entertaining to watch Jose Mourinho's Manchester United.

In that top six mini league I referred to, United rank top for 'clear-cut' chances created. The definition of a clear-cut chance has been passed on as ''one that carries a reasonable expectation of a goal''. Don't ask what 'reasonable expectation' means! But you get the drill. In a league as supposedly difficult as the premier league, it takes a very good team to create several clear cut chances in every game they play. Chance creation, and good chances at that, are a credit to the creativity of the midfield and attack. In other words, it suggests that whatever deficiency your team has got, a creative midfielder is not one of them.

Zlatan has missed the most clear cut chances in the league
However, in the same top six mini league, United rank bottom for conversion of chances. Hell, United rank bottom in the entire 20 team league for chance conversion. A quick glance at the attacking options at United suggests that it is not necessarily a want of quality of attackers that is causing such seismic levels of profligacy. Indeed, we are led to believe that there is not enough room in the team for all of them. And yet, it is turning out that the club just doesn't seem to have the ruthlessness required from its attack to guarantee the points that would have made a world of difference to the league season.

Whilst there has been an inquest into the games United have dominated but failed to win, a curious glance at the games in which United managed to put away at least one good chance to win the game ironically carry the same question mark. In the reverse fixture back in August, United had to wait until stoppage time to score what proved to be the winner. The New Years' Eve come back win against Middlesbrough will not be remembered for the wastefulness in front of goal because United eventually rallied to get the pair of goals that they needed.

Point is, even when United win, it's easy to pick out more than a handful of clear cut chances that go begging in-game. It's an indictment on the quality of finishing but more worryingly smacks of a casualness with which chances are taken. It's a terrible problem to have because unlike the problem of the style and system that was easily departed from under Louis van Gaal, this one is a tad more into the 'software' of a team's make-up and is therefore much harder to isolate and hence solve.

For fans, the worst part is that it has happened over and over again, so many times over the course of the season that you cannot out-rightly state that a result as frustrating as a 0-0 draw with Hull City at Old Trafford will not happen again between now and May.

We do have the riches on the pitch, but we're wasteful with them and not really making much of a case for our rich status.  Profligacy is very much the resident noun at Old Trafford and every few weeks fans are left mulling over it.