Monday, 20 March 2017

RUNNING OUT OF STEAM?


The siege mentality was in full swing this past week at Old Trafford. Jose Mourinho has not left anyone guessing about what he thinks of the football authorities, home and abroad, and their failure to fit within is expectations.

In Europe, the manager was irked by UEFA's indifference to the state of the pitch on which Manchester United played Russian side FC Rostov in the first leg of the last 16 Europa league match. The heat was quickly turned onto the FA and the Premier League for giving United a midday kick off on the Sunday following the second leg of the same tie. 

Whilst Jose is keeping within nature by taking on the authority, his squad has been dealt a severe test of endurance by the 3 game week schedule they've been had to cope with. Until last week Manchester United were still involved in all competitions. The club has already played 47 games this season. In context, that is 16 more than their opponents last Sunday, Middlesbrough. Incredibly, United could yet still play 17 games before now and the end of the season! 

Indeed, such is the fixture crisis about United's season run-in that premier league games are being arranged on Thursday! The Manchester derby will take place on such a day at the end of April but the club remains with at least one league match unscheduled. The Premier League have categorically dismissed any suggestions that the club will be allowed to play games beyond the official end of the domestic season, meaning that United will have to make do with the two months available after the International break.

For Mourinho, his otherwise strong squad has been tested by a plethora of injuries and suspensions, calling for a clever utilization of the club's human resource. There's only so many players you can rest through and since the EFL Cup Final, United have looked far short of the steam they had built at the start of winter. 

They struggled at home with Bournemouth and only just got past FC Rostov in the Europa league when the gulf in class between the sides should have made for a more comfortable aggregate scoreline. In the same period, the club lost its grip of the FA Cup and whilst defeat at Stamford Bridge was understandable in the circumstances, the performance on Sunday against managerless Boro was one of a side on its last legs. 

Thankfully, it was only Boro, but Manchester United looked like they desperately needed the international break. The two week break affords a couple of older heads to recover and get back into shape whilst for others, time with their National teams is a welcome break from the schedule and routine three games a week can do.

Whilst it should be expected that the modern footballer should be able to play thrice a week without complaint, in England the debate is somewhat punctuated with caveats. Such is the gruelling nature of England's top flight that it has become tradition among the top sides to treat every other domestic competition as a distraction. Had it been Manchester United with a 10 point league at the summit of the league, elimination from the FA Cup, or from the Europa League takes on minute significance. Whisper it, but in England, only the league really matters! Indeed, it now matters so much that even second place without a tangible trophy to show for it is widely regarded as having a successful season.  

As it were, Jose Mourinho found himself in a position where he cannot quite pick and choose trophies. United, by virtue of their summer spending have to make the Champions League. That means that the Europa League has had to be treated with the respect it can sometimes demand. In addition, the thirst for trophies of any kind at the club currently meant that he couldn't simply turn his back on the EFL Cup. Once United got the luck of the draw in the semi-final, the onus was on the club to go on and win it, if only because you can't be guaranteed of winning anything these days. The manager rightly pointed out that 'there are many sharks' in England baying for trophy success. Indeed, one has to simply glance at the line-up for the FA Cup semi-finals to get the point herein.

In all, the club has been left with a fixture list that has attested to the depth in quantity if not quality at the club. With a couple months left to close out the season, the club remains in pole position to reach the minimum target for the season.

Asked whether he would prioritize European competition or the domestic fight for a top four place, the manager pointed to the bonus success in Europe would bring for the club. Not since the late 1980s have United been at the quarter final stage of the competition that was formerly the UEFA Cup. More importantly is that success in the competition would enter United into another final at the start of next season with a chance of lifting another trophy, the UEFA Super Cup against whomever wins the Champions League. All that sounds better than merely walking away from a season in 4th place. 

Fans will therefore hope that the players and manager will take one deep breath during this break to gather all the energy reserves they have left and mount what should be a thrilling end to the season. United will have most of their squad problems regarding injuries, and suspensions over when the football resumes on April Fool's Day. The hope is that more than just a couple of players come fresh enough to continue what has been a marathon of a season. 

Domestically, United could yet finish the season as high as second in the league but all the sides engaged in a similar battle with them do not have any European commitments. In England, that is a major handicap, but not one that cannot be overcome if you have built a head of steam with the finish line in sight.   

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

THE SIXTH SENSE

The cast of the Saturday lunchtime brawl at Old Trafford
There is a feeling of inevitability starting to creep in about Manchester United and their destiny to finish 6th in the premier league this season. That, however, is not the sad part. The sadness in all this is that United have only themselves to look at when questions over the club's league position are asked.

Now, this is by no means an obituary for a Champions League finish. Indeed, United could still end up as far high as second place this season. Such is the frustratingly generous nature of the campaign. In fact, take the 14 points United have dropped at home in draws against lower league opposition that we should have won and you have yourself a title challenge!

It is at that point that Jose Mourinho's progress at Manchester United can be identified. The club is not far away from a league title and yet the fault margins are ever crucial in this unforgiving of all leagues. Fault margins, eh? At United, there's essentially one: Goals.

Of all the problems you can have as a football team, this is perhaps the most damning one! Goals win games. It's little wonder then that in the middle of March, United can only count 13 premier league wins this season. That equates to a base average of 2 league wins a month in the season so far. That is only as good as any upper mid-table form as you can find anywhere. The maths simply points to 6th place. United are therefore not handicapped by any laws of science in their bid to push up the table.

Identifying United's need for goals can be quite the irony especially when they boast a statistically prolific goal-getter in Zlatan Ibrahimovic. At 26 goals so far, there is every reason to believe that United will end up with a 30 goal striker fro the first time since Sir Ale Ferguson hung up his chewing gum.

And yet, beyond Zlatan, the numbers dwindle. Owing to a variety of options in the 3 behind the striker, Mourinho is yet to identify his first choice front three, or at least a very reliable trio. The uncertainty of combinations in midfield has accounted for a distinct failure to get the best from club's prize asset, Paul Pogba. Todate, it is difficult to say whether the Frenchman is or is not operating at excess capacity. Often times there seems a confusion among fans as to whether he has been asked to sit deep or to influence play ahead of him. His overall numbers suggest he definitely gets about and whilst he cannot be faulted for the transfer fee, it has been the subject of media scrutiny when the club under-performs.

Even so, his contribution at Manchester United wouldn't be such a bother if United's midfielders were generally contributing more goals. Juan Mata is arguably United's best midfield finisher whilst Mkhitaryan's numbers have suffered because of a lengthy time to settle into the club and most recently injury. Anthony Martial flourished as the team's focal point of attack last year but has found it a little harder wide left. As such, United are yet to find a solution to a problem whose roots date back to the latter years of Sir Alex Ferguson's tenure.

To score 5 goals from 130-something shots suggests a problem that needs more than merely Antoine Griezmann to solve. There has to be a greater responsibility from the supporting cast to put away chances from midfield.

United have a big game player in Zlatan Ibrahimovic to emerge in the absolutely big games as a goal threat. Ironically, what they are lacking is a common finisher who gobbles up chances against the lesser weights of the league. The kind whom social media will quickly rubbish because he scores against supposedly weaker sides. Only then can the club claim a balance in the attacking third of the pitch.

At the moment, it appears United are trying so hard to finish the most basic of chances. Akin to the kid who failed a cheap test because he only prepared for the most difficult of tests. An over-qualified approach to the most basic of problems. Perhaps a sixth sense?