Monday, 28 May 2018

Here come the girls as United welcome new Women's team

The 2018-19 season marks the start of a new era for United and Women's football. For the first time since 2005, after an absence of 13 years, the club will have a fully established professional women's senior team next season.
For so long, it's been criminal that a club that a great club with the size and stature of the Reds have failed to make strides in the women's game, having disbanded the previous ladies team upon the takeover by the American Glazer. United were widely criticised for that move as the only Premier League club without a pro adult women's team and have been slammed in the past for being out of touch in the modern world of a rapidly evolving game during an era in which women's football has enjoyed more success, and popularity, than ever.

The news comes after a revamping of the women's professional game, run by the FA, who approved United's application and placed us into the second tier FA Women's Championship - also known as the Women's Super League 2 - alongside eleven other clubs that include Spurs, Villa, Millwall, Sheffield, Leicester City and south coast side Lewes, a surprise new addition to the restructured league. Existing clubs had to re- apply for their places in the respective leagues before a second, open "free for all" application phase which is where United come into the equation. The Reds will also play in the FA Women's Cup and the FA WSL (League) Cup.
The new team, to be dubbed 'Manchester United Women' will be based at our iconic Cliff training ground in Salford once ongoing re-development work has been completed. Former England captain
Casey Stoney - who was capped 130 times by the Lionesses - is expected to be installed as the new manager of the freshly-formed team. After retiring from playing earlier this year, she became assistant to former United man and England boss Phil Neville, having skippered Team GB in the London 2012 Olympics and now looks set to be the lady to drive United forward into what promises to be an exciting future.

United Executive vice chairman Ed Woodward said: "All at Manchester United are delighted that the FA have approved our application.
"The new women's team will build on the success of the Girls Regional Talent Club and will have the same philosophy of all Manchester United sides, creating a pathway from academy and youth to the first team.
"We will be making some exciting announcements in the coming days and weeks - starting a brand new professional team from scratch is challenging but rewarding and we will make every effort to provide the support and experience for our new women's team to be successful and to uphold the fine and revered traditions of our great club."

The campaign begins on the weekend of 18/19 August with the opening games in the League Cup before the league fixtures start across 8 and 9 September. Here come the girls.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

2018/19 is make or break for Jose Mourinho

Two years ago almost to the day, Jose Mourinho arrived at Old Trafford on a wave of expectation with the remit of turning United into genuine title contenders again. His second season at a club is usually the one where it all comes together and he wins the title - a pattern that he has followed throughout his career. United started the season in such swashbuckling style with a flurry of fabulous 4-0 wins, that the belief this was to be the year that history repeated was only fuelled. By its end, the obvious signs of progress as we came second felt like they had evaporated  - although there are mitigating factors in the form of a Manchester City side who have smashed every record going. Although there has been progression, it's been slow, without even the fillip of a trophy in 2017-18.  Whilst he does deserve credit having stabilised the club, re-instilled team spirit and improved our position, there are concerns over both Mourinho's style of play, which is functional at best, and his ability to bridge the yawning chasm of the 19 points between us and City. Everything feels distinctly underwhelming.
He was meant to be the man to put United back on top, but the team are so far behind City, both on paper and in reality, that 2018/19 has the feeling of make or break for the manager. That takes us neatly to the infamous Jose Mourinho "third season syndrome" - the campaign where the triumphs of the previous season are quickly forgotten amid a toxic combination of bad results, fall outs with players and palpable discord among the fanbase. This happened at Chelsea during his last spell in England, with catastrophic results when he was sacked having dragged his champions into a fight for survival. Some would say Mourinho is not far off that point already at Old Trafford and is merely a ticking time bomb, going through the motions of a man at a crossroads of his career. For a man who had coveted the United job for so long, he certainly does not give off the impression of someone for whom this is his dream.

Jose somehow has to flip that model on its head and reverse a trend that has been as much a part of his decorated career as the many titles, trophies and glittering successes. Nothing else except winning the title - or at the very least going mighty close to doing so - will be good enough next term. Many of us were divided over his appointment at the start and those concerns have only exacerbated after a trophyless, Jekyll and Hyde season of glorious highs and equally inglorious lows in which we seemed to play strangulating football with the handbrake on. Another season of this would push our already rapidly thinning patience beyond the point of no return. If he's not careful, Mourinho's going to get hounded out. Is that really what we want? Succeed in taking us to the title, and the misgivings will be forgotten - Jose will be remembered as the man who ended the drought and proved himself as the first Sir Alex successor worthy of the name. Fall short again, and there can be very little justification for keeping him on. There can be no more meltdowns, no more excuses, no more negativity and no more second chances. Quite simply, Mourinho's got to deliver - it's the title or bust next term and the very definiton of make or break.

Top heavy United lack leaders and width

With Michael Carrick having moved from the pitch to the dugout upon his retirement, United will need a new captain ahead of 2018-19. United usually give the armband to the longest serving player, with Antonio Valencia having donned it for much of the season just gone. But he's not a captain - a skipper in name only -  and therein lies the main shortcoming in Jose's United. We had four different captains in the Champions League this season - from Valencia to Young via Pogba and Smalling. It never used to be this way - a far cry from the halycon days under the totemic on-pitch leadership of Roy Keane, Gary Neville and Bryan Robson. They were synonymous with the club. Pogba doesn't stand out as captaincy material, neither does Young and Smalling can hardly be put in the same bracket as United's previous defensive titans Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic - both of whom led the team with distinction as great captains in a great United side.

United do not lack personalities, but there are no true, natural leader in this squad. No one to grab a game by the scruff of the neck, no one to turn to dig the team out of a hole when the going gets tough, just as Keane used to. No one who stands up to be counted, no one to form a protective shield from the manager and take a struggling player under his wing. You can feel a certain degree of empathy for Jose in this regard - captains are born, not made, and you can't just go out, buy a player and give him the armband. The art of captaining a side just doesn't work like that. Think of the Class of 92 - a once in a lifetime group of homegrown players, a group that had leaders and strong characters in abundance.
Perhaps that same academy system now is not producing enough talent and characters to become leaders. Players are put on such a lofty pedestal at such a young age. Arsenal had Tony Adams and Patrick Vieira, Chelsea had John Terry and Steven Gerrard often seemed to single - handedly drive Liverpool to victory. The best clubs all have strong captains as talismanic figureheads of the side, but those types of players have increasingly become a dying breed.

The squad is also top-heavy, jam packed with a plethora of number tens but no natural width with only one out-and-out striker in Romelu Lukaku. Valencia and Young are inverted, inside-out full-backs that can't beat their man and don't give you width, often cutting in, with Jesse Lingard, Alexis Sanchez, Juan Mata, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford all similar in style as number ten-type players, meaning that the cogs in the Reds attack often play too close together and too narrow - making life much easier for opposition defences with the final third clogged up in central areas. The traditional flying winger in the mould of a Ryan Giggs or an Andrei Kanchelskis don't really exist anymore in these modern multifunctional times, but United have no natural width. Jose wanted a left-sided player last summer but didn't get his man - namely Internazionale's Ivan Perisic - which would have helped solve this.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Anthony Martial's United career at a crossroads

Anthony Martial lit up Old Trafford with a dazzling debut in a stunning campaign at Old Trafford and ended top scorer with 18 goals under Louis van Gaal in 2015-16, the one shining light set against the backdrop of an otherwise dark season.
 He became an instant hero with THAT wonderful solo goal against Liverpool and is the inspiration behind one of our best terrace chants, as he quickly illuminated a dreary United side upon his £50m arrival from Monaco. He had the potential to become one the finest foreign exports United have had for many a year, with all the assets to develop in a future Thierry-Henry esque superstar, at his best a  dazzling bundle of pace and trickery. But Martial has failed to kick on during the two years Jose Mourinho has been at the club (make of that what you will), having endured a torrid 2018 in which he has failed to score since January, opportunities were few and far between and his United career is now seemingly at a crossroads.

Now, the Frenchman - still only 22 - has missed out on a place in his country's World Cup squad after an indifferent season of regression and flux. He started the campaign in a blistering run of form, a run that co-incided with a rejuvenated United's opening surge to the summit of the table in September.
But that lightning start has quickly eroded, with a combination of less game time (Martial started just 18 Premier League ties this term and played the full 90 only five times), a dramatic downturn in form and the New Year arrival of Alexis Sanchez hardly helping his cause. Martial never seems as if he's enjoying himself, he carries the same pained expression and plays like the weight of the world is enveloped on his young shoulders.
The Chilean's arrival has pushed him down the pecking order, he seems to be lacking in confidence and unsure of his main role within this number-ten heavy United identikit. Having scored a paltry 19 goals across the last two campaigns, Martial's influence has declined and he's been forced to the fringes of the first team. He now looks in danger of becoming the latest in a long line of players who have failed to make it at the club despite promising beginnings. It also does little to enhance Jose's already sceptical critics regarding his man management of young talents.

Martial came on for the final 17 minutes of Saturday's cup final against Chelsea - a fleeting, brief cameo that looks set to be his last in the red of United. If that's the case, then it's an inglorious and anti-climatic end to a United career that will be remembered as one in which the player's burgeoning potential ultimately went unfulfilled. The boss has seemingly lost all faith in Martial and - with Jose planning a summer overhaul in both playing squad and backroom staff - our number 11 looks set to become the first casualty of the clearout.

Monday, 21 May 2018

Jose Mourinho needs to get ruthless and bin the dross

Phil Jones struggles against Eden Hazard in the cup final - in which he gave away the match-winning penalty and was given the runaround by the tempermental Belgian - only served to further highlight the collective shortcomings of United's ageing and undermanned defence. Since 2013, we've invested £130m on the back four alone, yet the quartet (quintet if you include Dave), remains the same as it did seven years ago. Which other 'top' side have kept together a defence that clearly isn't up to standard for that long? An overhaul is needed and Jose Mourinho needs to get ruthless and bin the lorry load of deadwood that is permeating and puncturing this United squad - starting with the defence. Recruitment has been scatter-gun and players that should have been sold years ago are somehow still first choice.

Antonio Valencia, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Ashley Young - four Sir Alex Ferguson signings who have been great servants for this club. Statistically we may have the best defence in the country, but that's largely down to the heroic exploits of the world's best goalkeeper David de Gea. The reality is that Valencia and Young are converted wingers in their mid 30s who can't cross or beat their man, Jones is injury prone and Smalling erratic and riddled with mistakes. Marcos Rojo can be put in the same bracket, Daley Blind isn't good enough and Eric Bailly's omission in the closing weeks of the season has been baffling. The Ivorian was Jose's first signing as United manager and remains our best defender. Victor Lindelof struggled to start with but has grown into a superb player as the campaign has gone on. You can't really compare Pep with Jose - that would be like looking at apples and oranges - but Pep's first job as City boss was to rip out full-backs who didn't fit his identikit and - although he spent more than £200m in the process - replaced Bacary Sagna, Aleksandr Kolarov and Gael Clichy with younger, fitter and better upgrades in Danilo, Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy - the starting point for his City revolution.

For a club of our size and stature to only have one proper right-back and one proper left-back is criminal - you have to have a least two players for every position. Luke Shaw and Matteo Darmian are both not of the standard we require at this club and should be moved on. Timothy Fosu - Mensah and Axel Tuanzebe - who have been out on loan at Palace and Villa respectively - have had a season of first-team football, I like what I see of both and they are ready for the step up. Young, hungry, quick, strong and most importantly of all, home grown Academy graduates. Juve's Alex Sandro has been linked with a £50m move to Old Trafford, and at 27 the left-back is five years Young's junior, he would be ideal and would provide fresh impetus to a defence badly in need of just that.

It's not just the defence that needs an overhaul - midfield too. With Michael Carrick now retired, Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic give us a strong balance in midfield, but Ander Herrera and the much-maligned Marouane Fellaini have failed to convince, despite both seemingly being among Jose's favourites. Anthony Martial has regressed alarmingly and lost his place in the team as a result - it's been a gradual decline for the young Frenchman since his breathtaking breakthrough season in 2015-16 under Louis van Gaal. So much so that he has missed out on World Cup selection for France. For the good of United and his career, he should be moved on too. Juan Mata has been the symbol of consistency as string-puller in chief through these turbulent post-Ferguson times, but his influence is on the wane and the little Spaniard is no longer first pick, indeed it's hard to think of the last time he had a good game. I'll cry if he leaves, but United's forward line needs a fresh sprinkling of stardust and Mata isn't in it.

United only scored once in the four ties that co-incided with Romelu Lukaku's end-of-season absence, a drought that only went to show how much we rely on the burly Belgian as the focal point of our attack. With Martial's apathy and Marcus Rashford's regression, another striker and a winger - a left sided player that Jose was after last summer - wouldn't go amiss either. The manager needs to show all the qualities that have made him one of the best bosses of his generation - he's got to be ruthless, decisive and make decisions that may be unpopular with many, but ones that must be necessary for the good of the club. His long term future depends on it.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Rashford's alarming regression hints at more serious issues

On a sweaty, heavy, oddly gruelling afternoon at Wembley, United's sweaty, heavy, oddly gruelling season finally spluttered and juddered to a halt. It has been a campaign of progress in many ways, with obvious improvement in the league. But it passed here without the silver lining of a trophy as Eden Hazard's first half penalty settled a largely forgettable cup final in favour of Chelsea.
From Anfield to St James Park, from Andalusia to Ashton Gate, United's season has been a leaden-legged mish mash, with a sense throughout of clogged energy, of cogs that don't click together, of results wrung out through sheer bloody-mindedness and force of will.

If a player embodies this incohesive jumble, it's the frantic and often forlon figure of Marcus Rashford - a player whose megawatt glow has dimmed, flickered and burned out as flaws and a startling lack of confidence have slowly ebbed away at the golden game of one of England's genuine 24-carat talents. Publicly criticised - rightly or wrongly - by his boss after a dreadful performance at Brighton two weeks ago, Rashford was given the chance to redeem himself up top at Wembley in place of the injured Romelu Lukaku. This was a wonderful opportunity for Rashford to play as a starting centre-forward in a season-defining tie.  It was a chance that he did not take - isolated and marshalled superbly by Chelsea's experienced defence, he failed to make any meaningful impact in a game in which United needed him most. Rashford is still only 20 and in the middle of one those seasons that any young player is allowed to have. The wider issue is the sense of a player drifting into a dead-end where he seems unsure of not just his role but of his own ability. He clearly has talent and willing but there's something missing - there has simply been no development, just an underwhelming sense that Rashford is not the ready-made centre forward he's being asked to be. It seemed that Jose Mourinho wanted Rashford to be the Lukaku-lite battering ram centre-forward that Jose so craves in the absence of the injured Belgian. This is a player who thrives on penetrative though - balls in behind the defence, not crosses into the box. He never had a prayer. Either way, Rashford looks more like an over-promoted Academy graduate than when he actually was one.
Certainly it is clearer than ever how important Lukaku is to Jose's United. Second balls, holding the ball up, bouncing off defenders, providing physicality and fighting for scraps: that's the job now. Here, Rashford seemed to be playing through a fog: blunt when sharpness was needed, a player making the right runs at the wrong moment. He seems bereft of everything that made him the overnight sensation that catapulted him into the national spotlight as the finest young forward United have had for many a year. Bereft of confidence, touch and that refreshing vigour, belief and fearlessness he brought when he first broke through. He was hauled off before the end of the final with the team chasing the game - he looked dispirited, beaten and deserved to be subbed. In a tricky time for the club, Rashford was a local lad who brought renewed pride in our ability to nurture youth.

Now he looks a forlorn figure at odds with himself - and the concern for United (and England, with a World Cup looming), is that he's simply failed to flourish and develop.

United fall short despite character and spirit

This was a Jose Mourinho masterpiece: nick an early goal, play on the counter, sit deep and squeeze the life out of the opponents to get the job done and take home the prize. Not pretty but effective - the tactic he has made a career of. Only this time, unpalatably, he and the team were on the receiving end. This time it was Antonio Conte - Jose's opposite number and arch-rival who executed a Jose-esque tactical blueprint to perfection. This result is unlikely to save the Italian from the sack after a dissapointing season but in what looks set to be his final game in charge of the Stamford Bridge side, he "Out-Mourinho'd" Mourinho. It's true that they did indeed "park the bus", but it's also true that we can't complain at Chelsea doing so, as we'd undoubtedly have done the same had we gone ahead in the first half. Chelsea's game management was bang on point, they did what they had to do and did it well - the Blues defended manfully, stood strong and were very well organised and disciplined so fair play to them. They got over the line and that's all that matters in a final - they've got the cup and we haven't. End of story.

Can someone please explain to me, why, in the name of our good Lord, it took our players so long to wake up to the fact that this was a cup final. The team started the final with all the pace and intensity of a testimonial - slow and sluggish -  and again, as we've seen so many times this season, only got going when 0-1 down and chasing the game in the latter stages. The team played out of their skins in the second half and showed superb fighting spirit in an - ultimately futile - attempt to turn the tide. It was a brave if belated rally and we couldn't have given more, but I'm sure I can't be the only one scratching my head and wondering why we never start games in this way. It's been like this all season long and begs the question of what might have happened had we hit top form in both halves of matches - most of the high points came from one superb 45-minute spell.
Only when we're behind do the real Manchester United come to the party and even then, you feel that sometimes we're playing purely on survival instinct rather than any clear clarity of instruction. Reactive and strangulating football remains Mourinho's modern raison d'etre.
On some occasions you can get away with it but not here - not against a streetwise Chelsea side with a manager who thrives on the no-frills tactic of the classic Italian catenaccio. In some ways it was fitting that our season should end in a manner that has epitomised much of it - a typical game of two halves for this Jekyll and Hyde United side. Pedestrian and ponderous for much of the first half, United were off the pace and distinctly second best against a Chelsea side who looked sharper, stronger and more 'up for it'. The second half, however, showed flashes of the brilliance and character that proved the catalyst in those epic climb-off the-canvas victories at Crystal Palace and in the derby at the Etihad. It was the latest in a number of performances that have left us scratching our heads at the transformation in our team from one half to the next. One that leaves us wondering why we can't play like that in every game from the get-go. This time, we left ourselves with too much to do. One mistake cost us and we fell short.
United may have ended the league season with a whimper, but certainly can't be accused of doing that here. Resurgent and rejuvenated, the players gave it absolutely everything after half-time and fully deserved to force extra-time. Such was our dominance, if we had done so there was surely only ever going to be one winner. That, in many ways, summed up this final: what if. What if Paul Pogba's late header had nestled into the corner instead of flying agonisingly wide, what if Alexis Sanchez had not strayed marginally offside when he turned home Chris Smalling's second half header. What if Romelu Lukaku had started ahead of Marcus Rashford. What if Phil Jones had managed to avoid tangling with Eden Hazard in the 22nd minute. Ifs, buts, maybes... the story of the final and of our season.