Sunday, 18 March 2018

The myth of Sir Alex and the "United Way"

It's weird being a United fan these days. Second only to the most dominant side the Premier League has witnessed for many a year, and ahead of Liverpool and Spurs (who according to some experts, are two of the best attacking sides in Europe). This Jose Mourinho side has been described as one of the worst United teams in recent memory - a rich man's West Brom as I heard one hater say. Of course, our goal difference - superior to 18 of the 19 clubs - doesn't matter much. Nor does the fact that we averaging 2 goals a game. After all, the Sir Alex Ferguson years provided us with much more than that - we blew every team away 5-0 didn't we. No, in fact we did not.

I can't read anything about United these days with reference being made in some way to the Sir Alex era. "The legacy of Sir Alex Ferguson", the "United Way" - goals, attacking football, entertaining sides. Then how come Sir Alex was often called a pragmatist - especially when compared as inferior to Arsene Wenger and Arsenal? It's only five years since our legendary manager retired - but many people seem to have forgotten what his United teams were all about. Resilience, determination, winning - three hallmarks we have seen more often that not under Jose. There were of course magnificent victories, memories that will forever be cherished and the enjoyable days out at Old Trafford - from 4-0 to 7-1 and 9-0, they were undoubtedly amazing times. But the odd game - the exception rather than the rule - shouldn't determine a legacy that lasted for more than 25 years. Many seem to have forgotten how life actually was in the days when we were spoilt with success.

I love Sir Alex Ferguson to the bottom of my heart - he was the greatest manager in our club's history and has my endless respect and affection for turning United from also rans in the pre-dominant force in English football. But his myth has begun to surpass his legacy, to the point where it's impossible for any United manager to be deemed successful. I may not agree with everything Jose says or does, but on the pitch he's as close to Sir Alex Ferguson as you can get. I can understand the fans frustration over Jose's pragmatism, as football has become an entertainment business, that thrives on match-going spectators getting involved. People are entitled to their opinions. But saying that it isn't the "Manchester United Way" or that "Sir Alex would never have gone to Anfield for a point" is self-deprecation at its best.
Clearly they don't remember the two-legged Champions League semi-final with Barcelona in 2008, when a defensively magnificent United made it through to Moscow with that Paul Scholes wonder goal after a rearguard action in the Nou Camp. We've always sat back and played on the counter-attack against the top teams, and anyone who tells you differently is deluded. That league and Champions League double-winning side from 2007/08 remains the last free-flowing, attacking United team we had. We may have won the league the following season, but that was a triumph built on defensive solidity and the brilliance of the Edwin van der Sar/Rio Ferdinand/Nemanja Vidic triumvirate. That back five kept 14 consecutive clean sheets, including four 0-0s and eight 1-0s.
Then there was the Etihad in 2012, even Highbury in 2006 or the FA Cup final in 2007 to name but three, so this ideology of us blowing every opponent away on a weekly basis just does not hold sway.

I will remember Sir Alex for winning trophies, getting us over the line almost by his own willpower alone, and for squeezing every last drop of passion, desire and determination out of players he made proud to don the red of United. That's the Manchester United "way" - people just choose not to remember it like that.

Match report: United 2-0 Brighton&Hove Albion

Headed goals from the in-form Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic sent United past the challenge of spirited Brighton and into a recqord equalling 29th FA Cup semi final, to be played at Wembley at the end of April.

The Reds had reached the last eight for the fourth consecutive season, and continued their Cup run of clean sheets with a deserved, if unspectacular win, over Brighton - whose main priority remains Premier League survival. An FA Cup win would be United's 13th in total and remains the Reds only realistic chance of silverware.

The Reds had suffered Champions League agony and, in the wake of that shock midweek defeat to Sevilla, manager Jose Mourinho had come under fire but defended his record in an extraordinary 12-minute monologue on Friday, in which he criticised United's 'football heritage'.
Lukaku nodded home the first - his 25th goal of the season - after a cross by Matic, who sealed victory himself late on with another header, this time from Ashley Young's free-kick.

Juan Mata had a shot deflected wide and Chris Smalling almost made the breakthrough from the resultant corner when he stabbed his shot against a post in a goalmouth scramble.
Sergio Romero saved well from Lewis Dunk in Brighton's first attack but United went ahead eight minutes before the break. Matic picked out Lukaku with a swinging cross to the far post which the Belgian met with a well-placed header to beat Krul for his sixth goal in seven games.

Chris Hughton's Seagulls had been neat and tidy and set up with the plan to contain United and hit on the counter. Lukaku left that blueprint in tatters but the visitors showed more threat after the interval, and went close twice early on through Pascal Gross and Jurgen Locadia. Romero was forced into action again as he kept out the latter from distance, before the Dutch striker headed wide when well-placed on the hour mark.

United, perhaps in part due to the wintry conditions that affected the tie, struggled to test Krul, although Anthony Martial went close when he flashed an effort wide on the angle.

Nerves were beginning to creep in with clear cut chances at a premium, but - as the temperatures dropped even lower - Matic relieved the stress with a match-sealing second seven minutes from time.

The Serbian was United's most impressive performer and capped his superb individual showing with a goal just as important as his last - that strike of the season contender at Selhurst Park two weeks ago.

Half-time substitute Young, who had replaced Luke Shaw, whipped in a free-kick to the far post and Matic did what Lukaku had done and met the delivery with a powerful header beyond Krul to put the result beyond doubt.

Que sera sera!

Overall team performance: 6.5/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Nemanja Matic

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Criminally under-rated Carrick deserves to be remembered as a United legend

Michael Carrick, United's English Pirlo, will call time on his long and his decorated career at the end of the season and he deserves to be remembered as a legend. Carra will join Jose Mourinho's coaching staff upon retirement, showing just how highly Jose rates the 36-year-old.

During an illustrious 12-year tenure at Old Trafford since signing from Spurs for a meagre £18m, Carrick won every available honour in the English game and proved an under-rated yet vital string pulling heartbeat in one of the greatest sides in the club's history. Eyebrows were raised when Sir Alex signed Carrick - mainly due to the fact he didn't fit the profile of a typical United player. But he's gone on to be one of the best buys Sir Alex ever made. It's true that he wasn't a prolific scorer, or a snapping, snurling ball of human emotions that made Roy Keane such a titan, but his importance to United cannot be disputed.
Ten years on from that glorious night in Moscow, Carrick's curtain call marks the end of an era as he becomes the last player from that swashbuckling side to hang up his boots. In seven seasons under Sir Alex Ferguson, Carrick won five Premier League titles and missed out on another two by a combined total of a single point. He was the lynchpin, the driving force behind the most successful period of the Ferguson era. Throw in an FA Cup,  three League Cups, six Charity Shields, the Champions League, a Europa League and the World Club Cup and you have one of the most decorated players of all time.
 Imagine what might have happened at the 2006 World Cup, had Sven sent Carrick out to scuttle behind Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, mopping up the danger to let the other two roam with freedom.

Yet despite having won everything there is to win at club level, Carrick has never truly received the plaudits he deserves. His final tally of 34 England caps is frankly criminal, especially when you consider some of the players that he got overlooked in favour of - Scott Parker, Gareth Barry and, latterly, Jordan Henderson to name but three. 
Defining Carrick's qualities isn't easy, largely because he did everything well. An outstanding tackler and header of the ball, Carrick saw things in slow motion, ghosting subtly into space to make an interception or play a clever no-look pass on the turn, gliding around the pitch with a telephatic and intelligent understanding of the rhythms of a game. He is probably most comparable with Sergio Busquets - although being English and playing in England when he did, Carrick never got the praise bestowed on the Spaniard. As the focus shifted away from the surging and explosive spearheads of the engine room and towards trequartias, Carrick's deep   lying abilites were never utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65% of his international caps came in friends prove how undervalued he has been.

 It's Carrick, ya knowwww, hard to believe he's not Scholes.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Match preview: United v Brighton&Hove Albion

Jose Mourinho's pre-match press conference was overshadowed by a remarkably honest and passionate outburst from the under-fire United manager. After being pilloried by all-comers in the wake of the Reds Champions League defeat to Sevilla, Jose launced into a 12-minute monologue in which he defended his record, blasted his critics and spoke about the club's football heritage in comparison to cross-town rivals City.

"I am here, I am alive, and I am not going to run away and hide, cry, because of a few boos, I am not afraid of my resposibilities. The fans have a right to their opinions and reactions but there is something that I call football heritage.
"Seven years with four different managers, once not qualify for Europe, twice out in the group stage and the best was the quarter-final, in the league the last victory was 2013 and since then seventh, fifth, fourth and sixth, so in the last four years the best was fourth and this is football heritage.
"Every match is different and every match is important, some fans I am sure would not change a victory against Liverpool for victory over Sevilla even if the defeat to Sevilla means we end the competition, but for me, I am not very objective and I treat every match the same."

Chris Hughton brings his Brighton side to Old Trafford with a place in a Wembley semi final up for grabs for a strange 7.45 kick off on Saturday evening - in a repeat of the famous 1983 final between the sides. Before Tuesday night's aborration against Sevilla which knocked United out of Europe at the last 16 stage, United had won three on the bounce and will target the visit of the high-flying Seagulls to return to winning ways in the third of four consecutive home ties. Mourinho looks set to name a strong side, with Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial in contention to start after injury. Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind, Ander Herrera and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have all missed out recently, and none of the quintet are likely to feature. Brighton will be without the suspended Anthony Knockaert, sent off in last weekend's loss against Everton. Steve Sidwell is injured, with fellow midfield man Dale Stephens and full-back Gaetan Bong also touch and go with minor injuries. Tim Krul could start in goal ahead of regular number one Mat Ryan.
 This is United's fourth consecutive last eight tie, with the Reds now favourites to go all the way and lift the famous trophy for a record-equalling 13th time after Manchester City's quadruple charge was ended by League One Wigan. We've seen off Derby County, Yeovil Town and Huddersfield to set up this tie with the south coast club - who have defied expectations in their first ever Premier League campaign. Brighton sit eleventh in the table and are into a first quarter final since 1986.There are no replays from the last eight onwards, meaning the tie will be played to finish on the day with extra-time and penalties if required.

Form guide: United W D W W W L Brighton&Hove Albion W D W W W L
Match odds: United 1/3 Draw 12/5 Brighton&Hove Albion 11/3
Referee: Andre Marriner (W
est Midlands)

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Arrogant, blase and muddled Mourinho needs to buck his ideas up quickly

Watching Jose Mourinho standing motionless on the Old Trafford touchline, he carried the body language of a man who already thought the hard work was done. Vincenzo Montella stood a few yards away, clapping and cajoling his Sevilla side whilst Jose failed to react to the dog's dinner being served up in front of him. Not once was there a flicker of emotion on the face of the famously firebrand Portuguese. He was as flat as everyone else in Red.
It was the tie in microcosm: a hungry, fired up and motivated underdog against a muddled, lifeless, indecisive and passive heavyweight.

There have been disappointments under him of course, but last night was the first time I genuinely felt a sense of anger and resentment since his arrival. Anger at the attitude of the players, who seemed to think that strolling through a Champions League last 16 tie without barely trying was acceptable. Resentment at the worst perfomance I have seen from a United side in a long while. Then there's the post-match comments of the manager, who single handedly insulted each and every one of United's 650 million-strong global fanbase with his blase and arrogant soundbites. By suggesting the performance was not bad, he had no regrets and that the team gave everything may have been a stance to protect the players, but what made things worse was the notion that the result was not the end of the world and that a last 16 exit in Europe was nothing new for Manchester United.
He seemed to revel in the fact that he was the man responsible for two of those exits - with Porto in 2004 and Real Madrid in 2011. Taking a dig at the club you now work for with a snidey sideways swipe for good measure will only add fuel to the fire as tensions and unrest begin to gather pace. Does this man have respect for anyone but himself?

Mourinho has always been a divisive - and often derided - figure with a colourful and controversial personality, but, although I will always back my club and the manager to the hilt, no one is bigger than the club. I'm not at the point where I want him gone because there's very few men out there who could do better, but his arrogance last night felt like he was kicking us all in the balls when we'd already been poleaxed. How dare he - how very dare he - come out and question the intelligence of us fans by saying that he effectively wasn't bothered by the outcome. That may not have been what he meant, but it's certainly how it came across. Not since David Moyes fatefully said that we should aspire to be like City has there been such an outrage at comments made by our manager. 

His selection was confusingly muddled and set the tone for what was to follow. Marcus Rashford, who terrorised Liverpool from the left, was for some reason switched to the right. Scott McTominay, having performed so well in recent high profile fixtures, was kept on the bench. Paul Pogba may have been injured recently, but he's a better footballer in every conceivable way than the rusty Marouane Fellaini, who was thrust into the team against Sevilla. In what world did Mourinho think it was ever going to work with a rusty Belgian, on his first game back after four months out, in midfield instead of the pace and power of the Frenchman or the youthful industry of McTominay. Even Michael Carrick, with his experience and guile, would have made more sense. Fellaini was a passenger, bossed by man of the match Steven N'Zonzi. Mourinho left it too late to make his substitutions, and Alexis Sanchez - who flitted around between all three attacking positions - was almost anonymous. Our two most creative attacking players, Juan Mata and Anthony Martial, got 13 minutes when both should either have started or come on much earlier. 

From start to finish it was embarrasing and the manager needs to buck his ideas up quickly.

Woeful United everything this great club should not be

Oh to be a Manchester United fan. After the euphoria of Saturday when we felt on top of the world, I'm feeling rock bottom - gutted, frustrated and fuming after witnessing one of the worst 90 minutes in recent memory from a United team. How we can go from the euphoric high of beating our biggest rivals in the most important game of the season, to the desperate low of defeat against modest Spanish outsiders, simply defies logic and explanation and is beyond me. 
As Wissam Ben Yedder inflicted the knockout blow with his quickfire double and condemned a shambolic and disjointed United to an earlier than expected European exit, I had to remind myself that I was indeed watching the very same Manchester United team that were so impressive against Liverpool. Never have I seen two such vastly contrasting performances in such a short space of time. Having slept on it, I still cannot explain how we tried to approach this game, tactically. It was a muddled and confused mess with no clear game plan or strategy.

With the tie finely poised a 0-0 and knowing that Sevilla needed to score, the longer the tie stayed goalless, the more it would play into the hands of Vincenzo Montella's men. You kept expecting United to up the ante and intensity, but the Red tide never came. Mourinho and the team were content with the goalless draw in Spain and had backed themselves to overcome Sevilla on the hallowed turf, adamant that the occasion - and our vastly experience squad - would overawe the visitors. Such hubris.
 We tried to defend a lead that we never had. Once Ben Yedder broke the deadlock with 17 minutes to play, it was game over for a shell-shocked and punchdrunk United. 
We needed the early cushion of a goal to settle the nerves, but instead played with the pace and tempo of a pre-season friendly. It seemed as if we were sitting off them and waiting for the inevitable before we spluttered into life. Only when Sevilla hammered the final nail in the coffin did we look anything like a Manchester United side. 2-0 down with ten minutes to go - the damage had already been done.

Jose had attracted criticism for his cautious, safety-first approach in Andalusia, but although not ideal, that was away from home and not too bad a result. Pragmatism is understandable away from home in Europe - but only if you finish the job in the second game. 

The lack of an away goal was not ideal but would prove vindicated if Jose and the team got through at home. Having gone out with merely a whimper, it's backfired spectacularly and the manager will - justifiably so - come under the harshest of criticisms. But the players should take resposibility too. The boss did surely not send them out to walk around the pitch and play with so little desire or effort - instead of hiding behind him and letting Jose cop all the flak, they need to take a long, hard, look at themselves. This miserable and moribund performance was everything United should not be - especially not at home and especially not in a European tie. The players looked like rabbits caught in the headlights: timid, naive, lethargic and terrified of a side sixth in La Liga and with a modest record in this competition. Where before there had been courage, desire and character, now there was fear and anxiety. The tie was lost in Manchester because United were pedestrian, lacklustre and didn't perform, but the Reds looked devoid of inspiration and ideas throughout the entire 180 minutes of this knockout tie.  Sevilla are nothing special but fully deserved their win.
Twice a winner with Porto and Inter, Mourinho looked the man most capable of turning United into the heavyweight European force we aspire to be.
Great strides have been made this season, but this was a night in which we looked further away than ever.

Insipid, timid and shocking United crash out with a whimper

It's very hard for me to sit down and write this with a cool head and without expletives, but I'm probably still going to put more effort and energy into this blog post than every single one of those players did at Old Trafford last night. Take nothing away from Sevilla, they fully deserved to go through and the better team won over the two legs. But what on earth was that? In my 20 years as a fan, that has to rank as the most lifeless, lethargic, lazy, timid, naive and downright disgraceful performance from a United team. Ever. I'd go so far as to say it's arguably our most insipid and embarrasing home defeat in Europe. Ever. It was absolutely shocking, and every single one of those players - with the exception of Romelu Lukaku, Eric Bailly and Marcus Rashford - should be made to come out and apologise to the fans who spent their hard earned money to watch a pathetic and borderline criminal showing that left an ugly stain on this club's proud and illustrious history. We were woeful, horrendous and played as if consumed by fear and anxiety. That was a wretched and unwatchable horror show - and that's being polite about it. Strutting around like the overpaid individuals they are, there was so sense of cohesion or collective responsibility. No one took the tie by the scruff of the neck. I shudder to think what the watching Roy Keane would have thought. The one tiny silver lining that we can lift from the shattered remnants of our Champions League campaign is that don't we have to suffer another tie like that against a Barcelona, a Bayern or a Real Madrid and face even an bigger humiliation. 

In a season defining tie with a place in the last eight on the line, certain players in the red of United were walking around the pitch as if out for a Sunday morning kick about. Walking. Around the pitch. In a knockout tie of Europe's elite competition. That attitude is simply not acceptable no matter who you are, let alone in the red shirt of England's biggest and most succesful club, one that has produced some of the finest sides this country has ever seen. Can you imagine this happening during the tenures of legendary knights of the realm Sirs Matt and Alex. Those players would be lucky to make it out Old Trafford alive, forced to train with the reserves and sold in the next available window. Pulling on the famous and iconic red shirt of Manchester United should be the greatest honour bestowed on a professional footballer, instead for some it looks like an irrefutable burden. Can there be a more damning verdict on the very name and reputation of this great club when players start strolling through a match.
Would we ever have won the Champions League? Being realistic, no we probably wouldn't - not with the might of Barcelona, Bayern, Juventus and Real Madrid standing in our way. But I - and most of the football world - definitely expected us to get past Sevilla. But we didn't lay a glove on a side we should have sent packing. They're fifth in La Liga with a negative goal difference, shipping goals left right and centre and have only ever reached the last eight once before. Yet they came to Old Trafford and played like the home team. The quarter finals were probably the best we could have hoped for, and the semis looked a leg too far. But even so, the manner of this KO hurts like hell. I've had breakups that haven't felt as painful as this..

If you're going to lose a last 16 tie, there's a dignified manner of doing so. This certainly was not it. If you are beaten, you have a go. The way United went out with a whimper was the total opposite of that. There was no fight, passion, energy, desire or commitment - the very least you can ask for from your side. After such a superb and top class performance against Liverpool on Saturday, it's baffling. I'm embarrased and ashamed - and I hope the players feel the same. But why should they when they continue to earn millions and drive around in their flash motors with top of the range clothing. They still pick up their pay cheques and will be picked for the next tie as if nothing has happened.  Old Trafford was the quietest I have ever heard it - but the players have to help the fans by the performance they put in on the pitch. From start to finish, it was a messy, disjointed and unfathomable shambles. This club have given me some of my best moments and memories to last a lifetime as a football fan, but this was one of - if not THE - worst. There's simply nothing else I can say.