Thursday 31 December 2015

Happy New Year... here are our best moments of 2015

Life is never dull at the biggest club in the world and 2015 proved the typical roller coaster ride at Old Trafford.

Here we look at the best saves, goals, moments, performances and memorable moments of the past 12 months. 

So grab a glass of bubbly, drink it in and take a trip back down memory lane...

Best home performance (15th March: United 3-0 Spurs)

This clash came directly after the Reds bruising home defeat to Arsenal in the FA Cup and was next in a hugely challenging run of games that included a trip to Anfield and a visit of Manchester City.
The stakes were high, but LVG's men showed no sign of nerves as they flew out of the traps and were 3-0 up with barely 30 minutes on the clock.
The magnificent Juan Mata pulled the strings as United overran the visitors in the first half and easily controlled the second, consolidating our top four spot and extinguishing Spurs own hopes of a Champions League place.
As important as the result, the injection of confidence proved crucial in advance of the upcoming fixtures.

Best away performance (17 October: Everton 0-3 United)

Goodison Park has been a real bogey ground in recent years but those memories were cast to one side as we completely dominated proceedings on the back of October's international break.
Just like the Spurs result above, this provided a real tonic to a painful defeat against Arsenal (0-3 away).

Best result (12 April: United 4-2 City)

Aaah the demolition derby.... it's hard to top when it comes to feeling chuffed.
A superb team performance by the Reds halted a run of four straight defeats to the neighbours and yielded four goals against them for the first time since Michael Owen scored that famous winner in 2009.
No wonder the fans left with grins as wide as the Manchester Ship Canal. Boom. Get in!!

Best goal (22 March: Juan Mata v Liverpool)

A runner up for the best result of 2015, the 2-1 win at Anfield was a match to warm the cockles of every United heart.
But Mata's exquisite scissors-kick on the hour mark would have been the toast of the town even
in a scrappy League Cup tie against lowly opposition in some far-flung outpost.
Mata's square pass, Angel Di Maria flicks it up and on, the Spaniard's graceful ascent, a hitch-hike and bang!. The ball's nestled in the corner. Magic.

Best save (20 September: Spanish Dave vs Jose Fonte)

Dave's saves lit up the calendar year repeatedly as he made a mockery of the apparently impossible time and again with some flabbergasting goalkeeping.
It's hard to pick just one but we've plumped for the Spaniard's ludicrous thwarting of Jose Fonte's header in the 3-2 win at St Mary's.

Best move (20 September: team goal v Southampton)

Juan Mata's goal at Southampton in September was the one that ended up winning United the game, and it came after a marathon passing move running to a full 45 passes.
Nine of United's 10 outfield players were involved (only Anthony Martial missed out) as the Reds kept the ball for two minutes and four seconds before Juan Mata slotted in the rebound from Memphis's shot that had cannoned back off the post.
Not one Southampton player got a  single touch on the ball between the moment Chris Smalling chested down a high ball and played a square pass to Marcos Rojo to start the move, and the ball hitting the back of the Saints net.

Best player: Chris (Mike) Smalling

The potential in Smalling had been glaring ever since his 2010 arrival at Old Trafford, only for the towering centreback to find his evolution stymied by a combination of injuries, positional changes and of course the small matter of displacing the enduring Ferdinand-Vidic axis at the heart of United's defence.
Starting every game bar Bournemouth away in the current campaign, Smalling has emphatically risen to the challenge of plugging the gap left by the 2014 departure of Rio and Vida.
Perhaps the finest athlete in the Reds' ranks, Chris's pace, power and distribution are now controlled by a dominant, positive attitude and that blend of brains and brawn has meant Smalling has been in 'beast mode' (to quote Ferdinand) in 2015.

Best breakthrough: Jesse Lingard

In a calendar year when nine United Academy graduates played for the first team, Lingard was the stand-out star to have risen through the Red ranks.
Having entered this season with just his August 2014 debut under his belt, the Warrington-born winger clocked up nine starts and three substitute appearances before Christmas, not to mention his first senior goal- a sweet strike against West Brom at the Stretford End in November.

Best moment (12 September: Anthony Martial's debut v Liverpool) 

All the best moments in football are created by goals and while there have may have been better (or arguably) more important ones scored in 2015, the dazzling debut strike by Anthony Martial against Liverpool was, in our opinion, the greatest individual moment of the year.
His deadline-day signing had been written off as a joke: a monumental waste of money and a panicky gamble on an untried youngster.
So when he scored a quite brilliant individual goal having come off the bench for his debut against our biggest rivals- who had just halved our two-goal lead with the best opposition goal of the year (by Christian Benteke) - OT erupted in raw, visceral joy and the doubters were instantly silenced.

Here's to 2016. 

Match preview: United v Swansea

United will be looking to build on Monday's showing against the champions as we host Alan Curtis struggling Swansea in our first match of 2016.

With his team winless in eight games, the last opposition Louis van Gaal will want to face is the Swans, who have won four of the last five encounters against United including the last three in a row- all by the score of 2-1.

United's injury list is easing- with only Jesse Lingard (whom made his senior debut for the Reds in this fixture last year) and long term absentees Marcos Rojo (shoulder), Antonio Valencia (foot) and Luke Shaw (leg) sidelined. 

Despite the visitors holding something of a hoodoo over his side, Van Gaal is confident that United can kick off 2016 in style, and said:

"We have lost three times in a row to Swansea but then you have to analyze why you have lost and how you can improve as a team.
"I am confident because I have seen the performance of my team against Chelsea and the way we played under that pressure was fantastic so we have to continue with that.
"I think that this year has not been so bad- we are out of the Champions League and that is a blow, but we have been first in the league and fulfilled our aim in the first season, so if you ignore December it was a very good year."

Swansea- under the interim stewardship of Alan Curtis following the sacking of Garry Monk- come to OT in 17th place and only two points above the drop zone.
However, their status as our recent bogey side coupled with our own recent form means that we should not take them for granted.
In Bafetimbi Gomis- whom scored the winner against United in August- they possess a genuine goal threat whilst Gylfi Sigurdsson and Jefferson Montero provide the pace and trickery.

Our last win over the men from the Liberty Stadium came almost two years to the day of this fixture- Antonio Valencia and Danny Welbeck the scorers in a 2-0 success for David Moyes United over Michael Laudrup's team.

Form guide: United D L L L L D Swansea L L L D W D
Match odds: United 16/4 Draw 32/5 Swansea 12/5
Referee: Jonathan Moss 

Monday 28 December 2015

A turning point... or a sign of how bad things have become.

It was another 0-0 at Old Trafford but it might have bought under-fire Dutchman Louis van Gaal some breathing space after four straight defeats.

No-score OT stalemates have sent LVG's stock plummeting this season but this was one that may just have salvaged his job for a shade longer.

Hard to imagine you'd be trumpeting a 0-0 scoreline that stretched a winless run to eight games but beggars can't be choosers in bleak times like these at United.

It may not have brought to a halt to that damaging eight match stat but this display did at least arrest a performance graph that was plunging off the plus scale.

It's just 34 days since United were on the brink of rubber-stamping their place in the Champions League last 16 knockout phase.
All that was needed was a goal against PSV Eindhoven at Old Trafford and the grim landscape at United just over a month on wouldn't have been so bleak.

But once the Reds failed to book their Euro ticket early the whole campaign disintegrated.

From that 0-0 failure the problems have grown out of proportion.

Confidence and belief have eroded virtually overnight and the slide since has been alarming.
A Champions League KO, dropping out of the top four and a manager under siege and a club in serious crisis.

Just 24  hours before United's killer draw against PSV, Chelsea had won 4-0 in Israel to give Jose Mourinho hope he could turn things around at the Bridge.

The 2015 title winner lasted only another 24 days in office before getting the bullet.

Here we were with LVG hanging on courtesy, it seems, because of the benevolence of the Reds hierarchy.
We had the two sides who have shared nine Premier League crowns out of the last 11 slugging it out attempting to rediscover former glories with both reputations in tatters.

During United's horror five weeks they slumped to a point where, after LVG set the three-match winning revival plan in the minutes after the embarrasing and shocking surrender at Bournemouth, you felt that this was a squad who were not capable of grasping that lifeline.

Van Gaal had put the noose around his own neck and slowly his dreadfully performing choices have tightened it.

This may not have been a top of the table clash but it was watchable and from a United perspective far more positive and uplifting than anything seen in a long time.
Anyone wondering whether LVG still had the backing of his dressing room had their answer in a front foot first half.
But when you are hanging on for dear life, then Juan Mata and Anthony Martial's early efforts ripple the net instead of shaking the woodwork.

United are still such a fragile side that unlucky moments like that are not shrugged easily and we then had to suffer nervy moments of our own.

Superb David de Gea saves from Terry, Pedro and Azpilicueta may keep the Dutchman in employment a little longer than expected.
If you could overlook some rough edges and fragility this could almost have been a clash from yesteryear. 

Whether it will be revived as one in the near future is-  much like LVG's future -
still in the melting pot

Match report: United 0-0 Chelsea

United stretched their winless run to eight games despite a much improved attacking performance in the final match of 2015.

Both sides had clear opportunities to nick the points, but a draw was ultimately a fair result from an engrossing encounter.

The hosts were on the attack from the off and almost went ahead after only three minutes when Juan Mata came within inches against his former club when he rattled the crossbar with a stinging drive.

John Terry forced an excellent save from David de Gea from Eden Hazard's corner, whilst the recalled Morgan Schneiderlin flashed an effort narrowly wide at the other end.

Anthony Martial fired against the post after superb trickery against Branislav Ivanovic, Rooney was kept out by a diving save from Courtois and Ashley Young brilliantly blocked from Willian as Chelsea broke away at pace. 

The sides remained deadlocked at the break, but it was the visitors who were quicker out of the traps and went close twice soon after the restart.

Hazard cleverly weaved his way through the United defence and teed up Pedro, who shot was parried clear by De Gea but the rebound fell to Cesar Azpilicueta only for De Gea to paw away the full back's first time effort.

A huge penalty shout soon followed for United as Willian appeared to handle from a corner, but referee Martin Atkinson remained unmoved.

LVG's side were soon appealing for another spot-kick after Mata went down under a challenge from Azpilicueta, but not before Nemanja Matic had spurned probably the best chance of the match- blazing over when clean through after a rapid Chelsea break. 

Courtois saved brilliantly from the busy Ander Herrera from point blank range after more excellent work from Martial shortly before the hour mark. 

The Reds continued to press and fashioned another presentable opening in the dying minutes when Wayne Rooney volleyed over a difficult chance from substitute Cameron Borthwick-Jackson's pinpoint cross.

Rooney was perhaps then fortunate to escape punishment after a scuffle with Oscar, but despite late forward forays from both sides, ultimately the breakthrough remained elusive and the spoils were shared. 

A frustrating result - it's now no win in eight - but a much improved performance and one that will restore confidence to the side ahead of the home match with recent bogey side Swansea on Saturday.

Overall team performance: 7.5/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: A number of outstanding performers in Red, but we're giving it to David de Gea for three excellent and crucial saves. 

Sunday 27 December 2015

Schneiderlin, Mata, Herrera and other things we learned at Stoke

Louis van Gaal has dropped Morgan Schneiderlin for three significant away games this season- at PSV, Arsenal and Stoke and United have lost all of them.

At Stoke, Schneiderlin's discipline and pace was sorely missing in midfield- with three years of Premier League experience he should be a first teamer at United but yet is often treated as a newbie to English football.

Van Gaal kowtowed to United supporters by bringing Ander Herrera into the side when Schneiderlin was just as essential against Stoke's fleet-footed forwards.

Michael Carrick- 35 in May- was not sufficient cover for Chris Smalling and Phil Jones and United were looser in midfield.

The most competitive aspect of the Reds performance at the Britannia was who could perform the worst.
Jones was forlorn, Daley Blind seem confounded, Ashley Young defended like a novice and Marouane Fellaini spent more time arguing than playing.

Herrera had the nightmare after Christmas.

His passing was wretched throughout and he seemed uncertain whether to defend or attack.
The Basque was busy and showed some aggression, but United needed incision.

Van Gaal was culpable- Herrera has been United's most productive player in the No.10 role and, as he proved in Brugge, is wasted in defensive midfield.

The lethardy and timidity was reminiscent of David Moyes final days.

Too many have performed as though it is just Van Gaal's United career on the line but the brutal reality is that whoever replaces the Dutchman, a number of playing careers are on the line too.

Luck has had little to do with United's worst run in 26 years, but Van Gaal can be forgiven for lamenting his lack of options at right-back.
Ashley Young, reasonably accomplished on the left, was utterly unreliable against the elegant- but languid- Marko Arnautovic and has played in defence often enough to be more vigilant.

Young's hesitancy allowed Jamie Vardy to score past David de Gea last month and he was also obliging against Norwich striker Cameron Jerome.
He is costing United goals and, if he is to start, it should not be at right-back again.

The alternatives are not overwhelming- and that is Van Gaal's fault- however Juan Mata's rotten spell continued on the right flank at Stoke.
Almost every one of the men in black were brittle and timid, but Mata should be influencing games and he has hardly done that this season.

He is too often detached for the attack and the counter-productive 4-2-3-1 formation cannot legislate for the Spaniard's blunt performances.
At inhospitable grounds such as Stoke's, he is fodder for the hosts and Adnan Januzaj must glance smugly at United's right flank situation despite his own malaise at Borussia Dortmund. 

Match preview: United v Chelsea (28th, 5.30pm)

The busy festive schedule continues as United welcome Chelsea to Old Trafford for the final game of 2015 with manager Louis Van Gaal expected to remain in charge. 

At the start of the season this fixture looked like a key game in the battle for the title- but despite still being one of the biggest on the calendar, it instead comes with both sides off the pace and desperately struggling for form.

The Blues, under the stewardship of caretaker manager Guus Hiddink following the sacking of Jose Mourinho, arrive at Old Trafford in 15th place having suffered nine league losses this term already.

Hiddink took over as Netherlands boss from Van Gaal when LVG was appointed at Old Trafford and the two men meet outside of the Eredivisie for the first time in an intriguing touchline tussle.  

For all United's recent struggles, the champions baffling slump has been the story of a strange Premier League season so far, and despite our own lack of form of late, we come into this game nine places and ten points better off than the Stamford Bridge side. 

Bastian Schweinsteiger is available again for the Reds having completed his ban, Matteo Darmian is ready to return but Marcos Rojo, Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia remain out.

Jesse Lingard remains doubtful but there are no new injury worries for the hosts.

Chelsea will be without first choice forward Diego Costa through suspension after his fifth booking of the season against Watford on Saturday. 

Brazilian midfielder Andreas Pereira has called for the side to "move on" following the Boxing Day defeat at Stoke, and said:

"Stoke played really well but we were better in the second half so that is something to build on.
"We have to forget about the loss and Chelsea is the next game so we need to make sure that we focus on this game, we just have to stick together and keep working hard in training.
"The fans are always great and they always support us and that's something we are really happy about.
"We have to show them our appreciation by picking up three points on Monday.
"I  promise that we will come back stronger."

This Bank Holiday Monday encounter is a tea-time kick off and is being televised live on BT Sport. 

Form guide: United D D L L L L Chelsea D L W L W D 
Match odds: United 6/4 Draw 11/5 Chelsea 7/2 
Referee: Martin Atkinson 

Saturday 26 December 2015

Worst run of form for years- and no sign of improvement

I hate to say it but Louis van Gaal has to go.

He's been a man under pressure for many weeks now and has now seemingly lost the players, if the Boxing Day debacle at Stoke is anything to go by.

Van Gaal has not been helped by the fact that too many players are either out of form or not good enough but when the players stop even working hard and putting a shift in, then you have to think the players have lost belief in his methods.

I think we need a managerial change- for fresh impetus and ideas if nothing else.

Juan Mata is a superb footballer and a player I am a massive fan of but he has been anonymous in recent weeks and is too lightweight when we play teams such as Stoke.

His other creator in chief, fellow Spaniard Ander Herrera, is also a fantastic player whom I rate highly but his performance in the second half at Norwich and at Stoke today were his worst in a United shirt.

Phil Jones is too reckless, Marouane Fellaini offers little and remains unconvincing whilst Daley Blind's positioning and lack of mobility lets him down too often, and then there's Memphis.

You cannot account for individual errors and it's unfair to hold him responsible for the defeat, but his error proved fatal and capped the latest in a series of underwhelming showings.
He arrived at Old Trafford with a large price tag and high expectation, but has looked anything but the pacy, skillful and clinical finisher we saw for PSV last season. 

Anthony Martial has also suffered a dip in form but can be excused because of his young age, but the fact that so many players are off the pace at the same time are only adding to Van Gaal's problems.

What is inexcusable and unacceptable however, is the meek manner in which the team accepted defeat.
The very hallmark of the club is the refusal to give in, to always put in 100% effort and play with a swagger, a desire and a passion befitting of the swashbuckling sides of days gone by.

Wearing the United shirt should be an honour: instead it is looking like an irrefutable burden.

The Dutchman is not being helped by the attitude- or lack thereof- of his players- but his job as their manager is to ensure they are motivated and proud to play for the club.

They owe it to the fans but instead most of this team are simply not giving enough.

Lowest ebb for United and LVG after latest loss

Short of goals, leaders, fight, passion and spark, United's players are shot of confidence and belief and they do not look capable of lifting themselves in time for Chelsea on Monday.

Louis van Gaal tried to do just that this week with a passionate and calculated news conference.
He spoke of unity and messages of support from senior figures at the club and has met players and management in an effort to revive flagging fortunes but his job remains under intense pressure. 

As ever, the Reds fans did their bit to try and raise spirits too- travelling from Manchester in numbers but left dejected after the team had again been outclassed.
In a defiant show of support, United's players were applauded off the field but the team does not deserve them at present. 

Executive vice chairman Ed Woodward is the key decision maker, and, although he was not present at Stoke, he was surely watching somewhere as the team are now without a win in seven games for the first time since 1989. 

Seven years ago today, United's jet-lagged players, officials and fans returned from Japan for a Boxing Day game at Stoke.
Having been crowned world champions, United were ascendant and won 1-0 with Carlos Tevez scoring en route to another league title. 

The gulf between that side and this current team could be not be more apparent: we may be richer but are so far from the 2008 double winning side that we face a fight to finish in the top four this time around. 

This time, the defence was in disarray- Daley Blind was out of position for the first goal when Depay's back header fell fatally short and led to Bojan's opening goal.
Two minutes later, Bojan was again involved as the hosts took a 2-0 lead when United didn't close down from a free-kick and Arnautovic scored from 25 yards. 

United's passengers in midfield did not help and, despite belated second half pressure, it was too little too late.
It is just nowhere near good enough.

Stoke captain Ryan Shawcross was commanding, strong and diligent for the hosts and, having started his career at United, he is exactly the sort of player we now need. 

The fans were singing "we'll never die" in the closing minutes.

Maybe not, but the team are in urgent need of resuscitation. 

Britannia loss may be the end for LVG

The first half performance at Stoke was the worst I've seen from a United side in years with too many players either out of form or not good enough. 

Too many players are underperforming but whilst the blame for United's current problems cannot be pinned entirely on the manager, the Dutchman has to take a large portion of the responsibility. 

The team look lost for ideas, are playing without passion, style, motivation, substance and a clear game plan - for weeks now, it looks as though the players have not been playing for the manager. 

The Dutchman was already under pressure before kick-off following a poor run of form but the manner of our defeat at the Britannia is bound to raise more questions about his future.

United rarely looked like getting back into the game after falling behind and showed little desire, fighting spirit and leadership as we found ourselves outmuscled and outfought by an impressive Stoke side.

The Reds improved after the break but the Potters, managed by former United striker Mark Hughes, fully deserved their victory. 

Van Gaal has looked a broken man for many weeks now and his lack of fight and answers to this slump have transcended to the players - who themselves seem simply unable to find a way out. 

United's lack of goals - seven in the past nine league games - have been well documented but yet our latest downfall was caused by alarming errors at the back.

Memphis Depay's intended header back to De Gea was far too short and the unmarked Bojan made the visitors pay after Glen Johnson had seized on the error.

Having already beaten Chelsea and Manchester City at the Britannia this season,  make no mistake that the home side were worthy winners with their front four of Bojan, Arnautovic, Ibrahim Afellay and Xherdan Shaqiri causing Phil Jones, Ashley Young and Chris Smalling huge problems with their pace and trickery. 

For van Gaal, his tactics at Stoke were again hard to fathom.

Young playing at right-back up against an attack of that quality was an accident waiting to happen and the first half proved that the gamble of leaving Wayne Rooney on the bench was the wrong call.
Morgan Schneiderlin was once again an unused substitute when his pace, bite and strength in midfield could have proved crucial in stopping Stoke's creative and talented attacking outfit. 

A change of impetus and momentum is needed and it's hard to see how Van Gaal can survive this latest loss ahead of Chelsea on Monday. 

Match report: Stoke 2-0 United

First half strikes from Bojan and Marko Arnautovic sunk United and gave Mark Hughes' Stoke some Boxing Day cheer at the Britannia.

It was a seventh game without a win for Louis van Gaal's side and- despite an improved second half showing- the Reds were unable to find a fightback and crashed to a fourth successive loss.

The Reds left captain Wayne Rooney on the bench (bringing him on at half time), and the 30 year old's introduction did at least have an impact as the visitors played with better urgency at a greater tempo after the break. 

Despite that, Van Gaal is now a man under serious pressure and Stoke took full advantage as they started well and went ahead in the 19th minute.

Glen Johnson was gifted a late Christmas present when Memphis Depay attempted to head back to David de Gea but failed to muster enough power allowing the Stoke man to intercept and set up Bojan for a simple finish. 

Seven minutes later, it was 2-0 when Marko Arnautovic blasted home a 25-yarder after Bojan's free-kick had come back off the United wall.

The Austrian, whom gave Ashley Young a torrid time, then should have made it 3-0 when clean through before the hosts keeper Jack Butland saved well from Juan Mata.

Marouane Fellaini should have done better with a header and Anthony Martial was denied by another good save from Butland- during an improved second half for the visitors. 

Stoke remained a threat themselves though and almost rubber-stamped the result through the impressive Bojan, whom forced a smart save from De Gea.

Substitute Charlie Adam went close with a free-kick and former United man Mame Diouf headed over, but despite a late rally the Reds were unable to find a way back. 

A fourth consecutive loss for the Reds then - our worst run of form for nearly 40 years - ahead of United's final match of 2015 at home to the champions Chelsea on Monday.

Overall team performance: 2/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: United's travelling fans who again did the club proud singing until the end

Wednesday 23 December 2015

Match preview: Stoke v United (Boxing Day 12.45pm)

United will be looking for some renewed festive cheer as we make the short  trip to the Potteries against former Reds legend Mark Hughes Stoke side on Boxing Day.

This match at the Britannia could not have come at a worse time for the Reds- winless in six having suffered three consecutive defeats and with manager Louis van Gaal reportedly one poor result from the sack.

Bastian Schweinsteiger serves the final game of his three match ban, Matteo Darmian is and Jesse Lingard are both ruled out but there are no new injury worries for United.
Antonio Valencia, Marcos Rojo and Luke Shaw remain sidelined and are all long term absentees. 

Trips to Stoke are never easy and they are always a difficult proposition at the Britannia but their recent form is mixed having lost at lowly Sunderland and at home to Palace last time out.

In the first of three league games in eight days for both sides over Christmas and New Year, we host Chelsea just 48 hours later on the 28th and then recent bogey side Swansea City on the 2nd January.

A side boasting the attacking talents of Xherdan Shaqiri, Ibrahim Afellay, Bojan and Marko Arnautovic have the potential to trouble any side- as Manchester City can attest to in their recent 2-0 reverse to the Potters, who currently lie eleventh in the table. 

Speaking pre-match on Wednesday, van Gaal says he maintains the belief that United can turn their recent form around, and said:

"We are not in a good position and our recent matches have been not so good, but four weeks ago we were first in the Premier League and again in a few weeks we can back in that position.
"I have to say that I have tried to lift the confidence of my players and I have seen the warmth and everyone on the training ground in Carrington.
"The injuries are more or less the same, so there is no difference- Matteo Darmian shall perhaps come back next week and Phil Jones has played 90 minutes and had no reaction so that is good."

United have an exemplary Boxing Day record having only lost once on 26th December and what better way to bring Christmas cheer by continuing that run. 

Form guide: Stoke W L W W D L United D D D L L L 
Match odds: Stoke 12/5 Draw 7/2 United 16/11 
Referee: Kevin Friend 

Tuesday 22 December 2015

How a disastrous month pushed LVG to the brink of sack

United were top of the league at the end of November but did it signal the beginning of the end for the Dutchman?

When Bastian Schweinsteiger bundled the ball into the net in stoppage time at Watford on 21 November, United - briefly - rose to the Premier League summit.

Louis van Gaal greeted the German midfielder with a big grin and a hug as he walked off the pitch at Vicarage Road.
The boss had achieved victory - a third in a row- without a recognised striker while Troy Deeney's penalty was the first we had conceded for nearly 11 hours.

The same day, Arsenal lost at West Brom and City were comprehensively thumped by Liverpool at the Etihad.

Well placed in the league and going well in Europe, there was a sense among the fans that United might achieve something this season and not just finish in the top four which had passed as adequate the previous season.

Victory over PSV Eindhoven at Old Trafford would book United's place in the knockout stages of the Champions League and the same result at Leicester would cement the status as title challengers.

Instead, it's a week that could well end up being remembered for the moment the wheels began to come off.
It is a tale of missed opportunities as much as anything- we should have beaten PSV and West Ham at home and Leicester at the King Power.
We started well in Wolfsburg and against Norwich but capitulated when their first goal went in.

Then there is the manner of the dissapointments.

Five goals in six games, two 0-0 draws and one shot on target against West Ham, two against Norwich.

Six games without a win.

It isn't good.

The fall has been swift and severe.

Only two weeks ago, United were "95 per cent" happy with Van Gaal's leadership and were even contemplating an extension on his three-year contract.

His work behind the scenes- improving the facilities at Carrington and promoting youth team players- played a part.

The inference at the club was that the board were happy with results and performances despite some fans persistent misgivings about the preferred style of football.

A month is a long time in this sport, though, especially at a club when the manager is never more than a couple of bad results away from a crisis.

It would appear the outcome of this crisis will rest on two matches over Christmas, or Van Gaal and his Vicarage Road grin could be gone. 

Monday 21 December 2015

Us United fans do not deserve this- and neither does Ryan Giggs.

What have we all done to deserve this?

As soon as referee Michael Oliver blew his whistle at full-time, Ryan Giggs shook hands with Norwich City manager Alex Neil and then headed straight up the tunnel without so much as a backwards glance.

It was the most obvious display of urgency shown by anyone at the club on a day when the roof began to cave in on Louis van Gaal.
That the Dutchman remains in charge today should not be misread as a show of blind faith by the club's board.

With Van Gaal appearing shellshocked and bemused on the bench, slumping forward on to the leather clipboard on his knees, Giggs strode into the technical area and attempted to inject energy and urgency into the team with directions and advice from the touchline.

But while Anthony Martial's 66th-minute goal answered the call and halved the deficit, it proved to be a damning indictment of Van Gaal's players that the goal was as good as it got.

Over-hit crosses, headers contested without any sign of being won and some players merely jogging back lazily when attempting to track back having lost possession.

Giggs, kicking every ball on the touchline and shaking his head rather than punching the air, was the only United figure displaying any kind of desire and his dart down the tunnel at the end of the game was that of a man who has reached the end of his tether.

Were the players giving their all in an effort to haul themselves back into the game and avoid a third successive is impossible to say but we did not witness the late charge which typified the SAF era.

On Saturday's evidence, the players no longer believe in Van Gaal and the fans are also drawing the line at not giving him their full support.
There was no raucous rallying cry  from the stands, so the players aren't the only ones who fell short when it mattered.

Giggs is in an awkward position.

United are not playing the football he has grown up with at Old Trafford, but he is Van Gaal's number two and a man whose influence is screaming to be heard. 

Should Giggs- widely regarded as a United manager in waiting- push for a greater say?
Should he attempt to drag Van Gaal away from his 1990s philosophy, or would either of those be regarded as over-stepping the mark and a sign of betrayal?

The fans are losing faith and the players are drained of belief and confidence, but in the next two games they have to pull through and win.

Two games that will decide the future of Louis van Gaal. 

Mourinho would be perfect fit but what about Pep?

United desperately need a lift, a spark, an inspiration from somewhere, and Jose would certainly liven the place up - but what about Pep Guardiola?

United are stuck in a rut under Louis van Gaal and they cannot ignore the fact that two of the top managers in world football are going to be available.

Something has to change at the club because - bar one or two excellent performances - we have been poor all season and Mourinho would be the perfect fit after his departure from Chelsea. 

He is desperate to make a quick return, knows exactly how huge United are as a club and would put smiles back on the face of players and the fans.

But Guardiola is now also on the market and while everyone is expecting him to pitch up at Manchester City, I would be surprised if we did not at least consider him.

After appointing David Moyes and Van Gaal in quick succession, United have to get the next manager right if we do make a change.

This is not the United we have known the years - bereft of the fantastic players whom lifted titles under an equally fantastic manager in Sir Alex- but we should not be in the position we are now.

I think Van Gaal is an acquired taste and we have been underwhelming all season.
We look confused by the system and the players do not seem happy.

Losing at home to Norwich City is unacceptable and, so soon after going out of the Champions League, could not have been worse timing.

Mourinho would certainly inject life, confidence and swagger into the club and probably has a point to prove after leaving Chelsea for a second time.
Chelsea are in a mess and results have been so poor that it was inevitable that the manager would pay.

Their players have said how much they loved him - everyone seems to - but it was clear that some felt the opposite in private.
Guus Hiddink will settle it all down there and more than likely they go on a fantastic run but Van Gaal- if reports are to be believed- has two games to save his job.

Mourinho will not be out of work for long and would be an ideal appointment for the club- as would Guardiola. 

Pep as manager? 
Or Jose? 

Van Gaal needs to throw off the shackles and get back on track

It is close to reaching a situation at United where it has to be change the manager or change the philosophy.

Many more negative results and it may be a case of both. 

It cannot go on like this for much longer, and especially if our chances of finishing in the top four become under threat.
Six games without a win is just about tolerable at any big club if those results are accompanied by performances that were unfortunate rather than poor - with a huge slice of luck, injuries and bad refereeing decisions.

The problem for Van Gaal is that largely this has not been the case. 
Injuries hit and have had an effect but not to the point that they have become a serious mitigation.

There is an air of mutiny from the supporters at Old Trafford but that is driven more through disappointment and frustration than any great dislike of Van Gaal, although resentment is growing.

The fans appreciate that it is an embarrassment for a club of United's stature and history to discard two managers within three years of Sir Alex's retirement.
But there are serious problems.

There was always going to be a drop off after Ferguson left, it was the end for several players and not just the manager, but not to this extent.

United's standpoint has been clear but is being tested: we want to stick with Van Gaal, who has 18 months left on his three-year contract.
United have claimed he has impressed with the way in which he has organised the club, the structural work he has done behind the scenes and- or so we thought- the progress on the pitch.

But there is an indisputable conflict.

David Moyes was sacked not just because of poor results but because the club felt there was betrayal of the way the team were expected to play.
There were few swashbuckling performances but the majority were out of keeping with the club's "DNA."

If that argument was legitimate, then Van Gaal is guilty of the same failings, having sacrificed attacking intent and flair for a defensive organisation that has been successful to a degree but also stultifying.

When that organisation is breached, there is little left for us to fall back on.

And of course we have spent money, a lot of money. 

But the return so far has been the bare minimum - the sense is growing that many of those millions have been wasted.

But the question is: how much longer can Van Gaal be given.
He looked a chastened man after the Norwich match, and that means it will go one of two ways.

Either he is broken, the damage is irreparable and it's only a matter of time, or he can react positively by in part looking to try and play a different way.

He must try and throw off the shackles as the philosophy he has often spoken about- without every really explaining what it is- is not working.

United certainly have a new identity under Van Gaal, but surely not one they want. 

Van Gaal has two games to save job as patience wears thin

Louis van Gaal faces the sack as United manager if his side lose either of their next two Premier League matches.

Van Gaal is under increasing pressure after United suffered a third consecutive defeat and slipped out of the top four with defeat at home to newly promoted Norwich on Saturday.

The Glazer family, the club's owners, and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward have been increasingly uncomfortable with the level of unrest among the club's support.

It is understood there is also discontent within the squad regarding tactics, system and his coaching methods.
The Reds travel to Stoke on Boxing Day- always a difficult proposition- before hosting champions Chelsea two days later.
There is concern among the United hierarchy that failure in these two matches will leave the club in a perilous position as we attempt to get back on track in the Premier League title race.

Jose Mourinho is understood to be interested in taking charge at Old Trafford having been sacked by Chelsea while Pep Guardiola could also be considered as a contender having yesterday announced that he will be leaving Bayern at the end of the season.

Van Gaal admitted in the immediate aftermath of Saturday's loss that he was concerned for his job, and has stated that he will resign if he feels he has lost the support of the players.
But asked if that was the case, he said:

"No because I have seen the good reaction of the players towards me"

He went on to suggest that he still feels he has the board's support having spoken to Woodward at the weekend.
Paul Scholes, who won two Champions Leagues and 11 league titles under Sir Alex, has been among the fierce critics of Van Gaal, saying he would not have enjoyed playing in this side under the Dutchman.

Former United captain Rio Ferdinand believes they should move for Guardiola- who led Barcelona to the Champions League title twice and has won the German title in each of his two full seasons at Bayern Munich.

The fact that Mourinho is now a free agent and is believed to be keen to make a quick return to management makes him a more immediate threat to Van Gaal.

The Dutchman and his side did little to calm recent disquiet as they lost to Norwich, managing just two shots on target.

Van Gaal has admitted United are in a "bad period" and that he believes he will be given time to turn recent form around.

LVG has done good work despite recent slump

We've been a little harsh on Louis van Gaal in these pages recently- rightly or wrongly, but we think it's only fair we look at the good things the Dutchman has done for us.

Appointed as United boss in May 2014 with the club at a low ebb having finished seventh thep previous season under David Moyes, Van Gaal inherited a broken, ageing squad in desperate need of an overhaul. 

Given a remit of taking the club back into the Champions League, this may have seemed like a straightforward target for Van Gaal considering the considerable resources at his disposal.

Even so, he deserves credit for bedding in a new side and qualifying for Europe comfortably- steering the United ship back into steady waters after the turbulent sea of the previous campaign.

Despite the vast outlay in building a new team, Van Gaal also should be credited for his sterling work with the United youth.

A vital and indelible part of the club's history, LVG has carried on the tradition by giving nine Academy players their debuts in his time in charge and- while only Jesse Lingard has really become a regular- the future looks bright for the next crop of Reds youngsters. 

Even despite recent turmoil and mounting pressure- United's current position isn't as bad as it may seem.
We are fifth yes, but sit only four points off of Arsenal ahead of Monday night's second versus third showdown as the Gunners take on City at the Emirates.

As well as stabilising the club, improving facilities at Carrington and promoting youth, Van Gaal has of course also vastly improved United's defensive solidity.
A back four that was leaking too many goals last season are now well drilled, well organised and supremely marshalled by Chris Smalling, who has grown and blossomed under the influence of the Dutchman.

Ashley Young and Marouane Fellaini have also improved under Van Gaal's tutelage and, as much anything else, we've also beaten Liverpool three times in a row (surely that's as good as anything else). 

All this may seem irrelevant in light of recent events- but it's this that has seemingly bought him time as- despite the speculation since Saturday- Van Gaal's job would appear safe, at least for now.

Sunday 20 December 2015

Calls for Mourinho grow as Van Gaal fears sack

Louis van Gaal has admitted that he fears for his Old Trafford future following the club's worst run of form since the turn of the century.

The last time United went six without a win was in 1998/99- ironically the season that ended up as the greatest ever in the club's history as we won the treble.

United fans were singing Jose Mourinho's name throughout yesterday's match and- although he too has a reputation as a negative manager- it's winning football and anything must be better than the fare currently on offer.

Jose said in a statement shortly after his Chelsea sacking that he does not wish to take a sabbatical and wants to go straight back in- and what better place than at a club that he has made no secret of his desire to manage. 

Pep Guardiola has confirmed he is leaving Bayern- with Carlo Ancelotti replacing him- but this makes the situation tricky for the United board.

It's one of three options: sack LVG now and put Mourinho in charge (missing out on Guardiola), sacking LVG and giving the job to Giggsy until the end of the season and then going for Pep, or give LVG the end of his contract and potentially miss out on both world class coaches who may be snaffled up by then. 

Van Gaal is an intelligent man and his admission that he "is maybe not a successful manager any more" suggests that he feels he is not the man to take us forward.
That  would also indicate something I've suspected for a while now: that his heart is not in it any more.

I wouldn't blame him if he walked away - he's had a fantastic career, has won nearly everything there is to win and is one the most highly respected coaches in the game.
But everything has a "best-before" date and I can't help but think that Van Gaal has reached his. 

He initially only said he would walk if the players turned against him - whilst I don't think that has happened yet there have been reports of dressing room unrest for a few months now.

"Confidence in a manager is very important and when you are not winning then of course that confidence shall decrease, that is happening now and I cannot close my eyes to that." LVG said after Saturday's loss. 

Something must change to truly take us forward and I think it has to be the manager. 

Uncertainty takes hold as 2016 approaches

Even David Moyes never sank this low.

Three wins in thirteen games.

Six without a win, three consecutive defeats and playing the worst football I've seen from a United side in my 18 years as a supporter.

In the last two games- Bournemouth and Wolfsburg- LVG has pointed to a crippling injury list as a contributory factor in the defeats and to be fair he probably had a point with nine first team players missing. 

But against Norwich we were virtually full strength and yet save for a late 20 minute rally, the performance was arguably the worst of all.

Ryan Giggs basically appeared to be doing Van Gaal's job for him during yesterday's match.

With United pressing-ultimately in vain- for an equaliser, Giggsy could be seen urging the players on and shouting orders- whilst the Dutchman remained in his seat scribbling on his clipboard.
While an assistant manager overseeing proceedings on the touchline is nothing new, it said a lot about LVG's preferred style of in-game management.
Giggsy deserves credit for at least trying to do something to address a dreadful situation. 

So where do we go from here? 

United's slump in form could not have come at a worse time for Van Gaal, with a plethora of world class coaches suddenly in the shop window.
United's board have lavished praise on LVG but with Jose Mourinho out of a job and Pep Guardiola planning a change of scenery, Old Trafford suits will have surely noticed a persistent twitch in their collective trigger fingers.

The Reds mundane football is grudgingly accepted while results remain acceptable but the ignominious exit from the Champions League, coupled with humiliation against newly promoted duo Bournemouth and Norwich, has turned opinion against the Dutchman.

Even with a wealth of options at his disposal, the Dutchman's choice of formation and baffling substitutions have continued to provoke unrest.
Deploying two holding midfielders against less decorated opposition with limited ambition to attack is simultaneously mystifying and typical of LVG's strange tenure.
Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin and Michael Carrick are all excellent footballers, but there is no need for two thirds of this trio to start together at home against lesser sides. 

Van Gaal has to realise that his philosophy- I've still no idea what it is- clearly isn't working and seems to have less meaning with every passing week.
His ethos is centred on ball retention and defensive solidity but ignores the crucial element of action in the final third. 

This cannot go on...

Fans at breaking point with LVG after Norwich loss

The supporters reaction said it all - after limping to a third consecutive defeat, the final whistle was greeted by a chorus of jeers.
As Louis van Gaal made the walk from his seat (which, again, he never moved from throughout the match), he was booed by a significant majority of the fans.
By contrast, the supporters applauded the players as they headed for the sanctuary of the dressing rooms.

Even MUTV, which can usually be relied upon to offer a degree of sympathy and support in tough times, was scathing in its post-match analysis of Van Gaal's sixth consecutive match without a win. 

For us long suffering United fans, this really was the most benign of seasonal fare - you wouldn't want Van Gaal managing your Christmas.

You can imagine what it would be like as,  despite spending a fortune at the butchers, he'd serve up a load of under cooked turkey and tasteless vegetables (all with a complimentary clipboard of course).

He would suck the life from the most joyous of celebrations.

Then there's Wayne Rooney.

This was the United captain's 500th appearance for the club and he was clearly keen to mark the occasion with a win.
He had the ball in the net as early as the ninth minute only to be flagged offside and his performance was summed up when-played through by Michael Carrick - he checked back, then his subsequent mis-hit cross thudded straight into the shins of a Norwich defender.

At one time a few years ago, Rooney would have torn into the box and smashed on goal but instead it was indicative of his recent struggles. 

Roy Keane is an infrequent visitor to the ground these days following his very public fall out with Sir Alex and acrimonious exit from the club but was watching from the stands here.
How we could have done with his on-field belligerence, drive and never say die spirit in the Norwich game.

United are lacking real leadership at the moment and you suspect Keane, in his pomp, would not have allowed to slump to such a wretched defeat.
This side desperately lacks a leader in the Keane mould.

As the jeers and dissenting voices echoed across Old Trafford at the conclusion of this limp, lame, wretched, unacceptable performance, Van Gaal's much-trumpeted philosophy seems to be on its last legs.

Losing at Bournemouth is bad enough, but at home to Norwich does not suggest a club - or a manager - on the march to progress.

This cannot go on. Anyone got Jose's details... 

Match report: United 1-2 Norwich

United's winless run extended to six games as Norwich became the first team to leave Old Trafford with all three points this season to increase the pressure on LVG.

The hosts once again dominated proceedings but were stunned by breakaway goals either side of half-time through Cameron Jerome and Alex Tettey.

Anthony Martial pulled one back as United launched a late rally but it proved in vain as the struggling Canaries held on for their first ever Premier League win at Old Trafford.

The returning Wayne Rooney- on his 500th appearance for the club- had an early effort ruled out for offside and Memphis also went close with a dipping drive from close range.

United continued to push for the opener and Martin Olsson's attempted clearance ricocheted off Michael Carrick and dropped to Rooney, whom crossed for Memphis to nod narrowly over.

Having had nearly all of the ball and most of the chances, Old Trafford was shocked seven minutes before the break when Norwich went ahead against the run of play.

Nathan Redmond slipped a pass through to Jerome, whom shrugged off his marker and fired low past David de Gea- the first goal United had conceded at home since Wolfsburg in September.

United upped the tempo in search of an equaliser but it was Alex Neil's Norwich whom doubled their lead when Carrick lost the ball in midfield and Jerome played in Tettey to toe poke beond De Gea.

Rooney went close with a scissor kick and Wes Hoolahan forced a save from Dave at the other end, but United finally found the breakthrough 25 minutes from time.

Rooney narrowly failed to connect with the excellent Ashley Young's whipped in cross on the right, but the loose ball fell to Anthony Martial whom snaffled up the chance and kept the Reds alive.

Canaries keeper Declan Rudd saved well from Juan Mata and Daley Blind lashed across goal at the hosts rallied, but Norwich remained a threat on the counter and De Gea saved well from substitute Youssuf Mulumbu.

Mike Smallnig headed inches wide from a clever chipped pass by Mata, and Young lashed an effort just off target, but that proved to be the final action of the game. 

Overall team performance: 6.5/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Ashley Young 

Friday 18 December 2015

Mourinho a doubled edge sword for the Old Trafford hierarchy

So the Special One has become the Sacked One as he leaves Chelsea for a second time having made them champions again only seven months ago. 

The 52 year old has reportedly long coveted the Old Trafford hotseat and his dismissal by the Stamford Bridge side could finally align the stars for an eventual switch, especially with Reds boss Louis van Gaal under increasing pressure. 

Mourinho was considered one of the favourites to take over from Sir Alex after the Scot's retirement in 2013.
He allegedly broke down in tears upon being overlooked, but despite the serial winner's brashness and public courting of controversy, he surely cannot be ignored this time around.

In ten seasons of club management, Mourinho has led his varying sides to eight league titles in four different countries, he has won the UEFA Cup and Champions League with Porto befoe picking up the latter for a second time at Inter Milan.

A serial winner, he would not be fazed by the United job and has the personality, strength of character, nous and tactical knowledge of the English game to succeed at Old Trafford.

There are drawbacks, however.

United fans are currently unhappy with Louis van Gaal's negative and dull football, something Mourinho himself has been accused of in the past, having "parked the bus" to grind out results.

Although he would almost certainly bring success to the club, it remains doubtful whether his style of management and his frequent outspoken manner would be accepted by the United board and fans.

There's also a  definite pattern emerging with Mourinho and his management - that of the now infamous "third season syndrome"- never at any of his previous clubs has he stayed at the helm into a fourth term amid doubts about his ability of building a legacy. 

Two seasons of success and silverware but then struggle, strife and, in this case, the sack in season number three.
The United hierarchy prefer secure stability in their managers and Mourinho's status as a successful but short term fix could be a potential turn off.

But what about a three year stint then Ryan Giggs in the long term?

It's hard to ignore his arrogance and egocentric persona, but it's Mourinho's record of success, big game psychology and tactical shrewdness that surely makes him a risk worth taking for the club. 

(Jose Mourinho is 5/1 on to succeed LVG at Old Trafford) 

United aim to remain impregnable at fortress OT

United are turning Old Trafford into a fortress again this term with the club's best defensive home record in domestic football at this stage of the season since 1995/96.

The art of defending starts from the front, as LVG has often pointed out, and United's excellent work in this area is ensuring domestic rivals are having little joy in breaching the Reds' rearguard ranks at OT.

In 10 domestic encounters so far, only one opposition player- Liverpool's Christian Benteke- has found the net and, while his strike may have been spectacularly unstoppable, it proved a mere footnote in a game won 3-1 by the hosts as Anthony Martial burst onto the scene with a debut screamer.

Considering the Capital One Cup tie vs Middlesbrough went to extra time, the Belgian's belter is the only blemish in some 840 minutes of football on our home turf.
David de Gea and Sergio Romero have both played their part but the whole team unit deserve credit for their excellent defensive efforts.

A glance through the record books show that this is the club's best league start defensively to a home campaign since 1994/95 when United's defence was not breached until 17 December, Stan Collymore with a long range strike past Gary Walsh in a 2-1 reverse to Forest.

Sir Alex's side had kept 10 consecutive home clean sheets up until then, with nine of those coming before December although Barcelona and IFK Gothenburg both breached the United net in Europe.

Peter Schmeichel had an incredible 16 league shut outs in 1994/95 before Simon Charlton scored in the final outing of the season.
United bounced back to win that game against Southampton 2-1 but still ended up empty handed as league runners up and losing FA Cup finalists.

When looking at United's defensive record overall, you have to back to the team under Ron Atkinson to discover a time when this season's tally of three goals conceded before December has been bettered.

Atkinson's men had gone seven and a half home without conceding until Craig Johnston notched for Liverpool and Paul West equalised with only the second strike past Gary Bailey in November.

It wasn't until the 21st December that the defence was breached again with a Charlie Nicholas winner for Arsenal, the third goal conceded in the league on home soil.

Shutting out the opposition is nothing new for United but that does not make this season's defensive record any less impressive ahead of 2015's final two Old Trafford tests against Norwich and Chelsea. 

Match preview: United v Norwich

United manager Louis van Gaal has urged his side to put recent results behind them and return to winning ways as we welcome the struggling Canaries to Old Trafford.

In the first of three huge matches in ten days over a hectic Christmas- LVG has targeted a nine point return- the boss delivered a positive injury update and suggested that Wayne Rooney, Morgan Schneiderlin, Chris Smalling and Ander Herrera could all return.

Should the skipper feature, it will be his 500th appearance for the club. 

Jesse Lingard and Matteo Darmian are both definitely out, though, while Ashley Young is progressing well but remains doubtful and Bastian Schweinsteiger is suspended.
The Reds will be again without long term injury absentees Marcos Rojo, Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw. 

Alex Neil's Norwich- promoted via the play-offs last term- come into this one in the bottom three having won only three matches all season and this is a fixture that bodes well for the Reds (the last three league and cup OT meetings have ended 4-0 in our favour).

The 18th placed visitors have won only once on the road this term in contrast to our unbeaten home record and have virtually a fully fit squad to pick from with only Andre Wisdom (hamstring) and Matt Jarvis (knee) missing. 

Speaking on Friday, van Gaal said:

"The only answer is to win this match but it shall be difficult because we are playing in the Premier League.
"At home you have to win and that's for sure, Norwich have had good results against the top teams so what I always say- it is not an excuse- is that winning in the Premier League is not easy.
"Goals are the most important thing. we have to look for solutions always to make goals.
"We are doing that but we have to look for the solutions in our selection, that is important.
"Maybe the solution shall come in January but it is not easy because clubs do not very often sell players who score so it is a problem."

Form guide: United W D D D L L Norwich L W L D L D
Match odds: United 11/4 Draw 7/2 Norwich 13/2
Referee: Michael Oliver 

Thursday 17 December 2015

United cannot ignore high calibre managerial market in succession plan

The hope at Old Trafford is for Ryan Giggs to succeed Louis van Gaal in 18 months time but the availability of arguably the three best managers in world football will surely muddy the water.

It's understood that United are not in the hunt for Pep Guardiola and the ideal scenario remains for Giggs to succeed Van Gaal at the end of the next season at the earliest. 

That word came before last week's traumatic events when we went out of the Champions League and then lost at Bournemouth, but it came in the knowledge that Guardiola was set to announce his future.

It came in the belief that Manchester City lead the race for his services at the end of the season. 

While the club's hierarchy insist they are delighted with Van Gaal, the idea that they are prepared to step aside and allow our rivals to swoop for the most sought-after manager in the game beggars belief.

Jose Mourinho's shock sacking by Chelsea only throws a spanner in the works.

And the news that Carlo Ancelotti is the man in the frame to succeed Guardiola at Bayern only compounds the situation.

For the supporters- growing increasingly frustrated by Van Gaal's reign- there will be worrying echoes of the months surrounding SAF's departure.

In the same summer that English football's most successful boss announced his retirement, Guardiola, Ancelotti and Mourinho all switched clubs.

We, however, ended up with David Moyes. 

At a point when they are still trying to get back on track following one failed succession plan, we could conceivably see Guardiola, Ancelotti and Jurgen Klopp all take up new positions within months of each other.

Mourinho's departure means he should now be available. 

The determination to give Giggs the opportunity to succeed LVG is a worthy and popular one.

But similar could be said of Moyes, at a time when United bucked the trend of English football's biggest clubs and appointed a British manager rather than going down the foreign route. 

The club have counted the cost of that move ever since- and regardless of the sentimentality towards Giggs, there is the potential for this latest succession plan to go spectacularly wrong once again.

While there is no suggestion of Van Gaal's position being under threat, it would be a remarkable decision to watch on as a succession of potential high calibre candidates to replace him commit themselves to rivals both domestically and abroad.

Given that sources close to Guardiola have claimed that his heart is set on the Old Trafford hotseat, he could yet be convinced to head to the red half of the city.

At the very least, it is an avenue we have to explore- or once again live to regret it. 

United were interested in Ancelotti when Sir Alex retired in 2013 

Monday 14 December 2015

Flawed progress under LVG for plodding United

When Louis van Gaal took over United were in crisis following the calamitous tenure of David Moyes with the Reds having gone from champions to seventh in the first post-Sir Alex Ferguson season.

Van Gaal fulfilled his remit of getting the club back into the Champions League at the first attempt, but last week's exit from the competition from one of the easiest groups was a major setback for the Reds and the manager.

Defeat at Bournemouth compounded that failing yet United still find themselves within touching distance in the title race, just six points behind leaders Leicester approaching the halfway point of the season.

The problem for LVG is that the style of football he has imposed on United: rigid, pragmatic and lacking flair and style, is at odds with ethos and tradition of the club and, when it does not yield results, backlash from the fans is fierce.

What hasn't helped Van Gaal is his decision to work with a smaller squad this season, despite the fact we will play more games due to our involvement in Europe.

That decision has backfired with nine players currently injured.

He has jettisoned three strikers in RVP, Radamel Falcao and Javier Hernandez - as well as letting James Wilson go out on loan - and brought in just Anthony Martial whose goals have dried up after an explosive start.

Defensively, LVG has improved the side but that has come at a cost: we no longer attack at breakneck speed and have become predictable and prosaic in the way we set up in matches.

As mentioned elsewhere, his judgement in the transfer market has been questionable, too.

Only Martial - signed for a very inflated price - has been a success - although his recent lean spell, coupled with Wayne Rooney's injury and poor form, has left us lacking up top.

Matteo Darmian has regressed after a positive start and both Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin have blown hot and cold. 

To spend what he has since taking over and still not know what his best team is and have such an unbalanced and shallow squad reflects so badly on Van Gaal and his management.

He goes on about philosophy but yet no-one really knows what vision he is trying to realise at Old Trafford.

Last season we he took over we weren't even in Europe - never mind the Champions League - and yet now we are title contenders despite what's happened in the last few weeks, so there has been progress but how tangible is it? 

Drastic problems at our beloved club... and something must change

Louis van Gaal, the supposed tactical genius, couldn't look further away from that right now.

His thinking is muddled, his decisions simply bizarre, his recruitment questionable and his tactics bordering on suicidal.

It seems to me as though the players are living in fear - that any mistakes they make will be noted down on that infamous clipboard, that Van Gaal will pillory them in public as a consequence and that a season on the bench beckons.

Van Gaal is not allowing any freedom for the players to express themselves and look no further than Ander Herrera as an example.

Granted he's injured at the moment but even when fully fit van Gaal does not seem convinced by him despite him being our most creative and popular playmaker. 

Why did Angel Di Maria start so well and then recede to such an extent that he left after just one season?

I suspect it's less to do with the break-in than having to play six different positions while never being told what his actual role would be. 

Javier Hernandez has ten goals in 13 games for Leverkusen this season, James Wilson has two in two for Brighton and Adnan Januzaj is starring for Dortmund, so what was Van Gaal thinking in letting these three players go?

Promoting youth players is important at United and to his credit this is something the manager has done - but mainly only because his head-scratching transfer policy has left him with no choice with such a small squad. 

Using Nick Powell as a get out of jail card is bad enough but of his signings, none have really excelled (Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw both have but they came before he arrived).

It's all well and good completing a vast overhaul of the squad, but if the manager himself does not have a plan, a system or a shape for the squad then how are the players expected to flourish. 

His much feted philosophy seems non-existent: indeed, you only have to look at Bournemouth to see a hungry, youthful side who run through brick walls for their equally hard-working and visionary young manager. 

It would be good if  van Gaal was to put down his clipboard and get on the touchline to give the players some guidance and direction - or, at the very least, let Giggsy do it.

At least then, we might see some passion, some flair, some desire and some energy because at the moment the team are going nowhere and something needs to change. 

Reds to face Danish opponents in Europa League

United will travel to Denmark to take on FC Midtjylland in the last 32 of the UEFA Europa League. 

The Danish side qualified for the knockout stages after finishing in second place in Group D behind Napoli but ahead of Club Brugge- whom we knocked out of the Champions League of course.

Midtjylland put out Southampton in the Europa League play-offs, after a 1-1 draw at St Mary's and a 1-0 win in the second leg in Denmark.

Jess Thorup's side currently sit in third place in their domestic table- two points behind leaders FC Copenhagen.

The club was only formed in 1999- four days before Sir Alex Ferguson's side beat Nottingham Forest 8-1 away and in the same season that the Reds won the treble.
In 2015, they won their domestic title for the first time and have played in Manchester before- beating City 1-0 in 2008 (before they got lucky and became rich) before going out of the UEFA Cup on penalties after losing by the same scoreline in the home leg.

Midtjylland host their home matches at the MCH Arena in Herning, a city on the Jutland peninsula of Denmark.
It has a capacity of 11,800 and United will play there in the first leg on Thursday 18 February with the return at Old Trafford coming a week later on Thursday 25 February. 

The Danish outfit's squad are hardly brimming with household names, but West Ham United's New-Zealand born defender Winston Reid came through their academy and Finland international Tim Sparv, formerly of Southampton, is also among their number.

Ex-Hibernian full back Francis Dickoh is also another of their well-known alumni.

It may be a first ever Midtjylland meeting for United but we have faced Danish opposition before- all in the Champions League: Aalborg (2008), Brondby (1998) and FC Copenhagen (2006). 

Midtjylland tie latest foray in Europe's second competition

United have played 35 ties in Europe's second club competition that has been known under a number of names as we prepare for our second sojourn in the UEFA Europa League. 

We first played in what was then the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in the 1964/65 season, losing narrowly to Ferencvaros in the semi-finals in a third game having drawn 3-3 on aggregate over the two legs in the days before penalty shootouts.

Three seasons of European Cup football followed- two semi-final defeats sandwiched between that unforgettable night at Wembley when we became the first English club to lift the famous old trophy. 

Following seven seasons away from continental competition, United set out for their first season in the newly rebranded UEFA Cup- 12 years after that initial meeting with Ferencvaros.
Victory over the-then mighty Ajax set up a second round meeting with Juventus- with the Italian outfit overturning a first leg deficit on their way to eventual victory over Atletico Madrid in the final. 

The eighties was by far United's most frequent UEFA Cup decade- with first round exits in 1980/81 and then 1982/83- to Widzew Lodz and Valencia respectively.
In fact, that period of the club's history proved to be a frustrating string of near-misses under Ron Atkinson- with a single season in the Cup Winners Cup ended by Juventus- again- at the semi final stage in 1983/84.

After wins over Gyori (5-2 agg), PSV (1-0 agg) and Dundee United (5-4 agg), our last eight loss to Videoton (0-1 agg) in the 1984/85 UEFA Cup proved to be the Reds last in Europe as a whole until 1990.

United would have played in the 1986/87 and 1988/89 UEFA Cup but a ban on English sides in all European competition because of Heysel put paid to that.

By now, Fergie was at the helm and steered the side to Cup Winners Cup glory in 1991, but the UEFA Cup campaign two seasons later was short-lived as Russian side Torpedo Moscow went through on penalties after two dire goalless games (the Old Trafford leg being notable only for Gary Neville's debut for the club).

It was a similar story in 1995/96 with another first round exit to Russian opponents- this time Rotor Volgograd went through on away goals- but Peter Schmeichel scored in the 2-2 draw at OT.

16 consecutive seasons of Champions League football were to follow- with United only appearing once in what was now the Europa League.
United entered the 2011/12 competition at the last 32 stage, but having edged out Ajax 3-2 on aggregate, Ander Herrera and Athletic Club proved too strong in the last 16 and ran out 3-5 winners on their way to that year's final. 

What will this season's competition bring..

United await European fate in Europa draw

So the worst case scenario has happened- it's Thursday night football for us in the second tier of European competition in the new year.

As one of the seeded sides, there are 16 possible options for the Reds, including Gary Neville's Valencia and Adnan Januzaj's Borussia Dortmund whilst there are four teams in the draw we've never met competitively (Augsburg- Germany), FC Midtjylland (Denmark), Sevilla (Spain) and Sion from Switzerland.

UEFA rules dictate that the 12 Europa League group winners and and the four best third-placed sides from the Champions League group stage - one of which is us - will be drawn against the 12 runners up from the Europa League groups and the remaining third placed sides from the Champions League.

Clubs from the same country cannot face each other until the quarter finals meaning that we cannot play Spurs or Liverpool at this stage while the Europa League group winners and the four best third-placed sides from the Champions League will play the second legs at home.

This mean that the first leg of our last 32 tie will be played away on Thursday 18 February with the return leg scheduled for a week later at Old Trafford on Thursday 25 February.

It's difficult to know exactly how United should treat the Europa League: on the one hand, it's a chance for a serious crack at the only major trophy United have never won (both as the UEFA and Europa Cups) and will bring valuable experience for the squad's young players.

On the other, having to play Thursday-Sunday every other week- and the possibility of long travails to far flung corners of the continent- could cause serious problems for our league ambitions. 

United have played in the Europa League - formerly the UEFA Cup - once before, under Sir Alex in 2011/12 when we were knocked out at the last 16 stage by an Athletic Club side for whom Ander Herrera was influential. 

Potential opponents for United: Anderlecht (Belgium), Augsburg (Germany), Borussia Dortmund (Germany), Fenerbahce (Turkey), Fiorentina (Italy), Galatasaray (Turkey), Marseille (France), FC Midtyjlland (Denmark), Sevilla (Spain), Saint-Etienne (France), Sion (Switzerland), Sparta Prague (Czech Rep.), Sporting Lisbon (Portugal), Valencia, Villarreal (Spain) 

Sunday 13 December 2015

It's got to the point where I'm not even surprised any more

The most damning thing about yesterday's result was that I saw it coming and wasn't in the least bit shocked at the result.

Yes, the once mighty Manchester United fell to defeat at the not so mighty Bournemouth and yet I wasn't in the least bit surprised and that summed up the current situation at the club.

Every team suffers setbacks - even United did under Ferguson - but where Fergie's teams so often excelled was their collective response to such circumstance, fuelled by the mantra that successive defeats are not acceptable at Old Trafford.

Not only have we now lost two matches in a row, we've won one in five and the fact that we never looked like ending that run yesterday said it all.
Our adverse reaction having falling 2-1 behind was so far removed from what we expect but yet all too familiar... in our last three league games, two of which were at home, we've had one shot on goal in the second half in each. 

What's even more worrying is that our manager - this supposedly esteemed Dutchman who is meant to be a tactical genius - is looking every inch David Moyes 2.0.
His interviews are rapidly alienating the fans, his decisions are baffling, his thinking muddled, there is lack of a clear vision and game plan, and as for his much feted "philosophy".... well, who knows.

It seemed we had made an improvement with last season one of solid stabilising and we started well this time around (even topping the table in September, albeit briefly). 
The 3-0 defeat at Arsenal was followed up with a 3-0 victory at Everton in what was arguably our best performance since Sir Alex retired but, since then, we've not looked anywhere near capable of reproducing that form.

Since that win at Goodison on October on 17th October, we've played 12 matches.

Number of wins: Three.

Yes, three wins in two months. 

It's difficult to pinpoint exactly where things started to go wrong, but so desperate is the situation that Nick Powell is now the manager's get-out-of-jail card.

Credit to Bournemouth: they came with a gameplan and it worked and they targeted our weaknesses, but having conceded twice from set-pieces in Wolfsburg you'd think the players would learn their lesson.

The fact they didn't would suggest that either the training is not fit for purpose or that the manager's methods are not getting through.

Something has to change, and quickly. 

From beating Barcelona to losing at Bournemouth... a dark day on the south coast

It is one thing losing to Wolfsburg, the second best side in Germany last season and an established force in the Bundesliga and in Europe.

It's quite another losing to a Bournemouth side who - as their supporters loved reminding ours yesterday - are from League Two.

In the catalogue of humbling experiences that United have been through since the Sir Alex Ferguson era came to an end you would be hard pressed to outdo those of the David Moyes season but this defeat to Bournemouth would be up there.

Seven years ago, the Cherries were in League Two with a 17-point deduction and United were beating Barcelona en route to a League and Champions League double winning season under Sir Alex. 

In a bizarre and unpredictable season that has even made the Special One look normal, there is at least some refuge for Louis van Gaal, but not much.

For all the injuries that have stretched the squad to the limit, this was not a result that any United manager with his resources should ever contemplate. 

United could drop out of the top four if Tottenham beat Newcastle today but there are other considerations that will trouble the club's hierarchy much more.
Both in Wolfsburg and again here, we were laborious, predictable and so eminently beatable. 

Even our defensive resilience that has made us so hard to beat this season has disappeared.

Even Van Gaal, a man never lacking in confidence, has started to look dazed by the scale of this team's shortcomings having gone five games without a win.

That's two more than the worst slump United went through under Moyes. 

Had we won, we would have gone within a point of City in first place but, having lost it, the questions to the manager were about whether he still believes in his side and why he did not bring on Ashley Young.

Javier Hernandez scored a hat-trick for Leverkusen yesterday - that's ten in seven now - and James Wilson has scored two in two for Brighton on loan.
United's goal against Bournemouth was poked in by Marouane Fellaini having taken two paces on his knees and the less said about the usual goalscorers the better.

In the closing stages, Van Gaal replaced Fellaini with Nick Powell who made an unlikely centre-forward.
Anthony Martial was moved out to the right to accomodate Powell who struggled to make an impact and there was no sense at the end of the great United attacking siege we once knew and loved. 

Dark days indeed.