Monday 31 August 2015

Ins and outs: Transfer window round-up

It's been a strange ol' transfer window for Manchester United with comings, goings and endless rumours all summer long at the biggest club in the world.

First came  Dutch wide man Memphis, signed in May from PSV Eindhoven for a fee in the region of £31 million, then the problem area of midfield was radically strengthened with the double arrivals of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin in a combined £40 million deal. 

Radamel Falcao left for Chelsea, whilst striker Robin van Persie and wideman Nani both joined Turkish Super Lig side Galatasaray and Angel Di Maria buggered off to PSG. 

Out went Rafael (Lyon), replaced at right-back by Torino's Matteo Darmian and Argentine goalkeeper Sergio Romero would soon join United on a free to become the club's fifth summer signing. 

United's search for a centre-back- via Sergio Ramos and Nicolas Otamendi- dew a blank (with Ramos staying at Real and Otamendi losing his senses and joining City), whilst, talking of Real, the summer's most drawn out transfer story seems to be nearing a conclusion.

The "will he won't he" nature of David de Gea's on/off/on again move to Madrid has kept United fans captivated/frustrated/infuriated and tonight it has been announced that the two clubs looked to have agreed a fee, with Real goalkeeper Keylor Navas seemingly coming the other way.

Tyler Blackett joins Celtic on a season long loan deal, Jonny Evans has moved to West Brom for £8m (along with United colleague Anders Lindegaard) whilst Adnan Januzaj and Javier Hernandez have both swapped the Premier League for the Bundesliga.

Adnan has signed for Thomas Tuchel's Dortmund on loan and Hernandez has completed a permanent move to Dortmund's German rivals Leverkusen in a typically frantic finish to the window.

The cull of Falcao and RVP were not surprising, the lack of replacement much more so.
Our search for a world class striker has seen us linked with just about every forward in world football, from the sublime- Pedro (now of Chelsea) to the darn right ridiculous- Neymar.

We missed out on both, but today the unknown name of 19-year-old Anthony Martial of Monaco has been catapulted into the limelight ahead of a proposed move to Manchester.

This signing has come out of the left field, and it is expected that the Reds will complete the £36million deal some time tomorrow, to the surprise of many.

Life at United is never dull and this transfer window epitomises that, will the drastic nature of LVG's overhaul proving that the club never stand still in the search for success. 

Swansea's switch leaves United looking for answers

For a manager of LVG's experience and acumen to be outwitted and out-thought by a man 30 years his junior who has been in management for just over a year was extraordinary.

With his Swans side 1-0 down, Garry Monk reacted by taking off Wayne Routledge in place of Ki Sung-Yeung, switched to a midfield diamond and pushed the impressive Andre Ayew further forward.
The change of personnel prompted a change of fortunes for Swansea who turned the game around to triumph with two goals in five minutes.

Granted, it's the job of the manager to make decisions such as this to turn a match around, but when Swansea altered their shape United did not and they made us pay. 

Sometimes football yields an image to neatly express disorder and confusion.
Here, it was the sight of Marouane Fellaini pressed into service as an emergency striker for the last 14 minutes with United chasing the game.
Van Gaal basically admitted that a team packed with experienced internationals was not able to cope with the change quickly enough.
He did not react- and Swansea scored twice in those minutes.

That substitution confirmed the paucity of United's lack of attacking options as Rooney slipped into a withdrawn role to escape the pressure of being the Reds only A-list front man.

Contrast that with Monk's vibrant, brilliantly potent attacking team and it is not hard to see why, yet again, Swansea got the better of LVG's side.
Not only did LVG fail to react to a change in the game situation but, when he did, his choice of replacements were odd.
Michael Carrick sent on to try and salvage a result?
Fellaini as a centre forward?
Javier Hernandez (perfect in circumstances such as these) as an unused substitute having been told he can leave?

I also can't help but feel that, had David De Gea been between the sticks yesterday, he most likely would have saved both of the efforts that led to Swansea's goals.

Juan Mata is a number ten, not a winger, Daley Blind is a midfielder/left back not a centre half and Wayne Rooney is better behind the frontman not the lone striker.
United have the right components but are not clicking as a unit.

These players are not being utilised properly and, until they are, it's hard to see the progress United fans want- or rather- demand. 

Swans clip United's wings....again

Swansea recovered from a goal down to come from behind and seal a hat-trick of 2-1 wins over Louis van Gaal's side in the manager's 50th match in charge.

Juan Mata had put United ahead early in the second half but- after Garry Monk's tactical alterations and two goals in quick succession- the Swans beat us again and leave LVG still searching for a win against the South Wales side.

Memphis Depay went close with a dangerous free-kick that was well saved by Lukasz Fabianski and Mata nearly scored from Ander Herrera's cut back in a bright start from the visitors.

Swansea began to exert their attacking threat on the match though and, after Gylfi Sigurdsson flashed an effort across goal, Sergio Romero saved well from Jonjo Shelvey before the impressive Bafetimbi Gomis rattled the woodwork from close range.

Monk's side had arguably edged a thrilling first half but, three minutes into the second half, United were ahead.
The Reds best player, Luke Shaw, fizzed in a cross that evaded everyone except Juan Mata at the back stick and the Spaniard stuck out a leg to stab in.

Seven minutes later, the game changed on a slight tactical tweak by the hosts- who introduced Ki Sung-Yeung (who scored twice against us last season), reverted to a midfield diamond and pushed the superb, relentless Andre Ayew further forward.

On the face of it, this seemed a surprising switch but Monk's decision was vindicated just four minutes later when Ashley Williams picked out Sigurdsson who crossed for Ayew to head in.

Five minutes later, Swansea struck again and the build up was simply exquisite.
Shelvey found Sigurdsson who flicked on to Ayew whose glorious defence-splitting ball picked out Gomis who ran through and side-footed home what turned out to be the winner. 

Marouane Fellaini was thrown on as an emergency striker- typifying the Reds dearth of attacking options- but the Reds were unable to respond as Swansea kept hold of their recent grip over van Gaal's side on a disappointing afternoon. 

United Faithful man of the Match: Juan Mata
Overall team performance: 6/10 

Saturday 29 August 2015

Match preview: Swansea v United

Sorry I'm later than usual in posting this, but it's been a hectic time for various reasons and I've not got round to it until now. 


Louis van Gaal has revealed that Adnan Januzaj will miss United's trip to the Liberty Stadium as we take on a Swansea side who took six points off the Reds last season.

Marouane Fellaini has now served his three match suspension in the Barclays Premier League so the towering midfielder is available, and Marcos Rojo played an hour in a Carrington friendly on Thursday and so could also feature.

Phil Jones is still recovering from thrombosis and is ruled out, but there are no other injury concerns for United.
Januzaj's injury could mean a first league start of the season for Ander Herrera following an impressive showing against Brugge in midweek. 

"We won 2-1 and it was a good match, a lot of players could play for 90 minutes and that is also good for the building up of the players who are not playing in the first selection, so it was very important."

In what will be LVG's 50th match in charge of United, the boss has urged his side to show the improvement that's been made in the year since a 2-1 home reverse ended in defeat to Sunday's opponents Swansea.

The Swans followed that up with a victory by the same scoreline in south Wales in February to complete a shock double over the Reds, and van Gaal added: 

"I don't want to lose again, it's the only club we could not beat or gain one point against last year so it's a difficult team against us and before my period it was also difficult for Manchester United so I hope we can improve and we can show that we are better than last year."

Swansea are a dangerous force to be reckoned with under Garry Monk, particularly away from home, and with creative talents including Jefferson Montero, Andre Ayew, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Bafetimbi Gomis, the Swans are a good side of whom we should be wary. 

Form guide: D W D W United W W W D W
Match odds: Swansea 9/10 Draw 5/2 United 14/5
Referee: Martin Atkinson 

Thursday 27 August 2015

United await European fate

Having sealed a return to the Champions League group stage with a 7-1 defeat of Brugge in the two-legged play-off, United are in Pot 2 for Thursday's draw.

Why Pot 2 I hear you ask: well, in a change from previous seasons, pot one will be made up of holders Barcelona plus the champions of the top seven European leagues (Germany, Portugal, France, England, Russia, France and Spain)- rather than being based on UEFA club co-efficient.

As Barcelona are the currents holders of both La Liga and the Champions League, Dutch champions PSV- Memphis Depay's old club- go into pot one as the eighth-ranked association.

So what does this mean for United: well, a potential "Group of Death" match-up with Barcelona, Lyon and Bundesliga side Wolfsburg whilst the best case scenario would be Zenit, Shakhtar Donetsk and Gent.

The team we'll want to avoid is FC Astana (they're in Pot 4)- a nine-hour flight away on the Kazakh/ Chinese border. 
No thank you!
Other potential dangers who made it through are Europa League winners Sevilla, Roma, the aforementioned Wolfsburg and CSKA Moscow. 

United manager Louis van Gaal is set to give the draw a miss, and instead intends to watch the club's second string in a Carrington friendly against Ajax as he ponders his selection options.

"I think I shall watch the second team against Ajax because that is more important and I cannot do anything to impact the draw" LVG said.

Also in Pot 2  with United are Premier League rivals Arsenal and Manchester City alongside Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid, Porto, Valencia and Bayer Leverkusen.

Spain are once again the dominant nation in the draw- with their top four sides- Barcelona, Real, Atletico and Valencia- plus Europa League winners Sevilla, all amongst the 32 teams. 

Whatever the draw throws up, it's a great feeling to be back involved in the continental pinnacle and a new chapter in the club's history ready to be written as Louis van Gaal embarks on his first European campaign in charge of United.

Pot One: Barcelona (Spain), Bayern Munich (Germany), Benfica (Portugal), Chelsea (England), Juventus (Italy), PSG (France), Zenit (Russia), PSV Eindhoven (Netherlands)
Pot Two: Arsenal (England), Atletico Madrid (Spain), Bayer Leverkusen (Germany), Manchester City (England), UNITED (England), Real Madrid (Spain), Porto (Portugal), Valencia (Spain)
Pot Three: CSKA Moscow (Russia), Dynamo Kiev (Ukraine), Lyon (France), Olympiakos (Greece), Galatasaray (Turkey), Roma (Italy), Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine), Sevilla (Spain)
Pot Four: FC Astana (Kazakhstan), BATE Borisov (Belarus), Borussia Monchengladbach (Germany), Wolfsburg (Germany), Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia), Maccabi Tel-Aviv (Israel), Gent (Belgium), Malmo (Sweden). 

Wednesday 26 August 2015

Match report: Club Brugge 0-4 United (agg 1-7)

Wayne Rooney ended his goal drought in emphatic style as United's second half salvo saw them storm past Club Brugge and into tomorrow's group stage draw.

Rooney had not scored for 10 games but put that statistic to bed when he put United ahead with the first clear cut opening with 20 minutes played.
A brilliantly disguised reverse ball from the eye-catching Memphis played in the skipper, who certainly did not seem short on confidence as he cleverly dinked home over Brugge keeper Sinan Bolat.

Memphis squandered a good chance to put the Reds 2-0 ahead at the break, but to their credit the hosts rallied and went close thrice in quick succession shortly before the interval.

Tom de Sutter first lacked the pace to make the most of a route to a goal, Daley Blind almost turned a tentative header into his own net and then Davy De Fauw glanced an effort narrowly wide from the resultant corner.

Spurred on by those near misses, Brugge saw an even better opportunity go begging on 43 minutes when Abdoulay Diaby beat the offside trap and found himself clean through, but Sergio Romero snuffed out the chance and smothered.

That was as good as it got for the hosts, and United doubled their lead shortly after the resumption with a beautifully well-worked goal.

The Reds carved Brugge wide open as Memphis picked out Ander Herrera who in turn unselfishly squared the ball back to Rooney who opened out his body and slotted past Bolat into the corner.

Eight minutes later, it was three for the Reds and for Rooney who completed his hat-trick when he latched on to Juan Mata's lovely through ball and slipped home a finish. 

By this time Brugge had disintegrated and Herrera took full advantage when he ran through and slotted home a simple strike under little pressure to make it 4-0.

Substitute Chicharito missed a penalty and then blazed over whilst injury-hit Brugge struck the bar through Hans Vanaken, but the tie was long won and United sealed their return to the European elite after a season's absence. 

Back where we belong!

United Faithful Man of the Match: An excellent all round team performance. Juan Mata was classy and consistent in attack, but the hat-trick hero Rooney gets it for his impressive, all action performance.
Overall team performance: 8/10

Fellaini to be used as striker by LVG

United manager Louis van Gaal has revealed that he intends to use Marouane Fellaini as a striker this season having strengthened in midfield.

The Reds may have enjoyed an unbeaten start to the season, but their form in front of goal has been far from prolific.
United have scored just twice in three league matches- and one of those was an own goal by Kyle Walker.
Wayne Rooney, who has failed to score in 10 league matches, and Javier Hernandez are yet to open their account whilst James Wilson has not featured in the squad.

Despite being linked with a number of targets (getting more ridiculous by the day)- Van Gaal insists he does not need to sign a striker before the transfer window shuts on Tuesday.

That can in part be explained by his plan for Fellaini, which was revealed on the eve of United's Champions League play-off second leg against Club Brugge.
"He can play in the nine position and as a ten" said LVG
"He can also play as a six and eight, but this year he shall play more at nine and 10 because we have other players in the six and eight."

Fellaini's height, strength and aerial prowess make him ideal for the role of lone frontman- a position he played at Everton- but he only scored seven goals last season- half the total of leading marksman Rooney.

The Belgian scored a key stoppage time header to give United a 3-1 advantage over Brugge last week, however, and is keen to play up front if his manager believes that is the best place for him.

"In the past I have played number 10 and number nine sometimes also so I can play there and help my team-mates and my team" explained Fellaini.
Fellaini became something of a scapegoat under the failed tenure of David Moyes, and it was anticipated that he would be sold by Van Gaal last summer.
But LVG kept faith with the 6ft 4in midfielder and his form was key to the turnaround in the club's fortunes last winter.
The £27.5 million signing is glad to have put the dark days of his first season at Old Trafford behind him, and added:

"Everyone knows my first season was difficult but it is the past, now I look forward.
"Last season I did quite well and I want to continue like that, I know my team mates and my manager and I am just looking forward to doing well and scoring some goals."

Fellaini is expected to replace Adnan Januzaj in a 4-2-3-1 formation, behind Rooney, against Brugge on Wednesday. 

Mata's misuse is the key reason for Rooney goalscoring drought

Boxing Day 2014: nine minutes before half-time during United's victory over Newcastle at Old Trafford, and Wayne Rooney latches on to Juan Mata's pass to LVG's side 2-0 up. 

A seemingly unremarkable goal in a relatively comfortable victory: yet it remains the only goal that Mata has created for Rooney in the league after 18 months of playing together.

Rooney's current goal drought now stands at 858 minutes: he has not scored for United since his strike against Villa on April 4 at OT and his contribution this season, or, more to the point- lack thereof- has amplified calls from United supporters to Van Gaal to recruit a proven goalscorer during the final week of the transfer window.

The Dutchman insists that he retains faith in Rooney to score at least 20 goals this season- which would make him United's all time record goalscorer- and that his team's dominance will be rewarded with the goals to reflect their share of possession.

LVG believes that the goalscoring problems afflicting United can be resolved with the current personnel, but the role of Mata is likely to come under increasing scrutiny owing to his inability to provide for Rooney.

Since arriving in the Premier League, Mata has created combined 36 league goals for both Chelsea and United.
At Stamford Bridge, the Spaniard was crowned Chelsea's Player of the Year twice in succession as the team's creative force, with 27 league assists in 2 1/2 seasons at the club.

Largely deployed in a central role behind the centre-forward, Mata was able to pick holes in opponents defences for team-mates to exploit.
At United, David Moyes and then Van Gaal have largely denied Mata that 'No.10' position, and as a result, his assists have dropped to only  nine in 18 months.

While the 27-year-old has maintained his threat as a goalscorer (netting 18 for United compared to 15 for Chelsea), his creative influence has declined.
Rooney- it would appear- has become a victim of Mata's reduced output.
The pair also suffer from a shared desire to drift towards the 'No.10' position that neither is being asked to play.
The United boss wants Rooney to play as the focal point with Mata cutting in from wide, but they are struggling to make the formula work.

What is clear is that Rooney requires better service- he needs both Memphis Depay and Mata to find their team-mates with early passes- but the England captain must also be disciplined enough to avoid dropping deep in search of the ball.

However, if Van Gaal can find a way to Mata inside, the slump in form that is currently dragging Rooney down could be solved. 

Tuesday 25 August 2015

Match preview: Club Brugge v United

With a 3-1 lead over Belgian outfit Brugge, the Reds will look to finish the job on the road in the second leg and seal a place in Friday's group stage draw.

It gives the Reds a good advantage, although the Belgians have a crucial away goal and need a 2-0 win to secure qualification to the group stages if United failed to score.

The loser of this play-off tie will drop into the UEFA Europa League whilst the winner will be one of 32 sides in the hat for the group stages (United would be in Pot 2 if we qualify).

Bastian Schweinsteiger made his first start of the season in Saturday's draw with Newcastle and played for 60 minutes, although it is unclear whether the German will keep his place in the XI over Michael Carrick.

United's two Belgium internationals Adnan Januzaj and Marouane Fellaini are set to feature against their homeland.
Phil Jones is still recovering from a mild case of thrombosis and Marcos Rojo is continuing to improve his match fitness.

Brugge are expected to be without their captain Timmy Simons through injury, and Brandon Mechele is definitely out through suspension following his sending off at Old Trafford.

United manager Louis van Gaal said:

"It is a difficult ground, I know this from before and I know that it is not a simple opponent.
"I have read in the papers that it shall be simple and a walkover, but it isn't like that.
"Brugge against Panathinaikos, a strong team in this competition, they won 3-0 in the previous round.
"It is still a game, but because of our situation and our third goal we have more confidence.
"We have to be careful, we have the quality to win but we shall need to be ready."

Form guide: Brugge W D W L L United W W W D
Match odds: Brugge 10/11 Draw 13/7 United 13/4 (Marathonbet)
Referee: Antonio Mateu Lahoz (Spain) 

Sunday 23 August 2015

Match report: United 0-0 Newcastle

United's 100% winning start to the season ended as Newcastle United produced a battling rearguard action to secure their second point of the campaign.

For United, it continued our unbeaten start and, for all the talk about the need for a centre-back, we are yet to concede in the league this season. 

Wayne Rooney had a goal ruled out for offside as LVG's side made a blistering start before Newcastle responded and went close through Aleksandar Mitrovic. 

The Serbian striker headed against the crossbar before Newcastle's Tim Krul saved well to deny substitute Javier Hernandez in a frantic finish. 

Chris Smalling struck the visitors post in the closing stages and debutant Florian Thauvin narrowly failed to connect with Papiss Cisse's ball across goal in added time as both sides went in search of an eventually elusive winner. 

Rooney went close to ending his 280 minute goal drought when he finished well in the fourth minute only to be flagged marginally offside whilst Juan Mata and Luke Shaw also went close for the Reds before half-time.

In the end though, United were unable to break down the resolute visitors and had to be content with a point to go second in the fledgling table, two points behind surprise leaders Leicester. 

Louis van Gaal said that his side did "not make the right choices" and added:

"We can be satisfied with the performance but not with the result- we were unlucky.
"We did not make the right choices in the final third but played fantastic as a team, I like this kind of game but not this result.
"The performance was one of the best in my period but we don't reward ourselves and there was only one club that wanted to win and that was us."

United Faithful Man of the Match: Chris Smalling
Overall team performance: 7/10 

Friday 21 August 2015

Match preview: United v Newcastle

Former United assistant boss Steve McClaren brings his new-look Newcastle to Old Trafford this Saturday lunchtime searching for only their second win here since 1972 and their first of the 2015/16 campaign. 

The former England manager, who served as United's number two under Sir Alex from 1999-2002, replaced John Carver in the St James' Park hotseat and has already begun to make his own stamp in the team, bringing in Georginio Wijnaldum and striker Aleksandar Mitrovic. 

A much improved 3-1 win over Club Brugge in midweek has boosted the confidence of the players and fans and we go into this game looking for a fourth win on the bounce in all competitions.
Should we do so, it will be the first time that we have won the opening four league fixtures since 2011/12. 

Reds manager Louis van Gaal hinted that Bastian Schweinsteiger could make a first start tomorrow, whilst Phil Jones is still injured, Marouane Fellaini serves the third match of his ban and Marcos Rojo needs more match fitness.

"It is still the same, only Jones is ill but it's getting better with him so maybe next week, he's already running on the pitch so it is not bad.
"Rojo is not injured but needs match fitness."

On Schweinsteiger, van Gaal added:

 "Yes of course he can be ready, it's a matter of time, maybe it shall happen tomorrow.
"You never know, you shall  have to wait and see my selection.
"I think he can still do better because when you are not fit enough then it is difficult to show your highest level.
"It is also a matter of time and we have seen a solution in rotating our second captain Michael Carrick, with Schweinsteiger, I think it is a very good solution because we can spare them both for the big moments."

The Dutchman added:

"We must continue in our good start, it is another home game but as you know it shall not be easy against Newcastle- I like their style of play and their support is very good so it is a big challenge for us and we have to be ready."

Referee: C Pawson
Betting odds: United 2/5 Draw 17/4 Newcastle 12/5

Form guide: United W W W Newcastle D L 

Rooney's premature ageing can be stopped

A young, vibrant, exciting talent announcing himself to his new audience with a collection of sparkling Champions League goals; United fans have seen this all before.

What Memphis Depay did on Tuesday night, Wayne Rooney did in 2004.
Actually he went one better: three years younger than Depay at the time, he scored a hat-trick against Fenerbahce on his first European outing in a red shirt.

If that is the path, Depay is embarked upon, then we have a very good idea of where the ambitious Dutchman will be in 11 years time; bereft of form, scratching around for a goal, apparently allergic to the penalty box, seemingly no longer capable of being in the right place at the right time.

Because, this season, the magnificent Rooney of that introduction appears to have all but disappeared,
Rooney insists that his poor start is temporary and that he will recover, the goals will come.
It is just a matter of time.

His manager has been quick to support him, suggesting that any query about his performance demonstrates a lack of patience and consistency.

"You wanted him there" says Louis van Gaal, the United manager, of Rooney's current position, restored to leading the line after a season spent filling in gaps all around the pitch.

For sure, as the focal point of the attack, bullying the opposition into cowed surrender, is precisely who saw Rooney in 2004 would want him to play.
Or at least they would want that Rooney to be centre-forward- the carefree, pugnacious and daring Rooney, the Rooney entirely lacking fear or constraint.

But that Rooney is a long way from the restrained, sluggish figure he now cuts.

For those that have watched him over the years, the gathering fear is that there is nothing temporary about his decline.

The thing about the 18-year-old Rooney was that he arrived at Old Trafford fully formed: there was no suggestion that here was a player of potential who might, given proper nurturing, develop into something special.

He already was something special.

He had been like it since he first burst onto the scene for Everton as a 16-year-old, mature way beyond his years, physically and mentally perfectly attuned. 

Watching him in those early years, it was as if he was working on a different chronology to the rest of us, galloping through life at breakneck pace.
At 16 he was a man, at 18 he was an international, at 22 he was a European champion.
And now, still only 29, he looks as if he is nearing middle age.

Forget the easy jokes about his retreating hairline, it is in his gait, the scale of his thighs, the diminished acceleration and that the years are catching up with him.

While other players are reckoned to be at their physical prime in their late twenties, he peaked five years ago.
That does not mean he has no contribution to make.
He is way too good a player to simply slip entirely into turgid irrelevance.

As his delightful back-heel flick to set up Depay for the easiest of chances to complete a hat-trick against Brugge showed, his touch and vision remain undimmed.

Rooney can still serve a purpose.

But it does mean that LVG is being optimistic in his belief that Rooney these days belongs at no 9 in his line-up.
There are plenty- not least Rooney himself- who have long believed he would be better deployed behind the front man, using his guile and experience to create chances for younger, quicker types to exploit.

Maybe that is the most coherent immediate future for a player whose class has never been in doubt: play him at 10 and put someone else up front to do his running for him.

Someone like Depay, for instance. 

Thursday 20 August 2015

Depay dazzles on European debut for Reds

Memphis stole the show for United against Brugge on Tuesday and at the same time announced himself on the big stage on his European debut for the club.

In his first two domestic games for United- against Spurs and Villa- Depay had been used as a number ten behind Rooney and on both occasions didn't really have an influence on the game.
Against Brugge, it was Adnan Januzaj who played that role with Memphis shifted to the left wing- and the results were emphatic.
Cutting in from wide,  he scored two screamers and set up the third for Fellaini, but, more than that, he terrorised the Belgians all night, should have had a hat-trick and was the best player on the pitch by a mile.

Of course, United will come up against better opposition than Brugge this season, so at this stage Memphis' showing has to be put into perspective, but it felt like the start of something a bit special.

Since the departure of CR7, many have been tried in the iconic shirt- Antonio Valencia, Michael Owen and Angel Di Maria all had a single underwhelming campaign with the number on their backs- but, far from struggling with the prestige that comes with the history attached to the number- Memphis looks like he will thrive.

Granted, the previous incumbent started the same way, but whereas he lacked the mentality, attitude and desire to succeed, Memphis is young, hungry and stated on signing for the club that United is the "only place he wants to be."

Before we signed him I had thought of Memphis as a small, lithe, lightweight figure who may struggle with the physical demands of the Premier League.
On the contrary, his stocky, robust demeanour looks perfectly suited to the high-pressure demands of the top flight, and that along with his pace, skill and power meant that he looked every inch a United player on Tuesday.

It's still early days, and it's going to take more than a man of the match showing against an unheralded Belgian outfit to judge Memphis, but the signs are promising, and for all the pretenders that have worn the number seven, he may finally be the man to live up to the expectations. 

Wednesday 19 August 2015

Rooney's role on the Wayne as LVG ponders striker's position

It's been said that one of the reasons for Wayne Rooney's recent struggles in front of goal is due to lack of service from wide.

I was at the Brugge match on Tuesday and let me tell you that this is not the case.
Memphis, Juan Mata and Adnan Januzaj frequently looked to Rooney as the target man and played him in, but too often his lack of movement and hesitancy in possession meant that a lot of the Reds attack broke down.

Put Rooney in midfield and he wants to get back up front, make him the number 10 and he wants to be the number nine.
Ask him to be the number nine as the main striker and he drops deep.
Basically, he still wants to be the kid in the playground who plays everywhere and this surely poses more questions than answers for United and LVG. 

The fact that his replacement, Marouane Fellaini, had more of an impact in the seven minutes he was on the field than Rooney did for the other 80 or so said it all- it was only when Chicharito came on and Rooney dropped a little deeper did he have something of an influence on the game.

There, playing in 'the hole' behind Hernandez, Rooney cleverly set up Memphis for a chance that the Dutchman should have scored, and his vision and range of passing were key as United opened up a two-goal first leg cushion.

It's clear to me that this is Rooney's best position- he is no longer an out and out striker, so the question of who that will be is one that Van Gaal needs to answer.

There is no questioning Rooney's work-rate, as usual, but he seems lacking in confidence,  a yard or two short of pace and is not having enough influence on United playing as the main centre-forward. 

Whether this is because of age or the fact that his game has simply evolved I cannot say, but we've reportedly bid for Thomas Muller and should we acquire him, he should be the man to lead the line as the focal point of our attack. 

Rooney is still an integral part of this United side (he is, after all, our captain) and his place in the side does not appear to be under threat (although that may be because Van Gaal has no one else, at present, who can fill the number nine spot).
It is clear, though, that's Rooney's future should be as a slightly deeper lying playmaker behind the front man where his range of passes and clever touches unlock defences for a 25-goal-a season striker. 

Should we not sign anyone else in this window, then perhaps Javier Hernandez could fill the berth or, given his performance last night, maybe its worth playing Memphis further forward.

Whatever happens, there's plenty to ponder for LVG and, in particular, for the skipper. 

Match report: United 3-1 Club Brugge

A stunning individual performance from Memphis inspired United to a commanding- if not quite yet unassailable- lead in the Champions League playoffs over the ten man Belgians.

The 21-year-old, signed from PSV for £25 million- scored twice and set up the nerve-settling third for Marouane Fellaini to put the Reds in command and give them one foot in the group stages.

The early stages did not go to plan for Van Gaal's side, though, as Brugge started well and stunned Old Trafford when they took an eighth minute lead through Michael Carrick's unfortunate own goal from a Victor Vazquez free-kick. 

The equaliser was not long in coming, though, and it took the hosts only five minutes to restore parity after Memphis juggled the ball, cut inside and rifled home an excellent low drive.

Depay had an effort well saved by Brugge keeper Sebastien Bruzzesse and Wayne Rooney- again on the fringes of the game- had an acrobatic scissor kick cleared off the line as United started to come on strong.

The hosts ramped up the pressure and reaped the rewards shortly before the interval through another brilliant strike from Memphis who curled home a wonderful 25-yarder after good work from Daley Blind.

Juan Mata and Memphis went close to a third as the visitors- backed noisily throughout by their travelling fans- began to tire.
At 2-1, the hosts could not afford to ease off and should have extended the lead just before the hour mark as Memphis missed a golden opportunity for his hat-trick.

The winger blazed over from ten yards when well-placed after a neat flick from Rooney when it looked easier to score.

In truth, the Reds never really looked like relinquishing their lead, and, after Mata went close with a drive and Adnan Januzaj also flashed a shot wide, Brugge were reduced to ten men when Brandon Mechele was sent off for a late tackle on substitute Chicharito to earn his second booking of the game.

Chris Smalling should have done better with a close-range header, but the Reds failure kill off the depleted visitors- coupled with the narrow nature of the lead- began to turn into nervous tension around the ground.

Van Gaal introduced Fellaini (available for Europe despite serving a domestic suspension) and the giant midfielder came up with what could be the decisive, pivotal moment in the tie when he nodded in a superb cross from Memphis with the final play of the game to put the Reds in a strong position ahead of next week's second leg. 

United Faithful Man of the Match: Memphis Depay 
Overall team performance: 8/10 

Monday 17 August 2015

Match preview: United v Club Brugge

After what seems like an eternity, Champions League football is back at Old Trafford with United firm favourites to prevail over these two legs and seal a place in the group stages.

For Louis van Gaal, this is his first European match in charge and he has urged his side not to take the Belgians lightly, describing the tie as a "high pressure moment."

Speaking on Monday, LVG said:

"We have to show our quality against a good team, it is not an easy game and all the pressure is on us, so because of this we need to be ready.
"There is a lot of pressure because our goal and aim is to reach the next stage of this competition so these kinds of matches are difficult.
"Brugge can defend very well and can attack also, so it shall be a difficult match and this is why the pressure is very high.
"I think that his (Brugge boss Michel Preud'homme) teams are always well organised and a very good structure, I played against him as a player and now I am against him as a manager so it shall be an interesting match.
"We've had a better start than last year but you can always improve and I'm confident we will develop that to a much higher level- I expect that."

Phil Jones is United's only confirmed absentee through illness, whilst Marouane Fellaini- serving a domestic suspension- is available for the tie and could feature against his countrymen.
The boss remained silent when asked about David De Gea's involvement, merely stating that "I gave my answer a week ago."

Brugge's outstanding talent is former Barcelona star Victor Vazquez- voted the best player in Belgium last season- and he is the key for Preud'homme's side if they are to cause a major upset. 

They reached this stage by knocking out Panathinaikos 4-2 on aggregate in the third qualifying round to set up a first ever competitive meeting with United. 

Referee: Deniz Aytekin of Germany is the man in the middle for this one
Match odds: United 3/10 Draw 19/4 Brugge 19/2

Form guide: United W W Brugge D W 

Wayne Rooney will hope to open his account for the season on Tuesday 

Friday 14 August 2015

Match report: Villa 0-1 United

An opportunistic first half strike from Adnan Januzaj settled a largely uninspiring contest in the Midlands and gave United a second win from two games.

LVG had sprung something of a surprise by naming Januzaj in the side ahead of Ashley Young, but the gamble paid off as the winger, playing in a central role, made the decisive difference. 

The Belgian, in his first start for six months in a Red shirt, scored from close-range after he got on the end of Juan Mata's clever pass as we took our unbeaten run at Villa Park to 20 matches.

Villa rarely threatened as we kept a second successive clean sheet and the victory lifted us to the top of the Premier League table for the first time since August 2013.

After a tentative start from both sides, the visitors took the lead when Belgian international Januzaj timed his run superbly to receive Mata's pass.
He then cut back inside on his right foot, past the sliding Micah Richards, and clipped a shot home via a deflection off Ciaran Clark.

Gabby Agbonlahor's header from a corner- well saved by Sergio Romero- was the only response Villa could muster in a match high in endeavor and energy but lacking in chances and cutting edge. 

Memphis Depay has United's best opportunity to double the lead after the break, but curled his shot wide when clean through after Mata had played him in.  

That proved to be the last noteworthy action of a disappointing contest that the Reds probably just about deserved the points from, as we won our opening two games of a league season for the first time since 2011. 

United manager van Gaal said: 

"I think we played better than last week, the start to the season is better than last year but that is no so difficult.
"I am pleased because last year we had one point and this year we have six, we kept the ball well in the first 20 minutes and scored a fantastic goal.
"After that we will a little bit nervous but in the second half we played very controlled football and I am very happy."

United Faithful Man of the Match: Daley Blind.
 A close call between 'Mike' Smalling, Mata and Blind, but the Dutchman silenced his critics with a solid and dependable showing at centre-back to help keep Villa in check. 

Overall team performance: 6.5/10

Match preview: Aston Villa v United

United travel down the M6 to Birmingham with a little piece of history already in the bag- the first ever top flight match to be played on a Friday night (because of a march in Brum over the weekend). 

Tim Sherwood's new look Villans may have lost their main goal threat in Christian Benteke, and Villa Park maybe one of the Reds favourite away days in terms of points, but this does not mean they are to be taken lightly.

United are unbeaten at Villa Park in the last 20 meetings between the sides, and that (coupled of course with a chance to go top of the league) will make United favourites but the pace and aerial power of Benteke's replacement Rudy Gestede makes Sherwood's side a danger to any team.

Sergio Romero looks set to retain his place in goal and Phil Jones is out with "mild thrombosis" but United have no new injury concerns and striker Chicharito could feature.
Marcos Rojo is still not up to full fitness and so will not play.

Speaking to the media on Friday, United boss Louis van Gaal said that improvement in the Reds away form will be key this term, and said:

"Yes, I think that is the key to success this season, at home we were one of the best, third in the league I think but I want to create a fortune from Old Trafford and we did that.
"Away from home we can improve, but last season it was not good.
"We are in a process so of course you have new players, a new team and the team dynamics are different so you have to survive the start.
"Nobody is 100% fit and they have to play in the beginning, I think that we have to pay attention to it and develop, but it cannot cost as many points as last year and that is our main objective."

Van Gaal was asked if he is happy with his squad or if he wants to strengthen, and added:

"Always, our aim is to improve our squad and when it is possible we shall do that but I have said more than once that we shall only buy when we think it is a contribution to our squad."

Referee: Mike Dean
Match odds: Villa 5/1 Draw 3/1 United 4/6

Form guide: Both of these sides won 1-0 on the opening day- we beat Spurs and Villa edged past newly promoted Bournemouth.

Saturday 8 August 2015

Smalling continuing to flourish into top class defender

Chris Smalling is getting better and better in a United shirt- gone are the days of the reckless, nervous, flustered youngster who looked out of his depth in a Red shirt.

I remember not so long ago, on these very pages, posting about how Smalling has developed into arguably our best defender and he continued his impressive form with another MOM performance against Spurs on Saturday. 

For all the talk about Sergio Ramos, I watched Smalling throughout the Spurs game and, not only did he keep their dangerman Harry Kane quiet, his brilliant lunging block to stifle Chadli was crucial in us winning the game.

Since his mindless red-card at City (in an angry outburst I tweeted that I never wanted him in a red shirt again), his positioning, diligence, discipline, leadership, reading of the game and temperament means that United's apparent desire for a new centre-back is not as desperate as it may seem. 

Having Morgan Schneiderlin (and, for the latter part of the game, Bastian Schweinsteiger) in front of him undoubtedly helped and, although Matteo Darmian was hugely impressive, for me Smalling was our best player against Spurs. 

LVG making him third captain (behind Rooney and Carrick) could be a masterstroke and, far from splashing out for Sergio Ramos, United should build the defence around the rapidly improving 25-year-old.

Of course Ramos would be a welcome addition, and the question of who  should partner Smalling in the back four remains a question not many United fans could answer: Phil Jones is injury prone, Daley Blind is a good footballer but not a centre-half, Marcos Rojo has yet to nail down a regular place in the side and Jonny Evans is seemingly out of favour with Van Gaal. 

For a long time, it seemed the pressure of playing for United hindered Smalling to such an extent that his confidence looked shot, he'd lose his head (metaphorically of course) playing even the simplest of passes and he'd squander possession time and again leaving United vulnerable.

I'm struggling to think of such an occasion in which I've seen a player improve so much in such a short space of time.
No longer a liability, Smalling has now developed into an indispensable rock in the backline, a player  who has shown tremendous self-belief, hard work and courage to turn himself into one of the Reds most influential performers.
Indeed, the way he's going, it may not be long before he is mentioned in the same breath as Nemanja Vidic and there is no higher compliment than that. 

Maybe the Reds defence is in good hands after all. 

Match report: United 1-0 Tottenham

The Reds opened their Premier League season with a hard-fought win after surviving late Spurs pressure  at Old Trafford.

United triumphed through Kyle Walker's own goal- when the right-back poked into his own net under pressure from Wayne Rooney- and were comfortable for long periods before a late flurry from the visitors.

United handed debuts to five players, and were thankful for the impact of one of them- Argentine keeper Sergio Romero- whom produced two excellent late stops to preserve the three points. 

In a cagey affair of few clear cut chances, Spurs started well and went close through Christian Eriksen, who latched on to Harry Kane's through ball but could only lob the ball over from close range.

Kane had a shot blocked and Romero saved well from Walker, but the full-back made the decisive difference at the other end when he prodded past Michel Vorm under pressure from Rooney after Nabil Bentaleb had lost possession.

The opener sparked United into life with Mata hitting a free- kick into the wall after Memphis had a shot cleared following good work from Ashley Young.

Mata again went close for United before half-time and it was the hosts who carried the greater threat after the break, albeit sporadically.

Chris Smalling kept Kane in check when Spurs did break forward, whilst a good move down the right, instigated by the impressive Matteo Darmian, saw Rooney flash a speculative bicycle kick wide. 

Spurs came on strong as the match entered its closing minutes.

Smalling produced a brilliant lunging tackle to thwart Nacer Chadli, Romero saved well from Kane's header and then beat out Eriksen's powerful close range snapshot in a spell of late pressure from the visitors, but LVG's side held out to start the season with three welcome points. 

United Faithful Man of the Match: Matteo Darmian was very impressive, but Chris Smalling kept Kane quiet and repelled Spurs late charge with a series of brilliant blocks and interceptions. so we're giving it to 'Mike'. 

Overall team performance: 6.5/10

United draw Club Brugge in Champions League playoffs

United will play Club Brugge over two legs for a place in the group stages of the Champions League after Friday's draw pitted us against the Belgian outfit.

The Reds avoided the tricky looking hurdles of Lazio and Monaco, and although Brugge appear easy pickings on paper, they should not be underestimated.

Runners up in their league last term, they won the Belgian cup and are managed by Michel Preud'homme (widely considered to be his country's greatest ever player and goalkeeper). 

They edged out Greek side Panathinaikos 4-2 on aggregate in the third qualifying round to reach the play-off stage.

The first leg will be played at Old Trafford on Tuesday 18th August with the return at the Jan Breydel Stadium on Wednesday 26th August.
United have never played Club Brugge at any level, but do have a history of facing Belgian opposition in Europe, including a club record 10-0 win over Anderlecht in the 1956-57 European Cup.
Brugge have a decent European pedigree of their own, having made it to the 1975-76 UEFA Cup final (losing to Liverpool) and the 1977-78 European Cup final (again narrowly losing out to Liverpool). 

In his press-conference on Friday, United manager Louis van Gaal was quick to big up the Belgians, and said that they should not be taken lightly. 

LVG said:

"Club Brugge are a good side, they finished second in the Belgian league last year and also reached the quarter-finals of the Europa League so they shall be a tough opponent.
"It will be nice to go back to Belgium, my debut as a player for Antwerp was against Brugge.
"We have to be confident against any team, we are determined to progress in the competition as the Champions League is the expected level of Manchester United."

The Reds will need to be wary of the creative talents of midfield playmaker and captain Timmy Simons and top scorer from last term, Jose Izquierdo. 

In the other play-off "League Route" ties, Valencia face Monaco, Sporting Club drew CSKA Moscow, Lazio play Bayer Leverkusen and Rapid Vienna take on Shakhtar Donetsk. 

Friday 7 August 2015

Match preview: United v Spurs

74 days after the Reds were last in competitive action, United kick off the 2015/16 Premier League season as we host Spurs in this Saturday lunchtime encounter.

Manager Louis van Gaal has urged his side to start strongly in the league this time around, after picking up only 13 points from the first ten games last season.

He said: 

"It is vital that we are at our best from the beginning match, and I think that we are far better now than last year when we started, so I have a lot of confidence that we can do this.
"When we play in the same style and at the same level as the last six months of last season, then we can make a good year."

United look likely to hand a debut to new signing Sergio Romero in goal after Van Gaal told MUTV that David De Gea is not in the right frame of mind to play amid ongoing speculation about his future.

The Dutchman explained:

"It is not easy for David De Gea to manage his situation now, and you know that we have had problems with him.
"I think about the human being more than the player and I don't think he can handle that, he is not in the right frame of mind to play on Saturday, I think."

Van Gaal could select 31-year-old Anders Lindegaard or 22-year-old Sam Johnstone between the sticks, but Romero seems favourite to get the nod. 

Marcos Rojo (match fitness) will not feature and Bastian Schweinsteiger- also struggling with fitness- is likely to start on the bench. 

Van Gaal continued:
"We have no injuries, it is unbelievable, but it's not possible for Rojo to be match fit as he was the last player back and did not play on the tour.
"Schweinsteiger came also at the last moment out of his holidays so I don't think he is fit enough and we have to build the fitness he needs."

Spurs could give debuts to Kieran Trippier, Toby Alderweireld and Kevin Wimmer whilst goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, who has been linked with a move to Old Trafford, is in line to start after recovering from a fractured wrist.

Referee: Jonathan Moss 
Match odds: United 8/13 Draw 31/10 Spurs 11/2

Monday 3 August 2015

Rafael to have Lyon medical ahead of transfer

United's busy summer of transfers- both in and out of Old Trafford- looks set to continue as Brazilian full-back Rafael Da Silva arrived in France for a medical with Ligue 1 side Lyon ahead of a £2 million transfer. 

The out of favour 25 year old joined the Reds in 2008 along with twin brother Fabio and became the youngest player to clock up 100 appearances for United but, with Antonio Valencia and new addition Matteo Darmian expected to compete for the right back slot this season, Rafael's time at United is seemingly at an end.

A passionate, committed and energetic player, Rafael rapidly endeared himself to United fans for his all-action style and never gave less that 100% to the cause and, after the retirement of Red legend Gary Neville, Rafa developed into our first choice right-back under the tutelage of Sir Alex. 

What we can surely say in the case of Rafael is that there are two dominant prevailing attitudes.
One is that he was one of the last remaining players who actually cared about the club; the other was that his admirable affection for United could not redeem- and often contributed to- his status as an overemotional defensive liability. 

 It was this aspect of his game, in contrast to Valencia's steady reliability- that saw him drop down the pecking order under LVG.
Despite being occasionally prone to a clumsy booking, he more than played his part in United's golden era under SAF, notably with crackerjack strikes at Anfield and Loftus Road in the 2012/13 season as the Reds won a 20th league title. 

In contrast to the transfer of Angel Di Maria (I'm sure I am in the majority when I say I am glad to see him go), it is disappointing to see the likeable Brazilian move on but with one year left on his contract and with the player no longer in the manager's plan, it makes sense him for leave.

On his day Rafael was a superb player, and his willingness to bomb forward on the overlap, coupled with his insatiable energy, desire, and unstinting loyalty (he played under three managers at OT across eight seasons at the club) made him a popular figure at the club. 

In total Da Silva played 170 times for United, scoring five goals and winning three Premier League titles, the League Cup, Club World Cup and three Community Shields.

Everyone at United Faithful would like to wish Rafael all the best at his new club Lyon. 

Rafael (right) lines up for the Reds alongside twin brother Fabio (now at Cardiff) 

Sunday 2 August 2015

Di Maria to have PSG medical.... but how different it could have been

United winger Angel Di Maria is set to have a medical in the next 24 hours ahead of a proposed £46m transfer to Paris St-Germain.

What a difference a year makes.
This time 12 months ago the first mutterings of United making a move for one of the best players in the world was gathering momentum and sure enough, a little over a fortnight later, he signed a deal to make him British football's most expensive signing.

Di Maria could have been one of the finest players ever to grace the Red shirt... if only he'd wanted to be.

Ultimately, Di Maria is a frustrating case of what might have been. 
Unquestionably, circumstances have conspired against him but it has not worked out at Old Trafford and the player has to take responsibility for that.

When the out-of-form winger lost his place in the side to the rejuvenated, nigh-on unplayable Ashley Young at the back end of last season, instead of knuckling down and working hard to regain it, Di Maria was sulking on the bench.

The Argentine would have done well to take a leaf out of Juan Mata's book. 

The Spaniard often found himself on the bench in the early part of the season  but got on with his football and improved until he was back in the team,  reaping the rewards with a string of outstanding performances in the latter stages of the campaign.

Di Maria was sent off against Arsenal in the FA Cup and started only one game before the end of the season after that, lasting 23 minutes at Hull in what turned out to be his last game in a United shirt. 

Louis van Gaal  said after the Arsenal game that Di Maria needed to "change his attitude" to make a success of his Reds career, but this was something that the player was seemingly unwilling to do. 

He failed to show for the US Tour- prompting a furious LVG  to fume that he "does not know where Di Maria is" and slapping him with a huge fine.

That no show was the final straw, with his lack of respect, self discipline and professionalism  pushing him through the exit door.

Di Maria no longer wants to be a United player so- although there are some that argue that a player of his quality should be given another season- for that reason alone, I'm not sorry to see him go.