Monday 30 November 2015

Van Gaal's philosophy may be dour but rewards will come (cont.)

Van Gaal has certainly improved the squad he inherited, gone is the dead wood, while promising young talent has been promoted alongside a recruitment programme which has enjoyed varying degrees of success.

The boss has admitted the attack lacks pace and Rooney's form is surely- or it should be- Van Gaal's biggest concern.
Roy Keane hit out in the media on Wednesday night, describing the captain as "awful" and saying he needs to "have a look at himself".

Around the under performing skipper, though, there is great attacking promise.

Anthony Martial and Memphis Depay are brimming with potential but both are still feeling their way into the Premier League, as most young imports tend to do in the first season.

Jesse Lingard has been a late bloomer and is also showing signs of being able to consistently mix it in the first XI.

One legitimate area of concern is Van Gaal's present Plan B.

Too often and too early he turns to Marouane Fellaini as his first change, when more crafty options remain on the bench.
If this Route One to the big Belgian worked, then fair enough but it so rarely does.

So, of course there is work to be done in attack.

But now the defensive elements are fixed, LVG can focus on linking them to those in front.

With almost every other area of the squad in good shape, United can go all out to recruit the couple of players Van Gaal believes will make the difference - partly to results but partly also the current style to which they are achieved.

If some patience can be found at Old Trafford then next season, the last of Van Gaal's contract and probably his illustrious management career,  might just be a season worth waiting for.
If in the meantime the manager can keep United above their biggest rivals in the league, then is a temporary lack of swagger not a price worth paying? 

Van Gaal's philosophy may be dour but rewards will come

Louis van Gaal took over the seventh placed side and an inadequate, unbalanced squad with plenty of fat to trim.

In his first year, the former Barcelona and Bayern boss took United back into the Champions League- an absolute necessity- while a third of the way into his sophomore season, we nestle in third place. above all our traditional rivals. 

If proof of progress were needed, those facts surely provide it.

The scale of Van Gaal's original mission should not be forgotten or underestimated.
The priority for almost any new manager tasked with rebuilding a failing team would be to make his side hard to beat and obviously you need a strong defence for that.

By the time Van Gaal had arrived, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra had all made for the exit - breaking up three quarters of the finest defensive unit the Premier League has ever seen.

So somewhat understandably, for much of the Dutchman's first season, the defence was a mess and United were lucky to have the brilliant David de Gea behind it.

Now, less than a year on, we have the joint best defensive record in the league.
Chris Smalling has been transformed into one of the best centre-halves in the country, Luke Shaw was flying before his injury and Daley Blind has been a surprise success in the back four.

If nothing else, LVG deserves immense credit for this defensive turnaround.

In front of the back four, the manager has addressed an area no United boss has for a decade: the gaping chasm in the holding midfield position.

The boss recruited not one but two first-rate midfielders in Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin.
Both have settled and, they, along with Michael Carrick when called upon, must take credit for the team's solid foundation.

Many observers want to see at least one of United's base midfielders let loose, certainly against some of the 'lesser sides'.
Schneiderlin, though, said in September that, in the short-term at least, their role is a defensive one.

"We're more there for support, to feed the forward players, and leaving it up to them.
"With time, I'll start shooting from distance again but the most important thing for us is not to concede any goals, meaning that we only need to score one to get the three points."

It is that philosophy that grinds the gears of the Old Trafford faithful- such a supposedly negative approach goes against the 'United Way'- however that may be defined. 

To be continued....

Van Gaal "satisfied" with Rooney despite poor form- but Basti should be our leader

United manager Louis van Gaal insists he is "very happy" with Wayne Rooney's contribution to the Reds this season and claims it is not just the armband keeping him in the team.

Rooney was substituted after 68 minutes at Leicester and although this was due to injury it could easily have been due to another listless performance from the skipper.

Only Sir Bobby Charlton has scored more goals for United than Rooney but he has just two goals in the league all season in a team that has struggled to score.

The issue is that LVG has decided to make a grossly underperforming player the inspiration and heartbeat of the team.
A captain should have a decisive influence of a game and his team with a calm head and excellent leadership qualities... something we are not seeing from Rooney at present. 

Rooney's form remains a major line of questioning at Van Gaal's pre-match press conferences, and Friday's was no different, with the United manager again unequivocal in his backing of his skipper.

When asked if Wazza would still be picked if he was not captain, LVG said:

"Yes, of course, otherwise he is out of the team.
"Wayne is doing a lot, has a very great contribution in the team- I am very satisfied with him."

Rooney has been switched between No. 10 and an out-and-out striker's role this term, with Anthony Martial either paired with him or preferred as the lone forward.

"At this moment, he doesn't play in the striker's position, Martial is playing there, but it is possible that he shall play other matches there.
"It is dependent not always on the quality and shape of the player, but also  the game plan and we have to decide this every week" added the Dutchman.

I'd really like to know what he is doing that is keeping Van Gaal satisfied. What can it possibly be, footballing wise?
This team seem to ghost through difficult periods in games, no intent, no leadership and he is our captain.
The only late rally we've had was at Watford, when, co-incidentally, Rooney did not play. So I have to question his leadership.

He gets wrestled off the ball too easily, can't turn or run with it, lacks vision for through balls or the left flank.
No nous for intricate one-touch passing, he seems to be totally the opposite player for van Gaal's philosophy yet he is his favourite player.

His continued selection does not make sense.

There is no footballing reason to keep him in.
Herrera and Mata both offer us more, we could try Memphis and Martial together and give Basti the armband.

That would indicate some hope of improvement, because Rooney isn't even arguably in decline anymore, he has declined. 

Saturday 28 November 2015

Match report: Leicester 1-1 United

Bastian Schweinsteiger scored his first United goal to cancel out Jamie Vardy's record-breaking strike as the spoils were shared at the King Power.

In an entertaining encounter, Vardy netted for the 11th league game in a row before Basti's header on the stroke of half time meant that United sit third in the league, one point behind new leaders City having missed the opportunity to go top. 

The Reds will feel they probably deserved to win have dominated the second half, but surprise package Leicester held out to secure a point and have still only lost once this season.

United were to become the latest victim of Vardy's remarkable scoring spree when he scored for the eleventh game in a row on 24 minutes.

Kasper Schmeichel comfortably claimed Daley Blind's corner and picked out Christan Fuchs in acres of space and the Austrian played through a pinpoint pass for Vardy, whom displayed all the hallmarks of a red-hot striker as he coolly slammed home past David de Gea.

Matteo Darmian arguably should have done more to prevent the goal, but the Englishman peeled away to celebrate as the King Power stood to acclaim the man who had just broken Ruud van Nistelrooy's record to make Premier League history. 

Riyad Mahrez was the next to go close for the Foxes when he combined superbly with Shinji Okazaki on the edge of the area and his well-struck effort forced a smart stop from De Gea.

However, just as at Watford, conceding that goal drew a strong response from United and we equalised when Schweinsteiger nodded in from Blind's flag kick on the cusp of the interval. 

After half-time, United began to dominate and monopolise possession, but it was Leicester whom repeatedly looked dangerous on the counter.
They almost restored their lead on the hour mark when substitute Leonardo Ulloa forced an excellent save from De Gea after good work from the equally impressive Mahrez. 

Reds replacement Memphis should have done better when he lashed over the bar, Vardy was shut out well by Chris Smalling and Darmian fired over late on, bringing to an end a contest in which a draw was probably fair. 

Overall team performance: 7/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Chris Smalling. Vardy got free to score once but was otherwise rendered anonymous. Immense again. 

Friday 27 November 2015

Impatient fans need to realise rebuilding takes time

Spoiled after 23 years of unrivalled success and saddled with bandwagon jumpers, it's a vast majority of  United fans that need to get their act together, not Louis van Gaal.

"LVG needs to wake up and smell the coffee" one United fan was heard saying recently but I disagree.

 I'd argue, in fact, that it's some of the fans that need to wake up and smell that very same caffeine.

It's ridiculous to expect 5-0 wins every week, yet there are some whom still demand this because of the frequent landslide victories of the Fergie years. 

The reason fans are unhappy with Van Gaal is because him and the team are expected to live up to impossibly high standards set by the one-off phenomena of Sir Alex, but these fans need to realise that times are different now.

Every United team and manager for the rest of time will constantly be seen to have underachieved because of an outstanding individual whom was truly unique in the modern game. 
The Fergie days are gone, football is cyclical and no one will ever achieve, anywhere, what the great man did. 

We're on the way back but it's not happening quickly enough for some and Van Gaal is suffering because of it. 

United fans have to accept this and take LVG for what he is: not a miracle worker, but a world class manager with different ideas, a different style and a relatively new squad. 

The Dutchman currently finds himself in a similar position to that of Fergie in his early years: a difficult rebuilding of an ailing squad with the club on its knee  against the backdrop of a fans revolt (Three Years of Excuses and it's still c**p. Ta-Ra Fergie"...)

Yet he was given time and turned the club round, and our fans should allow Van Gaal to do the same.

He is a building a team for the future to leave in the hand of his successor, but the majority of these bandwagon jumping, impatient supporters are either unwilling or unable to appreciate how long this process takes.

The genuine fans of the club (one of which I consider myself to be) have recognised the progess we've made a little over a year into van Gaal's "three year" process, but it's ongoing and we need to get behind him.

We're second in the league and in a good position and still in a looking strong in Europe, but yet van Gaal continues to receive heavy criticism... which begs the question: what exactly are we all expecting. 

The negativity among some of the fans is transcending itself to the players and the atmosphere around the club is is danger of turning toxic. 

LVG will get there but in my view it will be at least two or three years before we're challenging for the top honours once more. 

Two years, not two months. 

So a message to all you Reds out there: stay positive, believe in the players and manager, be patient and we will get there. 

Wilson loaned whilst Fellaini continues to split opinion

19-year-old striker James Wilson will head south for the remainder of the season, joining Chris Hughton's high-flying Brighton and Hove Albion in the Championship on loan. 

United manager Louis van Gaal has come under fire on social media for offloading another striker, but the boss has said he was thinking about the long-term future. 

The young striker has made only two substitute appearances this season, against Boro' and Arsenal, and as a result van Gaal has decided to allow him first team football elsewhere.

"Until now he did not contribute so much, he has played a few minutes but was not always in the selection of 18 players and players of his age and talent need to play.
"I can imagine that fans are saying that this is ridiculous because they have difficulties to score, but that is a short-term thought as you have to do what is best for the player.
"At the moment he does not have may possibilities to play on a higher level, we believe in him so he can develop himself elsewhere- if we need him, we can call him back."

Jesse Lingard had a loan spell at Brighton a few seasons back and has come on strong in our senior side, so we'll have to wait whether Wilson will follow suit. 

Many fans probably would have wanted Wilson to play a part on Wednesday with Marouane Fellaini continuing to divide opinion.

Made a scapegoat during the Moyes season, there's no denying that Fellaini was massive (in more than ways) for us last season, with some superb displays and vital goals as he was revitalised under Louis van Gaal.

He has not had nearly the same impact this time around, though, and has mainly been used as a substitute, having made only three starts (both League Cup games and the Liverpool match in Wayne Rooney's absence).

Fellaini has been neither a desperate failure nor a roaring success at Old Trafford, with his best performances last season coming from midfield rather than centre-forward where he has been largely deployed this season. 

It's impossible to ignore his contribution of last term, but he is still not regarded as a player befitting of United's ethos.
When at his best, he flourished in LVG's free-flowing 4-3-3 system but despite those h
e remains a divisive figure among fans and pundits alike. 

Match preview: Leicester v United

Who would have predicted back in August that this Saturday tea-time kick-off  at the King Power would feature the league's top two locking horns with intriguing subplots aplenty. 

Having sacked Nigel Pearson and raised eyebrows with the appointment of Italian Claudio Ranieri, that decision proved to be a masterstroke with the flying, in-form Foxes having only lost once so far in the league (at home to Arsenal). 

We return to the scene of last season's 3-5 nadir knowing that victory would put us top, but even that will likely not be enough to silence the sniffing Louis van Gaal detractors. 

Last season's match here will live long in the memory: sadly for us, for all the wrong reasons- Tyler Blackett was sent off and, after leading 3-1, we capitulated to a hugely disappointing reverse.

All that is history though, and, speaking of history we could see a slice of it made here as the Foxes red-hot striker Jamie Vardy bids to score for the 11th league game in a row, eclipsing the record of our very own Ruud van Nistelrooy and becoming the first player to ever manage that feat. 

Ander Herrera and Phil Jones are still unavailable, Michael Carrick remains a doubt whilst Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia are long term absentees with leg and foot injuries respectively.

There are no new injury concerns for United.

Speaking on Friday, van Gaal praised top-of-the-table Leicester and said: 

"I don't think anybody expected that Leicester shall be top, even themselves, but they are and of course they deserve to be there, but we have a good chance to win because our defensive organisation is very strong.
"It shall not be easy, as they are playing with confidence and their organisation is very good as well but as I said before we can win anywhere."

On recent form in front of goal, the Dutchman added:

"If we weren't creating chances I'd be worried but we are and we don't give too much away in the defence, so our results have been good I think.
"That is why we are second in the Premier League- and of course we can be first- and second in our Champions League group" 

Form guide: Leicester D W D W W W United D D W W W D
Match odds: Leicester 21/10 Draw 12/5 United 13/10 (Vardy to score 6/4)
Referee: Craig Pawson 

Wednesday 25 November 2015

United's tactics again lack clarity in European stalemate

The sight of Chris Smalling as United's playmaker- driving out from the back to ping  60 yard passes into the channel to be chased said it all about the tactical set-up on Wednesday.

Mike was man of the match for another rock solid showing at centre-half and although his distribution has improved tenfold, he surely should not be relied upon to make things happen going forward. 

Especially not with a world class playmaker and number 10 on the bench in Juan Mata. 

Make no mistake, PSV deserved credit for a disciplined, well-drilled defensive showing but we simply did not stretch them enough and only when Ashley Young came on did our crossing into the box begin to look even remotely threatening.

Even then, Young again ended the game at right-back when Juan Mata came on (with only seven minutes to go- really??) but, after a bright start to the match, we seemed to run out of ideas and in the end PSV comfortably held on for their draw.

Quite why Mata was dropped for this match I'm not sure- granted he did not have his best game at Watford at the weekend but neither did his performance merit a demotion to the bench.

Mata's presence in the side against PSV may not, of course, have guaranteed the win but it would surely have given us that creative spark we needed and provided that touch of magic required to unlock the visitors stubborn rearguard.

Captain Wayne Rooney started in Mata's number 10 position before dropping into midfield- eventually reverting virtually to left back- with substitute Marouane Fellaini again thrust up front as LVG's Plan B.

We can see from these players playing out of position that there was again no real tactical plan- indeed that was the case at Watford, with the players' sheer grit, instinct and willpower dragging them through on that occasion.

From switching to a 3-5-2 at Watford- which led to defensive uncertainty that almost cost us a point- to the confusing and round-peg-in-square-holes gameplan tonight, the last couple of matches have left Reds supporters scratching their heads in puzzlement.

 It feels like that as soon United  threaten to build a run of form, we suffer a disappointing dip.

PSV are no mugs and a 0-0 draw against the Dutch champions may not seem such a bad result on the face of it- but, although LVG's job is not on the line, United fans are a demanding lot and may soon turn on the Dutchman should we see many more tactically toothless performances like Wednesday's. 

Match report: United 0-0 PSV

United's Champions League fate will go down to the final match in Wolfsburg after a frustrating stalemate with PSV in Group B.

This was a contest in which United dominated but struggled to hurt the Dutch champions and the failure to kill off the defensive-minded visitors means that we travel to Germany needing to win to be certain of qualification.

Jesse Lingard lashed over the bar, Anthony Martial forced a smart save from the visiting keeper Jeroen Zoet and Morgan Schneiderlin was also denied by the stopper in the hosts best chances.

United saw nearly all of the ball early in the game but were unable to create any clear-cut openings, and the early stages were only notable for a touching tribute to a club icon as fans around the ground switched on their smartphone torches to mark the 10th anniversary of George Best's passing.

Zoet was called into action on 20 minutes to paw away Matteo Darmian's teasing cross that narrowly evaded Rooney, and the stopper then saved well to keep out Schneiderlin from a Daley Blind corner.

David de Gea was soon called into action at the other end though when Jorrit Hendrix's powerful drive was well held by the diving Spaniard. 

Ten minutes before the break, Martial's effort from Lingard's deflected shot was kicked out by Zoet before Memphis fed the Frenchman on the left only for him to again be denied by the Dutch keeper.

The Reds started the second half on the front foot and Schneiderlin powered a header over the bar before Lingard glance a header narrowly wide from Martial's inswinging cross.
Luuk de Jong flashed over the top as the visitors looked to frustrate United, sit deep and hit on the counter, with a superb block by Chris Smalling from Santiago Arias coming at the end of one such foray forward.

Lingard fired over after good work by substitute Ashley Young, but despite the introduction of Juan Mata with seven minutes remaining the breakthrough remained elusive, meaning our European destiny will come down to Wolfsburg in a fortnight's time.

Overall team performance: 6/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Chris Smalling 

Tuesday 24 November 2015

Match preview: United v PSV Eindhoven (Wednesday)

United welcome Dutch champions PSV to Old Trafford as we chase a third successive home victory in Group B to seal progress into the knockout stages of the Champions League. 

Wayne Rooney, Anthony Martial and Marouane Fellaini are all fit to return to the squad, but Phil Jones and Ander Herrera are out after picking up knocks at Watford.
Antonio Valencia and Michael Carrick remain sidelined, whilst Luke Shaw will have a scan on Friday to see how his leg is recovering following the horrific injury sustained in the reverse fixture in September.

Bastian Schweinsteger missed training on Tuesday, but Louis van Gaal explained that he had given the German a rest day and that he should be available for the Old Trafford encounter. 

Addressing the media on Tuesday, van Gaal said that his side have "learned lessons" from that 2-1 defeat in Holland on Matchday 1. 

"I remember that the last match against PSV was not a good one for us- not only because of the result but also because of the loss of Luke Shaw.
"For us, the most important lesson is that we have to move the ball quicker and we created a lot of possibilities to score but did not take them, so this is something that you can always improve and I think we have showed that."

Philip Cocu's PSV side come to Old Trafford sitting third in the Eredivisie, behind perennial rivals Ajax and Feyenoord whilst their Champions League form has been inconsistent so far. 

They have lost both of their away matches in Group B so far (3-2 in Moscow and 2-0 in Wolfsburg) and their 2-0 home win over the Germans last time out was their first since that victory over us in the opening round of matches.

In contrast, United have won both matches on home turf and know that  similar success on Wednesday will secure a passage into the knockout stages with a game to spare.

Van Gaal added: 

"If we beat PSV then we have qualified and that is our goal of course, it is very important to win but it shall not be easy because every game you have to play you  cannot say in advance that you will win.
"PSV beat Manchester United last time and they also beat Wolfsburg so I think that they are a very good team."
"I'm very happy because Rooney is recovered and Martial can play, Fellaini also so that is great news I think."

Form guide: United D D D W W W PSV L W W W W D
Match odds: United 15/7 Draw 39/11 PSV 31/5
Referee: Pavel Kralovec (Czech Republic) 

Monday 23 November 2015

Magnificent Mike surely now the best defender in England

Without wishing to keep banging on about him- and with me not wishing to turn this blog into a Mike Smalling fan page, it's impossible to ignore the towering contribution our stand-in skipper made yet again at Watford.

With Rooney absent, Smalling was handed the armband and revelled in his role, repelling Watford's frequent forays forward and almost snatching the winner with a stoppage time header that Gomes did well to save.

Smalling turned 26 yesterday and his evolution from nervous squad player to arguably the best in the country has been one of the high points of United's season.
Louis van Gaal deserves credit, too- Smalling has clearly thrived on his manager's methods and making him vice-captain was smart too, but the former Maidstone player's transformation has been nothing short of remarkable. 

Handing Smalling a senior role at the club has added leadership and responsibility to his game and that, coupled with his reading of the game, distribution, awareness and composure, makes him the complete centre-back United have needed for so long. 

This coming Saturday, the man now known by nicknames such as 'the Wall' and 'Smalldini' will face the most red-hot striker in the country, Leicester's Jamie Vardy, but having already rendered Kevin de Bruyne, Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku anonymous, if anyone can stop Vardy's current scoring spree then Mike can.

United have been building from the back this season and despite widespread calls for a world-class centre-back in the summer, Smalling's emergence as a top drawer star has proved there was no need to dip into the transfer marker in that area of the pitch. 

So impressive has he been that he is in contention for the MOM award week in week out and is the rock-solid foundations on which United's miserly defensive record has been built.
He was again immense at Vicarage Road and one block he made to deny Odion Ighalo was simply stunning- lunging in immaculately to snuff out the danger with the striker dangerously poised. 

He has excelled in Europe, too, though, putting in an all-blocking, all-tackling, man of the match display against CSKA last time out, and with more performances like that one, it surely will not be long before he is elevated into the top echelons of European centre-backs.

He is already arguably the best in the country and, in my view, should go to Euro 2016 as first-choice centre-back alongside another burgeoning talent in Everton's John Stones.

Strange tactical switch almost cost United in Watford fightback

I've nothing against Marcos Rojo and he has been excellent in recent weeks- but I don't understand why LVG put him on against Watford.

Admittedly, the boss's hand was forced to an extent by a catalogue of injuries and when Herrera went off in the first half he had to change- but Rojo's introduction seemed an odd choice.

If there's one thing LVG ought to have learned from last season, it's that 3-5-2 just does not work with the team we have- and the loss of confidence and faith in it amongst the players was again in evidence at Watford.

At a time when United were dominating the game and Watford offering little threat, to change from a back four to three seemed odd and suggested LVG is yet to really find a system and tactical set-up he can trust.

Andreas Pereira later came on for Mata but, to me, it would have made more sense to put him on earlier when Herrera was injured.

Not only would the talented Brazilian have maintained United's attacking momentum and impetus, the change would have been more or less like for like and would have meant we could have kept the four at the back.

Even Matteo Darmian at right-back with Young moving to the wing would have been preferable, but us changing to 3-5-2 invited the hosts on to us.

After the change, particularly in the second half, our old failings with the 3-5-2 system nearly came back to haunt us- and it's a good job we managed to win as, had we not, questions would have again been asked of LVG's tactical approach. 

Watford were good in the second half: they lifted the tempo, passed quicker, their movement was better and they rattled into challenges.

They got their crowd going and caused us problems and, whilst they deserve credit for that, it was as much due to our set-up and change in system as it was to any marked improvement from Quique Flores' side.

Blind was switched to left wing-back with Young as right wing-back, but the space in between them and our back three gave Watford more space and allowed Troy Deeney to drift dangerously infield. 

We had not conceded for over 600 minutes so to change a previously rock-solid back four to go to a system riddled with confusion and uncertainty was risky, strange and very nearly costly.

Basti's experience and intelligence making vital difference

What a huge, fundamental difference Bastian Schweinsteiger has made to this United side since his summer signing from Bayern Munich.

It's true that we have players who offer more pace and attacking threat that Schweinsteiger, but the German makes up for these shortcomings with an outstanding drive, vision and an incredible intelligence and awareness both on the ball and off it.

We didn't buy him to bang in 20 a season, we signed him for situations exactly like the one United were in on Saturday.
Cool and composed, Schweinsteiger is a class act.

He makes the crucial difference in tight matches- look no further than Watford as a prime example.
United lost the lead with three minutes to go and a young, injury-plagued side could have crumbled and gone under against a rejuvenated Hornets side pushing for a shock late win.

Step forward, Basti...

Along with David de Gea and Mike Smalling, the German was immense at Vicarage Road and kept an ice-cool head that belied the high-pressure situation.

Lifting and cajoling his team-mates, Schweinsteiger was not deflated and urged one final push from those in a Red shirt and how he delivered.

Our winner may have been credited as a Troy Deeney o.g, but it was effectively Basti's goal as it was he whom hassled and harried the Watford striker to force the ball into his own net under pressure. 

His awareness and intelligence to make the run, arrive in the box at the right moment and bring about the error from Deeney epitomised his qualities and showed his importance to the side. 

The match at Watford was one which United would not have won last season and Schweinsteiger was also impressive in last month's win at recent bogey ground Everton.

His understated but yet pivotal influence on this team is one of the factors why we've gone from top four hopefuls to genuine title contenders. 

The German has won everything there is to win in the game and yet rarely do you see him mentioned as a key man for the Reds, but his ability to dictate a game and make us tick with his distribution and vision has been crucial.

He is also United's captain in all but name- Wayne Rooney has the armband  and Mike may have filled in Wayne's absence on Saturday- but Schweinsteiger is a natural leader and is arguably United's biggest midfield influence since Roy Keane left in 2006.

Basti wheels away in euphoric delight after United snatched a late win at the weekend 

Saturday 21 November 2015

Match report: Watford 1-2 United

Injury hit United earned a dramatic win at Watford through a late, late own goal from Troy Deeney just moments after the striker had pegged the Reds back in a thrilling finish at Vicarage Road. 

Memphis had fired in a fine finish after 11 minutes to put Louis van Gaal's men ahead but-after a trio of spectacular second half saves from David De Gea- the Hornets pulled level with Deeney's 87th minute penalty to seemingly earn a deserved draw.

However, Deeney then turned Bastian Schweinsteiger's cross-shot into his own net to give us a precious victory and send United top of the league.

After recently including academy graduates Axel Tuanzebe and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson in  his matchday squad, van Gaal named two more untested youth players on the bench in Sean Goss and Marcus Rashford.

It was another homegrown talent whom went close early on though, when Jesse Lingard narrowly failed to nod home Juan Mata's excellent cross with barely a minute played.

United were ahead soon afterwards however as former Watford man Ashley Young found Ander Herrera whom in turn picked out Memphis to crash home a brilliant first-time effort on the volley.

Odion Ighalo fired wastefully wide in the Hornets best opening of the half whilst Morgan Schneiderlin lashed narrowly over the bar at the other end.

Heurelho Gomes saved well from Memphis shortly before the break, but Watford soon took control and called De Gea in his first real action of the match.

Having saved well from Ighalo five yards out, the Spanish stopper then thwarted his strike partner Deeney before he tipped away a deflected effort from Almen Abdi as the Hornets continued to turn the screw.

Lingard had a chance to seal victory with a lob and that looked to be a crucial miss when Deeney slammed in the spot-kick after Marcos Rojo had tripped Ighalo.

United piled on the pressure in pursuit of a winner and, after Gomes saved superbly from Smalling, Schweinsteiger smashed across goal, the ball struck Deeney and trickled home as he attempted to clear to give the Reds a massively important win.

Overall team performance: 6.5/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: A tough call between Spanish Dave, Basti and Mike, but DDG edges it. Three top stops in the second half, one of which was world-class. 

Friday 20 November 2015

DJ Buffonge: United sign 17-year-old midfielder

As United confirm the signing of scholar DJ Buffonge, we profile the former Arsenal and Fulham youth prospect as he embarks on life at Old Trafford.

Age: 17
Place of birth: London
Position: Midfielder

Nurtured through his early footballing years at Arsenal's academy, it was at Fulham where Buffonge began to make a name for himself.

Having moved to Motspur Park (where Fulham's academy are based) in 2010, Fulham's run to the FA Youth Cup final in 2013/14 presented Buffonge, then part of the club's Under 16 set-up, with the chance to break into the U18s squad for league fixtures.

It was an opportunity he took with both hands under youth team boss Steve Wigley, making five appearances that season before he then cemented a place in the side in 2014/15.

Fulham's youngsters were denied a repeat of the previous season's FA Cup run, exiting in the third round at the hands of Crewe, but Buffonge was not to be denied, going on to make 18 appearances for the U18s despite still being classified as a U16 player.

Buffonge ended his five-year stint with Fulham to join United on trial at the start of the 2015/16.

Desperate to leave a lasting impression while part of Paul McGuinness' U18s side, Buffonge made a great start to life at the Aon Training Complex, claiming an assist in a 1-1 draw with West Brom on his Reds debut.

His progress from that point on was unfortunately cut short, with an injury sustained in United's third game of the season (a 3-2 win over Derby) forcing him out for several months.

Despite this, the coaching staff at our Academy were confident they had seen enough to make his trial permanent and Buffonge signed scholar papers on November 13.

So, what can Buffonge offer? 

He's described as a "creative, pacy player whom is very comfortable is possession", with his "vision and flawless technique" giving him the ability to control a game assuredly from midfield.

It remains to be seen whether Buffonge will rise through the ranks to the United first team, but with Louis van Gaal's youth policy seeing the likes of Jesse Lingard, James Wilson, Andreas Pereira and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson rise to prominence, he is certainly a club that will strive to get the best out of him. 

Match preview: Watford v United

In our first match since the international break, the Reds look set to line-up without a recognised striker at newly promoted Watford in this Saturday lunchtime kick off. 

Anthony Martial left the field injured in France's 2-0 defeat to England and will not play at Vicarage Road, whilst Wayne Rooney and Marouane Fellaini are also ruled out along with Michael Carrick, Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw.

James Wilson could feature having returned to training, but the young striker is lacking "match rhythm" and will not play a full 90 minutes, potentially paving the way to senior call ups for youth-team forwards Ashley Fletcher and Marcus Rashford. 

"Wilson can play but he cannot play a whole match because he is not in the rhythm of the game" said Louis van Gaal on Friday.
"Every match is a big challenge in the Premier League but now it is a little bit nasty because Martial is injured, Fellaini also, and my captain Wayne Rooney is ill so it is a problem" added the boss, whom also paid tribute to the victims of last week's tragic events in Paris.

"We cannot do too much to help the families, but we can remember it symbolically and it is good that we shall do this (La Marseillaise will be played at every game this weekend)
"This is a nice, nice thing for the French people, for the victims and their relatives, I think it can give them force and strength to survive these moments."

United are yet to be beaten against Watford in the  Premier League era and won 2-1 at Vicarage Road in the last meeting, but the Hornets have been no pushovers this term and possess a dangerous strike pairing of Troy Deeney and the league's second highest goalscorer Odion Ighalo (seven). 

The pacy forward has banged in 23 goals in 2015 and hit a brace in their last home match, a 2-0 win over West Ham, and with Deeney also beginning to fire, Watford possess an impressively potent pairing of which United will need to be wary. 

Former Reds Academy graduate Craig Cathcart looks set to feature for Quique Flores' side. 

Form guide: Watford L D L W W L United D D D D W W
Match odds: Watford 4/1 Draw 5/2 United 17/5
Referee: Robert Madley takes charge of his first ever United game! 

Sunday 8 November 2015

Van Gaal championing youth as Borthwick-Jackson makes bow

It was a proud moment for the club and for the player himself when Cameron Borthwick-Jackson made his senior debut in the 76th minute of United's 2-0 win over West Brom. 

Replacing Marcos Rojo, the 18 year old local lad became the 890th Red and the 29th player to be handed a United bow under Louis van Gaal. 

Borthwick-Jackson is the eighth Academy graduate to feature for the first team since LVG took charge, following in the footsteps of Jesse Lingard, Tyler Blackett, Reece James, Saidy Janko, Andreas Pereira, Paddy McNair and Tom Thorpe in making the step up to the senior side. 

Lingard scored his first United goal after numerous loan spells and Borthwick-Jackson did well in his 14 minutes, putting in a neat and tidy display that suggests further first-team chances may beckon.
Having named Axel Tuanzebe on the bench at Palace last week, Van Gaal explained why Borthwick-Jackson had been given his chance, and said:

"I have seen him once or twice and I have been impressed with him, and yesterday I knew that Marouane Fellaini was injured so asked the Reserve coach what players he had for me.
"Warren Joyce said he had a left-back in good shape and I needed other options for the left side because Rojo has played a lot of games so I had to take that into account.
"That is why I put Cameron in my line-up and I have to say he did very well" said the United boss. 

Borthwick-Jackson has been on the radar for some time, making his Under-21 debut as a 16 year-old and scoring the winner in the 2014 Milk Cup final.
Along with 17 year old team-mate Tuanzebe, Borthwick-Jackson has been a stand out performer in Joyce's side, starting all Under-21 fixtures along with three outings in the Europa Youth League.

Borthwick-Jackson looks at home at left-back or centre-half and has made the progression through the ranks to display his increasing maturity.

"Cameron has been excellent for me this season, he has gone from strength to strength and is tall, strong, quick and has all the equipment needed to succeed" said Joyce. 

Lingard is blossoming, CBJ has broken through and Pereira is in the squad week in week out, championing young local talent is something this club has always done and Van Gaal looks set to carry on this tradition as he continues to find the formula to return United to the top.

The future's bright, the future's red and white! 

Match report: United 2-0 West Brom

United got back to winning ways in the league with a patient performance against a resolute but limited Albion side whom were unable to repeat their previous two smash and grabs at Old Trafford. 

After long spells of fruitless first half pressure, the breakthrough finally came seven minutes after half-time when Jesse Lingard fired home his first for the club before Juan Mata's late penalty sealed victory for Louis van Gaal's side.

The Reds started brightly and went close after 15 minutes, when Bastian Schweinsteiger picked out Wayne Rooney whom in turn found Mata and the Spaniard curled his effort narrowly wide.

West Brom, whom fielded former United duo Jonny Evans and Darren Fletcher, defended tirelessly and were happy to sit back and soak up the pressure.

Despite the dominance in possession, nothing clear cut came United's way but Lingard went close when Mata's perfectly weighted pass almost picked out the onrushing winger, only for  Craig Dawson to recover well and clear. 

The young winger was then put through by Anthony Martial but Evans did well to clear, before Martial himself was thwarted by a smart stop from Baggies keeper Boaz Myhill. 

Lifted by the now customary chants of 'attack, attack, attack' after half-time, it was not long before the Reds finally turned possession into tangible advantage and, fittingly, it was the excellent Lingard whom broke the deadlock.

With 52 minutes on the clock, Martial sent over a cross looking for Wayne Rooney and Chris Brunt's clearance fell  only as far as Lingard who took a touch and curled a superb strike past the despairing Myhill.

The Warrington born winger's expertly taken goal belied his 22 years and lifted a jubilant Stretford End stirred from a first half slumber.  

Now 1-0 down, West Brom had no option but to finally come out and attack, and this they did as Evans almost seized on defensive uncertainty possibly brought about the height and power of Baggies substitute Saido Berahino.

Van Gaal's side were beginning to live dangerously and it was Berahino whom next went close when he should have done better from point-blank range but could only nod over the bar when left unmarked. 

In a proud moment soon after, 18-year-old Academy graduate Cameron Borthwick-Jackson came on for a 14 minute cameo at left-back and did not look out of place with some neat touches and confident tackles. 

Albion did not threaten thereafter, though, and United made the game safe when Gareth McAuley scythed down Martial and subsequently saw red to ensure Albion would finish the match with ten men.

Mata rolled home the spot-kick to seal victory and a fifth clean sheet on the bounce as United moved to within one point of leaders City at the top. 

Overall team performance: 7.5/10
United Faithful man of the match: Jesse Lingard 

Saturday 7 November 2015

Rooney, Martial, Mata and 4-4-2

After four games out on the left Anthony Martial was back down the middle against CSKA Moscow on Tuesday.

He didn't have the best game- and admitted as much in agreeing with the decision of LVG when he was replaced by Marouane Fellaini- but his presence at centre-forward certainly led to an improved team performance.

UEFA's team sheet had United's system as a 4-2-3-1 with Rooney tucked in behind Martial but, more often than not, it was a 4-4-2.
It may only have been a narrow, nervy win but we did at least play at a better tempo and create chances.

That will be important against Tony Pulis whose teams are always well-drilled defensively and difficult to break down.

Juan Mata has been playing on the right for the best part of a year now, and in Van Gaal's variations of 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 it has suited him.
He's been able to stay high up the pitch, drift inside to get on the ball.

But on Tuesday night it was different.

Playing on the right of a front three is one thing, but doing it in what was essentially a 4-4-2 system is another.

While Jesse Lingard hugged the touchline, Mata occasionally went missing on the other side.
If Van Gaal sticks with the system against WBA today, he may prefer a more traditional winger. 

The key issue for LVG is that he knows that Pulis isn't going to send his team out to attack us at Old Trafford.
West Brom will sit back and try to hit United on the counter attack or score from a set-piece, which is exactly how they played on their last visit here in May.

He's usually played with two of Michael Carrick, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin in his team this season- even doing so at home to Sunderland when they were bottom of the league- but he probably won't need to do that this afternoon.

Matteo Darmian is suspended and Antonio Valencia not fully fit, so Ashley Young will again play at right-back against the Baggies.
Aside from the diving controversy, he did well against CSKA especially with the way he burst forward.

Having a winger playing at full-back is a risk against the big clubs (as we found at Arsenal), but against West Brom at home Young's attacking threat and pace could be a vital asset for us. 

The fans were chanting 'attack attack attack' before the game had even kicked off on Tuesday and if van Gaal names a team with two defensive midfielders today then that's likely to be continue.

An early goal will stop any unrest but we have only once scored twice at home in a first half this season.

Another subdued performance could see a repeat of the rare dissent seen in the stands on Tuesday. 

Friday 6 November 2015

Match preview: United v West Brom

United manager Louis van Gaal has no fresh injuries to contend with as his side prepare to welcome a West Brom side with three former Reds in their ranks.

Jonny Evans and Anders Lindegaard make their first Old Trafford returns, and former United stalwart Darren Fletcher will lead out the Baggies as skipper for Tony Pulis' side, seeking a third successive Old Trafford win. 

Van Gaal is expecting another difficult test for United against a side that took four points off us last season including a 1-0 victory in May.

For us, Matteo Darmian is suspended and Antonio Valencia injured (meaning Ashley Young will likely again start at right-back) whilst Luke Shaw and Paddy McNair are also out whilst Morgan Schneiderlin, despite taking part training on Friday, is doubtful with illness. 

You know what you're going to get with a Pulis team- a well-drilled, solid and effective outfit with a high work rate that don't concede many goals (much like us recently) so, much like Tuesday night's CSKA match, this may be another exercise in patience for United.

 van Gaal said:

"To make the decision to go from United to another club is a big one, but they have made it out of ambition and that I like, so I have a lot of respect for players that can do this.
"West Bromwich Albion shall be a difficult opponent because I remember from last season their defensive organisation is very strong and I think they shall play like Moscow did and make it hard for us to attack.
"I like the spirit they have in their team and we saw that they can defend well so I think it shall not be easy but you know that in advance and so we can deal with it."

Albion defender Evans made the switch to the Hawthorns in the summer having come up through the ranks, making 198 Reds appearances and winning five major honours in the process.

'Fletch' joined the Baggies in February after 12 trophy-laden years at United whilst Dnaish stopper Anders Lindegaard is yet to feature for WBA but also won silverware with the Reds in a five-year spell at OT.

Form guide: United W D D D D W West Brom L L L W W L
Match odds: 11/4 Draw 18/5 West Brom 21/2

Referee: Mike Dean 

Wednesday 4 November 2015

Mike Smalling shines and coming of age for Lingard

Tuesday night's win over CSKA Moscow was a welcome one- a first goal in 404 minutes, a clean sheet, top spot in the group and Wayne Rooney moved level with Denis Law on 237 United goals.

Jesse Lingard was man of the match and the pivotal moment of the match was a simply sensational, world class block from Mike Smalling- one of the best I've ever seen- to keep the match at 0-0 moments before the breakthrough. 

For Lingard, this felt like the night his United career took off- it's easy to forget he started LVG's first game in charge but went off injured and- four loan spells later- the 22-year-old is back at United determined to make an impression.

Fearless, brave and incisive, his cross for the winner was sublime and, although not a natural winger by trade, his pacy running and superb delivery gave United a creative outlet that has been lacking in recent weeks.

I've been a fan of his for a while now, and it's not the first time he's made an impact this season- his introduction off the bench in the derby almost saw him snatch a late headline-making winner.
His performance on Tuesday was not always flawless, but he was a constant threat throughout and the 22-year old was voted star man by the club's fans against CSKA . 

He's been capped eleven times for the England Under 21 team and with more performances like Tuesday's, the senior side may beckon for the Warrington-born Academy graduate.  

As for Smalling, well, his block on the line to keep out Doumbia was world class and epitomises the defender's stunning elevation to surely the best centre back in the league. 

CSKA did not offer much going forward so Smalling did not have a lot to do until Doumbia came on but the Ivorian gave the visitors extra attacking thrust and provided a stern test for Smalling, one that the 25-year-old stood up to magnificently. 

His reading of the game, decision-making, composure and leadership have made Mike invaluable to the Red cause- and that, coupled with a new-found ability to play the ball out brilliantly from the back- give him all the attributes of a future United (and possibly England) captain. 

Since LVG mistakenly called Chris 'Mike' in the USA he has been simply immense for United and, after the manager repeated the trick on Tuesday, we hope it will continue to be an inspirational nickname for the England man. 

Match report: United 1-0 CSKA

United moved to the top of the Group B and closed in on qualification for the knockout rounds as Wayne Rooney's late header secured a crucial victory for the Reds.

Despite a much improved performance, it again looked like being another night of frustration for the team but Rooney - having earlier missed a sitter -steered home a 79th minute header from man of the match Jesse Lingard's cross as OT erupted with joy and relief.

United deserved to win but again made hard work of it- squandering several chances and almost being made to pay- Seydou Doumbia was thwarted by the block of the season from 'Mike' Smalling when he looked poised to score only moments before the decisive breakthrough.

Rooney almost scored in the third minute when he flashed a drive narrowly past the post, and then Juan Mata forced Igor Akinfeev into a fine save on 15 minutes after a superb pass from Daley Blind.

The Reds completely dominated the first half- both in terms of possession and shots at goal- but were guilty of missing genuine opportunities with Rooney's free-kick bouncing wide, Lingard lashing over the bar and Marcos Rojo's back-stick volley flying narrowly off target.

The second half started as the first had ended, with the Reds missing further chances to score.
Rojo nodded wide from six yards before a superb cross from the Argentinian picked out Anthony Martial, which the Frenchman could only direct straight at the goalkeeper.

Martial might have done better, his pace and energy epitomised United's improved display, but, with the 19-year-old tiring, LVG decided to turn to Marouane Fellaini to try and unlock the Russians' stubborn rearguard.

Memphis was also introduced and he crossed for Carrick to fire inches wide before the Russians best chance of the match fell to substitute Doumbia.

He forced an excellent save from De Gea with a well-struck effort on the counter attack, before the rebound- from the same player- was sensationally cleared off the line by the immense Smalling.

Then- finally- after 404 barren minutes, came the goal United had been threatening when Rooney popped up to power in Lingard's excellent cross to send a relieved Old Trafford into raptures and take us top of Group B.

Overall team performance: 7.5/10
Man of the Match: Jesse Lingard. The young winger produced a brave and combatic performance that means he just pips the impressive Bastien Schweinsteiger and Smalling as star man. 

Monday 2 November 2015

Match preview: United v CSKA Moscow

Louis van Gaal has called on his side to "come out of these moments" and end the goal drought as United welcome CSKA Moscow to Old Trafford on Champions League Matchday Four.

Remarkably, the Reds have not scored since the 1-1 draw in the reverse fixture in Moscow 12 days ago, a drought that has now stretched to over 300 minutes in all competitions.

LVG admitted at the weekend that the lack of goals is a concern, but the boss remained positive  in his press conference on Monday and insisted that he is seeing improvement from his players despite recent struggles.

"Football is scoring goals, it's a bad period when you don't score but it is a moment in a process and I know that my players can come out of it.
"I think we are improving every week and you can see that because  the opponent has not scored against us in the last three games, so now we are the best defenders in the Premier League.
"I want to see the next process, finishing the chances we create which we have not done because our opponents has played well in defence, so it is more difficult." said the boss. 

Russian league leaders CSKA come to Manchester in good form after two domestic wins in a week, including Saturday's 2-0 home success over FC Ufa in which former United man Zoran Tosic netted.

They are currently unbeaten with 11 wins and three draws so far in the league this term and have an identical Group B record to us with four points from their opening three games in Europe. 

United midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin is a doubt for the match after missing training on Monday, and Paddy McNair, Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia are all still out.

There are no new injury concerns for the Reds. 

CSKA defender Alexei Berezutski and midfielder Roman Eremenko are both doubtful for Leonid Slutski's side.

The last time these two met at Old Trafford in 2009, the match ended 3-3 with Paul Scholes and Valencia scoring late for the Reds. 

Form guide: United L W D D D D CSKA W W D D W W
Match odds: United 7/4 Draw 16/5 CSKA 11/2
Referee: Polish ref Szymon Marciniak is the man in the middle 

Manager concerned by worrying goal drought

United boss Louis van Gaal has admitted he is concerned after the team's third consecutive goalless draw- the first time we've endured such a run since 2005.

United are fourth in the Premier League but have not scored in over five hours, with Saturday's 0-0 at Palace coming after similar stalemates against City and Middlesbrough. 

It's difficult to pinpoint exactly why this is happening- but LVG has insisted it is not a confidence issue.

"I cannot see that, when I see the characters I don't think that they doubt about that quality.
"It can change in one match and let it be against CSKA Moscow on Tuesday because we need a victory."

"There's a big concern but I already said that after the match against Middlesbrough.
"In that match we created a lot of chances but did not finish but today we didn't create so much so it is always more difficult."

The Reds have the meanest defence in the league- having conceded only eight goals in 11 matches (the opposite problem to last season when defensive uncertainty was our downfall) and have drawn criticism from club legend Paul Scholes.

Wayne Rooney's tame free-kick was the only shot on target we had at Selhurst Park, but despite calls to set the team up to attack more, LVG is unmoved.

"I think the right to defend is always there, and this was only the second time- at Arsenal of course also- when we were not the better team away so the fans have seen it very good but of course they are allowed to sing what they want.
"We are strong in the defensive phase, which is good also, but I am hopeful that the goals will come."

Rooney, who had another good chance to score in the first half, played as the lead striker with Anthony Martial again deployed on the left wing.

"As a manager I have to see what is the best balance in the team so I have to decide also every week depending on the game plan and strength of the opponent" added LVG.
"We have played with Martial in the striker's position but that was not the first time for him on the wing as in Monaco he played more or less always on the left wing so it is not a problem for him." 

Sunday 1 November 2015

Match report: Crystal Palace 0-0 United

United were  forced to settle for a fourth consecutive draw after a disappointing match at Selhurst yielded a share of the spoils.

In that run of draws, the last three have ended 0-0 and Reds manager Louis van Gaal later admitted he is concerned by the drought in front of goal that has now stretched to over five hours. 

A draw was probably a fair result as neither side did enough to win, but United had to weather an early storm as Palace started brightly.

David de Gea saved well from Dwight Gayle before the Spanish goalkeeper was called into action again on seven minutes when he tipped Yannick Bolasie's well-struck effort onto the bar.

From the resultant corner, De Gea denied Scott Dann but, having survived that early pressure, United grew into the game and fashioned chances at the other end.

Wayne Rooney's inch-perfect diagonal ball picked out Ander Herrera, but no-one was there to meet the playmaker's volleyed cross.
The skipper had a free-kick well saved by Wayne Hennessey and then agonisingly failed to reach Anthony Martial's defence-splitting through ball.

Herrera fired wide from Martial's cut-back, but Palace remained a threat and should have gone ahead through Yohan Cabaye, who volleyed wide when well-placed on the hour mark.

While Herrera's claims for a penalty were waved away during a rare opening for the Reds, the Eagles continued to press for a goal and were almost rewarded on 76 minutes as Dann nodded just wide before, moments later, De Gea saved with his legs to keep out Gayle.

A speculative effort from Rooney sailed over the bar as United pushed for a late winner, but it was Palace who almost took all three points as Bolasie's header zipper over the crossbar.

Martial did have a goalbound shot inadvertently charged down by substitute team-mate Jesse Lingard,  but United could have little complaint about the result.

Overall team performance: 6/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Ander Herrera