Sunday 31 January 2016

First time opponents on the road in the FA Cup

The Reds will travel to the New Meadow to take on League One strugglers Shrewsbury for the first time in the club's history in the fifth round. 

60 places below United and the lowest ranked side left in the competition, Micky Mellon's Shrews sit 20th in the third tie and upset Championship outfit Sheffield Wednesday 3-2 thanks to an injury time winner in the only fourth round upset.

The two sides have only ever met in friendly encounters, with United emerging 8-1 winners back in 2000 as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Quinton Fortune both hit doubles.

The Shropshire side put out Grimsby- after a replay- and Cardiff to reach that stage before Jack Grimmer's late, late strike against the Owls sent them through to set up the glamour tie against United.

With a capacity of just short of 10,000, Shrewsbury's New Meadow- known as Greenhous Meadows for sponsorship reasons- is the third smallest ground in the division but the lure of the biggest club in the world- coupled with a likely TV appearance- will see a sell out at the quaint old stadium. 

The two sides may never have met competitively, but there are still links between them- former United manager David Moyes played for the Shrews from 1987-1990.

Mickey Thomas (whom played in the 1979 FA Cup final for United) also represented them and England and Man City keeper Joe Hart started his career with the club.

Situated on the River Severn, nine miles from the Welsh border, the trip to the market town will be a step into the unknown for Louis van Gaal and his men as we bid to reach the quarter-finals for the second season in a row. 

The undisputed tie of the round sees the league champions of the last two seasons lock horns as Chelsea and Manchester City meet at Stamford Bridge in a mouth-watering heavyweight clash with a place in the last eight at stake. 

Holders Arsenal will meet Hull for the third season running, Spurs host Crystal Palace in a London derby and Leeds travel to Vicarage Road to take on Watford in a Premier League vs Championship affair. 

United faced League One opposition at this stage last season too as we won 3-1 at Preston before a contentious defeat in the quarter finals against an Arsenal side that went on to lift the trophy at Wembley.

The fifth round ties will played on the weekend of the 19th-22nd February. 

Saturday 30 January 2016

Magical Martial a ray of light in a dark season

Anthony Martial may not have scored at Derby but he was the best player on the pitch by a distance and has stood out as a shining light in a desperate season.

His pace and trickery gave Rams right-back Cyrus Christie a torrid time and the only thing missing from his impressive performance was a deserved goal.

Martial continues to buck the trend with his creativity, quick feet and direct style in stark contrast to an often uninspiring, one-dimensional and dreary United side. 

Although he has only played 28 times for the Reds, in that time he has shown exceptional talent that will be at the heart of the United attack for many years to come.
The 20-year-old Frenchman has all the attributes and - more importantly - seemingly the attitude to go on and become a club legend at Old Trafford.

Right from the start and that blistering debut against Liverpool, it's felt like we've been witnessing the beginning of something special and, far from the waste of money he was written off as upon arrival, he has proved to be Louis van Gaal's best piece of business at United. 

There are many - myself included - who still believe he should played through the middle as an out-and-out striker, but with match winning performances like Friday's, its hard to argue with his inclusion on the left hand side.

True, it was only Championship opposition but he bamboozled Branislav Ivanovic, the league's best full-back last season, when Chelsea came to Old Trafford and he dismantled Angel Rangel in an inspirational performance in the win over Swansea earlier this month.

Many teams will double up on Martial as they did with Angel Di Maria but if we can shift the ball left quickly and get him driving to the byline, this side will soon start scoring more.

Eventually, Martial looks likely to end up through the middle with licence to roam the flanks but for now we need to utilise his pace on the left hand side. 

He scored the winner in that game and even during the side's winless run of nine games and the bleakest of Decembers, Martial stood out as a lone beacon of hope.
He scored the opener on that now infamous night in Wolfsburg, netted in defeat against Norwich and tried his best to inject life into United on that desperate day in Bournemouth just before Christmas.

Of the 12 players Van Gaal has signed since he took charge, only really Martial and Daley Blind have proved to be of United standard but in the young Frenchman, the Reds have unearthed a gem who will surely only continue to get better and better. 

Friday 29 January 2016

Match report: Derby 1-3 United

United booked their place in the fifth round draw with a deserved and ultimately comfortable victory over Championship side Derby. 

This was a much improved performance from Louis van Gaal's side which will ease the pressure on the Dutch boss who saw his side take the lead through Wayne Rooney's exquisite finish- his sixth goal in as many games.

George Thorne equalised against the run of play for Derby but United were the better side after the break as well-taken goals from Daley Blind and Juan Mata sealed our place in Sunday's draw. 

United started well and the inspirational Anthony Martial went close with an early effort over the bar before the Reds took the lead on the quarter hour mark.

The goal came in superb style, too as Rooney picked up the ball from Martial to cut inside and curl home a sumptuous strike into the far corner.

With the Championship promotion chasers content to sit back and grant United possession, van Gaal's sharp-looking side continued to probe and almost doubled their lead as Martial was snuffed out by the Derby defence after deft link-up play with Rooney.

United were totally dominant so it came out of the blue, therefore, when Paul Clement's side equalised with their first attack of the match eight minutes before half-time.

Chris Martin picked out Thorne with a neatly lofted through pass and the midfielder took a touch before rifling home an excellent finish.

Stephen Warnock cleared from under his own bar and Chris Smalling thwarted Martin with a superb block at the other end in the last action of the half.

Mata nodded wide from Jesse Lingard's deflected cross and Fellaini also went close with a header, while Nick Blackman lashed over the top after a rapid counter attack from the hosts.

United went back ahead on 65 minutes as Blind made an unexpected burst into the box to slot in an excellent finish from a Lingard cross after a superbly-crafted move. 

That goal seemed to deflate Derby and Mata then killed the game off with a late third- a simple driven finish across the keeper after Martial had beaten his man for the umpteenth time on the left.

Get in!

Overall team performance: 7.5/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Anthony Martial 

A special mention must go to the 5,471 visiting United fans who never stopped singing all night and played their part in helping the team home. 

Van Gaal's "awful" and "horrible" comments sum up his side

Never mind anything that has been written, "horrible" and "awful" concisely sums up the mess over which Louis van Gaal is presently presiding.

All things considered, last season's creditable fourth place finish aside, the Dutchman has proved another ill-judged appointment at United.

Indeed, an argument could be made that we are now in a worse position under LVG than we were when the hapless David Moyes was sacked 10 months into a six year contract in 2014.

The £65 million Moyes spent on Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata during the Scot's reign is comparatively frugal when you look at the £100m or so Van Gaal has largely wasted during his 18 months in charge.

A vast outlay spent on rebuilding the squad and making this side his, yet United are 10 points off the top, five points behind fourth-placed Tottenham, and out at the Champions League group stage.

From uninspiring play on the field, to a shambolic mess off it, of the 12 players Van Gaal has signed, only Anthony Martial, pre-injury Luke Shaw and Daley Blind have suggested they will be a success at the club whilst the others were either a total disaster or yet to convince.

Van Gaal is accountable for - statistically - the club's worst December in our 138 history as the bleak run included the aforementioned Champions League exit, defeats to relegation-threatened duo Norwich and Bournemouth and one of the lamest displays of recent times on Boxing Day.

He is also largely responsible for a team with the lowest amount of shots on target at home out of all 92 league clubs, and to say that "Manchester United always attack" is - quite frankly - an insult.

Everywhere you look, the statistics reflect the ghastly performances for which Van Gaal's side are producing. 

These days, it's a shock to even see the players have a shot on goal and only one United player, Memphis Depay, has scored a league goal in the first 45 minutes of a match at Old Trafford this season and the last time United scored at home in any game in the first half was back in September.

The rot has set in at United from top to bottom.
The club likes to reminisce about the Class of 92 and that side's achievements but you wonder where the next David Beckham or Paul Scholes will come from considering the club's shoddy youth and academy set-up.

The Under 18s are currently on a run of 11 consecutive defeats and the system lacks a leader with Brian McClair having left his role as Academy director last May. 

The injury time win over Sheffield United in the third round was  surreal: where last minute winners once triggered euphoria, only apathy ruled. 

Advancing to the next round of a competition we haven't won in 12 years should have been cause for celebration, not a mere shrug of the shoulders.

Horrible? Awful? Van Gaal needs to look a little closer to home before asking for the sympathy vote. 

Thursday 28 January 2016

Match preview: Derby v United

The Reds travel to the ipro Stadium to face Championship high flyers Derby in the FA Cup at the end of another troubled week for United and Louis van Gaal. 

Van Gaal was in a tetchy mood with the media in his Thursday press conference, saying that a defeat at Derby tomorrow would see him sacked for the "fourth time". 

The Dutchman said: 

"This is the FA Cup, like every major club in England it is very popular and everybody has the ambition, so it's important as it's another title and we have to give everything for that for the fans also.
"I have never mentioned anything about me leaving this club, I think that you make your own stories and it is awful and horrible that you can do this.
"It is the third time I am sacked and I sitting here- now I cannot lose any more as I shall be sacked for the fourth time. 

Bastian Schweinsteiger and Phil Jones are both doubtful, Matteo Darmian is ruled out but Michael Carrick is ready to return and could feature in.

Marcos Rojo, Luke Shaw, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia are still absent with long-term injuries. 

The Rams have been the second tier's nearly men for the past two seasons having lost in the play-off final in 2013/14 and then a late slump into eighth place last season saw them miss out again.

They have bolstered their attack for their promotion charge this time, though, and boast a wealth of attacking talent in the ranks including former Aston Villa duo Darren Bent and Andreas Weimann and leading scorer Chris Martin.
Paul Clement's side sat top of the Championship on Boxing Day, but successive defeats and two points from five games since then has checked that momentum and leaves them fifth after a heavy 4-1 reverse at promotion rivals Burnley last time out. 

Form goes out of the window in the Cup though and Derby will fancy their chances of an upset against a ragged United side coming off the back of a poisonous home defeat to Southampton at the weekend.
With a potential Wembley cup final only five wins away, victory over the promotion-chasing hosts would serve as a welcome boost for Van Gaal's side. 

Friday night's fourth round tie will be the first these two have met since the fifth round of this competition in 2008/09 when United ran out comfortable 4-1 winners at Pride Park. 

Form guide: Derby D L W D L L United D W W D W L
Match odds: Derby 11/4 Draw 12/5 United 11/10
Referee: Anthony Taylor 

Monday 25 January 2016

Can United afford Giggs gamble in high-risk succession plan?

In some respects it looks an easy choice.

A club legend, adored by the fans and long-groomed as a United manager in waiting.

Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward and his hierarchy cohorts would love nothing more than to promote from within and go with Ryan Giggs to succeed Van Gaal.

A hero to unite the fans, someone who has belief in nurturing young players, someone who knows the intricacies of the club better than anyone and, most importantly, playing football in a style that United want to see.

Inspired by the success of Barcelona, where Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique have enjoyed seamless transitions from legendary players to the most important job of them all.

If they can do it, then surely Giggsy can as well?

Except there are doubts and elevating Giggsy as our manager would be potentially the biggest gamble in the club's history.

He was a genius of a player: a player whom married skill and brilliance with a steely determination and desire to success, a one-club legend who won everything there is to win and a man whom was, and remains, a highly regarded and respected figure in the wider echelons of the game. 

As a manager though, he has precisely four games under his belt, and even then no one was watching his every move and expectations were rock bottom.

Sir Bobby Charlton and Sir Alex, supporters of Giggs and the natural United order than would see him assume responsibility and lead the club into a new era. 

Enrique, and especially Guardiola, inherited a ready-made Barca team that already had David Villa, Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and Puyol on their books but Giggs will not have the luxury of inheriting such a well-oiled machine.

United need a complete rebuild on and off the field and that is a tough enough job for anyone to take on, let alone a novice manager at the biggest club in the world.

Zinedine Zidane has just taken over the top job at the Bernabeau but he cut his teeth with their B team at a relatively high level, and the same can be said for Guardiola who was manager of Barcelona's reserves before his promotion to the senior side. 

There is major pressure on Woodward to give Giggs a chance- it is the romantic option and the easy choice. But the best choice? Depends on your point of view. 

The two managerial appointments since Sir Alex have proved a disaster- and getting it wrong again could set the club back even further.

All the while, waiting in the wings for his long-coveted dream job, is the Special One. 

Not the sentimental or straightforward choice, but a proven and successful trophy-winning one. 

Three tactical issues the cause of attacking impotency (Part 2)

At the beginning of the season, United had a genuine claim to possessing the two best full-backs in the Premier League.
However, Luke Shaw's season-ending injury, in conjunction with Matteo Darmian's gradual but palpable decline in form, has forced Van Gaal to rotate full-back personnel.

Ashley Young's injury against Liverpool has only threatened to compound the problem.

One attacking advantage of Van Gaal's 4-2-3-1 is that the midfield double pivot, providing defensive cover, releases the full-backs to overlap the narrow, attacking midfield three and occupy wide, attacking positions when United are in possession.

The full-backs potential to stretch the opposition defence by providing width in wide areas which is crucial for the side to engineer space in which to move the ball.
It is noticeable that United's better attacking performances in the last few months- for example away to Watford in late November- have coincided with dynamic, effective attacking play from Young at right-back.

Since Shaw's injury, we've been unable to consistently maximise the attacking potential of Van Gaal's 4-2-3-1.
For several weeks, injuries and form have forced the Dutchman to field vastly inexperienced, defensive-minded or incompetent players at full-back.
Darmian's deployment at left-back- a position in which he frequently turns inside or back onto his stronger right foot- - has exacerbated United's attacking impotence.

Without consistent and dynamic overlapping attacking threats from both right and left-back, United's attacking play is therefore often narrow and predictable.
As a consequence, many teams have been to successfully nullify United by sitting deep and sliding in a narrow, forty-by-forty defensive square.

Van Gaal's 4-2-3-1 arguably requires the most mobile, dynamic and tactically-disciplined of all orthodox modern systems.
In the vast majority of our matches this season, Van Gaal has opted to field Rooney- rather than Anthony Martial- at number nine.
Rooney is arguably our best finisher, particularly from range, but his heavy first touch and inability to effectively hold the ball up has inhibited the speed and fluidity of our passing game.

Rooney's poor and undisciplined movement when running the channels has deprived United of an effective "release ball"  from full-back, as an alternative to short-passing build-up play through the defensive midfield axis.
In addition, Rooney's declining pace and ability to beat his man, evinced by Kolo Toure's straightforward marshalling of the skipper during our counter-attacking at Anfield, deprives United of an outlet to play quickly through opposing defences. 

Although the abysmal results appear to have abated in the last few weeks, uninspiring victories over Sheff Utd, Swansea and Liverpool, coupled  with Saturday's defeat to Southampton, indicate that United's endemic tactical shortcomings remain.

Although it is difficult to argue that the Van Gaal experiment has not worked- given the extent to which has renovated the squad and guided us to a top four finish last term- United fans should not hold their breath for the triumphant homecoming of fluid, high-tempo football whilst the Dutchman perseveres with the current system  

Three tactical issues the cause of attacking impotency (Part 1)

Although branding Louis van Gaal's United as "boring" and "unwatchable" has progressively evolved into a media caricature, it is unarguable that the Reds style of football under the Dutchman has become increasingly impotent. 

His is a team characterised by pedestrian ball possession, lack of penetration in the final third and a drastic dearth of goals.
Although Van Gaal is often commended for his supreme intellect and tactical acumen, there are at least three glaring tactical deficiencies in his system that have facilitated not only an uninspiring brand of football but also, more worryingly, unprecedentedly poor results in recent weeks.

Van Gaal's United invariably features a midfield axis- generally formed by two of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin, Michael Carrick, Marouane Fellaini or Ander Herrera. Although a defensive midfield duo has proved extremely effective in a number of modern, counter-attacking 4-2-3-1 systems throughout Europe, this has not proved to be the case at United.

Principally, the majority of United's partnership permutations are too slow and inoffensive, often isolating the number nine and ten in favour of short, safe, square passing across the midfield.

Although this ensures United retain possession effectively,  Schweinsteiger, Schneiderlin and Carrick are neither adept at or willing to get ahead of the ball in attack, each preferring to dictate play from a deeper position.

The result is that United often find it difficult to move the ball quickly and efficiently enough in dangerous areas and this is particularly problematic when our opponents defend deep, narrow and in numbers.

Although the more dynamic Herrera is the perfect complement to one of Schweinsteiger, Schneiderlin or Carrick in the double-pivot system, the Spaniard is rarely given attacking licence by Van Gaal in this position and, although tenacious, lacks the defensive acumen of his colleagues to play as a deeper midfielder.

In addition to his lack of ball-laying ability, Fellaini is too ill-disciplined and tactically incompetent to play deep and central in a 4-2-3-1.
It is both puzzling and frustrating that Van Gaal has seldom opted for an inverted midfield three consisting of one defensive midfielder and an advanced "eight" and a "ten".

This midfield shape is synonymous with fluid, dynamic, attacking football in a possession-based 4-3-3 system and proved to be an important structural feature of United's attacking enterprise in the 2014/15 purple patch.

Although this system would only allow one of Schweinsteiger, Schneiderlin and Carrick at its base, it would provide United with central midfield numbers in more advanced positions, without detracting the emphasis of ball retention.
It would facilitate dynamic, effective and penetrative ball movement in the middle and attacking third.

This 4-3-3 would allow Van Gaal to play Fellaini in a more natural position, as in  contrast to his extremely limited utility as a defensive-minded player, Fellaini proved a surprisingly effective asset on the left of a midfield triangle last season. 

Sunday 24 January 2016

Van Gaal and the Reds in irreversible backward slide

Nothing has changed in the past 12 months and defeat against the Saints was the lowest point.

Twelve months ago to the day of Saturday's dire Southampton defeat United embarrassingly drew at League Two Cambridge in the FA Cup.

This was Louis van Gaal's verdict on that dreadful stalemate at the Abbey Stadium.
"In the first half we passed for 45 minutes without doing what we have to do and that is disappointing but in the second half we could have scored.
"In the second half we played much better and it was a pity that we had to wait until half-time but the second half I was pleased even though we didn't score."

Sound familiar?

That quote could have been cut and pasted from numerous Van Gaal press conferences since.
The damning fact is that 12 months on from that shameful night in the University City it is still the same old story.

Van Gaal and the Reds haven't learnt anything and haven't made any progress- in fact we're now worse than January 2015 and even worse than this time two years ago when David Moyes' United were knocked out of the Capital One Cup semi final when they were a few penalty kicks away from Wembley.

The Reds are stuck in reverse.

If you'd spent the last year at Cambridge Uni and flunked so many subsequent exams there would have been suggestions that perhaps you should drop out.

Van Gaal was given those hints on Saturday.

Executive vice chairman Ed Woodward watched the Dutchman's lonely walk down the touchline at the end of the match like a hawk.

He could only have been judging the reaction of the Old Trafford fans after another abysmal home showing.
Already a few had made their feelings quite clear gesticulating and shouting at the directors box where United's hirer and firer sat.
A crowd that have prided itself on not openly hounding players and manager had had a bellyful.

It may not have been high decibel vicious anger and outright rebellion in comparison to when other areas vent their spleen but by Old Trafford's standards of disgust this was a major revolt.

Enough is enough.

Van Gaal has survived so many tipping points but this felt different.

At least after Cambridge  there was last spring's six match winning streak that sparked some hope.
Can anyone really see this United side suddenly putting together that kind of sequence now?

After talking about potentially clawing your way back into title contention after winning at Liverpool to then offering up this appalling performance was unacceptable.
Then again maybe we all got giddy after Anfield because Jurgen Klopp's side were not that good on Merseyside and apart from Wayne Rooney's winner shading it neither were United. 

You hoped that no matter how it was achieved it might at least ignite some confidence and kick start a troubled season.
But then the team gave us this against the Saints.

Not for the first time there was only one shot on goal, nil creativity and poor defending on the one major question the Reds rearguard were asked a question by Southampton's £4 bargain striker and debut sub Charlie Austin.

There have been so many low points this campaign but this was the lowest.
It cannot be allowed to get any lower.

2016 had offered the tiniest speck of promise but Van Gaal's United have gone backwards and that is totally unacceptable. 

A little letter for Louis

Dear Louis,

You came to us at a time when we needed you the most.

 Our club was on its knees and in need of a strong, experienced and proven manager which we all believed you were.

We've had some great moments together - the four wins over Liverpool, beating City in the demolition derby and the excitement we felt we you signed Angel Di Maria will live long in the memory.

Your first season wasn't bad.

Not great but not bad, you did what you'd said and a fourth placed finish swept away the previous season's gloom and gave us all something to build on and believe in. 

We were full of hope.

Now finally, we'd have a manager capable of taking the club back to where we feel we belong after the golden era of Sir Alex - if not winning titles every season, then certainly a consistently strong challenge with excitement and thrills along the way.

It wasn't long, though, before we began to realise that this was not all it was cracked up to be.
After the hope, came the belief that perhaps this was not a match made in heaven after all.

Di Maria lasted only one season and so did Falcao but after all you've won and everything you achieved, we thought you knew what you were doing.

We approached your second season with a cautious optimism - which only grew after a good start of only two defeats in 15 games to put us top of the league.

Then, suddenly all that changed - things quickly began to go wrong and those who had backed you began to wonder if we should sack you. 

A crippling injury list did not help your cause - but your decision to have a squad of only 20 players backfired as we went out the Champions League and our expected title challenge quickly began to fall apart.

Boxing Day was the nadir - and seemingly the end - but you battled on and after a nice five-game unbeaten run, it look liked we'd cracked it,  our bad run was history and you were happy again.

But, sadly, things turned sour again and now we're thinking that - like all great captains - you should go down with your ship instead of leaving us floundering.
We hope that, in Giggsy, you've left us a very capable helmsman who can continue the journey you started and take us travelling across the seven seas. 

Thanks for the fourth place, thank you for steering us back on track and best of all- thank you also for our four wins over that lot from Merseyside.

Thank you for those brief moments of unbridled joy. 

Thanks Louis but this has to be goodbye. 

Like most marriages that do not work out, it has to be time for a divorce. 

Sorry Louis but it's time to swallow your pride and do the decent thing

Actions speak louder than words.

The first time Louis van Gaal got out of his seat on Saturday was when he walked down the tunnel afterwards and he was met by an almost universal chorus of boos.

For anyone wondering if the Dutchman has retained the supporter of United's fans, this provided all the evidence to the contrary.

There have been dissenting grumbles on the Old Trafford terraces all season- but against Southampton those murmurs turned into full-scale uproar.

It's not hard to see why.

Going into Southampton on a high, the match soon followed a familiar pattern- one shot on target over 90 tepid, tedious and dire minutes in which the visitors grew stronger and scored the inevitable winner that many saw coming. 

An outlay of just over £100m, a style of play that is bordering on suicidal, a humiliating Champions League exit, and ten points off the pace after a shocking run of three wins in 13 games across all competitions.

We're bored, the pundits are bored, the players look bored and unable to express themselves and Van Gaal- counting the days down until his retirement- cannot motivate or inspire his multi-million- and multi-talented squad. 

We sacked David Moyes for better and he didn't have anything like the financial backing that LVG has had. 

I'm still trying to work out the reason for it: 3-5-2 with two defensive midfielders at home against a bottom half side who played with one up front and yet still went away with a win (Adnan Januzaj put on with five minutes to go at left wing-back??) 
It was another absurd addition to add to a rapidly lengthening list of baffling decisions Van Gaal has made in his time in charge.

The most baffling decision of all however, is one that only chief executive Ed Woodward knows the answer to: what premise is there for keeping Van Gaal in the job?

We're five points behind fourth-placed Spurs, we're lurching from one bad result to another and turning the team's fortunes around look beyond Van Gaal who is carrying the look of a beaten man.

Getting back into the Champions League last season was all well and good but there's zero sign of improvement. 

His thinking is confused, muddled and as for his wretched "philosophy"- that can go in the same place as his beloved Filofax. 

If we were going to sack Van Gaal I believe we'd have done it by now so- for the sake of his professional pride and to save our season- he needs to fall on his sword.

Thanks for the fourth place Louis, but you have to do us all a favour and do the decent thing. 

Saturday 23 January 2016

Back to square one as sorry United are stunned by Saints

Well, it was good while it lasted.

A gritty, backs to the wall smash and grab win against our biggest rivals was meant to be the start of something: a launchpad to lift United out of the gloom and into a momentum building run of wins and a surge up the table.

It's almost as if Anfield never happened: the euphoric outpouring of joy has been replaced by a deadening reality that it was- as we've seen so many times before under Louis van Gaal- another false dawn.

It's almost as if the phrase "two steps forward and one step back" was created for LVG's United tenure.
He did a fair job last season- stabilising the side that finished seventh under David Moyes to take us back into the Champions League through the qualifiers and into this season's group stage.

But even then you still felt we should have done better.

After the 4-2 victory over City on 12 April- the sixth win in succession- United sat second and four points ahead of the neighbours but after that we suffered three straight defeats and won only one of our last six games to finish the season tamely. 

Having fulfilled his remit and got us back into not only Europe but the Champions  League, the next logical progression seemed to be a realistic tilt for the title as Van Gaal set out his vision and three-year plan for the remainder of his contract. 

As recently as early December, United were looking good for that challenge with a ten match unbeaten run but since then we've crashed out of the competition we worked so hard to qualify for and slumped to an eight-game winless run (it's now two wins in ten league games). 

We thought we had turned the corner against Swansea only to edge unconvincingly past Sheff Utd and draw with Newcastle in a thriller before the win against Liverpool.

Our inability to build a run of results was put down partly to the crippling injury list which has far from aided Van Gaal but also a lack of confidence brought about by the slump in form.

That is what made today's result so disappointing.

We should have come into Southampton buzzing with the Anfield high under our belts, but instead slipped back into the soporific slumber that is rapidly becoming this side's trademark.
Adnan Januzaj's return to the team was supposed to provide us with a further lift but instead it was he who conceded the free-kick that led to Austin's winner.

We've made no progress under Van Gaal- his multi-million £ squad are lurching from one setback to another- and, with the fans now almost entirely against the Dutchman, only Ed Woodward knows how long he can continue to go on. 

Match report: United 0-1 Southampton

Saints substitute Charlie Austin headed the late winner on his debut as Southampton won at Old Trafford for the second season in a row and left Louis van Gaal facing fresh questions about his future.

In a dour game of few chances, Austin rose to nod home a James Ward-Prowse free-kick three minutes from time and sink a lacklustre and impotent United at Old Trafford. 

Wayne Rooney, looking to score for the fifth successive game, had the first sight of goal on 20 minutes when he picked up the ball from Ander Herrera and fizzed a low effort narrowly wide.
Southampton were a threat on the counter, though, and went close through Victor Wanyama whom headed over at the far-post from Jordy Clasie's free-kick.

The best chance fell to reported United target Sadio Mane 10 minutes before the break as Dustan Tadic played him through, but he failed to control the ball and David de Gea gathered.

Van Gaal introduced Juan Mata at the break and the change seemed to give the side another gear as Cameron Borthwick-Jackson's dangerous cross evaded everyone before Anthony Martial was unlucky not to latch on to Mata's pinpoint pass.

Matteo Darmian blocked well from Mane- picking up a heavy knock in the process- before Shane Long and Wanyama both went close in quick succession with deflected headers.

Southampton were beginning to sense victory in the offing and sent on the added threat of Austin in place of Mane, as United introduced the returning Adnan Januzaj for the closing minutes.

Both players were to play a part in what proved to be the Saints winner as the young Belgian needlessly gave away a free-kick, and Austin headed home from the resultant delivery with his first touch in a Southampton shirt. 

That knocked the stuffing out of United as Januzaj fired a late effort wide, meaning Southampton are now unbeaten on their last three Old Trafford visits.

Overall team performance: I'm not even going to bother.
United Faithful Man of the Match.... er... Juan Mata only came on at half-time but did at least try to get the team going with some nice passes 

Friday 22 January 2016

Young's long term injury adds to Reds full-back woes

United and England winger turned full-back Ashley Young faces a "long time out" after Louis van Gaal confirmed he will need surgery on a severe groin injury.

The 30-year old sustained the injury in United's 1-0 victory at Anfield last weekend and what initially looked a minor problem has now proved to be a lot worse than first feared.
Young has enjoyed something of a renaissance under LVG, enjoying his best season in a United shirt last term as one of our most improved players and he has continued that form this season despite often filling in at full-back.
Converted from a conventional winger, the versatile Young has made the vast majority of his 23 appearances this season at right-back, but he has also lined up at left-back and as an occasional wing-back in a 3-5-2 system. 

He has stood out as one of the side's most creative outlets, and in a side often lacking in ideas and invention and- like Luke Shaw- his pace, penetration and 'beat your man' mentality will be a big loss to the Reds.

His absence adds to a list of injures in wide positions, prompting Van Gaal to admit that he may consider bringing in new signings with Matteo Darmian now our only fit senior available full-back. 
Left-back Luke Shaw looks set to miss most of the remainder of the season with his broken leg, Marcos Rojo has had shoulder surgery, Phil Jones has an ankle injury and  Antonio Valencia is a long-term absentee with a foot injury. 

18-year-old Cameron Borthwick-Jackson put in an impressive cameo at Anfield when he replaced Young and looks set to come in on the left tomorrow, whilst 22-year-old Guillermo Varela could also be drafted in.

"He has to have an operation so he will be out for a long time, it is not just a month or so but longer and we already have big problems in the full-back positions.
"It is unbelievable, we are not lucky with that
"I have used youngsters a lot of time and Varela and Borthwick-Jackson are doing great, but the level at Manchester United is high so it is difficult for youngsters to do that for every week so we are looking for re-inforcements as our solution."

In a side lacking in pace, it's a cruel blow that United's two main speed merchants Shaw and Young have both suffered long term injuries simultaneously, leaving both of Van Gaal's preferred left-sided options sidelined.  

Match preview: United v Southampton

United manager Louis van Gaal bemoaned his side's injury problems after Ashley Young became the latest member of his squad to face a lengthy spell on the sidelines. 

The winger turned full-back left the field with a groin injury shortly before the break at Anfield with a groin problem which has proved to be much worse than first thought. 

Young joins Marcos Rojo, Michael Carrick, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Luke Shaw, Phil Jones and Antonio Valencia on the treatment table ahead of the visit of Ronald Koeman's Southampton side.
Adnan Januzaj is available and looks set to at least be on the bench following a brace for Warren Joyce's Under 21 side. 

Speaking on Friday, Van Gaal praised captain Wayne Rooney and also admitted that  the injuries may force his hand in this month's transfer market.
The Dutchman said:

"I am very happy with Wayne because it is a fact that since he is scoring we have won our games, with one draw at Newcastle, so the responsibility for the result and commitment for the result is very important and all the players are showing that, not just Wayne.

"I think the pressure is gone a little bit but it we would return if we do not beat Southampton so it is always the same pressure for Manchester United- we have to win.
"Our fans are always expecting us to win especially when we are at home against a team that is not a competitor.
"The level of Manchester United is high, and to play at level every week is difficult for young players which is why we have to look always in this transfer period for replacements.
"It shall not be easy because the clubs do not want to sell at this moment and that is our problem but we are looking and you have to wait and see."

Southampton picked up their first Old Trafford win in 27 years in last season's corresponding fixture on their way to a highest ever Premier League finish of seventh and arrive for this term's tussle in a comfortable mid-table position of tenth. 

Inconsistent form has been the south coast's side main problem this season, with wins over Arsenal and Chelsea offset by a disappointing defeat at Norwich, a home draw with basement boys Villa and an FA Cup third round exit to Alan Pardew's Palace.
Despite their indifferent form, the Saints certainly have the capability to test the Reds at Old Trafford, having taken four points from their previous two visits to our place. 

Charlie Austin could make his debut for the Saints at Old Trafford after his £4m move from QPR, where he scored 18 top flight goals last season.

Form guide: United L D W W D W Southampton W L L L W W
Match odds: United 10/11 Draw 11/5 Southampton 7/2
Referee: Mike Jones 

Monday 18 January 2016

World class De Gea will become a United legend... if he stays

What does it take to become a club legend?

A proper one, I mean, whom will go down in history as one of the true greats.

Whatever is needed, David De Gea is surely heading that way.
Excelling in goal for an otherwise average United side, the Spaniard virtually stands alone in enhancing his reputation nearly every week as our one truly world class player.

He was at it again at Anfield yesterday. 

Granted, United's victory over Liverpool may not go down as one of his best days or even his busiest, but he was certainly central to deny our bitterest rivals, with an authoritative display capped by some crucial saves.

The first came via good positioning, when Emre Can's powerful drive from an angle flew through his legs but glanced off his calf to whizz inches wide of the near post.

The second save was a lot more spectacular as he dived full length to his right to tip away away a shot, again from Can.
With the danger not clear, De Gea sprang to his feet to claw the ball away from a waiting posse of players, very much in the image of Peter Schmeichel.

Schmeichel, of course, attained legendary status at Old Trafford, just as Edwin van der Sar did a few years later.
Now we see a player doing everything necessary to emulate those famous figures.

But what are the factors to consider when bandying the "l" word about?

What has to be achieved even to consider the term?

First, I think you must part of a trophy-winning team, not one merely just huffing and puffing around the fringes.

De Gea satisfies that criterion having won the league at United in his second season.

A debut campaign in England remembered for the nervy youngster flapping at crosses, for regularly getting bullied in crowded penalty areas, had been impressively followed by a much calmer time.

Even then, though, the Spanish stopper still had plenty to do.

By no means the finished article, De Gea would have to get better if he intended to go down in United folklore.
In the intervening years, however, a combination of hard work, loads of natural ability and sheer determination have elevated the lad to a level attracting the persistent attention of Real Madrid.

We all know the story of last summer's protracted transfer saga that, somehow, ended with De Gea staying at United.
Less clear is how he feels now about his future.

In a rare interview last week, he talked about Schmeichel and Van der Sar. 

"They are legends for this club and that is what I want" he said, sounding like a man with every intention of hanging around.

If he does stay in Manchester, that dream will come true. 

Liverpool 0-1 United: Analysis

Louis van Gaal has taken a lot of criticism for his tactics this season - some of it justified - but he deserved credit for getting it spot on yesterday.

Whenever we play Liverpool, the Dutchman always seems to have an answer and yesterday proved no different.
His selection may have provoked ire when Marouane Fellaini was picked to play ahead of last season's hero Anfield Juan Mata, but yet both players were to prove pivotal in the smash and grab victory. 

Mata was on the bench but it was his 66th minute introduction that ultimately won the match for United, as it was from his cross that Wayne Rooney scored off of Marouane Fellaini's rebound from a short corner. 

United were second best for much of a largely disappointing contest but did grow into the game after half time when Van Gaal pushed Fellaini further forward and tasked Ander Herrera with more of a defensive role.

The Belgian, at least to an extent, would have dispelled some of his critics as he caused Liverpool problems to the point that they double marked him and his presence in an advanced role led to the winner. 

Jesse Lingard was selected in a unfamiliar right-wing role and the game largely passed him by, and it was not until Mata was brought into proceedings that United started to have an impact as an attacking force. 

Arguably, Mata should have started but Van Gaal values Lingard's defensive work highly and wanted to ensure both an attacking and defensive balance down the right rather than Mata's emphasis on pushing forward and potentially creating space for Liverpool to exploit. 

Chris Smalling and Daley Blind were both excellent at the back, Morgan Schneiderlin was also impressive and, in David De Gea United possess a truly world class goalkeeper. 

He was the difference between a turgid win and a dour draw. 

Liverpool were largely limited to long-range pot shots, but on the few occasions they did manage to get in behind us, De Gea stood strong.
He brilliantly saved twice from Emre Can and once from Firmino and, whilst they were efforts you would expect any decent goalkeeper to save, they underlined his continuing influence on this United side.

The Reds best chance of victory appeared to be from Liverpool's glaring weakness: set-pieces and so it proved.
Mata has experienced something of a malaise but made the difference here as it was from his pin-point cross that Fellaini struck the bar and Rooney volleyed the winner. 

Anfield: Papering over the cracks or a step in the right direction?

United's smash and grab win at Anfield changed the landscape for a team- and their embattled manager- seemingly stuck on a downward spiral.

Indeed, Van Gaal appears to have that fortunate general knack of gaining an unexpected victory just when it looks as though the battle has turned against him: that the chips are down.
Maybe though, that is part of the argument to keep him at United until the summer.

Despite being under pressure all season, Van Gaal has a 100% record with United against our oldest and most hated rivals, and this latest victory lifted some of the gloom that has rapidly enveloped the boss and his players. 

Afterwards, the Dutchman claimed that his side were back in the title race.

That felt like a stretch: a big stretch, but it was a result that changed the landscape both for United and the manager, whose future would have been as bleak as the January weather with defeat.

United moved to within two points of the top four with the victory and it injected a vital shot of belief, impetus and confidence into a side that has played without these three precious commodities for much of the season.

Yet it could also be argued that this match was further evidence that Van Gaal has taken United backwards.
This was a performance largely in keeping with many of United's others this season: turgid, uninspiring and the polar opposite from the high-tempo, high-pressing style that provided last season's thrilling victory in the same fixture.

We played the hosts off the park for most of that 2-1 win at Anfield last March, whereas here, 
whilst they didn't outplay us to quite the same extent, a Liverpool team arguably weaker than the side of last season had the better of much of the match.

The result was  typical of the Sir Alex era, the performance anything but- United's win did not match some of the flamboyance and flair of Anfield games past, but the nature of it will surely provide Van Gaal's vintage with a vital boost with four months of the season remaining.

So where does this leave us.

Hopefully, yesterday's victory with have a galvanising impact on the team in the second half of the season, but it's vital now that we kick on from this with momentum-building victories against Southampton and Stoke with the trip to Chelsea fast approaching on the horizon.

We must make sure that the Liverpool win is not another false dawn or the pressure that has, temporarily at least, eased on Van Gaal will return with abundance. 

Shrewd Schneiderlin continues to impress in vital Anfield victory

Since signing from Southampton for £24 million in the summer the Frenchman has played a key role in defensive midfield for the Reds but does not get the credit he deserves.

So much of his work goes unnoticed: all the talk at Anfield was about David De Gea's saves, Wayne Rooney's winner and Daley Blind's sterling defensive duties but Schneiderlin was as good as anyone in Red.

He has made 20 appearances for United and, of those games, we have only lost once with him in the team (at Swansea) but even then, he was not actually on the field at the time of the Welsh side's winning goal.

This underlines his continuing importance to the side. 

There were doubts about whether he would be good enough for United despite having developed into one of Southampton's key men under Mauricio Pochettino and, latterly, Ronald Koeman.

Those doubts have been dispelled though and not only is he more than good enough for us, he is arguably now one of our most important players. 

Schneiderlin's former side Southampton visit Old Trafford on Saturday and it was thought to be his quietly effective showing in last season's fixture that attracted the interest of United. 

He was immense at Anfield on Sunday, energetically snapping into tackles, breaking up play, putting in a superb shift and starting the move that led to Wayne Rooney's 78th minute winner.
He excelled in another superb away win at Goodison in October when he scored his first United goal but he did not play against Arsenal in our next match as we were outplayed and outmuscled at the Emirates.

Despite being only 26, Schneiderlin has nearly 300 games worth of experience, over 100 of those coming in the Premier League, and he has made a seamless transition from the South Coast to Manchester and has showed that his transfer fee was money well spent.

Despite his unimposing stature, Schneiderlin is strong in the tackle and deceptively quick, and his reliable and secure presence set the platform for Marouane Fellaini to push forward for the winner at Anfield.

At times, particularly when Liverpool had much of the play in the first half, he was almost like a third centre-half he was so deep.
He moved slightly further forward in the second half and established control and, as the match went on, so did United. 

He did so much of the dirty work and laid the pivotal platform for the team to build victory.

Maybe now, after this, Schneiderlin might start to be getting recognition for his performances. 

Sunday 17 January 2016

Match report: Liverpool 0-1 United

United earned a fifth successive win over Liverpool with a classic smash and grab raid at Anfield through Wayne Rooney's winner 12 minutes from time.

The Reds captain struck on 78 minutes to settle an evenly contested encounter, seal back to back league doubles over our North West neighbours and send United to within two points of fourth placed Spurs. 

Liverpool had enjoyed most of the chances and much of the play over the 90 minutes, but United's excellent containment job led to the vintage breakaway winner 

Adam Lallana went close for the hosts early on, when his header was blocked by the onrushing David de Gea, before Roberto Firmino dragged his follow-up inches wide with the goal gaping.

James Milner blasted over soon after before a coming-together between the feisty pair of Marouane Fellaini and Lucas saw tensions ignite and both players escape with merely a warning.

Jordan Henderson flashed a dipping drive narrowly over the bar and Anthony Martial's excellent lunging tackle thwarted Firmino after a rapid Liverpool break from a United corner.

David De Gea saved well with his legs to deny Emre Can five minutes after the interval, whilst Martial fired inches wide at the other end after excellent work from substitute Cameron Borthwick-Jackson.

The chance sparked encouragement in the away end, which featured injured trio Phil Jones, Michael Carrick and Marcos Rojo as their side gradually grew into the game.

Liverpool still continued to look most likely, though, as United were indebted to a brilliant double save from De Gea to keep out first Can and then Firmino from the follow-up.

By now, Louis van Gaal had introduced Memphis and last season's Anfield hero Juan Mata, and the boss was rewarded as his side soon began to take the upper hand in pursuit of a vintage counter-attacking victory.

After playing such a key role in this fixture last season, Mata will have been disappointed to find himself on the bench but the Spaniard was to turn provider this time around.

Daley Blind found Mata with a short corner and his cross picked out Fellaini whom nodded against the bar, but Rooney was there to blast in a volley into the top corner- the revitalised skipper's fifth goal in four games in 2016.

Having been hit with a late sucker-punch, Jurgen Klopp's side were unable to rally and United held out for an important and satisfying victory against our great rivals.

Overall team performance: 7/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: De Gea and Smalling deserve honourable mentions, but Morgan Schneiderlin gets our vote for him immense mopping up job. 

Friday 15 January 2016

Much maligned Fellaini could be key to Anfield victory

This is not the first time that Marouane Fellaini has been made something of a scapegoat for a patch of indifferent form for him and for United.

He was written off as a wasted £27.5 million when he signed under David Moyes, but won his critics over with a string of superb displays in March and April last year which included a dominant and bullying performance in our crucial win at Anfield.

He lined up in a more advanced role alongside Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera in a 4-3-3 formation last time we went to Liverpool and played a starring role in a bullying and dominant performance that paved the way for Juan Mata's memorable heroics. 

There were calls for him to be dropped for this match after a poor showing at Newcastle, but with  Carrick and Bastian Schweinsteiger both out injured, he looks set to start alongside Morgan Schneiderlin at the heart of the Reds engine room.

Not only will he likely start, he could also again defy his critics and prove United's potential match winner. 

Liverpool's glaring weakness is their seeming inability to adequately defend set-piece having conceded three goals from corners in recent weeks, including one directly at Exeter.
This would suggest that United's best chance of victory is to contain the hosts, then hit on the counter and look to score from set-pieces.

To do that, we should look to utilise Fellaini's height and physical presence- and against a makeshift Liverpool back line missing their first choice defenders, his dominance in the air looks our most potent source of grabbing a victory.

Whatever United's fans opinions of the big Belgian- and there are many- it is hard to deny that, in a side generally short of stature, he can prove credible nuisance value and a useful weapon in certain situations within a game. 

His best performances for United have tended to come in matches that really matter- four against Spurs, Arsenal, Liverpool and City stick out from last season, but he needs to be utilised further forward than his current defensive midfield performance if he is to find a repeat of that kind of form.

If I was Van Gaal, I'd be tempted to deploy the same 4-3-3 formation that worked such a treat last time.
Not only would it give us the balance we have needed but also it would also allow Fellaini more of a licence to push forward to join the attack with Morgan Schneiderlin taking care of defensive duties. 

Match preview: Liverpool v United

United manager Louis van Gaal has called for his players to play with "controlled aggression" as he takes his side to Anfield in search of a fourth consecutive victory over our North-West neighbours on Sunday. 

Despite the fact that these two great rivals are now merely challenging for the top four and not the title, Van Gaal has maintained that the historical prestige of the fixture means it will always be the biggest match in England.

The Dutchman said:

"That is how the fans of both clubs see it and I feel it also already in the four times we have played against each other- even when we played in the USA (in 2014).
"I have seen the reaction of the fans when we have beaten them and I think we are all ready to play in this game but we have to show it and against the resistance of Liverpool.
"You can see that what happened last year when Steven Gerrard was sent off within thirty seconds- that is not happening so often so you can see that it is a game that is different
"We need to be aggressive but also under control and play with our heads, but that can be difficult because the passion and intensity to play in these games is very high."

The boss confirmed that Bastian Schweinsteiger and Phil Jones are making progress from their respective knee and ankle problems but both remain doubtful for the Anfield clash. 
Michael Carrick misses out through injury but Adnan Januzaj could be involved from the bench while Marcos Rojo, Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw are not yet ready to return.

Liverpool have injury problems of their own and will be without defensive duo Martin Skrtel and Dejan Lovren as well as strikers Daniel Sturridge, Danny Ings and Divock Origi and key playmaker Philippe Coutinho. 

Nevertheless, with Coutinho sidelined, fellow Brazilian attacker Firmino stepped up to the plate as a creative and goalscoring threat with a brace in midweek against Arsenal.
Christian Benteke remains a formidable and physical presence up top and scored a spectacular acrobatic effort in our win in September's r
everse fixture- his third consecutive strike against United.

On facing his friend Jurgen Klopp, Van Gaal added:

"You can see his hand and that is important, you can see a very aggressive and pressing way of playing the game but of course he has to learn the rhythm of the Premier League and I think he knows the difference from the German league already.
"He is a very good manager, his teams are always competitive and the fans shall love it."

Liverpool currently sit in ninth, five points behind United who are sixth and two points off fourth placed Spurs so this match will not only offer the usual mix of chaos and drama but also go a long way to deciding which of these two are most likely to finish in the top four come May. 

Come on United!!! 

Form guide: Liverpool W W L W D D United L L D W W D
Match odds: Liverpool 9/4 Draw 7/1 United 12/5
Referee: Mark Clattenburg 

United aim to extend run of wins over the old enemy

United are enjoying an unprecedented period of dominance over fierce rivals Liverpool.

While Louis van Gaal's side have been criticised for their style this season, we go into Sunday's fixture at Anfield aiming to extend a remarkable run of results against the men from Merseyside.

Brendan Rodgers led his title-challenging side (shudder) to home and away victories over United in 2013-14 (what happened next, though...) but they are Liverpool's only two victories in the fixture in the last eight clashes.

But our dominance goes back further: Liverpool have just six wins over us since April 2004- eighteen of the past 27 meetings have been won by United, including September's memorable
3-1 win at Old Trafford- our third in a row against the Anfield outfit with LVG still unbeaten against them in his time in charge of United. 

It's fair to say that we have "knocked Liverpool off their perch" with a 66-55 overall record since the very first meeting back in 1895, which of course include the last three fixtures between the sides.

United doubled Liverpool last season with a 3-0 thumping (lovely!) at Old Trafford and then a 2-1 win (even better!) in March thanks to Juan Mata's brace as Steven Gerrard was sent off 38 seconds after coming on (lol!) 

The highest-scoring game between the teams came on March 25 1908 when a Bill McPherson hat-trick and two apiece for Joe Hewitt and Bobby Robinson secured a 7-4 win for Liverpool at Anfield. 

Of course, none of this will really mean much come Sunday in the latest installment of the English game's most storied rivalry, but surely it has to be worth a psychological shot in the arm for us.

This fixtures does, arguably, lack the magnitude and significance it once did, with sides in something of a transition and no longer in direct competition for the top honours.

That doesn't mean it isn't important though- it's the biggest match in English football between the two most successful sides- and, for the fans at least, it's the one we want our team to win more than any other.

A win would give our inconsistent season a massive morale boost and inject vital belief and momentum into the squad. 

Sunday's clash is the toughest to predict in years: two unpredictable and inconsistent sides whom both capable of delight, and these days, despair, in equal measure led by two charismatic and personable bosses on the touchline.

It's a game that neither can afford to lose- Van Gaal more so- but whilst there won't be tear gas typical of clashes past, there will almost certainly be fireworks.  

The two sides dominance may have dimmed but Liverpool v United is as big as ever

For only the second time since three points for a win in 1981, Liverpool meet United on Sunday with both sides outside of the Premier League's top four.

The other, in September 2004, was when the season was only five games old.

Two games beyond the half-way point of the season, United are sixth in a table they led in November whilst Liverpool are three off the Reds after Wednesday's last-gasp equaliser against league leaders Arsenal.
The Anfield outfit are excited and enthused to have the charismatic Klopp as their manager but their form, like United's, is inconsistent.

Since topping the table, United have won only one of their last eight league games and the club has been enveloped in a storm about Louis van Gaal's future.
The style of play is not what fans want and the Dutchman's stock has plummeted, though support for the team remains strong.

Tuesday's thrilling 3-3 draw at Newcastle went against the grain of what United have become.
The tactics were more adventurous and Rooney's brace further reinforced his timely return to form ahead of the Anfield trip- even the manager was seen showing rare emotion from the bench. 

Fans welcomed Van Gaal's ditching of the overly cautious approach which has had such a malign influence on the club's season.
He made so many notes during the NUFC match that he may need a new notepad for Sunday's clash.

United have not played like United should, but the early stability was built on a consistent defence in front of David De Gea.
When we push forward- or take risks in Van Gaal's parlance because it means we have less possession- the defence looks disorganised and nervy, though this has not been helped by ongoing injuries and out of position players.

Matteo Darmian, usually a right-back, played left back. Ashley Young is not a full back, while Daley Blind is a stop-gap centre half far removed from the defensive titans of yore.
Marouane Fellaini struggled in a defensive midfield role.

United don't look comfortable when they're in front and  Newcastle's late equaliser was no surprise to those who had seen us cling on amid late Swansea pressure in the previous league game.

Juan Mata's majestic double inspired United to a thrilling 2-1 win at Anfield in March and, then, as now, the Reds find themselves in another fight for a top-four finish with a rejuventated Liverpool hot on our heels.

Mata was dropped at Newcastle for "failing to follow team orders" but despite the Spaniard's recent dip in form, he will itching to be recalled for the fixture in which he enjoyed arguably his finest performance in a United shirt to date last season. 

Despite the fact that this fixture will not be the titanic title tussle it once was for some time, whenever we lock horns with the old enemy it's always a momentous and exciting occasion to cherish. 

Liverpool v United: The touchline tussle

 Louis van Gaal will resume a friendly rivalry with Jurgen Klopp when United face Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday adding a fascinating sub-plot to what is already the most historic and competitive rivalry between the English game's two most successful sides.

Van Gaal and Klopp are undoubtedly two of the most high-profile, charismatic, successful and quotable bosses in the league and they will do battle against each other for the fifth time this weekend. 

Dortmund 1-5 Bayern (12.9.2009)

The two first met at the Westfalenstadion five games into Van Gaal's reign at Bayern Munich, when he endured a sluggish start but kick-started here, with the 5-1 win Bayern's biggest ever away to Dortmund.
Long-time United target Mat Hummels put Klopp's side ahead but, after Mario Gomez equalised, our very own Bastian Schweinsteiger put Van Gaal's side in front.
Franck Ribery made it 3-1 before young substitute Thomas Muller stepped off the bench to net a brace and clinch a one-sided victory (Muller became a regular starter for the Bayern first team from then on). Van Gaal 1-0 Klopp

Bayern 3-1 Dortmund (13.2.10)

Although Klopp's Dortmund took the lead in the return fixture at the Allianz through Mohammed Zidan, this would prove to be Klopp's 10th successive loss to Bayern as goals from Marc van Bommel, Arjen Robben and Mario Gomez ensured Van Gaal bagged another win over his German adversary. 
The result left Bayern with a five-point lead at the top of the Bundesliga and Klopp bemoaned the referee's decision-making after the game.
"These mistakes from the officials do not make it more fun" he said.

Van Gaal 2-0 Klopp

Dortmund 2-0 Bayern (3.10.2010)

Van Gaal won the title at the end of his first season but, by the time this fixture rolled around his champions had recorded only eight point from their opening six games.
By contrast, Klopp's side were flying and extended their winning run to six matches with this comfortable victory thanks to goals from Nuri Sahin and Lucas Barrios.
It was Klopp's first victory over his Dutch counterpart and left his team ten points ahead of Bayern after seven outings.
"The season is very long so it is difficult but we must have faith" said Van Gaal.

Van Gaal 2-1 Klopp

Bayern 1-3 Dortmund (26.2.2011)

"It doesn't get any better" admitted Klopp after his youthful side had won at Bayern for the first time in two decades, thanks to goals from Barrios, Sahin and Hummels.
"We didn't win in Munich for 20 years: Sebastien Kehl was 11 and rest of the boys were still-being breast fed" said Klopp, whilst Van Gaal admitted the title was "already gone" with his side 16 points behind Dortmund with 10 games to go.
Van Gaal left Bayern two months later as Klopp went on to lift his first Bundesliga title in May.

Van Gaal 2-2 Klopp

Klopp on Van Gaal: 

"Louis van Gaal is one of the most successful managers in the world.
"He has won a lot of titles and not only in Germany, he has a special idea about football and you have to respect him as an opponent.
"A game against Manchester United is a bit like Dortmund v Schalke, you can play the whole season how you want but you have to be prepared, at your best for these games.
"We both need the points to stay close to the top end of the table but it is Man United- I love derbies and I am going to love this game."

Wednesday 13 January 2016

Van Gaal's management not helping fading Fellaini

One United fan suggested that Marouane Fellaini should receive a 'clog to the head' for his performance at St James' Park but judging by how Louis van Gaal reacted to the Belgian's tame header at 3-2, he might have used his clipboard to ruffle Fellaini's hair.

He was described as the symbol of 'post Fergie blues', 'weak' and 'cowardly' whilst many found it hard to believe how he stayed on the field after a number of clumsy challenges and yet Ander Herrera- one of our best performers at Newcastle- was taken off.

BT Sport filmed Van Gaal, in a rare show of emotion, lamenting 'you've got to score' after Fellaini contrived to nod a free header at Rob Elliot. 

Fellaini was encouraged to leave United this month by his national coach Marc Wilmots in November, but he has featured heavily for the side since. 

However, his United career appears to be petering out.

At 28 years old, Fellaini is an older and more expendable member of the squad with a contract that expires in 2018.
There are slicker, albeit  inconsistent options in attack and United have a host of more secure and mobile midfielders to patrol the middle third.

He would have spent last season on loan at Napoli but for injury, yet Fellaini ended the campaign as one of the league's most improved players.
He proved his worth with some invaluable interventions from the bench, and shone as a starter under Van Gaal, with signs that he was developing into a big-game player.

He excelled in games against Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool and City, all of which United won.

In that win at Arsenal 14 months ago, Fellaini shielded a makeshift back three of Chris Smalling, Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair alongside Michael Carrick and it remains his sole accomplished performance in his natural position as a defensive midfielder for the club.

The display was skewed, though.

United were pummeled in the first 30 minutes when they looked about as secure as they did at Newcastle, but were grateful for some feckless Arsenal finishing and the impregnable David de Gea.

Defending is not Fellaini's forte.

He has beefed up a lightweight United squad but, despite his physique, he is an ineffectual tackler more concerned with dismembering opponents than dispossessing them. 
His crude and reckless maiming of Paul McShane at Hull on the final day of last season virtually wrote off the first half of his current campaign, as Van Gaal overlooked him in pre-season due to his three-match suspension, and Fellaini is still playing catch up.

Despite Van Gaal claiming he would use Fellaini as a full-time forward, he keeps getting picked in a defensive role.
At Newcastle, injuries to Bastian Schweinsteiger and Michael Carrick forced LVG's hand, yet Fellaini started deep against Ipswich, Middlesbrough, Wolfsburg, Bournemouth, Norwich and Sheffield United, matches in which United's more defensive-minded midfielders Morgan Schneiderlin, Carrick and Bastian Schweinsteiger were available to play in.

Out of his 10 starts this season, only in three of them has Fellaini been used as a forward.

Van Gaal's questionable management of him has not helped, though, and extends to his substitute appearances.
The booing which greeted his arrival for Anthony Martial against CSKA in November was a mixture of annoyance at the Frenchman's removal, and the choice of replacement despite Martial's ineffective display.

At Newcastle, Herrera, one of United's better players, was withdrawn instead of the lumberjack Fellaini who fouled his way through the first half, rendering himself useless in the second.

In four of United's Champions League group games, Fellaini emerged with the team trailing or goalless.

A defence with Fellaini shielding it, a winger at right-back, a right-back at left-back and a midfielder at centre-half was bound to concede on Tuesday night.

It was United's misfortune that Chris Smalling, our standout player this season, endured his poorest performance since his 'stupid' red card at City, but Fellaini's dozy defending and impotence in attack ensured he would be scapegoat.

Numerous players have suffered in Van Gaal's 4-2-3-1 formation and the Belgian is another.

His best form- and United's- under LVG came in the 4-3-3, with Carrick at the base of a midfield triangle and Herrera and Fellaini collaborating the flanks to devastating effect.

Fellaini was not deployed as the target man- a role that supporters feel demean the club's attacking traditions- and performed with deft and discipline where he bullied a resurgent Liverpool in an impressive showing for a vital United win.

He might not get that chance on Sunday. 

United need change at boardroom level to revive fortunes

United's problems start at the top: there's a lack of football people at the club and change is needed at boardroom level.

It is no secret that Ed Woodward, the club vice executive, lacks football nous and expertise.
Since the Glazers took over in 2005 that has become the norm at Old Trafford and has become even more pronounced since Sir Alex Ferguson retired and David Gill left his position as chief executive in 2013.

Despite the crippling debt, the club remained successful and continued to rake in the silverware for years.
Gill received plenty of criticism for his "debt is the road to ruin" quote prior to the takeover which saw his attitude drastically change- in the public eye at least.

Fast-forward to 2013 when new manager David Moyes and new CEO Woodward were thrown into the deep end without inflatable arm-bands.
It was evident that both were small fish in a massive pond.

United had just won the league by 11 points under Ferguson yet the squad was in urgent need of strengthening.
The only signing was Marouane Fellaini from Everton for £27 million, £4 million more than the £23.5 million buyout clause United had missed earlier in the summer.

Moyes was nickname Dithering Dave at Goodison and his hesitation was clear for all to see, as instead of working with Gill, he planned his transfer activity under the inexperienced Woodward.

Now there are calls for a Director of Football at the club to steer United in right direction off the pitch as there's currently no plan, direction or structure.
It's certainly a red flag for any potential high-profile successor to Louis van Gaal or a big-name player looking to move clubs to see a green hand at the wheel.

Woodward appears supremely confidence in his abilities despite questionable evidence to the contrary but whilst he is part of the immediate problem, he is not the biggest call for concern.

The real brokers are the Glazers: renowned as savvy businessmen who find the football operations aspect alien.
Emphasis is placed commercially, even if their so-called product is stagnating on the pitch- much to the dismay of fans who pay their hard-earned money to watch United whether at Old Trafford or in Wolfsburg.

Ticket prices have been frozen for next season at a maximum of £50 but do the owners really think that they can continue premium prices for a less-than-premium squad, one which even the most disillusioned rose-tinted Red will admit is not only sleep-inducing but miles from winning either the League or Champions League.

One has to wonder whether the squad's lack of depth indicates a cost-cutting austerity plan from the American owners similar to the mandated salary-cap policy of their once glorious but now mediocre NFL Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

They can certainly point to Arsenal's success under the penny-pinching Arsene Wenger.

Yet if trimming the overhead is what the Glazers have in mind, it is a confusing contrast to Woodward's break-the-bank philosophy.

Worse, the once-productive United academy which, if it hasn't produced many first-team regulars for the senior side since Fergie's Fledglings has - and profitably so - for the rest of English football.
Ryan Shawcross is the most obvious example.

Yet that pipeline appears to have dried up with the club's failure to replace Director of Youth Brian McClair, once considered the second most important player at the club behind Ferguson, more than a year after his departure.

Priorities have definitely changed at the club, and not for the better.

United have become a complacent, lackadaiscal football institution- change is needed in M16, and not just from the dugout.

We need balance and Mat Hummels fits the bill

United tried to sign Hummels in 2014 but were rebuffed by Dortmund but the World Cup winning centre-back is out of contract in 2017 and the Bundesliga side could be forced to cash out.

Hummels decided to commit his future to Dortmund on that occasion but has been heavily linked with the Reds in the past and is known to have a good relationship with Louis Van Gaal. 

Following the German's poor campaign in 2014-15, United did not revive their interest in the former Bayern Munich centre-back last year and instead focused their efforts on signing Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos who eventually signed a new contract at the Bernabeu.

Netherlands legend Ruud Gullitt said last year that Van Gaal was 'crazy' about signing Hummels in his first summer in charge at Old Trafford.

Despite the vast amount of money spend on the squad in his 18 months in charge, Van Gaal has not signed an out-and-out centre back since he took over.
Marcos Rojo has spent the majority of his Reds career in central defence and Daley Blind was converted into a centre half in pre-season, however both have performed more assuredly at left-back.

Van Gaal had hoped to develop the Jones-Smalling axis at the back, but Jones' persistent injury have prevented the pair from building a consistent and regular partnership at the back leaving United short of defensive options.
United's defensive showing at Newcastle rang the alarm bells, even though we actually still have the third-best back four record in the Premier League.

Ashley Young, a winger, started at right-back, Matteo Darmian, a right-back, started at left-back and Blind- a good player but not a central defender- started alongside Chris Smalling whom had his poorest game of the season  at St James'.

Van Gaal had been criticised for going into the season with a 23-man squad which included only three recognised centre-halves in Smalling, Phil Jones and Paddy McNair.
We need balance in the side and despite Mike's marked improvement it's been glaringly obvious that he needs a reliable and imposing presence alongside him rather than an out of position stop-gap whom lacks the physical strength and height to make a success of the position. 

Hummels would be the perfect fit: an experienced, consistent, ball playing and physically strong player he would be relatively cheap and would be the perfect foil to cover any mistakes on the rare occasion Smalling has an off day.

Tuesday's attacking performance was our best of the season but we were let down by nervy and naive defending making our need for defensive re-inforcements greater than ever. 

Pace, flair and entertainment.... but not a win

United played some of their best football of the season at St James' Park but were still only held to a draw by relegation-threatened Newcastle.

We wanted more edge-of-the-seat entertainment and United certainly gave it to us.
It may well have been fantastic value for money viewing but when all said and done it was hard not to be downbeat and wonder what might have been. 

If any match proved how defensively fragile the Reds still can be then this was it. 2-0 up and pegged back to 2-2, 3-2  ahead with 11 minutes to play and still Louis van Gaal's side went home with only a point.

Still, I suppose it was better than a dull 0-0 stalemate.

It would appear at the moment you cannot have it all ways with United- it is either feast or famine. 

When we're great going forward, we are shambolic at the back and when we stay compact and tight at the back we cannot score- the ultimate Catch 22 situation. 

United had not taken an early first half lead, or any opening 45 minute lead for that matter, since Anthony Martial's goal in Wolfsburg on that fateful Champions League night.

The rare luxury didn't last when Naldo equalised three minutes later.

Being unable to crack that first half hoodoo has been one of the problems holding United back and causing such angst and tension.

So to go 2-0 ahead was an indulgence indeed- having said that, to not take advantage of a poor Newcastle side that are even more fragile than the Reds you'd have even more cause for concern.

You can't throw away that kind of gift and, for a while, we resembled the United of old as we carved Newcastle open with a superb counter-attack that bore all the pace, power and flair of yesteryear (we even saw some emotion from Louis van Gaal it was that good). 

Morgan Schneiderlin slipped the ball to Ander Herrera whom in turn picked out Wayne Rooney, whose fantastic vision spotted the onrushing Jesse Lingard with a sublime reverse pass for the young winger to score arguably our best goal of the season to date.

Then, after the delight came the despair as the brittle backline caved in- ala Wolfsburg- to bring the hosts back into the game.
To be opened up so softly from such a strong position was criminal and gives Van Gaal a dilemma: does he risk results by giving fans what they want or does he stick to his safe, methodical approach to grind out the wins but continue to bear their wrath? 

We need a balance of solid defence and brilliant attack in the same match, but, at the moment it's either one or the other.