Monday 29 February 2016

United shoot down the Gunners at the Theatre of Dreams

For the first time in a long while, Arsenal went to Old Trafford as favourites but again emerged battered and beaten as United reignited a faltering season in front of a fervent faithful.

This was a triumph to warm the heart of every United fan as a youthful Reds side brought back the feel-good factor with a dominant and deserved victory over a full-strength, title chasing Arsenal.

It's now been ten seasons since Arsenal last won at Old Trafford in the league but, given the circumstances, this was arguably United's best victory of that recent run against the Gunners (apart from the 8-2 of course)....

Fielding an understrength team due to injury, it was the performances of United's young players that caught the eye and filled us with pride. 

18-year-old Marcus Rashford continued his remarkable rise to fame with two goals and an assist, teenage full-backs Guillermo Varela and Tim Fosu-Mensah were both excellent (the latter on debut) and the makeshift centre-back pairing of Michael Carrick and Daley Blind outstanding.

Varela kept Arsenal dangerman Alexis Sanchez on the periphery whilst Blind had his best game in a United shirt and stood strong with a couple of excellent blocks as the Gunners pressed for a late leveller. 

Morgan Schneiderlin, Juan Mata and Ander Herrera also impressed but Memphis continued where he left off against Midtjylland with a brilliant display of pace, power and even a rainbow flick to outfox Gunners right-back Hector Bellerin.

Most impressive of all was the manner in which we responded each time Arsenal hit back: a huge test of character our lads passed with flying colours. 

Schneiderlin kept Mesut Ozil quiet and Herrera's busy and bustling display was capped with a superb finish, albeit with a deflection,  for the match-sealing goal. 

Louis van Gaal's theatrical touchline dive became an internet sensation yet this was also a contest that restored nostalgic memories of former times.

This fixture will always be synonymous with Roy Keane and Patrick Vieria snapping and snarling at each other as these two uncompromising and no nonsense leaders fired their troops into battle.

Since the two warriors retired, so has the fiery and fierce nature of these two sides rivalry, but yet when Aaron Ramsey and Herrera clashed in the second half, tensions threatened to boil over as the Old Trafford crowd bayed for the Gunners' blood. 

The two sets of players had to be pulled apart by referee Craig Pawson and emotions were running so high that even Van Gaal rose from his seat to remonstrate with an official, a moment roared as loudly as any of our goals. 

The league double over Liverpool (again!) aside, this has been a largely forgettable season but thanks to the stars of future, we saw a glimpse of the old United in 90 memorable and marvellous minutes on Sunday. 

Inconsistent struggles against lesser sides are holding us back

Of the seven domestic defeats United have suffered this season only one of those - the reverse fixture with the Gunners - have come against the Premier League's leading lights. 

It has not been United's record against the top sides that has been the issue, that is exemplary, rather a baffling inconsistency when it comes to matches against sides from the lower reaches of the league.

Remarkably, no other side - not even basement club Villa - have lost more times against the bottom six this season. 

Defeats to Swansea, Bournemouth, Norwich and Sunderland- as well as Midtjylland in the Europa League- and draws against Newcastle, Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough have cost United dear.

It's these results that have wrecked United's season and put Louis van Gaal under serious pressure. 

It was the same story last term, too: we lost twice to Swansea, at home to West Brom, away to a then-struggling Leicester, and dropped points at Burnley, Sunderland and Hull- along with a goalless draw at League Two Cambridge in the FA Cup.

So is it bad luck, a case of the inspired underdog raising their game or poor tactics that has caused these shortcomings?

United's passivity has been a problem- there is talk of playing a 'positional game' but the cautious approach has often proved counter-productive against inferior opponents.

Although some seek to explain this with talk of a "lost aura", it's not necessarily about what the opposition do- more a case of us not doing enough.
Not enough overlaps, not enough tempo or intensity and not enough ambition or ingenuity. 

It's proved hugely costly. 

Van Gaal's side have a better record over the top teams than Arsenal, Manchester City and champions Chelsea and, had we matched those results with those of the bottom six, we'd be right in the thick of the title shake-up. 

Contrast this to United's last league-winning campaign- Sir Alex's final one at the helm- and the results against our major rivals was actually inferior.
Not only did we lose at home to Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham and draw at Arsenal, but we also lost at Everton on the opening day.
However, the marked difference came in the Reds' dealings with the bottom half of the table.

Incredibly, that United side took maximum points home and away against every single team from twelfth down- 18 wins out of 18.
It was a ruthlessly efficient performance. 

Yesterday's win over Arsenal, therefore, came as no surprise- but May fixtures against Norwich and Bournemouth  are a different story. 

Is LVG's tactical approach better suited to facing stronger sides? 

Sunday 28 February 2016

Player profile: Timothy Fosu-Mensah

Louis van Gaal's United reign can be criticised on many fronts but giving youth a chance certainly isn't one of them. 

Marcus Rashford's incredible rise into the first team set-up will have inspired many across the country and none more so than the latest Academy star to be given a senior debut- Timothy Fosu-Mensah.

The Dutch youngster became the 31st player to be used by Van Gaal this season in the 3-2 victory over Arsenal at Old Trafford. 

Replacing Marcos Rojo in the 55th minute, the 18 year-old midfielder turned-defender impressed with a neat and tidy performance at left-back.

So who is the new boy and could he be the next Academy graduate with a glittering Old Trafford future?

Beginning his career as a centre-back at Ajax, he quickly attracted the attention of a number of Europe's leading clubs.
Signed by United in 2014, the defender has since progressed into an imposing and tenacious midfielder and is regarded as one of United's most highly rated Academy prospects.

An overseas addition who plays in central midfield and dons the no.8 shirt, 18-year-old Fosu-Mensah has inevitably- and unfairly- drawn comparisons with Paul Pogba. 

His versatility will be of most interest to the club's powers that be, having demonstrated he can play central defence, both full-back positions, midfield and even as a no.10.

Fosu-Mensah looked far from overawed in his 40 minutes against the Gunners as his physical strength and intelligence on the ball is something that has seen become one of the stars of Warren Joyce's Under 21 side.

Football at that level can be detrimental to a player's development and, at United, Joyce has such a paucity of options that he has often had to settle for square pegs in round holes.

That either stymies a youngster's progress or adds a further string to their bow and, in Fosu-Mensah's case, it has worked wonders with a string of superb showings for the second string which ultimately led to his first team bow. 

He scored his first goal for the United Reserves in a 7-0 win over Norwich and put in a man of the match in the 6-1 thrashing of Leicester.

"Tim has made a real impact, he's a lad whom was very good in the FA Youth Cup and has shown excellent qualities in his time with us." said Joyce.
"You've got to look at his strengths and what he can offer our team, he played in midfield and at the back, settling into a new club takes time but he has shown some outstanding work" the coach added. 

Timothy Fosu-Mensah
Birthplace: Amsterdam
Position: Midfielder/Defender
Date of birth: 2.1.1998
Joined United: September 2 2014 (from Ajax)

A fairytale story as a star is born at the Theatre of Dreams

Barely anyone outside Old Trafford had heard of Marcus Rashford less than a week ago but now the teenage United striker is a household name throughout the country.

Two goals on his senior debut in the Europa League against Midtjylland catapulted him into the national spotlight. 

It's all very well scoring twice against Danish minnows but, many asked, how would he fare against a league title-chasing side in the heat of a battle between two fierce rivals in a high stakes game?

Coolly, calmly and clinically, as it turned out.

Not only did he score twice on Thursday, but his pace, link-up play and direct style caused havoc to Midtjylland and his excellent all-round performance impressed throughout. 

Against Arsenal, Rashford showed signs of his youthful exuberance in the early stages, darting inside centre-backs Gabriel and Laurent Koscielny from the left touchline before being hauled down to earn a free-kick.

The opportunity of that set-piece was not taken but it mattered little as Rashford soon put United into a two-goal lead to make it four goals in two games. 

The young Mancunian pounced on a poor clearance to slam in the opener and then waltzed into space to head home Jesse Lingard's floated cross. 

But it was not just his finishing that caught the eye.

Rashford showed great awareness and composure to pick out the run of Ander Herrera, whose 20-yard shot took a wicked deflection off Laurent Koscielny. 

Something else impressed me too: his determination and desire to close down Petr Cech when the young striker put the goalkeeper under pressure from a backpass. 

Most young players would just make life difficult for the goalkeeper, but Rashford shut off the pass as well and Cech ended up giving away the ball and United won it back. 

No wonder he was given a standing ovation from the Old Trafford faithful when he was replaced by Adnan Januzaj with ten minutes to play. 

Rashford seems to be blessed with the most valuable quality a striker can have - the knack of being in the right place at the right time to score goals.
He is a clinical poacher: his two goals against Midtjylland were typical striker's finishes and against Arsenal he twice showed clinical composure to snaffle the chances that came his way. 

When he scored twice on his debut on Thursday, the critics said he would just be the next Federico Macheda, the Italian whom scored three goals early on in his United career and then disappeared.

But Rashford already looks far superior and, like his United captain Wayne Rooney he's caused a buzz of excitement.

Although talk of England is ridiculous at this stage of Rashford's career, he could be special.

Very special indeed. 

Match report: United 3-2 Arsenal

United reignited their Premier League challenge and dented Arsenal's title hopes with a thrilling victory inspired by 18-year-old Marcus Rashford.

The young striker repeated his European heroics with two goals in three first half minutes before ex Red Danny Welbeck pulled one back for the Gunners before the interval.

Rashford set up Ander Herrera to make it 3-1, Mesut Ozil ensured an nervy finale but a youthful United side held out for a hugely important win.

Arsenal had started well and went close through Nacho Monreal in the sixth minute, but the returning David De Gea kept out the full-back with a smart block.

The Spaniard's opposite number Petr Cech saved well from a Memphis free-kick, but the stopper proved powerless to prevent another magic moment from Rashford shortly before the half hour.

United broke forward and Juan Mata found the excellent Guillermo Varela on the right, Arsenal failed to clear the young full back's delivery and Rashford calmly fired home his finish from close range.

Arsenal were still reeling from that setback when they fell further behind, with three of United's Academy graduates again involved in the goal.

Varela picked out Jesse Lingard whom in turn crossed for Rashford to head home past Cech and send Old Trafford euphoric with joy. 

The Gunners weren't going down easily, though, and the visitors gained a vital foothold in the match five minutes before half-time as Welbeck nodded in an Ozil free-kick to cap a frantic first 45.

Arsenal started the second half as they had ended the first- on the front foot and went close to a leveller through Alexis Sanchez whom had an effort repelled by the returning Marcos Rojo.
18-year-old Timothy Fosu-Mensah replaced Rojo for a United debut soon after but the Reds continued to carve out chances and re-established the two goal buffer on 65 minutes.

Rashford picked up the ball on the right and teed up Herrera whom thumped home from 25 yards with the aid of a deflected off Laurent Koscielny.

Memphis went close to a fourth but the Gunners responded quickly and halved the deficit once again when Welbeck forced a super save from De Gea but Ozil volleyed the rebound in off the turf. 

Substitute Olivier Giroud headed over the bar in a spell of late pressure from the visitors but no further drama was forthcoming as United held out despite five added minutes.

Overall team performance: 8/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Marcus Rashford. Scored twice and set up the other on a dream league debut.

Saturday 27 February 2016

Match preview: United v Arsenal

United return to league action after progress in two knockout competitions but face a very different prospect this time around against Arsene Wenger's title chasing Gunners.

The north London side sit three places and ten points ahead of United, and have the chance to return to the top of the table with what would be a rare league victory at Old Trafford- we've won six and drawn two of the last eight home league meetings against Arsenal.

Sunday's visitors have won the last two matches between the sides with a 2-1 win in the FA Cup in March (Danny Welbeck scoring the winner) and then a 3-0 thumping of the Reds (sorry!) back in October. 

David De Gea and Chris Smalling both could return to bolster the Reds ranks having missed the win over Midtjylland, Adnan Januzaj and Marcos Rojo are both ready to return but Anthony Martial and Marouane Fellaini are doubtful.  
Antonio Valencia, Matteo Darmian and Phil Jones are among a United casualty list of 14.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is out injured for Arsenal and joins Tomas Rosicky, Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla on the sidelines. 

Both sides had mixed fortunes in their respective European outings in midweek as the Reds saw off Midtjylland 6-3 on aggregate to move into the last 16 but Arsenal have a mountain to climb after a 2-0 first leg defeat to a Lionel-Messi inspired Barcelona in the Champions League. 

In the fourth of five matches in 14 days, United manager Louis van Gaal said that his side face "a big challenge" against Wenger's side
"The players were happy after the win on Thursday and the fans too- that is expected and a lot of confidence, but now we have to play against one of the best teams in the Premier League.
"It's a challenge and even more of a big challenge because we have with more or less the same players within two days so that's also different but I think the recovery shall go better than ever.
"Marcos Rojo came back and I think De Gea and Smalling might do also on Sunday so that is good because we have to be at our best to beat a very difficult opponent in Arsenal" said Van Gaal. 

The games continue to come thick and fast for United after this one with leagues matches at home to Watford on Wednesday followed by a visit to West Brom and then the trip to Liverpool for the Europa League last 16 first leg. 

Form guide: United W D L L W W Arsenal W D W W D L
Match odds: United 12/5 Draw 9/4 Arsenal 11/8 

Referee: Craig Pawson (South Yorkshire) 

Friday 26 February 2016

Memphis motors and youngsters thrive but questions remain

Sumptuous skill, a devastating delivery and a top drawer end product: this was the Memphis Depay seen too rarely in a Red shirt this season that United thought they had signed.

It was his best game in a United shirt to date. 

However mediocre the opposition, the 22-year-old's performance can only be heartening for the winger and it was obvious in his post-match interview that the man of the match had enojyed himself out on the pitch. 

A player whose commitment and work rate has been challenged on a number of occasions this season, it was Memphis that turned the tide against Midtjylland.

United are famed for their youth policy but it doesn't normally involve telling the kids they're playing ten minutes before kick-off!
Marcus Rashford would not have been playing but for injuries to Wayne Rooney, Anthony Martial and Will Keane (not to mention the departed Javier Hernandez and loaned out James Wilson).

Despite the chaotic nature of his debut, the 18-year-old Wythenshawe lad was a lesson in clinical composure on the pitch with a great celebration off it. 

While it doesn't guarantee him a glittering Old Trafford future, it certainly marks a fantastic start to his senior career at United and a significant moment in his burgeoning development. 

United may not have needed Rashford's fairytale had our midfield not spurned some of the chances that Memphis served up for them.

Juan Mata's penalty in the first half was not strong enough to leave the keeper no chance, Morgan Schneiderlin was guilty of missing a couple of very good chances and Ander Herrera headed wide in the second half with the goal gaping.

Especially with so many injuries to his strikers, Louis van Gaal would be considerably helped out if the midfield could chip in with a few goals.

Daley Blind has filled in reasonably well at centre-back after being moved there last summer when United's search for a world class partner for Chris Smalling ultimately fell flat.

Michael Carrick, too, is a very good footballer and Van Gaal trusted his abilities enough to play the England international there against Midtjylland ahead of Paddy McNair.
One lazy tackle, though and Pione Sisto had the ball unopposed in the box and from there it was academic.
A small squad can very quickly leave you trying to force square pegs into round holes and against Midtjylland United were vulnerable.

The number of injuries United have suffered seem excruciatingly unfortunate, but the impact of the emerging young players have softened the blow- as well as Rashford, Joe Riley and Guillermo Varela were excellent.

They cannot be expected to compete week-in, week-out against quality opposition though and the feeling that Van Gaal's wish for a small squad has contributed to our shortcomings is difficult to shake. 

Dream debut for Rashford caps rapid Reds rise

Ruud van Nistelrooy, Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, James Wilson and Anthony Martial.

Added to that list now is the name of 18-year-old Marcus Rashford.

All of the above strikers scored on their United debuts and, if Rashford goes on to have anything like the impact of RvP, RvN and WR at Old Trafford, then his debut yesterday will be remembered as a "where were you" moment. 

Initially named on the bench for Thursday's second leg against Midtjylland, the 18-year-old Academy rookie was thrown in at the deep end after Anthony Martial picked up a hamstring injury in the warm-up.

The lack of preparation did not bother the young striker, though, as he showed all the hallmarks of a star in the making with an impressive all round performance capped by two excellent debut goals and becoming United's youngest European goalscorer in the process. 

Memphis might have been the pick of the bunch on a good night for United - and our young players in particular - but from the moment that Rashford pick-pocketed a defender and sped away to the touchline, it was clear why he's been fast-tracked to the first team squad.

Named on the bench by Louis van Gaal at Watford and Leicester earlier in the season, Rashford became the latest in an ever-lengthening list of Academy graduates to go on and make a senior bow for the Reds. 

Top scorer for the Under-18 side last season with 13, he initially started out as an attacking midfielder only to be put up front as a result of Demetri Mitchell's injury - he impressed enough to stay there and has never looked back.

It's been a swift and rapid rise for the Wythenshawe-born boyhood United fan.

Having plied his trade for the Under-18 and Under-21 sides this season, he has long been touted as one of the most burgeoning talents in United's youth setup.

Yet, he might have found himself in the sky blue of City (shudder!) had Rene Meulensteen not persuaded to choose the red half of Manchester -  he trained with both clubs before he made the big decision to join United.

Rashford is one of a number of players to have played for local side Fletcher Moss Rangers whom has gone on to become a professional with former Reds Wes Brown, Danny Welbeck and Ravel Morrison among the youth club's previous alumni. 

Rashford impressed for Nicky Butt's Under 19 side in the UEFA Europa Youth League- captaining the side and scoring against PSV and scored his first Under 21 goal in a 6-1 win over Leicester shortly before Christmas. 

Marcus Rashford profile

Born: Wythenshawe, Manchester
Date of birth: 31.10.1997 (18) 

Joined United: 1 July 2014
Position: Striker

The kids are alright and the future's bright

Whatever becomes of Louis Van Gaal at United, there will always be that night when he threw an untested 18-year old academy rookie into the team ten minutes before kick-off and that same young man fired his side to an impressive victory that may have kept his manager in a job. 

United's 5-1 win over Midtjylland on Thursday offered a tantalising glimpse into the Old Trafford future as teenager Marcus Rashford capped a rapid rise with a dramatic debut.

It was a proud moment for the 18-year-old Manchester born striker as he scored twice to help United into the last 16 and 19 year old left-back Joe Riley also caught the eye on his first start.

The young full-back set up Rashford to put United ahead whilst his fellow full-back, Guillermo Varela (22) also chipped in with an assist on a night when the seeds of the Reds burgeoning youth setup came to fruition.

19-year-old Regan Poole came on for a late debut having been an unused sub in the first leg and 20-year-old Andreas Pereira was also handed a run-out in the Reds comprehensive win.

LVG has now handed a senior debut to 13 Academy graduates in his time in charge as Riley, Rashford and Poole followed in the footsteps of Donald Love, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Uruguayan Varela in making a first-team bow this term.

Axel Tuanzebe, James Weir and Sean Goss have also all featured on a first team bench during the season and United have now included at least one player from the youth system in their last 3,570 matchday squads - an incredible statistic.

It would have been easy for van Gaal to spend in January to bolster the depleted ranks during the current injury crisis, but for all the manager's critics his continuation of one of the club's great traditions will be his overriding Old Trafford legacy.

It's this faith in youth that has impressed the United hierarchy and is one of the reasons - if you believe the rumours - why Ed Woodward is reluctant to pull the trigger on Van Gaal.
Although his reign looks almost certain to end in the summer, the club's production line of homegrown talent is the strongest it's been in years. 

Of course, many players have come through the youth setup only to never make it at United (Federico Macheda being just one example).
However, during his illustrious career, Van Gaal has unearthed many a gem whom have gone on to become legends: Clarence Seedorf and Edgar Davids (when at Ajax) and Xavi (at Barcelona) to name but three.

The Dutchman knows a future star when he sees one and that can only be good news for United's future. 

Thursday 25 February 2016

Match report: United 5-1 Midtjylland (6-3 agg)

18 year old striker Marcus Rashford enjoyed a night to remember as he marked his debut with a brace of goals to help fire United into the last 16 of the Europa League.

The Reds overturned Midtjylland's first leg advantage despite falling behind at Old Trafford to advance with an eventual stylish and comfortable victory.
Pione Sisto, whom scored in the first match, followed that up with the opener here to leave United needing three, but Nikolay Bodurov's own goal, Rashford's brace, a Herrera penalty and a scintillating strike from the outstanding Memphis ended the resistance of the tiring, ten man visitors.

Anthony Martial was injured in the warm up, with Rashford promoted from the bench to cover for the Frenchman and the Wythenshawe Academy graduate was soon in the thick of the action.

The forward had a low effort well saved by Mikkel Andersen, Kris Hansen almost deflected a Memphis cross into his own net and Kristoffer Olsson's shot cannoned off Jesse Lingard and wide as the visitors rode their luck.

Out of nothing, though, the Danish side sent Old Trafford into stunned silence as they took a
3-1 aggregate lead on 27 minutes through Pisto, whom dribbled through the defence and slotted 
in a neat finish.

United were level on the night only five minutes later as Juan Mata and Guillermo Varela linked up to play in Memphis, whose dangerous cross was turned past Andersen by Bodurov.

Morgan Schneiderlin  struck the post with a header from debutant Joe Riley's cross before United were awarded a penalty for a foul on Herrera by Andre Romer. 

Juan Mata stepped up but saw his weak spot kick palmed out by Andersen with two first half minutes remaining. 

Schneiderlin and Herrera both squandered excellent chances but Midtjylland were finally undone when Mata found Rashford to pounce from close range and level the aggregate score at 3-3 just past the hour mark.

At that stage, the tie was heading for extra-time but the Reds relentlessly continued to press and moved ahead overall with 15 minutes to play.

Things got even better for the youngster as he found himself in the right place at the right time to convert Varela's excellent cross before he headed narrowly over as he chased his hat-trick.

Herrera smashed home the fourth from the spot after Hansen's handball, and Romer was then sent off for a second booking having tugged back Memphis.

The winger - a thorn in the Midtjylland side all game - got the goal his excellent performance deserved when he arrowed in a sweetly struck drive after a teasing run from deep.
Sub Andreas Pereira went close to a sixth, Marcos Rojo returned from injury and Regan Poole made his debut as this was a job well done by the Reds to move into Friday's draw. 

Overall team performance: 8/10
United Faithful man of the match: Memphis had his best game in a United shirt. More of the same please...

Match preview: United v Midtjylland (agg: 1-2)

United manager Louis van Gaal called for his United side to play with "hunger" and "desire" ahead of the second leg meeting with Danish minnows Midtjylland on Thursday.

Having progressed in one knockout competitions with victory at Shrewsbury on Monday, the Reds will be strong favourites to do so again but will be made to work hard by Jess Thorup's outfit. 

Their tactical and technical game plan stifled United's attack in Jutland, and they will sit deep and defend in numbers as they look to protect their slender first match advantage and quieten the Old Trafford faithful. 

The Reds are looking to overturn a 1-2 first leg deficit in a bid for a place in the last 16, and the Dutchman said:

"For our opponents, it shall be very exciting for them to play in Old Trafford, it is the match of their lives and Manchester United need to play with desire, hunger and at a good rhythm.
"I know that everyone is thinking we have to win against this opponent but they are a good squad and we have seen that they have quality. 

"We have to beat them, they have very good defensive organisation and they are doing that with diagonal pressing so I want us to do that also.
"We have to score that is for certain, they shall 'park the bus' I think so we have to disorganise them and be creative."

David De Gea will miss out so Sergio Romero will again deputise, but Marcos Rojo is in the squad and could feature after a two month lay-off.
Matteo Darmian and Antonio Valencia are back in training but neither will be included as the match against the Danes will come too soon.
Phil Jones, Ashley Young, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Wayne Rooney and Marouane Fellaini are all out and Adnan Januzaj is cup tied.
Chris Smalling did not train with the group on Wednesday so his participation remains unclear. 

Many would have expected this second leg to be all but a dead rubber but instead Midtjylland arrive in MI6 looking to avoid defeat and chasing the biggest shock in the competition's history in what will be the defining moment of many of their squad's careers. 

Currently third in the Superliga table, the first leg win over United was their first competitive outing of 2016 as they resume domestic duties on Monday after the winter break. 

Form guide: United W W D L L W Midtjylland D L L W W W 
Match odds: 4/1 Draw 11-2 Midtjylland 15/1
Referee: Istvan Vad (Hungary) will take charge of United for the first time 

Tuesday 23 February 2016

Van Gaal survives again but pressure remains on the manager

United's win at Liverpool on 17th January appeared to release the pressure valve on the 64-year-old Dutchman only for it to be turned up several notches after the home defeat to Southampton the following week.

Since then there has a continual rising tide of speculation- none of it refuted by the club- about Van Gaal's position as manager- particularly concerning former Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho.

Now a even a United win is not regarded as such, merely a temporary stay of execution, a delay of the inevitable, a small act of crisis aversion.

The 3-0 win at Shrewsbury was a welcome one for Van Gaal but the respite is only temporary as the scenery shifts to Old Trafford and Thursday's must win Europa League, second leg tie at home to Midtjylland.

The Dutchman insisted the team have a good chance of beating the Danes to progress in the Europa League and, despite all the trauma, a home FA Cup quarter-final against West Ham represents a good chance of progression to a Wembley date in the last four.

Should United not overcome the Danes, it will be crisis time again ahead of a crucial Premier League meeting with Arsenal at Old Trafford on Sunday.

Defeat there- should that come off the back of a Europa League exit- might make the pressure unbearable and force a reluctant hierarchy, or more specifically Ed Woodward, to act.

Barring something remarkable, it seems almost certain that Van Gaal will be gone at the end of the season- if not before and he is now almost reduced to managing the team on a match-by-match basis.

A win may keep the wolves from the door but a loss could unleash the whole pack- an unhealthy life of managerial uncertainty.

It is clear the preferred option of Woodward is that Van Gaal can muddle through until the end of the season when a more calculated decision can be made.

It seems United will only look in two directions: Ryan Giggs or Mourinho.

Some reports suggest the traditionalists inside the club- including SAF and Sir Bobby Charlton- are supporters of the continuity candidate of Giggs, who has always been seen as a future United manager.

In the opposite corner- championed by Woodward and the majority of United fans- is the proven winner Mourinho, the Portuguese's camp already sounded out by the Reds- but with no promise of future employment.

As the man who has sat silently throughout the failed misery of the Moyes and Van Gaal eras- could Giggs seriously expect to do the same again under Mourinho who prefers to bring his own entourage with him. 

At least the win over Shrewsbury buys Woodward time to deliberate further on the questions that will shape United's future- even if only for a few days. 

Monday 22 February 2016

Match report: Shrewsbury 0-3 United

United eased past League One Shrewsbury with a professional and comfortable victory in Shropshire to set up an FA Cup quarter-final at home to West Ham next month.

This could have been a potential banana skin for the Reds and beleaguered boss Louis van Gaal but Shrewsbury never threatened United's dominance and goals from captain Chris Smalling, Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard proved a job well done for LVG's men.

Smalling went close with a header following a corner from centre-back partner Daley Blind, whilst Memphis, fresh from scoring in the Europa League on Thursday, had an effort tipped away by Shrews keeper Jason Leutwiler.

With United in total control of possession, it merely seemed like a case of when- and not if- we would open the scoring as the visitors continued to carve out the openings.

Mata had a deflected effort drop just wide, Memphis went close with a header and Anthony Martial then saw his shot blocked well by Leutwiler before the rebound was cleared off the line by Abu Ogogo. 

Having had several chances but no go to show for their efforts, United were soon rewarded as the long threatened breakthrough finally arrived with two goals in quick succession. 

First, Morgan Schneiderlin nodded down for Smalling to volley into the turf and over the keeper on 37 minutes, and then- in first half stoppage time- United doubled the lead.

Martial went down under a challenge on the edge of the area and Mata dispatched a perfectly-placed free-kick past the helpless Leutwiler and send the Reds in at the interval 2-0 ahead.

The match was already over as a contest, but the Reds made their last eight spot absolutely certain through Jesse Lingard's well-taken finish after a pin-point pass from Ander Herrera following a lovely counter-attack.

The young winger went close to a fourth and substitute Will Keane struck a post but then had to depart the field with a groin injury as United's injury jinx hit again.

Agogo might have claimed a consolation when was found in acres of space but headed wide when it seemed easier to score on 87 minutes, but the damage had long been done.

Sergio Romero's clean sheet remained intact and the Reds will now face West Ham at Old Trafford with a Wembley semi-final at stake. 

Teenage Academy graduate Joe Riley became the latest United youth product to be handed a senior debut under van Gaal as he replaced Cameron Borthwick-Jackson for the second half.

Overall team performance: 7.5/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Juan Mata 

Sunday 21 February 2016

FA Cup preview: Shrewsbury v United (Monday)

All the ingredients appear to be in place for an intriguing battle at Greenhous Meadow in a maiden meeting with Micky Mellon's Shropshire strugglers in the fifth round. 

United head to League One Shrewsbury for the first of five matches in 14 games looking to avoid a third consecutive defeat at the end of another tortuous week for besieged boss Louis van Gaal.

United will be the strong favourites for a place in the quarter-finals but in front of a sold-out New Meadow (capacity: 10,200) against a side whom have already beaten two Championship sides to get this far nothing can be taken for granted.

David de Gea's injury does not seem to be as bad as first feared but the keeper looks unlikely to feature, with Wayne Rooney, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Matteo Darmian, Ashley Young, Luke Shaw and Marcos Rojo among those on United's 14-man casualty list.
Right-back Donald Love, promoted to the first team fold of late due to depleted numbers- is cup-tied. 

United defender and stand-in captain in Rooney's absence, Chris Smalling, said the side need a "strong and confident" start to overcome the third-tier side.

"The aggression that you start the game with is vital and something you need to match with the other team, that's something I don't think we've done recently and it allows the opponents to push us on the back foot.
"We need to make sure we win our battles and the second balls and then look to try and dominate by playing quickly and taking control- we need to start with confidence and show our strengths.
"This competition is massive for us, it's surprising how long the club have gone without winning it and it's a very good opportunity for us to win silverware this season.
"We can expect a terrific atmosphere on Monday but we've done well against lower league sides so we know what to expect" said the defender. 

Shrewsbury currently reside in the League One drop zone- albeit only on goal difference- but Mellon's side have beaten second tier sides Cardiff and Sheffield Wednesday (with an injury time Jack Grimmer winner) on route to the fifth round

The Shrews have reached the quarter-finals twice in the competition's history (in 1979 and 1982) and were promoted from League Two last term. 

LVG's men have already seen off two lower league sides in Sheffield United and Derby respectively to reach the fifth round. 

Form guide: Shrewsbury W L W L D W United L W W D L L
Match odds: Shrewsbury 8/1 Draw 9/2 United 2/5
Referee: Robert Madley 

Friday 19 February 2016

Deep rooted issues and a seemingly irreversible backward slide

Manchester United's owners the Glazers and executive vice chairman Ed Woodward cannot allow this slow, lingering death to drag on any longer.

Louis van Gaal's credibility as United manager is in tatters.

An admirable personal past CV is in ruins and United's own reputation is crumbling frighteningly before the Old Trafford hierarchy's eyes.

The humbling embarrasment on Thursday was the latest reverse on the Van Gaal performance graph.
He and his side are careering backwards at a rate of knots and both the beleaguered manager, and his players, seem powerless to prevent it.

We could still overturn the deficit at Old Trafford in Thursday's second leg but would anyone safely back us to do so?
We're fifth in the Premier League, six points off a Champions League place, and although we could still claw this back who, again, could really make a claim for us doing so? 

Last season the Dutchman bought solid stability with a sprinkling of stardust that seemed to light a path back to the "Manchester United way".

The 3-0 thumping of Spurs was swiftly followed by a thrilling victory at Anfield and the demolition derby against City, but since then there has been virtually no hope and no reason to believe that Van Gaal is the right man for the job.

But yet, despite the gathering noise that things have reached breaking point, Van Gaal remains and will still be charge for Monday's FA Cup tie at Shrewsbury. 

The 64-year-old was reportedly on the brink of the sack after the Boxing Day defeat at Stoke and again when Southampton won at Old Trafford on 23rd January.
As it is now 19 February, these inquests are coming once a month so if Van Gaal survives again - and it looks like he will - the next one will be some time in March.

The so-called "Iron Tulip" is on course to somehow manage the unmanageable: to rescue the David Moyes campaign (his squad reached the Champions League quarter-finals) from the ignominy of being the lowest point in the club's recent history.  

The pattern is a promising step forward followed by three lurches back. 
Ed Woodward- United's main hirer and firer- has ordered that club policy on Van Gaal's future is to stay silent- but this does not stop the questions that we need answers to.

Since Jose Mourinho was sacked by Chelsea in December, there has been a ready-made, hungry and passionate candidate ready and waiting to take United back to where we feel we should be.

Why, then, has he not been appointed already?

Woodward is thought to have his own reservations regarding the pontificating Portuguese.
Sir Alex is thought to favour Ryan Giggs, and is particularly wary of Mourinho, it seems there is a power struggle going on in the board room.

Paul McGuinness left his post as Academy coach with the system in upheaval and disarray- the club may have wanted a "root and branch" review of the youth setup but it's taken 12 months and seems a procrastinating process. 

It all points to a deeper and more damaging drift.

Shambolic and shameful... a miserable night in Midtjylland for United

Freezing cold on a Thursday night
£71 and we're playing  s***e
What a feeling, what a night 

A (not so) subtle tweaking of the ode to Ole to aptly reflect the bleak mood of United supporters as our team slumped to another desperate defeat on Thursday. 

United's fans applauded the Danish side at the final whistle and their superb support dulled the pain of what was an otherwise all too familiarly depressing night. 

Those whom watched the Reds risible defeat to Midtjylland might have thought it was the visitors who hadn't played in two months. 

Thumped 9-1 by Napoli in the tournament's group stages, the Danish champions had won one of their last ten and, irrespective of the Reds 15 injuries, their superiority is as such that the Under 21's should be beating the Midtjylland minnows.

The first team might have had Warren Joyce been in charge - the manager doesn't look bothered, neither do the players and as for Ryan Giggs, goodness knows what he must be thinking. 

Van Gaal's impressive knack for excuses continued when he blamed David De Gea's injury as the main factor for the defeat but, ironically it was stand-in Sergio Romero whom was United's best player by a distance.

Confusion and chaos has engulfed United from board room to pitch level. 

Risk-  such as not signing a senior centre-back or striker - have backfired and Van Gaal went into this season with an inadequate, lightweight 23-man squad.
He has been in international mode for much of his tenure and his three-year break from club management has proved increasingly patent.

 United remain in a strong position in this tie with a 2-1 deficit and an away goal, but the defeat did nothing to help Van Gaal argue that he should still be in charge next season. 

Across the Channel on Tuesday night, Paris St-Germain, restricted by FFP in 2014, brought on a £55m striker to win their Champions League tie against Chelsea.
United's striking alternative in Herning was Will Keane, a 23-year-old with two senior appearances for the club. 

Van Gaal continues to defy expectations at United, whether it is the increasingly abject nature of the performances he oversees or his incredible ability to avoid the sack.

He speaks little sense, has delusions of grandeur, has lost the backing of the fans and, seemingly now, his players. 

It's not only Van Gaal fighting for his future, these players are, too.

This United side will forever be associated with a dismal managerial regime and Van Gaal's successor- whoever he may be- will have a shopping list far longer than he would have imagined. 

Awful, shocking, embarrasing.... and that's just the manager.

After the 0-1 home defeat to Southampton last month, we - mistakenly as it turned out - thought that things could not got any worse.

I said as much on these very pages but how wrong we were.

Swansea, Norwich, Bournemouth, Middlesbrough, Sunderland... added to that list now is the name of FC Midtyjlland, a side no one had heard of until December's draw and a club formed in the same season we won the treble.

But yet, on Thursday, they became the latest name on a rapidly lengthening list of small, unfashionable clubs to not only beat United, but deservedly humiliate us.

It's turning into a terrible, woeful season but this was a new low. 

The home defeat to Norwich in December was bad, the loss at Stoke on Boxing Day even more so.
The reverse at Sunderland on Saturday was as bad as we've been all season but then came this.

We're getting worse each week and the way we surrendered in the second half was pathetic - United weren't unlucky, it wasn't a smash and grab and Midtyjlland deserved to win. 

And United fans had to pay £71 to watch it, the visiting fans that travelled to Denmark deserve a refund. 

Injuries are certainly not helping the team or beleaguered boss Louis van Gaal  but there can be simply no excuses for yesterday's horror show, encapsulated by two horrible mistakes from two usually splendid and solidly consistent players.

Michael Carrick lost possession which allowed Pione Sisto in to score and then Juan Mata's missed tackle allowed Paul Onuachu to fire home their winner.

United remain in a strong position in the tie with a 2-1 deficit ahead of next week's second leg but did not deserve anything from the game and had in not been for stand-in stopper Sergio Romero it would have been a lot worse.

Van Gaal's tactics again made little sense and he simply looks incapable of turning things around - indeed, at the moment every game is a contender for worst of the season.

An unsuitable formation, an unwillingness to change, an inability to motivate his players, a depleted and wafer-thin squad,  baffling tactics and strange selections - not to mention his struggles with the media, bizarre excuses and an out of touch approach- need I go on? 

Yes, Rooney was injured but Van Gaal has jettisoned four strikers, disregarded another in James Wilson and Anthony Martial has spent the majority of the season out of position. 

The players can't continue to hide behind their manager - Herrera's performance was arguably his worst in a United shirt, Carrick was timid and flustered,  Martial isolated and Juan Mata lazy and not interested.

Van Gaal has failed to prepare and must now be prepared to fail.

He's out of time, out of ideas and out his depth. 

"That was his worst excuse yet"...

Thursday 18 February 2016

Match report: Midtjylland 2-1 United

The Danish champions will take a slender lead to Old Trafford next week after substitute Paul Onuachu fired home a late winner in Thursday's first leg in Denmark.

Injury-hit United, already without 14 players through injury, lost David de Gea in the warm up and were indebted to Argentine stand-in Sergio Romero whom prevented further damage with a string of excellent saves.

United started well and went close early on through Memphis- with the winger's snapshot diverted behind for a corner- and Juan Mata then had an effort saved by Mikkel Andersen from the resultant flag-kick.

Midtjylland were not prepared to simply sit back though and soon threatened themselves through Kian Hansen, whom was inches away from converting a corner of their own, only to be denied by the sprawling Romero.

Memphis forced a good save from Andersen from a free-kick whilst Romero kept out Vaclav Kadlec at the other end after a rapid counter-attack from the hosts.

Just 56 seconds later, United were ahead as Jesse Lingard broke down the right and picked out Memphis with an excellent cross for the Dutchman to scramble in his sixth of the season eight minutes before the break.

The Reds were to go in for the interval only level, though, as Pione Sisto cut out a Michael Carrick pass and fired home past Romero via a deflection off Chris Smalling on the cusp of half-time. 

The setback did not seem to unsettle United, whom continued to press and created three good chances early in the second half.

Lingard lashed over from distance and then struck the bar before Juan Mata nodded narrowly wide from a Memphis cross in a spell of pressure from the visitors. 

Whilst the woodwork had come to Midtjylland's rescue, it took a piece of brilliance from Romero at the other end to prevent the hosts from regaining the lead.
Onuachu met a Nikolay Bodurov cross at the back post and nodded goalwards only for Romero to dive full-length and tip the header away.

The substitute was not to be denied, though, and slammed home from the edge of the area on 77 minutes to leave United in need of a frantic finish,

Michael Carrick headed over the bar late on, but no late fightback was forthcoming to leave the tie- and our fate- well and truly in the balance.

Overall team performance: 5/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Sergio Romero 

Romero prevents further damage but United look out of their league

That the Europa League is seen as United's best route back to the Champions League only emphasises the depths to which Louis van Gaal's reign has plunged.

Against Danish minnows FC Midtjylland United were simply out of their league and Van Gaal looks increasingly out of his depth.

If not for the outstanding man of the match Sergio Romero - a late replacement for David De Gea - this tie would have been over and Midtjylland would have had a 4 or 5-1 lead.

Romero produced three stunning saves but goals from Pione Sisto and substitute Paul Onuachu secured a 2-1 win for the Danish side and a deserved lead going into next Thursday's second leg at Old Trafford.

Memphis Depay's first half strike had handed United an ill-deserved lead but the woes that plague this United side were all too evident once again.

And it speaks volumes of our domestic plight that Europe's secondary competition represents a better chance of returning to the Champions League than a top four finish. 

That assumption now seems deeply flawed.

Even if we do manage to salvage the tie at home next week, we look ill-equipped to cope with even the most modest of opposition.

On this evidence, League One Shrewsbury will fancy their chances in the FA Cup on Monday, a competition that Van Gaal sees as a personal priority.

The Dutchman can point to a crippling injury list with Wayne Rooney and David De Gea the latest victims  but the problems run deeper than that.

As a team, United have lost their ethos, identity, fear factor and way.

We are becoming easy pickings, whether it be relegation-threatened Sunderland last week or the minnows of Midtjylland whom have just come back off of a two-month break before the start of Denmark's new season.

That's exactly why, with every passing day, Shrewsbury can harbour genuine hopes of another giant-killing upset on Monday.

The question is: how long will it be before such results are treated as the norm rather than shocks?

Van Gaal has led United to this point, and as much as executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward wants to give the man he appointed time to rescue his tenure, time is surely running out.

Failure to qualify for the Champions League cost David Moyes his job nine months into a six-year contract.
LVG will almost certainly be judged by the same standards - and on a bitterly cold night on a Danish peninsula - times have rarely been bleaker. 

Wednesday 17 February 2016

Rookie Reds included in Europa League squad

United named an 18-man squad for the first leg of the Europa League last-32 tie in Midtjylland, but there were some unfamiliar names in the travelling party.

19-year-old midfielder-turned left-back Joe Riley and 17-year-old defender Regan Poole have been called up by Louis van Gaal having played for the Under 21 side at Reading on Monday.

20-year-old James Weir, whom had a pivotal part in the winner in that match, also travels, along with striker Will Keane whom was introduced late on at Sunderland on Saturday as Van Gaal's senior side searched for a late goal.

Although a midfielder by trade, Riley has impressed at left-back for Warren Joyce's Reserve side this term and with Cameron Borthwick-Jackson absent with illness, Van Gaal's full-back crisis has compelled him to promote the youngster.

Matteo Darmian, Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia, Guillermo Varela, Luke Shaw and Marcos Rojo are all unavailable for the foray into the Europa League, and Blackpool-born Riley has been handed the number 49 ahead of a potential United debut.

Rising through the Old Trafford ranks, Riley was the top creator for the Under-18s last season, with 10, and he has played a key role in the flamboyant, table-topping Under 21s team this time around.

Wales Under-19 international Poole left Newport County for Old Trafford in August and played 15 games for them before his transfer to United.
Incidentally, Poole joined the club on the same day as fellow teenager Anthony Martial and became Newport's youngest ever player aged 16 years and 94 days against our FA Cup opponents Shrewbury in 2014. 

He also played in the game with Reading in Leigh on Monday and has been given the number 41 shirt for the trip to Midtjylland. 

Donald Love was also on the flight to Denmark fresh from his debut at Sunderland, whilst midfielder Weir has already experienced a first-team squad this season having been on the bench for the 3-3 draw at Newcastle in the league. 

In the absence of Wayne Rooney, Anthony Martial is the only recognised senior striker but Keane has an eye for goal for the Under 21s and is expected to provide the back-up from the bench. 

Van Gaal has pledged to take the Europa League seriously in pursuit of a trophy and-more importantly- a Champions League place, but the presence of the five untested youngsters will only provide added intrigue to an already fascinating tie for United. 

United squad: De Gea, Romero, Love, McNair, Smalling, Blind, Carrick, Poole, Riley, Herrera, Schneiderlin, Lingard, Pereira, Weir, Mata, Memphis, Martial, Keane. 

Rooney ruled out for six weeks with knee injury

The Reds injury-ravaged season has struck again after United and England captain Wayne Rooney faces six weeks on the sidelines with a knee ligament injury.

Rooney picked up the injury in the defeat at Sunderland on Saturday and could miss United's next eight games, against Midtjylland (home and away), Shrewsbury, Arsenal, Watford, West Brom and Crystal Palace.

He will also be doubtful for the Manchester derby on March 20 and the injury is a huge blow both for the player- closing in on Sir Bobby's record goalscoring tally for United- and the manager and club. 

"He scores a lot of goals and is our captain so he is very important to us, we know that but we have to cope" said United manager Louis van Gaal.

The 30-year-old was not included for the Europa League trip to Midtjylland, but the reason for his absence, and the extent of it, was only revealed in Van Gaal's press conference.

Rooney completed Saturday's match at the Stadium of Light despite the injury but the Dutch boss refused to criticise his captain.

"He's a guy who wants to go until the end and if he's feeling a pain he doesn't want to go out, he wants to win.
"That's a fantastic attitude to have but sometimes it's also harmful for his body but you cannot say it made the injury worse because we didn't know when it happened.
"Certainly in 2016, he has scored goals and that's why we had a good run of matches until Sunderland but of course everybody can be injured and the captain also."

Rooney is also likely to miss England's two friendlies against world champions Germany and the Netherlands in late March, although he is expected to be fit in time for the start of Euro 2016 in June.

It is not the first time Rooney has suffered from hampered preparations before a major tournament.

He broke a metatarsal in the run-up to the 2006 World Cup and he struggled with an ankle injury in the tournament in South Africa four years later. 

Rooney takes United's list up to an incredible 13 players- including right-back Matteo Darmian (dislocated shoulder), left-flank partner Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, whom is ill and Marouane Fellaini with a muscle problem.

"It's unbelievable that we are very unlucky, I have never had that amount of players injured and they are all contact injuries more or less except Fellaini so we have 13 players unavailable or not capable of playing" bemoaned the Dutchman. 

Match preview: Midtjylland v United

United face a step into the unknown with a trip to the 11,500 capacity MCH Arena to take on Danish champions Midtjylland in the Europa League on Thursday. 

Wayne Rooney faces six weeks out with a knee injury and Marouane Fellaini has not travelled with the squad whilst Matteo Darmian faces another spell out with a dislocated shoulder.
Marcos Rojo and Antonio Valencia are nearing returns, but Ashley Young, Phil Jones, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Luke Shaw all remain sidelined.

Jakob Poulson is suspended for the hosts and goalkeeper Johan Dahlin injured, but United will need to be wary of the Danes much-touted dangerman, 20-year-old international midfielder Pione Sisto. 

Addressing the media in Denmark, Louis van Gaal said that the match is a potential banana skin for his side and that United will not underestimate them. 

"Midtjylland are dangerous from set-plays so we will try to focus and organise on that but we don't have tall players so it shall not be so easy.
"Our policy was not to have a big squad as we wanted to try many of the youngsters but we have 13 injuries and they are all contact injuries so we are very unlucky.

"I want to win a title in England and United have had a lot of time not winning the FA Cup but for Manchester United as a club the Europa League is important also because you can qualify for the Champions League."

This last 32 first-leg tie is a maiden meeting with Jess Thorup's Midtjylland, and with a place in next season's Champions League on offer for the Europa League winners, it's an added incentive for the Reds to go all the way in a competition we've never won.

Thorup took charge last summer, replacing Glen Riddersholm, whom unexpectedly quit having led Midtjylland to their first ever title last season.

Founded in 1999 (quite a year, you may remember...) as a merger between local sides Ikast and Herning Fremad, Midtjylland were named after their region- the Central Jutland area of Denmark, and they currently sit third in the Danish Superliga which is on its winter break.

Knocked out of the Champions League on away goals to APOEL, FCM have already faced- and eliminated- Premier League opposition this term when they put out Ronald Koeman's Southampton in the Europa League play-offs.

The Danes finished runners-up to Napoli in a group also containing Club Brugge- whom we beat in the Champions League play-offs- to set up this two-legged tie against United. 

Form guide: Midtjylland D D L L W W (pre winter break) United W L W W D L
Match odds: Midtjylland 4/1 Draw 13/5 United 3/1
Referee: Artur Dias (Portugal) 

Monday 15 February 2016

Memphis and Manchester United..... where has it all gone wrong?

The player arrived at Man Utd with great promise but has seen his reputation nosedive and faces a struggle to get back in the team.

Memphis Depay and Manchester United have enjoyed, and then endured, very similar seasons.

There was early promise as the Dutchman's individualism helped confirm a Champions League spot followed by a hiccup at Arsenal that dampened the early enthusiasm.

In November it was Depay, playing as a makeshift forward at Watford, whose goal helped the team to the top of the league.
Still very much functional, even if the spark had disappeared.

Then came the fall.

The 22-year-old winger started each of United's four defeats in December- to Wolfsburg, Bournemouth, Norwich and Stoke- that saw a Champions League exit and the wheels spectacularly ripped off the season.

Since then, we've barely recovered: six points off the top four and not playing like a side that can win the Europa League.

While Louis van Gaal has borne the brunt of that, few players are struggling more than Memphis to right their season.

He has not started since being hooked at half-time at the Britannia Stadium ten matches ago after surrendering the opening goal.

As fans seek a focal point for their frustrations, the winger has been chastised for the concession of late goals at Newcastle and Chelsea, for spending his wages on a flashy car and even for celebrating his birthday.

On or off the pitch, he just cannot get any decisions right.

If a reputation rehabilitation seems unlikely any time soon, what has gone so wrong for a player whom arrived at Old Trafford as one of the game's most promising young talents?

It was seen as a coup when United nicked in ahead of Liverpool and PSG to sign Memphis, and the player spoke of the influence of Van Gaal whom he regarded as a father figure, in convincing him to join the Reds.

Better players than him has struggled to rediscover their best after being misused: record signing Angel Di Maria- another whose popularity with fans fell off a cliff- lasted only 12 months before moving to Paris.

Yet that doesn't help Depay's situation.

Having been used out of position to accommodate formation and injuries, there is now little chance of the player taking his preferred left-wing spot off Anthony Martial whom has settled into that role and looks like United's best outfield player.

Jesse Lingard's efforts have cemented his place in the team whilst Andreas Pereira, Ashley Young and Adnan Januzaj (when fit) provide further competition on the wings.

Memphis still has time, age and ability on his side to improve his own fortunes.

Just seven months into his Old Trafford career, it already feels like there is a substantial tide in need of turning to avoid joining the rapidly growing number of players since 2013 whose individual reputations have fallen foul of team failings. 

Sunday 14 February 2016

LVG's United have regressed to the level of the David Moyes side

United face another season without Champions League football and are in danger of morphing into David Moyes' defeatist side.

"We've got to rebuild and our focus now is getting a team together to get back in this competition because it's a really important competition and we've really enjoyed it."

David Moyes hit the right notes about as often as an early X Factor hopeful but he was right about Manchester United's 'need to rebuild' as he came to terms with defeat at Bayern Munich's Allianz Arena.

Thirteen days later, the rebuild began when Moyes sacking was confirmed.

His permanent replacement, Louis van Gaal, has sounded like Moyes on a regularly recurring basis for over a year and his assertion that it will 'be difficult' for United to finish in the top four was reminiscent of the hapless Scot's sorry soundbites.

With 12 games remaining in the most open and unpredictable season on record,  Van Gaal grabbed the towel at Sunderland and, come our next league game at home to Arsenal, he might as well throw it in.

He has sounded so defeatist in recent months that it would not have surprised supporters had he opined United were 'going to make it as difficult for them as we possibly can' ahead of the Newcastle trip. 

The parallels with the doomed David Moyes season are almost eerie.
Again, United had a chance to salvage their campaign but dithered- we've not been in the top four for two months and look as far off it as ever currently.

United appointed Van Gaal to avoid the ignominy of challenging for a Champions League qualifying spot- but instead they have regressed to their plucky Evertonian standards of Moyes reign two years ago which saw us 'outplayed' by Sunderland.

That was Van Gaal's description.

Moyes survived the Olympiakos farce: LVG survived his own equivalent against Southampton last month.
In the most corrosive atmosphere since the Glazer takeover, the boos were aimed at one man who practically dared the club to sack him. 

"I'm very dissapointed I cannot reach the expectations of the fans" said Van Gaal afterwards.
"They have- or they had- great expectations of me and I cannot fulfill them so I am very frustrated because of that" he added.

What is taking Ed Woodward so long? 

Dismissing Van Gaal now would allow Jose Mourinho the chance to galvanise the squad, have a tilt at Champions League qualification and prepare for next season.
United could still qualify for the Champions League through the Europa League: a method not so much by the back door but through the cat flap.

That is what United have been reduced to: a couple of good performances against mediocrity, unconvincing wins and the odd debacle.
The Reds have played nine games this calendar year and won five of them, two of which were over Football League sides and the Sheffield United FA Cup tie a victory only in record. 

There are suggestions that United were so traumatised by the circus Moyes removal caused that they are reluctant to jettison Van Gaal before the end of the season but such diplomacy does not cut it at this level.

The rebuild starts with the manager. 

Pride comes before a fall for Van Gaal at Sunderland

Louis van Gaal's arrogance and pride got the better of him again as United lost to struggling Sunderland on Saturday.

Memphis Depay might have welcomed the Valentines weekend's timing, as he has felt little love from United supporters in recent months.

Debatably blamed for Chelsea's late equaliser last week and demoted to the Under 21s on Monday night (although not due to punishment), Memphis became the latest Van Gaal substitution who failed to galvanise United.

Van Gaal arrived in Manchester on the back of a World Cup memorable for his in-game management, which included the game-changing introduction of the young winger against Australia- yet that Midas touch has long since deserted him.

However listless United's forwards were at Sunderland, the bigger problem was in central midfield.
It's been patent from the opening day of the season that Michael Carrick and Morgan Schneiderlin were an incompatible axis, yet Van Gaal not only started both of them at the Stadium of Light but hooked Schneiderlin only after the hosts had regained the lead.

Carrick was pedestrian and Schneiderlin looked unusually forlorn, and- although the fans might loathe to admit it- the team missed Marouane Fellaini's presence.

Against Stoke and Chelsea, Fellaini forced the issue: with Carrick holding behind him, he played purposefully and offered added impetus that quickened United's attack.
Devoid of the Belgian at Sunderland, United needed a forward-thinker in his place yet Ander Herrera could only watch as Carrick and Schneiderlin exchanged ineffectual passes.

The Spanish playmaker should have been Van Gaal's first change.

United needed a conduit between the midfield and attack, rather than extra energy on the flanks, and Memphis arrival negated Anthony Martial's threat on the left flank.

Van Gaal was selfish- Herrera and Andreas Pereira were both inherited by him, in contrast to Memphis, whose signing was made possible by Van Gaal's intervention and he seems desperate 
to prove he was justified in signing the winger.

Google 'Dutch arrogant' and the first image is of Van Gaal- he is as dogmatic as Donald Trump and, however talented Memphis is, he is currently unreliable as a starter and as a substitute.

Van Gaal has hooked him three times at the pause this season and in the last two games he has introduced him to the detriment of the team.

He was busy and bright against Sheffield United and Newcastle last month, when his emergence was logical, but he was an unsuitable choice at Chelsea when United struggled to retain possession.

Although an upgrade on Jesse Lingard at Sunderland, he was isolated by the ponderous pairing of Carrick and Schneiderlin and, although involved, his introduction did not improve the performance of the team.

The duo's timidity typified United's lightweight showing at the Stadium of Light and they were beaten by aggressive artisans.
We simply lacked the fight to beat a side languishing the relegation dogfight- but Memphis was not to blame this time. 

United have D. Love but hearts are broken on Valentine's weekend

On Valentine's weekend, United manager Louis van Gaal found some room for Love in his first team squad on Saturday. 

The Dutchman doesn't strike you as a romantic though and was not getting sentimental- his hand was forced, yet again, by injury as he brought on 21-year-old Scottish Academy graduate Donald in the first half at Sunderland.

We might have had D.Love on Valentine's weekend, but it was Sunderland who ended up feeling rosy after coming away with three vital points to leave United heartbroken. 

The aptly-named Love did not look out place with a neat and tidy display complemented by a willingness to get forward from the back on several occasions.
After being handed a surprise call-up to the bench, it would have been an even bigger surprise for the young full-back when he came on, after 37 minutes, for dislocated shoulder victim Matteo Darmian.  

Three days after shutting out the noisy neighbours for the Under 21s, it was a proud moment for Love. 

Born in Rochdale to Scottish parents, the youngster joined Sir Alex's United aged seven and broke through into the Under-18 setup in the 2011/12 season.
Rising through the Old Trafford ranks, he signed professional terms in 2013 and made 18 appearances for Warren Joyce's Reserves side last season.
Love shone during the 7-0 rout of Norwich for the Under-21s last week and with United's defensive options severely hampered by injury, he impressed Van Gaal enough for the Dutchman to call him into his senior squad. 

Not only that, but the young Scot has been given a squad number for the rest of the season and has been named in the Europa League squad. 

Spending the first part of the current campaign on loan at United's North-West neighbours Wigan in League One- for whom he played eight times- Love has also been capped by Scotland at Under-17, Under-19 and Under-21 level. 

He joined fellow Academy graduates Jesse Lingard, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Will Keane on the field at Sunderland and became the tenth youth product to be given a senior debut  under van Gaal in his time in charge of United. 

Blooding 'da yoof' has been an integral part of the Reds history, and Van Gaal deserves credit for carrying on the tradition but- whilst his faith in the stars of the future has been admirable- results will ultimately prove to be the Dutchman's undoing. 

The answer to the quiz question: Who was United's right-back at Sunderland on Valentine's weekend 2016, well..... it must be Love, Love, Love....

Top four is gone... we have to focus on the Europa League

Yes, you read that right: Manchester United need to focus on the Europa League as surely now its our only way into next season's Champions League.

It's a mark of how far we have fallen that a distinctly second rate tournament is now our only hope of salvaging something from an indifferent, inconsistent and rapidly unravelling season.

It's looked a very real proposition for a while now but yesterday's defeat at Sunderland- a first Premier League loss at the Stadium of Light- all-but rubber stamped the fact that United are going to finish adrift of the Champions League spots for the second time in three seasons. 

Thursday's first leg in Denmark against Midtylland  in the round of 32 has taken on added importance now after a seventh league defeat of the season at Sunderland left United with a mountain to climb to make it into the top four. 

With the top four all playing each other this weekend yesterday's match at Sunderland was seen as the perfect chance for United to make up some ground, but clearly no-one told Louis van Gaal or the players.

Instead, six points adrift of fourth placed City as it stands, we'll fall even further behind the chasing pack and- whilst still mathematically possible- Van Gaal has told his squad that a top four finish is now very unlikely. 

After goal-filled wins against Derby and Stoke, and an impressive showing at Chelsea, there was hope that United were building strongly to finish the season with a flourish but we reverted to type against Sunderland.

Lacklustre, lethargic and beaten by the better side, we were passive and our slow sideways passing allowed Sunderland to take control from the start- a foothold they never really relinquished as they went on to give their own contrasting ambitions a vital boost.

In  15 matches against clubs in the bottom half, 25 points dropped tells its own story and for United attentions should now turn to the Europa League. 

With a place in the next season's Champions League up for grabs for the winners and a top four place looking a long way off, United should approach Europe's second-tier tournament with the respect and integrity of its prestigious elder brother.

United- and Van Gaal- have been a failure this season and don't deserve a place in the top four and, with sides including Fiorentina, Napoli and Dortmund in the mix, even a stab at the Europa League looks a tricky proposition for this side.

It now seems almost certain that Louis will leave United in the summer- it's now just a case of how low he will leave us. 

Match report: Sunderland 2-1 United

Sunderland boosted their top flight survival hopes with a late and deserved victory over United to surely end any lingering top four hopes for Louis van Gaal and the Reds.

Wahbi Khazri- on his home debut- put Sam Allardyce's strugglers ahead after three minutes with a free-kick from the left that evaded everyone on its way in. 

Anthony Martial cleverly lobbed United level but the Black Cats won it when Lamine Kone's header went in via a deflection with eight minutes to play. 

United headed into this clash unbeaten in 13 league visits to the Stadium of Light and with the top four all facing off on Sunday, it was an opportunity to close the gap but, instead, surely now our only way into the Champions League is through the Europa League back door.

Having fallen behind to that Khazri set-piece, the Reds almost went two behind soon after through livewire Jermain Defoe whom was thwarted by a good block from the stretching Chris Smalling.

Khazri lashed over the bar but that seemed to lift the Reds from their slumber and, after a succession of corners, Wayne Rooney picked out Juan Mata whom fired straight at Vito Mannone when well-placed.

Somewhat appropriately on Valentine's weekend, United had D.Love soon after when Matteo Darmian went off injured and 21-year-old Donald came on for his Reds debut at right-back.

United's equaliser immediately followed when Mata's driven effort was pushed out by Mannone, but the rebound fell to Martial whom delicately dinked the ball over the Sunderland stopper five minutes before the break.

David De Gea saved from Dame N'Doye with his feet, Daley Blind kept out Defoe with a brilliant lunging tackle, and the dangerous Khazri went close from another set-piece. 

Kone forced an acrobatic save from De Gea, whilst at the other end Mata fired straight at Mannone and then shot just off target from birthday boy Memphis' dangerous delivery. 

The Reds continued to probe for the winner as Smalling latched on to Rooney's deep cross but headed narrowly wide, but Sunderland would not waste their opportunity and struck on 82 minutes.

Two of Allardyce's January signings combined for the winner when Kone met a Khazri corner with his head, the ball struck De Gea and crept over the line despite the brave attempts of Smalling to clear. 

The aim was now to salvage a point but, despite a smart stop from Mannone to keep out Memphis in a late rally, United were to slip to a seventh league loss of the season.

United Faithful Man of the Match: Anthony Martial

Friday 12 February 2016

And five reasons why he may not be....

1. The "Third season syndrome"

In every second season at every club he's been at, Mourinho has never failed to win the league but into his third and it all starts to unravel.
He only spent two full campaigns at Porto and Inter, but his third terms at Chelsea (both in his first and second spell) and at Real were deeply problematic and ultimately led to his departure as manager.
Despite his suggestions to the contrary, there's clear evidence that Mourinho generally leaves clubs under a cloud after two and a bit seasons, and this recurring pattern is a concerning blot on his copybook that will be hard to ignore for the club's powers that be. 

2. Lack of youth development 

Interwoven in United's history, the development and nurturing of young homegrown gems is as much as part as the club's history as trophies and attacking flair.
Sir Alex Ferguson did so with his Class of 92, David Moyes takes the credit for Adnan Januzaj's talent and Louis van Gaal has done his best to keep the tradition going. 
Yet one of the major drawbacks of his career is that Mourinho has not put enough focus on the academy and youth setups of his various clubs - ignoring Academy talent and preferring to heavily recruit from abroad. 

3. He's controversial and confrontational

Arsene Wenger, Carlo Ancelotti, Rafa Benitez (even his wife) and - yes - Pep Guardiola.
Just a few of the high profile spats involving Mourinho and his fellow managers down the years and it's his history of feuds, tantrums and misconduct that is said to have played a part in why he was initially overlooked to succeed Sir Alex in 2013.
Poking Tito Vilanova in the eye, his frequent outbursts, outspoken manner and individual agenda is not behaviour befitting of a United manager and borders on embarrassing but will the club turn a blind eye or will his histrionics forever be an insurmountable Old Trafford obstacle. 

4. Short term success but no long term legacy 

Mourinho is not the answer for United - not in the long term. We've talked about his history of short term success, but he's never stayed longer than three seasons at any team and for a club that prides itself on longevity that has to be a potential drawback.
That said, both of United's last two managers have been short-term appointments as seems the norm nowadays, and United could be the club that Jose decides to settle down, build a legacy and finish his career with but history would suggest otherwise.
The club are still thought to be keen on the idea of Ryan Giggs succeeding Van Gaal, which is another issue entirely but would surely be the man to take United into the next decade and beyond.

5. Attack, Attack, Attack

Louis van Gaal has come under pressure for his perceived style of play and negative tactics throughout his time at United- but Mourinho is also famed for his pragmatic and "park the bus" approach.
His prefence of substance over style is unquestionably effective but the job of a United manager is to marry the two together. 

In his second season at Real Madrid, Mourinho's team outscored Pep Guardiola's Bayern and his Chelsea champions hammered six past Everton and Arsenal during his second tenure, but his reputation as a win-at-all costs, grind it out tactician have followed him throughout his career.
United could be risking a step away from their identity by appointing Mourinho - but with Guardiola across town, it might be a risk worth taking.