Monday 30 September 2019

Man Utd v Arsenal: Football's lost rivalry

It was only a little over a decade ago that this fixture - still one of the biggest in the English calendar - used to mean only one thing. The destination of the Premier League title. Two of the country's biggest clubs never failed to disappoint and it was a fierce, totemic and often toxic rivalry that captivated the world.

In much the same way as Liverpool and Manchester City are slugging it out now as a new rivalry blossoms, the United - Arsenal duopoly was the Premier League's pre-eminent raison d'etre for more than a decade. 

Roy Keane vs Patrick Vieira. The two captains who loved to hate each other. The snapping, snarling, kick-everything-that-moved, hard as nails Irishman versus the powerful, no holds barred, World Cup winning ball of fire and ice. Ruud Van Nistelrooy vs Martin Keown. The 22 man punch up and docked points. Peter Schmeichel vs Andy Cole. Flying pizzas, Ruud's redemption and Ryan Giggs goal in 1999. 6-1. 8-2. Robin van Persie. The moments trip off the tongue as easy as you like - each contributing to telling the tale of a rivalry for the ages. It was the 24-carat diamond, the jewel in the crown.

  The sight of captains Keane or Vieira holding aloft the Premier League trophy at the end of the season grew to become a tiresome sight for fans of clubs other than Manchester United and Arsenal.
Between 1997 and 2004 United and Arsenal were the only clubs to finish as champions. They also collected five FA Cups between them during that period.

 Two giants of the game locked in a bitter feud only mirrored by the two mighty men going to toe to toe in the dugout in Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger. Two of the best teams this country has even seen seemingly in an endless series of epics, each one more memorable than the last. The irresistible force vs the immovable object pushing each other to unbreakable levels.

What's the opposite of that paradox? Now its more like the chocolate fireguard vs the invisible man.
 Whatever it is, I think we know what it looks like. Arsenal haven't won at Old Trafford since 2006, with their last title coming in the Gunners Invincible season two years hencewith. United have been a mess for almost a decade. The fixture that once meant more than any other has now come to merely resemble a glorified Europa League play-off. As the fortunes of the two clubs have slowly dwindled, so has the importance and emotion of the fixture.
There are new managers, new faces and new rivalries have come to the fore. Where once there was enmity and pure loathing, now there is a grudging respect. Now both managers have retired, and the clubs have faded into the background to try and recoup their past glories. The fact that Ferguson and Wenger became friends and remain so to this day tells you that this is a rivalry that has fallen by the wayside.

Sunday 29 September 2019

Match preview: Man Utd v Arsenal

Injury hit Manchester United welcome inconsistent Arsenal in the 232nd competitive meeting between the two old rivals on Monday night. In fact, we have met our north London opponents more times than any other side in our history.

A fierce rivalry ignited by the country's top two clubs battling for supremacy in the early Premier League era, the fixture now has a very different feel to it.  It’s a different story today, with both clubs competing in the Europa League and both out of reach from the title already it seems. 

Injuries to Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial and the decision to allow both Romelu Lukau and Alexis Sanchez to leave the club means that Manchester United will probably have to turn to 17-year-old Mason Greenwood to lead the line.
Although Arsenal fans will remember all too well what happened in February 2016, when an 18-year-old Rashford burst onto the Premier League scene against them at Old Trafford - he scored twice in a 3-2 win.
But surely, despite their defensive vulnerabilities, Arsenal won't have a better chance to record their first league win at United in over 13 years -a victory which would give them an early six-point cushion over their rivals in the race for Champions League football.
This game's always a big occasion but it feels like the pressure is more on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer than his opposite number Unai Emery for this one.

Last time out in the Premier League, the Reds suffered a disappointing 2-0 defeat at the hands of West Ham. However, since then, Ole’s men eliminated Rochdale in the Carabao Cup on Wednesday via penalties after a 1-1 draw in 90 minutes. Prior to that, United had won the last two home matches 1-0, against Astana and Leicester City respectively. Overall, including the Rochdale tie, the Reds have emerged victorious from four of our five matches at Old Trafford this season.

Solskjaer's United are likely to be without injured forwards Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, so Mason Greenwood, 17, may start his first league game this season.
Midfielder Paul Pogba is a doubt because of an ankle problem he picked up against Rochdale, but left-back Luke Shaw is back in training. This one looks set to come too soon for the United full-back, however.
Arsenal striker Alexandre Lacazette is ruled out with an ankle injury but Dinos Mavropanos is available for selection after a groin problem.
Emile Smith Rowe is sidelined by concussion, but Rob Holding, Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney are all fit, with the latter available to make his Premier League debut.

 Solskjaer said: "I never said it was going to be easy this season.
"There are going to be ups and downs. When we lose a game we have to trust ourselves and what we're doing. We are in a process.
"The culture is there, there are no issues with attitude, work-rate or desire."

 Over the years, we’ve played out some classics with the capital club and this fixture could be another memorable meeting between the sides…

 Form guide: Man Utd L D W W L D Arsenal L D D W W W
Match odds: Man Utd 5/4 Draw 5/2 Arsenal 4/1
Referee: Kevin Friend (Leicestershire)

Thursday 26 September 2019

Mason Greenwood coming of age for Manchester United

Mason Greenwood may not be a household name to those of a casual persuasion, but for us fans who follow the club week in week out, his rise to prominence is no shock.
Naysayers may dismiss his two goals in two games as coming against the underwhelming opponents of Astana and Rochdale, but the 17-year-old has been well ahead of schedule in terms of his progress through the Old Trafford ranks. He has already scored against Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea at age group level and a string of impressive performances saw him earn the Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year award in 2018/19. Talk of him being the next big thing is not wide of the mark.

Greenwood was prolific at U18 and U17 level last term, scoring 26 in 30 games to earn him a senior call up with the first team in the midst of an injury crisis. He made his debut in the palatial surroundings of the Parc des Princes on that never-to-be-forgotten Paris night. A baptism of fire for the yoing striker. With Romelu Lukaku's departure to Inter offset by injuries to Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, Greenwood was talked up by his manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as the answer to United's shortcomings in front of goal. Solskjaer has described Greenwood as one of the best finishers he has seen. The United boss certainly knows a good striker when he sees one - there can be no higher praise than that.

Lukaku was not replaced with Ole opting to promote from within. To be tasked as a key man to lead the line in your first season - Greenwood is 18 next week - is a huge ask with plenty of pressure on such young shoulders.

 Greenwood has so far been the one solitary ray of light in the darkness of the storm clouds that have enveloped Old Trafford. With too many senior players looking lost and failing to deliver, once again it is United's next generation - like so many times before - that have provided the one, small, glimmer of hope. There is little else to cling on to anymore. As wonderful as his coming of age breakthrough has been to watch, it is also a damning indictment on the rest of the Reds misfiring forwards.

The star of the future has become United's present. He's already outperforming Rashford and - dare I say it - there was a touch of the Robin van Persie about both of his goals. His body shape, the way he cut in, his coolness, the technique and Greenwood's dead eye composure in the finish reminded me of the prolific Dutchman at his peak. I'm not for one minute suggesting a kid only just breaking through will be as good as one of the best strikers the Premier League has ever seen, but there are similarities between the two. If Greenwood goes on to be even half as good, then Manchester United have a player on our hands.

His dead-eyed prowess broke the deadlock against League One Dale, just as he stepped up to the plate against the obdurate outsiders from Kazakhstan in the Europa League for his first senior goal last week. Two goals in two games, Greenwood must surely now be pushing for a start as Arsenal come to town on Monday.

Remember the name because this kid is going to be special. 

Match report: Man Utd 1-1 Rochdale (5-3 pens)

Manchester United needed a penalty shootout to squeeze into the fourth round of the Carabao Cup at the expense of plucky League One neighbours Rochdale.
The Reds had endured penalty drama for the second season running, having been knocked out by Frank Lampard's Derby at the corresponding stage a year ago. This time we converted all five spot-kicks to avoid a huge shock and set up a fourth round tie away at Chelsea.
Dale's Jimmy Keohane was the only player who failed to score in the shootout with Sergio Romero saving his effort. Juan Mata, Andreas Pereira, Fred, Greenwood and Dan James were all successful for the Reds from 12 yards.

Mason Greenwood put United ahead with a low strike but 16-year-old Luke Matheson smashed home a famous equaliser 14 minutes from time for the third tier side.
United mustered 31 shots but once again a lack of cutting edge proved costly with Greenwood, captain-for-the-night Axel Tuanzebe and half time sub Brandon Williams the main positives.

The returning Paul Pogba went close from distancce and shooting on sight soon became the rotated Reds raison d'etre. Andreas and Fred both had attempts blocked then Andreas had another blockbuster beaten away by keeper Robert Sanchez.
The unlikely figure of Marcos Rojo almost scored twice in quick succession with a stooping header that was saved and another effort that flew inches wide.
Pereira's shot deflected wide off Keohane but Rochdale then sprung forward and almost sent shockwaves around Old Trafford. Brian Barry - Murphy's side came within inches of taking a seismic lead as ex-Red youngster Oliver Rathbone calmly and cleverly danced his way into the box and got close to goal before he played in Callum Camps.
His mishit snapshot was cleared off the line superbly by Aaron Wan-Bissaka to get United off the hook.
The goalmouth action was heating up and the Reds hit back with a left-foot drive by Greenwood slipping just past the post. Jesse Lingard and Greenwood both went close, with the latter being set up by James soon after he replaced Tahith Chong.

In the 68th minute, sub Williams showed his power and drive as he went at Rochdale and United then switched the ball out to Reds striker Greenwood via Lingard. Against Astana, he fired in with his right foot but this time he got the ball onto his left and cracked the ball home to break Rochdale's stubborn defiance.

United only had eight minutes in the lead before the visitors stunned Old Trafford.

On a night for fresh-faced youngsters it was Dale's own teen, Matheson, who levelled the tie up in the 76th minute. He half-volleyed Rathbone's high cross into the net as he burst in from the right, with the bounce taking it over desperate attempts to clear by Pogba on the line.

United's desperately tried to avoid the penalty shoot-out but couldn't come up with a winner in added-on time, with Wan-Bissaka, Fred and Andreas passing up openings. It was left to James to ensure the Reds progressed to face Chelsea in the next round with the 5-3 win on penalties. 

Overall team performance: 4/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Mason Greenwood. What a talent. RVP-esque. 

Monday 23 September 2019

Give OGS time.. it can take years to rebuild a club

We live in a world where we want - no, demand - instant gratification in everything we do. Human nature suggests we don't cope well with uncertainty - basically we want everything, and we want it yesterday. Whether that be in our day-to-day lives, job, diet, exercising, spending money, travelling - we want to see that our behaviour and life choices have an instant result.
It is the same with supporting a football team. Especially in 2019. We all want our teams to be successful and if we don't see the fruits of that labour straight away, change will be called for. Time, the most precious commodity of all, does not seem to exist in the cut-throat, high pressure world of professional football. It's all about now, now, now. The internet, the social media monster and the invention of football simulator games such as Football Manager and FIFA ensure that fans live in a fantasy world that simply will never resemble reality. The outcome of a season can be determined by the click of a button and the flick of a wrist. It give fans - both young and old - a skewed and distorted impression of the real world. Football, and life itself, doesn't work like that.

Which brings us neatly to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The fact that some are already calling for his head after SIX games of a new season is, to be honest, ridiculous. Most other everyday jobs have a probation period and the employer then decides whether to keep you on or let you go. Solskjaer is in the first few weeks of his probation period. Nowhere near long enough to pass a verdict (I'm not counting last season as it was a write off before Ole had come in anyway).
 When you're building a house, you don't expect the chosen builder to construct the foundations then get someone else to finish the job because its not being done quickly enough. The man that started the project should be allowed to see it through.

Solskjaer is here for the long term - and like it or not, that could take years. He certainly should not be judged on a cake that's half baked. In fact, he should not be judged this season at all. To get in his own players, implement an entirely new playing style, retune the squad's ideology to one of his own making, change the mentality and to press the reset button could take years. It can't and won't happen overnight. He's got credit in the bank, and has only just had one transfer window in which his signings were good but left United short of two midfielders and at least one striker. What's he supposed to do when you have to play Jesse Lingard up front? The shifting of Chris Smalling, Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez et al is a good start, but this squad still has more deadwood than at the original trials for Viagra. You can't jettison eight players in one summer.

There's no quick fix, no instant gratification, no rage quitting. There will always be a degree of expectation on any United manager, but this should be as much of a 'free hit' for Ole as he's ever going to get. Frank Lampard at Chelsea and even Arsenal's Unai Emery are in a similar situation. I won't judge Solskjaer until next season at least, such is the size of the task at hand.

Things are bleak, in fact they can't be much bleaker, but there's always someone worse off than you and patience is key. It is simply churlish to compare Solskjaer to Messrs Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, but it took both of those men hard graft and hours of work on the training ground to get their sides to where they are now. Klopp was 8th in both of his first two seasons,  Guardiola 4th only by virtue of goal difference.
It would be churlish to compare Ole to both of those two behemoths - they're world's apart in every way so its an unfair comparison to make - but it shows what can happen if you stick by your man.

Does Solskjaer have what it takes to succeed as a top level manager? Maybe. Maybe not.  The jury is still out and will remain so. But my point is this - he has to be given an opportunity to show that, either way. He is young, a rookie and has inherited a mess. Surely he deserves the chance to coach his way out of this.

The issue he has is that modern football waits for no man. The issue he has is that the demand for instant success can scupper managerial ambitions before they've even really begun.

Match report: West Ham 2-0 Man Utd

Manuel Pellegrini's West Ham secured victory over the Reds for the second successive season and inflicted a ninth away game without a win on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's United.
The  Hammers had swept United aside 3-1 on our last visit to east London and - whilst this was not quite as bad as that - the result and margin of victory was the same.

United have now not won the road in the league since a 3-1 win at Crystal Palace at the end of February.

To quite literally add insult to injury, Marcus Rashford limped off through injury to leave the Reds without a fit recognised striker. Jesse Lingard was pressed into service as an auxiliary centre-forward but was unable to make an impact as United's already thin squad was stretched to the limit.

 Nemanja Matic and Rashford were the sole survivors from Thursday's Europa Cup win, with teenage striker Mason Greenwood - United's match-winner against the Kazakh side - unavailable due to tonsillitis.

Andriy Yarmolenko's superb opener gave West Ham the lead before Aaron Cresswell sealed the deal with a free-kick - that David de Gea should have done better with - six minutes from time. The result continues an impressive start to the campaign for Pellegrini's men who climb to fifth whilst, in contrast, Solskjaer's side drop to eighth with six games played.

 Yarmolenko opened the scoring on the stroke of half-time, sending a low finish beyond de Gea following patient build-up play involving Mark Noble and Felipe Anderson.
Cresswell sealed all three points for the hosts in the second half with a superb free-kick into the top right-hand corner. Chances were at a premium in a cagey first half at London Stadium, with Noble's deflected effort from Pablo Fornals' free-kick the closest either team came to a breakthrough before Yarmolenko's strike. The fit again Ukranian was a constant menace, giving United no end of problems with his trickery and power. He played in Felipe Anderson who almost made it 2-0 but fired at De Gea on the angle.

Juan Mata - otherwise one of our better players - missed a sitter when he could only turn wide with the goal gaping from Andreas Pereira's cross. Matic tested Lukas Fabianski from distance, before Harry Maguire also went close when the Hammers had failed to clear their lines from a corner. 

 Soon after, De Gea held Yarmolenko’s speculative effort, before Rashford’s dangerous run was snuffed out by the Hammers’ defence. De Gea turned away Anderson's effort, and Cresswell went close with a set piece. United failed to heed that warning though as Cresswell made no mistake with his second attempt from 25 yards after Ashley Young had scythed down Noble.

 Dan James fired into the side netting after he had burst clear, but that proved to be the final action of a day when the Reds shortcomings were brutally exposed.

Overall team performance: 5/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Dan James

Wednesday 4 September 2019

Solskjaer's United taking baby steps in the right direction

Four games into the 2019/20 season and Manchester United are in a false position. We may sit eighth in the - still fledgling - Premier League table - but we were two inches away from nine points out of 12 and third place. Fine margins indeed. We took two points from Wolves, Palace and Southampton but deserved more.

We have not played badly but little things have cost us. Errant spot-kicks from Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford, a fortuitous Patrick van Aanholt ricochet, a player taking a shot when the pass was on and vice versa. All these renumerations add up to a bigger accumulation of debt.

But at least these moments are happening. At least we're creating the chances and controlling games. I'd be far more worried if we weren't creating anything and being outplayed.

 Solskjaer has got rid of the shit, brought the youth through and tried to play the right way. His signings have broken the mould and been top notch so far. Young, British and hungry. The results will come in good time.
He buys good characters as well as good players, doing due diligence on personality, not being seduced by reputation. He is building for the future, and deserves to see that come to fruition. 

 Has his desire to trim the squad left him short in attack? Probably yes, but Lukaku’s body language screamed “gone” and Alexis Sánchez’s expensive presence had just become embarrassing. Solskjaer was decisive. He is accused of being too nice, but he can be the baby-faced assassin again and carries an under-rated air of ruthless determination. 

 Messrs Jurgen Klopp and Josep Guardiola didn't just suddenly get their teams to where they are now overnight. Liverpool’s pressing and fast raiding and City’s pressing and intricate possession took time and training to implement. It can take years for a manager to change the entire complexion of a team's style. If there's no change under Ole after three years, then we can re-assess, but until then it is churlish to pass judgement on the fruits of Solskjaer's labour.
 As the playwright and author John Heywood once penned, Rome wasn't built in a day.

 Those trying to rush Solskjaer towards the exit should understand that he is coldly, calmly attempting a “revolution”, in the description of Rashford. He’s doing what the fans have been calling for, sorting out a squad that has acquired layer after layer of four managers’ signings, leaving it bloated, top heavy and imbalanced. 

He has to be given time to rebuild as there is not any quick fix. I don’t expect a top-four finish this season but some exciting football with some pace and purpose would be good to watch.

 Three wins in 18 games may suggest a man living on borrowed time, but scratch the surface beyond simply the results and Solskjaer has got nearly everything right. He's doing what us fans have wanted - and needed - from a United boss for years.

Ole and his staff deserve the chance to put United back on the right track, a track they know.

Sunday 1 September 2019

Match report: Southampton 1-1 Manchester United

United were forced to settle for a point as a towering Jannik Vestergaard header cancelled out another Daniel James goal for the ten man hosts.

The Reds had won one, drawn one and lost one from their opening three games, and had looked on course for another win through James early stunner, with the young Welshman again proving United's biggest attacking threat.

Saints, however, gained momentum in the second half as a disappointing United side grew increasingly sloppy, and Vestergaard capped a spell of pressure with the equaliser just before the hour - his first goal for the club.

Che Adams had blazed wide of an open goal and David de Gea had saved superbly from Danny Ings before the giant figure of Vestergaard rose to meet Kevin Danso's fine cross. Danso was then sent off for a reckless lunge on Scott McTominay, but we were unable to take advantage as Saints keeper Angus Gunn repelled the Reds as United laid siege in the closing minutes.

Gunn saved superbly from substitute Mason Greenwood and the erratic Marcus Rashford, while both Jesse Lingard and Ashley Young were narrowly off target. Despite mounting a late assault and Saints numerical disadvantage, United were unable to find the killer touch and have picked up five points from our opening four games.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was forced to make changes from the side who faced Crystal Palace last weekend, with Luke Shaw and Anthony Martial injured for the trip to the south coast. Ashley Young and Juan Mata were their replacements, the experienced duo making their first league starts of the season and Andreas Pereira came in for Lingard.

The hosts threatened early on, putting pressure on centre-backs Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire at every opportunity but it was the Reds who took an early lead.
Scott McTominay did well to not only maintain possession in the middle but to find James in space on the left with an excellent pass. The Wales international cut inside, having used Mata’s clever overlapping run as a decoy, and thundered a fierce shot beyond Gunn to score his third league goal in four. 

 Ralph Hasenhüttl’s youthful and energetic side ended the half much as they had started it - on the front foot. Danny Ings’ volley dropped wide thankfully and McTominay did well to block a Sofiane Boufal effort from 20 yards out as United kept the home side at bay, going into the break a goal to the good.

  Southampton picked up where they left off at the restart and after Lindelof had lost possession on the half-way line Boufal found Adams in space in the area but he sliced wide from 10 yards out when he really should have hit the target.

 James, a constant threat throughout the afternoon, had three opportunities in as many minutes as the clock ticked down, stinging the palms of Gunn before skewing a volley back out to the impressive Aaron Wan-Bissaka on the opposite side and then failing to connect with a cross to him at the back post.
The Reds continued to pile on the pressure as Rashford saw his low shot kept out and substitute Greenwood saw his excellent curling effort kept out by Gunn ensuring the points were shared.

 United Faithful Man of the Match: Daniel James. What a talent.
Overall team performance: 5/10