Wednesday 29 September 2021

Match report: Man United 2-1 Villarreal

 A late, late Cristiano Ronaldo winner kick-started United's Champions League campaign in a stunning finish at Old Trafford.
Having been on the end of a late and undeserved Villa goal on Saturday, this was something of a role reversal as Unai Emery's enterprising Villarreal side carved out a string of openings with the Reds indebted to David de Gea. 

Having lost our opener to group minnows Young Boys, United had looked in trouble when Paco Alcacer put the visitors ahead to leave the Reds in danger of no points from two matches. But when Bruno Fernandes teed up Alex Telles to fire in a stunning volley, the stage was set - inevitably - for Ronaldo. United exacted revenge on for our Europa League final defeat in typically stirring fashion as our biggest name of all stroked home on the angle from a Jesse Lingard lay-off to spark scenes of wild celebration at Old Trafford,

Solskjaer was forced to shuffle his pack and name something of a makeshift defence with Diogo Dalot at right-back, Telles on the left and Victor Lindelof alongside Raphael Varane in the absence of the suspended Aaron Wan - Bissaka and injured duo Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw. Jadon Sancho came in on the left with Paul Pogba dropping into midfield alongside Scott McTominay. 

Villarreal are renowned more for their defensive expertise so it was perhaps something of a surprise to see Emery's men attacking us with such vigour from the off. 
De Gea had more reason than most to exorcise the ghosts of Gdansk, having failed to stop any of Villarreal's eleven penalties before he decisively failed from the spot himself. He was called into action after only six minutes here to deny the outstanding Arnaut Danjuma. The former Bournemouth player found himself one on one with DDG, but he fluffed his finish and fired straight at the United stopper.

The early stages were quickly become a duel between Danjuma and De Gea, as the former forced the latter into action again four minutes later. This time, it required a much more difficult save as our keeper plunged to his right to push away the winger's low curler. De Gea came to United's rescue yet again on 18 minutes, this time to keep out Alcacer as he saved superbly from the striker.

Ronaldo headed wide but the visitors continued to impress and saw more chances go begging. Ex-Liverpool player Alberto Moreno fired over, Alcacer put a shot wide and Yeremy Pino was denied by yet another De Gea save.

With a patched up defence under increasing pressure and the attack unable to test Geronimo Rulli, this was turning into another frustrating and difficult night for the Reds. 
Despite being distinctly second best, United almost took the lead on the stroke of half-time when Pogba's searching crossfield ball, intended for Mason Greenwood, was cut out by the stretching Moreno and the ball came within inches of creeping in for an own goal only to trickle behind for a corner.

De Gea stuck out a hand to turn wide from Pino as the Reds made it to the interval on level terms.

You felt Villarreal would eventually take one of the chances to come their way and so it proved eight minutes into the second half. Danjuma got in behind Dalot for the umpteenth time and the resultant cross was poked in under De Gea by the onrushing Alcacer for a simple but potentially fatal opener.

Fernandes fired over in an instant riposte but the Reds were stung into action and hit back only seven minutes after we went behind. Greenwood was scythed down on the edge of the area on the right and Fernandes lofted set piece dropped perfectly into the path of Telles. The stand-in left back unleashed a rocket with Villarreal keeper Rulli unsighted and only able to react when the 25-yarder flew past him - a first United goal for the Brazilian in some style. 

Substitute Edinson Cavani missed a sitter when he failed to connect with an excellent Greenwood cross, but the visitors went close again at the other end when a superb Telles blocked cleared the danger after a brilliant double save from De Gea to deny first Moi Gomez and then Boulaye Dia. Greenwood had an effort stopped by Rulli on the counter-attack in an increasingly end-to-end contest. 

Ronaldo, on his record 178th appearance in the competition, had a quiet game by his standards but, as he has done so often, took centre stage to rescue United in a dramatic denouement.

Three of Solskjaer's substitutes linked up to match-winning effect as Cavani found Fred, moonlighting at left-back for the final few minutes, and he in turn found Ronaldo. CR7 knocked the ball down, Lingard poked it on and Ronaldo's strike flew beyond Rulli on the angle as Old Trafford erupted. 

Overall team performance: 6/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: David de Gea 

Sunday 26 September 2021

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer running out of excuses...and time?

I love Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but the United boss must stop making excuses and take responsibility. 

The Reds were beaten 1-0 at home by Aston Villa to conclude a miserable eleven days in which the Reds promising start to the season was eviscerated with three defeats in four games.

Solskjaer's thinly-veiled dig at Villa's winner - he felt there was an offside infringement as Kortney Hause headed the only goal - may have carried a modicum of truth but came over very Jose Mourinho-esque. Whilst there may be a degree of validity in Ole's criticism of the standard of officiating, he cannot continue to ignore the clear and obvious shortcomings on display.

It can be said luck has not been on United's side, with Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw both lost to injury during yesterday's tie. The usually dead-eye Bruno Fernandes ballooned his penalty, and Ollie Watkins did look distinctly offside in the lead up to the winning goal.

United have had 55 shots across two games without scoring in either - again, you cannot really pin that on Solskjaer. It could be considered highly unusual and/or unfortunate. These aren't excuses, they are stone cold facts, but nor does it tell us the whole picture. 

United had 27 shots on Wednesday and 28 yesterday, but only ten of those were on target. Too often, there would be a hopeful pot shot from range, a deflection, a moment of brilliance to create an opening or the occasional set-piece. Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably the world's best finisher, was almost anonymous against Villa, gasping for oxygen and starved of opportunities. When even Ronaldo fails to have a shot on target, something is clearly amiss. With Fernandes, Diogo Dalot, Fred (of course) and perhaps the worst culprit of all in Mason Greenwood shooting on sight, it's either tactical failure or the team failing to follow their manager's instructions. Either way, that responsibility lies at Solskjaer's door. 

With the summer additions of Jadon Sancho, Raphael Varane and Ronaldo, you feel Solskjaer now has everything he needs to succeed at Manchester United. Where before the focus was on a rebuild, dubbed a "cultural reset" by the club, the squad is now elevated to such an extent we're surely beyond that point. No longer can Solskjaer claim to "not have the players" with the team - bar the obvious midfield weakness - one any manager in world football would dream of having. There's only so long we can claim to be rebuilding. Eventually, you stop building and expect to see a finished product. With the squad we have, you feel that time is now. Not only have we made the three aforementioned world class signings, but throw Paul Pogba, Fernandes and Edinson Cavani into the mix and there really can be no more excuses now. 

So whilst Solskjaer can legitimately claim to have had a raw deal from refs this season, he should not be relying upon such generosity to get past sides like Young Boys, West Ham and Villa. 

No longer a team in transition, expectations are above that now. It's a make or break season for Solskjaer and, although I'm not Ole out, patience is beginning to wear thin. For the first time, the tide of support may be turning against the affable Norwegian. For my money, after four seasons without a trophy, a fifth would amount to criminal negligence when you look at the embarrassment of riches at his disposal. At the very least, there has to be a genuine challenge for the league title, where we're in the mix with four games to go, a deep run in the Champions League (quarters or semi finals) and an FA Cup win. I don't think that's too much to ask. Anything less and I'm afraid it has to be Goodnight Vienna, adios amigo. 

Not only is the attack misfiring but the lack of control in midfield can also be put on Ole's shoulders. It's the one of the area of our team needing improvement, but - despite excellent recent performances from Nemanja Matic and Donny van de Beek - Solskjaer has stuck doggedly with the lacklustre pairing of Scott McTominay and Fred. Matic and van de Beek have played together only a mere handful of times but have looked good on those occasions and appear to complement each other well, but yet Solskjaer cannot tear himself away from the anodyne and incompatible McFred. Individually, the two players may not be as bad as we think, but the pair simply do not seem to be able to control the pace and tempo or dominate the midfield. I can see it, everyone reading this can see it but yet the men earning millions a year either can't or won't accept these two are just not good enough to play in the engine room for Manchester United. 

Quite how Michael Carrick, one of United's greatest ever midfield players, continues to be blind to the situation is beyond me. Matic and van de Beek ran the show from deep against West Ham in the week. United lost that game because of the attack but Solskjaer restored McFred the first chance he got and Villa's dynamic duo of Douglas Luiz and John McGinn ran them ragged. Their limitations were ruthlessly and unforgivingly exposed by Dean Smith's side. 

As a result of his obsession with the pair, Paul Pogba, one of the finest exponents of his craft in world football, has been shoehorned into the side on the left wing to accomodate them, whilst the apple of Solskjaer's eye Jadon Sancho - the right winger he's been chasing for two years - did not even get off the bench. 
A case could be made last season that the McFred axis was often a sensible option and a necessary evil with the lack of pace in central defence forcing Solskjaer's hand. He felt Maguire and Victor Lindelof - neither of whom are quick - needed protecting against pace and so there was justification in picking them. But all that was supposed to change with the arrival of Raphael Varane. 

The serial winner and world champion does not need his hand held in the same way, and so the argument goes out the window. Why are we protecting one of the best defenders in the business? For all the talk of a change in system and approach, Solskjaer has stuck with McTominay and Fred. It seems he simply isn't learning from past mistakes. Give van de Beek more chances - he can't do any worse. Matic can't play every game but you can rotate him with one of the pair when needed. What on earth Varane must be thinking as witness to the plodding pedestrians in front of him is anyone's guess. 

It would be easy to dismiss this recent run as a sticky patch but we've seen it too often and, with respect to the opponents, Young Boys, West Ham and Villa are hardly resident in the upper echelons of the game's elite. As Villarreal come to town on Wednesday, Solskjaer needs to pull a rabbit out the hat to prevent the pressure from building even more. There are signs he is starting to lose the backing of some of the fanbase, and - whilst I'm not that far down the road yet - time may be ticking and
starting to run out. 

Match report: United 0-1 Aston Villa

Kourtney Hause headed a dramatic late winner before Bruno Fernandes missed an injury time penalty in a thrilling finale at Old Trafford.
In a superbly see-sawing contest, in truth neither side did enough to win it but Hause - playing in lieu of Reds loanee Axel Tuanzebe - powered home a header from a corner two minutes from the end.
The Villa man then turned from hero to villain as he handled substitute Edinson Cavani's cross, only for the usually dead-eye Fernandes to abandon his normal technique and balloon the ball over the bar to condemn Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side to a first league defeat of the season. To quite literally add insult to injury, United lost Luke Shaw in the first half and captain Harry Maguire midway through the game with the pair now both doubtful for the midweek European visit of Villarreal. 

Solskjaer shuffled his pack as the rotated Reds returned to full strength for the visit of Dean Smith's Villains. Cristiano Ronaldo came back in up front, with Fernandes, Paul Pogba and Mason Greenwood restored to an XI showing eleven alterations.

Ole had demanded a response after the midweek League Cup KO and, initially at least, got one. Fernandes volleyed over having been picked out by Shaw and then drilled a free-kick into the wall. Ronaldo flashed a shot wide and the lively Mason Greenwood also went close having burst clear.

Despite the early pressure, United failed to settle and the visitors could, probably should, have gone in front after 22 minutes with the Reds given a mighty scare. Matt Cash burst beyond fellow full-back Shaw down the left and cut the ball back for the onrushing Matt Targett, but the Villa man failed to live up to his name and turned the ball over the bar from three yards when he should have done better. 

If that was a let off, there was worse to come as United failed to heed that warning. David de Gea was forced to stretch out a foot to clear an errant Harry Maguire backpass and merely prodded into the path of the prowling Ollie Watkins. But De Gea redeemed himself to block the rebound to deny the Villa striker and preserve parity.
United's tempo had dropped off and, with Villa gaining in confidence, they went close again through Ezri Konsa as he headed narrowly wide from a Targett corner. 

Pogba went inches of putting us ahead at half-time with a header of his own from a Raphael Varane flick on after a Fernandes flag-kick had picked out the Frenchman. 

Maguire, despite clearly struggling with injury, remained in the thick of the action as he was hauled down by Konsa in the box shortly after half-time but referee Mike Dean remained unmoved. 
Greenwood had a shot saved by Emi Martinez, before - seconds later - De Gea was called into action to deny Watkins superbly on the stretch.
Tyrone Mings blocked from Greenwood and United's no.11 then flashed another effort wide, before Pogba again tried his luck only for Martinez to prove equal to his daisy cutter.
Solskjaer introduced Cavani in search of a winner and the popular Uruguyuan was involved at both ends in the dramatic denouement. 

McGinn's deflected effort had earned Villa a corner and, from the resultant set piece, Cavani was outjumped by Hause as he powered his header on goal and beyond De Gea to put Villa ahead.

It was the same pair involved again in a role reversal as Fernandes' cross was glanced on by Cavani and his header struck the outstretched arm of goalscorer Hause. There was little doubt over the validity of the spot-kick, our first of the season, but our lifeline was squandered as Fernandes smashed the spot-kick high into the upper tier of a silenced Stretford End. 

Overall team performance: 5/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Mason Greenwood 

Tuesday 7 September 2021

Adios... at least for now

Here at United Faithful, we thought we'd give you an update for the coming weeks.

From tomorrow, these pages will become temporarily inactive meaning we will be unable to provide you - for the time being at least - the very latest from everything Manchester United. This is because this particular Red is taking a two week hiatus as I embark on a long distance walking holiday - mad I know, but I love it!

We will therefore have no match reports for the Newcastle game, our Champions League opener with Young Boys and the double league and cup header against West Ham. We will reopen in time for the Aston Villa fixture and, although away from these pages, we will be doing our best to follow the fortunes of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's tricky, piss boiling, showtime Reds from afar. 

So to all you lovely lot out there, we just wanted to let you know the reasons behind what might seem a disappointing and unusually lengthy absence, but rest assured we will back!


Wednesday 1 September 2021

Manchester United: Transfer window round-up

Well, where to even begin when it comes to dissecting Manchester United's summer transfer activity of 2021?
United went into the window in need of a right-back, a right winger and a defensive midfield player and ended it with only player across those three positions. Usually, this would be cause for consternation but times they are a-changing and there was instead widespread euphoria as the deadline passed late on Tuesday.

Indeed, this was the best transfer window the Reds have had in years: it was as if we suddenly remembered who we were again. There have been some serious duds coming through the revolving door at Carrington over the past few seasons but, this time, United rediscovered their transfer magic, sprinkled the stardust and threw down the gauntlet. 

Granted, United will have to make do without the defensive midfield player so badly needed. Eduardo Camavinga ended up at Real Madrid and Saul Niguez joined Chelsea on loan. Yves Bissouma - Brighton's talented string-puller, stayed where he was and a move for Declan Rice did not materialise.

But United still ended up with a generational player and two further world class, genuine, 24-carat talents. The Reds (at last) got their man as Jadon Sancho - for so long the apple of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's eye - finally arrived from Borussia Dortmund for 73m. United had walked away from the deal as the German giants dug their heels in a year ago, but, twelve months on, the Reds long running pursuit of the 21-year-old came to an end as the generational talent came to Old Trafford to provide an immediate solution to our problematic right-wing position. 

Raphael Varane proved the yin to Sancho's yang - for as good a buy as Sancho was, United's defence needed improvement and, in the phenomenal Frenchman, there are few better to do so.  A serial winner, Varane - a four time Champions League winner and a World champion - is a man to bring an instant and immediate upgrade to any defence in world football. Varane's Reds career may only be 90 minutes old, but he's already shown his class with a simply colossal showing at Wolves as Solskjaer's side battled to an ugly, smash and grab 1-0 victory. Victor Lindelof may have rarely let his team or his manager down, but there can be no better fit for this side than a man with more silver than your local branch of Ernest Jones.

We thought that was it - all transfer business done and dusted, in terms of incomings at least, now on with the season. But the biggest bombshell was yet to come. Twelve years on from his departure - and in the same summer his long time rival Lionel Messi also moved clubs - Cristiano Ronaldo came home.

In a chain of events no one saw coming, the man still adored at Old Trafford - the king known simply as CR7 - played out a public dalliance with City until United, or more pertinently, Sir Alex Ferguson, intervened. 
It was a moment we had dreamed of for so long, no one believed it would ever actually happen, but on Friday 27 August 2021 Ronaldo rejoined the club that made him. If Varane was the icing to Sancho's cake, then Ronaldo was sweet the red cherry perched gloriously on the top. 

Even by Manchester United's standards, this was surely one of the most extraordinary summers in this club's proud and illustrious history. If you'd told me we'd sign these three remarkable players, I'd have said you're mad and should lay off the sauce. 

Tom Heaton joined from Aston Villa - a signing perhaps understandably under the radar, and ex-Red Paul McShane - by now a 35-year-old veteran arrived as player-coach with the view of coaching the Reds production line of talent on the Carrington conveyor belt.

Elsewhere, several Red youngsters went out on loan. Axel Tuanzebe, his game time further stunted by the arrival of Varane, went the opposite way to Heaton whilst Tahith Chong, Will Fish, Facundo Pellistri, Andreas Pereira, James Garner and Brandon Williams will all play their football away from Old Trafford during 2021-22. Good luck to everyone in their continuing education and development. 

There was a permanent farewell to Old Trafford, too. Dan James played 74 times for United across two seasons, and was just embarking on his third campaign in Red when the lure of Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds proved too great. 'DJ' almost joined the Elland Road club after he left Swansea only to sign for Solskjaer instead. James always gave 100%, had an unstinting attitude with a fantastic work rate and clearly loved playing for United. The emotional scenes after he scored on his debut against Chelsea just days after the death of his beloved father will live forever in our memories. Ultimately, James wasn't quite good enough but came across as a lovely young man and, of course, we wish him well in his new career across the Pennines (apart from when they play us, that is). Leeds paid £25m for the jet-heeled 23 year old - United's third biggest outgoing ever. 

United have started the season well and already sit four points ahead of last term's tally at the same stage. With the stellar signings and depth in abundance, there's no reason not to be confident of a serious tilt at the title in 2021-22.