Tuesday, 23 August 2022

United ignite the Erik ten Hag era on an electric night at OT

Three games in and winless, the team looking lacklustre and an inquest into what is going wrong. 
Few would have been shocked at the outcome of events at Old Trafford in the 210th meeting between the Reds of Manchester and Merseyside. 

Not many would have picked that team to be Liverpool.

Manchester United outran and outworked them, superb to a man, playing with a level of energy, intensity and endeavour which has become a Jurgen Klopp side's trademark. The same qualities conspicuous by absentia in the early day of Erik ten Hag's tenure.

But right from the start, this was a different United. A new United. ten Hag's United.

Perhaps the game was won even before it began. ten Hag gambled with his reputation when he dropped much-maligned captain Harry Maguire and, even more seismically, his talismanic striker Cristiano Ronaldo. He knew it was a selection to be criticised and scrutinised if it backfired.

Lisandro Martinez had usurped Maguire as United's scapegoat. An easy target as a diminutive debutant in the Premier League. He was hooked at half-time in the Brentford debacle, hooked by the man who had just bought him. Raphael Varane, benched in his captain's stead, came in here with the two England internationals either side of the Argentine international gone. Martinez? Magnificent. Colossal. A night where he came of age.

Tyrell Malacia had been our only bright spot of a desperate day in west London and got his chance here. He did not disappoint. Malacia looked like he'd been there all his life and caught the eye with his tenacity and temerity.

There was a theory this game would actually prove easier for some of these players. Fewer long balls, less pressure, not as much of a physical battle and the mere presence of the old enemy in front of a crowd baying for blood to give them that extra 5%. 

There may have been derision and division towards the owners, but the fans were united in every sense for the players. As the old adage says, derbies like this are almost anomalies. One offs. A big leveller.

United went at Liverpool with gusto. We showed more fight, passion and commitment in the first ten minutes than in the entirety of last season.
Anthony Elanga was only involved in the first half, but his influence in setting the tone and tempo should not be underestimated. He set up one and came within inches of scoring another. He cast the dye with his infectious energy and stomach for the fight.

Trent Alexander - Arnold holds a reputation as being defensively suspect and that was in evidence again here. Not for the first time, he struggled hugely at Old Trafford. If Elanga lit the touchpaper, then Sancho lit up the room. The calmest man in Manchester sent James Milner down Sir Matt Busby Way and sold Alisson a delicious dummy for the opening goal as Virgil van Dijk simply stood and watched with his hands behind his back.

The fact it was Marcus Rashford who scored what proved to be the winner was fitting as he capped a performance for the ages. This was the Rashford of old, I'm delighted for him, he deserved it and is running himself into form.

His decision to pack the team with pace and trickery and add a sprinkling of youth fully vindicated ten Hag's decision to leave out Ronaldo. ten Hag stressed there is a squad at his disposal and different matches will need different skills and qualities, denying the idea Ronaldo won't be a part of that. He may well be. But this is surely the template now, the blueprint, the raison d'etre. He may regret he ever deviated away from it in the first place. 

When Anthony Martial was injured in pre-season, his response was to shoehorn Christian Eriksen as a false nine against Brighton then draft in Ronaldo at Brentford. The inclusion of Elanga here surely indicated this is closer to what the manager wants.

There was a frantic finish when Salah bundled in at the back stick with nine minutes left but what was striking was the togetherness and temperament of the team. Heads didn't drop and the seemingly inevitable siege did not ensue. United did not buckle and managed the game with maturity and intelligence. This needs to be the rule and not the exception, merely more than just a reaction to the visit of the enemy or a gathering crisis. So many stood tall when it mattered most.

Bruno Fernandes had his best game for months. Captain for the night but perhaps for longer, he roared at the crowd to raise the decibel levels as he scrapped and battled when closing down near the touchline in the first half. In the final moments as United held their nerve, he was darting back to shut down Alexander - Arnold at the near post.

There was the sight of Malacia receiving a standing ovation for a tackle in the corner. Varane geeing up the crowd behind the goal as the clock ticked down. Martinez blocking everything and even Ronaldo giving his all for the cause. This was more like it. This is all we ask for. A team that tries.

But it was David de Gea who seemed to sum it all up. Here he was, the familiar sight of United's Spaniard, always in the spotlight, fists pumping as he was carried down the tunnel by a wall of noise from the Stretford End. Nine days after the debacle at Brentford, the mood was transformed.

The Erik ten Hag era roared into life and United have lift off. 

Man Utd 2-1 Liverpool player ratings: Martinez, Varane and Malacia shine


 Manchester United's season roared into life with an improbable victory over Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool at a raucous Old Trafford.

It was a result no-one saw coming on a night which could prove seminal, despite being only three games into the new Premier League season. Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford put United 2-0 ahead and despite a late Mo Salah goal to set up a nervous finale, there can be little argument over the result.

Here is how each Red rated on a memorable night at Old Trafford.

David de Gea - 7

Could have sat in with the fans for the first hour but made good saves from Fabinho and Roberto Firmino after half-time. Nothing he could have done to prevent Salah scoring. Good hands and a good command of his area were notable assets to his game.

Diogo Dalot - 8

Tenacious, brave and not far from faultless in his duel with Luis Diaz. Dalot limited the Colombian's attacking output and showed a willingness to get forward. Did well defensively too and showed maturity to keep his head whilst on a booking.

Raphael Varane - 9

Simply colossal at the back. Perverse he was left out in the first two games when he is United's best centre back by a distance. Won everything in the air and into feet, he was strong, vocal and organised a young defence imperiously. A Rolls Royce of a player. Magnificent.

Lisandro Martinez - 9

Has had his critics but silenced them superbly in a brilliant, no nonsense showing from minute one to 90. Let Salah know he was there with a crunching challenge after 30 seconds and never let up. Saved a certain own goal, won every duel and turned in probably the best defensive display you will see all season. He has arrived in the Premier League. Sensational. 

Tyrell Malacia - 8

What a game for the young full-back to be thrown into for his full debut, but he did not disappoint. Tough and brave in the tackle, quick, strong, and pocketed Salah throughout. United's only bright spot in the debacle at Brentford and even showed he can take a set piece. Luke Shaw isn't getting his place back any time soon on this evidence. Brilliant.

Scott McTominay - 6

In front of the watching Casemiro, the Scot was by no means unerring but put in a vastly improved performance. Played a defence splitting through ball to tee up Fernandes in the move from which Elanga struck the post. Helped United to get hold of the midfield although he was a little loose in possession at times and seemed to tire late on.

Christian Eriksen - 7

Good again. Calm and composed on the ball as always, nearly scored from a set piece and set the tone with his energy and driving runs. Played a part in the opening goal when he found Elanga to set up Sancho and had worked tirelessly when he was taken off late on.

Jadon Sancho - 8

His best performance at United so far? Sancho popped up everywhere in the United attack, he was brimming with menace and held Liverpool at his sway. A wonderful opener sent the Reds on their way  and Liverpool's uncharacteristically shaky back line couldn't deal with him. Got to keep this level up now.

Bruno Fernandes - 7

Linked the play well and unlucky not to score himself. Regressed slightly but his best performance for ages. The Portuguese playmaker was United's midfield metronome and did everything right in the first half. Almost scored an unfortunate own goal and picked up a poor booking for diving but a real captain's performance and showed leadership to help United see the game through.

Anthony Elanga - 6

Unlucky to be subbed at half time as he hit the post when he perhaps should have scored, and set up Sancho for the opener. Gave Alexander - Arnold problems in the first half and played his part with good energy and industry in United's impressive showing. 

Marcus Rashford - 8

This was Rashford at his brilliant best in a vintage performance for the ages. Barged Alexander - Arnold out the way early on, ran in behind tirelessly and looked fit and firing from start to finish. Led the line impressively and capped off an effervescent performance with a superbly taken goal. This was Rashford's best performance in a long, long time. A late mazy run in the second half showed the level of confidence and morale is the highest it has been for a while. 

Subs

Anthony Martial (for Elanga ht) - 7

The mercurial Frenchman's link up play with Rashford and Sancho caught the eye in pre-season and it was in evidence again here. Held the ball up superbly, put a shift in and set up Rashford for the game clinching second goal. Martial did brilliantly when he came on and his return gives United, and ten Hag, options up top. 

Fred (for Sancho 71) - 6

Brought on to shore up the midfield but Liverpool got a foothold in the game. Erred in his passing although did provide tenacity. It looks as though the Brazilian will suffer in terms of game time when his compatriot Casemiro gets up to speed.

Cristiano Ronaldo (for Rashford 86) - N/A

Came on late and skied a volley. A big call dropping him to the bench but it worked. Had no impact and is his role now as an impact sub?

Donny van de Beek (for Eriksen 86) - N/A

Helped run the clock down and could have had an assist for Martial but failed to make an impact in his few minutes on the field.

Aaron Wan - Bissaka (for Dalot 86) - N/A

First minutes of the season as ten Hag put the right-back on to offer late solidity and reliability down the right. 

Manager - Erik ten Hag - 9

This is what he was appointed for. Showed bravery in his team selection which paid off and got everything right. On a night when his United tenure truly had lift off, the Dutchman will be delighted with his team. 

Match report: Man Utd 2-1 Liverpool

Manchester United ignited the Erik ten Hag era with a stunning victory over old rivals Liverpool on a memorable night of sound and fury at Old Trafford.

The Dutchman had endured a difficult start to life in the United hotseat with chastening defeats to Brighton and Brentford but lifted the mood with a surprise victory over Jurgen Klopp's out of sorts Merseysiders.

Liverpool remain winless and can have few arguments with the result on a night when ten Hag's side finally showed what they are capable of.
Jadon Sancho's stunning opener lifted the roof off Old Trafford and substitute Anthony Martial set up Marcus Rashford to run through and fire in the second.

Mo Salah's late finish set up a frantic finale but, in truth, the visitors never looked like salvaging an undeserved point. 

ten Hag took an almighty gamble in his team selection as he left star forward Cristiano Ronaldo on the bench along with much-maligned captain Harry Maguire. Raphael Varane partnered Lisandro Martinez at the back with the returning Martial also among the substitutes. Another summer signing, Tyrell Malacia, usurped Luke Shaw at left-back. 
New signing Casemiro was unveiled before kick off and how he must have relished the blood-and-thunder of a magnificent atmosphere at Old Trafford.

United showed a statement of intent early on as Rashford set the tone for the night when he burst in behind and almost got a shot away, but Virgil van Dijk intervened and cleared to safety.

The Reds came even closer in the ninth minute when Scott McTominay picked out stand-in skipper Bruno Fernandes, who moved the ball on to Anthony Elanga on the stretch. The young winger struck his shot well and looked poised to score, only to be denied by the post.

The breakthrough was not long in coming, though. Slick and fluid football from the Reds saw us cut a swathe through Liverpool's backline as Elanga found Sancho. Despite being faced with a posse of players in pursuit, Sancho left them with twisted blood to sit down James Milner and finish superbly in the corner as Old Trafford erupted.

Luis Diaz shot wide and the again impressive Christian Eriksen went close at the other end when Alisson saved superbly from the Dane's inswinging free-kick.

Liverpool began to exert their authority with their trademark pressing and intensity but United's defence - marshalled expertly by Varane and Martinez - combined well to keep them at bay. Martinez got a slice of luck his colossal performance deserved when he cleared an inadvertent deflection from Fernandes off the line at a corner on the stroke of half-time.

Martial replaced Elanga to give United more pace up top and switched Rashford to the left where he was given licence to torment and terrorise an out of sorts Trent Alexander - Arnold.

Eight minutes after the interval, United moved further ahead and put clear daylight between themselves and the old enemy. Superb link play from substitute Martial released Rashford who beat the offside trap and rolled in beyond the advancing Alisson. 

Rashford flashed a shot over the bar after a superb solo run, and Martinez then blocked superbly to thwart Salah as the talismanic Egyptian looked to poke in.

De Gea saved from substitute Fabinho before the Liverpool man's compatriot Alisson kept his side in the game with a stunning save to keep out Rashford low down.

Strong hands from United's Spanish stopper saw him tip wide from Firmino, but there was little he could do to prevent Salah's close range finish, setting up a nervous finale with nine minutes to go.

Ronaldo screwed a volley wide and Martial almost found fellow sub Donny van de Beek, but the cutback was intercepted. Five nerve-shredding minutes were added on but United stood strong to hold out for an extraordinary victory and kick start the ten Hag era.

Overall team performance: 9/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Lisandro Martinez. Colossal. 


Monday, 15 August 2022

The day Manchester United finally broke me

How can something that seems so shocking become so expected at the same time? How many times can you be proved wrong when you joke things cannot get any worse? 
What else is there to say when you get so used to disappointment you become detached and distant towards such a huge part of your life? 

I cannot answer any of this, but I'll certainly try. I will do so with more effort and energy than our players. Anyone who knows me will tell you I'm an amiable sort of person - I rarely rant, or get riled. I don't go looking for controversy or toxic negativity. 
I always try and look for the positives in any given situation, no matter how bleak that situation may seem. But so dark are the times at our beloved Manchester United, there is nothing to be positive about.

Yet, just a few short weeks ago, there was positivity flowing from every pore. Flowing with the promise of pre-season, with the promise of a new era with a new manager and a new squad to take us forward into said era. 

We looked good and enjoyable to watch but, once again, this team have crumbled when results matter, when the pressure is on. It has been yet another false dawn.

From all walks of life, from all over the world, those in Red come in their droves to support their beloved club - our beloved club. For some, it may be a rite of passage passed down from one generation to the next. For some, it may be a once in a lifetime experience whilst for others merely a backdrop to the bigger picture - the backdrop to the biggest fight of our lives. The fight for our club's future in protests against the parasitic leeches in the corridors of power. 

Where's the same pride in these players? That same fight, that never say die, never give up attitude which used to be synonymous with this once great club? Apologies and excuses simply do not cut it any more.

The ignominy of a home defeat in the season opener surely should have sparked something somewhere inside as we headed to Brentford. Yet just when we thought we could sink no lower, these players proved us wrong again. Another example of how to go from bad to worse. United are no strangers to breaking records by this week, only this time they are ones no-one wants to break.

A 4-0 defeat with inexplicable, schoolboy errors from a team of professional footballers as all the while new manager Erik ten Hag looked on with the same expression of all who came before him.

The last time we were in this position, I was one. 30 years ago. Three whole decades. Speaking of which, it is now ten years since we last won the Premier League. 

You don't need me to tell you what the problems are on the pitch. I don't have all year and there are too many to mention. The same areas need improvement. But now the problem goes further than that. It's more than simply spending money on players we need as you can only wonder who on earth would want to join us anyway? Which player in his right mind would actively wish to become embroiled in this almighty mess.

So where does all of this leave us? In despair. Broken. With dejected players, fans divided, still in an ever increasing mountain of debt the Glazers lumbered us with on that fateful day they took hold of the reigns. Taking money out the club whilst our once proud, iconic, best-in-class stadium crumbles before our very eyes. Of course, there are the promises to renovate and improve, but I trust these leeches as much as I trust Rishi Sunak as PM. Whatever happens, they will do so in a way which benefits them and not us.

A fish rots from the head down. From top to bottom, the club I fell in love with as a young, impressionable, wide-eyed six year old is in disarray. Manchester United have finally broken me, finally brought me to my knees.

To all those celebrating our downfall, remember: nothing is permanent. Football is cyclical, all things come to an end. Nothing will ever change the fact I've seen my team achieve what most others can only dream of. Even now, in our darkest hour, we are spoken about obsessively. I'm not sure how long it will be, or when it will happen, but Manchester United will rise again. Of that I'm certain. 

Of course, we have no divine right to win anything. We're not even asking for that. We don't demand a team that wins. We demand a team that tries. To give it our all and try to do it all again. I don't think that's too much to ask. If I hadn't seen such riches....

Players, managers and - yes- eventually the owners will come and go. But the fans? We are the one constant, the lifeblood, the unstinting presence to rise above adversity and never stop singing. Never stop believing. How we stand tall. How we fight. How our away support remains the greatest in the land. How we laugh through the pain. And how, even in the predicament we find ourselves in, somewhere deep inside, in the depths of our being, there is that element of hope. Our loyalty and passion knows no bounds. 

Manchester United. For the good and the bad. Until the end of time. Always and forever. 

We want our club back. 

Sunday, 14 August 2022

Erik ten Hag has been sold a fallacy - I wouldn't blame him for walking out


 You can't help but feel sorry for Erik ten Hag. If he had hair, he would already be balder than he already is now.
What on earth he must be thinking as he muses the mess before him is anyone's guess - two games into life under immense scrutiny as Manchester United manager and the knives are already out. Please, please, do not blame this on him. We knew it would take time and we knew how difficult his job would be, but I don't think any of us could have anticipated just how bleak it would be. 

It wouldn't matter who the manager is. You could have Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Sir Alex as joint managers and they couldn't get a tune out of this side. It is a dreadful, League Two quality side with a disgusting mentality and attitude. Bar the wantaway, 50-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo, there is not one single player here who would get in any other Premier League or Championship team.

You can't polish a turd: these players have been shit for years and won't magically improve now. ten Hag is working with one hand behind his back and has been hung out to dry. He should get on the phone to his parasitic paymasters, tell them he cannot work in these conditions and walk out the door. He has been lied to, shat on and betrayed. It certainly feels like the club are setting him up to fail. He would have my eternal gratitude if he admitted he's been let down by his bosses and walks out into the sunset before his reputation precedes him. For the first time ever, we may have a manager too good for the club. It is like going up Everest blindfolded whilst wearing a dressing gown and slippers. 

Ralf Rangnick's press conference - the one in which he said United needed ten new players - is probably the most accurate thing any football manager has ever said. His infamous words have re-surfaced after out cataclysmic start to the season. He certainly wasn't wrong but got sacked from the consultancy role for speaking the truth. 

 The blame lies squarely at the feet of these players, many of whom are on their third manager in a year (four if you count Michael Carrick's brief stint as caretaker). Yes, the squad has had money spent on it but if I spent 2bn on a car with no engine, it won't get me very far. Money has been spent but completely in the wrong areas and on the wrong players. Ten Hag wanted Jurrien Timber, Frenkie de Jong and Anthony. Instead he got a back-up left-back, a centre back he didn't need and a freebie midfielder. It screams of the infamous second summer under Jose Mourinho when he went to then CEO Ed Woodward with a list of players he wanted but ended up with a veteran keeper, an unknown full-back from Portugal and Fred. In stark contrast, his counterpart across the City, Guardiola, spent just shy of 300m. It just shows the chasm between the clubs, the difference in ambition, vision and forward planning. 

David de Gea had probably his worst ever game for United between the posts. It's common knowledge he is some way behind his goalkeeping contemporaries when it comes to the modern day pre-requisites every top keeper needs - handling, distribution, communication and command of his area, to name but four. His one staple, the one skillset he has always had to fall back on was his status as probably the best shot-stopper in the game. Yet on Saturday, even that deserted him. 

Josh Dasilva's daisy cutter from distance should have been bread and butter for De Gea. Indeed, for any goalkeeper at any level of the game. I would expect the keeper for my Sunday league side to deal with it. There was no power on it at all, it was straight at de Gea and looked a gimme. You cannot legislate for mistakes like that. 

The second and the third goals can both be pinned on him, too. His loose throw out lacked power and accuracy and was seized upon by Mathias Jensen to score and de Gea flapped helplessly as Ben Mee's header travelled beyond him and in. There was little he could to prevent Bryan Mbeumo's close range finish for four, but of the six goals we have conceded in our first two games, de Gea can legitimately be blamed for five of them. In fairness to the veteran Spaniard, he did at least have the guts to front up and take public responsibility for the side's defeat. 

It makes the decision to dispense Dean Henderson - a far from unflappable but certainly capable deputy - out on loan to Nottingham Forest all the more head-scratching. A baffling indictment of United's muddled thinking when it comes to transfer strategy. Now de Gea has no competition save for the 36-year-old Tom Heaton and is undroppable by default.

ten Hag may have dropped Scott McTominay to the bench after his disasterclass against Brighton, but it did little to restore the equilibrium in midfield. Christian Eriksen returned to Brentford as a six but it was a mismatch in his battle with Jensen and Dasilva. Fred was anonymous and McTominay was somehow even worse than he was last week when he came on for the second half. Frenkie de Jong and, indeed Adrien Rabiot, would be upgrades but you would not blame either man for not wanting to sign for the club. ten Hag has wanted de Jong since day one but has been let down by John Murtough and his merry band of men who have faffed and dallied all summer over the Barcelona player to such an extent the deal for a man who should have been here weeks ago is now dead in the water. 

ten Hag hasn't got any of the players he wanted, he's having to make do with last season's shit and so it figures we will see the same dreadful results, no matter who is in the dugout. The fans continued to sing loud, proud and unstintingly despite another horror show in a long trip to the capital, battling a train strike in the process. They don't deserve this. None of us do. 

The biggest shock after that result? The fact it is not a shock at all...

At these moments, we are supposed to have new and original things to say. Yet by now, you have heard it all before.

Yes, we know, the Glazers.

Yes, we know, United's policy and execution of recruitment baffles the life out of both their rivals and their supporters.

Yes, we know, David De Gea is not adept at playing out from the back.

Yes, we know Harry Maguire's confidence has reached a point of startling anxiety.

Yes, we know, Fred is not the Fabinho or Rodri that United require to instill balance into the team.

Yes, we know, Bruno Fernandes’ form has fallen off a cliff and he now overcompensates with a single-man press, chaotic attempts at Hollywood passing and tedious handwaving at referees, his team-mates, himself and any other being that blurs into sight.

Yes, we know, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford flit meaninglessly in and out of games, leaving supporters envisioning only what we imagine they might be, yet it is not what they have demonstrated in front of our very eyes for over a year now.

Yes, we know, Cristiano Ronaldo's most recent episodes of self-importance have left everyone suspecting that he would rather be just about anywhere else than wearing the lime green cocktail number that qualifies as United’s new away kit.

Yes, we know Donny van de Beek only appears from the United substitute bench after the clock has passed the 80-minute mark.

So, yes, we know it all. We have heard it all. We have seen it all. And yet, somehow, each week manages to conjure a new sense of stupefying shock.

At half-time, Brentford, who had not beaten Manchester United since 1938, led their opponents. And this was more than a lead. This was 4-0 and deservedly so. And there was, in the press box, almost a numbing madness to it all. Brentford’s supporters, too, stared at one another, open-mouthed.

They taunted their United opponents, telling them they’d be “going down with the Fulham. Fulham, on two points after two games compared to United’s zero, may be offended by the comparison. Worse was to come. Erik ten Hag, the bright new hope in the United dugout, was told he’d be “sacked in the morning”. Brentford’s supporters sang the “Ole’s” as their players, this incredibly likeable, humbly acquired collection of organised and driven individuals, an XI bought for £55million compared to United’s £424million, danced around their gilded opponents. Talking of Ole’s, much more of this and we may all start to wonder whether Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (now two managers ago) was, in fact, holding United together rather than holding United back.

In the technical area, United’s new coach initially remained present, hands in pockets, shaking his head, wondering how on earth a pre-season that had yielded acclaim from players, staff and media had developed into the abject mess developing on the field. They all eat lunch together now, we were excitedly informed, and they also now turn up to work at 9am for training.

After United’s deficit extended to three goals, he sank into the shelter of the dugout, which may have been refuge from the burning sunshine in West London, or a brief retreat from the scorching spotlight of life as Manchester United manager.

The one ray of light may have been for those besieged individuals who manage the social media accounts of United’s under-performing players, as they had no shortage of time to sculpt this season’s first major sequence of apologies.

Yet even by United’s standards, this had been a staggering 25-minute ordeal, which began 10 minutes in when Josh Da Silva’s strike inexplicably squirmed past the lamentable De Gea and culminated in the 35th minute when Bryan Mbuemo applied the finishing touch to one of the most fluid and precise counter-attacking goals you might wish to see. The kind Manchester United used to score.

Now, however, they are merely passive participants and, once the immediate tremors had subsided, the latest post-mortem of a Manchester United calamity could begin. For ten Hag, that meant entering the United dressing room at half-time. In similar circumstances in Sunday League football, a coach would probably tell their team to just go out and win the second half. Somewhere in his mind, the spectre of Manchester United’s next fixture will have loomed. Liverpool, who hit United for nine goals without reply last season, career into view with all the foreboding of an asteroid. In the director’s box, United’s chief executive Richard Arnold stared on, speechless, and he probably won’t be rushing down the pub for another pint with United’s most fervent supporters any time soon.

United’s players, it should be said, were beyond pitiful after falling a goal behind, mirroring the collective breakdown that ensued on numerous occasions last season when the first whiff of setback passed their way. Whatever the tactical or technical deficiencies of the players and coaching staff may be — and there were plenty here — it is also true that United lack so many of those intangibles that define great teams. We may occasionally roll our eyes at Roy Keane’s predictable monologues, but he is correct to identify an absence of leadership, organisation, accountability and togetherness in the United line-up.

Manchester United lost their final six Premier League away games of last season, often doing so emphatically, so, in many ways, this was merely a continuation of all we have seen before. Taking this defeat into account, United have now lost seven consecutive matches on the road, conceding 21 goals and scoring only two in that sequence. ten Hag was simply witness to the kind of implosions that Solskjaer oversaw in a 5-0 defeat by Liverpool and 4-1 defeat at Watford, or which Ralf Rangnick endured in 4-0 losses at Anfield or 4-1 defeats at Manchester City.

That is not to say ten Hag’s approach was beyond reproach on this occasion. United were undone and outsmarted at set pieces. A lack of desire or a lack of planning? Christian Eriksen, his summer signing in midfield, operated as a false nine last week and was once again asked to perform a curious role, in a screening position in front of the back four. He demonstrated little of the defensive nous required in the position. In goal, ten Hag asks De Gea to provide a prowess in possession that clearly ill-befits the goalkeeper. In defence, the coach has empowered Maguire as a starter and a captain and it is difficult at this point to justify either call. Up front, ten Hag spent the entirety of pre-season preaching unity and discipline, only to restore Ronaldo, a man who appears at odds with his club and disappeared before the end of a pre-season friendly.

And, yes, we know, many of these things are, to an extent, outside of ten Hag’s control. Yet here United are again, with a cataclysm on their hands. And we can only begin to imagine the strain of panic that may now ensue as United seek to fix glaring deficiencies in the remainder of the transfer market.

On the final whistle, the scenes were wearily familiar. United's players, beaten and bowed, skulk over to the travelling fans, raising hands in a manner that now feels jarringly routine. ten Hag, for his part, stared on from the touchline, barely looking at his players as they trudged past him into the tunnel.

Monday, 8 August 2022

Erik ten Hag's Mission already seems Impossible

If Erik ten Hag didn't realise the size or the scale of the job on his hands at Old Trafford, he certainly does now. 
How anyone could think the incoming Dutchman could inherit the same mob of players and expect to be rosy again is simply beyond me. There were a few small buds of hope (more on that later) but this was, largely, a case of same shit different day.

Irritating cliche though it is, it's hard to imagine ten Hag watching his side completely outplayed by the ninth best team in England - a side which sold it's two best players - with anything other than a dawning realisation of just how much work there is to do after a pre-season which did show promise. 

93 days on from the nadir of Ralf Rangnick's miserable interim spell in charge, the infamous 4-0 thumping at the hands of Brighton, not much has changed. 

Despite losing two of the stars of that famous win in Yves Bissouma and Marc Cucurella, Brighton were just as vibrant, just as savvy, just as well drilled and just as good at basically everything. 

Graham Potter has done a simply impeccable job on the south coast, turning the Seagulls from perennial strugglers into an upwardly mobile team every other club now aspires to be. 
United had looked strong and impressive in pre-season but wilted in the Manchester sunshine once the pressure was on in front of a full house on the opening day of the Premier League season. When the going got tough, the match lapsed into a familiar pattern. Heads dropped, any semblance of cohesion trickled away, touches became heavy and passes loose. Only when Cristiano Ronaldo - the same Ronaldo who, indeed, wants to leave came on did United show any signs of an upturn. 

Christian Eriksen shone on his full debut as he linked the play, looked good on the ball and caught the eye with his eclectic range of passing. He came close to scoring and United's best spell of the game came when the talented Dane dropped deep alongside Fred and began to dictate the game. Still early days but Eriksen could be a very good signing for the club. 

£57m man Lisandro Martinez had a largely impressive debut alongside Harry Maguire and there were signs the pair could become a strong and dependable centre-back partnership, given time and patience. 
Donny van de Beek did more in his flashing 12-minute cameo than Scott McTominay managed in the 78 before him, but that was where the positives ended. But like an amateur golfer improving his swing or a plastic surgery obsessive, any improvement, however minor, only serve to emphasise other problems. 

And so we come to the proverbial elephant in the room. Size wise, the 6ft 4 frame of Scott McTominay towers over the diminutive, 5ft 10 Moises Caicedo but it was Caicedo who simply bullied his opposite number into submission. The young Ecuadorian bossed proceedings and was the best player on the pitch, in the first half especially, as he cut a swathe through United's anodyne, non existent midfield. 

The ease with with Brighton sliced us open through the middle was down to the ineptitude of McFred as much as it was due to Caicedo's expertise. For three years, we have witnessed these plodders melt away and turn our midfield to a pile of rubble. They would not start for any other Premier League team or, indeed, most of those in the Championship. Games are won (and lost) in midfield. Every top side dominates the midfield, control the game and they win. ten Hag knows they are incompatible and about as much use as a chocolate fireguard, but he has to play them as there is no one else. 

For now at least, ten Hag has to be absolved of any culpability. As is the case for any new signing arriving in a new league, it takes time for managers to find their feet. Time and patience is the only way forward for United. ten Hag perhaps failed to cope with the necessary speed of decisions and how to react, but he has to be allowed to learn on the job.

First to every ball and every challenge, Caicedo's performance perhaps showed they have a ready-made replacement for the departed Bissouma. Fred toiled in vain for 53 pitiful minutes before  ten Hag hooked him having seen enough.
United missed a trick by not making a move for Bissouma but Caicedo is exactly the kind of player we need in the middle of the park. An orchestrator, a string-puller, not shy of wanting the ball and relentless in the press. 
He covered every blade of Old Trafford's sun-kissed turf, picking holes in United's set up, mopping up the danger and paving the way for his forward players to inflict the damage.

Yet the biggest irony of all? He could have been doing that for us. He was available for next to nothing, £4.5m - United held extensive discussions with him over a deal but, as per, failed to get anything over the line. We don't have the nous or the guile to cherrypick such gems, instead faffing and faltering for an eternity trying to sign a player in Frenkie de Jong who does not even want to come. 

Now he is worth around ten times in yet another glowing endorsement of Brighton's exquisite scouting network and recruitment strategy. In short, they are everything United aren't. The biggest compliment you can give them is they have lost Bissouma and Cucurella but yet you would not even have noticed.

United need more, a lot more, most notably in midfield when McTominay and Fred are simply not good enough. That line of thinking has been the case for the best part of two years now, yet United have failed to rectify the problem and continue to persist with the invisible pairing. 
 

Assuming a return to the top four is the aim, ten Hag requires an astronomical upturn in performance from his new United side. He himself will have to climb Everest in slippers - the steepest learning curve in world football. 


Match report: Man Utd 1-2 Brighton&Hove Albion

The Erik ten Hag era began in familiar fashion as Manchester United opened the season with defeat to Brighton. 

The Dutchman had arrived at Old Trafford on a wave of optimism, tasked with revitalising a United side at its lowest ebb after our worst ever Premier League campaign.

There will be a few positives for him to take - Christian Eriksen and Lisandro Martinez had impressive debuts and Harry Maguire already looked an improvement. But if ten Hag didn't know the size and scale of the task awaiting him before kick-off, he certainly does now.

His first team selection included two summer signings with Martinez alongside Maguire at the heart of the defence and Eriksen in the false nine role, flanked by Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford, in the absence of the hamstrung Anthony Martial. 
Bruno Fernandes went close early on when he fired over in the sixth minute and the impressive Eriksen was denied by Robert Sanchez after a free-flowing move which involved Sancho, Fernandes and Rashford.

Pascal Gross has so often proved to be the thorn in United's side and the German link man played the decisive hand again on the half hour mark. Gross had scored in the infamous 4-0 at the Amex in May and also scored against United in the 1-0 victory which ensured the Seagulls survival back in 2019. 
Ex-Red Danny Welbeck also has an untimely habit of netting against his old side, but this time turned provider as he swept the ball across goal for Gross to steal in and turn the ball home.

Ten minutes further on, Gross popped up with his and his side's second, his fifth goal in ten meetings with the Reds. It started on the edge of the Brighton box, as Moises Caicedo moved the ball on to Adam Lallana. He in turn found Leandro Trossard who picked out Solly March to drive the ball low into the area. David de Gea got down to parry away but only as far as the onrushing Gross to sweep home on the rebound and stun Old Trafford into silence.

United were much improved in the second half, although to be fair that certainly wasn't saying much. The introduction of wantaway superstar Cristiano Ronaldo finally sparked United into life as he replaced the toiling Fred on 53 minutes. Eriksen dropped deeper alongside McTominay and the upturn was immediate.

Ronaldo picked out Rashford who was somehow denied by Sanchez when it looked easier to score. The
offside flag went up but replays showed Ronaldo was onside and the goal would have counted. Rashford went close again, this time after Fernandes had picked him out, but he failed to find a finish.

United were then fortunate to survive a penalty appeal when the lively line-leading Welbeck was shoved over off the ball by Martinez. Referee Paul Tierney may not have seen it but VAR did not intervene and the Reds were off the hook.

But United continued to press and set up a grandstand finish on 68 minutes as a Fernandes corner flicked off Diogo Dalot, struck Maguire and cannoned in off the stretching Alexis Mac Allister. VAR checked to see if there was a foul on Sanchez or a possible handball by Dalot, but under the laws of the game the goal was allowed to stand.

Sanchez saved from Dalot and Eriksen flashed a shot wide in the closing stages as Old Trafford roared the Reds on in pursuit of an unlikely leveller. But it was not to be as Graham Potter's impressive Seagulls, despite the departures of star men Yves Bissouma and Marc Cucurella, held on for the ever win in M16. 

Overall team performance: 5/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Christian Eriksen 

Friday, 5 August 2022

Man Utd v Brighton predicted XI: Malacia debut and Sancho starts

After a bumper summer of thrilling sport, the wait is finally over as the Premier League returns. We have to wait until Sunday for Erik ten Hag's first competitive match in charge of Manchester United after Palace and Arsenal open proceedings on Friday. 

ten Hag's revitalised Reds had an impressive pre-season but still look light on numbers, particularly in midfield. United were infamously humbled at the hands of the Seagulls back in May - the nadir of a dreadfully torrid season - but have won all of their Old Trafford meetings with the south coast side. 

There have three incoming arrivals through the door at Carrington with Christian Eriksen on a free, Lisandro Martinez from Ajax and the relatively unknown Tyrell Malacia also crossing the North Sea to sign from Feyenoord.

The Frenkie de Jong saga rumbles on and Cristiano Ronaldo's future remains unclear, but ten Hag has a fully fit squad to pick from, bar the hamstrung Anthony Martial. 

David de Gea is set to start in goal as the 31-year-old begins his eleventh season at the club.

Diogo Dalot left Old Trafford early in the wake of the friendly draw with Rayo Vallecano - to the chagrin of his manager - but with little alternative, expect the Portuguese to get the nod at right-back ahead of the incompatible Aaron Wan - Bissaka.

Sunday may come too early for Martinez, who has only played one game in Red. Raphael Varane has played fewer minutes than his centre back cohorts so we could see the familiar sight of Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof at the heart of the United defence. 

Tyrell Malacia has been going toe-to-toe with Luke Shaw during pre-season and caught the eye on United's Tour Down Under. The young Dutchman has settled in strongly and will usurp Shaw for a full, competitive debut in ten Hag's XI.

Much like Martinez, Eriksen is undercooked and so we expect the talented Dane to be on the bench for the visit of Brighton. The midfield urgently needs reinforcements but 'McFred' have been the regular duo in pre-season and so ten Hag may look to start both and err on the side of caution until Eriksen is ready. 

Bruno Fernandes will almost certainly start ahead of whoever the two in the engine room are. 

In the absence of Martial and with Ronaldo not 'match sharp' enough; Anthony Elanga is likely to start on the left wing with Marcus Rashford to play out of position up top. 

After a difficult first, settling in season at United, the 2022-23 campaign is expected to be one of personal renaissance for Jadon Sancho. The 22-year-old showed flashes of his immense talent in a hit-and-miss campaign under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and then Ralf Rangnick, but caught the eye impressively on tour.
Sancho sat out the last two pre-season games through illness but is expected to recover and secure his place in ten Hag's first starting line up for the Brighton tie. 
United's front three misfired terribly last term but proved revitalised in Australia and Thailand; giving cause of optimism ahead of the arrival of another season. The Reds won three, drew two and lost one in six pre-season fixtures and beat Wrexham in a behind-closed-doors friendly at Old Trafford last week.

Man Utd XI vs Brighton: De Gea; Dalot, Maguire, Lindelof, Malacia; McTominay, Fred; Sancho, Fernandes, Elanga; Rashford.

Prediction: United have a very good record against Brighton at Old Trafford and that - coupled with the start of the Erik ten Hag era - points to a win in the Dutchman's first game in charge. The Seagulls are always a tricky proposition but have lost a couple of key men over the summer so it will be intruiging to see how they line up. With all this in mind, we're going for a narrow United win. 2-1




Thursday, 16 June 2022

United to host the Seagulls in opening gambit

Erik ten Hag's first competitive fixture in charge of Manchester United will see Brighton&Hove Albion visit Old Trafford on the opening weekend of 2022-23. 
92 days on from the nadir of a dreadful, unwanted record-busting campaign and that 4-0 capitulation at The Amex brings the start of the ambitious Dutchman's debut in English football.

We don't yet know what state the squad will be in, but we will - by then - at least have a rough idea of how EtH intends to set United up and how he wants us to play. 
United have a good record against the Seagulls in M16, having never lost to the south coast side on home turf and with a 100% Old Trafford record over them since Brighton's promotion to the Premier League in 2017.

We won the corresponding fixture last term by a 2-0 scoreline in a delayed February tie, thanks to goals from Portuguese duo Cristiano Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes. But the memory of that woeful evisceration in the penultimate match of the season just gone will linger long in the subconscious. 

Graham Potter's side finished ninth last term for their highest ever league finish and visit United on the Sunday afternoon, 7 August, with a 2pm kick off in a televised encounter. 
It represents a sixth successive home opener for the Reds, with our last start on the road coming way back at the start of the Jose Mourinho era, a 3-1 win at AFC Bournemouth in 2016.

The opening weekend of the season is earlier than usual due to the winter World Cup in Qatar, with no fixtures between 12/13 November and Boxing Day - a six week hiatus for the tournament at a time of year when the league would normally be in full swing. 

It means the eagerly anticipated festive feast of football will continue as tradition dictates, with newly-promoted Nottingham Forest the visitors on 26 December and then the always-tricky trip to Wolves on New Year's Eve. Steve Cooper's Forest side face the Reds for the first time in 23 years with our last meeting the famous 8-1 win in the treble season when a certain Ole Gunnar Solskjaer came on as a substitute and scored four. 

There are no games between those two dates and the Premier League season will end slightly later than usual, too, on 28 May 2023.  

Brentford, fresh from an eye-catching debut campaign in the Premier League, provide ten Hag's first opponents on the road. 

The biggest game on the calendar arrives early this time around with Liverpool the visitors to Old Trafford in Gameweek Three (20 August), then Arsenal to start September after away trips to Southampton and Leicester City.

That precedes a nasty, brutal October in which we travel to champions Manchester City and Thomas Tuchel's dangerous Chelsea. Antonio Conte's big-spending Tottenham, a talented West Ham side and Eddie Howe's impressively rejuvenated Newcastle will also be in the Old Trafford crosshairs during a month which has a make or break look about it. 

There are only two fixtures in November, both away from home at Aston Villa and perennial yo-yo club Fulham, before the players are released for the World Cup. 

The second cross-town derby of the season comes early in the new year when Pep Guardiola's pre-eminent City come to Old Trafford in a battle of the Premier League's two folically challenged bosses.In stark contrast to our aforementioned impressive record against Brighton at Old Trafford, we have lost on three of our five league visits to the Seagulls Amex Stadium home. This time, we go there with ten games to go as the run-in hots up (18 March), a fortnight after our trip to Anfield, sandwiched by the visit of another south coast club - Southampton - on the 11th.

Two of the three promoted sides, in Scott Parker's Bournemouth and his former club Fulham, provide the denouement to 2022-23 as we play at the Vitality Stadium on 20 May and then welcome the Cottagers a week later.

United's 2022-23 Premier League fixtures in full (kick-off time and dates TBC)

August

7 - Brighton&Hove Albion (H)
13 - Brentford (A)
20 - Liverpool (H)
27 - Southampton (A)
30 - Leicester City (A)

September

3 - Arsenal (H)
10 - Crystal Palace (A)
17 - Leeds United (H)

October

1 - Man City (A)
8 - Everton (A)
15 - Newcastle (H)
19 - Tottenham (H)
22 - Chelsea (A)
29 - West Ham (H)

November

5 - Aston Villa (A)
12 - Fulham (A)

December

26 - Nottingham Forest (H)
31 - Wolves (A) 

January

2 - AFC Bournemouth (H)
14 - Man City (H)
21 - Arsenal (A)

February

4 - Crystal Palace (H)
11 - Leeds United (A)
18 - Leicester City (H)
25 - Brentford (H)

March

4 - Liverpool (A)
11 - Southampton (H)
18 - Brighton&Hove Albion (A)

April

1 -  Newcastle United (A)
8 - Everton (H)
15 - Nottingham Forest (A)
22 - Chelsea (H)
25 - Tottenham Hotspur (A)
29 - Aston Villa (H)

May

6 - West Ham (A)
13 - Wolves (H)
20 - AFC Bournemouth (A)
28 - Fulham (H) 

Friday, 3 June 2022

Ten Hag's revolution in full swing as five Reds leave

Erik ten Hag has wasted no time at all in putting his stamp on the Manchester United squad ahead of the 2022-23 season.
The Dutchman has started his work at United with the announcement of the departures of three Reds - Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata. The trio are all out of contract at the end of June and the club will not offer new deals which means they will all leave for nothing.

Nemanja Matic, Lee Grant and Edinson Cavani are also expected to step through the doors of Carrington for the last time, bringing the number of departures to six with more to maybe follow. Dean Henderson, Phil Jones, Eric Bailly, Anthony Martial and Aaron Wan - Bissaka are among those with uncertain futures and at the mercy of their new boss. 

It has been clear for some time major surgery was needed at Old Trafford to cleanse of the toxicity that's engulfed the club. A big clear out was needed and no one can accuse United of failing to act. With chief executive Richard Arnold's imprint on the club coming to the fore - and with director of football John Murtough now in charge of a new-look negotiating team - this is a massive summer of change in M16. 

For all the platitudes in United's grandiose farewells, the brutal brunt of the matter is United twice paid money for the World Cup winning Pogba - as a kid to get him from Le Havre and then again, this time for a world record £89 from Juventus - and he has twice left for nothing. But at no time has he ever consistently delivered. There have been flashes, tantalising glimpses of Pogba at his best: notably his two-goal contribution to the famous climb-off-the-canvas comeback at City in 2018, and his four assists against Leeds on the opening day of last season.

It was all too fleeting and compared to the impact of Kevin de Bruyne at City and even the far less heralded Fabinho at Liverpool, Pogba's influence was only occasional. Nothing like you'd expect from a player of his price tag and stature.

United should have built a team around him but instead looked as though they never knew how to use him. Even his colourful and personable off-field antics became a problem.

He very publicly fell out with Jose Mourinho, who stripped him of the captaincy, and failed to repay the faith shown in him by Mourinho's successor Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. 
Pogba remains a draw and will attract a number of suitors but, in many ways, will be remembered as the epitome of United's confused and muddled thinking and profligacy which has left us so far adrift of City and Liverpool. 

On a busy day at Old Trafford, the club announced Lingard will leave having risen through the ranks to play 232 times with 35 goals, two of which came in cup finals. Having returned from a successful loan spell at West Ham, Lingard only started twice upon in 2021-22 after two decades as a Red. West Ham have already expressed an interested in re-signing the player, this time for good. 

Two of Lingard's best moments at the club came on the biggest stage with his finest hour in the 2016 FA Cup final when his extra-time screamer took United to Wembley glory against Palace. He also netted in the following season's Community Shield win over Leicester and again in the EFL Cup final victory against Southampton. 

Mata arrived at United for a then club-record fee of £37m as the talismanic figurehead of the post Sir-Alex Ferguson era. One of the finest no.10s of the modern era, United somehow never quite seemed to get the best out of the diminutive playmaker, with Mata often shoehorned into a role out on the wing - a position simply not conducive to his considerable, and at times magical, talent. Widely considered the nicest man in the game and hugely popular wherever he plays, Mata has still more than made his mark on the Reds recent history. 
Mata's best season at the club was his first full campaign in a series of scintillating showings under new manager Louis van Gaal in 2014-15. The best one came on enemy territory on a day known simply as 'Juanfield' when his spectacular brace against Liverpool - the second a stunning match winning scissor kick (later voted our Goal of the Season) - earned him instant cult hero status at Old Trafford. 

He would go on to score in an FA Cup final and added a Community Shield, the EFL Cup and the Europa League to his personal CV under his former Chelsea boss Mourinho. Mata's influence gradually started to decline but he remained a popular squad player with his peers speaking highly of his professionalism and positivity.

In truth, Mata no longer possesses the energy levels required for the top level and probably should have been moved on a few seasons ago. That takes nothing away from the unstinting and selfless service he has given to the club but there is no place for sentiment in football. 

We would like to wish every player leaving United all the very best for the future. 

Thursday, 12 May 2022

United's FA Youth Cup win lifts the Old Trafford gloom



Ralf Rangnick's Reds have endured a rotten season but United's first FA Youth Cup win in eleven years is promising.

Dark clouds have enveloped Old Trafford throughout the campaign but were lifted on Wednesday night as Travis Binnion's young Reds beat Nottingham Forest to win the League Cup. In United's worst season since 1988-89, there has been very little, if anything, to be positive about. While no fan would pretend this triumph has redeemed a campaign spent in the doldrums, inside Old Trafford the sense of catharsis was palpable.
A trophy had been secured, and while it pales into insignificance compares to the prizes City and Liverpool are fighting over, it is one that means a lot in these parts. 

The Reds first lifted the most prestigious prize in youth football in 1953 and went on to prevail in the next four tournaments as Sir Matt Busby's iconic and famed young charges were catapulted into the national spotlight.

And so began an affiliation with the Youth Cup unmatched by any other club. The core of this side would become Busby's first great team, with the the emerging rough diamonds of Bobby Charlton and Duncan Edwards going on to superstardom.

As we are tragically aware, many of the Babes were lost at Munich as the finest young side in the land were wiped out in one fell swoop leaving United shattered, broken and on the brink of the abyss.

United would lift the cup again only six years on, spearheaded by an exciting, raw young Irishman by the name of George Best. Best scored in the two-legged final as Jimmy Murphy's swashbuckling side put the Town of Swindon to the sword with a 5-2 aggregate victory. 

United would go on to reach a pair of finals in the 1980s, but - like their senior counterparts - success dried up. Whilst United's men's first team went 26 years without winning a league title, there was an even longer wait of 28 years to win back the Youth Cup. It wasn't until that famous year of 1992 when "Fergie's Fledglings" burst on to the scene and saw off Crystal Palace that the Reds - under the tutelage of legendary youth coach Eric Harrison - won it again with a team featuring Gary Neville, David Beckham, captain Ryan Giggs and Nicky Butt. These four players, alongside Gary's younger sibling Phil and a young ginger lad called Paul Scholes would of course forever become synonymous not only with the Youth Cup but also the pathway it offers to reach the very highest level of the game. To this day, they are known simply as the "Class of 92" 

United went on to win it twice during Sir Alex Ferguson's mammoth quarter of a century at the helm, notably in 2011 with a side featuring current squad members Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard as well as Everton's Michael Keane. 

Every one of these successful Youth Cup-winning sides have produced at least one first team graduate at Old Trafford not to mention many more elsewhere. So who in this 2022 crop will kick on? 


Alejandro Garnacho certainly seems better equipped than most and staked his claim in the final. The highly rated Spanish-born Argentine scored his side's second from the spot then slalomed through the Forest defence and slammed home the game-clinching third goal. It was a ceiling-smashing display from a player already on the fringes of Rangnick's senior team. Garnacho made his first team debut in a brief cameo against Chelsea in last month's Premier League tie in what will surely be the first of many appearances at that level.

Central midfielder Kobbie Mainoo was another to stand out and set pulses racing. A destructive, all-action presence in the middle of the park, the 17-year-old tackled with authority and passed the ball creatively. It was so refreshing to see a proper midfielder doing everything a proper midfielder should be doing. Joe Hugill did well when he came on, executing his no.9 role with old school expertise as he played with his back to goal and held the ball up superbly. 

Then there was La Masia graduate Marc Jurado who channelled his inner Gary Neville at his zenith. Crunching into tackles, cajoling team-mates, whipping the crowd up into a frenzy and showing a lovely line in touchline-hugging, combative tenacity. You can tell he's from Barcelona stock. 

Skipper Rhys Bennett opened the scoring with a thumping header and made telling contributions at the other end too. His fine defensive display aside, in which he epitomised his side's courage and fearlessness, he showed his leadership skills in taking his team-mates to console keeper Radek Vitek after his mistake allowed Forest to level. 

For one night only, United felt like a club renewed and a club restored: indeed, a throwback to the halycon days of yesteryear. 
Helped by a competition record crowd of 67,492, the £1 tickets helped create an atmosphere unrivalled at any other game at this level. Us cynical adults stewing over pathetic performance after pathetic performance were conspicious by absence, with many kids in attendance at their first game and the chance to watch live football to a good standard at the famous old ground. There was youth and optimism both in the stands and on the pitch.

By it's very nature, the realities of youth football and the huge chasm to the professional game means many will be lost to the sport. But last night's cup winners can be heartened by how many of the 2011 side have carved out excellent careers at the top level. While Pogba and Lingard - as well as Harry Maguire from opponents Sheffield United - have plied their trade over 100 times for us, others have done well away from Old Trafford.

Sam Johnstone and Michael Keane are England internationals and established regulars at West Brom and Everton respectively. But if those two are reminders of what can lie in store, Ravel Morrison - considered the cream of that particular crop - has fallen by the wayside. Morrison's nomadic existence has seen him fail to fulfil his undoubted potential and he has ended up under former team-mate Wayne Rooney at Derby County.

Will Keane fired Wigan Athletic to the League One title as the third tier's top scorer and Ryan Tunnicliffe and Tyler Blackett have caught the eye as competent and experienced EFL players. Not every player goes on to win the World Cup like Pogba, but there's no reason why the majority can't enjoy good careers in the game.

But in the aftermath of our latest Youth Cup success, it would be great to see some of these players get first team chances. Garnacho deserves his chance in the final game of the senior side's season at Crystal Palace and others will likely follow. Incoming manager Erik ten Hag - whom secured the Eredivisie title with Ajax when this final was being played - will be unable to address every problem position across a single transfer window. 

At least now he knows there are young players who can be replied upon to plug the gaps.


Wednesday, 11 May 2022

United's youngsters end club's trophy drought

Manchester United ended a 1,813 day trophy drought as Alejandro Garnacho scored twice to seal an eleventh FA Youth Cup victory for the Reds.

Not since 2017 have the club seen silverware of any kind but the five-year drought is over thanks to the youngsters, who have lit up a desperately dark season at the club. Some of these lads surely deserve a chance in Ralf Rangnick's side for the last game of the senior team's campaign at Crystal Palace. 

Travis Binnion's young charges rose to the occasion at Old Trafford in front of the biggest crowd in the competition's 70-year history  - 67,492 - as two second half goals from Garnacho saw United run out winners over a hard-working Nottingham Forest side. 

It is United's first triumph in the tournament since 2011 when a side featuring Michael Keane, Jesse Lingard, Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison beat Harry Maguire's Sheffield United 6-3 on aggregate in the two-legged final. 

Maguire was in attendance here as United captain Rhys Bennett headed his side front on 13 minutes. Sam Murray's clipped free-kick cross found the onrushing skipper and he rose to plant the ball beyond Forest keeper Aaron Bott who will feel he should have done better. 

Justin Hanks headed over the bar for the visitors, managed by former United youth supremo Warren Joyce, back on familiar territory. Garnacho curled wide after good build up play from the eye-catching Kobbie Mainoo, and the same player then went close again after Dan Gore had picked him out.

Garnacho was crowned the Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year before kick off and certainly showed why he is tipped to become the next big thing off the Carrington conveyor belt with an impressive performance.

Two minutes before the break and Joyce's boys were level when Josh Powell tried his luck from distance and the ball slipped from Radek Vitek's grasp to find its way in.

The United keeper made amends for his error shortly after the restart though when he went down bravely in the box to block at the feet of Dale Taylor.

Bott saved well from the prolific Charlie McNeill, Garnacho had an effort blocked and Mainoo was thwarted in a tackle as he shaped to shoot.

Bott then denied Marc Jurado from distance after he had cut in, with the loose ball just out of the lurking McNeill's reach.

Vitek was called into action at the other end when Detlef Esapa - Osong fired on goal, and the Czech Under-19 keeper then plucked a teasing cross out the air as battling Forest sensed an upset.

Extra-time looked to be on the horizon at 1-1 and with little to separate the sides, but on 78 minutes Garnacho was released and scythed down by Zach Abbott. The foul looked to have occurred on the edge of the penalty area but the young Argentina dusted himself down and fired beyond Bott to restore Binnion's side's lead.

Substitute Joe Hugill flashed a shot wide as Forest began to tire on the expansive and energy sapping Old Trafford pitch. 
With eight minutes added on, Garnacho added gloss to a slightly flattering scoreline when he stormed clear down the left and finished well beyond the advancing Bott with the aid of a deflection. 

Congratulations to Binnion, his staff and all the young players on a brilliant achievement.

United: Vitek; Jurado, Bennett (c), Jackson, Murray; Mainoo, Gore; Mather (Aljofree 86), Hanson - Aaroen (Oyedele 64), Garnacho; McNeill (Hugill 64). Unused subs: Pye, Woolster, Forson, Ennis. 

Monday, 9 May 2022

Brutal United bludgeoned and battered by brilliant Brighton

As Ralf Rangnick watched his sorry and soporific Manchester United side go south in Brighton, the evidence was loud and damning.

The 3,000 or so travelling fans tucked away in the South East corner of the Amex - myself included - had finally seen enough. Manchester United's worst ever Premier League season, confirmed by this latest horror show, brought our famously loud, proud and loyal visiting support to boiling point. In that moment, we showed more honour and pride than these tragic and abysmal wasters masquerading as professional footballers had shown all season. 
You had to feel for every single one of them in that away section, shelling out hundreds of pounds to make the 615-mile round trip at great expense and watch that shit. The two lads I went to the game with left their native Ireland at 2am to get over for the game. They deserve better. We all deserve better. I'm proud to say I didn't leave early and stayed until the end, more in defiance than anything. 

Indeed, those seven words summed it all up: "You're not fit to wear the shirt." The spleen was vented at no one specifically, but everyone collectively. Some Reds sat motionless, unable to even comprehend what we were seeing. Others echoed the behaviour of beleaguered United right-back Diogo Dalot come full-time by simply standing dumbfounded, a shake of the head and a glance to the heavens, as if asking for divine intervention. Not even the Lord himself could save this lot. Just when you think United could get no worse, they continue to sink to new levels of ineptitude by the week. Only another 90 minutes of torture to go before we can forget and move on. 

 It has been a car crash of a season and the Brighton brutality was surely the nadir. Put it this way: I got a free ticket for the away end and still felt like I should be refunded. Harry Maguire has epitomised United's troubles in a desperate season, but the fact he came on to limit the damage at 0-4 down and actually improved things in his brief cameo seemed to simply say it all. 

Chants of "viva Ronaldo" immediately followed, as if to render the United great exempt from the criticism. In all fairness, if not for his admirable efforts of 18 league goals, often in a team where he gets no service, United wouldn't even be clinging to the final European spot (fuck me, never thought I'd say that back in August). The fact we're even in sixth position is primarily down to him and David de Gea. United have had several shockers in this cataclysmic campaign: 5-0 and 4-0 vs Liverpool, 4-1 at City and same at Watford and 4-2 at Leicester, but this was surely the worst of the lot in our worst Premier League season of them all. 

When Ronaldo was United's talismanic figurehead in our last Champions League win, circa 2008, Brighton&Hove Albion, plying their trade at a rundown athletics stadium, finished seventh in the third tier. Ronaldo hit 42 goals as the spearhead for United's Double-winners - one of the greatest club sides ever assembled - whilst Brighton, under the tutelage of Dean Wilkins, missed out on the League One play - offs.

Take nothing away from Brighton: they were simply magnificent and, for as brutal as United were, Graham Potter's side were brilliantly impressive. A talented team of grafters with a sprinkling of flair and attacking spark, this was arguably their finest hour. Notoriously goal shy, Brighton have mustered only 12 in the league front of their own fans despite their position in the league. 

That was until Rangnick's Reds rocked into town. We're the worst team in the league, definitely the easiest to play against and headed home humiliated and outclassed. With a sold out Amex rocking to the beat of the high flying Seagulls in the finest of fettles, brilliant Brighton battered United, bludgeoned us to death and served us with chips. It has been good to see this top class side given their due amidst the inevitable post-mortem which follows every United defeat. Potter and his merry band of men deserve all the praise they get. Meanwhile, forget open heart surgery, Potter's soon-to-be opposite number Erik ten Hag needs to completely resuscitate his new side upon arrival in the summer. 

Marc Cucurella was majestic - although he was aided and abetted by Alex Telles going MIA which gave Cucurella, Brighton's unsung hero, the freedom of Sussex to hold United in his thrall. Dalot put a shift in but wasn't much better on the other flank. I struggle to think of a worse pair of United full-backs than Dalot and Telles, and I lived through the Rafael and Alexander Buttner 'era.' Raphael Varane, a world champion and four-time Champions League winner, looks cowed and terrified of opposition forwards a player of his undoubted quality should be in cruise control against. 

In midfield, Yves Bissouma and Moises Caicedo showed why they would fit this United side like gloves with a dominant and irrepressible demolition job of their opposite numbers - the anodyne Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic -  to cut a swathe through midfield. Caicedo, Cucurella, Pascal Gross and Leandro Trossard all feasted upon United's banquet of ineptitude. 

United's dreadful players looked like they would rather be sunning themselves on Brighton's iconic beach. In fact, they looked as if they'd rather be literally anywhere else. There's a thing called professional pride, a commodity called honour and a badge on an iconic shirt demanding nothing less than 100%. That's true for any player at any level but this mob either can't be bothered or aren't good enough. We are absolutely tragic and I cannot wait for this season to be finally fucking over. 

Tuesday, 3 May 2022

Thank you for everything, Juan Manuel Garcia Mata

Juan Mata's Manchester United career ended where it should have started. 

Mata, one of the finest no.10s of the Premier League era, lined up on the right hand side on his Reds debut against Cardiff under David Moyes in 2014 and stayed there for the next eight years. Back in the position he calls his own behind the centre-forward, Mata was simply magisterial against Brentford in a vintage performance for the ages.

A scorer in an FA Cup final and a major part of United's run to Europa League glory in 2017, Mata will always be fondly remembered at Old Trafford. His stunning double in the famous win at Anfield in 2015 - probably United's best ever performance at that ground - saw to that on a day remembered simply as 'Juanfield.' 

Denied legendary status in the Prem due to years of mismanagement and misspent quality during his time at the club, Mata glided around Old Trafford almost at will in the win over Brentford. Working hard, creating and, perhaps most importantly, caring to give United fans a final glimpse of what we should have seen far more of in seven-and-a-half years of wasted talent.

Mata arrived at United having won back-to-back player of the year awards with Chelsea as one of the Premier League's most pre-eminent creators. He contributed the same number of assists (32) in two-and-a-half seasons with the Stamford Bridge side as he has in the rest of his decade-long stint in England. But for the fine margins of the linesman's offside flag, he would have surpassed that tally on Monday.

It was Mata at his brilliant best. Having drifted over to the left from his floating no.10 role, he beautifully cushioned a volley to Bruno Fernandes on halfway, beat the offside trap to spin in behind, received the return ball before a perfectly weighted pass into Cristiano Ronaldo. Had CR7 held his run a fraction of a second longer, it would have been the perfect coup de grace.

In a way, it epitomised Mata's Reds career in microcosm. His brilliance and speed of thought wasted, not fully taken advantage of, squandered.
The signing of Mata is, in hindsight, the epitome of Manchester United post Sir Alex Ferguson. Having signed Marouane Fellaini six months before, David Moyes opted for the polar opposite - a player in the starkest of contrasts to the burly Belgian brute as is possible to be. 
A diminutive graduate from Real Madrid's Academy in tandem with a man who was all elbows - neither of the two midfielders were quite like anything we had seen at United in previous 20 years. Both have since been deemed unsuitable to the hustle and bustle, the harum scarum pre-ordained "attack attack attack" mantra at United.

That alludes to probably United's biggest problem - an obsession with a style of play which has never really existed. Mata, and many signings since, haven't been a good fit for that United but that says more about the club rather than the undoubtedly talented footballers that have failed to reach their zenith.

The win over Brentford almost felt like a testimonial. Neither side had anything to play for, and it offered a chance to say goodbye to three of United's departing cast, Mata of course among them. It's a shame United only turned on the style with the season already done and dusted bar the two remaining formalities. We broke quickly, moved the ball well and played with a swagger. Mata, Fernandes and Ronaldo were at the heart of everything - laying balls off smartly, accurately and running beyond each other. It was, and this hasn't been the case for far too long: fluid and entertaining.

Those two words are what Mata has all been about. This was his first, and probably only, league start of the season and, when he departed to a standing ovation 20 minutes from the end, it was hard not to shed a tear. This was a stunning United swansong and an affectionate farewell to a man you simply cannot dislike.

He's put smiles on faces of fans and teammates alike with unlikely assists, delicate touches and stunning long range strikes. But most of those fond memories came in Chelsea blue, before a United career blighted by a succession of managers who failed to appreciate what he could do if used effectively.

Mata bows out with his head held high but with an irrefutable sense of frustration at what might have been. Thank you, Juan. 

Thursday, 21 April 2022

New boss ten Hag has a mountain of work to do

 You've got to feel for Erik ten Hag: what on earth has the poor man done to deserve this?

The highly-rated Dutchman has worked wonders with Ajax so going to a club of similar size and stature is unlikely to phase him but, with his Old Trafford in-tray full to the brim, where does he even start when it comes to fixing this mess?

Let's get this clear from the outset: it's going to take time and we're going to need to be patient. There's so much that needs doing it will be four, five, six years before we can even think about winning anything again. We need to lower those expectations, stop with the delusions of grandeur, and get behind him. 

Short term expectations should be virtually non existent, and he needs all the time in the world to re-organise, re-structure, re-build and re-invent a club which has lost not only its way, but its idea and its soul. 

We're at ground zero and have to start again from scratch. 

Of course, ten Hag is a risk - he's never experienced the unique demands of the English game, where energy-sapping game follows energy-sapping game and room for rest is virtually non existent. The level of media scrutiny on him will be unlike anything he's ever known and English isn't his first language. Not the pre-requisite for doing well, of course, but it helps you to build a rapport with the fanbase and the press. Will the players buy into his vision and philosophy, and will the blueprint which has brought him success at Ajax work in the Premier League?  But any manager is a risk and United have clearly seen something in him which makes this one worth taking. 

United's recruitment has been a major issue for almost 12 years now and it is this which ten Hag must come to first and foremost.

Quite aside from Cristiano Ronaldo's (re) signing - which came after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had spent months trying to tie down Edinson Cavani to a new deal - that's only the start of the problems.

There are the contracts for Eric Bailly and Phil Jones to name but two: how and why the club ever decided they were worthy of new deals is the epitome of everything we've done wrong. You can only presume it was to ensure there was some semblance of a resale value or a transfer fee on players with no future at United.
Only the signing of Bruno Fernandes and arguably Jadon Sancho look to have reaped any recent dividends. Aaron Wan - Bissaka and Harry Maguire started well but have regressed to such an extent the former lost his place and the latter has faced widespread calls to follow suit. Interim boss Ralf Rangnick has highlighted the continuity and meticulous recruitment that has helped make Manchester City and Liverpool into the country's pre-eminent sides. 

We needed one, if not two, defensive midfielders in the summer but yet, 12 months on, that is still the case. How can a defence worth almost 200m look so weak and febrile? Wan - Bissaka has looked shambolic and Maguire chaotic. Victor Lindelof has been one of our better performers this season but would we really miss him if he left?  We need another couple of strikers, a couple of full-backs and so, so much more from what we already have.

It is not hard to come up with a list of who should leave United in the summer - Wan - Bissaka, Diogo Dalot, Alex Telles, Anthony Martial and Harry Maguire to name but five. I wouldn't even mind if the likes of Fred, David de Gea and Bruno Fernandes left either. 

Edinson Cavani, Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata, Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic are all out of contract and then there is goalkeeper Dean Henderson, Marcus Rashford and Eric Bailly whom face uncertain futures. Amad Diallo has shown nothing to suggest he will be a part of the United first team with Mason Greenwood still unavailable for selection. Martial is on loan at Sevilla, so too Brandon Williams at Norwich and Donny van de Beek at Everton although the arrival of his former boss may spark the latter into life at United.

Even if not all of these wasters end up leaving, there will still be sizeable gaps to plug but it has worked as Patrick Vieira at Crystal Palace has shown when he inherited Roy Hodgson's ageing side. But finding a similar solution for United won't be so easy. 

Just how do you solve a problem like Cristiano Ronaldo? Whilst you cannot say his arrival is the root cause of United's problems - his 21 goals this season attest to that - his salary, status and superstardom is a subplot which will not go away. 

But how does ten Hag fit the 37-year-old into his raison d'etre of fast, fluid, high tempo play? Either through the clear physical limitations or his apparently strained relationships with Maguire et al, his mere presence instantly creates an issue for ten Hag.  

On the face of it, expectations should be low upon ten Hag's arrival. A top six finish and a prolonged run in one or both of the domestic cups would be a good start. Next season is a time to rebuild and refurnish - toss out old furniture, bring in new pieces, build a couple from within and freshen the whole place up with a lick of pain after years of neglect. Success next season isn't winning a trophy: we need to remove that mindset for now and look towards laying the foundations for the ultimate goal of mounting a challenge in the next five seasons. It's time for realistic expectations so we can continue to follow the long term plan and build every season. 


The worry is, you will always have an element of fans and press hacks who will be calling for his head if ten Hag's United don't win the first ten games 4-0. That comes with the territory, ten Hag musn't let it get to him and shut out the noise to get on with the job. Barring a mathematical miracle in the five remaining games, United will miss out on the Champions League for the fourth time in nine seasons in 2022-23. Correcting these statistics is one of the many reasons why ten Hag needs to be given time to implement his ideas, reboot the mentality and bring about at least tangible improvement. 

He needs to build an identity and get back to basics of hard work and determination; they can't take anything for granted under a man who will demand perfection and commitment. He's got to rip up the current sense of entitlement these wasters have, be firm, don't stand for any nonsense and stick to his principles. The club have to give him the keys and let him have full control if this is going to work. 

Given time, ten Hag has the reputation and record to turn his Dutch revolution into an Old Trafford one. He's shown he has the ability to do so but without three, four, five years or maybe more (and remember it took Jurgen Klopp three and half before he won anything with Liverpool) he will find it impossible to bring back the glory days.