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. 


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 the 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 Antony. 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 intriguing to see how they line up. With all this in mind, we're going for a narrow United win. 2-1