Sunday 9 July 2023

Farewell David de Gea: 12 years a Red and forever a legend

And so football's worst-kept secret is officially official: David de Gea departs Manchester United after more than a decade between the sticks.

De Gea signed from Atletico Madrid as a rangy, nervous 20-year-old with the task of replacing United's best since Peter Schmeichel, Edwin van der Sar (all the very best to him, by the way). A giant of a man in every sense, van der Sar quite literally left big boots to fill and, initially at least, it looked as if Sir Alex Ferguson had dropped a rare clanger in bringing this relatively unknown rookie as his next in line.

Such a wiry, raw and youthful was always going to be an easy target for the drama-hungry English media and so it proved, In truth, some media outlets have never truly left de Gea alone even in the intervening years. 

Yet he leaves Old Trafford with his place in club history assured. Certainly as van der Sar's equal, maybe even his superior. Despite criticism of his distribution and a supposed weakness in commanding his box, de Gea was - and always will be - one of the finest shot stoppers the English game has even seen. 
de Gea has been unfortunate in the fact his United career has run parallel to some of the club's most barren years. With one Premier League, a Europa League, an FA Cup and two League Cups, as well as two runners up medals, five trophies in twelve years isn't so bad. But a keeper the quality of de Gea deserved to be playing in a team existing in the throes of challenging for the biggest prizes in the game. 

For that alone, he deserves a place among United's pantheon of greats. As the last great bastion of Ferguson's title-winning alumni, his departure also marks the passing of one generation to the next. 

The turning point of de Gea's United career came at Stamford Bridge in those fledgling early days. Ironically a save from compatriot and soon-to-be team-mate Juan Mata as a flying flash of green to paw away Mata's dipping free-kick left incredulous jaws in many a collective lap.

From then on, he was the manager's favourite and our undisputed no.1. That save was voted our greatest ever of the Premier League era and it earned de Gea a spot in that season's Team of the Year.

That would pave the way for what was to follow. At times, de Gea was a one-man showreel, a man who made the seemingly impossible look easy and almost single-handedly kept a floundering United side afloat. Times were bad enough with him there - you just shudder to think how bad things would have been without him. 

With United in a seemingly permanent state of flux following the retirement of Sir Alex, de Gea was the one constant, the one shining light, the man with four Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year awards in five seasons. That simply tells us everything we need to know about how influential, how utterly vital, he was even through some of United's darkest moments. 

Some of his showings defied logic. Think of the now famous game at Arsenal in late 2017 when a record-equalling 14 saves will go down in history as the finest ever by a United keeper. Even as recently as this season, De Gea was keeping opposition forces at bay in remarkable fashion. His simply sensational save when he changed direction in mid-air to tip away Kelechi Iheanacho's point-blank header was voted the best of the season by his peers. Another similar save in the same game, this one from Harvey Barnes, again showcased the very zenith of the man from Madrid.

There will be mixed reactions to the news, including from me. It's always sad to see a legend leave. Especially a man who has done so much for the club and stayed loyal when it would have been easy to jump ship. But, ultimately, the time is right. De Gea's style is simply not compatible with modern day top level football now. Even his biggest assets - his superhuman reflexes, anticipation and fleet of foot - have started to dwindle. Saves which were once routine have now become difficult. His bread and butter is now as sticky as treacle. 

But despite all that, he still won the 2022-23 Golden Glove for the most shutouts in the season. No overseas player has made more appearances than his 545 in all of the long and storied history of this magnificent sporting institution. 

He is seventh on the overall all-time list and has kept more clean sheets (190) than any other United stopper that has come before him - van der Sar, Schmeichel and Stepney et al. The fact he will forever be discussed as among only the most exalted of company is testament indeed to how that callow young keeper we signed in 2011 turned out. 

Thank you for everything, David de Gea. For your service, humility, brilliance, personality and that amazing agility. Some of the saves have to be seen to be believed. It has been an honour. 

Friday 10 March 2023

The remarkable renaissance of Aaron Wan - Bissaka

When Manchester United travelled to Fulham for their last match before the five-week World Cup hiatus, it seemed almost certain Aaron Wan - Bissaka had played in the red of United for the last time.
Diogo Dalot had started every game in league and cup with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer signing AWB restricted to only four minutes off the bench all season, at the end of the Old Trafford win over Liverpool.

With Dalot suspended for the trip to Craven Cottage due to a fifth booking of the season, Wan - Bissaka was United's only available right-back. Erik ten Hag appeared to sound the death knell on the popular if struggling player when the Dutchman selected natural left-back Tyrell Malacia in his stead with Luke Shaw on the opposite flank. When Wan - Bissaka couldn't even get in ten Hag's team ahead of a makeshift stand-in, the writing very much seemed on the proverbial wall. 

A January departure seemed inevitable for a player incompatible with ten Hag's raison d'etre. The Dutchman's high-intensity pressing style requires his centre-backs to play a high line and the full-backs to 'bomb on'. For all his brilliant defensive attributes, Wan - Bissaka simply could not do this. 

Quite what sparked his incredible turnaround we will never know but, whilst Dalot's form, fitness and fortunes have plateaued since the restart, Wan - Bissaka has gone from strength to strength. Dalot was given a torrid time against the pace and talismanic trickery of Alain Saint-Maximin in the League Cup final.

But with Wan - Bissaka introduced at half-time, Saint-Maximin was rendered almost anonymous in the second 45 minutes, so much so he was withdrawn for Jacob Murphy with 12 minutes to play. Despite only playing one half, such was Wan - Bissaka's seminal impact, he was a contender for man of the match. It was probably AWB's finest performance in the Red of United and paved the way for the team to go on and end the six-year trophy drought. 

Dalot's selection at Anfield certainly raised eyebrows and he was picked again as ten Hag named an unchanged side for the Europa League visit of Real Betis on Thursday. Four days on from the Anfield anomaly, United looked in trouble again after Ayoze Perez had cancelled out Marcus Rashford's early opener. But the introduction of Wan - Bissaka once again proved pivotal as United gained the ascendancy and restored the equilibrium, helped in no small part by AWB's devastating deviation between defence and attack. He gave us more defensive authority and played a part in the move which led to captain Bruno Fernandes headed third goal. 

The combination of Wan - Bissaka and Antony completely nullified the threat of the high flying La Liga side and saw United put the tie to bed even before next week's return in Seville. 

Wan - Bissaka has been the ying to Dalot's yang and surely be now be ahead of his contemporary in the pecking order. Wan - Bissaka has to come in to the team now for the foreseeable future starting with the visit of 19th-placed Southampton on Sunday. 

Could it be ten Hag worked his magic on AWB during the World Cup break when there were no domestic games? Could it be him peaking at the right time given his lack of game time in the first half of the season? Perhaps the talk of a move away proved the turning point. Rumours of a move back to first love Crystal Palace failed to materialise and he has certainly made the most of his second chance.

What I love too is the fact he never complained, he never whinged or threw his toys out the pram. He never aired his frustrations over a lack of game time in public. He has got his head down and remained focused on the job of winning ten Hag over. A certain Cristiano Ronaldo could certainly learn a thing or two.

Dalot has not been right since returning from the World Cup injured and Wan - Bissaka has enjoyed a terrific revival as the main beneficiary. His defensive play has been as solid as ever but there has been a clear uptick in his attacking output too. Although he only has a solitary assist to his name this term, his darting runs from deep, composure on the ball and strong dribbling ability have been notable improvements in his game. Nearly every player has improved under the expert tutelage of the erudite ten Hag but perhaps none more so than AWB. 

He is our best right-back at present and the team looks a much better one with him in it. ten Hag certainly doesn't now need to dip into the transfer market for another right-back such has been Wan - Bissaka's remarkable, heart-warming resurgence. 

Monday 27 February 2023

Casemiro 10;Martinez 9: Reds star as United win Carabao Cup at Wembley

Manchester United faced their most testing week for many a year but passed with flying colours as we knocked Barcelona out of Europe and then won the Carabao Cup at Wembley.
It may have 'only' been the League Cup, but it was the first trophy of the season and a chance for Erik ten Hag to collect silverware only nine months into the job at Old Trafford. This will act as a springboard, a launchpad to propel United to further success and you can bet this will be merely the first of many. 

Despite having only two days to prepare in comparison to a week for opponents Newcastle, United controlled the final and won at a relative canter. 

Everything ten Hag touches turns to gold: his substitutions work to perfection, his signings have been brilliant and his mentality monstrous. Up ze Reds!

Here is how each played rated as the team roared to a sixth League Cup success.

David de Gea - 8

Had little to do apart from one low save from Allan Saint-Maximin and a late Joelinton header. The clean sheet ensures he has now eclipsed the legendary Peter Schmeichel as the keeper with the most shutouts in the club's illustrious history. A second League Cup win for our Spanish Dave.

Diogo Dalot - 5

Always looked to have a difficult afternoon in store against the pace and trickery of Saint - Maximin. An early booking didn't help his cause and was given a stern examination by Newcastle's dangerman. Subbed at half time - but he has his first Reds winners medal.

Raphael Varane - 8

A defensive masterclass from the World Cup winner and one of the best defenders in world football. Won everything in the air and was calmness personified. Rolls Royce of a player. 

Lisandro Martinez - 9

Last-ditch challenge on Fabian Schar prevented Newcastle from going ahead. Got kicked in the head twice but epitomises this side with his bravery, courage and ability. One of the signings of the season. Easy to see why he is already a cult hero here.

Luke Shaw - 8

First trophy of his career having missed out on the cup double of 2017 under Jose Mourinho. Crossed superbly for the opener and excelled both defensively and going forward. What a season this man is having. Is there a better left back in the country right now?

Casemiro - 10

Put United ahead with a thumping header and ran the game thereafter. Strong, composed, influential on and off the ball and popped up everywhere. His leadership and winning mentality has permeated through this side. A simply magnificent master of his craft. What a player. The perfect performance.

Fred - 7

Picked up a booking in the first half but controlled the game in a Brazil-centre midfield. Energetic and combative as usual, Fred is a reliable big game player and never lets you down. 

Antony - 6

Toyed with Dan Burn on more than one occasion and linked up well with Dalot. Drifted in and out of the game a bit but is so important to the structure and balance of this team. 

Bruno Fernandes - 7

Absolutely tireless performance as he defied fatigue to cover every blade of grass. He plays 90 minutes three times a week but his level never drops. Neat and tidy without having a seminal impact on the game.

Marcus Rashford - 7

Was an injury doubt coming into the final and United's talismanic figurehead was not at his dynamic and explosive best. That said, he still got his goal and has now won four major honours with his boyhood club. 

Wout Weghorst - 6

A decent performance from the loan frontman. Played a part in the second goal by assisting Rashford and nearly scored himself with a screamer. His best work came from a deeper role - his pressing is relentless and his work rate insatiable. 

Substitutes

Aaron Wan - Bissaka (for Dalot ht) - 8

An absolute colossus against ASM in the second half. Never gave him a sniff, got forward superbly and would be a contender for man of the match had he played the full 90.

Scott McTominay (for Weghorst 69) - 6

Came on to re-energise the midfield and kept things ticking over. Solid if unspectacular

Marcel Sabitzer (for Fred 69) - 7

A very impressive cameo. Came on at a time when Newcastle were pressing and helped to restore the equilibrium. I like the look of him.

Jadon Sancho (for Antony 83) - 6

Had little time to impose himself on the match but made a few darting runs in the closing stages

Harry Maguire (for Rashford 88) - N/A

Came on to lift the trophy but had no time to make an impact

Manager

Erik ten Hag - 10

Got everything right with his substitutions, game management and preparation. You simply cannot fault him. Bald is best. 

Manchester United end trophy drought and scratch six year itch

Manchester United ended a trophy drought spanning six years and over 2,000 days with victory in the Carabao Cup final at Wembley.

Against a Newcastle side on an even longer run without success, Erik ten Hag's mentality monsters delivered the Dutchman's first piece of silverware at Old Trafford at the first opportunity, only nine months into the job. 
It rounded off a memorable week with the might of Barcelona sent packing from the Europa League on a thunderous Thursday at Old Trafford. Manchester United haven't had a few days as good as this for quite some while. 

ten Hag has the look and feel of a transformative manager and now has a trophy as tangible reward for the speed and manner in which he has turned United around. 

The erudite Dutchman's potent mix of discipline and tactical awareness makes this feel like a very different Manchester United to the one that stumbled blindly in the dark under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and then Ralf Rangnick. But those dark moments, some of the darkest we have ever known, make this slice of silverware all the more worthwhile. We've waited a long time for this. Not as long as valiantly vanquished Newcastle in fairness, but not since the late sixties and early seventies have United fans witnessed such a drought. 

But that monkey is off our backs now. The itch is well and truly scratched. Six months out from sinking without trace in that 4-0 defeat at Brentford, what odds would you have got on this? What would the odds have been of United sitting comfortably in the top four, winning the first trophy of the season as the only club in Europe still in with a chance of landing all four major competitions? 

It's true ten Hag's predecessors Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho also delivered silverware during their stints in the United hotseat, but neither felt sustainable. They were nice to win at the time, but we knew van Gaal was on his way out and Mourinho's short-termism meant it seemed like the end of the journey. short-termism

This time, it feels different. This is only just the start. This League Cup victory is surely merely the first of many. You cannot help but make comparisons to the United vintage of 2006. Back then, the Reds were transitioning between eras as one great side ceded and another was created. A young team with early-twenty-somethings Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo and the new arrivals Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra won this very trophy with a 4-0 win over Wigan.
The following season, Sir Alex's finest surged to the first of a Premier League three peat, before the Double followed in 2008. In short, that League Cup success paved the way for a new era of dominance. That side needed a trophy and, once it got one, it could not stop winning. That League Cup win may have felt underwhelming at the time, but proved a catalyst for greater things, instilling confidence and a winning mentality into a young, ambitious group of players who would become serial winners. 

The League Cup was Pep Guardiola's first trophy in England and so it is fitting a man who learned his trade under the City boss, a disciple of the nuances of the Beautiful Game, has followed suit. His United forerunner but three, Jose Mourinho, also sparked his silver-plated managerial years on these shores with three three handled trophy. Ridicule and mock it if you want, call it the Mickey Mouse trophy is you want, but no one said that when City won it four years in a row, or indeed when Liverpool themselves did so last season. It is not top of the priority list but it's a start and better than nothing. 

Now of course it is probably a stretch to suggest history will repeat. Pre-eminence such as we enjoyed then is rare now, and the margins so fine. But it will give these players the belief that greater things like ahead. Spearheaded by serial winners Casemiro and Raphael Varane, the first taste of a trophy will leave the group wanting more. Of United's matchday squad for the final, only David de Gea and Marcus Rashford had won a trophy with the club. Others like Varane, Casemiro, Jadon Sancho, Bruno Fernandes, Antony and Fred had won elsewhere but not since coming to Old Trafford. For Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw, Aaron Wan - Bissaka and Scott McTominay to name but four, all this was new. 

ten Hag himself will not stop here. There were no elaborate celebrations: the team returned to the North West at 10pm on Sunday to return to training ahead of West Ham's FA Cup visit on Wednesday. With the League Cup now safely stored in the cabinet, United will not rest on their laurels. There remains the chance of a quadruple. We are still in the FA Cup with only City left as one of the 'big' six and ten Hag's United are surely now favourites to win the Europa League. Something special is building at Old Trafford. 

Friday 17 February 2023

European giants serve up a cinematic thriller

Someone at UEFA had a very warped sense of humour when Manchester United and Barcelona were drawn together in the Europa League.
Yet, from the moment Xavi's La Liga champions-elect dropped out of the Champions League, there seemed a sense of fate, a sense of inevitability, that these two mighty monoliths would be pitted against each other.

The cynic in me wondered whether it was always UEFA's plan, to make sure Barcelona didn't get out of their group and then to engineer a situation where we would meet them: what better way of marketing the Europa League and increasing their viewing figures. The fact this was the first tie drawn out with minimal effort only added to my suspicions. 

Paul Scholes thumps home that goal in 2008.

A game fit for the final was, instead, merely a play-off, a passage into the last 16 of Europe's second-tier tournament. Whilst it epitomised quite how far these two giants had fallen - twelve years on from a Wembley meeting in the Champions League final - one thing was certain: this would surely be the most hotly anticipated Europa League match-up of all time. 

The hype and sense of occasion for this one far outstripped anything we will see in the Champions League this year. Indeed, perhaps only December's World Cup final, Messrs Messi and Mbappe and all, came close on the excitement scale. It is unlikely you will see a better spectacle even at the very apex of Europe's top table this season. 

Indeed, when United - heads bowed and with tails firmly between the legs - stalked off that pitch as beaten finalists in 2011, no one would have believed you if you had said this would be a second-tier knockout playoff game twelve years on. Both teams are striving to once again rescale the heights of those heady days and, on this evidence, are firmly on track to do so. 

And so the stage was set: two of the world's biggest and most successful historic sides in a heavyweight duel, like two heavyweight boxers renewing acquaintances after a decade in the doldrums. Whilst the tie may have lacked quite the same stellar, star-studded and A-list names associated with this storied fixture, merely the mention of Manchester United and Barcelona is enough to set collective pulses racing. 

This was a heavyweight collision for the ages, two giants coming together in front of the world to recreate the halcyon days of yesteryear: football royalty par excellence. Thursday's thriller did not disappoint to produce a simply stunning, magnificent match in which two of the continent's most in-form sides went at it hammer and tong over 92 captivating and mesmerising minutes -  a Champions League work of art on loan in the Europa League. United had chances, and some big ones too: Wout Weghorst should have scored when one on one, Marc - Andre ter Stegen tipped wide from Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes and Jadon Sancho could also have netted. 

Although the first half was scoreless, it was still fascinating. Xavi deployed the wonderfully named Ronald Araujo at right-back, a ploy he used against Real Madrid's Vinicius Junior. The Barcelona manager had expected his United counterpart to utilise our main threat, Rashford, on the left. But instead, Sancho was out there with Fernandes stationed on the right and our no.10 down the middle. 

Barcelona more than played their own part in arguably the best game of the season so far. Ultimately, a draw was probably the fairest outcome but the Reds will be confident of completing the mission back on terra firma next week having flexed their muscles and gone about our business in an emphatic fashion here. Throw in the fact the Old Trafford fortress will be rocking, Lisandro Martinez and Marcel Sabitzer are back from suspension and the fact Barcelona are without Gavi and Pedri, and you can see why United and Erik ten Hag will be delighted with their night's work. Of course, the job is not done yet but we've cleared the hardest hurdle and will be marginal favourites at a ground where we're unbeaten since September.
It is the epitome of just how far this side has come we're disappointed with a draw at the Nou Camp only six months on from the Brighton and Brentford eviscerations. That, more than anything, speaks volumes of the impact ten Hag has had. 

Barcelona may be on course for a 27th Spanish title, eight points clear having conceded only seven goals in the league all season, but, great rivals Real Madrid, aside, rarely will they have witnessed an opposition side come to the fabled Nou Camp and play like this. At times, they simply could not live with a sensational and swashbuckling wave of white. United pressed high and hassled Barcelona into submission. We played them off the park at times and, although we understandably tired in the closing minutes, Xavi's men will have been the team more relieved to hear the whistle. 

For this United team is now one with the Dutchman's paw prints all over it. Resilient, relentless, together and capable of scoring at will. We are better organised, more confident both individually and as a team, we keep our shape effectively and our press is devastating. 

His ideas are left-field but who are we to question when they always seem to work? He had Weghorst in central midfield: while the Burnley loanee offered little attacking threat he contributed so much to the cause. Weghorst is doing a job for now; we need an upgrade in the summer but ten Hag is both delivering and rebuilding. 

ten Hag has reinvigorated and revitalised nearly everyone in a United shirt through simplicity and clarity. His methods work and he is a disciplinarian but fair with it. The players know where they stand and respect him for it. 

As the old adage says, the sequel is rarely better than the original but it's all to play for under the lights at Old Trafford as a huge week beckons for United. 

Wednesday 1 February 2023

League Cup semi final 2nd leg: Young Reds side to start against Forest

 Erik ten Hag is expected to give several of his fringe players the chance to shine as United welcome Nottingham Forest to Old Trafford.
Barring a cataclysmic catastrophe, the Reds will face Newcastle at Wembley on 26 March as we hold a three-goal advantage from the first leg; no side has ever recovered from such a deficit and - with United unbeaten at home since September - the odds are firmly weighted in favour of ten Hag's side.

This game presents an ideal opportunity to rotate and give youth a run-out but will ten Hag continue with his tendency to select strong sides? 

With that in mind, and with the team in the middle of a hectic run of fixtures, here is how we think the Reds will line up at OT this evening.

In goal, David de Gea is likely to be given the night off so expect either Tom Heaton or Jack Butland to get the nod. We think the on-loan Palace keeper Jack Butland is set to make his debut. Why bother signing him if you don't play him in games like this? It will certainly be a night to cherish for either one of United's back up stoppers to get a rare chance to play in a semi final under the lights at Old Trafford.

Butland will line up behind a defence of Aaron Wan - Bissaka, Raphael Varane, Harry Maguire and Brandon Williams. 
Diogo Dalot is still sidelined so AWB will continue his run of games. It's possible Williams plays at right-back with Tyrell Malacia on the left, but there is no reason to think ten Hag will give AWB a breather. He has been good recently and so starts in our predicted side. 
It might seem unwise to risk injury when the tie is already won, but Varane has been rotated out for the first leg of this one and the cup tie with Reading. Varane will play against Palace on Saturday but we don't want him going into it with no minutes for a fortnight, so it makes sense to start with the Frenchman here. 
Alongside him, the skipper gets another 90 minutes under his belt having come in from the cold to perform well against Championship opposition. 
Luke Shaw is still absent and Malacia needs a rest, so Williams is set for his first start of the season at left-back. As mentioned, he could fill in for AWB at right-back with the young Dutchman in his stead but we think Malacia will get the night off. 

In front of them, our options are limited. Scott McTominay and Christian Eriksen are injured and Casemiro needs a rest. Fred is almost a certainty to start after impressing from the bench of late, with teenager Kobbie Mainoo to be handed a second senior start. Mainoo played against Charlton in the quarter-finals and ten Hag is a keen admirer so there's no reason why he shouldn't be in from the start again for this one. 

Facundo Pellistri has impressed me in his fleeting, two-game cameos so far so I'd really like to see him in from the start. Jadon Sancho will return to the squad but is likely to be on the bench after three months out and Antony will also be rested. That paves the way for the talented young Argentine to step in lieu of his more established senior colleagues. 

With Bruno Fernandes rested and no one else to come in, 19-year-old Zidane Iqbal comes in for his first senior start. His only first-team appearance so far came in the last minute of last season's dead rubber group stage match with Young Boys but the Old Trafford stage is calling for United's first-ever British-born South Asian.

On the left, Anthony Elanga failed to secure a loan move during the transfer window despite a whole host of clubs scrapping for his signature. The Swede will be a valuable squad player for United under ten Hag and should get a rare chance to impress his manager here. 

Up top, Alejandro Garnacho is due a run-out and with Anthony Martial set to be on the bench, Wout Weghorst can also be rested to allow the young Argentine a start. 

So there we have it: a rotated Reds side focused on youth but, with an unassailable lead already, it's the perfect time to give our senior men a long-awaited and much-needed breather. 


Marcel Sabitzer: An eleventh hour deal done in a day

Shortly before midday on Monday, the entire landscape of Manchester United's season shifted with confirmation of the extent of Christian Eriksen's injury.

Our Danish, string-pulling schemer has been one of the key factors behind Erik ten Hag's Reds revolution but, thanks to Andy Carroll's criminal act of thuggery, Eriksen faces a lengthy layoff. So long, there is doubt whether he will feature again this season.

The ramifications quickly began to sink in. With Scott McTominay also facing a spell out, Casemiro and Fred were United's only two fit senior midfielders. With respect to Fred, he simply cannot be expected to influence a match in the same way as Eriksen. Beyond the Brazilian pair, 17-year-old Kobbie Mainoo and Zidane Iqbal, 19, with one senior start between them, were our only other options. 

The club, as Erik ten Hag himself alluded to, had not expected to sign any more players on the final day of the window. But all that changed with the devastating blow that came with Eriksen's crippled ankle; all because of Carroll's out-of-control antics in the Cup tie. 

ten Hag did not want to risk his side's upward trajectory through a lack of numbers, so there was little option. United would have to dip into the transfer market and break with tradition by doing so at breakneck speed with a little under twelve hours to go. From the utter despair of Eriksen's heartbreaking news, came hope. Hope that, after all, we could still salvage the season with the latest of additions. But then, United are notoriously slow when it comes to this transfer malarkey, so there was always lingering doubt we'd fail to get any new signings over the line in time. 

To expect United to continue to challenge on four fronts with a game every three days with only Casemiro and McFred was, to be frank, delusion of the highest order. 

I'd like to think the club knew the extent of Eriksen's injury before going public with it and so it stands to reason they already had a few short-term targets in mind. We have long been admirers of Leicester man Youri Tielemans but the east Midlands club wanted a huge fee for the Belgian. Ryan Gravenberch of Bayern was also high on our list of targets but neither the club nor their manager Julian Nagelsmann wanted to part with the player. 

Attention turned to Marcel Sabitzer, a player well known to ten Hag and a man who also played under the Dutchman's ill-fated interim Ralf Rangnick during his time at Leipzig. Rangnick is now, of course, Sabitzer's national manager and recommended his former charge to United's powers that be back in the summer. United had been in communication over Sabitzer for a few days and, then, once the injury news broke, things really accelerated. 

United's scouting department was familiar with Austrian international Sabitzer's energetic style, pressing ability, and versatility from his seven-year stint at the Red Bull side - a side renowned for their intensity.

United may not have spent any money but reacted quickly in the transfer market when bringing in loan striker Wout Weghorst as cover for the injury-prone Anthony Martial. With the addition of Sabitzer, United's swiftness and sure-footedness is another indication the club is heading in the right direction. 

From reports first emerging shortly after lunch, to representatives of United and the player meeting in Munich to discuss terms two hours later, United's late swoop for Sabitzer moved at head-spinning speed. 

By 6pm UK time, Sabitzer was on a private plane from Munich en route to Manchester where he was driven to the training ground. There, the player underwent the formalities such as his photoshoot, medical and finalising the paperwork. A deal sheet was lodged to give the club an extra hour to wrap up the formalities before the deadline at 11pm. At ten minutes past midnight on Wednesday morning, a short statement on the club's website confirmed the arrival of Sabitzer on loan until June. There's no option to buy but the 28-year-old spoke of his clear pride in coming to the club despite the unexpected nature of the deal. 

His pedigree and 'big club' clout is impressive: a stable and skilful short-term solution, a league and cup winner at RB Salzburg and Bundesliga champion with Bayern having played at two major tournaments for Austria. 

With Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka holding the status quo in midfield for the perennial Bundesliga champions and Nagelsmann willing to let one of his squad players go, a move for Sabitzer made sense. Too much sense for Manchester United and a fanbase used to a club scrimping over every last penny. 

But the club acted decisively and with alacrity, trading players efficiently and as smoothly as Brad Pitt's Billy Beane in the film Moneyball. 

With an authoritative, decisive manager, a proper football director with his feet now firmly under the table, and a chief executive content with background duties, United, at last, resemble a fully functioning, professional football club.

Welcome to Manchester United, Marcel Sabitzer. 

Friday 27 January 2023

Opposition in profile: Reading

Erik ten Hag's Manchester United evolution continues apace as the Reds face a familiar face in our ninth game in 32 days. 
There was a time when this weekend's opponents were regular divisional rivals, but despite their relegation in 2013, the Royals of Reading need little introduction. This will be our third meeting with the men from Berkshire in the last six years, with all three coming in this competition in M16. We met them in the third round in 2017 (4-0) and at the same stage two seasons later (2-0). 

Reading's fans must be sick of the sight of Old Trafford but will make the 400-mile round trip for this fourth-round encounter hoping to secure only a second-ever win over United. You have to go all the way back to 1927 for their only triumph against a Reds side in turmoil and languishing in the lower reaches of the top flight. It came at the third time of asking in a second replay at Villa Park after 1-1 and 2-2 draws. 

Under the tutelage of former United midfield hardman Paul Ince, Reading currently sit in 14th place in the Championship, having lost 4-0 at struggling Stoke last time out. Ince will have fond memories of the FA Cup having won it twice in his six seasons at United as well as two Premier League titles, the League Cup, the European Cup Winners Cup, and the European Super Cup. 
That would normally be more than enough to earn legendary status at Old Trafford but his two-season stint with Liverpool tarnished his legacy and ensures he is set to receive a lukewarm 'welcome' in the opposition dugout tomorrow night. 
Ince's son Tom has played against us for Huddersfield Town and is likely to do so again for the visitors in this one having missed only two games all season. 

There are other familiar names to look out for in the Reading camp including former Liverpool and Newcastle striker Andy Carroll, ex-West Brom and Saints striker Shane Long - back for a second stint with the Royals - and Newcastle loanee Jeff Hendrick. Junior Hoilett and veteran centre-back Scott Dann also ply their trade for Ince's second-tier mid-tablers. 

Formed 151 years ago in 1871 as the Biscuitmen due to the presence of biscuit makers Huntley and Palmers in the town, they are now known as the Royals due to Reading's close proximity to Windsor Castle.  
Reading's most successful era coincided with the opening of their new ground at Elm Park. Established in the upper echelons of the Southern League with the likes of Southampton, Southend United, Brighton and Gillingham, they won the Division Two title in 1911 and then finished runners-up upon promotion to the First. 

Their next highlight came in the aforementioned Cup run of 1926-27. Having vanquished United en route, they bowed out to eventual winners Cardiff at Molineux in the last four. Local biscuit business Huntley and Palmers made FA Cup-shaped biscuit tins in honour of their home town team - only for them to be shipped to India when they fell at the penultimate hurdle.

For all of our own historic, legendary feats of derring-do, Saturday's opponents boast something we do not - nor likely ever will: an English league points record. The 2005/06 season was an unforgettable one for the Reading Royals: a record-breaking 106 points, 99 goals, a 33-match unbeaten run and promotion before the clocks went back. Upon promotion to the top tier of the English game for the first time ever, their heady upward trajectory continued under the erudite expertise of former Red Steve Coppell. They finished eighth during their debut campaign in the Premier League, flirting with Europe for most of the season, only a point behind UEFA-Cup-bound Bolton. Surely the greatest couple of years in the history of this small, provincial club from a sleepy commuter belt on the outskirts of London.

Another former United boss, Jaap Stam, has come closest to taking the side back to the riches of the Premier League. After a third placed league finish in 2016-17, two dramatic play-off games earned the side a trip to Wembley where they were denied promotion by the pain of penalties at the hands of Huddersfield Town. 

John O'Shea - one of Sir Alex Ferguson's most trusted United lieutenants - ended his career at the age of 38 in 2019 after a season with the Royals and then moved on to the coaching staff at the Madejski.

Saturday's cup tie kicks off at 8pm on Saturday under the lights at Old Trafford.  

Wednesday 25 January 2023

Antony: Man Utd's misunderstood defensive winger

In the wake of United's last-gasp 3-2 defeat to league leaders Arsenal, Manchester United's 88m man Antony has come in for a fair chunk of criticism.
We love criticising players in this country, people expect everything yesterday and have astronomically high standards no one could ever hope to reach. It appears Antony is no exception to that unwritten rule. 

Being a Brazilian winger, there is a natural assumption for flair, flamboyance and an ingrained ability to leave defenders with 'twisted blood'. Coming from the country which made the Beautiful Game exactly that, eye-catching swash and buckle is expected to be part of your DNA. Brazilian footballers are revered for their swagger, style and skill. 

But in Antony, Manchester United have a very different brand of winger. Brazilian-born but European in style, the former Ajax man scored three goals in his first three league games in the Red of United, becoming the first player ever to do so. A debut goal against the Gunners was followed up with strikes against Everton and a derby day screamer in the 6-3 demolition at the hands of City.
A spell out with injury before the World Cup followed and Antony has added to his goal tally since the restart with a stunner in the win over Charlton and the opener in the next game, the FA Cup win against Everton. 

Five goals in 19 appearances (two as sub) hints at a good return for a winger not known for his goalscoring prowess having scored 25 in 82 games under Erik ten Hag at the Eredivisie giants (11 in 2020-21, 12 the following season and two in the early part of this term before his move to Manchester. 

Antony is, in essence, what we might call a defensive winger: fans expecting him to surge past opponents in the style of a 'flying winger' and beat several men, the likes of which you would see about 15 years ago, simply don't understand his game. He is yet to register an assist or create a so called 'big chance' but he's not that sort of player, nor has he ever been nor ever will be. That's not his role in this team: it's not what we bought him for and there needs to be an understanding and a knowledge of exactly what his job is in ten Hag's United team. He is team focused and plays the game on substance rather than style. Think Willian, a younger version of James Milner, Dejan Kulusevski and Brighton's Pascal Gross. You can even put Bukayo Saka in that bracket too. These players are known for their defensive guile and in favouring a team environment ahead of flashy individual work. 

Antony has been playing superbly down United's right but he cannot do the job people expect him to do. There are flashes of flair and trickery such as his spin the Europa game against Sheriff when he was hauled off immediately afterwards but panache of that nature has been few and far between. 

In the Twittersphere, a narrative already seems to have been written. A narrative suggesting he is a flop because he doesn't beat his man and because he likes to cut in and use his left foot. His supposed 'lack' of contribution has become a stick to beat him with even though those of us who watch him every week know exactly what he offers. Most wingers are one footed: Ryan Giggs, Arjen Robben and even perhaps the greatest of them all, Lionel Messi, have become renowned for not having a right foot. 

It said everything Oleksandr Zinchenko had the freedom of the Emirates when Antony was subbed off. Until then, the bleach-blonde United man had kept Arsenal's rampaging tour de force, Kevin de Bruyne lookalike quiet and his willingness to recycle the ball in possession was a key component of going toe-to-toe with the leaders (and champions-elect) for so long. 

His work rate, his tracking back and his ability to help out either Aaron Wan - Bissaka or Diogo Dalot to press and win the ball back is under-appreciated and why ten Hag likes him so much. 

The club's powers that be have admitted they vastly overpaid to land one of ten Hag's main targets in the summer. That has certainly not helped his cause, but it's important to remember he is still young and in his first season at this level. ten Hag is only just halfway through his first season and has yet to implement the full scale of his ideology at Old Trafford. 

The golden rule of 'never judge a player in his first season' should take full effect here. Writing Antony off already is simply nonsensical. 

Monday 23 January 2023

Valiant Reds fall short but there's plenty to be proud of

Manchester United fell agonisingly short at the Emirates but Erik ten Hag's improving side should leave the capital with plenty to be proud of.

Eddie Nketiah's late, late winner kept Mikel Arteta's Gunners firmly on course for the title but it's important to remember Arsenal are in the third year of their project under the dapper Spanish gaffer. 
ten Hag has been at United for six months and had to make do without key midfield maestro Casemiro in one of our biggest games of the season. They are two seasons ahead of us but we still went toe-to-toe with them and only succumbed in the final minute.

A fine side at the very apex of their lofty ambitions against an improving one on those tentative first few steps up the mountain.

All things considered, then, and despite the agony of this late defeat, it was also a measure of how far we've come. Arsenal will feel they deserved their win but the Reds - clad in our white away strip for this fixture - will be encouraged by their fighting spirit and determination. Last season's United side would have been eviscerated by this Arsenal vintage and, indeed, many predicted a similar result this time. 

Marcus Rashford's stunning goal briefly raised hopes of a famous victory and a league double over the leaders and champions-elect. Nketiah quickly responded as he headed the hosts' level before Bukayo Saka curled home a stunner early in the second half. Lisandro Martinez stuck his head where most players don't put their feet to equalise with a looping header but lack of bench options and a punishing fixture schedule ultimately told. But there is no doubt this tenacious and improving United side is going in the right direction. 

United thought they had done enough to resist the inevitable late twist in the tale as the clock ticked down and our defence - with centre-backs Raphael Varane and Licha magnificent - held firm. It would be a stretch to say this was an onslaught, as David de Gea only made one save, in the 86th minute, but in the end, Arsenal's relentless pressing and insatiable energy finally wore us down. That always seemed inevitable seeing as the Gunners had a week off and this was our third game in eight days. 

Arsenal just ran that bit further; just had that little bit more in the tank they needed. That in itself is an illustration of they are two years ahead of ten Hag's United, but the erudite Dutchman will know we need to get to these levels. Arteta has done so, and thus ten Hag must be given the same lifespan to replicate the Spaniard's impressive work in north London. He has made a very strong start and has certainly got us charting a course for a successful season. This result may have ended any faint, lingering talk of a title challenge but we are in the top four and still in contention for all three knockout cup competitions. Considering no one gave us a chance before a ball was kicked, that is a very upward and tangible trajectory. 

So it was no wonder there was utter devastation when the brief hope offered by a VAR check on Nketiah's winner, first against Oleksandr Zinchenko and then the goalscorer, was extinguished and we simply did not have time to salvage a point.

United will look back on the costly absence of the experienced Casemiro, whose composure and game management would have proved vital in the frantic final stages. Giant striker Wout Weghorst acquitted himself well but is still adjusting to life in the Premier League.

There was still plenty to admire in our team, who gave as good as we got for the first hour and fought back well after Saka had put Arteta's side in front.

This was a breathtaking, thrill-a-minute Premier League game. Games such as this one are often cagey and chess on grass, but here were the country's two most in-form sides engaged in an almighty ding dong going at it hammer and tong for 94 compelling and captivating minutes.

It was a throwback to the halcyon days of yesteryear when these two giants of English football were engaged in a long and gruelling struggle for supremacy. A match that went to the limits, right up to the last seconds and even centimetres, could also be the one that proves Arsenal really can go all the way more than ever. 
United were such creditable parties to a vintage match that more than revitalised an all-time classic fixture, evoking memories of a time when this game used to bring the globe to a standstill. It hinted the Premier League's tectonic plates may be starting to rumble again. After Liverpool and Chelsea revived the energy of those trepidatious stalemates which were once the norm under Messrs Benitez and Mourinho in the mid-2000s, Arsenal and United rekindling the nostalgic vibes which have kept this storied rivalry simmering since the turn of the millennium made for a refreshing and perhaps unexpected change. 

Two giants have simultaneously awoken from their slumber with renewed panache, vigour and focus - the rebuilds at the Emirates and, indeed, at United, are ongoing and exemplary. There may not have been Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, Roy Keane, Patrick Vieira, Martin Keown, Ruud van Nistelrooy or projectile pizza slices, but this was as close to those heady days as there has been since both of these heavyweights slipped from their pedestals. 

Rashford and the magnificent Martinez were again United's most impressive players. Luke Shaw, imperious of late, struggled against the pace and trickery of the outstanding Saka but is certainly not alone there. Aaron Wan - Bissaka was good again but Scott McTominay, deputising for the big shoes of Casemiro struggled whilst the game bypassed the quiet Christian Eriksen. United were also missing the Spaniard in September's win at Old Trafford - the Gunners' only league loss so far - but Arteta's side were without the services of the influential Thomas Partey. Questions remain over the suitability or otherwise of relative veteran David de Gea who, whilst he cannot be blamed for any of the three goals, put us under pressure with his suspect handling and questionable kicking. His ham-fisted punch under no pressure in the 81st minute, when it seemed easier to simply hold the ball and get United up the pitch, came to epitomise a curious performance from the keeper. 

On the other flank, Oleksandr Zinchenko was without peers. Not only did he limit £88m man Antony to fleeting glimpses of his undoubted talent, but he - perhaps more than anyone, helped Arsenal to exert the pressure. His ability to play as an inverted full-back, breaking into midfield to overload the opposition and resist the press with his passing is a key element to this Arsenal side's renaissance.

 Antony is good defensively and helps to retain possession, but he is understandably posing more questions than answers. He wasn't as bad as has been made out here, but you do expect a bit more from someone so expensive, even if that someone is still young and in his debut season at this level. United's defensive structure and durability certainly looked more vulnerable when the Brazilian winger was taken off. 

Losing to the champions-elect in the very last minute, a side which has only failed to win once in the league at home all season is certainly nothing to be ashamed of. There is absolutely no disgrace here at all. 

Sunday 15 January 2023

Erik ten Hag has reawakened the sleeping giant of Man Utd

The sight of the diminutive Luke Shaw rising to win a series of headers against the towering figure of Erling Haaland epitomised this Manchester United performance more than anything else.

As City pressed in vain to salvage even a point from a derby they thought they'd won, Shaw, starting ahead of World Cup winner Lisandro Martinez at centre-back, rose like a salmon to cap a colossal performance with one final heroic act of derring-do.
 
Cheered just as loud as Bruno Fernandes' leveller and Marcus Rashford's winner, Shaw - looking every inch the seasoned central defender - delivered a masterclass up against one of, indeed if not THE, greatest strikers of his and any other generation. At the final whistle, Casemiro sunk to his knees and Raphael Varane fist pumping and whipping up the crowd was a sign of the renewed belief and confidence surging from every inch of these players' pores. 

It was growing evidence that everything the erudite and tactically astute disciplinarian ten Hag is doing, every decision he is making, is working exactly as he planned. For this is not luck. Here is a simply magnificent and meticulous master of his managerial craft, a man putting a more and more indelible stamp on Manchester United by the week. He looks more at home, more suited to the task than many of his perhaps more illustrious predecessors have done in recent years.

United have only lost once in 19 games since that derby day humiliation back in October and even then can count themselves unfortunate at Villa Park on a day when we had enough chances, and much of the play, to warrant at least a point. 
It certainly gives weight to ten Hag's belief a harrowing experience could be used as a force for good. As the old adage says, more can be learned from defeat than it can from victory and that has been the case this season.

The conclusion to this derby may be riddled in contention, and you can feel a certain sympathy for City's complaints but United's character, belief and unity justified the growing optimism around Old Trafford - a far cry from the dark days of August when we lost at home to Brighton and were then eviscerated at Brentford the following week. Five months on, and even those defeats do not look so bad now given how well both sides are doing with the Seagulls seventh and the Bees eighth.

Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool and now perhaps the mightiest of them all have been vanquished here by United this season, but victory over the champions, and the manner of it, is by far the most powerful statement of ten Hag's fledgling United tenure. 
The subsequent celebrations at the end of a thrilling and chaotic derby carried the conviction this giant club, our giant club which has lost its way so badly, is beginning to stir again. 

Casemiro has been the cement between the stones following his arrival from Real Madrid but so many other factors are coming together now as the Reds now sit only one point behind our vanquished opponents. A state of affairs no one would have believed a few months ago. Even the notion United would be in third place would have seen you laughed out of town. 

ten Hag has restored belief, instilled smart game management and has also made it clear who is in charge when Cristiano Ronaldo was hustled out the door sharpish following his insubordination. Even Marcus Rashford has not escaped ten Hag's stance as a firm but fair disciplinarian when he was dropped at Wolves after he was late for a team meeting.

Nearly every United player has improved beyond all recognition under the tutelage of ten Hag, but surely no one more so than Rashford. His winner here means he has now scored in each of his last seven games in all competitions, eight in total, and has hit nine in each of his last matches at Old Trafford - an extraordinary run of red-hot form in front of goal not seen for over two decades.

In stark contrast to Rashford's visceral joy, City goal machine Haaland had a rare fruitless day with only 19 touches in 95 minutes, only five of these in the United box as he was forced to the fringes by a magnificent performance from Shaw. 

Shaw was drafted in as an emergency centre-back during United's festive fixtures but, in only his fourth outing in that position, looked as though he's played there all his life. His inclusion over Lisandro Martinez raised eyebrows and looked a massive gamble especially considering the presence of Haaland, but it was yet another decision ten Hag got right. Just like he has with everything else. 
Such has been Shaw's string of superb showings as a left-sided centre-back, he is now a genuine option for ten Hag. 

Of course, any talk of the title is wide of the mark and very much tongue in cheek, no matter how much I've enjoyed the banter on social media.

City are still the benchmark and have dominated not just United but pretty much everyone else for the best part of a decade. We cannot, not yet at least, talk of measuring gaps to them, but what cannot be argued without contradiction is the fact we are, at last, moving in the right direction. Something special is cooking in the corridors of Old Trafford. You can feel it, you can sense it, you can witness it on andoff the pitch and in the stands at United now. 
ten Hag still has a lot of work to do after the barren years of underachievement, but to have us in the top three, right on the heels of City and even casting a glance at the leaders Arsenal (who we face next weekend) is testament to his fine body of work only six months into his reign. It is certainly a position we'd have snatched with both hands if offered back in August.

ten Hag's arrival and his measured, considered - perhaps even under-rated - approach was always going to be a case of gradual evolution rather than rapid revolution. But the best way to prove the graph is on an upward trajectory is to send the champions packing, especially when those champions are Manchester City. 

Player ratings: Several men shine as rampant Reds roar in thrilling derby

 Erik ten Hag's cooking title-winning Reds recorded another famous scalp as Pep Guardiola's faltering City went the same way as Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham in falling victim to this remarkable Reds renaissance.

The Reds were humbled and battered at the Etihad but showed lessons have been learned since that day as United exacted revenge on our local rivals to move within a point of Pep Guardiola's side in the process.

Here is how we rated each Red in a stunning instalment of the 189th Manchester derby.

David de Gea - 6

Had nothing to do as City only had one shot on target in 95 minutes - Jack Grealish's header for the opening goal. Nothing he could do to stop it and, although he would surely have expected to be a very busy goalkeeper, De Gea was a virtual spectator. His opposite number was by far the busier of the two stoppers.

Aaron Wan - Bissaka - 8

What a turnaround for a man who looked done under Erik ten Hag. A masterful showing from a player reborn and even showed some close control dribbling to set up a United attack on the right wing with United chasing the game.

Raphael Varane - 8

A constant, reassuring presence again at the heart of the defence. Tracked Erling Haaland when he dropped deep and won everything in the air as usual. Didn't put a foot wrong. Rolls Royce of a player.

Luke Shaw - 9

Shaw has gone from an emergency, makeshift centre half to a genuine option for United. Rendered the best striker in the world anonymous and was cynical and combative when he had to be. His huge header to get us out was roared to the rafters late on. 

Tyrell Malacia - 8

I was worried about his battle with Riyad Mahrez but it was one the young Dutchman won comprehensively. United's left-hand side was dominant and Malacia was a big part of that. A complete reversal of his showing in the game at the Etihad.

Casemiro - 7

Perhaps not quite as imperious as he has been with some wayward passing (by his standards) and could have perhaps done better for City's goal as he lost de Bruyne. But he was dogged and buzzed around to help United defend the lead. Still one of the best players on the field even when not at his best. 

Fred - 9

Tasked with shackling de Bruyne and cutting the supply line to Haaland, Fred did his specific role superbly. A lot of us Reds were calling for his inclusion and it worked. Won his duel with the Belgian and whipped the crowd up after two big tackles on de Bruyne. Impressive commitment and proactive play in another excellent derby performance.

Christian Eriksen - 5

Pushed into the no.10 role, he was neat and tidy in the first half and linked play well. But United lost control in midfield after the break and the game passed him by.

Bruno Fernandes - 8

Led by example and was at the heart of everything the Reds did. Perhaps should have scored in the first half but then did so - albeit in a contentious fashion - for the game-changing moment. 

Marcus Rashford - 8

Overcame an injury concern as he came to life to effectively 'create' the equaliser before he kept his incredible run going with yet another winner. 16 now in the season of this player's life. 

Anthony Martial - 5

Held the ball up well and did link the play effectively but he was an injury doubt before the game and it showed. Came off at half-time and was very lackadaisical. Does Wout Weghorst start ahead of him now?

Subs: Antony - for Martial ht - 5

Won a couple of corners and did some good defensive work but didn't offer too much

Alejandro Garnacho - for Eriksen 71 - 7

What a difference he made when he came on. United were losing their grip on the game and Garnacho helped to restore the equilibrium. Set up Rashford to send Old Trafford into delirium.

Scott McTominay - for Casemiro 90+2 - N/A

Came on late to help United see things out. No rating

Lisandro Martinez - for Malacia 90+2 - N/A

Surprisingly left on the bench and came on for an extra man in defence in the dying minutes

Harry Maguire - for Rashford 90+2 - N/A

Came on to help United see things out. No rating

Manager: Erik ten Hag - 9

Took a risk with his team selection but it worked yet again. What a man and what a manager. 


Match report: Man Utd 2-1 Man City

United delivered a brilliant and thrilling late come-from-behind victory as Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford swept Erik ten Hag's side to a ninth successive win.
The Reds are now only one point behind our fierce local cross-town rivals, and six points behind next weekend's opponents Arsenal to set up an unexpected surge for the Premier League title.

City have gone the same way as the league leaders, Liverpool and Tottenham in falling victim to ten Hag's juju and going down at Old Trafford in the face of this remarkable Reds renaissance. 

A quickfire Fernandes strike, initially flagged offside, and a Rashford tap-in, flipped a tightly contested derby upside down after substitute Jack Grealish headed City in front.

United left the Etihad Stadium battered and bruised after a chastening 6-3 defeat but have lost only once in 19 games since then with ten Hag insisting lessons have been learned.
Eyebrows were raised at the Dutchman's team selection with Luke Shaw again selected as the left-sided centre back in direct opposition to Erling Haaland. Lisandro Martinez was surprisingly on the bench, so too Antony with starts for Fred and injury doubt Anthony Martial.

After Pep Guardiola's side had characteristically dominated the early possession, the first opening of the tie went the way of United. Fernandes flashed a shot wide from a difficult angle having picked out by Christian Eriksen in the box. Moments later, Fernandes was involved again when his lovely raking cross-field ball found Martial, but he was unable to trouble Ederson after incisive pressing from the Reds.

United magnificently shackled the almost anonymous Haaland as Fred, brought in for compatriot Antony, did a superb spoiling job on Kevin de Bruyne, forcing City's creative genius to the fringes with a couple of huge, crowd-pleasing tackles.

Ten minutes before half-time, it look as though United's threat had been rewarded with the opener. After another pinpoint pass from Bruno, Rashford burst clear and skipped beyond the advancing Ederson. But City's defence had backed up well and immediately cut off the angle to force Rashford wide and getting a block in.

United threatened again three minutes later with Rashford again at the heart of things. A beautiful one-two with Eriksen set the former free to find him one-on-one with Ederson but our in-form no.10 was again unable to convert as the Brazilian stopper stood firm to thwart Rashford's attempted dink.

Kyle Walker thumped narrowly wide from distance shortly before half time after a spell of neat and tidy City probing around our box.

If the first half was a compelling tactical battle, the derby - as expected - opened up with a number of fiery challenges flying in with the Old Trafford crowd whipped up into a frenzy.

Ederson saved well from Raphael Varane, even though the flag up was against the Frenchman, and Antony, on for Martial,  put Nathan Ake under pressure to force a succession of corners.
There was more zip and purpose in both sides' play but City blinked first when de Bruyne tested our defence with a number of searching crosses in quick succession. Varane dealt with the first one but the ball was recycled to the Belgian who picked out Grealish, only just on for Foden, to steer home an unmissable header from six yards out.

United had half an hour to rescue their unbeaten run with Alejandro Garnacho soon summoned from the bench in an attempt to wrestle back a modicum of control. 
Aaron Wan - Bissaka jinked his way through the City defence before he was closed down well, but the uplift in pressure finally told in the 78th minute albeit in slightly contentious circumstances.

Casemiro's defence-splitting ball found Rashford whom, offside, smartly decided not to play the ball but surely impeded Manuel Akanji. The Swiss centre-back had tracked Rashford but stopped, expecting the flag to go up, which allowed Fernandes to race through and slam beyond the stranded Ederson, who had come to collect what he thought would be a dead ball.

Referee Stuart Attwell consulted with his assistant, and the pair decided the goal should stand after ruling Rashford had not interfered with play. Old Trafford erupted, Pep and City exploded and the stage was set.

With the visitors still reeling from the blow of what they felt was a sense of injustice, Garnacho's influence again proved decisive. Just four minutes further on, the young Spanish-born Argentine burst clear and saw his cross blocked. But the ball came back to him and he steered into the path of  Rashford to fire in low under Ederson and wheeled away in delight at his 16th goal of an extraordinary season. Rashford has now scored in each of his last seven games in all competitions, eight in total, and has been on target in each of his last nine appearances at Old Trafford - the first Red to do so since Teddy Sheringham in 2000.

City inevitably piled on the pressure but were unable to muster even a shot in anger in response as United stood tall to hold out for a simply stunning, sensational victory.

Overall team performance: 8/10
United Faithful Man of the Match: Luke Shaw. 

Friday 13 January 2023

Manchester derby: Five key battles to watch out for

Manchester United will look to end a run of three successive derby day chastenings when Pep Guardiola's City slickers arrive at Old Trafford for the 189th all-Manchester meeting.

The two-time defending league champions have won the last three matches between the sides by an aggregate score of 12-4 but United are in fine fettle and will be confident of a win. 

The two bald managers lock horns on Saturday lunchtime and, with that in mind, here are some of the key derby day battles to look out for.

Marcus Rashford vs Kyle Walker

Marcus Rashford is in the form of his life and a terrifying prospect for even the best Premier League defences. Rashford ran the show in the FA Cup win over Everton and struck a late brace having come off the bench in the midweek cup win over Charlton. He is likely to be United's main threat again and one of only two 'local lads' to feature in the derby. Tasked with keeping tabs on him will be Kyle Walker who has been used across the back line in a number of positions to great effect. Whether at full-back or as a makeshift centre-back or in a back three, Walker's experience will be crucial against United, our top scorer with 15 goals. 

Casemiro vs Rodri

Casemiro was still only a bit part player when the two sides met back in October. He had only recently arrived from Real Madrid and had yet to be fully integrated into the United side in the 6-3 loss. But now that he has been, he has proved an inspired, transformational player in the team, surely the greatest exponent of his craft anywhere in the country. His revered opposite number Rodri certainly runs him close for that particular roll of honour, with the two men sitting at the top of everyone's list when it comes to the Prem's best CDMs. 
Casemiro has formed a solid base alongside Christian Eriksen in United's midfield and has provided the defensive cover our centre-backs have been lacking with Scott McTominay and Fred. In what is sure to be a captivating individual battle, whoever seizes control of midfield is likely to go on and lay the platform for his side's win.

Antony vs Joao Cancelo

Joao Cancelo has perhaps not been at his usual best since the restart after the World Cup. He had a night to forget at right-back down at Southampton but Guardiola is likely to move him to left back where he helps to dominate the midfield. His attacking output is very impressive with the Portuguese having chipped with two goals and five assists so far, a solid return for a full-back. 
He will be in direct competition with Antony, who has impressed in United's last two cup wins but has also attracted criticism in some quarters. His off-the-back work rate and security in possession keeps United's ability to sustain pressure and also allows Diogo Dalot to bomb forward on the overlap (although Aaron Wan - Bissaka will start on Saturday). The form of Cancelo and Antony will make for a fascinating match-up and could go a long way towards deciding the outcome. 

Raphael Varane vs Erling Haaland

The irresistible force meets the immovable object. The league's outstanding centre-forward meets one of the league's best centre backs. Varane limped off 40 minutes into the Etihad debacle in October and City - spearheaded by Haaland's hat-trick - took full advantage. By his own astronomically high standards, Haaland is experiencing something of a goal drought having not scored in his side's last three games. Tasked with extending that 'drought' is Varane, who has shrugged off his World Cup disappointment in superb style. He has been rotated since the restart but United have only conceded one goal in that time and so Varane will be tasked with shackling City's cyborg in this one. Don't be surprised to see Haaland doubled up on by Lisandro Martinez as well. Have United learned their lesson from the last game? Shutting down the 21-goal Haaland does not guarantee success, of course, but would go a long way to helping to do so. Haaland's power and pace versus Varane's positional sense and aerial ability promises a fascinating tete - a - tete. 

Bruno Fernandes vs Kevin de Bruyne

Two very different types of 'CAMs'. Kevin de Bruyne leads the way at the top of the Premier League's assists chart, although that's not all that difficult when you have Erling Haaland up top. Bruno Fernandes may not be anywhere near that this season, but he is United's hardest-working and most important player. The respective talents of the two players always pop up every now and then, especially around derby day and the two are more or less locked together when it comes to the numbers. Fernandes only has three goals this season but has been no less important for Erik ten Hag. Two players who never get injured and play every game when available and two of the league's best no.10s. Both men will again be crucial to deciding their side's destiny when the cream of Manchester's footballing crop clash again at Old Trafford. 

Bring on the derby! 

Thursday 12 January 2023

Welcome to Manchester United, Wout Weghorst

Manchester United are set to complete the signing of Burnley's on-loan Besiktas striker Wout Weghorst  on a short-term deal until the end of the season.

The Dutch international will link up with his compatriot Erik ten Hag at Old Trafford and all eyes now turn to whether he will be registered in time to feature in Saturday's Manchester derby. 

Weghorst is flying to England on Thursday where the paperwork and his medical will be completed. He must be registered by 12pm on Friday to be in the squad for the visit of Pep Guardiola's men on Saturday lunchtime. There is no option to buy as part of the deal - it will be a straight loan until the summer. 
Weghorst scored twice in the last ten minute of his side's World Cup quarter-final with eventual winners Argentina, as Oranje recovered from two down only to eventually succumb on penalties.

Cristiano Ronaldo's acrimonious departure after his now infamously unsanctioned interview has left ten Hag with only the in-form Marcus Rashford and injury-prone Anthony Martial - neither of whom are genuine, out-and-out strikers - as his only options at no.9. If United are to maintain this winning form and go deep into as many competitions as possible, another striker was a must.  

It's true Weghorst is not Erling Haaland 2.0, far from it, but the 30-year-old is the best option from what was available and fits the needs of the squad to a 'T.' United desperately needed another striker and a player very different from our current options. At 6ft 6, Weghorst brings a strong, tall, physical presence to the attack and will be a decent option off the bench too if needed. His arrival allows United to end the over-reliance on Martial, and also allows us to mix our game up too. If we need a Plan B, we can get crosses into the box for Weghorst to get on the end of. He set up Jay Rodriguez to score for Burnley at Turf Moor against us and, although he was unable to help them stave off the drop, Weghorst caught the eye during his brief stint in east Lancashire and has scored eight goals in 16 appearances for Turkish club Besiktas in the Super Lig.

We need a rotation option and although he's not someone I would have pinpointed to come in and help us, if ten Hag wants him then that will do me. Dutch strikers have a good record at United and we won the league the last time we had one. He's not a big name but who were we going to get with a very limited budget in the short term? It's clear United will try to sign a longer-term centre-forward in the summer with Harry Kane and Napoli striker Victor Osimhen among the names mentioned. 

Beyond merely his goalscoring record, Weghorst is, as you'd expect for a man of 6ft 6, good in the air with effective hold up work. A goal poacher but also a striker willing to drop back and link the play, he averaged more presses per 90 minutes than anyone else during his time in the Premier League. In short, he's a nuisance for opposition defences and has all the assets needed to be a success at Old Trafford. 

The board were never going to go and spend £60m+ on a striker with the current financial constraints and the ongoing process of a sale. We always had to get someone cheap and I will back big Wout 100%. People just think of the biggest names all the time but let's give this lad a chance and, like I said, if it's what the manager wants then I'm all for it. 

Weghorst began his career in Dutch lower league football before being spotted and signed by Drenthe-based club Emmen. There, he plundered an impressive 20 goals in 62 appearances before moving on to Heracles Almelo and then AZ. It was with the Alkmaar-based club where Weghorst's career really blossomed, as he scored 20 goals in 29 appearances during his debut season to finish a joint third top scorer and earn a maiden call up for Ronald Koeman's Dutch squad. 

Wout Weghorst at Wolfsburg has a nice alliterative feel to it and the move duly transpired when he joined the Bundesliga club ahead of the 2018-19 season, going on to net a hat-trick of hat-tricks before another 16 goals the following season to fire the side into the Europa League.

With Burnley staring relegation in the face, Sean Dyche turned to Weghorst as the man to lead his Clarets out of trouble as he made his first foray into the Premier League for a fee of £12m. 

As we now know, Dyche's rare dip into the transfer market did not pay off and Weghorst moved on loan to Besiktas where he has impressed in front of goal. 
United have a mixed record when it comes to ageing, veteran, short terms strikers. For every Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrik Larsson, we have had Odion Ighalo and Edinson Cavani. In fairness, 17 goals in 39 games for Cavani during his first season at Old Trafford wasn't too bad a return but persistent fitness and availability issues meant the Uruguyuan barely featured during his second term at United with only two goals in 20 games.

Welcome to Manchester United. Welcome to Old Trafford, Wout Weghorst.