The Myth of Progress

We’re now two years removed from the firing of Louis van Gaal, and subsequent hiring of Jose Mourinho. In that time, we’ve experienced the joys of titles, and the lows of…everything else. The fabled “second season” was supposed to hail in the best of what Mourinho United can offer. It ended in failure.Jose and Jones
The 2018 FA Cup Final is the latest addition to a sorry list of inexcusable failures currently mounting at Jose Mourinho’s doorstep. His hiring was advertised as a return to glory for a fallen giant. Despite a truly atrocious start to his second “third season” at Chelsea (leading to his firing), Mourinho was the obvious choice. A man whose name still carries a weight only matched by a few managers worldwide. He is one of the few managers who can truly claim to “guarantee trophies”. That claim should come with a “by whatever means necessary” follow up.
Two years is a very fair time frame to assess the situation. Elite clubs across the globe often find themselves reviewing a manager’s position after two seasons; Manchester United should be no different. The good news, Jose, is that you have a boss absolutely terrified of firing you. The bad news, however, is you’ve made no steps forward from year one to year two. Ouch.
Yes yes, I can already see you punching your comments about how “6th to 2nd is clear progress!” and how “no one would have ever been able to compete with City this year!”. And you’re right…at a very, very basic level. Any other season, and we’d have been looking at a title challenge, maybe even a crown come the end. An increase in 12 points is actually pretty impressive when you think about it (not for too long though, because you’ll realise other teams have done it, and done it better). Just…hear me out before you insult me, yeah?

Financially Irresponsible

The first failure of the Jose Mourinho-era is player recruitment. Fans are quick to point to the gaudy numbers Guardiola has PayPal’d clubs over the last two seasons, but it’s difficult to argue he hasn’t spent them wisely. What they don’t want you to know is Mourinho has spent a small fortune himself. And it has not been wise.
I touched upon United’s shifting recruitment policy a couple of years back, and you can brush up here, but it’s amazing to me that how relevant that actually is today.
Of Mourinho’s 8 signings, 3 started in the 2018 FA Cup: Paul Pogba, Alexis Sanchez, and Nemanja Matic. Of Mourinho’s 8 signings, 6 remain at the club. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has retired to America. Henrikh Mkhitaryan was used as a means to gain Sanchez. His big money centre back signings (Eric Bailly and Victor Lindeloff) didn’t make an appearance in the final. Romelu Lukaku made a cameo, despite being clearly hindered by injury.
Conversely, of Guadiola’s 14 signings, 9 played consistent, meaningful football in their pursuit of the title, and an additional 1 spent most of this season injured. The remaining 4 players are a promising young winger, a back up goalkeeper, a player on loan, and one who has left. You would imagine what players he adds to his squad will be players that will positively impact an already powerful side.

lukaku and pogba

Lukaku has largely shown his worth over the last season. Pogba, not so much

As rumours fly of a further £300-500 million cash injection, it’s worth asking whether it’s actually worth giving him the cash to make his signings? Based on the evidence presented to us, he only trusts half of his own signings (Lukaku would have started if not for injury) in a cup final. The region of anywhere between £60-80 million was spent on two centre backs, of which he is clearly showing buyers remorse towards. His inability to get the best, consistently, from our club record signing, as well as our reportedly highest earner, should raise massive concerns over his transfer policy. The reality is only 2 of Mourinho’s remaining signings have truly benefited from his tutelage.
Despite hundreds of millions of pounds being spent on undeniably fine talent, United are no closer to looking like a complete unit than they were 5 years ago. Still horribly unbalanced, still in requirement of at least one player up the spine, and a pair to play the full back positions. Of course, some of these issues wouldn’t exist if he wasn’t so stubborn.

He F****ng Hates Me

Which brings us to part two: man management and coaching. Jose Mourinho is a winner, there is no doubt about it. Work with him, and you’re more likely than not to add at least one medal to your mantlepiece. Unless you execute his will to a T, however…well you better have a bag packed.
The first big casualty of Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United was the aforementioned Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Barely 18 months from his move to the biggest club in the world, Mkhitaryan was moved on. Mourinho had started and dropped Mkhitaryan repeatedly over the course of his time at Old Trafford, seemingly unable to get the most out of his midfield Armenian. When he saw an opportunity to solidify the position, he swiftly moved on the hot and cold attacking midfielder. Mkhitaryan wasn’t the right player for what Mourinho wanted to achieve, and was given little on field opportunity to become that player.

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Mkhitaryan’s 18 month stint in Manchester was cut short when Alexis Sanchez became available

I bring this up because it’s a story we’re seeing play out across multiple players. Luke Shaw, formerly the most expensive teenager in the game, has seen a smattering of opportunities to prove himself as a worthy starter. From day one, Mourinho’s distrust of Shaw has been evident, and has led to public shaming of a player barely recovered from a horrific leg break. Shaw has been called out by Mourinho in conferences, in post match interviews, and has extended to the shameful “half time sub”, despite providing an attacking option United fans have craved.
Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial are receiving the same treatment. Both players have shown immense promise over their careers so far, scoring vital goals in cup semi finals, against local and historic rivals, and provide pace and directness that became synonymous with United throughout history. Both players have been relegated to support and cameo appearances. Rashford only started the 2018 Cup Final because of an injury to Lukaku. Neither player can be happy with the way their careers have stalled.
The problem with this method of management is that you’re putting your players in a position where they can’t take chances. Rashford and Martial are instinctual players. They’re both direct, and at their best when running at the defence. That style of play will yield moments of glory (Martial vs Liverpool, Rashford vs City), but will inevitably lead to loss of possession. Both players need the room to play their games, yes, but the room to make mistakes without fear of being dropped for weeks at a time, or worse; being publicly lambasted by their manager. When you don’t play someone for a few weeks, you cannot expect them to hit the ground running. You can expect them to try to over think things in an attempt to impress, instead of doing the simple things. This is what we see with Rashford, Martial, and Shaw, every time they’re in the starting 11.

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You just know both of these lads are going to ball the moment they leave

Similarly, the baffling decision to drop, then, Fans Player of the Year, Ander Herrera, for the start of this season. A midfield three of Matic, Herrera, and Pogba, logically, made the most sense to a lot of people. Herrera has played the least amount of league games this season since joining the club.
Jose Mourinho does not have the time, or patience, to allow something to grow. It simply isn’t in his nature to try to coax the best from a player. If they aren’t performing, they aren’t for him. What we’ve seen since, is players flourishing away from the spotlight of Old Trafford. Mkhitaryan fit into the Arsenal set up seamlessly, and put in a series of good performances before being hit by injury. Memphis Depay has set Ligue 1 alight, with 23 goals and 16 assists in all competitions, helping Lyon back into the Champions League. Adnan Januzaj, never given a kick under Mourinho, has made the preliminary squad for Belgium’s World Cup campaign, and is a nice bet to make the 23.
Realistically, over two seasons, you’re looking at Jesse Lingard as the only player, really, to have improved under Jose Mourinho. Lingard has put together his best season, production wise, this season, which has gone a long way to cementing him as a starter at the club, and a certain to play a key role in England’s latest summer disappointment. Honestly, if you can name any more, let me know, because I’m stumped.

Boring, Boring United

A lack of clear plan transfer-wise, and the lack of trust in half your players, culminates in, arguably, the greatest crime of them all: atrociously dull, un-adventurous, predictable football. All words you should never associate with Manchester United.
Addressing the “dull” part is easy. “Dull” is subjective. Mourinho spoke before the Cup Final of how he finds tight 1-0 wins more enjoyable than 5 or 6-0 wins, because it suggests excitement. And it does…to a certain degree. If you nick a 1-0 win off Manchester City in the last moments, you’re going to enjoy that far more than blowing West Ham away 4-0, for example. If you labour to a 1-0 win against relegation threatened Southampton, however, the fans are going to be less forgiving.
They’ll start to revolt when they see Tottenham Hotspur playing attractive, expansive football on a fraction of the budget. When they start to wish they played like City and Liverpool play, you’ve done something wrong.
We’re told repeatedly that United don’t only expect to win, but they expect to win a certain way. I can count on one hand the amount of times we’ve won that certain way since Ferguson retired. Maybe two of those wins came under Mourinho. The thing is, it was always going to be this way. Jose Mourinho’s sides have been notorious for being boring and predictable. Jose Mourinho’s biggest positive is that he will win by any means necessary, that is a fundamental clash with everything United stand for. He tried it at Real Madrid, and it was met with the same backlash.

jose touchline

Probably the last time Mourinho was actually interesting. This was 2004.

Keep it tight, and put the focus on the big man up top. A game plan that wins you games when you have a Didier Drogba, or a Zlatan Ibrahimovic, even Romelu Lukaku. It doesn’t work with a smaller, shiftier Marcus Rashford. His unwillingness to adapt to the talent he has helped assemble is baffling. Can you expect Rashford to hold the ball up, when his game is predominantly pace and little strength? The answer is no, you can’t, and yet that is how he set up for the Cup Final.
Jose Mourinho came into the public eye playing the underdog with a Porto side far inferior to the opposition they defeated on their way to the Champions League title. He carried that style of play with him to multiple Premier League titles and an eventual Treble with Inter Milan. Between 2002 and 2010, he won every trophy you could possibly win for his respective clubs. Football adapted. Yes, he won La Liga, but he couldn’t get one of the most expensive sides in the world over the line in Europe. Yes, he returned to England and won more trophies with both Chelsea and United, but he ended his reign in Chelsea with them languishing in the bottom half. Post-2010, the world has Jose Mourinho figured out, and I’d say he’s at least 5 years too late to re-adjust to it.

Expected Greatness, Got Mediocrity

Finally, the statistics to back everything up. At surface level, there is a considerable improvement between 2016/17 and 2017/18. Surface level doesn’t tell half the story. I gave it some stick when I first heard they were calculating “expected goals” (xG for short), but, understanding it, it’s actually a very useful way of predicting what a side is going to look like in the coming weeks and months, and how good they *actually are*. xG calculates the probability of a goal being scored based on the location of the initial shot, the player taking it, which area of the goal the shot was destined for, and the quality of opposition. You’re then given a percentage chance of whether the goal would be scored under normal circumstances (10% chance is presented as 0.100, for example), and it’s all added up from there. It must be added that these results can’t take into account whether a player is injured, whether the side are fatigued, etc. they’re just a guideline to add more context. Regardless, the results aren’t promising.
Using statistics from understat.com, it’s clear that, despite two years of overseeing the playing staff, both current and incoming, there has been little to no improvement in Manchester United’s on field play. Based on xG points alone, United should have finished this season in 6th, with 62 points. For context, xG predicted United to finish on 71 points last season, not a million miles from their final total.

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The xG table. 6th place. Jose’s got us playing the way United should…

Dig a little deeper and things become even less enjoyable. xG goals: 59, xG conceded goals: 43. In reality, United scored 68 and conceded 28. We’ve often wondered where we would be without the superhuman-like performances of David de Gea, and xG is providing us with an idea: 6th place, 19 points worse off.
BUT WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN?!? You cry behind your phone or laptop. It means, dear reader, United have overachieved. Significantly. Around £300million spent over two years, and United have are being considered overachievers. That is about as shocking an indictment as can be made against Jose Mourinho. Under normal circumstances, 81 points would be considered a valiant title challenge. Unfortunately, under normal circumstances, United wouldn’t be close to that challenge.

Is there any hope?

The idea of progress under Jose is nothing but a fallacy at this point. His signings aren’t panning out the way they should, this ability to properly handle his players is seriously questionable at best, and his on field product is unsustainable to say the very least. Given everything we’ve seen, I have no reason to believe Jose Mourinho has the ability to get the right players in to make the charge expected of him. Some fans have speculated that the resignation of Rui Faria, coupled with the promotion of Keiran McKenna from the Under 18s, whose side won the 18th Professional Development League, and adding Michael Carrick to his coaching staff, we could expect a change in philosophy, and an openness to new ideas. He is on record as saying he likes to “shape them (coaches) into my way of thinking.”, so there goes that idea.

jose carrick

Please help fix this, Michael

So the choices, as far as I can see, are clear: cut loose, and nab a manager playing sustainable, “attractive” football, who is currently on a smaller budget, with the scope to succeed at a bigger club (Mauricio Pochettino has solidified Spurs a statistical top 3 side with a fraction of Jose’s millions), or face a regression to the mean. With City and Liverpool strengthening further, Spurs’ young stars maturing further, and both Arsenal and likely Chelsea heading in a new managerial direction, it’s a case of adapt accordingly, or be left behind, again. 6th place doesn’t have a nice feel to it. There’s a risk that it’ll be a feeling you’ll have to get used to.

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Manchester United: A 2016-17 Season Preview…sorta

A week before the start of the 2016-17 edition of the Premier League, and United fans are no closer to knowing what sort of product they will enjoy/endure (delete as applicable) over the course of the next 9 months. Despite radical changes being made to the coaching staff, as well as new additions to the playing staff, all of which SHOULD yield positive steps in the coming months and years, a pre-season that descended into farce will leave fans, somewhat understandably, concerned. Over the course of 4 games, going into the Community Shield, United managed to dispatch 2 infinitely inferior sides, with relative ease, beating Wigan Athletic 2-0, and Galatasaray 5-2. “Not bad”, you might think. Maybe, but you have to remember Wigan are a shell of the side that were once commonplace in the Premier League, and Galatasaray actually failed to qualify for any European competition last season. Still, 7-2 over 2 games is pretty decent, and regardless of the opposition, pre-season is about one thing and one thing only: fitness.
A successful pre-season can help create a positive atmosphere in the dressing room, and some much needed momentum, going into the new season. While this isn’t necessarily true in every case (some of the van Gaal-era’s best football was played on successive US tours), I would like to draw attention to the stark contrast in Chelsea’s title winning campaign of 2014-15, and last seasons worst. title. defence. ever.: in the lead up to winning the title, Chelsea contested 10 pre-season ties, winning 7, and losing 2. The following season, Chelsea played in 4, and failed to win a single game, even shipping four goals to the MLS’ very own New York Red Bulls. A small pool size, granted, but there is evidence to suggest a good pre-season is positively influential to the season.
Which brings us to the 2 United failed to win; a 4-1 loss to Borussia Dortmund, and a 0-0 in Wayne Rooney’s testimonial vs Everton. Again, only friendlies. But these are the level of sides that United will expect to test them in the forthcoming season. And it doesn’t look great.
I digress; they’re only friendlies. And we shouldn’t take too much from these games. Dortmund was a played with several notable names omitted from selection, and Everton was all about raising money for Rooney’s foundation. Performances will always be critiqued, however, and it’s difficult to look past such lackluster showings from the sides, in all areas of the pitch.mourinho touchline
Mourinho patrols the touchline during Wayen Rooney’s Testimonial (Image Source)

Fortunately for Jose and his red army, there is another pre-season game to be contested. While *officially* a competitive fixture, the Community Shield is little more than a glorified friendly, and while Mourinho and Ranieri will claim they want to win it and it’s an event and blah blahhh blahhhhhhhh, the focus will be on making sure no one gets injured.

And so I ask a question: what should we be expecting of Manchester United in 2016-17? Over the past 3 years, expectations have been tampered to the point in which, in the business end of last season, we were ready to celebrate 4th place like it actually means something. For the past 3 years we’ve been coaxed into the notion that top four is good enough, and, despite only achieving that goal once over those 3, and spending nigh on £400 million(ish) in the same amount of time, United seem to be no closer to adding to 20 previous title wins. To (sort of) answer my question: it’s impossible to know what we should expect. Of course we SHOULD be challenging for the title – young players have had a summer to continue to grow, we’ve hired a man who, for all his faults, does know how to succeed in England, and have shown far more focus in the transfer market than in any of the seasons following Sir Alex’s retirement. United SHOULD be primed for a season of competing for success on all fronts. Then again, we said that last year.
mkhitaryan vs wigan
Henrikh Mkhitaryan glides through the Wigan Athletic back line (Image Source)

On paper, mind, United are stronger than last season. No major names have departed the club (yet), and some pretty big deals have been added to the fold. If you’d said to me at the end of last season “next season, you’ll have added Erid Bailly, Henrikh Mkhitarian, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and maybe Paul Pogba”, I’d have said “who’s Eric Bailly?” While surely not expected to be an instant starter, Bailly has time on his side, and will surely be seen as the full time partner of Chris Smalling in the near future. Mkhitarian joins off the back of a season in which he scored or assisted on 34 occasions at Dortmund last season. United will be hoping that he, in conjunction with Zlatan, who scored 47 goals in all competitions for PSG last season, Marcus Rashford, and Anthony Martial, will put an end to the horror show United suffered in front of goal last season. As for Paul Pogba…we’ll discuss that some other time.

So what can be considered a good season for United? Personally, I expect this side to challenge. For too long have we been on the bubble, now HAS to see the end of all those years of hurt. Top 3 is an absolute must, but within 5 points of top by May is my bare minimum. Despite seeing nothing to suggest this is possible for this side, this is what I would consider a successful season. Cups are impossible to predict, but I fully expect Mourinho to lift one this season (Charity Shield doesn’t count, Moyesy). As for Europa League; I’m not fussed for it, unless we reach the Quarter Finals. Use it as a platform for the younger lads to get time, and go from there.

This season cannot be the same free ride van Gaal got in his first year; just because we’re not in the Champions League, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t expect anything less than the best. Luckily, we appear to have grasped this. And, I predict, we’ll enjoy a, long overdue, season to remember.

 

“Manchester United: Welcome to Jose Mourinho”

Or; “How Jose Mourinho has enabled Ed Woodward to create the Real Madrid of England”

“You know how many young players I promote to the first team from academies?” A stone-faced Jose Mourinho asked a packed Europa Suite at Old Trafford, as he was questioned about his youth integration record, during his first Press Conference as the new manager of Manchester United. “You know how many young players I promote to the first team from academies? 49.” And so it was, arguably the biggest question mark atop the head of United’s new boss seemingly dispelled, if only in his mind. Manchester United’s storied history of “giving youth a chance” and Jose Mourinho’s perceived history of…well…not, had become one of the largest concerns among the Old Trafford faithful following the appointment of the Portuguese tactician. Given the positive impact the youth contingent had on a, let’s face it, dire Manchester United outfit last season, fans might be forgiven for expecting more responsibilities may be afforded to the potential future stars of Manchester United. “49” was an attempt by Jose to allay fears that he would abandon the academy set up, and that he was as good as anyone for giving opportunities to those looking to begin their careers in football. And, for a moment or two, it may have worked, although, what seemed like minutes later, news broke that Manchester United have opened talks with Juventus officials over the transfer of Paul Pogba, for a world record fee of £100 million. And, while cheers could be heard across the land, not all are unanimous in this celebration.

This is not an attack on Pogba, who, in his 4 years away from Manchester United, has broken into the first team, and has nailed down a first team spot, for both club and country. A signing of his calibre would certainly improve the team instantly, and would, once and for all, address an issue that has plagued this side since long before Sir Alex retired. My issue with this pursuit stems from a case of “old habits die hard” from the incoming manager. paulpogbaPaul Pogba in his United Days (image source

49 players he claims to have successfully integrated into his first teams. A list was produced and waves, ala van Gaal’s famous “you take these to Big Sam” episode of 2015. A list was produced, and waved with authority; Mourinho claimed he didn’t have the time to read every name out, and the list was put back into his pocket, never to see the light of day. Luckily for us, someone put that list together. The Telegraph has collated that very list, which you can read here. I won’t repeat it entirely, because it must have been painstaking to put together, but I will take choice cuts. This list includes Ben Sarhar; a highly touted Israeli centre forward who made all of 3 appearances In his time at Chelsea. It includes Alvaro Morata, who was swiftly banished to the B team and told to grow up by Mourinho. It even includes Dominic Solanke, who managed all of 17 minutes in a 6-0 walk over, before being kicked into touch. This is not a list of 49 successful integrations; this is a list of 49 random names who he has played, full stop. And herein lies Mourinho’s problem; it’s not that he is inherently against the use of Youth Team players, it’s that he doesn’t trust them to play more than a few moments. Enter Paul Pogba.

For those that aren’t familiar with the Paul Pogba-Manchester United story; Pogba joined the club in 2009, and made waves in the under-21s, however found it increasingly difficult to break into the first team. After a lowly 7 first team appearances in the 2011-12 season (y’know, the one Scholes came out of retirement to try and salvage), Pogba sought to cut ties and ply his trade on lands previously uncharted. A £800,000 fee was agreed between Juventus and United, and Pogba began his journey to the top.
That Manchester United are entertaining the notion of this transfer speaks volumes of the clubs current state, and Jose Mourinho is the culmination of the transition the club began to undergo the moment Ed Woodward stepped into his new office 3 years ago. The overall Madrid-ification of United began when United chased names such as Bale and Ronaldo, before conceding defeat and settling for Fabregas and Thiago…before accepting defeat again and landing Fellaini. Regardless of the outcome, the vision was clear; United are a big club and, as such, should be signing the biggest names. A season later, and success as King Louis attempts to assemble his Gaalacticos with journeymen and snakes in Falcao and di Maria. Big players with big reputations, and fees to match, who didn’t last more than a season. van Gaal grew tired of his big name players and shipped out many. He cobbled together a smaller side, so to allow the promotion of youth team players, he told the press. Players with little reputation, but players who felt closer to the club than any of the names preceding them. Regardless of the why and the how, young players have always been given the opportunity to create a positive impact on the team. And, in the case of last season, usurp the marquee signings.

Which brings us onto the point of this whole article: Manchester United’s central midfield.  Since before Ferguson left the club, the centre of midfield has bee a particularly concerning area of the pitch, seemingly devoid of steel and verve since Paul Scholes retired. In an attempt to fix this area, Jose Mourinho appears to have opted for the easy route, with a pursuit of Pogba. At 23 years old, Pogba has the opportunity to slot into the centre of United’s midfield and own that spot for the next 10 years. A ready made solution to a self inflicted problem. But what if we already have the next Pogba among our ranks? And what if, by bringing him back in, we’re driving that man away, making the same mistake 4 years later. Pogba would indicate instant success, and all the riches that come with it; massive endorsements, shirt sales, yet another actor to put in whatever film 20th Century Fox need advertising next. You can put Pogba’s face on a mousemat and people will buy it. The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for Sean Goss, for James Weir, or for, at the moment at least, Timothy Fosu-Mensah. Goss, likened to Michael Carrick, has taken the Under-21s by storm, as has current captain Weir. Unlike Goss, Weir has racked up first team minutes, making a cameo appearance under Louis van Gaal against Arsenal last season. And Tim Fosu-Mensah looks confident in just about any position you ask him to play. Any one of these three, even using these players as a committee central midfielder, could lead to the breaking out of wonderful talent. Instead, another path is being blocked off as they attempt to travel into the first team, this time with a Pogba shaped tree lying in the way.weirJames Weir post-Debut (Image Source)

And this is the point I’ve been trying to make over the last…1200 words. I am not slighting on Paul Pogba; he is a fine player would make Manchester United better no end. But I am slighting on those who insist on making signings such as Pogba. I cannot fault Mourinho entirely; it is, of course, Ed Woodward who talks of how much money United have to spend every summer, and who’s obsession with big names and blockbusters has led to more failures than smashes, but I can level a significant level of the blame at his doorstep. For Mourinho is perfect for Woodward. He doesn’t care for what could be, he only cares for what already is. Mourinho is a “win now” manager. Unconcerned at the level of improvement those lads might make, Mourinho will press ahead with that fourth signing, and complete his vision for the club for the next 12 months. And then next season, he will buy other players, likely huge names on huge salaries, because that’s how he plays the game.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We’ve spent 3 years making statements of intent, and it’s gotten us nowhere. A bigger statement would be to develop Sean Goss in to the Michael Carrick-a-like he’s so often touted to be, or continue the growth of Fosu-Mensah, in his more natural position as a holding midfielder. What a statement that would be; to create more first team players as well as competing. Though it’ll likely not happen, not under Mourinho. And there are at least 2 names that won’t add to the 49. Because Manchester United isn’t Manchester United anymore. Manchester United: Welcome to Jose Mourinho. Just be careful what you wished for.

 

 

Preview: FA Cup Final – United vs Crystal Palace

For the first time since 2007, Manchester United will travel to Wembley Stadium in  pursuit of a, now record leveling, 12th FA Cup title. Only Arsenal can boast more victories than United in the Cup, having both equaled, and then broken, that record over the last two seasons. United will be hoping to come away from a truly disappointing season with at least something to smile about.

The FA Cup has proven to be something of a saving grace for Louis van Gaal. Going into the last game of the season knowing 4th position was all but out reach, many other clubs may have cut ties and moved onto another manager with another approach to things. United’s progress in the famous cup has given King Lou something of a stay of execution. Success in the FA Cup may well give him another season to implement his philosophy.

United’s path to the Final has been one navigated with minimal difficulty.  A 1-0 win over Sheffield United in the Third Round, courtesy of a 93rd minute Wayne Rooney penalty, led to a trip to Pride Park on a Friday night, and a 3-1 victory over hosts Derby County in the Fourth Round. Shrewsbury Town were dispatched 3-0 in the Fifth, and United faced their first Premier League opposition in West Ham United in the Sixth Round. United looked down and out when Dimitri Payet dispatched one of his trademark free kicks, however United equalized 7 minutes from time thanks to boy wonder Anthony Martial. A replay at Upton Park saw fireworks as United’s OTHER boy wonder, Marcus Rashford, buried from outside the box, and the human chest himself, Marouane Fellaini, smuggled a second moments later. A late charge from the Irons yielded a consolation, but United hung on, and a trip to Wembley was on the cards.
Everton were all that stood in United’s way, and early signs were that United would not only see safe passage through to the final, but would embarrass the Toffees in the process. Fellaini picked up where he left off by scuffing his effort past Joel Robles, and United led 1-0 at half time. Then, pandemonium. Everton earned a penalty, which gave David de Gea the perfect opportunity to save United for the 1800th in April, however he could nothing about the Chris Smalling own goal which leveled the tie. United looked rattled, but survived wave after wave of Everton attacks. And then, when extra time looked all but certain, the ball fell to Ander Herrera. He was literally wrestled to the ground by Phil Jagielka, but he did not give up. As he fell, he extended his leg ball-wards, and managed to fashion a half chance, which fell to the FIRST boy wonder. The result? See the picture. Bedlam. From the final whistle, to the walk to the station, “TONY MARTIAL CAME FROM FRANCE…”. 92nd Minute. 2-1. Oh how we have toiled for moments like that.

After seeing out a 3 match ban following a fracas that Louis van Gaal described as “only acceptable in sex masochism”, Marouane Fellaini, the oft maligned, yet recently reliable, 8 foot 10 inch chest of a man, is widely expected to start in the centre of the park. In the 3 games Big Felli has missed, United have laboured to a 1-0 win over Norwich, lost 3-2 (after leading 2-1 with 20 minutes left) at West Ham, and are ,at the time of writing, playing out a victory over Bournemouth. One wonders whether United would have been more ready to deal with the physicality of West Ham United with Fellaini in the side, and I’m certain van Gaal laments not having his go-to ball winner available for the run in. He is almost certain to start, after neither Ander Herrera nor Juan Mata have managed to impose themselves on the vacant slot in the centre of the park. Marcos Rojo appears to have picked up an injury in training, and, while he’ll hope to be fit and ready for selection, I certainly do not. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson looks the far more natural left back, and seems more than comfortable whenever he plays. The team almost picks itself, bar one position. In my eyes, the only position worthy of debate is the Right Midfield position. Mata has been deployed there, Lingard is a natural there. My thoughts are that Jesse Lingard will line up at right midfield, with United playing the same Midfield/Forward as the Semi-Final. In all I imagine United will line up as suchLINEUP111463518834380

United’s opposition comes in the form of Crystal Palace, who have seen out a season that threatened to be great, yet fell apart as quickly as it came together. Registering only 2 league wins since Boxing Day, and 12 points in the same period of time, saw Palace go from outsiders for Europa League to relegation candidates in less than a month. As with United, Palace have found the FA Cup to be a welcome distraction from the nightmares of league football. Palace won 2-1 at Southampton in the Third, at 1-0 at home to Stoke in the Fourth, 1-0 and 2-0 at Spurs and Reading in the Fifth and Sixth rounds respectively, before overcoming Watford 2-1 in their Semi Final. Palace will be hoping to win their first major trophy in their 110 year history, and will be keen not see a repeat of their last FA Cup Final. The 1990 FA Cup, against United, no less, ended 3-3 on the day. United won the cup 1-0 in the replay, and Palace have only now managed to match their best ever finish. United managed a 2-0 victory over Palace in their last meeting.

It may be something of a moot point, given it’s a cup final, but for everything we’ve seen this season, to even give van Gaal an argument to stay on this season, this game is a must win. 5th position and a Cup Final is not good enough for a club that has spent close to £250 million over the past 2 years. Nothing but a win will do here. With the rise of Leicester and Spurs this year, Klopp getting a full season at Liverpool, Conte taking over at Chelsea, and Pep Guardiola himself joining the cause at the blue half of Manchester, van Gaal knows that, unless tangible evidence of improvement is shown, he will likely be moved on in favour of a monster he helped create. But that’s for another day…

Kick Off Time: 5.30pm
Venue: Wembley Stadium, London
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Last 5 Games – United: WLWDW
Last 5 Games – Crystal Palace: LWLWL

Preview: United vs Aston Villa

Cast all expectations aside for this Manchester United team, because, whatever they may be, they will not be met, be they good or bad. In the space of 4 days the fanbase has been subjected both sheer anger and sheer joy; losing 3-0 to Spurs in the Premier League on the Sunday, and defeating West Ham to make the Semi-Final of the FA Cup on the Wednesday. Mr Louis van Gaal manages to survive at least two more weeks. It remains to be seen whether van Gaal will stay beyond the end of this season, but you have to admire the man’s ability to not get fired, despite seemingly being out the door on at least three separate occasions this year alone.

Which brings us nicely onto this weekend’s tie. United return to Premier League action against Aston Villa this Saturday in yet another must-win game. The aforementioned loss to Spurs have left us 4 points behind City, and subsequently 4th place, with only 6 games to go. Every game from here on out is a must win, so get used to me saying that.
Aston Villa find themselves only 15 points off safety at the bottom of the table. I mean, I say “only 15 points”; the only reason they’ve yet to be relegated is because they can technically survive on goal difference, however they need a 20 goal swing, to win every game from now until the end of the season, for Norwich, Sunderland, Newcastle to lose their remaining games, for the sun and the moon to perfectly align on the third Thursday of May, and for hell itself to suffer a terrible freeze. It’s a tough fight, but one I’m sure they’re up for. Villa have opted, however, to tackle this task without a proper manager. Despite my best attempts, they were unmoved when I offered them my services a couple of weeks ago. I would have kept them up.
Unlike Spurs last week, Aston Villa are a side with absolutely no verve, no cutting edge, not even a backbone. Years of mistreatment have left the club a shell of what it once was. The rot set in around 2009, and all ambition appears to wither and die in its wake. A side steeped in history, who once threatened to shake up the once consistent “big four” of United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea on multiple occasions appeared to settle for mid-table, and the club has suffered. The best this side can offer, in reality, is one Carles Gil, and that’s really stretching it. Villa, honestly, have nothing of any desire to anyone outside of the bottom half of the Championship. The promise of Jack Grealish has gone as quickly as it arrived, Scott Sinclair is as effective at Villa as he was at City, and behind a back four assembled from blu-tac and paperclips is a goalkeeper so error prone he’d make Mingolet look like a world beater by comparison. United will have no shortage of opportunities to score, something incredible to think about when you remember we’ve scored only 39 times in the league.

Coming off the back of a win like the one in mid-week makes you all the more frustrated at what this side has achieved this season. West Ham have been very good all season long, and to not only beat them away from home, but to in relative comfort, it quite the task. One that, after the Spurs game, many thought United weren’t up to. And yet here we are. Hopes of a trophy renewed, and hopes of putting together a top-4 worthy run also. A big win against Aston Villa, knowing City play an inconsistent Chelsea side only hours later would be a huge step in the right direction.
There cannot be many changes van Gaal can make to this side, but he’ll be damned if he doesn’t make them anyway. Herrera capped a so-so performance with a foot injury, which led to Mark Noble literally carrying him off the pitch, and likely will not be risked with the run in we have. Fellaini, for all his faults, played well on Wednesday night, capping his “actually pretty alright” showing with a goal. A winning goal, no less. Marcos Rojo continued the trend of playing pretty poorly for an hour before being replaced, expect that to continue, and his right back counterpart, Tim Fosu-Mensah, was outstanding in keeping the livewires withing the West Ham machine from snapping into life. I can only see one change being made, and that is Mata for Herrera, with Fellaini being asked to play a slightly deeper role.vs villa
I really cannot expand on the game from there. United met Villa at Villa park on the only Friday Night football match in Premier League history (so I believe), which ended 1-0 thanks to an Adnan Januzaj screamer (tap in). You can relive that performance with my stunning write up here.

This is a game you expect United to win. Win the game, send Villa down, put a bit of pressure on City. That’s all we ask.

Preview: West Ham United vs United

Thank Christ for the FA Cup. After a positively hellish weekend that saw City open up a 4 point gap that may ultimately become a bridge too far for Louis van Gaal’s incompetent soldiers, United have the opportunity to banish the demons of Sunday afternoon only days later. Wednesday evening sees United travel to East London for the replay of the FA Cup Quarter Final, a tie that, should United fail to progress, may well spell the end of the season for the Red Devils.

Amazingly, in circumstances almost parallel to last season, the FA Cup has proven to be something of a welcome distraction. Much has been made, in recent years, of the dwindling relevancy of the competition, compounded by Manchester City opting to field the Under-9’s against Chelsea in the Fourth Round, however it says something for the regard van Gaal holds it in (or the quality of van Gaal’s tenure thus far leading him to believe that literally anything trophy shaped will do his cause justice) when you realise a full strength United side has been played in every round of the competition over two years.

United square up against a West Ham side hot of the heels of a swashbuckling tie against current FA Cup holders Arsenal, coming back from 2-0 down to nab a 3-3 draw that all but ends their top four aspirations. They, like, United, will recognise that they may never have a better opportunity to lift the the famous trophy, with a Semi-Final against outstanding underachievers Everton awaiting the victor of this replay, and a Final against Watford or Crystal Palace for those bold enough to take one step further. In my eyes, the winner of the FA Cup this year will come from the winner of this match.

West Ham have made their final season at the Boleyn Ground one to remember. West Ham have gone toe to toe with England’s finest, and currently sit 6th in the Premier League. As mentioned, West Ham, until recently, were right in the middle of the top-four hunting pack. Like Spurs last week, West Ham have carved themselves into a position where I may well go off on a tangent talking about how wonderful they are. West Ham are truly blessed in that they currently hold the undoubted signing of the season in Dimitri Payet. The outstandingly talented Frenchman signed form Marseille in the summer for to the tune of £11 million(ish), and has ushered in a new era of free-flowing technical football under former Croatian national team coach Slaven Bilic. Payet put West Ham 1-0 up in the initial tie, through a free kick, something that almost goes without saying with the frequency he knocks them in. With Payet, Manuel Lanzini has come from absolutely nowhere to steal my heart in this West Ham side. I could go on; West Ham have gone from a side peddling 19th century football under Sam Allardyce to intricate tiki-taka under Bilic, and they will likely head to their new home at the Olympic Stadium with some form of European Football to look forward to. An FA Cup win would be the cherry atop the finest icing you could possibly buy from a mid-tier supermarket.

Right, onto United. We got tonked by Spurs 3-0, and looked absolutely hopeless doing so. Major questions need to be asked of the tactics employed by van Gaal last weekend. At half time, at 0-0, keeping Spurs at bay with relative comfort, though without creating anything of note, van Gaal opts to replace Marcus Rashford with Ashley Young. A decision I could probably get behind, if he didn’t proceed to deploy United in a makeshift 4-4-2, with Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard as the centre forwards. 4-4-2, with one recognised striker on the pitch, and he’s played on the left wing. A total collapse after man-machine Tim Fosu-Mensah was taken off saw United ship 3 goals in 5 minutes, and a reported dressing room mutiny ensue post-game. United need this more than ever. Failure to dispatch West Ham may see van Gaal’s position become untenable.
How fitting, then, that van Gaal’s captain fantastic has become available mere days before the most important game of our season so far. Wayne Rooney managed an hour for the under-21’s on Monday evening and, by all accounts, didn’t look completely awful. I full believe van Gaal will overlook his policy of having a player go through 18 weeks of rehabilitation post-injury, and Wayne Rooney will lead the line, likely at the expense of young Marcus Rashford.
Given the absolute ineffectiveness of the front-line, I half expect a complete overhaul of the front four that managed just one shot on target against Spurs, save for Martial. Mata, as he often has when deployed there, looks completely wasted on the right wing. Lingard, while speedy, lacks the technical ability to create chances that aren’t telegraphed. Both were largely ineffective on Sunday, and, while Mata was replaced by Memphis, I imagine he’ll get the nod due to his FA Cup scoring record. Herrera would make sense over Lingard. United lack pace in just about every position, but what use is pace if no one uses it? Herrera would add stability to the side, and would at least help us keep the ball away from Payet and company. In all, I imagine we’ll line up like this.LINEUP111460491482975

So often we’ve heard from United players this season how important it is not to dwell on a recent loss, and how we must look forward to the next game. Well, this is it. A season of missteps has led us to this point; if anything is to come of this season, victory is a must. United fans have stood by and witnessed (coming up) 3 totally joyless, trophyless years, without any sign of improvement or success looming. There have been fairly muted calls for him to be moved on among the Old Trafford faithful, however, the man once dubbed King Louis, may well hear demands for the guillotine should progress not be secured. The FA Cup may well prove to be the only chance van Gaal has to win something in England. He must make it count, both for his sake, and ours.

Preview: Tottenham Hotspur vs United

A solid, if unspectacular, victory over Everton keeps United firmly in the hunt for top 4. With games quickly running out, however, United need to keep the winning streak going. I mean, granted it’s currently at 2 wins, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers. What better time, then, to come up against title chasers Tottenham Hotspur…

Cast your mind back to August 2015. A perceivably solid transfer window had left the squad resembling something closer to what van Gaal wanted structurally. With hopes renewed after a season of fluctuations, alternating between extremely dour and actually pretty good seemingly dependent on the day of the week, many fans, myself included, were hoping for tangible evidence that improvement, and the range of emotions that it brings, were on the way. Week one, game one, Tottenham Hotspur; a side that have, amazingly, finished 5th every season for the past 78 years.United won that game 1-0, off a wonderful solo effort from Own Goal (a full write up from yours truly can be found here). That win should have been the start of something positive, and, for Spurs, one that saw their eternal quest for fourth hit a bump before it’s even started. 8 months on, and those roles are reversed. Spurs find themselves in the mix for the title for the first time since February 2012, and United have squandered away their championship aspirations to join West Ham and Man City in the battle for 4th. The two sides reconvene this Sunday in an attempt to (just about) kill off each others aspirations to salvage their own.

Despite their incredibly slow start (3 points from a possible 12 in their first four games), Mauricio Pochettino’s men have been as entertaining have they have impressive. And despite being 7 points (at the time of writing) off top, you cannot underestimate the job that side have done this season. Arguably they’ve been the most entertaining of the sides at the top of the table, they’re a side who’ve scored the most and conceded the least,  who knows what might have been had their slow start been ended quicker than it had been. Gone is the deadwood, a side abundant with underachievers on wages they couldn’t possibly live up to, transformed into one that is filled to the brim with youthful exuberance. Talent is the key word when discussing this Spurs outfit, and while “one season wonder-turned-actual best striker in the Premier League” Harry Kane and “the new Paul Gascoigne” Dele Alli are (mostly rightfully) take the plaudits every week, however huge praise needs to be heaped upon the shoulders of both Eric Dier and Toby Alderweireld. Dier has converted himself into a holding midfielder of actual class, and Belgian Toby, who was so impressive in his stint at Southampton last season, has looked every bit as good, if not better, at Spurs. Combine this with a world class goalkeeper in Hugo Lloris, and it’s no wonder spurs have only conceded 25 goals this season. Whatever happens this season, they can take confidence in knowing they’ve a side still growing (the average age of this side is 24.9), and a manager that is up there with the best in the league, tactically. With Champions League football looming next season, after 6 seasons without, Spurs will be hoping the best is yet to come from this side.

For United, the expectation is another relatively unchanged side, and with (relative) good reason. United have managed to string together two 1-0 victories over two good sides, and at this stage of the season, is far more important than any performance you might dream of. Against Everton, United managed only one meaningful effort, and that was the goal. It appeared to be a good summary of the season, that game, actually. For spells, in the second half especially, United looked swashbuckling in their attack, yet unable to create anything of worth. What we can take from that game is how perfectly the Smalling-Blind partnership contained Lukaku. He was barely given a sniff. One of the most highly regarded centre forwards in the Premier League, and even in European football, snuffed silent. One thing you cannot deny is United’s record defensively this season. Second only to Spurs in terms of goals conceded, and unmatched in terms of the amount of clean sheets kept, one wonders where we might be if injuries hadn’t ravaged the squad in the middle of the season. Or we could score more goals.

The only change I could possibly see being made might be Herrera coming in for either Carrick or Schneiderlin. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of both players, and, on paper, this is a partnership that should reap rewards, with Scheniderlin winning the ball, and Carrick moving onto the front four. In reality, there’s an issue of pace and urgency, neither player seemingly willing to play a pass early. The idea appears to be that we can score with more numbers up the pitch, despite there being very little evidence for this over the course of the season so far. Herrera offers positivity in his movement and his execution, and if we’re going to win tomorrow, which we need to do, we need to get at this Spurs side, in spite of their lack of obvious frailties.
At the same time, however, United need to contain the dynamic duo that is Harry Kane and Dele Alli. While I have every faith in Chris Smalling to keep Kane in his back pocket, which he has done since 2014, however van Gaal may feel Carrick and Schneiderlin might be better suited to keeping Dele Alli from adding to his 7 goals and 9 assists.

That said, Rojo was replaced fairly early on in the Everton tie. While I’m not sure whether van Gaal feels it’s still too early for the Argentine to complete a game, or whether there was a concern injury-wise remains to be seen, however, if the latter is the case, I imagine Tim Fosu-Mensah will step in at right back, with Darmian moving over to the left.

Up top, I can’t imagine Martial will get a chance through the middle after another goal off the left, and Rashford continues to mature into the role thrust upon him. Lingard and Mata may well carry on sharing minutes at right wing/central attacking midfield, so hopefully we’ll see the rewards for consistency begin to come to the fore. As with last week, I imagine this to be the line up.LINEUP111459598133592

This is must win, for both sides. While that can often lead to a stalemate, I’m not so sure that’ll be the case. The key is going to be whether United can weather the Spurs attacks. Chances will come from the wings, as Rose and Walker bomb forward, it’ll come from whether we can take advantage of those spaces.