Preview: United vs Tottenham Hotspur

Despite a pre-season tailored to suit his style, and a transfer window of relative success thus far, Mr Louis van Gaal enters the first game of his second season in charge of the club under a fog of uncertainty. Mere hours before United play out 2015/16’s Premier League curtain raiser, Big Lou announced first choice goalkeeper David de Gea would not be considered for selection vs Tottenham Hotspur, questioning the Spaniard’s frame of mind as a result of a summers worth of being linked with the talent vacuum that is Real Madrid.

Last season’s hosting of Tottenham Hotspur came days after a bitterly disappointing elimination from the FA Cup, and saw United finally play with an attacking intensity sorely missing from the majority of the matches previous. In many ways, the performance came out of nowhere, and changed many peoples perceptions of what a van Gaal United might look like. Being 3-0 after 35 minutes, and never relinquishing that lead, was a pleasant change to the scrappy 1-0s and 2-1s we’d become accustomed to.

Based on word of mouth (stuff I read on twitter), it appears Sam Johnstone will be given the chance to show his worth, after an American tour that saw him play more minutes than any other goalkeeper. I assume it’s too soon for Sergio Romero to step into the hurricane, though expect him to start on the bench. A back four consisting of Darmian-Balling-Blind-Shaw will likely be tasked with protecting the young man between the sticks., with Michael Carrick and “Handsome” Morgan Schneiderlin shielding the defence. I expect new number 7 Memphis Depay, best player in the side Juan “John” Mata, and Ashley Young, celebrating a new contract, no less, to play back up to Wayne Rooney. Using an app called “Lineup11” (Not being paid to endorse these, full disclosure), I believe this is how we will line up tomorrow afternoon.

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That’s not to say I want this side to look like this. van Gaal has been a long time user of a 4-3-3, believing it to be the definite way to cover every zone on the pitch. United’s best performances of last season came when using a 4-3-3, (that run of form started against Spurs, it has to be said), so it’s only natural for me to hanker for this set up more than I would the 4-2-3-1 from pre-season. a 4-3-3 would allow for a bright light from last season (Ander Herrera) to play as well, and I think we all agree that can only be a positive thing, given the liquid football played at times down the right hand side last season. Given this information, I’ve selected a preferred XI.

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In regards to the opposition, Spurs retained their 5th place title for an incredible 15th season in a row. Gaffer Mauricio Pochettino appears to have cleared out just about all the planks brought in to replace man-machine Gareth Bale in 2013. However they haven’t made too many moves by the way of replacements, with wunderkid-turned-future greatest player of all time Harry Kane being lined up to shoulder most of the responsibility off the back of a season that saw him bag 21 league goals. despite this, Kane has only had one real season at this level, and to put too much expectation on the kid could be detrimental to his development. Then again, he might be the real deal, and get up scoring about 35 goals next year. Kane was silenced at Old Trafford last season by Chris Balling, so at least we have that.

Spurs will be without Hugo Lloris, due to a freak wrist injury over the summer, so Michel Vorm (of Swansea City fame) will likely be between the sticks. Former Southampton loanee Toby Alderweireld looks to partner actually good centre back Jan Vertonghen, with former Burnley full back Kieran Trippier and Welshy Ben Davies acting as full backs. That’s a back four made up of two new signings, so hopefully out attack can take advantage of a lack of chemistry in the defence. From that point forward, things become slightly clearer, and I imagine Nabil Bentaleb will partner Ryan Mason in the centre of the park, with Nacer Chadli, Christian Eriksen, and Erik Lamela behind the aforementioned Harry Kane. Please don’t quote me on any of this, though. I don’t have any idea who plays for Spurs these days.

Any side we put out against this Spurs squad should get a side (within reason), and, in spite of the last minute disruption to our goalkeeping plans, I expect to have 3 points on the board come 3pm tomorrow afternoon.

Score Prediction: 2-1 win

State of the Squad – Defence

Right, we’ve got a lot to cover here, and not a lot of time to cover it in, so i’m gonna dive straight into this with a simple sentence: “On paper, our defence is a mess.”

Let’s just think about that for a bit. For a side that housed one of the most prolific centre back partnerships in Premier League history, how did it get so bad that Michael Carrick is often considered a viable option at the back? The sheer lack of consistency certainly doesn’t help; van Gaal having to draft in Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair early on in the season is surely proof of that, but he’s had almost three transfer windows to pull in some reinforcements! Why isn’t nothing being done about this shoddy back line? Does van Gaal see something the rest of us don’t see?

So we actually have made movements in the right back position. Matteo Darmian has been signed from Torino, presumably to take over from winger-turned full back Antonio Valencia. As a result of this move, Willoughby favourite Rafael has made his way across the channel to Ligue 1 runners-up Lyon (fun fact, Rafa picked number 20 as his squad number because United have won the league 20 times). At left back, one would imagine Luke Shaw will find a way to stay fit for more than 20 minutes this season. Failing that, Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo, and even Tyler Blackett proved more than capable filling in at times last season. Fingers crossed Luke can start to deliver on some of the promise than got him here in the first place.

Centre backs are where things start to get a bit sticky. Chris “Balling” Smalling, Phil “Jonesy” Jones, Paddy “Paddy” McNair, and Jonny “oh fuck off already” Evans make up out centre back options, as well as the aforementioned Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo and Tyler Blackett. Not a great deal here, I’ll concede. That being said, Balling was a standout performer for me in the final few weeks of last months, successfully nestling Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Christian Benteke and Olivier Giroud in his back pocket. The man must wear clown trousers or something. So impressed was Big Lou with Balling’s efforts, he claimed he was his 3rd choice captain. Not bad going for a man written off after the stupidest sending off in recent Manchester derby history.
When it comes to who partners the big man is another matter. Seeing a lot of time in that position in pre-season was one Daley Blind, who appears to be the Dutch John o’Shea, in regards to his versatility. Expect him to stake a claim for the goalkeeper role next season. As for Marcos Rojo, he spent a season getting used to the league, and looked pretty good in parts, but he did little to convince me he could be more than a squad player. In fairness, Blind could be a welcome choice. He’s a fine passer of the ball, he appears to keep a cool head, and he’s incredibly composed. He’s everything Jonesy is not.
Phil Jones was proclaimed as a future England captain the day he signed for United. Steve Kean claimed he would be better than John Terry. Sir Alex himself suggested he could become United’s best ever signing. Some of that praise may have been over-cooked. Had he not set us back £16.5 million, he might not even be at the club anymore. He’s clumsy, he throws himself into a tackle and ALWAYS looks like he’ll get injured as a result, and he headered the ball off of Giroud’s foot in May. He’s a parody of what English defenders are stereotyped as. And no matter how much heart he shows, this is a big, big season for him. While he is only 23 years old, and about 3 years from when he might be reaching something close to his peak, he’s now going into his seventh Premier League season, and he has shown very little development from those early performances.
The experienced head in all this SHOULD be Jonny Evans; a man who looked VERY good in Sir Alex’s final season when paired with Rio Ferdinand or Nemanja Vidic, but has fallen off the face of the planet ever since. So poor his performances last season were that he was the first name brought up whenever a potential centre back signing was mentioned in conversation. I introduce to the “Jonny Evans Test (patent pending)”. If someone mentions a centre back, asked the question: “Is he better than Jonny Evans?”. If YES; sign the man.

Clearly this a defensive corp that needs a leader. And whether that leader is promoted from within, or recruitment externally (come on, Ramos. Do us a job.), it needs one sharpish. Given Balling’s end of season form, maybe it’s him?

On the topic of this defence, a lot has been made of how bad it is perceived to be. This defence conceded the 4th least amount of goals last season. You’d hope, with an extra years experience, it can improve on that. I’m not saying that it doesn’t need work, but maybe that’s Big Lou’s thinking behind not splashing on a centre back (just yet)? If we can keep a back four fit for a few months, and give them a solid run of games, who knows what might happen. That’s something we didn’t have last season.

TL;DR – The defence isn’t actually that bad, could probably do with an experienced body in there, but injuried are stopping it from showing us its true potential.

State of the Squad – Goalkeepers

Before I begin looking forward to this weekends action, I thought it might be helpful to have a look at the players (currently) signed on at United. A simple assessment of the squad might be in order before I get onto the regular stuff. I’ll go through each area over 4 posts, starting with our ‘keepers.

Goalkeepers

Arguably our strongest position, no small part to a certain Spaniard, there is no cause for concern here. Unless, of course, the inevitable comes to fruition. Current number one, David de Gea, has shaken the errors that plagued the first 18 months of his United tenure, and has positioned himself has one of, if not the, most impressive goalkeeper in the Premier League, and has caught the eye of serial talent snatchers Real Madrid. With a year left on his contract, it’s all but certain he won’t be a United goalkeeper next season. Let’s be fair, mind, I’d rather play behind Ramos and Vernane than Evans and Jones. Given de Gea’s injury history, there’s little reason to believe he’ll miss much, if any, of the season, and if van Gaal can eek another stellar season out of the, potentially disinterested, shot stopper, this is a problem that can be solved at a later date.

Vying for the back up spot is forgotten Dane Anders Lindegaard, new boy Sergio Romero, and academy product Sam Johnstone, though it’s fair to expect young Johnstone will see a season on loan, given his age, and United’s relative lack of history developing goalkeepers from within. Romero arrives in Manchester on the back of a season playing number two in Sampdoria. Consider me unimpressed if this is de Gea’s replacement. Despite his lack of playing time last season (10 league appearances, as far as I can tell), he remains Argentina’s first choice, playing in both the 2014 World Cup and 2015 Copa America finals, both of which Argentina lost. Romero does have previous with van Gaal, in that he was his first choice in AZ Alkmaar’s title winning campaign in the 2008-09 Erdivisie season, keeping 18 clean sheets and conceding only 22 goals along the way.
Mr Lindegaard requires no introduction if you’ve been watching this side over the last few years. Brought in to provide cover for Edwin van der Sar in 2010, and then competition for de Gea thereafter, Lindegaard has become something of a forgotten man in recent times. While he did manage to wrestle the starting spot from de Gea around half way through the 2011-12 season, albeit after an incredibly testing period for the young man, Lindegaard has barely seen a kick since. In all competitions. He didn’t even play against Cambridge. Though it does look like he’ll be let go sooner rather than later, given the nature of our other Spanish goalkeeper (more on that later), perhaps Lindegaard might find away to come in from the cold and have a seat in the porch (I am so sorry).

Which brings me onto the last stop on this train ride of metaphors: Victor Valdes. World Cup winner, European Championship winner, recipient of countless La Liga, Copa del Rey, and Champions League honours, Valdes arrived in Manchester after a horrible injury that ended, what was always going to be, his final season with Barcelona in the wrong way. A former employee of van Gaal, Vales was offered the chance to rehabilitate himself, and did enough in training to earn an 18 month contract with the club. Everything went south for Victor when he was omitted from the squad that travelled to the states in pre-season, after van Gaal accused him of refusing to play in the under 21s. Since then, he’s been all but forgotten about, had his locker cleared and moved, ironically, in with the Under 21s, and looks sure to move on.

Unless something goes horribly wrong, I can see de Gea ending the season as out number one, with Romero backing him up, and playing in the League and FA Cups. After that, though, I imagine de Gea will move back home and Romero will step in. Long term, I’d prefer a more established character between the sticks than Romero, which is partly why I included Valdes in this run down. Big Lou, if, by some miracle, you’re reading this, give Victor a call. Thrash out your differences. Let him back in the fold.

Introduction

Good…morning (as I write this). If you’re reading this, I imagine you’re very much like myself, in that you’ve Googled “Manchester United” in an attempt to find someone writing stuff about United that isn’t rehashed news stories and transfer stories linking us to every centre forward on the planet. If that’s the case; welcome. If not; please stay. My name is Thomas Willoughby, and I am a “typical united fan” (clues in the name). Let me explain. I’ve been bound to United since the day my dad wrapped me in a united scarf hours after birth. So…from birth. I’ve loved this club for as long as I can remember. The only problem (not really a problem but people love making it a problem) is that I’m not from Manchester. I’m from the south of all places! Doesn’t matter to me, but it does to some. I’m a second year season ticket holder, and I’ve got some things to write about.

The point of this blog, mainly, is to satisfy my own need to get my opinions out of my head. Hopefully I can entertain some of you over the course of these writings, hopefully I can get a conversation or two started about the side.

Please stay tuned, as I have a piece planned assessing the state of the squad, to be published either later today, or tomorrow, as well as regular previews, match reports, and features on the hard hitting issues, like why Juan Mata is the most important attacking cog in the machine, or what might happen if we signed a really really good centre back or something.

I’ve literally typed this up on my phone in the way to work, so excuse any monotony you might have been exposed to over the course of reading this. The next one will be typed up using a laptop, so I’ll be able to put pictures and stuff up.

In the mean time, I will talk to you soon. Thanks for stopping in.