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.

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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.

Preview: United vs Everton

Ok, so I went on holiday back in September, and have only just now managed to piece my life back together to a point in which it’s all normal again. Sorry for disappearing, I’ll try not to do that again. Now’s a good time for a note, however; there will be no time frame on all posts from this point forward. I will aim to have at least one new article posted a week, however I won’t promise anything. Mainly because every time I promise I’ll do something like this, I end up breaking it almost instantly, so I won’t even bother. I’ll keep you updated, though, so follow me on @TPDWillo for all updates. Anyway, let’s get back to it.

Mr Louis van Gaal appears to have rolled back the years with his character this season. Just as it looks like it’s one appalling performance too far, he clicks his fingers and all of a sudden it’s 2008, and he finds himself the subject of The Script’s “The Man Who Can’t Be Moved” (That is very very good, give me credit for that). He’s become the management equivalent of a big game player; overcome with occasion, he pulls out a result. Having lost only once against the five other sides that make up the top six, you’d be forgiven for assuming this United side was in contention of a title challenge this season. If only there weren’t 14 other sides in this league, else we might be.
That’s neither here nor there. The fact is, after a victory at the Etihad for the first time since 2012, United are 6th in the Premier League, a point behind City in 4th. A season that saw United climb to top spot after 2 seasons of being nowhere near, before falling apart as quickly as it could be built up, the 2015/16 season will culminate in a fight for 4th, and an attempt to claim the FA Cup. If nothing else, van Gaal’s leadership has made us to go full Arsenal.

That fight for fourth resumes after an International Break against perennial underachievers Everton. Hot off the heels of a multi-billion pound takeover, the blue side of Merseyside are threatening to suffer their worst season in recent years, managing to grasp defeat from the jaws of victory every time they turn out. They, like United, have an FA Cup adventure running parallel to their awful league season. A tenure that started with their best ever Premier League points total might well end in disarray for Roberto Martinez unless he can secure silverware this season, however the obstacle he’ll have to steer past will be the victor of the United – West Ham replay. Everton find themselves 12th in the table currently, a far cry from a side that threatened breaking into the top four just two years previous. Blessed with one of the finest young centre forwards in Europe in Romelu Lukaku, and a highly coveted English centre-half in John Stones, Everton have the look of a side that, with proper investment in certain areas, and the retention of their prized assets, could challenge the best in the league in the future, and Martinez will hope to be the man to lead the club forward.

Everton certainly have the ability to threaten United when it all comes together, and van Gall will be looking for a repeat defensive showing that saw United stifle the oft-prolific City attack two weeks previous. The league’s second best defence is starting to benefit from a clearance of injuries and a certain level of consistency to the back line. Rojo appears to have the left back position nailed down until the end of the season, and Darmian looks to have worked his way back into van Gaal’s thoughts after the Dutchman experimented with young Varela at right back. Varela’s certainly made a name for himself moving forward after a string of impressive performances, and will be one to look to as this young side continue to grow.
And say what you like about van Gaal’s side, but he’s been impressive in the way he’s integrated several young players into the first team. Granted it’s been out of necessity rather than choice, however there in a foundation being laid, albeit quietly.
As somewhat impressive defensive display, we’ve been equally as toothless in attack. 38 goals in 30 games is not the record of a team that has ambitions for Champions League football and beyond. The emergence of Anthony Martial this season, and Marcus Rashford in recent weeks, has somewhat helped with coming to terms with just how poor our attack actually is. Steps are being taken, however. Chances are starting to be created, which is a polar opposite to the start of the season. Jesse Lingard, who has quickly become one of my favourite players to watch in this side, has put in the sort of season we expected from Memphis Depay. He was deployed behind the centre forward against City, and he asked several questions from that particular suspect defence. And I expect him to keep his place there against THIS particular suspect defence. I image the side will line up looking something like this.LINEUP111459598133592

United need a win. The point has passed where a draw against these types of sides would be a good result. Too many games have been dropped for anything less than a win to be considered acceptable. With both West Ham and City in the way of what has become the ultimate goal of 4th place, anything less would be a terrible blow. United managed a 3-0 victory in the reverse fixture earlier this season, though I image a tougher test this time around.