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.

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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: Swansea City vs United

Quick note before we kick this off; no review of the Brugge game, I’m afraid. Time constraints stopped me from putting that together. Hopefully that doesn’t become a regular hindrance, but, for this week at least, it’s not gonna be possible to do a Positives and Negatives for that game, I’m afraid. Anyway, let’s crack on.

Just over 12 months ago, Mr Louis van Gaal walked his Manchester United side out for the very first time in the Premier League. Coming off the back of a successful pre season tour that culminated in the defeat of Liverpool in some nonsense preseason tournament, AND a personally successful World Cup for the Dutch genius, confidence, and expectations, were naturally high for a United side looking to right the wrongs of a season to forget. Their opponents that day; Garry Monk’s Swansea City. A side that had, and continue to, redefine what is capable of a mid table side. United were beaten that day. Comfortably, if memory serves. Swansea managed to do the double over us last season, and that’s not something van Gaal will have forgotten.

United go into the game off the back of a 4-0 victory in the second leg of a Champions League qualifier vs Club Brugge. While you have to anticipate Swansea will put up a bit more resistance than that side, you have to take the positives from what was professional performance. Wayne Rooney is finally off the mark, and you’d fancy him to start to look a bit sharper in front of goal. Behind him, and after making his first start of the season, Ander Herrera will be hoping van Gaal will have taken notice of, what was, a really good second half for him. Herrera offers something different to Memphis, Mata and Januzaj, in that he actually makes positive runs forward. In the second half, Herrera made a delightful run in behind the Brugge defence, resulting in a pass for the ages from the Deutscher Fussballmeister himself, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and led to Ander slotting home to end the rout. Personally, the aforementioned Memphis, Mata and Janujaz trio slow our attack play down too much. All three prefer to have the ball given to their feet, which frustrates Rooney, and forces him to drop deep to find the ball. Playing Herrera behind Rooney will allow him to drop deep if needed, as we then have an option to drive behind the defence. Injury to Adnan might allow Herrera this opportunity.
The back five managed to keep another clean sheet, and is starting to look like something. While I’d still prefer to have de Gea behind the defence, Serge is proving to be the greatest goalkeeper to ever play the game, often making saves with his mind. You’d assume de Gea will return to the side once the transfer window is closed, and he’s realised he’d much rather play out his career in sunny Salford, rather than Madrid, which is often described as Europe’s cesspit. However, there is a case to be made for the caretaker-turned-Premier League goalkeeper. He’s yet to concede in the Premier League, though you’d expect the trio of Befetimbi Gomis, Andre Ayew and Jefferson Montero will provide a bit more of a challenge for the Argentine.
The only changes I can see being made from the side that demolished Brugge, in that case, would be the reintroduction of Handsome Morgan, Schweini from the very start, and Herrera in place of Adnan. As such, I expect the side to look like this:

Screenshot_2015-08-29-14-27-09-1
(
Bought the shirt pack, by the way. So expect the prettiest posts in the football blogosphere from now on.)

For Swansea, Garry Monk’s side currently sit in 5th place with 5 points; a well earned point against Chelsea, a comfortable 2-0 over Newcastle, and a surprise 1-1 draw against the worst side in the league, Sunderland. Given the last of those results, there’s reason to believe United could well do something against, what have become, one of the Premier League standards. A very good side, with a very good manager at the helm, Swansea have the pace and the power up top to cause us some real problems, however, and with Gomis managing to bag 3 goals from 3 games, finally a real yardstick to judge the Blind-Balling partnership.

I anticipate far more pressure from the Swans than any side previous, and, most likely, an end to the clean sheet run we’ve managed to get ourselves on in the Premier League. I fancy us to take a point, but perhaps a win would be pushing it a bit. Our unbeaten run will extend, though.

Prediction: Swansea City 1-1 United

United 0-0 Newcastle United: *audible sigh*

We played pretty well against Brugge in the week, and, on the whole, we were actually pretty good against Newcastle this weekend. But we didn’t win, we didn’t extend our perfect run, and we didn’t even score. Bar a (wrongly) disallowed goal against this weeks media scapegoat Wayne Rooney, we didn’t even look like testing the ‘keeper. Positives and Negatives. This ought to be fun.

Positives

The opening 20 minutes were some of the most confident and exciting minutes of the season so far. We could have legitimately been about 4-0 up after about 15 minutes, had it not been for the aforementioned disallowed goal, that might have been the case. Memphis had a chance or two, Mata had an effort skewed wide, and a free-kick plucked out of the air, but we had nothing to show for it. Chances are being created, on another day they could go in. If we keep creating those opportunities, goals will come.

Bastian Schweinsteiger started, and looked every bit as classy as you’d expect him to look. Rarely misplacing a pass, Schweini conducted the play, he actually looked like a babysitter playing football with a bunch of kids in a park at times. If it weren’t for Geroginio Wijnaldum sitting on him for the last 15 minutes of the first half, he could have easily become unplayable against. Schweini has settled in nicely at Old Trafford thanks, in part, to van Gaal’s manner of slowly integrating him into the line up. If only he were 5 years younger…

Both Luke Shaw and Matteo Darmian looked very good. Shaw is quickly becoming one of my favourite players to watch in this side. He’s so quick. It’s refreshing to actually have a player that can run at teams with pace, given how slow we are all over the park. As for Darmian, aside from being a walking booking, he is a genuinely good defender. A fine career, I predict for the Italian.
On the subject of the defence, it’s nice to get another clean sheet on the board with the Blind and Balling pairing, and even dodgy Serge can be happy with that. Plenty to build upon, still, but a very solid start.

Negatives

0-0 against Newcastle United is poor. van Gaal summed it up when he suggested it was a good performance, but we didn’t reward ourselves. We deserved to win by about 3 or 4 goals, but you don’t win solely on the run of play. You have to take your chances when they come, and we had plenty. We were poor, in that aspect. Seemingly content in passing the ball between the 3 attacking midfielders, allowing Newcastle to get numbers back. Which brings me onto my next point…

We were far too slow in possession. It’s all well and good having 70% of possession, but, again, that doesn’t win you games. It certainly doesn’t help when a large chunk of that number can be attributed to Blind, Balling and Schneiderlin. There were times last season when we played like that, and got no where, and that’s happening again. With 15 minutes to go, we were still looking to pass it about at the back. We lacked someone to carry the ball between the midfield and the attack, instead of having our midfielders pass it backwards and sideways. When Schweini was subbed in the second half, that was the perfect opportunity to have that sort of player brought on.
Ander Herrera proved last season he is more that capable in playing that role. He’s deceivingly quick for a central midfielder, and he’s got the ability to score and create opportunities. Against a side that were happy to have all hands on deck, like Newcastle, and like Villa last week, there really is no need to have two players happy to keep the ball between themselves. I like Schneiderlin, and I like Carrick, but they are not compatible. Both are far too similar. Herrera is a true box to box type, and would have offered an attacking option when Mata cut inside, or when Rooney dropped deep. Just like last season, when he was inexplicably dropped, his exclusion from this side is truly baffling, and absolutely unnecessary. The sooner he’s recalled as a starter the better.

Rooney might not be the answer by himself up top. Aside from the non-goal, he looked lost. Rooney has become a mature player, and looks a leader, but he lacks the basic discipline to hold the line up top. Too often he was happy to drop deep in search of the ball, and it left us light up front. ‘nandez made an appearance late on, and managed to fashion an opportunity for himself, but he’s neither consistent or good enough to head the attack. Dare I say it, another body is almost required up front to, if for nothing else, provide a bit of competition for that spot.

Januzaj needs to improve, because, right now, he’s living off being the only player on out team with a goal to his name. And, I’m not being funny, it wasn’t even that good. He’s offered so little in the last few games, he managed to break down a 3-on-2 in our favour. I love the kid, and i think he has the potential to become a big piece of this side, but I’m not convinced he’s what we need right now. I’d rather have Herrera as an extra body in the middle of the park for Schneiderlin and Carrick/Schweini to give the ball to.

Memphis started well enough, but when he drops, he’s a liability. At times, he was trying to win the game by himself, and it hindered us massively. Ashley Young must be wondering what he has done to deserve this silent treatment, because he could have improved that left sided attack in the second half. I hope van Gaal isn’t just sticking with him because he cost £30 million or whatever.

It was a solid performance, but there was no plan B. We had one game plan, one mindset, and we applied that for 90 minutes. van Gaal needs to become more pragmatic in his approach to these teams. Two holding midfielders aren’t required when the ball is barely gonna enter your half. This side is still a work in progress, so games like this can only help in the long run, but it’s frustrating to see a side basically asking for your address so they can post you the three points, and you politely decline before attempting to pick pocket them from your opposition. Metaphor aside, we should have won, end of. Failure to do so should be seen as such: a failure.
Anyway, we move onto Brugge on Wednesday, before travelling to Swansea on Sunday. I’ll do a thing after the Brugge game, and preview the Swansea game on Friday I imagine.

Aston Villa 0-1 United

Another week, another unconvincing victory. Against a side that struggled against the drop last season, United gave up possession in very unnecessary areas, carved very few goalscoring opportunities, and just looked disjointed in all areas. Basically a repeat of last week. That being said, if we want to win the next 36 league games 1-0, I won’t complain. Let’s just get into it.

Positives

Matteo Darmian received a lot of praise last week for his performance against Spurs, however I’d barely noticed him. I kept an eye out this week, and, low and behold, it turns out he’s actually very good. He positioned himself well, offered himself in support of John’s attacking play, and rarely lost a tackle. A silly booking marred an otherwise excelled performance.

Boy wonder turned touted Sunderland loanee Adnan Januzaj made his first start in about 18 months, and managed to get himself on the score sheet. A delicious pass from the aforementioned John Mata threaded Adnan in, before a simple check back left Micah Richards on his arse. A placed, deflected, finish capped the move, that, ultimately, won the game for United.

The defence seemed solid enough for the challenge in front of them. While Balling and Blind were rarely challenged, they dispelled every attack they faced, and Luke Shaw looked ever confident in his role at left back. Two clean sheets out of two for Serge Romero, who is easily the luckiest man in football right now, should improve the man’s confidence, though I’d still say his situation is utterly ridiculous.

Bastian Schwiensteiger looked so composed in his 30 minutes on the pitch. Everything he does is conducted with such grace and elegance you might wonder what might happen when he’s fully fit.

Negatives

Wayne Rooney looks a slip of the man he was at the end of last season. Two very ineffectual performances for anyone else on that pitch would see them dropped. This isn’t something Rooney has to worry about, given the lack of competition in the strikers position, and the untouchable status van Gaal has bestowed upon him. Just about every attempt to receive a pass cannoned off him into the wilderness, I’m not sure he’s actually had a shot so far this season. van Gaal claims bonus one is guaranteed of a start in this side. One performance like that would give him chance to prove this.

In spite of his goal, Adnan lost the ball more often than not, and that resulted in his departure early in the second half. One goal doesn’t make a performance, though it appears to paper the cracks, given no one’s talking about it. Still a long way to go for the young man.

Memphis still has a long way to. Another match that saw him shrugged off the ball with ease, and fall to the floor far too easily. He rarely looked a threat, to be perfectly honest. Barring a one on one that inched wide (he has to finish those, by the way), every time he struck the ball, it either balloon’d over, or was so pathetically tame Brad “Mini Me” Guzan could pick the ball up without worry. It is still early days yet, but you want him to be showing up soon.

Another negative day at the office for Carrick and Handsome Morgan. Pick up the ball, and pass it forward for christ sake. This is a growing problem. We have wonderfully talented forward players, but they’re seeing the ball less and less. Add Herrera into the mix, and let him link the play.

Two wins out of two is a great start, and early performances matter not in the grand scheme of things. It might take a few weeks yet for things to click into place, but it’ll come. Show some a bit of patience, and you’ll be rewarded.

Anyway, we’ve Club Brugge tomorrow, so I’ll do a preview as best I can based on my limited knowledge of that side a bit later I imagine.