United 1-0 Tottenham Hotspur

For the second season running, Saturday lunchtime saw United open the Premier League season a home. Whereas last season, Old Trafford played host to an uninspiring, drab, loss, the 2015-16 curtain raiser was an uninspiring, drab, WIN. The early weeks of the season can be forgiven for being disjointed in performance, and this tie epitomised that, with both sides failing to create many clear chances. In a game that won’t be remembered by many for long, the result was more important than the performance.

I’m not going to do a review of the game, there are plenty of websites across the internet that offer an in depth analysis of a football match. I’ll focus only on the positive and negatives of our performance, given this is a blog dedicated to Manchester United (and I’m not very good at remembering key moments from games).

Positives

Louis van Gaal must have read my preview, and thought it might be hilarious to throw my credibility into a fire before this blog has even come close to taking off, because Sergio Romero started ahead of Sam Johnstone, in replacement of David de Gea, who was deemed unfit to play. Credit to Romero, then, to make your debut against a side often falling in the top 5 in the league, about a week after signing for the club, off the back of two seasons where you made about 12 appearances at club level, and not be dreadful. Serge made two fine saves as the game edged towards its close, probably snatching a win from the jaws of a draw by himself. Twin this with a desire to leave his line and collect the ball early, and very confidently, and you’ve got yourself a very good performance. Something we’ve become accustomed to from our goalkeeper in recent seasons.

Chris Balling proved once again he can be a vital member of this squad if United are to compete this season. The man mountain managed to turn around what could have easily been a dismal season last year, with a string of fabulous performances that completely changed my perception of what he can be. Balling began 2015/16 in a very similar manner. It wouldn’t surprise me if he begins to charge Harry Kane rent for the residence of his back pocket, considering kane hasn’t left it since April. Twin that with two vital stops (that looked effortless), and you’ve got a Man of the Match performance from a man I don’t expect to leave the back four.

Speaking of picking up where you left last season off, Ashley Young celebrated a new contract with a very impressive performance. The left wing tandem of Young and Luke Shaw made poor Kyle Walker look every bit as poor as he is. As the game wore on, Luke became more adventurous in his runs. If these two can stay fit for more than 2 weeks at a time, hopefully a bit more of a connection can be established, and we can see a bit more of what this pairing has to offer.

The first half performance of the much lauded Memphis Depay was encouraging and exciting. He carved a few half-chances for himself, and I’m certain he played the ball that, ultimately, led to the goal, but it was his desire to be a passing option at all times, and equally his ability to know when to move it on, that impressed me most. Going into the game, I’d heard stories of a player that demands the ball at all times, that loses the ball, and refuses to work back. On Saturday, I saw a player that, granted, did go down under the softest of contacts, but one that wanted to impress his new suitors. While it’s far too soon to judge him on where he can fit in (his second half performance paled in comparison to his first), there were early signs that Memphis has enough about him to make something of a success of this season.

Both Ander Herrera and Bastian Schweinsteiger managed to impress, despite coming off the bench. While Herrera is a known quantity in Manchester after a more than solid first season (given the amount of shirts with his name emblazoned on the back that I saw around the ground, it’s fair to say he’s a little bit popular), Bastian came into the tie with nothing but a reputation (albeit an incredibly good reputation to his name). Replacing Michael Carrick, he played the role of a director rather than that of a lead star, organizing the midfield to suit every Spurs attack. While he looked rusty, and maybe a few pounds over weight, he showed why he is so revered in world football. As for Herrera, he injected some pace and directness into a midfield that was flagging from sitting very deep for the 70 or so minutes prior. Further proof, I feel, that this side performs best in a 4-3-3.

Negatives

While Romero dealt with snapshots and collections well, his distribution left alot to be desired. Over the last two seasons, out back four have played in the knowledge that de Gea is comfortable on the ball, and is able to pick a pass to just about anyone on the pitch. Romero looked less than comfortable playing this roll, often playing out the phrase you learn at youth level: “If in doubt, kick it out”. While I’m sure this can be improved, and I sincerely it does, it wasn’t particularly encouraging to witness first hand.

Chris Balling’s partner for the afternoon was one Daley Blind. Blind, usually so composed and calm on the ball, lost both of these attributes early on, often conceding the ball, and putting his team mates under unnecessary pressure. Against more season centre forwards in this division (Aguero and Costa and the like), those mistakes will be punished. It served as a constant reminder that a commanding centre back is still a must for this squad to be a real contender.

New signing Handsome Morgan Schneiderlin was very strong in the tackle (pretty certain he won every dual he was involved in), but then proceeded to make a 180 degree turn and pass it back to Balling. While it’s nice to have a player that’ll win the ball with every tackle, he needed to be more positive once he had the ball at his feet. This is a defence that will look shaky at the best of times, the last thing they need is to have the ball near them more than they need to.

Wayne Rooney was virtually nonexistent for 90 minutes. Aside from NOT taking the chance that Kyle Walker eventually pounced upon, Rooney was a bystander in a game that needed to be have all 11 men fighting for the same cause. Given we have 3 striking options, one of which is a 13 year old with a paper round, this doesn’t bode well. There is, however, an entire season left to play, and Rooney often takes a while to get back to his best, so we ought to see improvement against Villa and Newcastle.

The midfield looked really, really disjointed. Perhaps it was the last shedding of the summer rust, perhaps it was just growing pains in what could become a blossoming partnership, but Handsome Morgan and Carrick didn’t appear to be on the same page for a lot of the game. A third man in the centre of the park (4-3-3 nonsense again) would have given each an extra passing option, as well has an extra man for John Mata to give the ball to. Just play Herrera, for fuck sake.

All in all, the performance left a lot to be desired, but we’re 3 points better off than we were last season, and that’s all the matters. We move on to Aston Villa away, which I will preview on Thursday. Until then, keep your eyes peeled as I attempt to finish the state of the squad pieces I started.

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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 – 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.