Preview: Aston Villa vs United

After a satisfying, if uninspiring, victory over Spurs, our attentions are turned swiftly to a Friday Night match! Friday nights are due to come into play from next season under the terms of the latest money spinning TV Broadcasting deal. At the time of drawing, no one knew whether United would have a Tuesday or Wednesday night Champions League play off, twin that with an upcoming, Saturday afternoon EDL march in Birmingham (I assume Tim Sherwood is due to speak or something (THIS IS A JOKE. PLEASE DON’T SUE, TIM)), Sky saw it as the perfect opportunity to trial their new toy before it’s due for release.

Saturday afternoon’s victory over Spurs saw United manage to get points on the board in an impressively unimpressive manner. Off memory, United managed to get maybe 5 shots away, with perhaps 2 of those on target. The gulf between Spurs and Villa is vast, so I’d expect at least twice as many attempts and attempts on target. With everyone a game sharper, and captain Wayne Rooney hopefully rust free after a trip to the mechanics, you’d hope to see a return of the expansive and expressive football that often threatened to overcome this side towards the end of last season.

Squad wise, van Gaal is a creature of habit. For all his rotation and tinkering last season, he did pick the same XI for about 3 months at the end of last season. It was abundantly clear to anyone watching that a spark was missing on Saturday. The midfield pairing of Carrick and Handsome Morgan required an extra body in the middle to carry the ball through to the forwards, and Memphis, unfortunately, was not that player, given how high he was playing. I would suggest the addition of Ander Herrera to the midfield to at least give the aforementioned pairing an option other than turning around and giving the ball to Daley Blind. It’s who you drop to accommodate that addition that’s difficult. Memphis did enough in the first half to warrant another look this evening,  Ashley Young absolutely schooled Kyle Walker, who, if nothing else, if a better player than Villa option Leandro Bacuna, and John Mata‘s interception directly led to the goal. If I were to hazard a guess, if Herrera were to drop in, I’d say it would be for Young.

It’s all hypothetical, either way. van Gaal won’t change this side. Even, despite David de Gea declaring himself available and ready for this one, he’s already ruled Dave out for the next 4 weeks, so expect Serge Romero to start again this evening. In all, my predicted line up is thus

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As for this week’s opposition, Aston Villa kicked off the season with a smash and grab victory over Premier League new boys Bournemouth, with Christian Benteke replacement Rudy Gestede bagging the winner from a corner. What this means for United is that Villa are gonna try to lump it into the box at every opportunity, testing the collection of Serge, and the aerial ability of our centre halves. While this isn’t a problem for Balling, there are still questions to be answered over the standard of Romero’s abilities, and the quality of Blind in the air as a centre back. This will be a different type of test for those two, one I’m unsure of how it will end.

Villa are a different sort of beast under Sherwood than they were under Paul Lambert. Gone is the Villa that would set up to defend a draw, and in comes a more gung-ho style. For all Sherwood’s faults (of which there are many), you can’t fault his desire to win at all costs. Free signing Micah Richards captains the side after successfully convincing Fabian Delph to defect to Manchester City mere hours after making a YouTube video telling fans he would stay, and young Jack Grealish carries the burden of expectation bestowed on him at the tender age of 14 years old.

I don’t expect much of a game from Villa, truth be told. We haven’t lost at Villa Park since 1999, we beat Villa 3-0 in our last meeting, and Villa have lost their best 2 players since then. Doesn’t expect liquid football to be in effect for the next few weeks, but a form of total football to on show tonight.

Prediction: Villa 0-3 United

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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.

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.