The Myth of Progress

We’re now two years removed from the firing of Louis van Gaal, and subsequent hiring of Jose Mourinho. In that time, we’ve experienced the joys of titles, and the lows of…everything else. The fabled “second season” was supposed to hail in the best of what Mourinho United can offer. It ended in failure.Jose and Jones
The 2018 FA Cup Final is the latest addition to a sorry list of inexcusable failures currently mounting at Jose Mourinho’s doorstep. His hiring was advertised as a return to glory for a fallen giant. Despite a truly atrocious start to his second “third season” at Chelsea (leading to his firing), Mourinho was the obvious choice. A man whose name still carries a weight only matched by a few managers worldwide. He is one of the few managers who can truly claim to “guarantee trophies”. That claim should come with a “by whatever means necessary” follow up.
Two years is a very fair time frame to assess the situation. Elite clubs across the globe often find themselves reviewing a manager’s position after two seasons; Manchester United should be no different. The good news, Jose, is that you have a boss absolutely terrified of firing you. The bad news, however, is you’ve made no steps forward from year one to year two. Ouch.
Yes yes, I can already see you punching your comments about how “6th to 2nd is clear progress!” and how “no one would have ever been able to compete with City this year!”. And you’re right…at a very, very basic level. Any other season, and we’d have been looking at a title challenge, maybe even a crown come the end. An increase in 12 points is actually pretty impressive when you think about it (not for too long though, because you’ll realise other teams have done it, and done it better). Just…hear me out before you insult me, yeah?

Financially Irresponsible

The first failure of the Jose Mourinho-era is player recruitment. Fans are quick to point to the gaudy numbers Guardiola has PayPal’d clubs over the last two seasons, but it’s difficult to argue he hasn’t spent them wisely. What they don’t want you to know is Mourinho has spent a small fortune himself. And it has not been wise.
I touched upon United’s shifting recruitment policy a couple of years back, and you can brush up here, but it’s amazing to me that how relevant that actually is today.
Of Mourinho’s 8 signings, 3 started in the 2018 FA Cup: Paul Pogba, Alexis Sanchez, and Nemanja Matic. Of Mourinho’s 8 signings, 6 remain at the club. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has retired to America. Henrikh Mkhitaryan was used as a means to gain Sanchez. His big money centre back signings (Eric Bailly and Victor Lindeloff) didn’t make an appearance in the final. Romelu Lukaku made a cameo, despite being clearly hindered by injury.
Conversely, of Guadiola’s 14 signings, 9 played consistent, meaningful football in their pursuit of the title, and an additional 1 spent most of this season injured. The remaining 4 players are a promising young winger, a back up goalkeeper, a player on loan, and one who has left. You would imagine what players he adds to his squad will be players that will positively impact an already powerful side.

lukaku and pogba

Lukaku has largely shown his worth over the last season. Pogba, not so much

As rumours fly of a further £300-500 million cash injection, it’s worth asking whether it’s actually worth giving him the cash to make his signings? Based on the evidence presented to us, he only trusts half of his own signings (Lukaku would have started if not for injury) in a cup final. The region of anywhere between £60-80 million was spent on two centre backs, of which he is clearly showing buyers remorse towards. His inability to get the best, consistently, from our club record signing, as well as our reportedly highest earner, should raise massive concerns over his transfer policy. The reality is only 2 of Mourinho’s remaining signings have truly benefited from his tutelage.
Despite hundreds of millions of pounds being spent on undeniably fine talent, United are no closer to looking like a complete unit than they were 5 years ago. Still horribly unbalanced, still in requirement of at least one player up the spine, and a pair to play the full back positions. Of course, some of these issues wouldn’t exist if he wasn’t so stubborn.

He F****ng Hates Me

Which brings us to part two: man management and coaching. Jose Mourinho is a winner, there is no doubt about it. Work with him, and you’re more likely than not to add at least one medal to your mantlepiece. Unless you execute his will to a T, however…well you better have a bag packed.
The first big casualty of Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United was the aforementioned Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Barely 18 months from his move to the biggest club in the world, Mkhitaryan was moved on. Mourinho had started and dropped Mkhitaryan repeatedly over the course of his time at Old Trafford, seemingly unable to get the most out of his midfield Armenian. When he saw an opportunity to solidify the position, he swiftly moved on the hot and cold attacking midfielder. Mkhitaryan wasn’t the right player for what Mourinho wanted to achieve, and was given little on field opportunity to become that player.

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Mkhitaryan’s 18 month stint in Manchester was cut short when Alexis Sanchez became available

I bring this up because it’s a story we’re seeing play out across multiple players. Luke Shaw, formerly the most expensive teenager in the game, has seen a smattering of opportunities to prove himself as a worthy starter. From day one, Mourinho’s distrust of Shaw has been evident, and has led to public shaming of a player barely recovered from a horrific leg break. Shaw has been called out by Mourinho in conferences, in post match interviews, and has extended to the shameful “half time sub”, despite providing an attacking option United fans have craved.
Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial are receiving the same treatment. Both players have shown immense promise over their careers so far, scoring vital goals in cup semi finals, against local and historic rivals, and provide pace and directness that became synonymous with United throughout history. Both players have been relegated to support and cameo appearances. Rashford only started the 2018 Cup Final because of an injury to Lukaku. Neither player can be happy with the way their careers have stalled.
The problem with this method of management is that you’re putting your players in a position where they can’t take chances. Rashford and Martial are instinctual players. They’re both direct, and at their best when running at the defence. That style of play will yield moments of glory (Martial vs Liverpool, Rashford vs City), but will inevitably lead to loss of possession. Both players need the room to play their games, yes, but the room to make mistakes without fear of being dropped for weeks at a time, or worse; being publicly lambasted by their manager. When you don’t play someone for a few weeks, you cannot expect them to hit the ground running. You can expect them to try to over think things in an attempt to impress, instead of doing the simple things. This is what we see with Rashford, Martial, and Shaw, every time they’re in the starting 11.

martial_shaw

You just know both of these lads are going to ball the moment they leave

Similarly, the baffling decision to drop, then, Fans Player of the Year, Ander Herrera, for the start of this season. A midfield three of Matic, Herrera, and Pogba, logically, made the most sense to a lot of people. Herrera has played the least amount of league games this season since joining the club.
Jose Mourinho does not have the time, or patience, to allow something to grow. It simply isn’t in his nature to try to coax the best from a player. If they aren’t performing, they aren’t for him. What we’ve seen since, is players flourishing away from the spotlight of Old Trafford. Mkhitaryan fit into the Arsenal set up seamlessly, and put in a series of good performances before being hit by injury. Memphis Depay has set Ligue 1 alight, with 23 goals and 16 assists in all competitions, helping Lyon back into the Champions League. Adnan Januzaj, never given a kick under Mourinho, has made the preliminary squad for Belgium’s World Cup campaign, and is a nice bet to make the 23.
Realistically, over two seasons, you’re looking at Jesse Lingard as the only player, really, to have improved under Jose Mourinho. Lingard has put together his best season, production wise, this season, which has gone a long way to cementing him as a starter at the club, and a certain to play a key role in England’s latest summer disappointment. Honestly, if you can name any more, let me know, because I’m stumped.

Boring, Boring United

A lack of clear plan transfer-wise, and the lack of trust in half your players, culminates in, arguably, the greatest crime of them all: atrociously dull, un-adventurous, predictable football. All words you should never associate with Manchester United.
Addressing the “dull” part is easy. “Dull” is subjective. Mourinho spoke before the Cup Final of how he finds tight 1-0 wins more enjoyable than 5 or 6-0 wins, because it suggests excitement. And it does…to a certain degree. If you nick a 1-0 win off Manchester City in the last moments, you’re going to enjoy that far more than blowing West Ham away 4-0, for example. If you labour to a 1-0 win against relegation threatened Southampton, however, the fans are going to be less forgiving.
They’ll start to revolt when they see Tottenham Hotspur playing attractive, expansive football on a fraction of the budget. When they start to wish they played like City and Liverpool play, you’ve done something wrong.
We’re told repeatedly that United don’t only expect to win, but they expect to win a certain way. I can count on one hand the amount of times we’ve won that certain way since Ferguson retired. Maybe two of those wins came under Mourinho. The thing is, it was always going to be this way. Jose Mourinho’s sides have been notorious for being boring and predictable. Jose Mourinho’s biggest positive is that he will win by any means necessary, that is a fundamental clash with everything United stand for. He tried it at Real Madrid, and it was met with the same backlash.

jose touchline

Probably the last time Mourinho was actually interesting. This was 2004.

Keep it tight, and put the focus on the big man up top. A game plan that wins you games when you have a Didier Drogba, or a Zlatan Ibrahimovic, even Romelu Lukaku. It doesn’t work with a smaller, shiftier Marcus Rashford. His unwillingness to adapt to the talent he has helped assemble is baffling. Can you expect Rashford to hold the ball up, when his game is predominantly pace and little strength? The answer is no, you can’t, and yet that is how he set up for the Cup Final.
Jose Mourinho came into the public eye playing the underdog with a Porto side far inferior to the opposition they defeated on their way to the Champions League title. He carried that style of play with him to multiple Premier League titles and an eventual Treble with Inter Milan. Between 2002 and 2010, he won every trophy you could possibly win for his respective clubs. Football adapted. Yes, he won La Liga, but he couldn’t get one of the most expensive sides in the world over the line in Europe. Yes, he returned to England and won more trophies with both Chelsea and United, but he ended his reign in Chelsea with them languishing in the bottom half. Post-2010, the world has Jose Mourinho figured out, and I’d say he’s at least 5 years too late to re-adjust to it.

Expected Greatness, Got Mediocrity

Finally, the statistics to back everything up. At surface level, there is a considerable improvement between 2016/17 and 2017/18. Surface level doesn’t tell half the story. I gave it some stick when I first heard they were calculating “expected goals” (xG for short), but, understanding it, it’s actually a very useful way of predicting what a side is going to look like in the coming weeks and months, and how good they *actually are*. xG calculates the probability of a goal being scored based on the location of the initial shot, the player taking it, which area of the goal the shot was destined for, and the quality of opposition. You’re then given a percentage chance of whether the goal would be scored under normal circumstances (10% chance is presented as 0.100, for example), and it’s all added up from there. It must be added that these results can’t take into account whether a player is injured, whether the side are fatigued, etc. they’re just a guideline to add more context. Regardless, the results aren’t promising.
Using statistics from understat.com, it’s clear that, despite two years of overseeing the playing staff, both current and incoming, there has been little to no improvement in Manchester United’s on field play. Based on xG points alone, United should have finished this season in 6th, with 62 points. For context, xG predicted United to finish on 71 points last season, not a million miles from their final total.

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The xG table. 6th place. Jose’s got us playing the way United should…

Dig a little deeper and things become even less enjoyable. xG goals: 59, xG conceded goals: 43. In reality, United scored 68 and conceded 28. We’ve often wondered where we would be without the superhuman-like performances of David de Gea, and xG is providing us with an idea: 6th place, 19 points worse off.
BUT WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN?!? You cry behind your phone or laptop. It means, dear reader, United have overachieved. Significantly. Around £300million spent over two years, and United have are being considered overachievers. That is about as shocking an indictment as can be made against Jose Mourinho. Under normal circumstances, 81 points would be considered a valiant title challenge. Unfortunately, under normal circumstances, United wouldn’t be close to that challenge.

Is there any hope?

The idea of progress under Jose is nothing but a fallacy at this point. His signings aren’t panning out the way they should, this ability to properly handle his players is seriously questionable at best, and his on field product is unsustainable to say the very least. Given everything we’ve seen, I have no reason to believe Jose Mourinho has the ability to get the right players in to make the charge expected of him. Some fans have speculated that the resignation of Rui Faria, coupled with the promotion of Keiran McKenna from the Under 18s, whose side won the 18th Professional Development League, and adding Michael Carrick to his coaching staff, we could expect a change in philosophy, and an openness to new ideas. He is on record as saying he likes to “shape them (coaches) into my way of thinking.”, so there goes that idea.

jose carrick

Please help fix this, Michael

So the choices, as far as I can see, are clear: cut loose, and nab a manager playing sustainable, “attractive” football, who is currently on a smaller budget, with the scope to succeed at a bigger club (Mauricio Pochettino has solidified Spurs a statistical top 3 side with a fraction of Jose’s millions), or face a regression to the mean. With City and Liverpool strengthening further, Spurs’ young stars maturing further, and both Arsenal and likely Chelsea heading in a new managerial direction, it’s a case of adapt accordingly, or be left behind, again. 6th place doesn’t have a nice feel to it. There’s a risk that it’ll be a feeling you’ll have to get used to.

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“Manchester United: Welcome to Jose Mourinho”

Or; “How Jose Mourinho has enabled Ed Woodward to create the Real Madrid of England”

“You know how many young players I promote to the first team from academies?” A stone-faced Jose Mourinho asked a packed Europa Suite at Old Trafford, as he was questioned about his youth integration record, during his first Press Conference as the new manager of Manchester United. “You know how many young players I promote to the first team from academies? 49.” And so it was, arguably the biggest question mark atop the head of United’s new boss seemingly dispelled, if only in his mind. Manchester United’s storied history of “giving youth a chance” and Jose Mourinho’s perceived history of…well…not, had become one of the largest concerns among the Old Trafford faithful following the appointment of the Portuguese tactician. Given the positive impact the youth contingent had on a, let’s face it, dire Manchester United outfit last season, fans might be forgiven for expecting more responsibilities may be afforded to the potential future stars of Manchester United. “49” was an attempt by Jose to allay fears that he would abandon the academy set up, and that he was as good as anyone for giving opportunities to those looking to begin their careers in football. And, for a moment or two, it may have worked, although, what seemed like minutes later, news broke that Manchester United have opened talks with Juventus officials over the transfer of Paul Pogba, for a world record fee of £100 million. And, while cheers could be heard across the land, not all are unanimous in this celebration.

This is not an attack on Pogba, who, in his 4 years away from Manchester United, has broken into the first team, and has nailed down a first team spot, for both club and country. A signing of his calibre would certainly improve the team instantly, and would, once and for all, address an issue that has plagued this side since long before Sir Alex retired. My issue with this pursuit stems from a case of “old habits die hard” from the incoming manager. paulpogbaPaul Pogba in his United Days (image source

49 players he claims to have successfully integrated into his first teams. A list was produced and waves, ala van Gaal’s famous “you take these to Big Sam” episode of 2015. A list was produced, and waved with authority; Mourinho claimed he didn’t have the time to read every name out, and the list was put back into his pocket, never to see the light of day. Luckily for us, someone put that list together. The Telegraph has collated that very list, which you can read here. I won’t repeat it entirely, because it must have been painstaking to put together, but I will take choice cuts. This list includes Ben Sarhar; a highly touted Israeli centre forward who made all of 3 appearances In his time at Chelsea. It includes Alvaro Morata, who was swiftly banished to the B team and told to grow up by Mourinho. It even includes Dominic Solanke, who managed all of 17 minutes in a 6-0 walk over, before being kicked into touch. This is not a list of 49 successful integrations; this is a list of 49 random names who he has played, full stop. And herein lies Mourinho’s problem; it’s not that he is inherently against the use of Youth Team players, it’s that he doesn’t trust them to play more than a few moments. Enter Paul Pogba.

For those that aren’t familiar with the Paul Pogba-Manchester United story; Pogba joined the club in 2009, and made waves in the under-21s, however found it increasingly difficult to break into the first team. After a lowly 7 first team appearances in the 2011-12 season (y’know, the one Scholes came out of retirement to try and salvage), Pogba sought to cut ties and ply his trade on lands previously uncharted. A £800,000 fee was agreed between Juventus and United, and Pogba began his journey to the top.
That Manchester United are entertaining the notion of this transfer speaks volumes of the clubs current state, and Jose Mourinho is the culmination of the transition the club began to undergo the moment Ed Woodward stepped into his new office 3 years ago. The overall Madrid-ification of United began when United chased names such as Bale and Ronaldo, before conceding defeat and settling for Fabregas and Thiago…before accepting defeat again and landing Fellaini. Regardless of the outcome, the vision was clear; United are a big club and, as such, should be signing the biggest names. A season later, and success as King Louis attempts to assemble his Gaalacticos with journeymen and snakes in Falcao and di Maria. Big players with big reputations, and fees to match, who didn’t last more than a season. van Gaal grew tired of his big name players and shipped out many. He cobbled together a smaller side, so to allow the promotion of youth team players, he told the press. Players with little reputation, but players who felt closer to the club than any of the names preceding them. Regardless of the why and the how, young players have always been given the opportunity to create a positive impact on the team. And, in the case of last season, usurp the marquee signings.

Which brings us onto the point of this whole article: Manchester United’s central midfield.  Since before Ferguson left the club, the centre of midfield has bee a particularly concerning area of the pitch, seemingly devoid of steel and verve since Paul Scholes retired. In an attempt to fix this area, Jose Mourinho appears to have opted for the easy route, with a pursuit of Pogba. At 23 years old, Pogba has the opportunity to slot into the centre of United’s midfield and own that spot for the next 10 years. A ready made solution to a self inflicted problem. But what if we already have the next Pogba among our ranks? And what if, by bringing him back in, we’re driving that man away, making the same mistake 4 years later. Pogba would indicate instant success, and all the riches that come with it; massive endorsements, shirt sales, yet another actor to put in whatever film 20th Century Fox need advertising next. You can put Pogba’s face on a mousemat and people will buy it. The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for Sean Goss, for James Weir, or for, at the moment at least, Timothy Fosu-Mensah. Goss, likened to Michael Carrick, has taken the Under-21s by storm, as has current captain Weir. Unlike Goss, Weir has racked up first team minutes, making a cameo appearance under Louis van Gaal against Arsenal last season. And Tim Fosu-Mensah looks confident in just about any position you ask him to play. Any one of these three, even using these players as a committee central midfielder, could lead to the breaking out of wonderful talent. Instead, another path is being blocked off as they attempt to travel into the first team, this time with a Pogba shaped tree lying in the way.weirJames Weir post-Debut (Image Source)

And this is the point I’ve been trying to make over the last…1200 words. I am not slighting on Paul Pogba; he is a fine player would make Manchester United better no end. But I am slighting on those who insist on making signings such as Pogba. I cannot fault Mourinho entirely; it is, of course, Ed Woodward who talks of how much money United have to spend every summer, and who’s obsession with big names and blockbusters has led to more failures than smashes, but I can level a significant level of the blame at his doorstep. For Mourinho is perfect for Woodward. He doesn’t care for what could be, he only cares for what already is. Mourinho is a “win now” manager. Unconcerned at the level of improvement those lads might make, Mourinho will press ahead with that fourth signing, and complete his vision for the club for the next 12 months. And then next season, he will buy other players, likely huge names on huge salaries, because that’s how he plays the game.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We’ve spent 3 years making statements of intent, and it’s gotten us nowhere. A bigger statement would be to develop Sean Goss in to the Michael Carrick-a-like he’s so often touted to be, or continue the growth of Fosu-Mensah, in his more natural position as a holding midfielder. What a statement that would be; to create more first team players as well as competing. Though it’ll likely not happen, not under Mourinho. And there are at least 2 names that won’t add to the 49. Because Manchester United isn’t Manchester United anymore. Manchester United: Welcome to Jose Mourinho. Just be careful what you wished for.

 

 

Preview: United vs Newcastle United

The fixture goads have been kind to United so far this season. 3 games in 12 days for a side in Europe is oft desired, however to have 3 games against 3 very manageable sides is like hitting the jackpot. After navigating past Aston Villa in comfortable, if unspectacular, fashion, all eyes turned to the hosting of our Belgian friends Club Brugge, which you can read about here. Not only were Brugge defeated, they were dispatched in a very exciting manner. This all bodes well for a side that has been less than so so far this year. It also means our expectations are raised ever so slightly. Enter: Newcastle United; a side so sorry they could make a blind homeless gentleman feel bad for them.

Newcastle United ended last season with a grand total of 4 points out of a possible 30, losing to the already relegated Queens Park Rangers on the way. It took a victory over West Ham on the last day to keep them up, but it wasn’t enough for Groundsman-turned-Mike Ashley’s puppet John Carver to keep his job, rightfully dispatched for being terrible. His replacement (former England failure and Fergie’s right hand man during the treble season and slightly beyond Steve McClaren) hasn’t fared much better in his short time in charge, managing to lose to the reserve side of the MLS’ Portland Timbers in pre-season, and, though they did pick up a battling point against Southampton on the first day of the season, they barely put up a fight against Swansea City. For them, this is a game that could have waited a few more weeks.
Newcastle really aren’t much to be feared, when all is said and done. They’ve been without a potent centre forward since Demba Ba inexplicably moved to Chelsea‘s bench in 2012 (Papiss Cisse‘s record is deceiving, trust me), and their midfield is less than impressive, even with the actually quite good Georginio Wijnaldum the crown of it. Wijnaldum, of course, played alongside our very own Memphis at PSV. And, without their pretty alright full-back Daryl Janmaat at the back, the defence is pretty awful. In all, Newcastle don’t really pose much of a threat.

For United, goals are the order of the day. In this tie last season, Wayne Rooney managed to bag a brace, but fans will be hoping for even half of that, as the centre forward hopes to end his barren goal drought at 9 games. Really the only way he can do that is by shooting, and I’m pretty certain he’s yet to register a shot as of yet.
The only change I can see possibly see being made to the side the brushed Brugge aside would be Bastian Schweinsteiger coming in for Michael Carrick. Tuesday’s early replacement was the clearest indicator that van Gaal would prefer to be starting Schweini sooner rather than later, so perhaps this is the week the £6.3 million man (how the fuck did we con Bayern that much?!?) finally makes his start. Aside from that, I can’t imagine many other changes being made. Given Young nabbed the winner in the away tie last season, perhaps he might start in place of young Adnan Januzaj, however that would be at a push. David de Gea‘s self imposed/van Gaal imposed exile will continue, with Serge keeping his place in goal, and looking to extend his run of clean sheets to 3 games. There is not really any need to change the back four at this point. As such, I imagine the starting XI will look something like this.

united vs newcastle
(In regards to this line-up builder, it looks like you can buy a kit pack that lets you have this seasons kits on it. Might do it. Thoughts?)

I’m anticipating a carbon copy of mid-week, to be honest. Hopefully Memphis can re-enact his European heroics and open his domestic account (and start scoring some fantasy points). As ever, the points are more important then the scoreline, but some more goals on the board would be delightful.

Prediction: United 3-0 Newcastle United

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

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.

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.