Tag Archives: champions league

Highway To Hell

image

Good old Juan Mata. Whilst everyone was losing the plot after the Champions League exit, the nicest man in football™ also proved himself a master of understatement by summing up events as merely, “a complicated week.” That’s one way of putting it, though I can’t help thinking ‘calamitous’ might have been a more fitting adjective.

After Ben Yedder’s 2nd goal prompted the mass exodus from the ground, the mood walking away wasn’t one of resigned disappointment, it felt almost mutinous. I know plenty of people have never really warmed to Mourinho, but I was genuinely surprised at the level of invective being aired. This wasn’t just the usual handful of gobshites sounding off, it was more than that. It felt like a tipping point had been reached.

Jose, true to form, came out swinging. Whilst he was obviously correct in pointing out that our recent Champions League is poor and home exits are nothing new, it was pretty disingenuous of him to ignore the fact that he was brought here to try and change that. Yes, he may well have been in charge of Porto and Real Madrid when they knocked us out, but using that fact to justify failings on his current watch was somewhat spurious reasoning.

As regular readers know, I’ve always defended Mourinho and would have been happy to see him appointed as Fergie’s successor 5 years ago. We needed someone with the same self-belief, drive and winning mentality who would be completely unfazed by the size of the club and level of expectation. Clearly he has his character flaws, but then so did Ferguson. We revelled in his malevolent side and siege mentality for many years, reaping the rewards of his similarly gargantuan personality and monstrous ego.

The major difference between the two was hammered home after the Seville game, however. Whereas you always sensed Ferguson took defeats personally and everything we experienced (good or bad) could be used to impact on his players’ long-term development, there was no evidence of that from Jose’s reaction. He didn’t defend his tactics or his squad, or even seem that chastened by the result – he merely used the opportunity to defend his own reputation.

Needless to say, it wasn’t great timing by Mourinho to remind us of his previous successes over United in the competition. We’re acutely aware of his past pedigree as it’s one of the main reasons he was appointed manager in the first place. His press conference might have been better received if he’d at least sounded contrite rather than brushing criticism away and offering the somewhat lame excuse of, ‘well you’ve seen all this before, haven’t you lads?’

He wasn’t done yet. Jose was back in front of the press prior to the Brighton game, this time armed with a list of Rafa-style facts detailing each of our European exits in recent years. His tone was just as bullish as had been 3 days earlier, although this time he was at pains to stress that the Seville result needed to be viewed in context. His main point being that this United team are still a work in progress lacking experience at the very top level. A fair point I suppose, and at least this time he resisted the temptation to big up his own past achievements.

Manchester United v CSKA Moskva - UEFA Champions League

At least the defeat took the ongoing beef with Pogba off the back pages briefly, but that one is certain to rear its head again given his ongoing absence from the starting line up . The fact he was left out for the biggest game of the season speaks volumes, and that’s before you consider the minimal impact he had after he eventually came on as sub. Regardless of form, I don’t think any of us would picked Fellaini over Pogba versus Seville, especially as we were starting another 2 holding midfielders in Matic and McTominay. Relations between the pair don’t appear to have improved and as I said last month, it won’t come as much of a surprise if Pogba’s gone in the summer.

Ditto Luke Shaw, another player subject to Jose’s oft-schizophrenic approach to motivational techniques. Now we all know that Shaw needs a regular kick up his sizeable arse and it’s long been a cause for concern that his attitude and approach require constant tuning. Mourinho isn’t the first coach to experience this and I doubt he’ll be the last. However, it was only 6 weeks ago that Shaw was being praised for his consistency and a new contract was being mentioned. Was this just an attempt to alert potential suitors? If so, why the abrupt change of heart within a couple of months?

Another in the firing line is Alexis Sanchez, a player whose descent into utter mediocrity has been impressive even by recent United standards. I mean, at least Di Maria gave us 6 weeks of good form before downing tools and viewing apartments on the Champs-Élysées. It came as no surprise to see him dropped for the Brighton game as he’s been absolutely shocking since he signed. Fingers crossed we’ll start to see the best of Alexis after he’s had a break in the summer and a full pre-season behind him.

The FA Cup, as it has been on a couple of notable occasions in United’s history, could turn out to be Mourinho’s salvation in what has become a very testing 2nd term in charge. That however, remains a very remote possibility considering the state of our record against both Spurs and potential finalists Chelsea in recent years – we haven’t beaten either team away from Old Trafford since 2012.

All things considered, last week’s international break probably came at the right time to give several figures in the dressing room a few days break from each other. Just be thankful for Will Grigg and Wigan Athletic’s recent heroics, otherwise we might have been facing a genuine end of days scenario in the not too distant future. Watching City win the treble would be the most “complicated week” imaginable.

Copyright Red News – March 2018

www.rednews.co.uk

Advertisements

You’re Wondering Now

image

Sigh. So the gloomy outlook described last month turned out to be depressingly accurate – 1 win, another 2 stupefyingly dull 0-0’s, and our best performance coming as we cruised out of Europe on a night where circumstances dictated that the usual Van Gaal playbook was abandoned. Rather than taking off, the season has instead veered off-track and nosedived into a ditch.

As far as United bad weeks go, this has been an absolute humdinger. Drawing at home to West Ham was a poor start, but then defeat in Germany and being comprehensively outclassed by Bournemouth has taken us to new, uncharted levels of gloom. I’m not even sure it can be classed as a crisis because all this happening comes as no surprise whatsoever. I’m no football sage but I called it to a couple of mates immediately after West Ham, “next week, we’ll go out of Europe and Bournemouth will beat us.” I wasn’t being facetious either, it was an entirely serious prediction.

Of course there are mitigating circumstances. The injury situation has reached farcical levels now, with half the team sheet comprising of players no one but seasoned Academy watchers had even heard of until 2-3 months ago. Pereira, Varela, McNair, Borthwick-Jackson, Lingard… Christ almighty, even Nick Powell has been exhumed. You can get away with including 1 or 2 of these lads at a time but expecting them to flourish en masse in an already misfiring, dysfunctional team is wildly optimistic. It simply wasn’t going to happen. Our 1st team is goal shy and struggles to break sides down, so why expect a team of reserves and youth players to fare any better?

It’s been suggested that this sudden influx of fresh faces and an attacking display in spite of losing to Wolfsburg should be seen as grounds for optimism – indeed, I’ve heard the phrases ‘brave performance’ and ‘hope for the future’ uttered over the last week. Sorry, but I just don’t buy it. Of course United went on the offensive in Germany, we had no other option given the urgent need for goals to qualify. This didn’t demonstrate any change in Van Gaal’s mindset or provide evidence he’ll now decide to abandon the safety first approach – he was simply forced into doing something different for once.

The most telling moment of the entire European campaign was with 30 mins left in the penultimate game versus PSV. That was the time when we needed to push on and press for a winner that would’ve assured qualification. And what did we do? Precisely nothing. There was no discernible attacking threat in the final half hour as instead our possession game became more and more ragged. Belief visibly drained from everyone on the pitch, Mata finally introduced with just 5 minutes left, the opponents ending the match looking the more likely to score. All in all, it was textbook United under Van Gaal. We were out then… and it was fully deserved after such a timid home performance against limited opposition.

image

Van Gaal himself appears to have changed over the last couple of weeks. Whilst he’s always been a stoic figure on the bench, when facing the press he’s always come across as dogmatic and assured. All of a sudden he doesn’t seem quite so consistent in the noises he’s making. The standard of refereeing has had a mention, certain players have been singled out and best of all, supporters’ expectation levels are now being questioned too. Picking holes in his claims is unnecessary, but the fact he’s decided to start criticising fans when he’s had a very easy ride and relatively little stick from that direction speaks volumes. This, let’s not forget, was the ebullient character confidently instructing us to “boo me, not the team” just a few weeks ago.

Even more perplexing, is Van Gaal’s assertion that the team is making progress… which we undoubtedly are providing you disregard the abysmal football witnessed week in, week out and instead squint your eyes and study the stats from a certain angle. I just don’t think going out in the CL group stages and losing on pens to Middlesborough in the League Cup is going to prove progress enough when it comes to deciding if his services are to be retained beyond the end of the season. Yes, things are slightly better than when Moyes was here, but if Moyes had been given £250M to spend with a further 18 months in charge would things really be that much different now?

Nothing Van Gaal has done gives me much confidence we’re going to be seeing a noticeable upturn in fortunes any time soon. The signings (Martial aside) haven’t had any impact, with most looking like bang average additions to an already bang average squad. Depay has been mostly terrible, inheriting Nani’s football brain minus his first touch; Sneiderlin is completely and utterly Southampton; Schweinsteiger looks every inch the 31 year old warhorse whose legs have started to fail him. The only player who looks to have progressed under Van Gaal is Chris Smalling who’s having a fantastic season. Our best performer, once again, is the goalkeeper… which says a lot about the paucity of entertainment on offer each week.

No doubt in January we’ll see another couple of expensive signings. A goalscorer would be nice considering we sold two in the summer and it’s difficult to envisage Rooney ever being good ever again – sorry Wayne, it pains me to admit it, but even a long-term, staunch believer like me wakes up to reality eventually. Defensive cover too must surely be a priority considering we’re currently down to the bare bones of an already threadbare squad, plus I don’t think it’s actually legal to start playing U-13’s at senior level.

What United are most desperate for though, is a playmaker. One of those rarely seen, mythical creatures capable of coming in and releasing the potential that’s lurking within each of the other current underachievers. Problem is, even if we did unearth the next Eric Cantona, do you honestly think that Van Gaal would share the vision? Sadly, I’d hazard a guess that he wouldn’t… and that’s ultimately one of the main reasons he won’t be here much longer.

Merry Christmas, everybody!

Copyright Red News – December 2015

www.rednews.co.uk

State of the Nation

sladexmas

As well as saving me a considerable sum of money, the lack of Champions League football appears to have had the effect of making the season progress remarkably quickly. Perhaps it’s just my addled brain, but it only feels like 5 minutes since Van Gaal arrived, doesn’t it? However, a glance at the calendar and the annual onslaught of Slade and Jona Lewie over the airwaves provide confirmation that we’re already in mid-December.

Despite complaining of Champions League fatigue in previous years, when the group stages resembled a mind-numbing series of easy hurdles before inevitable progression to the knock-out stages, it’s (unsurprisingly) proven a big loss this season. For a start, trying to bed in new players and a new formation would have proven a less fraught process with our usual, congested fixture schedule. Instead we’ve endured lengthy gaps in-between games after getting turfed out of the League Cup early doors and ever present menace of international football.

Secondly, something that I hadn’t previously anticipated, I’ve missed routinely turning up at Old Trafford on cold, dark November nights. Indeed, Stoke the other week was the first home game of the season under floodlights. Despite it often feeling like a pain in the arse when I’m knackered after work and the weather is crap, there’s a familiarity to that midweek routine that’s been absent this season. I meet my mates for a couple of pints in town, we jump a cab to the ground, then pay minimal attention to the actual match and instead argue/abuse each other and generally put the world to rights for 90 minutes.

It’s doesn’t feel right watching City or Liverpool on telly when United should be playing, so I’ve studiously avoided every single minute of the Champions League this season. I was delighted to hear Ronaldo downed Liverpool and equally amused that City have struggled thus far, but I can’t bring myself to actually watch them. Having spent years telling City fans that European football was “none of their business”, it’s only fair that I impose a similar mandate on myself whilst United are marooned in the European football wilderness. I’ll start watching again when they’re both knocked out, which will hopefully be very soon.

Given the wholesale changes that were made in the summer and an appalling run of injuries since then, it’s no surprise that it’s taken a bit longer than anticipated to see a settled team that is beginning to look comfortable with Van Gaal’s oft-mentioned ‘philosophy’. I’d argue that the biggest difference over the last few weeks has been the return of Michael Carrick, that and finally experiencing a bit of good fortune in a season where we’ve been on the receiving end of some ridiculous decisions against us.

chris smalling

After a terrible August which extinguished any lingering pre-season optimism, since then our form hasn’t been all that bad if you can overlook Chris Smalling’s brainstorm and the resultant non-performance at Eastlands. There’s not been very much to get excited about, but players are slowly starting to look more comfortable with the new system and their roles within it. As I said, crucially, we’ve also had to contend with the worst injury record in the league and some awful refereeing. I hate resorting to moaning about refs, it’s the hallmark of a loser – but Martin Atkinson failing to spot a blatant penalty at Sunderland and then at Leicester, Mark Clattenburg choosing to disregard Varney’s foul on Rafael and then milliseconds later, giving a pen for minimal contact, were both absolute shockers.

The Arsenal game could potentially be seen as a turning point – the first big league game won in over a year as we were finally the recipients of some good fortune. An awful 1st half featuring three teenagers in defence, Shaw (this is getting ridiculous now) injured after a quarter of an hour and United being completely outplayed. Then we are gifted a flukey own goal, Rooney scores on the counter attack and all of a sudden, we’ve somehow come away with an unexpected victory.

Factor in a handful of unspectacular home wins and United, whisper it, appear to have discovered something resembling a run of form. I’m typing these words with extreme caution because after a similarly mixed bag of results at the start of last season, we recorded 4 successive league wins last December before everything went very pear-shaped against Spurs on New Year’s Day. Still, I can’t help myself studying the league table and thinking, “hmmmm, can we?” Chelsea have at last faltered, so a win at Southampton on Monday will put us in 3rd, 8 points behind them. Winning the league won’t happen, clearly… but I haven’t quite reached the stage where I can fully admit that to myself yet.

As long as we can stay within 10 points or so, I reckon I can maintain this level of delusion/optimism until at least March. Then as we lose a couple more games and Chelsea/City win the league, we’ll only have to endure a disappointing end to the season with nothing to play for, as opposed to a 6 month period watching them disappear into the distance now. There can’t be any repeat of last season where everything unravelled to the extent the team gave up and couldn’t be arsed in the end. Even if we don’t win it, let’s at least finish 3rd (which should be a minimum aim given the absolute state of the rest of the league), continue our much improved home form and get ourselves sorted in preparation for a proper title challenge next season.

garycahill

In the meantime, if you’re stuck for gift ideas this Christmas, join me in wishing for a centre half so we can solve that particular problem before it becomes a running joke on a par with our 5 year wait for a decent midfielder. It took all of 3 weeks before Evans, Jones and Smalling were missing in action, so I’ve now abandoned hope that any of them will manage to play 5 games in succession without succumbing to to a broken leg or a bad case of impetigo. We desperately need someone, anyone in fact, capable of heading a football, tackling a bit and not being injured. The potential candidate’s ability to speak Spanish would be welcome but is not essential.

I don’t watch enough football to know who the player is, but there must be somebody out there. I never rated Gary Cahill when he was at Bolton, but someone like him would be perfect. He only cost Chelsea £7M but he’s barely missed a game in the last 3 years. A proper old fashioned stopper who wins headers, makes tackles, lumps it into touch and goes up for corners to score the odd goal. How hard can it be? Don’t talk to me about Mats Hummels. Dortmund are a spent force, he’ll cost an absolute fortune and he’s always injured. Find us the next Gary Cahill, Louis.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Copyright Red News – December 2014

www.rednews.co.uk