Perspective can be hard to find; near impossible in football. Louis van Gaal’s? Seemingly ebbing away. It is, says the Dutchman, not his side’s form that is erratic, but “the media that is inconsistent.” It was, he says, not such a bad thing that his team lost at 19th-placed Sunderland, but that the “media makes it bigger than it is.” It is, he claims, not another campaign racing towards the scrap-heap, but a season “not as bad as the media are writing or telling to the fans.” Presumably it is also the media’s fault that Van Gaal’s side has won just three of its past 10 Premier League matches. Read More
Say goodbye to 2014. It was a year that started horribly for Manchester United with a home defeat to Tottenham Hotspur and ended with the club on the up, albeit with a draw against the same opposition. Hello, then, to 2015: a year in which United will, well, we’re not quite sure… but United Rant’s writers peaked into the crystal ball and had a guess…
In the end United will be short – well short – of the title contenders this season, although the improvement in results has been really good since November. By May United might be 10 points adrift of the title winners, which will probably be Chelsea, although José Mourinho’s side could suffer for lack of squad depth.
It’s been so long since United put together a decent FA Cup run. Surely this is the year for United to have a real crack at it, although the loss to MK Dons demonstrates that United’s trip to Yeovil Town next week is going to be no easy ride.
The summer market is critical, although it’s hard to see the Glazers signing off on another £150 million spend. That said few predicted last summer’s splurge either. Louis van Gaal could really do with a couple of high-quality defenders: a right-back as cover or replacement for the perennially injured Rafael da Silva, and an experienced central defender who is not prone to injury!
United could do with another combative midfielder. Marouane Fellaini was supposed to be it, but he’ll never be good enough at Champions League level. Kevin Strootman is the obvious name, of course, although Arturo Vidal would be the ‘gold-medal’ level signing. Then there’s the question of what happens with Radamel Falcao and Robin van Persie. It’s hard to see both at the club beyond the summer.
There will be some departures too. None of United’s defenders, bar Luke Shaw and Marcos Rojo, are safe. Neither is Antonio Valencia or, sadly, Ander Herrera and Juan Mata. It’ll be a very bleak day if David de Gea leaves for Real Madrid, but it’s not unlikely.
In the end Van Gaal’s philosophy will be attacking, possession-based football in which United dominate matches. The Dutchman simply doesn’t have the personnel for it to be fully implemented just yet. If that’s still the case after next summer the club will have let Van Gaal down.
United will push City and Chelsea much harder for the title in 2015/15. Expect United to be very close to the top by this time next year.
Second half of the season XI: De Gea; Rafael, Jones, Rojo, Shaw; Herrera, Carrick, Di Maria; Mata; Falcao, Rooney
Next season’s XI: De Gea; Aurier, Jones, Hummels, Shaw; Herrera, Vidal; Di Maria, Mata, Januzaj; Falcao
By May 2015 United will probably have secured third spot. Even though United has overtaken some pretty serious point differences in the second half of the season over the years the team will finish a dozen points behind City and Chelsea. A nice FA Cup run is overdue and it would be great to win it and break a good record for a change.
Next summer’s transfer market will bring one or two solid defenders. If the Dutchman delivers results this season United won’t return to Glazeronomics just yet, even though, sadly, it looks inevitable in the long run. There won’t be another Angel Di Maria/Radamel Falcao “holy s**t, that’s actually happening!” moment this summer, but it’s always welcome.
Some players will leave too and that’s looooong overdue. It’s not good to call United’s players ‘dead wood,’ but, unfortunately, that’s what some of them have become. Let’s hope Van Gaal shows strength of character and good judgement here. Whether David De Gea stays is more important though. Don’t break our hearts, Dave. Please, pretty please? It would even be worth paying Anderson to stay and be the fool to your king. Perhaps that was the plan all along!
In 2015 we will discover what Van Gaal’s philosophy really is… or not. The Dutchman can be quite pragmatic if necessary. Maybe there’s no philosophy as such; just pragmatism and some common sense. The greatest trick that our Devil has ever pulled was to convince everyone that the philosophy exists. The hope is that Van Gaal sorts out the defence – the transfer window should help – sticks with a specific formation, and gets some luck with injuries. And then “let it flyyyy.”
After all that next season United will finally become a title contender again – at least, that’s the plan. Of course, football can be cruel sometimes. As Liverpool demonstrated ‘up’ is not the only way after a good season. Fans should remain wary until the league is United’s again. It’s hard to believe that it has been only been two seasons since the last title, but so far Van Gaal looks like a man who can bring the “not arrogant, just better” attitude back. Here’s to that!
Second half of the season XI: De Gea; Carrick, Jones, Rojo; Rafael , Blind, Herrera, Young; ;Di Maria; Falcao, Rooney
Next season’s XI: De Gea; Rafael, Hummels, Jones, Shaw; Bale, Blind, Herrera, Di Maria; Rooney, Falcao
United will have made the Champions League by the end of the season. City will probably win the Premier League after fatigue catches up with Chelsea given the Londoners’ lack of rotation so far. The winter transfer window might bring United a solid right-back, which may help a push for the title, though probably not enough. United has produced in big games this season and other ‘big’ clubs are either in a free fall or still in Europe. Van Gaal has historically done well in cup competitions and an FA Cup victory is definitely possible this season.
Next summer’s transfer market will bring a classy right-back and a world-class winger. All that Gareth Bale talk is indicative of something and Borussia Dortmund’s Marco Reus is also available. Herrera may end up in jail and Fellaini is no long-term option – expect Van Gaal’s golden boy Kevin Strootman to come to Old Trafford. Despite popular opinion a new central defender is not priority next summer. United will defend with organisation and not personnel and there are few established defenders to suit van Gaal’s high line anyway.
Anderson and probably Chris Smalling will leave the club – the Brazilian’s contract is up anyway. Jonny Evans will probably survive given his ‘left-footedness.’ Up front Ramadel Falcao will leave – James Wilson is promising. United will have to cut back what has become one of the biggest wage bills in Europe to clear for new arrivals. Falcao simply hasn’t performed. Antonio Valencia will be free to leave as well, though his high wages will be a stumbling block. Ashley Young will probably survive since he can fill in at any position on either flank.
In the next year Van Gaal’s philosophy will emerge and it’ll look something like Bayern Munich’s when he was manager there: a 4-2-3-1 with a focus on the flanks. It is indicative that Van Gaal has heavily relied on width despite playing winger-less systems, with Young and Valencia used as wing-backs. Wayne Rooney is very much like Thomas Muller. The German isn’t all that gifted technically. Van Gaal may even start playing a Bayern style 4-2-3-1 this season if Adnan Januzaj can find some form.
Next season United will win the Premier League. There will be no screwing about when the 2015/16 season begins. That extra 10 points in first 10 games of 2015/16 will bring the trophy back to Old Trafford. United probably won’t have the defence to hold off Barcelona or Real Madrid, but a new world-class winger may see the Reds sneak into semi-finals of the Champions League.
Counterattacking is in vogue and van Gaal is one of ‘counter-counter’ pioneers. Van Gaal will certainly relish the challenge.
Second half of this season XI: De Gea; Coleman, Jones, Rojo, Shaw; Blind, Fellaini; Januzaj, Rooney, Di Maria; Van Persie
Next season’s XI: De Gea; Coleman, Jones, Rojo, Shaw; Strootman, Blind; Januzaj, Rooney, Di Maria; Van Persie
United will finish the season, probably, in third place. Maybe second. As Ed said on the podcast last week, expectations have been reset and finishing fourth from here would be kind of disappointing. We’ll have seen a number of much better performances, and won the derby at Old Trafford. The FA Cup tie with Yeovil is slightly worrying – we might lose in the third round!
Next summer’s transfer market will be a slight anti-climax after last season’s. There won’t be a marquee signing to rival Di Maria or Falcao, but United will add sensibly in defence and midfield. Right-back is the position that most needs to be addressed with Rafael injured all the time. At least the injured centre backs have cover.
Some will leave too, including, sadly, Falcao. I have rarely wanted a player to work out as much as Falcao at United, but it seems not to going that way. He’s got four months to save the dream. One of Smalling, Phil Jones or Jonny Evans will leave — each good enough for United, none fit enough for United.
In 2015 we will discover what Van Gaal’s philosophy really is … and it’s that Christmas really is the most wonderful time of the year. Grinning from ear to ear when lighting the tree, giving the players the day off on Christmas, handing out presents. He loves it. Seriously though, his philosophy has changed over the years, and the best short hand for where it currently sits is something along the lines of ‘play the best, most attractive, football you can with the players at your disposal.’
After all that, next season, United will win the league. AGAIN!
Second half of this season XI: De Gea; Rafael, Jones, Rojo, Shaw; Herrera, Carrick, Di Maria; Rooney; Falcao, Van Persie
Next season’s XI: De Gea; Rafael, Godin, Jones, Shaw; Strootman, Herrera, Rooney; Di Maria, Falcao, Bale
On this week’s podcast Ed & Paul join Sam, Thomo, Mark and Chudi for a Rant Cast/Red Mancunian/Pride of all Europe podcast mash-up special! Speaking shortly after the final whistle, the lads focus on United’s victory over Everton at Old Trafford, including Wayne Rooney, Angel Di Maria, Daley Blind, the singing section, your questions, and more Rooney…
Rant Cast is donationware! If you really love the pod you can always show your appreciation by making a small donation!
Rant Cast is produced by Tom Jenkins at TEEJSOUND
At some point later this season, with Manchester United comfortably qualified for the Champions League, and Louis van Gaal’s name ringing around Old Trafford, the late summer will seem like a distant memory. Not a good one for United’s medical team, but one long forgotten nonetheless. Such is the enduring list of absentees that engulfs Van Gaal’s squad these days.
There is little to lighten the mood at Old Trafford as Everton visit on Sunday – especially with much change in the backroom where Tony Strudwick has effectively been demoted in favour of Dutch fitness coach Jos van Dijk, while United has sought to also limit physio Rod Thornley’s involvement with the England set-up. Whatever the cause of the an extended injury crisis Van Gaal is not prepared to stand still.
Without eight injured players on Sunday, Van Gaal must also adjust for Wayne Rooney’s absence, with the club captain sitting out the next three matches after taking a crude hack at Stuart Downing last the weekend. The Scouser has apparently apologised to his team-mates for the error which provoked a first Premier League red in five years, although as ever with Rooney, the fans didn’t feature in the behind closed doors mea culpa.
On the pitch United’s manager is likely to bring Juan Mata back into the fold after the Spaniard was dropped last weekend, while youngster Patrick McNair keeps his place. There is little choice with three central defenders still injured and the Dutchman reluctant to field two left-footed players – Marcos Rojo and Tyler Blackett – in the heart of United’s back-four.
McNair’s selection is, of course, also a vote in confidence after the Irishman’s positive debut against West Ham United – one that leads to the Dutchman fielding another youthful defensive line against Everton this weekend.
“We still have three central defenders injured so [McNair] shall play,” said Van Gaal on Friday. “He is the only player who can play in the right-sided defensive position. I chose him last week and he was very good. It’s difficult for a player like him to maintain that level – that is his biggest challenge.
“We have eight injuries and one red card so nine players are not available. It’s difficult to explain. You can be fit but not match fit – that’s a big difference. For example, Ander Herrera is fit but he cannot play because of his rib pressure. Marouane Fellaini has trained for one week but is not fit to play 90 minutes.”
McNair’s retention is Blackett’s loss. The 20-year-old Mancunia featured in five Premier League games this season before suspension against the Hammers – and faces an uncertain immediate future in Van Gaal’s side with Phil Jones and Chris Smalling both nearing fitness.
The Leicester City aberration aside, Blackett has also been United’s most consistent defender this season. In that there is, of course, some irony – that youth products such as Blackett and McNair should feature so heavily in the thinking after the club spent some £150 million on new players during the summer transfer window. It is a chance that both have taken impressively.
“I want to play in every game and I am trying to impress the manager enough to keep my place,” Blackett told the official website.
“Now that I have played a few games, it is one of those situations when you are hungry for more. There is healthy competition among the defenders. We have banter in training and we are all pushing each other to improve. We all want to succeed.”
Elsewhere Van Gaal must find a midfield combination without Ander Herrera, who broke a rib against West Ham. One of Adnan Januzaj and Darren Fletcher is likely to come into the side alongsidevDaley Blind and Angel Di Maria. Fletcher offers United greater defensive presence, although the Scotsman is patently unlikely to ever reach his former level, while Januzaj is yet to start a fixture this season. Much, no doubt, to the Belgian youngster’s frustration.
It is a pattern that points to Fletcher taking up the captaincy on Sunday. Not least with Van Gaal required to protect United’s fragile defence.
“I want my defensive organisation to be better,” said the Dutchman.
“It’s teamwork, so when we concede a goal it’s not only because of an individual error from the defence. It starts somewhere else and that is what we have to analyse and improve.
“We have a lot of creative attacking players in our selection and I like that but I also like to think that you have the discipline to come back in a certain shape because now we have conceded too many goals.”
Meanwhile, Roberto Martinez’ side arrives having suffered an equally difficult opening six games of the season, although manager the Spaniard will point to mitigating circumstances. Everton has certainly played better than a record of one win in six Premier League games suggests.
Martinez’ strategy at Old Trafford is helped little by Everton’s Europa League campaign, with the Merseysiders returning from a fixture against FK Krasnodar in the small hours of Friday morning. It cannot but have a debilitating effect despite the Spaniard’s upbeat demeanour.
“The kick-off time is a bit of a disappointment because every hour you can get is a bonus, but we don’t see that as an excuse or reason to moan,” said Martinez.
“We just have to have the right mentality in every game we go into. I don’t see it as a problem at all. We’re fully focused on facing Manchester United, a team we respect massively as a really good attacking force. In my eyes, they are going to do big things this season.”
Meanwhile, Everton forward Kevin Mirallas suffered a hamstring tear and is out for a month, while Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy are unlikely to feature. McCarthy has a muscle strain, suffered in the draw with Liverpool last weekend, while Coleman has recovered from concussion, but has a soft tissue problem. Steven Pienaar could come back into the side, but Ross Barkley is again missing. Former United midfielder Darron Gibson is likely to be on the bench.
Still, this is an Everton team that completed the double over United last season. The underwhelming start to the new campaign is surely a blip rather than the norm. Indeed, Everton has won three of their last four games against the Reds, including the 1-0 victory over David Moyes’ at Old Trafford last season.
Despite the difficult start Everton is also a club on the up – one revitalised by Martinez where Moyes brought only negativity and rancour to United. It is also an institution seeking a higher platform despite the restrictions on the budget imposed by an ageing Goodison Park. European football is both a blessing and a curse.
Which brings us neatly back to United – where the curse of injury has little blessing this season.
United (4-1-2-1-2): de Gea; Rafael, McNair, Rojo, Shaw; Blind; Fletcher, Di Maria; Mata; Van Persie, Falcao
Everton (4-3-3): Howard; Hibbert, Stones, Jagielka, Baines; Pienaar, Barry, Belsic; Naismith, Lukaku, McGeady
United: Lindegaard, Blackett, Vermijl, Thorpe, Janko, Pereira, Fellaini, Valencia, Anderson, Januzaj
Everton: Robles, Atsu, Alcaraz, Distin, Koné, Oviedo, Garbutt, Osman, Gibson, Long, Hope, McAlney, Browning, Eto’o
United 81- Draw 42 – Everton 65
Referee: Kevin Friend
Assistants: M McDonough, S Burt
Fourth Official: C Pawson
United 1-1 Everton
£1 bet club
Mata to open the scoring @ 7/1
Running total: £(-)7
This isn’t the David de Gea of old – the tentative, error-prone waif that struggled to come to terms with the Premier League after a £17 million transfer from Atlético Madrid. But there is something amis with Manchester United’s goalkeeper this season. Confidence, form, a change of manager, coach and regime? All of the above, perhaps. Whatever the answer it is the most testing period for the young Spaniard in almost two seasons – a step backward that few predicted.
Yet, De Gea also celebrated a significant milestone last weekend in completing his 100th Premier League appearance during the Reds’ hard-earned victory over West Ham United. In total De Gea has now amassed 139 games for the club – the same number as Fabien Barthez – placing the Spaniard 11th on United’s all-time goalkeeping appearance list. More too than the 23-year-old made for Atléti’s B and first teams combined; he will surely make hundreds more for United.
No longer the nervous, home-sick, kid who joined United under Sir Alex Ferguson, De Gea has grown into one of Europe’s finest over the past two years. It is, after all, just 15 months since Premier League peers voted the Madridista the best in England – an honour many felt should have been retained even after a difficult season under David Moyes. De Gea alone emerged from the campaign reputation generously enhanced.
Yet, the final seven of those 139 appearances have not always been happy – 13 goals conceded, just two clean sheets and three defeats in all competitions. Amid the flurry of goals against, it is surely concerning that Dea Gea’s old indecision has seemingly returned; a nervousness not present in the ‘keeper last year as he earned a place in Spain’s World Cup squad.
It was a momentous summer. De Gea made his first senior international appearance against El Salvador in a 2–0 friendly victory in June and was awarded a full Spanish début against France in August after an unhappy Spanish side was dumped out in the World Cup first round. Poor club form, however, is unlikely finally persuade Vicente del Bosque to drop Ilker Casillas – a goalkeeper benched by both José Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti at club level in recent seasons.
The crass mistakes of old may not have returned to De Gea’s game, but confidence was conspicuously absent as West Ham launched more than 30 long passes at United’s fragile back four on Saturday. Worse, perhaps, is a returning passivity that had been eliminated from the young ‘keeper’s game. Positioning is now uncertain, communication somehow muted.
And De Gea’s form is concerning because it has seemingly come from left-field. While many of his team-mates regressed under Moyes, De Gea’s skillset was much augmented, seemingly the fruit of a fine relationship with Chris Woods. Turmoil reigned elsewhere, not in camp De Gea. Indeed, while Woods drew scrutiny for replacing Eric Steele at Old Trafford, the former England international was the only member of Moyes’ coaching staff to emerge with credit. It is not insignificant that Woods has also been working with USA stopper Tim Howard, a player enjoying a fine Indian summer to a superb career.
Woods was replaced by Frans Hoek in June, a coach of world repute who has worked alongside Louis van Gaal for more than 20 years at Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and the Dutch national team. It was van Gaal who enjoyed the credit for substituting Jasper Cillessen in the 119th minute of a World Cup quarter-final against Costa Rica as ‘keeper Tim Krul saved two penalties to win Netherlands’ a place in the last four. It was, however, Hoek that devised the strategy.
“Hoek groomed me and helped me learn all the things I needed to know to be a successful footballer over a lot of years,” said former United player Edwin van der Sar this summer. “He should be a great help for David. I think they’ll be a good combination.”
Hoek has already instigated a new regime at Carrington, focusing on the fundamentals of De Gea’s game in addition to the big picture. The Spaniard, it seems, is being taught to be a team player not just a brilliant individual. Indeed, in the possession-based system that Van Gaal will eventually instigate at United, it is the Spaniard who will be United’s first point of attack.
“It’s been a new way of training but Frans knows everything about the goalkeeping role,” said De Gea in an interview with MUTV this week.
“He wants to work on different positions – for crosses, for shots, and to play with my feet. We train a lot on this kind of thing and train looking ahead to the game. Position is really important for goalkeepers you have to be ready for anything. To be a goalkeeper of Manchester United you have to be focused all the time.”
Yet, on Saturday, it was De Gea’s lack of focus that led to Diafra Sakho’s West Ham goal – a poor attempt at collecting a corner, which allowed the Senegalese striker to score.
In this the United stopper is aided little by a back-four – three or five, depending on the match and observer’s viewpoint – that has repeatedly changed this season. On Saturday teenager Patrick McNair partnered new acquisition Marcos Rojo in the centre of defence. At times Phil Jones, Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling have also appeared in the centre, while five different players have been used at full or wing-back this season. It is a pattern that is unlikely to change, with Jones, Evans and Smalling perennially on the treatment table.
De Gea may yet have to become less passive; a journey that could hold long-term benefits for an introvert by nature. It is, after all, the 23-year-old that has become one of United’s most senior defensive players in the wake of Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidić leaving Old Trafford in the summer. Having reached 100 Premier League appearances, De Gea is now judged without the caveat of youth.
Few doubt that the Spaniard will come good once again. The roots of poor form are seemingly buried in change – both in the backroom and on the pitch. De Gea is, wrote Juan Mata this week, “one of the most skilled goalkeepers I’ve ever seen. ”
Just one that could do with more than a lucky break in the coming weeks.
On this week’s podcast, regular Rant Cast presenters Ed & Paul look back on Manchester United’s 2-1 victory over West Ham United at Old Trafford. Three points gained, but it was a result that hardly tells the full story of a dramatic match in which Wayne Rooney saw red for the sixth time in his career. Is the former Everton player really the man to lead United?
There’s a preview of United’s game with Everton at Old Trafford. After victory over the Hammers can the Reds finally gain some momentum this season, with Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal to come before November is out?
And finally: your questions…
Rant Cast is donationware! If you really love the pod you can always show your appreciation by making a small donation!
Rant Cast is produced by Tom Jenkins at TEEJSOUND
Manchester United will come good this season, there is too much talent at Louis van Gaal’s disposal to fail, although from the standpoint of another near car crash performance on Saturday it is impossible to predict when, let alone where. Old Trafford certainly holds no guarantees these days. For the moment this remains United, but not quite as we once knew it. On the cusp of turning it around, or of another dismal season? The next five weeks will say much.
Who would have thought that £150 million spent over the summer would have so little immediate impact, with United having lost twice in the Premier League already this season, including a humiliating 5-3 loss at Leicester City. Not to mention that Carling Cup defeat at Milton Keynes Dons.
Leaving aside Wayne Rooney’s dismissal in the 59th minute, United’s performance at home to West Ham United this weekend rarely achieved a level above the mundane – at least in aggregate even if there were moments of brilliance. Indeed, prior to the Scouser’s moment of insanity in kicking out at Stuart Downing it was the visitors who had begun to dominate proceedings as the second half opened. Momentum swung to the Hammers long before Rooney hit the showers. Something is just not quite right with Van Gaal’s outfit.
There were certainly mitigating circumstances on Saturday. Injuries to Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling left United with Marcos Rojo as the only available first team central defender. Hardly ideal in any circumstances. Though even this excuse was unavailable as United conceded five to Leicester last weekend.
Positives? The Reds passing in the first half against the Hammers was crisp and the side’s attacking movement reflected the quality available to United’s Dutch manager. Rooney’s goal was exceptionally well executed, while Radamel Falcao enjoyed a fine game even without a strike of his own.
Van Gaal should also feel more secure in his young defenders after the performance. Rojo was, at times, commanding in central defence, although the Argentinian World Cup star has some work to do on positioning.
But it was the Dutchman’s two young attacking full-backs that impressed most. Rafael da Silva was all energy and enterprise in the first half and, without exception, solid defensively in the second. He hasn’t always been that reliable. Meanwhile, Luke Shaw enjoyed a positive début for the club – attacking in tandem with Angel Di Maria down the left, while playing an almost immaculate defensive game during the second.
“It was a tough début, I would say,” said Shaw. “Obviously, we went down to 10 men and it’s never easy but we all fought hard and showed how much we wanted these three points. It means a lot to us. Overall, I’m really pleased with how my début went but the main thing, for me, was to get the win.”
There was kudos too for Patrick McNair, the patently raw 19-year-old, who completed a game-saving defensive header late in the game that would have been impressive from the most celebrated of centre halves.
Yet, at no point did the result feel secure either – not even as United led 2-0 lead with 11 men on the pitch. West Ham’s policy of attacking United’s fragile defence with long balls had a significant effect on a youthful rearguard. After all Rojo, at 24, was the elder statesman of United’s defensive unit. That David de Gea looks anything but his completely secure self is also concerning, although surely a symptom and not a cause of United’s defensive malaise this season.
Still, the Reds held out for the win, reorganising into a solid defensive shape after Rooney’s dismissal and resorting, sometimes crudely, to launching the ball forward in defensive situations. Sensibly too some might add given the result last weekend, even if the tactic was anything but ‘the United way’.
Van Gaal called the win “very important,” while Robin Van Persie lauded victory as “more than three points.” That it was. Holding out to claim a 2-1 win while fielding 10 players for more than half an hour – even at home – is a level of robustness that has not always been present since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
“After the red card, we had to fight for the victory and I have said to the lads you have been rewarded today because you fought until the end – and more than that,” Van Gaal told MUTV.
Rooney, United’s captain and leader, let the group down. It has been five years since the former Evertonian saw red in the Premier League. Yet, somehow, this didn’t surprise either. Rooney’s is rarely a calm head. Captain material? Pull the other one.
“I could imagine why he did it,” said Van Gaal somewhat magnanimously. “But I think you have to do it more friendly and that is the only thing that I can say. You can ask if that is a red card. I think you see what you want to see and I believe [the referee] could have given a red card. In professional football, you make these faults.”
For the rest of the group this victory is a platform, with Everton, Manchester City and Chelsea to come over the next five weeks. Rooney will miss the first of those games allowing Juan Mata to once again take up a role a ‘number 10’. Whether the Spaniard’s re-introduction will help or hinder United’s attacking play is a debate to come; some team-mates will enjoy United’s greater balance with Rooney out of the side.
Results are key though and with difficult games on the horizon United’s victory over West Ham may well be a turning point. It certainly feels like a pivotal period in the season if the Reds are to build some momentum before the turn of the year.
“It was absolutely vital to get the three points for everyone’s belief and the fans’ belief,” Van Persie added.
“I thought we played really well in the first half but in the second it was a completely different game because of the red card. At times it was a bit nerve-wracking but we did ever so well and everyone fought really hard.”
Good things do sometimes come to those who wait and, in this, United’s supporters have played a long game of patience. Not with Van Gaal per se, but in the near 18 months since Sir Alex announced his retirement there have been few moments of levity. West Ham wasn’t really one; Chelsea and City in the weeks to come. Now there would be a real platform.
It has become a pattern – and not a good one – that Manchester United’s hopes founder on the fate of injury. David Moyes suffered for frequent bouts of player absence last season; new manager Louis van Gaal’s plans have similarly been disrupted by a clutch a players permanently staffing the physio room. So many, in fact, that United’s aggregate injury count is the highest in the Premier League this season at 55 cumulative matches missed. Just as Van Gaal needed a win more than at any time in his short United tenure ill luck has struck hard once again.
Yet, it is not solely the total number of injuries that counts this weekend against West Ham United at Old Trafford – there are nine – but where they feature in central defence. United’s 5-3 humiliation by Leicester City last Sunday included one of the most calamitous defensive performances in recent memory. The Dutchman must have hoped for anything but further disruption to his ever-changing back-line.
Indeed, United’s veteran manager has called up two youngsters in Paddy McNair and Tom Thorpe for the weekend’s match, with only new recruit Marcos Rojo available in central defence. Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and Phil Jones are injured – same story, different day there – while Tyler Blackett is suspended followed the youngster’s dismissal at the King Power Stadium.
“The amount of injuries is worrying me and they are not coming back,” said Van Gaal on Friday.
“Smalling is already, for the third time, injured. Evans also. Jones had one injury in the national team, which was unfortunate. I am a coach who has a lot of experience and I believe I was never in this situation before so it is surprising me. I am evaluating myself and my staff and also the players and what is wrong. I have already adapted to a certain level that I think we can play during a game but I cannot train at a lower level.”
Whether an untested youngster or, perhaps, Darren Fletcher lines up alongside Rojo £30 million summer recruit Luke Shaw is likely to make his full United début. The teenager featured during the summer tour of the United States, where he was criticised for a lack of fitness, before suffering a hamstring injury that has kept the 19-year-old on the sidelines.
“The injury got me down a little bit as I’ve never been injured for so long before,” Shaw told MUTV.
“I was a bit annoyed, but I’ve been back in training now for a couple of weeks. It was literally in the last training session ahead of the game. I had to stop because I was in too much pain. I’m back up now, raring to go and hoping to stay injury-free and fit for the rest of the season.”
Injuries aside United must rebuild confidence after the heavy defeat at Leicester. In a season where the Reds have secured just five points from as many games Van Gaal is struggling to build momentum. Already eight points behind Chelsea and five adrift of Arsenal, United cannot slip further behind if Champions League football is to return to Old Trafford in 2015. More than 30 games remain this season, but a lack of momentum – as Moyes well knows – can linger.
Still, United’s players and management held an in-depth post-mortem after Leicester scored four times in a calamitous second half United performance on Sunday lunchtime. Van Gaal’s men looked secure after gaining a two goal lead until the final 30 minutes of a game that has provoked talk of crisis at Old Trafford.
“It shouldn’t be possible, but it still happened,” said striker Robin van Persie, who is one of a clutch of players yet to find any form this season.
“We have to deal with it. We had a proper look at it next day. Sometimes it was a bit confronting and it was a long meeting. One hour. We went from there, started again this week [and have put] a couple of really good sessions in. Everyone feels ready to face West Ham.
“When you look at the defensive mistakes, it starts somewhere else. That’s where we looked at as well. It’s not just the one mistake which happens. There’s a mistake before the mistake and before the mistake, maybe positional wise. Everyone knows where we have to improve.”
Meanwhile, West Ham arrive having secured a positive result against Liverpool last weekend. It has been a mixed campaign with defeats to Tottenham Hotspur, Crystal Palace and Sheffield United – but the Hammers’ seven Premier League points leaves the East Londoners in the top half of the table.
West Ham boss Sam Allardyce this week criticised United for spending some £150 million on new players this summer having not similarly endowed Moyes with new recruits in 2013. Still, Allardyce brought it seven new players in the summer as the Hammers seek to consolidate a place in the Premier League ahead of the move to the Olympic Stadium next year.
On the pitch West Ham will be without midfielder Cheikhou Kouyate this weekend, while Kevin Nolan and Matt Jarvis are not yet ready to return to first team action. But it is not injuries that concern Allardyce, with the former Blackburn Rovers manager predicting that the home side will return to form this weekend.
“I’m thinking a backlash because of the determination of the Man United players and the fact they are playing at Old Trafford.” said Allardyce.
“I know there’s quite a lot of new players playing there but certainly the demand of Manchester United is huge and they’ll be really fired up to make sure that they try and perform like they did against QPR and beat us. They will be pretty down about that performance they gave at Leicester and they will be hurting and they know the only way they can put that right is to get out onto the field and punish us for it – so we will have to be careful about that.”
Indeed, there have been few good days for the Hammers at Old Trafford in recent years where the Londoners have suffered 16 defeats in 18 Premier League matches. The last victory in Manchester came as Carlos Tevez scored a late winner to keep West Ham up in 2007.
Still, with United’s form anything but consistent this season and injuries biting hard there is little reason for Old Trafford’s regulars to hold thoughts of easy victory. Van Gaal can but hope his luck turns for the better. The injury count certainly isn’t.
United (4-1-2-1-2): de Gea; Rafael, Fletcher, Rojo, Shaw; Blind; Herrera, Di Maria; Rooney; Van Persie, Falcao
West Ham (4-5-1): Adrian; Jenkinson, Tomkins, Reid, Cresswell; Amalfitano, Noble, Song, Downing; Sakho, Valencia
United: Lindegaard, McNair, Vermijl, Thorpe, Mata, Pereira, Carrick, Valencia, Anderson, Januzaj
West Ham: Jaaskelainen, Spiegel, Collins, Demel, Potts, Lletget, Poyet, Cole, Vaz Te, Zarate
United 128 – Draw 60 – West Ham 26
Referee: Lee Mason
Assistants: A Garratt, I Hussin
Fourth Official: M Dean
United 3-2 West Ham
£1 bet club
Falcao to score twice @ 7/2
Running total: £(-)6
What stir is this; what tumult’s in the heavens?
Strange times at Manchester United. If the alarm hadn’t already been sounded it surely rings loud now after chaos reigned at the King Power Stadium on Sunday. Tumult and then some with Leicester City, lowly newly promoted Leicester at that, inflicting United’s third defeat of what increasingly looks like a long season to come. Stir? Louis van Gaal was enraged.
There was no little incredulity at Old Trafford as the east midlanders smashed five past Van Gaal’s expensively assembled team. With the defeat comes disbelief, but not really that one of the league’s lesser teams secured victory. This has happen too often for surprise. Nor even that United shipped so many, with a defence broken asunder in recent times. But more specifically that the Reds should be so utterly bereft of leadership when it was needed most.
This, after all, is the club of Duncan Edwards, Bryan Robson, Steve Bruce and Roy Keane. Leaders all. Of different types too: those natural in command, and others who set the tone to follow. United is seemingly lacking both.
On Sunday, when Van Gaal so desperately needed his senior players to offer an example, to organise, to translate training pitch strategy into match day execution, none came forward. More broadly, when a leader of the intelligent, progressive kind is so badly required at Old Trafford nobody has emerged from the class of 2014.
In both respects United should be served by club captain Wayne Rooney. The talisman on-the-pitch; the marketing symbol off it. The man awarded the club captaincy by Van Gaal, a huge new contract by the executive, and proffered “special privileges” all in the same arc.
Yet, on Saturday, United’s leader became the captain to demand his crew paddles faster as the bow sinks below the waves. In one notable incident Rooney screamed at his team-mates, the callow Tyler Blackett included, moments after the Scouser gifted Leicester possession and with it a third goal. This is rotten leadership fast sinking into the class of Dickens scoundrel.
On the pitch Rooney completed 81 per cent of his passes; fewer still in the final third – this from the man who, at number 10, was deployed by Van Gaal as United’s creative fulcrum. At least the captain was at least partly contrite in admitting that “we should have kept the ball better.”
Prone to the Hollywood ball, Rooney failed with each of his long forward passes and, in attacking zones, Rooney managed just one shot – off target, of course. True, Rooney completed an assist for Angel Di Maria’s goal, but the pass was so underweighted that the Argentinian was forced into a sublime finish simply to complete United’s move.
Defensively Rooney made two tackles, but no blocks, interceptions or clearances. It was a performance of, sadly, common mediocrity and very little intelligence.
This is a strange kind of leadership – one his team-mates seem reluctant to follow. Then, on current evidence, Rooney might not convince his shadow to follow him into the sunset. This from the man who has twice sought refuge in the arms of United’s bitterest rivals; once more into the breach dear friends – ‘unless a better offer comes my way’.
Rooney wasn’t the only failure on Saturday, although the captain’s rotten form is the antithesis of inspiration. At the back Rafael da Silva and Marcos Rojo were repeatedly caught out of position, while Jonny Evans and his replacement Chris Smalling enjoyed error-ridden afternoons. Even Blackett, who had looked composed for an hour, suffered in the chaos of United’s defensive disintegration.
There should be little surprise in United’s defensive malaise. Where the club lost more than 1200 appearances of experience in Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidić and Patrice Evra, the trio was replaced with two, expensive, and adolescent left-backs: Rojo and Luke Shaw.
Meanwhile, Smalling, Evans and the Phil Jones were groomed to be the next generation of great United central defenders. Perpetual injury has dogged each, to say little of the technical limitations now inherent. None of this, however, is a surprise and United’s failure to acquire an experienced central defender in the summer appears more like negligence with each passing game.
In midfield Di Maria’s brilliance was not matched by Ander Herrera or Daley Blind, who were too often over-run by Leicester’s all-action engine room. Rooney did little to halt the flow in his deeper role, nor Juan Mata the second half substitute thrust into an unfamiliar position in central midfield.
With it Van Gaal had little choice but to react furiously after a performance as inept as any last season.
“You never expect that when you’re 3-1 ahead and you are two goals ahead for the second time,” said the Dutchman.
“You have to kill the game and keep possession but we could not do that. We gave it away with penalties, and you cannot win a game when you do that. I think we created a lot of chances and we made superb goals. But a game lasts 90 minutes and you have to do that for 90 minutes, not 60 minutes.”
Rooney echoed his manager in declaring the performance not “good enough as a team.” He could say little else except, perhaps, to include greater self-analysis in the critique.
The seemingly untouchable Scouser is set to continue in the United side even if there is little clear evidence he is the best player in any position. Special privileges indeed. Although the former Evertonian may no longer be first choice striker, with Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao starting on Sunday.
“I was not so satisfied with Rooney as a striker,” Van Gaal said. “That is why I changed. Rooney can play in more positions, he’s a multi-functional player and I have tried him in a striker’s position. He has played well, but not spectacular. Falcao is a striker and I think he can do it better.”
Whether Rooney deserves the role at ‘number 10’ is moot, although Mata’s greater use of the ball, outstanding control and understanding of tempo are surely more important qualities in the position. Or, to put that another way, a player of Rooney’s profligacy in possession, leaden first touch and dependency on overhit passes might not normally be considered a team’s principle creator.
Wedded to Rooney in one way or another Van Gaal remains – a political decision that may yet come to haunt the Dutchman. It certainly did little good on Saturday. Leadership this was not as chaos broke forth.
On this week’s podcast, regular Rant Cast presenters Ed & Paul look back on Manchester United’s 4-0 victory over Queens Park Rangers at Old Trafford. Was this the game to kick start United’s season?
The joy was to last but a week, with United humiliated by Leicester City at the King Power Stadium. How did Louis van Gaal’s side manage to ship five goals against the newly promoted midlanders?
There’s a discussion about Wayne Rooney. Where does the errant scouser fit into United’s side and is he proving to be a good captain?
Finally, a look ahead to next week’s fixture with West Ham United and your questions…
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Rant Cast is produced by Tom Jenkins at TEEJSOUND