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Ponderous Reds yet to find a new identity

August 25, 2014 Tags: , Reads 12 comments
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“It’s a process and that process needs time,” pleaded Louis van Gaal on Friday. It is perhaps the key message for Manchester United supporters to digest after Sunday’s turgid draw with Sunderland on Wearside. Van Gaal has promised that his methods will bring success; on the evidence of two Premier League fixtures this season it may very well be a long time coming. Moreover, in the wake of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement this is a side still searching for an identity – some 14 months on from the Scot’s departure.

More than Ferguson, however, it is David Moyes’ shadow that lingers. Just as United’s opening day loss to Swansea City could have taken place at any point during Moyes’ short Old Trafford tenure, so the insipid performance in the north east brought further dark memories of the year past.

It wasn’t just that United’s three defenders lacked any cohesion, but that the Reds’ attack, with all the world class riches at Van Gaal’s disposal, remained totally anaemic. It should no longer shock, but Old Trafford’s finest were simply ordinary at the weekend. Soulless and seemingly without real purpose too.

Indeed, a side containing Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Ashley Young, Juan Mata and Antonio Valencia – more than £120 million invested in the quintet of attacking talent – rarely made United old boys Wes Brown and John O’Shea uncomfortable. It was very much against the run of play when Valencia delivered a low cross for Mata to score in the 14th minute. Easily the attacking highlight of United’s afternoon.

In this Van Gaal has more than a little work to do. While defensive problems were expected, given experienced personnel lost and the radical tactical switch enforced, United’s attacking talent is far too muted. In part Van Gaal’s system that has neutered United’s wings, but mostly because the Dutchman is yet to find a combination to catalyse individual talent into a fluid creative unit.

On Saturday Van Persie, Mata and Rooney rarely demonstrated the potential to become a triumvirate of high class. It was a decidedly one-paced attacking unit: Mata slowed down play when on the ball, Van Persie remains ring rusty after an extended summer break, and Rooney lacks much of the dynamic edge of yesteryear.

On the bench Adnan Januzaj, Danny Welbeck and Shinji Kagawa watched on. The former pair injected pace into the game as second-half substitutes, while Kagawa remained benched, surely wondering whether he has a place in Van Gaal’s thinking at all.

It is Rooney that is the real concern though – and not just because of his new-found seniority at the club, nor the massive pay packet. After all, the former Evertonian is supposed to be United’s talismanic emblem; the squad’s finest player and the man to lift United to preeminence once again. Yet, United’s captain has lost more than a yard of pace, neutering his impact up front. And still the 28-year-old insists on dropping into deeper areas while lacking the subtlety of touch and movement to unlock the best drilled defence.

At the back only Phil Jones emerged with real credit from the Stadium of Light, although Michael Keane enjoyed a positive second half and Tyler Blackett looked composed if at times tactically naïve. On this evidence Jones will fulfil the potential his vast talent commands before the season is out.

Valencia and Young were particularly vulnerable as wing-backs – struggling to translate limited skill-sets to an alien environment. Too often Young struggled against Premier League newcomer Will Buckley, although the former Aston Villa winger remained positive going forward – another outrageous dive aside.

On the other flank Valencia looked anything but a natural defender, allowing Conor Wickham to gain preeminence in one-on-one situations, while losing Jack Rodwell for Sunderland’s goal. Rafael and Luke Shaw will add greater defensive nous, albeit at the risk of further impacting United’s attacking momentum.

Still, Van Gaal remained circumspect in the aftermath. It is, after all, the process and not only the result in which the Dutchman is interested.

“In the first half we played an equal match with Sunderland,” he told Sky Sports.

“We didn’t create much other than the first goal, which was fantastic. In the second half we played much better but we could have created more. We missed too many passes – it was either too slow or too hasty, and then you lose the ball and the tempo is gone from the game.”

Prospective recruit Angel Di Maria will add genuine impetus from either central midfield or the wing, depending on Van Gaal’s tactical thinking. While the Argentinian cannot solve all United’s problems, the Reds’ performance on Wearside will have done much to convince the new manager that £64 million is well invested in the World Cup finalist.

Di Maria offers Van Gaal the option to switch back to the Dutchman’s preferred 4-3-3 system; the manager might even opt for the nuclear option and drop one of Saturday’s under performing attacking trio.

It is also noted with interest that United’s new manager used Januzaj in central midfield on Sunday – an option that proffers a more direct and potentially creative approach, albeit one that comes with a significant defensive risk. Kagawa, meanwhile, remained on the bench after Van Gaal considered and then rejected using the former Borussia Dortmund player in a role “at six or eight.”

“We have four injuries in midfield,” Van Gaal said on Januzaj’s new role. “That is why I played Januzaj in midfield because as a coach I want to win. I have said that we need creative passing and I thought Januzaj could provide that.

“I said to him ‘you are on the bench as a midfielder’ because I want him to focus. You could see it’s not so many times that he’s played there, but he did his utmost and I cannot demand more.”

The coach can demand more of his team overall though. While the 63-year-old is yet to uncover his most dynamic attacking mix, and his team remains on a steep learning curve defensively, there is surely too much talent to remain impotent for long. In this Di Maria will add much – talent of the Argentinian’s rare ilk always does.

Still, there is no guarantee that United will return to the Premier League’s top four by May. After all, Arsenal showed plenty of spirit in coming back from two goals down at Goodison Park, while Liverpool has taken a punt on Mario Balotelli – one that offers plenty of big-game class.

Chatter that United will solidify a bid for Juventus’ powerhouse midfielder Arturo Vidal could make a conclusive difference in this debate. In the meantime Van Gaal’s side remains just a touch lost: on the pitch and in its heart.

Sunderland v United: Van Gaal gives up on title

August 23, 2014 Tags: , Matches 14 comments
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It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Losing at home was a David Moyes thing – all seven of them in the Premier League last season. Ground zero of Manchester United’s worst campaign in more than 25 years. Louis van Gaal’s appointment was, by contrast, the start of a bright new dawn: sophisticated tactics, positive attacking football and, above all, a clean slate. That pretense was blown away in 90 short minutes last weekend.

Success will surely come, but United’s defeat to Swansea City at Old Trafford laid bare just how far this United side has fallen. Premier League title winners little more than 15 months ago, United now faces the very real prospect of two seasons out of the Champions League. After all, Swansea’s victory did little more than expose just how fragile Van Gaal’s squad remains; short in defence, midfield and wide areas.

Confidence shattered, after what now seems a superficial period of redemption in the United States, the Reds travel to Sunderland more in hope than genuine belief. The Mackems have effectively beaten United three times on the spin – in the Capital One Cup semi-final over two legs and at Old Trafford in the Premier League in the Spring. There will be few on Wearside ready to let Van Gaal’s side have an easy ride on Sunday afternoon.

The remedy is both simple and complex. The charade that the club can buck the market trend and obtain English and European preeminence on will power and bargain signings alone has gone. In its place a new reality – that with no structural advantages, or Sir Alex Ferguson at the helm, United will compete in an open market against a slew of clubs willing to outspend the Glazer family.

Around £140 million has been spent in the past 12 months. It probably isn’t enough. Profits or points? Tampa Bay will decide. In the meantime Van Gaal is entrenched in the belief that his “philosophy” will bring success to United, with a recognition that there are few short-term fixes.

“Two weeks ago, I was the king of Manchester and now I am the devil,” the Dutchman said on Friday.

“It’s the football world and it is especially the media in this football world. I think the fans of Manchester United are intelligent. I’ve already said in all the press conferences in the USA that it shall be difficult in the first three months for the players especially, but also for the fans.

“I said to Ed Woodward and the Glazer family that it’s always like that and they have hired me because of my philosophy. I am not hired to be fired, but to build up a team and that is a process which needs time.”

It is, says Van Gaal, this philosophy that will take United on a journey back to the top. One where the Dutchman will only acquire players adhering to this vision – if Ed Woodward can deliver on the bold claims of early summer.

“I have brought another philosophy to the club and that is difficult,” adds Van Gaal.

“I have to give a lot of information and now we are in the process of a lot of information. For example, I have to drive at this moment on the left side and then I have to pay a lot of attention to drive properly. It costs me a lot of energy.

“I can imagine the fans are scared. They have seen already the last year and now seen also the first home match and then I can imagine that. But they have to believe in the philosophy we bring in to this club and the players believe that. They have shown already in the United States, now they have to show it here. That needs time.”

For the time being Van Gaal is set to take United into the season with Ander Herrera, Luke Shaw and Marcus Rojo as the clubs’ only summer recruits. Hardly the significant rebuilding promised. The irony of the trio being unavailable through injury for United’s trip to the North East will not be lost on the veteran Dutchman.

Shaw is unavailable due to injury, while Johnny Evans, Antonio Valencia and Danny Welbeck could also miss out, having missed last weekend’s fixture against The Swans. Herrera has an ankle problem and will miss at least a week, although Robin van Persie is available for selection. The Spaniard will have a scan on the injury this week, along with Marouane Fellaini who also has an ankle problem.

Jesse Lingard is out meaning Adnan Januzaj may have to fill in as an emergency right wing back unless Van Gaal risks Rafael da Silva.

Rojo is yet to receive a work permit despite completing his move from Sporting Lisbon on Thursday and does not travel. This is another change from the era of old – United used to apply for a work permit before completing an acquisition.

Sunderland v Manchester United, Stadium of Light, 24  August

Meanwhile, Sunderland manager Gus Poyet could hand a home début to three transfer window signings: Jack Rodwell, Jordi Gomez and Patrick van Aanholt. Defenders Billy Jones and Santiago Vergini are available, however Emanuele Giaccherini misses the game with a groin injury.

“Playing Manchester United – one of the top teams in England and the world – makes it even more special, so we are really focused on being ready to play the game,” said Poyet.

“To win or to have a chance of winning against the top teams once you may be lucky, but to do it regularly you have to be playing at your best, take your chances and defend well. You have to have as close as possible to a perfect game.”

Generous words given United’s performance against Swansea last Saturday.

Still, history is at least on United’s side: the Reds are unbeaten in 12 league games at Sunderland since a 2-1 defeat in March 1997. This is no time for Van Gaal to start a Moyes-esque trend for breaking records.

But will victory at the Stadium of Light will contribute to a title victory come May? Van Gaal, like many supporters, has little belief.

“It’s a process and that process needs time. It’s not an overnight job. It is not a question of being champions at the end of the season because we have to build a team and that process takes maybe longer.”

Sunderland (4-4-2): Mannone; Roberge, O’Shea, Brown, Van Aanholt; Johnson, Rodwell, Cattermole, Larsson; Fletcher, Wickham
United (3-4-1-2): de Gea; Smalling, Jones, Blackett; Januzaj, Cleverley, Fletcher, Young; Mata; Rooney, Van Persie.

Subs from
Sunderland: Pantilimon, Jones, Vergini, Bridcutt, Buckley, Gómez, Altidore, Mavrias, Graham, Mandron, Smith, Watmore, Agnew
United: Amos, Da Silva, Keane, James, Zaha, Powell, Anderson, Kagawa, Hernández, Wilson.

Sunderland 41- Draw 36 – United 62

Referee: Martin Atkinson
Assistants: S Child, H Lennard
Fourth Official: P Dowd

Sunderland 1 – 2 United

£1 bet club
Robin van Persie & 1-2 @ 18/1

Running total: £(-)1

United’s failure is a belief in the alchemy of youth

August 21, 2014 Tags: , , Reads 23 comments
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In the cold light of Manchester United’s fateful dawn one can still feel the intoxication. Like a Saturday night drunk, stirring on Sunday morning amid the cold pizza and lager cans strewn across the wreckage once called home. Yet, United’s hangover from Cristiano Ronaldo’s wild ride still throbs, blurring clear thought and obfuscating the truth. Like so many drunks United may need to hit rock bottom before redemption calls.

Ronaldo’s was a special kind of addiction though; certainly love at first sight. The speed, turn, tricks and goals – that magical 20 minutes against Bolton Wanderers to the crowing glory in Moscow in 2008. Little wonder that the Stretford End still sings the Portuguese winger’s name, five years since he departed – on his own insistence – for Real Madrid.

In securing an £80 million fee for Ronaldo the winger also had another affect on the club. One far more damaging than enduring loyalty to a player who came to believe that he had outgrown Old Trafford. Indeed, the ‘success’ of securing such riches seemingly convinced the Glazer family, and Sir Alex Ferguson, that the equivalent of football alchemy was available at every turn – that United could invest in young players, make handsome profits in the market and run a successful team. Like some flash of magic, United’s “philosophy” of “youth” – as a recent investor presentation put it –  somehow gave the club a structural advantage over competitors at home and abroad.

For the club of the Busby Babes, Fergie Fledglings and Class of ’92 it is a vision for supporters to follow – millions spent on young players that may come good is always more palatable than millions more on the finished article. Yet, like so many of the Glazer family’s polices this one has turned out to be bunk. Just one with rhetoric that is so easy to sell.

Since Ronaldo’s sale in the summer of 2009 United’s unwritten policy – broken on only a few select occasions – has been to invest in players under 26 who retain a clear resale value. More than 20 players of the ilk have passed through Old Trafford’s doors over the past five years, including Ander Herrera, Marcos Rojo and Luke Shaw this summer.

Yet, during that same period it is arguable that only David de Gea’s stock has risen in Ronaldo-esque proportions. So many have crashed and burned. That is the way of youth and the failure of a policy that routinely gambled on turning lead into gold, callow youth into venerable experience, and a punt into yet more Glazer riches.

United may extract value and talent from Shaw, Herrera and Rojo. Of the three the former Southampton left-back is perhaps best placed to command an outstanding resale fee in the years ahead. He certainly has the talent to flourish at United.

Of other recent signings Marouane Fellaini certainly will not, while the jury remains out on whether Juan Mata, who was 25 on acquisition last January, will finally come good.

Two summers ago United invested more than £28 million in Shinji Kagawa, Nick Powell, Ángelo Henríquez and Alexander Büttner – and then a further £10-15 million in Wilfried Zaha the following winter. Kagawa may command a similar fee now, while Büttner was sold this summer for a small profit. Write off the money spent on Zaha, Powell and Henríquez though. More importantly, none of the quintet has proven to be value-for-money just yet, although there are special circumstances where the Japanese is concerned.

The pattern repeats. Phil Jones may yet come good, although there is little to justify the £17 million paid to Blackburn Rovers three years ago. Chris Smalling has seemingly gone backwards, while Javier Hernández’ career is at a standstill. United could take a profit on the £6.5 million fee paid for the Mexican, but probably only because a rising market tide floats all boats. The Reds certainly did not profit from the eternally embarrassing £7.75 million spent on street footballer turned Premier League punchline, Bebé.

The less said about the £25 million spent on the combined talents of Antonio Valencia, Mame Diouf and Gabriel Obertan, the better. Look further back into the Glazers ownership and there will be few whom view the investment in Nani and Anderson with pride. More than £30 million was invested in a duo that will command almost no resale fee when eachfinally, and permanently, leaves the club.

The failure is not one of trust in youth per se. This is a romantic notion that appeals in an age where superstars command incomprehensible wages and transfer fees routinely run into tens of millions. The error is in the policy’s inherent lack of balance and the concurrent inevitability of squad degradation, no matter short-term successes.

By contrast, over the same 2009 – 2014 period, United’s investment in experience runs to Michael Owen, Anders Lindegaard, Ashley Young and Robin van Persie. So few struck gold, but then the sample is only a handful.

In an era when the causal – although not perfect – relationship between transfer spending, wages and ‘success’ has been noted, United’s belief in an ability to buck the market has proven false. There is no structural advantage at Old Trafford, bar vast pools of revenue.

It is perhaps little surprise that some have called for a change in policy at a time when Louis van Gaal’s squad is dangerously short of domestic rivals. With 10 days to go until the market closes there is little guarantee that even a manager of the Dutchman’s gifts will lead United into next season’s Champions League.

“United need to arrest their decline,” said former Red Paul Scholes, writing in the Independent this week.

“I feel it is time for major change. What do United need? Five players. Not five players with potential. Five experienced players. Five proper players who can hit the ground running and turn around a situation that looks desperate.”

Five players that are unlikely to arrive before the transfer window closes on 1 September. The months ahead will determine whether it is the Glazer’s policy or Scholes that is proven right. One thing is sure: there are so few to follow Ronaldo. One a million? No, one in 80 million. Odds that look poor good either way.


Acquisitions of players under-26 since Ronaldo’s sale

Player – Acquired from – Fee (£ millions) – (age at transfer) 

Luke Shaw – Southampton – £33 (18)
Ander Herrera – Athletic Club – £32 (24)
Marcos Rojo – Sporting Lisbon – £17 (24)
Vanja Milinković-Savić – Vojvodina – free (17)

Juan Mata – Chelsea – £39.5 (25)
Marouane Fellaini – Everton – £28.5 (25)
Guillermo Varela – Peñarol – £1.5 (20)

Shinji Kagawa – Borussia Dortmund – £14 (23)
Wilfried Zaha – Crystal Palace – £10.5 (20)
Nick Powell – Crewe Alexandra – Crewe – £6.5 (18)
Ángelo Henríquez – Club Universidad de Chile – £5 (18)
Alexander Büttner – Vitesse Arnham – £4.5 (23)

David de Gea – Atlético Madrid – £17.50 (20)
Phil Jones – Blackburn Rovers – £17 (19)
Frédéric Veseli – Manchester City – free (18)

Bebé – Vitória Guimarães – £7.75 (20)
Chris Smalling – Fulham – £7 (20)
Javier Hernández – Deportivo Guadalajara – £6.50 (22)

Antonio Valencia – Wigan Athletic – £16.5 (24)
Mame Diouf – Molde – £4 (21)
Gabriel Obertan – Girondins Bordeaux – £3.5 (20)

*all data from Transfermarkt (rounded)

Poll: Should Ed Woodward be sacked?

August 20, 2014 Tags: , Polls 87 comments
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He is the Glazer’s poster-child; the man who masterminded the family’s 2005 leveraged takeover of Manchester United and has executed on the Americans’ vision of a globally sponsored brand. Yet, all is not well with Ed Woodward, United’s executive vice chairman – the man who has led the club into the most troubling period in a generation.

United finished seventh in the Premier League last season and to compound supporters’ growing frustrating Woodward has seemingly struggled to strengthen the club’s squad this summer. Despite spending some £80 million on Ander Herrera, Luke Shaw and Marcos Rojo, star names have failed to appear, beaming, before the Manchester press pack holding a Red scarf aloft. It has left hollow Woodward’s hubris about United’s supposedly awesome financial power.

Indeed, with a little over a week before the transfer window closes it is hard to characterise United’s squad as stronger than the one David Moyes left behind at the end of last season. Not least after eight, mostly experienced, players departed Old Trafford this summer: Ryan Giggs, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidić, Patrice Evra, Alexander Büttner, Anders Lindegaard, Bebé, and Nani.

It was a similar story of failure in the transfer market last year, with the club humiliated by a series of failed bids for big-name European stars. Woodward then oversaw the farcical £27.5 million purchase of dud Marouane Fellaini – and for £4 million over the player’s buyout clause fee. Little wonder Woodward has become the butt of supporters’ contempt. Many, most perhaps, have begun to characterise the former JP Morgan banker as inept and naïve.

On the positive side Woodward has overseen a massive increase in United’s commercial revenue, including a £750 million 10-year kit deal with adidas that is the world’s most lucrative. The executive’s strategy has so vastly increased United’s enterprise value that the Glazer family will extract around $200 million from the sale of shares in New York before the summer is out. He is seemingly untouchable in the top post.

Yet, to paraphrase Sir Matt Busy, it is on the pitch that supporters would rather see money spent – a cause in which Woodward has failed more often than not. Should the Essex-born executive fail to secure further players before the window closes Van Gaal will be left with fewer resources than he contemplated when accepting the job in June.

While Woodward has seemingly excelled in delivering new revenues from brands desperate to be associated with the club, he has failed to replicate those riches on the pitch. It leaves an obvious question:

Should Ed Woodward be sacked?

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Rojo deal papers over another clusterf*ck of a summer

August 19, 2014 Tags: Reads 66 comments
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These are celebratory times indeed. Not only has Manchester United’s executive vice chairman Ed Woodward closed a deal, some 12 days before the summer transfer window shuts, but in a position where the Reds are desperately short. United’s calamitous showing against Swansea City last weekend served only to highlight just how desperately the club requires new blood in defensive positions. So to the rescue comes Marcos Rojo, Argentina’s World Cup left-back, who will play on the left side of United’s back three this season after Woodward secured a £16 million transfer from Sporting.

Rojo’s signature takes Nani in the other direction, where United will pay the errant Portuguese winger around £5 million to play for the Lisbon-based side this season. Good deal all round, those of a more cynical bent might add. Meanwhile, the Argentinian will compete with Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Tyler Blackett for a place in Louis van Gaal’s side, while offering a useful option at left wing back.

Not that Rojo was anywhere near van Gaal’s first choice this summer, with United mooting deals for Thomas Vermaelen, Mats Hummels and Mehdi Benatia. The former transferred to Barcelona after Woodward spent an entire summer dallying on the deal with Arsenal, while the latter is still mulling over offers from around Europe. Hummels – always van Gaal’s first choice – is unlikely to leave Borussia Dortmund in the current window.

Strange, though, how the club has once again left execution of transfer planning to the very last moment, more than six months after former captain Nemanja Vidić announced his departure for Internazionale. In truth the club has known at least as long that Rio Ferdinand would not secure a new deal at Old Trafford. In aggregate, Rojo serves to highlight another omnishambles of a transfer strategy played out by Woodward and company this summer.

In between Vidić’s January announcement and the Premier League kick off last weekend David Moyes was sacked and van Gaal appointed, with seemingly little continuity in club strategy. True, the Dutchman signed off on more than £55 million worth of acquisitions in Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw, although those deals, instigated by Moyes, remained the sum total of United’s market activity this summer until Rojo’s arrival was announced by United and Sporting on Tuesday.

Not that United’s acquisition of Herrera and Shaw should pass without scrutiny either, the club having paid a significant premium for each. Or, to paraphrase former United right-back Gary Neville, Chelsea secured seasoned internationals Cesc Fabregas and Luis Fillipe for around £18 million less than the United pair.

Elsewhere, the outlook is less positive for Woodward, who is said to be acutely aware of the growing reputation he has gained for being outmanoeuvred in the transfer market. Not least because the former JP Morgan executive has talked such a good game, asking fans to “watch this space” while United “moves in the market” far more aggressively than in previous seasons. Supporters have watched, and waited, with less reward than the club requires.

van Gaal certainly remains an experienced defender short. After all, Rojo has played just three seasons in Europe and must quickly adapt to the rough and tumble of the Premier League. Moreover, the former Estudiantes defender is yet to complete more than 33 games in all competitions during any one campaign. It is likely to be a challenging first few months in England and a very steep learning curve.

Play he must though. After having lost four defenders in the summer – Ferdinand, Vidić, Alexander Büttner, and Patrice Evra – van Gaal has little choice but to risk his new man. Rant suspects few in United’s hierarchy will take responsibility for the abject failure in planning.

Meanwhile, in midfield the ease with which Swansea negotiated United’s triumvirate of Darren Fletcher, Juan Mata and Herrera last Saturday is a significant cause for concern. Mata was largely anonymous, first as United’s creative fulcrum in van Gaal’s 3-4-1-2 system, and then in a more conventional role behind Rooney in a Moyes-esque 4-4-1-1. Herrera was neat, but lacked real influence, while Fletcher, who excelled during the summer tour of the USA, was as rusty as one might expect a man to be after returning from two years out of the game.

United is seemingly no closer to sealing a deal for either Angel di Maria or Arturo Vidal. The former is available, although United’s is not the only game in town, with Paris Saint Germain attempting to construct a deal that circumvents Financial Fair Play regulations. The latter has long been considered by United’s hierarchy despite repeated denials behind the scenes.

The prevailing intelligence is that Woodward must land at least one superstar to bring United’s squad up to top four quality. On the evidence of Saturday’s performance the Reds are further short of Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal in the chase for Champions League places than feared. Failure to qualify for next season’s premier European competition is an option, but one that will cost United tens of millions in lost broadcast, matchday and sponsorship revenues.

More pertinent, however, is quite how the club finds itself in this position once again. After all, this was the summer of supposedly strong investment, with the club having deleveraged over the past four years, and more cash available to the new manager than at any time in recent history. This was the summer when all those regional sponsorship deals, Chevrolet’s millions, and broadcast rights combined to proffer United overwhelming financial muscle.

The £750 million kit manufacturing deal with adidas, announced in July, should have further embolden Woodward’s team. Not so it seems. In fact, not only has the scenario of hyper hyperinvestment failed to materialise, but the club enters the last days of a transfer window desperately chasing players in the most embarrassingly scattergun fashion. Whatever planning went into United’s summer strategy – for want of a better word – it has proven to be wholly inadequate.

The rub comes in May and not August, of course, although it takes not any foresight to predict some of the travails that van Gaal’s side faces in the coming months, no matter the Dutchman’s genius. His squad is light in central defence, central midfield and in wide areas, both of the attacking and defensive variety.

Meanwhile, the Glazer family announced last month it plans to sell another 12 million shares on the New York Stock Exchange, raising almost $200 million in revenue for Malcom Glazer’s six children. Nor will the sale precipitate a change in strategy, with the family retaining more than 80 per cent of the voting power having devised a dual class stock structure on IPO some two years ago.

Neither are the Glazers minded to remove Woodward from the equation – the man who has successfully executed on the Americans’ commercial vision. Woodward, to his core, remains a company man; a Glazer favourite.

It leaves United supporters little confidence that the new manager will hold a full complement of tools come 2 September. Boasting an unbalanced squad, short of world-class talent, and with his stars’ confidence seemingly absent, van Gaal faces one his greatest managerial challenges. Woodward the scorn of many.

Rant Cast 200 – same as it ever was

August 18, 2014 Tags: The Pod 22 comments
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In this week’s Rant Cast regular presenters Ed & Paul look back on Manchester United’s first game of the season – a demoralising defeat to Swansea City at Old Trafford – and ahead to next week’s Premier League fixture with Sunderland.

United’s 2-1 home loss against the Swans came after a successful pre-season in which the Reds secured six victories in succession. But United’s performance against Swansea was every bit as laboured as any during David Moyes’ disastrous period in charge last season.

There’s a look forward to United’s game against Sunderland next week, with the Reds having not always enjoyed positive results against the Mackems in recent seasons. Finally, your questions… on Louis van Gaal, transfers, performances and more!

Hit us up with any feedback below or follow the pod on Twitter: Paul – @UtdRantCast, Ed – @UnitedRant.

Rant Cast is donationware! If you really love the pod you can always show your appreciation by making a small donation!

Stream this episode using the player below or listen on iTunes and leave us a review! The podcast RSS feed is available here.

Rant Cast is produced by Tom Jenkins at TEEJSOUND

United v Swansea: van Gaal faces injury crisis

August 16, 2014 Tags: , Matches 17 comments
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First game of the season, first injury crisis to overcome. New campaign, new manager, same old problems. Is it something in the Carrington water? Louis van Gaal has been in the top job barely two months, but he takes Manchester United into the season’s opener against Swansea City with nine players out of action. Given the paucity of options available, it is a headache for which the Dutchman has few remedies. This was supposed to be the bright new dawn.

Injuries mean that Antonio Valencia, Luke Shaw, Jonny Evans, Danny Welbeck, Anderson and Sam Johnstone sit out the Swans’ visit to Old Trafford on Saturday. Robin van Persie, Adnan Januzaj and Marouane Fellaini remain in a fitness-building phase after this summer’s World Cup. It means that van Gaal will hand a début to at least one promising youngster, perhaps two, in Tyler Blackett and Reece James. So much for the promised summer of transfer market activity.

Still, six victories in as many matches during pre-season has drilled confidence into the Dutchman’s squad. It was badly needed after United’s worst campaign in a quarter century under David Moyes. The Scot’s sacking brought to an end one of the most incredulous appointments of United’s rich history. van Gaal’s should be the beginning of something so much better.

Yet, logic – and limited resources – dictates that United’s climb back to the top is one of slow progress. Or at least one in which supporters may have to be realistic about the challenges ahead this season. Not least with executive vice chairman Ed Woodward having failed to secure the players that his perpetual briefing suggests will flow through Old Trafford’s doors.

van Gaal remains realistic though, at one in believing that his squad is “below top quality” and yet prepared to proffer his players an opportunity to impress.

“I cannot change everything, I have to adapt to the culture,” said van Gaal in his first pre-match press conference at Carrington on Friday.

“It’s a process and we have to make steps. Sometimes you fall and you have to make another big step. That’s the process but you are not champion in October. You are champion in May. I have another philosophy. I have another way of dealing with players to normal coaches. I’m not concerned where we might be and I’ve said that in my meetings with Woodward and the Glazers. I am very confident. I am not nervous.”

On the pitch van Gaal will employ a makeshift defence in his now preferred 3-4-1-2 formation. With Evans on the sidelines, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and debutant Blackett will form an unlikely back three, with two from Rafael da Silva, Ashley Young and James on the flanks.

Elsewhere the Dutchman’s preferred team is yet to fully take shape, although Ander Herrera will make a competitive début for the club, presumably alongside Darren Fletcher in central midfield. Captain Wayne Rooney should partner Javier Hernandez up front, with Juan Mata in his preferred role at number 10.

“Sam Johnstone – the goalkeeper. Antonio Valencia, Shaw and Evans – three defenders. Welbeck. I believe that is it,” said van Gaal of his injury list.

“We have analysed Shaw and it is difficult to lay a finger on it. It is difficult to look for the solution but there are a lot of reasons. After the World Cup, all the players are coming back at different moments and it is very difficult to train. We have the travel, jet-lag and a lot of matches in 14 days. Another reason is the amount of training sessions but we are doing half of what I have done with the other clubs so I cannot assume we have done that wrong.

“I am very confident and I am not nervous. We have players injured and I am not nervous. We have beaten them all until now but tomorrow is the match that counts.”

van Gaal has time, of course, and the Dutchman begins the season with a significant bank of credit, earned for the positive way in which United approached pre-season games in the United States. Possession football, an attacking philosophy and victories buy time even if United plays out the season looking up to rivals from Manchester and the capital.

Not that old hands tend towards that circumspect narrative. This is, after all, United, where trophies abound and negativity, in part, drove Moyes out of a job.

“We’re out to win the league,” claims vice captain Fletcher.

“You start every season at Manchester United with the aim of winning the league. I don’t think this club should ever fall into the trap of being satisfied with finishing in the top four. That’s not the Manchester United I know. You play football to win trophies at this club. It’s a dangerous mindset to be getting into if you start thinking you’d be happy to get into the top four and everybody around the squad is thinking about winning the league.”

Even Rooney, one of Moyes’ favoured sons, has quickly readjusted to the United way. Success may well be qualification for Europe, but it is a truth that gains only tacit acceptance in van Gaal’s camp. In public United’s confidence has been restored.

“It has to be better,” said the 28-year-old. “There are no two ways about it. We have to improve a lot on last year. We know that as a team and we have been working hard to make sure we’re going to get the right results. We are not a club who will settle for finishing in Europe. We’re a club that wants to win trophies and for us it’s only a good season if you do that.”

Manchester United v Swansea City

The Swans arrive after a traumatic 2013/14 campaign in which Michael Laudrup was dismissed to leave rookie Garry Monk in charge. The 35-year-old former central defender spent a decade at the club, much of it in the lower reaches of the Football League, before the Dane’s sacking brought a first coaching job. The role has been made permanent following an interim spell last season.

Swansea lost to Moyes’ United 4-1 on the opening day last season, but seek a stronger start to the new campaign, albeit one in which expectation is set at survival. After all there has been considerable loss of talent over the summer, with Ben Davies and Michel Vorm moving to Tottenham Hotspur, Chico and Pablo Hernandez to Qatar, and Michu to Napoli, albeit on loan.

Still, Monk has secured the signatures of Gylfi Sigurdsson, Jefferson Montero, Lukasz Fabianski and the exciting forward Bafetimbi Gomis. The latter may yet be a replacement for in-demand Wilfried Bony.

Whatever the challenges, Monk talks a good game. His team may need the confidence despite United’s lengthy injury list.

“All of the focus is on them and that suits us fine,” he said. “Whenever you go there you know it is going to be tough because of the quality they have. They have had a very positive pre-season, but we have had a very good week’s training and we’ll be positive.

“Everyone is beatable in this league. On any given day, if things drop right and you’re on the top of your game, we can beat the big clubs and we’ve proved that already. We know it will be difficult but we don’t fear them – we see it as a challenge.”

It is a challenge for van Gaal too. Just one in which half a term remains on the sidelines.

United (3-4-1-2): de Gea; Smalling, Jones, Blackett; Young, Herrera, Fletcher, James; Mata; Rooney, Hernández.
Swansea (4-3-3): Fabianski; Rangel, Bartley, Williams, Taylor; Sigurdsson, Shelvey, Montero; Routledge, Bony, Gomis

Subs from
United: Amos, Lindegaard, Evans, Januzaj, Nani, Powell, Zaha, Cleverley, Kagawa, Fellaini, Da Silva, Keane, Thorpe, Petrucci, Varela.
Swansea: Cornell, Tremmel, Amat, Tate, Tiendalli, Cañas, Obeng, Richards, King

United 11- Draw 5 – Swansea 7

Referee: Mike Dean
Assistants: S Bennett, D England
Fourth Official: M Oliver

United 3 – 1 Swansea

£1 bet club
Wayne Rooney & 3-1 @ 25/1

Season preview 2014/15

August 15, 2014 Tags: Reads 6 comments
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English is a language richer than most; an idiom to suit almost every nuanced turn of meaning, situation and experience. The language of Shakespeare, Morrisey and, well, Wayne Rooney. Take, for example, the belief that lightning never strikes twice, at least not in the same place – a subtle turn of phrase indicating that the unlikeliest of occurrence rarely repeats. While climatologists have, in reality, proven that lightning often does strike in the same place, Rant suspects that you get the gist.

Ed Woodward, Rant is certain, does not. After last summer’s humiliating farce in the transfer market, precipitated by the executive vice chairman’s naïvety and David Moyes’ dithering, the Essex-born executive really need not have been looking towards the skies. This summer was supposed to be different. That is the story United supporters were told. Not only was the club prepared to “break” the world transfer record, but supporters were told to “watch this space” as the club moved decisively in the market.

Deals for Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw were sealed shortly after the World Cup concluded, albeit a month later than Woodward had seemingly briefed the fourth estate. Although, in truth, neither was beyond even Woodward’s domain – almost £30 million spent on a teenager at price that even Chelsea rejected, and the same again for the 24-year-old Spaniard, yet to play for his country, for whom United activated a well publicised release clause.

Dark clouds are gathering though – and one suspects that much of United’s success or failure in the months to come will be defined by Woodward’s ability to fill the considerable holes in Louis van Gaal’s squad before the transfer window closes.

There is, indeed, a strong school of thought that United enters the new season weaker than it ended the last. After all, five players have left the club before a Premier League ball has been kicked – Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidić, Patrice Evra, Anders Lindegaard, and Alexander Büttner. Ryan Giggs has retired and more still will go before August is out.

In this the spectre of failure looms large, no matter the brilliance of United’s new “trainer-coach.” Failure to qualify for the Champions League in 2015/16 is a scenario that the club cannot abide, although one that remains firmly in the narrative. It is a story in which the Glazer family’s business model begins to break down, with prize money and sponsorship revenue materially impacted. One wonders quite why there isn’t a greater sense of urgency some 15 days before the window draws in.

Still, while the midsummer chatter is dominated by thoughts of squad evolution, van Gaal’s arrival has brought much cheer to the United faithful. The post-World Cup summer included six victories in succession, with high quality opposition to boot. True, United’s fitness was at least a week ahead of many rivals, but in this there were still thrilling wins against Roma, Internazionale, Liverpool and Real Madrid, among others. No Moyes-inspired defeat to a Singha All Star XI here.

The Dutchman’s positivity has coursed through the club, from double training sessions that have brought barely a peep of complaint, to a tactical revolution undertaken with gusto. These are, after all, largely the same players whom Moyes accused of trying to get him sacked just months previously.

On the pitch United has played attacking, if at times pragmatic, football, with possession cherished and a multifaceted approach enjoyed. van Gaal’s 3-4-1-2 system offers goals and defensive security, papering over gaping holes in central midfield, defence and on the flanks, for the moment at least. Much as the Dutch achieved during the World Cup, van Gaal’s promise is that he will extract more than the sum of United’s parts in the months ahead. The Reds may well need it.

In goal, David de Gea has reportedly struck up a fine working relationship with new coach Francis Hoek, the genius behind van Gaal’s decision to substitute Jasper Cillessen for Tim Krul ahead of a World Cup quarter-final penalty shootout. de Gea has benefited from time with both Eric Steele and Chris Woods in previous seasons – the latter being the only member of Moyes’ team to leave United with credibility intact. Hoek will enable the 23-year-old to progress further.

In defence United remains desperately short, with four internationals having left the club during the summer. Reports that van Gaal has not taken to Rafael da Silva only compound the club’s desperation to strengthen before the window closes. In Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, van Gaal boasts a trio still growing into their roles – and a system that could well bring out the best in each. No more the lonely treks up and down Moyes’ touchline for Smalling and Jones.

Yet, for all the trio’s promise each has suffered injuries in recent seasons; none has completed more than 30 Premier League games in any one campaign. The – lack of – weight of numbers becomes increasingly pressing when United’s alternatives are the callow Michael Keane, Tyler Blackett or makeweight defenders, Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick. Woodward’s failure to secure a top-level central defender will surely undo United’s campaign if it is not remedied before 1 September.

There is a similar story in midfield, where Herrera has impressed with a broad range of passing, plentiful energy and sound technique. Yet, the Spaniard continues to offer the air of a nimble creator positioned in a deeper role – more goal giver than getter. It is an observation that has led van Gaal towards Juventus’ powerhouse Arturo Vidal, a player to create, destroy and score in a single package. The Chilean’s signature has become such a focus that the temptation towards panic will be strong should Vidal not sign in the days ahead.

Fletcher’s revival is an unexpected bonus; a story of determination that is a lesson for many. The Scot’s vice captaincy is the good news beacon of the summer and richly deserved as well. Yet, the 30-year-old has not completed a 30 game season in more than four years. When the competitive fixtures come thick Fletcher cannot be asked to carry United’s midfield alone.

Herrera aside, van Gaal has little on which to place his faith – Carrick is injured until the autumn and creeping towards his mid-30s. Tom Cleverley failed to impressed over the summer and Anderson is one respectable bid away from ending seven years’ failure. Nobody expects Fellaini to remain at Old Trafford beyond August.

On the wings Ashley Young’s metamorphosis from one-dimensional wideman to potent wing-back is a boon, albeit in a role that he is yet to play in a competitive fixture. Antonio Valencia may perform a similar task on the right, while Adnan Januzaj will be proffered the opportunity to deputise for Juan Mata as United’s principle creator. It is, perhaps, a surprise that van Gaal has chosen to retain Shinji Kagawa with so many of a similar ilk in the squad.

Much will depend on how newly appointed club captain Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie strike up a partnership that has not always been at ease. van Gaal’s system should suit both; Rooney in the striking role that now suits him best, and van Persie no longer isolated. In mind and body it should be said.

van Gaal has also been sponsored by the Premier League’s fixture computer. The Dutchman’s side faces three newly promoted clubs, three among the relegation contenders last season and MK Dons before Everton visits Old Trafford on 5 October. Momentum will be gained where Moyes lost so much in the early weeks of the campaign. The absence of European football may hurt the balance sheet, but it will also aid tired limbs.

Tougher questions come in the weeks ahead though. As it stands van Gaal boasts questionable tools with which to succeed at United. The Dutchman is well aware that he working with sub-par materials, just as Moyes bellowed a year thence. The benchmark has simply been readjusted: Champions League qualification and a decent cup run is a very un-United level of ambition, but one mandated by the disastrous Moyes experiment.

The Scot’s moaning brought risible contempt. van Gaal something different: a mark of respect. The fact is, however, United remains some way behind the club’s rivals, even if the Dutchman could yet be the signing of the summer. Eyes are on the prize. Whether Woodward is a help or hindrance to that is still an open question.


August 11, 2014 Tags: Reads 10 comments
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Movement of the people. Or, in this case, Manchester United players. By the end of the summer up to 14 first team or fringe players could have left the club as Louis van Gaal and Ed Woodward embark on a major programme of squad restructuring. Whether the flip side of that coin, new signings, arrive before the summer transfer window shuts on 1 September is another question again.

Six United players have already left this summer: Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidić, Patrice Evra, Bebé, Alexander Büttner, and Ángelo Henríquez – the latter initially on loan with a purchase clause inserted – while Ryan Giggs has retired. Indeed, so many players are likely depart Old Trafford before the summer is out that United could, or could have, put out a decent side – one that Rant assumes would comfortably survive in the Premier League.

In a 4-3-3 formation, with room for substitutes…

Ben Amos, England, 24, Goalkeeper
The Macclesfield-born stopper has been with United since he joined the club aged 11 in 2001. Yet, in more than a decade at Old Trafford the England under-21 player has made just seven first team appearances – only one in the Premier League. Loan spells with Peterborough United, Molde, Oldham Athletic, Hull City and Carlisle United have brought 54 further games. With Amos’ contract running out in 2015, United will likely take a fee to move the player on this summer. 7 games, 0 goals

Rafael da Silva, Brazil, 24, Right-Back
The Brazilian was named by the Daily Mail as one of seven players whom van Gaal has earmarked to leave United this summer; perhaps the most surprising possible exit. The right-back has been with United since 2007, although form and injuries have repeatedly hampered the former Fluminense player’s progress. An outstanding campaign in 2012/13 was followed by a disappointing season under David Moyes. 159 games, 5 goals

Rio Ferdinand, England, 35, Central Defender (QPR)
In more than a decade at United Ferdinand secured almost every piece of silverware available, yet there was little other choice for United than to move the defender on this summer. Rather than retire Ferdinand moved to Queens Park Rangers in July – a humbling step down for one of Europe’s finest defenders, albeit one the Londoner has taken with good grace. Ferdinand may not be missed on the pitch, but his leadership certainly will be. 455 games, 8 goals

Nemanja Vidić, Serbia, 32, Central Defender (Internazionale)
Vidić is perhaps the most high-profile ‘victim’ of the Moyes era, with the Serbian rapidly seeking an exit before the full trauma of the Scot’s reign had even set in. It is, says United We Stand’s Andy Mitten, a decision he regrets. In eight years with United Vidić led the club to domestic and European glory – one of the finest defenders to have worn the red shirt. Injuries played a significant part in the Serbian’s reduced role in the period 2011-13 – a time in which Vidić considered leaving United. Yet, 2013/14 saw the defender restored to the side, and one of United’s better performers in a disastrous campaign. 300 games, 21 goals

Patrice Evra, France, 33, Left-Back (Juventus)
There have been few finer representatives of the club in modern times. In eight full seasons with United Evra played more than 40 games in all but one. For a period the Frenchman was probably the finest full-back in Europe; a great attacker, a fine defender, and a major contributor to United’s 2008 Champions League victory. In recent campaigns the defensive side of Evra’s game has suffered – most probably because the player’s stamina subsided as the miles clocked up. His contribution may have waned, but few will doubt his value to United over the years. Sorely missed in the dressing room. 379 games, 10 goals


Anderson, Brazil, 26, Central Midfield
Few players elicit as much debate among supporters as the errant Brazilian. For some, the ‘next Ronaldinho’ is waiting to burst forth, if only opportunities had been granted by Sir Alex in a more attacking role. Yet, Anderson so rarely impressed in any role – a short run of progress ended by another frustrating performance or perennial injury problems. In the end Anderson has more reason to look inward than to bad luck; injuries played their part, but a distinct lack of professionalism was a more important role in the former Gremio star’s downfall. 179 games, 9 goals

Marouane Fellaini, Belgium, 25, Central Midfield
Is there any more calamitous marker for the failed Moyes experiment than the Belgian? Strange player indeed – a midfielder who does not tackle, cannot pass, suffers for a chronic lack of pace, and exhibits a criminally poor first touch. Worse still, a player whose only redeeming feature – his height – is one that is so rarely needed at Old Trafford. United will move the midfielder on unless the trickle of suitors runs totally dry. It will cost millions though – a failure of Moyes’ direction, Woodward’s strategy, and horribly botched succession planning. 21 games, 0 goals

Ryan Giggs, Wales, 40, Winger/Central Midfield (Retired)
The Welshman’s retirement to take up an assistant manager’s post under van Gaal came as little surprise after more than two decades in the United first team. There are few superlatives left for the winger-turned-midfielder-turned-coach, who has won more silverware than any other player in the history of the club. Almost 1,000 games tells the story of Giggs’ longevity, dozens of major trophies that of his success. An outstanding player, a strong voice in the dressing room, and the turncoat who did more than most to undermine Moyes. Giggs won that battle – he now faces a new challenge to succeed in coaching. 963 games, 168 goals

Ryan Giggs

Nani, Portugal, 27, Winger
Frustrating and brilliant, although not in equal measure. Nani has reportedly been earmarked for an exit by van Gaal, much as Sir Alex Ferguson had concluded prior to summer 2013. Inexplicably Moyes pushed for the player to be awarded a new contract, although the club’s executive was also happy to protect the Portuguese winger’s transfer value. Nani’s time at United should have yielded so much more because the former Sporting player has almost every tool available to the modern forward: pace, technique and an eye for goal. Consistency, or the lack thereof, and a distinct inability to read the game have consistently limited Nani’s contribution. 221 games, 41 goals

Javier Hernández, Mexico, 26, Striker
How did it come to this? The sprightly Mexican started life at United so brightly, scoring 20 goals in all competitions. Yet, he has never become a fixture in the United side, making just 15 starts in the Premier League over the past two seasons. Indeed, the striker’s stock has fallen to the point that the club is unlikely to command the stellar transfer fee mooted when Real Madrid considered a bid in summer 2012. With Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck at the club, and James Wilson progressing fast, Chicharito’s career will surely be better served elsewhere. 152 games, 59 goals

Wilfied Zaha, England, 21, Winger
The former Crystal Palace winder has made so little impression that it is tempting to wonder just what went wrong. After all, outstanding performances for the Selhurst Park outfit and – one hopes – adequate due diligence should have left United confident that the £15 million fee was well spent. Technically Zaha offers much: pace, the ability to beat a man, and a goalscoring instinct. Yet, the player’s inability to release the ball often breaks down attacks, even at reserve level, while there has been more than one assertion that the player’s attitude has not always been right. Talented, but a player unlikely to prosper in van Gaal’s prefered 3-4-1-2 formation. 4 games, 0 goals

And on the bench…

Alexander Büttner, Netherlands, 25, Left Back (Dynamo Moscow)
It took all of 30 minutes for the schooled to work out that Büttner had neither the talent nor potential to become a player of United’s normally high standards. The Dutchman was, even by Sir Alex’ erratic transfer record, a very poor choice to challenge Evra for a place in the United side. Surging runs could do little to mask a defensive nous that, with no little irony, served only to underline Evra’s enduring value. That United actually made a profit on Büttner’s sale will bring a smile to Old Trafford’s varied bean counters. 28 games, 2 goals

Bebé, Portugal, 24, Winger/Forward (Benfica)
One of the most mysterious, and possibly dubious, transfers in United’s history. Plucked from amateur football by Vitória de Guimarães, Bebé was flipped for a profit of more than £7 million inside two months and without playing a competitive fixture for the club. Much of revenue was snaffled by ‘super agent’ Jorges Mendes. Adding to the enigma – United hasn’t concluded a deal with Mendes in more than four years since Bebé joined. 7 games, 2 goals

Ángelo Henríquez, Chile, 20, Striker (Dinamo Zagreb)
The young Chilean joined United from Universidad de Chile with high hopes that quick feet and striker’s instinct would blossom at Old Trafford. He is yet to make a competitive appearances for the first team. Loan spells at Wigan Athletic and Real Zaragoza convinced few that the 20-year-old is ready to make it at Old Trafford. 0 games, 0 goals

Will Keane, England, 21, Striker
Outstanding at academy and then reserve level, it was Will and not Michael than most observers assumed would make it into the first team squad of the Keane brothers. Yet, injuries and unfortunate loan spells at Wigan and Queens Park Rangers have served only to hamper the young Englishman’s progress. The Stockport-born striker should make it in the game, but reportedly not at United, with van Gaal offering Keane a passage out of the club this summer. 1 games, 0 goals

Federico Macheda, Italian, 23, Striker (Cardiff City)
It is now five years since Macheda exploded into the consciousness, scoring against Aston Villa to secure victory in a crucial late season Premier League game. It was the high point of the Italian’s career. In the interviewing years injuries and attitude have restricted the striker’s development; disastrous loan spells at Sampdoria, Stuttgart, Doncaster Rovers and Queens Park Rangers did little to dispel the belief that Macheda would never make it at United. 36 games, 5 goals