Author Chris Linnell

Author Chris Linnell

Time for Van Gaal to drop his stubborn front

February 24, 2015 Tags: Opinion 11 comments
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It is as if the gripes and frustrations of several million Manchester United fans across the globe must now vent. Following another harrowing defeat at the hands of Swansea City – the second of the season – questions have unsurprisingly arisen regarding the direction of Louis van Gaal’s regime. The club may have lost just twice in the past 20 matches, but considering the team has taken only 16 points from a possible 30 in the previous 10 league fixtures, there is clearly something wrong.

With Arsenal and Liverpool capitalising on the club’s weekend loss,  United’s chances of a top four finish appear to have suffered a significant set-back.  With United’s opponents finally picking up the pace after relatively slow starts to the 2014/15 domestic campaign, the Old Trafford faithful could face an unwelcome surprise come May: a second successive season outside the realms of European football.

Qualifying for the Champions League is the sole priority this season. However with just three points now separating the Red Devils in fourth and Tottenham Hotspur in seventh, the club’s chances of attaining a top four finish are jeopardised.  If results do not improve, the club faces the prospect of slipping beyond the European qualification places altogether – an unthinkable scenario.

Considering the club’s dominance under Sir Alex Ferguson United’s demise is incredible. Earlier this year, Chelsea travelled away to the same Swansea side and put an impressive five goals past the Welsh side in a comprehensive victory. Two years ago this would have been a similar scenario at United.

Bereft of confidence Van Gaal’s side faltered to a devastating defeat in a game United should be winning. But who, in all honesty, is naïve enough to expect three points against middle-ranked teams. Such has been the story of the club’s season; defeat was always a possibility.

Against a Swansea side that has won just once in the league since Boxing Day, fans witnessed an improved performance. There was coherence in United’s play, movement in the middle and a degree of dominance down the flanks, but the Reds remained vulnerable at the back and found it hard to conjure up a final ball of note. On the odd occasion Van Gaal’s side did it lacked the finishing touch.

Van Gaal’s side may have maintained a 64 per cent share of possession against Swansea; it may have recorded 12 shots at goal; and have completed 86 per cent of total attempted passes, completed 10 dribbles and won 10 tackles; but ultimately, none of these figures meant anything.

Unfortunately for the Dutchman, dominating statistical leaderboards will not guarantee European football next season. Come matchday, winning three points remains the only real concern for the club and its fans. Footballing aesthetics will come in time. Results must come first.

It is tempting to conclude that the Red Devils are the worst side occupying the top six, with very few signs of improvement, or even a readiness to change. Touted as the man to steer the sinking ship to safety, Van Gaal has done little to date more than enjoy  use of the club’s chequebook.

Fans are growing increasingly concerned and somewhat frustrated by his ineffective and bizarre tactical decisions. Van Gaal’s decision to provide Phil Jones with a role as United’s corner taker is perhaps the pick of the bunch so far.

The Dutchman has failed to capitalise on poor starts from both Arsenal and Liverpool, and with just 12 games left to play, it takes the brave to predict the final league standings.  United must play five of the Premier League’s top seven before May – Arsenal (H), Tottenham (H), Liverpool (A), Manchester City (H) and Chelsea (A). It is an extremely difficult run-in.

Continuous injury problems once offered a convenient excuse for the club’s poor form, but now, with almost the entire side fully fit, the overriding issues are becoming increasingly prominent. Van Gaal’s stubborn nature and unwillingness to make changes appears to be the crux of the club’s disappointing form. From the Dutchman’s choice of starting personnel, or the tactics he opts to deploy, something is categorically wrong at Old Trafford.

Indeed, Van Gaal can have very few complaints regarding the squad at his disposal. He had full control during the summer window when he spent over £150 million. In January Van Gaal opted against strengthening the side when many believed that he would.

An experienced centre-back had been highlighted as a necessity by even the most causal of viewers, with a long list of potential recruits produced by the media in the months preceding the winter transfer period. Yet, Van Gaal defied expectations. The signing of free agent Victor Valdes represented the club’s solitary piece of business.

Eight months into his three year contract with the club and the manager still appears to unaware of his best starting line-up, or even his side’s most effective formation. He has flitted between a 3-5-2 and 4-1-2-1-2 formations throughout his debut campaign; neither of which has proved particularly effective. United fans are crying out for the Dutchman to play to the squad’s strengths and deploy a 4-2-3-1 system, but for now he looks frustratingly reluctant to oblige.

Van Gaal’s refusal to play with wingers is perplexing. Angel Di Maria may have excelled in central midfield for Real Madrid, but he is just as adept on the left flank. Meanwhile, Antonio Valencia, United’s Players’ Player of the Year during the 2011/12 season, is still a highly capable option down the right hand side – he was unstoppable against Liverpool in this role back in December.

The Dutchman has the option to play with wide men, and doing so would aid his side’s exploits in an attacking capacity – stretching opposition defences, while allowing the club’s full-backs to overlap and contribute in the final third. After all, the side has been hopeless in its attempt to play through the middle in recent months. Something has to change.

The pedestrian style of football the supporters have been forced to tolerate this term, is far from the standard expected. This statement echoes the view of club legend Paul Scholes, who has publically criticised the Dutchman in recent weeks. The former midfielder, who accrued over 700 appearances for the Red Devils, has not been impressed by the brand of football being played under the 62-year-old this season. In his column popular column for The Independent, Scholes criticised the current crop for not taking enough risks, nor playing in the “traditional United way.”

The Old Trafford faithful are no longer able to enjoy flowing attacking football witnessed during Sir Alex’ days. Instead, they have fallen victim to Van Gaal’s obsession with a possession-based game. Furthermore, the counter-intuitive way in which the Dutchman has resorted to long ball tactics in the latter stages of matches, particularly when United are chasing a lead, is disgraceful.

While Van Gaal is evidently encountering issues when it comes to deciding on a regular system, his attitude towards team selection is perhaps even more baffling. Having used 31 players, the former Bayern Munich head coach has changed his starting line-up on more occasions than any other Premier League team this season, and yet he is still unable to find a winning formula.

The Dutchman’s apparent favouritism towards certain individuals is also proving costly. By contrast Van Gaal has ignored others, with Ander Herrera and Juan Mata both growing increasingly familiar with life on the substitute’s bench.  Herrera’s return to first team for Saturday’s fixture was greeted with gratitude on the terraces. It marked Herrera’s first league start since the beginning of December and fans were instantly impressed with the fluidity he added to the team.  The Spaniard’s opening goal epitomised his play, and having now scored twice in his past two appearances, many expect Herrera to retain his place for United’s upcoming tie against Sunderland. That would be logical, but this is Van Gaal.

Robin van Persie, on the other hand, was abysmal in South Wales, just as he has been for much of the season. Describing the 31-year-old as a fraud is extreme, but the disinterested striker who lined up to face the Swans on the weekend showed few similarities to the 26-goal striker who starred throughout Ferguson’s final campaign at the helm.   With 10 league goals this term Van Persie is the club’s top scorer to date – this is very telling of the season as a whole – but, considering his £9.6 million annual wage some might conclude that he is stealing a living.

Van Persie had seven shots at goal in United’s defeat, more than any other player, but hit the target just once. He also looked off the pace and unmotivated – and yet Van Gaal persisted with his countryman.

Rather than removing the Dutchman, Van Gaal opted to withdraw 19-year-old Paddy McNair – who now must be shot of confidence – for Antonio Valencia at half time. Next in-form Luke Shaw was removed, despite the full-back enjoying a tremendous afternoon, for Ashley Young in the 58th minute. Finally, Angel Di Maria – United’s most creative player on the day – came off Juan Mata with 10 minutes left to play.

It was only when he sustained a match-ending injury that Van Persie was finally taken off, leaving United to fend with 10 men through the closing stages. Van Gaal is clearly reluctant to drop the 31-year-old and it is becoming increasingly difficult to understand the justification for it.

Van Persie’s latest injury may be a blessing though. Playing James Wilson up front, alongside Wayne Rooney, would provide a real transformation. The teenager offers pace, while he has already proven his ability in front of goal.   Failing that, an extended run in the first team for Radamel Falcao, alongside someone other than van Persie, could prove a masterstroke. It hasn’t quite worked out for the Colombian yet, but history suggest he has plenty to offer.

Despite this lengthy rant there is no campaign to oust Van Gaal. The Dutchman deserves the courtesy of time, but results need to improve. The club has won just three of 13 away matches this term, and despite improving performances, the team finds itself slowly slipping out of the Champions League places.

Liverpool, Southampton and Tottenham are hot pursuit and there is a tricky set of fixtures on the horizon. It will take a tremendous turnaround to guarantee a top four finish. Ultimately, European qualification is in Van Gaal’s hands, but until he is able to discover his winning formula, it is vital that he drops this stubborn front.

Rojo: United’s most satisfying surprise

February 10, 2015 Tags: Opinion 11 comments
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When the summer transfer window closed few would have anticipated that former Sporting Lisbon defender Marcos Rojo would establish himself as the best signing of Manchester United’s season.

Acquired on a five-year deal for £16 million, the Argentine became the club’s third recruit of the off-season, following an impressive domestic season in Portugal in which Sporting finished runners up, with the second best defensive record in the division. Rojo also featured in six of his nation’s seven games at the World Cup in Brazil, including the final, during which Argentina suffered a devastating extra-time defeat at the hands of champions Germany. It was an impressive season for a relatively inexperienced defender – both at club and international level – and for the Old Trafford faithful, a sign of things to come.

The 24-year-old had attracted strong interest from Arsenal, Liverpool and Southampton, even prior to his World Cup involvement, with a move to the Premier League seeming inevitable. Clearly Ronald Koeman recognised the Argentine’s quality; a compliment in itself. As the season progresses it is becoming increasingly difficult to find fault with the Saints’ recruitment standards. The south coast outfit have enjoyed an inspirational league campaign, and, having conceded just 17 goals in 24 league games, boast the best defensive record in the English top flight. Rojo was touted as an ideal addition at St Mary’s, but Louis van Gaal swooped in, undetected, to sign his man.

Recognised predominately as a central defender, but also capable of chipping in at left-back, Rojo’s versatility was undoubtedly a major factor behind the United head coach’s interest. Despite featuring most regularly as centre-back for Sporting Lisbon, a starring role on the left side of defence during the summer World Cup led many to believe Van Gaal had captured another full-back. In hindsight, this was clearly not the case.  The Dutchman holds a firm admiration for the former Spartak Moscow defender, undoubtedly catalyzed by his displays in South America.

“He has ability, physical strength and a willingness to learn… that means he has a very bright future ahead of him,” Van Gaal claimed upon Rojo’s arrival. “He had a very strong World Cup and has been playing in Europe for a couple of years now.”

Rojo’s was certainly the most contentious arrival of those at Old Trafford during the summer window. The departure of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand exposed a significant lack of depth in the back four, and despite success in South America, 24-year-old Rojo was considered a capable replacement for the veteran pair by very few. Question marks were also raised regarding the manner of Rojo’s transfer – he forced his way out of Sporting, giving the Primeira Liga outfit little option but to demand as high a fee as possible. This was viewed as a signal of the player’s negative temperament and lack of integrity by some – and evidence of burning ambition by others. Regardless, it is clear that Rojo recognised the magnitude of such an opportunity.

At just 24 years of age, Rojo has been a regular feature of Louis van Gaal’s ever-evolving defence – commanding a back-line of three or four, depending on the Dutchman’s mood.  Of all the defenders on the Old Trafford books, it is now fair to argue that the Argentine – a World Cup finalist and regular Champions League participant – is the most experienced. Jonny Evans may be three years Rojo’s senior, but the Northern Irishman has never quite been able to cut it at the highest level. Rojo is now Van Gaal’s most dependable defender – a sentiment reinforced by the confidence of his recent performances.

Despite dislocating his shoulder in November and suffering a thigh strain in December, the Argentine youngster has experienced few difficulties settling into life at Old Trafford. Unexpectedly, Rojo’s committed displays have only served to enhance his reputation with the club’s fans. Despite the turbulence season, Rojo has shown excellent form throughout.

Assured, composed and ruthless: Rojo’s physical presence was evident after just a few games for the club. He has the mentality and technical ability needed to star for the three-time European champions.  Comfortable on the ball and un-phased by the demands of possession-based football, the Argentine has also looked a natural fit within Van Gaal’s philosophy. He has also impressed in a defensive sense, averaging 2.77  tackles, 3.15 interceptions and 2.62 successful aerial duels per game this season. Ultimately, Rojo has ensured United remains tight at the back. There are also impressive early signs of leadership – the support he provided academy graduate Paddy McNair, particularly on the Irishman’s debut, has impressed.

Rojo was also United’s best defender in the draw against West Ham at Upton Park; a match drawn courtesy of Daley Blind’s last minute equaliser. The visitors looked at sea for large spells, with Rojo proving the difference between defensive conformity and an easy route to goal. Against the team that has scored more headed goals than any this season, the Argentine was up to the physical competition. It took a fabulous strike from Cheikhou Kouyate to break the deadlock, while Diafra Sakho and Enner Valencia rarely threatened David de Gea.

Of course, there have been moments of hot-headedness, in which Rojo’s decision-making could have proved costly. One impulsive first-half foul on the halfway line sticks in the memory. Yet, Rojo is still young, with a tendency to make rash decisions. It shouldn’t be long before he erases these from his game. After all, his predecessors didn’t start perfectly either.

It is perhaps too early in Rojo’s career to make comparisons with Vidic, but the younger man looks capable of emulating the Serbian’s success at Old Trafford. Rojo displays real physical presence and an air of calmness when in possession, supplemented by desire to achieve success in a red shirt. Just seven months into his time with United, Rojo’s celebrations alone express a level of infatuation with the club.

Unlike many of the club’s summer arrivals, Rojo has made the transition to English football well. After an impressive start, Angel Di Maria suffered an injury setback prior to Christmas; the winger’s form hasn’t been the same since. Radamel Falcao has failed to hit the ground running following a series of underwhelming displays, and with his weekly wage burning a significant hole in the club’s coffers, the Colombian’s future at United looks increasingly uncertain. Meanwhile, Luke Shaw has hardly lived up to the £30 million fee, although the teenager boasts the advantage of having copious amounts of time on his side.

Meanwhile, Daley Blind and Ander Herrera remain the Argentine’s only real competition for the coveted ‘Signing of the Season’ accolade. Ultimately the duo has fallen victim to a lack of playing time; a result of Van Gaal’s vigorous squad rotation.

Based on a series of impressive performances and natural deduction, it is fair to conclude that Rojo has been the club’s most impressive arrival under the Dutchman’s regime; a significant achievement for a player who, unlike most last summer, practically entered the club through the back door.

In defence of Radamel Falcao

February 6, 2015 Tags: Opinion 8 comments
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In seven days the club would have to sell 75,715 pies to cover Radamel Falcao’s hefty £260,000 weekly wage, and therefore it comes as little surprise that those less patient Manchester United fans are calling for the Colombian’s head.

Signed on a season-long loan deal from AS Moncao, the Red Devils have the option to sign Falcao for £43.5 million at the end of the season. But the striker, who missed the World Cup due to knee ligament damage, has had limited impact during his £6 million loan deal so far, due partly to injury.

Having scored just four goals in 14 Premier League appearances, it’s fair to say the twice-Europa league winner is a long way off his former best. Indeed, the days of FC Porto and Atletico Madrid, for whom he cut a god-like figure, seem a very long time ago. Falcao boasts a frightening reputation, earned through hard-work and determination throughout the entirety of his career.

Following an impressive spell with Argentine outfit River Plate, the talented Colombian found himself snapped up by Primeira Liga side Porto in 2009 to replace outgoing star Lisandro Lopez. His impact was immediate, as he fast became one of Portuguese football’s most clinical strikers, netting 34 goals in all competitions.

Falcao’s form continued to improve over the next few seasons and after a blistering 2010-11 campaign, which saw his remarkable tally of 17 goals in 14 Europa League games break Jurgen Klinsmann’s European scoring record of 15 and fire Porto to glory in the competition, he soon established himself as one of the world football’s most formidable centre-forwards.

A €40 million switch to La Liga with Atletico Madrid ensued, for whom he scored 36 goals, including 12 in Europe, in an electric debut season. Undeterred by the pressure of being the most expensive player in the club’s history, he became the first player to win two consecutive Europa League titles with two different teams.

Nonetheless, his triumphs were far from over with Atletico. He signed off in style, with an equally impressive second – and final – season for the club. Falcao began the campaign with a magnificent hat-trick in his side’s 4-1 UEFA Super Cup victory over Chelsea, before inspiring Atletico to a win over fierce rivals Real Madrid for the first time in 14 years to seal the Copa del Rey.

Highlighted as the potential embodiment of Monaco’s rise to the highest reaches of European football – a transition that has ultimately failed to materialize – Falcao made the move to the principality in the summer of 2013 in a deal worth an estimated &eur;60 million. The Colombian’s single season in France saw him score on his Ligue 1 debut against Bordeaux before contributing with a further 10 goals in his next 18 appearances.

Nonetheless, disaster struck, as an anterior cruciate injury, sustained in January during a Coupe de France match against minnows Monts d’Or Azergues Foot, ensured he missed the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil; a heart-breaking realisation.

Meanwhile, his subsequent rehabilitation has resulted in a less than assured start in the English top flight. Falcao has shown brief glimpses of excellence throughout his first seven months at Old Trafford. It’s evident that he can use both feet and is imperious in the air despite only being 5′ 10”; he also boasts pace, excellent attacking movement and impressive technique. Arguably, the only aspect lacking from his game is goals.

Fans are yet to see the infallible composure in front of goal that Falcao has become renowned for throughout his career, as, unfortunately for the Colombian, the chances have fallen few and far between. Even the most casual observer of the modern game will agree that the striker’s scoring deficiencies have transpired from fortunate goalkeeping and a genuine lack of opportunities.

In fact, Falcao has managed just 21 shots at goal all season – that’s just over one per match – from which he has hit the target an impressive 71 per cent of the time. It is also far fairer to judge the player on the games in which he has started, rather than those appearances he has made as a substitute. He has been involved in seven league goals (four goals and three assists) in nine starts for the Red Devils. In truth, the statistics ain’t that bad!

By comparison with Angel Di Maria, a man who also demands substantial wages, and a significant transfer fee to match – £59.7 million to be precise – Falcao’s performances have not been too far off the mark. The Argentine has only contributed to nine goals (three goals and six assists) in 15 appearances this season, despite averaging more than 20 minutes of extra playing time than his Colombian teammate, per game.

Falcao notched his fourth goal of the season in United’s 3-1 victory over Leicester City, the weekend just gone. This was by no means the most inspirational of strikes, but he showed excellent desire and movement before scrambling the ball into the back of the empty net. He was afforded just the single opportunity against the Foxes and he failed to disappoint, despatching with ease.

During the Dutchman’s post-match interview, Louis Van Gaal admitted Falcao has been in greater needed of a goal than club top scorer Robin Van Persie, who opened the scoring against Leicester.

“I am more happy that Falcao was scoring because Robin has already scored enough goals. Falcao needs that goal more than Robin. It is fantastic that they scored – and beautiful goals also,” the Dutchman said.

Clearly there is a genuine desire among the Old Trafford coaching staff, the players and even the majority of fans, to see Radamel Falcao succeed as a United player. Of course, there are those advocating for Falcao’s dismissal upon the expiry of his loan agreement this summer, but for the most-part, the feeling towards the Colombian is overwhelmingly positive.

But ultimately, it is the opinion of one man that matters the most – Van Gaal. The overseers at United have given the Dutch head coach huge room for manoeuvre – especially financially – since his arrival, and the chances are this will continue to be the case. Just as long as Van Gaal is able to maintain the club’s push for Champions League qualification.

Yes, Falcao’s time in England has largely seen the striker fail to live up to the reputation that proceeds him, but this is not to say he cannot return to former glory. Falcao has recovered from a career threatening injury twice previously, and on both occasions has comeback more prolific than ever – a sentiment that should fill the Old Trafford faithful with hope.

£43.5 million is a substantial outlay for any club, but relatively unconstrained by Financial Fair Play regulations – for now at least – it is a gamble United can afford to make; especially if it pays dividends. Falcao is a player with world class ability, it is just a question of whether or not Van Gaal envisages the 28-year-old as the man to lead his new-look team to glory.