Author Thariq Amir

Author Thariq Amir

United unwinds in Wile E. Coyote country

February 2, 2016 Tags: , Opinion 6 comments
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The winter transfer window has come and gone with a few departures and no Old Trafford arrivals. Ordinarily the headlines might have focused on the fact that United failed to bring in a fresh face in winter window for the first time since 2005. These are no ordinary times though as Manchester City confirmed football’s worst kept secret: Pep Guardiola will take charge of the Blues next season. Read More

Jorge Mendes: United’s would-be kingmaker

January 25, 2016 Tags: , , Opinion 11 comments
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There are many ways to describe Manchester United’s latest performance in a season littered with setbacks. “As timid as a mouse,” comes to mind, but that might be disrespectful to the little critter that made its way onto the pitch at Old Trafford this past Sunday. It certainly moved with more purpose and adventure than United’s players. Read More

Michael Carrick – from coach’s dream to coaching dream

January 6, 2016 Tags: Opinion 6 comments
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“I changed Herrera because I wanted to waste time – what Swansea were doing the whole match,” admitted Louis van Gaal after his side’s 2-1 defeat of the Swans. Manchester United’s was a welcome, if nervy victory on Saturday, but lost among all that was the fact that Michael Carrick, the Spaniard’s replacement, was making his 400th appearance for  the club. Read More

United’s sporting dilemma

December 30, 2015 Tags: , Opinion 8 comments
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“Until the club understands what it stands for, and how it operates beyond making deals with regional noodle vendors, any manager will struggle.” – United Rant Twitter feed, 22 December 2015

Manchester United is now a fully blown Glazer entity, a cash cow being milked to the nth degree and then some.  The club can boast a total of 21 global, 16 regional, 15 media and 14 financial partners; more than 60 partners in total. Talk about leveraging an asset. Read More

The empire falls flat

December 20, 2015 Tags: , Opinion 13 comments
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Another match, another game without a win, another non-performance. Mediocrity is now the new normal at Manchester United. In truth, defeat to Norwich City at the weekend should not have come as a surprise. Nothing in recent displays suggested that Louis van Gaal’s team is on the cusp of ending an uninspiring run. And true to form, bereft of guile and confidence, the team went down to an opponent whose solid, if predictable, game plan worked.

The visitors made limited possession count at Old Trafford; United once again looked blunt up front despite hogging 70 per cent of the ball. It is no surprise that the home side enjoyed only two shots on target, and its perhaps fitting that the under-performing Red Devils should be led out by a sub-par captain who marked his 500th game for the club with a loss.

Yet, with another defeat comes a new set of questions. Some with no obvious answers.

Keeping the faith

“The night is darkest just before the dawn. And I promise you the dawn is coming” – Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight.

Van Gaal’s United tenure is now in its darkest hour. No wins in six, three defeats in succession, back-to-back defeats in the league to promoted clubs, and a first loss at Old Trafford to a promoted team since 2001. Yet, the greatest concern is not just poor results, but also the manner in which defeats are coming. United’s lack of cutting edge is astonishing and Van Gaal’s football ‘philosophy’ has clipped the team’s wings. So much so that the club’s style of play now resembles one famously epic encounter between Portugal and Mexico in … The Simpsons.

Van Gaal knows more than anyone that this iteration of United will struggle to challenge for a Champions League spot, let alone make a charge at the title. The Dutchman admitted on Saturday to being “worried” about his future as manager and so he should be.

Optimists can point to the nadir of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign, which culminated in the infamous banner declaring that it had been “3 years of excuses and it’s still crap. Ta ra Fergie.” The Scot turned it around, of course, leaving some evidence that a coach of Van Gaal’s stature is not yet finished at Old Trafford.

Then there’s the January transfer window and the opportunity it brings to strengthen a squad in need of high quality attacking and defensive reinforcements. That said, given supporters’ frustrations and rumours of discord among the players, it will take an investment of faith from the board to back Van Gaal in January. And to push the analysis to its cynical extreme, perhaps the only positive in keeping the Dutchman – for Ed Woodward and the Glazers at least – is that the focus of supporters’ ire remains on the 64-year-old and not the board.

Van Gaal may hope that the dawn is coming, but as Harvey Dent once noted “you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Van Gaal has become more a villain with every passing game.

“Jorge, get me Jose!”

“Mourinho,” wrote journalist Diego Torres in Prepare to Lose: The Mourinho Era, “thought that Ferguson was, besides his ally, also his friend and godfather. He was convinced that they were tied by a relationship of genuine trust.

“He thought that his fabulous collection of titles constituted an ‘endorsement’ unreachable to any other contenders. When he knew that Ferguson had chosen Moyes, the Everton coach, he was struck by a terrible disbelief. Moyes hadn’t won absolutely anything!”

It is the story of a man who feels that it is his destiny to manage United. It is also the story of United’s board who, despite all reassurances to the contrary, completely botched the post-Ferguson transition.

Mourinho’s character and style of football is not to everyone’s liking, but to overlook the Portuguese in favour of a manager who had no experience winning trophies, let alone managing a super-club, smacks of negligence. To miss out on Mourinho once is sloppy; to let him slip by again would be incompetence. Mourinho may be tarnished after a turbulent third season in his second stint at Stamford Bridge, but he is still a winner.

Given United’s relationship with Jorge Mendes getting a hold of the two-time Champions League winner should not be difficult. It’s a question of how much United’s hierarchy wants Mourinho at the club. After all, with the success comes the baggage. Mourinho’s ‘scorched earth’ approach brings trophies, but at the expense of long-term development.

Moreover, the former Real Madrid manager’s innate desire for conflict does not sit well at United. The 52-year-old should be under no illusions that a higher standard of behaviour is required at Old Trafford. Could Mourinho could keep his cool if Pep Guardiola turns up at Manchester City? He would certainly relish the battle.

There are potential gains for the manager too. If he takes over from Van Gaal and contrives to win the title this season he will become the “genius” of Woodward’s folklore. Whether he could deliver the Premier League with panache is another question.

Yet, it is no secret that Mourinho want the United job. Maybe the stars have aligned. United has an opportunity to recruit the manager the club once rejected. This time Woodward may just take it.

Guardiola to pep up United

The number of ‘big name’ coaches on the move this summer is significant. Guardiola is expected to leave Bayern Munich, with Carlo Ancelotti succeeding the Spaniard from the start of next season. United has already missed on Ancelotti; the club cannot afford to do the same with Pep.

After all, Guardiola has already admitted to liking the Old Trafford “atmosphere” in Martí Perarnau’s book Pep Confidential. “I could see myself coaching here one day,” he is said to add. If true, United should test that sentiment by attempting to steal the Spaniard from under City’s nose.

Guardiola may not have experience managing in the Premier League, but that is unlikely to be a barrier to success. Mourinho, Ancelotti and Manuel Pellegrini won the Premier League in their first season in the country. It’s no stretch to think that Pep could do the same.

The Spaniard inherited a mess at Barcelona, although had Lionel Messi’s genius to call on. The real credit is in fashioning the Catalan club’s midfield into one of the most efficient, ruthless and creative forces in football’s history.

Guardiola can also deliver the style of football United fans crave. Pep’s Barcelona, at the club’s peak, was one of the most spellbinding teams of the last 50 years. And Bayern comes close. Both clubs demand European success – and Guardiola’s remit at United would be to reestablish domestic dominance and return the Old Trafford club to the European élite.

Would Guardiola commit to a ‘long-term’ project or move on after three or four years? With the club having lost out on Ancelotti and Jürgen Klopp it is surely irrelevant.

Give it to Giggs

The alternative, of course, is to appoint the man Van Gaal believes is his successor. Ryan Giggs would be a romantic choice if a risky one, although there is no doubt that he wants the post. Giggs’ march to the technical area, with United struggling to break down Norwich had, to use another movie metaphor, the sense of Darth Vader turning against the Emperor.

Giggs’ appointment would not come without precedent either. Barcelona took a risk with Guardiola and Juventus did the same with Antonio Conte. Yet, for every Guardiola and Conte there’s also Ciro Ferrera and Filippo Inzaghi. Club legends do not always make the grade as head coach.

Still, Giggs is being groomed for the hot seat and his appointment would offer a boost to the collective morale. The Welshman requires no guide to the Premier League and – forgive the cliché – is United to the core, including understanding the requirement for fast attacking football. Giggs would also command the respect of players and fans – commodities that Van Gaal has seemingly lost.

Super-coaches may bring back winning football but, as pretentious as it sounds, can they bring back United’s style? Giggs at least knows what that is.

Appoint a sporting director

United might well hire one of Europe’s super-coaches; the chances that they stay on for 26 trophy laden years is non-existent. If the club is set on a course of appointing a head coach every few years then the emphasis will remain on Woodward to secure the right players and coaches. It is a goal for which the club’s executive vice chairman appears ill-equipped, with his focus on marquee signings made for marketing purposes.

Appointing a sporting director will not solve all ills, but it is a move that promises expertise lacking in the current set up. Indeed, the role of manager is probably now too big for one person, especially if Woodward continues to act as the de facto director of football.

That the club is now looking to appoint full-time scouts and revamp the youth set-up is a sign that the hierarchy recognises some faults. Should the club also appoint a sporting director he will fill a gap on the administrative and recruitment side of the club.

Plan of attack

Whatever United’s move, Van Gaal knows that he is on borrowed time. The Dutchman recently told United fans not to live in the past. If he knows his history Van Gaal will understand that the roots of mediocrity were sown when the Glazers acquired the club in 2005. The family enjoyed the good fortune of Sir Alex Ferguson’s management – and maximized growth with minimal expenditure. Now they’re feeling the pinch after years of under-investment forced a splurge over the last two seasons in an attempt to rebuild the team.

Yet, the Glazers can no longer rely on genius. If only to protect the bottom line the next move is critical if the club is to remain challengers.

Will the force awaken or will the empire fall flat? At this stage the latter appears to be more likely.

Running to stand still

December 9, 2015 Tags: , Opinion 30 comments
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There are plenty of reasons to be frustrated with Manchester United’s 3-2 defeat away at Wolfsburg. There was, for instance, the slapdash defending, yet more players succumbing to injury, and some very odd substitutions. Perhaps the most galling of all is the illusion of hope, now shattered. After all, fate was a cruel temptress as she thrice teased United with the prospect of progress to the knock-out phase of the Champions League – only for belief to be dashed.

Anthony Martial’s clinical strike gave United the lead, albeit a brief one. Over in Eindhoven, CSKA Moscow went a goal up at PSV before the Dutch side levelled almost immediately. Finally, there was the farcical own goal by Wolfsburg’s Josuha Guilavogui that brought the match level at 2-2 and gave Louis van Gaal’s team a loose foothold in the knockout stages. Needless to say United slipped up and surrendered the advantage to the home side who deserved to win on the night.

To top things off PSV won 2-1, meaning that even if United had contrived to draw Europa League football was inevitable. It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic; Thursday night football is on the cards and, in truth, Van Gaal’s side deserved everything it got.

In the wreckage of Tuesday’s 3-2 defeat it will be hard for Van Gaal’s men to take away any positives, although the result could prove cathartic. Defeat puts to rest the pretence that has overshadowed United’s season, exposing Van Gaal to some very basic analysis. That, in effect, this is a team ticking over, coasting through matches in a fashion that achieves little at an élite level.

Since United’s heavy defeat at The Emirates in October the team has gone on an uninspiring, but unbeaten run, winning just three of eleven games in all competitions before the dispiriting defeat in Germany. It was a run that papered over far too many cracks.

In fact, the reverse at Wolfsburg exposed a team stumbling to find an identity, even with injuries taken into account. Most importantly it is a team incapable of discovering a winning formula. Now 18-months into his tenure at Old Trafford, Van Gaal is yet to demonstrate his grand vision.

Tuesday’s loss, in what Van Gaal admitted was his biggest match at United to date, must serve as a wake-up call. The Dutchman failed the test when evidence that his philosophy has value is in scant supply.

The sequence of events that led to United’s exit from the Champions League, and inspired the fans to jeer after the Reds’ scoreless draw against West Ham United at the weekend, has stemmed from a deeply conservative mindset. It is one that has slowly and inevitably heaped pressure on the team. Indeed, the safety-first approach throughout United’s Champions League campaign paradoxically forced Van Gaal’s side into a change of strategy at Wolfsburg in a winner-takes-all match. The more open approach has become alien and the result, as at the Emirates, was all too predictable.

United’s injury situation is a mitigating factor, of course, but it is unfair for Van Gaal to expect raw youngsters, such as Guillermo Varela, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Jesse Lingard and Nick Powell, to deliver in such a high pressure game. Van Gaal’s lads deserved better and this season’s exit in Europe’s premier club competition could have been avoided.

If United’s 5-3 reverse at Leicester City last season forced Van Gaal to adopt a defensive approach, then defeat against Wolfsburg surely amplifies the need for United adopt a more fluent, pacier, sustained attacking outlook.

After all, the tools are there. An attacking quartet of Lingard, Martial, Juan Mata and Memphis Depay provides a dynamic and fluid front four that, if given time to gel, could provide a genuine attacking threat. United’s opening goal against Wolfsburg offered a small glimpse of what could be achieved with incisive passing, leading to a clinical finish.

However, the Reds’ midfield duo of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Marouane Fellaini were found wanting. If Van Gaal is after more enterprise from the middle of the park then Ander Herrera is a a must-pick alongside one of Schweinsteiger, Michael Carrick or Morgan Schneiderlin. While Herrera is sidelined with injury, Van Gaal’s relative lack-of-faith in the Spaniard has disturbed many supporters.

Moreover, the club’s hierarchy, together with Van Gaal, now need to map out a coherent strategy on and off the pitch. Whatever the briefing emanating out of Ed Woodward’s office in recent days, a long-term plan to reestablish the club at an élite level, whilst maintaining an acceptable level of success on the pitch, is necessary. United is an institution that can lie ‘in transition’ for only so long.

Yet, plenty has already been invested in Van Gaal’s plan to overhaul United’s squad. More is seemingly promised. No figure will enough, even with all the talk of stellar names joining, unless a post-Ferguson identity is established. The suspicion is that A-list acquisitions will be made with an eye on making United even more marketable, rather than with the balance Van Gaal needs.

The gossip suggests that United is now a club that seeks out established stars in the model of Real Madrid; a break from a time when the club sought the best young talents, fashioning them into superstars. Van Gaal has offered plenty of youngsters a taste of first-team football, but the scattergun approach to the transfer market in the wake of Ferguson’s exit suggests a make-it-up-as-you-go philosophy that offers little in the way of long-term identity.

With each week and every disappointing result there’s a growing feeling that a difficult situation is likely to come to an ugly head at Old Trafford. United’s result at Wolfsburg may not be a watershed, but it might not be far off. In the aftermath of Wolfsburg Van Gaal’s immediate goal is to chalk up victories in the Premier League, preferably convincing ones, to stem the growing tide of negativity.

Then, the club as a whole must figure out how it is going to achieve its larger objectives. Supporters will be patient as long as progress is visible, with a trajectory of development heading in the right direction. For that, however, there also needs to be a modicum of hope. Supporters cannot repeatedly witness it snatched away in, frankly, tragi-comic circumstances.

Tuesday’s result will prompt a significant amount of soul-searching, but if United’s manager reaches the conclusion that a change in tack is required, and a more incisive approach taken, then maybe some good can come from the club’s Champions League exit.

For Van Gaal’s sake the narrative must change; he has to prove all over again that his philosophy can take United forward. Right now his team looks like it is running to stand still.

Striking woes

December 7, 2015 Tags: , , Opinion 9 comments
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“Quality,” read the motto framed in Louis van Gaal’s office at Ajax, “is the exclusion of coincidence.”  If anything it sums up the Dutchman’s philosophy: every eventuality is covered in the minutest detail; nothing is left to chance. If that’s the case then Van Gaal must be under few illusions that United’s current striking troubles are the result of bad luck, but of a system and ethos that doesn’t prioritise playing with pace.

Much has been said about the Reds’ performance against West Ham United at the weekend, where Van Gaal’s side enjoyed 21 shots in total, albeit with only one on target – in the 60th minute. True, Juan Mata, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial spurned presentable chances in the latter stages of the game, but those opportunities were carved out as United became more frantic in search of an elusive goal. The total number of shots, in the context of the season, was probably a outlier.

In all likelihood had United scored the team would have sat on the lead rather than look for a second. After all, Van Gaal’s side was let off the hook more than once; had West Ham been more clinical the Dutchman would have been left to contemplate a painful and potentially damaging defeat.

Indeed, the frustration many supporters feel is precisely because Van Gaal possesses enough players for the side to play on the front foot all the time – and, on occasion, the team has demonstrated this ability when trying to rescue victory from the jaws of another mundane stalemate.

It doesn’t help Van Gaal’s case that Javier Hernández, James Wilson, Will Keane and Shinji Kagawa all conspired to score over the weekend. Even Angel di Maria weighed in with an assist for Paris Saint Germain.

Yet, the raw data doesn’t make for encouraging reading. Compared with United’s contemporaries in the Premier League Van Gaal’s side comes up short in key attacking metrics. Or, in other words, United’s league position is down to possessing the meanest defense in the division.

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Responding to criticism after drawing another blank against West Ham, Van Gaal complained that the fans “want to score every minute of this game.”

“I don’t understand,” he continued, “why they are shouting ‘attack, attack, attack’ because we are the attacking team, not West Ham, and it’s the same in every game because we are dominating more.”

Of course, to use an Obi-Wan-ism, Van Gaal’s observation is true ‘from a certain point of view’. Once again United bossed possession at Old Trafford, out-passing West Ham by almost four passes to one. Once again United failed to turn this ‘domination’ into goals.

Even in taking 21 shots against the Hammers, the pace of United’s attack was too slow. It is an observation that strikes at the heart of Van Gaal’s challenge. On the occasions when his team has played with tempo, the side look dangerous, but it is as if a hand is holding United back from playing at full pace all of the time.

United’s conservatism is heaping pressure on the players as well. Michael Carrick looked to force the issue when he came on for the injured Morgan Schneiderlin on Saturday. Yet, Carrick was often forced into attempting difficult eye-of-the-needle passes. Behind each pass was a desperation to spark United into life.

Memphis Depay offered another instructive example when the Dutchman had to motion Matteo Darmian into making an overlapping run. The result: Darmian got into a decent area and fizzed a dangerous cross in front of the West Ham goal. It was a moment to summarise the clash between a ‘philosophy’ and the ‘practical realities’ of United’s situation.

The solution may not be easy. Van Gaal believes that if United acquired strikers of higher quality, such as Sergio Agüero or Luis Suárez, they would score in this current set-up. Maybe so, although it is not really the point. For all the major squad surgery that Van Gaal has overseen at Old Trafford his only real striking options are Wayne Rooney, who is on the wane, and a talented but raw Anthony Martial.

Once again the print media is full of stories linking United to the acquisition of stellar names, with a huge budget to go with it. It is an admission that the Dutchman cannot coach the players at his disposal to be more clinical or attack with greater fluency. That, if you will, the philosophy can only be fulfilled in the transfer market, with a player who can produce something out of nothing in an otherwise no-risk approach.

If that observation rings true then the brand of attacking football United supporters crave is likely to be in short supply for as long as the Dutchman is at the helm. After all, the Glazer family is reportedly happy with the progress that Van Gaal has made – outside opinions matter little as long as the Dutch coach is meeting his basic targets. No change of style is on the horizon.

This, of course, is the greatest danger of all. For all the club’s traditions and history it is owned by a family that cares little for much but the bottom line. There is little concern over style in the Old Trafford boardroom so long as the ‘brand’ remains strong and a minimum level of success is achieved. In that the club’s hierarchy has appointed the perfect coach – one that will bear the brunt of any criticism and steer attention away from the owners.

Of course, Van Gaal’s ego dictates that he must win a trophy at United. But he also is safe in the knowledge that his paymasters are content with his work. It leaves just one question: whether the Dutchman most seeks to please his employers or the fans? If it’s the former, then supporters should expect little change in the team’s style any time soon.