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Tag Champions League

United v Wolfsburg: Van Gaal looks to luck for Reds’ success

September 30, 2015 Tags: , Matches 1 comment
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Ambition. Wayne Rooney once accused the club of lacking a certain quantum of it. There’s certainly no lack of appetite to regain credibility in European circles, but the ‘process’ – as Louis van Gaal might put it – is ongoing. The Dutchman was winner of the Champions League with Ajax and a finalist at Bayern Munich; and he has aspirations to regain the trophy with Manchester United before he retires in 2017. Van Gaal has two seasons to achieve that goal.

Talk of victory in Europe’s premier competition is, of course, premature, especially after United’s loss at PSV Eindhoven. The defeat places the club’s status firmly in context, almost five years after the last of three finals in four seasons between 2008 and 2011. Instead, United is now a club now rebuilding its reputation on the continent after missing out on European football altogether last season.

If anything, the loss in Eindhoven served to highlight United’s regression – and talk of the club’s lowly European status will resurface if this campaign proves to be shorter than anticipated. And it may well be should Van Gaal’s men suffer another reverse on Wednesday night against a tough Wolfsburg side. PSV proved there are no guarantees even if United faces none of Europe’s élite clubs in Group B.

Still, Van Gaal’s ambition remains and the Dutchman appears content with the “progression in the maturity and balance of the team” – especially since Antony Martial came into the side to add a genuine high-class number nine where Rooney once roamed. It leaves United’s manager dreaming of success this season, perhaps ahead of the Dutchman’s own schedule.

“Reaching the final is an aim and winning the final is a little bit of luck,” said Van Gaal on Monday.

“I think Manchester United knows and remembers that fantastically, when they won the Champions League, because I saw at that time the people of Bayern Munich already going downstairs and then they scored in the last minute and, in injury time, Manchester United scored. You can say that was quality but when you have seen the match then you know it was not like that. So you need also luck.

“To get in the final, that is already a fantastic result. In the media, it is nothing because second is not the best. That’s the only thing that counts. But, for me, as a manager, I have to say when you reach the final then you have done fantastically. If you win the final then, of course, all the honours go to your team and yourself but I know better.”

For now United seek both quality and luck with Wolfsburg in town on Matchday 2. The German side enjoyed an unbeaten start to the season until faced with Robert Lewendowski’s Bayern Munich last week. The Polish striker scored five and nine minutes as Die Wölfe suffered the wrong end of a 5-1 defeat. It’s a result that might offer a false impression of Wolfsburg’s quality.

One of Van Gaal’s key players at Old Trafford is likely to be Bastian Schweinsteiger, the first German to play for the club. Schweinsteiger has become increasingly dominant in recent weeks as the 31-year-old’s fitness levels have increased, while the player’s natural leadership skills have come to the fore. Rooney may be the club’s official captain, but Schweinsteiger has become it’s leader. Against fellow German internationals Julian Draxler and Max Kruse, Schweinsteiger’s experience may tell.

“He was my former captain with Philipp Lahm at Bayern Munich so I think that he is also very worthwhile off the pitch,” added Van Gaal.

“You can see it already now because he is already accepted as a leading player, and that is why also we have bought him from Bayern Munich. I believe in the mixture between youth and older players. He is an example for the younger players to follow so I am very happy with him.”

Meanwhile, Dieter Hecking’s side enjoyed a 1-0 win over CSKA Moscow on Matchday 1, although the side could only manage a draw with Hannover at the weekend – a hangover, perhaps, from heavy defeat to Munich. Hecking lost Kevin de Bruyne in the summer – a player who had contributed 43 goals and assists combined last season. Yet, the replacements are high quality too: £25 million attacking midfielder Draxler and Germany international Kruse. Both should start against United on Wednesday.

The club has achieved little in European terms, although the side made the Europa League quarter-finals last season. Still, Hecking’s side has an early advantage in four-horse race – with United already playing catch-up.

“I don’t have dreams. I prefer reality and there is a lot of hard work in front of us, but we are in a good position after our home win against Moscow,” said Hecking.

“We are aiming to get a result. If we can get a result it will give us confidence. We are facing a good team and most will expect a home win and before the draw I would have said United would have finished top of the group. Their defeat at PSV makes it more interesting. That creates a bit of pressure for United. It is up to us to increase the pressure on them.”

History is on the Reds’ side at least. United has never lost the first two games of a Champions League campaign, while no German team has kept a clean sheet in the past 16 Champions League games against United.

The test is real though – just the kind of fixture where Schweinsteiger adds most value. The German captain adds experience and high quality in a team that has little in European terms, as a unit, of the former and has inconsistently applied the latter.

“I scored my first goal for Bayern away at Wolfsburg, so I have good memories,” said Schweinsteiger. “But I always remember it wasn’t easy to play against them. They were always tough matches. Wolfsburg have a good team, especially over the last three or four years. They have improved a lot.”

Team news and line-ups

Manchester United v VfL Wolfsburg, Champions League,  30 September 2015

Van Gaal is without midfielders Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera with minor injuries. Antonio Valencia faces a late test, but could start at right-back. Marcos Rojo has missed the past two matches with a hamstring problem picked up at Southampton and did not feature in training on Tuesday. Phil Jones or Paddy McNair could play if Valencia does not make the team, with Daley Blind moving to left-back.

Van Gaal is again likely to deploy Rooney at number 10 behind French teenager Martial, with support from Juan Mata and Memphis Depay from wide areas. Van Gaal may draft one of Donald Love, Guillermo Varel, James Weir and Josh Harrop into the matchday squad.

Wolfsburg midfielder Luiz Gustavo has a knee injury, while defender Robin Knoche, winger Vieirinha and goalkeeper Koen Casteels are also out of the game.

United subs from: Romero, McNair, Varela, Love, Weir, Harrop, Pereira, Fellaini, Valencia, Young, Wilson
Wolfsburg subs from: Grün, Schäfer, Ascues, Felipe, Jung, Arnold, Seguin, F Rodríguez, Bendtner

Match officials (HUN)
Referee: Viktor Kassai
Assistant referees: György Ring, Vencel Tóth
Additional assistant referees: Tamás Bognar, Ádám Farkas
Fourth official: Peter Berettyán

Prediction
United 2-1 Wolfsburg

£1 bet club
Draxler and Martial to score @ 11/1

Match graphic by @cole007

PSV Eindhoven v United: Memphis celebrates homecoming on United’s European return

September 14, 2015 Tags: , Matches 3 comments
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Back in the European big time after almost 18 months in the wilderness. It is Manchester United’s reward for a slow and fabulously expensive rebuilding process in the wake of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. United’s 7-1 aggregate victory over Club Brugge in last month’s qualifying round offers Louis van Gaal a first taste of Champions League football proper as United manager in the competition where the Dutchman made his name more than 20 years ago.

The Reds’ visit to PSV Eindhoven on Tuesday night will test United’s progress since Van Gaal’s appointment 15 months ago, albeit in a group that offers the visitors a relatively favourable draw on the club’s return to the European élite. Trips to Wolfsburg and CSKA Moscow await, but on Tuesday the Reds’ enjoy a first fixture against PSV in 15 years, together with Van Gaal’s return to Holland for the first time as United manager.

It promises to be an intriguing fixture, not only for Van Gaal’s return to his homeland, but for Memphis Depay’s rapid appearance at Philips Stadion, just months after a £25 million transfer to England. The youngster has promised to celebrate should he score against his old club on Tuesday.

It is 523 days since David Moyes’ side lost to Bayern Munich in the 2013-14 quarter-final – with few nights to match to drama of the continent’s premier competition in the meantime. Moyes was sacked less than three weeks after United’s exit, with Van Gaal having all but totally dismantled the Scotsman’s squad in the intervening months.

Indeed, Van Gaal has spent more than £250 million on new players over three transfer windows, although the Dutchman has trimmed significant fat from United’s squad too. Still, the investment leaves few excuses should United fail to make an impression on the club’s return to Europe, although Van Gaal is reluctant to talk up his side’s chances in this season’s competition.

“We have to show on the pitch if we are able to win matches at the highest level – that is the challenge for us now,” admitted Van Gaal on Monday. “Last year we were fourth in the Premier League and because of that we qualified for the Champions League, but now we have to show we can play at this level. I don’t know if we can, I have to wait and see.”

United’s record on the road is muted this season: victory at Aston Villa, defeat at Swansea City, and an easy win over Brugge in northern Belgium. It offers little comfort against a PSV side with two wins from two in the Philips Stadion this season.

“For me it’s a difficult ground to go,” van Gaal added. “I didn’t win so much here, not with Barcelona, or with Ajax. However I think I did win with AZ Alkmaar. A draw away is always a good result in my opinion – but I want to win. The first match is always very important and the same is also true for PSV. I’ll be playing with my best team.”

It is a team once again without the squad’s sole senior striker, Wayne Rooney, with youngsters Antony Martial and James Wilson the only alternatives to giant midfielder Marouane Fellaini in attack. The Belgian struggled to make an impression as United beat Liverpool 3-1 at Old Trafford over the weekend; Fellaini’s lack of pace and crude first touch exposing the flaws in United’s summer transfer strategy.

Indeed, victory over old rivals Liverpool came from the home side’s only three strikes on target: a set piece, a penalty and Martial’s piece of individual brilliance. Saturday’s victory mirrored much of this season’s pattern – dominance on the ball, but a lack of cutting thrust up front. Albeit this is a pattern that has also established United’s improved defensive nous, with Chris Smalling, Daley Blind, Luke Shaw and Matteo Darmian excellent as a unit. David de Gea’s reintroduction to the side against Liverpool has only strengthened United’s defensive clout.

Still, is in attack where new impetus is required. If Martial made an immediate impression following a £36 million transfer from Monaco on deadline day, then another of United’s summer acquisitions, Memphis, has been slow to adapt to life at Old Trafford. Memphis scored 22 league goals for PSV last season, but is yet to register in domestic competition for his new club and was substituted at half-time against Liverpool. It is the inevitable process of adaptation for a young player thrust into a new country, says PSV manager Phillip Cocu.

“I am not surprised he has ups and downs, but he is also a player who puts a lot of risk in his actions,” said Cocu, who played under Van Gaal for both the Netherlands national team and Barcelona.

“It’s normal you need some time to grow, you need a lot of games. He’s a quick learner also and I’m sure when he gets some time he’ll get it very fast. He will bring goals. He also has good vision for other players. He will always be a player who will have two players on him, but the rest of the team will have benefits from that. I’m convinced he’ll get better and better.”

Cocu was appointed PSV manager on a four-year contract in April 2013 – just five days after Sir Alex announced his retirement at Old Trafford. While the Reds have floundered, Cocu rebuilt PSV during a period when old rivals Ajax dominated. Finishing fourth in May 2014, after losing Kevin Strootman to Roma, Cocu’s team then secured the Eredivisie title last May to end a run of four Ajax titles in succession.

The 44-year-old holds much respect for his former manager Van Gaal, although the pair have not remained close during Cocu’s formative years as a coach.

“We were together with the national team and then Barcelona,” said Cocu. “He made me a better player because of his tactical skills and the way he worked with the team, but afterwards when I stopped playing, as a coach we met sometimes but we didn’t speak a lot about how we work.”

PSV remains unbeaten in the league this season, securing a 6-0 away victory at Cambuur over the weekend, following an impressive 3-1 win against title rivals Feyenoord before the international break. It is the kind of goalscoring impact that Van Gaal’s side has too often lacked. The Dutchman can hardly afford another anaemic display on his return to Holland.

Team news and line-ups

PSV Eindhoven v Manchester United, Phillips Stadion, Champions League, 15 September 2015

Van Gaal must choose whether to stick with the ineffective Fellaini as Rooney’s replacement in attack, or trust in the goalscoring youthful vigour of Martial or James Wilson. The Frenchman’s run and composed finish against Liverpool offered just a hint of the talent that pushed United to pay a potential world record sum for a teenager. Meanwhile, Wilson is also in the match-day squad, despite reports that the youngster is to join Derby County on loan this season.

Elsewhere Memphis is under pressure from Young, with the Englishman enjoying an effective 45 minutes on Saturday. Andreas Pereira has been drafted into the travelling party.

In midfield Van Gaal will choose two of Michael Carrick, Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Scheweinsteiger, with Ander Herrera likely to retain his place as United’s principle creator.

The home side could welcome back defender Jetro Willems, who is yet to play this season after suffering a knee injury over the summer, but Florian Jozefzoon is out with a similar problem.

PSV subs from: Pasveer, Willems, Ismat-Marin, Poulsen, Willems, Pereiro, Schaars, Maher, Vloet, Boljevic, Locadia
United subs from: Romero, McNair, Rojo, Carrick, Pereira, Valencia, Young, Wilson

Match officials
Referee: Nicola Rizzoli (ITA)
Assistant referees: Elenito Di Liberatore, Mauro Tonolini
Additional assistant referees: Antonio Damato, Davide Massa

Prediction
PSV 0-1 United

£1 bet club
Martial to score in United victory @ 100/30

Match graphic by @cole007

United v Club Brugge: pressure on Reds to deliver

August 18, 2015 Tags: , Matches No comments
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Manchester United’s return to European competition should be a formality. After all, it is a decade since Club Brugge last appeared in Europe’s premier competition and the Belgian side is one of the lower ranked teams in the Champions League play-off. Indeed, Louis van Gaal’s team could have faced a far more challenging route through to the Champions League proper in what should prove a favourable draw.

Football is rarely that simple. As Van Gaal put it on Monday, there is huge “pressure” on United to beat Brugge over two legs. It is, after all, not for another European failure that the club has spent some £260 million on new players over the past two years.

The prize is significant – entry to the Champions League proper for the first time in two years, where United will be placed in Pot 2 and will likely face one of the continent’s top sides. Victory in the competition next May would secure United more than £70 million in prize money and broadcasting rights.

For the moment, beyond financial reward and sponsors’ requirements, the pressure is to build credibility in a competition where United hasn’t progressed further than the quarter-final in five seasons. This is now a club relegated to the backwaters of Europe’s élite, having once made three finals in four years between 2008 and 2011. In the interim United’s relative parsimony during the late-stage Sir Alex Ferguson era eroded the squad’s quality; David Moyes decimated its standing and confidence.

Van Gaal is rebuilding. It is a process that has taken more than a year, with scant tangible reward so far for the huge investment made. Spending has also ratcheted up the level of expectation. If anything, United’s successful, if uninspiring start to the new Premier League campaign, has increased the pressure on Van Gaal’s men to deliver under Old Trafford’s lights on Tuesday night.

“There’s a lot of pressure because our aim is to reach the Champions League and that is what Arsène Wenger mentioned last year,” said van Gaal on Monday.

“These kind of matches are difficult. We’ve drawn Brugge and they can defend very well. They can attack also, so it shall be a difficult match – that is why the pressure is high. The board, the players and the fans want to participate. We have to show our quality against a good team. It is not an easy game.”

For Van Gaal the match also represents a personal return to the top table. The Dutchman hasn’t managed a club in the Champions League since he was sacked by Bayern Munich in 2011. He took the Bavarian club to the final in 2010, only to be beaten by José Mourinho’s Internazionale. It is, says Van Gaal, a competition that he has missed – but one in which he expects his new club to do well.

“Of course you miss that because as a manager you can show yourself at the highest podium against other clubs at a high level,” he said. “You can get more from yourself and the players can get more from themselves when the resistance is higher.

“Every English team can play in the Champions League or the Europa League. I think in England the rhythm is the highest in Europe and a lot of European clubs are not used to that rhythm. I hope that advantage is good enough to beat Club Brugge.”

For United’s players the Champions League still represents the stiffest test and highest profile stage outside of the international game. It is a stage that will only come United’s way if the team qualifies over the next fortnight – a challenge that the short pre-season programme was designed to meet.

“It’s true that getting to the group stage is vital for everyone; since the beginning of pre-season we’ve been getting ready for this moment,” said midfielder Juan Mata. “I’m sure the atmosphere inside Old Trafford is going to be special, as it always is in the Champions League.”

Brugge, meanwhile, start the match as overwhelming underdogs to progress. Blauw-Zwart beat Panithinaikos 4-3 on aggregate to qualify for this tie having finished second in the Jupiter League play-offs last season.

Managed by Belgium’s 1990 and 1994 World Cup goalkeeper, Michel Preud’homme, Brugge boasts just enough quality to ensure the hosts suffer for any complacency. Not least because Preud’homme typically sends his team out in an attacking 4-3-3 formation that commits players forward on the break.

Belgian Player of the Year Victor Vasquez is one of the major threats. The Spaniard is likely to start on the left of a three-man attack and began his career as a product of Barcelona’s La Masia academy during Van Gaal’s spell at the club. He is a player Van Gaal rates, although danger to United’s hopes also comes from winger Jose Izquierdo and Israeli midfielder Lior Refaelov, who scored six times in the Europa League last season.

“Vasquez is very good; he is one of the key players,” said the Dutchman. “He is not only fast but he has good vision. I liked him when I analysed him, but there are other good players.”

Preud’homme, meanwhile, enjoyed a fine club and international career – winning the Yashin Award as the 1994 World Cup’s best ‘keeper. Supporters in England might remember the 56-year-old most as the stopper beaten by David Platt’s last-gasp extra time goal in the quarter-finals.

Appointed Brugge coach in 2013, Preud’homme is one of the few former goalkeepers to coach in the Champions League. He has previously managed in Belgium, with Standard Liège and Gent, Holland with Twente and Al-Shabab in Saudi Arabia.

Team news and line-ups

Manchester United v Club Brugge, Champions League, 7.45pm 17 August 2015

United subs from: Johnstone, Evans, McNair, Rojo, Carrick, Herrera,  Pereira, Fellaini, Valencia, Young, Hernández, Wilson
Brugge subs from: Bolat, Steelant, Hooyberghs, Castelletto, Cools, Dierckx, Claudemir, Oularé, Brodic

Belgian midfielder-cum-desperate plan B, Marouane Fellaini, could play some part having missed out on United’s opening Premier League matches through suspension. Phil Jones is still out with mild thrombosis – no date has yet been set for the defender’s return – while Marcos Rojo could feature in the matchday squad having trained with the first team all week. David de Gea is again not considered pending a move to Real Madrid.

Van Gaal’s selection issues revolve around the roles offered to Adnan Januzaj, who scored in an otherwise disappointing performance against Aston Villa, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Ander Herrera. The latter is unlikely to start, but Schweinsteiger is nearing full fitness and impressed with a late cameo against Villa on Friday night. If Januzaj is not retained Ashley Young could come back into the team on the left side of a 4-4-1-1 formation.

Brugge is in the midst of an injury crisis, with more than half-a-dozen players unavailable.

Match officials
Referee: Deniz Aytekin (Germany)
Assistants: G Kleve, M Hacker
Fourth Official: F Willenborg

Prediction
United 3-0 Brugge

£1 bet club
Memphis and Januzaj to score @ 9/2

United in search of a formula to match Barça’s brilliance

June 9, 2015 Tags: , , Opinion 17 comments
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If Saturday night’s Champions League final confirmed anything – Barcelona’s European hegemony over the past decade excepted – it is that Louis van Gaal has plenty of work to do at Old Trafford this summer. Last season’s fourth place finish takes United back into the continent’s premier competition, but few will argue with the notion that the Dutchman’s side is far adrift of Europe’s best. Indeed, two years after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, United’s spending power must be unleashed once again if the Dutchman is to ensure his side is competitive at the top table. Transfers, however, are only part of the picture when it comes to matching Barcelona in the coming season.

The truth is that Van Gaal’s side has little chance of winning next season’s competition whatever the outlay this summer. Post-Ferguson, United’s collapse was so total that Van Gaal is, in effect, rebuilding a side from the ground up. While there is likely to be much debate next season about United’s potential to reach the 2016 final in Milan’s iconic Stadio Giuseppe Meazza the reality is, of course, very different.

Still, there is something to be learned from Barça’s approach. The Catalan outfit has built a decade of success on the triumvirate of La Masia, Lionel Messi and outrageous spending in the transfer market. United remains short in at least two of the three sectors.

While there is little United can do to match Messi’s individual brilliance, vice chairman Ed Woodward is set to open the club’s chequebook once again this summer. The club is playing catch up after years of Glazer family parsimony. The cost: Van Gaal will need every bit of the club’s financial muscle to bridge the gap both at domestic and European level. Indeed, the Dutchman may need five high-quality players this summer to mount a realistic domestic title bid.

Finally, in what may yet become the final leg of United’s troika of recovery, Van Gaal is likely to leverage United’s reserve and academy operation, although this is no short-term fix for the club’s ills. James Wilson, Tyler Blackett and Patrick McNair enjoyed some game time last season. Andreas Pereira will expect more opportunities in the months to come. Over the longer piece Brian McClair’s replacement as head of United’s academy  – possibly Nicky Butt – will signal the direction in which Van Gaal would like to take the club’s youth system. 

Back in the market Van Gaal remains in search of  a central defender, right-back, defensive midfielder and striker. He may also need another winger in addition to Memphis Depay, while it is likely that United will replace Real Madrid-bound David de Gea this summer. Significant dead wood is set to be shed as well – it will balance what Robin van Persie this week predicted will be a “£200 million” spending spree. The club has already committed up to £30 million on Depay, while a clutch of other names are being considered.

Spending will not cure all ills, but it will go some way to answer the questions that remain about Van Gaal’s squad. De Gea’s departure is perhaps the most certain hole to patch. Elsewhere, it will border on negligent is Van Gaal is not pictured with a smiling new right-back come August. Antonio Valencia’s defensive naiveté and Rafael da Silva’s prolonged injury-absence ensures as much.

It is a similar, if not quite as desperate, story in the centre of defence where Jonny Evans suffered the worst campaign in a decade at the club, while Phil Jones and Chris Smalling remain intermittently injured or inconsistent. Smalling earned praise for an uptick in performances over the second half of the campaign, although he started just 21 of United’s 38 Premier League fixtures.

In midfield competition for, or a compliment to, Michael Carrick is desperately required. United’s results without the Englishman, who missed half the season through injury, were starkly less impressive. The Reds averaged 2.3 points per game with Carrick in this side and just 1.5 with the former Tottenham Hotspur man in the treatment room.

Then up front Van Gaal must consider whom, if anyone, replaces the ineffectual Radamel Falcao, while Van Persie is unlikely to begin the season at Old Trafford. Captain Wayne Rooney is assured of his place in the side, although he scored just 12 league goals last season. Wilson may enjoy more action next season, while a final decision is to be taken on Javier Hernandez’ future – if any – at Old Trafford.

Despite the obvious holes in Van Gaal’s squad the Dutchman is unlikely to spend anywhere near the “£200 million” forecast this summer nor, in probability, complete the refresh of United’s squad he seeks. Not least because the club is determined to wrap up spending before Van Gaal’s squad heads to the United States for a summer tour. It will take a level of focus not seen at Old Trafford since David Gill’s departure.

Pre-season training begins on 1 July, with the Premier League’s opening fixture five weeks later. It is a period of “preparation time” that Van Gaal is determined will set his side up for a more robust start to the new campaign than a year ago. The tour starts with a game against Club America in Seattle on 17 July and concludes with Van Gaal’s side meeting Paris Saint-Germain in Chicago less than two weeks later. In between the Reds face San Jose Earthquakes and Barcelona in a shorter summer tour than almost any in recent memory; an arrangement the Dutchman demanded.

Still, it is no easy task to find cohesion amid a potential influx of new players, although minds will focus around a hazardous European qualifier in mid-August. It means that Van Gaal’s outfit has little choice but to find results in the early part of the new season.

Much of that cohesion centres around United’s tactical approach. While there is much to be admired in tactical flexibility, United’s inconsistency last season cannot be wholey divorced from Van Gaal’s incessant tinkering. His side began the season using the three-man defence that served Netherlands so well at last summer’s World Cup. United ended the campaign in a more typically Dutch 4-3-3. In between Van Gaal used around a dozed different systems over 10 months.

Nor was there any truly consistent style. At times United sought to control possession at the expense of penetration; at others Van Gaal’s side was thrillingly open, but loose at the back. Neither brought the “balance” Van Gaal seeks. Still, it is likely United will line-up in something akin to a 4-3-3 next season, with Memphis deployed at inside-left and Rooney at ‘number nine’. It could well be the system around which United builds a title challenge.

There are plenty of other positions up for grabs though. Indeed, of the current squad, perhaps only four will definitely start the opening fixture of the season if fit: Luke Shaw, Ander Herrera, Carrick and Rooney. Angel di Maria, Juan Mata, Marouane Fellaini, Daley Blind and a new signing will compete for a permanent role in United’s midfield. Ashley Young’s progress over the past year may well be checked by Depay’s arrival, while Adnan Januzaj can only hope to force his way back into Van Gaal’s thinking over the summer.

None of these are concerns for European champions Barça. Nor, indeed, Premier League winners Chelsea. United has a very real gap in quality and consistency to bridge.

Europe awaits – now United must prepare

May 10, 2015 Tags: , Opinion 21 comments
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Short of a 15 goal swing to Liverpool over the final two games of the campaign Manchester United’s return to Europe’s élite is all but confirmed, with Louis van Gaal’s side set to enter the Champions League at the play-off stage next August. After more than a year away from Europe’s premier competition it is a welcome return, although there is much to improve in the Dutchman’s squad if the Reds are to be competitive against the continent’s best.

Indeed, with a clutch of potentially difficult ties ahead there is still some work to do before Van Gaal’s side is in the Champions League group stage once again. Not least because United’s potential play-off opponents will be drawn from a list that – as it stands – includes Ajax, CSKA Moscow, Valencia, Bayer Leverkusen, Lazio, Besiktas and Sporting Lisbon, among others. No gimmes there, with Champions League format changes potentially making qualification more difficult.

Nor will Van Gaal enjoy significant “preparation time” ahead of the play-off, with the Premier League scheduled to start on 8 August and the European qualifiers set to be completed over two legs in the weeks of 18/19 and 25/26 August. United return from a short summer tour of the USA on 30 July.

The main concern lies elsewhere though: not in the play-off opponent nor the rapid-fire preparation for the new season, but whether Van Gaal will end the summer with a balanced squad ahead of the new campaign. Or whether, as in the past two summers, United’s hierarchy will engage in a desperate last-minute rush for players.

After all, the summer of 2013 left David Moyes’ cupboard barren before the new campaign had even started – in part due to the Scot’s dithering and in part because of Ed Woodward’s transfer market naïvety. It was a summer in which many words were written about United’s transfer market strategy; few of them positive, not least on these pages. The club’s propensity for generating farce bordered on amateurish tomfoolery and the summer ended with the capture of Belgian international Marouane Fellaini as its only prize.

Summer 2013 left United embarrassed by Thiago Alcântara’s inevitable decision to join Bayern Munch and humiliated by Cesc Fabregas’ manipulation of the club’s interest. Woodward’s dash home from Australia in mid-July brought little but ridicule, especially on transfer deadline day where United submitted bids for around half-a-dozen players. It was, in the end, six weeks of maladroit bumbling and not the triumphant return Woodward had sought.

Summer began, laughably, with Pep Guardiola’s brother negotiating the €20 million transfer of Thiago to Bayern Munich. How could it have ended any other way? It continued with United submitting a barely credible bid for Fabregas just 24 hours after his under-study’s arrival in southern Germany. United’s offer for the now Chelsea player amounted to just €26 million.

United followed a similarly bizarre strategy in pursuit of Leighton Baines, with Everton rejecting a £12 million offer in June and a follow-up bid of the same figure a month later. Shakespearean farce ensued with the failed pursuit of Ander Herrera, which eventually involved an army of lawyers, agents, middlemen and “impostors.” The tsunami of ridicule only increased with deadline day bids for Daniele De Rossi, Fábio Coentrão and Sami Khedira, among others.

By contrast last summer is largely remembered for United’s success in spending heavily – Woodward doing the sensible thing and farming out much of the work to preferred agents, including Jorge Mendes. And yet the window still concluded with another last-minute dash around the continent. Herrera was eventually signed on 26 June 2014, Luke Shaw on 27 June and Marcos Rojo signed with 12 days of the summer to go; three players joined in the final week of the window – some two weeks after season had begun. Angel di Maria arrived on 26 August 2014, Daley Blind on 30 August, and Radamel Falcao on 1 September

Not that United’s acquisition of Herrera and Shaw passed without scrutiny, the club having paid a significant premium on each to conclude the deals. Or, to paraphrase former United right-back Gary Neville’s critique of the time, Chelsea secured seasoned internationals Fabregas and Luis Fillipe for around £18 million less than the United pair. In retrospect neither di Maria nor Falcao’s acquisition has proven to be value-for-money.

Still, there were significant mitigating circumstances in United’s scattergun approach over the two summers past. Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, David Gill’s departure and the hiring-and-firing of Moyes, followed by Van Gaal’s arrival, each added to a sense of, if not chaos, then a lack of foresight. It is, of course, an excuse that no longer stacks up.

It is with a touch of surprise, therefore, that United supporters welcomed the signing of Dutch forward Memphis Depay for £25 million last week. The 21-year-old’s capture is an early sign that United’s summer activity may be more tightly planned than in the past. Or at least a touch accelerated.

“I had to handle it otherwise he would have signed for PSG,” admitted Van Gaal on Friday. “When you sign a player you disturb the focus of your present group of players. I don’t want to speak with players before the season has ended – I have also a feeling to my players. But now, because of the close relationship I have with PSV, I could handle it.”

United’s focus will next turn to the weaknesses in the Dutchman’s squad  that have left the Reds some 16 points behind Champions Chelsea with two games to go. Whatever David de Gea’s future at the club beyond this summer, Van Gaal will certainly want to build from the back. The Dutchman has little confidence in his options at right-back and an experienced addition in the centre of defence is almost certain. If reports ring true then the club is already in the advanced stages of planning deals for Southampton’s Nathaniel Clyne and Borussia Dortmund captain Mats Hummels.

There are also legitimate questions to be asked of Van Gaal’s options in central midfield, in wide areas and up-front. Indeed, the Dutchman spoke at length last week of the need to draft in a replacement for Michael Carrick, with the Englishman now 34 and injured as often as he has been available this season. In Carrick’s absence neither Blind nor Herrera have excelled in a defensive midfield role.

On the wing di Maria’s failure in his first season in Manchester, together with Adnan Januzaj’s long absence from the team, leaves Van Gaal short on numbers if not quality. Di Maria may yet leave the club in the summer, while the Belgian appears likely to spend next season on loan. Their future will factor into United’s summer spending. And while Ashley Young’s positive campaign earned the England international a new contract, his manager will surely be loathe to enter the new season with the callow Memphis as his only alternative.

Then in forward positions there is little for Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie or Falcao to celebrate as the season draws to a close. Rooney is heading for his worst season, in terms of total goals, since joining the club 11 years ago, while van Persie has scored just 10 in all competitions. Falcao’s four strikes have come at an estimated cost in wages and loan fees of more than £4 million per goal.

It is a strikeforce that on paper at should excel in European competition. The reality of form, age and injury, respectively, point to a very different story.

If that is another substantial summer shopping list then it is probably required if Van Gaal’s team is to make it out of the Champions League group stage next season. It is the minimum requirement.

The summer is likely to feature a complicated series of, ultimately, very expensive negotiations. That is the price to be paid if United is to return to both domestic and European preeminence. With the club seemingly prepared to spend the money the question remains as to how astutely it will be done.

Rant writers on the year ahead

, , and January 1, 2015 Tags: , , Opinion 24 comments
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Say goodbye to 2014. It was a year that started horribly for Manchester United with a home defeat to Tottenham Hotspur and ended with the club on the up, albeit with a draw against the same opposition. Hello, then, to 2015: a year in which United will, well, we’re not quite sure… but United Rant’s writers peaked into the crystal ball and had a guess…

Ed
In the end United will be short – well short – of the title contenders this season, although the improvement in results has been really good since November. By May United might be 10 points adrift of the title winners, which will probably be Chelsea, although José Mourinho’s side could suffer for lack of squad depth.

It’s been so long since United put together a decent FA Cup run. Surely this is the year for United to have a real crack at it, although the loss to MK Dons demonstrates that United’s trip to Yeovil Town next week is going to be no easy ride.

The summer market is critical, although it’s hard to see the Glazers signing off on another £150 million spend. That said few predicted last summer’s splurge either. Louis van Gaal could really do with a couple of high-quality defenders: a right-back as cover or replacement for the perennially injured Rafael da Silva, and an experienced central defender who is not prone to injury!

United could do with another combative midfielder. Marouane Fellaini was supposed to be it, but he’ll never be good enough at Champions League level. Kevin Strootman is the obvious name, of course, although Arturo Vidal would be the ‘gold-medal’ level signing. Then there’s the question of what happens with Radamel Falcao and Robin van Persie. It’s hard to see both at the club beyond the summer.

There will be some departures too. None of United’s defenders, bar Luke Shaw and Marcos Rojo, are safe. Neither is Antonio Valencia or, sadly, Ander Herrera and Juan Mata. It’ll be a very bleak day if David de Gea leaves for Real Madrid, but it’s not unlikely.

In the end Van Gaal’s philosophy will be attacking, possession-based football in which United dominate matches. The Dutchman simply doesn’t have the personnel for it to be fully implemented just yet. If that’s still the case after next summer the club will have let Van Gaal down.

United will push City and Chelsea much harder for the title in 2015/15. Expect United to be very close to the top by this time next year.

Second half of the season XI: De Gea; Rafael, Jones, Rojo, Shaw; Herrera, Carrick, Di Maria; Mata; Falcao, Rooney
Next season’s XI: De Gea; Aurier, Jones, Hummels, Shaw; Herrera, Vidal; Di Maria, Mata, Januzaj; Falcao

Denys
By May 2015 United will probably have secured third spot. Even though United has overtaken some pretty serious point differences in the second half of the season over the years the team will finish a dozen points behind City and Chelsea. A nice FA Cup run is overdue and it would be great to win it and break a good record for a change.

Next summer’s transfer market will bring one or two solid defenders. If the Dutchman delivers results this season United won’t return to Glazeronomics just yet, even though, sadly, it looks inevitable in the long run. There won’t be another Angel Di Maria/Radamel Falcao “holy s**t, that’s actually happening!” moment this summer, but it’s always welcome.

Some players will leave too and that’s looooong overdue. It’s not good to call United’s players ‘dead wood,’ but, unfortunately, that’s what some of them have become. Let’s hope Van Gaal shows strength of character and good judgement here. Whether David De Gea stays is more important though. Don’t break our hearts, Dave. Please, pretty please? It would even be worth paying Anderson to stay and be the fool to your king. Perhaps that was the plan all along!

In 2015 we will discover what Van Gaal’s philosophy really is… or not. The Dutchman can be quite pragmatic if necessary. Maybe there’s no philosophy as such; just pragmatism and some common sense. The greatest trick that our Devil has ever pulled was to convince everyone that the philosophy exists. The hope is that Van Gaal sorts out the defence – the transfer window should help – sticks with a specific formation, and gets some luck with injuries. And then “let it flyyyy.”

After all that next season United will finally become a title contender again – at least, that’s the plan. Of course, football can be cruel sometimes. As Liverpool demonstrated ‘up’ is not the only way after a good season. Fans should remain wary until the league is United’s again. It’s hard to believe that it has been only been two seasons since the last title, but so far Van Gaal looks like a man who can bring the “not arrogant, just better” attitude back. Here’s to that!

Second half of the season XI: De Gea; Carrick, Jones, Rojo; Rafael , Blind, Herrera, Young; ;Di Maria; Falcao, Rooney
Next season’s XI: De Gea; Rafael, Hummels, Jones, Shaw; Bale, Blind, Herrera, Di Maria; Rooney, Falcao

Jay
United will have made the Champions League by the end of the season. City will probably win the Premier League after fatigue catches up with Chelsea given the Londoners’ lack of rotation so far. The winter transfer window might bring United a solid right-back, which may help a push for the title, though probably not enough. United has produced in big games this season and other ‘big’ clubs are either in a free fall or still in Europe. Van Gaal has historically done well in cup competitions and an FA Cup victory is definitely possible this season.

Next summer’s transfer market will bring a classy right-back and a world-class winger. All that Gareth Bale talk is indicative of something and Borussia Dortmund’s Marco Reus is also available. Herrera may end up in jail and Fellaini is no long-term option – expect Van Gaal’s golden boy Kevin Strootman to come to Old Trafford. Despite popular opinion a new central defender is not priority next summer. United will defend with organisation and not personnel and there are few established defenders to suit van Gaal’s high line anyway.

Anderson and probably Chris Smalling will leave the club – the Brazilian’s contract is up anyway. Jonny Evans will probably survive given his ‘left-footedness.’ Up front Ramadel Falcao will leave – James Wilson is promising. United will have to cut back what has become one of the biggest wage bills in Europe to clear for new arrivals. Falcao simply hasn’t performed. Antonio Valencia will be free to leave as well, though his high wages will be a stumbling block. Ashley Young will probably survive since he can fill in at any position on either flank.

In the next year Van Gaal’s philosophy will emerge and it’ll look something like Bayern Munich’s when he was manager there: a 4-2-3-1 with a focus on the flanks. It is indicative that Van Gaal has heavily relied on width despite playing winger-less systems, with Young and Valencia used as wing-backs. Wayne Rooney is very much like Thomas Muller. The German isn’t all that gifted technically. Van Gaal may even start playing a Bayern style 4-2-3-1 this season if Adnan Januzaj can find some form.

Next season United will win the Premier League. There will be no screwing about when the 2015/16 season begins. That extra 10 points in first 10 games of 2015/16 will bring the trophy back to Old Trafford. United probably won’t have the defence to hold off Barcelona or Real Madrid, but a new world-class winger may see the Reds sneak into semi-finals of the Champions League.

Counterattacking is in vogue and van Gaal is one of ‘counter-counter’ pioneers. Van Gaal will certainly relish the challenge.

Second half of this season XI: De Gea; Coleman, Jones, Rojo, Shaw; Blind, Fellaini; Januzaj, Rooney, Di Maria; Van Persie
Next season’s XI: De Gea; Coleman, Jones, Rojo, Shaw; Strootman, Blind; Januzaj, Rooney, Di Maria; Van Persie

Paul
United will finish the season, probably, in third place. Maybe second. As Ed said on the podcast last week, expectations have been reset and finishing fourth from here would be kind of disappointing. We’ll have seen a number of much better performances, and won the derby at Old Trafford. The FA Cup tie with Yeovil is slightly worrying – we might lose in the third round!

Next summer’s transfer market will be a slight anti-climax after last season’s. There won’t be a marquee signing to rival Di Maria or Falcao, but United will add sensibly in defence and midfield. Right-back is the position that most needs to be addressed with Rafael injured all the time. At least the injured centre backs have cover.

Some will leave too, including, sadly, Falcao. I have rarely wanted a player to work out as much as Falcao at United, but it seems not to going that way. He’s got four months to save the dream. One of Smalling, Phil Jones or Jonny Evans will leave — each good enough for United, none fit enough for United.

In 2015 we will discover what Van Gaal’s philosophy really is … and it’s that Christmas really is the most wonderful time of the year. Grinning from ear to ear when lighting the tree, giving the players the day off on Christmas, handing out presents. He loves it. Seriously though, his philosophy has changed over the years, and the best short hand for where it currently sits is something along the lines of ‘play the best, most attractive, football you can with the players at your disposal.’

After all that, next season, United will win the league. AGAIN!

Second half of this season XI: De Gea; Rafael, Jones, Rojo, Shaw; Herrera, Carrick, Di Maria; Rooney; Falcao, Van Persie
Next season’s XI: De Gea; Rafael, Godin, Jones, Shaw; Strootman, Herrera, Rooney; Di Maria, Falcao, Bale

Data Rant: will United make the Champions League?

November 3, 2014 Tags: , , Data 12 comments
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Each week, Louis van Gaal appears to break a new record: the “worst x games in Manchester United history”. This time round the lowest points total at this stage since 1986 – in the corresponding week that Ron Atkinson was sacked 28 years ago. Indeed, the David Moyes experience has tinted everyone’s outlook though Sir Alex Ferguson’s remarkable rise after a lean first few years should not be forgotten just yet.

With that said, United’s loss to City on Sunday all but conceded the title. Barring a catastrophic meltdown on Chelsea’s part, United’s 21st English title will have to wait. Worse, for United, reaching the top four spot is under genuine threat.

United is only four points behind Arsenal in fourth and the gap may be bridged to just one should the Reds prevail against the London side in two week’s time. Moreover, while Southampton’s point haul so far is amazing, at the risk of being patronising, the Saints’ thin squad will surely suffer as the season goes one, dragging the side down at some point.

In that context the situation may appear somewhat manageable, but it is worth remembering that there are still 28 games to go – continuation of the current form will see United missing Europe for two seasons in a row.

After all, as Data Rant previously noted the number of “poor streaks” is a good indicator of the final points tally. A poor streak is two or more consecutive draws or losses and “a team may have a poor patch of form – even a pretty severe one – but it’s fine as long as the team can get back to winning ways and stay on that path.”

Figure-1

The past two seasons suggests that side’s in the top four have suffered at most five poor streaks during a campaign, though realistically only three are allowed. United has already suffered two by this definition and there is little margin for error if history has any weight.

Figure-2

Data Rant also analysed the relationship between the final point tally and points from the first five games of 2012/13 and 2013/14. The relationship was weak – after all, five games is only 13 per cent of a season. Let’s see if we can judge a season after a quarter of it has passed.

Figure-3

Quite obviously the fit of trend line has tightened. The predicted final tally based on 13 points at this stage is just 51 – nowhere near the top four. Normally, a mid-70 final point total is required to qualify for the Champions League.

Points Total

The standard deviation here is 13.9, assuming normal distribution, meaning there is about a 4.2 per cent probability of United gathering 75 points come May, according to Data Rant’s calculations.

Points Total

Excellence is no longer enough – only consistent excellence will do. A busy winter transfer window is a must though this may very well be a job too far even for the “Iron Tulip.”

All data from Squawka
Assumptions dictating linear regression have not been held strict

15 years ago, bloody hell

May 26, 2014 Tags: , Opinion 6 comments
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May 26, 1999. The greatest night of European football bar none; perhaps Manchester United’s finest. The third leg of United’s unprecedented treble, on an occasion none who bore witness will forget. And 15 years on the memories of United’s dramatic late victory in Camp Nou remain fresh.

Football, bloody hell!

Team 1999

Bayern score early

Bayern 1999

Andy Cole

Cole 1999

Jaap Stam, Gary Neville, Ronny Johnsen

Jaap Stam 1999

David Beckham

Celebrations 1999

David Beckham

Beckham 1999

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Solskjaer 1999

Teddy Sherringham scores!

Sherringham 1999

Sherringham

Sherringham 1999

Sherringham flicks on…

Sheringham 1999

… and Solskjaer has won it!

1999

Solskjaer

Solskjaer 1999

Solskjaer

Ole Gunnar 1999

Beckham

Beckham 1999

Bayern broken

Carsten Jancker 1999

Bayern 1999

Matthaeus 1999

Celebrations!

Beckham 1999

Celebrations 1999

Celebrations 1999

Celebrations 1999

David May 1999

David May 1999

Ferguson 1999

Ferguson 1999

Celebrations 1999

Celebrations 1999

Celebrations 1999

Celebrations 1999

Beckham 1999

Ferguson 1999

Celebrations 1999

Preview: Bayern Munich v United

April 8, 2014 Tags: , Matches 7 comments
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Pressure does strange things to even the most experience team. Take, for example, Manchester United’s Champions League quarter-final with Bayern Munich on Wednesday night. Bayern, European champions and Bundesliga kings with six weeks of the season remaining, should already be out of sight. After all, not only did the Bavarian side create 16 chances at Old Trafford last week, but dominated three-quarters of the possession too.

Germany profligacy and United’s dogged defensive approach secured a 1-1 draw that, one week on, has created a new sense of momentum in Moyes’ camp, no matter how brief it may prove to be. Meanwhile, in the opposite dugout, pressure is building on Pep Guardiola for almost the first time this season.

The smart money remains on Bayern securing passage through to the Champions League semi-finals, of course, with United required to win in Munich or score at least twice to progress. Only Hoffenheim, in a dead rubber, and Manchester City, in another meaningless fixture, have achieved either result this season.

Yet, United’s draw with Guardiola’s outfit has created doubt where none seemingly existed before; not least with Bayern suffering a first defeat in 53 games at the weekend, albeit with a heavily rotated side. And with the hosts missing two key players for Wednesday night’s game, United travel to Munich with more than a little hope.

“In the quarter-finals you never have a second chance,” Guardiola said on Tuesday.

“The pressure is high and we always have done well in this situation. It is all about small tactical details. Our players know, after the experience in Manchester, how United play. They know their strength and weaknesses.

“Before the first game at Old Trafford, everybody was just talking about Bayern. But now people know that Manchester can win in Munich. I think they will sit very deep. They play very defensively and always look to counter – it is something they do very, very well.”

Moyes, meanwhile, has cut a more upbeat figure after the Reds followed up the draw against Bayern with victory over Newcastle United at the weekend. After all, while devastating losses to Manchester City and Liverpool hurt supporters in recent weeks, European performances together with United’s domestic form on-the-road, has probably saved the Scot’s job.

Defeat to Olympiakos in Athens aside, Moyes’ side has secured a series of positive results in Europe, although it will take the best of the Scot’s managerial career if United is to reach the semi-final.

“I’m really looking forward to it. Second leg, quarter-final of the Champions League with the opportunity to reach the semi-finals. It’s a massive game, one all the players are looking forward to,” said Moyes on Tuesday.

“We’ll do everything we can to reach the semis. It’s the hardest task because of the level of the competition, the level of the opposition and the stage of the competition. Of course it’s the hardest game.

“I expect us to play better than in the first leg. We’ll need a good performance from everybody. We can’t have any passengers. We will have to win this ‘final’ to get to the next stage. It is like a cup final, even if it is just the second leg.”

Bayern Munich v Manchester United, Champions League, Allianz Arena, 7.45pm 9 April 2014Both sides face injury challenges ahead of Wednesday’s match though. Guardiola’s side is without the suspended Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martínez, while Thiago Alcántara is missing with a knee complaint.

Reserves Diego Contento, Xherdan Shaqiri, together with goalkeepers Tom Starke and Lucas Raeder. will all miss the game through injury. It means that 19-year-old Leopold Zingerle, reserve keeper for Bayern’s under-23 side in the fourth-tier regional league, will sit on the bench.

Meanwhile, Moyes is sweating on Wayne Rooney, who missed United’s win at Newcastle with what was described as a “bruised toe”. Speculation that Rooney has in fact broken a bone in his foot was not confirmed by the club, although the Scouser is likely to play with pain killing injections either way.

Ashley Young was substituted after 18 minutes at the weekend, although the England international trained on Tuesday, unlike Rafael da Silva and Marouane Fellaini. The Belgian should be fit, although Robin van Persie will miss another month, and possibly the season’s remainder, with a thigh problem.

“Wayne was able to train and he is massively keen to play,” said Moyes. “He’s not trained all week so we have to be wary of that. We’ll do everything we possibly can. He’s happy to take an injection to play in the game, which shows you his feeling about the game.

“We wouldn’t do anything medically wrong. We’ve taken advice from the doctors and the people who advise us. Everybody knows the type of character Wayne is and he is determined to play.”

Elsewhere, Moyes has crucial decisions to make both about personnel and United’s approach to a game in which the visitors need a positive result. United’s defensive strategy at Old Trafford ceded more than 75 per cent possession to the opposition, while Bayern created almost three times as many chances.

Shinji Kagawa’s impressive performances in recent domestic fixtures have earned the Japanese playmaker an opportunity in United’s biggest game of the season. Whether Moyes concurs is an open question, with United still likely to pack central midfield and trust to a break or set-piece to secure the crucial goal.

Phil Jones and captain Nemanja Vidić could start in central defence, while Danny Welbeck, Ryan Giggs, Fellaini and Darren Fletcher are all in contention to start. Indeed, the Scottish midfielder more than most is hoping for a positive result in Munich; Fletcher missed out on the Champions League final in 2008, 2009 and 2011.

“For whatever reasons, I’ve not managed to play in a final,” said the Scot.

“Different circumstances have prevented me from playing in three of them. It’s been a dream of mine since I was a small boy to play in a Champions League final and winning tomorrow night takes us into the semi-finals and gets you closer to achieving that.

“It’s more important that the club and team get there than individuals and, if the team get there, then you do your best in the games and hope that you’re selected to play. The most important thing for us is to win tomorrow night and get ourselves in the semi-finals, then we’ll take it from there.”

And whatever the selection, history is perhaps on United’s side even if the bookies make Bayern odds-on favourites to progress. Bayern’s home record this season in ominous, but the southern German giants have failed to win any of the last four fixtures against English sides in Munich.

Just a little more pressure for Guardiola to ponder.

 

Bayern Munich v Manchester United, Champions League, Allianz Arena, 7.45pm, 9 April 2014

Possible Teams
Bayern (4-2-3-1): Neuer; Rafinha, Dante, Boateng, Alaba; Lahm, Kroos; Ribéry, Götze, Robben; Mandžukić

United (4-5-1): De Gea; Smalling, Vidić, Jones, Evra; Valencia, Fellaini, Carrick, Fletcher, Welbeck; Rooney

Substitutes
Bayern: Zingerle, Van Buyten, Badstuber, Weiser, Højbjerg, Schöpf, Green, Pizarro, Müller, Weihrauch

United: Lindegaard, Evans, Büttner, Ferdinand, Young, Cleverley, Kagawa, Nani, Giggs, Januzaj, Hernández

Head to Head
Bayern 3 Draw 5 United 2

Match Officials (SWE)
Referee: Jonas Eriksson
Assistant referees: Mathias Klasenius, Daniel Wärnmark
Additional assistant referees: Stefan Johannesson, Markus Strömbergsson
Fourth official: Daniel Gustavsson

Prediction
3-0

Matchday Forum
Join the discussion here!

Attacking balance holds key to United’s Euro fate

April 2, 2014 Tags: , Opinion 14 comments
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David Moyes should still be replaced as Manchester United manager despite the Reds hard-earned draw against Bayern Munich on Tuesday night. After all, United’s decent run in the Champions League this season is pointless if the club is not in it at all next year. Still, the Reds defended efficiently in this season’s quarter-final first leg, and had a more lenient referee been in place, United could have won the tie. Danny Welbeck’s disallowed first half goal was tough on the striker and United.

Living up to his reputation as a defensive-minded manager, Moyes has always included at least one dedicated holding midfielder in Europe. Michael Carrick was key at Old Trafford. As has become typical, United defended in two banks of four, but it was Carrick who often pressured the Bayern player in possession. The former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder filled the gap between defence and midfield admirably and organised United’s back-four well.

Carrick’s performance was in stark contrast to his midfield partner Marouanne Fellaini. The £27.5 million fee spent on Fellaini continues to defy any justification. The Belgian midfielder was no more than functional in defence and his rare forays into more attacking areas also failed to bear fruit.

The role given to Fellaini was clear; hold up clearances and establish a foothold in enemy territory. And while Munich is not as physically frail as Josep Guardiola’s Barcelona side, the fact that 6’4″ Fellaini won just a single attempted headed duel in the German half is hugely disappointing. That’s to mention little of Fellaini’s passing, lack of pace, or absence of goal threat.

Indeed, Antonio Valencia could have provided more attacking support had the former Everton midfielder been able to outmuscle the Germans and retain the ball in the attacking third. With Arjen Robben dictating that Valencia choose his moments to attack with circumspection Fellaini simply must do better in the return tie.

It may be that Darren Fletcher is the better choice in Munich. The Scot may never again be fully match fit, but he has played in enough games this season to warrant consideration for the return in the Allianz Arena. In the Premier League, the Scot has boasted better passing statistics than Fellaini – Moyes would surely appreciate the fact that Fletcher has made, on average, longer passes than Fellaini while matching the Belgian’s accuracy.

There is an opportunity for United in midfield, with Bastian Schweinsteiger’s last-minute dismissal removing some steel from Bayern’s engine room. Perhaps due to having occasionally played out wide, Fletcher has always been extremely efficient in supporting the flanks. United had some joy in the channels on Tuesday, and the returning Rafael da Silva together with Valencia’s direct running could be key with Fletcher in a supporting role.

The 30-year-old midfielder’s experience in European away games could also count, especially given Fellaini’s questionable disciplinary record. Fletcher, however, carries a crucial weakness in the air, possibly due to the lingering effects of his illness. The Scot has attempted only six headed duels in eight Premier League appearances. Although this limitation may not be a problem defensively, with Bayern preferring to play on the ground, one suspects that Moyes will take this statistic very seriously.

Things were rosier upfront. Despite nominally starting on the left, Danny Welbeck was often the most advanced United player and used his pace to stretch Bayern. Manuel Neuer did well sweeping up United’s hopeful long balls, but the ‘keeper was often harried into poor clearances and the Germans were clearly troubled by United’s incessant attempts to exploit the space behind the backline. Welbeck has the legs to carry United into the semi-finals if given the right service.

Ryan Giggs was again charged with the now familiar role of instigating United’s attacks, although the Welshman was quiet for the duration of first half.

Whether through injury or a tactical switch Giggs was unceremoniously dumped for Shinji Kagawa. Yet, the Kagawa couldn’t replicate the kind of form that terrorised Bayern during his Borussia Dortmund tenure because both the Japanese playmaker and Giggs were largely pinned down by the Germans’ superiority. Neither is naturally not suited to launching long balls from a standing position.

Wayne Rooney, however, can make the sweeping passes that define Moyes’ template. It’s an asset that should be considered for the left flank in a week’s time, especially given the Scouser’s fitness is a question this season. While Rooney has never been a paragon of virtue, his fitness is increasingly inconsistent. The 28-year-old was visibly exhausted by the 70th minute on Tuesday and the left-sided role is far less demanding physically in the current system than is being deployed as a lone forward.

Another issue is Rooney’s inability to hold up the ball. United’s number 10 was frequently dispossessed by the swarming Bayern midfield, which put far too much emphasis on Fellaini as United’s lone out ball. Rooney’s influence was severely limited with Fellaini unable to make much of sparse possession.

Despite sitting out United’s victory over Aston Villa, Adnan Januzaj was left on the bench against Munich. In contrast to Fellaini’s brawn, which is not particularly useful against Bayern’s greater midfield numbers, the 19-year-old’s exquisite touch, turn and balance might fare better in Germany.

In addition to nimbly escaping makers Januzaj is likely to offer a better out ball than any other United player. The Belgian’s ability to dribble his way out of trouble is useful on the road.

Diagram 1

In fact while some off-the-ball runs were made dribbling was conspicuously absent. With Carrick anchoring United’s defence, Giggs or Kagawa could have run their way into the Bayern half, and on another day Rooney might have directly dribbled at the Germans’ defence.

That neither happened put additional pressure on United.

While comparison to the 2008 semi-final victory against Barcelona is apt, United of 2014 is missing a figure, such as Cristiano Ronaldo, who has the tricks to carry the ball forward.

Seven years ago it was Paul Scholes who settled the tie with a long-range goal – Januzaj could be the man to earn Rooney the space to line up that vital shot in Munich.

In a sense though Munich is a dream opponent for Moyes. Few supporters realistically expect United to beat the Bundesliga champions. Yet, whether by design or accident, Moyes’ side is now in a decent position to progress. Having mastered the art of defending against the Germans the manager must now look at United’s attack.

Diagram by lineupbuilder.com