Tag Champions League

Tag Champions League

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…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”


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.


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.


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 1999

Sherringham flicks on…

Sheringham 1999

… and Solskjaer has won it!



Solskjaer 1999


Ole Gunnar 1999


Beckham 1999

Bayern broken

Carsten Jancker 1999

Bayern 1999

Matthaeus 1999


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

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


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

Preview: United v Bayern Munich

March 31, 2014 Tags: , Matches 16 comments
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It is, in many respects, a game that David Moyes cannot lose. Drawn against the ever-improving European champions, some bookmakers have Moyes’ Manchester United at 6-1 to beat the Germans at Old Trafford on Tuesday night. There can be only a handful of occasions in the past 20 years when such long odds could be found on United securing a result at home.

Yet, this is a reflection of the campaign to date. Moyes’ side has lost 13 times in all competitions this season; that’s as many games as Bayern coach Pep Guardiola has lost in four years. Seven of those defeats – six in the Premier League – have come at Old Trafford; more than the previous three campaigns combined.

Meanwhile, Bayern have failed to win on just seven occasions all season, being held to five draws and two losses. Or to put it another way, while United has retrenched under Moyes’ stewardship this season, Bayern has flourished under Guardiola’s management, with the Spanish coach securing an 84 per cent win rate this season.

Four years on from the last meeting between these sides – and Arjen Robben’s outstanding volleyed goal – Bayern is a superior outfit and United a shadow of the former team.

So much for all the talk of finding a path to match Barcelona after those dual Champions League final defeats to Guardiola’s Catalans in 2009 and 2011. Barça has been usurped as the continent’s best, of course, but United has not reached the same level again. On the current path, it may be years before the Reds feature in another continental final.

Still, Moyes has talked a bullish game this week; victory over Aston Villa filling the Scot full of more confidence than might be understandable after a dismal campaign. In Moyes’ predicament he’ll take the highs when they’re on offer.

Then there’s United’s form in Europe this season, which has seen the Reds lose just the once in the Champions League to date – the embarrassing 2-0 defeat to Olympiakos in Athens.

“It’s been a very good competition for us so far in my short time here, and now we’ve got the ultimate test in Bayern Munich,” said Moyes on Monday.

“I think the pressure is equally balanced because we want to win the game as much as they do. We go into the game knowing, on our day, we are as good a side as any. We have to show it more often but I have got great belief in the players. I get the feeling all the players want to play. In training, their attitude suggests they all want to play in the big games and this is a big game.”


Manchester United v Bayern Munich, Champions League, Old Trafford, 7.45pm, 1 April 2014Still, Moyes is without key players for the 13th meeting between these two European giants. Robin van Persie could miss the rest of the season with a knee injury, Juan Mata is cup tied in Europe, and Patrice Evra is suspended for the first leg in Manchester.

Rafael da Silva faces a late fitness test after coming off at half-time against Villa on Saturday. Ominously the Brazilian missed training on Monday.

However, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans both took part in a light session, although neither is likely to be match fit. The Irishman hasn’t played since early February, while Smalling has been in, but mostly out of the side in recent weeks.

With the rash of defensive absences Dutchman Alexander Büttner could start at left-back, while Jones will move to the right if Rafael proves unfit. It could mean a recall for Rio Ferdinand, or another appearance for Michael Carrick in the back four.

Further forward Moyes has a big call to make replacing Mata, with Kagawa pressing for a starting role after impressing against the Brummies, while Adnan Januzaj has been under-used in recent matches.


However, with Champions League qualification unlikely next season, Moyes’ priority remains Europe where a respectable result over two legs could secure the Scot’s job come the season’s dénouement. Matching Bayern man-for-man in a 4-2-3-1 system seems atypical to Moyes’ thinking, pushing fit-again Antonio Valencia, alongside Danny Welbeck and Ryan Giggs, into the frame for Tuesday’s match.

“It’s an obvious thing to say but it’s a two-legged tie and we have to make sure both games are important,” said Moyes.

“We’re mindful we want to go to Germany with every opportunity to go through so there’s always a bit of caution in the first leg. But we’d love to go to Germany with a win under our belts because it would set us up nicely.”


Meanwhile, the European champions arrive in Manchester without key midfielder Thiago Alcántara, who suffered a partial ligament tear in his right knee Bayern’s during 3-3 draw with Hoffenheim at the weekend. The Spaniard has become central to Guardiola’s plans this season following at £21 million move from Barcelona in the summer.

However, such are the riches on offer at Bayern that Guardiola may still field Bastian Schweinsteider, Toni Kroos, and Phillipe Lahm in central midfield at Old Trafford. Defender Dante is suspended so Spaniard Javier Martinez is likely to drop into the back four.

Such is Bayern’s strength that World Cup-bound German internationals Thomas Müller and Mario Götze may not make the Guardiola’s starting team.

Whatever the selection Bayern remain strong favourites to progress over two-legs, with Moyes likely to come under real pressure only if the newly re-crowned German champions run up a cricket score. That is, of course, possible given Bayern’s form this season, although Guardiola is keen to play down his side’s chances of running amok in Manchester.

“We are up against Manchester United and they are one of the most important clubs in the world, regardless of their current situation,” said Guardiola, who has been on the losing side just twice as Bayern coach.

“I know deep in my heart which team we are going to face. Maybe they have not had a good season in the Premier League, but in the Champions League they beat Leverkusen, they have won many important games. But when I see Rooney, when I see Ferdinand, when I see Vidić, when I see Ryan Giggs, when I see Chicharito, Welbeck, I know them all too well.”


The same can be said for Bayern’s likely starting team of course; each an outstanding and recognisable part of Europe’s finest side. Indeed, United’s chances may well be limited without injury and suspension disrupting Moyes’ back-four.

“Everyone knows it’s hard, that’s why I am saying we have to play with real quality,” said Rafael. “We have to do 200% or 300% to win.”


Manchester United v Bayern Munich, Champions League, Old Trafford, 7.45pm, 1 April 2014

Possible Teams
United (4-5-1): De Gea; Jones, Ferdinand, Vidić, Buttner; Valencia, Fellaini, Carrick, Giggs, Welbeck; Rooney

Bayern (4-2-3-1): Neuer; Rafinha, Martinez, Boateng, Alaba; Lahm, Schweinsteiger; Ribéry, Kroos, Robben; Mandžukić

United: Lindegaard, Rafael, Smalling, Evans, Young, Fletcher, Januzaj, Kagawa, Nani, Hernandez

Bayern: Starke, Van Buyten, Badstuber, Shaqiri, Götze, Weiser, Højbjerg, Pizarro, Müller

Head to Head
United 2 Draw 4 Bayern 3

Match Officials (ESP)
Referee: Carlos Velasco Carballo
Assistant referees: Roberto Alonso, Juan Yuste
Additional assistant referees: Carlos Gómez, Carlos Del Cerro
Fourth official: Pau Cebrian Devis


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Moyes’ Champions League questions

March 21, 2014 Tags: , Opinion 10 comments
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Robin van Persie’s timely hat-trick against Olympiacos on Wednesday has almost certainly prolonged David Moyes’ tenuous reign at Manchester United. Yet, Moyes’ departure may only be a matter of time, with the board reportedly wavering in its previously steadfast support for the Scot. United’s upcoming match against Manchester City at Old Trafford – and a Champions League quarter-final with Bayern Munich – might just be decisive in determining the under-fire manager’s future.

Contrary to most predictions Moyes’ side made it through the Champions League Round of 16 this week. The former Everton manager has persisted with ‘space based’ tactics throughout the campaign – designed largely to exploit width and zones and not passing into feet – and has found Europe easier to navigate than the Premier League. Continental teams tend to set up deeper and leave more room for United to exploit.

Personnel have been key to United’s success in Europe this season. The solidity provided by Antonio Valencia on the right has allowed United’s right-back, even Chris Smalling, to attack, while Michael Carrick’s holding role has enabled his midfield partner, and United’s left winger, to advance.

It is no coincidence that Ryan Giggs started both United’s 5-0 victory over Leverkusen and 3-0 win against Olympiakos. The 40-year-old provides the spark that engages United’s forwards to run amok in the attacking third.

But Giggs continued presence cannot be guaranteed. Including the final in Lisbon there are five matches to be played in the Champions League this season. Giggs, who turns 41 this year, cannot realistically start all five, yet the Welsh Wizard’s flair in connecting the Reds’ attack and defence will surely be used in some capacity.

It may be unwise to persist with Giggs in the Reds’ engine room though, especially against a Bayern Munich side that will press heavily in the quarter-final. United’s 2-0 loss in Athens was predominantly due to Tom Cleverley failing to run past the Greek press. Giggs is a better dribbler, but still lacks the forcefulness required against better opposition.

While Maroune Fellaini has started to show a semblance of mobility in recent matches, Moyes may turn to Phil Jones, as did Sir Alex Ferguson in games against Real Madrid last season, to neutralise Bayern’s dynamic midfield. With Bayern boasting outstanding options, including Thiago Alcântara, Mario Götze, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos, Moyes is likely to take a cautious approach.

After all, Leverkusen and Olympiakos were not the toughest opponents, enabling United able to get away with deploying Giggs through the middle. Against stronger sides an alternative creative catalyst must be found.

While Rafael da Silva is a potent weapon from full-back, the Brazilian cannot be expected to instigate United’s attacks given his deeper role. But the 23-year-old can, in addition to the traditional tools of the attacking full-back, make an impact in more central areas by cutting in. Valencia might just be included, à la Ji-Sung Park, to accommodate the former Fluminense player’s attacking role against Bayern.

Another question surrounds Wayne Rooney and van Persie. Each began their careers as a bright number 10, and the Dutch forward certainly made numerous attempts to release his teammates at Old Trafford on Wednesday. Few came to fruition, perhaps understandably since the Dutchman has spent the past three seasons as finisher, not a creator.

Meanwhile on paper, Rooney is United’s chief creator – the Englishman is only one behind Karim Benzema and Angel Di Maria in the Champions League assists table this season. Unlike his Dutch partner, the former Everton striker diligently works the channels. European sides often encourage full-backs to push forward and it is an area that could be rewarding for United.

Still, the White Pele has a critical flaw; having lost the ability to beat opponents, Rooney cannot create chances for himself. The 28-year-old requires the space provided by others to operate. van Persie’s clinical finishing and ability in tight quarters have been drawing opponents away from the former Everton man.

The Dutchman’s availability for the games against Bayern is critical, as well as Danny Welbeck has done this season, although United still faces a problem with initiating attacks against Bayern.

Defensively United will miss Patrice Evra, who is banned for the opener against Bayern. Should Jonny Evans recover in time, the Northern Irishman is best place to deputise. Evans lacks Evra’s attacking prowess, but will provide greater security for whomever occupies United’s left flank.

Still, the possibility of Alexander Buttner starting at Old Trafford on 1 April cannot be discounted, meaning that defensive nous is an important criterion in team selection on the left flank.

Welbeck could provide the greatest cover, but he is not the most incisive from a wide role. Meanwhile, Shinji Kagawa is completely out of form and has been distinctly uncomfortable playing from the left this season. Giggs could fill in, but playing wide is far more physically draining on the 40-year-old.

Whatever the selection Moyes must avoid deploying Ashley Young against Bayern as the former Aston Villa will be tamely shepherded down the left flank.

This observation leaves Adnan Januzaj as perhaps the Scot’s best choice against the European champions. Januzaj has done a decent job shielding his full-back thus far this season and, perhaps because of his time spent in the United academy, has looked at relative ease when defending. While the teenager may develop into a classic number 10 in time, Januzaj can operate as a traditional left winger if needed.

Welbeck’s explosive pace can be negated by denying the Englishman space, but Januzaj has the close control to handle such situations. Crucially, the 19-year-old has shown enough glimpses to suggest that he could hold key to launching United’s attacks, which are likely to be rare against Bayern.

There is a warning though: should Moyes deem Januzaj ready for the European knockout stages his team-mates trust the youngster and not starve him of the ball as was the case in defeat to Liverpool.

And while the odds remain against United knocking out Bayern, a Chelsea side in complete disarray managed to lift the Champions League in 2011/12. With that precedent in mind, United might as well prioritise continental football this season, using the remaining Premier League games, even the derby, as practice for Europe.

Although Moyes might do well to recall that Roberto di Matteo was fired even after winning the Chelsea’s first Champions League.

Preview: United v Olympiakos

March 18, 2014 Tags: , Matches 18 comments
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It is hard to be sure of the protocol; whether to rubberneck at the car crash happening in Old Trafford’s heartland, or to look away, hoping that it’ll be alright. Certainly, the brutality of Manchester United’s defeat to Liverpool on Sunday does not bear another viewing, except perhaps for David Moyes and his coaching team. Whether the 50-year-old would learn anything new is moot. After all, the former Evertonian openly admits that comprehensive defeat to United’s major rivals was “hard to explain”.

Indeed, it is as much Moyes’ excuse-laden approach as United’s results that truly grates among supporters. Add performances that have been as soporific as the manager’s deeply underwhelming response and it is little wonder that terrace sentiment is rapidly moving against a manager just eight months into the job.

After all, there is genuine supporter desire for Moyes to proffer just a modicum of hope – that there is a clear plan for development of this team, and a real understanding of where the problem lies. With each defeat, however, comes greater certainty that Moyes has no plan, and in his own words, no explanation for the disintegration of United’s season.

Still, there is one – perhaps final – opportunity for Moyes to win back some doubters as United host Olympiakos at Old Trafford on Wednesday night. At stake is the Glazers business plan, which is predicated on the Reds reaching the Champions League quarter-final, and United’s pride.

Yet, while this was supposed to be a virtual bye – the easiest draw in the Round of 16 – United begin the match in such disarray there is little guarantee Moyes’ outfit will pull off the 3-0 victory required to progress.

“I think when you lose in the fashion we did, and to one of our biggest rivals, there’s always disappointment,” said Moyes on Tuesday.

“We know it’s a big week but as soon as it’s over, we concentrated on this game. We got the players in on Monday and told them the only thing that matters is this game.

“I see the players every day. I think they know they can play better. I have belief in the players and hopefully we can show it. I agree we haven’t seen it as often as we’d have liked but hopefully we can show it tomorrow. The most important thing right now is to get through into the next round of the competition.”

The team will retain vocal support at Old Trafford on Wednesday, although aggregate defeat to the Greeks followed by poor results against West Ham United and Manchester City might change that dynamic. There was a sense that United fans’ noisy end to Sunday’s match could take a rabble-rousing turn should the upcoming trio of fixtures go against the Reds. Or in other words, while the team can take enduring support for granted, Moyes cannot.

“When you win, you win together and when you lose, you lose together,” said defender Patrice Evra.

“It’s been a difficult season for everyone. We’re not used to losing games. We always win. Everybody wants to fight for this club, everyone loves this club.

“We know we had a bad game in the first leg. Even a three-year-old Manchester United fan will have been hurting from that performance. But in life you always have a second chance and we get that tomorrow tonight. I’m not God and telling you we will qualify tomorrow but I can promise you we will all fight and respect the shirt and make sure all the fans will be really proud of us after the game.

“I’m not selling a dream and saying we will definitely qualify. There are too many words right now. We just have to show on the pitch. That is most important.”

Manchester United v Olympiakos, Champions League, Old Trafford, 7.45pm 19 March 2014On the pitch Moyes is likely to be without Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling, while Juan Mata is cup tied having played for Chelsea earlier in the competition. The Spaniard’s absence could mean a rare outing for Japanese playmaker Shinji Kagawa, who Moyes said will “definitely be involved” against the Greek side.

“Shinji’s an important player for us. It’s been a difficult time for him – he’s not played as often as he’d have liked. He’s someone we really like and he’ll definitely be involved at some point tomorrow”

Meanwhile, Olympiakos arrive at Old Trafford in patchy recent form – they lost back-to-back matches prior to the weekend – but having clinched a 41st Greek title with five matches to spare. David Fuster scored the second in a 2-0 victory over Panthrakikos on Saturday that sealed the title following a foul on forward Joel Campbell.

It leaves coach Míchel González del Campo – Míchel – confident heading into the second leg, where the Greeks need only score once to leave United requiring four in normal time to progress

“My players aren’t scared of anything,” said Míchel.

“Maybe the manager is a bit more scared, but they’re not. We would like the game to go the same way as it did in the first leg but we know this will be a different Manchester United. There will definitely be more determination and urgency from them.

“The atmosphere is always fantastic at Old Trafford, it always lifts the team. It is always a pleasant experience to come here. We have played big clubs in big grounds all over Europe and we are not going to change our style. We are going to try to stick to what we do and, even though we won 2-0 in the first leg, we are not going to change anything. As far as I am concerned the whole tie starts here.”

The Spaniard welcomes back striker Javier Saviola from injury. The Argentine will make his 100th appearance in European club competition if selected, although Nelson Valdez is also in contention with Michael Olaitan unavailable.

Olympiakos has lost on each of the club’s 11 visits to England, while United have won all previous home games against Greek opponents. It is a history that augers well for a positive result, even if immediate form suggests otherwise.

Still, the focus is on Moyes and United’s performance. The Scot’s claim to have full backing from United’s boardroom will be tested should the Reds exit at the Round of 16 for a second successive season.

“I have a great job and I know exactly the direction I want to go in,” claimed the Scot on Tuesday. “It has not been the season we hoped but I have ideas of what I want to do and what I want to put in place.”

It is a pitch for time that will gain credence only with results. There have been so few of note this season.


Manchester United v Olympiakos Piraeus, Champions League, Old Trafford, 7.45pm, 19 March 2014

Possible Teams
United (4-4-1-1): De Gea; Rafael, Jones, Vidic, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Fellaini, Kagawa; Rooney; van Persie

Olympiakos (4-5-1): Roberto; Torres, Papazoglou, Papadopoulos, Holebas; Maniatis, Samaris; Campbell, Domínguez, Pérez; Valdez

United: Lindegaard, Büttner, Ferdinand, Fletcher, Januzaj, Giggs, Cleverley, Welbeck, Hernández,

Olympiakos: Carroll, Manolas, Ibagaza, Marcano, Pelé, Valdéz, Šćepović, Fuster, Bong, Ndinga, Machado

United 4 Draw 0 Olympiakos 1

Officials (NED)
Referee: Björn Kuipers
Assistant referees: Angelo Boonman, Erwin Zeinstra
Additional assistant referees: Pol van Boekel, Richard Liesveld
Fourth official: Charles Schaap


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Moyes’ pride masks his predjudice

February 26, 2014 Tags: , , Opinion 53 comments
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Amid the inevitable hue and cry from the social media crowd over David Moyes’ position as Manchester United manager one wonders quite when the Scot’s pride comes into play. The pride to fix a team fundamentally broken; or the self-respect to walk away before more damage is done. This is, as one supporter put it, no time to talk about dignity – Moyes’ was obliterated in the red-hot Karaiskakis Stadium atmosphere in Piereus on Tuesday night.

Yet, conceit – that most caustic sin – is surely an explicit actor in the Scot’s future. Moyes’ ability to finish a job he has only barely started references inextricably against the harm that may be caused with the 50-year-old remaining in charge.

United’s performance in 2-0 defeat to Olympiakos was as miserable as any this season – and there has seemingly been one nadir followed by another new low over the past six months. United’s only saving grace was that the Greek side, which this winter sold its leading scorer to relegation-bound Fulham, struck only twice.  It is the hope that kills, but hope there is indeed for the second leg in three weeks’ time.

Yet, it will take the most unlikely of United victories to save the Reds season. Out of contention in the Premier League, unlikely to qualify for next season’s Champions League, dumped out of both domestic cups, Moyes’ debut campaign now rests on European redemption. Few will bank on the Scot’s team achieving that goal at Old Trafford next month.

Familiar weaknesses were apparent once again in Athens. Possession was gained and lost with so little care and embarrassingly small impact. United’s inability to turn good positions into real creativity was both a facilitator to defeat and a symptom of the reductive style Moyes has imposed.

Once again United drove the ball long to little effect – the play quickly recycled from central to wide areas and almost inevitably towards Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie in attack with little precision. What chances the Reds created were squandered, with just one shot hitting the target all night.

In midfield Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley were as ineffective as at any time this season – a problem exacerbated by the less than sophisticated approach. Meanwhile at the back Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic sat so deep as to positively encourage Olympiakos forward. How the home side took advantage.

More frustrating still, United’s 11th defeat of the campaign was built from a base of mental negativity so apparently during Moyes’ reign. It is, after all, not the first time that the Scot’s team has sought predominantly to react to an opponent’s style rather impose one of its own. Against such limited opposition supporters might ponder quite where the Reds’ ambition has gone.

Juan Mata may be cup tied in Europe, but inexplicably Moyes overlooked both the prodigious talents of Adnan Januzaj and Shinji Kagawa, looking instead to the predictable defensive work of Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young. That Januzaj was left out of the matchday squad altogether baffled many.


Moyes had little choice but to offer contrition for another shocking performance, although once again the Scot offered luck as an excuse. It wears very thin.

“It’s the worst we’ve played in Europe that’s for sure,” said Moyes in the aftermath.

“It was a really poor performance. We didn’t get going from the start. We didn’t deserve anything from tonight. We just didn’t perform well. I’m surprised. I didn’t see that level of performance coming. We came into the game in good form and a good mindset but it didn’t show tonight.”

“I have to say I don’t think we were two goals worse off in the game. They had a shot, which got deflected, but we didn’t offer enough on the night to create a goal really.”

Failure to progress on 19 March will bring the curtain down on the worse United campaign in a quarter-century. Defeat over two legs will also open up the debate about Moyes’ role in United’s slide into mediocrity with ever greater fervour. It will legitimise those already calling for the manager’s head, and add credence to the growing belief that regime change is less painful if both brutally honest and swift.

“We’ll do everything we possibly can to reverse the 2-0 defeat tonight,” added the Scot.

“We’ll put it right, we’re determined to put it right and we’ll have opportunities to do that in the coming weeks. The one good thing is there’s still a second game to come.

“I take responsibility. It’s my team and I’ll always front up. The players are hurting as well. They know how they performed. We’re a team and we stick together.”

Indeed, the momentum now gathering for change may have begun in the heated atmosphere of social media, but has spread to some supporters who are normally a barometer for reason and patience. It is hard not to be reactive when United’s results are so poor and the performances far off a level deemed acceptable.

Still, there is little chance Moyes will be fired before the season is out. It is not much more likely that the Scot will leave in the summer. The word remains that United’s owners are resolutely supportive of a manager who has also been let down by his players.

“There is a lack of confidence and there are some players who just don’t have the quality,” said former United captain Roy Keane, now a pundit on ITV.

“They need six or seven players to rebuild the club. Privately, David Moyes will be shocked at the quality he is working with.”

Those players may come in the summer; whether new talent fixes the problems associated with Moyes’ approach is another question. Little in the season has diverted the former Everton manager from his core belief in the way the game is played, whatever the evidence to the contrary.

It’s that pride thing again.