United Can Do Sterile Domination But Can Van Gaal Take The Handbrake Off

Before the days of Super Sunday, me and my father would watch Football Italia on Channel Four. This was my first taste of trying to understand the beautiful game from a tactical viewpoint. There was the organised art of catenaccio to grasp then zona mista, the Italian version of total football. To me it was 22 players on a field trying to avoid getting too close to the opponent’s goal. However, I did take note of statistics and tried to argue that possession and shots on target proved that one team was performing better than the other. My Dad wisely informed me that only one statistic mattered; the scoreline.

For a few weeks, all seemed well with Louis van Gaal’s United. Following a 1-0 win against Crystal Palace there was a six game winning streak. Before the defeat against Southampton, the team was on a eleven game unbeaten run. All was rosy, wasn’t it?

Well, not really. Another point my Dad would make was that a large part of football was luck, many would argue that United were enjoying more than their fair share. In the victories against Arsenal, Stoke City and Liverpool, the plaudits went to David de Gea, not the forward line. The warning signs were there against Southampton when United eked out an undeserved 2-1 win and defeats could have easily come in away matches against Aston Villa, Spurs and Stoke City. United were getting away it and the team still appeared to be in transition.

Performances were disjointed and victories largely forgotten thanks to clinical strikers. Admittedly that is their job yet with a vast summer outlay bringing in the attacking talents of Angel di Maria and Radamel Falcao it is fair to expect a bit more excitement and a few more chances. Yet following the 3-5 collapse against Leicester City, United have heeded a lesson to their gung-ho approach and arguably gone back to basics.

Sterile domination has become the buzz phrase to describe United’s recent performances. As if bonuses were paid out for successful passes rather than goals scored. Over the past few weeks United have ground out performances with no real expense spared. Instead of fast, expansive, attacking football it has been slow, ponderous and predictable.

Many have cited a lack of risk-taking resulting in nullifying attacking talent by a lack of positive service. Against Cambridge United, even Alan Shearer could note the opportunities missed when passing the ball forward into space. The players are there, they are simply not being managed properly. It could be something quite simple, like releasing the ball quicker to open up a few yards. Sometimes that is all a Rooney, Mata or a Di Maria needs to cause havoc and get bums off seats.

The ‘perfect performances’ that Van Gaal is striving for have arguably only occurred three times so far this season; in home matches against QPR, Hull and Newcastle. Each victory had an early goal in common helping to prove that taking the initiative is the best plan of attack. United have already shown that they are well equipped to keep the ball and maintain sterile domination yet this would be best employed to see a game out, not from the start. This weekend United face Leicester, here’s hoping that lessons have been learnt and they take the handbrake off.


Calm down, it is only pre-season

There used to be a time when no-one paid much to attention to pre-season. Apart from catching a glimpse of a new signing or sating that football fix before late August it barely mattered results-wise. Apparently that has changed this season with United winning football matches and an actual trophy, remember those things?

Granted, with a new manager introducing a new footballing philosophy we should all be a tad more excited than the nervous anticipation suffered twelve months ago. United have swept aside all comers for a perfect record stateside, scoring 16 and conceding only four. Compare that to pre-season under David Moyes twelve months ago and there is cause for optimism but let’s not get carried away, it is still pre-season.

No points have been put on the board and no-one will really know how well these players have attuned themselves until the season opener against Swansea but the signs are good. Having only seen snippets of action (seriously, I won’t be watching with any real intent until it actually matters) and the International Champions Cup final against Liverpool there seems to be a burgeoning sense of confidence throughout the team.

Louis van Gaal has only had a few weeks with his players yet, unlike last season, the players already seem comfortable. A lot has been said about introducing the 3-5-2 system and how wholly revolutionary it is but change can be good too and in this case it is working. It may only be a stopgap as Van Gaal has gone on record as saying that this is the system he feels works best with the players at his disposal which is an important point.

Systems do matter in football yet they are not the be-all and end-all, they have to suit the players available. In his seminal book, ‘Inverting The Pyramid’, Jonathan Wilson is clear about how tactics works on a football field. He said, “Football is not about players, or at least not just about players; it is about shape and about space, about the intelligent deployment of players, and their movement within that deployment.” Certainly, until any new signings this is a system that the players already look comfortable with in the sense that they look like they know they are doing and where they are supposed to be on the pitch. For the timebeing it looks like 4-4-2 has been swept aside which may not be a bad thing.

After a season to forget the squad seems to have got its mojo back with some adventurous, one-touch moves and confident cross-field passes finding players in space. Transitions are quick yet unhurried with holding midfielders and wingbacks proving crucial to the movement of the ball. The likes of Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata are playing in their favoured positions and without much surprise they have an influence on the game.

Like moving on after the most constrictive of relationships the players seem free and enjoying themselves which makes you wonder quite how detrimental the coaching of David Moyes was. While there are still worries about the depth of the squad, particularly in midfield and across the backline, and how challenging the system may prove on wingbacks there is cause for optimism. Then again, it is only pre-season.


Top, top World Cup Moments

The opening goal by Paul Pogba against Nigeria was the 146th of this World Cup, that is already more than the total from South Africa four years ago. My memory of that World Cup is hazy as not a lot really happened apart from Suarez’s handball and celebration against Ghana (surely his behaviour had improved), Lampard’s disallowed goal against Germany (surely there’d be goal-line technology this time, Sepp) and deserved last-minute glory for Spain. So much has already happened in this World Cup that it hasn’t even finished and it is being heralded as one of the finest in living memory. This could be down to several reasons; a change in mindset and the death of ‘tika taka’, which was laid to rest on 13th June 2014 in Salvador, being an obvious one. Perhaps it is down to the more reliable Brazuca ball actually hitting its intended target instead of mimicking the flight of a beach ball. The second round has just been completed and there have been several memorable moments so far, here are a few of my favourites. Sometimes you have a moment in a match where everything changes, when all that seemed true and righteous suddenly dissolves before your very eyes. The signs were there that football had moved on from ‘tika taka’ ever since Bayern Munich ripped Barcelona apart 7-0 on aggregate in the 2013 Champions League semi-finals. However, Spain were still being talked about as potential winners of this World Cup, albeit in hushed tones. It took 44 minutes for that expectation to be gazumped. Dutch left-back Daley Blind had already shown Spain to be shaky to a well-aimed long ball and another found Robin van Persie through on goal. Many strikers would have brought the ball down, aimed and shot but the Flying Dutchman has such technique and nous that he made the diving header look effortless. The Netherlands were to run out 5-1 winners, the World Champions were on their way home.

The Flying Dutchman

The Flying Dutchman (Photo by Getty)

“Anticipation has a habit to set you up, for disappoint”, so sang Alex Turner in ‘The View From The Afternoon’. It’s also a line that brings to mind England World Cup campaigns. For once, the expectation was patted down as England were placed in a difficult group with Uruguay, Costa Rica and Italy. Many expected the opening game in Group G to be a tepid affair due to the sapping conditions in Manaus yet England actually came out and attacked with a verve and energy rarely seen since 1996. Of course, Italy punctured that early enterprise with a typically considered set piece. Still, England came forward and equalised with a sublime goal; Raheem Sterling feeding Wayne Rooney on the left and an inch-perfect cross found Daniel Sturridge who tapped in from close range. All downhill from there though as England eventually limped home bottom of their group.

Daniel Sturridge celebrates his goal against Italy

Daniel Sturridge celebrates his goal against Italy (Photo by

Part of me wonders whether Pepe is simply from a bygone era of mindlessness on a football pitch. Back in the early 90’s you could hack a sprightly attacker from behind, stamp on his goolies and get away with it. In 2014 that gains you a lengthy ban and a Daily Mail expose on how no-one is thinking of the children watching this depravity at 5pm. Germany ran out comfortable 4-0 winners yet it may have been less brutal had Pepe not gotten himself sent off in the first half. Alas, Portugal left Brazil with Cristiano Ronaldo still carrying so much hair gel it’d put many traveller’s hand luggage allowance to shame. Had they not lost as heavily to Germany in their opening match they may have squeezed through on goal difference, then again if you have someone as mindless as Pepe in your defence you are always running the risk.

Pepe gets himself sent off against Germany

Pepe gets himself sent off against Germany (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

As a Manchester United fan you could forgive me for being harsh on Marouane Fellaini. For £27m you expect a bit more from a Premier League player than a few bookings and a selection of painfully inept performances. Still, he remains in the squad so I was hoping he would demonstrate some worth on the international stage. With Belgium losing 1-0 to Algeria in their opening group game there were several more dynamic substitutions Marc Wilmots could have made. It all seemed hopelessly desperate, a bit ‘David Moyes’ then the cross came in, Fellaini met it and the ball bounced in off the crossbar. Redemption and maybe a bit of hope he can reproduce such form back in M16.

Fellaini equalises against Algeria

Fellaini equalises against Algeria (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Having witnessed first-hand how mediocre this Australian team could be I expected some tennis scorelines in a group containing Chile, Spain and Holland. They finished bottom with no points yet left with their heads held high following some spirited performances (take note, England). You would be forgiven for thinking that of the Tim Cahill goals I could have picked it would be the ‘worldie’ against the Netherlands, however, that was a 5pm kickoff I missed. Of the 11pm kickoffs I have managed to catch the Chile v Australia game was a welcome surprise. Having gone 0-2 inside 20 minutes I feared the worst but then Cahill scored a trademark header and Australia galvanised. Sure, they eventually lost but against a highly fancied team they arguably deserved a draw. It is weird for Australians to go into a tournament as unfancied so to come out with no points and still feel proud must be a pretty new sensation.

Tim Cahill scores against Chile

Tim Cahill scores against Chile (Photo by AP)


Van Gaal might not be the appointment Manchester United want but he might be exactly what the club needs

Finally, this ‘season horribilis’ has come to a sorry end. Steven Gerrard’s slip aside, there have been few highlights and it feels like a season lost rather than a season in transition. Hindsight has shown how poor an appointment David Moyes was yet the board should know learn from their mistakes, notably not listening to a previous manager’s final wish.There is such a huge rebuilding job at hand that, put simply, the club need to employ someone with big cajones.

Though it may be unfair to compare and contrast with the appointment of Moyes, it was easy to see he was never worthy of growing into the job. A decent mid-table manager that was dropped into deep water, the club now need to find someone who has the requisite credentials. A man who comes with a tried and tested guarantee.

Louis van Gaal has now been announced and he certainly seems better suited. Then again, you wonder quite why he was not mentioned this time last year, certainly not in the same vein as Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelloti or Jurgen Klopp were. This could be due to the lack of Champions League football next season or perhaps all three are settled in their current clubs or, most probably, the job seems so difficult few want to apply.

Van Gaal should be able to give the squad the kick up the arse you felt Moyes could never deliver. This is a man you simply do not cross, a man who does not accept second-rate performances. At 62, he has been given a three year contract but that is not necessarily a bad thing. If anything, his tenure could be the jolt the club need to get it back to the top table and return the fear factor to Old Trafford, he certainly has the scowl for it.

Make no mistake, this is a huge summer for the club and the next step is securing transfer targets. If the board have learnt anything from last season it is that the groundwork for signing talent has to be decisive and quick.

Big bucks will have to be spent recreating a spine to the team starting with finding replacements for Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra. The midfield still needs to be beefed up and maybe even a striker would not go amiss. Reports suggest that United have already tabled a £27 million bid for Southampton‘s Luke Shaw and you can expect more of the same. With the club needing to return to the Champions League as soon as, the possible outlay will be significant. Then again, would any chief executive in their right mind say no to Van Gaal?

The Dutchman has such an arrogance that he can make big decisions and have the gumption to stick by them. He is known to be uncompromising and you wonder what this means for so many players who seem to have been coasting it for large parts of the season. Specifically this could be bad news for Wayne Rooney who has a habit of returning after the summer a few pounds overweight. Surely Van Gaal would favour Robin van Persie despite Rooney’s bumper contract.

Big clubs need managers with big personalities and while Moyes never really sat well in the hotseat, Van Gaal should feel right at home. Quotes like saying Liverpool would be favourites or that the team should aspire to Manchester City‘s level were laughable for any manager, let alone that of Manchester United. A recent interview saw a Sky Sports News reporter ask Van Gaal what he knew about United, he replied: “A stupid question I think. It’s the biggest club in the world. What do you know about Manchester United?” That is the soundbite of a United manager.

One of the lasting impressions from this season has been how poor the football has been. The impact of a manager who began his career as a defender produced some truly turgid football.Thankfully Van Gaal comes equipped with a strong personality and a belief in attacking play and exciting football, something the fans sorely miss. He has built teams with a basis in young talent, is used to success and will not settle for failure. His CV comes with a European Cup yet he also has something to prove. At 62, Van Gaal may not be the long-term fix but he may be exactly what the club needs right now.


The Tom Cleverley Petition benefits precisely no-one

Everyone is entitled to an opinion, not matter how ridiculous it seems. In this day and age there will always be a platform for people to jump onto the bandwagon. This week has shown just how far some people will go to have their spiteful views known. No, I’m not talking about International Women’s Day yet that always gives an opportunity for misguided, outdated views to come to the fore.

While Tom Cleverley may be enduring a difficult season he is not the only Manchester United player to have served up some mediocre performances. However, it is World Cup year so of course an England fan has taken matters into his own hands, or fingers. Glenn McConnell from Blackpool has begun an online petition demanding Cleverley be excluded from the World Cup squad. The fact that the petition has garnered 18,423 signatures at the time of writing shows how fervent the feeling is. This should not be too surprising, United players have often been made scapegoats during World Cup year. The likes of the Neville brothers, Wayne Rooney and David Beckham have all suffered. Even Danny Welbeck got booed coming off the bench against Denmark.

Roy Hodgson was not impressed by the petition but showed some much needed confidence in Cleverley. He said: “I’m disappointed that Tom, as a sensitive young man, has got to bear that burden, but I know one thing – he will come through it and when he does come through it and Manchester United start winning again, and he’s starting to get praise for his performances, he’ll be stronger for it.”

Simply starting an online petition like that only showcases how pitiful a minority of England fans can be and it benefits precisely no-one. At 23 years of age many believe that Cleverley should already be at his peak which is naïve at best. Some players, especially midfielders, reach their peak closer to their 30’s. At 23 years of age the pressure on Cleverley is immense and during such a transitional period at his club you can expect his performances to dip. Do England fans take that into account? Doubtful. Do they realise what effect such criticism may have on a young footballer? Again, doubtful.

Football fans are fickle to enough to forget that Cleverley played 32 games last season and was at the heart of most of the team’s best performances including Chelsea (a), Arsenal (h) and Manchester City (a). Back then the team was riding high at the top of the league and with confidence now running low scapegoats are being made. There is a suggestion that Cleverley is a ‘confidence player’, one who plays well when team-mates are making it easy for him. A midfielder can only pass the ball forward confidently if team-mates are making effective forward runs which is a facet of play that has been marked by its absence this season.

Reports now suggest that Cleverley is set to be given a new contract which should be welcomed by United and England fans alike. Promising English midfielders need to be nurtured, not booed, heckled or branded as ‘inept’. For the timebeing Cleverly only needs to concentrate on his own performances and listen to comments made by the only two people that should really matter right now, David Moyes and Roy Hodgson.


No United this weekend, no worries

In these troubling times a weekend without United in action is actually a relief. For instance, Match of The Day can be watched painlessly even if you do have to suffer through the dulcet tones of Messrs Shearer and Hansen. On Monday morning you can stride past those ‘football fans’ in the office who have failed to betray any knowledge of the Premier League until this season. It’s all a bit.. peaceful.

We are a spoilt bunch yet there are subtle differences between previously ‘difficult’ seasons. The game against Olympiakos proved a new nadir for David Moyes. You could not claim that this defeat was unlucky yet it was symptomatic of United’s struggling season so far. Since Sir Alex Ferguson left in May the fear factor has gone with him to be replaced by an inferiority complex and you wonder how damaging this season will be.

There was always the fear that by employing David Moyes there would be a change of mentality and playing style. The game in Athens proved how far the emphasis has shifted from attack to safety first and how difficult the players are finding it. With an away goal crucial in the first leg it was inexcusable to not record a single shot on target. Only in the last ten minutes did United actually threaten which was far too little, far too late.

The tie against the Greek league leaders was seen as one of the easy picks yet United made them look far more threatening than they actually were. Passes went astray, there was a limited discernible threat and no ‘zip’. When Andy Townsend seems to realise what is going wrong on the pitch then you know you’re in trouble. Above all, the Greek side simply looked like they wanted it more.

Right now David Moyes looks alarmingly weak and Robin van Persie’s post-match criticism will have gone down like a wet fart in church. In such situations it is difficult not to compare the two tenures and realise that such an outburst would not have been tolerated. Whether Moyes can adopt the same hard line as his predecessor is yet to be seen, certainly after Rooney’s bumper deal.

The muchly-anticipated summer overhaul already looks essential. Not simply for bringing new players in but for putting a fire under so many under-performing squad members. The club have been here before yet the main difference is that so many first-teamers have seem to have regressed. Tom Cleverley still manages to retain his England place as if his mediocre performances have simply gone unnoticed. Antonio Valencia cannot even get into the position to deliver another poor cross and the least said about Ashley Young the better. Though vastly experienced, the partnership of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic looks increasingly outdated and slow with each passing week.

Whether the change in playing style is far too radical for them to comprehend the team’s psychological well-being seems to have suffered dramatically. The vicious circle of defeats followed by hard questioning has taken it’s toll to the extent where players simply do not seem to be expressing themselves. There is a tangible anxiety to play as if each of them are expecting the worst already. In turn players become cautionary and vulnerable, gifting hope to the opposition. Against apparently inferior sides there is a tendency to contain instead of charge. Ask yourself, when was the last time United went for the throat from kick-off?

Should United triumph against Olympiakos then all may still be forgiven from the pathetic midweek display. Hindsight is a bitch and perhaps the worries will be allayed between now and May. Maybe another great European night could be in store yet right now just some fight would be nice, a few chances would be lovely. In the next few weeks it would be nice to be able to watch a football highlights show without avoiding the shirts. That’s not too much to ask is it?


Wayne Rooney : Why Manchester United had to shell out

No matter how eye-watering the figures there was a certain sense of inevitability that Wayne Rooney would be awarded a bumper extended contract. While firemen, nurses and policemen will be looking on in painful shock and awe they should not be surprised at all, this has been coming since October 2010.

Make no mistake, while Rooney will be counting his blessings (and the zeros) he should really be congratulating his agent. To secure such a deal for a player going into their 30’s is Bollinger-poppingly great work. Since the cleverly coordinated transfer request/U-turn/contract re-negotiation shenanigans his management team have had United over a barrel. If the reports are correct the new deal is worth £300,000 per week yet this is damage limitation from the club.

Try to look at this from the club’s perspective and you should soon realise that there really was not another option.
. Losing him would be a PR disaster when the club needs to be seen to be keeping its best players to retain stability and a strong position for the future.
. The player needs a new deal to prevent the club losing him on a free transfer. Thanks, Marc Bosman.
. Already on £250,000 per week, £300,000 is a nice round number.

Consider the maths as well if Rooney was allowed to be sold. Forget for a moment that the only club deemed to be interested would be Chelsea. You need to think about the going rate for Rooney in today’s market. At 28 any club is only really going to get 6, 7 years maximum out of him and that’s being generous considering Rooney’s susceptibility to kebabs and the odd bender. Let’s say, £30m would be considered as tempting.

The cost to replace a player of his stature would arguably be a lot more. To assess Rooney’s value you have to think of his potential and what he can do on a football pitch. Whether he demanded to be captain or not he is a leader on the pitch and one of few players who can drag and bend a game to his will. He can also provide moments of inspiration; an inch-perfect ball over the top (Van Persie v Villa 2013) or a bicycle kick (v Manchester City 2011). These are moments that make being a football fan worthwhile and despite his recent drop in form he remains one of the club’s best players hence keeping him was considered essential.

Players like that are in short supply so you are looking at an initial outlay of £50m, maybe £60m. Considering that the player and his agent are fully aware of how much Rooney was earning the negotiating position is strong, arguably on par. Then you have to consider if this player can prove himself in the Premier League. Then there are other figures to look at, a decline in shirt sales etc. Looking at the situation like that you can see why the club took the option of a bumper deal.

Keeping him also attracts players to the club. Not only for the fact that the wage ceiling has now been creaked open a little wider and transfer targets can demand a bit more it shows that the club mean business. The deal shows that the club are prepared to spend if it means that great players remain, put short it shows that United are a buying club confident of the future ahead.

Should Rooney become the club’s leading scorer in the next few years are fans really going to say, ‘Yeh, but he was on £300,000 a week.’ Doubtful. Wayne Rooney could be a legend at this football club and one of the leaders in the club’s ongoing rebuilding process. Sure, the club should expect a high level of performance yet Rooney will be seen as a player essential to their plans. No football player is worth such an obscene amount of money but should fans be pleased that one of the club’s best players has signed a new contract? Yes.