New Shape, New Style, New Players – Work in Progress

Construction Site

Photograph courtesy of elcosh

I’ve taken a more earnest interest in the stock market in recent years and what fascinates is the multiplicity of factors that lead to the graphical representation of ‘peaks and troughs’ we often see on the news.  As football clubs have become publicly traded companies, their results, injuries, dismissals and sponsorship deals contribute to the undulation of a club’s worth.  In the last year, Manchester United’s deepest trough was preceded by what was perhaps the lowest ebb of David Moyes’ tenure.  More so than home humiliations by all and sundry in the Premier league, a 2-0 defeat to Olympiacos in the first leg of the Champions League round of 16 exposed a frightening lack of soul, belief and tactics in the squad.  The market responded, United’s stock value plummeting to its lowest level yet as David Moyes’ hair continued along its stress-provoked thinning process.

Share price

‘A Picture of the Moyes Era  Last Season’

Photograph courtesy of Quartz

Following Louis Van Gaal’s first competitive victory as Manchester United manager yesterday, the club’s stock enjoyed an encouraging bump to complement what has been a steady rise over the last two weeks.  Like the stock, confidence, in acute shortage this season, is up but then again, these are usually concomitant of each other.  Lining up with Lingard and Ashley Young in the wingback positions when Swansea came to Old Trafford, it was evident that stock, player stock, was low.  South Korean midfielder, Ki, burst the Van Gaal bubble, in the process ‘smashing’ a burgeoning but fragile Manchester United confidence.  The following weak, Sunderland overpowered a weak midfield; after that, Burnley, unfazed by facing a player who cost more money than they have spent in their history (EVER!!), limited Van Gaal’s men to a display largely devoid of chances and quality.  Somewhere in the middle of all this, space was found to get knocked out of the League Cup in embarrassing fashion, undeservedly conceding only 4 (it really should have been more).  A rather cocky chested goal by MK Dons provided a sharp contrast to the rock-bottom confidence of their more illustrious opposition.

The spectre of David Moyes hung over the players (and he’s cost us more than just confidence as Ed Woodward illustrated when presenting the club’s accounts for the just concluded financial year – and will cost us more), injuries decimated a squad already short on quality, the manager doggedly persisted with a structure that simply bore no fruit, and transfer market activity necessary to emplace first XI players into the first XI was slower than Nemanja Vidic on the turn.  Personally, what irked me most was the persistence with the 3-5-2 formation. Of course, a formation is only as good as the players in it but impressive performances during pre-season proved a false dawn.  When under pressure, the player reverted to type – crumbling wrecks, incapable of passing the ball and even worse, reluctant or seemingly unable to adapt to a shape completely alien to them.  At MK Dons, all these factors coalesced into a horror show for all United faithful.

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‘New Faces’

Photograph courtesy of Loop

At Old Trafford on Sunday, all the remedies came together to produce something more palatable; ‘FAMILY’ rating stuff (some would have you not take it seriously – #onlyQPRafterall).  A multiple goal victory was assured by half-time, a clean sheet looked well in the offing and most importantly, there was some quality on display.  Debuting shiny new signings and a shiny new formation, the first half was an exercise in efficiency and control.  With Daley Blind at the bottom of a loose midfield diamond, Van Gaal’s men seized the initiative that QPR was only too willing to cede.  Further back, Jonny Evans and Tyler Blackett immediately looked more comfortable playing as a pair.  Additionally, the return of an effervescent Rafael was very welcome (provided he can maintain a decent run of form, he looks a sure bet at right back) and his presence in attacking compensated for Ander Herrera’s relative narrowness on the right side of the diamond.

And Angel Di Maria was the star of the show.  In his debut at turf moor, while easily the most exuberant and threatening player in red, his positioning as one of a midfield two meant he often had too much space to cover and too much defensive responsibility in midfield, resulting in his attacking influence getting blunted as the game wore on.  Here, with Daley Blind designated midfield controller, Di Maria was allowed to roam and attack with greater freedom, often found marauding down the left flank but occasionally popping up on the right side – the results were delightful.  He put United ahead with his whipped freekick (he has seemingly assumed set piece duty from Juan Mata) which evaded all before nestling in the corner, and then set to work on QPR.

His driving run that set up Ander Herrera’s goal was exhilarating, a one-man counterattack starting just outside our box and ending with a lovely reverse pass to Wayne Rooney just inside the opposition box.  His cross for Juan Mata in the second half was superb, although aided by the bungling Rio Ferdinand totally misreading the offside trap.

Ander Herrera turned out his best game so far, scoring a goal, tackling, passing and providing energy to complement the more subtle contribution of Daley Blind.  The Dutchman completed the most passes on the pitch, moving along the base of midfield to continuously provide options to both flanks.  Some have complained about his ‘lack of adventure’ in the pass but the consistency of his passing should not go unmentioned.  As he grows into the role, and grows as a player, he will gain more confidence.  One concern should be his slight build – he was brushed off the ball rather easily on more than one occasion – although it is nothing a bit of gym work cannot remedy.

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‘Happier Times’

Photograph courtesy of the Telegraph

Despite the positives, Van Gaal, ever the perfectionist, noted carelessness in the passing.  Furthermore, the individual performances of Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie, while more encouraging than in recent times, are still below expectations.  Wayne Rooney, despite scoring and assisting, is still getting used to sharing the limelight with others.  A player who rarely ever thrives when made a supporting actor to the main star, his captaincy has left him in a bind where he has to lead while in the curious position of playing in a manner which suggests he is dispensable.  That said, after an opening few minutes which included, if you would excuse the cliché, a poor first touch to spurn a presentable opening, he settled into the game with a series of one-touch passes.  His goal was a picture of a good first touch and a cleanly hit strike into the bottom corner.

Robin Van Persie did not fare much better – actually, he was pretty poor.  While Rooney provided overloads on the left hand side, Van Persie favoured the right hand side in what appeared to be a deliberate tactical instruction.  However, his lack of pace meant that he often played the ball back inside to the loss of any attacking impetus.  On two occasions, he could and should have scored after receiving a sublime chipped ball from Di Maria (volleyed tamely into Rob Green’s arms), and later on an attempted pass to Falcao when he should have gone for goal.  Lack of confidence? Altruism? Perhaps a combination of both.  To top it all off, he picked up a yellow card for a poorly timed tackle.  Ordinarily, he would have gone off (many expected him to) for Falcao, eagerly waiting on the bench, but Juan Mata’s goal and all-round good performance made what might have been a dicey decision for Van Gaal relatively easy.  By taking off Mata, who might have needed ‘a rest’, he gave his close confidante and former national team captain an opportunity to play himself into form.  Favouritism?

Of all three senior strikers, Wayne Rooney’s place is perhaps safest.  Not only is he captain, but he is also the most comfortable of three dropping deeper as evidenced by his assumption of Juan Mata’s playmaker role later on in the second half.

‘While it was only QPR’, ‘you can only beat what’s in front of you’.  There were a few positive signs – bar a couple of communication glitches, the defence looked sound, the midfield was strong and worked as a unit, and chances were created (sorely lacking in previous games).  Next week, a visit to a confident Leicester City will be the first significant test of the season. Having held Arsenal and Everton to draws already, they beat Stoke (at Stoke!) over the weekend and have enjoyed their return to the top-flight so far.  Manchester United will not benefit from unfamiliarity among the playing staff that QPR exhibited – the Foxes are built on a bedrock of defenders that led them to promotion.  Nevertheless, confidence is up, the squad is returning (Shaw was in the squad and is playing with the u21s tonight and Carrick is reportedly back in training) and the quality especially through the new additions is there.  The market senses this and while we should tread with caution, stock is trending upwards.

Man of the Match: Angel Di Maria/Ander Herrera.

Verdict: Uninspiring opponent but hey, we might have lost this on the first day of the season.

Key Observation: With De Gea and Di Maria/Herrera, a Spine is forming slowly but surely.

Special Mention: I streamed a football match live online in Mombasa (Kenya) with very few hiccups. Africa’s coming on, I tell you.