The One Hundred – Broken

Unrequited

Courtesy of ‘Get the Guy

He waved. Longingly.

Between them, a shared pause, an active moment of passivity. A connection once thought strong, now merely flickering, taking its final breaths in the locking of eyes. Then it came, almost imperceptibly; a nod. In that moment, his heart, already splintered down the middle, broke in two. Disagreement mutated into that monster of irretrievable divorce.

Her gaze broke from his, and her face turned away. The smile that should have been his was dispensed to another. Lights went out as he dropped his glass.  The shattering of his heart.

He turned, teary-eyed and fled. Life continued – for her.

Advertisements

The One Hundred – Receipts

Collection of bird illustrations for use on blogs that wish to link to their Twitter account.

Image Courtesy of Syed Gilani

“…Send me nudes…” Red mist descended.  And then it subsided – possibilities beckoned.  In its stead, calculating retribution for this offence, perhaps not given but certainly taken. Last week, my complexion was ‘A-grade crude oil’ to his timeline #LOL – this week, he’s in my DMs looking to get in elsewhere.  A screenshot: a vehicle of privacy compromised; or evidence-gatherer.  ‘Receipts’, they call them.  I have receipts. ‘To share or not to share,’ an otiose debate I will not entertain.

100 Retweets Later…

“…You didn’t have to do that…” He’s back again, flailing to recover dignity eroded since I tapped *Tweet*.  Now, *BLOCKED*.

Argentina: Failing Together

 Messi alone‘Together Alone’

Photograph courtesy of ESPNFC

It is a poignant picture.  His teammates, arms linked, while Lionel Messi backs the action, a couple of feet away, disconnected and despondent.  Gonzalo Higuain had launched his penalty into the Santiago sky, effectively bringing Argentina’s slim hopes crashing down to earth.  The metaphors abound.  When Matias Fernandez crashed his penalty into the top left corner of the goal, there was almost certainly only one winner from there on.  Messi, managing to suppress the nerves he has spoken of having in recent times, buried his 3rd penalty of the tournament in supremely confident fashion but his teammates could not follow suit.  Gonzalo Higuain, ravaged by the demons of critical misses in recent times, eviscerated himself after watching his penalty fly over the bar.  His anger at himself for yet again personally failing to fulfil expectations.

Gonzalo Higuain and Ezequiel Lavezzi contrived to squander a brilliant chance created by Messi at the death (after a scintillating dribble which took him past two).  While Higuain was the easy target (and indeed, there is a video circulating in which Gabriel Batistuta scores for Argentina from a very similar chance), it was a difficult chance to take.  Ezequiel Lavezzi, once dubbed the new Maradona at Napoli, should have taken the chance – it was a higher percentage play.  But he passed the buck.

It would be remiss to assert that Lionel Messi stood up in the final while his teammates collapsed under the weight of expectation.  As hard as he tried, Chile’s pressure was too suffocating, to complete.  His every first touch was buffeted with Chilean aggression, both on the pitch and in the stands.  10 fouls suffered (and could have been much more), a microcosm of how Argentina’s hopes, so heavily pinned on one man, were stifled and extinguished.  The No.10 did not dominate.  There were flickers of his genius but where this supernova needed his other superstars to bring the light, he only encountered white dwarves.  Jorge Sampaoli had spent sleepless nights figuring out how to stop ‘the best player in the world’, eventually putting an extra man in midfield to reduce space and create more obstacles to his penetrating dribbles.  It worked.  With Messi constantly harried, Argentina could not develop any consistent rhythm.

Messi Copa America

‘Again…’

Photograph courtesy of The World Game

Although they needed penalties to win, there was no doubt as to the better team.  Where Argentina played with hesitancy, Chile played with purpose.  Like a club-side, they knew and understood their system perfectly.  Argentina, on the other hand, lacked one.  Once again, as Angel Di Maria hobbled off the pitch, Argentina’s attack was blunted.  At a point in the second half, Pastore dribbled towards the left and played a pass…to no one.  Marcos Rojo had not made the run.  It was a snapshot of the lack of Argentine cohesion on show.  Gerardo Martino also has to take some of the blame.  His players’ conditioning was lacking (Mascherano, Di Maria and Lavezzi all notably hobbling), reviving questions which surrounded his players’ fitness during his team at Barcelona. His substitutions routinely lacked thought – they were usually automatic (Banega for Pastore, Higuain for Aguero – bookies would refuse to take bets).  Or bad (such as bringing on Higuain instead of Tevez).

Collectively, Argentina failed again but silver will not be greeted like it was last year.  Time is running out for a brilliant collection of individuals but until they can play to their potential as a team, victory will continue to elude them.  For Lionel Messi, the comparisons with Maradona will continue – he has won nothing of note with Argentina, yes, but it would ignore the simple fact that one man can never win a thing on his own.  3 major silver medals tell a tale of near-misses.  Close, but no cigar.  More than anybody else, Lionel Messi will view this is another failure.

As He seeks to Curb Instincts, Van Gaal Betrays His

Louis Van Gaal is as students of the game go, top of the damn class. He just does not realise that others quite are not where he is. Wedded to his much-derided philosophy, which simply requires that his players apply thought to action in a quest to override the primordial feature we know as ‘instinct’.  Of course, part of his philosophy calls for mastery of the ball, keen appreciation of space and a system which designates specific roles, and spaces, to players.  It requires an unparalleled depth of thinking and practice, something Jonny Evans recently acknowledged is, not only mentally tasking, but has taken a while to get accustomed to.  When Gary Neville interviewed him early on in the season for The Telegraph, he confessed to feeling ‘drained’ after the nearly one-hour exposé into the way of Van Gaal.

*****************

LongBall-Gate

When the Van Gaal showed up at the pre-match press conference on Monday armed with a dossier indicating the statistics on his side’s ‘long-ball tactics’ against West Ham on Sunday, the collective response was not so much one of curiosity as it was one of bemusement.  His protestations, if they could be called that, were fairly valid – many of the team’s long balls, prior to the introduction of Marouane Fellaini were accurate sideways passes as he sought to shift West Ham about and open up space.  Hence, not quite ‘long ball’, the stylistically abhorrent style of many a Bolton.  As has often been the case, the efficacy of this approach left much to be desired but there was a method to it.  Resorting to Fellaini up front was born of necessity; even Pep Guardiola has found succor in the aerial nuisance that players such as Javier Martinez and Gerard Pique can generate in times of high desperation.  However, to be lulled into a slanging match with Sam Allardyce (who still insists Manchester United is a long ball team), a manager with a much under-reported inflated sense of his own self-importance (hard to see where it comes from) betrayed his own instincts – he is a teacher at heart.  It is why he has always enjoyed coaching young players, immediately more receptive and malleable than older, more seasoned professionals.  It is why, with a touch of frustrated irritation, he set about ‘educating’ those journalists at his pre-match press conference on Monday.

***************

         Van Gaal, the Teacher

Van Gaal's Students at Barcelona

Van Gaal’s Students at Barcelona – The Best in the Game Today

One of his first coaches in professional football, Barry Hughes (who, by the way, fancied himself the musician), always “thought he would go back to teaching” and never “marked him down for a career in management.”  “Not for a minute”, he added.  When Van Gaal played under Hughes at Sparta Rotterdam, he also worked part-time as a PE teacher with young children.  During that time, he developed a keen sense of tutelage, gradually acquiring the ability to mould individuals with information and ideals.  It has been a trademark of his career – a rather clever graphic from Jonathan Liew of The Telegraph illustrates The 6 Degrees of Van Gaal among Europe’s cadre of elite managers.  Pep Guardiola?  Former player and on-field brain at Barcelona.  Jose Mourinho?  Kept on as interpreter but rose to level of de facto assistant manager.  The list goes on and includes the likes of Frank Rijkaard, Frank de Boer, Luis Enrique and Ronald Koeman, to name but a few.  Not only does he teach the game to his players, its nuances, its systems, he teaches future managers.  And as the less-than-cerebral English game has come to see, he will happily teach the impoverished collective of resident journalists and fans about tactics and philosophy.  As he told Gary Neville, he has no secrets.  When it comes to matters of tactics and philosophy, he is always keen to share.  Not that many in the English game are willing to listen.  To some he had lost it, his marbles not falling far from the tree of Rafa Benitez’s FACTS.  But does he care?  His unflappable demeanor would suggest not but as Gabriele Marcotti wrote, more important may be the perception of him, and by extension his team, after LongBall-gate.

***********

In light of the disdainful manner in which Van Gaal’s lecture was received, a victory against Burnley became even more paramount – it had to be done in style as well.  Strikers, Van Persie and Falcao, badly misfired against West Ham but Wayne Rooney lined up in midfield again, tasked with providing a balancing presence to the marauding Paddy McNair on the right side of a rough midfield diamond.  As history will tell, Wayne Rooney eventually gravitated to the base of midfield as Daley Blind went off injured.  Fate conspired, as it often does, to provide a situation ripe for exaggeration of the stubbornness of Van Gaal.  In what was one of the weirdest sights in football, Wayne Rooney, 2nd highest goalscorer in Manchester United history (and not yet 30), cluttered around in front of the back four, manfully fulfilling a duty hardly suited to his specific gifts. A player at his best when playing on impulse, these were reined in as he served a functional purpose – the provision of balance, LVG claimed – for the better part of 60 minutes.

Meanwhile, we glimpsed the best version of Angel Di Maria.  The ‘Wild One’, I call it.  While he can be an admirably disciplined player (as we saw last season with Real Madrid), some of his best individual performances (twice against Barcelona and his Man of the Match performance against Atletico Madrid in the final of Champions League)  came when he was set loose, using his powerful dribbling and indefatigable running to destabilise defences from a deeper position.  In the last month and a half, LVG has attempted to tame this player, reducing him to a role of providing a vertical outlet to long passes. As failed as experiments go, it was up there with the best – Di Maria was utterly hapless at it. So it was a relief to see Di Maria continue in midfield, continuing a run of 4 games there and he excelled.  This deeper position meant that he had what he craves most – space.  He ran Burnley ragged in the 2nd half, his direct counterattacking resulting in a couple of yellows for Burnley players as they resorted to cynical fouls to stop him.  He set up Chris Smalling’s 2nd goal with a lovely right wing cross, could have won a penalty after dribbling past two from the right flank, and eventually did win one, Manchester United’s first of the season, after a driving run down the left flank.  While Di Maria’s consistency remains a sticking point, occasionally his touch and decision-making letting him down, allowing him to play more of his natural game can only be a positive for this side.

***************

Manchester United visits Preston North End next in the FA Cup.  Fans will be hoping to see Ander Herrera start the game with Daley Blind’s involvement in doubt.  Not that the Spaniard’s involvement should depend on the availability of Blind.  Wayne Rooney will probably continue in midfield while the hapless duo of Van Persie and Falcao continue to toil fruitlessly.  The former’s continued involvement, perhaps, betrays another human instinct which his manager holds for him – affection.  Van Gaal will have to rein in these instincts and take more logical decisions than those he has taken so far.  Till then, players out of position, doing unnatural things, may continue to be the norm.

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.

ander-herrera-manchester-united-qpr_3204183

‘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.

rvp-wayne_2389048b

‘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.

Is This The Eulogy Of LVG?

 From a culture war to transfer backlog, it’s becoming apparent that Louis Van Gaal has got his work cut out at Manchester United…. Deskundige Fauteuil provides an outside view of events in Manchester…from the comfort of his desk, very far away.

By Sir Natty…follow him on Twitter @Marc_Desailly 

The British press has this very annoying tendency to refer by acronyms certain football personalities. When its individual players or strike partnerships it seems to work fine, RVP … SAS… and so on. Disturbingly, when it’s applied to hired hands (or managers as they are sometimes known) it tends to involve ridicule (AVB/RDM).  In the week that just passed, Manchester United Football Club (of the Cayman Islands) placed a blanket ban on fans bringing larger electronic devices such as iPads to their Old Trafford football stadium. The motive is being debated in social media circles but mostly amongst the few match-going supporters. The football on show in their opening game might drive fans away from their home games entirely.

 For fans of rival clubs, its like the joke that never ends. Just like Chelsea in the six years after Mourinho left with managers going through the door at a canter, or Arsenal fans, who despite winning the FA Cup and Charity Shield in the space of 3 months, still feel the stigma of going nine years without honours.

 Football fans are very fickle and are very susceptible to their perceived reputations. Most fans would like to support fashionable clubs and might go to massive lengths to make club related news seem more than face value. A little example; when United appointed David Moyes but Chelsea had employed the fancy portuguese Jose Mourinho, many a United fan (I didn’t make this up) especially the english speaking West Africans proceeded to anoint him THE CHOSEN ONE DAVID MOYES. Nothing amiss you think? Except they pronounced the glaswegians name as Dah-vid (Think David Luiz/Villa) Moh-yez (syllabic with Perez)! 

This might have been the thought process of the United board when considering the approaching and signing of Louis Van Gaal as the first non-british manager in their club’s history. Someone exotic, romantic (depending on your taste) who could make the fans dream again, of domestic dominance and returning to their syn-ronaldo period of European excellence.  Reputation is everything in football. Once established, it is very difficult to shake off. There are too many examples: diver, cheat, darling….  Then once in a while you have football personalities that have multiple often-contrasting reputations. People like Louis Van Gaal.

 Van Gaal offers one of the most perplexing examples of how football can exalt and damn in equal measure, frequently on the same page. He doesn’t seem to have that natural inhibition that most coaches have for taking difficult jobs having overseen some of the biggest clubs in world football and seen considerable success at each of them. He successfully replaced his eternal nemesis Johan Cruyff at FCBarcelona (domestically at least) after besting Cruyff’s managerial achievements first at Ajax in his most successful managerial spell to date. 

0,,4596374_4,00

Photograph courtesy of http://www.dw.de 

Inspite of this, he still managed to drive himself away with alienating behavior that affected his players so much, the board had to act. He repeated this at Bayern Munich 10 years later. Let’s just say the man is not afraid of dropping his pants to prove a point.  All in all, the man seems to man seems to enjoy a challenge as evidenced by agreeing to manage Manchester United while coach of Holland, before a world cup! Some might call that madness but its second nature to Van Gaal. He took the job in the full knowledge that it would leave him with no rest period for the entire summer. A man of many contradictions; not unlike most of us anyway…. 

The Preseason campaign in the commercial markets of the USA (which, true to form, Van Gaal complained about) was hailed as a success and some bookies were even offering odds on Manchester United being champions in his first season. Seasoned (not a pun) experts were not as easily carried away and the result against Swansea has installed a crisis so early in the season. Mental strength is one aspect that Van Gaal has repeatedly spoken about in pre-game conferences and so far, he has been proven right. It’s one thing playing to potential or even over-performing in friendlies and quite another to play with the same freedom when the Bunsen is right underneath you.

_72881840_mata_gettyPhotograph courtesy of BBC 

United’s problems in the transfer market began a very long time ago, long before Woodward and Moyes. Some go as far back as Veron and the sale of Beckham. I personally prefer to look just at the signings they made after selling Ronaldo and letting Carlos Tevez depart in the summer of 2009. The players they have brought in since:

 2009 
Ins:
Zoran Tosic (Partizan Belgrade), £6m
Richie de Laet (Stoke City), undisclosed
Antonio Valencia (Wigan Athletic), £16m
Michael Owen (Newcastle United), free
Gabriel Obertan (Bordeaux), £3m
Mame Biram Diouf (Molde FK), £3.5m

Total Spend: £28.5m
Net Spend: -£56.5m

2010
 Ins:
Marnick Vermijl (Standard Liege), undisclosed
Chris Smalling (Fulham), £10m
Javier Hernandez (CD Guadalajara), £7m
Bebe (Vitoria de Guimaraes), £7.4m

Total Spend: £24.4m
Net Spend: £9.4m

2011
 
Ins:
Anders Lindegaard (Aalesunds FK), £3m
Phil Jones (Blackburn Rovers), £16.5m
Ashley Young (Aston Villa), £16m
David de Gea (Atletico Madrid), £18m

Total Spend: £53.5m

 

Net Spend: £41.3m

2012

 Ins:
Frederic Veseli (Manchester City), undisclosed
Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund), £12m
Nick Powell (Crewe Alexandra), £4m Robin Van Persie £24m

2013 Ins: Marouane Fellaini (Everton), £28m

2014 Ins: Juan Mata (Chelsea), £37m*

In these five years (including this one) only two players signed by the club have made a considerable impact on the first team: De Gea and Van Persie.  Van Persie is the key man for the team without a doubt.  This for me is the issue Van Gaal must deal with. The club is ridden with players who offer nothing to the first team and clearing the deadwood must be the first step. Unfortunately for Van Gaal, the extensive preseason offered him no chance to do this. He must instead look to the transfer market and it is here that United’s transfer policy fails them. They cannot sell for value and cannot buy for value either. Chelsea experienced this painfully in 2011 and have been rather more prudent in their transfer dealings since.

One would have thought that the club would have acknowledged that the absence of european football would have turned off the best players from coming to United. So far it has proved true with only the really young and emerging talents joining for big cash. More ambitious players in their primes seem to be avoiding the Old Trafford outfit altogether. With one exception…

images-3 Photograph courtesy of The Telegraph 

All summer long Juventus have said they will stick to their man. They are fooling no one. Antonio Conte left the club not long after talks held with the hierarchy on potential transfer dealings and rumored sales of one of the clubs prime targets to balance the books. The players in question are two of Juventus’ most outstanding central midfielders and It is clear that one of them was on offer to the highest bidder. Older and more experienced, it was only natural that the interest in Arturo Vidal would prompt intense speculation. At one point personal terms were said to have been agreed and at age 27, Juventus could not ask for more than the rumored £47m. What is holding the deal back? Some in the know are tempted to point fingers at Louis Van Gaal but I would encourage them to tread lightly as Van Gaal has good reason to be cautious.

Vidal has the potential to be the catalyst signing at Manchester United, that player that turns everything around and motivates his teammates and so on. So is the gospel these days. What many of them do not know is that in the last four years Vidal has played the best football of his career and struggled to get recognition as the undisputed and the best all-round central midfielder in the world. Then they are his injuries. If the player were two years younger and without what is slowly becoming a chronic knee complaint, it would be a no-brainer. Van Gaal is well entitled to tread cautiously and save some funds (respect) for when the market is more conducive for a blockbuster signing or when the right player comes along. If they are stuck for options they might chance it on deadline day but he really must consider all his options. Then theres the Di Maria deal which also looks probable though it’s more to do with United just looking for quality they can poach elsewhere as they did with Juan Mata (a poor signing in hindsight?). Mata is struggling to justify his position and is another name struggling with a reputation complex.

In his position, I wouldn’t go for just one signing to come and clean the Aegean stables, I’d go for 3 or 4 mammoth signings for effect. It’s the only way to get out of this really poor mess without building drip by drip like Liverpool and Arsenal did to much derision over a long period of time. Signing a player like Vidal would just appease the fans but without the effect on the team, would be pretty pointless in the long run. Pogba is a player that I feel would make not just a difference but a huge statement when his age and determination are put into consideration. Again a tree does not make a forest, United needed more than Shaw and Herrera in this transfer window as neither of them are ready to lead and have left themselves vulnerable to exploitation by rival clubs if they attempt to snare any of their want away stars.

There are already some negative headlines seeping out of Old Trafford about overtraining and exertion on some of the club’s talents (Most recently the aforementioned Luke Shaw). Then there’s the talk of inflexibility and betrayal of the club’s identity. I only see this ending two ways.

One: the fans shut up and let the manager the board employed perform a very difficult task without the added internal pressure. This would mean the board handing over all authority to Van Gaal the man and not distrusting partially. Obviously this has its pitfalls but nobody needs to let him know that HE is a temporary fix. Not yet. He achieves minor miracles and United are restored to past glories. He may last two years but not more than three. May or may not wait to be sacked.

Two: the endless bickering continues and speculation continues and United board feel the time is right to let Ryan Giggs take over again. The insistence of the Utd board that he must work with Van Gaal tells its own story. They don’t fully trust the man. And with good reason – but then why employ him in the first place?

United’s issues will not stop or end with Van Gaal’s appointment but fortune will play a role in how his tenure is scripted in the clubs history. I doubt the players will wholeheartedly buy into his new programme (think Andre Villas-Boas) as the nuevo United will exclude many of them. The form and fitness of RVP cannot be overemphasized: he is the main man at Man Utd.

images-2

 Photograph courtesy of metro

All these must fall in place or the iron curtain of top-club management will fall heavily on the enigmatic and storied career of one of European footballs most famous names. Will he be known as King Louis or will he be forever known in England as LVG**

 

*Club record fee

Guest Feature – Ligue Un opens with a characteristic draw

Zlatan+Ibrahimovic+Stade+de+Reims+Champagne+n13JPoNqykol

Photograph courtesy of Zimbio

Sir Natty reporting from the Stade Auguste Delaune…find him on twitter at @Marc_Desailly

It’s Friday night in France, the opening weekend of the new Ligue Un season. On one side, Stade de Reims, a reconstructed 2014 version of the famous old club which competed for honours in the heady old days of the European Cup with stars such as Just Fontaine and Raymond Kopa. While the history remains, the stars are long gone – today they congregate in the city of lights. As the only professional football side in France’s biggest city, PSG’s history, including the oil-rich years, has been rather unremarkable. For in a summer in which they exhausted their entire limit set out by UEFA on one player, Paris St. Germain actually looked like a side short of quality in the most relevant areas whilst at the same time showing the obvious gulf (no pun intended) in ability between they and the other sides in the Ligue.

I decided to watch the game on TV rather than rely on a stream from one of the numerous betting websites that host such games. The regional broadcaster only showed the game on one channel (TV5 Le Monde) and due to my limited (or non-existent…) knowledge of the language, I had to settle for the commentary in the most colloquial of French.

Strangely, it made me enjoy the game more, free of the usual commentator-curses and bias that wreck many an English language game. I could still pick out one or two comments about certain players (ADM for a start) but that was rather outside the immediate context of the game.

It has always been an issue when clubs kick-off their league campaigns at the tail end of the summer transfer window. Players are still getting the beach out of their heads, thus cohesion and focus are at a low ebb. Some players are playing for moves away and others still for a spot in the team hence the lack of uniform motivation.

The game begins with one of the most underwhelming kickoffs in recent memory. Or maybe that was due to some unfair expectation on my part. After all, what did I really think? That a manic PSG would set about Reims in a manner reminiscent of 2013/2014’s Bayern?  It didn’t quite start like that but there was some early goalmouth action.  Cavani was put clean through on goal but proceeded to finish like his namesake, Edinson Cavani. While a player of undoubted quality, his erratic finishing often leaves a lot to be desired.  The man just struggles in any squad where he isn’t the main man (BigTimeCharlie Syndrome?).

Just a few minutes later, the Main Man himself was presented with a similar chance and he finished with such grace that you really began to wonder if PSG were going to walk away with. Cavani had time to prefix the most curious and puzzling 15 minutes of football ever seen with another display of finishing hardly in keeping with his bloated reputation (I exaggerate but still…).

First off, Lucas Moura, another South American seemingly lost in Paris, cuts out a wayward backpass and beats the lumbering defender who in his own interests (and probably of his team as well), backs out of a challenge, leaving Moura racing through on goal. To his left is the team’s spiritual leader who he may square the ball to for yet another plaudit-taking brace after only 15 minutes of the new season. Moura probably then has an epiphany; why pass to Him when I can show my worth and commitment to the team by scoring on the opening day? While processing these thoughts, the goalkeeper swarms him and wins the ball cleanly. In a world without rules, a furious Zlatan probably kung-fu kicks Lucas in the head for his indiscretion. However, even Zlatan respects the law and instead spends the next 30 seconds gesturing at Lucas who sheepishly seeks out the safety of the right wing, far away from Zlatan. Still livid and certainly short of concentration, Ibrahimovic gets back onside as soon as PSG win the ball with Verrati. The Italian then runs between the defensive line and Ibra doubles back and follows his run quickly. Perhaps after monitoring furious exchange in the previous passage of play, Veratti smartly rolls the ball to Zlatan in a move more in place in football simulation video games. Zlatan strikes at the empty net and as I jump in exclamation, the ball strikes the upright! The mischievous camera director zooms to Zlatan’s facial expression, before panning to a nervous looking Moura – Zlatan’s miss is probably his fault, and so on…

At this point, Reims is in sixes and sevens and PSG rampant. Another through ball sends Zlatan down the left channel of the box. He crumples under no contact…PENALTY! How Stephanne Lannoy saw that as anything but is anyone’s guess but it makes one wonder how much influence Zlatan has in french football (personality-wise). In life, there are three certainties – death, taxes and Zlatan-scores-a-penalty. Mentally, it’s 2-0 and PSG are in the middle of yet another Ligue Un stroll. The Main Man, never a purveyor of self-doubt, places the ball, steps back in trademark regal fashion and takes aim. It’s surely destined for the bottom left hand side… of the goalkeeper’s glove! I half expected the camera to zoom to Moura again – it’s his fault and Zlatan can do no wrong. I personally haven’t seen him take a worse penalty, although all credit to the goalkeeper for guessing the right way.

A few minutes later with the pair of commentators still jabbering away at the incredulity of what they had just witnessed, Reims wins a freekick. Zlatan is marking the near post but with as much authority as the Queen of England has over her subjects in Scotland) – he’s there but not really. A whipped ball flies in beyond him, Marquinhos and Pastore…BANG! Prince Oniangue is away in jubilant celebration and the crowd goes wild. It’s off his shin, it’s not offside and Sirigu doesn’t look like he even feels like blaming anyone.

Play resumes and PSG is in possession. Pastore…Verrati…Cavani…Ibra…back to Thiago Silva, onto Moura, Van der wiel joins in… goalkick. They try again on the other side but Digne seems to be having some difficulty either with finding the final ball or getting past his man. A very disjointed performance all-round from the reigning champions and as a neutral I look forward to something to give the game a kick.

The football gods answer my prayers and Reims score again with a neat combination between Antoine Devaux and a chap called Charbonnier (whom by the way the commentary team kept going on and on and ON about like he was the next best thing in France, baguette notwithstanding: All I saw was a right footed version of Olivier Giroud in terms of style but I leave it to you to decide whether that’s a good thing or not). With halftime looming, and the game’s entertainment value already in steep decline, I begin composing this.

It’s hard to tell what type of season PSG will have based on their performance in the game but the most pertinent issue must be their overreliance on Ibra. While it’s not quite as bad as wee Lionel piggybacking Barcelona from two seasons ago (the irony is surely not lost on Zlatan), it is concerning enough to warrant marquee signings in the mould of Neymar and Suarez to share the load a bit. However, PSG, due to FFP, cannot go down that route but still have ambitions of reaching the higher echelons of European football.

In midweek, a former coach of Zlatan’s (I couldn’t verify who; some articles quoted it as a former Juve coach and others as a swedish coach…so probably his agent) said that Zlatan was fed up in Paris and yearned for a return to the Old Lady. While it might be true that French football might be proving too easy and repetitive for Zlatan (who by the way scored a brace last weekend vs Guingamp in the Far east super cup), a mercenary of some repute, it might also be a ploy to boost wages. Hardly unreasonable, seeing as his performances are more or less paying everyone else’s wages! Despite the rumours, it’s hard to see the Swede shunning new money for the Old Lady whose highest paid player, Buffon, earns in a year what Zlatan takes home in 4 months.  His agent could do better.

Despite watching Marquinhos yesterday, it still defies logic that they spent FIFTY MILLION SOLID POUNDS (if they paid in full, Chelsea must be laughing) on a defender to partner Thiago Silva. Not that Marquinhos was poor (he wasn’t very good though) – he’s obviously a very talented defender – but that the combination of the Mineirao debacle and more pressing concerns elsewhere have left them scrabbling in the transfer window.

That money now looks like it could have been better spent on a player like Angel Di Maria who would certainly fit excellently in a PSG system that is begging for a free-playing attacking midfielder. The absence of Blaise Matuidi was also surprising, especially in light of France’s quarter final exit at the world cup. Aurier should replace Van der Wiel as a (sigh) replacement for club icon Jallet who has departed for Lyon in search of greener pastures; all that oil must rile him. If PSG cannot sign that number 10 they so desire, an alternative may be pushing Verrati further upfield where his ill-discipline is not shown up quite as much. He is also an excellent dribbler of the ball and this move might free up more playing time for Chantome or Cabaye who are sadly beginning to look like Home-grown rule squad elements.

PSG starts the second half with a high line pressing for an equaliser but that seemed to offer Reims more space to attack and they were lucky not to concede a 3rd. Zlatan came to the rescue, scoring a rather fortuitous goal as the game petered into torpor. The commentary drizzled in and out in the second half with both commentators probably digesting what they had seen and not seen and what they expected in the season. Special mention must go to Diego Rigonato who I saw a lot of, but not enough to ascertain how influential he will be in the coming season.

I wonder whether PSG can still squeeze out a little more money by selling someone (eg Cavani /Lavezzi/ Moura/Pastore) and get Di Maria as it is difficult to see them setting anywhere alight this season if such dour and ineffective performance are to be the norm. Then again, it’s the start of the season so maybe I’m a bit harsh. I fully expect them to walk Ligue Un but Qatar will be expecting more than a dash of flair this time.

Zlatan of the Match: Ibrahimovic (sigh)

Not-Zlatan Man of the Match: Prince Oniangue