Yet again…

 

Englasnd disappointment

“Another one…”

Courtesy of BBC

Death, taxes and England to choke on its own victory champagne.  Football is a funny game indeed.  In the blink of an eye, success can give way to crushing disappointment. Perspectives change – the swaggerific becomes the crushed, the crushed becomes the jubilant.

As the whistle went a few minutes ago, England fans were probably left reeling in stunned silence.  Not necessarily anger – the performance served up by Spurs + 6 others was very much in-keeping with the tempo and intensity we saw of Pochettino’s men for most of 2015-2016 (forget last day…St James’ Park…).  The football was electric and vibrant, very similar to that against Italy in Brazil (2014).  The difference here was balance.  In Brazil, Sturridge lined up ahead of Rooney, Welbeck and Sterling with an ageing Gerrard expected to shield the defence while Gerrard wannabe Henderson went gambolling ahead.  Chances were created, the play was slick and England looked a modern version of itself, not a pretend version of some folks in the Iberian peninsula.  However, defensive frailties abounded and alas, a beautiful performance was sourly enjoyed as an aftertaste to defeat.

This time, Hodgson, after endless chopping and changing in warm-up friendlies went with a team that made a lot of sense.  The only doubt in selection was captain Wayne.  His selection in midfield would require not just a lot of discipline from him, but humility – Dele Alli showed in the last season that he’s most effective being allowed an advanced role.  And Rooney went about justifying not just his selection, but his place in midfield.  For the first time in an England shirt, he looked like he belonged.  The value of having  round pegs (not a nod to Rooney’s history of girth) that seemed to sort of fit in round holes almost told in England’s first opening game victory at a European Championship (in it’s history). Almost…

A brilliant Eric Dier free-kick (more on that later) gave England the lead they deserved for a quite frankly thrilling performance.  Russia deserved zero for playing so much turd (if there’s a team in a deeper identity crisis than England, introducing Russia…)  but football does not always work that way.  The equaliser, deep into injury-time, was beautifully executed; a looping header which dropped in at the far post.  My cousins, both die-hard England supporters (it’s really the only thing they know, bless them) lay back and couldn’t talk for a while.  The frustrated reaction will come later…

A few observations from the game…

Team Selection – Spot on 

No, Jamie Vardy should not have started.  Steven Gerrard recently, in a rather frank and ironically honest exposition, observed that it was high time England stopped picking the best eleven players and picked the best xi.  He would know a lot about that.  For years, England tried to shoehorn Lamps and Gerry and frankly, it was ‘ard (forgive me).  Meanwhile, Paul Scholes, tiringly touted as the best midfielder of his England generation was forced to the left where he frankly was uncomfortable.  He retired not long after Euro 2004 – England suffered nearly another decade of ‘we know Lampard and Gerrard are shit together but we have to make it work!’

Before this game, I voted on a twitter poll which basically asked whether or not excluding Vardy from the xi was the right decision.  Nearly 70% of voters thought not – nearly 40% thought it a right f**king crazy decision to exclude him.  But it was the right call and irrespective of the result, the performance proved it.  Yes, he’s a great finisher but he’s not a left winger and that is the role he would have had to play.  Once Hodgson rightly recognised that playing a 3 man midfield is the best way to get his team playing optimally, England’s best striker, Kane, was going to get the spot.  Brazil was not forgotten – playing Kane and Vardy looked (and still looks) tasty on paper but it’s gung-ho.  His squad selection also seems to have been made with a 4-3-3 in mind, which then makes his decision to take 5 strikers look a bit odd.  But it’s what it is.  Throw in Vardy’s inferior technical and tactical attributes as compared to a ‘seasoned’ winger of Sterling’s ability and it makes more sense.  Sterling, even with a few questionable decisions, was a threat throughout and deserves his spot on that showing.

King Eric (Not Cantona!)

Eric Dier started 2015-2016 as the Portuguese-speaking thatch-haired Spurs defender who was not quite sure what he was doing at Spurs.  Tonight, he shielded England’s defence at the Euros with distinction, and then added a cracking free-kick for good measure.  I have to admit, I never saw that one coming.  It was brilliantly hit (maybe not well placed but with just enough power to beat Akinfeev in goal for the Russians).  That said, the Russian goalkeeper was not entirely blameless.  The shot was fairly central, he was not completely unsighted and his attempt to save was frankly pathetic.  Someone mentioned Van Persie v Ivory Coast as a similar, turbo-charged whistler of a strike from pretty close in, but the beautifully named Tizie was certainy unsighted and BLOODY HELL, it was Van Persie at his hammerful best!  But back to Dier.  Best compliment to him is that nobody’s crying about Carrick (they never were, but the guy’s got a new contract at United – let’s not rain on his parade, eh?).  As an aside, maybe Dier should be taking England’s corner-kicks after that strike…

Kane kicks Corners and I Can Understand Cane on Corner Kicks

That’s almost as repetitive as the tiresome queries on my Twitter timeline as to why Kane was taking corner kicks.  “He’s a striker – he should be in the box”…”His corner kicks are shit anyway”…”Hodgson is Van Gaal’s geriatric twin!” (okay, I made that one up).  Harry Kane (forgetting Dier’s strike for a second) is easily England’s best striker of a ball on the pitch.  They’ve been in training long enough to have established PLUS it’s not rocket-science – just watch him over 2014 to present.  His contact is clean, he can get whip on a ball and is accurate.  Yes, he overhit a couple tonight but bloody hell, who doesn’t?

Addressing the point of him being in the box, here’s my logic for why it’s almost redundant – Joe reported, about a year ago, that there is roughly a 3% chance of scoring from a corner kick in the Premier League (in 2014-2015).  Kane, from a rough viewing of his goals for Tottenham, has scored one goal direct from a corner kick for England.  Throw in goals from flick ons from corners and the number swells to 4.  He’s hardly John Terry in the box, guys.  If you want to make the best of your 3% chance of scoring, why not having your best deliverer of the ball take the corners and have his targets (Smalling, Cahill, Dier, Dele Alli – not dwarves) be ready to maximise the 3% chance of scoring (forgive my use of 3% – it’s not directly transferable because they are different competitions and levels but I can’t imagine the variance would be anything more than minimal).  Rather than quibble about who takes corners, because BLOODY HELL (again) it’s not Phil Jones on them, worry about finishing those chances you’re creating in open play.

Onto the next one

England’s not in a terrible place at all.  It goes without saying but I’m going to say (type) it anyway – next week’s derby against Wales is a must-win.  Fail to win and you’re crapping yourselves against a Slovakia team that really isn’t that bad.  It is also important that Hodgson maintains the line-up and perhaps of greater importance, that the players go into next Thursday’s match with the same tempo, aggression and discipline.  Wales are led by Gareth Bale but eminently beatable.

I could make more observations but I think motivational fuel has just about run out.  I haven’t blogged in a while so my apologies.  If you’ve got any observations of your own, get the comments going!  Or tweet me @mundus1010.  Happy reading!

 

 

 

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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.

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.

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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.

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         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.

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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.

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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. 

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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