Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Squad for the Rest of the Season

With the two most recent victories over other top four contenders in Tottenham and Liverpool, it appears that Louis van Gaal may have finally reached a formation and squad that play to his philosophy. Juan Mata has come in and played brilliantly in the attacking midfield while Michael Carrick has also regained his starting role in the midfield. Both of these changes have been the result of absent players, as Daley Blind had to move from midfield to left back with Luke Shaw’s injury and Mata was chosen to fill in while di Maria was suspended. The question now becomes whether or not van Gaal should stay with the same squad or revert back to previous personnel combinations. The answer should be clear; if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.

In the last two games, United have scored five goals while conceding only one. At 2.5 goals per game and .5 goals conceded per game, these numbers outweigh the 1.73 goals per game (52 in 30) and .9 goals conceded per game (27 in 30) over the entire season. With the current squad, United has improved offensively and defensively without changing tactically.

Two other statistics, as provided by Squawka, show that United have become more efficient in both finishing and passing. In the previous 28 games, United’s shooting accuracy was under 50% at 48%. The team was struggling to create clear-cut chances on a consistent basis. In these last two games, the shooting accuracy has increased to 58%, a major factor in the jump in scoring production.

Moreover, the average pass length has increased from 19 m in the first 28 games to 21 in the last two games. While the difference may not jump off the page, it represents a shift from the short passing that stymied offensive production earlier in the season.

Juan Mata is a major reason for the boost in statistics, having himself contributed two goals in the two matches, as well as a perfect shooting accuracy. It seems the Spaniard has done enough to regain van Gaal’s confidence, much to the delight of United’s fan base who had been calling for Mata to start. It will be difficult for di Maria to regain his starting role if Mata can continue his impressive form after the international break.

While United have conceded only one goal, they have still looked shaky in the back, with Phil Jones being the major problem. Once Marcos Rojo returns to health, Jones will probably be forced to the bench with van Gaal favoring the Argentine. The real concern for the defense will be what van Gaal chooses to do once Shaw has recovered. Blind, the multifaceted player that he is, has filled in well at left back during Shaw’s absence. Still, Shaw is the more natural defender, so one would expect him to take precedence over Blind. That means that Blind would likely return to holding midfield, but Herrera and Carrick have been playing in perfect harmony in the two game stretch. The pairing looks to be the ideal duo in the holding mid, so I don’t see van Gaal splitting them up. Essentially, someone is going to be left on the bench, which could be useful for tactical substitutions or even just for depth.

In a season plagued by injury and tactical indecisiveness from the manager, United fans have craved a sense of consistency from the team. In the last two matches, we’ve been rewarded for our patience. After not making any changes to the lineup that shredded Tottenham, van Gaal’s squad went on to end Liverpool’s long unbeaten run. It’s not just the results, but also the way that they’ve won: lethal attacking play with defense that steps up when necessary. This squad has shown glimpses of the United squads of old, and Louis van Gaal would be foolish to change anything.

Photo Credit: The Mirror

Saturday, March 14, 2015

United vs. Tottenham Match Preview

Manchester United:

Injuries: In his pre-match press conference, Louis van Gaal confirmed van Persie will be the only player out for the game due to injury. Marcos Rojo will need to take a fitness test to determine his availability after picking up a knock against Arsenal on Monday. In addition, Jonny Evans will be serving the second of his six match ban for the altercation with Papiss Cisse against Newcastle and Angel di Maria will serve his one match suspension for the red card against Arsenal.

Last 5 matches: W-L-W-W-L

Likely formation: Remains to be seen. Van Gaal could elect to revert to playing in a 5-3-2 because of di Maria’s absence, or he could choose to keep with the formation and play Januzaj on the right side. Rojo’s absence could also influence the defensive setup.


Coming off of an excruciating loss to the Gunners on Monday, United will look to right the ship with Champions League qualification in the balance. The FA Cup loss was a tale of two halves, as United dominated the first half, despite allowing the opening goal, but were outplayed in the second. The defense made several critical mistakes, including Valencia’s errant back pass to de Gea, in addition to poor positioning out of the entire right side of the team. In attack, United moved the ball well in the first half but were largely lacking creativity in the second, some attributing this to Carrick coming on at the half. Hopefully van Gaal will have realized that Blind and Carrick cannot play alongside each other as the two are far too similar in playing style.

With di Maria suspended for the match, it will be interesting to see what formation and squad van Gaal chooses to go with in his absence. If he were to stay with the 4-2-3-1 that has provided mixed results for the Red Devils, the likely replacement would be Januzaj on the right side. Still, he may decide to revert to a 5-3-2, which would mean bringing on another striker. It’s difficult to see that happening as Falcao failed to produce this week while playing for the U21s. Even still, van Gaal could utilize a diamond in the midfield, with Blind at holding, Herrera and Mata central, and Fellaini at attacking. Unfortunately, that would mean a lack of width and United would likely be exposed down the flanks by the likes of Tottenham’s wingers Lamela, Chadli, and Townsend.

I personally think this game will be decided in United’s defensive third. Harry Kane comes into the matchup in sensational form, winning Player of the Month in the Premier League for the second consecutive month. Should Rojo miss the match, the likely central defensive pairing would be Smalling and Jones. The two would need plenty of help from the wide backs and contributions from the holding midfielder, be it Blind or Carrick. If the defenders can manage to stifle Kane for the full 90, the match up starts to look more favorable. Easier said than done, however. Also of note is the possible inclusion of Rafael at the right side of the defense. With Valencia having perhaps his worst game of the season in Monday’s match and Rafael putting forth a good showing in a match for the U21s, this would appear to be the Brazilian’s best opportunity to make it back into the starting lineup. Should van Gaal choose Valencia over Rafael, one would think it could be an end to the right back’s time at United.


Injuries: Tottenham will be at full strength for the game.

Last 5 Matches: L-D-L-W-W

Likely formation: 4-2-3-1


Tottenham are in a similar situation to United entering the match up. Like United, Tottenham’s season will finish with the chief objective being Champions League qualification after losing in the League Cup and bowing out of the Europa League, as well as an early exit in the FA Cup. Tottenham supporters will be desperate for UCL play next season, though for different reasons than United supporters. Spurs have only been able to qualify for the Europa League in recent seasons, so the club and fans alike will both be craving top level European competition.

The keys to success for Tottenham will be Harry Kane’s continued dominance as well as improvement out of the defensive players. Again, similar to United, Tottenham’s defense has been shuffled week in and week out, with no definite back four having been settled upon. Jan Vertonghen, Erik Dier, and Youhnes Kaboul are just some of the names that come to mind when thinking of Spurs’ defenders this season. They’ll likely need to contend with a lone striker from United this Sunday, unless van Gaal elects to add another striker to the attacking line.

Prediction: Both teams will come out to win the game in hopes of getting a crucial three points in the final stretch for a top four finish. Louis van Gaal said in his press conference that the United players have reacted well to the defeat against Arsenal, but we will only know for sure come game time. For United, it will be crucial to deliver a stout defensive performance, as well as improved play from the midfield with more forward passes rather than side to side or backwards. For Tottenham, they’ll need to defend United’s star studded attacking line, which will likely consist of Rooney, Young, Herrera, Blind, and possibly Juan Mata. I have a feeling United’s defenders will make a mistake to cost us a goal, either from Harry Kane or Christian Eriksen. Still, I expect United’s attack to be too much to handle for the Spurs back line, especially in front of the Old Trafford faithful.

United 3 – 1 

Monday, March 9, 2015

United vs. Arsenal Match Report

Well this is just painful. The main reason it took me so long to get to this match report is because I had to go to other work, but in retrospect it was probably a good thing to take a step away from my TV, from Twitter, and from my computer screen.

In all the matches that United have played this season, regardless of the result, this must have been the most agonizing for fans to watch. For once, United actually came out and played pretty well in the first half, aside from Arsenal's goal. The Gunners scored on a defensive miscue from the right side of the defense, with Valencia and Smalling both pushing centrally while di Maria stood watching. I hate to say I told you so, but this was one of the things that worried me going into the match. Di Maria is essentially useless on defense, so he left Valencia out to dry most of the game. Yes, Valencia didn't help things for himself, particularly when he gave a terrible back pass to de Gea that led to Arsenal's winning goal, but di Maria did little to help him. Having Rafael at right back and Valencia on the wing would surely have made for a different story. The left side of the defense did pretty well, until Shaw had to be subbed off at half time due to apparent injury.

Even so, most of Arsenal's chances only came after United went down a man thanks to a moment of idiocy from di Maria. There's really no excuse for how he conducted himself, first receiving a yellow for simulation (which has bothered me all season with him), then receiving a second yellow for pushing the referee. I can forgive a player for playing poorly, I can sometimes forgive a player for trying to win a foul, but I can never forgive a player for making such a rash decision and costing his team the game. From that time on, United were going to be up against it. The same idea goes for Januzaj, who followed suit by going to ground far too easily and earning a booking for diving.

The central midfield play for United in the first half was good, only to turn to mediocrity in the second half. Blind and Herrera successfully eliminated Ozil from the match, while still maintaining decent spells of possession. Young struggled for most of the night on the left side, particularly in dealing with Oxlade-Chamberlain's pace. Di Maria basically cost United the game, despite his wonderful first half cross into Rooney that gave United the equalizer. Even Fellaini managed to have some nice instances of control in bringing the ball down by chest or heading it to teammates. At the end of the first half, everything seemed to be going well for United.

But everything changed in the second half. United didn't look like the same team. Van Gaal swapped out Herrera for Carrick at the start of the half, likely in an attempt to strengthen the middle of the field in defense. Unfortunately, Carrick didn't contribute much to the offense, failing to deliver the incisive passes we've come to expect from previous seasons. Blind never really seemed to gel with Carrick, and the duo were unable to push the Reds forward to goal. United never really looked like equalizing after going down a man, despite a couple of half chances.

The defeat, as I said, is particularly difficult to handle. Not only did it come at the hands of Arsenal, a team we have dominated in recent history, but it came even after a first half of good action from the players. I don't know how or why, but all the momentum United had going into the break dissipated by the time the second half started. Even so, Arsenal still didn't look to be that big of a threat, with the goal coming off of a big mistake from Valencia, as mentioned.

United will need to pick themselves up and dust themselves off, and quickly. The game that was supposed to give United confidence and a hope of a trophy this season proved to be the game that could decide the fate of the season. With the tough run of games coming up, beginning with Tottenham on Sunday, we are going to learn a lot about the character of the squad.

On a side note, Welbeck really angered me when he celebrated his goal. Firstly, the goal wasn't even the result of great build up, he merely capitalized on the previously mentioned Valencia mistake. Secondly, and more importantly, it wasn't the fans that wanted to see him go in the summer, it was van Gaal who felt he had no place in the squad.