Author Archives: rynaldylin

A Response to “Getting Real with United”

This write-up is in response to Vikram’s article, Getting Real with Manchester United.

A rich vein of form followed by a week of “abysmal” results. Manchester United were unbeaten in 19 games in all competitions since their 0 – 2 loss against Burnley in late January. United were then brought back to earth after their 1 – 3 loss against Chelsea in the FA Cup semifinals. It seems like everything is going into a rut, but that is not the case. There was a point when United fans turned on Ole after back-to-back losses to Liverpool and Burnley left them 14 points off third-place Leicester City. United were far off the pace at Match Week 24, but somehow, Ole managed to galvanise the team after the losses. This was also certainly aided by the signing of Bruno Fernandes and the break, which saw crucial players coming back from injuries. United are far from perfect, but many forget that they are still a work in progress. Many of the problems that United fans bemoan about show that they have certainly forgotten where we came from.

Rome wasn’t built in a day

Vikram’s points are valid, and these are the issues that many United fans are frustrated with. The Bruno-Pogba combination have been influential and integral to United’s unbeaten run since the resumption of the league. There is no doubt that Ole has been reliant on Bruno and Pogba for creativity, and there may seem to be no plan B at the moment. However, before Bruno’s arrival and during Pogba’s absence, Rashford was the creative force and scored important goals for the team. At that moment, it seemed like the form of Rashford plastered over the cracks of United’s jarring lack of creativity. The “creativity” in midfield came in the form of Pereira and Fred, and we could see how United were unable to finish teams off during the first half of the season. It seemed like teams that sat back and defended could force a draw because there was no one in midfield that could seek the final pass. A midfield that used to lack creativity was suddenly jolted into life when Bruno and Pogba entered the first team. It is no doubt that when teams shut Bruno and Pogba down, as seen from the games against Chelsea and Southampton, they would nullify United’s attacking prowess.

However, I believe that mistakes and fatigue played a part in United’s dip in form rather than a lack of plan B. Unluckily, their other source of creativity, Marcus Rashford, has been suffering from a dip in form ever his return. Martial and Greenwood have also been sources of creativity too but have been over-reliant on the Bruno-Pogba partnership. Nevertheless, we cannot take away the impact of Triple M (Marcus, Martial and Mason. Cringe, I know but I COINED THIS). Their individual brilliance at times have terrorised defenses and had changed the complexion of games when creativity from midfield was largely lacking. The attack need to find that spark again and be consistent so that they are not too reliant on Bruno and Pogba.

An Improved Defense

It is true that United’s defence needs to be sorted out. Maguire has been full of mistakes, but theres no doubt he has been integral in shoring up the defense. He has been one of the best centre backs for United since Fergie retired. This season he completed the most number of passes, has the most aerial battles won, most clearances and most interceptions. There have been costly mistakes, but these mistakes have been magnified because of his price tag (which he is not responsible for). I agree with Vikram’s assessment of certain players. Rojo and Jones need to be shipped out, but his preference for Bailly and Williams seem to stem from a few of their standout performances. Personally, I do not rate them as highly. Williams could be suffering from a poor run of form as well but he has not entirely impressed since the resumption of the league.

To say that Chris Smalling has been our best defender largely neglects the defensive stability brought about by the Lindelöf and Maguire partnership. They are not perfect, but they are the best that we have. Smalling has played well in Serie A, but the league plays at a much slower pace than the EPL. The Englishman would make a great squad player, as he is defensively sound but still prone to the big mistake. The new look United have benefitted from a stable back four and has kept 13 clean sheets in the league this season, almost twice from last season as they kept only 7 clean sheets. Eric Bailly is good, but he is not a stable force in the back four. He can be great, but his concentration is lacking in some games, which makes him inconsistent.

Not the Finished Article

Quality outside of the Red Devils’ first team is embarrassingly meagre. A strong bench is needed to turn the game around, and it is important for fans to understand that United have been getting rid of the deadwood and bringing in fresh faces either through transfers or from the youth setup. It is fair to criticise United on this aspect because none of the second-string players have brought anything to the table. These include Lingard, Mata, James and Pereira. Even with a plan B, I do not have the confidence of playing these players to change the game.

United seem to need four more signings to challenge for the title again. Ole does have some tactical nous. We have seen how he adapts the way the team plays against the opponents United are up against. Now that United are stronger, Ole set the team up to play with more possession, have fluidity in their attacking movements and use the midfield double-pivot to remain stable at the back and to control the midfield. To prove that Ole is tactically astute, we can look at games against Liverpool, Chelsea, Spurs and Man City. Many times Ole had out-thought great tacticians this season and have been consistent at outsmarting seasoned managers. The Norweigian “PE teacher” does have a flair at managing United and has been an integral in its rebuild.

Lastly, I do believe Ole could be the man to bring United back to the glory days. However, to expect the Norwegian to amass 98 to 100 points or winning 32 games, could be a little unrealistic. It would be a mammoth task for Ole to emulate the managerial success exemplified by Guardiola and Klopp. Does United need to eventually find a successor for Ole to take the club to the next level? Only time will tell, but his system has worked so far.

Liverpool’s 30-Year Wait for Premier League Glory

Firstly, I would like to congratulate Liverpool, Jurgen Klopp and his players for their first ever Premier League title for the club. It has been a long await title and many fans have waited too long for this to happen. However, their EPL glory is shaped by a few factors that will be further delved into. Liverpool’s impressive record this season is not a fluke and they were unlucky to not to have won the title last season but credits to Manchester City. The Sky Blues’ title charge last season was a mark of a true champion retaining their title. This season, however, was quite abysmal by their standards.

Change from Within

On the 15th October 2010, the Fenway Sports Group (FSG) had purchased Liverpool, who had finished a paltry 7th place in the 09/10 EPL season. The club was mired in debt and were only a day away from going into administration before FSG bought the club, revealed former Liverpool FC managing director Christian Purslow. Liverpool were tipped to be the next Leeds United as the Reds would have to sell their players to clear their debt and would have suffered a 12 point deduction. At that point in the season, Liverpool were still in Matchweek 7, garnering 6 points from 7 games and were languishing in 18th position in the league table. This was one of the lowest points of the club’s history. Nevertheless, an unlikely saviour came in the form of John W Henry, FSG’s principal owner.

The FSG purchase of Liverpool was the most crucial part of Liverpool’s road to being a footballing powerhouse again. The group was integral in raising commercial revenue, broadcasting revenue and matchday income. Moreover, they have increased Anfield’s seat capacity and made enhancements to the stadium which has also attracted more sponsors and become a place to hold other events. The group has also focused on partnering with companies around the world to increase the club’s presence and image globally. On top of that, the group had laid a foundation and a system that, in a way, goes against the trend of clubs buying their way to footballing success.

Mike Gordon was also important in getting Liverpool out of turmoil when he became FSG president and was in charge of decision-making at Anfield. He is said to be “most directly responsible for the day-to-day activities” of the club and had identified Jurgen Klopp as Brenden Rodgers’ successor. Gordon felt that Klopp was more suited for FSG’s system because the latter had worked with a sporting director in Germany for most of his time in management. This was crucial because Michael Edwards, Liverpool’s sporting director, was a vital figure in leading Liverpool’s transfer committee. Edwards had led the reformed and data-led recruitment with Gordon and Klopp all having important input in the players that they target.

An example of better recruitment strategy could be seen in Nabil Fekir’s medical with Liverpool. I have rarely heard of players failing medicals and this one came as a surprise because the deal collapsed at the last minute. Although there were some controversies surrounding the authenticity of Fekir’s vulnerable knee (which caused him to “fail” his medical), it also proved to show that the club knows what kind of player they want and who fits into the ethos of the club. This means that players who do not meet the expectations of the Liverpool team can and will be sold or not signed at the last minute. The clear structure and communication among the hierarchies have been essential to Liverpool’s rise to glory. The system works and have seen the Reds turn into a powerhouse in Europe. This is in contrast with teams like Manchester United as they have been struggling to string together good signings after the retirement of David Gill. Liverpool’s model could be the solution to many clubs’ woes.

From Raw Potential to Title Winners

The days of selling Luis Suarez and buying Rickie Lambert, Mario Balotelli, Alberto Moreno and Lazar Markovic are long gone. Gordon’s mistakes in his early career at The Kop has seemed to transform Liverpool’s transfer strategy.  Klopp has managed to turn raw potential into world beaters. The signing of their front three, Firmino, Salah and Mane have all drastically improved since arriving in Anfield. FSG’s early Liverpool side are a far cry from the current team which boasts quality in almost every position.

Klopp’s style of play has also changed from when he first managed Liverpool till now. His earlier Liverpool side were reminiscent of his Dortmund team. Relentless pressing and attacking with high energy and intensity. His current Liverpool side still presses high and with energy but they also have more control of the game. The Reds impose themselves on the game and have come out on top on every department which is why they have been able to win most of their games this season.

Turning Points in the Season

At the point of writing this article, Liverpool had only lost two games. One against Watford and the other against Manchester City. They had been on an impressive 44-game unbeaten run in the Premier League that started after their loss against City on 3 January 2019. Only Watford, before the break in the season, has managed to garner three points against Liverpool. This season was rather disappointing as no team really managed to challenge Liverpool. Even Leicester City’s impressive form at the start of the season could not be sustained as no team has managed to mount a surmountable challenge to the champions. It was very clear from the earlier part of the season that this year could really be Liverpool’s year.

A Season of Rebuilding

On the other hand, I have a theory that Liverpool’s success could be down to having no close challengers. I know, obviously. But let’s unbox this a little further. Last season saw Liverpool leading the table with a 10-point gap from Man City but the Reds never managed to recover from the defeat at the Etihad stadium on 3rd January 2019. It seemed as though the Liverpool side are not able to keep their lead on the EPL table as Man City was putting pressure on them. Therefore, Liverpool are doing well this season because there is no one there to challenge them.

Despite the successful Premier League season that Liverpool are having, they have been lucky in terms of the quality of the league. Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspurs and Arsenal have all lacked the quality to put up a challenge to Liverpool’s imposing team. Even in the clash of the titans match, Liverpool won at Anfield against a strong Man City team.

A good indicator of the dip in quality of the EPL this season would be seeing The Kop struggling to defend their European crown. Although it must be acknowledged that Real Madrid are the only team to defend their UEFA Champions League cup twice. Liverpool’s overall performance in the Champions League have not been convincing either. Their narrow win against Red Bull Salzburg, losses to Napoli and PSG in the group stages and their eventual crashing out against Atletico Madrid have shown that the Reds are beatable.

What else for Liverpool to Conquer?

The true mark of a champion would be to effectively defend their crown. In this case, Liverpool can cement themselves into Premier League folklore if they are able to defend their title in the 20/21 season. The Reds have the potential to win more than one trophy next season should their scintillating form continues.

I understand Klopp’s desire to rotate and rest his first team but somehow it also seems that he did not care for the FA Cup and League Cup this season by fielding a fairly weak side against Chelsea in the FA Cup and Aston Villa in the League Cup. It may be a show of faith in Liverpool’s youth but it could also mean Klopp prioritising the Premier League and Champions League. However, after their first title win in 30 years, I want this Liverpool side to push themselves by retaining their title and go above and beyond in more than one competition. A league title and FA Cup double, three Premier League titles in a row (in which no other team in the EPL era has done other than Manchester United) or even a Champions League and Premier League double could cement this Liverpool side as a legendary team.

Shelf-life of the Team

Every football team has its cycle of successes and downs and this is attributed to the shelf-life of the team. Once a group of players reach a certain age, they tend to decline in terms of their football quality. The average age of this Liverpool’s starting XI is 26.7 years old but the core of the team’s age ranges from 26-29 years old. These are the prime years of the team and could see a decline in superiority if Klopp does not continue to add more quality younger players into his side. However, this speculation can be quelled when players are replaced well and Klopp has done a great job of identifying talent.

To end off, Liverpool’s wait for Premier League glory was due to a myriad of factors and most important of all came from within the club. By changing how things used to work, the Liverpool name has become one to fear again in England and in Europe. The Reds did the hard work early in FSG’s acquisition of the club and had weathered bad days but their faith in the system and manager has reaped benefits as they are now Premier League champions again.

Heroes and Villains of the EPL

The Premier League is back, and it has not disappointed at all. Drama from VAR, referees and players have dominated headlines. There have been some surprising results but the resumption of the Premier League have seen some teams make sluggish starts which could be due to the long break. However, once the nerves had settled, it was business as usual. Here are some of the best and worst performers over the weekend.

Heroes over the Weekend

Bruno Fernandes

Fernandes continues his fiery form since his transfer and has been at the heart of United’s best attacking displays. Fernandes was a joy to watch and it seems he is able to visualize the game slightly faster than his teammates. It is also no coincidence that Manchester United has remained undefeated in all of the games Fernandes has started. The Portuguese midfielder is proving to be a talismanic player that United have been lacking. His clever passes, ability to drop his shoulder and change direction allowed him to stay ahead of his marker and get out of tight spaces. Fernandes’ game would only improve with more quality players around him and the Pogba-Fernandes partnership has got off to a great start.

Christian Pulisic

The American star scored after coming on for five minutes in the Chelsea’s game against Villa. With more performances like this, Pulisic could become a more influential player in Lampard’s team. His goal meant that Chelsea have some cushion going into their next fixtures as the Blues still have to face Manchester City, Leicester City and champions-elect, Liverpool. After coming off the bench, Pulisic should have a better shout at starting Chelsea’s next game. It remains to be seen if this is a one-off performance for Pulisic but the American does have the talent to become a regular in Chelsea’s starting lineup.

Phil Foden

The talented English midfielder was one of the top performers over the weekend with goals against Arsenal and Burnley. A tactically astute midfielder, Foden has the ability to pop up in the right places to pounce on opportunities leading to goals. Foden’s left-footed finish from the edge of the box should earn himself a starting place in City’s next game. His talents are wasted warming City’s bench. He should establish himself as a starter at City soon or should seek first team football elsewhere over the summer.

Neal Maupay

A villain in the eyes of Arsenal fans, Maupay had collided with Leno and had caused the latter to land awkwardly. Leno’s knee had bent backwards from the landing and it seems to have damaged his cruciate ligament. However, Maupay’s 94th minute goal against Arsenal could be the one that saves Brighton from relegation this season. The crucial goal meant that Brighton established five points away from relegation. The Seagulls now have a fighting chance of staying in the Premier League and Maupay’s could be the one that saves them.

Villains over the Weekend

David De Gea

Another game, another mistake. Full credit goes to Bergwijn for his determination to drive forward with the ball. A mistake as well from Maguire, who did not have the pace to match Bergwijn. However, Bergwijn’s shot should at least have been parried away by the Spaniard. A keeper of De Gea’s calibre should have dealt with the shot better. The goal was a sucker punch for United as Spurs did not offer as much as they could going forward and allowed United to have the ball. De Gea’s mistake was costly to United’s top four ambitions and would only increase the talk of Dean Henderson taking over the no. 1 spot at Old Trafford.

Jonathan Moss

“Jon, you’re taking the p*ss”, McTominay clearly summarized the performance of Jon Moss after the referee booked James for a foul. Moss had been lenient throughout the Spurs vs Man United match as he did not pull out his cards for earlier fouls. Even if Moss had wanted to limit himself from showing cards after the resumption of the season, he was clearly out of his depth with the second penalty awarded to Manchester United. Fortunately, the intervention of VAR had corrected the wrong decision. It seems like a mistake would eventually be made by Moss whenever he referees a match.

David Luiz

The ultimate disaster-class. Subbed in for Mari in the 24th minute, “assisted” Raheem Sterling for City’s first goal and then brought down Mahrez in the penalty box to give away a penalty that was converted by De Bruyne. Luiz had singlehandedly undo Arteta’s organizational work on Arsenal’s defence as the Gunners were playing well before Mari’s injury. Luiz failed to clear De Bruyne’s whipped cross and the ball had kindly bounced in front of Sterling who finished the goal well. Luiz had also failed to read Mahrez’s movement and the attempt to tackle Mahrez had brought the winger down instead. Luiz’s failure to read the game and clumsy tackling would surely see him transferred out of Arsenal. He is simply no longer the defender he used to be.

Arsenal vs Manchester City Match Preview

The English Premier League is back and fans around the world will be treated with a clash between two sides that play attractive football. The resumption of the EPL would mean that Liverpool will most likely win the title with two games to win. However, there is still much to play for even if the title is almost wrapped up. The fourth place is still to play for and the relegation battle is still a close one. After the dreadful results left behind by Emery, Arteta and his team will be looking to turn their fortunes around and fight for the elusive champions league qualification spot. With City, the season is definitely over for them with Liverpool 25 points ahead is poised to win their first ever league title in the Premier League era. The season could turn out worse for City should their two year European ban appeal be denied which could mean that a fifth place finish for any team could mean qualification for the Champions League. That aside, the clash between Arsenal and Manchester City would be an intriguing game by two very offensive sides.

Starting XI

Arsenal’s Predicted Starting Xi

Arsenal’s strongest XI: Leno; Bellerin, Luiz, Mari, Tierney; Xhaka, Torreira; Pepe, Ozil, Aubameyang; Lacazette

A 4-2-3-1 formation has been Arteta’s go-to ever since he took charge of the Gunners. This has been the most popular formation in the Premier League as it gives teams possession and control while being defensively solid. With a double pivot of Xhaka and Torreira, Arteta can let his speedy forward line to penetrate City’s defence.

Manchester City’s Predicted Starting XI

Manchester City’s strongest XI: Ederson; Walker, Otamendi, Laporte, Zinchenko; Rodri, De Bruyne, Gundogan; Bernardo, Aguero, Sterling

Guardiola’s most preferred formation is a 4-3-3. With Aymeric Laporte returning to training, it seems like City would have a full squad for their clash against Arsenal. City would surely be favourites going into this game. With the full squad and a long break, Guardiola’s team will be prepared for the Gunners.

Form

Some Premier League clubs have been setting up friendlies to warm up with the resumption of the EPL in a few days. Arsenal has had two friendlies with Charlton Athletic and Brentford. Both games have been played behind-closed-doors and were not telecasted. Arsenal won 6 – 0 comfortably against Charlton Athletic with Eddie Nketiah scoring a hat-trick, Aubameyang and Lacazette getting on the scoresheet as well. The win against a relegation-threatened team should bring about confidence for the restart of the EPL. However, they were beaten 2 – 3 by promotion-chasing Brentford. It seems like Arteta’s side are still unable to resolve their leaky defence, which is worrying as their next game is against Manchester City.

On the other hand, Manchester City has opted to have friendlies amongst their first-team players. They certainly have enough depth and quality to play friendlies among themselves. The scoreline of the friendly is unknown but it may well look like a tougher friendly Arsenal has had since most of City players can walk into any Premier League teams. Even Mourinho said that Man City’s “B team” could be contenders for the EPL.

Players to Watch

Most of the battle will revolve around the midfield. As both teams like to keep the ball, it would be a mammoth task for Xhaka, Torreira and Ozil to match the quality and intensity of City’s De Bruyne, Rodri and Gundogan. Torreira will be important in breaking up play and disrupting City’s rhythm. Keeping De Bruyne at bay could neutralise an important cog in City’s attack but there are other City players that could change the game on their own such as Bernado Silva. Apart from that, City’s fullbacks have the pace to join in and support the attack. In a counterattack, Walker has the ability to pace down the right side of the field, quickly bringing the ball to the forwards.

On the other hand, it is imperative that Xhaka plays his best game against City. He has the ability to spread the ball well if he is given time and space, neither of which you can get when playing against City. With a calmer head and better coaching from a former Arsenal midfielder in Arteta, Xhaka could play a pivotal role in making the Arsenal midfield click. Apart from Xhaka, Arteta has to deal with Ozil disappearing in games like this. There is no doubt that Ozil is a world class player with an eye for a pass but his nonchalant body language on the field often makes him the scapegoat for his side’s losses. On his day, Ozil can change the face of the game and dismantle City’s defence with his crucial passes.

Master vs Student

There is no doubt that the upcoming match will be a test for Arteta to see if he has the capabilities to be a top-flight manager. Tactically, Arteta is a greenhorn as Arsenal is the first top-flight team he has managed. The lack of experience would surely put Arteta at a disadvantage but he will certainly put up a fight against his former boss on Thursday. The restart of the season would mean both teams have full squads available to choose from and each will be fully prepared. The match will certainly be a tactical battle student and master but Pep has to be ready for any surprises from Arteta as the latter might know of a few weaknesses in Guardiola’s tactics.

Predictions

Everything about Arsenal’s backline screams 2 – 0 down inside 20 minutes. However, I like Arteta’s managerial style and would give him some credit for improving this Arsenal side since his first few games in charge. I do fancy Arteta’s chances for a win given that their defensive frailties have been resolved. However, a rejuvenated Man City after a long break would be difficult to beat. This game would most likely end 2 – 1 with Aguero and Bernado Silva on the scoresheet while Aubameyang would pull one back for the Gunners.

At this stage of the season, a Manchester City win would only delay the inevitable, which is Liverpool lifting the trophy. The Sky Blues second-place finish would see them through an automatic Champions League qualification (should they manage to overturn their Champions League ban). However, this would mean that no EPL team has ever managed to win the Premier League three times in a row other than Sir Alex Ferguson.

A win for Arsenal would bring them closer for a place in the Top Four with Chelsea currently occupying it with 48 points. It would be a mammoth task for Arteta to compete for a Top Four position with the Gunners languishing at 9th, making them dark horses for Champions League qualification.

This game might not be a clash of the titans but both sides will display attacking flair with both managers to challenge one another tactically. This could be a close game with end to end action but a little quality would decide this fixture and it looks like Manchester City will come out on top.

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Fergie’s Greatest Average Manchester United Teams

Sir Alex Ferguson is a legend of the game and is among the most successful managers in English football. He has churned out many successful teams during his reign and is famous for his man-management. However, not all his teams have been filled with superstars, but he somehow has managed to get the best out of very average United teams. Fergie had to start makeshift teams because many first team injuries, and this was quite a common theme throughout his years managing United. Even though some of the players under Fergie were not considered “world class”, they were still massively important . Players like John O’Shea, Park Ji Sung and Darren Fletcher were reliable, tactically disciplined and crucial whenever they were required to put in a shift. More importantly, these were the players that embody the character of a Manchester United player.

Sir Alex’s trophy haul includes 1 FIFA Club World Cup, 2 UEFA Champions League, 13 Premier League, 5 FA Cup, 10 Community Shield, 4 League Cup, 1 Super Cup and 1 Cup Winners Cup. I believe that he would have added more to his trophy cabinet had he signed more of the players he wanted. However, the teams written in this article is a testament of the genius of Sir Alex and how he managed to mastermind famous wins with average United teams.

Wolfsburg 1- 3 Manchester United – Champions League, 2009

Manchester United’s Starting XI vs Wolfsburg

An away game in Europe is not an easy task, even if the home team is of a lesser quality. What made this game harder to win was playing three midfielders in defence. Having Carrick and Fletcher as centrebacks is certainly not an ideal backline to have on an away night in Wolfsburg. Furthermore, backup keeper, Tomasz Kuszczak was in goal. I remember seeing the lineup and had a feeling United were going to lose this match. However, even with seven midfielders on the pitch, Ferguson managed to spring a surprise 1-3 win courtesy of a Michael Owen hat-trick. Even Gabriel Obertan got in on the action and managed to assist one of the goals. This match was one of the hallmarks of Sir Alex’s genius when it came to getting the best out of very average United teams.  

Manchester United 2 – 0 Arsenal – FA Cup, 2011

Manchester United’s Starting XI vs Arsenal

Manchester United comfortably won this match even with a makeshift team against Arsenal. This was a period of time when United always seemed to win games against the Gunners. Even with seven defenders in the team, United managed to comfortably beat Arsenal 2 – 0. Rafael and Fabio were impressive in their attacking display, oftentimes being at the heart of the counterattacks. This game gave me hope that the fullback berths were secured with the Da Silva brothers, but things did not eventually work out in the end.

Manchester United 8 – 2 Arsenal – English Premier League, 2011

Manchester United’s Starting XI vs Arsenal

How this Manchester United team managed to score EIGHT goals against Arsenal will forever be puzzling to me. This game was followed by Manchester City’s thrashing of Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane. Spurs were beaten 1 – 5 by Manchester City and it was this match that dubbed the Citizens as title contenders. At that point in time, I actually believed that to be true. City had signed good quality players over the summer and had a really good manager in Roberto Mancini. City’s result against Spurs probably fueled United’s desire to make a statement about their noisy neighbours, and this was the best game to do it. But to win 8-2 was incredible. This was a testament of Sir Alex’s capability as a manager, because he was able to get players such as Cleverley to play beyond his potential. Sir Alex also had faith in Welbeck, who is now an Arsenal legend, to be a striker of United’s calibre. Smalling, Jones and Evans were undoubtedly very good players but they were not champion-material yet. Alas, this United team did not have enough quality to finish ahead of their neighbours, as City were crowned EPL champions in the 2011/2012 season. However, this was just the start of a squad rebuild into a team that was meant to challenge for titles in the future.

Manchester United 6 – 2 Fenerbahçe, Champions League, 2004

Manchester United’s Starting XI vs Fenerbahçe

“So good, they named him twice.” While it is true Djemba-Djemba was named twice, his football could not quite nearly reach half of its potential. On paper, a centre midfield pairing of Kleberson and Djemba-Djemba does not exactly ring world class. Bellion could also be considered to be another United flop. Bellion’s career at United never really took off and failed to nail a starting place in an evolving United team. On paper, the midfield looks like a mid-table team, barring Ryan Giggs. However, it was thanks to the excellence of Wayne Rooney, on his debut, that United managed to destroy Fenerbache 6 – 2. Rooney’s debut hat-trick was certainly the stuff of dreams, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Manchester United 3 – 2 Wolverhampton Wanderers, Carling Cup 2010

Manchester United’s Starting XI vs Wolverhampton

It is common knowledge that the Big Four (in 2009) would field promising young players in the League Cup for them to gain crucial first team experience. Against Wolves, Sir Alex had fielded a fairly young United team, which included the likes of Bebe, Macheda and Obertan. With Ronaldo leaving the Reds in 2008, Fergie had set out trying to find someone to replace him. Along came Obertan from Bordeaux. Little was known about him, but he was supposedly the one to replace Ronaldo. Even I was bought into it at that time. I was hopeful of this unknown talent from France, as he had the skills exactly like Ronaldo. However, this hype was premature, as his career only went downhill after leaving United. The same can be said about Bebe. The Portuguese midfielder’s shock move to United raised eyebrows as Ferguson did not even watch the player play. I was doubtful of Bebe, but I thought he would have at least put on a display whenever he played. Unfortunately, he only started seven games during his four year stint at United, scoring two goals.

Even though these players were average, some below average, it is important to note that fringe players do have an important role in title challenges. The depth of the United squad meant that fringe players were crucial to take some of the burden carried by the starters. The fact that most of these players are no longer in the current United side but are still plying their trade elsewhere goes to show how Sir Alex had managed to squeeze the very best out of relatively weak and average players. His man-management was something to marvel at and should be a guiding principle for managers to follow suit.

Has De Gea become a liability for Manchester United?

De Gea has been undroppable ever since he established himself as one of the Premier League’s top shot-stoppers. If there were any doubts, his heroics in the 18/19 EPL season, which saw him save 11 shots in the second half against Spurs, should cement his status as a goalkeeper of high calibre. The United hierarchy rewarded De Gea’s performances by making him the highest-paid player in the squad in 2019. With the high salary, one could expect De Gea to at least maintain his high levels of performance and consistency.

However, his performances this season have been nothing but abysmal. According to Opta, “since the start of last season, no player has made more errors leading to goals in the Premier League than David de Gea (6)”. Most of his errors have come against smaller teams like Watford, who have been in a relegation battle this season. When United are competing against smaller teams, they dominate possession for most of the game. Smaller teams are comfortable employing the low block against a United team that becomes toothless against the low block tactic. With United dominating possession most of the game, they become susceptible to counterattacks. This could mean De Gea, who has nothing for most of the match, could have certain lapses in concentration that has resulted in as many as six mistakes. De Gea has shown that he is capable of maintaining his concentration with magnificent saves from previous seasons, but it appears that he could be at the start of a decline.

Support for De Gea is essential to his performances, especially when he is low on confidence. However, with his deteriorating mentality and concentration, Solskjær must be ruthless in his decision-making. De Gea needs to be dropped or sold. De Gea’s blunders have caused United to drop precious points in their quest for a top four finish. Should the Reds boss continue to put his faith in De Gea? So far, Solskjær’s loyalty to the Spaniard has been misplaced.

De Gea has not shown loyalty to United either. He goes where the money is. At 28, he is supposed to be at the peak of his career. Instead, his poor performances with the national team during the 2018 World Cup and with United seem to encapsulate his diminishing concentration. Money has been a big motivating factor in him staying at United, with his flirtation with Real Madrid leading to the United hierarchy giving him a wage increase. One might even argue that his abysmal performances with Spain during the World Cup have essentially diminished his chances of playing for Los Blancos. This would mean that staying with United would be his best option, as he has already received legendary status as a goalkeeper and he is essentially guaranteed a first team place with the highest wage in the team.

Solskjær should consider shipping De Gea out of Old Trafford and turn to Dean Henderson, who is currently on loan at Sheffield United. Henderson has 10 clean sheets this season, ranking him second for most clean sheets in the Premier League. His performances have helped Sheffield United to 7th on the league table and just two points off Manchester United. At 23, Henderson could benefit being at United and being a regular starter. This would ensure stability and longevity in defence. Starting Henderson would be in line with Solskjær’s philosophy of having a young and hungry team challenging for the title. Considering this is Henderson’s first season playing in the Premier League, it could mean that he could just be having a wonder season. However, he has been consistent for Sheffield United and he has the potential to be world-class in the near future if he is developed well. Shipping De Gea out could prove to be a big gamble but I believe that this could be an opportunity for Henderson to have a break on this promising United team. Rebuilding from defence would certainly provide a sense of foundation and create longevity with a young backline. Ultimately, the decision lies with Solskjær but getting Henderson into this young United team could prove fruitful in the long run.