Tag Archives: manchester united

The Liverpool-Manchester United Aftermath

Bit of a damp squib of a match…

Well, that did not live up to the hype and expectation.

Liverpool 0-0 Manchester United. The points are shared at Anfield, and the match that was billed as the match of the season did not end up being the best match of the weekend (thanks for picking up the slack, Spanish Super Cup).

So, what happened? Why did it happen? Who will be happier? And how did the reality of this match differ from my predictions?

United and Liverpool’s formations were not all massively different from what I predicted. United did end up starting Lindelöf and Martial instead of Bailly and Cavani, and, for the most part, it was the correct decision. Lindelöf played well, only slipping up a few times but to no punishment. Martial was not great, but the ability for United to bring on Cavani in the second half to attack a tired Liverpool defense did help them get the opportunities that could have led to the decisive goal, and that may not have been the case had Cavani started from the beginning. Their four man midfield did help frustrate the Liverpool team and give them more defensive solidity; using that diamond was the correct decision from Ole Gunnar Solskjær. For Liverpool, they did end up starting Henderson in defense instead of Rhys Williams, choosing to then play a midfield three of Thiago, Gini Wijnaldum, and Xherdan Shaqiri. It ended up not costing them, as Henderson did a sufficient job alongside Fabinho, who was fantastic, and the midfield did enough to limit Bruno Fernandes for most of the match despite neither Henderson nor Fabinho being in that defensive midfield role. Ultimately, I feel a bit proud having my predicted team be that close to the reality.

United’s strategy for the match was to defend first, hitting Liverpool on the counter when their midfield and fullbacks were committed up the pitch and leaving space behind them. United surrendered possession to Liverpool, only having the ball for 34% of the match and completing a little more than half of the total passes compared to their opponents. It would not be wrong to say that United were playing it safe, and given the circumstances, it was the right way to approach this game. Despite United being top of the league, the pressure was definitely on Liverpool. Having fallen off the top as the reigning champions and having struggled to score goals over the last few matches, Liverpool needed a statement result, especially since they were playing at home. United wanted to frustrate Liverpool, and they very clearly did.

United’s defensive shape worked so well not only because of the four man midfield, but also because the weakest part of their defense, the left side of the back four, shined. Before the match, I pointed out Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire as the weakest links of the United back four, being most susceptible to Liverpool attacks through Mohamed Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold. In the actual match, Shaw and Maguire were fantastic. Shaw won his individual battle against Salah, and the Egyptian did not have any real impact on the game aside from a few half chances. Alexander-Arnold was also very limited on that right side, not putting in a successful cross for the whole 90 minutes. Maguire was phenomenal, United’s best player on the day, in my opinion. He could not put a foot wrong. He kept control over the defense, won the tackles he needed to, and not only did he not make a single noticeable error the whole match, he also made up for any mistakes made by Lindelöf. There are definitely issues with the Liverpool attack, but the United defense deserves all of the credit for limiting Liverpool’s usually potent front three. That back four, especially that left side, was the reason why United were able to get a point and had the chances to get all three points.

And in that point lies my sole criticism of Solskjær’s game plan. He set up United well to defend and not lose, and that deserves credit, but the game was also there to be won. United could have turned on the gas in the second half as Liverpool got more tired and more frustrated and gotten the goal they needed to win. To be fair, Ole did recognize this, and this is reflected in their substitutions, but I think Ole was too slow in making those changes to go for it. Cavani did not come on until the 61st minute, a move that was obvious and probably should have happened at least five to ten minutes sooner. Greenwood coming on was also a smart move to go for the win, but waiting until the 85th minute basically eliminated that chance. Had he come on with 15-20 minutes remaining, then I think he could have had a greater influence on the match while keeping United solid enough to maintain a scoreless draw at minimum. This is also a match where Donny van de Beek could have been an effective second half substitute, but he once again remained unused on the bench. Ole had the right idea, but I think he executed it too slowly. Had the substitutions come earlier, then United really could have found a way to win the game.

For Liverpool, this is undoubtedly a frustrating result, not just because of dropping points to a title rival, but you once again failed to score a goal. A three-match goalless run does not seem too crazy from an outsider view, but this is the longest Liverpool have gone without a goal in the Premier League since March 2005. With the downright insane amount of attacking talent in this team, even with injury to Diogo Jota, you would fancy them to score in basically every match they played. By the end of the match, the frustration was visible on the faces of Jürgen Klopp and the Liverpool players. The Reds do seem to be in a rough patch at the moment.

The team was not wildly crazy from the one I predicted, but the inclusion of Xherdan Shaqiri was a curious choice by Klopp. It was the Swiss dynamo’s first start for the Reds since December 2019, and while he had his moments, I am not sure it was the correct decision. In such a big match, I am not sure why he did not opt for a player like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Curtis Jones, who had both been closer to the starting XI throughout this season and were in better form compared to Shaqiri. With Klopp needing to use Thiago and Wijnaldum to protect the fullbacks when they ventured forward, being well aware of how deadly United can be on the counter, Shaqiri ended up being the sole true attacking player in the midfield at times, and this was a role he could not perform well in.

Thiago played well, and his passing ability was on full display when he got the opportunities to venture forward. Liverpool’s best attacking moves usually revolved around the Spaniard and his passing and movement. Thiago is a world-class talent who should have been on the ball more. The problem was that, as he was the most defensively positioned of the three midfielders, he did not often get the chances to venture forward. It would often be his responsibility to stay back when one of the fullbacks pushed up the pitch, and he would often have to stay back around Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba in order to limit how effective United could be on the counter. As a result, Liverpool seemed to lack any attacking cohesion and were not able to construct many quality goal-scoring chances. Liverpool had 66% possession and took 17 shots, but only three of them were on target and maybe one or two of those on-target shots were truly dangerous chances. Firmino and Salah especially were poor, and their fullbacks were seemingly playing in two minds the whole game, wanting to impact the attack while also being afraid of the United counter. This is why I originally said Liverpool should have played Henderson in midfield and Rhys Williams in defense. Henderson’s defensive ability allows him to cover for the fullbacks and defend potential Bruno/Pogba counters, and it allows Thiago, Liverpool’s most dangerous midfielder, to get on the ball more and have an influence on the attack.

This reflects poorly on Klopp, who, while starting with a very logical formation and game plan, did not seem able or willing to make the necessary changes when these issues became clear. The issues and limits in the Liverpool attack were clear by about the 55th-60th minute, if not earlier, and it was obvious Liverpool needed to make a change. Despite sending James Milner out to warm up at halftime, Klopp did not actually choose to make a substitution until the 76th minute, taking off Shaqiri for Curtis Jones. His final two substitutions, Divock Origi on for Firmino and Milner on for Wijnaldum, did not come until the 85th and 89th minutes, respectively, much too late to make a tangible difference on the match. It was clear Klopp needed to do something to free up Thiago, and bringing on Milner is a logical move in that regard, but not doing so until the end of the game is a bit baffling. Shaqiri and Firmino were both fairly ineffective in the match, and making substitutions for them would not have been crazy, but Klopp waited so long to do so for no real discernible reason.

Klopp handled his post-match press conference in the most Klopp way he could. Much like he did after their loss to Atlético Madrid in the Champions League, Klopp was frustrated by, or complained really, about United’s defensive set up. Complaining that the opponent did not make it easier for him is not anything new for Klopp, but this might be the most frustrating time to hear it because the necessary changes were so blatantly obvious. Of course United wanted to be more defensive and play on the counter. That is the most logical thing to do because several teams have shown in the past that it is the most effective way to beat any Jürgen Klopp team, but Klopp did nothing to be proactive and change his team’s fortunes even though he should frankly know what to expect from opposition by this point. Surely if he saw how many issues Thiago was causing the United defense, he would have made a move to push Henderson into midfield or bring on another midfielder for Shaqiri to allow Thiago to get forward. Surely a move to bring on a fourth midfielder, for either Firmino or Salah, would have helped Liverpool get control of the middle of the park, get Thiago forward, and allow the forwards to attack the space and the channels instead of continuously spamming crosses onto Harry Maguire’s forehead. This might be my Everton bias taking over, but the Klopp excuses are falling on deaf ears. Yes, the team has injury issues, and yes United were lined up very defensively, but the necessary changes were there to be made. This is still a match that Liverpool could have won. Liverpool dropped points in this match because the team and the manager were not good enough to earn all three points.

That is the inherent paradox of this game. Liverpool dominated possession, attempted and completed more passes, had more total shots, and had more attacking corners, but I at least felt that United were the better attacking side. Yes, a draw was a fair result on balance, but if there was to be a winner, United would have been the more just winner. Aside from less than a handful of genuine chances, Liverpool did not really look like they were going to score. United did not have much of the ball, but especially in the final 20-25 minutes, they looked much more likely to find a goal, and their chances were much better than Liverpool’s. The xG difference was 1.2-1.19 in favor of Liverpool, so the stats do back up a deserved draw. As a viewer, though, it just seemed more clear to me that United had the better goal-scoring chances, even if the stats do not back me up on that.

Regardless of chances or stats, the match ended in a draw. United remain top of the league, and Ole would have been the happier of the two managers leaving Anfield on Sunday evening. While United did not get a statement win, they did show that they do have the talent and pedigree needed to win the title this season, and Liverpool’s faults showed that there is clearly a title race. The happiest person with this result, however, was Pep Guardiola. Manchester City beat Crystal Palace 4-0 yesterday, which, combined with the Liverpool-United draw, took City up to second place, ahead of Liverpool and two points behind United with a game in hand. It was City’s fifth straight league win, with the team being unbeaten in all competitions dating back to late November. They look very good, in arguably the best form of any team in the league. If I was a betting man, I would fancy Man City as favorites to win the league right now. Leicester also leapfrogged Liverpool, being two points behind United and in third on goal difference. While I do not fancy their chances to win the league, they are very clearly in the race and could potentially do it. We knew we had a title race before this match, but this result has seemingly confirmed the scale of the race we are potentially looking at, and with only five points separating first and sixth, the race could potentially get even bigger.

Yes, it was a bit of a boring game. United did what they needed to do, and Liverpool were not able to react and change the game. While the game was boring, it did confirm that we are in for a very exciting title race this season. Buckle up, because it will likely be a bumpy and crazy ride to the finish line.

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The Battle of Anfield Road

A preview of the biggest match of the Premier League season…

Well, kind of a big game coming up this weekend, then.

On Sunday, top of the league Manchester United travel to Anfield to face their bitter rivals and the team directly behind them, second-placed Liverpool. This has been billed as must-see TV, a heavyweight bout between two of the best teams in the league. This is the Ali-Frazier of the football season. It definitely is not hyperbole.

Last season, I wrote a preview article ahead of the title-deciding Der Klassiker in Germany, in which Bayern Munich defeated Borussia Dortmund 1-0 on their way to winning yet another league title. Despite it only being January, this game has a very similar feel to it, and I wanted to do something similar here. I will be going in depth into the match up, looking at both teams, their strengths and weaknesses, and the areas in which the match can be won.

Man United enter this match as probably the most in-form team in the Premier League, having not lost in the league since their 1-0 defeat to Arsenal on November 1st. This incredible run of form has seen United rise to the top of the league, a position they have not been in since 2013. Seeing them start the season struggling with the serious potential of manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær losing his job but rising to this is quite unexpected, and it is a testament to the job Solskjær has done with this team and the performances of the players he has available. They will travel to Anfield this weekend looking to make a statement, reminding the rest of the country and the continent that Manchester United are contenders and a team to be taken seriously.

Things were not always smooth during that great league run, however, and this is where I have some concerns. While they have not lost in the league since November, that span also included European losses to PSG and RB Leipzig, which saw the Red Devils knocked out of the Champions League. It also included a 2-0 loss to Manchester City in the EFL Cup Semi-final. That league run also included difficult draws against Leicester City and Manchester City, the two arguably toughest opponents they played during that run. Much of their success came against mid-table or lower opposition, and do not get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with that. If you want to be a team contending for silverware, you have to win the games against inferior competition, which, especially in the league this year, is easier said than done. It does, however, cast some doubts as to whether this United team is really “for real” or not, as it does bare some similarities to the great run of form they went on when Solskjær came in as interim manager in 2018. It is entirely possible that this match against Liverpool acts as a reality check for this team. We will see how far this team has truly come under Solskjær and how far they still might need to go in order to return to true contention. But make no mistake, this is the biggest match United have played in since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. This is where we see what this United team really is.

Tactically, United have some different options when it comes to how to line up in this game. Solskjær has typically deployed a 4-2-3-1 in his time in Manchester, but they have also used a 4-1-2-1-2 and a 3-5-2 at different stages of the season and depending on the opposition they are facing. The tactics of the match will be crucial, as this big of a match will be a true tactical chess match, so how Ole chooses to set his team up will be important. I anticipate the midfield battle will be important, so I believe Ole will deploy his 4-1-2-1-2 in order to have a diamond in midfield, creating numerical supremacy in the middle of the park. With Nemanja Matić out injured, Scott McTominay and Fred will hold the places in midfield alongside Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes. The midfield four will give United some stability and security, better allowing Pogba and Bruno to attack, knowing there will always be someone covering the back line. The pairing of Fred and McTominay itself is quite balanced as a defensive duo, with both able to get forward when needed but mainly allowing Fred to be the deeper-lying passer and McTominay to use his energy in the press to disrupt the opposition. The key players in this midfield will be McTominay and Pogba. While Pogba has been very good at times for United this season, we are never always sure which Pogba will show up when things matter the most. If he is able to be influential in the attack, then United will have a very good chance of leaving Anfield with all three points. McTominay will also be crucial for his energy in the press and his defensive contribution. If he is able to disrupt the Liverpool midfield and limit the influence that Thiago can have on the match, then United will be in good shape.

Now, this midfield might seem counter-productive against Liverpool in some respects, right? One of Liverpool’s strongest attacking tools are their fullbacks. Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold are both very good attacking players who love to get up the pitch and can play very threatening crosses and give opposition defenses trouble. Certainly you would want to play wingers to try and pin both of them back in their defensive third, right? Well, that is true, but it is also something United can do in this formation. I imagine that in their press, United will want the two forwards to press out to the fullbacks when they get the ball, likely being joined by either Fernandes or whichever central midfielder is on that side. Scott McTominay’s energy in the press will be crucial in this regard, possibly leading to some chances to win the ball high up the pitch. The attacking potential of both midfielders could also force both fullbacks to think twice about pushing up the pitch. If Alexander-Arnold goes forward and Liverpool turn it over, then there is suddenly plenty of space behind him for Rashford and Pogba to attack. It is not the most ideal scenario, as the best way to counter attacking fullbacks is to force them to think about a dangerous winger that they have to mark, but it is something that can definitely work for United.

Elsewhere in the team, the four in midfield means United will only be able to deploy two in attack instead of three. Marcus Rashford is undroppable at this point, despite a poor performance against Burnley, but it will be Cavani partnering him up top. For one, Martial does appear to be injured and unavailable, which makes the choice for Ole slightly easier. In such a massive game, you need to go for the experience of Cavani over a younger player like Mason Greenwood. I also doubt United call on Daniel James, because while he is effective in the press, as he demonstrated against Leeds, he is just a non-factor in attack and gives Robertson more opportunities to attack up the pitch. Cavani also provides them with a more physical presence up top, able to contend with the individual battle against Fabinho and whomever partners the Brazilian while providing more of a target man presence that Fernandes and Rashford can play off of. In defense, I believe the partnership of Maguire and Bailly will continue. Eric Bailly has possibly been the most under-appreciated player for Man United this season, quietly stringing together several very solid performances and able to combine his impressive physical strength and pace with a solid reading of the game and an at least passable ability on the ball. Maguire’s tenure in Manchester has been often criticized, but he is truthfully having a good season, and he seems to be better with a more quick and physical center back next to him. Maguire-Bailly is definitely United’s best center back pairing, and I do not anticipate they will go with Victor Lindelöf. Should Ole choose to go with a back three, which I would not recommend, then the third center back will likely be Luke Shaw or Axel Tuanzebe, with both options being quicker and more mobile than the Swede.

The sort-of theme for this match, as many really close encounters tend to be, are individual battles. Specific areas on the pitch where United are weak are going to be targeted by Liverpool, and vice versa, and exploiting those weaknesses could be the difference between a win and a loss. United’s glaring weakness in this team is the left side of their defense. United’s left back selection is not quite ideal for them in this match up. While Alex Telles is a very good attacking fullback, he is not very good defensively and is prone to being caught out of position. Luke Shaw is not terrible, but he is not exactly good either. He is another player that is prone to being caught out of position, and he is not exactly a solid one-on-one defender either. Playing next to the left back is Harry Maguire, a solid center back but one that is not very mobile or very good at dealing with speed. And they will be going up against Mohamed Salah, maybe the best forward in the Premier League this season. No pressure, right?

Liverpool will likely find a lot of success attacking this left side of the United defense, and I imagine that much of their attack will focus on trying to exploit this weakness. I would not be surprised if Salah was a goalscorer in this match, or if Alexander-Arnold got an assist attacking down this side. To counteract this, United should utilize one of their defensive midfielders to help cover this wing. I imagine this 4-1-2-1-2 will look, more or less, like a 4-2-2-2 at several moments, especially when United are defending. With Fred and McTominay as the two deepest midfielders in that set up, United have the ability to use one of them to help Maguire and (likely) Shaw defend attacks down the left, while the other can be used to defend wherever needed. Again, it is not ideal, but it is probably the best solution for United to protect the weakest part of their defense.

Manchester United will likely line up in a 4-1-2-1-2, with their team being:

Now, let us talk about Liverpool. The reigning champions are coming into this match after a surprising run of poor form. After beating Tottenham 2-1 and smashing Crystal Palace 7-0, the Reds proceeded to draw with West Brom, draw with Newcastle, and lose to Southampton. It is this poor run that saw them surrender first place to United and allow Manchester City back within touching distance of the top, creating quite a serious potential title race in England. Jürgen Klopp will want a response from his team following the disappointment against Southampton, so I expect this to be a Liverpool performance that is as high-energy and ruthless as typical Klopp teams are.

Tactically, Klopp will likely play in his preferred 4-3-3 system, in which Liverpool were crowned champions of England and Europe in the past few years. Do not fix what is not broken, right? It makes a difficult decision quite simple, as it is hard to really predict how United will line up, as they are able to play in multiple different formations, as discussed before. While it could be difficult for Klopp to prepare for which United side he will face, it is still a given that he will want to play his game and dictate how the match will go. It is also the best pressing formation for Liverpool, and we all know how much Klopp loves his “gegenpressing”. In the event that United do go with a four in midfield, as I predicted, then Firmino would likely be tasked with dropping deeper at times, helping Liverpool transition the ball from midfield to attack. If Firmino’s movement is able to move around the United back line, then that will create opportunities for Mané and Salah to cut inside and score. This will also be the biggest test for Thiago in his time at Liverpool, as it will be on him to establish the tempo of the match. If United go with a four in midfield, Thiago’s passing ability, paired with Wijnaldum’s energy, will be needed to override the numerical disadvantage and make sure Liverpool are able to win that fight in defense and able to transition the ball from defense to attack without any serious issue. If Liverpool are able to press well, then they can counteract any disadvantage in midfield by being able to win the ball high up the pitch and attack an exposed United back four.

The biggest storyline of the season remains their injury problems. The incredible fortune that the Reds had last season when it comes to injuries to critical players has seemingly ran out. Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez both remain out for the duration of the season, and Diogo Jota is still a few weeks from returning to the first team. Joel Matip also picked up an injury against West Brom, and it remains doubtful that he is able to return for this match. This creates serious selection questions for a team that usually picks itself, and to a certain extent, still does in this game. Klopp will probably still play his 4-3-3. Mané, Salah, and Firmino all surely start. Wijnaldum and Thiago will both play in midfield. Henderson will play. The fullbacks will play. Fabinho will play. Alisson will play. Those are givens.

But it is the center of defense, and in defensive midfield, that provides the biggest selection and tactical questions. Fabinho will be one of the two center backs, as he has been since van Dijk’s injury, but who will play alongside him? It looks very unlikely that Matip will be fit for this match, as Klopp usually requires first team players returning from injury to have at least two training sessions before their return match and, as far as I know, Matip did not train today. In his place, they can start Henderson at center back, which did not work well at all against Southampton, or they could go with one of the very inexperienced but promising Rhys Williams and Nathaniel Phillips. There are positives and negatives to both choices. On one hand, playing Henderson in defense gives you an experienced, veteran player in the back line that can go against a very experienced and deadly United attack. On the other hand, he was not that good against Southampton in that role, and playing him and Fabinho in defense takes away your two best defensive midfielders. On one hand, Rhys Williams and Nat Phillips are very talented and physically imposing center backs, with their respective 6’5″ and 6’3″ frames and tackling ability making them a more natural and useful fit in defense compared to Henderson. On the other hand, Williams and Phillips are very inexperienced players who can be prone to the rare error, and trusting a 19 year old kid like Williams in the heart of your defense in the biggest game of the season is a colossal risk.

I do ultimately believe that Rhys Williams will start alongside Fabinho, with Henderson playing just ahead of them in midfield. Williams is a talented player, and while it is still definitely a risk, I do think you cannot play Henderson in any position apart from midfield in this match. Going against a player as talented as Bruno Fernandes creates many difficult match up issues, and you need a physical and imposing presence in defensive midfield in order to limit the Portuguese’s influence on the match. In a perfect world, Liverpool would use Fabinho, who is one of the best defensive midfielders on the planet and has all of the traits and skills needed to be the world’s most ideal “Bruno stopper”, but the Brazilian has to start in defense. Because of this, Henderson must start in midfield, as you cannot take away your two best defensive midfielders when going against a midfield like United’s. Williams also provides more of a physical presence in defense, with that strength and height needed to help deal with Cavani. This will remain Liverpool’s main weakness, however. Just as Shaw and the left side of defense was the biggest piece to exploit in the United team, the center of defense is the weakest link in the Liverpool team. Should they play Henderson there again, then you are giving quite a bit of space and opportunity to Bruno Fernandes without a physical threat to stop him, or you are requiring Thiago to get out of his game and focus on Bruno. Should Williams start in defense, then you keep Henderson in midfield to deal with Bruno but are using a very inexperienced defender to go up against Cavani and Rashford. This is something that United can definitely exploit. Liverpool will need a career best performance from Williams to win this game, one that might turn him into a Liverpool cult hero if it happens.

Henderson will ultimately be the main key player. United’s attacking midfielders are the heartbeat of their attack, especially Bruno, but we have seen in the past how teams are able to take Bruno out of the game in order to limit what United can do going forward. This has mostly come from teams being very physical, almost man marking to an extent, with the Portuguese, and this will likely be Henderson’s job. If Liverpool’s captain plays well, then Liverpool will likely be successful. It will decide how strong Liverpool’s midfield and defense will be. If Henderson is not able to stop Bruno, then United should be able to have quite a bit of success in attack, and they could also overwhelm Liverpool in midfield as well.

Liverpool will likely line up in a 4-3-3, with their team being:

So, who wins? As I said before, this will likely come down to which team is able to control the midfield and exploit the weaknesses of their opponent. Based on past results, there are very good reasons to say either team would win or lose. United have played very well recently, but they have not had this serious of a test in quite a while. Liverpool have struggled recently, but they are only a month removed from very big wins against Tottenham and Crystal Palace.

Ultimately, I believe this will be a very big game for Mohamed Salah. That United left side is very vulnerable, and I expect the Egyptian to continue his fine form and get on the score sheet. I think Henderson will do enough to limit the United midfield, and Rhys Williams will do just enough to keep Liverpool from breaking. United are a very good team, but this will be a reality check for them. They are not quite there yet, and Liverpool are still the champions and arguably the best team in the league, even without key players.

Prediction:

Liverpool 2-1 Manchester United

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“It’s Over for Paul Pogba at Manchester United”

On Mino Raiola’s perplexingly-timed comments, why the timing was so poor, and what it means for all parties moving forward…

Earlier yesterday, football super-agent Mino Raiola made the, let’s say interesting, decision to give an interview with Italian outlet Tuttosport regarding Paul Pogba’s situation with Manchester United. The Frenchman’s contract at United expires at the end of next season, and there was apparently some momentum toward a renewal at the end of last season. That appears to not be the case anymore. Raiola claims that Pogba is unhappy in Manchester and wants to leave the club instead of signing the new deal that he appeared to be wanting to sign mere months ago. He hinted at a potential move back to Juventus, and Pogba has had some flirtations with Real Madrid in the past, but the main point of the information that has come out is that Pogba wants to leave the club and wants to do it as soon as possible.

I had some immediate thoughts when I read this interview, mainly revolving around the relationship between Pogba and Man United, as well as the potential interest from clubs that would be in the market for the Frenchman come the summer window (or potentially winter window). My main thought revolving around this interview is just how perplexing and, dare I say, horrendously poorly timed it is.

Now, I am not a football agent. I am not privy to the conversations happening behind closed doors, and I am definitely not privy to discussions within the team and boardroom at Man United. Raiola is a very successful agent with a laundry list of brilliant and well-paid footballers as his clients. He is obviously a very good agent, but despite all of that, I just do not see the logic behind holding this interview and saying what he said. It can be interpreted as a desire to get Pogba out of United or a way to scare the club into adding more money into Pogba’s impending contract renewal, but either way, it is horrendously mistimed and seemingly lacks any positives from an outsider point-of-view. Pogba wanting to leave the club should not be a shock to anyone. He has been very publicly flirting with Juventus and Real Madrid basically since he won the World Cup with France, so none of this is really much of a surprise. Why say this now, though? The timing could not be worse. Man United have their biggest game of the season so far later today, their final Champions League group stage match against RB Leipzig. Pogba is also not a full lock in the United first team as things seem, and he is coming off of easily his best performance of the season in their 3-1 win over West Ham. What good does dropping this interview do for his position within the team and within the dressing room? Does Raiola believe dropping this bombshell the day before an incredibly significant match will have no impact on his player or on United? Pogba has worked hard to get back into the good graces of Ole Gunnar Solskjær and of United fans, and this will further ruin it for no good reason. This does not particularly enhance their bargaining position should they be wanting to renew, as this will further anger the United hierarchy and make them more likely to sell Pogba at the first chance they get.

If Raiola wants to force a move away from United, then he has done a good job at making Pogba appear as more of an expendable dressing room issue than as a valuable and immovable member of the squad. The problem is that this perception will be on full display for the entire football world to see. Will Juventus want to take on a player that could cause these kinds of issues the moment things start going poorly? Would Real Madrid want these issues? Pogba is a fantastic player who has a reputation that I do not believe is fully warranted, but any prominent Raiola player is going to bring baggage to any team they move to. Would that be worth it for any club, especially with other incredibly talented central midfielders like Houssem Aouar, Eduardo Camavinga, and Rúben Neves on the market as well? Would renewing Pogba’s contract be worth it for United, who have an incredibly talented player in Donny van de Beek sitting on the bench? That is my point: this does not help Pogba in any way. If he wants to renew, this worsens their negotiating position. If he wants to leave, this ruins his image among other clubs in a market with quite a few talented players in his position. This also just adds loads of unneeded pressure onto Pogba’s back, makes him a target of criticism and insult from the media, and ruins whatever good will he was building up following the West Ham match. It is baffling to me. I do not understand Raiola’s thought process.

Ok, so what does this all mean? Well, as stated above, Pogba is in quite a situation. If he wanted to renew at United, that has now become more difficult. If he wanted to leave, then finding a suitor might potentially be that much harder. The two clubs at the top of his list have always been Juventus and Real Madrid, and both clubs are in the market for a player of Pogba’s talent and skill set. There were some doubts around both moves, though, and these comments might make it much harder. Real Madrid did not make a single signing this past summer, and it is largely believed that they were pooling resources together to make a move this coming summer window for Kylian Mbappé and Eduardo Camavinga. Would they have the money to bring in both Mbappé and Pogba? Would they even have the need to bring in Pogba if they were also able to sign Camavinga? With how they are performing this season, it is possible that Zinedine Zidane will not be Los Blancos manager next season, so would a change in manager benefit this move? Would the incoming manager be as keen on bringing in Pogba as Zidane seemed to be? Would Zidane or whomever the potential new Real Madrid manager would be, or even the Real Madrid board, want to bring in a Raiola client (there are currently none on the books at Real Madrid)? There are many questions surrounding a move to Real Madrid that makes it seem less possible, though a player of Pogba’s talent and pedigree is hard to turn down.

A move to Juventus would be simpler. Pogba is fond of Juventus, has a good relationship with the fans, board, and current manager/former teammate Andrea Pirlo, and Raiola has a good relationship with Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli, enough to get several of his clients (most notably Matthijs de Ligt) in at the club on good deals. A move, in principle, could be straight forward. However, Juventus’ financial difficulties since bringing in Cristiano Ronaldo’s significant salary have not been a well-kept secret. Would they be able to handle bringing Pogba in on top of that as well? Would that be a sign that Ronaldo is considering leaving? If Ronaldo does leave, would that dissuade Pogba from coming? Juventus have been in desperate need for quality, competent midfielders, and they have been publicly pursuing Lyon’s Houssem Aouar over the last several months. If Pogba became available, would they still prioritize Aouar over him? It might be a binary choice for them between the two French midfielders. It is difficult to fully tell, to be honest. Pogba seems to want a move back to Juventus, and Juve seems to want to bring him back. It is unclear whether there would be financial barriers to a potential move that could stop it from happening, however, so doubts do remain.

I think this interview is a sign that Pogba wants to leave. I had my doubts about the stories regarding him renewing at United, as it seemed like they died down as quickly as they sprung up with no progress at all between the two parties over several months. With only a year and a half left on his deal, I imagine he will push for a move in the next summer window, bearing through what might become a hellish final year in Manchester.

What should United do? Quite simple: they need to sell the player for as much as they are able to get by the end of the next summer transfer window. Pogba is an incredibly talented, potentially one-of-a-kind midfielder who is very influential on the pitch for United when he is at his best. He has not always been at his best since arriving in Manchester, but the uncertainty and upheaval within the club over the last several years has likely played a part in that. Despite this, it is time for United to cut their losses and sell the player, regardless of whether he wants to sign a new deal or not. If he wants to leave, then they need to sell as soon as possible, ideally before the next summer window, in order to get the most money in return. If he wants to stay, it still is not really worth it for United to keep him. At his best, he is brilliant, but how often are they able to get the best out of him? Yes, as I said previously, the upheaval at the club has likely impacted his and his teammates performances, but it cannot be solely pinned on that. The player is at part responsible. At times, he is seemingly a net negative for the team due to his lack of defensive work rate, which is important in Ole’s system for his double pivot, as well as a tendency to disappear in some matches. Pogba is 27, he does not have that much long left at his physical peak, and when you have the ideal replacement for him sitting on the bench in the 23-year-old Donny van de Beek, it does not make much sense to keep him at the club. Van de Beek is not as good as Pogba right now, but he is still a very talented player who has performed well when he has been given the chance to feature. Losing Pogba would not be a big deal for the United team; it is a move that could happen and not be as influentially negative on the team as United losing Bruno Fernandes or Marcus Rashford.

United also kind of need the money. They obviously are not poor, and they did spend well in the last summer window, but getting a good fee for Pogba would allow them to spread that money throughout the squad into positions where they need reinforcement. They could use the money to sign a center back partner for Harry Maguire or for a defensive midfielder that could fit in well next to Fernandes and van de Beek. They could also use the money to sign Jadon Sancho, the player they very publicly failed to sign last summer, or really any other right winger that could complete that front three. Will the club spend that money wisely? Who knows; I certainly have my doubts about Ed Woodward’s leadership in the transfer market for United, but the possibility is there. Selling a player that is not exactly crucial for the first team could lead to very important upgrades that could take United from being on the edge of the Top Four/Six frame to being direct title contenders. Remember when Liverpool sold Philippe Coutinho? Coutinho was an incredibly talented player who very publicly wanted to leave Liverpool, and the club allowed him to leave for Barcelona. Klopp then took the money that was earned from his sale and used it to finance moves for Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker, who were crucial in their Champions League and Premier League title wins. The same principle applies here. Sell Pogba, sign improvements for positions throughout the squad, and United will be one step closer to contending for a league title.

This interview was unexpected, and the bombshell quote about Pogba’s future was even more unexpected. I am baffled by Raiola’s decision to do this, and I do not think it is beneficial for him or Pogba moving forward, but what’s done is done. United need to sell Pogba, with Juventus being the likely destination. Pogba is a fantastic player, but he is not immovable, and it is time for United to make decisive action in order to improve their entire squad.

Sometimes break-ups in a relationship are best for all parties involved. This is one of those times.

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After a difficult start to the season, are Manchester United showing signs of life?

To say the season started poorly for Manchester United would be an understatement.

The Red Devils started the season with a stunning 3-1 loss to Crystal Palace and followed that up with a fairly fortunate 3-2 win against Brighton and a 6-1 defeat at the hands of Tottenham. There seemed to be a crisis in Manchester, and Ole Gunnar Solskjær was firmly planted on the hot seat.

There were some good results, but they came with caveats. United got some wins, but you could always respond to the result with a “yeah, but…”. Yeah, United did beat Newcastle, but it took them a while to take the lead and pull away from a fairly mediocre Newcastle side. Yeah, they went to Paris and beat PSG, but that was such an awful performance from PSG, and there are so many issues with that team and within that club right now (enough to write a completely different article by itself), and it was a largely pedestrian performance from Neymar and Kylian Mbappé. But here stood the biggest test of the season: RB Leipzig, last season’s Champions League semifinalist and considered to be one of the most balanced and complete teams in Europe, led by the young star of football management in Julian Nagelsmann, who traveled to Old Trafford as favorites. Despite the loss of Timo Werner, the Red Bulls retained much of their talented core, including young budding stars Dayot Upamecano, Dani Olmo, and Christopher Nkunku.

And United beat the brakes off of them. A complete performance. A strong first half paired with an incredibly dominant second half, and this was not an accident. United were the better team from minute one, putting out arguably their best performance of the season and one of the best of Solskjær’s reign. And in this game, we finally got a demonstration of something people had been calling out for Ole to add to his managerial repertoire for a while. He made a tactical adjustment, making the first move and forcing the opponent to respond. He made actual genuine tactical adjustments.

The “no tactics, just vibes” manager, in both of United’s Champions League matches to be fair, made significant changes to the starting XI, formation, and overall tactical game plan, and in both matches, the changes worked perfectly. The three at the back used against PSG allowed the team to absorb the threat of Neymar and Mbappe while maintaining the width needed to break on the counter. Again, that win can also be pinned on a very poor PSG performance, but it was still a notable tactical decision that paid off. Against Leipzig, Ole saw a team that wants to attack on the counter with pace, utilizing a back three and attacking fullbacks to break forward quickly. United needed to be able to control the tempo of the match, and Ole decided to play with a midfield diamond in order to overload the center of the pitch and control the tempo and possession more often against a team that only really fielded two midfielders. Matić played as a holding midfielder sitting in front of the defense, while Pogba and Fred played as more box-to-box number eights and Donny van de Beek played behind the strikers. It worked wonders, as Leipzig were just not able to get anything going their way early on. Following Greenwood’s opener, Leipzig changed to a 4-2-3-1, but it was ultimately not enough to get back into the game. Nagelsmann himself admitted that he did not anticipate United playing with four in midfield, as that is not a formation they had used previously. Being unprepared for this team, Nagelsmann and Leipzig were already a step behind their opponents, and United punished them for it.

United had never really played with a midfield diamond before, that is correct. But if you remember our piece from earlier regarding United’s purchase of van de Beek, I highlighted the options and variety that United could now utilize. Many questioned why United signed van de Beek, saying he did not fill a need in this team. Well, now we saw the answer. Having a player not only of van de Beek’s individual quality, but also of his level of intelligence and tactical flexibility, allows United to deploy a midfield diamond, a much different look compared to their 4-2-3-1 and 3-5-2 previously utilized under Solskjær. This allows United to have a more balanced and solid midfield while not surrendering their attacking options, and van de Beek has the ability to realistically play in any of the positions in this midfield, though he would likely thrive more as a 10 or box-to-box eight, and provide a level of attacking creativity and work rate needed to make everything work. While it was not a scintillating performance from the Dutchman, who came off in the 68th minute, his presence in the midfield was important in making the formation work. United’s midfield this season has struggled to find the right balance that allowed their star players to make an impact, and they seem to have found that sense of balance here. With less of a defensive responsibility, Pogba was able to get forward and have an influence on the attack, assisting Mason Greenwood’s opening goal. Bruno Fernandes was able to come on in the second half and make an impact in attack without worrying about what was going on behind him. It worked, and it was important in throwing Leipzig off of their game plan. However, it would be unfair to say it was only the formation that had an impact and allowed United’s midfield to be this effective.

No, we must have an entire section to offer a special shoutout to a player that has gone under the radar quite a bit recently. Fred, the midfielder that Jose Mourinho initially did not want, has become one of United’s most influential players. He is not glamorous, he will not score spectacular goals or provide breath-taking assists, but he is important. He does the work that goes mostly unnoticed when United are playing well. He keeps things ticking over in midfield, winning tackles when needed and playing the safe and necessary passes needed to recycle possession or get the dynamic attacking players into good positions to counter. His presence provided a bit of balance and calmness to the midfield, providing someone able to do the work needed to give players like Pogba and Fernandes and Rashford the platform to succeed. This is not new either, he has been at this level for a while now. Back in December, when United’s resurgence first began, it was the midfield pairing of him and Scott McTominay that began to provide balance to a fragile midfield. Against Sevilla, in a match United fans will likely want to forget, he was easily the best United player on the pitch. Should United stay in this midfield diamond, or at least keep it in the tactical portfolio, having a player like Fred play in this role will help them maintain superiority in midfield, especially against teams like Leipzig, who sacrifice midfield possession for speed. His remarkable turnaround from when he arrived under Mourinho is a testament to his ability and determination as a footballer, and it is something that deserves more recognition than he has received. The victory over Leipzig only reinforced the skill and necessity of Fred in this team.

There is obviously more to talk about from the match, but it seems ancillary to those two points. Marcus Rashford’s historic hat trick was a remarkable achievement for a player and man that can seemingly do no wrong. Anthony Martial finding the back of the net, even if only from a penalty, could do wonders in restoring his confidence. Mason Greenwood scoring and playing well in this second striker role bodes well for his ongoing development. However, the real reasons that gave me hope for a United resurgence were stated previously. This match showed growth in tactical management from Ole and a depth in personnel and performance that United have lacked when compared to their top four counterparts.

But why is this a question, then? Why are we questioning whether United have truly shown signs of life? It was laid out in front of us against Leipzig, right? Well, that is true. But the unfortunate theme that has been a constant for United since Ole took over as caretaker manager is that we really do not know what the real United looks like. Under the Norwegian, United have had runs of brilliance and runs of mediocrity. For a few matches, they look like they are one or two pieces shy of being title contenders, but then, almost on a dime, they turn into a team that look like they are clinging onto their Top Six status for dear life. When Ole was caretaker manager, they went on that now famous 12 match unbeaten run in the league, but only won four matches from the beginning of March to the end of the season. The following season, they were inconsistent at best and awful at worst, but in the second half of the season, especially after the league returned from lockdown, they were arguably the best team on form in the league. Since then, they started this season awfully, but paired that poor start with two fantastic Champions League wins.

So which is the real United?

Well, no one really knows. But for United to put these doubts to bed, they need to kick on from these wins and show an actual run of consistency in form and performance that they have not been able to go on since Ole got the permanent job. Their next two league matches, at home against Arsenal and away to Everton, will be crucial for their season. They are about as close to being “must-win” matches as can be for matches in early November. As much as overall league placement is important, as both teams will likely rival United in the hunt for European places, these two matches are more about laying down a standard for what this United team should be, and what we all know they can be should they find the level of consistency they need.

It is all well and good getting that big, headline win. Spurs know all about that this season. But if you are not able to maintain that high level of performance consistently, your team will never truly be a contender for major honors. It is not about the statement win, it is about what happens after. Ole has done well to get to this point, but now he has to figure out what happens now. United have not awoken from unconsciousness, but there is a heartbeat.

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Some of Manchester United’s Unanswered Questions before the start of the season

While the Premier League has officially started, Manchester United will only begin their campaign this weekend against Crystal Palace. The Red Devils were given an extended break after progressing to the semi-finals of the Europa League, and thus, their supposed opening fixture against Burnely got postponed. While other teams kickstarted their season, the Red Devils instead played a friendly against Aston Villa, losing 1-0.

Sure, a 1-0 defeat was not a total disaster and there were some positives to be taken away. The idea of the match was to give the squad some much needed minutes, and Donny van de Beek showed a lot of promise. However, I think specific issues need to be discussed following the friendly fixture, starting with a pertinent issue I have been raising for a while now:

What’s going on in the First-team Transfer Department

Donny van de Beek is the only first-team player that has arrived at Manchester United. The 23-year-old arrived from Ajax in a £35 million move. However, despite rumours of Jadon Sancho’s imminent arrival, attempts to hijack Liverpool’s move for Thiago Alcântara, and alleged reports that Alex Telles flew down to Manchester to discuss terms, no other transfer has materialized.

I understand that it is crucial that Manchester United not rush into transfers and simply overspend to acquire their targets. Yet, at the same time, as I see other clubs like Chelsea, Manchester City, and Arsenal sign players like Timo Werner, Nathan Aké, and Gabriel Magalhães, respectively, I can’t help but think that we are not doing enough.

It isn’t just the acquisition of players that Manchester United seem to have problems with. Offloading their deadwood is another issue that needs immediate attention. Manchester United do not need Marcus Rojo, Andreas Pereira, Jesse Lingard, and Phil Jones. There have been no efforts to sell any of these players or find potential new homes for them. Besides these players, do Manchester United need 4 first-team goalkeepers? It is time for either Sergio Romero or Lee Grant to be shipped out. As much as it pains me and probably most United fans, I’d rather sell Romero at this point. A player of his calibre should be starting matches, and a move to a mid-table Premier League team would do him a world of good.

Of course, Manchester United need enough players so that they can remain competitive in all 4 four fronts this campaign – the Premier League, League Cup, FA Cup, and the Champions League. However, to progress far and potentially win the competition, Manchester United need to bring in quality players for depth. When I looked at the line up against Villa, I was unimpressed with the backup options we had on the wings.

Ideally, Manchester United need to sign 4-5 more players. In another article, I ranked these positions in order and argued that we desperately need a right-winger. However, after some pondering (and a lecture from Jack), I’m more convinced now that we need to shore up our defence. Do we have enough firepower going forward? Well, barely. On the other hand, our defence is in desperate need for stability and we need to sort this out fast.

At the same time, I think decisions have to be made on James Garner and Diogo Dalot. I think a loan move would do well for both players. At this age, regular football would do them good, although it is almost guaranteed that they won’t find that at United. Garner has to compete with the likes of van de Beek, Fred, Mc Tominay, Pogba, and Matic for a chance to start in midfield, while Dalot appears to have fallen below Fosu-Mensah in the pecking order at right back. They can become fantastic footballers for United in the future, but for them to fulfill their potential, the club needs to orchestrate a loan move for them.

The de Gea vs Henderson dilemma

Seeing David de Gea start the match was quite intriguing, and like many other United fans, I’m clueless as to how Ole will appease both keepers with playing time. Will we see a situation where Dean Henderson plays in the Champions League and Cup games while de Gea starts in the Premier League? Maybe, vice-versa? Honestly, I’d rather Henderson start in the PL and de Gea start in the Champions League and Cup games instead. It is a gamble, but Henderson needs regular playing time at United to assimilate himself into the squad fully.

Or perhaps, Ole rotates the goalkeepers to give both players a chance to stake their claim as Manchester United’s number one. It will be interesting to see what transpires, but I hope that the competition between Henderson and de Gea keeps both players on their toes and that makes both of them better.

Plans to blood in current Academy players?

It was good to see Teden Mengi turn out for United once again, but I was even more excited to see Anthony Elanga come off the bench. I have been pretty excited about the current crop of Academy players at United. While I’d like to have seen Dylan Levitt play in some cup games, I am thrilled to see his development with Charlton Athletic after securing a season-long loan move to the League One side.

There is one player that I have been waiting eagerly to see make his debut for the first-team: Hannibal Mejbri. The French wonderkid moved to United in what is believed to be a €5 million move from AS Monaco in 2019, and I have been patiently waiting for him to make his debut. The opportunities handed to Mason Greenwood and Brandon Williams have assured me that Ole has faith in the United Academy. The recent purchases of several talented youth players have also indicated that Ole and the United hierarchy are serious about developing from within. The League Cup and FA Cup Matches could be good avenues for Ole to blood in young players. The Europa League proved to be an excellent platform for academy graduates to gain valuable first-team minutes. However, with the Red Devils now returning to the Champions League, can Ole afford to hand out as many first-team debuts and start academy players as frequently? I really doubt he will. We might see some cameos from promising players, but that is the extent of it truly.

The game against Palace this weekend will not completely answer some of the questions I have posted here. It may, however, provide us with some sense of the direction the club is heading towards for the 2020/21 season. Only time will tell if Henderson should start over de Gea or if we will see Mejbri feature in the first-team. One thing for sure though, the pressure will be on Ole and the Red Devils to perform better this season.

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My Response to Vikram’s Article About Donny van de Beek

He may not be an exact fit, but that does not make him a bad signing…

Two days ago, Manchester United announced their first signing of the summer. Dutch midfielder Donny van de Beek joins the Red Devils from Ajax for an initial £35 million fee, not including add-ons. The 23 year old signed a five year deal with United with an option for sixth year.

This is a signing that I was unsure about, and some of the reasoning was echoed by Vikram in his blog post recently. However, the more I think about it, the more I believe this is a sound signing, and many of the issues with the deal have very little to do with van de Beek himself or this deal in isolation.

There is quite a bit to discuss regarding this deal, the fit, the structure of United’s midfield, and where United’s transfer priorities should lie, but let us ignore all of that for just one second and talk about the first main point about this signing:

Donny van de Beek is a very good player.

For three years, van de Beek brought a combination of youthful aggression, dynamism, and technical brilliance into an excellent Ajax team, bringing a great blend of goalscoring and assisting from midfield into that team, alongside a bulldog-like mentality. He was a key player in the Ajax team that won an Eredivisie title and made the final of the Europa League and semifinals of the Champions League, quite possibly being the main unsung hero of that team. In a team full of incredible, budding world-class talent, van de Beek seemed to miss some of the acclaim that Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt, Hakim Ziyech, and others received. This might be most exemplified by his performance in their 4-1 win over Real Madrid, where he was arguably the best player on the pitch outside of Man of the Match Dušan Tadić despite not really receiving much in the way of deserved recognition from that match. He ran the show from midfield and carried the team forward into attack, finding Ziyech, Tadić, and David Neres in space in order to threaten a stagnant Real Madrid defense. Van de Beek shone this season in midfield following de Jong’s departure, demonstrating a flexibility and tactical understanding that allows him to feature in any role in midfield, even as a defensive number six outside of his preferred attacking role. United are bringing in a technically brilliant, tactically flexible, intelligent, and dynamic midfielder who, at only 23 years old, has quite a bit of room to grow before he reaches his ceiling as a player.

But let us look at Vikram’s points specifically. The two points he brought up were in regards to van de Beek’s utilization in this United team and questioning how this signing fits into what United’s priorities should be in the transfer market. These two ideas are connected, but we will first look at how van de Beek fits into the team before looking at the grand scheme of United’s transfer market.

It is clear that United’s midfield still needs some work. Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba are clearly locks in the team, but Ole Gunnar Solskjær has seemed to want to fill that third midfield role by committee, utilizing one of Fred, Scott McTominay, or Nemanja Matić in a midfield three in his 4-2-3-1. With van de Beek coming into the team, will he be the third midfielder United are looking for? Well, maybe. While van de Beek has the ability to fit into any role in midfield, his key technical traits and desire to get forward makes him best suited to a box-to-box role, similar to Pogba. There were times where he played as the deepest midfielder in the Ajax 4-3-3, but he usually played in a role where he had the freedom to get forward, with someone like Frenkie de Jong, Daley Blind, or Lisandro Martínez playing in that defensive role. However, this does not mean that he cannot play in a defensive role for United, and Ole’s tactical set up makes it somewhat easier for van de Beek to play in this role. In Ole’s 4-2-3-1, the two midfielders playing behind the front four operate as a double pivot. This means that both midfielders sit in front of the back four when the team is defending, but when they are going forward, one of the two is able to join the attack, while the other stays back to shield the defense. The midfield is “pivoting” through those two players, one going forward to help carry the ball from defense to attack while the other stays back. In this case, Pogba and van de Beek operate as the double pivot. Both are very strong players going forward, and both are capable enough to cover the defensive needs of being in that role.

I will admit, however, it is not the most ideal pairing. Even in a double pivot, many teams utilize one player that is more of a playmaker and another that is more of a defensive-minded player, or they will use a deep-lying playmaker paired with a midfielder more prone to get forward in attack. This could be seen with Cesc Fàbregas and Nemanja Matić at Chelsea, Thiago Alcântara and Joshua Kimmich (or Leon Goretzka) at Bayern, and, a pairing that Vikram and Rynaldy will remember well, Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes at Man United. A pairing of Pogba and van de Beek is a bit weird in this sense because they are two similar players who will want to do the same things, neither fitting into this ideal pairing. Having that double pivot would be very effective for United against teams that sit deep in a low block, as they now have three midfielders able to pick out key passes and break down a defense, but they do risk being caught out on the counter if all three midfielders are forward. It definitely can work, but it will require very strong positional discipline from both players. Pogba has, at times, shown a lesser defensive work rate than would be ideal, and while van de Beek’s engine can make up for that, a double pivot of the two would likely need very good defensive discipline from both players to work. Both players would need to understand when they needed to stay back and would need to sacrifice for each other when both want to get forward. It is a partnership that definitely can work, and can work wonders, but I do admit there are issues with it that would stop it from working, and van de Beek may not have been the most ideal signing to fill that role. The aforementioned Thiago, as well as Arsenal-linked Atlético Madrid midfielder Thomas Partey, would have fit into that role perfectly, cost about the same or only marginally more than van de Beek, and likely would have been more logical signings for United in this role.

This does not make this a bad signing, as this move meets two crucial needs for United: it offers them depth in an important position and provides them options tactically and personnel-wise. One of United’s biggest weaknesses as a team last season was a lack of ability to rotate Pogba and Fernandes, forcing Fernandes especially to play nearly every minute from the time he made his move to Manchester until the end of the season. Solskjær also lacked a “Plan B”, and he seemingly had nowhere to turn when he needed to make an alteration to change the course of a match. While this is partially a reflection of Ole’s weakness in game management, it is hard to look at that United bench and see many players who can come on and impact a match. These two issues were exemplified in United’s arguably two biggest losses of the season: their FA Cup semifinal loss to Chelsea and Europa League semifinal loss to Sevilla. Against Chelsea, Ole heavily rotated the team, taking out Pogba and leaving Fernandes as the only creative outlet in the team. They struggled massively to create anything going forward, with Chelsea’s midfield game plan effectively able to stop Fernandes, knowing there was no other player United could use, apart from Pogba, that could have that level of creative impact. Against Sevilla, United struggled to create chances for most of the match, outside of a strong first 15-20 minutes of the second half. Ole did not have anyone to bring on to change the match, however, and he only made his first substitutions in the 87th minute. This is partially on Ole’s poor game management, but also it shows that he had no one to turn to when he needed someone to come in and make a difference. Van de Beek fills both voids. He is a player who offers more in that creative or box-to-box role than any player currently at United, able to be rotated into the team when Fernandes or Pogba need to be rested or get injured, or he can come on late in a match to be a spark of creativity. He also presents a tactical plan B, as this allows Ole to play with a midfield four if needed, likely deploying van de Beek as one of two box-to-box midfielders on either side of a diamond. In a situation where Ole feels that he needs another player in midfield to sure up the team or to overwhelm the opposition midfield, van de Beek is able to come in and fill that role very well. United now have viable options when things need to be changed.

But this is too much to pay for a squad player, right? Well, not really. A fee of £35 million definitely is not chump change, but in this market, that is not a bad fee for a player who will not immediately play but offers, at minimum, a great influence off the bench and a high future potential. He also acts as the eventual successor to Pogba, should the Frenchman decide to not extend his contract with the club. Especially when the reported fee for the player was in the £50-60 million range last summer, getting him for £35 million a year later is a great deal, possibly one of the best deals of this window, financially speaking.

Now for the final point that Vikram brought up: a player like van de Beek is not a priority for United in this market. In many ways, he is right. I would argue van de Beek offers that depth and “plan B” role that United do very much need, but I would not say a midfielder in his profile is something United were desperate to sign this window, especially when compared to their need for a center back, left back, and proper defensive midfielder. But, for the reasons I have stated, this is still a great move and makes sense for United football-wise and financially. The overall view of this move might end up being influenced by whatever else United do in this window. The club has seemingly turned a corner under Solskjær’s management, getting back into the Champions League and seeming to be only a few pieces away from potentially challenging the Liverpool-Manchester City duopoly on the league title. They are also seeing the moves that Chelsea and Arsenal are making, knowing they need to make upgrades in key positions to at least keep pace with their top four rivals. This window is absolutely crucial for United, even with the impact of COVID on the market. If they do not sign anyone else between now and October 5th, then van de Beek will always be prefaced as “that player United did not need”, which is massively unfair on him. This window will be the greatest referendum of Ed Woodward’s role in this football club. He did a very good job bringing a high rated youngster like van de Beek to the club for a financially reasonable fee, but his ability to bring in the players this United team desperately need will have a much bigger impact in their fortunes next season, especially with the moves that clubs around them in the table will be making. Van de Beek could work out as a United player or he could not, and while I have faith that he will be a great signing for United, I do feel that people’s reflections on this move will be too influenced by whatever else the club do in this crucial window, instead of solely focusing on the player and his performances.

I have more faith in this move for United. I believe this is a very good signing, possibly the best pound-for-pound signing in this window among Premier League teams. Even if he cannot be the crucial third midfielder in that United starting XI, he will still be a very good player that can grow into a starting role in the post-Pogba midfield. Concerns about his utilization in the team are unfounded, and while he is admittedly not a major priority for United in this window, that should not take away from how good of a deal this is financially and when looking to the future.

Don’t worry, Vikram. He will be fine.

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Donny van de Beek is a quality signing but is he a priority for United?

I have mixed feelings about Manchester United signing Donny van de Beek. Recently, BBC Sport reported that Manchester United have agreed to personal terms with the midfielder and have negotiated a £40 million move with Ajax. On paper, it represents a well-calculated move by Manchester United. Like Bruno Fernandes, United haven’t overpaid for the Dutch international, who has been brilliant for Ajax last campaign. Van de Beek scored 10 goals and made 11 assists across all competitions last season and can play as a central, attacking, or defensive midfielder. On paper, he is a quality player who can play in the Premier League.

Yet, I can’t help but feel like he will be misused at United. Don’t get me wrong, I think van de Beek can excel in United’s set up if he is played correctly – a free-roaming central midfielder. Why does that sound familiar, you might wonder? Well, that’s cause Pogba currently plays in that role for United in a midfield set up where Bruno is an attacking midfielder and Matić plays as a defensive midfielder that sits back.

This raises an important issue for United: what do they do with their new acquisition? Where does he play?

One thing is for sure – Donny offers United depth because he can slot in and fulfill either Bruno’s or Pogba’s role. While Fred is a good player, he struggles in Pogba’s position, and van de Beek offers something different in that regard. Similarly, Manchester United do not have a proper back up to Bruno. Jesse Lingard, Andreas Pereira and Juan Mata pale in comparison to Bruno, but the Dutchman has shown a lot of promise in that central attacking midfielder role at Ajax. Hence, van de Beek is an excellent signing in this regard – someone who is brought in to provide cover for both Pogba and Bruno.

However, I have two main issues with this transfer. Firstly, it is highly likely that Ole might field a midfield trio of Bruno-Pogba-van De Beek, with the Dutchman sitting behind the other two. Secondly, van de Beek is not a priority signing given the issues in other areas in the squad. Allow me to go through both points.

Donny van de Beek is not the defensive midfielder that Manchester United needs.

If he is brought in to play as a defensive midfielder mainly, then United are not only under-utilizing the player but also will suffer in big matches. Yes, van de Beek can be deployed as a defensive midfielder, and he can do a decent job in that position, but to harness his full capability, he needs to play higher up in the field. Even if he does play as a defensive midfielder, I am doubtful that the player can sit back and ensure that the defensive line is covered. After enjoying the freedom to roam and express himself at Ajax, van de Beek would probably need a lot of time to adapt to a Fabinho-type role that Manchester United need for Ole’s system to work properly.

It is bewildering because there are other options out there. Wilfred Ndidi would have been the perfect signing for the Red Devils. Also 23 years old like van de Beek, he has the potential to become a main fixture in United for the next decade. Sure, United will have to fork out a fortune to purchase a promising player from a rival Premier League club (I mean we paid £80 million for Harry Maguire, so yes, Ndidi won’t be cheap). However, I believe he would be a worthy investment, and the massive fee paid would pay dividends because he is a significant upgrade from Nemanja Matić, who is the best player suited to that defensive midfield role under Ole’s tactics. Let that sink in a bit, Matić is 32 years old and past his prime. Yes, he has experienced a revival in form at the start of the year, but the aging Serbian cannot be starting every single game.

The thing is, given his playing style, I do not know if van de Beek would do a significantly better job than Matic. Maybe he could? I do not know. It’s times like these when I kind of regret selling Daley Blind. No, I am not joking. Blind has shown his defensive prowess at Ajax and has established himself as a solid centre-back but is also capable of executing long-range passes. Wilfred Ndidi may not possess the same calibre of passing, but I’d argue that he defends better than Blind, and by extension van de Beek, in that defensive midfield position. Manchester United are in dire need of this defending ability.

Not the Red Devils’ Priority

Secondly, while van de Beek is a fine addition, he isn’t a priority for United right now. Let me list our priorities in the order of what we need.

  1. A Right-winger
  2. A Centre-back
  3. A Left-back
  4. A Defensive Midfielder (that fits Ole’s tactics)
  5. Quality Depth in midfield [This is what the van de Beek signing accomplishes]
  6. A Forward (to replace Ighalo once his loan expires)

What we need now, more than ever, is a right winger. Yes, we also need a centre-back, a left-back, and a defensive midfielder are important but relatively less so. Daniel James is our only natural right winger Daniel James is not good enough to start every match, and I do believe a loan to another Premier League club would do him a world of good. Jadon Sancho should have been our priority signing, but it looks like we are going to miss out on him. There have been rumours circulating that united may pursue Kingsley Coman and Ousmane Dembélé. However, there have been no concrete developments just yet.

I’m afraid I have to disagree with the notion that United do not need to invest in a world-class right-winger because they already have options within their academy prospects. Yes, Tahith Chong played brilliantly in his first few friendly matches for Werder Bremen, providing an assist in his debut scoring an impressive solo goal against FC Groningen in his third match. However, he still needs time to develop. The same goes for Mason Greenwood, who even though has played well in that right-wing role, would probably fare better up front. The same goes for the other positions and United need to reinforce the squad before the start of the season.

Donny van de Beek is by no means a bad signing, and I am thrilled that Manchester United have finally made a transfer, especially since other clubs have already secured multiple targets. What I am fearful of is Manchester United misusing the Dutchman or, even worse, not signing anyone else. The club has done well so far in securing hot prospects for the United Academy and Reserves. They need to replicate this success of acquiring talented youth players for the first-team setup. I sincerely hope that van de Beek’s acquisition will open the flood gates and United go on to secure other priority targets. Only time will tell. Ed Woodward please, I beg you, do not screw this up…

Featured Image by Image by bertholdbrodersen from Pixabay

Manchester United’s Return: The Reds Go Marching On…

An Article by Khertan Harshad Ramanan

The Season

It has been a rollercoaster of a season for Manchester United, the players, the manager and the fans. It was a dream start for United as they ruthlessly overcame Chelsea 4-0 on opening day which gave fans huge expectations. However, the score in that match did not entirely tell the whole story as Chelsea was dictating the play for most of the game. Solskjaer’s men would go on to score six more in their next eight league games. As a result, after nine matches United found themselves sat in 14th in the table, having picked up 10 points winning only twice.

At that point, I predicted United would be finishing in 7th in the table, knowing that a long-term injury to Pogba and Martial would make it hard to go against teams using low-block defence. As predicted, the Red Devils faced an ailing Bournemouth and were defeated after their former striker, Josh King, scored the only goal. United were struggling to score against sides that used a low-block to defend, especially without Pogba and Martial. All the other teams noticed the issue and played United accordingly as a poor string of results kept piling on.

The lowest point of the season was when United lost to Burnley 0-2. In rare scenes at Old Trafford, the team were booed off at half-time and full-time. Former player Darren Fletcher described the atmosphere on the night as “toxic”, with fans voicing their anger towards club owners the Glazers and chief executive Ed Woodward. After the game, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer conceded it wasn’t good enough, with the team “lacking ideas”. In the weeks following the game, Solskjaer would solve this problem with the Fernandes signing. It was mid-January, and United would not lose a game for the rest of the league campaign.

The Bruno Effect

 Who knew that one single player was all that’s needed to turn this team around? Bruno Fernandes came from Sporting Libson for £47m and now he’s looking like a huge steal. He came in and gave the confidence that this side needed. He was that creative spark that was needed to help the team penetrate low block defence and ever since he came to Manchester United has only lost once in twenty-two games and that is astonishing. He has a record of 10 goals and 7 assists in 18 matches so far and he has only arrived in January.

 With the coronavirus pandemic bringing football to a halt, it allowed vital players such as Rashford and Paul Pogba to return back to match fitness, adding even more quality to the squad. Now with the full squad ready, United looked like one of the biggest threats in the Premier League. Since Bruno’s arrival, the Red Devils collected 32 points in just 14 games leading United to finish 3rd in the league, securing Champions League Football and are currently in the semi-finals against Sevilla on Sunday.

The Future

Now with Champions League football, Manchester United has the chance to beef up their squad by adding in new talents to make this team title contenders. With the likes of Jadon Sancho, Jack Grealish and Van De Beek closely linked to Manchester United, the club now has to get the job done by signing these players and back Solskjaer up as he fulfilled his promise of bringing Manchester United back into Champions League.

I am very excited for next season as a Manchester United fan. It’s been seven years since I felt this alive watching United.

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A New Challenge Outside England: Angel Gomes Moves to Lille

When Angel Gomes left Manchester United at the end of June, many believed he would secure a quick move to Chelsea or another top-flight club in Europe. Rumours circulated that Chelsea were seriously considering signing the player. However, no offer came from Stamford Bridge, and since the start of July, the pacey attacking midfielder has been without a club. July must have been a difficult month for Gomes, who probably second-guessed his decision to leave Old Trafford in search for regular first-team football elsewhere. August, on the other hand, paints a different story for him, as he starts a new chapter in his footballing career.

Ligue 1 side Lille have recently signed Gomes and have shown that they are serious about the player’s development because they have done something that United failed to: loan Gomes out. For the upcoming 2020/21 season, Gomes would be on loan at Portuguese side Boavista F.C. A move to the Primeira Liga is a sensible one because the level of competition is relatively high and Gomes would surely gain regular playing time. Also, as a footballing romanticist, I do think it’s pretty symbolic of a spiritual restart to Gomes’s career. The player heads to Portugal, where his family is from, to gain some much-needed experience before he returns to Lille.

It is a smart piece of business from Lille, who look to rebuild their club with a host of key players expected to leave the club the upcoming transfer window. Victor Osimhen has already left for Napoli on a 50 million Euro transfer, and it will be hard to replace the Nigerian, who was Lille’s top scorer last campaign. Other players rumoured to depart the club include:

  • Gabriel Magalhães, CB
    • Linked with a move to Manchester United, Everton, Arsenal, Napoli
  • Boubakary Soumaré, CM
    • Linked with a move to Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, Chelsea
  • Mike Maignan, G.K.
    • Linked with a move to Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea
  • Mehmet Zeki Çelik, R.B.
    • Linked with a move to Everton, Tottenham Hotspur
  • Jonathan Ikoné, FW
    • Linked with a move to Chelsea, Borussia Dortmund

These players formed the backbone of Lille, and the Ligue 1 outfit probably needs a season or two to rebuild and create a new spine for the team. Lille have already signed veteran Greek goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis from Napoli as a short term replacement for Maignan if he leaves. In addition, the club has also signed Turkish icon Burak Yilmaz on a free transfer from Besiktas. The move for Yilmaz is a good piece of business as well. Lille get an experienced forward who adds depth to their frontline, which would be severely depleted if Jonathan Ikoné leaves.

Lille have also attempted to sign Colombian forward Alfredo Morelos from Rangers F.C., who would come in as a replacement for Osimhen. Morelos would be a shrewd piece of business for Lille. They get a good player to build a new spine for the team at a bargain price, and yes, while the Scottish Premier League may not be the most competitive in Europe, his statistics in the Europa League show that he is a lethal finisher. He has scored an impressive 14 goals in 16 appearances for Rangers in Europe this campaign, and Lille would have an upgrade from their current crop of strikers (other than Ikoné).

Another player heavily linked with Lille is Jonathan David, which indicates that the club is more than likely going to cash in on Ikoné. David is one of the brightest talents to have emerged from North America, let alone Canada. He has been absolutely brilliant for Gent in Belgium and will easily fill the boots of Ikoné. Only 20 years old, David’s impending acquisition is further evidence that Lille are in the process of a rebuild.

The decision to sign Angel Gomes is in line with this plan of creating a new backbone for the long-term. He comes in as a free transfer and represents a low-risk acquisition with no significant transfer fee involved. However, his inexperience in first-team football means that he cannot be rushed into the first-team. As much as people call Ligue 1 a farmer’s league, the level of competition in France is high, and Lille cannot afford to risk fielding Gomes weekly.

Manchester United and Ole take note, this is how you develop your academy prospects. Loaning them out to gain valuable first-team minutes at another top-flight European team shows the players that they are part of the club’s plans for the future. Gomes was stuck playing Under-23 football when he could have been playing on loan at a club like Celtic. Seeing his peers and fellow academy teammates get significantly greater playing time

For Gomes, Lille have offered him a new challenge and the chance to prove Ole and Manchester United wrong. As a United fan, I sincerely want Gomes to do well. I hoped that he would develop into a phenomenal player and become an integral part of the United team. That dream has been crushed with his departure, but he can become an essential player for Lille if he performs well with Boavista and remains free from injuries. Only time will tell. That being said, I am probably going to closely follow Gomes’s spell in Portugal and see how he progresses. Fingers crossed that he shines!

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Goodbye Alexis Sánchez. I’m Genuinely Sorry It Didn’t Work Out

It would seem that Alexis Sánchez’s time with the Red Devils is finally coming to a close. After a two and a half year “association” with the club, Internazionale look to make his season-long loan move into a permanent one. Quite honestly, it is a move that suits all parties: Inter would not pay a transfer fee for the Chilean international, Manchester United would save tens of millions in wages, and Sanchez gets to continue his fine form with the Serie A giants.

Yet, I can’t help but wonder what in the world went wrong.

On January 22, 2018, Manchester United announced the signing of Alexis Sánchez from Arsenal in a swap deal that saw Henrikh Mkhitaryan move the opposite way. At the time, I believed it was a brilliant move for all parties involved. Sánchez was running down the final 6 months of his contract, looking for a move away from the Emirates, and Arsenal did not want to lose the winger on a free. Manchester United wanted to offload Mkhitaryan, who, while he did not want to leave Old Trafford, was in need of regular playing time. That was my assessment then. Oh boy, how wrong I was.

In the history of swap deals that have transpired in the footballing world, the Sánchez-Mkhitaryan swap is by far one of the worst ones. Both players failed to live up to expectations and coincidentally find themselves on loan to Serie A clubs this past season. Mkhitaryan was loaned to AS Roma.

What I don’t understand is why Sánchez failed at Manchester United. He was a proven Premier League goal scorer and had an excellent track record before his tenure with Arsenal. He was outstanding for FC Barcelona and played well for Udinese. At Arsenal, he was lethal up front. The Chilean made 166 appearances in all competitions for the Gunners and scored an impressive 80 goals. He was supposed to continue his scintillating form at United, and was slated to form a formidable attacking partnership with Lukaku and Rashford.

However, from the get go, Sánchez was off. It wasn’t a case of him being a lazy player or wasn’t hardworking enough. He often ran for the ball when the team lost possession and he would make runs and attempt to link up with the attacking play. However, something never ever clicked during Sanchez’s time at United.

Was it due to Mourinho’s management? One could make a case for this given how the Special One often utilized a defensive (or how some would term “negative”) approach to the game. That could have contributed to why he racked up so few assists and goals. A lot of his teammates, like Rashford and Martial, appeared shackled under Mourinho as well. However, while the rest of the squad prospered after Ole took over, Sánchez still never took off.

Injuries hampered his second season season at United as well, and perhaps it affected the player’s ability to settle in. People often overlook this as a problem when it can actually make or break a players career at a club. The psychological well being of a player is really important, and maybe Sánchez never had the time to properly settle in the club. After all, he was brought mid-way through the season, and adapting to new teammates and tactics in a short span of time is by no means an easy task. That being said, he did have a full preseason with the club to adapt for the following campaign but still fired blanks most of the time.

One also has to look at why he performed so well at Arsenal, and there was one key reason for that: Mesut Özil. At United, Sánchez lacked someone like Özil – someone who was a playmaking maestro. Pogba could have offered what Özil did at Arsenal, but under Mourinho, he rarely featured in that attacking midfield position that the German occupied.

One thing is for certain, Sánchez was expected to come in and produce fireworks immediately. The United hierarchy were so certain that their new number 7 would be off the mark that they provided him with a staggering 500,000 pounds-per-week contract. That really did him more harm than good, and United fans circled the player like vultures whenever he failed to score or make an impact in the game. For 500,000 pounds a week, Sánchez needed to do better. He showed glimpses of his old form in some matches, but they were rare exceptions. He was pocketing a colossal figure weekly for regular sub-par performances and thus became a scapegoat for the club’s struggles. Maybe United fans were too harsh on the player, but time is a luxury in the Premier League, where instant results are demanded.

Sánchez is most certainly departing Manchester, and it makes the most sense for him to join Inter. Since the Serie A’s restart, he has been in fine form, and continuing that momentum with a team and system he is comfortable with makes the most logical sense. Offloading Sánchez also means that more resources become available for a move for Jadon Sancho. If the rumours are true, Sánchez will end his contract voluntarily, and it saves the Red Devils a ton of cash.

To conclude, I want to go over one last point. Some people might attribute Sánchez’s failure to the curse of the number 7. After Cristiano Ronaldo, every Manchester United player to don the (in)famous number has struggled. Memphis Depay, Ángel Di María, and Michael Owen are all amazing players, but they failed to reach the heights they were supposed to at United. Perhaps there is some truth to this “curse.” Not that there is some actual black magic spell put on the number, but rather the weight it carries. Many famous players have donned the number 7 and the expectations are immense. United fans have longed for another star player like George Best, Eric Cantona, and Cristiano Ronaldo.

You might think it’s stupid to blame the failure of a player due to the jersey they wear. It’s just a number on their back, it’s meaningless. Maybe. Yet, at the same time, perhaps we treat players like machines and fail to remember that they are humans which may be the problem. After all, Sánchez had at least a billion United fans expecting him to perform magnificently every game. It is a daunting task for any player to assume the mantle of the number 7 shirt. Maybe, just maybe, Sánchez cracked under the enormous pressure.