Van Gaal is not the superstar-whisperer United need
After Louis van Gaal’s appointment as the successor to David Moyes at Manchester United was greeted with an almost unanimous chorus of approval, it was inevitable he would face a backlash. The results of the weekend just past will leave him feeling twitchier than at any time since he took the job.
United had won 4-1 at Swansea in David Moyes’ first Premier League match as United manager. Their defeat at the same ground this time around meant that when you compare their performance over 26 league matches to the results in the same fixtures last season, Van Gaal’s team is now two points worse off than Moyes’s.
This is not a crisis – United have, after all, lost only two of their past 20 matches – so much as a gradual curdling of anticipation into disillusionment. The disappointment will be felt by the manager, who won the title in his first season at both Barcelona andBayern Munich, as much as by the supporters.
The problem is not so much that United are 12 points behind Chelsea and out of serious contention for the title. It is that they have not yet succeeded in consistently producing the sort of attacking football with which Van Gaal made his name. They are second only to Manchester City in terms of average possession and pass completion, but Chelsea and Manchester City are hitting roughly three shots on target for every two United produce.
United are passing the ball incessantly but their movement does not disrupt opposing defences. In recent weeks, Van Gaal has turned to Marouane Fellaini for an alternative route to goal, but it’s typical of the luckless Fellaini’s United career that even his modest recent success seems symptomatic of a wider failure. Sadly for Fellaini, he just doesn’t fit.
Even if United’s supporters were content to watch them play direct football towards a big man, Van Gaal has discovered that any deviation from the club’s traditional attacking approach will be met with taunts and mockery. The crowd at Swansea greeted every long ball towards Fellaini with howls of derision. Old Trafford’s legion of recently retired legends has lately been debating whether it’s fair, post-Ferguson, to keep talking about “the United Way”. But it’s clear that the rest of English football expects United to play in a certain fashion.
Certainly, the consensus is that with a squad that has been reinforced by £220 million of spending over the past four transfer windows, Van Gaal should be doing rather better than he is.
It should be remembered that Van Gaal has never really been a chequebook manager. He’s a developmental technocrat whose proudest boast has always been that he knows how to get the best out of young players. But United have recently been spending on a scale that means the job of their manager is not about bringing through young players, it’s about getting the best out of a squad of established stars.
It’s plain that United’s strategy last summer was to recruit the highest-profile players they could get, rather than to look for a mix of players that could serve their new coach’s tactical system. First get Di María and Falcao, then work out how they’re all going to play together.
They now have a squad that has been designed as much by Jorge Mendes as by Van Gaal. If that’s the way United is going to be run, maybe the job is more suited to a diplomatic superstar-whisperer such as Carlo Ancelotti than someone as awkward and confrontational as the Dutchman.
Top four finish
As long as his team stays in the top four, Van Gaal will be adjudged to have fulfilled the basic expectations, but results have opened up the prospect of being passed out byLiverpool on the home straight.
Before giving Liverpool too much credit for their recent resurgence, it’s worth remembering that they remain 16 points worse off compared to the same 26 fixtures as last season, which is a worse record than any team except Everton.
Their poor form over the first half of the season has at least accomplished the task of rapidly downgrading expectations, so that their current run of form feels like an upward curve. The return of Daniel Sturridge, the rejuvenation of Mamadou Sakho and the impressive introduction to the side of Jordon Ibe means the angst and recrimination over the well-documented failures of the transfer committee has, for now at least, been forgotten about.
Brendan Rodgers, a hunted animal at the start of December, has recovered some of his old self-assurance.
The manager’s response to last week’s drama surrounding the penalty Mario Balotellisnatched from the grasp of Jordan Henderson was considerably more adroit than the one Steven Gerrard produced as a pundit on TV.
Gerrard said that Balotelli had “disrespected” Henderson by demanding to take the penalty. In fact Balotelli, who has a peculiar genius with penalties, was right to insist on taking it; the problem was that by handing the ball over so tamely, Henderson, who is tipped to be the next Liverpool captain, was made to look like a wimp.
While Gerrard seemed intent on dwelling on the awkwardness of the situation, Rodgers skilfully glossed over it by cracking a few jokes. Balotelli deciding to demand responsibility for a change is the least of Rodgers’s worries.
For the passengers on flight AF1068, departing from Charles de Gaulle airport at 12.55pm, it was probably one of those occasions when Roy Keane might as well have hung a sign around his neck saying: Do Not Disturb.
There was once a time when he and Alex Ferguson might have imagined this kind of chance meeting would be a pleasant occasion. They could have caught up, shared a few stories and been reminded how, in happier times, they were drawn together by their competitive courage in the name of Manchester United.
Instead, it is fair to say there was a distinct lack of entente cordiale as the two men crossed paths for the first time since using their latest autobiographies as a form of artillery to shoot one another down. On one side, Keane sat impassively by the window. On the other side, Ferguson was three rows back. Two men who once had so much in common but who now give the impression they would rather not share one another’s oxygen. The plane had not even taken off before another passenger was speculating whether the flight might have to be diverted due to air-rage.
The first thing to report is that Keane decided not to prove Ferguson’s theory that “the hardest part of Roy’s body is his tongue”. The two most impenetrable stares sinceGeneral Zod did not lock and the former United captain evidently did not feel this was the right place to challenge the older man about the “lies, basic lies” within Ferguson’s book.
Ferguson, in turn, did not rev up the infamous Hairdryer and opted instead for his other well-rehearsed ploy of trying to freeze an old adversary into indifference, both he and Keane studiously ignoring one another as they passed in the terminal. Ferguson and his wife, Cathy, had been first on the flight after he was recognised by a member of Air France’s staff and moved to the front of the queue. Keane was the last after hanging back. As the Irishman took his seat, Cathy gave her husband a nudge. Ferguson took one look, narrowed his eyes and then lifted up his newspaper to continue reading the sports pages. That newspaper was a handy shield over the next hour or so in the air.
What is difficult to know is how the two men reacted when they saw another among the pastries and fruit juices of Air France’s VIP lounge and realised they were about to share the business-class seats back to Manchester. Perhaps that was the moment Keane challenged Ferguson about using his “friends in the media” to put out various lies about him. Or maybe this was the chance for Ferguson, in Paris because of his work with Uefa, to tell him to keep his nose out of the Rock of Gibraltar business. We will probably have to wait until the next book. Though it is fair to say that if things had got out of hand there were plenty of people to get in between them; a squad of French rugby players were on the same flight.
Spare a thought, though, for Paul Scholes bearing in mind he was travelling with Keane, having been another part of ITV’s coverage of Chelsea’s 1-1 draw against Paris St Germain. Scholes’s presence as the man in the middle merely added to the sense of awkwardness. Cathy seemed pleased to see him, but maybe this wasn’t the time to beckon him over for a chat.
It ended without so much as a backward glance. Keane was off the plane first while Ferguson hung back this time and, more than anything, it felt slightly strange to see the former manager and the former captain, two of the people who have been most prominently involved in the United success story, reduced to giving each other the silent treatment. No doubt they will both blame one another. Their feud has been a captivating story and offers a fascinating insight into their personalities and flaws. But they really do need their heads knocking together.
Grassroots football dying of poverty as Premier League rakes in billions
Amateur teams playing on sloped pitches with broken equipment just yards from Merseyside’s top flight giants.
An old shipping container for a storehouse, broken goalposts held together with gaffer tape – this is the shameful condition of grassroots football in England.
But their facilities are a million miles from the luxury enjoyed by neighbours like Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard and Everton’s Ross Barkley.
Stanley Park is a perfect example of the neglect blighting thousands of amateur football teams in which 1.8 million adults play across the country
And while football bosses have announced a record £5.14billion deal to televise live Premier League matches, funding to the grassroots game is actually being cut.
Worse, amateur teams face a massive rise in fees charged by councils for the use of pitches – in some cases up from £150 to £600 a season
Under these conditions, Stanley Park will struggle to produce another Michael Owenor Wayne Rooney. Both England stars played there as teenagers before Owen got his big break with Liverpool and Rooney with Everton.
The dedicated volunteers who run youth and Sunday league sides feel they should get more help from the game’s wealthy clubs. Nationally, the Premier League currently spends £168million on community programmes and facilities – a fraction of the billions they make from broadcasting rights.
Stephen O’Reilly, secretary of Liverpool junior summer league, believes the big clubs should do more. He said: “Bill Shankley used to come out of Anfield and watch the kids playing football here. Those days are gone. The Premier League should be looking after these leagues, where your Gerrards and Rooneys all started.”
Stephen added: “All our equipment is kept in the storage container. There are dogs running across the pitches. There are no toilet facilities, no hot water.
“Football is a religion here. But now it’s all about money, money, money.”
The Premier League originally promised to give five per cent of its broadcasting income to grassroots projects.
This has now fallen to below one per cent, with the league, the Government and the FA each cutting its contributions through the Football Foundation from £20million a year to £12million.
In most cases, the management of publicly owned pitches is controlled by town halls, which have had to slash leisure budgets in the face of Government austerity measures.
Kenny Saunders, founder of the Save Grassroots Football campaign, believes lack of long term investment is crippling clubs. He wants the Premier League to put 7.5 per cent of broadcasting income into the grassroots game. He said: “Everyone should pay something back for the next generation of kids.”
Mr Saunders added: “This isn’t just about Merseyside. It is happening across the country. Matches are called off week in, week out due to poor facilities.”
England has just 639 of the latest full size 3G public pitches, each costing £550,000, while Germany has 3,735.
A Save Grassroots Football online petition calls on the Government to ensure grassroots football gets long term support from the Premier League.
The Premier League said it “recognises its responsibilities” to grassroots football and redistributes more money across the sport than any European league.
Manchester United said: “All Premier League clubs have a charitable community foundation which do a considerable amount of work. Ours sponsors a youth league in Manchester and we are fully engaged in our local community.”
Liverpool come from behind to lift Selhurst Park hoodoo
Second half Sturridge and Lallana goals see Rodger’s side through to FA Cup quarter finals
Crystal Palace 1 Liverpool 2
Liverpool exorcised some demons at Selhurst Park by reaching the FA Cup quarter-finals with an impressive win against Crystal Palace.
Brendan Rodgers’ side returned to south London in Saturday’s late kick-off looking to avoid another horror show at the ground where last season’s title dreams went up in smoke before then suffering a 3-1 loss this term.
Victory keeps alive the dream of Steven Gerrard ending his Liverpool career by holding the FA Cup aloft on his 35th birthday, although for a while it looked like Alan Pardewcould be involved in another upset against the Merseyside giants.
The Palace manager’s extra-time winner secured the Eagles a famous win against the Reds in the 1990 FA Cup semi-final and he was celebrating again after 15 minutes, when a gaffe from Martin Skrtel allowed Campbell to slot home.
Dwight Gayle could have doubled that lead as half-time approached but that would have been harsh on Liverpool, who had 17 shots over the course of the opening period.
Furthermore, Palace debutant Pape Souare got away with a penalty after taking down Sturridge, who started the comeback four minutes after the break, finishing a fine team move with aplomb.
It was a fantastic volley from the England striker, whose international team-mate Lallana scored what proved to be the 58th minute decider — directing home after Julian Speroni failed to deal with a stinging Mario Balotelli free-kick.
Few could argue with the result as Liverpool impressed from the outset, with Sturridge directing a Lazar Markovic cross wide early on.
Rodgers’ side were looking decent but they were almost caught out when Joe Ledleysent a wonderful through ball to Gayle, only for Skrtel to cut out his threatening cross.
It was a timely interception by the Slovakian defender, who undid that good work in the 15th minute.
Skrtel’s attempted clearance from a high Ledley ball forwards ended going backwards after a slight nudge from Gayle. The forward chased the loose ball and forced Simon Mignolet into a save, only for the ball to fall kindly for Campbell to slot home.
It was a sucker punch but one Liverpool responded well to.
Speroni did fantastically to prevent Lallana drawing parity after a fine, intricate team move, before Philippe Coutinho tested the Palace goalkeeper in twice quick succession.
The visiting fans certainly let their displeasure known, although that anger almost turned to joy as Joe Allen volleyed just wide, with Coutinho and Markovic having efforts as Pardew’s men rode their luck.
Liverpool were in complete control yet would have gone in two-down at the break was it not for Mignolet stopping Gayle.
A two-goal deficit would have harsh and, smelling blood, Balotelli was brought on in place of Markovic at the break.
It was again Liverpool looking the most threatening side and they drew level in some style inside four minutes of the restart.
Allen’s ball between the lines found Henderson, whose cute, clipped ball was met by a wonderful left-footed volley by Sturridge.
Palace attempted to go back ahead through Joel Ward and Gayle, although Liverpool were looking confident and went ahead in the 58th minute.
Scott Dann was adjudged to have fouled Balotelli, whose stinging effort from the result free-kick was spilled by Speroni into the path of Lallana.
Palace went with a more attacking approach in search of a leveller but they were struggling to break down the Liverpool defence and create clear-cut chances.
The Reds appeared happy to soak up the pressure and Henderson saw a cross cut out by Scott Dann, before Rickie Lambert had an effort deflect over.
Gayle blazed a late free-kick over but Palace never really looked like drawing level as Palace fell to a second defeat in all competitions under Pardew.
Louis van Gaal’s team, branded “long-ball United” by Sam Allardyce, second only to Burnley in table
Thumping the ball up to a big man is the supposed plan B of a side whose blueprint has gone awry. United appeared to have no plan at all at Upton Park on Sunday. So on came Fellaini after 72 minutes in a desperate scramble to avert defeat via the Belgian’s height and muscle.
Trailing 1-0 to a Cheikhou Kouyaté goal United had bumbled along with no discernible shape or strategy, the manager’s odd selection again casting Wayne Rooney as a right-sided midfielder, Ángel Di María as a No10 – these two should exchange positions – and had the sluggish Radamel Falcao paired with Robin van Persie in attack, when James Wilson’s pace and vibrancy would have asked sterner questions.
The statistics back Allardyce’s comments and make for unsettling reading from United’s perspective. The 1,861 long passes played by the team so far in the Premier League is the second highest behind Burnley’s 1,877. Relegation-threatened QPR, West Bromwich Albion and Leicester City make up the rest of the top five.
The other end of that table consist of United’s rivals at the top: Arsenal, unsurprisingly, are lowest with 1,098, followed by Manchester City (1,184), Liverpool (1,377), and Chelsea (1,407), who are fifth, a place higher than Swansea City, whose tally is 1,382.
After United had escaped with a point, Blind said of Wednesday’s visit of Burnley: “We have to keep looking up and three points is important in the next game. I like there’s another game coming already because we can forget this one.”
They may want to forget about that performance but what should be noted is how Blind and the rest of Van Gaal’s squad seem to forget the vital stuff of whatever it is they work on during the week. Come the game and any strategy seems to vanish. Instead, Rooney, Di María, Van Persie and co appear to enter make-it-up-as-we-go-along mode. This is not what a €200 million-plus summer spend is supposed to achieve.
In the close season Van Gaal questioned his defensive resources. He hoped to have a Jonny Evans-Mats Hummels-Thomas Vermaelen centre-back trio when playing 3-5-2. He ended the summer window having added Marcos Rojo and Blind, who can also play in defence. Yet the glaring issue is not Van Gaal’s rearguard but the front. The purchase of Di María, for €75 million, and a season-long loan of Falcao was supposed to herald a new galáctico era. They would join Van Persie, Rooney, Mata and Adnan Januzaj, the new bright young thing, in a United strikeforce who would terrify defences in a blitz of attacking and goals.
Rooney, who has operated as a centre-forward, a No10, a defensive midfielder, a traditional midfielder and now a right-sided kind of auxiliary schemer, may feel he has been messed about even more than under Alex Ferguson. The player who signed fresh terms under David Moyes in the summer of 2013 following a turbulent few months when minded to leave for Chelsea, did so, in part, because he wanted to become United’s record goalscorer.
Having yet to score in 2015 – the two against Newcastle United on Boxing Day were his last – Rooney is on 224 goals, 25 behind Sir Bobby Charlton. He is a victim of Van Gaal’s eccentric team selection. So muted has Rooney become he is yet to record a shot on target in the league this year.
United’s second position in the long-pass league is countered by numbers that should encourage them. There is a pass accuracy of 84.8 per cent, second to Manchester City’s 85.1 per cent and better than Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. A possession figure of 59.6 per cent is second, again, only to City, and better than Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool.
The problem is Falcao, Van Persie, Wilson and Rooney – when allowed to play as a striker – are not being supplied adequately. United rank only 10th in total shots – the official way chances created by a team are measured – with 229. City are No1, with 289, Chelsea are second (281), Arsenal third (273) and Liverpool fourth (268).Southampton, Tottenham Hotspur, QPR and West Ham are all ahead of United.
Phil Jones said: “The spaces against West Ham weren’t really there in the first half and unfortunately it took a goal from them for the gaps to appear and for us to find those pockets to get Robin and Radamel on the ball, playing one-twos in and around the box and creating chances in the second half.”
United’s heritage and success derives from overwhelming teams. The club is summed up by the fans’ chant of “attack, attack, attack!” and now is the time for Van Gaal to tap into it.
There are two derbies in the Premier League this weekend, the North London derby with Tottenham hosting rivals Arsenal at Saturday lunch time (12:45pm) and later on in the evening (5:30pm) the Merseyside derby which sees Everton host Liverpool .
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