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SamHartford's Blog

Sheffield Hallam University graduate, TMA at BBC Sport, writer and Man United fan. For articles see my account at Kettle Mag http://www.kettlemag.co.uk/users/samhartford57

Where should we hope to finish in the Premier League?


As we stretch past the mid-way point in this Premier League season a couple of things are starting to look fairly nailed on. The first one is that Hull City will need a minor miracle to survive the drop and secondly, we can almost certainly presume who the top 6 are going to be. In which order they’ll end up is where it gets interesting though. Whilst Chelsea still retain a commanding position, their recent defeat at Tottenham capped off a festive period in which the title chasing top four all managed to drop points. It was Spurs’ fifth league win in a row and when you couple that with our six game winning streak then all of a sudden it looks incredibly tasty at the top. Only four Premier League campaigns have produced a tighter gap between the top 6 at this stage of the season. Our position remains the weakest but we’ve done our Champions League ambitions a world of good and in the process seem to have assembled our strongest side going forward. As for the title, we currently lie 10 points off Chelsea and any hopes of us lifting the trophy come May seem like wishful thinking.

Optimistic – Title challenge

A tilt at the title seems unlikely but it’s not out of reach. The most optimistic of our fans will point to deficits overturned in the past, most notably our 1996 triumph over Keegan’s Newcastle who were 9 points clear with a game in hand in early January. After this many games last season Spurs lay 7 points off top in 4th and went on to mount a title challenge, albeit unsuccessfully. At the same point in 14/15 we were 12 points adrift of Mourinho’s Chelsea yet went into April’s game at Stamford Bridge knowing a win would put us within 5 points of them with 6 games to go. Now, we were always highly unlikely to win the league that year and whilst Tottenham’s was a possibility, the required points tally to challenge is likely to be much higher this year. However it does show that if a team is adrift in the New Year then mightily impressive form can catapult you back into the title picture. If we to beat Liverpool at Old Trafford next week then we’d be within two or three (dependant on how Spurs do) points of second place with the momentum of 7 straight wins behind us. Like everybody else, we’d be relying on Chelsea to start stuttering but with plenty of games to go I’d consider us legitimately back in the race. 

Eden Hazard scores the only and decisive goal in a game dominated by United at Stamford Bridge 18th April 2015

Realistic – Top four

In the early days of this season many of us would have been quietly considering ourselves as potential contenders for the league. We had Mourinho, we’d made four impressive summer signings and had collected three wins from three. However it soon became apparent that much more was needed to turn the situation of the last three years around and that a place in the top four may be a much more realistic aim. Defeats to City, Watford and Chelsea hit hard and despite an upturn in performances after that Stamford Bridge walloping we were still dropping points left right and centre. Even the top four was looking alarmingly far off and those above us were really starting to click into gear. 6 wins from 6 later and with the top four dropping points we are right back in the frame. Which is more, in those six games we not only seem to have found our best team but have played some encouraging football and shown some classic United grit. The most important thing is that It’s progress from the majority of the performances we put in when chasing the Champions League spots in the previous two seasons. We also look to have clearer purpose and direction under Mourinho and now possess genuine top quality match winners in the form of Ibra, Pogba and so on . It’s enough to suggest we should aim for a consolidated top four position rather than fighting until the very end of the season and given the ground we’ve had to make up this should remain our realistic target. The only worry is that the battle for those places looks more competitive than ever. 

It's been a happy month for Jose Mourinho but he'll be under no illusions at the task ahead

Liverpool (H) - Crucial

It may only be mid-January but the Liverpool game could be crucial in determining which of the above seems most likely. Win it and we can re-enter the title picture (albeit on the fringes), lose and we’ll be 8 points adrift of them whilst possibly slipping further behind Tottenham and Arsenal who face West Brom and Swansea. A draw wouldn’t be too bad but given that it’s at Old Trafford and Liverpool are facing a couple of key absentees we should sniff a massive opportunity for a vital 3 points. 

MUFC January Preview


January represents a hugely important month for us on the domestic front. We’ll need recent form to continue as we hunt down the top four as well as ensuring progression in the FA Cup and booking a place at Wembley for the League Cup final. Barring the game against Liverpool most fixtures look winnable and whilst it rarely transpires that way we should see January as an opportunity to kick on. Making predictions is always a risky business and unforeseeable changes in form, fitness and signings over the next month make it even more difficult. Still, I’ve previewed each of our January fixtures and quite optimistically concluded that we’ll come out of it unbeaten.

Middlesbrough (H) 31.01.2017
Given the current form of both sides and the home advantage, this looks like a routine 3 points. Anything less will obviously be a huge disappointment but United cannot take a Boro side that’ve drawn at both the Etihad and the Emirates lightly. Moreover, Aitor Karanka is a former coach of Mourinho’s and is better placed then anyone in the Premier League to know his methods. Despite this, his squad will have to be somewhere near their absolute best to not only deny our red hot attackers but to cause us trouble at the other end. PREDICTION: Comfortable win

West Ham (A) 02.01.2017
The departure from Upton Park and West Ham’s struggles to adapt makes this a much less daunting fixture than in previous years. I was in the away end when we suffered a 3-2 defeat there last April and there’s no doubt the atmosphere played a massive part in both inspiring West Ham's comeback and unsettling our players. Though 10 points from a possible 12 in their last four matches makes this a difficult time to be facing the Hammers and with this game coming just 2 days after Boro our settled starting XI may well be shuffled or else fatigued. Fortunately we’ve got the squad to cope whereas West Ham’s is a little more stretched, though Andy Carroll’s return could lead to some set-piece based nail biting. A draw wouldn’t be a disaster but it’s another good opportunity to gain a win in a period when those above us are playing each other. PREDICTION: Narrow win

Reading (H) FA Cup 07.01.2017
The return of Jaap Stam will be a mild talking point in the build up to this. Reading, currently 3rd, are going well in the Championship and as with any underdog in the FA Cup shouldn’t be underestimated. Whether they go for it or sit back in the hope of a replay remains to be seen but this should be a good chance for Mourinho to give some Premier League non-starters are game and gain comfortable passage to the next round. It’d be nice to see Rashford up top and perhaps even Bastian at the heart of midfield. PREDICTION: Comfortable win

Hull (A) League Cup semi-final 10.01.2017

Our first and possibly most realistic chance of silverware this season, we must be utterly ruthless over the two legs against a Hull side that are in a poor way at the moment. The main concern is that with Premier League prospects looking bleak they will be pinning all their hopes and efforts on getting to Wembley. The test will obviously come in the second leg but we should be confident of doing enough damage at Old Trafford to ensure we win the tie. PREDICTION: Comfortable Win

Liverpool (H) 15.01.2017
Likely to be massive for both. If we pick up the two wins prior to this and those above us drop points then we’ll be right at the door of the top four. As much as it pains me to say, Liverpool are well in the title mix and will be desperate to prove their worth as contenders with a win over us. Mane will be a big loss for Klopp but they are likely to have Coutinho back and so if we are to keep them at bay the form of Jones and Rojo needs to continue given that Eric Bailey will also be at AFCON. Whilst both have been brilliant recently you get the feeling a mistake or rash decision isn’t far away for either and this will be a test unlike anything they’ve faced as a pair. Yet Liverpool remain unconvincing at the back and if the likes of Ibra and Mhikitaryan are still firing then I expect us to find a way through. We’ll no doubt be much more adventurous than at Anfield where both teams produced a stifling display but I don’t expect us to dominate the ball like when Arsenal and Tottenham visited Old Trafford. It could be frantic, it will definitely be crucial.PREDICTION: Draw

Stoke City (A) 21.01.2017
Stoke are an unpredictable proposition, something probably well summed up by their recent performance at Anfield. For the opening 20 minutes they looked dangerous and could well of gained a two goal lead, yet the capitulation that followed showed just how prone they are to shipping goals against quality opposition. They’ve now conceded four against City, Spurs and Liverpool as well as three to Arsenal. Only Lee Grant and our inability to finish meant we didn’t inflict similar damage back in October. That being said, our last three visits to the Bet365 Stadium have all fallen around this time of year and resulted in two losses and a draw. The old cliché about being able to do it on a windy day in Stoke comes to mind. We’ve seen progress under Mourinho since the Moyes and Van Gaal regimes and let’s hope that’s reflected in terms of gaining points in this fixture. PREDICTION: Draw

Hull City (A) 26.01.2017
If things don’t go to plan in the first leg then this could prove a tricky game but Hull upcoming fixtures suggest they may well have suffered even more misery by the time this comes around. If made, then January signings could give them a boost but as I said earlier you would think the prospect of a first trophy would fire us up enough to get win at Old Trafford and either draw or victory at the Kcom. PREDICTION: Win

Louis Van Gaal's signings 15/16: The verdict



£124.10m was spent by Louis Van Gaal in the summer of 2015 as he looked to build on securing Champions League football with a challenge at the title. Unfortunately, that never came about and i
n this article I take a look at how those signings have fared and whether they now have a future under Mourinho. 

Schniederlin, Schweinsteoger and Darmian are unveiled ahead of the 2015 pre-season tour


Matteo Darmian


Following the departure of Rafael and the question marks over Antonio Valencia in the summer of 2015 Darmian was signed as the answer to United’s right-back problem. Whilst not as adventurous going forward as those two, throughout August and September he appeared more defensively solid putting in a number of good displays as United hovered around the top of the league. A woeful performance against Arsenal saw him replaced at half-time having been completely lost at sea facing Alexis Sanchez. It was an experience that surely knocked his confidence and was the first indication of further troubles. Injury curtailed the following couple of months and when Darmian returned, now operating mainly at left back, he appeared much more vulnerable as fans began to question his place in the starting 11. Antonio Valencia’s emergence as a dependable right-back was a contributing factor in this and the Ecuadorians performances under Mourinho mean his place has only been further cemented. Like many of those in this list Darmian appeared completely out of favour at the beginning of the season. He made it on the bench for just two of the opening nine Premier League fixtures and found selection confined to the Europa League. A shaky performance in Feyenoord did nothing to help his cause but much like Rojo injury saw him restored to the starting XI. Whilst 
recent defensive efforts alongside Jones and Rojo should be well acknowledged he still looks worryingly exposed on occasions (take Sissoko’s introduction at home to Spurs as an example) and is yet to convince. Despite this, there is enough there to suggest he can be a decent squad member as a utility full back. His versatility could still prove useful given we are currently fighting on four fronts.


IMPACT: 5/10
VERDICT: KEEP
When all are fit he should be behind Valencia, Shaw and Blind in the full back pecking order but possibly too early for us to cut the cloth.

Bastian Schweinsteiger

Despite his rightly earned off the field popularity, on the pitch Schweinsteiger’s impact cannot be quantified as a success. A solid start indicated he was every bit the elite experienced midfield architect that we needed. However, as United’s form waned and injury hit, the second half of his debut season petered out into a forgettable one. I wrote earlier this year on the much needed revisionism around Schweinsteiger’s first campaign and the use he could still be to United. Jose Mourinho clearly disagreed and froze him out in what seemed an act of stamping his authority. Progress has been made since then and I was as delighted as all those in Old Trafford to see him return to the field against West Ham. Some will question why he got such an ovation, it’s because we have respect for both his attitude and ability. Schweinsteiger is yet to feature since but has made a couple of Premier League match day squads and with Schneiderlin likely to leave may well just see out the season as Man United player.

IMPACT: 4/10
VERDICT: KEEP
My message to Mourinho remains the same as it did in September, he still has something to offer in both the dressing room and on the pitch- utilise this.

Morgan Schniederlin

The Schneiderlin signing made perfect sense. United’s midfield lacked bite or balance in 14/15 and based on his performances for Southampton that campaign, the Frenchman could evidently bring both. The question is now being asked whether Schneiderlin has been mismanaged or just isn’t up to United standard, particularly when in possession. The answer possibly lies somewhere in between but there’s absolutely no doubt he was ill used by Van Gaal and given to little chance to impress under Mourinho. He featured 38 times (32 being starts) under the “Iron Tulip” last season and looked a steady if not remarkably presence in United’s midfield. However, he was often suddenly dropped by Van Gaal for key fixtures including the 3-0 capitulation to Arsenal and sat out the consecutive losses to Bournemouth, Norwich and Stoke. His longest run of 8 starting appearances brought about 6 wins and included a performance in March’s win at the Etihad that was a master class in containment. This season many of us thought Schneiderlin would be employed in a Nemanja Matic esque role and well suited to Mourinho’s midfield ambitions but it hasn’t transpired. Bafflingly, Mauroune Fellaini was preferred early on and since then Schweinsteiger’s return and the successful Carrick, Herrera, Pogba axis has pushed Schneiderlin right down the pecking order. His performances for Southampton show he clearly has the quality to succeed at Premier League level and if a move to Everton or West Brom goes ahead then the game time he gets will probably see a return to his best form. Given a consistent run of selection he could well have produced this for us, but Mourinho’s judgement seems to have scuppered that.


IMPACT: 5/10
VERDICT: LEAVE
The general consensus is that we’d of like to have seen more of and from Schniederlin but he should be allowed to leave If he doesn’t feature in Mourinho’s plans.

Schniederlin celebrates scoring his only league goal for United against Everton, a team he may well now join

Anthony Martial

Racking up 20 goals and 16 assists in his debut season, the 19 year old Frenchman went above and beyond in his pursuit to live up to expectations. Our over reliance on him perhaps shows just how much we struggled at times last year but he was a breath of fresh air in the stale atmosphere of “Van Gaal-ball”. After a sensational start Martial continued to be one of our brightest performers whether up top or on the wing. Whilst not quite the finished article, his directness and appetite to run at defenders was something that instantly won us united fans over. Goals against West Ham and Everton en route to the FA Cup triumph also showed his ability to make the difference when it mattered. The arrival of Marcus Rashford and to a lesser extent Jesse Lingard definitely eased the burden on his shoulders towards the end of the 15/16 campaign. However, now that they’ve established themselves they both represent a direct competition for places with Martial under Mourinho. Zlatan’s arrival has meant the striker’s spot is out of contention and a poor start to the year has seen Martial fighting for his position on the left flank. His relaxed, almost cold demeanour has lead to some raising question marks over his effort but any united fans on his case need a reminder that he’s only just turned 21. Martial had an incredibly taxing debut campaign for United, which was followed by the European championships, a minimal pre-season and issues with his personal life. Despite this being a fair explanation for his slow start it won't grant him much leeway if performances don't improve in 2017. He appears to be a player who thrives on confidence and the recent league cup brace against West Ham appeared to inspire an upturn in form but he is once again finding himself in and out of the starting XI . Perhaps Mourinho needs to trust the Frenchman with a run of games, as when he's in form he would surely make up our most potent front 3 alongside Ibrahimovic and Mkhitaryan.


IMPACT: 8/10
VERDICT: KEEP
Martial's fee could well rise to £61.6m, if the 2015 FIFA Golden Boy winner can recapture the form of his debut campaign then he'll be well on his way to justifying that.


Memphis Depay

Calling Memphis a complete flop might be jumping the gun a little but there’s no denying he’s failed to live up to the promise. It’s been a frustratingly underwhelming experience for player and fans alike. As with others on this list, the signing seemed a sensible one in the summer of 2015. Depay had emerged in the Holland national team under Van Gaal’s guidance and was one of the hottest prospects in Europe having scored 28 goals in 40 appearances for PSV the previous season,. Mightily impressive stats for a winger and whilst it can always be difficult to judge a players true quality on Eredivisie numbers alone (see Alfonso Alves or Vincent Jansen) Depay looked the real deal. The signs were positive after he tore Club Brugge apart in Champions League qualification and scored two in the process. That was sadly the start of a reoccurring theme for Memphis who often looked at his best against weaker opponents, with his 5 other goals that season being netted against Midtjylland (x2), Sunderland, Watford and PSV. One solitary Premier League assists showed he was also failing to create much, though many were guilty of that under Van Gaal. Memphis was signed to add spark, creativity and goals to our left flank but he was soon delivering on none of those fronts and his effort seemed to increasingly not match his ego. Sloppy errors that directly lead to goals away at Stoke and Chelsea didn’t help the Dutchman’s cause. His flashy, sometimes questionable, image should not detract from the fact Memphis is dedicated professional. The man is built like a tank, one look at his social media accounts show how committed he is to maintaining his explosive speed and strength. Moreover he has always said the right things when facing questions on his position in the side. Unfortunately, the performances with the ball weren't up to standard and last season he saw himself ousted by the likes of Martial, Rashford and Lingard all who had much more of a tangible impact. Naturally, that has made it difficult for Memphis to get much game time whatsoever this season (something Mourinho has expressed regret at) even in the cup competitions. If our wide men remain injury free it’s difficult to see this changing and he may well be on the move in January. If recent rumours suggesting he asked to leave two months ago are true this doesn't reflect well on his ambitions to fight for his place.

IMPACT: 5/10
VERDICT: LOAN
Failed to take his chance but disregarding him after one season seems short sighted, sadly it may now be too late to find out if he was ever worth the hype.

Memphis has often cut a frustrated figure as he's failed to deliver on what was expected