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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

The Theatre of Draws


Wednesday night’s draw with Hull was a frustrating one on so many levels as we once again failed to capitalise on those above us by drawing a very winnable game. If it was understandable at Stoke, then it was unacceptable here. I was at the game on Wednesday night and if all our problems this season could have been summarised in a 90 minute performance then this was it. The progress under Mourinho is evident and I’m encouraged by the fact we are still fighting on four fronts but in terms of the league it seems to be one step forward two steps back at the moment. In this article I'll take a look at what is costing us.

Premier League form table (home)

Team

P

W

L

D

GD

PTS

1. Chelsea

12

11

1

0

+27

33

2. Tottenham

11

9

0

2

+20

29

3. Burnley

13

9

3

1

+10

28

4. Arsenal

12

8

3

2

+11

26

5. Liverpool

11

7

2

3

+18

24

6. Everton

12

7

1

4

+15

25

7. Man City

11

6

1

4

+9

22

8. Man United

12

5

1

6

+8

21



Home form
Despite an undoubted improvement in the attacking intent shown at Old Trafford this year, the stats unfortunately show the harsh reality of our failures. We have fallen short in winning half of our home games and currently rank not only as the lowest of the top six but behind Burnley and Everton too. More alarming is the fact that the last two visits of Liverpool and Hull have perhaps been the most underwhelming performances of the lot. Although no less damaging, draws at home to Burnley, Stoke and Arsenal were at least accompanied by performances where we thoroughly deserved to win. Any team can claim their fair share of ifs and buts yet it’s been such fine margins when it comes to our results at Old Trafford. Failing to convert guilt edge chances (Hull, Burnley, West Ham) or hold onto a lead in the last 5 minutes (Stoke, Arsenal) has cost our title and potentially top four chances dearly.


Shots (shots on target) in last 3 home draws:
Hull City – 16 (6)
Liverpool – 9 (3)
West Ham – 17 (8)

Shots (shots on target) in the first 3 home draws:
Arsenal – 12 (5)
Stoke – 24 (9)
Burnley – 38 (11)


Team selection
Criticising team selection is often far too easy and well aided by the power of hindsight (see Arsenal Fan TV for examples- and laughs!). I wrote last month that Mourinho seemed to have found a settled and functioning starting 11 with plenty of promising options from the bench. Barring the left wing slot his team selections in the league have been fairly consistent since then, though there has been the odd questionable mishap. The decision to rest both Carrick and introduce Juan Mata at Stoke seemed to backfire, but they were hardly contentious decisions given the formers age and the latter’s form. The came Wigan and we saw Anthony Martial recover from a slow start to register 2 assists and a goal that was only disallowed due to a teammate’s infringement. His omission from the starting XI against Hull thus came as a surprise but in Marcus Rashford the replacement wasn’t too disappointing. What was disappointing was Mourinho’s failure to bring on the Frenchman in a game that was screaming out for his injection of power and directness. Yet what we saw instead was Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata introduced as the struggling Rashford remained on the pitch. Mourinho was of course hampered by the forced substitution of Jones but who’s to say he wouldn’t have favoured Lingard as his final substitute; such seems to be his stubbornness over Martial.

Converting chances
Not taking our chances has been a hallmark of our season and so it proved again last night. We dominated without being remarkable but the chances passed up by Paul Pogba and Juan Mata were an all too familiar sight for a side that ranks 18th in the Premier League chance conversion chart with 8.44 per cent. Eldin Jakupovic had a decent game when called upon but unlike Grant, Heaton and Randolph before him he was hardly forced to play out of his skin. We simply didn’t test him often enough and when we did create openings our poor finishing was at fault rather than anything spectacular from the Swissman. Our over-reliance on Zlatan Ibrahimovic is becoming apparent too. He’s contributed a mightily impressive19 goals and 4 assists this season and when he doesn’t score, the likes of Mata, Pogba, Rashford, Rooney, Mhkitaryan and Martial need to supplement this. Unfortunately they aren’t doing it on a consistent enough basis.

Failing to gain ground
Once again the teams above us have dropped points and once again we’ve responded by not securing a win. It wasn’t just one or even two of our top six rivals but all four of Arsenal, Liverpool, Spurs and Chelsea stumbled this week. Despite their recent improvements under Silva, Hull at home represented a golden opportunity and you’d probably have picked this as the perfect game for 3 points. Whilst our unbeaten run has been impressive since beating Tottenham on December 11th the only top six opposition we’ve faced has been Liverpool at home. In that time there have been 6 occasions in which those above us have faced each other.

04/02/2017 Chelsea 3-1 Arsenal
31/01/2017- Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea
21/01/2017- Man City 2-2 Spurs
04/01/2017- Spurs 2-0 Chelsea

31/01/2017- Liverpool 1-0 Man City
18/12/2017- Man City 2-1 Arsenal

After that Tottenham game we were 6 points adrift of the top four and in 6th position. Currently we are 4 points away from the top four and still lie in 6th. To have made just two points worth of progress in that period underlines our failure to take advantage. The recent results against Stoke and Hull have been the main contributors to this and we simply cannot afford to drop more points at Leicester this weekend. Losses for Arsenal and Liverpool mean we have once again been gifted with the chance to catch up, let’s ensure we take it.

All information/stats gathered from: 
http://www.soccerstats.com/homeaway.asp?league=england, http://www.transfermarkt.co.uk/, http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport 

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