Manchester United 2 Everton 1 (5th Oct ’14)

The best result of the season so far, although fair to say there hasn’t been much competition. Everton have struggled so far but they remain a decent side and beat us comfortably twice last year. Like last week, we invited pressure on ourselves late in the game but De Gea’s saves, at crucial times, won the points.

The official man of the match award had gone to Di Maria before De Gea’s late heroics- is it really too difficult to wait till the end of the game to give these out? It was great to see the praise for De Gea, and well deserved for what were some brilliant saves. However, what is more impressive about him has been his general consistent levels of performance for over a year. We have had a number of keepers over the last few decades. All of them have shown at one time or another an ability to make brilliant saves. Taibi, despite being a one-man comedy roadshow, made some fantastic saves during his short, short United career. But really we have only had two keepers in the last twenty years who have shown any consistency over a prolonged period- Schmeichel and Van de Sar. When Schemichel lost that consistency, during the treble season, it was the right time for him to go. What made them truly great keepers was the combination of this consistency with making great saves- the equivalent of a striker who scores great goals, and scores regularly. De Gea may be on the way to joining them although a small part of me preferred when he was getting less attention.

Going forward we again started well and could have been two or three up at the break. Di Maria scored with a neat curling shot from the edge of the area and impressed again. If he can maintain this then his price tag will be quickly forgotten. However there are plenty who have started strongly and faded quickly, not least Mesut Ozil as a recent example. Falcao’s goal, turning in Di Maria’s low drive, was good to see and he surely will get at least twenty if he continues to play regularly as he is getting two to three chances a game. As good as our strikers have been in past times, it’s scary to think what he would have achieved at the front of one of the great United sides.

At the back we did ok, although Lukaku being off-colour helped McNair have an easier afternoon. Shaw was, in cliché fashion, good going forward and susceptible at the back but he has time to grow into the position and the team. Everton’s goal was well worked and well finished by Naismith’s diving header, no real culpability from any individual.

An international break now, although the term break doesnt really apply when the majority of your squad goes to play for their national side. Up to fourth, let’s hope they return fit to continue this form at The Hawthorns when the league resumes.

Next match: West Brom (a)

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Manchester United 2 West Ham 1 (27th Sept ’14)

A good win, ultimately, given the weakened defence and the fact we played the final third with 10 men after Rooney’s red card.

To start with the dismissal- it has already prompted multiple dissections, particularly about how it somehow signals his complete unsuitability as captain. This is nonsense to any United fan given the actions of Keane, Cantona and the like. We forgave them the red cards both because they were so outweighed by brilliance and because they were signals that they did actually care. Read the same for Arsenal and Vieira and countless others. The bigger questions were whether it really merited a straight red, which is dubious given the leg-threatening challenges that usually merit a yellow, and why he felt the need to do it halfway inside West Ham’s half, with plenty of defensive cover. The obvious answer to the second point is that he and the rest are still haunted by the images of Vardy et al. running riot last weekend.

So not exactly the vote of confidence in his defence but perhaps understandable given that we fielded Paddy Mcanair due to our injury list, which is becoming laughable. Sakho’s goal from a corner, to reduce the score to 2-1, was another defensive shambles although the primary culprit was the otherwise impeccable De Gea, who brought back memories of his early performances with a David James-esque wander. He redeemed himself with some good saves later on and has earnt a rare error given his standard of performance over the last year.

Going forward there were good signs again that we will score plenty this season. Rafael’s storming run and cross for Rooney’s well-angled finish was a welcome sight all round. Van Persie’s too was tidy, and again from linking up with Falcao who looks a better all-round player than perhaps suspected of such a high volume goalscorer.

Looking forward, we need to get some defenders back and playing so we can settle on our first-choice XI, which we haven’t yet seen this season. Having Lukaku at Old Trafford next week is not perhaps good timing. It will also be interesting to see how Mata reacts if he is chosen to replace Rooney. With rumours he is on his way to Valencia it will be interesting to see if his performances show a man fighting to stay. At Chelsea his performances dipped as Mourinho made it plain he wasn’t first choice- it would be a shame if same happened here.

Next match: Everton (h)

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Leicester 5 Manchester United 3 (21st Sept ’14)

There were presumably a few match reports half-written at 60mins that were swiftly scrapped in the aftermath of this shambolic end to the game (from a United perspective). Having strolled into a fairly comfortable 3-1 lead, to concede four unanswered goals in such a short spell, and to fold so comprehensively in doing so, is worrying whilst simultaneously not that surprising to anyone who recognises a back four with little experience behind a midfield that has offered no protection against any opponents this season.

The injury to Evans did not help and the defence of Rafael, Smalling, Blackett and Rojo were leaderless lambs to the slaughter. The latter two can plead youth and ‘newness’ as excuses. Smalling can just escape with his relative lack of regular first team games but needs to rapidly show that he is the future for us- at 25 he is older than Rio was when he signed from Leeds. Rafael is younger at 24 but seems to be unable to remove the feeling that he will remain a liability at any time. True, Vardy fouled him and his retaliation was soft, but it was still unnecessary, and gifting Leicester a penalty to stay in touch at 3-2 was probably the turning point.

Elsewhere Blind and Herrera once more demonstrated their quality in building forward play (and Herrera once more scoring with a neat flick) whilst providing little to no defensive support. In a team where the other players are multi-million pound attackers, who does Van Gaal expect to support the defence? If it is them, something needs to change in terms of approach.

Going forward we were at times vibrant although we struggled to create any chances to retake the lead once Leicester levelled at 3-3. Falcao’s far post cross for Van Persie’s headed opener was a great sign for future link-up. Di Maria’s scooped second was brilliant, from Rooney’s neat pass. Mata was unlucky to be dropped, if this is the system for future weeks, and could argue to being a more consistent no.10 than Rooney. It would be difficult not to see goals from Falcao (who hit the bar) and Van Persie in this system however. How Van Gaal plays this over coming weeks will be interesting.

Ultimately, the transfer window is shut so any agonising over the lack of midfield or defensive signings is moot until January. We need to restore some order to the back four, preferably by playing the same group together consistently if injuries allow. It would be nice to see Luke Shaw at some point, and his chance may come if Blackett’s suspension forces Rojo to move inside. The defensive roles for Blind and Herrera, if we keep the same system, need to be readdressed, or else we look once more to Fletcher, Carrick and the like.

This season may prove more emotionally trying than the last given it has the potential to offer a mix of great performances with utter shambles, even in the same game. The worry remains when we face a top side that our brittle defence will exposed and we could end up on the end of a worse beating than last season’s encounters with City and Liverpool. We need to keep faith with Van Gaal to get things right before then.

Next match: West Ham (h)

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Manchester United 4 QPR 0 (13th Sept ’14)

Three points at last and whatever the limitations of the opponents (which were significant), a confidence-boosting performance and an opportunity for a first look at a number of the new additions. After four stilted performances, this felt like the first game of the season all over again- a new-look side, a great atmosphere, an attacking performance so missed over the previous 18 months.

QPR were as bad as they had been in losing at Spurs by the same scoreline and made the same errors- failing to press and giving Di Maria yards of space to revel in. Of all the signings he was the most impressive, and has settled in quickly, whilst he clearly is in a rich vein of form at this moment given his similar performances for Argentina. His goal, a teasing cross from a free-kick which carried all the way through, was lucky but the type of goal that is the reward for a good delivery. The key thing with Di Maria is the excitement he creates when carrying the ball- he has finally returned pace to a team which used to be built on this asset and resembles Giggs at the time he had perfected the combination of tricky winger and creative play through the middle. His driving run made the second goal, well finished by Herrera from Rooney’s lay-off, and even if the intention of his driven cross-shot assist for Mata’s fourth is for debate, his outside-of-the-foot through ball for Van Persie is something only perhaps Rooney has the ability to match.

On Rooney, he was effective and linked well, and will score regularly this season if he continues to be chosen. His driven near-post finish for the third was well taken and he seemed to enjoy finally being part of a performance full of attacking intent. Whatever the doubts about Mata, and they remain, his goal record cannot be argued with and it would be good to return to an era when our midfielders regularly reached double-figures. Herrera did well to score and got forward impressively but there were still gaps at the back that better sides would exploit. Blind has also received rave reviews- he looks a neat and useful midfielder. Falcao didn’t have long enough to really give an idea of his prospects, although the simplicity of his approach- receive, lay-off, move into the box , should garner rewards.

Whilst we won’t have a reflection of out relative quality until we play one of the top sides, we need to use this period to gain momentum, to win on the back of good performances and move back into the top 6. Talk of the title has no basis and we are still not even close to Chelsea. A few victories now would leave us a realistic top-four contender, probably a minimum for Van Gaal given the investment he has secured.

Next match: Leicester (a)

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Burnley 0 Manchester United 0 (30th Aug ’14)

A draw which quickly became the lesser story of the week, coming just over 48 hours from the close of the transfer window. To tackle the game itself, we were again matched by supposed lesser opponents and could easily have lost, although a draw was a fair result. Di Maria made his debut and looked decent, moving centrally and attacking with pace. He twice created good chances for Van Persie and promises much for the future, particularly after a stellar performance for Argentina in the following game. Other than that we were stilted and lacking much threat, although if Van Persie or Mata had converted their chances we would have won, and in title seasons we have played like this, or worse, and got away with a victory (the cliché of how to win titles). So not great but not a travesty.

Since then the squad has refreshed in some ways expected and others not. Hernandez, Welbeck, Cleverley (on loan) and Kagawa have all gone elsewhere and whilst the squad is weaker the first eleven isnt altered by their leaving. From their own perspectives the latter three all now have a chance to play regularly and prove their worth (or not) although I can’t get used to the sight of Welbeck in an Arsenal shirt. Much has been made of this being a break with our traditions of promoting youth players but the basic facts should remain that if you are good enough, you will play regularly, homegrown or not. If Van Gaal had the ’92 generation coming through, would he really ignore them?

The transfers in provided the most talk. Blind seems a solid and sensible player who can cover in midfield and defence. Whether he starts regularly, and where, remains to be seen. And then, having pined for a centre midfielder and centre back to strengthen the core we ended up with Radamel Falcao. In the days since there has been much written on every perspective- great player, huge wages, wanted to go to Real, no-one to pass him the ball. Frankly, we just have to wait and see how he does before second-guessing his impact.

The most interesting speculation seems to be on where he will fit in the side and who will miss out. Rooney has been the most predicted, with a drop back to midfield predicted. First, Rooney is not a midfielder; he doesnt understand his positioning and he feels a need to provide crossfield or killer passes when sometimes a simple ball is better. Second, and more controversial, it could easily be argued that Van Persie should miss out. His fitness seems to have slipped to the injury-prone Arsenal days but even his form has arguably not been great since the final third of 2012/13. His hat trick against Villa to clinch the league was a return to form after a difficult spell and last season he barely got started after a great opening day at Swansea, primarily due to fitness, and Olympiakos was again a rare performance rather than a run of great form.

If Van Gaal can manage it, and it is a big ‘if’, then the positive perspective is that we have a squad with attacking riches to rival ’99, if nowhere near the right balance elsewhere. A fair rotation of all involved (including Mata) might create healthy competition. Unfortunately considering the names involved, it seems difficult to imagine them to take missing out as well as Ole did, even after he had been on a run of scoring.

Anyway, QPR up next is intriuging to see which of the new signings will play and in what combination. I don’t think we have anywhere near enough strength to have ambitions above 4th, but it does at least look that we are going to try and make it through attacking, positive football. The results of last season hurt but not as much as the slow, stilted football and lack of attacking ambition.

Next Match: QPR (h)

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MK Dons 4 Manchester United 0 (26th Aug ’14)

After York, Southend, Coventry etc. this League Cup second-string humiliation merely becomes another to add to the list. Apart from a brief spell in the 00’s where we took the competition seriously and won it three times, Fergie was a pioneer of disrespecting the competition and these results are really fully deserved if you choose to pick a group of players who aren’t good enough for the first team, have never played together before, and never will again. Fair play to MK Dons for their performance although the history of their club makes them impossible to really admire.

For the young players that played it must have been a chastening experience but surely not one that will affect those who are good enough to make it. The really dispriting sight was the experienced players, with events of the following days making it look like a farewell tour for many of them.

Johnny Evans put in his worst performance since a similar 4-0 League Cup disaster at Upton Park which at the time seemed to signal the end of his United career. He has come far from that night and deserves the excuse of lack of match sharpness at least for this game. Welbeck and Hernandez both look like they are on the way out and made little case for their retention, although Welbeck’s exit is as much probably to remove him from the wage bill. If he can add a bit of composure and technique to his energy and workrate he will be an asset for a top club, but it never seems that he would ever be more than a useful nuisance against high-quality opponents for United (Real Madrid perhaps the best display of his)- the Phil Neville of his time.

Anderson has long become a joke figure and a source of amusement for opposition fans. It is easy to forget how exiting and promising his early performances were; his first game at Anfield were he ran Liverpool’s midfield into the ground earned him cult status. He even scored a penalty in Moscow. Now, all that remains is to see who is willing to take a risk on him; clearly Fiorentina are no longer interested after last year’s loan spell. Kagawa is set to return to Dortmund- perhaps the most disappointing of all that we could never find a system to bring the best out of him, or perhaps never trusted him enough to build a side around him. He at least escaped this woeful game with concussion early on.

Cleverley and Young are apparently on their way too. Young’s performances and behaviour mean few will be sorry to see him go. Cleverley needs a new start and Villa is mooted- it would be good to see him prosper somewhere else. Where this all leaves us as a squad is questionable given our injury record but if it is to free up space for a couple more signings before Monday’s deadline to add to Di Maria’s arrival then it would be good business.

All eyes to Turf Moor on Saturday and where Di Maria, if he plays, will fit in. An improvement is obviously needed to avoid a repeat of our last league visit there.

Next Match: Burnley (a)

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Sunderland 1 Manchester United 1 (24th Aug ’14)

A week dominated by transfer talk of two Argentinians. Rojo is signed and sealed, although sadly not in time for the visit to Wearside. Di Maria, meanwhile, appears to be on his way also, with speculation of a transfer fee of £50m+. There is no doubt he can be an effective player and that he offers more than our current wide players, but the questions spring up straight away; why are we again (after Mata) paying huge fees for players who can’t even make it in to their own side, and their clubs are happy to part with? Our transfer activity of the last year has become increasingly embarassing, stumbling round Europe chasing players who aren’t interested and overpaying for those that are. Moyes was damned by association with this last year, a little unfairly, but blame for this has to sit with Woodward and his team, and ultimately with the Glazers.

Having complained about lack of signings it seems churlish to bemoan them when they do happen, however it seems further demonstration that money is available but to those who have little idea on how to make use of it. Further, it feels strange to be paying massive sums for a wide player when the core of the side still needs strengthening. Sunday was a case in point as injury to Herrera meant a recall for Cleverley, whose confidence appears broken beyond repair and at 25 probably needs to move on as much for his own career. If Welbeck has been told he can leave, as reported, then is there really a place for the less-effective Cleverley?

The performance was as mediocre as last week in many respects. TV pundits picked up on our passing, which was awful at times, but the lack of speed in our play is a real worry- the one characteristic which has typified our play for decades. The one moment we attacked with some pace produced the goal- Valencia doing well on the right and showing that for all his decline he still is a master of the driven cross. Mata, from close in, couldn’t miss. At other times we demonstrated that we appear to have perfected a system which neutralises three players (Rooney, Van Persie, Mata) who in previous times have been the most effective performers in the league. There is nothing wrong with forward players taking turns to drop deep and link the play, Cole and Yorke did it to great effect. However that example proves how strong a link you need between those playing together to make it successful.

Sunderland’s equaliser was a good header by Rodwell from slack marking. Not a travesty but hardly surprising that we failed to create much to retake the lead. The double-penalty incident could be argued either way. Van Persie’s was a strong challenge from behind, although won the ball. With Young’s follow-up there was contact but much of his own making, and his general behaviour on this front continues to embarass United fans. We shouldn’t need to dive to win.

The optimistic view is that when our injuries clear we surely have a side capable of better performances than this. As a squad, they are light years away from the 2005 vintage of Kleberson, Miller etc. that finished third. However, that was a time when there were only two strong sides in the league (Arsenal, Chelsea) and we could limp into the Champion’s League with little difficulty. Watching Spurs play with pace and flair yesterday shows how far the rest have moved on, and how much we need to do to catch up.

Next match: MK Dons (a)

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