Nemanja “Monster” Matic : Already looks like steal of the summer

‘Whoever made the decision at Chelsea to sell Nemanja Matic to Manchester United needs sacking,’ -Phil Neville.

Matic made a £40m move north during the transfer window, and has settled in quickly at United to bring a much more balanced approach to their midfield when sat alongside Paul Pogba, who is able to venture forward much more as his Serbian teammate protects the back four.

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Excitement was never the point. In Matić, Mourinho bought control, sensible but active passing, and sound defensive instincts that serve to bolster both United’s back four and the team’s attack. Matic was not sexy, never flash, with a turn of pace that is only a touch better than pedestrian, Matić rarely serves to set the pulses racing. Compared to summer alternatives, such as Monaco’s Fabinho, few Reds were actively excited about Matić’s imminent arrival.

After all, there was always the sense that Mourinho needed to feel secure at the back to “let the horses run freely” up front. Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba have been the major beneficiaries, with the Frenchman liberated to play from box-to-box and the Armenian enjoying his new role as the team’s dynamic number 10.

 

Mourinho on the pitch

“He was an essential player because he spoke to me a great deal, and he liked to understand the practices, the whys and wherefores.”

Jose Mourinho would go on to describe Costinha as “a vital player”, one who “would convey my ideas on the pitch” as he stood on the touchline. “Costinha would basically be my ‘assistant coach’.”

They say you never forget your first. The Portuguese was speaking in late 2004 at the beginning of his rise to prominence, but success has not changed him; his love for a defensive midfielder remains as strong as ever.

At Porto it was Costinha. At Chelsea it was Claude Makelele, his “tactical leader”. At Inter Milan it was Esteban Cambiasso, “one of the fastest players I have ever coached”, but only “where speed is needed most”. At Real Madrid it was Xabi Alonso, “a coach when he is on the field”. Each were “strong”, each were “stable”, and each were the pivot around which Mourinho built his most dominant sides.

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The Portuguese has afforded space in his little black book for a select few players; only once has he sought to relight the flame of a previously prosperous relationship. Nemanja Matic was the calming influence as Chelsea returned the Premier League title to Stamford Bridge in 2015. Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas were a holy trinity of attacking craft, guile and brutality, but Matic was the insurance. No teammate made more than his 3.6 tackles, 2.2 dribbles or two interceptions per game that season.

So it has proved. No United player has made more tackles (14) or interceptions (13), and Matic has attempted at least 97 more passes than any other player.

Matić must also take on greater responsibility now that Pogba is on the sidelines for the next few weeks. While few expect the Serbian to start breaking ahead of play, take on long-range shots, or demonstrate Pogba’s range of attacking skills, Matić may have to offer more than sound defence if Mourinho’s team is to retain its momentum over the next month or so. Herrera is now effectively first-reserve for Matić, and an option should Mourinho choose to deploy a 4-3-3 system as he did at Stoke. The former Athletic Bilbao player will feature in plenty of games this season, and he has been in this situation before. After all, Herrera began last season on the bench before his performances became increasingly pivotal as the season wore on, although there must be some alarm that Pogba’s absence has still not created a route back into the team.

For now the role is with Matić and the 29-year-old has unquestionably improved United’s midfield. True, the player’s age means that Matić will not replicate the decade Carrick has spent at Old Trafford. Not least because the club offered just a three-year contract. It is a quick fix; a short-term measure to solve a problem position.

Nemanja Matic : The CDM, rest all mere details

To characterise the 29-year-old as only a physical or athletic presence is unfair, but understandable. Matic is 6ft 4ins and deceptively quick but, as Mourinho once said of one of his favourite students, faster than the rest “where speed is needed most”. The Portuguese did not build sides around Cambiasso, Makelele, Costinha and Alonso because of their ability to out-muscle an opponent or win gold in a 100m race; they were signed for their speed of mind, to help unleash the talents of Samuel Eto’o and Wesley Sneijder, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, Deco and Derlei, Cristiano Ronaldo and Mesut Ozil.

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The holding midfielder cupboards were bare when Mourinho first arrived. Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger were deemed unsavoury, while none of Ander Herrera, Marouane Fellaini and Paul Pogba were ever a long-term solution. Last season, Herrera made the most tackles (39), Daley Blind the most interceptions (26) and Pogba the most passes (1,043) in the Premier League as Mourinho managed to cobble together random ingredients to create an adequate dish. Matic has made an edible midfield meal delectable.

In Mourinho’s land of giants, Matic is more brain than brawn. Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan are producing and performing at one end, Phil Jones, Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and Eric Bailly the other. In the middle are Matic and Pogba, with the latter relishing more freedom before his untimely injury.

Matic is Mourinho’s comfort blanket, his safety net, the one player who, by his own admission, keeps things “simple”. His comment earlier in the week that “I will be better” felt like a warning to the rest of the Premier League. If the new ‘assistant coach’ can improve on an already impressive start, Mourinho’s second season prophecy will be realised once more.

 

Is he the difference this season?

Answer : YES

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Phil Jones : The Tragicom king

“Exclusive! Water is wet! Grass is green! The world is round!” 

Statements of a similar ilk greeted the news that Phil Jones has suffered yet another injury and now making a comeback. This time around the Manchester United defender is out with a Toe injury that will see the Lancastrian making a comeback this saturday.

If 2014/15 was a frustrating season for Jones, this campaign has been an unmitigated disaster. Illness in August, September and October, muscle injury in November and December, ankle injury in January, February, March and April. Forty-six minutes in all competitions so far in 2016. This has been a year of changes for Manchester United.  Jose Mourinho admitted that even he did not expect Romelu Lukaku’s prolific introduction to life at Old Trafford; Anthony Martial looks a different player to the one seemingly carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders last term; Ander Herrera has gone from potential captain to fourth-choice central midfielder. But perhaps the most unexpected sub-plot in United’s story so far has been the outstanding contribution of Phil Jones.

No one has played a greater role in United’s rock-solid start to the campaign. Mourinho’s machine has kept five clean sheets in six games, and though both Jones and his partner, Eric Bailly, had an off day during the 2-2 draw at Stoke, Jones in particular made amends with a man-of-the-match performance during the 1-0 win at Southampton.

Mourinho in August said

“If we manage to have him safe, protected from injuries, I think potentially he’s everything I like in a central defender,”

The United boss certainly knows what he likes in a centre-back. His greatest successes have been built around solid foundations provided by the likes of  John Terry, Ricardo Carvalho, Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Marco Materazzi, Walter Samuel, Gary Cahill – all outstanding centre-halves in the traditional sense. The fact they can use the ball is a bonus to Mourinho. Winning it will always remain the priority.

Jones offers the kind of balance Mourinho appreciates. The England international is the most rounded centre-half at his disposal and the statistics back up the eyewitness testimonies that Jones has been one of United’s shining lights.

Mourinho hinted, there is always a caveat with Jones. Fitness, not form, has always been his greatest weakness. Under four different managers, Jones has been injured and unavailable for 25 per cent of his six-plus years at Old Trafford, causing him to miss 101 matches in the process. In terms of Premier League appearances, Juan Mata, who joined United two and a half years after Jones, trails the defender by only 11 games. David de Gea, who arrived at Old Trafford at the same time as Jones, has 78 more league matches to his name – more than two full seasons’ worth.

In recent years Jones’ name has been synonymous with the treatment room, a Darren Anderton for modern times. According to transfermarkt.com, the former Blackburn Rovers player has suffered 14 different injuries since he moved to United in 2011. To break it down he’s been out with knee problems, sprained ankles, shoulder injuries, shin splints, malleolar issues, concussion, back troubles and thrombosis for good measure.

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The statistics are quite sobering. The defender has effectively missed over two league campaigns worth of matches and spent well over a year on the sidelines. Unfortunately for Jones he remains a figure who’s all too easy to mock, from the faces he pulls, to the sheer ungainliness of his defending, such as his party piece against Olivier Giroud

Mourinho, though, said in his first press conference as United boss that he “likes specialists, not multi-functional players”. In Jones’ case, the manager has been true to his word. All of his appearances have come at the heart of Mourinho’s defence, aside from one occasion when he was asked to come off the bench at Rostov to do a job in midfield for the closing stages.

Last season, after Jones admitted that Louis van Gaal didn’t seem to trust him, he benefited from consistency of selection to form a formidable partnership alongside Marcos Rojo, playing 10 Premier League games out of 11 through the latter part of 2016 before injury inevitably struck.

Gareth Southgate has been equally impressed. As he said

“He’s got very good composure on the ball. He’s got the reading of the game, he’s aggressive in his defending – which I like – and I think he has got fantastic experience, although he is still only relatively young.”

Many forget that Jones is still just 25 years old, which is testament to the fact he has been around the Premier League for seven-and-a-half years and the England team for six. In that time, he has become more known to many for pulling funny faces and THAT header on the floor, which itself demonstrated the type of desire to defend that many modern centre-halves appear to lack. But with his blend of experience and potential, Jones has to be taken seriously as first choice for club and country. The only worry is whether his body will allow him.

Is Phil Jones stealing a living, or is he a luckless soul who needs fortune to favour him for once? There are many debates to be had about Jones’ value to United, or lack thereof, but one thing is plainly clear, his injury problems is clearly no laughing matter any more.

Maybe this Red Devil deserves more sympathy than he’s used to receiving.

 

 

Roy Keane : The man behind those red misty eyes

The relationship has long been uneasy; once hero to the massed hero-worshipers, now the cynic and the increasingly cynical. But Manchester United supporters have not yet fallen completely out of love with Roy Keane, the player who remains the finest all-round midfielder in the club’s modern history. Indeed, the player – and man, some might say – that United has not genuinely replaced since the Irishman was forced out of the club by Sir Alex Ferguson in 2005.

Roaring tyrant or inspiring leader? Aggressive hothead or driven talisman? Dramatic is not a word that Keane would enjoy using to describe himself, but it would fit the path of his career. For many, the images of Roy Maurice Keane that endure are of the sinew-busting approaches to referees or him towering menacingly over fallen opponents. They fit the character that has been built up over time so easily – he’s an angry man, right? The pantomime villain that others hate but his followers love, if only because they are not facing him.

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Everyone and their grandma knows how the Champions League concluded in May 1999. That balmy night in Barcelona, when Ole Gunnar Solskjær won it for Manchester United. What some fans — not United fans, mind you — may forget is that United’s road to that final was perhaps even more dramatic than their late comeback to win the tournament. Their resurrection from 2-0 down in the semi-final second-leg against Juventus in Turin was perhaps their greatest moment of all.

Therein lies the paradox of his success. A born winner, ruthlessly determined and free from the distractions of celebrity and an almost religiously private family man, but needing the grandest stage of all to feed his thriving potential. His infamous comment about the corporate atmosphere of fans eating prawn sandwiches showed a disdain for the glitz and glamour of the theatre in which he found himself, but without the very essence he was against he could never have achieved everything he had in the game.

Titanic battles between the Irishman and his arch-enemy Patrick Vieira – and by proxy between Manchester United and Arsenal – characterised the late 1990s. In a face to face encounter broadcast by ITV three years ago, Keane stared deep into the Senegal-born giant’s eyes as the reminisced over their era on the pitch.

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“It was almost my job to keep you down there,” Keane said to Vieira.

“It was an important role for me that I didn’t feel you were going to get the edge on me. I needed to dominate even the players at Man Utd; I think if I’d let you beat me in these rivalries in the middle of the park it don’t would have cost me long term.”

Their last ever league clash in 2005 epitomised the depths to which the battle was as much a mental struggle as a physical or tactical one. On his way back from the dressing room to collect his forgotten captain’s armband, Keane overheard Vieira threaten Gary Neville with a direct confrontation if he went near Robert Pires, and his switch flipped.

“We’ll see you out there,”

Psychology has always been central to his style, but whereas others in the game would use modern theories to direct and inspire them, Keane’s version was much simpler: never, ever, accept anything other than your best.

While playing for Nottingham Forest, a sloppy back pass from Keane led to a Crystal Palace equaliser in a 1991 FA Cup tie, which infuriated Brian Clough so much he punched the young midfielder in the face. Nearly two decades later, Keane reflected on his former manager’s attack:

 “Cloughie was dead right, absolutely. It was the best thing he ever did for me. It’s good to get angry. It’s an emotion and it’s part of the game. If people upset you and you don’t get angry, I’d say you’re in the wrong game.”

If emotion is part of football – and few could argue with that statement – one would assume that elation and pride would rank pretty highly on Keane’s mind when reflecting on his career as a player, given the sheer volume of trophies and adulation he earned. That would be too simplistic a view, though; there were much darker sides to the mental aspect of the game that Keane battled with.

 “A lot of my preparation would be fear; fear of losing, a fear of letting people down, a fear of letting my neighborhood down, a fear of letting my family down. Fear played a big part of my sporting career. The enjoyment was very, very brief I’m afraid. Too brief.”

The attitude towards overcoming negative emotions, as opposed to exalting in the positive ones, was infinitely more central to his way of thinking, however. When he was brought in as assistant to Paul Lambert at Aston Villa, he was told that the squad had a policy of not dwelling on bad results for more than a day.

“Obviously Villa were used to it but I wasn’t,” he was reported as saying. “At United we had a culture where, if you were beaten on a Saturday – people talk about bouncing back and moving on quickly – but Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, the lads would be fuming, and I loved that.”

In one of his most iconic matches in the red of Manchester, Keane faced what could have been one of the most crushing moments of a player’s career, but showed his character in turning it into his most memorable and inspiring moments through sheer brute force of will. The sublime Juventus side of Edgar DavidsZinedine Zidane and Paolo Montero had raced into a 3-1 aggregate lead in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final when Keane rose to head hhi-res-e2a1afb8f2156f8ea47b7d81003d34a8_crop_exactis side back into contention. Eight minutes later, however, he was booked for a late stretch to tackle Zidane, which would prevent him from playing in the final if his side got there.

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When he wasn’t captain of Manchester United stretching every sinew to the cause, when he was just another man walking his dog through the leafy suburbs, he was anything but the growling pit bull that many choose to remember him as. That petrified young boy standing nervously on his doorstep believed every powerfully terrifying image of the man, but what few people know about, or care to recall, is the softly spoken man who would stop for a cup of tea with the octogenarian dog walkers who shared his peaceful strolls across the hidden parks of Cheshire.

One such route would take him past a low house surrounded by trees with a large garden overlooking the fifth tee at Hale Golf Club, a few hundred metres from his old front door where the media camped out to catch a shot of him with his beloved Triggs after Saipan.

A red mist of rage? Not a bit of it. In the world of Roy Keane, everything was measured – but by his standards and not anybody else’s.

But if there is one thing that sums up that night, or even one thing that sums up the Manchester United of 1999, it’s that goal from the Irishman. Raising his teammates alongside him as he flew in the air, showing them how it’s done, whilst simultaneously crushing the spirit of his opponents. That’s Keano.

Fergie said after:

“I don’t think I could have a higher opinion of any footballer than I already had of the Irishman, but he rose even further in my estimation at the Stadio delle Alpi. The minute he was booked and out of the final he seemed to redouble his efforts to get the team there. It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field. Pounding over every blade of grass, competing as if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose, he inspired all around him. I felt it was an honour to be associated with such a player.”

Performance counts for everything in football. Teams and players are judged on results, not character traits. The soldiers of the game are disappearing and in their place is the football mercenary, the glory-hunting, heavy-earning, often responsibility-shirking player with more talent at their disposal than many of the on-field generals could ever hope to muster.

The game has never seen more skill across the broad spectrum of players that step across the white lines every match. The game has never been faster, more fitness-focused, and more dependent on money than it is now. There is a saying that natural leaders are born, not made, and judging by the modern game, the role of the on-field general looks consigned to fade.

PS: tft and image credits :gettyandunitedwebsite

Profiling Eric Dier : Manchester United’s midfield Target

The time for excuses, it seems, is over. After what had gone before him, Mourinho was always going to be given time to get things right, but expectations remain as high as ever at English football’s most successful club.

Three trophies in 2016-17 have helped to lift the post-Sir Alex Ferguson mood and get United back into the winning habit, but more is demanded rather than merely longed for. Mourinho has to push his side back into Premier League title contention, and that has to happen in 2017-18. His track record suggests that one season is normally enough for him to get his eye in and know what is expected to challenge for domestic dominance, with the immediate success enjoyed during a first stint at Chelsea and with Inter in Serie A complemented by league crowns in his second year at Real Madrid and after returning to Stamford Bridge.

He knows what pieces are required to complete the jigsaw and has made the powers that be at Old Trafford aware of where to find them, stating immediately after a Europa League triumph in May:

 “Ed Woodward has my list, what I want, what I would like for more than two months. So now it’s up to him and the owners.”

United are working their way down said list and have arrived at the section titled ‘holding midfielder’.

The need of a DM:

Manchester United fans were left largely underwhelmed by the news that Michael Carrick had replaced Wayne Rooney as captain. While it’s true he has been a loyal servant for the past 11 years and has done well for the club, it’s hard to look past the fact he will turn 36 in the next few weeks and only featured in 18 Premier League games last season.

Carrick’s playing time is likely to be limited further next season if Jose Mourinho gets his wish of signing a defensive midfielder. Nemanja Matic was long-hailed as the most likely new arrival, but chances of that happening took a hit after United beat Chelsea to the signature of Romelu Lukaku, the striker that Antonio Conte had at the top of his shopping list this summer. This has lead to talk of Eric Dier making the move to Old Trafford, with reports suggesting that the Tottenham Hotspur midfielder would be keen to make the move to Manchester.

While obviously not a candidate to be captain, Dier would likely take more minutes from Carrick, and the reaction from United fans is likely to be mixed.

In English football, describing a player as a ‘utility man’ often infers that he’s good in a number of positions but not good enough to make one of those his own. Manchester United have already had a bid of just under £25m for Eric Dier turned down, as per The Independent understands, and it is likely to take more than double that to even tempt Tottenham Hotspur into the idea of a sale. Just about every area of the field is being addressed by Jose Mourinho, with the Portuguese eager to ensure that no stone is left unturned.

There is also the fact that Mourinho wants a player who has proven Premier League experience for the defensive midfield position, as he sees it as a key role for the quick functioning of the team from the start of the 2017-18 season, and would prefer that to someone who has to adapt. There is still interest in Fabinho of Monaco, but he is seen by the Portuguese as a right-back.

Roy Keane – Michael Carrick – Eric Dier

When Carrick arrived at the club in 2006, taking Roy Keane’s No.16, there were plenty of supporters who were disappointed. Throughout his time at the club, there has been a section of fans who have been indifferent, at best, to Carrick’s presence at United. He was never going to be in the Keane mould, but that was the sort of player the fans were desperately craving — in fact, they still are — so his signing was seen as fairly anticlimactic.

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While it would be wrong to claim Dier is the next Keane, he certainly resembles him more than Carrick ever did. The former United captain would have been proud of the performance Dier put in the season before last on the night at Stamford Bridge when Tottenham Hotspur conceded the league title. He threw himself into challenge after challenge, somehow avoiding a red card while allowing his emotions to get the better of him. Keane would have been guilty of exactly the same in that situation.

One thing that did amuse United supporters last season was Dier’s veiled threat toward Ander Herrera. The Spaniard is immensely popular at Old Trafford, so fans didn’t take too kindly to Dier having a pop following a clash on international duty.

Dier claimed he was elbowed in the face during England’s draw against Spain, a game in which Herrera made his national team debut. Dier labelled Herrera’s action “ridiculous” before adding, “I’ll see him soon,” in reference to Spurs’ upcoming game at Old Trafford. It hardly carried the same menace that Keane’s statement to Patrick Vieira in the Highbury tunnel did, but it showed a bit of fire in his belly.

However, the day before the game, Dier gave an interview in which he downplayed the whole incident, claiming he was just joking. United won 1-0, Dier was an unused substitute, and Herrera was named man of the match.

Case of Daniel Levy :

Still, while such silliness won’t put United off the midfielder, the club still has to overcome the hurdle of dealing with Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy. He has been a thorn in United’s side on a number of occasions and was embarrassed in the summer of 2008 after putting Dimitar Berbatov on a plane to Manchester to discuss terms with City — only for him to be collected from the airport by Sir Alex Ferguson and taken swiftly to United’s Carrington training ground.

David Gill and Ferguson have both left the club since then, meaning there is the opportunity for an olive branch to be offered. But even if the Spurs are to sell Dier, they will demand a large fee.

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Dier made 48 appearances for Spurs last season in all competitions and formed a budding bromance with Dele Alli, much to the delight of the supporters. Losing Dier would be viewed as a step backward for the North London club, who will be hoping it’s lucky the third time in their bid to be crowned Premier League champions next season, after coming close in their last two consecutive campaigns.

Carrick didn’t get the fans buzzing, but his arrival coincided with three title wins on the bounce for United. If Dier could play a similar role, supporters would be more than happy regardless of the overinflated transfer fee.

Portuguese Education

“I play with my head up, unlike you Englishmen.”

Iconic quote by Michael Laudrup but the fact is it is the basic for any midfielder. Watch the man ahead of you so that you can get through. the softly spoken 21-year-old would be far too self-effacing to admit it, his Portuguese upbringing does appear to have imbued in him the same European qualities that Laudrup referred to during that on-pitch conversation all those years ago.

He was eight when he first came to the club, a shy English boy with little grasp of the language being spoken by his peers. As would be the case in England – in the playground or on the football pitch – those two realities initially left him on the outside looking in. Those first six months, as a foreigner with his new hometown club, were some of the toughest of his young life.

According to those who saw him play in those formative years, among Dier’s greatest gifts were his composure and precious ability to keep the ball – a trait that Sporting’s coaches ingrained in their charges from an early age.

In an interview with Four four two one of his footballing coaches said

“Unlike on the park pitches of England on a Saturday and Sunday morning, there were no coaches balling at the youngsters, Players were told things once and expected to learn from it. Likewise, the first question on the return to the Sporting clubhouse after an away match wasn’t ‘did you win?’ but ‘did you play well?’.”

That notion of keeping the ball, being patient and waiting for your chance, would have been foreign to most English players of a similar age. In Portugal, however, it was as natural as breathing.

The way United are going about their business this summer it is unlikely that he would be the final piece of the puzzle, but he – or any alternative that operates in a similar role – would be another sensible signing and a step in the right direction for a club looking to put down several sizeable summer markers to their rivals.

Think about this for once :

This is the manager who had Claude Makelele at Chelsea, Esteban Cambiasso at Inter and Sami Khedira at Real Madrid. No-one appreciates the value of a defensive midfielder quite like Mourinho, yet at Old Trafford he has been forced to choose between wrecking ball Marouane Fellaini and 35-year-old Michael Carrick for the holding role. So, it is evident we are signing a defensive mid but the question comes will it be him or Fabinho or someone else.

The Portuguese is shrewd enough to know that signing a player like Dier has the dual effect of strengthening his own team while weakening a side who have finished above United in three of the four seasons since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. 02.jpgMauricio Pochettino could replace Walker, who has four years to run on his contract, with Kieran Trippier and the Spurs manager could use the fee from the sale to strengthen his squad. Pochettino would be less willing to cash in on selling Dier.

In a transfer market that is quickly threatening to lose its proverbial head, Dier represents genuine value. He is a key cog at Tottenham, central to everything positive about the side’s fresh-faced resurgence, while Mourinho had lost faith in Matic by the end of their time together. Make no mistake, were United to sign Dier, it would be a bigger coup – and more damaging blow – than even their record deal for Lukaku.

 

Andreas Pereira ‘s Quandary

Andreas Pereira has returned from a loan spell at Granada, and the signs are he will be given a chance to win a role in Jose Mourinho’s plans for the coming season. Given United’s lack of depth in midfield, this is a welcome development.

With Manchester United’s transfer activity stuck in limbo, somewhere between frustration and anticipation, José Mourinho may yet look towards his returning loanees to breathe some fresh life into his squad. Of the six United players who left the club on a temporary basis last season, it is likely that only one can force his way into Mourinho’s plans for the coming Premier League campaign: Andreas Pereira.

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Cameron Borthwick-Jackson suffered a confusing season at Wolverhampton Wanderers. Under new Chinese ownership, Wolves started the campaign with Kenny Jackett in charge. The 55-year-old took a liking to the loanee, with Borthwick-Jackson starting seven games under Jackett’s tutorship, scoring an impressive 7.32 rating on WhoScord, before the now Portsmouth manager was replaced by Paul Lambert. The former Norwich City and Aston Villa manager rapidly discarded Borthwick-Jackson and failed to offer the youngster another outing at the Midlands club, commenting disapprovingly on both the player’s fitness and mentality.

The United academy product, who broke into the first team under Louis van Gaal, returned to Old Trafford in search of game time with the under-23 squad. He has not enjoyed senior football since. Despite Mourinho’s ongoing tussle with Luke Shaw over the player’s fitness and attitude, it seems unlikely that Borthwick-Jackson will be involved in the first team squad during the coming season.

Similarly, Guillermo Varela is unlikely to squeeze his way into Mourinho’s plans, especially given the player’s now infamous behaviour at the end of the 2016/17 season. There have been a few humorously embarrassing injury stories in modern football, but not many top the young Uruguayan’s. Prior to Eintracht Frankfurt’s DFB Pokal final against Borussia Dortmund, Varela got a tattoo against his manager’s wishes. This tattoo got infected, ruling the loanee out of the final. Frankfurt’s sporting director Fredi Bobic issued a statement slamming Varela’s behaviour and the German club abruptly ended his loan-spell.

Like Borthwick-Jackson, it is unlikely that Varela will play for United’s first team again, especially with Mourinho attempting to shape the mentality of the club into one that is much more serious – and winning. Unprofessional personalities are likely to be cast aside.

The same goes for the trio of English-based loanees. Adnan Januzaj is the most high-profile case. The Belgian’s unimpressive season under David Moyes at Sunderland was probably his last affiliation with United after too many campaigns of stalling development.

Meanwhile, James Wilson made a total of four appearances for Derby County’s first team, scoring one goal in the EFL Trophy for what was essentially Derby’s reserves. Despite scoring a brace on his début for United under Ryan Giggs’ management, the exit door is looming, especially with Mourinho chasing a number nine as one of his primary transfer targets.

Sam Johnstone is also likely to leave the club. Having made nine separate loan moves since 2011, the Englishman does not have a future at Old Trafford, particularly since David De Gea, Sergio Romero, Joel Pereira and probably even Dean Henderson are ahead in the pecking order of the now journeyman goalkeeper.

Pereira, by contrast, may stand a chance. Of all United’s loanees last season, his club suffered the most, although the Brazilian regularly featured for Granada side that won just four from 38 La Liga games, theatrically crashing out of the Spanish top division.

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It is all the more welcome given Pereira’s success in Spain. Playing in a side relegated with a goal difference of -52, he nevertheless distinguished himself, scoring five goals in 35 league matches — a sixth of the team’s total. That he went to La Liga at all speaks volumes for his character — rather than remain at Old Trafford, he took the risk of going elsewhere for regular football, choosing Granada specifically for the style of football they played. Unlike another of United’s recent young talents, Adnan Januzaj, Pereira had the fortitude to flourish on loan. In doing so, the Brazilian resumed the positive path he had been on a couple of years before, when he won the club’s Under-21 Player of the Year award and made his first team debut under Louis van Gaal.

Pereira was also involved in more goals than any other player at the club, including five strikes and three assists. While that is not overly impressive on it’s own, in a hugely disappointing season for Granada, Pereira played in an astonishing number of positions. The Brazilian started 10 games on the left of a midfield four, seven in the centre, six in an attacking midfield role, another six on the left of a 4-2-3-1 system, two on the left of a 4-3-3, two as a defensive midfielder and even one as a solo striker. It is a positive sign of the player’s ability to perform even amid the chaos, and he perhaps boasts greater mental strength than many thought.

There may even be a space for Pereira in Mourinho’s squad. It is safe to assume that Mourinho will recruit a holding midfielder in this summer’s transfer window – a move that should free up some of the defensive burden placed on Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera. Nemanja Matić now the most likely player to form a three with two of United’s better performers last season, with Herrera deployed in a box-to-box role and Pogba as the most attacking of the trio. Should Pereira prove his worth to Mourinho in preseason, he will alleviate some of the burden on Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera in central midfield. Pogba, in particular, showed signs of fatigue over the last 12 months, during a return to Old Trafford that may have been as taxing mentally as physically, while Herrera got through such a prodigious amount of work that it made many fear it was unsustainable.

Marouane  Fellaini and Michael Carrick are set to be retained, most likely a cover for Matić and Herrera. With Wayne Rooney leaving the club, and Mourinho generally preferring Juan Mata in wider roles, Pereira could provide a rotation option when Pogba needs a rest. The youngster has demonstrated that he is more than capable of performing in the role.

Mourinho needs the depth. United fought hard on four different fronts last season, with the lack of squad depth becoming an issue towards the end of the campaign. This coming season, Mourinho’s team will again be fighting in four separate competitions, although with even more intensity in the Champions League. The manager needs all the quality replacements he can get – and Pereira will surely be a useful tool in what will be another busy season.

A statistical look at Andreas’s Season at Granada

Looking at Pereira’s statistics from last season, he would be best deployed at the front of a midfield three. Per 90 minutes, he made 1.66 passes and 1.56 key passes, numbers which are all the more impressive given the limited amount of the ball that his team saw each match — he made only 34 passes on average, less than half of Herrera’s 74.6. He also showed a surprisingly combative streak — he won 44.4 percent of his duels, only slightly less than Herrera’s 46.0 percent. If there are any question marks, they might arise over his difficulty in retaining possession — he completed 76 percent of his passes. However, this figure must again be viewed in the context of a team whose midfield and defence was continually under siege from rivals with far greater resources.

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Pereira’s eye for goal and sharp turn of pace should be a great asset to a side that struggled to score too often last season. If he can return such notable figures in a struggling team, it is exciting to think what he could do in a team with the vision and movement of players like Henrikh Mkhitaryan. He may also be better at linking up the attack than Jesse Lingard was during the previous campaign — though the England international was always industrious, he too often failed to execute passing moves at the kind of tempo that would open up opposing defences.

Pereira has showed signs of having that elusive quality, and he should also return to Old Trafford battle-hardened by an exacting 12 months at Granada. It is thus that, while many of millions of pounds are being spent elsewhere, Pereira’s move back to Old Trafford could be one of the more intriguing — and maybe even important — elements of United’s squad this year.

 

 

Manchester United’s graveyard of Potential

There are few things more exciting than watching a youngster showcase sky-high potential. Take Monaco’s latest prodigy, Kylian Mbappé, who injected fresh interest into the Champions League last season – a competition that has become stale in recent years given the domination of the continent’s biggest clubs, including Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Juventus. Young players bring unpredictability and excitement. Few outside France knew of the Frenchman’s talent before he burst onto the scene at the turn of the year. They know him now.

Opposition teams could not plan for Mbappé as they had little prior knowledge. First, Mbappé showcased his exquisite finishing. Then came the turn of pace. As Mbappé’s confidence grew he begin to demonstrate those brilliant touches of skill that took everyone by surprise. The youngster may have been perceived as a poacher, but by the end of the season he was viewed as one of the most complete footballers in the competition, at the tender age of 18.

Manchester United, of course, is no stranger to blooding talented youngsters. The world-renown Class of 92 stands apart as one of the most extraordinary narratives in modern football. Never before – and given football’s globalization probably never again – had six footballers matured together to help their boyhood club win the ultimate prize: a Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup treble in 1999. For that story alone, United commands an aura of respect for giving youth a chance.

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Nostalgia is beautiful. Unfortunately, the club hasn’t been able to replicate that since the class of 92. While the academy continues to produce talent, the club has failed to build on young promise in recent years. There is no longer a regular stream of players making it to the first team. Just two weeks back, United announced that Josh Harrop will be joining Preston North End when his contract expires at the end of the month. Harrop leaves having scored a beautiful solo goal versus Crystal Palace on his club debut on the last day of the season, but his chances of making the first team permanently are limited.

Perhaps, more pointedly, Adnan Januzaj is off to Real Sociedad in an attempt to relight his career after years of stalled progress. The Belgian youngster burst onto the scene as one of the only bright spots in David Moyes’ disastrous season at the club. Louis van Gaal distrusted the mercurial winger and then Borussia Dortmund boss Thomas Tuchel expressed public disappointment with the player’s attitude and sent him back to Manchester. It should have been the perfect opportunity to develop at one of the world’s most youth-friendly clubs. Frustration, anger, and a touch of sadness describe the emotions felt about a player who many believe holds the natural ability to reach the top. It just won’t be at United.

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The broader picture is not positive either. Januzaj is far from alone as a promising youngster that has failed to make it at United. The list of highly talented players to have left with talent unfulfilled is too long for a club that has lacked exceptional quality since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. United’s results declined only after Ferguson’s retirement, but the youthful talent pool had dried up long before the Scot called it a day. In the past five years alone, Ravel Morrison, Paul Pogba, Federico Macheda, Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverly, Tyler Blackett, and Paddy McNair each offered United fans a glimpse of talent, yet all left with a sense of potential unfulfilled. Even youthful acquisitions such as Wilfried Zaha, Nick Powell and Memphis Depay departed having failed to turn talent into performances.

This is not all on the club, of course. Many factors play into development and progress of talent, many of which are out of United’s control. Morrison’s personal issues, for example, made it seemingly impossible for the player to dedicate the required focus on his career. Pogba has proven to be Ferguson’s most costly misjudgement, and with hindsight, maybe the hype afforded to Macheda, Cleverly, Welbeck, Blackett and McNair was unjustified.

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Yet, there is also a sense that with the right coaching at least some of these players could have progressed to reach the standards they were once touted to possess. Zaha, for example, was not afforded the chance to showcase his mercurial talents despite the £15 million fee. United fans might look at the player’s outstanding season at Crystal Palace as an opportunity missed. Powell and Depay were each accused of demonstrating a poor attitude, although if the former is able to focus and the latter carries on his good form for Lyon, United may rue not holding a little more patience.

The result is a graveyard of youthful potential. There are too many ‘what ifs’ – players discarded to the wind when the excitement of youth was exactly what the club needed. Today, supporters are right to be concern that youngsters such as Marcus Rashford and Antony Martial might not fulfil their potential at the club. Each enjoyed superb seasons under Van Gaal, but neither truly built on those foundations during Jose Mourinho’s first campaign at the club. The duo enjoyed ample game time last season, but there is a sense that Mourinho’s more conservative tactics have stunted the pair’s growth. Potential is not yet lost, but neither enjoyed featuring on the left wing and being asked to perform defensive duties even if it is beneficial to the team. If Mourinho captures Alvaro Morata, neither will appear at number nine much next season either.

 

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In more defensive areas, Mourinho can choose from a plethora of talented youngsters waiting for a chance. Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Axel Tuanzebe, Luke Shaw, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Guillermo Varela have each offered assured performances for the senior team. Fosu-Mensah looks like the beefy, all-action defensive midfielder that the team has lacked in recent years, while Tuanzebe epitomised composure when he was thrown into Mourinho’s first team plans towards the end of the season. Shaw is a complicated case, but his ability is unquestionable. Shaw will hope that Mourinho places more trust in the former Southampton player, although that trust may only come with the hard work his manager demands.

Borthwick-Jackson and Varela looked like capable attacking full-backs under van Gaal’s tutelage, although with so many options in front of them it seems unlikely that either will make the senior squad in the coming season. Departure is likely.

Mourinho has much to do if he is to dispel the assumption that he fails to give youth a chance. Last season Rashford, Martial, Shaw, Tuanzebe, and Fosu-Mensah enjoyed time in the first team. Mourinho offered more minutes to teenagers than any other manager in the Premier League, albeit a stat skewed by Rashford’s impact. Yet, none is guaranteed first choice for the coming campaign.

The sense that Mourinho’s conservative ideology hinders talented youngsters persists. Few will argue that the Portuguese prefers the fickle world of potential – one that can be full of surprises, good and bad – to proven talent and experience.

Still, the current crop of youngsters at United is more exciting than in recent years. Now the club and manager needs to find the right environment to stimulate that talent.

 

Jose Mourinho and the art of Pragmatism

Some Manchester United’s more cynical fans let out a sigh of dismay when Cristiano Ronaldo announced that he was no longer happy at Real Madrid, after accusations of tax fraud unsettled the superstar. Few enjoy the tedium of a summer transfer saga, it creates uncertainly, and United fans have been offered false hope too often in recent years. Some fans cling to the hope that the Ronaldo will once again grace Old Trafford; plenty felt an anxious twang of déjà vu this week.

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After all, David Moyes’ first transfer window was dominated by talk of Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford. In that same window United reportedly made moves to acquire Thiago Alcântara, Gareth Bale, Cesc Fàbregas and Toni Kroos. Yet, come transfer deadline day on 1 September 2013, United had made just one signing, Marouane Fellaini. Even then, the club botched the move by failing to activate the midfielder’s release clause a month earlier – it would have saved £4 million on the £27.5 million Ed Woodward shelled out.

In more recent times, United’s vice chairman has enjoyed reason to be smug with the capture of genuine top class talent such as Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Zlatan Ibrahimović and Eric Bailly. Last summer’s acquisitions brought the lot: stardom, potential, flair, arrogance, but, most importantly, quality the team actually required.

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Bailly shored up a defence that was lacking in brawn. Ibrahimović brought goals and a sense of arrogance that had been sorely lacking under the toothless, stuttering guidance of Moyes and Louis van Gaal. United’s purchase of Pogba added world-class flair, and Mkhitaryan raised the quality of United’s attacking interchanges, many of which had become blunted and directionless after the soulless possession football that had come before. There were improvements across the team, as should be expected from the extraordinary amount of money offered up by Woodward’s office.

Last summer was an exception, not the norm. United’s aura under David Gill’s leadership, of a shrewd club that bought within its means to maintain a level of brilliance has diminished. Moyes’ single season was the catalyst – a 7th place Premier League finish highlighted that the squad needed an overhaul to keep up with the country’s top teams.

The reaction has been to throw money at anyone that might be emblematic of success. United has posted a record transfer fee for a teenager, Luke Shaw, and then broken the British transfer record with the purchase of Ángel Di Marίa. Radamel Falcao was also brought in on an extraordinary loan deal to add more fire power up front. Of that trio, only Shaw has remained for more than one year, and even the talented youngster has found it much more difficult than many expected to make himself a regular starter.

Of that same window, it is the less shiny acquisitions that now hold more sway in José Mourinho’s dressing room. Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo and Ander Herrera arrived to muted fanfares. The former pair can reasonably claim to have enjoyed a strong first season under Mourinho, while the Spaniard picked up the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year. In fact, the only Galactico-style player to arrive under Woodward and showcase his immense talent is Anthony Martial. It lasted just a year, with the Frenchman suffering an under-par second season at the club, leading to speculation about his future.

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It leaves the conclusion that the relative effectiveness of United’s 2016 summer transfer window was not of Woodward’s doing, but that of Mourinho. Players were not bought for the sake of excitement, but with a clear role in the squad. It gave the team a new dimension.

United’s sixth-place Premier League  finish was below the result Mourinho’s side should have achieved, but victory in the EFL Cup and Europa League have put the club back into an elite bracket. The truest success of Mourinho was not extracting the best out of the superstars at the club, but elevating the performances of those squad players who would have been deemed average a year ago. Herrera is the most prominent example, but Antonio Valencia, Jessie Lingard, Sergio Romero, Rojo, and even Matteo Darmian have exhibited their importance to the team. If the past three years have taught any lesson, it is that crowbarring supreme talent into the team for the sake of reflected glory does not lead to success. Winning teams must be crafted with a level of pragmatism that only the very best can muster.

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In recent weeks fans have taken to social media to vent frustration at the purportedly “mediocre” players Mourinho wishes to bring in this summer. The acquisition of young Swedish centre back, Victor Lindelöf, drew little excitement due to his lack of perceived status. Yet, the player’s calmness under pressure and ability to play the ball out from the back offers further quality to one of the tightest defences in last season’s Premier League.

Should United capture Alvaro Morata – a deal that appeared to be close until Ronaldo threw Real Madrid’s transfer policy into disarray – and the rumoured offer for Ivan Perišić, give an indication of the type of players that Mourinho wants to sign. Neither is the superstar that will alone catapult United to Champions League success, but each is of proven quality and would add diversity to United’s squad. Morata is a goal-scoring number nine, something Mourinho desperately needs after Ibrahimović’s injury and subsequent release. Perišić is a two footed winger who has put up decent goal and assist numbers for an Inter Milan, a side that has otherwise significantly underperformed.

Likewise, Nemanja Matić and Eric Dier have been identified as targets to plug the enforcer-shaped-hole in United’s squad. The reaction to these rumours have again been grumbles of discontent – that squad filler may mean that United will not be able to once again claim to be the best team in the country. Indeed, a quick temperature check says that Monaco’s Brazilian fullback-turned-holding-midfielder, Fabinho, is the fans’ choice.

Yet, it would surely be short-sighted to rule the signing of Matić or Dier a disappointment. The Serbian destroyer has been integral to Chelsea’s two Premier League titles in the last three years, while Dier has consistently started for a Tottenham Hotpsur side that has amassed more points than any other team over the past two years.

Either way, whether these rumours are real or not, there is a truth to the observation that United does not need more Galactico signings, but something more pragmatic. Mourinho has assessed that his squad is talented enough to do battle with best in England, as evidenced be the Portuguese’s tactical victory over the eventual champions, Chelsea, towards the end of the season. Tweaks are needed, but an overhaul is not.

Fans may clamour for Ronaldo, but the likelihood is that Madrid’s politics will eventually win out and the forward will stay in the Spanish capital. Mourinho’s targets are tailored for his team, and his previous success in the transfer window should offer more than enough credit. Woodward should be wary of chasing unavailable dreams. Ronaldo or not, Mourinho has a plan.

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