Monthly Archives: May 2017

Just about good enough: Manchester United’s 2016/17 season review

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Be wary of anyone who said they enjoyed watching Manchester United throughout the entirety of the 2016/17 season. They might be a little crazy.

While there was glimpses of quality and some strong performances dotted in there, this campaign has been a tough slog for the Red Devils. Jose Mourinho is slowly but surely stamping his mark, both on the squad and the tactics, but that hasn’t come as quickly as many expected under the Portuguese manager.

In terms of results, it has been a mixed bag of a season. The results in the EFL Cup and the Europa League were good, earning two trophies and an automatic Champions League spot cannot be understated in how valuable they are to the club not just this season but the upcoming one too.

Cup competitions in general were a success, with an FA Cup quarter final exit to Chelsea disappointing but by no means embarrassing. It showed that when it’s needed in a high pressure, one-off game, the team can pull off the result they need.

They proved that against the champions in the Premier League too, but that was an all-too-brief bright spot in a frustrating campaign. Too many draws, especially at home, combined with a plethora of missed chances against smaller teams and being outclassed by those above them meant they never really looked like title contenders.

In fact, they only really looked like top four contenders because of the misgivings of other sides fighting for those places. A great run over Christmas was matched by everyone else, meaning their long, strange unbeaten run saw them keep pace rather than hit their stride with any real aplomb.

From a tactic’s perspective, it seemed like Mourinho could never quite settle on a preferred setup with a consistent line-up. The squad looks set up to play 4-2-3-1 but with midfield issues it switched to a 4-3-3 before moving back in the final few months of the season.

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That meant no-one really settled into their roles yet neither particularly showed that it should have been the formation to follow.

The 4-3-3 meant one of the attacking midfielders missed out but it added more balance to the midfield. It offered Paul Pogba a little more freedom, it helped strengthen the middle of the park but it also hindered United at the attacking end, leaving the striker often too isolated with predominantly inside forwards at the club’s disposal.

The 4-2-3-1 got more forward-thinking players into the side but created an imbalance behind them. Finding someone who worked best with Pogba in that role proved troublesome, even if at the end of the season Ander Herrera showed why it really should have been him all along.

However, the win against Chelsea towards the end of the season did show off Mourinho’s tactical prowess when needed. An almost misshapen 4-4-2 with Jesse Lingard joining Marcus Rashford in a speedy front two caused the Blues back three all kinds of problems.

The man-marking from Herrera on Eden Hazard worked perfectly too and displayed what this team could produce under the right conditions. That flexibility will be great in big games next season but a more consistent system with a regular starting eleven needs to be established.

A few unheralded players can hold their head up high, with that list beginning with Antonio Valencia. A revelation at right-back and a reinvention no-one could have seen coming, the Ecuadorian has been nothing short of excellent and has thoroughly deserved his contract extension.

Herrera has also been his non-stop self, even if he has overstepped the mark on occasion. He holds himself extremely well, never puts in less than his maximum and has worked extremely hard to be a permanent fixture in the big games in the heart of the midfield.

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At the same time, there’s a few that should be a little ashamed of a pretty dire season. Phil Jones has been poor along with injury prone which sees him practically out of the door, Luke Shaw needs to bounce back stronger in the pre-season and Anthony Martial needs to rediscover his consistency if he is to continue his progression as a footballer.

The signings from the summer window were all good additions, even if not all of them hit the ground running. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was exactly what you’d expect from the big Swede, Eric Bailly has the potential to be a mainstay for years to come, Pogba can be so good when he’s fully involved which needs to happen more often next season and Henrikh Mkhitaryan just has to find more consistency after a slow start, an exciting middle and a dithering end.

The positive to take from this campaign is there has been a foundation built. That’s not to say there isn’t more to be added, they need a little more at centre-back, left-back, midfield and up top but with the right players in again, they could be pushing much higher in the table and in all cup competitions as well.

What needs to be done is an establishment of an attacking identity. There’s a solid base from Mourinho’s background but he needs to create a more dynamic, unpredictable offence that not only creates better opportunities but finishes them off as well.

In the end, United’s season felt like they were learning a musical instrument. Sometimes it would sound wonderful, on occasions it made your ears bleed but on the most part, you could just about understand what they were trying to play.

The challenge now for Mourinho is to turn them into rock stars. If he can get them singing off of his hymn sheet instead of just humming the tune, this team could grow in both quality and potency quickly.

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Do the Boston Celtics stick or twist?

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It has been a pretty interesting week for the Boston Celtics.

On the court, they have reached the Eastern Conference Finals just four years removed from being outside of the playoffs looking in, while off it, their crazy trade with the Brooklyn Nets around the same time has earned them the top pick in a widely perceived loaded draft.

What a time to be in green.

If only they didn’t get blown out by 40 points in their own building by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Then see their best player ruled out for the rest of the postseason.

Swings and roundabout. At least they’ve won a game now.

However, that could have been the perfect wake-up call to a team that might got a little ahead of themselves after finishing as the top seed in the East. The Cavs had a pretty poor end to the regular season but have been irrepressible in the playoffs, highlighting the gap that Boston still has to close to get anywhere near a championship.

So, with a handsome wealth of options to go down, which way should the Celtics go to push themselves into that Finals conversation? Do they keep their top tier picks or do they trade them away for proven talent that can match the riches in Cleveland and at Golden State?

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Option one seems to be there forethought at the moment, holding their cards close to their chest. Regardless of which route they will take, unless they have a trade already set in motion, they will pick the best available player with that first pick in the 2017 draft with the view that they can develop him if they want to.

Their actual focus goes beyond that and into free agency. Numerous outlets are reporting Boston’s significant interest in signing Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward, a first-time All Star this season and someone who could relieve some of the scoring burden off of Isaiah Thomas’ shoulders.

If Hayward does join, the Celtics have the cap space to make it happen and a better opportunity for him to win a championship sooner, then trading becomes an afterthought. Not only is he filling a hole both on a scoring and quality level, he also plays in the same position of their two rumoured trade targets.

Should the former Butler Bulldog stay in Salt Lake City, then they should be on the phone to other teams. With Jimmy Butler and Paul George both looking like the best options, they should go all in on getting one to boost the Green’s chances against the Cavaliers.

Both are quality scorers over a number of seasons lumbered on see-sawing franchises. Butler is the tougher deal but more likely to sign a long-term contract, George should be easier to move for but there has been much chatter about his desire to eventually join the Los Angeles Lakers, whether he’s traded this summer or not.

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Then the question becomes whether the price to get either of them where they also agree to an extension, will it be worth the price? That first pick in a loaded draft this year could give them an asset on a strong contract that if they are lucky, could contribute from the off.

Add to that the likelihood that they’d have to give away their 2018 pick from the Brooklyn Nets as well and it’s instantly looking more like a poor decision for the long term. With that draft choice likely to be a high one again, why mortgage a potential long-term future that could build another dynasty for a short-term goal?

That tends to be the thinking in basketball, trust the known commodity over the unknown potential when hunting for glory. In the modern era of the number of superstars dictating your number of championships, many feel the Celtics need to headhunt if they want to even think of challenging.

There’s no surprise that their first option is the one they feel strongest towards as keeping their cards in their deck only enhances their chances. Entice Hayward along, add him to Thomas and a solid starting line-up with the hope that the rookies over the next two years can not only contribute but push for starring roles.

Regardless of what happens, it will be an interesting future that could even shape the future of the NBA. When July 1st comes round for free agency, it will become much clearer as to which direction one of the most storied franchises in NBA history is heading.

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A most unlikely of likely seasons for Hull City

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On May 14th 2017, Hull City Football Club were relegated from the Premier League. Not so surprising for most that the Tigers eventually succumbed to their pre-season prediction of falling through the trapdoor but that it took so long to do so should be something of note.

Rewinding back all the way to July in their preparations for the season to come, I caught the friendly between Hull and Mansfield Town. Steve Bruce had a bare bones squad, filled with youngsters and missing spots on the bench along with Peter Odemwinge on a trial, that only just scraped past a League Two side with a 1-0 win.

To add insult to the many injuries they had coming into the evening’s game, Michael Dawson had to be taken off in the first half.

This also went down as Bruce’s last game in charge, leaving three days later due to a lack of funds in the transfer window.

In came, well, no one. Bruce’s assistant Mike Phelan was promoted to caretaker manager while the owner continued to keep his purse strings tight as the team kept weltering. Without enough new faces to supplement the stricken and no injection of quality needed for top flight football, it always looked like it would be an impossible season for the club on the Humber.

They started shockingly well, winning their first three games in all competitions, which included a victory on the opening day against reigning champions Leicester City. A late defeat to Manchester United, however, saw the spiral down the table with heavy defeats of four, five and six goals.

Phelan was initially promoted to full-time manager, only to see himself replaced by Marco Silva in late January. The Portuguese was an unpopular appointment with some sections of the media, questioning his experience despite winning the Portuguese Cup with Sporting and the Greek title with Olympiacos.

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What he did within the time he had was astounding to say the least.

 

To start with, he saw two of their best players sold. Robert Snodgrass was shipped off to West Ham United, the Scotsman still standing as the club’s top scorer some five months on, while Jake Livermore saw his chance to flee south to West Bromwich Albion.

Saying that, they did pull in more faces than in the summer but most came in the form of loanees. Lazar Markovic, Oumar Niasse and Andrea Ranocchia were all bundled through the door in the last few days of the window, with Kamil Grosicki making a permanent switch from Rennes.

However, the rag-tag group was brought together and started playing football on both ends of the pitch.

Before his arrival, Hull had scored just 17 and shipped a staggering 44 goals this season. While the scoring hasn’t moved an enormous amount, the Tigers have two more goals in three less games, their defence has almost taken on another personality altogether.

They shipped just 29 in their last 17 games, not spectacular numbers but a drastic improvement from before. They added three more clean sheets to the one they had right at the start of the season, which shows that they were in an upwards trajectory.

Gone were the days where they would mix between a 4-3-3, 4-5-1, 4-4-1-1 or even a 4-3-2-1 for what seemed like what position the sun was in the sky. Silva gave them a 4-2-3-1 base to work from, instilling graft and when a little bit of zest was needed, a switch to 3-4-3 seemed to do the trick.

 

He grew their relatively solid home form, where they have only lost to the top six excluding Tottenham Hotspur (who visit on the final day), Stoke City and Sunderland, the result that killed their hopes.

They also played in a more adventurous, do-or-die kind of way. The wingers were swashbuckling, everything was with commitment and they would go down swinging, shown by their eight defeats under the Portguese were by more than one goal as they left themselves a little open in the pursuit of a comeback.

In fact, that’s what became their Achilles heel all season long. Only four of their 21 defeats were by a single goal, showcasing that they could never keep it close even in games they were playing well in.

The manager gets plenty of plaudits and will rightfully have interest across Europe this summer. Whether a spot in the Premier League will open up for him is debatable but with a number of attractive options in France, Italy and even with FC Porto at home, he could be under new employers soon.

Some of the players showed enough to stay as well. Sam Clucas showed both quality and effort, Harry Maguire is finally filling in the promise he showed at Sheffield United a few years ago, Andrew Robertson has looked like a left-back for a bigger club for years now while both Markovic and Grosicki glimpsed enough quality to get interest from elsewhere too.

In the end, the disappointment for the fans will be that up until that Sunderland game, they really had it within their own hands. In reality for most, who thought it could be a Derby 2007/08 scenario, they’ve done much more than many could have even imagined.

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Pitch invasions should be a thing of the past

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Have you ever had that rush of blood when you are at a concert and you are so overjoyed that your storm the stage in celebration of the band’s beautiful creation?

No?

How about when Anthony Joshua beat Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley, didn’t you want to jump into the ring to celebrate with all the assembled media that hopped in?

Really? Weird.

Well, it seems to happen every year in English football, regardless of whether a team goes up or avoids going down. It’s tradition, like watching the queen’s speech at Christmas or throwing up after having too many pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, for many a pitch invasion simply has to happen.

But, why?

Picking apart one of many that occurred over the final games of the Championship, League One and League Two, the one at Nottingham Forest was a little shameful. The former two-time European Champions, as they would kindly remind you, saw their fans claim the City Ground’s pitch after their team staved off relegation to League One on goal difference.

It’s like throwing a party because you managed to pay the bailiffs by finding a pound coin in-between the sofa cushions.

Even the positive ones seem a little redundant, like when Bolton Wanderers’ fans even started raiding before the final whistle had blew. They have come straight back up after relegation last season, so the redeption story or the overwhelming sense of beating the odds just isn’t there.

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Compare it to Brighton, who were on the brink of extinction just over two decades ago, and you can justify their need to hug all of their lovely footballers. Those fans almost couldn’t imagine a future and now, it could not be much brighter.

Saying that, footballers must hate pitch invasions. For the home players, it must be like being mugged by the most joyful person in the world. Most of them hope to be near the tunnel straight away but the poor goalkeepers and defenders must wade through the barbarians like it’s Black Friday at Tesco.

As for the away players, they must be begging that they can avoid all of it. The only things that could happen are getting shouted at, potentially assaulted or a dabble of both, with a sea of people running your direction not looking so nice for those that simply want to be on the first plane off this rock for the summer.

What’s even stranger is that it never happens elsewhere. There wasn’t a mass raid when Leicester spectacularly won the title last season, no one in Turin jumped the barriers when they made the Champions League final earlier this week and France contained themselves when they even won the World Cup in their own country in 1998.

However, we English tend to get all passionate about much. When it’s our local football club, with it’s inferior budgeting for stewarding and their more lax nature for idiots, let’s just ignore the norms and go a little mental.

It might be an unpopular opinion, or a surprisingly popular one, but end-of-season public pitch parades should be a thing of the past.

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