Tag Archives: Luke Shaw

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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Luke Shaw will feel like a new signing to Manchester United

Luke Shaw

It’s great to see Luke Shaw take a football field again.Source: Sky Sports

It has been quite the wait but on Saturday afternoon, Manchester United left back Luke Shaw finally stepped back on to a football pitch.

Back in September, the England international suffered a double fracture of his right leg in the club’s Champions League tie against PSV Eindhoven that ended his season prematurely. It has been a long road back to full fitness, a tough one when it’s for such a long period, but United fans will be delighted to see him again.

After an outstanding season at Southampton under Mauricio Pochettino two years ago, the youngster made the big-money move to Old Trafford that summer. Many baulked at the reported £30 million figure but those at the helm in Manchester knew they were investing in a potentially world class full back in the future.

Those critics were not silenced in his first season at the club, where he struggled both for consistency on the pitch and staying on it. Despite that, many still believed that he would come good in time and with a full summer off, he would return firing on all cylinders.

From the beginning of the 2015-16 season, you could see that the enthralling attacking full back had returned. He had a spring in his step and with encouragement from then-boss Louis van Gaal, who had criticised his weight in the past, Shaw began to really establish himself again.

That attacking instinct returned, where he would fly past his winger and venture towards the by-line. His speed also allowed him to catch up defensively and on both sides of the ball, he made himself an extra weapon to the club’s arsenal that they really needed as they occasionally stifled themselves creatively.

He was the change of pace, he made something happen and he was that extra bit of spice to their attacking play.

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This was a heartbreaking moment in what will hopefully only be a footnote in a long career. Source: Sky Sports

Just as he was starting to fly, his wings were clipped. A lot of onlookers would have said that Shaw was possibly United’s best player for the first few games of the season and were completely gutted when he was struck down on that one night in the Netherlands.

While he went to recover, United struggled to fill the void. Daley Blind was now a centre-back, Marcos Rojo was in the bad books and injuries to Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young meant that Matteo Darmain was their only real option but he needed to play at right-back.

When they did find a suitable replacement in another youngster, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, he too was struck down with injuries that interrupted his steady rise. It was a position of weakness throughout the season and Shaw’s return shores that gap up dramatically.

As for England, they have a surprising amount of interesting full-backs to choose from now. Both Danny Rose and Ryan Bertrand have impressed for their clubs but with neither really making the place in the national team their own, there’s a real chance that Shaw could be the answer in that team as well.

There’s no doubt that it’s fantastic to see Shaw back on a football field, both for club and country. Not only is he a terrific young talent that can become a star, he has shown that he has a strong mentality to fight back and he will be ready come August to show everyone what they’ve been missing.

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Van Gaal lays foundations that future managers must build on

Louis van Gaal has laid the defensive foundations of which entertaining attacking play can be built on, but probably from someone else.  Source: The Guardian

Louis van Gaal has laid the defensive foundations of which entertaining attacking play can be built on, but probably from someone else. Source: The Guardian

Many people have rightly claimed that the footballing philosophy that Louis van Gaal has brought to Manchester United has made them a dull, relatively predictable attacking team.

While the ideas he has put in place, centring around structure and possession of the football, have helped solidify a leaky defence, it has in turn stifled the attacking flair of which Sir Alex Ferguson’s teams were fondly remembered for.

With that significant comes criticism, rightly or wrongly, for the direction that the team is going in under the Dutchman. Many question whether it will win the club anything and even if it does, whether it would have been worth watching the mundanity of it all.

Some would also argue that the amount of money that United have spent in the last two summers demands trophies. That others have spent similar or less and have achieved results, therefore the same should be said of this current crop of players at Old Trafford.

However, some are forgetting what he inherited. The end of the Ferguson era saw the Moyes era and he simply could not lay the foundations that would stand the club in good stead not just in their immediate future but for many seasons to come.

They went backwards, without a real plan in attack or defence and with a squad that was waning, he could not put enough in place quickly enough to make a stark change.

In came Van Gaal, in came big changes to personnel and for a brief moment, it worked. The autumn was solid but it lead to a relatively bleak winter that saw United begin to dip in form. Unable to defend and with a lack of potency up front, they stagnated.

Then, there was a sign of real life.

United's 3-0 win against Spurs, with Rooney's "knockout" goal, was the real standout performance of last season.  Source: The Mirror

United’s 3-0 win against Spurs, with Rooney’s “knockout” goal, was the real standout performance of last season.  Source: The Mirror

A 3-0 performance at Old Trafford against Tottenham Hotspur was a real marker of what this team can do. There was a real energy when the ball was played forward, the team pressed high and were rewarded with quick counters in the final third that Barcelona have proved in the last few years can be so deadly.

It didn’t require a huge amount of possession, with only 52%, and despite having 11 shots on goal, only three were on target. They all ended in the back of the net, a pretty regular symptom of the new Manchester United, of which that if they tend to work a goal-scoring opportunity, it at least ends in the back of the net.

And again, it was built of the solid defensive play from earlier in the season. Spurs failed to have a shot until the 89th minutes, the on-fire Harry Kane was completely anonymous and they build on top of that with a high-press, quick attacking game.

It lasted a few games before the team ran out of steam. In came a few more signings in the summer, some extra youthful injection as well as some real solidarity in midfield and other than potentially a real solid centre-back, it was the summer the team were begging for.

From the start of the season up until now, the team haven’t set anyone alight.

Van Gaal’s tactics in most games are set up almost not to lose or concede, which seem much more sensible when you consider the plights of Chelsea but seem outrageous when you can’t be adventurous away at Leicester City, a team that have been on quite the run but aren’t the most formidable defensive team.

Instead, they tried to stop the Foxes entertaining attack and for the most part they did, it did not end in a win but the team that was set out, with three centre-backs and two defensive midfielders, although Bastian Schweinsteiger did become more advanced once they went behind.

United were abject against Leicester, bar a solid showing from Schweinsteiger.  Source: Manchester Evening News

United were abject against Leicester, bar a solid showing from Schweinsteiger. Source: Manchester Evening News

What one can learn from these displays is that Van Gaal is at least providing a foundation of which the team can build from. No one wanted to join with Moyes in charge, he has attracted young talent that will grow with the club and their attacking flair will come to the fore at some point.

The defence can now defend properly and if Luke Shaw wasn’t injured, the back line might never have changed all season. Daley Blind has held his own, Phil Jones has impressed when fit and Chris Smalling has been a revelation. If Matteo Darmain can rediscover his confidence, it’s a good unit that is now finally protected by a solid defensive midfielder with good interplay skills in Morgan Schneiderlin.

They have the best defence in the league, conceding 10 goals in 14 games and in an era when defending has become an afterthought for some teams. It’s impressive when heading into the season, people thought they desperately needed a centre-back but all they needed was a firm structure and a bit of consistency.

While it’s clear that he’s restricting the attacking players, which is only more frustrating when you look at the talent and how some performed at the back end of last season, they have a solid backbone. Either Van Gaal will eventually let some of the reigns loose as his team continues to hold off others or someone else will make it so, much like at every other club the 64-year-old has been at.

Barcelona and Bayern Munich are both lauded for their attacking flair but what is also forgotten about, especially under Pep Guardiola, is the fact that they don’t concede many goals either. They had a basis, of which attacking play was then build upon and then the success would come.

It might be difficult to tell at the moment and a little inconsiderate to ask for people to wait for this to work but at least there looks to be a plan. Other teams spend in hope, as have United, but it’s with the intent to advance the team for the foreseeable future.

The days of traditional wing play and counter attacking football is gone, at least for the time being. The club are doing what every other rebuild should do, rebuild from the back and then move forwards, then you can create a team capable of winning silverware on a regular basis.

Whether it will be Van Gaal at the helm when that does happen is unlikely but United fans should not fret too much, the foundations are at least laid for a real identity to be placed upon them sooner rather than later.

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