Saturday, 24 October 2015

Like Kloppwork

It’s been one of those fortnights that truly represent the stuff of football writers’ dreams. As a writer, I’ve always been drawn to the unexpected. An underdog winning the Champions League, Jose Mourinho praising a referee, Arsene Wenger purchasing a footballer- all fine examples of the wonderful and chaotic mess that this beautiful game throws up from time to time.

The last fortnight saw Arsenal defeat Bayern Munich, Jamie Vardy eclipse Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo for goals scored in domestic league football, Newcastle United win a game 6-2 and Chelsea Football Club win a game. There’s only so much damage to the established norm that this innocent world can take.

In the midst of all this madness, I’ve decided to write about something that actually echoed a semblance of sense. Or, did it? Jurgen Klopp was the most sought after manager in football when he announced his decision to leave Borussia Dortmund at the end of last season.

Many expected he’d take up residence in Madrid, under Florentino Perez’s thumb. Or, perhaps, send Luis Enrique packing since the latter only won the treble and gives terribly boring press conferences. City was spoken about, as was Arsenal. But, these severely average clubs faded in comparison to the allure of an institution that has won two significant trophies in the last 10 years.

Liverpool’s owners could barely believe their luck as they got off the phone with Herr Klopp’s agent, while Brendan complimented his players’ superb performance and unrelenting character in earning a 1-1 draw against FC Sion.

Yes, Liverpool fans were really sad and deeply moved to see Brendan go. Those 12 seconds were spent reminiscing on some of the best moments- Luis Suarez ripping defences apart, Daniel Sturridge signing for Liverpool, Raheem Sterling pledging loyalty and then asking for money, Daniel Sturridge returning from injury (all 7 times) and.. I’m quite sure there’s a Gerrard moment somewhere, but it seems to have slipped my mind.

The arrival of Jurgen Klopp filled Liverpool fans with an optimism and a passion that made them feel like they had won the league. It was an extremely unusual feeling for a lot of them, as I’m sure you’ll understand. But, given his start, there is valid reason for both optimism and a reality check.

Liverpool’s energy level in last weekend’s game against Spurs was through the roof. It was like the entire team were advertising an energy drink, or Jurgen Klopp had told them he would bring Mario Balotelli back if they didn’t start winning games. There was a real purpose about everything they did, and they won almost every 50-50 challenge in the first half.

The second half, sadly, represented the stumbling block in the emergence of a new league-dominating force from Anfield. The energy levels began to fade and Spurs gained much more control in the game. It should’ve been a higher scoring game, but a draw was definitely a fair result.

Klopp surely realized then (if he hadn’t already) that there was a way to go for this side to play like his Borussia Dortmund rockstars. The midweek Anfield opener for Klopp saw Liverpool face off against Rubin Kazan, and underwhelm once Rubin went down to 10 men. Liverpool pushed and pressed at a high intensity, but they lacked the quality up-front to finish good opportunities.

With Sturridge just watching from the stands, and Benteke and Origi evidently just watching from the pitch, Liverpool were left with a lot of bark and no bite. The bark is good, though, and once they supplement that with a decent bite, Liverpool will start winning more games.

Let’s not forget the biggest win from Klopp moving to Anfield- the multiple ridiculous word-plays that football writers now have access to with “Klopp being at the Kop”. Personally, if saving a sinking ship was his motivation, I wish he had joined the Dutch national team. It would have been the inspiration for my best piece yet- “A Kloppwork Orange”. 

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The gloves come off, unless you’re a goal-keeper

Somewhere far to the East, a rooster crows loudly. A new day, a new beginning, a new chance for players to justify hefty transfer fees and managers to take childish quips at each other. Yes, indeed. The new footballing season is almost upon us.

Fans’ expectations are higher than they’ve ever been, except at Liverpool. They’re about the same as every year- boundless optimism which will doubtless fade into the perennial shade of wondering what forces transpire to make them lose talented players and replace them with expensive pumpkins.

Granted, Christian Benteke doesn’t look much like a pumpkin, but he’s always in sub-par form till Halloween. I rest my case.

Then there’s the Chelsea faction who’ve kindly agreed to be good sports and level the playing field by selling Petr Cech and signing Radamel Falcao. Their focus on youth continues to set the bar- Danilo Pantic joined the club and left about 3 minutes into his medical for a loan year at Vitesse Arnhem. He is simultaneously “excited to join the English champions” and “looking forward to signing for another club after not making an appearance for three seasons”.

Speaking of not making an appearance for several seasons, Nani has left Manchester United for Fenerbahce. Robin van Persie joined him because the little boy inside him said there was more money in Turkey. Manchester United, thus, were bereft of striking talent. They solved that problem by signing two defensive midfielders.

Last season, United spent the year trying to turn a striker into a defensive midfielder. This season, they figured they ought to try the opposite. It is all part of the philosophy. Next season, Memphis Depay will be goalkeeper.

Arsenal won the Community Shield which, as we all know, is what the season is really all about. They’ve been accused in the past of only signing attacking talent so they have responded this summer by only signing a goalkeeper.

This radical switch in strategy might alarm some, but Wenger is supremely confident that Arsenal will challenge for the title as long as Giroud, Ramsey, Ozil, Sanchez, Cazorla, Coquelin, Mertesacker and Petr Cech all stay fit simultaneously and Chelsea, United, City, Liverpool, Spurs and we should probably add Southampton here as well, have a bad year.

The burden of expectation has been lifted from Tottenham Hotspur. Seriously, nobody has any expectations. At all. They go into the campaign like Manchester United went into the 2011 Champions League Final against Barcelona. There is nothing to lose, except a trophy and significant financial benefits.

Southampton lost Morgan Schneiderlin and Nathaniel Clyne but clever signings like Jordy Clasie and Juanmi show that Koeman still dons the proverbial thinking cap, occasionally. Last season was a landmark year for the Saints as they finished in a Europa League spot and coped with Liverpool’s summer raid on their squad. This season will show how close they really are to challenging at the very top of English football.

Or as Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern call it, the very top of “strictly-average-honestly-even-PSG-is-better-than-that”.

Among the rest of the English top flight, look out for Crystal Palace and Aston Villa for exactly opposite reasons. Villa will be weak following their decision to replace their top goal scorer with Scott Sinclair. Honestly, one must question the validity of replacing anyone with Scott Sinclair at this point.

Palace have signed Yohan Cabaye to add to an already impressive squad (how did no clubs come in for Yannick Bolasie?). If they start well, Palace could finish as high as top seven this campaign. Watch this space for more.

A new year promises several delicious encounters, intriguing battles and new challengers to the golden throne. Points will be dropped, players will be injured (Wenger, look away now!) and controversy will doubtless show its tantalizing head. But, in the midst of this outrageous kerfuffle, let’s not lose sight of the crux- nobody will ever be a better Premier League manager than John Carver. I honestly don’t know why the others are even trying.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

That's a Wrap!

The Barclays Premier League, the Liga BBVA and the German Bundesliga all culminated this weekend, plunging football enthusiasts worldwide into a pit of temporary despair. It’s true that the Copa America and the Euro U21s are on the way, but nothing quite matches up to the excitement of the week in, week out jostling for positions by teams in the top leagues.

The struggle for the Champions League places, the scrap to avoid relegation and the perhaps more enthralling scrap to avoid the Europa League spots have captured our hearts for many a month now.

Wait, did I say avoid? I meant “to get the Europa League spots”, of course. It does wonders to a club’s chances of achieving things domestically. Just ask Roberto Martinez.

It’s been a see-saw season for City, and a see-saw-conquered season for Chelsea. United managed to get top four, and more significantly managed to find Ashley Young. Liverpool started and finished abysmally, but that is clearly Sterling’s fault. Or Balotelli’s. Or Lovren’s. Or everyone but Gerrard’s. The rest of Brendan’s team did excellently and he is very proud of them.

Arsenal had an exceptional season. Finishing third, possibly retaining the FA Cup and having less than half the squad injured for most of the year puts this down as Arsene’s best in a long, long time.

Pochettino wisely left Southampton for a much bigger club that finished a massive four points above them and will be in the Europa League. Lallana, Lovren and Lambert wisely left Southampton for a much bigger club that finished a massive two points above them and will be in the Europa League. Southampton need to wait and see if Arsenal can beat Aston Villa next weeken- who are we kidding? Southampton will also be in the Europa League.

Leicester City pulled off the two greatest hustles the Premier League has probably ever seen- winning 7 in 9 to avoid relegation and convincing Roy Hodgson that Jamie Vardy is the next Thomas Muller.

Nigel Pearson may be some people’s manager of the year, but let’s look at other managers who have had real impact. Tony Pulis transformed West Brom from decent to extremely decent, Alan Pardew transformed Palace from good to extremely good and John Carver transformed Newcastle from poor to extremely poor.

Sunderland found themselves hovering above the relegation zone with two months to go, perfectly in line with their annual managerial recruitment drive. A rather sensitive chap for a man named Dick, Advocaat shed many a tear when he saw a frontline of Danny Graham, Steven Fletcher and Jermain Defoe for the first time. When they kept a clean sheet at Arsenal, he couldn’t hold back the tears because he knew they were never going to score in a million years.

Stoke, Swansea and Southampton overachieved, but why do things on a smaller budget that you can do by investing millions of pounds? These clubs bring shame to the top flight. Liverpool spent millions on Balotelli and Lambert, only to play Gerrard as a false nine. United spent millions on Di Maria and on Falcao’s wages, only to play Fellaini as a false footballer. That is the Premier League way. What is the point of financial fair play, if the commercial and transfer revenue generated by such clubs is not being wasted away?

This article would be incomplete without a review of other big European Leagues. Let’s talk about the Liga BBVA. Barcelona. Let’s talk about the Bundesliga. Bayern Munich. Let’s talk about the Serie A. Juventus.

Now that a thorough examination of domestic leagues has been completed, let’s shift our focus to a quick preview of a massive match coming your way in early June- an international friendly between the Netherlands and the United States. The Netherlands will be favourites, but the States will know that anything can happen in an intense, high-stakes game like an international friendly.

Also coming up is the UEFA Champions League Final between Barcelona and Juventus. It is one night after the massive friendly, so don’t expect many will be following this one. Still, let’s do a quick preview.

Messi, Neymar and Suarez are in frightening form and will look to put Barcelona in control. Juventus’ midfield quartet of Pirlo, Marchisio, Pogba and Vidal could, however, easily prove to be the difference. As we know, there are players on both sides who are great mates- like Patrice Evra and Luis Suarez, so it should be a rather friendly encounter devoid of any controversy or incident.

Thus, another season comes to an end and with it ends what every football fan called “the weekend”. There is still much to write about, though, and many questions to answer. 

Will Sterling leave? Will De Gea stay? Which English players will Liverpool overpay for this summer? Which world class players will Arsene Wenger underpay for and then lose to other clubs (only to remind us of when Arsenal go from “title challengers” to “consistently making top four since 1997”) this summer? The answers to these burning questions will come only with the passage of time.

Until then, as Jose said, “The Rottweiler barks, and the Prius goes by” or some such line about a car and a dog. 

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Four Give and Four Get

It takes something truly remarkable to bring a football writer on hiatus back to the pen and the blank page (or the Mac and the Calibri, whatever stirs the imagination). Something that shakes the very foundations of the footballing world.

Arsenal winning a trophy, Mourinho praising a referee, Zlatan scoring and not taking the credit, someone else scoring and Zlatan not taking the credit, Real Madrid lasting one week without being linked to a German, City lasting one week without being linked to an Arsenal player, Marco Reus lasting one week- all of these are fine examples of such oddities of the football universe.

This weekend witnessed one such outlier which has compelled me to get back to inflicting my opinions, such as they are, on my ten(s) of readers. A referee gave Manchester United a penalty at Old Trafford- and, unlike the red card that followed it, it was the correct decision.

The subsequent penalty was put away by defensive midfielder Wayne Rooney who was making a rare appearance in a forward role this season. He is now the highest scoring defensive midfielder in the history of the league.

The race for the top four places in English football has been a very forgiving one. Every team that gets up a head of steam seems to feel almost ashamed to be pulling away from its cohorts and takes it upon itself to slip up and let the others back into it.

If somebody had told Brendan Rodgers that Liverpool would be in with a shout of the top four after they lost 3-0 to United at Old Trafford earlier in the season, he’d have probably laughed politely and blamed Balotelli as he was wont to do back then. But the truth is, now, they really are in with more than a shout.

Many opined that with European football keeping the likes of Liverpool and Arsenal occupied, Manchester United would have an advantage with more resting time between games. But, Liverpool and Arsenal have done everything in their power to nullify that advantage.

Liverpool travelled to Turkish side Besiktas and did their best to lose in 90 minutes only to be thwarted into 30 minutes extra time and finally counted on ever-reliable latest failed signing Dejan Lovren to revitalize their campaign by knocking them out of Europe.

Arsenal, too, proved that the Champions League draw is totally irrelevant and that if they play badly enough, they can lose to absolutely any team in the Round of 16. Arsene Wenger relied on the clinical finishing of Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck who delivered, spurning sitter after sitter as Dimitar Berbatov’s blistering pace on the counter was far too much for the already sprightly Per Mertesacker.

Arsene is optimistic about the return leg, where he intends to use the experience of Francis Coquelin and Serge Gnabry to finish the job. Not to be left behind, Tottenham Hotspur is also a football club.

Southampton have no European football to be concerned about, but they do have European footballers to be concerned about- Graziano Pelle has had an awful time recently netting just thrice in his last 22 appearances. Koeman has been forced to ridiculous extremes and has reportedly even considered taking Radamel Falcao on loan from- oh wait, that’s for the other Dutch guy.

Louis van Gaal declared recently that Manchester United are the best in-form team in the league. Some have posited that that was actually heard wrong- he had said that Manchester United are the best INFORMED team in the league. While the latter may not make much sense, unlike the former it has a shot at being true.

United lumbered over the weekend to a 2-0 victory over Sunderland- relying on the ever-faithful Wes Brown and John O’Shea to get them over the line. The mid-week trip to Tyne-side was described by a fan after the game as “like watching paint dry”. United have defended themselves claiming that said fan is a painter and happens to love watching paint dry.

West Ham United have picked up one win now in their last 11 games and are just about still in the top ten. Big Sam maintains they are still on course for European football. The course just happens to be a long one, I suppose.

This race for the top four is so enthralling that Manchester City, too, decided to spice up their season by giving up the laborious and frankly pointless pursuit of Chelsea and throw themselves into it. From a seemingly unassailable 8 point lead over the team in third place, City have seen that reduce to just four. Pellegrini said recently that if Arsenal get any closer, they will buy Alexis Sanchez.

It all comes down to who can handle squeaky bum time. The final games are upon us and with them comes massive pressure, big performances, hilarious mistakes and plenty of stories for football writers to regurgitate. There couldn’t be a better time to get back to the old MS Word and font size 12.

The Premier League Grand Opera is playing its final symphony. But who is it four?

Friday, 14 November 2014

When Yellow Feels Blue

Borussia Dortmund is the most entertaining side in world football when they play their best. They run fast, press high and waste no time in useless possession- launching attack after lightning quick attack. To quote manager Jurgen Klopp, his side plays football “like a heavy metal band”. Carrying forward the analogy, they may be Metallica when at their best but they’re equally Justin Bieber (not heavy metal but the perfect euphemism for bad nonetheless) when at their worst.

Dortmund recorded their third win in the Bundesliga last week- a FIFA “Titus Bramble Own Goal of the Year” nominee sinking 3rd placed Borussia Monchengladbach at the Signal Iduna Park. This was the 11th game of the season. Dortmund have also won 4 out of 4 in the Champions League and look certain favourites to win a group that also has Anderlecht, Galatasaray and Alexis Sanchez. Now, this seems a paradox so complicated Christopher Nolan could make a trilogy on it. How on earth does the same team do so well in a tournament supposedly comprised of champion teams and so badly in their domestic league?

Many theories have been put forth and shockingly some actually have merit. This writer is going to look at none of them because, frankly, it doesn’t matter why they’ve done badly in the Bundesliga so far. A good football writer (like a good drug dealer) must be able to take you into the future and predict what’s going to happen. So I’m dusting off my crystal football and looking ahead to the end of the season.

Dortmund will finish 3rd in the Bundesliga.  Currently on 10 points, Dortmund sit a princely 10 points and 12 places off where I’m predicting them to finish. But they can only go up from here. They completely outclassed Monchengladbach which is probably why Christoph Kramer was so miffed he decided to help them. Key players are returning from injury- the biggest of which, in my opinion, is central midfielder Ilkay Gundogan.

Gundogan is one of the best defensive midfielders in the world and he is crucial to the way Dortmund play. Dispossessing opponents quickly and pressing high up the pitch is something the aging legs of Sebastian Kehl can no longer do. This subsequently restricts Sven Bender’s freedom to move forward and link midfield to attack. Gundogan’s burst of energy frees up space for other key players and allows Dortmund to break with greater speed and precision.

Dortmund have dominated comfortably in a lot of matches they have lost this season. They have had far more possession, shots and clear cut chances than their opponents but haven’t taken them. Part of the reason is the inconsistent form of Ciro Immobile- he’s clearly no Lewndowski yet. But with Reus’ return and Aubameyang finding some good form, the clinical and Germanic nature of their attack is slowly coming back. They’ve scored 13 goals in 4 Champions League games. Attacking like that has to translate into wins in the Bundesliga.

The defence has been weak because, frankly, there haven’t been enough Germans in it. Erik Durm has been terrific at left back. In fact, he’s so good that Bayern Munich will be buying him next season and keeping him on the bench. Mats Hummels has successfully returned from his injury about five times so far. One hopes he doesn’t end up like “that Arsenal player who is always injured”. One also hopes he doesn’t end up AS “that Arsenal player who is always injured”. Like Nolan, I like to leave things ambiguous.

All of this considered, they’ve still only conceded one goal in 4 Champions League games- the fewest of all teams in the competition. That kind of form difference doesn’t last long- eventually the scales tilt to one side. And this writer feels that side is the Champions League one.

“If this writer is so confident of an upturn in Dortmund fortunes why isn’t he predicting a higher finish? Why only third?” a curious yet annoyingly erudite reader may be fighting the urge to ask.  Well, the short answer is that I’m giving a pessimistic estimate. Dortmund will definitely finish 3rd or above.

They will also definitely not win the league. Pep Guardiola is already thinking of where to put his second Bundesliga winner’s medal. The reason I can’t be sure between 2nd and 3rd is the relative inconsistency Dortmund’s rivals have shown. Wolfsburg are currently 2nd and have looked good at times this season but they are almost professionals at slipping up when it really counts.

Then there’s Monchengladbach or, in the interest of both brevity and pure awesomeness, M’Gladbach who had been on an incredible 17 game unbeaten run before Christoph Kramer’s piece of brilliance. Hannover, Hoffenheim, Leverkusen and Augsburg all follow and have all looked patchy at best.

All of this means there’s room for Dortmund to make giant strides. The Bundesliga is very similar to the Premier League in that sense- it’s very competitive from top to bottom. And right now Dortmund are bottom but tomorrow they could easily be top.

One thing’s for sure though: wherever Dortmund finish and however they play, Christoph Kramer’s own goal will go down as one of the best goals the world of football has ever seen. Yes, that’s what this article has been about all along. Pointing you in one direction and gently nudging you in several others leaving you confused until the end- which makes you want to give this an Oscar but you will not. I am now officially the Nolan of football writing.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Leagues Apart

When the Champions League returns, it brings plenty of talking points. And plenty of opportunities for cynics to criticize the English contingent. They are cynics, however, and must not be taken seriously. I am, by contrast, a relentless ball of sunshine.

I can confidently say that all the English teams did everything they could on Match Day One to portray themselves as mildly genuine “maybe quarter-finalists” of the tournament. Arsenal went to Dortmund and touched the ball five times in the first hour. Now, there are those who would interpret that negatively. But, I think that was a tactic- to not play like a football team at all. It’s much easier to beat a football team than whatever Arsenal was trying to be. That’s why Dortmund only won 2-0.

On a more positive note, Arsene Wenger’s defence after the game was only about half as transparent as his defence during it. “They scored two- we had three chances. If we had taken our chances, we could have won 3-2”. Granted, lamentations about missed chances are bound to appear more frequently in his post-match musings now that ace finisher Danny Welbeck has joined their ranks, it still begged a rather eloquent “Whaaaaa…” which Geoff Shreeves declined to provide.

Arsenal fans since witnessed their side “hammer” (yes, that’s what they’re calling it) Aston Villa and then put in a “spirited display” (yes, that’s what they’re calling it), bowing out of the League Cup to Southampton. There, MK Dons have gone further than Arsenal as well. All United need now to regain self-respect is for MK Dons to win at Stamford Bridge.

Let’s move beyond Arsenal now because I think we can all agree they were never in contention to win anything anyway. Except, maybe, the League Cup. Oh, wait.

Liverpool returned to “Real Madrid and Bayern Munich’s Premier Club Competition” at home to Bulgarian Champions Love-your-forests (close enough, don’t be a nit-picker). They created a number of tactically relevant “to-be-discussed-in-the-studios-later” almost opportunities (known colloquially as “Raheem Sterlings”) and finally broke the deadlock when Emile Heskey’s less successful cousin Mario did what Luis Suarez would have done about 9 times in as many games- score at the Kop and look ghastly celebrating.

Thankfully, that only took 82 minutes- which is not surprising because Liverpool are known for rapid starts at Anfield. They are also known for getting ridiculous refereeing decisions given in their favour. Love-your-forests goal-keeper *insert name here* really didn’t see that coming. Steven Gerrard stepped up and scored and promised that this year when he slips, they will be nowhere near the title.

English Champions Manchester City went to German Champions Bayern, who have started calling City their “best start to the group stages- let’s have them every year”. City created about half as many good chances as Arsenal did at Dortmund (I know what you’re thinking and yes, half of zero is still zero).

“They only beat us in the last minute of the game- I’ll take that”- this jubilant City fan celebrating the defeat against a depleted Bayern says everything I could ever hope to about the standards English teams are aspiring to.

But wait, let’s not get carried away here! There’s still hope for England in last year’s semi-finalists and this year’s Premier League Champions (was I not supposed to give that away?) – Jose Mourinho (formerly known as Chelsea Football Club). And, well, as luck (read Champions League group stage draws which are very obviously rigged) would have it, he ended up with probably the easiest group of the lot.

Maribor and Sporting are very good in their respective countries of *insert name here* and Portugal, which means they might as well step aside. Add to this “that-German-side-that-was-good-until-Manuel Neuer-left” and Jose must have been readying himself for a delicious second round tie with Love-your-forests.

But, things started sourly on Match Day One when Didier Drogba look-alike Didier Drogba took to the field and put on an utterly uninspired performance and Chelsea could only manage a 1-1 draw. Jose came out after the game and refused to criticize his team- I like to end every paragraph with a joke.

“There are still 5 games to go” echoed around England after Match Day One and, while gauntlets haven’t been thrown down, towels remain firmly in place as well. There will be a resurgence, one wagers. So let’s come together and hope that I’ll be back soon blogging about a resolute Chelsea totally outclassing Maribor one nil, Danny Welbeck scoring his second Champions League goal in the same tournament and Liverpool winning comfortably against 8-man Basel thanks to a Steven Gerrard hat-trick of penalties.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Louis van, what the Gaal?

It’s the end of an era at Old Trafford. When Manchester United confirmed Patrice Evra’s transfer to Juventus on Monday, they officially declared to the entire footballing community that they will, in fact, have a left back next season.

If that wasn’t enough, they’ve brought in England’s fourth choice left back and Spain’s eighteenth choice central mid-fielder for a paltry 60 million quid while Real Madrid have spent more (yes, more!) on World Cup winner Toni Kroos and World Cup top scorer James Rodriguez, who we all know are average at best.

There is optimism in the United camp about the new signings reminiscent only of the kind of optimism that accompanied the arrival of Belgian stalwart Maroune Fellaini last season. This optimism propelled him to a mighty seventeen almost-goal-but-actually-zero tally that left United almost-champions-maybe-top-four-no-well-how-about-Europe-not-even-that-screw-it-lets-get-a-new-shirt-sponsor seventh in the league standings.

 But, this year will be different. This year will be their year. Louis van Gaal comes to Old Trafford off the back of a World Cup campaign with the Netherlands that saw them fly into the semi-finals and then let Ron Vlaar send Argentina into the final.

Vlaar magic aside, van Gaal was tactically brilliant at the World Cup and United will be hoping he brings that sharp acumen to Manchester and doesn’t play Ashley Young, Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck in the same team. Given the decision to sell Evra and Rio Ferdinand, one wagers that acumen is in action already. 

Can he really bring glory days back to United? His record would suggest he can. The current squad’s record would suggest he would have been better off joining Southampton. But if there’s one thing van Gaal is known for, it’s making bad players play mediocre. And that’s exactly what the Old Trafford faithful has been pleading for from Tom Cleverley- please be mediocre.

There are, however, major gaps to fill. With Shinji Kagawa, Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and Adnan Januzaj all wanting to play in the same position, one wagers a couple of those may have to warm the proverbial bench and a couple may be played out of position. With Evra leaving, United have also now lost their best winger and must rely on the combined expertise of Nani, Valencia and Ashley Young- which has historically managed an average of 0.5 accurate crosses per game.

The most major of said gaps is now at the heart of what will be a drastically different back line. Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand have left for pastures anew. Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans have collectively ensured the retirement of United’s head physio Rob Swire and their current most experienced centre half Michael Carrick is out with an ankle injury.

Rumour has it, though, that van Gaal has lined up key signings in these areas. Mats Hummels, Angel Di Maria and Arturo Vidal are strongly linked. There is also the contingency plan of buying Edinson Cavani and (I’m guessing) keeping him on the bench to establish psychological dominance over Chelsea and Manchester City by demonstrating that United too can buy expensive players and ruin their careers by never playing them.

If the transfers (minus Cavani) go through, United may have a playing eleven that challenges for the dizzying heights of fourth, maybe even higher! Without the useless distraction of Champions League football, they can now focus on what matters most- winning the Manchester derby.

It all comes down to these next few weeks. Partly because that’s always a neat way to end an article, but mostly because David Moyes arguably got the entire season wrong in these very weeks last year.

Calamitous dealings in the transfer market eventually saw the coup of Fellaini to rapturous applause from the Everton faithful. Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck were regular features on the MU Tour. And, to cap it all off, Arsenal were spending money. It was, in summary, an absolute nightmare of a month for United and Louis will be hoping for no encores.

With players leaving and transfers hanging, there seems to be an Arsenal-like air about United that evokes an understandable sense of trepidation. What should be the target, then? Top six? Top four? Title? Let’s keep it realistic. Finish above Spurs.

Lo! The transformation is complete.