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A Summer of Realism or Papering over cracks at Old Trafford?

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It has all started rather swimmingly in the transfer market at Old Trafford.

Memphis Depay arrived almost as the season ended and links to top names continue to flood in, with the promise of a side capable of winning the title being ready come August. However, Van Gaal’s transfer record from his first season was underwhelming to say the least and there are still signs that obvious problems are being ignored within the squad.

Obviously still able to attract the top names, Manchester United could become a superpower on the pitch again very quickly but there needs to be some intelligence in the market that we haven’t seen in a long time.

A ruthlessness to players who are sub-standard who not appropriate needs to be shown, not more and more opportunities for Jones (who still hasn’t matured) or Cleverley (who seemed to have been given half a career based on one decent loan spell).

The squad that took fourth place doesn’t sound like one that needs to be dissected, but those at Manchester United who are expecting major trophies year on year will still be worried at the gap from the title. Van Gaal did exceptionally well in the second half of the season to utilise the players at his disposal and secure Champions League football.

Although that will not be enough in the coming campaign and there are still such significant issues within the squad that must be addressed rather than the continued arrogance/ignorance of recent years. Unlike the new-found precision of Chelsea in the market – largely down to the increasing influence of Michael Emenalo – there seems an inability from Old Trafford to think more strategically about what is required and who would be best to target.

With significant investment certain from the sides around them, it is time for United to put right the mistakes of previous windows.

The price to be paid for these failings will be the premium any club will ask when Manchester United are chasing their players and particularly when trying to address their perennial defensive problems.

Nicolas Otamendi is one of the more popular targets currently after a stellar season with Valencia. Even in defence, a pragmatism must be adopted to the transfer policy rather than chasing Hummels or Varane, inspiration should be taken from the respective signings of Gary Cahill and Laurent Koscielny to rival Chelsea and Arsenal.

Central defence is going to need at least one addition and despite some impressive performances, Van Gaal needs to decide whether he has faith during next season to fully trust McNair and Blackett as full squad members.

The right-back slot, other than suggestions of Clyne and Carvajal, seems most likely to be neglected. The versatility of Jones and Smalling has distracted from right-back additions and the bizarre relationship between Van Gaal and Rafael suggests that a new full-back is a necessity.

Again, leaving the signing to being at a point of desperation (Antonio Valencia as a full-back must be the definition of such) is going to reflect in the prices that are demanded. There is a natural shortage of top quality full-backs in world football currently, but this does not provide an adequate excuse for neglected a clear problem area for Van Gaal.

The inevitable troubles of the midfield will continue and a suitable replacement for Carrick seems the easiest of their problems to solve with Gundogan, Strootman and others linked.

Their current predicament is entirely down to their own previous failings. Ferguson may have won a title in his final season but it had been known for years that United were living off of borrowed time both in midfield and defence, demonstrated most clearly by the need to bring an elderly Paul Scholes out of retirement.

The Luke Shaw signing was obviously with long-term aims, but his lack of availability last year caused more problems than it solved and his fitness needs to be watched with such a sharp eye to make sure he can get anywhere near the potential he was showing in his brilliant final season at Southampton.

Shaw’s transfer is one that is hard to criticise yet, but when you couple this with their lack of natural right-back they are looking weak in the wide defensive channels largely down to a lack of planning in succeeding Patrice Evra.

Meanwhile, Rafael’s unpopularity with Van Gaal was not possible to predict, but the signing of Buttner was another shocking piece of business that put a huge amount of pressure for someone (happening to be an inexperienced Shaw) to immediately step up and fill in for the vastly experienced Evra.

Whilst signings were made to gradually replace Vidic and Ferdinand, Evans has rarely established himself as the quality to be a long-term first choice solution whilst Jones and Smalling’s inconsistencies are hard to put down to inexperience for much longer.

The centre-back positions are always to integral to a team’s stability there have been significant errors in not bringing in a more reliable central defender at an earlier stage or to have brought someone of more experience in as cover before Ferdinand and Vidic left.

Marcos Rojo has now arrived and looked, in general, assured and many fans will be hoping he or Smalling (who found form that it was hard to believe he had) can form a partnership with whoever the new central defender is to arrive at Old Trafford.

Fortunately, the anticipation of a shortcoming in the goalkeeping position was far better than the forward planning of defence or midfield. Victor Valdes’ shrewd recruitment at least allows some slack in the replacement of David De Gea, this needs to be a sign of the future approach to Manchester United transfer planning.

A goalkeeper of such talent could command a considerable transfer fee and this provides a further chance for a more pragmatic approach to transfers than was seen in the last summer window.

Trying to build a squad up from the dark days of Moyes so quickly is risky and a challenge, but if any side in the Premier League can do it then Manchester United have the financial clout and pull to do so. However, the signings of last summer had a feeling of slight panic.

Angel Di Maria is a wonderful player who should not be turned down if available, but then following signing of Falcao and failure to address defensive issues left a window that had won them headlines but left glaring areas of weakness in the squad.

Similarly, with the additions of Depay, Mata and Di Maria recently the pressure on Januzaj has risen questions about his future at the club and must be addressed before another player with enormous potential fades into the shadows.

Alex Ferguson masterfully papered over cracks in his final few seasons and signings, particularly Van Persie, were focused on a selfish desire for his own last title victory. The difference now comes in the form of the opposition, with three rivals who will be investing significantly and start from a stronger position there must be sensible approach that is as ruthless as Chelsea were last summer.

Massive investment is needed for Van Gaal to challenge for the title, although unless this is coupled with an improved approach to transfers and a realistic approach to the abilities of the current squad it could be another season of 1-0 victories thanks to Fellaini down the inside left channel (which isn’t necessarily bad, but that’s a topic for another day…).

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FA Cup

Rochdale 2-2 Tottenham – Lucas Moura shines despite disappointing day for Spurs

Jake Jackman

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Tottenham

Tottenham are going to have to rely on a replay for the second successive round as they conceded a dramatic late equaliser to Rochdale. It was a reminder of the magic that the FA Cup still possesses and it will provide a useful cash injection for the League One club. Spurs opted to make several changes and rest key players, but they selected a team that should have progressed on the day.

Ian Henderson scored in the first-half to give Dale a first-half lead and it was deserved. Keith Hill’s team played good football and went toe-to-toe against their more illustrious opposition.

Lucas Moura and Harry Kane scored to put Tottenham into a 2-1 lead, but that wasn’t the end of the goal-scoring as Steve Davies scored to take the tie to a replay. Here are three talking points from Spotland:

Lucas Moura’s performance showed why Tottenham signed him

It was a signing that came out of left-field, as Tottenham prefer to do their transfer business in the summer. However, this opportunity was too good to turn down as they were given the chance to sign a proven Brazilian international. He had fallen on tough times at PSG and rarely featured this season, but he proved why the club signed him on Sunday.

The Brazilian wasn’t afraid of the fight and was up for the test offered by League One opposition. Every time he got on the ball, it looked like he could make something happen, as shown by his seven dribbles completed.

He had a touch of class that allowed him to stand out from the rest of the players on the pitch and if he can consistently perform at that level, he will turn out to be a great signing.

His movement was superb, as he regularly found pockets of space to exploit. Interestingly, he won five aerial duels and that shows that he has quickly adjusted to English football. It was Lucas that scored the equaliser mid-way through the second half with a confident finish. He will have played himself into Mauricio Pochettino’s plans for the coming weeks.

Rochdale impressed on their day in the spotlight

They were written off before a ball was kicked as they were facing one of the best teams in the country. Rochdale are currently rock-bottom of League One and 11 points from safety, albeit with four matches in hand. They laid a new pitch ahead of this match and the players adapted to it well, showing that they can play good football.

Callum Camps and Andrew Cannon impressed in the centre of the park, while their two wily experienced strikers got the goals. Ian Henderson was a tireless worker in the final third and put the Tottenham defenders under pressure.

He snatched at a couple of chances in the first-half, but he remained cool when another chance came his way and scored the opening goal.

It will be a tough ask for them to go to Wembley, but they can go there with no fear as they have nothing to lose. The tie will give them an injection of money that the club needs, especially if they are to suffer relegation this season.

Toby Alderweireld looks a long way from his best

The Tottenham defence didn’t look as assured as they usually do and both of their centre-backs struggled at times during the match.

Alderweireld was left out of the trip to Juventus and there were some supporters that questioned that decision. However, he looked short of match fitness against Rochdale and was arguably at fault for the late equaliser.

The Belgian international looked rusty and his decision making was not great. He picked up a yellow card for a rash tackle and that is one example of that. Juan Foyth played alongside Alderweireld and his inexperience showed when Rochdale did attack.

For Alderweireld, he wants to be back in the first-team and that is eventually where he will be, but he isn’t at the level required to be starting right now. Tottenham are fighting on multiple fronts and they can’t afford to have any players that aren’t at 100%. He is returning from a serious injury and he will need time to get back to his best.

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Liverpool

Roberto Firmino: His performances will shape the end to Liverpool’s season

Martyn Cooke

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On Sunday afternoon at St Mary’s Stadium the returning Virgil Van Dijk took centre stage and assumed the role of pantomime villain for the day.

However, whilst much of the pre-game build up was centred on the former Southampton defender, who was making his first return to the club since signing for Liverpool in January, the post-match conversations were focused on the brilliance of the Dutchman’s attacking teammate.

Roberto Firmino is one of the most under-rated players in the Premier League and his performance last weekend reaffirmed that he is one of the most effective forward players in the top-flight of English football.

The Brazilian has rarely been the centre of attention since arriving at Anfield in the summer of 2015 for £29 million and the media have often overlooked his significant contributions on the pitch.

Roberto Firmino

At Liverpool he has been forced to be content playing in the shadow of Philippe Coutinho, prior to his move to Barcelona, and Mohamed Salah, who has been a revelation since joining the club in the summer.

But Firmino is now emerging as one of the most creative, innovative and exciting forwards in the Premier League and he is undoubtedly one of the most improved players of the season.

The 26-year-old is both a creator and a goal scorer, as Southampton discovered to their cost at the weekend, when he opened the scoring with a neat finish within the opening six minutes before providing the assist for Salah’s goal with an ingenious flick.

The goal was his 20th of the campaign, which was shortly followed by his 21st of the season against Porto in the Reds’ midweek Champions League fixture, and he is now only nine short of becoming the Premier League’s all-time highest Brazilian goal scorer.

Firmino is a unique mixture of technical brilliance, creativity, innovation and an intelligence that makes him unpredictable, difficult to mark and a constant threat, regardless of where he pops up on the pitch.

However, whilst his Brazilian flair may catch the eye it is his willingness to pressurise opponents and work hard off the ball that is genuinely impressive.

He is certainly a favourite of Jurgen Klopp, who admires his hard running, work rate and pressing that often sets the tone for the rest of the team.

The 26-year-old has still gone somewhat unnoticed this campaign despite his consistency and performances on the pitch and the fact that he has missed only one league game all season.

But that is set to change.

Firmino’s performances and form have proven that there is still a bright future at Anfield despite the departure of Coutinho in January.

Deployed as an unconventional number nine, the Brazilian is the centre of a dynamic attacking forward line that sees him flanked by Salah on one side and Sadio Mane on the other.

The trio possess the pace, intelligence and creativity to threaten any team in Europe, as demonstrated by the mid-week five-goal demolition of Porto in the Champions League, and central to their effectiveness is the link up play of Firmino.

Still only 26, the Brazilian is about to reach the peak of his prowess and his continued development under Klopp poses the exciting question of how much better the forward might become in the forthcoming two or three years.

He certainly possesses all of the characteristics to become a legend at the club, should he choose to remain at Anfield long term, and he now has the opportunity to step out of Coutinho’s shadow and enjoy the limelight for himself.

Liverpool supporters will be hoping that Firmino can maintain his current run of form over the coming months and his performances will shape the club’s season.

His creativity and knack for scoring goals will be an invaluable commodity as Klopp goes in search of a top four place and potential silverware.

Firmino my have been underrated in the past, but he is now taking centre stage as the focal point of Liverpool’s attack.

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Huddersfield Town

Huddersfield Town 0-2 Manchester United: Three talking points from the John Smith’s Stadium

Rob Meech brings us three talking points from the John Smith’s Stadium as Manchester United overcame Huddersfield Town in their FA Cup 5th Round contest.

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

A brace from sharpshooter Romelu Lukaku fired Manchester United into the quarter-finals of the FA Cup at the expense of Huddersfield Town.

Lukaku opened his account in the third minute before netting his second of the evening shortly after the second-half resumption.

Victory was not as straightforward as the scoreline suggested. However, as the Terriers produced a spirited display after the early setback.

There was also controversy involving the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system.

Juan Mata saw an effort ruled out for offside after a review, but confusion abounded about whether it had been the correct decision.

Here are three talking points from an eventful encounter, as United set up a last-eight tie with Brighton & Hove Albion…

Lukaku’s goals are a fillip for Jose Mourinho

The Belgian has come in for criticism from some quarters for his goal return since last summer’s big-money transfer from Everton.

While he may not have reached the levels of Harry Kane or Mohamed Salah, Lukaku has now scored 21 times in all competitions for United this season.

That tally was boosted by his double against Huddersfield, which showed off his best attributes.

Lukaku was too strong and clever for Huddersfield’s defence as he latched on to Mata’s through ball for the first, before putting the finishing touch to an Alexis Sanchez pass for his second.

The former Chelsea man’s performance will be the biggest plus for United boss Jose Mourinho, who is relying on him to spearhead the attack for the remainder of the campaign.

Lukaku is a confidence player, so this was a timely boost ahead of a crucial run of fixtures both domestically and in Europe.

VAR under the microscope yet again

The introduction of technology to any sport usually results in teething problems.

It is fair to say VAR has experienced more than its fair share in football this season.

Employed in some FA and League Cup matches, controversy has never been far away. This was again the case at Huddersfield.

Mata appeared to have doubled United’s lead just before half-time, but referee Kevin Friend waited for confirmation from VAR that he had been onside.

After about a minute, Friend disallowed the goal when it was judged that Mata had been fractionally offside as the ball was played.

Contention emerged when viewers saw the incident on TV, where the guidelines were clearly not straight.

In fact, they were embarrassingly wonky.

Further replays suggested – with parallel lines correctly in place – that Mata’s knee had indeed been offside, but it was a very close call and certainly not an obvious mistake by the referee’s assistant.

These technical hitches will need to be ironed out before VAR is brought in universally.

Huddersfield can be positive despite FA Cup exit

With their Premier League status hanging in the balance, it would have been understandable if Huddersfield manager David Wagner had seen this fixture as an unwanted distraction.

But there was absolutely no suggestion that they were trying not to win the match, or prepared to exit the competition without a fight.

The Terriers, who famously beat United at home in the Premier League last October, carried on from where they left off last weekend in the impressive 4-1 victory over Bournemouth.

Conceding so early to United had not been in the script, but the hosts regrouped quickly and caused their opponents plenty of problems.

Ultimately, the difference between the two sides was the quality of finishing.

Whereas the visitors scored with their only two shots on target, Huddersfield wasted numerous openings as they slipped to defeat.

Nevertheless, attention can be turned back to their bid for survival, without their confidence dented.

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