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English Premier League

Just how close are Manchester United to winning the league?

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Around three weeks ago, true to his eccentric reputation, Louis van Gaal stole the show at the Manchester United end of season awards with a drunken monologue described by Gary Neville as the “funniest twenty minutes of his life.” Amidst the slurring, the yelling and the occasional dictatorial hand gesture, van Gaal boldly declared that his team is “very close” to becoming a title-winning side once again.

Was it the booze talking? Rival fans and many reputable pundits have said so. But with another huge summer of spending seemingly on the horizon, a fresh mood of optimism has settled on Old Trafford and for many supporters a title challenge is much more realistic than the nay-sayers allow.

There is no question that on the pitch the team is in a much healthier position than this time last year. After all, the table doesn’t lie, and in both economic and symbolic terms there is a huge gulf between a fourth and seventh placed finish. In purely numerical terms, however, the money-throwing van Gaal regime has only been able to deliver six more points than the gloomy reign of tragic hero David Moyes.

A closer look at statistics doesn’t exactly reveal a mini-revolution under the Dutchman. In defence, a slight improvement was achieved with five less goals conceded compared to the previous season, however even with the dreamy firepower of Rooney, Van Persie, Falcao, Mata and Di Maria, the team managed an underwhelming return of 62 goals – six less than the previous seasons total. The side’s away form wasn’t exactly exemplary either.

But of course stats don’t tell the whole story. On course to regaining Champions League football status, United put an emphatic end to a run of awful derby results, and picked up hugely impressive victories at Anfield and The Emirates. This team may only be a six-point-improvement on last years, but under LVG they’ve gone toe-to-toe with the big boys on more than one occasion and landed crowd-pleasing, winning punches – something Moyes simply wasn’t unable to deliver.

United’s hopes of taking the likes of Chelsea and City to the wire over thirty-eight games next season could well hinge on the the movements of David de Gea. The PFA keeper of the season has rescued the side more points than his defenders would probably care to remember over the last two seasons however is said to be moving ever-closer to a move to Real Madrid. His fellow Spaniard and number two Victor Valdes is a gifted shot-stopper but is notoriously unreliable under the cross and unlikely to be trusted with the number one shirt.

Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris has been discussed as a potential replacement if de Gea were to return to his place of birth. The Frenchman could well be lured by the prospect of Champions League football and is certainly more than capable of excelling at that level. The destiny of de Gea is likely to be the saga of the summer. According to Guillem Balagué, Florentino Pérez believes he has his man. However, until an official announcement is made, the young Spaniard remains on United’s books.

If van Gaal manages to retain his freakish talents it would be the club’s most crucial business of the window for sure. United finished seventeen points behind Chelsea last season and without de Gea’s heroism the margin could have been a lot less flattering. Losing him would be a huge backwards stride and severely damaging to any title aspirations.

What of the incoming? Well, one can safely assume that there will be some additions given the behaviour of the club in the last summer window. But who fits the bill? And perhaps more importantly: what is the bill? What do United need to become a title-winning side?

Gareth Bale is a name that has appeared on the BBC Gossip Column on more than one occasion in recent weeks. The Welshman has yet to win the hearts of the Madrid fans and has come under fire for his insularity as well as on-the-pitch work ethic. Incidentally the ex-Tottenham man has scored thirty-nine in two seasons for Madrid including a goal in the 2014 Champions League final. It’s a tough gig at the Bernabéu. Of course, there’s no doubt that Bale would be a shirt-seller, but is he a necessity?

With Mata, Di Maria, Young, Rooney, Januzaj and now the highly-rated wonder-kid Memphis Depay all vying for places in the starting eleven, it is hard to provide a case for Bale as a round peg for a round hole – rather a shiny and expensive square peg for a round hole. The addition of Falcao last year inspired one of the finest fan-made footballing analogies in recent memory: “United signing Falcao is like buying a plasma screen TV for your conservatory when your conservatory roof has a hole in it.” The prospect of Bale joining United has a similar feel.

United’s more pressing issues relate to the defensive zones of the pitch. The Dutchman’s side didn’t concede a huge amount of goals last season however on many occasions were worryingly-generous in their awarding of chances to the opposition. Phil Jones hasn’t quite progressed at the rate demanded by his early promise while Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans continue to divide the opinion of fans. In defending aerial threats in particular this current side suffers from a fragility that must be addressed.

Is Hummels the man? The German international has been rumoured to be a target for the reds for some time now. Real’s impressive young centre back Raphaël Varane is another name that keeps on cropping up too. Blind and Rojo have enjoyed steady first seasons while in Blackett and McNair United have talents worth investing time in, but if this team is to have a serious chance of lifting the trophy next season then special attention must be paid to bolstering the backline.

If dea Gea was United’s most precious asset last season, then Michael Carrick wasn’t too far behind. Prior to his season-ending injury, United won an impressive 72.2% of matches with his experience in midfield, yet without him the win rate was at a concerning 35.2%. These stats reveal two things: 1) Carrick remains very effective and is still an underrated footballer and 2) United currently have nobody to step up to fill the Carrick void.

Blind is clearly a sound technician but often appears under-powered when up against more physical teams than he was used to in the Eredivisie. Dortmund’s Ilkay Gundagaon is said to potentially be on his way to Old Trafford after the exciting German refused to extend his contract at Dortmund and a player of his talent and attitude could well step up to the job.

Already being an established Premier League midfielder, Southampton rock Morgan Schneiderlin is another option for van Gaal. Southampton are likely to request a sizable fee for the French international, but United would be investing in a guy proven in his ability to dominate the middle of the park – the type of midfielder United have lacked ever since the departure of Keane.

Can Manchester United win the league next season? If shrewd spending takes precedence over huge spending and David de Gea remains at Old Trafford then there is no reason why not. However in a hugely competitive market the former will be a challenge and with Madrid sniffing the latter may well be increasingly-unrealistic.

Unless these stars align it is unlikely that the red side of Manchester will be celebrating a title win this time next season. However, with a handful of talents likely to be added and many lessons learned from the season before, expect van Gaal’s men to rack up an improved points total and perhaps even an assault on second place.

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Manchester United

How will Manchester United line up with Alexis Sanchez?

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

The most highly-anticipated transfer of the January window has finally been confirmed. Alexis Sanchez is now officially a Manchester United player after joining from Arsenal in a swap deal with Henrikh Mkhitaryan. It is quite a coup for the Red Devils to have snatched the Chilean from the clutches of Manchester City, who had long been the frontrunners for his signature.

Sanchez scored 80 goals in 165 appearances for Arsenal and his arrival at Old Trafford significantly strengthens Jose Mourinho’s attacking resources. United are second in the Premier League, but lie a distant 12 points behind their Manchester rivals. So how might the Red Devils line up with Sanchez, who will wear the iconic number seven shirt?

What will have most attracted Mourinho to Sanchez is his ability to play in any number of attacking positions. Although his goalscoring ratio for both Barcelona and Arsenal is close to one in two, he would not be classed as an out-and-out striker.

Wenger did sometimes deploy the 29-year-old on his own up top, but more often than not the Gunners boss favoured him on the left of an attacking three, alongside the likes of Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud.

Mourinho is hardly short of forward options. He signed Romelu Lukaku from Everton last summer to spearhead the attack, while Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba have all shown to be more than capable of chipping in with goals.

Sanchez provides another dimension altogether, though. He is more physical than the aforementioned quartet and his tireless work-rate is exactly what Mourinho looks for.

Sanchez could rotate with Lukaku in the number nine role – or even play alongside hm in a front two – but it is more likely that he will occupy one of the three spots behind the Belgian.

When fit, British record signing Pogba is guaranteed to slot into a central role in front of a deep-lying central midfield pairing, which gives the Frenchman the freedom to express himself. That leaves one of the two wider positions, currently occupied by two of Rashford, Martial and Lingard.

Of late, Mourinho has opted for Martial and Lingard, both of whom have been in scintillating form with goals and assists aplenty. To leave out either would seem harsh, but given the high-profile nature of this signing, one will surely make way to accommodate Sanchez, whose inclusion may also help to get the best out of the unconvincing Lukaku.

If Mourinho’s vision is similar to Wenger’s, then the fall guy would appear to be Martial. However, the Portuguese may have other ideas and such is Sanchez’s versatility that the United manager knows he can select the Chile international anywhere in attack without diminishing his influence.

The increased competition for a starting berth can only benefit United and it certainly would not be a surprise to see Sanchez selected as a number nine, should Lukaku’s form continue to suffer.

With the Red Devils hoping to go deep into the latter stages of the Champions League as well as the FA Cup, the flexibility Sanchez offers will be invaluable in facilitating squad rotation. Games come thick and fast at this stage of the campaign and, consequently, player burn-out is a real possibility.

By landing Sanchez, United have issued a massive statement of intent. Despite an improved Premier League season, they will almost certainly have to watch on as City lift the title in May.

Whether the former Barcelona star is the man to shift the balance of power back towards the red half of Manchester remains to be seen. Nevertheless, he undoubtedly improves Mourinho’s squad and it will be fascinating to see how he fares in a United shirt.

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Arsenal

How Arsenal could line-up with Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang?

Jake Jackman

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Photo: Reuters

Arsenal prefer not to do business in the January transfer window, but their hand has been forced this month due to the contract situations of Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Jack Wilshere.

They could all leave the club before the start of next season and Arsene Wenger will recognise the need to prepare for those departures. Sanchez is the only one to have left the club already this month, as he has joined Manchester United.

In return, the Gunners have secured the services of Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The former Borussia Dortmund player has struggled in England, but he has the talent to produce more at the Emirates Stadium.

Considering they are facing a battle to qualify for the Champions League, there could be more arrivals this month to improve their chances of making the top four.

Sky Sports reported that Arsenal are attempting to secure a deal for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Dortmund could be tempted to make a clean break from the striker

The Gunners are at risk of missing out on the Champions League for the second successive season, but their reputation remains strong across Europe. It would be a statement of intent to sign the Gabon international and an exciting move for supporters.

How could they line-up at the end of the window?

Arsene Wenger has favoured a 3-4-2-1 formation this season and it has achieved relative success. It was a major reason for their FA Cup win last season, as it provided more balance and made the side solid at the back.

However, Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang are both attacking players and will be expecting to start most matches. It could be that a switch back to 4-2-3-1 is required to fit both into the starting eleven.

One major problem that Arsenal have faced this season is their lack of quality at the back. Laurent Koscielny, Shkodran Mustafi and Nacho Monreal are serviceable as a three-man defence.

However, it has been rare for all three to be fit at the same time and the squad is lacking in depth. Per Mertesacker is passed his best, while Rob Holding and Calum Chambers remain inexperienced at the highest level.

A change back to a four-man defence would be a smart move unless a quality centre-back is signed this month. A tactical switch would likely mean Monreal loses his place in the starting eleven.

This would be a shame considering his impressive season to date, but he would offer stern competition to Sead Kolasinac.

It would be a boost if they were to sign another centre-back. Sky Sports reported earlier this month that Arsenal had made a fresh enquiry for Jonny Evans, but no reports suggest that a deal is in the pipeline for this month.

If they were to make no defensive signings, their back five would pick itself when everyone was available.

Petr Cech is not the player that he once was, but he remains the best goalkeeper at the Emirates Stadium.

The full-backs would provide the width, as Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac are both excellent at going forwards. Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Nacho Monreal would offer good competition on the left side.

By playing two attack-minded full-backs, Arsenal can afford to play with narrow attackers, which will get the best from those playing in the forward positions.

There has been a resurgence in the career of Jack Wilshere, but he is unlikely to make the starting eleven when everyone is fully fit.

The midfield pairing of Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka has been the most balanced of those chosen by Wenger this season.

The former has provided the drive and attacking support from deep, with three goals and six assists in the Premier League. Meanwhile, the latter sits deep and contributes in both halves of the pitch.

There is still more to come from the Swiss international and it will be next to Ramsey that he takes the next step forward.

The four attacking players would be best suited in a fluid attacking set-up as they are all intelligent players and capable of fulfilling any role. It would likely be a narrow formation with the full-backs providing width.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would be the ones asked to start on the wing. It would be great to see the former be given a sustained run on the right flank, giving him a great opportunity to re-capture his Dortmund form.

Although Aubameyang is primary a striker, he has played on the left-wing during his career and he would be given freedom to interchange with the rest of the front-line. His pace will cause problems and he has the dynamism to excite supporters in the Premier League.

The 28-year-old has 13 goals in 15 Bundesliga appearances this season. In addition, despite Dortmund’s poor Champions League form, the forward found the back of the net on four occasions.

He is a top-tier striker and will add goals to the Arsenal attack. It will be exciting to see him link-up with Mkhitaryan again if a move does go through. Arsene Wenger will be hoping they can be as productive as they were in Germany.

Alexis Sanchez may have left, but Mesut Ozil is probably going to stay at the club until the end of the season.

The Evening Standard report that Arsenal are hopeful that the German international will extend his contract if they do sign Aubameyang alongside Mkhitaryan.

The 29-year-old will be given a central role in the team as the club try to convince him to stay and as the number ten position is his favoured role, this will likely be where he plays.

Alexandre Lacazette has had a mixed first season in the Premier League. It wasn’t easy to come into an Arsenal side that was short on confidence and Wenger will be wanting the Frenchman to kick on alongside the new arrivals.

If Aubameyang does sign, it will increase competition to start up front.

The current Gunners’ number nine has scored nine Premier League goals and contributed three assists. He is involved in a goal every 142.25 minutes, which is not bad, but he will be hoping to improve during the second half of the season.

If the club do sign Aubameyang, it will be a major statement of intent and serve as a reminder to the rest of Europe that Arsenal remain a force to be reckoned with.

A front four of Aubameyang, Lacazette, Mkhitaryan and Ozil promises to be exciting to watch and provide lots of goals.

No one player will be guaranteed a start and that is beneficial to the squad. The rest of the team needs strengthening, but this window would represent a good start to the rebuild.

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Burnley

Burnley 0-1 Manchester United: Three talking points from Turf Moor

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

Anthony Martial scored the only goal of the game as Manchester United recorded their third consecutive victory by seeing off Burnley at Turf Moor. In a game devoid of end-to-end entertainment, the Frenchman struck in the 54th minute when his right-footed shot found the net via the underside of the crossbar.

Burnley tried in vain to force a leveller but could not find a way past David de Gea, as their winless run extended to seven Premier League matches. United, meanwhile, have maintained their grip on second spot but remain 12 points drift of runaway leaders Manchester City. Here are three talking points…

United pass another away-day test

Despite rumours of unrest at Old Trafford, United are now unbeaten in eight Premier League matches. While their hopes of reeling in Manchester City may be remote, Jose Mourinho’s men are red-hot favourites to finish as runners-up. That would be a huge improvement on last season – their first under Mourinho – where United finished sixth. It was only their success in the Europa League that guaranteed them a place in the Champions League.

The Red Devils are definitely progressing and the expected arrival of Alexis Sanchez would give them another dimension. In particular, their away form will please Mourinho. This was United’s fifth victory in their past six Premier League games on their travels, a run that is helping to keep the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool at bay.

Burnley is a notoriously tricky place to visit, but United withstood the physical threat of the hosts and just about had enough to claim all three points.

Burnley are feeling the effects

When looking at the table, Burnley’s position appears to be very comfortable. In eighth place and with 34 points to their name, the Clarets are all but guaranteed to be playing Premier League football again next season. That would have been manager Sean Dyche’s priority and he can feel satisfied with the job he has done.

Nonetheless, this is a difficult period for Burnley, who have not tasted victory since they beat Stoke City on December 12. Scoring goals has been their biggest problem, having drawn a blank in four of their seven-game winless  run. The Clarets are not renowned as being free-scoring – they have found the net only 19 times this season – and rely on a solid defensive foundation.

Perhaps the exertions of their promising start have taken their toll on a settled side. The challenge for Dyche, who had been linked with the Everton job during the height of Burnley’s success, is to ensure his players do not fall into the trap of thinking they have nothing to play for.

Martial is making rapid progress

The Frenchman began the campaign out of favour at United, but he has regained his place in the side thanks to a series of consistent performances. His output has been productive, too. His goal against Burnley was his third in a row, taking him to 11 for the season. Allied to his seven assists, Martial is beginning to fulfil his immense potential.

He cut a frustrated figure at being kept out of the starting XI by Marcus Rashford – there was even speculation he might be on his way out of Old Trafford. But Martial said all the right things publicly and is no longer in the ‘supersub’ category. Competition for places will only intensify if and when Sanchez’s switch from Arsenal is completed.

But the former Monaco starlet should not fear the Chilean’s arrival, but relish it. He has proved he can be a trustworthy player for United. Like Luke Shaw, he is another to have benefited from some stern words from Mourinho, who will soon have an embarrassment of attacking riches to call upon.

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