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Striking A Balance: Conflicting Interests at Manchester United

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For every club that shops in the luxury aisle of the transfer supermarket, a fundamental problem persists. They have far more cash to spend than the supermarket has desired goods to sell. This can either lead to long periods of inactivity before the shelves are replenished with some fresh stock, or for those clubs who are desperately hungry, an acceptance that they will have to make do with what is available to them. The big clubs then, must balance their desire to buy with the danger of filling the trolley with those who are sub-standard.

This situation is especially precarious at Manchester United. Their transfer activity, or lack thereof, has received more scrutiny than any other club’s so far this summer. Firstly, this is down to the size of the club, but secondly because there is widespread recognition that United’s need for players is greater than that of their rivals.

Chelsea, as defending champions, are in the comfortable position of cherry picking a few acquisitions to make themselves even stronger and improve on their Champions League performance. Like United, Manchester City and Arsenal have got much work to do to overhaul Chelsea, but their squads are far more complete. In shorthand, those two clubs are looking for upgrades in their starting XI rather than numbers in the squad; Petr Cech for David Ospina, Paul Pogba for Yaya Toure etc. United are looking for numbers but they’ve also got to be good enough to push them from 4th to 1st. It’s a very different task.

Should David De Gea depart to Real Madrid they will need a replacement; even if they promote Victor Valdes they would need a No.2. United are in search of a right back, having coped with Antonio Valencia there for most of last season and though he performed admirably, Louis Van Gaal will want a specialist. Chris Smalling was much improved in the second half of last season, but there is still a desire among fans and pundits for a polished centre back to join Smalling, Phil Jones and Marcus Rojo. Van Gaal was explicit in his comments that United required another ‘no. 6’, meaning competition for Michael Carrick at the base of midfield.

United supporters will hope that the signing of Memphis Depay and a rejuvenated Angel Di Maria will serve them well in wide areas, along with Ashley Young. There are adequate levels of creativity in the team by virtue of Ander Herrera and Juan Mata. However, an addition looks needed in the centre forward position following the departure of Danny Welbeck and the club’s decision not to keep Radamel Falcao. The pedigree of Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie is self-evident, but watching United last season many concluded that they would benefit from a striker with more pace who could run in behind defences. It seems premature to ask James Wilson to perform this task.

Netherland’s international Memphis Depay is the club’s sole arrival, to date.

So that amounts to five new players; and that assessment only included the positions which appear in obvious need of strengthening. Clubs know that United are looking for this volume of arrivals and they also know that United’s revenue gives them vast amounts of money to spend in an effort to buy them. It places United in a weak bargaining position, but that’s the reality of the situation they face and they will have to swallow it.

If I were a Manchester United fan, I’d have been a little concerned a few weeks ago about the profile of player that the club seemed to be targeting. Sergio Ramos and Bastian Schweinsteiger are two good examples. Both have been top class footballers, winning World Cups and Champions Leagues. But if you were to plot the trajectory of both players’ careers as a parabola, then they would both, at best, be plateauing at their peak with a descent shortly around the corner.

This is a very different strategy from the one pursued during the successful years of late Ferguson. It will be impossible to recreate that era, and fans and pundits will have to cease trotting out tired old lines about what things were like under Ferguson in their analysis. The club has changed, the game has changed and Manchester United have to cope with their status as being like many other big clubs rather than being the law unto themselves that they frequently were under Fergie.

That being said, United were always very successful at buying players whose peak was still ahead of them. Ruud Van Nistelrooy was singed at 25, Rio Ferdinand at 23, Michael Carrick at 25, Wayne Rooney at 18, Cristiano Ronaldo at 18, Nemanja Vidic at 24 and Patrice Evra at the same age during the same transfer window.

That is why the reported interest in Seamus Coleman and Morgan Schneiderlin represents something close to the recruitment philosophy that you would associate with United. It would be hasty to compare either to names listed above but they are players who have scope for improvement.

There is however, an elephant in the room when it comes to recruitment and that is the fact that Louis Van Gaal appears unlikely to stay beyond the two years remaining on his contract. He has already stated that he intends this job to be his last in football. Such circumstances are not conducive to a recruitment policy focused on the medium to long term. It will be no consolation to Van Gaal if his successor inherits a great squad and wins the title. He will want the Premier League title at the foot of his trophy laden CV.

So Van Gaal and Manchester United are faced with a delicate balancing act that will require all of his experience and all of the board’s nous to negotiate. It is a squad in need of padding out with bodies, especially with Champions League football next year, but they all have to be of a certain calibre to improve what is already there. It is in the fabric of the club’s recent history to try and catch the best young players on the market, yet Louis Van Gaal will be impatient to secure a league title within his two remaining seasons at the club. Somehow these conflicting motivations have to intersect and result in a successful outcome. As we speak, it is unclear who will emerge the victor out of quantity and quality or youth and experience.

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University of Nottingham History graduate. Freelance sportswriter specialising in Football, Cricket and Golf. Interested in the politics of sport.

Manchester United

Paul Pogba defies critics as his incredible Manchester United record marches on

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Photo: Reuters

There is no denying that Manchester United’s Paul Pogba is a footballing enigma.

There is nobody in the Premier League more talked about and, either for better or for worse, his name has plagued each and every leading sports publication since returning to Old Trafford last year.

His £89 million price tag has followed him around like a shadow ever since the then-world record fee was announced, with journalists and pundits alike using it as a means of leverage as soon as he puts one foot wrong.

Add this to the fact that he is a footballing purist’s worst nightmare and there is even more leverage to use.

His ever-changing hairstyles, his constant attempts at audacity on the football pitch and his inventive celebrations perhaps lend him more towards a younger breed of fan, rather than those that have presided in the Stretford End since the pre-Premier League era.

But say what you want, he doesn’t half know how to play football.

Monday night’s comfortable 3-0 victory over beleaguered Stoke City increased Pogba’s incredulous personal unbeaten run to 35 Premier League games – a record unmatched by anyone in the division.

Has this run come about through luck? Is it a coincidence? Or is it just his brilliance?

On balance you would have to say that it is the latter option.

His brace of assists against the Potters took his tally up to nine for the season from just 13 league outings, taking him level with Manchester City’s duo of golden boys Kevin de Bruyne and Leroy Sane.

To try and gather a sense of perspective on just how impressive a feat this is, there are six players across Europe’s top five leagues on nine assists at the time of writing (including Paris Saint-Germain’s Neymar) and the Frenchman has reached the mark the quickest – it makes for impressive reading among esteemed company.

His creativity can’t be disputed in the Manchester United midfield and, even though he missed ten league games through a combination of injuries and suspensions, he is still the third-most creative outlet in their side.

Over 13 appearances he has crafted 27 clear-cut opportunities, only narrowly behind Juan Mata’s precedent of 33, and you can bet your life he will have trumped him by the time January is done and dusted.

To reach the nine-assist mark in 967 minutes less than De Bruyne, who has unequivocally been the stand-out player in the league this season, is merely a marker of how good the 24-year-old really is.

However, naturally there are those that will still criticise his every move.

They may have a point – after all, at least four of Pogba’s assists this season have come virtue of individual brilliance from his teammates (Anthony Martial vs Swansea City/Stoke City, Antonio Valencia vs Stoke City and Jesse Lingard vs Everton) – and compared to the type of defence-splitting pass that a number of De Bruyne’s assists have come from there is a lot more skill and finesse on show from the Belgian.

Yet, what those nay-sayers fail to acknowledge is Pogba’s ability to find pockets of space between midfield and defensive lines to play those short passes into his teammates. And there’s little coincidence that his increased impact on matches and his upheaval in form has come since Nemanja Matic stepped through the door.

Jose Mourinho’s ability to lure him out of Stamford Bridge and over to Manchester has evidently given Pogba a new lease of life, and more importantly the sense of freedom to be a creative force that he so often was at Juventus.

When he was playing in Serie A he had the comfort of knowledge that Claudio Marchisio was marshalling the defence behind him, and this is something that United didn’t have in 2016-17.

Last season, part of Pogba’s struggle to impress was, in part, down to this constant need to help out in defence, and he was often playing in a deeper role than he would have liked. Yet this season Matic’s holding role offers the defence that protection, freeing the Frenchman to be more elaborate in attack.

To see just how instrumental he has become to this Manchester United side you only have to look back to his time spent side-lined by a hamstring knock, where they suffered their only three defeats of the season to date.

These – which came against Huddersfield Town, Chelsea and Manchester City – were games that were crying out for Pogba’s assertiveness in midfield, but that spark, which he has in abundance, was found missing.

Whilst both Juan Mata and Ander Herrera are good Premier League quality players in their own right neither possess the box-to-box drive, the physical power or the pace that Pogba himself does, and it showed as they failed to replicate the Frenchman’s energy and endeavour in defeat.

This season alone Pogba’s completed 33 of his 46 attempted dribbles, achieving a 72% success rate, and it is this ability to maraud into the opposition territory that United sorely missed in his absence.

There are those that will say that his return to the side saw United bow out of the Carabao Cup to Championship side Bristol City and then draw three successive Premier League fixtures.

And, once again, they have a point.

But when taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture there aren’t many players in the English game that can conjure up a piece of magic to turn a game around, nor consistently reach a high-level week-in, week-out, and Pogba’s one of them.

He makes everything look effortless on the football pitch – whether that be spraying a raking pass across the pitch to someone’s feet or muscling an opponent off the ball easily to turn over possession – and it is fair to say Manchester United would look a worse side without him.

Whilst this may sound like a glowing review, it has not always been good news, of course.

Pogba will be the first to admit that he struggled to reach his extremely high standards during 2016-17 – despite leading United to two pieces of silverware – and he will have felt the pressure of his price tag as the season went on.

And, while he has come out ready to impress this time around, there are still parts of his game that frustrate – not least his wastefulness in front of goal, often attempting to shoot from 30-yards out.

But that is just the player he is, and don’t expect it to change anytime soon.

At the end of the day, his demeanour both on and off the football field will always get him talked about, and the only thing he can do is continue to rack up the wins to keep his harshest critics at bay.

Whilst Manchester United’s early season hopes of a title challenge have been diminished due to Manchester City’s brilliance, Pogba’s enjoying a fine run of personal form that is catching the eye.

Should he stay fit there is no reason as to why Mourinho’s men cannot sustain a challenge for the Champions League and the FA Cup long into the year.

And you never know, should Pogba extend his unbeaten run to 60 Premier League matches come the end of the season then there may even be a chance of the unlikeliest title in top-flight history – although I wouldn’t book a day off work for the United trophy parade just yet.

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Arsenal

Why Everton are the perfect club for Theo Walcott to rebuild his career

Rob Meech

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Theo Walcott

It is hard to believe Theo Walcott is only 28 years old. He burst on to the scene aged 16 for Southampton in League One and was snapped up by Arsenal shortly afterwards. His inexplicable selection for England’s 2006 World Cup squad, without playing in a single Premier League game, transformed him into an overnight star.

Big things have been expected of Walcott ever since. It’s fair to say that, despite winning 47 caps for England and making 397 appearances for Arsenal, he has failed to live up to the hype. Now, after 12 years, Walcott is bidding farewell to the Emirates and hoping to revive his flagging career under Sam Allardyce at Everton, whom he has joined for £20 million after agreeing terms on a three-and-a-half-year deal.

Speculation that Walcott’s days at Arsenal were numbered had persisted for several years, but his desire to prove himself at the club kept him in north London even when admirers came calling. His 21 goals in all competitions in the 2012/13 campaign suggested he had cracked it, but that proved to be a false dawn.

In truth, Walcott’s decision to sign for Everton was probably a no-brainer. Now in the prime of his career, he simply has to be playing regularly. The reality of how far down the pecking order he had fallen at Arsenal struck this season, when he often failed to make Arsene Wenger’s match-day squad. His last appearance for the Gunners came as a second-half substitute in the 2-1 defeat to Bournemouth.

Everton’s interest in Walcott emerged only recently, but he was clearly one of Allardyce’s top targets. One look at the Toffees’ recent form underlines why. After an immediate upturn in fortunes after the former England boss’s appointment, Everton have embarked on a winless streak that stretches back to December 18.

Lack of pace is a pressing concern and this is an attribute that Walcott possesses in abundance. The likes of Wayne Rooney and Gylfi Sigurdsson are intelligent footballers, but not the type that will blitz opposition defenders. Instead, they have relied on chipping balls over the top for the striker to chase. As such, Everton are one-dimensional and easy to play against, with no player capable of launching a counter-attack.

Also highlighting their urgent need for more firepower is the grim statistic that only rock-bottom Swansea have had fewer shots than Everton this season. New big-money signing Cenk Tosun has increased competition in the striking department but may take time to settle, whereas Walcott’s Premier League pedigree means no transitional period will be needed.

The former Southampton man’s versatility makes him an attractive proposition. For Arsenal, he predominantly featured on the right wing – either in a four-man midfield or a three-man attack – but he is equally adept at playing up top on his own, a position where he tried but ultimately failed to establish himself at the Emirates.

Potential is a word that has long been associated with Walcott. It is no longer applicable. At 28, this is possibly his final chance to realise his ambitions, both domestically and internationally. Everton, a sleeping giant, are a perfect fit. Under the auspices of major shareholder Farhad Moshiri, plans are in the pipeline for a brand-spanking new stadium to enable them to compete alongside the Premier League’s elite.

After being a peripheral figure at Arsenal for so long, Walcott has become the forgotten man of English football. For the sake of his career, he simply had to leave north London. By joining Everton, Walcott, who will wear the number 11 shirt, has the security of working under a manager who rates him highly. Now, he has the opportunity to become the player he always promised to be.

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Manchester United

Why renewing Jose Mourinho’s contract is a risk for Manchester United

Jake Jackman

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Mourinho
Photo: Reuters

Manchester United are close to reaching an agreement with manager Jose Mourinho over a new contract, according to BBC Sport. There have been ongoing talks with the Portuguese manager and it is thought to be only a matter of time before the new deal is officially announced.

Mourinho’s current contract expires at the end of next season and both parties will want more security heading into an important summer for the club. There have been rumours regarding his long-term future as some in the media suggested he is unhappy at Old Trafford, but he was quick to shoot those down, as shown by the following quotes reported by The Guardian:

I can’t find a better word than garbage to define the [recent] talk. If you want to ask me directly, I see myself next season at Manchester United. I will leave when the club wants me to leave; at the moment I have no intention to leave at all. I want to stay, I don’t see any reason not to stay.”

Mourinho is a difficult manager to read in press conferences, as he often says one thing but means another. Although his words can’t always be trusted, it appears that these sentiments were genuine as he is set to commit his future to the club. For the former Chelsea and Real Madrid manager, the next stage of his Manchester United career will be interesting.

Despite being one of the most successful managers in the history of football, Mourinho isn’t known for delivering long term success to a football club. His longest period in charge of a team came during his first spell at Chelsea, during which he lasted just over three seasons. The Blues sacked him in September of his fourth year after some poor results and friction with the hierarchy.

As he is a divisive figure, it can be difficult for him to maintain success over a long period. Either the players or the board will grow tired of his antics and that will result in a parting of ways.

Manchester United are known for wanting stability and it doesn’t suit them to change managers every couple of seasons. In Mourinho, they see a manager that can continue to deliver success and a figure that the supporters can get behind. The fans had difficulty believing in either Louis van Gaal or David Moyes, but that isn’t a problem that the current boss has had.

In terms of results, Mourinho has done a decent job since taking over at Old Trafford. In two of the three seasons prior to his appointment, Manchester United had failed to qualify for the Champions League.

The Portuguese manager brought the club back to Europe’s premier competition during his first season and did it by winning the Europa League. Although supporters would have expected a top four finish, it was a lot more satisfying to achieve their goal by winning a major competition. In addition to that, they found success in the League Cup.

The winning mentality was being built again within the club.

This season has started well for the Red Devils and they look set to challenge for trophies, even if the Premier League title is likely out of their grasp.

Manchester City have a 12-point lead at the time of writing and that is probably one of the motivating factors behind a new deal for Mourinho. He has been a long-time rival of Pep Guardiola and he will want to get one over on his adversary during their time in England.

The next task for Manchester United is to win their first Premier League title since Sir Alex Ferguson retired and they see Mourinho as the man to deliver that.

The club will be hoping that he has matured and is now ready to lead a club for longer than three years. Although there have been issues since he was appointed, they are making progress and will want that to continue for years to come.

However, it is a huge risk to renew the contract of Jose Mourinho for the reasons alluded to above. He has never been able to deliver sustained success and there have been worrying signs of decline this season. H

is war of words with Antonio Conte has been pointless and nothing more than a deflection tactic as his side were dropping a lot of points at the time. The United boss invites controversy and that can be problematic for a club, especially one of their size.

In addition to that, his tactics in big matches are negative and not suited to a club with Manchester United’s history. They have always been a team that attack their opposition, but that hasn’t been the case under Mourinho.

Against Liverpool earlier this season, they had 38% possession and managed to get only one shot on target. Considering the frailties of the Reds’ defence, this was a disappointment and the decision saw them accept a point.

Their recruitment has been high-profile, but it is difficult to see the joint-up thinking from the manager as he seems intent on signing big name players rather than building a team.

Since he was appointed, the club have spent big money to secure Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Nemanja Matic and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Meanwhile, they are determined to sign Alexis Sanchez this month. There is a lot of talent coming in, but it is difficult to see how they fit into the same system.

The Mourinho of the past could build a team. His Inter Milan team of 2009/10 was superb and was custom built to suit the style of play. During his first spell at Chelsea, he had his finger of the pulse and could spot a player before they made a name for themselves. Didier Drogba is a great example of this.

Now, the Portuguese manager relies on having big money to sign players that already qualify as world class and he expects name value alone to result in victories. He has become lazy and that is a worry for Manchester United in the next few years if the trend continues.

During his first 18 months, Mourinho has done well at Manchester United and the team have progressed back to the top. However, it would be difficult to state he is doing a great job as he has had a lot of money to spend. There is certainly room for improvement and that is why this new contract is a risk.

History shows that a decline in the third season is likely and considering the club are far from secure in the top four of the Premier League, missing out on the Champions League would be a real possibility.

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