Leicester’s success could spell trouble for managers.

Okay so I know Leicester’s story is what football is all about. The David versus Goliath fable no one saw coming and many other clichés that have been (rightly) used to describe their incredible and inspiring achievement. Here comes the flip side of all that positivity. What happens to the teams in the lower half of the league who have had expectations not just raised by Leicester’s achievements but propelled into the Premier League stratosphere?

Quique_Flores

Under fire gaffer Quique Sanchez Flores

Normally amongst right minded people you could dumb down any ridiculous expectations but the world of football club owners in the Premier League is not exactly dominated but such people. You only have to look at Gino Pozzo at Watford to see that managing expectations is one of the hardest parts of the job for Premier League managers nowadays.

At the end of this season Quique Sanchez Flores will sit down with the hierarchy in the Hornets boardroom and undertake an end of season review. Nothing surprising there, it is common practice for football clubs up and down the land and further afield. Here’s the crazy part, the man is under serious threat of losing his job! This won’t be helped by the fact that everyone’s new favourite team won the league this year on a pretty similar budget.

What about Stoke? Hughes has spent good money at the Britannia and has brought in real quality leading some fans to rename the club ‘Stokalona’. For all of their flare and great performances this year there have been some equally bad humblings, especially in recent weeks. Does this mean the Welshman is now looking over his shoulder? With two games to go Stoke are tenth, a position lower than they achieved last season. So for all the exciting players they’ve brought in are they really any better off than they were under Tony Pulis?

Speaking of Pulis’ old teams what’s happened to Palace? At the beginning of this season people were talking of how Pardew had taken the team forward but for an FA cup final he too might be wondering if his days at the club were numbered.

Every great success has a consequence. It is always fantastic to dream of better times and new beginnings however it would be a catastrophe for the sides that finish in the bottom half if their managers felt the axe might come down on them at any time. For many that is already the case but Leicester’s success could and probably will ramp up that pressure. Many owners will ask ‘if Ranieri can do it why can’t (insert managers name here)’.

Some football fans are already waiting to see if Newcastle can avoid the drop so they can have a punt on them winning the league next year. If Benitez, a European cup winner, does manage to keep the magpies afloat then what price the Premier League title next season?

Everton fans have seen what another side in blue can achieve and are angry their man Martinez hasn’t done the same at Goodison. This is not a defence of the ever positive Spaniard as he has real talent and quality in that Everton side that has underachieved. You can’t help but wonder if the ‘dily ding, dily dong’ philosophy of another footballing nice guy will spell the end for him. In any other season it would just be written off as a bad one and time to start again.

Finally a man in the top half of the table who has been described by one of his oldest enemies as a serial under achiever, Arsene Wenger: In a season where both Manchester clubs have wavered, Chelsea lost the plot and Liverpool were once again rebuilding, Wenger is likely to see north London rivals Spurs finish above his Arsenal team. This season Arsenal didn’t bow out of the title race after pressure from one of England’s super powers, no this year they lost out on the title to Leicester City. The Foxes story is fantastic for neutrals everywhere. It’s everyone else who is worried.

Youth being let down at United

The club is famous for its promotion of young players to the first team. In fact for nearly 80 years Manchester United have had youth team academy products in their match day squads and starting 11.

When Alan Hansen proclaimed arguably his most famous words as a pundit ‘You can’t win anything with kids’ most would have agreed with him. Back then it was in reference to Gary Neville (aged 20), Paul Scholes (20), Ryan Giggs (21), Phil Neville (18), Nicky Butt (20), and David Beckham (20). Few could have predicted what that group would go on to achieve but they didn’t get to the top on their own.

A mixture of good fortune, brave management and strong personalities around the club helped form a perfect storm of youth and experience that would go on to dominate the domestic game for longer than any of them could have imagined.

Fast forward to 2016 and a new talented crop of youngsters are being spoken about in glowing terms from many inside and out of the club. A mixture of injuries and a small squad have somewhat forced Louis Van Gaal’s hand during his up and down tenure at United. Many at youth level have been given a chance to show first team players what they are about.

rashford

Short of giving those older players a lift, much of the responsibility for getting results has been placed firmly on the shoulders of the youngsters. Never has this more prominent than in recent weeks where striker Marcus Rashford has been deployed as the sides main goal threat and Timothy Fosu-Mensah as an integral part of the back four.

Against Tottenham on Sunday Rashford was replaced by Ashley Young, a man who has played everywhere but up front for Louis Van Gaal, whilst Martial was kept out wide. Once that decision had been made United’s attacking threat in the game was non-existent and Spurs took the initiative. Having said that Manchester United looked as though they could cope at the back for long periods. That was until Fosu-Mensah was forced off with injury. Tottenham took full advantage of his absence and ran in three quick goals in a manner reminiscent of United of old.

The class of 92 were doubted at the beginning of their footballing journey but had leaders and generals all over the pitch to rely on and help them when things weren’t going well. At the back the Neville brothers had Pallister, Bruce, Irwin and Schmeichel to help them through peaks and troughs. The midfielder’s all knew they could rely on their captain Roy Keane for leadership and Eric Cantona for inspiration as they grew and learned the game.

At this moment in time those young players who have made the break through are the players being leaned on. When they don’t come up with the goods, invariably the team fails. They are offered little to no protection or help on the pitch from the senior pros and when you look at the squad it’s not difficult to see why.

Under Van Gaal Adnan Januzaj has been allowed to stagnate whilst Andreas Pereira appears to have been frozen out of the first team after showing glimpses of real promise in the limited time he’s been afforded.

At the same time younger players have been brought in to enormous cost and pressure in the form of Anthony Martial and Memphis Depay. United can no longer look to Vidic, Ferdinand and co to put an arm round these signings. Instead Carrick and Rooney are left in charge of lifting players, which at the moment is a pretty unenviable task.

Whether it comes from the top down, the transfer policy and current management of the club may have offered youth a chance at Old Trafford but too many are happy to stand by and admire the youngsters work. If the talent currently on show is going to be given a proper chance to flourish, older heads in the playing staff, coaching staff and at a much higher level need to stand up and be counted.

 

United fans will have to fight for change

For a number of different reasons this may make for uncomfortable reading for Manchester United fans. Their team’s humiliation at the hands of Danish minnows on Thursday night brought notable descent from the crowd who, somewhat creatively, reimagined their homage to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to vent frustration at the current team’s ineptitude.

For the most part the criticism was levelled at the players, that was until the full time whistle was blown. The fall out since arguably their most embarrassing European defeat has been extensive in terms of media and fan attention on the club. Whilst initial anger was directed at the performance of the players, soon attention turned to the dutch ‘trainer coach’ and his ally Ed Woodward. The owners however seem thus far to have gotten away unscathed from this season’s latest debacle and if United fans want to see real change they will have to start hurting the Glazer’s money laden pockets.

Ed Woodward is very much the Glazer family’s man. He has worked for them long before their affiliation with the Red Devils and is trusted whole heartedly by them. And why not? The shot caller at Old Trafford has generated huge sponsorship money for the club. That after all is their main priority. Manchester United is a cash cow to them, not a football club.

The only way Ed Woodward knows how to appease the fans is to throw silly money at ‘marquee’ signings in the hope that they will spark some life into a team devoid of pace and imagination. Those things used to be the cornerstone of everything Manchester United stood for now the club is more interested in increased market share rather than on the field performance. This business model has had limited success at Real Madrid in spite of this Woodward has publicly claimed on MUTV that it’s something United will look to emulate.

As a result of these uncertain times, Louis Van Gaal has been kept on and left in the firing line despite a stubborn refusal to evolve as a coach. He has dragged the players confidence down and moved on proven winners from the squad. If there is to be any change to the club’s current plight then the fans will need to  vent their anger in the form of much more than tweets and songs .

Here comes the truly painful part: The best approach to enforcing serious change at Manchester United will require fans to take a leaf out of their bitter rivals book. They must make it clear that season tickets will not be renewed, they must let their feelings be known at the ground through loud protest and silent walkouts just like Liverpool have done in recent times.

The Merseyside club’s fans first got rid of Gillett and Hicks and now have had a significant victory over ticket pricing with their new owners. Manchester United must go back to their green and gold roots if they want to spark revolution at the club. The only way to do that will be to hit the Glazer family where it hurts them most.

It is clear Ed Woodward has struggled with transfers amongst other football related issues in his role at the club. He must be made to realise that wasting money on new overrated players is not as important as making good football decisions. The ten months it took the club to appoint Nicky Butt as head of their academy is a damning indictment of where the club is at board level at the moment.

There is a level of disbelief amongst fans that Louis Van Gaal is still in a job but ultimately it will be them who decide his fate. A continued show of anger towards the club and manager is unfashionable but it might be the only way to get the change they want to see.

Death by philosophy and process

LVG pic

A short while ago Gary Neville declared that Arsene Wenger’s decision to not buy a holding midfielder was either ‘naive or arrogant’. Many heaped praise on the England coach and Sky Sports pundit for his assertion and it is true to say that when Francis Coquelin doesn’t play the Arsenal midfield looks significantly under protected.

That being said Neville would have been shocked to see Louis Van Gaal’s line up for the game against Arsenal with the Dutchman making some curious decisions that can only be described as either naive or arrogant. Ashley Young has been a stalwart for the former Barcelona and Bayern ‘trainer-coach’ but it was always going to be a tough ask playing at left back against Arsenal. The decision is all the more strange when you consider Blind can play at left back and Jones and McNair (the latter played at Stamford Bridge last year) were left on the bench.

Beyond that, Van Gaal chose to play both Schweinsteiger and Carrick in holding roles against a midfield of Coquelin, Cazorla, Ozil and Ramsey. Not only were the two thirty-somethings overrun in midfield, neither are genuine holding players. Both prefer the fashionable ‘quarterback’ role and to play both, away from home, against a rival smacked of luxury from the moment the teams were announced. Matteo Darmian started life at United well but without sufficient protection he looked horribly exposed by Sanchez’s pace and direct running.

At halftime and 3-0 down Van Gaal did finally make much needed changes matching Sanchez’s pace with the fresh legs of Valencia and switching from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3 to even up the midfield battle. At that stage it was too late and despite United dominating second half possession, it was easy for Arsenal to soak up pressure and hit their stunned opposition on the break.

The game at the Emirates has provided a wake up call for Manchester United who had found themselves on top of the table coming into the weekend. There is a time and a place for the extravagant side picked and away to Arsenal is neither. The dutchman has thus far been happy to let players and Ed Woodward take the flack for poor performances during his tenure at Old Trafford but there can be little doubt that his decision making left a lot to be desired in this instance.

Over the summer he embarrassed Ed Woodward, who is still getting to grips with the transfer market, by calling off a deal for Pedro at the eleventh hour. Woodward is a capable business man who has generated a huge amount of revenue for the club in order for the manager to identify the players he wants to purchase. Up till now he has also been happy to soak up criticism for any failures in the transfer market but it would be beyond arrogant for Van Gaal to presume that the Glazer’s man will allow that to continue. A clear out at United was needed this summer but the inability to attract world class talent to replace those that left has stifled a downsized squad.

The kind of football that is so successful to Bayern and Barcelona would be difficult for this current crop of United players to emulate in either the Bundesliga or La Liga but in the Premier League it is next to impossible. Whilst for the most part the team has kept good possession in games this season there is a serious lack of penetration and there are now a few examples of the philosophy crumbling under the pressure of teams who press high up the pitch.

In the recent past United teams had worked out a plan B for playing against the big teams away from home; Soak up the pressure and then hit sides on the counter. Van Gaal’s reluctance to shift from philosophy plan A, plays into the hands of opposition Managers who have very little work to do to win the battle of tactics. It would appear that only a calamitous first half display will provide the necessary jolt to change things and if Manchester United want any sort of success this season then that has to change.

The art of deflection

There are very few football managers who master the dark arts of psychological warfare and even those who do can have their hard work undone by a poor performance or freak deflected goal. In his two stints in the Premier League Jose Mourinho has shown his worth when it comes to this craft, cleverly drawing media and press attention onto himself in times of defeat or a bad run of results. As journalists fall over themselves to lap up Jose’s flippant, often contradictory, headline grabbing comments, far less is written about potential frailties within his team.

Sunday’s community shield provided a prime example of this. Whilst the season’s curtain raiser is usually taken with a pinch of salt, it must be pointed out that Chelsea looked a shadow of the side that made the procession to the Premier League crown last term look embarrassingly comfortable. Instead of the majority of journalists pointing this out far more was written about handshakes (or the lack there of) and post match press conferences. Ordinarily after a performance as laboured as Chelsea’s on Sunday the press would be dissecting the club’s decision to bring the players back from their holiday late and have only a very short pre-season. Instead in the minutes, hours and days afterwards the papers, radio and tv news reporters are still trying to fathom what Jose meant by the backhanded compliments and handshakes delivered to the Arsenal team post match. As if all that wasn’t enough Mourinho pulled out his trump card and threw his runners up medal to a young Arsenal fan as he made his way down the Wembley tunnel. You would think that managers across the world would take note, especially those for whom Jose has worked under.   

There are very few clubs in the world who come under the sort of scrutiny and press attention that Manchester United do which was surely a contributing factor in the dismissal of David Moyes in April of 2014. Louis Van Gaal has managed some of the world’s finest clubs and as a result is used to the focus being attributed to his place of work although at times you wouldn’t know it. At the end of what was a spluttering and ‘bare minimum’ sort of season for United last year Louis Van Gaal celebrated with one too many at the end of season party and whilst many found his long (and at times incomprehensible speech) funny there were plenty of fans embarrassed by it. 

Louis Van Harsh?

Louis Van Harsh?

His press conferences at times have served to do the exact opposite of what Mourinho achieves with consummate ease. Whilst he gets people talking, too much of that focus is on specific players or units within the team. At the start of last season his famous ‘philosophy’ had the defence at sixes and sevens when all that was really needed was a settled back four. Injuries played their part in the side’s slow start to the season but the added pressure of being singled out in LVG’s pressers can’t have helped some of the players. 

Usually when a new star name is brought into a club there are afforded a little time to settle and the odd mediocre pre-season performance can be forgiven. Not for Van Gaal who told the world’s press that Bastian Schweinsteiger had ‘played bad’ in what was only his second 45 minutes of football for his new club. Criticism before the season has even started and with that comes pressure. Not for the first time a player had been singled out for not doing exactly as LVG would have liked. Last season most defeats or disappointing results were blamed on the players inability to buy into his philosophy and as a result several popular players have been put out to pasture and moved on from the club. 

If Manchester United’s players are to win trophies this season they will have to do so under intense scrutiny not only from the country’s journalists but their manager too. Other teams and managers will have their say too in the coming season but in the end it might come down to ‘the special one’ versus ‘the Philosophy’ where surely there can only be one winner.