Thursday, January 30, 2014

What's a Mata, U? (and More)

Give Ed a cup of coffee, a bottle of water and a computer and he's good to go
photo by jurvetsonvia PhotoRee

In which Correspondent Ed suddenly remembers that he writes about football for a living:

Yes, the title of this little entry also happens to be my favorite university name from the Bullwinkle cartoon.  Classic.  But what is up with the Juan Mata trade?  Where does he fit in?  Last I checked he played the exact same position as Wayne Rooney.  I also recall that he doesn't really play any other position.  Does this mean an end for Rooney at United?  Or is it rather just another desperation transfer for the new team in charge?  In light of the fact that Lil' Wayne seems to be getting a raise, I'm thinking it's more desperation than anything.  Though you have to suspect that Shinji Kagawa is out the door.  But poor Juan Mata, he's gone from THE GUY at Chelsea to the guy that will have to fight for time at United with two of the best players in the world.  And finally just to pile on, what exactly does Mata bring to shore up United's defensive issues?  Oh, that's right, he's a player that got benched in large part because he was undisciplined and wouldn't get back on defense.  Weird.

[Editor's Note: This column was written prior to Spurs getting blown out -- again -- by City yesterday] As for Spurs, how 'bout that Tim Sherwood?  I keep hearing he don't know nothin' about tactics just like his old boss Uncle Harry.  You remember Harry, the guy that put Spurs in fourth twice...?  He was very unlike the cerebral tactical advantage man nicknamed AVB, the same guy that thought a high line was the right thing to play with super slow defenders.

This is not to say Sherwood is the end-all-be-all.  But at this point he's done better than expected with a team that's down in the dumps. He was able to rejuvenate the mind-boggling talent of Manny Adebayor (yes, I'm going with Manny today).  While Manny may be up for a contract year, at least Sherwood wasn't so silly as to bench him forever.  We do what we have to do in this world, don't we?  But what's more, the team he inherited is now playing more to their strengths and their potential.  Erikson is back after being sidelined through injuries and looks terrific.  Dembele is playing well.  All seems settled.  Which is not to say Spurs won't get spanked by City, but hey, might we have a little hope of something more special?

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Debut: Manchester United 2 - Cardiff City 0 -- Game Recap and Player Ratings

photo by benbenvia PhotoRee

Juan Mata made his Manchester United debut Tuesday night, but it was Robin Van Persie hogging the headlines as the Dutchman got off the mark early to lead the home side to a relatively comfortable 2-0 win over Cardiff City at Old Trafford. Ashley Young bagged the second goal of the evening to put the contest comfortably beyond the Bluebird's reach in the second half. Never truly looking threatened on defense -- although definitely appearing confused and slow at times --  United played better than they have in recent weeks, although still far from the fluid heights fans may remember from recent seasons.

Indeed, while it appears that Mata will indeed be a creative spark so desperately needed by the side, the mere fact he was backed by Ryan Giggs and Phil Jones in the engine room speaks to the issues still apparent in the Red Devils' midfield.  Herewith, the individual player ratings for a game that saw the team turn around a string of poor performances in front of the home crowd:  

De Gea: Little to do on either side of the interval; a relative breeze. 7.0

Rafael: Sloppy in possession, but looked decent in attack. 5.5

Smalling: Rose high in the air on numerous occasions. 6.0

Evans: Covered for his teammates and turned in another solid performance. 6.0

Evra (c): A dangerous weapon rampaging down the left, and easily could have had a couple of assists if Mata and Januzaj had scored.  However, the Frenchman was also caught out defensively a number of times. 6.0

Valencia: Hit the bar early when he really should have scored, and was denied by Marshall late in the game. 5.5

Jones: Sat deep for most of the match and came up with a late block. Not terribly convincing. 5.0

Giggs: Unable to influence the match from the middle. 5.0

Young: A great cross to start the game, placed on a virtual platter for Valencia. His goal, the team's second of the evening, was an absolute gem. 7.0

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Coming Alive: Liverpool 2 - Bournemouth 0 in the FA Cup

photo by wanderinghomevia PhotoRee

Scott still believes in the Magic of the Cup:
Thank goodness this weekend's Liverpool contest was an FA Cup game against Championship side Bournemouth and not a Premier League game against anyone, let alone any of the Top 7.  To say Liverpool started poorly and with no pep is to say a corpse is a little off-color and languid.  The Reds (actually wearing white, perhaps befitting the metaphorical pallor) were comprehensively bossed by the lively Bournemouth squad for the first 20 minutes.  Unable to keep possession, constantly chasing the ball and errant passes were only a few of their misdeeds.  Clearly this was due to the fact that Brendan Rodgers was resting many key players for this week’s Merseyside derby.  Actually, no, because there was a lineup featuring Gerrard and Suarez and Sturridge and Coutinho and Skrtl and Henderson…  OK, so Brad Jones was in goal.  But he’s not the one committing any of the aforementioned grievances, even if he did do some fumbling of his own.
Fortunately, in the 26th minute, Victor Moses emerged from the shadowy recesses where he has been hiding, when not underperforming on the pitch.  His deft touch to settle Luis Suarez’ pass was so sublime I found myself rewinding several times and calling the kids in to watch.  His finish was less than perfect, and lacked much power, but was effective nonetheless and provided just the thing to take the edge off for the visitors.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Black Mark: Sunderland 1 (2) - Manchester United 2 (1) -- Capital One Cup Game Summary and Player Ratings

photo by Flowery *L*u*z*a*via PhotoRee

Manchester United's season veered from bad to worse on Wednesday night as the Red Devils crashed out of the Capital One Cup semi-finals to 19th ranked Sunderland, losing 2-1 on penalties at Old Trafford.  United manager David Moyes suffered yet another indignity in a season full of them, overseeing a side that was dominated during the second half and was only a minute away from exiting the competition at home without taking the game to penalties, a fate it later appeared some of the United players may have preferred.  Saved only by an increasingly infrequent Fergie-time goal by Javier Hernandez, United were unable to convert from the spot, spurning four of their five opportunities, and sending a midfielder and two defenders among others forward for their roll of the penalty dice.

A bad, late error by David De Gea, an easy shot rolling calamitously off the goalkeeper's hands and into the home side's net, neatly encapsulated the team's fate this season.  A mental lapse, a lack of confidence and an inability to bounce back sealed the Red Devils' fate on an evening that will remain a black mark on Moyes' CV whether or not he is able to turn around his United career.  In one of the uglier performances in a season already full of none-too-pretty game -- particularly at home -- Wednesday night's performance may have taken the cake, and only served to pit loyal United supporters even further against each other.  And so the question after the latest setback remains: patience or flight, and what cost does each entail....?

As Moyes looks increasingly overwhelmed, United's Board must decide how best to move forward.  Taking a quick glance at the manager's obviously agitated body language, however, it is becoming clear to this observer that he may be aggravating the problem currently rather than alleviating it.  Moyes clearly needs help; the question is, will he receive it?

Herewith, some individual ratings on a night that many of the players will want to forget as quickly as possible:

De Gea: Little to do before the break and less to do afterward. A schoolboy mistake, though, by the 'keeper to send the contest to penalties. 4.0

Rafael: A threat darting forward and blazed just over the bar to start the second half. 5.0

Smalling: An all over menace and massive in the air and on the ground. 7.5

Evans: An unlikely hero with the first goal. Kept his team afloat on defense, too. 7.0

Büttner: Little to recommend, to be honest, other than a late block of an Adam Johnson shot. 5.0

Januzaj: Silky smoothness on and off the ball, although much too willing to pull the trigger from distance in the second half. Needs to bulk up in the off-season, too. 6.5

Carrick: Metronomic in the middle and forced to help out on defense, as well. 5.5

Fletcher (c): Quiet performance but began to be steadily overwhelmed in the second half, and suffered too many late game turnovers. 5.0

Monday, January 20, 2014

How Did it Come to This?: Chelsea 3 - Manchester United 1

photo by mtstradlingvia PhotoRee

Coming as a mild surprise to only those dyed the deepest shade of red, Manchester United's 3-1 loss to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge yesterday afternoon laid utterly bare the issues enveloping the club at the present moment: devoid of confidence, lacking both conviction and any kind of cutting edge, and if not for the invention of young Belgian Adnan Januzaj, a squad that looks bereft of both leadership and skill at all levels.  Serenaded by Chelsea fans begging him to stay on the job for as long as possible, United manager David Moyes could only offer up his pat stable of excuses on the post mortem of his team's latest defeat, the seventh of the current campaign: playing well at times, United were victims of "bad luck" and "did not deserve to be 2-0 down at half time."  

Noting that his team "showed a lot of good things today," Moyes will be busy trying to figure out just quite how things could have gotten so far off track that his opposite number, Jose Mourinho, was able to spend the vast middle of what used to be a competitive match sitting comfortably on the sideline enjoying some banter with the fans before shutting down his team's attacking intent with more than a half hour still to play -- seemingly trying consciously not to embarrass his opposite number.

How did it come to this, that the reigning Champions of England are viewed as victims who need to be pitied...?  The answer may be partly in the player ratings below, but it has become increasingly clear that this is a club with a major problem in its midst: the current manager and how to get him "up to speed" before the spit truly hits the fan:

De Gea: Stranded by Carrick for Chelsea's opener and little he could have done for Samuel Eto'o's third. Will be slightly disappointed with himself to have given up a second before the break. 6.5

Rafael: Decent interplay on the wing with Antonio Valencia but gone completely missing for Chelsea's second goal of the afternoon. 5.0

Vidic: Still commanding in the air, but not the same player he once was. 5.0

Evans: More well hidden than Edward Snowden. 4.5

Evra: Absolutely shambolic defending for Chelsea's second. Completely switched off. 4.0

Valencia: Ultra-predictable and not a single decent cross to his credit. 4.0

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Limp Liverpool: Aston Villa 2 - Liverpool 2

A downbeat Scott takes stock after a point that may or may not have been earned by a dive:

After winning at the Britannia last weekend, Liverpool, despite the presence of owner John Henry, came out so sluggishly against Aston Villa that they very deservedly fell behind 2-0 in short order.  Perhaps not fully recovered from the tough 5-3 win over Stoke City (or perhaps already looking forward to the Merseyside derby), there was not a red shirt on the pitch with any material pep.  Last week it was Gerrard lying deep, Henderson a little lost, Coutinho helpless in front of goal, Sturridge triumphant in return and Suarez sublime.  Against Aston Villa, Gerrard still started deep, Henderson began to feel his way, Coutinho was helpless everywhere and was rightly substituted at half-time, Sturridge scored again but failed to link as effectively with the much-more-human Suarez.

In fact, Suarez was so human that he, sadly, fell back into his diving ways.  Brad Guzan had come out bravely and went to ground but pulled back his arms as the Uruguayan rounded him.  To the extent there was any contact, it was minimal but Suarez went down nonetheless and the referee, way behind the action because of the lightning-quick counter, will have to be excused for giving the penalty.  At full speed, even the TV viewers’ perspective seemed to show a foul.  But in slow motion I was convinced that it was not a penalty and that Suarez had dived.  That Gerrard stepped up and scored the equalizer as a result made me think back to the “Old Suarez” who purposely batted a ball away from goal with his hands to help Uruguay overcome Ghana in the World Cup.  While I hope and pray that this was an aberration and not a backslide, I said before that the only way to judge if Suarez had truly changed was to observe his behavior when things weren’t going his way.  He failed his first test.

Stepping down from my moral soapbox, at least Liverpool managed a point, although it is very difficult to feel relieved about getting a point at home to Aston Villa.  Still, 2-0 down and playing worse than bad, we live to fight another day.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Celebration: Manchester United 2 - Swansea City 0 -- Game Recap and Player Ratings

photo by thelastminutevia PhotoRee

Perhaps the beating of the team with the single worst form in the League over the past 6 games while playing at home would normally not be a cause for celebration, but it was for David Moyes yesterday, along with million of other Manchester United fans around the globe.  In a nutshell, this is what the current Red Devils' season has become: a narrow 2-0 victory at Old Trafford which prevents a four game losing streak is a huge positive.  The fact that Chelsea at Stamford Bridge looms next on the Red Devils' schedule seems not to have registered with most observers as of yet, or at the very least United supporters are putting it out of their minds just to remember what it feels like to win and celebrate again.

Yesterday's victory was the proverbial tale of two halves, with United looking flat, disjointed and painfully slow before the break, and more like their old, attacking selves after the interval.  The manager's switch of Shinji Kagawa and Adnan Januzaj's positioning had something to do with the revival, with the former moving to the middle and the latter drifting out to the left for the final 45 minutes of the contest.  Antonio Valencia and Danny Welbeck provided the goals and the defense did their best to shut down a Swans' attack that was missing several key players.

So while the immediate crisis may be over, the question of whether or not United have turned the corner is as open as ever.  Without further ado, our thoughts on the individual player performances in a victory that provided some much-needed relief:

De Gea: A most comfortable afternoon. 7.0

Rafael: More defensive focus than usual, but should have had an assist when a lung-busting run of 70 yards was spurned by Shinji Kagawa. 7.5

Smalling: Silky smooth in the center but could've easily added a third goal. 7.0

Vidic (c): Diving clearances highlighted his physical commitment. 7.5

Evra: More first half shots than anyone else, and an assist to boot. Gave his all throughout, especially in the second half. 7.5

Valencia: Didn't do much before the break but stuffed home a rebound for an early second half lead. 6.5

Carrick: Still has the eye for a pass and can block a shot when need be. One of his better recent efforts. 7.0

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Abject and Powerless: Sunderland 2 - Manchester United 1

Is that all they got?
photo by Phillie Casablancavia PhotoRee

Unlike Sir Alex and Sir Bobby, we had to find ways to keep ourselves amused last night watching the very latest drab display of football from Manchester United.  So, to match the modicum of effort put out by the players in a 2-1 loss to bottom-of-the-table Sunderland, we condensed our usual player reviews to only one word per each half played, viz:

De Gea: Beaten and Spotted. 5.0

Rafael: Useful but Mouthy. 4.5

Vidic: Upset and Heady. 5.5

Evans: Blocked and Covered. 5.0

Evra: Hand-y and Unimpressive. 4.5

Valencia: Missing and Predictable. 4.0

Carrick: Deep and Puzzling. 4.5

Cleverley: Useless and Again. 2.0

Giggs: Offside and Fading. 4.0

Four Things (From Scott for New Year's)

Like Sparky, Scott only has four fingers 
photo by Jeff Kubinavia PhotoRee

From Scott for the New Year:

1- That’s more like it.  After a disappointing Christmas, Liverpool was back to better business with a comfortable 2-0 home win over Hull City and another 2-0 win over Oldham Athletic in the FA Cup.  Inexplicably, I could watch West Ham get hammered by Nottingham Forest but could not find my beloved Reds on the telly.  We’ve come a long way in this country but that was a travesty.  Ultimately, I had to settle for watching a bit of Chelsea’s dispatch of Derby County which at least allowed me to see the on-loan Andre Wisdom who played well for the stretch I saw in the first half.

2- Talking points. Gerrard coming on as a substitute against Hull City and playing 30 minutes was a very welcome sight, indeed, for a depleted Liverpool squad.  What is not welcome is the increasing number of fouls on Luis Suarez, often without consequence.  And I’m not talking about the ticky-tack fouls either.  Now that Suarez has stopped his diving and often stays up when he could go down, the next step is for him to shred his SAG card.  Only then will the referees adjudge more fairly when he tumbles. 

3- FA Cup tackles are harder.  I have to admit that I have not seen nearly as many FA Cup games as I have Premier League games.  But I find it hard to imagine that the smattering of those that I have are outliers when it comes to crunching tackles.  It seems the confluence of nerves, excitement and desire to prove something inevitably leads to borderline (and then some) challenges by the “lesser” team.  It certainly makes for good TV but I can’t say I like to see Gerrard, Suarez & Co. involved.

Monday, January 6, 2014

David Moyes in Quotes: Swansea City 2 - Manchester United 1, With Player Ratings

Rather than our usual game recap, we've decided to skip the commentary and offer up some rather insightful quotes from our fearless leader.  Although we benignly neglected to read much of the news after yet another dispiriting home loss, we'll leave you with these pearls of wisdom and witty bon mots from our present leader, Mr. Moyes:

"I can see why they were champions." -- September 1, 2013  Score: Liverpool 1 - MUFC 0

"But for a minute in Cardiff near the end you would have been saying Man United had a really good week." -- December 1, 2013  Score: Cardiff City 2 - Manchester United 2 

"I don't think I'll feel under [buy in January] as I'll try to do the right things.  I tend to take my time and try to assess what are the best talents to bring in." -- December 9, 2013

Moyes insisted United had “deserved to win” -- January 2, 2014 Score: Spurs 2 - MUFC 1

I think the amount of games we play...[has an impact on the injuries we've sufered] -- January 5, 2014.
We didn't deserve to lose." -- January 5, 2014 Score: Swansea City 2 - MUFC 1

Obviously, the guy is either living in an alternate universe or completely clueless as to what is going on at the club.  Rather than bash him, however, we'll let you judge him by his own words -- and so onto the individual player ratings:

Lindegaard: Not much to do other than pick the ball out of the net twice. 5.0

Smalling: Note to Mr. Moyes: Chris Smalling is not a proper right back, no matter how often you line him up there. He also showed some surprising vulnerability to the diving disease which is currently ravaging the club. 4.5

Evans: Generally, more willing to run forward than 90% of the men playing in front of him. 5.0

Ferdinand (c): Sucked in like a vacuum on Swansea's opener. 4.0

Büttner: A new set piece and corner kick taker, with some dangerous offerings. A sweet ball in for Chicharito's leveler -- perhaps Moyes should give him a shot at left wing, because it's fairly clear he's not a defender, although he did have a great, late challenge on Bony. 5.5

Valencia: If he was paid £1 for every time he received the ball in a dangerous position and mishit the cross he would be among the wealthiest players in England. In another interesting stat, if he received £1 for each time he touched the ball with his left foot, he would be among the poorest players in England. 4.0

Fletcher: Immediately took charge in the middle, but beaten badly as a right back. 5.0

Cleverley: When not passing the ball sideways and backward, he gave away multiple fouls in dangerous positions. Free kicks are apparently not his specialty, either. 3.5

Kagawa: Must be a fan of author Ralph Ellison, as his game resembles The Invisible Man™.  Appears to be playing in a different time zone than his teammates. 3.0

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Onward and Upward: Thoughts on Spurs' New Swagger, and Yesterday's Victory over Manchester United

photo by iheartspamvia PhotoRee

Ed returns to our pages with some thoughts on United and Spurs:

I hate to disagree with the bossman and it will surely cost me a paycheck or a painful assignment (can you say "Wimbleton Wombles?"), but I don't think United were uninspired against Spurs, I just think they were a combination of unlucky and not that super.  By unlucky I mean that they had plenty of chances and shoulda' woulda' coulda' converted a bunch of them if it weren't for cruel chance.  Plus I think that Lloris attack of Ashley Young was deserving of a penalty even though Young vaulted him.  By "not that super" I mean that this is a team with a suspect midfield and a defense that is good but no longer great.  To continue to pull of games like they used to you actually need top-tier talent across the board, and right now they have some great guys but not enough.  I do like Rooney at midfield though -- always have and always will -- why not try him at the Scholes position and put Welback up top with Chicharito or RVP?  Just a thought.

As for Spurs, well, AVB is gone and Tim Sherwood is in and the team is starting to look a lot like Harry Redknapp's from a few years back.  During the outrageously fun "Festive Season," a season that used to be perilous for teams like Spurs, the Spurs have launched into a new (old) formation and have acted like the team that Gareth Bale took to the Champions League.

Was AVB really that bad?  Well, he certainly had a prolific impact on Roberto Soldado, a striker who used to score repeatedly and now can't make so much of a tap in.  But I can't blame him for Emanuel Adebayor, a player who only shows up to play when it's a contract year.  Adebayor was halfway out of the BPL -- probably on to mediocrity in the League 1 or some such thing -- but now has probably put some life back into his career.  Interestingly, he's currently the most important "new addition" in the Spurs lineup.  AVB's banishment of Adebayor obviously worked though not to the benefit of the banisher, and the serial behavior that earned Adebayor his sentence might also make him easier to sign (but please only give him a year-to-year deal).

As for Benoit Aaaou-Ekoto, well, that's harder to explain.  His replacement, Danny Rose, is definitely a high quality player.  But behind him, Kyle Naughton seems a disaster to me.  And remind me the point of taking a player who could probably have fetched the team $5 to $10MM and dropping him so far out of sight as to make him worthless.  Clearly it isn't hard to get into the AVB doghouse.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Heartless: Tottenham Hotspur 2 - Manchester United 1

photo by Toronja Azulvia PhotoRee

As they have on so many other occasions this season, Manchester United laid an egg at home on New Year's Day, losing to Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 to bring a dour end to the festive season of Premier League football. Although the Reds began the contest on the front foot, they quickly devolved into a disjointed, heartless group for the next hour, coming to life only after going down by a two goal margin. Although Danny Welbeck quickly responded to halve the deficit, it was all too little, too late for a team that played as if they are growing steadily accustomed to their mid-table status.

Once again, it was the center of the park that showed little drive or imagination, as the attack was customarily shunted out to the wings for a cross which never arrived. The defensive effort turned in by the squad should not escape criticism, either, as another day of shambolic defending contributed to the day's woeful outcome. The fact that the match ended with no recognized central midfielder on the pitch showed the extraordinary contortions David Moyes considered necessary to devise a route back into the contest, although the lateness of the manager's substitutions can also be questioned.

Herewith, the individual player ratings in a game that saw the Reds' chances for a top four finish take a major blow:

De Gea: Big early save on Aaron Lennon, but little he could have done on Spurs' two goals. 5.0

Smalling: Barnstorming run to begin the contest and combined well with Valencia, but beaten much too easily in the air for Spurs' goal.  Given an early hook. 3.5

Evans: Displayed decent pace up and down the pitch. 4.5

Vidic (c): Unremarkable performance, but did his best to put the ball in the net late on. 4.5

Evra: Beaten badly by Lennon on too many occasions. 4.0

Valencia: Routinely failed to get a cross past his man. Completely switched off for Spurs' second goal. 4.0

Carrick: A calming presence in midfield. 5.0

Cleverley: Worked diligently in the center but added little invention. Appears completely redundant with Carrick back in the side. 4.0