football

How do you solve a problem like Di Maria?

First off, let me stress that the imminent signing of Real Madrid’s Angel di Maria by Manchester United is not a problem; this headline was just too tempting not to go with.

And B), the idea of this piece is to discuss the many ways that Louis van Gaal may look to fit the world class Argentine into his until now beleaguered and win-less United side.

The argument amongst football fans, of the Manchester United inclined mostly, has been how does this winger fit into a formation that doesn’t use proper wingers? We’re talking about van Gaal’s 3-5-2 formation here, the one that utilises two wing-backs, two central midfielders, and then a ‘number 10’ behind two main strikers. 

Therein lies the first problem, and it’s nothing to do with where di Maria fits in, it’s that most people don’t realise that di Maria’s best season at Real Madrid (last season) saw him play in central midfield beside Luka Modric and Xabi Alonso. Not unlike when Alex Ferguson shifted Ryan Giggs into central midfield after Paul Scholes’ career was threatened through an eye injury, Carlo Ancelotti moved Angel di Maria central and gave Real a lot more vigour and pace in central areas. This of course was Ancelotti’s answer to accommodating three wingers into the side in Ronaldo, di Maria and new signing Gareth Bale.

While Giggs ‘did a job’ for United there when necessary, di Maria made the position his own and was arguably Real Madrid’s second best player behind Cristiano Ronaldo in the last two seasons, and certainly last season. In the Champions League Final in Lisbon in May, when Bale, Ronaldo and Benzema didn’t show up, it was di Maria that took the game by the scruff of the neck, causing panic in the Atléti defence.

‘Versatility’ can be a dirty word in football these days, but di Maria’s Real tenure showed that the player didn’t just “do a job” in each position he occupied, á la an ageing Ryan Giggs, but he showed he was world class in each position, whether it be on the right wing, from the left, playing off the striker or playing deeper in a central midfield role.

At Manchester United, he will absolutely be occupying these same positions whenever necessary. 

Louis van Gaal, while utilising this 3-5-2 formation since the beginning of the World Cup, has always favoured 4-3-3 whenever he has the personnel at his disposal. At United, having so many capable strikers and few top class wingers, he has started the season with the former formation, though, as he suggested a month ago, he would use the latter formation should he have “a world class winger like Ronaldo or di Maria”.

Will he start di Maria wide right, with promising youngster and heir to Ryan Giggs’ iconic number 11 shirt, Adnan Januzaj, playing wide left? This would seem a very sensible option, but then what about the problem or picking Wayne Rooney or Robin van Persie? Surely van Gaal must play both? Rooney, the player dividing opinion most amongst United fans, is now the club captain and dropping him would seem a surprising decision. Dropping van Persie? Not a chance. Not only is the flying Dutchman LVG’s pet but he’s Manchester United’s only true world class player, at least he was before Angel di Maria signed.

If a 4-3-3 is to be utilised, I can see van Gaal trying to use Wayne Rooney in a deep-lying attacking midfielder role just ahead of Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick or Darren Fletcher (assuming United don’t sign up Arturo Vidal or Nigel de Jong late in the window). But what about Juan Mata? Mata can’t be played on the wing, and can’t be played in a deep midfield role as some have suggested. His only position, unless his immense talents are to be wasted is behind the striker or ‘in the hole’, where Rooney could play also. It will end up being one or the other in terms of either Rooney or van Persie, or Rooney or Mata, should LVG decided to go 4-3-3.

formation

Possible 4-3-3 formation?

If van Gaal decides to stick with 3-5-2, and it’s highly likely given current personnel, especially in defensive positions, then I would think it comes down to di Maria and Mata vying for that key central position. Again, neither can play in the base two central midfield roles, and while di Maria played deeper at times for Real Madrid, he did so with two other world class central midfielders never far away to cover him. 

The ‘5’ in the 3-5-2 would most likely, at least in my mind, be Antonio Valencia, Ander Herrera, Darren Fletcher, Angel di Maria and Luke Shaw, with Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie up front. Di Maria could also be utilised up front beside a front man in this formation, the way in which Arjen Robben did so effectively for Holland during the World Cup. 

formation2

Possible 3-5-2 formation with everyone fit.

And let’s be honest, the likelihood of Manchester United having the luxury of picking from Angel di Maria, Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Adnan Januzaj all at once on a regular basis is slim. Before Sunday’s draw at Sunderland for instance, you had to go back to March for the last time Rooney and van Persie last started a game together. Just look at Manchester City’s current attacking options in Aguero, Jovetic, Negredo and Dzeko up front. It’s rare that they are always fit at the same time, but whenever City line up, they always look a threat because they have top class players replacing top class players. 

What happens often with van Gaal’s teams is he will freely change formations when one isn’t working and a player like di Maria is perfect for this. He can seamlessly switch from playing wide in a 4-3-3 to playing more centrally and being more of a creative influence in the 3-5-2 formation. You see, there is no problem. United need pace in attack. Badly. Januzaj is very good, but they need world class ability. Juan Mata is top class and keeps play moving but while his passing is quick his movement isn’t. Wayne Rooney rarely runs past people any more. The last player United had that could ‘make things happen’ like di Maria can was Cristiano Ronaldo. 

So as I said, there’s no “problem” here with the di Maria signing. He’s a player United need and simply could not afford to pass up, despite the British record transfer fee of £59.6 million (around €75 million). United certainly need more, especially in the centre of midfield, and that position may yet be filled with the rumoured arrival of Arturo Vidal, but for now, it’s okay to get excited. 

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World Cup Brasil 2014 Half-way Point – Golden Boot Frontrunners

It is with such sweet sorrow that we bid adieu and obrigado to the most wonderful of World Cup group stages, at least in my time watching the tournament. We witnessed some of the most incredible goals you’re likely to see in a World Cup and in total, just the 139 goals were scored, a modern day record. But what has been the most amazing aspect of the tournament so far has been that almost every one of the so-called “big players” has delivered for their respective nations. So I’ve gone an compiled a list of some of the best of the World Cup so far.

 

Arjen Robben – Netherlands

The Bayern Munich man has probably been the most impressive player in the World Cup so far. His link-up play with with his Dutch compatriots Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and others like Danny Blind and Nigel de Jong has been outstanding. In three games, he has the best player in two of them, and in the game he wasn’t he still managed to score one of the finest goals in the tournament. He has notched three goals so far and assisted a few more too. At 30-years old he’s still clocking up speeds that are rivalling if not besting the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. It’s either the ‘Van Gaal Effect’ or it’s EPO. Either way it’s working.

Lionel Messi – Argentina

Coming into this tournament the best player of all time had a heap of pressure on his still quite young shoulders. This idiocy that he has to win the World Cup to be considered as good as, if not better, than Diego Maradona or Pelé has caused this. Argentina were most people’s favourites to win the tournament and while they haven’t been all that impressive in their three group games, they did win all three. But most importantly, Lionel Messi, captain fantastic, lead by example, winning the Man of the Match award in all three games and scoring four goals in the process. He’s the joint-leading goalscorer in the World Cup now after only scoring once in his previous two Copa Mundials. He’s getting better and you would have to fear for Switzerland in the Round of 16.

James Rodriguez – Colombia

“Hamez” Rodriguez, as the correct pronunciation of his name actually goes, is probably just behind Arjen Robben for me in the race for the Golden Boot. He has been the best player for the best team in the tournament so far in Colombia. Winning all three games, including trouncing Greece (3-0) and Japan (4-1), the young Monaco maestro has seen his stock rise drastically this June ensuring he is to be linked with any big team with one of those so-called ‘war chest’ transfer kitties. Rodriguez has scored three goals in three games so far, with one of them being one of the finest efforts of the tournament so far when dinked past the Japanese keeper in their final group game. A true world class star in the making and I fully expect another big performance when he and Colombia knock out Uruguay in the Round of 16.

Neymar – Brazil

Messi, Ronaldo and Rooney maybe have had unnecessary pressure on their shoulders, but none of those three have had it nearly as bad as young Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior. Simply put, anything but a Brazilian triumph on Brazilian soil is a disaster and the 22-year old is being tasked with more or less being the difference between failure and hysteria. Most 22-year olds would likely wilt under such pressure, but thankfully for not just Brazilians but those of us watching around the world, he has delivered. Boy has he delivered. In three games, Neymar Jr. has scored four goals and is the leading goal scorer in the tournament beside his idol and Barcelona teammate Lionel Messi. Brazil have motored along and look to be improving, but from minute one it is Neymar that has been their get out. He is a class act and I expect him to shine once again when Brazil beat Chile this Saturday. Dream scenario? Brazil versus Argentina in the World Cup Final. Neymar versus Messi for the Golden Boot and Golden Ball.

Robin van Persie – Netherlands

For me, the flying Dutchman has the goal of the tournament so far. That salmon-leap header from Danny Blind’s fantastic long-ball past a hapless Iker Casillas during the Netherlands’ 5-1 thrashing of Spain will linger long in the memory. He scored again in that game and then another – a typical RVP blast into the roof of the net – in their 3-2 win over Australia. Missing the Netherlands’ final group game against Chile, which the Dutch won 2-0, his absence was noted. Three goals in two games and his awesome partnership with Robben will ensure Mexico struggle to overcome van Gaal’s team in the Round of 16. I expect them to go through and van Persie to be right up there in the running for at least the Golden Boot.

Karim Benzema – France

France has been one of the surprise packages of the tournament so far. After a below-par qualifying campaign and not really doing anything of merit on the world stage since Zidane headbutted Materazzi in 2006, they came in with low expectations in terms of those of us looking in. What we’ve seen though is, at least in two of the games, and exciting France side brimming with talent that are actually gelling. Leading the line is Real Madrid’s oft-maligned Karim Benzema who has notched three goals in three games and been outstanding for Les Bleus. A second round match against Nigeria shouldn’t be too difficult to navigate but it’s the potential of a quarter final against Germany that could see them come unstuck. Benzema probably won’t end up with either the Golden Boot or Ball but he has been the star in a resurgent France side that were disgraced at the last World Cup.

Alexis Sanchez – Chile

Barcelona look likely to lose this little genius this Summer but whoever gets him signed up will be getting a legitimate star. Lost in the chasm of Barcelona’s dearth of talent, he has flourished in a Chile side that is centred around Arturo Vidal, Eduardo Vargas and himself. He’s exciting to watch and is at the heart of everything great about this class Chilean side. A big test comes next for him in the shape of Brazil’s defensive partnership of Thiago Silva and David Luiz and a Brazil side Chile haven’t fared well against in the recent past. They were knocked out of the World Cup in this exact fixture four years ago in South Africa. If they can navigate Brazil it sets up a game against Colombia most likely in the quarter finals and then either Germany or France in the semis. And then, who knows? Big problem facing Chile is that Eamon Dunphy has tipped them to win it all. So for that, I’m going with Brazil to knock them out. But in the meanwhile, let’s enjoy Sanchez, the best Alexis since Ms. Texas.

Premier League Best XI 13/14

Goalkeeper: DAVID DE GEA (Manchester United)

“What?! You’re putting a United player in here and this season?!” Why yes, yes I am. Sure, the majority of the Manchester United squad have left a lot to be desired this season and there are few if any that will come out of this (their worst in Premier League history) with any credit. But one player that certainly does is their young Spanish goalkeeper David De Gea. He has been superb all season and become the finest keeper in the country and one of the best in Europe now too.

Right-back: SEAMUS COLEMAN (Everton)

Ah now isn’t it great to have a truly top class Irish footballer plying his trade in the Premier League again? The generation of Roy and Robbie Keane, Shay Given and Damien Duff a thing of the past, Coleman has emerged as truly Ireland’s finest footballer. He has had a wonderful season thus far for Everton, to the point where Roberto Martinez’s side are within a shout of a Champions League place. Seven goals scored from right back is nothing to baulk at.

Centre-half: MARTIN SKRTEL (Liverpool)

It pains me to include Martin Skrtel in this list, not because he is a Liverpool player. No, it’s because he is one of the sneakiest and downright cheating defenders in the Premier League. Never have we seen a player blatantly drag opposition players to the ground by the scruff of their neck on such a consistent basis and pretty much get away with it all the time. The absolute gall of the man. But in fairness, he has contributed not just fine performances but goal in what has been an incredible season for Merseyside Red so far.

Centre-half: JOHN TERRY (Chelsea)

Another defender I include against my every morsel of contention. Nobody likes John Terry, except for Chelsea fans who even then must question themselves in the way you sometimes think “how could I have been so thick to fall for the idea of Santa or the Easter Bunny?”. But alas, he’s had one of his finest seasons in years, notching a few goals, doing his whole ‘Captain, Leader, Legend’ spiel on overdrive. His retirement from the England set-up has clearly been a blessing.

Left-back: LEIGHTON BAINES (Everton)

The one position on the pitch where England have an embarrassment of riches is at left full-back. There’s Ashley Cole, who hasn’t really featured much for Chelsea this season but is clearly still top class. Then there’s been the emergence of Southampton’s 18-year old Luke Shaw who is being tipped for a World Cup place and a big money move to Manchester United. But ahead of both of them this season has been the mercurial Leighton Baines. For years now Baines has been the league’s best full back, usurping previous kings Patrice Evra and Ashley Cole.

Central Midfield: STEVEN GERRARD (Liverpool)

Last season was not one to remember for Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard. Brendan Rodgers’ first full season at the club was clearly one of transition and nobody more than Gerrard epitomised this is as he struggled to adapt to his new deep-lying midfield role. This season however, we’ve seen just why Gerrard is considered one of the best midfielders of the last decade. He has pulled the strings all season for his Liverpool side to the point where they are on the brink of their first Premier League title in 25 years. And for good measure, he’s notched 13 goals from midfield. Not bad.

Central Midfield: YAYA TOURÉ (Manchester City)

This guy is one of those Rolls Royce midfielders. A man that was wasted at defensive midfield at Barcelona has become the best all-round midfield player not just in England but arguably in world football. This season has arguably been his most impressive, at least scoring wise, seeing the Ivorian notch an astonishing 18 goals from central midfield. Only Luis Suarez (30) and Daniel Sturridge (20) have scored more. His importance is such to Manchester City that his recent injury has put a massive dent in any hopes City have left of regaining the Premier League title.

Right Side: RAHEEM STERLING (Liverpool)

This one was a toss-up between Sterling and Southampton’s Adam Lallana. Sterling just about shades it thanks his STERLING form (see what I did there?.. I’m ashamed of myself) in the run-in to Liverpool’s would-be title winning season. He has scored vital goals in the last few weeks, most notably his well-beyond-his-years composure-filled goal against Manchester City in Liverpool’s 3-2 win at Anfield. He then scored two against Norwich in another 3-2 win. Where Suarez, Gerrard and Sturridge have mostly been getting the plaudits, Sterling’s form is finally getting attention. So much so that almost everyone has forgotten he beat up the mother of his child a while back. Probably the PFA Young Player of the Year.

Left-ish Side: EDEN HAZARD (Chelsea)

I’m not at all confident that Eden Hazard deserves to be in this eleven. It should probably be Adam Lallana or Ashley Young (that’s not even remotely funny) but in fairness to Hazard he was outstanding in the first half of the season and has arguably been Chelsea’s best player this season. He has certainly been their best attacking option in a frontline consisting of the neutered Fernando Torres and geriatric Samuel Eto’o, who’s only contribution this season was a hat-trick against David Moyes’ Manchester United. Without him Chelsea are even more toothless, which is probably the best compliment you can give the man. Speculation is rife however that he may be off the Paris St-Germain this Summer, which would leave Chelsea well and truly fecked.

Forward: LUIS SUÁREZ (Liverpool)

Most people hate him, and justifiably so, but you cannot deny the world class talent of the man who is without question the best player in the Premier League at the moment. His stats are just astonishing. He has scored 30 goals in 30 appearances, with 12 assists to boot. He has been the key player in Liverpool’s astonishing season and return to prominence. Considering he wanted to leave the club in the Summer it’s incredible to see not just his form but where he has helped put Liverpool this season. How different it all could have been. A shoe-in for the PFA and FWA Player of the Year.

Forward: DANIEL STURRIDGE (Liverpool)

You can’t have Batman without Robin can you? Oh, wait, you can? You know what I mean. Daniel Sturridge’s strike partnership with Luis Suárez at Liverpool has been one of the most effective of its type since Manchester United’s Treble-winning duo of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole. Sturridge has notched 20 league goals, bringing the tally of the ‘SAS’ duo to an incredible 5o in the league so far. Just like Suárez, he is quite difficult to like, not because he is a cheat, but because of that horrible celebration that only belongs on a dancefloor after too many sambucas. He’s good though.

sturridge1

What an insufferable pleb

 

Substitutes:

DAVID MARSHALL (Cardiff City)

PABLO ZABALETA (Manchester City)

GARY CAHILL (Chelsea)

FERNANDINHO (Manchester City)

ADAM LALLANA (Southampton)

WAYNE ROONEY (Manchester United)

SERGIO AGUERO (Manchester City)

Manchester United Begin Champions League Hiatus After Defeat in Germany

David Moyes’ Manchester United side are set to begin an exile of sorts from Champions League football after a 3-1 defeat at the hands of European champions Bayern Munich last night in the Allianz Arena.

While United certainly weren’t disgraced in their 4-2 aggregate defeat in the quarter finals, the fact that they lie 7th in the Premier League means they won’t have any Champions League football to look forward to next season now either.

Coming into last night’s game, Bayern had the advantage having secured a precious away goal at Old Trafford last week in a 1-1 draw. The first half saw Bayern once again retain all of the possession but United actually have the better of the chances, with Rooney botching an attempt and Antonio Valencia having a goal being disallowed for being marginally offside. The second half then saw Manchester United take the lead when left-back Patrice Evra scored a thunderbolt, handing control of the tie to the Red Devils temporarily.

Unfortunately for them though, Bayern equalised almost instantly through Mario Mandzukic two minutes later in the 59th minute. Then only eight minutes later they took the lead through German international Thomas Muller. A quick turnaround and a despondent United were now struggling to come to terms.

A 2-1 lead and 3-2 aggregate lead meant Bayern now had their tails well up, and they capitalised on their dominance once again when Arjen Robben did what he always does, though somehow the United defenders couldn’t stop him. He cut in from the right onto his left foot, beating three players before smashing the ball into the back of David De Gea’s net. Game over. After the game, David Moyes admitted that this was likely to be United’s last game in the Champions League for some time:

“That’s how it looks,” Moyes told Sky Sports after the 3-1 defeat. “But I believe it’s not far away. Hopefully it will only be one year where we have to rebuild.

“My focus now is on getting this team back in the competition. It’s a great competition and we’ve really enjoyed it.

“There’s no shame going out to Bayern Munich – they are a good side. The players have played really well. We’ll show the quality we’ve got, re-group and start building towards being back in the competition.”

Midfielder Darren Fletcher doesn’t think the players will find it difficult to have motivation in the remaining Premier League fixtures, despite having little to play for.

“Players have got to play well to stay in the manager’s thoughts for next season – it’s as simple as that,” Fletcher told MUTV. “There’s talk of a lot of changes and who knows? If you get an opportunity to play you’ve got to go out there and perform, and show the manager that you want to be at United.

“A lot of people will say there’s nothing to play for in terms of league position or winning anything but there’s a lot to play for in terms of personal pride and to be in the squad next season.”

Next up for United incidentally is David Moyes’ first trip back to Goodison Park since taking over at Old Trafford when Everton host the champions on Sunday April 20th.