Martial welcomes Ibrahimovic – but there is cause for concern

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You don’t buy a Ferrari to drive it like a Fiat, a brash Zlatan Ibrahimovic once screamed at then Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola. Unhappy with his role – playing second fiddle to Lionel Messi – Ibrahimovic has been difficult to keep happy throughout his career.

 

Ibrahimovic is expected to announce his next club on Tuesday along with the launch of his clothing brand. The Swede is also expected to sign for Manchester United in what would be one of the worst kept secrets in football.

 

Anthony Martial is one of a number of United players who is welcoming the 34-year-old to Old Trafford but in the case of the French forward, there could be a cause for concern.

 

The young Frenchman ended the season poised to become the man at Manchester United like so many before him. Ryan Giggs, Eric Cantona, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. Yet he could return playing second fiddle to a man who while a genius on the ball is well known for being rather self absorbed.

 

Ibrahimovic throughout his career has always felt that the team should revolve around him. No doubt he is one of the best players in Europe and in his earlier years teams have been constructed to work with his strengths and cover what few weaknesses he has. However, last season ended with Manchester United in prime position to build around a sensation of their own in Martial.

 

Martial burst onto the scene with a sensational solo goal against Liverpool. The 19-year-old went on to be one of few bright spots in Louis van Gaal’s reign as he ended the 2015/16 season on the cusp of being a genuine superstar.

While he occupied the left hand side for the majority of the season the arrival of Ibrahimovic could well see Martial’s rise to stardom stutter – for a year at least. Marcus Rashford’s progress also.

 

It was clear that the former Monaco front man was becoming the star of the new Manchester United. Like Wayne Rooney before him, Martial could symbolise a new era at Old Trafford. In 2004 Sir Alex Ferguson paid around £30m for an exceptionally talented forward and years later it could be argued that it was the best £30m ever spent in football.

 

The budding superstar commanded a similar fee – depending on which reports you believe – and has flashed similar abilities of the 18-year-old Rooney. Rooney soon became the heart of the Man United team along with Cristiano Ronaldo and formed one of the deadliest front lines Europe has ever seen along with Carlos Tevez.

 

Martial possesses a similar ability and will blossom into just as formidable player if the team is constructed around him as it once was with Rooney.

 

Ibrahimovic will enter Old Trafford as Jose Mourinho’s guy. The pair have a bond stronger than most brothers. Hardly a surprise when you consider their respective personalities. Martial, as talented as he is, is not Mourinho’s guy. He is yet to build up the former Chelsea boss’ trust and that counts for a lot in a Jose Mourinho team.

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SOLNA, SWEDEN – JUNE 05: Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Sweden and Andy King of Wales during the international friendly between Sweden and Wales at Friends Arena on June 5, 2016 in Solna, Sweden. (Photo by Mikael Sjoberg/Ombrello/Getty Images)

We have seen talented players such as Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bryune suffer and ultimately be exiled due to Mourinho’s lack of faith in their ability. The pair have since gone on to become two of the most sought after talents in world football but it was Mourinho’s show – as it always is.

 

Martial made United tick with his directness and pace down the left hand side giving defenders nightmares. His injury time winner against Everton in the F.A. Cup semi-final was the kind of moment in time which all young sensations have. Will Martial’s effectiveness and boldness on the ball suffer with the demand to cater to Ibrahimovic’s ego?

 

Manchester United fans are excited about the arrival of the legendary Swede and they have a right to be. But for all his goal scoring prowess there are a selection of Red Devils supporters than have forgotten about how much of a prima donna he can be. Edinson Cavani, now settled with life at PSG, once had huge issues having arrived at the club as the most feared striker in Europe following his time at Napoli only to find himself out of position and pandering to Ibrahimovic up front.

 

Ibrahimovic possesses a lifetime of football experience but has never been one to mentor. A man who first and foremost looks after his own interests and expects the rest of the team to fall in line. Such an attitude will shackle United’s French sensation and even if it is only for a year we have seen what a draining of confidence can do. Memphis Depay and Angel Di Maria are perfect examples from within the club.

 

Manchester United have always been a club that have made young superstars the hub of their team. Sir Alex constructed a team around the class of ’92 and later around Ronaldo and Rooney waving in a new age of success. Perhaps that United is well and truly dead and buried as the era of short term success takes over.

 

While Ibrahimovic is the star name – Martial is the longer term option. There has never been a signing more representative of the era Manchester United occupy. A short term signing for short term success.

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What we learned: 5 things from the F.A. Cup semi final

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A late Anthony Martial goal sent Manchester United into their first F.A. Cup final since 2007. At the expense of Everton, and an under pressure Roberto Martinez, Louis van Gaal will now compete for his first piece of silverware as Man United boss. Here are five things we learned from the pulsating semi-final.

 

  1. Roberto Martinez is almost certainly leaving Everton this summer

In what was a pivotal week for the former Wigan Athletic manager Martinez saw his side played off the park in the Merseyside Derby in a 4-0 drubbing which only got worse as the game went on. The rotten cherry on top of this stale cake is Martial’s late winner in Saturday’s semi-final. With fan patience now at the end Martinez is walking a tightrope and looks almost certain to lose his job this summer with underperforming stars, an inability to defend and lack of tactical flexibility.

 

Everton face four more games this season against: Bournemouth, Leicester City, Sunderland and Norwich City. Even if Martinez manages a clean sweep and collects 12 points from the remaining fixtures it will surely be nothing more than a last act of defiance before the Everton board pull the trigger on the Spaniard.

 

  1. Martial, Rashford & Lingard are the makings of a fearsome front three

Be it by managerial brilliance or luck – be that good or bad – Louis van Gaal has integrated Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard into the Manchester United side with great success. Add the superstar in the making that is Martial and they have the makings of a truly terrifying front three. Not since Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez have United had an attack so full of pace, directness and trickery. The chances are this will not be the permanent front three of The Red Devils going into next season – especially if Jose Mourinho takes charge. The trio clearly have a bond on the field which sees them bring the best out of each other and the sample size is becoming larger to show that it is not fluke that they are quality players together. Against Everton’s back line they constantly ran at them forcing the defenders to back off and created the lion share of Manchester United’s chances.

 

  1. Lukaku and Stones need new voices

This could go for the entire Everton team but no players need a new voice in their head quite like Romelu Lukaku and John Stones do. Both have had their heads turned by potential moves to bigger clubs in England and abroad and the inconsistencies of The Toffees has not helped matters. On a day when Everton needed their big players to have a big game they were left disappointed – particularly in the case of the big Belgian. Lukaku saw his penalty saved by David De Gea and that summed up what was an overall poor performance, Lukaku has had attitude problems in the past and they surfaced again today with the former Chelsea hitman not being at his terrorising best which has seen him find the net 25 times this campaign.

 

Stones by contrast had a mixed bag but his regression throughout the season is clear for all to see. He needs a new coach and manager before he forever lingers in the bracket of looking better than he is. Stones failed to steal the ball from Rashford in the build up to United’s opener and then allowed Marouane Fellaini to steal a yard on him giving the Belgium international a goal against his former employers. Perhaps this summer will see the pair shipped out of Goodison Park and for their sake they may need it.

 

  1. Semi-finals can be amazing

Often semi-finals can be dull one goal affairs with both teams often looking not to lose the tie before going on to win it. Not the case with this one, attack was the best form of defence and, although van Gaal’s men bossed the opening 45 minutes, we were treated to a mouth-watering clash with bags of chances and barely a moment to send a tweet out before the next bit of drama unfolded. Martial’s goal was a fitting finish to 90 minutes of rollercoaster action.

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during the FA Cup with Budweiser Final match between Arsenal and Hull City at Wembley Stadium on May 17, 2014 in London, England.

 

  1. The F.A. Cup still matters

Of course it still maters and it always will. The F.A. Cup is part of the very fabric of our culture in England. However, the reason it matters is changing greatly. The cup now represents buying managers a time. Arsene Wenger saw fans keep patience with him after back-to-back F.A. Cup wins in 2014 and 2015. Van Gaal could now see his position safe should he guide Man United to cup glory – the same could be said of Alan Pardew and Quique Sanchez Flores who are also under huge pressure to keep their jobs.

 

The F.A. Cup in recent times has come under more scrutiny as the perception grows that the bigger teams in the Premier League do not treat it with the same respect as they once did with Premier League and Champions League honours top of their list of priorities. Now it can be seen as a life raft keeping managers afloat. Perhaps the prestige has taken a knock but the drama has certainly intensified, you only have to go back and look at a champagne soaked Arsene Wenger clenching his fists to see what victory in the F.A. Cup can mean.

Champions League exit spells new low for van Gaal

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A difficult night for Bastian Schweinsteiger as United are humbled in Germany.

Louis van Gaal saw his Manchester United side crash out of the Champions League after a pulsating, yet ultimately deflating, 3-2 defeat against Wolfsburg in Germany.

 

This is the fourth time the Red Devils have been sent home at the group stages but never has it been more disappointing and puts a huge exclamation point on the end of what has been a difficult four days for Man United and their manager.

 

Following the drab 0-0 with West Ham at the weekend which prompted the chants of “attack” followed by disgruntled murmurs at the final whistle the onus was on van Gaal to deliver a victory against their German opposition to try and get the United faithful back on his side. Instead the pressure will only have cranked up and his position, while not under serious threat, is being questioned – mainly in terms of if he was ever the right man for the job.

 

To win at Wolfsburg to ensure qualification was always going to be a tall order but if truth be told it is a position that such an expensively assembled squad and a vastly experienced manager should have never have found themselves in – even in a group that would be labelled as ‘tricky’. United attacked valiantly after conceding their third goal of the evening but with PSV winning their efforts to grab two goals in five minutes seemed almost an impossibility rather than a flicker of hope as it was under the never say die attitude of Sir Alex Ferguson.

 

Ferguson saw his side finish third in the group stages in 2011/12 season when his side amassed just nine points from six games in a group containing: Benfica, Basel and Romainian side Otelul Galati. That year United threw away a two goal lead at home to Basel and were particularly lacklustre in the return game in which their fate hung in the balance.

 

However, van Gaal sees his side crash out after pumping £251m worth of talent into the squad since his reign began at Old Trafford. United did recoup around £70m in the last summer window but the expenditure is too great, as is the club, to see it collapse so soon. Players such as Bastian Schweinsteiger – a World Cup and Champions League winner looked hopeless to resist the German opposition, Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial were hailed as Europe’s next biggest stars when van Gaal brought them in during the summer window but they could not provide a moment of individual inspiration that earned them so many plaudits before which played a part in bringing the pair to Old Trafford.

 

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during the UEFA Champions League group B match between VfL Wolfsburg and Manchester United at the Volkswagen Arena on December 8, 2015 in Wolfsburg, Germany.

When the group was announced United fans would be forgiven for feeling confident. They’d spent heavily for the second summer in a row, confident that van Gaal’s system would finally click and they managed to avoid any real contenders for the title. The European campaigns of 2008 and 2009 when United made back to back Champions League finals and knocking out some European powerhouses in the process and looking every bit of the best team in world football seems a very distant memory. What we are left with is a club with great European history but mediocre credentials at this moment.

 

While van Gaal has stubbornly guided his team into the thick of a title race with the Premier League this set back in Europe cannot be ignored. Ferguson oversaw three group stage exits but throughout his body of work he’d earned the occasional off campaign in the Champions League. Van Gaal is yet to earn that with United fans and it is always worth remembering that his predecessor, David Moyes, took a starkly weaker United team to the top of Group A in 2013 and guided them to the quarter finals.

 

Van Gaal openly said throughout the season that this current United squad were not up to winning the whole competition and it is a reasonable assumption that no United fan expected that. But they did expect to navigate themselves from out of the group stages and bring some of Europe’s elite back to Old Trafford for another famous Champions League night.

 

Ferguson often made the most from his sides when in transition and this current side of van Gaal’s are certainly in just that. However Ferguson always did it with more limited resources and nearly always saw them get to the last eight – sometimes with inferior personnel than what is on offer to the former Bayern Munich boss. The Dutchman has splashed the cash on some of Europe’s biggest and brightest players and still seems to be scratching his head as to how to use them – a problem not exclusive to United under van Gaal, he previously has problems with Rivaldo at Barcelona moving him from playing up front to the left wing.

 

Questions will rightly be asked about van Gaal throughout the next week and even more so in January when the United boss enters the January transfer window. The timing of this latest disappointment will undoubtedly add more pressure and van Gaal will now have deliver the title or come a very close second if he is to confidently see out the remainder of his contract.

 

Man United’s defensive improvments no consolation for toothless attack

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during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and West Ham United at Old Trafford on December 5, 2015 in Manchester, England.

 

If we cast our minds back to exactly seven years ago today, Manchester United were four games into what would become a record-breaking 14 games without conceding in the Premier League. They beat Sunderland 1-0 on that day as Red Devils hero Nemanja Vidic snatched a dramatic injury time winner .

 

Man United ended that season with the joint best defensive record with Chelsea, conceding just 24 goals all season. However that team paired their excellent defending with swashbuckling attacking play, quick counter attacks, asserting their will on even the biggest teams and the belief that they would always score even if they only had one second left on the clock- they had it all.

 

During that historic 14 game stretch Sir Alex Ferguson’s men scored 33 goals, an average of 2.3 a game. The defensive record was historic but not something that became synonymous with Manchester United. Even today it’s a feat that gets lost in the avalanche of great attacking performances through the years: the 8-2 against Arsenal, the 4-3 against rivals Man City and so on.

 

Bring it forward to the weekend’s clash against West Ham and their latest bore draw. Louis van Gaal’s United have become a pragmatic side whereby they seem to pride themselves on organised and solid defending rather than it being the direct consequence of the opposition being punch drunk from a dizzying attack.

 

United have six clean sheets so far this season and have the Premier League’s best defensive record shipping just ten goals. They are hard to breach no doubt. However the screams of “attack, attack, attack” tell the tale that the Old Trafford faithful simply do not care about the defensive solidity and the low number of goals conceded. They want their old cavalier team back which, had they had 63% possession and 21 shots against West Ham, would have ended today with a comfortable 4-0 victory and it would be business as usual for a Manchester United team starting to build momentum ready to kick on after Christmas.

 

van Gaal has United play a system based around the quantity of possession rather than the quality of it. The stalemate against The Hammers makes for odd reading when teamed with the “attack” chants. United tried to attack – they were simply hopeless at it and unfortunately this has been the case for a large number of matches, not just this season, but under the former Bayern Munich manager as a whole.

 

United have only scored four goals twice in van Gaal’s 53 Premier League games in charge. United scoring four goals used to be quite routine when they were clicking on all fronts under Sir Alex but the stark reality is, those days are long gone and this team under van Gaal is more about grinding out results.

 

Chelsea have shown how effective, pragmatic football can be appreciated in a different way to the gung-ho attacking approach. However it was Mourinho which installed that mantra, it is what Chelsea are used to: winning ugly. United have always been used to winning and with a great amount of style, the argument could be made that the fans have been spoiled by the Ferguson years and – although seemingly in crisis, van Gaal has his team sitting just three points off the top playing what can be described as incredibly dull football.

 

There are not many teams in world football that could sit three points from the summit yet seem to be so unstable and ‘in crisis’, Manchester United are one of those teams. Much like Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich – it is not simply about the winning, it’s how you win.

 

United’s manager must take a huge amount of credit for playing hard ball with David De Gea and eventually getting him to ink a new contract and turning Chris Smalling into one of the best centre backs in the league. However United’s latest number seven, Memphis Depay, looks to be fading and United’s last number seven, Angel Di Maria was well out of the picture by this time last year.

 

United number sevens have always been explosive and exciting and capable of grabbing a game by the scruff of the neck. Beckham, Ronaldo, Best, Cantona. All of these players had the great gift of great improvisation, a gift that does not fit its way into van Gaal’s very strict system it would seem. The strict system has played a huge part in their defensive improvements but it has all but extinguished any creative flair.

 

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during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Liverpool at Old Trafford on September 12, 2015 in Manchester, United Kingdom.

 

When Anthony Martial burst onto the scene with his wonderfully taken goal against Liverpool it was a throwback to the Manchester United of not so long ago. Confident, improvised, off the cuff and simply brilliant – it was not in keeping with van Gaal’s system but it was one of the very few times all season that Manchester United looked like Manchester United again.

 

The United manager has spent close to half a billion pounds on new players, most of them attacking players. But the cut and thrust of Ferguson’s United now seems a very distant memory and has made way for a rigid, matter-of-fact approach which has seen what, what was a fractured defensive unit, find solidity. But it has also seen the death of what was Man United’s greatest strength: their consistent moments of team and individual unscripted attacking brilliance which made them the team so many remember fondly. It is very clear from the disgruntled fans making themselves heard that winning is not what the game boils down to. It’s winning in the most thrilling way possible.