Wolves 2-1 Manchester United: Back to back defeats for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men

Wolves

Manchester United had a really good chance to stamp a marker of being the favourites to win their first silverware in the FA Cup under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Though, the quarter-final fixture was not straightforward with it being a difficult one against Nuno Espirito Santo’s Wolves away from home, a side that have picked up a number of results against the Premier League’s top-six so far this season.

Overall, United started on a positive note and dominated possession for majority of the match, but failed to breakdown the opposition’s defence and did not test goalkeeper John Ruddy until the final moments of the game. Meanwhile, Wolves were defended in numbers and created the bigger chances and were ruthless on the counter, with the goals coming from Diogo Jota and Raul Jimenez.

Here are the three things we learnt from United’s latest match…

Squad has been burned out from top to bottom

With Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku unavailable due to current injury problems, whilst the likes of Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard and Nemanja Matic have been rushed back into the starting line-up, it is not a surprise that the team have struggled to get going following the monumental Champions League comeback against Paris Saint-Germain. The side have been lacking the quality from the bench to help them effect and turn the game around, leading to back-to-back defeats.

On top of that, Solskjaer himself has not got the ideal options available for him to use in the squad as a whole and the blame should definitely be referred back to the board and Ed Woodward. When looking at the current team and the fact that only Diogo Dalot, Fred and Lee Grant came into the club in the previous summer transfer window, it can easily be stated that the new arrivals was simply not enough to allow Jose Mourinho or Solskjaer to guide the side to a successful season.

The problems in the final third have started once again

At this moment of time, the problems in the final third have returned to what it once was in the final months of Mourinho’s time at the club, where the front three fail to provide enough creativity and movement on and off the ball. There was one stage in the match last night at Molineux Stadium, where it had seemed like Martial and Rashford were nowhere to be seen in the opposition’s half.

For sure, if Lukaku was fit and in good condition to play, the side would have played more down the flanks and would have sent constant crosses into the box for the Belgian international to pounce on. However, with his much needed presence missing, the back-three/five of Wolves were able to isolate United’s attackers and left the midfielders with no choices but to play backwards or sideways.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer got outdone by Nuno Espirito Santo  

Since his arrival as Manchester United’s interim coach from the middle of December, this has been Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first game where he has tactically been dominated and outdone by the opposition. In his favour, Wolves have actually eased down in the league over the last couple of weeks and have quietly been preparing for this match through less training and more resting.

On the other hand, the signs of a goal coming were there in the early moments of the second half, with the hosts becoming more comfortable in possession and attacking with intent along whilst both Matt Doherty and Ruben Neves enjoying a lot of space and time on the ball. Had Solskjaer and Mike Phelan spotted this and looked to match up with Wolves’ setup, the game could have potentially been more balanced and the side would have had more control to the match.

Huesca dare to dream of the greatest escape

Huesca

Huesca are the latest provincial Spanish club to enjoy a remarkable rise through the ranks in recent years. In 2008, they reached the second tier for the first time in their history. In 2017, they recorded their first top half finish in the campaign and, last year, they won promotion to the Primera for the first time ever.

Their first win did not take long – a 2-1 victory at Eibar on the opening day. A rousing comeback the following game against Athletic Bilbao rescued a point at San Mames and, for 13 glorious minutes, they led at the Camp Nou against Barcelona. But they lost that game 8-2 – the second of a 16-match streak in which they could not land a league victory. Continue reading

What to expect from El Clasico (x2)

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For the first time in Barcelona’s rich and storied history, they will play two Clasico fixtures against Real Madrid back-to-back at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Not once since 1899 has that happened, and many commentators are suggesting that whichever of the two Spanish behemoths comes out on top over the two matches, they can look forward to another hugely successful season.

In Europe, Los Blancos reign supreme and have done for just over 1000 days now, a quite astonishing statistic in the modern era. Continue reading

Are Barcelona hitting poor form at the wrong time?

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Even before the new Spanish league started Barcelona were installed as favourites. The bookmakers were not silly and realised that too much had changed at Real Madrid for them to compete this season, no Zidane and no Ronaldo meant transition and then Julen Lopetegui was sacked and the best Madrid could muster was Santiago Solari to steer the ship until the end of the season. Madrid looked doomed and Barcelona looked set on to win yet another league title.

And so the title played out that way, at one point just a few months back, Barcelona had gone 10 points clear of Real Madrid, and then February happened.

With 23 games played and 15 more still to go Barcelona are in 1st place but the gap is not just 6 points. Real Madrid have swallowed 40% of that gap up after going their last 5 games in a row unbeaten and winning all of those matches. Of course it’s not as if Barcelona have started to lose games because they haven’t. They have lost just 2 all season. But they have drawn their last two, which in the league can really affect your standing.

First there was the 2-2 draw at home to Valencia and that was followed up by a disappointing 0-0 result away to Athletic Bilbao, where the team including Lionel Messi gave a listless display. That same weekend Real Madrid had just beaten rivals Atletico Madrid in their classic derby by 3-1 which has made all the difference to the league standings. And of course it has been 3 games in total without a win for Barca who also drew 1-1 in their Copa del Rey match with Real Madrid.

The league then is all to play for, even Atletico have a chance as they are just a point behind Real. After that there is no chance for the others. But can Barcelona hold their nerve in what was supposed to be a write off season for Real, who now has a second wind?

Well let’s be honest and say that Barcelona are still in the driving seat. They have the most points, have scored the most goals and have conceded just 23 all season. They are still the team to beat but not many people thought that it would end up being this hard, and they have made heavy weather of it somewhat.

Next weekend they will play 15th place Valladolid at Nou Camp and will be massive favourites to beat a team who have won just 3 games on the road all season and won none of their last four matches away from home. Meanwhile Real Madrid will be trying to keep up the chase when they take on Girona at home, both will be expected to win and one could well think that this league could go down to the last couple of matches. Watch this space.

What will Soskjaer’s Man Utd look like?

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been handed a caretaker role in charge of Manchester United with a remit to bring expansive attacking football back to Old Trafford. The Norwegian’s experience playing under Sir Alex Ferguson means he should know better than most just what that means: the ‘Man Utd way’ is fast, wing-focused football.

His Molde team played to dominate possession, with Solskjaer showing tactical flexibility by frequently switching formations. Consequently it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how United will player under the Baby-Faced Assassin, particularly given that his only other experience as a Premier League manager was a disastrous tenure in charge of Cardiff City – his first opponents this weekend.

But there are still plenty of clues as to how United will line up in the coming weeks.

First, Paul Pogba is virtually guaranteed to get more game time. He was left out of the starting 11 in three of Jose Mourinho’s final four matches in charge of the club, prompting the Frenchman to consider leaving in January. Solskjaer has reportedly been told to convince Pogba to stay, which will only happen if the midfielder is given time on the pitch – and the freedom to play with swagger.

Not that Solskjaer would have it any other way. This is a huge opportunity for the new manager, and since the season is now a ‘free hit’ the only sensible option is to attempt what everyone involved with the club wants: hard-hitting, gung-ho attacking football. That can only mean giving Pogba a free role and building the team around him. Anthony Martial is another player United want to convince to stay, meaning he too will play a big role.

Solskjaer’s most widely acknowledged managerial trait is investment in youth, which is great news for Diogo Dalot. His attacking instincts and excellent crossing ability are reminiscent of a classic Fergie right-back; he put in a man-of-the-match performance in the 4-1 victory over Fulham – United’s best performance of the season. Solskjaer will surely look at United’s wing-focused attacking display that day as a template for the months ahead.

Man Utd have an easy looking run of fixtures over Christmas that gives Solskjaer the opportunity to lay down a marker with quick attacking football and a bold defensive line. Should he play Dalot and Luke Shaw, Pogba and Martial, Marcus Rashford and Juan Mata, then he has every chance of taking maximum points from games against Cardiff (a), Huddersfield (h), Bournemouth (h), and Newcastle (a).

It would be naive to underestimate the scale of the challenge facing Solskjaer. However, given there is almost nothing left to play for, the Norwegian can endear himself to the fans simply by boldly committing to attacking football. It might produce wild results, but it is the only conceivable option before United approach Mauricio Pochettino in the summer.

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What is next for the special one, Jose Mourinho?

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The only news that has engulfed the world of football in the last 24 hours has been the sacking of Jose Mourinho at Manchester United. United was supposed to be the dream move for the special one, one that would be filled with trophies, he did win 3 in the end but again just like at Chelsea his relationship with the players broke down and tactics went out the window.

Now Mourinho will be looking for a new job, and whilst major teams might initially hold back given that Mourinho doesn’t seem to be as special as once before we also have to remember that he has won 25 trophies in his career. With the major clubs that he has managed he has never dipped below a 54% win rate and so with this in mind he might just land another very big job, but where? Let’s look at the options.

Real Madrid:

Mourinho landed a few trophies here in his first spell including the league and started to reverse the impact that Barcelona had over Madrid. But his last season ended fruitless and he didn’t leave in the way he would have liked. Most fans of the club don’t want him back, but some of the long standing ones do. Sergio Ramos who voices the dressing room clearly doesn’t want to work with Mourinho again and that could be a sticking point. At the same time Florentino Perez the president of the club does admire him.

Right now Madrid are having a poor season by their standards and it is clear that Santiago Solari isn’t going to cut it long term at the club. Real Madrid could be an option.

Chelsea:

This seems very unlikely given that Maurizio Sarri has started well with the club and all of the other problems the club had with Mourinho near the end don’t make it worth it to pursue this idea. Sure there is some genuine romanticism going on here but a 3rd spell, really? Sarri seems here for at least another 2-3 years so this doesn’t look good for Mourinho, plus maybe he has had enough of the Premier League now.

Bayern Munich:

Just like Real Madrid, Bayern are having a strange season and Nico Kovac has not exactly kept the traditions of the powerhouse team. Kovac’s job is under threat and having Mourinho at the club could make sense. But Mourinho would demand a bigger budget than Bayern usually spend and that could be a sticking point. The other is, could these two entity’s really, truly get along?

PSG:

For Mourinho surely this would be a match made in heaven given that he would have a big transfer budget, and PSG are basically guaranteed trophies in the French league. However current coach Thomas Tuchel is doing a fantastic job. Even if PSG exit the Champions League surely he will be given another season at least. Tuchel has made a positive impact on the Paris club and this move at least now seems very unlikely.

Inter Milan:

Why not a return to the team that gave Mourinho his real legendary status? Plus the fans absolutely love him, even if the press don’t. Mourinho could play his way and not get criticised. And it would be a healthy challenge to break the dominance of Juventus. If Mourinho could get his players on his side this could be a very interesting project to consider.

Another option of course would be to go to China, who would snap up Mourinho like gold dust and make him an offer that would dwarf his reported £15m pay off from United. But why go now when Mourinho is still at an age where he can coach the very best teams. Knowing how Mourinho works this would be bad timing, and doesn’t look like a viable option. The choice looks either to coach Bayern Munich or Inter Milan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just 6 points separate Sevilla in 1st place from Girona in 7th in exciting season for La Liga

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What a season it has been so far in the Spanish La Liga title race. Instead of, as in recent seasons Barcelona or Real Madrid taking off and not being seen for dust, both teams have had their struggles in recent weeks and the league remains wide open as we approach December- when is the last time we could say that?

Indeed take away Atletico Madrid’s superb title win in 2014 and there hasn’t been a different winner of the league apart from Barca and Real since the 2003-04 season when Valencia won it. What is also interesting is since then Barcelona has only failed to finish in the top 2 places in one season. In the last 14 years, 11 have finished with either Barca or Real Madrid taking the first two spots.

Of course the quality of football has been superb- even spellbinding at times and no one can argue against that. But for competitive games the Spanish league sure has come up short and we have been left with the same old song and dance of the majority of teams not just being able to challenge for the league but being so far from the top and the league title having that sinking feeling that it is virtually over by Christmas. Not so this season.

The first surprise is seeing Sevilla top of the league, not because they are a poor team but just the fact that it isn’t either Barca or Real sitting there. It is to put it mildly a revelation. Of course Barcelona are right there in 2nd place just a point behind but then again they have Atletico Madrid and Alaves breathing down their necks. And then there is the curious case of Real Madrid, Ronaldo less and showing it in 6th place. The team that have won an incredible 3 Champions League’s in a row won’t be in next seasons competition if the league was to end now.

It’s incredible to think how the league has simply opened up but then again some of the other teams namely Sevilla and Atletico Madrid have plugged away, bought well in the summer and made their threat real. But there has also been change at the super clubs. Andres Iniesta leaving Barcelona was certainly a big deal. Cristiano Ronaldo leaving for Juventus was a big change for Madrid who had become so reliant on him for the past decade. But also Real have suffered the departure of Zinedine Zidane, brought in Julen Lopetegui, sacked him and replaced him with Santiago Solari- for them it is the mid 2000′s all over again.

Realistically some of the teams will fall away and both Barcelona and Real Madrid should be able to find the form to mount a reasonable title challenge. But the likes of Atletico and Sevilla look like they will be sticking around for a while yet and could cause between them a major shock this season in Spain which nobody would have saw coming before the beginning of the season.

Lack of finishing touch is punishing West Ham

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Manuel Pellegrini’s decision to got toe-to-toe with Manchester City was a brave or naive one- depending on how you look at it. However, there were two aspects of his side’s performance during the game which made sure the manager’s risk wouldn’t pay off. The first was Arthur Masuaku’s lack of concentration at vital times. The second is more of a problem: a collective inability to finish off chances.

The commentators praised the Chilean’s tactics and enjoyed the open spectacle that it allowed, however, with just three wins all season the Hammers manager would much rather have some extra points on the board and if the Hammers hadn’t been so wasteful in front of goal, especially in the early stages, there is a chance he could have got them.

Instead, his was the sixth game in the Hammers’ 13 league matches so far in which they failed to score. In the past this has been blamed on a lack of creativity, but that certainly wasn’t the case here. Michail Antonio arguably had the best of the chances, but Marko Arnautovic, Pedro Obiang and Fabian Balbuena all had clear opportunities to score which they were unable to convert. West Ham actually had the same number of shots as City during Saturday’s game, they just didn’t manage to force any in while the visitors hit the back of the net four times- David Silva and Raheem Sterling getting one each and Leroy Sane bagging a brace.

It isn’t necessarily a concern that the side were beaten by City, it is the lack of cutting edge in the final third that will lead to worry. The Hammers have a favourable run -they won’t play any of the big six in their next eight games- so there will be pressure for the team to pick up points during the festive period. Now is not the time for shooting boots to go missing.

There have been worries that the Hammers have been too reliant on Arnautovic for their goals in recent times, with the Austrian directly involved in six of the club’s 14 league goals this season. If there is ever a time when he’s having an off-day it rarely seems that there is someone to step up and put the ball in the net, something which must change if West Ham are to climb the table.

West Ham may be 13th in the league, but they currently sit just four points above the relegation zone. There are many who believe that the side’s run between now and the New Year will be decisive in the club’s season, so it’s important that the team learn from matches such as this and start putting the ball into the net. With Grady Diangana having broken into the first team fold and Felipe Anderson showing improvements in his overall game, West Ham are beginning to create a lot more chances than earlier in the campaign. They just need to start putting them away with more regularity now.

 

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Granit Xhaka mistake not reflective of midfielder’s season so far

Arguably, it was the worst result of Unai Emery’s short reign as Arsenal manager to date. The Gunners have made progress under their new coach, but until this weekend their results had followed the form book. They’d lost to Manchester City and Chelsea, drawing with Liverpool, whilst beating the likes of Everton, Leicester City and Fulham. This changed on Sunday, though.

The 1-1 draw against Wolves was a poor result. Nuno Espirito Santo’s side have exceeded expectations this season following their promotion from the Championship, but nonetheless, as a team with top four aspirations Arsenal must have expected to have brushed them aside, particularly at the Emirates Stadium.

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As things turned out, the Gunners were lucky to even get one point, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan scoring late on to salvage things. Emery’s side were left chasing the game by a mistake from Granit Xhaka, whose decision to dummy a ball allowed Ivan Cavaleiro to score the opener for the away side.

This certainly wasn’t the first time that the Swiss midfielder has been a target for the Arsenal support. Generally speaking, Xhaka has failed to live up to his billing since making the move to North London from Borussia Monchengladbach two and a half years ago, but he delivers something of a free pass this time.

“He has a big commitment with us and also character,” Emery explained after the match, defending Xhaka for his error. “His performance with his quality is good for us. We need everybody. For me and for the team, we need more consistency. I think the most important thing is to build with confidence and creating little by little with very big work. I think we are doing it and Xhaka is doing this also.”

Emery is right to stand up for his player given his performances so far this season. Xhaka finally looks comfortable in his surroundings, clear in his role in the Arsenal team. Alongside Lucas Torreira, the Swiss international has given the Gunners a solid midfield partnership. He is crucial in the way Arsenal have come to play under Emery, driving the ball forward into the final third where the likes of Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang take over.

Xhaka is just one of the players at the Emirates Stadium who looks to have been rejuvenated by Emery this season and one mistake, albeit a costly one, shouldn’t mask the progress that he has made. Arsenal finally have a structure and a system, and Xhaka is thriving in that environment.

Lessons must be learned from Arsenal’s home draw against Wolves, but they must recognise how far they have come in the space of just a few months. Xhaka mustn’t be too hard on himself because he has shown more than enough this season to vindicate his place in the side. Cut out the mistakes and he’ll be fine.

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Winners & Losers of the weekend in Serie A

Serie A came back with a bang after the international break. Juventus and Piatek ended their respective streaks in the same match, Napoli made a statement win before a big Champions League match, Roma continued to struggle at home and we ended the weekend with the derby della Madonnina

Let’s start by looking at the winners of the weekend

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Mauro Icardi- a stoppage time goal to win a derby to continue a seven game winning streak is as good as it gets. Icardi now has even more leverage with Inter  in extension talks, his current deal features a well below the market value exit clause for striker of a striker of his caliber.

 

Manuel Lazzari- Spal’s right wing back is making a big leap this season. After establishing himself in Serie A last season, he made his debut for the Azzurri in September and put in a performance for the ages at the Olimpico where Spal hadn’t defeated Roma in over 50 years. Lazzari will almost certainly be moving on to a bigger team at some point in 2019.

Fabian Ruiz- Napoli’s most expensive acquisition of the summer was being slowly eased in this season because of the partenopei’s deep midfield. But on Saturday, Fabian Ruiz had to rush on to the pitch with no warm up after Verdi suffered a muscular injury in the first few minutes of the match against Udinese- his reward was his first (brilliant) goal in Serie A. In addition to Fabian Ruiz, Carlo Ancelotti got a great performance from another new addition in Kevin Malcuit, who is now challenging Hysaj for the starting spot at right back.

Christian Kouame/ Daniel Bessa- while Piatek’s main contribution to the match was on Juventus’ goal, Genoa was still able to score a decisive goal at Allianz Stadium thanks to his unlikely duo. Kouame arrived from Cittadella last July, he showed great awareness on a ball that seemed destined for a corner kick to set up Bessa- who played most of the match in a position he wasn’t familiar with.

Iago Falque’- the former Roma winger’s role at Torino has felt in jeopardy since last summer when he was linked to a few Spanish clubs, then came Simone Zaza and Roberto Soriano. But Iago Falque’ has responded very well, he scored a stellar goal against Bologna and is set to get a raise with an imminent contract extension. 

Josip Ilicic- the Slovenian forward is one of the most infuriating players in Serie A. He has the talent to be one of the best attackers in the league but often seems to put as much effort as Owen Wilson does in picking movie scripts. But Ilicic got his version of “Wedding Crashers” when Atalanta faced Chievo, he scored three goals giving Gasperini a very much needed victory.

Ciro Immobile- after losing his starting spot on the Italian national team, the former Torino striker was decisive in a key win for Lazio on the road against Parma- Immobile converted a penalty and provided an assist to Correa to close the match. Despite Luis Alberto and Sergej Milinkovic Savic’s struggles, Lazio find themselves four points ahead of cross town rivals Roma in large part thanks to their reliable main striker.

 

Let’s look at the losers of the weekend..

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Gigio Donnarumma- after a series of convincing performances with the Azzurri, the 19 year old keeper was a liability in the derby even before Icardi’s stoppage time goal.

 

Roma’s homefield advantage- while the victory at the Olimpico against Barcelona is probably the club’s finest moment since they won the scudetto, Di Francesco’s team has no home field advantage. The giallorossi have lost seven times in Italy’s capital in 24 matches under the former Sassuolo manager, and the loss to Spal took away all of the momentum from the four wins in a row from before the international break. While it’s easy to blame the youth on the squad for the team’s inability to react after giving up a goal, it’s veterans like Dzeko and Fazio who need to step up the most. 

Leonardo Bonucci- imagine being told this time last year that he would be Cristiano Ronaldo’s captain for a Juventus home game against Genoa? In it of itself this fact says a lot about how overblown all the concerns on how he would be received by Allegri, his teammates and Juventus’ fans, but Bonucci blew this potentially very positive story line with a stunning lack of focus on Genoa’s game tying goal. While Bonucci’s passing has been a big plus for Juventus this season, he has been responsible for at least four goals as well. 

Conspiracy theory on Ballardini’s firing- my favorite wild theory of the season so far is that Juventus was behind this managerial change because they wanted Favilli to play more. First off the former Ascoli striker had been battling injuries this season, and in meantime Piatek took the league by storm- it’s not like Favilli was being benched so a journey man could start. Then Genoa replaced Ballardini by bringing back Ivan Juric, a manager whose signature moment at the club was a win against- you guessed it- Juventus, and Favilli wasn’t selected for the match.

Gian Piero Ventura- just a few days ago I wrote that joining a club with negative points was a perfect place for the former (disgraced) Italy manager to start over- there was only upside. But I completely underestimated karma, Ventura ended up suffering a 0-5 home loss to Atalanta, a team that was in free fall before the international break.