Talking Points: Fulham 0-3 Manchester United

Manchester United made the best possible preparation for Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League knockout rounds with a comfortable win against Fulham.

Ole Gunnar Solskjær has now, remarkably, won more games in the Premier League than his predecessor José Mourinho had. The Norwegian is making all the right impressions at the club and has once again delighted the fans with his brand of football.

Fulham have been a major disappointment after an immense £100 million investment last summer, preparing them for life in the Premier League. Instead of competing for a mid-table position, they are languishing down in 19th place.

The Red Devils will be inspired for their next match, which takes place at Old Trafford on Tuesday against PSG.

Paul Pogba masterclass

Paul Pogba’s resurgence under Solskjær has been well documented and his performance at Craven Cottage was indicative of the newfound form he has been in.

Two goals this time out, the France international has been a pioneering figure in United’s turnaround and will be tasked with doing similar against PSG in the midweek Champions League fixture.

Pogba has a total effortlessness attributed to his game whereby he makes everything he does look so simple. The way he dribbles past players with his impressive strides, bustling defenders off his shoulders, and picks the right pass at the right time shows what a world-class player he can be.

His consistency over the past 10 games has been sensational – which includes two performances against Arsenal and Tottenham from the top six – and fans will hope that this continues heading into a period of important matches for Manchester United. 

Anthony Martial’s dizzying footwork 

After just penning a new contract until 2024, it didn’t take long for Anthony Martial to see his name on the scoresheet. Just after the 20th minute mark, the Frenchman had recorded an assist as well as his dizzying goal.

Martial picked the ball up inside his own half and channelled his inner Cristiano Ronaldo. Dribbling past Fulham’s defenders with absolute ease, the left winger turned them inside and out and found himself one-on-one with goalkeeper Sergio Rico in no time. Keeping his composure and cool in front of goal, Martial tucked it away in the far right-hand corner, leaving Rico with absolutely no chance of saving it.

The Frenchman now has nine Premier League goals in 20 appearances this season and will hope that he can add to his singular European goal on Tuesday night.

Ander Herrera controlled as ever 

Solskjær has lifted every player’s performance since taking over in late December, but perhaps none more so than Ander Herrera. The Spain international used to be one of Mourinho’s trusted lieutenants on the pitch, but for one reason or another, the manager begun to ostracise him from the first-team.

Herrera, having now rekindled his magic, has been one of the Red Devils’ most important players. Winning virtually all his battles in midfield, he is not only giving Pogba the freedom to move up the pitch, he is also contributing himself to United’s attacks. Whether that is lurking around the edge of the box or quickly releasing the forward players, Herrera has been a pivotal cog in United’s wheel.

PSG will come to Old Trafford with a game plan that is based around Marco Verratti’s time on the ball to dictate proceedings. Herrera’s job, as it usually is, will be to disrupt the Parisian’s distribution and stop it at source. The Spaniard will follow the Italian around the pitch, practically man-marking him and making sure he is not awarded the time nor space to play his game.

It is paramount for Manchester United to tie Herrera down to a new contract given his heart, desire and quality he has shown for the club over the years.

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Nemanja Matić is back to his defensive best under Ole Gunnar Solskjær

There was a time not too long ago when Manchester United fans were increasingly agitated by Nemanja Matić’s poor performances under José Mourinho. In the Portuguese manager’s third and final season in charge, the Serbia international was struggling emphatically to keep up with the standard that was expected of him.

Matić was signed by Mourinho for the Red Devils in the summer of 2017, promised to be their midfield enforcer that would take over from Michael Carrick. In truth, Man Utd always needed a player to do the screening job in front of the defence for a number of years with the Englishman’s legs tiring, and this was a clever and astute purchase that came to a level of surprise to some given Chelsea’s willingness to sell.

The Serbian has never been the loudest player on the pitch in terms of his standout performances, but he has seldom let his standard drop a noticeable level – especially under Mourinho at Chelsea. He was a pivotal figure in the Blues’ title win in the 2016-17 season and received stark plaudits from around the game for his immeasurable reliability.

With the involvement of the World Cup for his country in Russia last summer, Matić returned to the fold for his club in a battered state. The 30 year old was injured and carrying niggles, which prevented him from getting up to match speed before the start of the season and having missed out on the opening two matches.

But with Mourinho’s quick and painful downfall, Matić’s performances on the pitch quickly deteriorated. He was no longer seen as an essential cog in Man United’s midfield, but instead a gangly, clumsy player that was making all the wrong decisions at crucial times. He was beginning to become a hinderance.

After the sacking of the Portuguese boss, former centre forward Ole Gunnar Solskjær took over and the spirit in the camp was immediately lifted. As if a large weight had been taken off of their shoulders and the players could breathe once again. Matić, too, started to see an increase in the standard of his performances and was beginning to become an integral part of the team once more.

The Serbian, just sitting in front of the defence and acting as their protector, also gave true freedom to Paul Pogba alongside Ander Herrera. Their three-man midfield combination has worked effortlessly so far and has seen their club win nine times from 10 matches in all competitions.

Matić and Pogba have started every single Premier League match since Solskjær took up the reins, which has helped them both improve on their consistency and get the best out of one another.

The Serbian might not be as prolific as some moving forward, but then again, it’s not his job to be. Matić has accepted his defensive-minded role and is excelling in cutting out danger, intercepting play and launching quick counter-attacks by passing the ball swiftly to one of the offensive players ahead of him.

Some players, at 30-years-old, might well have given up in trying to claw their way back into a team as competitive as Manchester United’s, but to Matić’s credit, he has done exceedingly well to hang on to his place. There were many times this season when fans would have wanted someone else in front of the defence, but with the improvement in his game, Matić is leading the player for the job.

At times, the best way to understand if a defensive midfielder is having a good game is if you rarely notice him. They are not ones to stand out from the crowd or get bums off seats; instead, they are players who go about doing the dirty work in a discreet manner and put up a defensive wall in front of his defenders. Matić has done just that.

It was difficult to justify Matić’s starting berth a few months back, but he has risen to the appointment of Solskjær and is now, once again, one of the first names on the team sheet.

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Talking points from Manchester United 2-2 Burnley

Manchester United left it late in order to salvage a point against a battled-hardened Burnley side which left them frustrated for the majority of the game.

The Red Devils struggled to take their chances on the night, with Marcus Rashford wasting a numerous amount of opportunities which would have sealed the three points for his side.The Englishman did well to be in the right position at the right time, but his lack of a clinical edge on the night left him, and his team, rueing his missed chances.

Sean Dyche’s team are a typically difficult nut to crack and this game proved it. After going 2-0 up and defending for their lives, the Clarets will be disappointed with not having come away with all the points. Costly errors in clearing their lines with the ball in the box allowed Man United to sneak back into the match.

In essence, it was a poor result for Manchester United but bettered only slightly by the fact that they came from two goals behind to record a point. The Red Devils know they have to be near perfect to finish inside the top four, and this will have been a learning curve on taking their chances.

Manchester United are two points from fourth place Chelsea, with the Blues having a game-in-hand to play.

Ander Herrera was missed

It wasn’t difficult to see that Manchester United missed Ander Herrera’s poise and passing lines against Burnley, as well as his dark arts that go a long way in disrupting the opposition’s attacks.

The Spaniard has been a key cog under Solskjær so far and was sorely missed in midfield. With Andreas Pereira taking his place, there was a sense of a missing piece to the puzzle for United, as well as the Brazilian losing possession on a regular occurrence, which allowed Burnley to open the scoring.

Herrera is a great motivator on the pitch and usually finds a way to unlock defences and thwart the counter-attack from the opposition. Man United sorely missed him on a night where they should have taken all three points.

Marcus Rashford wasteful

The England international had plenty of chances to find the back of the net on Tuesday evening but ended up wasting all of them. Either down to fatigue or a lack of concentration, Rashford was not like his usual self in front of goal that he has shown since Solskjær took over from José Mourinho.

One difference as to why that might be might well be down to the Norwegian manager opting for Romelu Lukaku through the middle as the team’s centre forward, with Rashford operating from the left.

In recent weeks, the Englishman has played where Lukaku was tonight and had excelled throughout, scoring a handful of goals and combining well with his wide forwards, creating a fluid system that has caught out many defences.

While his chances in front of goal cannot be excused, perhaps Solskjær should revert back to playing Rashford as the centre forward, and allowing him to lead the line for the Red Devils. He looks far more comfortable through the middle and interchanges brilliantly with Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard.

Anthony Martial’s exuberance needed

Anthony Martial was ruled out of the match-day squad due to a slight injury suffered on the training pitch, Solskjær confirmed before the match.

Without the France international, United were lacking a sense of panache and directness in going forward. As well as taking players on and getting the better of them, Martial is fantastic at dropping off from the front line and helping his midfielders out in between the lines.

By doing so, he has the space and time to move on the half turn and facing towards the goal. When defenders see Martial with the ball at his feet head on, it rarely ends well for them against the dazzling dribbling skills of the Frenchman.

There appeared to be a disconnect between the midfielders and forwards against Burnley, with Dyche’s men deploying a low block to stop players from trying to play in between the lines of the midfield and defence.

Martial would have been a player to have disrupted their defensive-minded system and caused problems for his opposite man, drawings other defenders into the game.

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Ander Herrera still has an important role to play at Manchester United

Although Ander Herrera became one of José Mourinho’s more trusted lieutenants on the pitch in his first season in charge, the Spaniard found himself without regular opportunities since the arrival of Nemanja Matić last summer.  

When the Serbian came in, Mourinho had his man from Chelsea and a player he had worked with for a number of years. It was clear why the Portuguese coach wanted him: aerially dominant, experience as an out-and-out screen in front of the defence, and can also provide goals on the rare occasion moving forward. But the most important aspect to the signing was Matić could carry out his every instruction.

After racking up 50 appearances in 2016/17, Herrera managed 11 less with over 1,500 minutes less. The Spain international had little niggles throughout the season, but the overriding factor was Mourinho’s preference in Matić and Marouane Fellaini – he evidently felt that they could offer more stability and insurance in United’s midfield.

And while this season he has had injury problems again, Herrera impressed massively in Manchester United’s most recent fixture against Bournemouth. When coming on for Fred, Herrera was given the licence to control the middle of the park and allow Paul Pogba to move forward. Not stuck in the deepest role in United’s midfield as he has been previously, Herrera also found himself contributing towards attacks and providing a dynamism that was sorely lacking.

Although United were dominating possession just before Herrera came on, they were struggling to create clear-cut chances. When the Spaniard entered the fray, the Red Devils’ output was far greater and there was more sense of control being emitted. United went on to win that game 2-1 thanks to a late equaliser by Marcus Rashford, but Herrera will feel unfortunate not to have found the back of the net himself after his speculative volley whisked past the post by a matter of inches.

Herrera has been used this season as a substitution rather than a starter and there has been murmurs of the former Athletic Bilbao player leaving Manchester at the end of the season when his contract expires.

The problem for United would be that, in this current landscape, it would be incredibly difficult to replace him. And that is not just talking about the monetary value lost on him due to leaving on a free transfer. Herrera embodies a fan in the way he plays. He is passionate, loves Manchester United and plays with his heart on his sleeve every time he takes to the pitch. Some of his man-marking performances – especially against Eden Hazard – have been exemplary and the kind of sacrifice that is not as commonplace in today’s generation.

It is difficult for a club like Manchester United to find players who are genuinely at the club because they have an affinity to them. Of course, that is the case for most players – it is a job at the end of the day – but it does truly seem as if Herrera was born to play for the Red Devils. The way he goes about his duties for the club appear beyond what is asked of him and his determination on the pitch speaks for himself; he is a fan’s favourite for a reason.

What separates Herrera to most that passes through the revolving door at Manchester United is his ability to turn up and produce in the pressurised moments. The Spaniard excels on the big stage and has shown, especially against Liverpool and Manchester City, two of United’s biggest rivals, his qualities in a both defensive and offensive capacity.

And so with that being said, Herrera should be in Mourinho’s midfield come this weekend when the Manchester derby takes place. The central midfielder should be used alongside  Matić and Pogba to disrupt City’s progressive flow from back to front of their team. Herrera is not a typical ‘pretty’ midfielder, but he carries out the dark arts well – to the complaints of many opponents – and has the ability to score in his locker.

Herrera is bound to be more involved as the fixtures come thick and fast as we enter into to the December period, but Mourinho has to utilise his Spanish terrier on a more regular basis. With the new contracts given to Marouane Fellaini and Luke Shaw, as well as negotiating with David de Gea and Anthony Martial, Manchester United must make sure they, too, tie up the services of Herrera – a true United player.

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Manchester United pay the price for inadequate defensive signings

Jose Mourinho

Going in 0-0 at half-time against Tottenham, Jose Mourinho’s tactical gamble to make six changes and play Ander Herrera as part of a five-man Manchester United defence looked to be paying off. The best chance of the first half went to Romelu Lukaku and, following last week’s shock result at Brighton, United fans were getting the response they wanted from their side.

Then, just seven minutes after the break, Harry Kane and Lucas Moura scored within 113 seconds of each other and Mourinho threw Plan A out of the window by bringing on Alexis Sanchez in the place of makeshift defender Herrera, who had been playing to the right of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones at centre-back.

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Pogba and Higuain enjoying different starts

Manchester United vs Southampton United

During the past summer transfer market, Paul Pogba and Gonzalo Higuain were football’s biggest transfers. However, both players have enjoyed different starts for their respective new clubs, Manchester United and Juventus.

Pogba’s struggles

Pogba made the switch from Serie A to the Premier League, with the Red Devils putting a record fee of €105 million on the table for the French midfielder. That amount surpassed the €100 million paid by Real Madrid to Tottenham for Gareth Bale in 2012. However, it was considered a solid deal, as Pogba has massive marketing appeal and United expected a serious boost in shirt sales, for example.

On the pitch, however, the 23-year-old hasn’t been that impressive compared to his marketing numbers. Jose Mourinho has opted for a 4-2-3-1 line-up with his Old Trafford squad, playing Pogba in front of the defence alongside Marouane Fellaini and using Wayne Rooney as the team’s attacking midfielder.

Pogba became big in Juve’s 3-5-2 system as a box-to-box midfielder, running up and down the pitch and able to use his athleticism in his advantage. The France international always played alongside a deep playmaker, but in Mourinho’s system Pogba is forced to play that role. One that doesn’t suit him, as he’s robbed from his best attributes by playing too deep.

A role behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic, which is now played by Rooney, could be a better alternative. But the best one is deploying a solid passer alongside Pogba, not a bruiser like Fellaini. Morgan Schneiderlin would fit the bill in this regard, or even Ander Herrera. This would free up Pogba’s box-to-box skills, as he doesn’t have to be the link between the defence and the midfield. The big reason why he’s been struggling so far.

Higuain’s perfect fit

Meanwhile, Higuain moved from Napoli to Juventus for a Serie A record €90 million. The 28-year-old turned up in Turin overweight and was mocked for being “too fat”. The Argentine striker was consequently forced to come off the bench for the Bianconeri’s first two games, against Fiorentina and Lazio, but started in place of Mario Mandzukic against Sassuolo.

After just 117 minutes in three league games, Higuain has already provided three goals for the Old Lady. He scored the winner against Fiorentina and hit the net twice against Sassuolo, one coming from a scissors kick. The Argentine became a star in 4-3-3 systems at Real Madrid and Napoli, but has already shown to be his old self in Juve’s 3-5-2. His relationship with Paulo Dybala and Miralem Pjanic has already proven to be deadly.

Conclusion: one big transfer is not the other. Pogba has much to prove at United in a system that doesn’t suit his abilities, while Higuain is already fitting in at Juventus. Only time will determine how these summer moves will be judged in the future.

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