Arsenal a litmus test for Ole

Jose Mourinho's reign came to an end after a listless defeat to MUFC's arch rivals LFC at Anfield. However based on this year's fixtures the Manchester derby on 07-December could represent a pivotal fixture to ascertain if English Premier League's most successful club have indeed progressed or regressed overall, despite assurances of spending in January if the right players becomes available. By then Ole needs to ensure the off-field work in training, team bonding, coaching and recruitment re-alignment, promotion of youth to reflect on the pitch with positive results.

Liverpool come to Old Trafford immediately after the international break on 20-Oct which might reduce the impact of a loss unless its a very heavy one. This match against Arsenal therefore assumes more significance than normal given the legacy of title chasing Ferguson vs Wenger rivalry and the void of their subsequent departures. Arsenal represent an ideal match to secure at least a draw given their attacking threat and porous defense. A loss would ring alarm bells immediately and push MUFC to the bottom half of the table.

Martial performs well against top sides and if the Frenchman is unfit then Greenwood will lead the line as Rashford is out injured. James rested against Rochdale will be a sure starter. Lingard's good form against the Gunners earns him the right of front three slot and if he does not take his chance might not get it back easily. Pogba a doubt with a swollen ankle might force Ole to play Fred, McTominay and Mata which is very very predictable. Pereira had a good spell of games as first choice incl Chelsea win but might not start this game as Lingard gets the nod. Matic saved for European excursions. Young in for recovering Shaw. Garner having played on Thursday for U23 should have rightfully earned a spot on the bench after continuing his excellent form with a winner against Norwich U23's.

Ole needs to be mindful of two things: One to contain the score in a losing game, and Two to eke out a result against top 6 rivals if unable to beat them. The first of these suffered a blow with a 0-2 loss away at West Ham and begs a question as to the score in a predicted loss against the likes of Man City and Liverpool. MUFC have not yet replaced either Fellaini or Herrera which makes a new look defense vulnerable. The same under staffed midfield holds the key for the second point about the ability to hold out for a win or earn a point like the Leicester result. No attempt has been made thus far to play one of the Tuanzebe or Rojo as a holding midfielder to address this gap nor has the 4-3-3 system being changed. To play High Press on a weekly basis it requires good squad strength to proactively use substitutes and rotate the players. For an evolving team like MUFC game management becomes very important which given the young age of the squad will only improve from playing i.e., inevitably making mistakes due lack of experienced spine in the team, resulting in dropped points, short term frustration and long term gain.

The team bonding exercise initiated by De Gea and Mata had a good turnout with the exception of Pogba. Underscores the efforts to unite a disgruntled dressing room which has also leaked information in the recent past. MUFC have struggled away from home this season reversing a trend under Mourinho. Old Trafford faithful have always got behind a young team which was one of the criteria for Ole's clearout also. Injury may have forced Ole to finally give Greenwood a start which the fans have been calling for. Fans want Tuanzebe, Gomes and Garner to also start when fit and now rather than later. A word of caution for a fan driven team management can look no further than the mid-table woes of Everton. Ole understands this and thus has been patiently introducing the youth one at a time. Cohesion amongst the players does amount to holding out for a result despite the shortcomings like inability to score the second goal.

Ole has arrested the mistakes of signing wrong players, has retained the respected coach in Mike Phelan as his assistant, had a good pre-season which promoted scores of young players, put Nicky Butt in charge of youth promotion, got rid of six unwanted first team players to make way for youth, renewed the contract of MUFC's best player in post Ferguson era in David De Gea.... These are the right steps which might not bear fruit immediately but the traditions of the club have been reinstated for which Ole should earn the time he deserves.

Astana away presents best chance for watching MUFC live in a competitive game from India

For MUFC fans from India the 28-November away match in Europa League between Manchester United and FC Astana presents a great opportunity to watch the Reds live in a major competition by travelling from India. India is one of the countries whose citizens may be issued an electronic single entry tourist visa from their Visa and Migration portal from 01 January 2019 onwards. Few advantages are:

  1. Very short travel time for a UEFA competition involving MUFC: Air Astana flights from Delhi to Almaty is only 3 hours 50 minutes duration and then take another flight from Almaty to Nur-Sultan of duration 1 hour 45 minutes.
  2. Currency exchange rate of 1 INR is approximately equal 5 KZT which is great! 
  3. Time difference is ideal with IST as its either -30 minutes in west (Astana) and +30 minutes in east (Almaty).
Main limitation could be the seating capacity of only 30,244 to secure a ticket and its authenticity. Tickets are not yet opened for sale as per FootballTicketNet. Best to travel with trusted friends and apply for Visa & bookings at least 25 days before the date of journey. Weather in late Nov will be around -7 to -10 degrees Celsius.
Disclaimer: Have never traveled to Kazakhstan before.

About Kazakhstan recall two things from childhood, first the Baikonur cosmodrome famous for Russian space launches and its former capital Alma Ata when most of us had to update our knowledge of capital cities of the world after the fall of communism. Later from the movie "Dr Zhivago" came to know about the Ural mountains and recent news of renaming of its new capital Astana to Nur-Sultan.

Cynthia from Journal of Nomads has captured the varied landscapes and interesting stories of the 9th largest country in the world very beautifully. Do go through all the links on the page to support the richly detailed site with excellent photos and description.

53 years to the debut of Big Al

Alex Stepney made his Manchester United debut today(17 September) in 1966 in goal against Manchester City in a 1-0 win with Denis Law scoring the winner. Overall he made 539 appearances keeping 175 clean sheets. He was born on 18 September, 1942.

A snapshot of his career.
  • Cockney lad who played for Milwall came via Chelsea where Tommy Docherty released him in Aug '66 for a record fee #55,000. Immediately became No 1 choice displacing David Gaskell and Pat Dunne who had shared the goal-keeping duties during the '65 League winning season.
  • Sir Matt Busby credited him for Manchester United winning the First Division league title in '67: "The single most important factor behind our championship success in 1967 was signing Alex Stepney."
  • In a Charity Shield game the traditional curtain raiser for a new season MUFC as league champions faced the FA Cup winners in Tottenham Hotspur on 12-Aug-1967. Their goal keeper Pat Jennings scored a goal from a kick which went past MUFC defenders and bounced off Alex Stepney who had come front.
  • Alex Stepney stood his ground to not only withstand Eusebio's net bursting shot but held it firmly to keep MUFC in the European Cup final of '68 which played a major role in Reds finally realizing the dream of Sir Matt Busby of becoming Champions of Europe. Eusebio immediately applauded the save from Alex Stepney aware perhaps of its consequence. His only cap for England came against Sweden at Wembley only a week earlier than the European Cup final allowing Alex Stepney to get to know the turf better.
  • His fumble cost '70 League Cup semi-final to Manchester City losing 3-4.
  • Broke two fingers while making a save to help MUFC beat West Brom 2-1 and take an important step to avoid relegation in '73. Jimmy Rimmer kept goal in his absence.
  • 89* consecutive appearances between 07-Apr-73 till 01-Feb-75.(* many claim its 92 not 89)
  • Played in all the games of the 1973-74 season when MUFC were relegated and became the 1st MUFC Goalkeeper to play through all games in a season across the League, FA Cup and League Cup. A feat only achieved since by Gary Bailey in 79-80 and Jim Leighton in 88-89 season. The great Dane Peter Schmeichel played through all games of league season only once in 92-93 while Gary Walsh played a game each in League Cup and UEFA Cup that season! Big Al even stepped up to take penalties during the summer and Doc asked him to take the ones in First Division match against Leicester City and Birmingham both of which he duly scored. Was helpless to prevent the back-heel of Denis Law who scored the goal that led to eventual relegation for the Reds.
  • Part of rebuild under Tommy Docherty to lift the Second Division title in '74. Tommy Docherty and Tommy Cavanagh changed the playing style to a simple possession based football with short passes and Alex Stepney was asked to throw the ball to nearest defender to play from the back rather than kicking the ball.
  • Part of two FA Cup finals: losing to an offside goal from Bobby Stokes of Southampton in '76 whose shot had an unfortunate bounce that beat Alex Stepney and winning a year later in '77 to stop Liverpool winning the Treble, which MUFC finally won in '99.
  • His testimonial match was against Benfica in March, 1977.
  • Played his last competitive match for MUFC on 29, April 1978 in a 1-2 loss away at Molineux against Wolverhampton Wonderers. Left MUFC after Gary Bailey was promoted following the aborted transfer of Jimmy Blyth from Coventry due to a failed medical and Paddy Roche could not cement his place. Dave Sexton dropped Alex Stepney in a first significant change to the team of Tommy Docherty in November '77 to arrest the slide favouring Roche but to no avail. For '78 season Sexton started with Roche in goal whose confidence was shattered in 1-5 loss to Birmingham City and Bailey stepped up to face Ipswich in a 2-0 win. 
  • Played in the Manchester United centenary game on 07, August 1978 against Real Madrid in a 4-0 win.
  • His autobiography revealed how Wilf McGuinness once made Sir Bobby Charlton do 20 press-ups in a suit and how Denis Law came to know about the end of his illustrious MUFC career under Tommy Docherty.

Lacking the decisive second goal

Barring the opening day win over Chelsea, MUFC have failed to score more than 1 goal in 4 of the 5 matches played in the English Premier League. One of the familiar problems still haunting the club more than 6 years after Sir Alex Ferguson left. Scott McTominay has earned the right to be the mainstay ahead of Matic, while his partners in the engine room have constantly changed. Paul Pogba when fit is the first pick. The 3rd slot has been up for grabs and Fred against Leicester when he came on as a substitute might have done enough to keep it in the short term. Fred missed majority of the pre-season to be considered for the first team selection. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer retaining the Brazilian speaks about the faith in which he is held by the coaching staff. Unless McTominay-Pogba-Fred tick Ole will have to re-consider his preferred 4-3-3 formation with the players he has at his disposal.

Andreas Pereira hit a good free kick and got into good positions but his final touch lacked composure. Consistent run of games might help Pereira to sort it out. Juan Mata by his own standards was disappointing and the removal of Nemanja Matic lifted the handle on the brakes to attack. Fans have been screaming for Angel Gomes to be involved in the first team following his great form with the reserves. The Europa Cup mid-week game against Astana and League Cup against Rochdale later this month provides Ole with the opportunity. Ole will have to manage the young Daniel James and not wear him out. Right of the front three is a concern as Martial, Rashford and James having a preference for the left.

Injury to Pogba and Martial the defense stood out to sustain the early one goal lead into a victory. De Gea made a fantastic save and MUFC have the 2nd clean sheet at home already this season which equals the tally for whole of last season. Those two clean sheets last season were in a draw while the ones this time around are in victories! That's another turnaround.

James Maddison linked with a possible move in footsteps of Harry Maguire had a decent game. His shot saved by David De Gea after he got the better of Victor Lindelof. How he handles the limelight of being linked with MUFC and drafted into the England team setup will be crucial. Bruno Fernandes might come into reckoning finally as continues to impress with excellent stats in the new season if he holds the ball better and improves his pass percentage. Playing well for Portugal against top sides might decide his fate, esp that win against Netherlands to lift the inaugural Nations League in June. Portugal face leaders Ukraine in the next round of qualifiers for Euro 2020. If MUFC do sign a player in January it might be either and not both. With Wolves struggling this season there might be an possibility to tempt Ruben Neves, while Aston Villa might only agree to sell John McGinn if he stays on for rest of this season at Villa Park. Very early for January transfer speculation.

After Leicester City its the turn of another challenger for top 6 in West Ham who under Manuel Pellegrini have transformed the team with shrewd transfers. Almost a year ago at the London Stadium witnessed the unraveling of Jose Mourinho reign with a horrific 1-3 loss. That team was in complete disarray while for Ole this game against Leicester brought the best 'team performance'. MUFC are yet to win on the road this season and West Ham will offer a stiff challenge with Issa Diop for whom a bid was made will try to justify his undoubted talent, Manuel Lanzini is revitalized after injury and Sebastien Haller has had a great start after his move from Eintracht Frankfurt.

Incidentally its the U23 teams of Manchester United and West Ham who are vying for the top spot in the Professional Development League standings.

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