Winning in style against arch rivals gives United a massive boost

Despite the 3-2 score suggesting a close match, Manchester United out-classed their arch rivals Liverpool in the FA Cup fourth round draw. Just a week before Solskjaer had picked both Fred and McTominay in the midfield to play out a 0-0 draw against the Scousers in the English Premier League. On Sunday the Norwegian picked an attacking XI with just McTominay as holding midfielder alongside in-form Paul Pogba and Dutch midfielder Donny van de Beek. United had the better chances throughout and should have wrapped up the match in the first half itself. Dean Henderson had a confidence boosting stint in goal playing ahead of David de Gea.

Thus far Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had not beaten Jurgen Klopp and this hoodoo is now comprehensively overcome by this thrilling victory. Bruno Fernandes was rested and this raised a few eyebrows. United went behind to a Mohamed Salah goal in the 18th minute and United responded instantly when Marcus Rashford provided a 60 yard pass for a racing Mason Greenwood to slot home the equalizer. Immediately after half-time Greenwood returned the compliment for Rashford which meant United led 2-1. Edinson Cavani gave the ball away for Liverpool to score via Salah again to make the scores level at 2-2. Fernandes came on for Donny van de Beek who had found the space for Rashford to deliver the assist for the first goal and had a decent outing. Cavani hit the post from a free header before Fernandes scored the winner from a free-kick.

Bruno Fernandes has changed the fortunes of United and Solskjaer. His run of winning four of the seven English Premier League player of the month awards is the testament to his being the best player in England since his arrival last January. This cast a shadow on Paul Pogba and eventually has now made him the most improved United player behind Luke Shaw. Pogba tracked back his to win the ball for the first goal and this has enabled Solskjaer to play with only one holding midfielder. This is a massive change that helps United to play attacking football from the start  instead of starting slow and later hitting teams on the counter. Question has always been how long will the form of Pogba last? The club and Pogba have not started talks about potential contract extension but exercised the option to extend his current deal by a year that invited his in-famous agent to rant against United. Since the rant Pogba has buckled down and put in hard yards reminiscent of his form that made him a World Cup winner and initial 3 months of Solskjaer's unbeaten reign.

Harry Maguire switched positions with Victor Lindelof at the back and as soon as the first goal was conceded reverted to his left of centre role where he has predominantly played. This again demonstrated the changes that Solskjaer and his coaching staff are striving for to make the squad more versatile. Addition of tactics-obsessed former player in Darren Fletcher to the coaching staff has augmented the footballing think-tank. Rashford and Greenwood stayed wider and gave the opposing fullbacks plenty of problems. Cavani led the line superbly and was unlucky not to be on the scoresheet. Conceding two goals does seem concerning. 

Impact of Fernandes and Cavani have been transformative in the midfield and the forward areas, missing a similar X-factor in the heart of defense. Will the experience of the likes of David Alaba, Raphael Varane, Kalidou Koulibaly required to add that sense of invincibility required to win trophies? Knocking Liverpool off in the FA Cup will give a huge confidence boost to United's belief to challenge for the league title. Man City seem to be the hot favourites now as they have sorted out their defense by the signing of Ruben Dias last summer and return to form of John Stones. Eric Bailly's recent performances this season after that abysmal 1-6 thrashing by Tottenham, has given United concrete options that was always lacking given his injury record and perhaps put off signing a centre-back this January. Bailly's contract is up for extension too!

Solskjaer deserves credit for taking Manchester United to the top of the table at the half way of the English Premier League season, a feat not achieved since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson. His man management of his players has been exemplary. Seeing the instant impact of Amad Diallo in training, Solskjaer has inducted him straight into the core 22-man squad at the expense of Jesse Lingard as per reports. Shrewd signings of Alex Telles and Donny van de Beek have nudged Luke Shaw and Paul Pogba positively to sustain their form so far, Dean Henderson has forced David de Gea to regain his mojo while the young forwards learn from Edinson Cavani. Although Timothy Fosu-Mensah has joined Bayer Leverkusen; Marcus Rojo, Sergio Romero, Phil Jones and Jesse Lingard still remain on United books. Piece by piece the structure to a strong squad with good characters is taking shape eliminating the deadwood simultaneously.

Ode to the lost Babes

The dreadful year that was 2020 also took away eight of the best Busby babes. RIP

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.

16 February: Harry Gregg
The courage and determination of Harry Gregg to get back into the burning plane in Munich and get many of his colleagues out of the wreckage, led the fightback of Manchester United from being completely destroyed. With Bill Foulkes played in the first match at Old Trafford after Munich against Sheffield Wednesday on 19th February. Brought from Doncaster Rovers for a record fee to be the final jigsaw of Matt Busby's great side that aimed to win the coveted European Cup. Against the odds United finished runners-up in 1958-59 season in which Gregg played a huge part to protect inexperienced defensive unit without skipper Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, Geoff Bent and Jackie Blanchflower. He missed the 1963 FA Cup final triumph with a shoulder injury and couldn't make enough appearances to win 1965 League winners medal, the only medal he won with United was the 1958 FA Cup runners-up medal. He returned to United as a goal-keeping coach under Dave Sexton in 1978. In 2012 Sir Alex Ferguson's side played in his testimonial match held in Belfast. Years of campaigning from fans of this humble giant for a knighthood yielded an MBE and later an OBE in 2019.

08 June: Tony Dune
Wrote a detailed piece of United's best defensive left back earlier in June.

17 July: Alex Dawson
Saw United beat his home town club Aberdeen in a friendly in 1950. Signed up as an amateur schoolboy and won two FA Youth Cups before breaking through to the first team where he scored in each of his first three games when first choice Tommy Taylor was injured. Mark Pearson or Alex Dawson were supposed to fly to play against Red Star Belgrade but an injury to captain Roger Byrne meant that fullback Geoff Bent went instead. Made to play first team football regularly much ahead for his age meant carrying load of expectations and responsibility that many times stifles the natural growth. Alex took it in his stride scoring a hat-trick against Fulham in the semi-final of the FA Cup replay at Highbury to send United through to the final, where United lost to Bolton 2-0. Got his form back after a brief lull to score hat-tricks against Chelsea and Manchester City in the derby, which was the first by a United player since Joe Spence in 1921 and later Andrei Kanchelsks did it in 1995. Despite scoring 15 goals in 1959-60 season and 16 goals in the next, Dawson was sold to Preston Northend by Sir Matt Busby who had acquired David Herd. 54 goals from 93 games return made many fans to believe he was unlucky to be sold and his United career cut short.

09 September: Reg Hunter
Welsh player Reg was in the third team when he was fast-tracked into the first team following the Munich air crash alongside Bobby Harrop and Reg Holland but didn't actually end up playing. Yet the courage showed was exemplary. Won FA Youth Cup with United and made one senior appearance vs Aston Villa in Dec 1958 before leaving United in 1960 after four seasons.

30 October: Nobby Stiles
Local lad from Collyhurst part of Manchester he won the World Cup with England and European Cup with Manchester United playing alongside Sir Bobby Charlton. Watched the 1948 FA Cup final on the shoulders of his dad which United famously won at Wembley. Adored Eddie Colman as a kid and came through the youth ranks despite his small stature. His excellent vision and tackling marked Eusebio out against Portugal and Benfica to win laurels for both club and country. Picked by Alf Ramsey to add steel to the England side with Bobby Moore, Alan Ball and Roger Hunt and stood by him despite public pressure after a rough game against France. Knee operation ended his career prematurely at only 27. Never had an official testimonial despite his heroics on the field. Played with veteran Bill Foulkes in the heart of defense to also win two league championships. Later was youth coach at United between 1989 and 1993 when Fergie Fledglings came through. Club statement read "An integral part of our first-ever European Cup-winning side, Nobby was a titan of the club’s history, cherished for his heart and personality on and off the pitch."

12 November: Albert Quixall
Matt Busby uncharacteristically spent big after Munich on players like Albert Quixall and Maurice Setters to ensure Manchester United did not go into oblivion like Torino who had also lost their entire team to a plane crash. Tasked with leading the charge of United to compete for trophies, Quixall suffered a nervous breakdown mainly due to his record fee and lost his England place too. He led the Sheffield Wednesday side when United played their first match after Munich and with his 5 England caps was regraded as the blond star on everyone's radar. Provided perfect passes for Sir Bobby Charlton to score and ended up scoring 56 crucial goals himself including a hattrick versus newly crowned champions Ipswich Town in 1961. Won the 1963 FA Cup by being United's leading goal scorer but was dropped alongside David Herd and Johnny Giles in the first league match of the next season after a heavy 0-4 defeat in the charity shield confirming the end of his United career.

22 November: Maurice Setters
Two of Manchester United's worst defeats tell the tale of start and end of Maurice Setters. 7-3 loss to Newcastle United in January 1960 made Matt Busby to stiffen the midfield and fill the void of Wilf McGuiness whose career ended due to injury, by signing Maurice Setters from West Bromwich Albion for a huge fee. Busby for a time felt the likes of Setters and Noble with tough tackling could help win matches against mid-table opposition. His hard tackles helped team to regain possession and win the 1963 FA Cup. The 0-5 loss to Sporting Lisbon in the second leg of European Cup Winners Cup in March, 1964 is the worst defeat suffered by United in Europe especially since they won the first leg comfortably 4-1. The three legged FA Cup tie against Sunderland and loss to West Ham in semi-finals was the main reason the squad appeared exhausted in Lisbon. Its the only result in the long stint of Matt Bubsy at United in which the Scot lost his cool and slammed his players. Setters' subsequent injury when he slipped on the marble floor of the Lisbon hotel made Busby pick Nobby Stiles instead and was soon transferred to Stoke after 159 appearances for United.

21 December: John Fitzpatrick
Shaggy-haired Scottish lad won the 1964 FA Youth Cup with the likes of David Sadler, George Best, John Aston Jr, Jimmy Rimmer and Bobby Noble. Became United's first ever substitute when he replaced fellow Aberdonian Denis Law in a match against Tottenham Hotspur in October 1965. Stood-in for Nobby Stiles initially and his versatility made him indispensable in the late 60's and early 70's. His best was against Polish champions Gornik Zabrze to keep the score 0-1 and progress 2-1 on aggregate to the semi-final of 1968 European Cup. One of only four players to avoid the cull of Tommy Docherty with Alex Stepney, Jimmy Rimmer and Bobby Charlton, spate of injuries made him retire at the age of 27 and dealt a huge blow to United's efforts to avoid relegation.

Return of Cristiano Ronaldo

Manchester United were nudged by Jorge Mendes, the expert agent of Cristiano Ronaldo when he opened direct talks with local rivals City abou...

Popular Posts