What we learned from Manchester United’s Champions League disappointment at Olympiakos

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With apologies to Olympiakos, today’s takeaways are all about Manchester United. Though the Greek champions deserve kudos for one of the biggest victories in club history, the favorites’ inability to become the sixth Champions League group winner (in six games) to claim victory is Tuesday’s big story. While some where picking Míchel’s team to spring an upset in Piraeus, nobody thought it would be this easy, with United held to one shot on target in Olympiakos’s 2-0 win.

Within the context of an unexpectedly disappointing 2013-14, Manchester United’s takeaways all fit a bigger narrative. With an attack that lacked both direction and intensity, the Red Devils failed to rise to Tuesday’s occasion. As a result, they’re on the brink of missing the competition’s quarterfinals for a third straight season.

(MORE: Manchester United sinks to new depths in 2-0 Champions League loss at Olympiakos)

  • Manchester United couldn’t get up for a big game

Manchester United aren’t alive in either the League or FA Cups. The gap between themselves and fourth place Liverpool in the Premier League suggests they have almost no chance to finish in England’s Champions League spots. Their only way to avoid missing the competition for the first time since in 18 years is to pull a 2011-12 Chelsea and run the table. They need to  win it all.

Yet against an Olympiakos team that would fail to place one of their starters in United’s Tuesday XI, the Red Devils were clearly second best. Their offensive shape portrayed a side playing not to lose, with the Red Devils’ spacing more indicative of a team trying to use up time than combine for opportunities. This was Alex Ferguson’s typical shut it down on the road plan, only it wasn’t Alex Ferguson’s team. This was a team that allowed the game to be dictated to them – one that gave itself no opportunity to generate (let alone seize upon) opponents’ mistakes.

Manchester United was completely devoid of urgency in what should have been their most important game of the season. If they wanted to play for a 0-0, they should have fought for that result, however misguided that plan seems. Instead, they allowed Olympiakos a first half lead, seemed content to let Joel Campbell try to double in shortly after half time, and were relegated to the latest in a season full of exasperating results.

source: AP

  • It’s unclear what David Moyes wants Manchester United to do going forward

Back to United’s attack. The team’s possession number hovered at around 60 percent for the entire game, but in a first half hour where they could have used that edge to press for a vital away goal, United rarely seemed interested in establishing a presence in Olympiakos’s defensive third. Releasing both fullbacks early and relying on Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley to support the defense, United also forced Wayne Rooney to abandon his strike partner, Robin Van Persie, to fill the hole in midfield. Though Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia were pinching in from their flanks, the lack of combination play through the middle left Van Persie neglected and isolated. It wasn’t until late in the match that United’s best finisher started seeing chances.

That’s what United did. The lingering question is what were they supposed to do. Were they supposed to use the middle, with those high-pushing fullbacks stretching Olympiakos’s midfield? Or were they supposed to go wide, as they’ve gone so often this season, with Young and Valencia giving the Red Devils more players to pounce on Chris Smalling and Patrice Evra crosses?

Who knows. United were so poor on Tuesday, it’s pure speculation to guess what they were trying to do going forward.

  • The Red Devils are too mistake-prone to play for a low-scoring game

Let’s assume Manchester United wanted a slow pace. They wanted to use their superior talent to manage the game, maintain possession, and limit Olympiakos’s chances. Let’s concede they would have been happy with a 0-0, thrilled to see a counter attack or a set piece result in an away goal.

Let’s also acknowledge that with Manchester United’s talent, this is a terrible choice.

Even without Juan Mata (cup-tied), Manchester United’s strength is its depth and variety in attack. They have Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney as focal points. In Michael Carrick, they have a registra that’s capable of getting them the ball. With pieces like Young, Valencia, Shinji Kagawa, and Danny Welbeck, David Moyes had a series of imperfect yet useful pieces he could mix-and-match to take advantage of his opponents weaknesses. As evidenced in their group stage performances against Bayer Leverkusen (nine goals over two games), United’s attack can take advantage of Champions League’s middle tier.

But the team also has a mistake prone defense, with age continuing to show in the play of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. They also have a central midfield incapable of protecting that duo, and while neither of those factors were evident on Olympiakos’s first goal, each came into play on the second. Cleverley lost possession, Carrick failed to make a crucial tackle, and Ferdinand did not get out to meet Joel Campbell’s shot. Again, Manchester United was left reliant on the shot stopping of David de Gea, only this time, the talent Spaniard couldn’t save them.

With a back line that features Chris Smalling, Vidic, and Ferdinand, Moyes can’t play for clean sheets. When his defenders are on their game, those results will certainly come, but when they’re not clicking, the Red Devils don’t have the guile of John Terry, Gary Cahill, and Branislav Ivanovic – a trio with the ability to preserve a result even if the initial plan doesn’t work.

If Moyes’s initial plan was to play for a clean sheet on the road, it was a poor one. While that may be one of the first pages in the Champions League playbook, it was also a poor fit got his personnel.

Blessed with elite attacking talent, Moyes should have played for a high scoring result. Instead, he allowed his team to leave Piraeus trailing by two.

Transfer Rumor Wrap: Tottenham set to make Ajax’s Sanchez its record signing

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Tottenham look set to break the bank on one of the world’s most exciting defensive prospects.

According to a report in the Guardian, Tottenham and Ajax have agreed on a $54.1 million transfer fee for centerback Davinson Sanchez. The Colombian international only joined Ajax a year ago but led the backline to the Europa League final, where Ajax fell to Manchester United.

Spurs officials reportedly traveled to Amsterdam earlier this week to sort out a deal to bring Sanchez back to London. It’s believed to be a $36 million transfer with add-on clauses worth around $18 million.

Sanchez will add more speed and strength to one of the Premier League’s best backlines, giving Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen a partner to play with in a back three.

Here’s some more news from around the Premier League:

(more…)

Costa: Chelsea “won’t decide my fate”

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As each day passes, the impasse between Chelsea manager Antonio Conte and Diego Costa grows.

Costa is continuing to holdout from Chelsea after being asked to train with the reserves and has made clear his preference to transfer back to his former club, Atletico Madrid. But in his latest comments to ESPN Brazil, Costa said that Chelsea are asking for a transfer fee that’s well above what Atletico can afford.

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“Chelsea offered me to several clubs,” Costa said. “But I was very clear with them. They said that since I’m not part of the coach’s plans, I want to choose my destiny. For them they have made more money, I will not let them decide my destiny. Even because when I came to Chelsea they paid well below the proposal that is coming now. I think they have to be aware and see everything I’ve done.”

It’s easy to feel sympathetic for Costa and his situation. He said in the interview that he’s struggled with English and as such, has had to rely on people at the club to take care of a lot of tasks. In Madrid, a country he’s received citizenship from and a city and language he’s comfortable with, he doesn’t have these worries.

But for all the good will he earned, Costa also painted himself in a bad light later in that response to a question about what the deadlock was about with Chelsea.

“It’s not my fault I’m not there,” Costa said. “If it was up to me, I’d be playing. There’s already (been) a month. Holiday is good, but it gets boring. I did not cause this situation. Since this is where the club has to think in two ways. Of course they have to have a payback, as I have given sportily and financially as well. After three years you will receive an amount above what you paid.”

Costa though did provide some insight. It had been believed over the past week or so that Costa would only move to Atletico Madrid, but the Brazilian-born Spanish international forward clarified that statement, saying he’d prefer to go to Atletico but if Atletico can’t afford him or can’t figure out a deal to sign him and get around the club’s transfer ban, he’d be open to going to another European club.

“I have already shown my affection and my interest in playing for Atletico,” Costa said. “But if they, Athletic and Chelsea did not reach an agreement and they [Athletic] do not force a move, I can not be wanting to play in a club that does not want to make a greater effort. I know that this will happen. If it is to pay as much as Chelsea want [the transfer], it is not possible. You must see this. What I know is that the proposal to come will exceed that Chelsea paid when he brought me. And I gave back in every way.”

West Bromwich rejects latest bid from Man City for Evans

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Manchester City’s latest transfer target is a Premier League veteran, but he’s not going without a fight.

West Bromwich Albion manager Tony Pulis confirmed that the club had rejected a transfer bid for former Manchester United centerback Jonny Evans from Manchester City. It’s reported that the transfer bid was worth $23.2 million and that Man City are willing to up it to around $28.3 million, though Pulis isn’t budging.

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“We have turned down an offer for Jonny,” Pulis said. “We do not want to sell Jonny and we do not need to sell him. It would have to be a very, very good offer.

“Jonny understands the situation and where everything is. Jonny is happy here and wants to get on with his football. He is one of our best players. We all understand where we are.”

Evans has made 61 starts over the past two seasons for West Bromwich but it’s a question as to whether he’d be first choice at Manchester City, with Vincent Kompany, John Stones and even Nicolas Otamendi ahead of Evans in the pecking order.

Meanwhile, it doesn’t make sense for West Bromwich to sign one of its top players at this point in the transfer window, with less than a month to find a replacement in both the dressing room and on the field.

For all the talk about needing to improve defensively over the offseason, Man City manager Pep Guardiola has so far only been able to bring in new fullbacks, but perhaps his 3-5-2 formation displayed in the opening match of the season can provide more defensive stability for the team, even if Kompany misses extensive time with injury like in the past.

Pique: For first time in career, Barca star feels “inferior to Madrid”

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Gerard Pique does not have the sort of personality that makes admitting defeat an easy proposition.

The longtime Barcelona center back is raging after his side was beaten 5-1 over two legs by rivals Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup.

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And for the first time in his life, he thinks Barca is a step behind its El Clasico enemies. From The Telegraph:

“This is a long process and there is room for improvement but in the nine years that I have been here, it is the first time that I feel inferior to Madrid,” Piqué said. “We are not in the best moment, either as a team or as a club. We must stay as close as possible and keep moving forwards.”

Barcelona looked very poor in the second leg of the Super Cup, though the club did hammer the woodwork on multiple occasions. Real is the best team in the world, which makes being its rival a real hassle.

In fact, both clubs have been 1-2 in the world for some time, which has to make it extra perplexing when you’re No. 2 to only the club you despise more than any other.