Man United show how they can catch up

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MANCHESTER — The way Manchester United tore through Man City, especially in the first half, proved they can close the gap to those challenging for the Premier League title.

For large spells their attacking unit was reminiscent of a scalpel slicing effortlessly through Man City’s buttery defense.

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This season they’ve now beaten four of the five teams above them in Man City, Leicester City, Chelsea and Tottenham and are the only team to take points off Liverpool, as they sit five points off the top four approaching the halfway point.

The main reason they aren’t in the top four is because they’ve dropped points against teams further down the table who sit back and don’t allow them to play the way they want to.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s side rose to the big occasion to beat the reigning champions, but was it as simple as that? It’s more about Man United’s style of play and the blueprint put in place and showcased by their swaggering, speedy demolition of Man City.

United are better suited to playing against the better teams with their counter attacks a well-oiled machine and teams who leave them space on the break do so at their peril.

City found that out the hard way as they did just that and the quartet of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Daniel James and Jesse Lingard were unstoppable.

“We could have had more goals and seen the game out. It was a tough win and I think it will help us a lot going forward,” Rashford, the chief architect in Man City’s downfall, said. “That first 30 minutes was terrific and what we played to do, the challenge is if we can do that for 80 or 90 minutes.”

If this was a glimpse into the future for Man United, it is one which proves they can indeed close the gap on Liverpool, Man City, Chelsea and Tottenham ahead of them.

Pep Guardiola admitted afterwards that it is “not possible to control” United’s front four, led by the irresistible Rashford.

“You cannot deny their quality when they run, they defend deep and then James and Rashford on the break…” Guardiola added.

Liverpool’s high-press bullies team. Man City’s ball possession drains opponents. Chelsea’s young attackers dazzle. Tottenham’s power and pace often sees them through.

For Man United the way forward is clear. Launch counters and use pace and quick passing to make the most of mistakes from the opposition. The balance in midfield was also spot on, with Scott McTominay and Fred doing their best to spring counters and support the back four in a 4-2-3-1 formation.

“I was so happy with the way we started the game,” Solskjaer said. “It looked like we would score every time we went forward. We go for the goal, went for the kill if you like… Quick, attacking, flowing football with the right intent.”

Solskjaer has a plan, and that all came to fruition on Saturday at Man City. It proves that progress is being made and Man United are finally making a move in the right direction.

“We’ve worked on it ever since I came to the club because that is Man United,” Solskjaer said when asked bout counter-attacking. “When we win it there is no use on keeping it or putting it back to the goalkeeper if we can play through them, with great intent of passing forwards. I wouldn’t want James, Rashford, Martial or Lingard running at me.”

If their front three stay fit and teams continue to not pay them respect on the counter, the Red Devils will surely come very close to finishing in the top four this season.

Better than that, there’s a clear masterplan. One which works and just needs fine tuning against teams who sit back with 10 men behind the ball.

“Our player get confirmation on the direction we are going,” Solskjaer beamed. “We do look like a Man United team. That is the biggest thing for me.”

DC United acquires Julian Gressel from Atlanta

Atlanta United trades for Julian Gressel
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
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How much is Major League Soccer’s best assist man worth?

About $750,000.

DC United paid Atlanta United that fee in allocation money for the rights to Julian Gressel, who had been at a contract impasse with the club who drafted him in 2017.

That fee could hit $1.1 million in incentives, and even so could be a bargain.

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Gressel was due to make around $133,000 this season and wanted an improved deal from Atlanta given his massive production since becoming the eighth overall pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft.

That salary is less than hundreds of players, most of them nowhere near Gressel’s impact. Nineteen Atlanta United players made more than him last season, so it’s understandable that the 26-year-old wanted to get paid.

We don’t know what he was asking, or why Atlanta wouldn’t get there. From MLSSoccer.com:

“If we really wanted to, we could have had him play on $130,000 this season, extend him a bona fide offer at the end of the season and (we’d still own his MLS rights),” said Atlanta United vice president Carlos Bocanegra. “We’re also trying to do the right thing for a guy who has given so much to the club and is really just a good kid all around.”

It’s a weird one, given what the club’s been paying others.

Gressel arrived at Providence College from Eintracht Bamberg and immediately started delivering for the Big East side. He finished his four years with 30 goals and 26 assists and All-American status.

There was some adapting to MLS, but he’s gotten better with every season. He scored 10 goals with 13 assists in all competitions last season.

Spurs chairman reportedly met with Real Madrid about Gareth Bale

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As a neutral, the idea of Gareth Bale rejoining Tottenham Hotspur would be a delight to our Premier League matchday viewing.

Obviously this applies to Spurs fans to the nth degree, especially after a dull 0-0 with Watford at the weekend.

In the short-term, Bale would be a terrific stopgap as Spurs struggle to find themselves without Harry Kane in both the PL and Champions League.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

In the long-term, Bale and Heung-Min Son on the wings of Harry Kane would be enough to make any PL power trio blush (unless Liverpool really does add Timo Werner).

A report out of Spain says Real Madrid president Florentino Perez met with Spurs chairman Daniel Levy about several things including the availability of Bale.

The Welsh star has been long admired by Jose Mourinho, and of course knows Spurs well having become a superstar after arriving from Southampton.

Bale is 30 and his wages would easily top Spurs’ pay list. His 21 goals and nine assists in the 2012/13 Premier League season join his 19 and 11 in 2015 La Liga as his top league seasons.

Spurs host Norwich City on Wednesday (Watch live at 2:30 p.m. ET online via NBCSports.com).

Guardiola praises Laporte, “the best left central defender in the world”

Pep Guardiola praises Aymeric Laporte
Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
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Manchester City kept its first clean sheet of 2020 on Tuesday, posting a 1-0 win over Sheffield United at Bramall Lane.

It took the two-time reigning Premier League champions six tries to get there, the previous zero coming against this same Blades side at the Etihad Stadium.

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City manager Pep Guardiola was quick to give credit to a returning hero, as center back Aymeric Laporte returned to the fold for the first time since Aug. 31.

The club was 3W-1D at that point. They went 12W-2D-5L without him.

Here’s Guardiola, from the Manchester Evening News:

“It’s incredible,” Guardola said. “We have missed him a lot, he’s the best left central defender in the world. Imagine the best teams in the world lose their best central defender. We miss him a lot because he’s a specialist left foot where our buildup. He is fast, strong in the air.”

“He has something that we don’t have in the squad. His left foot and many actions to build up to make it quicker and better – we don’t have it, not because the other ones are not good but he has the only left foot as a central defender and for the way we want to play that is so important. His character and mentality and winning, he has all the attributes. For me, when he is fit he is the best left central defender in the world.”

If you read that as a little bit of an explanation for City being 13 points off Liverpool, you’ve similar eyes to us.

Pep is asking how Liverpool would look without Virgil Van Dijk, how Real Madrid appears when Sergio Ramos is out.

It’s not the be-all, end-all, but as I wrote when Laporte went down, this is the key piece to their defending efforts as well as where they begin possession.

We’re also grateful that Guardiola didn’t drop some sort of, “He’s like a January transfer addition,” statement (at least as far as we’ve read.

Chelsea admit they miss USMNT’s Pulisic

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LONDON — Since USMNT star Christian Pulisic was injured in training in the first week of January, Chelsea have lost against Newcastle, drawn with Arsenal and blown away Burnley.

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In the two games where they’ve dropped points they’ve missed Pulisic’s genius in the final third with both Willian and Callum Hudson-Odoi easily shackled by Arsenal in their London derby. Chelsea admitted as much when speaking after the 2-2 draw against Arsenal on Tuesday, an Arsenal side who played with 10 men for over 60 minutes of the game.

Asked by Pro Soccer Talk about Pulisic’s adductor injury and if they missed him during the draw against Arsenal, downbeat Chelsea boss Frank Lampard noted that Pulisic, 21, was “playing really well” before his injury.

“Yeah, a game like today could have been a good where he would have been helpful for us because he was playing well for a patch. But other people have to stand up in those situations,” Lampard said.

When will Pulisic be back?

Lampard confirmed he is making good progress but will not be fit until after the mid-season player break in February, which means he will miss their FA Cup trip to Hull City this Saturday and their clash at Leicester City on Feb. 1. He may not be back until Feb. 17 when they host Manchester United in the Premier League, which means in total he will have been out for a period of six weeks.

“In terms of when he’s back, it is not going to be a week, it is probably be the other end of the early February break but he is getting better and he isn’t far away,” Lampard said.

Speaking to Pro Soccer Talk pitch-side at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea captain Cesar Azpilicueta, who scored their late second goal which looked like being the winner, lavished praise on Pulisic when asked about his absence over the last week.

“Christian is a magnificent player. Since he joined us in the summer he has shown us his potential and we know that he can make the difference at any time. Whenever a player is injured it is not good for a team because we lose potential and I hope to have him back soon,” Azpilicueta said.

Chelsea’s skipper is expecting big things from Pulisic when he does return to fitness, as the fourth-place Blues now have just a six-point cushion to those outside of the top four and have played a game more.

It seems like everyone at Chelsea hopes the USMNT star can rejuvenate their attack in the final months of the season.

“After coming to Europe as a young boy to Germany, he came to Chelsea and it is one step forward, playing for Chelsea every game, fighting to win and fighting for trophies,” Azpilicueta said. “In my role I’ve tried to help in settle into the city and the club. He has a brilliant attitude. Always trying to improve. I am sure he will become bigger and bigger.”