While the whole of Europe will have their eyes focused on France and the start of Euro 2016 on Friday night, Super League has its own headline act at the Halliwell Jones Stadium.
Warrington versus Hull FC may have represented a dead rubber fixture in recent seasons with little to write home about but now, after 17 rounds in 2016, it’s a mouth-watering top of the table clash with Hull able to go four points ahead of the Wolves at the summit with a win.
Since the advent of Super League in 1996 only four teams have lifted the trophy in the Grand Final at Old Trafford – Bradford, Leeds, St Helens and Wigan.
Bradford have been relegated. Leeds have fallen. St Helens have faltered. And although Wigan sit fourth with the same number of points as Warrington they are yet to reach the heights from previous campaigns and have scored the second fewest points in the league.
There is a very real chance that the trend is about to be broken this year and there is a possibility that Friday’s game could be a Grand Final rehearsal.
Both sides have been there before. The Airlie Birds made their solitary Old Trafford appearance back in 2006 but were beaten 26-4 by St Helens.
Warrington have made the trip twice but came off second best on both occasions – most notably surrendering a 16-6 half-time lead against Wigan in 2013 to lose 30-16.
For Super League’s two biggest underachievers, is this the year one of them finally takes the title?
‘It’s always your year’ is the chant opposition fans have for years mocked Warrington supporters with but could 2016 actually be the year the Wolves taste success?
After a poor 2015 saw Tony Smith’s side finish 6th, change was needed and a host of new additions have bolstered the side.
The experienced Kurt Gidley has been a revelation and his half-back partnership with Chris Sandow has helped the Wolves become the league’s highest points scorers.
Warrington lost four out of six league games in Sandow’s recent absence with a hamstring injury but have put together two comprehensive wins over Leeds and St Helens since his return.
The Wolves’ other defeat this season came at the hands of Hull on Easter Monday who edged a thrilling contest 26-24 at the KC Stadium.
Super League’s sleeping giants have awoken in 2016 and rightfully sit top of the table having won 11 of their last 12 league games.
They are unbeaten in their last seven and head into Friday’s game full of confidence that they can stretch their lead at the top to four points.
After an 8th place finish in 2015 the side were determined to work on their faults in pre-season and are reaping the rewards.
The majority of the team are in the form of their careers with Marc Sneyd and Jamie Shaul stand out performers so far this campaign.
Lee Radford has also praised the medical staff for keeping his team relatively injury-free but even when they have missed the likes of Frank Pritchard and Leon Pryce their strength in depth has ensured their performances don’t drop.
Perhaps it’s too soon to get carried away but either way both sides will be looking to show they can play like champions and not just contenders on Friday night.
‘Adam, I need a favour’ were the words which greeted me upon my arrival into class last Wednesday.
My friend Josh, an avid Huddersfield Town fan, had arranged for him and six other Terriers supporters to appear on Soccer AM as the fans of the week.
Unfortunately there had been a late withdrawal and there was a seat vacant in the Luther Blissett stand which apparently only I could fill.
I reluctantly obliged despite the fact I’m a Manchester United fan and my only prior knowledge of Huddersfield is that it is in Yorkshire somewhere.
I’d grown up watching Soccer AM, and the show still to this day is a part of my Saturday morning routine.
I had always wondered how I would make my debut on the programme. Would it be as a footballer dubbed the next Lionel Messi? Perhaps a rock star promoting my band’s latest tour? Or an actor playing down my Oscar nomination.
However, I never would have predicted it would involve a two hour facade of pretending to support Huddersfield Town.
I frantically began to search Wikipedia to fill the gaps in my Terriers knowledge just to be assured I wouldn’t be rumbled on the day.
Did you know that the last and only time Huddersfield won the FA Cup was 1922? Well I do, and now it’s so ingrained and implanted in my memory that I will never be able to forget.
In fact the whole thing was a bit like the Stanford prison experiment in which I slowly began to believe the pretence.
As it turned out none of my newly acquired knowledge was required and I was able to sit in the Luther Blissett stand looking gormless for the show without anyone in the studio ousting me.
The whole experience was brilliant from start to finish.
For those who can’t stand Fenners’ cheesy puns and don’t watch the show, the fans of the week mainly feature in three parts of the programme.
The first comes at the start when Frankie Fryer, ‘massive cockney’, introduces each of the fans with a fact about them in his distinctive, idiosyncratic east London tone.
The joke for me was that I’m from Lancashire and not Yorkshire which was followed by a dramatic ‘dun-dun-duuuuun’ sound effect.
Technically I’m from Cheshire but we’ll just add it to the plethora of lies I had already told to blab my way onto the show.
Next came the ‘This is England 90’ game in which Josh had to name as many 90s footballers shown to him in 60 seconds.
It was a very difficult quiz for someone born in 1994 and he was only able to name six- although this was largely down to the help of Fenners and guest Stephen Graham.
After deciding to gamble for the chance to double our winnings, Josh, assisted by Stephen Graham, correctly guessed the player on the card was West Ham legend Ian Bishop which led to jubilant celebrations and a pile on.
Having instigated it by rugby tackling Josh to the ground I’m just glad the others followed suit otherwise it would have looked very strange.
As far as pile ons go it was up there with the best. When I got back on my feet I discovered blood on my shirt and I’ve had to book a trip to the chiropractors next week.
Finally, there was the game in the car park at the end of the show where we had 60 seconds to score five penalties past a giant, swinging, wooden Manuel Neuer.
I had taken three in rehearsals and missed them all. To make matters worse I slipped and fell onto my backside during two of them.
The whole thing is a bit of a blur but thankfully I not only managed to stay on my feet but slotted the ball past the helpless German number one.
We scored five penalties in 27 seconds which puts us third on the leaderboard for this season – the only time Huddersfield will be third in any league standings for a while.
And with that the show was over as I switched on my phone to discover I had three missed calls from Louis van Gaal.
Before heading back up north there was just time to see my newly adopted team get thrashed 4-2 by Brentford at Griffin Park.
It was a tough defeat to take but we’ll bounce back and one day hopefully be crowned English champions for a fourth time and the first since 1926.
Come on the Terriers! Up the Town!
Whilst most United fans will settle for a top 4 finish this season, the arrival of Louis van Gaal as manager, as well as impressive results in pre-season, have returned the belief to Old Trafford that Manchester United can once again be champions of England. Here’s 10 reasons why…
#1 Louis Van Gaal
After David Moyes’ dismissal last season, United have brought in Louis van Gaal as the man they believe will take them back to the top. A highly successful manager, the Dutchman has won the league title with all 4 of his previous clubs and guided the Netherlands to 3rd place at this year’s World Cup. The Dutchman is not afraid to make the big decisions, understands how to get the best out of his players and he doesn’t accept anything other than 100% from his team. He’s already made plenty of changes since his arrival a month ago and has the big club mentality needed to guide United to success.
One of van Gaal’s biggest changes is switching United to a 3-5-2 formation. The Dutchman claimed he has to set his team up this way as his squad is ‘unbalanced’ and it’s the only way to play everyone in their favoured positions. The system allows for an attacking central trio, with wingbacks and two defensive midfielders to assist the back 3. It’s worked wonders so far and could be key to Premier League success. See here for how van Gaal will accommodate his players in the new system.
#3 Ander Herrera
For a few seasons now United have been looking to bring in a central midfielder to replace Paul Scholes. Could new signing Ander Herrera be the answer? He scored 5 goals and 5 assists for Athletic Bilbao last season and his addition to the squad could be vital to any success.
#4 Last season hurt
United hit rock bottom last season. A 7th place finish was unacceptable and no-one knows this more than the players. Their reputations have been tarnished. This is a group of players with a winning mentality who are desperate to get back to their best. Everyone is predicting United to fare a lot better this time round.
#5 Pre-season results
Whilst it may only be pre-season, the results have given Manchester United fans plenty to be optimistic about. United demolished Real Madrid and edged out rivals Liverpool to win the International Champions trophy, with some brilliant attacking football that wasn’t visible during the whole of last season.
#6 Easy opening few games
Whilst winning the league is a marathon not a sprint, getting off to a good start is key to a title challenge. United’s first 5 games are against Swansea, Sunderland, Burnley, QPR and Leicester and is arguably an easier set of fixtures compared to last year which saw United face Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City in their opening 5 games. Getting off to a winning start helps build momentum and a winning mentality.
#7 No European football
No European football at Old Trafford this season will help give van Gaal more time to implement his philosophy in training. Not having a midweek distraction every week will stand United in better stead compared to their title rivals and should keep the squad fresher than their opponents. It’ll also hurt to see the other big teams competing in Europe, and the players will be desperate to get back into the Champions League next season.
#8 Players have a point to prove
You can point the blame at David Moyes for last season, but the players should take responsibility for the way things turned out. They underperformed massively and will want to prove that they are still capable of competing for the title.
9) Rooney, van Persie and Mata
The new 3-5-2 system sees the attacking trio all playing in their favoured positions and could return United to the top. Juan Mata can play behind the strikers in a central role without the need to worry about chasing back and defending. Mata has linked up well with Rooney in pre-season, and if van Gaal can return Robin van Persie to his best form, the trio could be key to bringing United success.
10) Belief is back
‘The biggest club in the world’ is the phrase which van Gaal has used to describe his new club, and it has begun to be repeated by a few of the players already. David Moyes was criticised for saying Liverpool and Manchester City were favourites when they came to Old Trafford last season and that United needed to try and play more like them. You won’t hear that negative attitude from van Gaal. The Dutchman will make the players believe they are the best, giving them the right attitude to go and win back the title.
What a difference a year makes! The Premier League had it’s annual launch event this morning. A quick look at the 4 managers who were at the event last season says everything about the lifespan of a Premier League manager…
He may only have been in the job for a few weeks, but new Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal has already stamped his authority and made changes…
Van Gaal has employed a new 3-5-2 formation with his United team, a move he states he was forced to make in order to play everyone in their favoured positions. With 5 wins from 5 in pre-season, it has worked wonders so far, can it bring them Premier League success?
2) Filming training sessions
HD cameras have been installed at the Aon Training Complex, meaning van Gaal will be able to watch back and analyse his player’s performances in training.
The rectangular tables have been replaced with round ones in all of Manchester United’s eating facilities; a move which the Dutchman hopes to encouraging more socialising and conversation to increase team morale.
Trees have been planted at Carrington as van Gaal felt the training space was too open and windy.
5) Training sessions
A training session each side of lunch has been the new approach van Gaal has introduced, and with no European football this year to build up player fatigue, this may continue in order for the players to fulfil the Dutchman’s philosophy. Players can also expect to train alone under a special programme should van Gaal not see that they are up to the standard he expects, something which has already been seen with Luke Shaw in pre-season.
6) Coaches meetings
There’ll be no early nights this year for Ryan Giggs, as van Gaal holds a coaches meeting every night at 10.30pm to discuss player’s performances and looking ahead to the day after.
Juan Mata has revealed that van Gaal has instructed everyone they must only communicate in English. Comprende?
8) Desso training pitches
Another part of van Gaal’s intent to improve United’s training facilities has seen two training pitches at Carrington ripped up and replaced with Desso pitches. The new turn is part synthetic and aims to replicate Old Trafford’s surface, costing the club around £800 000 to install.
United fans weren’t pleased last March when David Moyes admitted Liverpool and Manchester City were favourites when they visited Old Trafford, and stated the team needed to play more like their opponents. That won’t happen with van Gaal. ‘The biggest club in the world’ is the phrase he keeps reiterating, and from the confidence the players are showing on and off the pitch, you feel that that belief is getting across.
10) Player Changes
United’s biggest changes under their new manager are yet to come, starting with the Dutchman’s analysis of each player’s performances in pre-season and deciding who he wants and doesn’t want in his squad for the new season. He has said he’ll sit down with each player and discuss how he sees their future. Expect a few Old Trafford departures.
‘Unbalanced’ was the word Louis van Gaal used to describe his new Manchester United squad, highlighting there were too many number 10s and options going forward compared to other key positions. Followers of United’s pre-season campaign in the United States will know that van Gaal is trying to get the side to play in a 3-5-2 formation, a tactic he insists he is forced to play in order to accommodate everyone in their favoured positions. 3-5-2 is a system which brought the Dutchman success at the World Cup with the Netherlands, and now has just another 16 days before the start of the new Premier League campaign to get his players to fully conform to their new formation.
So how do United line up under the new system? What are the key strengths and weaknesses? And for which players does it leave destined for the Old Trafford exit door?
Firstly, a glance at United’s first choice team with the new formation illustrates the main advantage- the opportunity to play Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata in their favoured positions. Whilst Mata managed to score 6 goals in 14 games since his January move to United last season, his better performances were in the absence of Rooney. Playing the trio together was something David Moyes struggled to orchestrate, with Mata being pushed out wide onto the left, a position he looked uncomfortable in and the reason Jose Mourinho allowed his sale from Chelsea. The Spaniard can now look forward to playing in his more favoured central attacking position, linking up with the two strikers ahead of him- something which himself and Rooney have shown exciting glimpses of in pre-season thus far. An attacking trio of a fully fit and in form Rooney, van Persie and Mata is a frightening thought for any defence.
Another key position under the new position is the role of the ‘wingbacks’, essentially a full back and a winger combined into a new role. First choice on the right side will be Antonio Valencia, who has shown defensive qualities having occasionally played at right back under both Moyes and Ferguson, although Rafael likes going forward and is just as suited. On the left wing new signing Luke Shaw will be looking to be first choice, although van Gaal has stressed he is not yet fit enough to fulfil the duties of a wingback but is working under a specific training programme in order to. Whilst the days of seeing Neville-Beckham styled overlaps may be gone, the wingback offers options going forward and extra cover in defence.
Being caught in possession and a quick counter attack from the opposition is a vulnerability of the wingbacks and is the reason the system accommodates 3 centre backs. Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans have all had their critics in recent years, but with the departures of the experienced Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand they all need to step up to the plate this year. Having three centre backs should make life easier to deal with the opposition’s forwards and has worked effectively so far in pre-season, having just conceded one goal from open play (a 60 yard strike from Roma’s Miralem Pjanic).
When not in possession the defensive cover comes in the form of the wingbacks out wide, as well as Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera playing the role of defensive midfielders and should Phil Jones or Jonny Evans need to move out wide, they will slot into the back line to cover. Essentially in attack it’s 3-5-2 and in defence it’s 5-3-2, with the quality of the opposition dictating which shape United spend the majority of the game in.
If the first choice team fills you with optimism that this system will work, the second choice XI highlights the frailty of the squad, particularly in defence. The back 3 is comprised of youngsters Michael Keane, Tyler Blackett and Reece James. All are unproven in the Premier League, but have impressed their new manager in pre-season and he may well decide to develop them as opposed to making new signings. Rumours of Mats Hummels and Thomas Vermaelen coming in during this transfer window keep persisting however, and if van Gaal is only to make one more new signing you can bet it would be at the back.
Ashley Young has been played on both the right and left wingback positions in pre-season and van Gaal feels he can fulfil both the attacking and defensive capabilities of the position. The same can’t be said of Wilfried Zaha or Nani however, both starting up front in pre-season and the latter having been substituted after just half an hour against Inter Milan. When you consider the Dutchman has Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez as his second choice forward line, Nani and Zaha’s days look numbered.
Darren Fletcher was given the captaincy against LA Galaxy and Inter Milan, and Tom Cleverly took the armband against Roma. Neither of them, however, would make the first choice team with a fit again Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera pulling the strings in central midfield. Marouane Fellaini is another name who could slot in here, although there are strong rumours he could be on his way to Napoli and not getting a second chance to impress in the red shirt.
Similarly, Shinji Kagawa is another name being linked with a move away, but like Juan Mata the system would allow him to accommodate his favoured position just behind the two strikers, a role he impressed in against Inter Milan.
It’s unknown yet where highly rated youngster Adnan Januzaj fits into the formation. Does van Gaal feel he has the ability to be a wingback in his team, or will he have to fight for a place in the more central attack midfielder role behind the two strikers?
The 7-0 thrashing against LA Galaxy proves the formation can be lethal against smaller teams, and United played well in both defence and attack against Roma and Inter Milan. The big test now comes against Real Madrid on Saturday, but if United can keep playing well under the new system it could well be the trick which sees them return to the top.
#5: There may not be any more summer signings
Rumours of the imminent arrivals of Arturo Vidal and Angel Di Maria seem way off as Van Gaal announced he will take 3 or 4 weeks to assess the current squad before making any new signings. New arrivals Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera were approved by the Dutchman, and he will assess if the squad can perform to his philosophy before making changes.
#4: There are short term and long term plans
Van Gaal’s main priority will be the first team, but will give advice to youth team coaches and players with a view to all youth education fulfilling his philosophy in the long term. He asked for time to do this and you feel unlike with David Moyes, he will be allowed it.
#3: There is a place for the class of 92
We already knew Ryan Giggs had been appointed Assistant Manager, but the news conference confirmed Nicky Butt is a part of the new first team coaching set up. Van Gaal stated he hopes to find roles for Paul Scholes and Phil Neville which will be determined once he knows their strengths.
#2: The new captain has not been decided yet
It may take 4 weeks, or it may take 2 months for Van Gaal to decide who his new captain will be. Robin Van Persie is the favourite, but according to the new manager everyone is a possible candidate. It’s a decision he will not take lightly, and he also stressed experience is not everything.
#1: He has the ambition to succeed
‘The biggest club in the world’ and the ‘number one team in England’ are two statements Van Gaal kept referring to. There’s no doubting he is keen to succeed in the Premier League and take United back to the top. He made the point that for United finishing 1st not 4th is the challenge, and he hopes to fulfil the expectation that his appointment brings.