So a few days have passed and we have all had some time to process yet another impressive victory at home to Aston Villa. There can be no doubt that this team is now getting Louis van Gaal’s philosophy. For the first time in a couple of years United fans can go into a Manchester derby in full confidence of coming out of the other end with a victory, one that would all but seal our spot in next season’s Champions League. The metamorphosis of this team throughout the season has been impressive thus far, but one could argue that United are still not in the final stages of the van Gaal revolution. A season that started with a 4-4-2 diamond and players eager to impress, saw a lot of attacking flair combined with defensive vulnerability; van Gaal had to put the brakes on his team and get back to basics. Louis himself has stated that this team started the season off both unconscious and incapable. Though it is not what Louis meant to describe, this method of analysis can also explain our evolving formations and attacking and defensive patterns of play throughout the season. The unconscious can refer to our early season thought free, attacking at will style, which brought some success, with the incapable referring to our defensive frailties. By altering his formation to a 3-5-2 over the festive period he solidified the team at the expense of the flair, making his players conscious defensively, even if they were now incapable of producing the attacking football that the fans love. It was in this period that the fans will was tested, with the first rumblings of discontent only being abated by good (if seemingly fortunate) results and a lofty league position. The Tottenham and Liverpool wins came just in time. The first evidence of a team that is now conscious and capable. Thanks to a few months of hard work with his defenders van Gaal is now a lot more comfortable with his defenders (and his team in general) to transfer to his favoured 4-3-3 with the ball. For the defensive solidity to remain a 4-1-4-1 formation without the ball has been implemented, but the attacking flair HAS returned, and boy are we loving it. With 7 games remaining in the season and a full pre-season ahead, van Gaal has time to prepare his team and get them in that final stage of unconscious and capable, where the team can produce the football we are seeing now on instinct, and ultimately make a run at the title next season. So whilst we are in phase 3 out of 4 in our development, let’s take a look at the three standout performers and three that could have done better against Aston Villa.
Last time out I said I loved Juan Mata… now I love Ander Herrera… can you really love two people in this way equally? He was the clear man of the match against Villa with two goals, but his performance was about more than just that. It was a picture of what a box-to-box midfielder should be. He did a little bit of EVERYTHING. 2 shots, 1 goal scoring chance created, a couple of cross attempts, a few tackles, an interception, 2 blocks, a clearance, a few fouls… anywhere anything was happening he was there. I haven’t seen a player like him at United since Bryan Robson. Many will mention Roy Keane as our last great typical box-to-box midfielder, specifically in his first few years at United where he had the licence to get forward more. But Roy never did his attacking with the flair of Herrera, and Herrera isn’t as forceful as Keane was. This is why I feel the Robson comparisons are much more accurate. Though he was tough, Robson had a guile that Keane didn’t possess, and Herrera’s slight frame shouldn’t fool anyone… he is a tough cookie, as his “don’t fuck with my Mata” slide tackle prior to Steven Gerrard’s stamp proves (sorry, had to get that in again somewhere).
This is where your name and your price tag matter. Young is clearly outperforming Angel Di Maria this season (even if the goal and assist stats do not back that up), and the fans have really taken to him. Then you have a player who is seemingly struggling on the bench, but he cost a British transfer record and wears the number 7 on his back. Louis van Gaal is fair, and has continued to reward Ashley Young with starts, but it has been two games in a row now where he has been replaced by Di Maria. Young gets United though, and will certainly not kick up a fuss. He will do what he has always done, even in the hard times, get his head down and keep on working. He was involved in virtually everything that was good in the first half, and despite his poor cross completion (ZERO!!!), his team work with Daley Blind down the left was a joy to watch. Their understanding is impeccable and it was that understanding that led to Herrera’s first goal. That sweet reverse pass by Young to Blind in the build-up was a flashback to the understanding that Evra and Giggs had 5 or 6 years ago… wonderful, and long may it continue!
As mentioned, going forward his combination play with Young in particular was stellar. His intelligence in making the right run and getting back when the defence need him is great to watch. He reminds me of Denis Irwin in the sense that he isn’t the most flamboyant defender, or a player that marauds up the pitch with abandon, but he is so smart and will never let you down. In three games now, opposing managers have thought they could expose Blind’s perceived lack of pace. Townsend, Sterling and Bacuna all now know that pace isn’t everything. Blind has the intelligence to know when and where to run, how to protect his centre back, and how to support his winger. Denis Irwin knew how to do all this too. They both also had/have an immense passing ability. 96% passing, 3 crosses, 3 chances created, 1 assist, 2 shots… that’s pretty damn good. If central midfield reinforcements are as predicted brought in over the summer, there is likely to be a long term battle between Blind and Shaw for a regular left back spot and it is one that with all the will in the world I don’t see Shaw winning.
David De Gea
The signs have been there in the past few weeks, I have warned of it in past pieces, and this was perhaps his worst performance in recent times. He hardly had a thing to do but on two occasions his indecision to come and collect the ball was of concern. Add to that a blip in concentration to allow a very tame shot to go under his body a mere minute or so after Rooney put us 2-0 up, Saturday could have had a very different outcome. Thankfully the mental frailty that was permeating throughout the shattered squad that David Moyes left behind has been healed and a repeat of the Leicester City debacle was not even close to happening.
This is by no means a “ah he’s shit after all” performance. Far from it, he was good in everything that he did, but what it did show was that he is not undroppable. He is not undroppable from the standpoint that, there are quite simply games where a big bastard is not needed, just as there are games in the Premier League that he will be the most important player on the pitch. As indispensable as Fellaini would be in an away fixture at Stoke City, he is just as unneeded at home vs Aston Villa. I repeat, this is not to say he played badly, he didn’t, but his particular strengths were null and void in a game where United came under no aerial pressure, didn’t have to play the long ball to create chances, and didn’t need him to ruffle feathers. Fellaini has proven this season that he does have a place at United, just not in every game. All that said, Manchester derby… I would pick him in my starting line-up every time.
Didn’t do anything… again. Ok, granted 13 minutes isn’t much to go on, but if he had any hopes to play some role against City he had to do what Angel Di Maria did; grab the bull by the horns and do something even when things are not going well. Di Maria against Liverpool managed to get on the pitch, not play particularly great, but provided an assist… he did the same again on Saturday, dribbling and crossing for the wonderful Rooney finish. Falcao needs to take a page out of Di Maria’s book, he needs something to happen and happen fast, otherwise… bye bye.
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