What We Learned: Sunderland 1-1 Manchester United

Mata, RVP and Rooney need better support

Admittedly, these are the infant days of Louis van Gaal’s 3-5-2 experiment. This, given the tools currently at his disposal, is apparently the best way to accommodate (at present) the club’s three best players. It didn’t necessarily go to plan; Robin van Persie looked every inch a player returning to fitness, Wayne Rooney again looked ineffective and Juan Mata frequently dropped deeper to help distribute having seen first hand how United’s midfield were struggling. But the reality is that the players directly behind them have to provide better service if this scheme is to take off.

Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia aren’t quite in the realm of unqualified disasters as wing-backs, but when it comes to crossing, their signature moves (cutting back onto right foot for the former, quick burst down the flank for the latter) are so easy to telegraph that it makes defending against them simple. Centrally, there is so little bite, strength or penetrative ability that the ball ends up passed up and down the flanks until a cross is delivered or the ball is lost. Van Gaal’s deliberate name-dropping of this summer’s transfer gossip squeeze, Arturo Vidal was a not-so-subtle prod to his board to provide him with greater tools. Until that happens, the inclusion of this trio, and the effectiveness of 3-5-2 in general is up in the air.

Ashley Young is treading on thin ice

It might seem churlish to suggest that a player who finished United’s pre-season tour with perhaps more goodwill than player should be so quickly marked out as a problem in a new system, but Young hasn’t done himself many favours in the way he’s started this Premier League season. Of course, he’s hardly the only one, but defensively, the marked difference between friendly and competitive has proven a far sterner test than Young currently appears capable of besting.

His deliveries from the left flank today inparticular were frequently poor, and he now has the unwanted (?) distinction of having thrown himself to the ground in an attempt to earn a penalty in front of three different Manchester United managers. The third won’t have been particularly impressed by what he saw today, and given that Nani has already been shipped out to Lisbon, albeit for the season, Young has to kick on from an encouraging summer’s work if he hope’s to survive at United. A change to a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 depending on new arrivals could easily see him frozen out on this sort of form.

Defensive woes eased by youngsters

It was one of the summer’s effortless jokes, that Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and Phil Jones couldn’t be relied on to stay free of injury. This situation, however, with only the latter currently fit after the former left the first half with a hamstring injury barely two games into the season is morbidly hilarious, and makes the lack of business completed in that area of particular concern. Still, at present, United’s academy is doing its best to plug the gap.

Tyler Blackett and Michael Keane were at the heart of the most heartening aspect of the team’s performance, providing a solid second half display along with Jones, save for a lackadaisical flap from Keane from a high cross. Most of their issues stemmed from their colleagues further up the field losing the ball, but, for the most part, they mopped up any messes quite well. 3-5-2 is putting a lot of emphasis on United’s solidity at the back, and the flanks, guarded by wingers-cum-wing-backs are being relentlessly targeted. So it’ll be of no small comfort to Van Gaal that a few of the club’s youth products are stepping up to plug the gaps left by their injured colleagues, and doing it well.

Van Gaal name-dropping points to dissatisfaction with squad

It’s been a frustrating summer for United in terms of player recruitment, purely because inamongst the plethora of outlandish rumours, there have been a number of seemingly attainable targets either not signed or simply dropped from the radar. The players currently purchased this summer are a good start, but even when Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera regain fitness, Van Gaal still requires far more pace and guile than he can currently call upon. Fortunate thing is that he’s seemingly happy to publicly push for players he deems essential.

Perhaps United’s manager should namedrop players more often. A mention of Angel Di Maria has seemingly ignited a full-throttled attempt to lead the Argentine to Old Trafford, and an official vocalisation of the word ‘Vidal’, aside from sending the internet into freefall, is seemingly another clear indication as to where the Dutchman’s desires lie in terms of player recruitment. Envious glances have been cast to other league clubs who completed their business and have hit the ground running whilst United are surrounded by uncertainty as the transfer window nears closure. But on this occasion, it would appear that Van Gaal is determined to bring in a better quality of player than his predecessor could tempt to Old Trafford twelve months ago.

Danny Welbeck still has a role to play

Friday’s press conference added no firm credence to the established reports that Welbeck was free to leave Manchester United (under certain conditions), with Van Gaal deliberately stating that he knew what he had told his forward this summer, and refusing to confirm that he would be sold. Snapping back to reality, it was clear fairly early on that chances were always going to be hard to come by for Welbeck this season, simply because of the stature of the players ahead of him. Today did however confirm that there’s still a role for him to play in a United side that is struggling for fluency and energy up front.

Of United’s back-up options, it’s clear that Welbeck has more to offer than Javier Hernandez, even if the Mexican can point to a sharper eye for goal. He is far more involved in build-up play, has more strength and a better first touch, which, given Rooney’s increasing immobility and the need to keep Van Persie up front and not dropping deeper, makes him very useful. United didn’t suddenly look more capable up front but attack did seem to click a little easier than it had been doing in his absence. As with a number of the first team squad, Welbeck has apparently been made aware of how he will be used this season, and is potentially unhappy to accept the role, but, regardless of the validity of the reports, it won’t have escaped a manager as observant as Van Gaal that he is in possession of a player who gives him something markedly different and useful to his other strikers.

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