United may not be able to attack their way out of this season
At the risk of jumping on the club’s back after a bad day at the office, last weekend’s encouraging victory was more misleading than most were willing to admit, given how easily QPR played into United’s hands. This afternoon, against a side that was stronger, faster and far more committed, the visitors simply wilted when the pressure was increased. That makeshift back four and a less-than imposing central midfield couldn’t contain Leicester’s counters for love nor money, and in truth, the result could have been worse.
Going forward, for the first hour at least, things looked positive. Angel Di Maria will be the club’s Player of the Year without doubt if he continues this form, Radamel Falcao’s contribution was an excellent cross for Robin van Persie’s headed goal and a thud of the woodwork with a glorious long-range effort whilst Ander Herrera is doing himself no harm in becoming increasingly effective when pushing forward after bagging his second in a red shirt. As well and good as that is, it means little if you can’t defend a lead, or defend at all. The Spaniard was one of many who struggled to slow the game down after David Nugent’s penalty and was swept away by the Leicester tide. The loss of Jonny Evans (he left the King Power Stadium on crutches) highlighted yet again how much United need a commanding, experienced presence at the back, which is doubly frustrating when considering how the club has upgraded at the other end of the pitch.
Rooney quick to criticise, but he’s one of several underperformers
One of the afternoon’s overriding images was the sight of Wayne Rooney lambasting Daley Blind amongst others for the manner in which United conceded the third goal to Esteban Cambiasso. He had a point; they looked shapeless and no one offered up much resistance when or before the Argentinian shaped up to shoot, but of course, the reason they were in that position in the first place was the captain’s poor clearance, which went sideways to David Nugent as opposed to up and out of danger.
It needs noting that Van Persie had an intensely quiet afternoon up front apart from his early headed contribution, and United’s left side of defence struggled against Jamie Vardy from the opening minute, but Rooney’s blasts of the hairdryer when United concede badly (as he did against Swansea at Old Trafford) are making it exceptionally easy to shine a negative spotlight on the club’s captain. There’s every chance that we’re missing significant moments of encouragement away from the cameras, but by airing his grievances so vehemently after contributing so little, Rooney comes across as a poor leader. That in itself is something United simply do not need at this point.
Jamie Vardy exposes an unconvincing backline
The Leicester forward was a pain in United’s backside all afternoon, and the repercussions of failing to deal with him were pretty severe. Three times in the first twenty minutes he attacked the visitor’s left flank, specifically Tyler Blackett and Marcos Rojo and they simply couldn’t contain him. Having supplied the cross that led to Leonardo Ulloa’s first goal and (somewhat illegally) out-muscled Rafael on his way to earning his side’s first penalty, the hope was that they would become wise to Vardy’s tricks and attempt to double-up on him, but he was afforded too much space too often, and proceeded to punish Van Gaal’s side. It wasn’t just him; former United defender Ritchie De Laet had a field day down the right flank and made a mockery of Di Maria in the build-up to the fourth goal with a strong run before feeding Vardy for a simple finish with United’s back four nowhere to be seen. Chris Smalling, on as a first half substitute for Jonny Evans added little composure to a back four that looked suspect in the first hour, and they struggled all afternoon against a side that was playing Championship football last season. Worrying.
Rafael’s penalty was a poor decision but it shouldn’t have killed the game
At the time, it appeared unfathomable that Mark Clattenburg refused to punish Jamie Vardy for a clear push on Rafael but was happy to point to the spot when the Brazilian got to his feet to defend and Vardy fell to the floor. It didn’t appear to warrant a penalty at first glance, for sure, but even after Nugent converted it and halved Leicester’s deficit, United played like a side that had their minds elsewhere. That was the point at which a calming presence was needed to slow the game down and help the visitors to regain some composure, but instead, they gave the ball away far too easily, were ripped to shreds on multiple occasions on the break and looked about as sturdy as a bag filled with wet paper.
It’s very easy to point to Clattenburg’s decision and send bucketloads of anger towards it, but that was one goal, and United still had the lead even after Nugent scored. Van Gaal will surely question the mental strength of his side far more than the Brazilian’s reaction, as that will be a far greater cause for concern given the fact that sterner tests against greater opposition are surely still to come this season.
Premier League contenders? Erm…
News outlets were quick to suggest that Manchester United were suddenly ‘back’ after that 4-0 thrashing of QPR last Sunday, and talk of the club being genuine title contenders duly followed, but a return of five points from fifteen proves that it was overly optimistic thinking, at least at this point. One victory, regardless of who it was against at this stage of the season proves little, and title talk should now rightly sit on the back-burner for the foreseeable future. Finishing in the top four was the goal when the season began, and despite those fancy attacking additions, however talented they are, this new team still needs to walk before it can run.
In the short term, Van Gaal now needs to decide if he can afford to leave his back four and central midfield so unprotected in order to allow all of his riches in attack game time. 3-5-2 was swiftly dumped after four games, and 4-3-3, whilst solving many problems up front doesn’t offer too much strength or protection for a weakened back four if Ander Herrera and Daley Blind are in central midfield. Good as they are, commanding they are not. With Evans set for a spell on the sidelines and Tyler Blackett suspended for next weekend’s visit of West Ham, United have left Van Gaal with another problem to solve as he tries to push the club up the Premier League table.