Big Win, Big Performance
The sense of relief that swept around Old Trafford at full-time was incredible; on the pitch and off it, there was a sense that United had (just about) cleared a significant hurdle on their road to recovery. Sure, some of the football on show for the first hour was pretty, as it has been for the last two games, but there was plenty to admire about the way in which Louis van Gaal side dug deep after they went a man down.
Frankly, who cares if it was ‘only’ West Ham? They’ve hardly had a terrible start to the season; Sam Allardyce’s side deserved their three points at home to Liverpool last week, and they weren’t earned as a result of primitive long balls to a burly striker. United’s backs were to the wall the second they went a man down, and the fact that they held on to their advantage having failed to do so on so many occasions in the last twelve months is significant. There was plenty of commitment, effort and pride on show from the home side as they tried to close the game out; how many times have United fans seen such qualities on show since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement?
Patched-up defence delivers the goods
Plenty were sceptical of how United’s backline would fair given its sheer unfamiliarity. Paddy McNair, at 19 was making his debut for the first team, let alone his league bow; Marcos Rojo had yet to start a game for his new club in the centre of defence and Luke Shaw has only recently been able to prove his fitness to his new manage. It didn’t scream ‘solidity’ on paper, that’s for sure.
But, some pedestrian defending for Diafra Sakho’s goal and Nolan’s late offside effort aside, the back four had a hearteningly good afternoon. Rafael made up for last weekend’s penalty concession with a superbly committed, energetic and enterprising display. The Brazilian seemed on a personal mission to make sure United didn’t concede another lead, and his manager will no doubt be satisfied with the response of his right back. McNair’s game was defined by a superb, acrobatic backwards header that saved a surefire goal late on, with the latest youngster to receive his call-up performing well in his own baptism of fire. Shaw looked hesitant to offer Angel Di Maria support down the left flank, but will have enjoyed his first competitive run-out for the club, whilst Marcos Rojo’s performance deserves its own plaudits. Considering that the Argentinian has been in the country a little over five weeks, his willingness to lead from the back, offering support and off-the-ball encouragement to McNair and pick out passes in order to get United attacking again was extremely encouraging, even more so when you remember that he is still less than fluent in English. Of course, there are areas for improvement; West Ham’s corners frequently provoked uncertainty, but given the current need to rebuild United’s confidence, the defensive performance was one of the afternoon’s most positive aspects.
Rooney’s suspension offers Mata a chance to shine
Old Trafford was quite clearly displeased with Lee Mason‘s decision to send Wayne Rooney off for fouling Stewart Downing as the ex-Liverpool midfielder tried to launch a counter-attack, but it’d take an individual blinded by the most rose-tinted of glasses to suggest he didn’t deserve it having seen a replay. Whilst fouls are made on players attempting to breakout of defence quickly on a daily basis, typically ending in a cynical trip or barge, Rooney’s attempt to stop Downing resulted in a not-so-subtle kick, and he put the players he was supposed to be leading under an incredible amount of pressure as a result. He now finds himself suspended for games against Everton, West Brom and Chelsea, allowing the more-than capable Juan Mata to deputise. Of course, Rooney’s form has seen the England captain bag three goals this season, but if the Spaniard slots in at number 10 behind the strikers as expected, there’s every chance that Rooney’s absence may not be felt too sharply.
Since the acquisitions of Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao, Mata has his starts dwindle but the former Chelsea player is many United fans’ preferred choice behind Van Persie and Falcao; his touch is certainly superior and his goal record in the last few months ( ) proves his knack of reading the game and meeting dangerous deliveries at the right time. Critics may point to his work-rate or lack of physical presence, but constant tracking back is only necessary if you frequently lose the ball, which Mata doesn’t. That’s not to say that Rooney won’t be missed entirely; he’s enjoyed a good start to this campaign and losing an option of his quality, at number 10 or up front isn’t fantastic news for the team. But there’s enough evidence to suggest that Mata could plug that gap and then some.
United’s captain goes missing
At the risk of prolonging the endless Rooney debate, it must be said that the lad from Croxteth isn’t doing himself too many favours in the leader department. Last week’s over-the-top berating of Tyler Blackbett and Daley Blind after his careless clearance had set up Leicester City’s third and the wild kick at Downing are two examples that make it exceptionally easy to offer criticism, simply because these are things that United do not need from their appointed leader on the pitch. Van Gaal has placed plenty of importance on the armband, and so far, whilst his general play has been good, Rooney hasn’t stepped up to the plate as a leader.
In his absence, and with vice-captain Darren Fletcher unlikely to feature unless Blind or Ander Herrera are absent, then the armband will likely fall to Van Persie based on the Dutchman’s experience. What this will hopefully provoke is more instances of on-field management as displayed by several members of the team once Rooney was given his marching orders. More leaders are needed, and this is the perfect opportunity for several of the squad’s newer members to make their voices heard whilst their captain is stuck in the stands.
- Radamel Falcao looks desperate to get his first goal for the club, but it’ll come soon, surely. Even though it’s worth pointing out that the Colombian hasn’t seen too many clear-cut chances come his way just yet.
- The reaction to Kevin Nolan’s no-goal in the 24 hours since the game has been rather worrying. Mostly because replays proved that, to the letter of the law, Nolan’s head was ahead of the last defender, and thus offside. This issue hasn’t provoked so much as a whisper in previous seasons, so why are the likes of Sam Allardyce, Nolan and even Ian Wright on 606 moaning now?
- Angel Di Maria struggled a little after a bright start, partly due to the increased attention he received from West Ham but he seemed to withdraw from the action a little after a few heavy challenges in the early offing. The Argentine more than made up for it with some sterling work to help run down the ball (and the clock) in stoppage time to help run down the clock, though.