Manchester United beat Everton 2-1 at Old Trafford on Saturday, in perhaps their first big test of the season; increasing their run of straight wins to two. There were plenty of positives to take from the game for Louis van Gaal’s men, as well as more than a few negatives. Here are five things we learned from Manchester United vs Everton.
1. There could be life after Wayne Rooney.
People querying Wayne Rooney’s importance to Manchester United is nothing new; fans and pundits have been posing the question for a number of seasons now. However, after Saturday’s performance against Everton, without the suspended Rooney; the question has rarely seemed more pertinent. United were not exactly comfortable victors, but it could be argued that the guile and craft of Ander Herrera or the absence of a dominant centre back were more grievous losses to the team than the club captain.
When Wayne Rooney plays behind a front two, he will often drift from his deeper position, pushing forward to essentially operate a third striker, a facet of his game that is completely detrimental to himself, and the actual strikers. Falcao and Robin van Persie are in the early stages of forming a strike partnership, each learning how the other plays and adapting their games accordingly. What neither player needs, is another striker entering their zone and taking up priceless space, when there is already so little with which to operate.
This trait isn’t necessarily Rooney’s fault; he has spent almost his entire career as a centre forward, so it’s only natural that he will end up in more advanced positions on the pitch when given a free role. Rooney’s problem is that Radamel Falcao and Robin van Persie are both better strikers than he is and, as such he is forced deeper. What Mata showed, despite having a quiet game by his standards, is that he is a more natural fit for that ‘tip of the diamond’ role, he is comfortable in possession, happy to receive the ball in any situation, has an impeccable first touch and, most importantly, never steps on the strikers toes.
It may be reckless to suggest that United don’t need the man who will most likely finish his career as their all-time top goalscorer; but their attacking play seemed more fluid without him, and perhaps a spell on the sidelines over these next few weeks will do him some good.
2. Paddy McNair is staking his claim.
Four weeks ago, United academy product Danny Welbeck was signing the dotted line at Arsenal, to make way for the incoming superstar Radamel Falcao. The media line was that Manchester United had lost their identity by abandoning youth. Paddy McNair along with fellow youth prospects Tyler Blackett and James Wilson are living proof that this is not the case.
McNair has played two games in a row now, and has looked completely assured and comfortable in both. He helped contain a varied attack in the 2-1 victory over West Ham United, marshalling Enner Valencia expertly, before performing similarly well against the different threat of Kevin Nolan just as well later in the game. Against Everton, he was simply imperious against the huge presence of Romelu Lukaku, restricting him to just one shot all game – which went wide. The young centre back looks like he has been in the team for years, and there’s an argument to be made that he has performed better than Chris Smalling and is worth his place in the team.
The truth is, that when Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans return to fitness, then 19 year old McNair will most likely drop back down to resume his duties with the Under 21’s team, however, he has done his future prospects no harm whatsoever with two solid performances on the bounce. With the injury records of the aforementioned first choice defenders, it’s probably fairly safe to assume that McNair will have more first team chances this season.
3. David de Gea is brilliant.
This is not news to most Manchester United fans, De Gea is reigning player of the season at the club and has been consistently excellent for a couple of years now. That said; there has perhaps been an element of doubt creeping in this season, by even his most vociferous supporters after a string of performances that can’t be described as bad; but have definitely fallen short of the standards we now expect of him.
On Saturday he answered his doubters emphatically, becoming the first premier league goalkeeper to deny Leighton Baines from the penalty spot with a fantastic strong wristed save to his right. He went on to make a string of crucial saves in the last five minutes of play, denying Leon Osman and Brian Oviedo brilliantly. The latter perhaps his best save in a Manchester United shirt to date; having already gone to ground to cover a shot from Osman that was blocked, he sprang up brilliantly diving high to his left to tip Oviedo’s rebound over, as it was heading for the top corner.
With the defence in front of him likely to remain unsettled and inconsistent until January at least and probably beyond; Manchester United will need more performances like this from their stopper if they are to get anything out of this season.
4. United missed Ander Herrera.
Antonio Valencia deputised admirably in the absence of Ander Herrera, putting in a solid performance despite playing out of position, but he was no replacement for the Spaniard, who is fast becoming one of the most important players at the club. Herrera is a fantastic box-to-box midfielder, who is crucial to the way we play. With so much attacking talent in the team, it is imperative that United have midfielders capable of winning the ball and carrying it forward into the more advanced positions; a task that Herrera excels at. He is effortless on the ball, assured in possession and has a fine range of passing.
Towards the end of the game Manchester United were on the back foot and the midfield was being dominated by Everton, allowing them to take control of the game. It’s in situations such as these where Herrera’s mobility, stamina and willingness to close down really come into the forefront. It’s a testament to how good he has been so far that his £29 million price tag has barely been mentioned, a stark contrast to the coverage given to the £24 million tag that has weighed so heavy on the shoulders of Marouane Fellaini since his first day at the club.
The International break has come at a good time for Manchester United, with various players approaching fitness, but Herrera is arguably the most crucial of them all, such is his importance to our midfield. Van Gaal will be hoping for a speedy recovery from his rib injury.
5. We’re not out of the woods yet.
There’s plenty of cause for optimism going into the international break; The Reds have won two hard fought games in a row with our unsure defence being tested, Falcao has scored his first goal for the club, Di Maria has been electric and things are looking generally positive. However; it’s important for Manchester United fans to temper their expectations, at least in the short term, as the bigger tests are yet to come.
One of the recurring themes during David Moyes’ tenure was the false dawn; there were so many times last season when United put in a huge performance appearing to have finally turned a corner, only to be defeated by a smaller team the following game. The same thing has happened once this season already, with United following the dominant 4-0 victory at home to Queens Park Rangers with the 5-3 capitulation against Leicester City at the Kingpower Stadium, after leading 3-1. It’s losses like this that eventually cost Moyes his job, and van Gaal can’t afford too many results like it if he has aspirations of returning the club to the Champions League.
Manchester United have responded well to their defeat to Leicester, showing resilience to grind out two victories in a row, but the truth is, that while Everton were our biggest test so far by name, in practice they have been poor in all areas this season. The fact that we didn’t put the game out of reach in the first half is cause for concern, and would have cost us dearly were it not for De Gea’s heroics. Bigger tests are yet to come, with some extremely difficult fixtures coming up once the players return from International duty.
The future is definitely bright for this exciting team that Louis van Gaal has put together, and the optimism around the club is well founded. Manchester United head into the International break exactly where they aim to be; inside the top four. However, there’s still holes in the team, the defence is in tatters and needs to be addressed. The target now is to make that fourth spot theirs, and look forward to the top three.