Another round of fixtures goes by and Manchester United’s travelling support are still waiting to see their team pick up all three points on the road. It was a well earned point for the reds, with a late equaliser saving their blushes, but Louis van Gaal will be wondering how his men didn’t leave with all three points. Here’s five things we’ve learned from Monday night’s action.
- 4-3-3 Could be the Way Forward
The performance was perhaps ambitiously described as; “our best match of the season”, by Louis van Gaal in the post-match interview, a claim that will perhaps raise eyebrows, given the fact that United needed an 87th minute equaliser to claim a point against supposedly weaker opposition. He was not however, entirely wrong; Manchester United had 63% of position, registering 22 shots on goal. In patches; it was an impressive attacking display and on another day United could have walked away resounding winners.
A lot of the positivity taken from the performance comes from the formation; Manchester United looked altogether more comfortable in a more familiar 4-3-3 formation, a system that is well documented for being favoured by Louis van Gaal. It was perhaps implemented due to selection restrictions; with Wayne Rooney suspended and Radamel Falcao a little jaded following international duty, Robin van Persie was the only recognised striker available to start, rendering any formation with two strikers redundant.
The problems with the back four persisted throughout, but it could be argued that these issues are more down to the low quality of the personnel, rather than limitations in the formation. In an attacking sense though, the formation was an improvement, the midfield seemed – for the most part – comfortable in possession and were happy to use the wingers to stretch the West Brom defence; width that has been sorely missed so far this season. The players all looked at home in the more familiar formation and there’s was never panic amongst the players in the way that there was at home to West Ham; where we relied on the linesman’s offside flag to deny a Kevin Nolan equaliser, or against Everton; where De Gea rescued the points. On Monday United were much more solid; restricting the opposition to just two shots on target, which, unfortunately for the Red Devils; they took.
- Daley Blind is Great, But Not Without Problems.
It’s fair to say that Daley Blind had a decent evening on Monday night, his fantastic late equaliser capped off a fine individual performance. He had more touches than any player on the pitch with 92, and finished the game with a 93.2% pass completion rate; once again the best of anyone else on the pitch. He is a fantastic recycler of possession, with a fantastic ability to find a red shirt no matter how much pressure he appears to be under. He has been one of the stand-out performers in van Gaal’s short tenure at Old Trafford, and has provided fans with positives to clutch at, in an otherwise difficult opening few months.
Daley Blind is not without his faults though, and sometimes the positive statistics can shroud the truth of a performance from view, and on Monday night his biggest flaw was brought to light once again; namely, his lack of pace. West Brom’s Saidi Berahino and Stephane Sessegnon are two players with exceptional pace, and on more than one occasion on Monday night, they floated past Blind as if he weren’t there, and it isn’t the first time this season, Manchester United fans will remember the torrid afternoon he had trying to handle Leicester City’s David Nugent at the Kingpower Stadium in September. For all of his positive attributes; sometimes the game can pass Blind by.
Daley Blind is a fantastic player, and does his role better than anyone at the club, but when Angel Di Maria, Adnan Januzaj, Ander Herrera, Juan Mata and Robin van Persie all push forward, it’s a lot to ask for him to hold it all together and protect the defence when the opposition get the ball and counter. The Dutch midfielder did however look altogether more comfortable in the second half when Herrera made way for the more defensively robust Fellaini.
- Januzaj Needs More Game Time
It’s fair to say that Manchester United’s young Belgian star Adnan Januzaj had an evening to forget on Monday night. His passing stats were relatively poor; successfully completing 81% of his 32 attempted passes, and he was often dispossessed while dribbling. In fact, he dribbled it out for a throw in on two separate occasions, despite being under no pressure from the opposition. All in all, Januzaj looked a little way off the form Manchester United fans have come to expect of him after last season.
This isn’t necessarily a criticism, it’s worth remembering that for all of his faults; he is only nineteen years old, he has come a long way in a very short space of time and it’s only natural for a player so young to suffer a dip in form. However, it’s not productive for the development of a player if he doesn’t get a run in the team, and it’s clear that the longer spells on the sidelines so far this season have not done the Belgian any favours. The problem now facing Januzaj, is that with United not competing in any European competitions, and having already been eliminated from the League Cup; he may find that his first team opportunities remain limited.
In a squad with such a plethora of attacking talent; players that are on the fringes of the first team need to grasp any opportunities they get with both hands, as Marouane Fellaini did (more on that later), something that Januzaj didn’t manage on Monday. If Louis van Gaal chooses to adopt the 4-3-3 formation moving forward, then Adnan could be given the chance to make the right wing position his own, if not; then he can only hope for a better showing next time he is given game time.
- Fellaini is an Option
Marouane Fellaini is a much derided figure at Old Trafford, and not entirely without reason. Last season he cut a forlorn figure, playing consistently poor and not looking anywhere near the extortionate £27.5 million paid for him. Not all of the criticism aimed at him is fair though, no player chooses their transfer fee, and the Belgian seemed to be constantly reminded of it last season as he was a shadow of the box to box midfield powerhouse seen in his Everton days. His lowest point must have been in the pre season friendly against Valencia when his every touch of the ball was greeted with ironic cheers and “ole’s”, from his own fans, a truly poor display.
It would appear however, that Louis van Gaal has offered Fellaini a reprieve; the Dutchman has been clear in his intentions to include Fellaini is his match day squads, and find a place for him in the team. On Monday night, Fellaini repaid his managers faith with a fantastic display of desire, strength and mobility in midfield that was so badly missing from his game last season. He scored a fantastic goal – his first competitive goal for the club, and looked an altogether different player, one that could genuinely add something to the team.
He may well continue to operate as a peripheral figure, often coming on to impact a game, rather than starting them; and perhaps this doesn’t justify the transfer fee paid for him, but it’s a start, and with the potential for the return of European games in the coming seasons he may find himself involved more and more. When you consider that he started the season as little more than a reminder of the Moyes reign, a piece of fat that needed to be trimmed from the squad; he could well finish it as an important member of the squad.
- Van Persie May Not be a Guaranteed Starter Anymore
It’s been a long time since Robin van Persie has genuinely been at his best in a Manchester United shirt; in the 2012-2013 season he was a revelation, a genuine transfer coup; he had the Cantona effect on the team in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season, scoring twenty four goals as United were runaway champions, winning the Premier League by eleven points.
Last season was a difficult one for the Dutchman, a campaign constantly hampered by niggling injuries, the highlight of which was undoubtedly his hat-trick in the second leg of the Champions League first knockout round, which turned round a two goal first leg deficit helping secure a 3-2 aggregate victory. For the most part though he didn’t reach the same heights.
This season has been much the same as the last so far; he has scored two goals – a fine return considering we are only in October, but his general play has been lacking. The desire to make runs into space, to close down opposition defenders and to generally make life difficult for the opposition seems to be lacking. Is it age and a long history of muscle injuries finally catching up with him? Or perhaps just a lack of fitness after of long summer in which his Netherlands team finished third place at the World Cup?
Whatever the reasons, he seems to be lacking that unquantifiable ‘X-Factor’ that made him such an explosive goalscorer two seasons ago, and with the possibility of van Gaal implementing his favoured 4-3-3 in the coming weeks, van Persie could find himself on the bench, with Radamel Falcao getting the nod ahead of him.
The West Brom game was by no means a disaster, but there’s still much room for improvement, the system looked solid enough, with both goals coming from individual defensive errors that could have been avoided. With Chelsea coming to Old Trafford on Sunday; this improvement will be needed quickly.