Another day, and another under-par Manchester United performance. Fortunately on this occasion, the Red Devils managed to steal the three points from St James’ Park, despite a dogged performance from old rivals Newcastle.
The staunchest United supporters amongst us would have went through an array of emotions during last night’s game. In the build-up to the match, anticipation, as we wondered if we would finally be treated to the top class performance that van Gaal has been promising us; disgust, as sloppy defending almost gifted Newcastle an early penalty kick; anger, as the slow-tempo possession game LvG favours yielded barely any clear cut opportunities throughout the game; and finally joy, after Ashley Young pounced near the death with what could be the most vital of goals in the race for a top four spot. I myself let out a gigantic roar of approval when the ball crossed the line, but one thing struck me whilst watching the game on BT Sport. When Louis van Gaal had finally gotten to his feet to celebrate the goal, which he doesn’t do very often, he turned to celebrate with his assistant Ryan Giggs. Did Giggs respond? No. In fact, he did his very best to ignore van Gaal’s giddiness. Of course Giggs would have been relieved with the win, but he knew that United had once again gotten out of jail after another lacklustre performance. Van Gaal, on the other hand, would inevitably justify his playing system and team selection by merely pointing to the final score, when in reality, he has his goalkeeper to thank, yet again, for sealing the three points. I for one shudder to think where we would be without David de Gea, which is another of the many reasons why keeping him out of the clutches of Florentino Perez at Real Madrid should be the first priority of Ed Woodward and co in the Old Trafford boardroom.
In my opinion, the formation that van Gaal opted for against Newcastle works – to an extent. The 4-2-3-1 accommodates two wide men, two overlapping full backs, two sitting midfielders and an attacking one, as well as a lone striker. But the problem lies with his choice in personnel. Marcos Rojo is a good player when he is playing in his favoured position at centre back, but he is certainly not a full back, and neither is Antonio Valencia, who van Gaal might want to think about dropping in place of Rafael, given his current form. Admittedly, our options at CB are not what they should be – of the current squad, only Rojo and Jones are good enough, and even Jones has not been the most convincing. That is certainly an area where investment is needed in the summer.
Why not play Blind at LB while Shaw recovers from (yet another) injury? He has proved to be more than capable there at the highest level, and this would also make room for the forgotten man, Juan Mata, to slot in at CAM, behind Wayne Rooney. In my eyes, Mata should be one of the first names on the team sheet, along with skipper Rooney, De Gea and Herrera, but LvG is not keen on the Spanish playmaker, for whatever baffling reason. Marouane Fellaini has come on leaps and bounds under van Gaal, but if his presence in the team is the reason why Mata can’t get a game, I would be inclined to drop the big Belgian.
On paper, the wide positions should pick themselves – but with Angel Di Maria’s confidence at a worryingly low level, that may not be the case anymore. It is impossible not to feel sorry for Di Maria, but having started the season so well, one would have backed the Argentine to kick on and become United’s undisputed talisman. He is not untouchable, as LvG has showed in the last couple of games by substituting him quite early on for Adnan Januzaj, and he is a man that looks like he is feeling the pressure of his enormous price tag. Players coming from abroad often take time to adapt to the Premier League, which is why I am confident that the former Real Madrid man will come good for his new club. There are no such worries on the opposite flank where we have Ashley Young, who has miraculously rediscovered some form under van Gaal. The England winger has been sorely missed through injury over the last few months, and is becoming an invaluable cog in the Manchester United machine, and proved his value once again during Wednesday night’s victory.
I realise that playing a lone striker means playing only one of Rooney, van Persie or Falcao in their favoured position. But van Persie and Falcao have struggled for form and fitness, which gives Rooney the advantage. He was not at his clinical best at Newcastle, but his graft and determination are typical of the man, and are characteristics simply not found in the lockers of his colleagues. I would be very surprised if the club finalises the £43m signing of Radamel Falcao in the summer. Four Premier League goals in 17 games is quite simply not a good enough return for a player renowned for being one of the world’s great strikers, and who is earning such ludicrous money. Van Persie’s injury lay-off could see him lose his starting place, but I do see the Dutchman seeing out his contract at Old Trafford. The young James Wilson will be closing in on his illustrious teammates in the pecking order, with the youngster offering pace in abundance.
For me, and many other fans will say the same, enough is enough. The board and sponsors might be happy grinding out results unconvincingly, but we, the fans, most certainly are not. Manchester United is a club that breeds success and teaches fluent, attacking football, and does not settle for mediocrity. If things go our way over the next two and a half months and we manage to secure a Champions League spot, then fine. I would hold a top four position in a higher regard than playing performance, but only for the remainder of this season. But starting from next season, things must improve on the field. Whether that will take another £100m+ to accomplish remains to be seen. I have faith in Louis van Gaal to bring the glory days back, and I do believe he will get it right at Old Trafford. A couple of poor seasons do hurt, but that is because our generation only knows success. Patience is the name of the game. Remember the old saying: Rome wasn’t built in a day.