Take your minds back to the Liberty Stadium in late February. The Red’s had just suffered a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Swansea City, the football on display can only have been described as exciting as Michael Owen’s voice and Louis Van Gaal’s ‘philosophy’ was under intense interrogation to say the very least. If someone had said that United would now be sitting third with a five match winning streak in the league; including comprehensive victories over Spurs and Liverpool, then you would quite simply have stated that you admired their ridiculous optimism in at least an effort to be kind.
Louis Van Gaal has done it though, United are well and truly back. It would have been easy after the Spurs and Liverpool games to take the foot of the gas against Aston Villa but again the Red’s looked rampant going forward and should without any doubt of been out of sight by half-time.
United now appear to set off with an intense, high-tempo pressing game with the aim of winning the ball back from the opposition as quickly as possible and as a result are found possessing the ball in very dangerous areas of the pitch. We have seen all season the Red’s attempt to control possession but Louis Van Gaal’s side have been criticised for failing to make that possession count and for not making nearly enough goal scoring chances to entertain even the most forgiving of United fans. Last Saturday we saw a United side carving out chance after chance whilst still proclaiming a statistic of 78% ball possession. Impressive isn’t it.
The key change in the Red’s fortunes however has to be down to the change of formation and the distribution of key players into their best positions. Michael Carrick’s return to the side mixed in with the injury to Robin Van Persie has enabled both Maroune Fellaini and Juan Mata to move forward in an almost 4-4-3 formation. If you go back 2-3 years ago, Juan Mata and Maroune Fellaini were widely regarded as two of the best attacking midfielder’s in the Premier League, United are now using them in their best positions and are starting to reap the rewards.
Ander Herrera also deserves immense praise and it appears that he is becoming the little gem in midfield that United have been missing for years. The Spaniard adds an intensity that has been missing in the engine room at Old Trafford. His work rate and gritty determination greatly aid this exciting pressing game on display, and with five league goals, four league assists and a pass completion rate on average of 89% the ex-Bilbao man is looking the complete midfielder. It is only a matter of time before he wins his first cap for Spain. Herrera and Mata are becoming United’s very own Xavi and Iniesta.
Sunday’s game is going to be deeply interesting. United have not beaten City in the league at home since 2009, that has to change sometime. The past couple of seasons the blue half of Manchester have looked to dominate possession throughout proceedings and have used the quality in their side with players such as Aguero and Silva to wear United down. The Red’s have constantly been on the back foot in these games, looking to hit City on the counter-attack to no real avail.
This all changes this weekend. A new Manchester United are on display. Possession doesn’t win games, we all know that, but if United can take control of the early play and dictate the pace of the game then it will go a long way towards deciding who comes out victorious come 6pm. It is no secret that City are low on confidence on the back of a three game losing streak. If United press high up the pitch like they have done lately then City will panic and with a roaring Old Trafford crowd on their backs we may see a severely weak Manchester City defence succumb to the pressures.
On Monday night Crystal Palace gained success by frustrating City and hitting them on the counter attack. United won’t get the same luxuries on Sunday and must remain disciplined when not in possession. It is all very well playing a high pressing game but you cannot ignore the fact that City do have the quality to pick United apart if this procedure is not carried out to the very greatest of effects. Daley Blind and Antonio Valencia have done an excellent job in the full-back positions but one lapse in concentration on Sunday and United will be made to pay.
The well documented rise of Manchester City over the last couple of years has always presented the argument about a shift in power within the city. If there has been a shift then a Manchester United win on Sunday would be a huge step in moving the power back across to the red side of Manchester. With the FIFA Fair Play rules coming into force and United looking set to spend big again this summer then a league finish above City will most definitely put Louis Van Gaal’s on the front foot for next season. Always remember that form is temporary and class is permanent.