Chicharito might be miserable under Moyes, but looked happy to play with Kagawa, Mata and Januzaj.
Four straight away wins in the league. No goals conceded away from home in five. Juan Mata is looking confident and decisive while scoring and assisting from his preferred position, with Shinji Kagawa increasingly influential from wide areas and enjoying his partnership with Mata*. Antonio Valencia is recapturing some form, and Wayne Rooney (until his recent injury) has been scoring consistently from the #9 position. Away from Old Trafford, it’s beginning to look like Manchester United again.
Decent away days pointing to a better future?
It’s obviously easy to get carried away by a display against a Newcastle side that’s already on holiday and giving away points, in addition to good away performances and results against sides as flawed as West Brom, West Ham and Crystal Palace. Of course, United have been unacceptably poor at Old Trafford, and unforgivably pliant against their most bitter rivals. Despite Mr. Moyes’s latest fabrication, Marouane Fellaini still looks a lost cause, understandably but irretrievably out of place – an Everton target man in the centre of a Man United midfield. Still, United’s past five away games have shown that there is quite a lot of good material there to work with. What’s more, the style of football being employed to achieve those wins has been increasingly coherent, fluent and modern, with the tedious hit-and-hope crossing of early 2014 hopefully relegated to the ‘bad memories’ pile forever.
Once again, like the West Ham game, it’s a bit unclear how much responsibility the manager** had for the selection and display at St. James’s Park. While I’d be glad to give Mr. Moyes credit for setting the team up so convincingly in this way, it seems – again – like a case of injuries forcing him to choose a more dynamic team than he himself would’ve normally selected. Ashley Young has been in decent form since the turn of the year, and is one of the few to do himself any credit during the nightmare that was the first two months of 2014. Yet it’s still vaguely astonishing that it took two months and an in-game injury for the manager to finally play Kagawa, Mata and Januzaj together for a reasonable length of time.
The trio features the club’s most creative and technically gifted midfielders by a sickeningly wide margin – at times they looked like they were playing a different sport from the fare usually offered up by the likes of Fellaini, Young, and the latter-day Tom Cleverley. Just look at what their presence did for the performance of Javier Hernandez, who looked unrecognisable from the sulking, morose character we’ve seen this season. If he could somehow to manage to keep his level of performance up to that standard for the rest of the season, it would be easy to see a place for him at United in the future. Sadly, that looks a remote possibility and his goal celebration yesterday indicated that he knew as much.
The second half yesterday saw United give their most confident attacking performance in at least six months. Tellingly, neither Rooney nor van Persie featured. Recently, United have played better when Rooney has been used as the main striker instead of at #10, where his inconsistent touch and passing can bring the team’s attacking buildup to a grinding halt. More generally though, United’s best football this season – rare though that’s been – has tended to come when van Persie was absent from proceedings. United improved at West Brom after Robin came off, and on the road, they’ve looked better since his injury in the Olympiakos win.
Looking forward to next season and beyond, it’s becoming clear – at least I hope it is – that Juan Mata must be the centrepiece of the team, the player around whom United’s attacks will be built. Given that Rooney’s (mostly) been playing well up front and others have been showing form in the wide positions – Kagawa and Januzaj, but also Young and Valencia, and Nani’s just returned from a long spell out. The remaining question is on what future role Robin van Persie will have at United.
What would all this mean for Robin?
Of course, since United have played well (sometimes) in Robin’s absence, and since he’s
misquoted an early Coldplay song voiced unhappiness with the tactics (“in my space”) there’s been inevitable speculation about the Dutchman’s future at the club. His “I want to stay” speech the other week didn’t convince everyone, and I’ve been somewhat surprised at the number of United fans on Twitter saying they’d be for him leaving in the summer. I don’t think there’s any question that he is still an outstanding striker, and he is still clearly capable of making a big contribution to United. Even in a poor season he’s almost effortlessly gotten to double figures in goals – 11 from 18 games in the league. There’s a difference between saying “Robin’s had a bad season” and “Robin is incompatible with the style of football that Moyes is going to play/the style that I would like to see from United.” The first is certainly true, the second requires substantially more legwork from its proponents.
Still, if United are really going to commit to a more progressive, dynamic, pass-and-move (and sway) style – which would bring out the best from Mata, Kagawa, Januzaj and Danny Welbeck – clearly some big, risky choices will have to be made. I do think some of the criticism of Van Persie this season – actual human being have said things like “he’s too slow“, “he holds the team back” – are overblown, and based on a selective interpretation of his worst performances at the club. But very clearly, in such a system he would not be the main man to the extent that he was in Fergie’s final, triumphant campaign. So does that mean the club should get rid of him this summer?
United are unlikely to receive a large transfer fee for him, and therefore would only be wise in giving him up if:
1) His presence is detrimental to the dressing room - A not inconsiderable possibility given Moyes’s likely continued presence at the club. Or if he responds badly to not being the alpha male that he was in 2012/13. But given that 1) he’s finally had success at United, 2) he understands football better than almost everyone at the club – watch any interview he’s ever done for evidence of this, and 3) he played football with Thierry Henry for a large part of his career – I’d suggest that he at least knows how to handle, and is open to the possibility of not being top dog in a team, for the purpose of chasing trophies.
2) He really can’t play in the way that United fans want to – I’ll be honest. Every time I’ve heard this argument being made, I’ve had to restrain myself from laughing. This is only literally true in the long term because of his age. Even then it’s only true if (as we’re assuming) United quickly move towards a more expansive and intricate attacking style – a far from settled question. But there is no reason why he can’t make a major contribution over the next season or two – on form, his movement and ability to bring others into play are two of his most outstanding qualities. Of all the attacking players in the squad, he is still the only one capable of consistent goalscoring throughout a season – Rooney’s only done this twice in his career – and one of the few who frequently scores in meaningful games. If Chicharito – whose technical ability is at least three levels below van Persie – can flourish in front of the side’s creative trio, is there really any argument that Robin can’t?
3) His playing time inhibits a younger player’s development - One legitimate concern is that the continued presence of both van Persie and Rooney would mean Danny Welbeck will continue to play frustratingly few minutes as a centre forward. Notwithstanding the fact that Danny has a good scoring record when actually playing up front, the range of his qualities – speed, stamina, nifty movement, technical skill, defensive awareness, being Danny Welbeck – has meant that he’s been given a variety of roles in his United career, especially out on the left. It’s meant that he hasn’t had a fair chance to improve on the one weak area of his game – namely, finishing. Since Rooney seems to have been crowned Mr. United by David Moyes, he’s probably not going anywhere, so if van Persie stays but takes minutes away from our Danny, there will be problems.
4) United buy a striker who is even better - Yeah but no, because Glazers.
For all the massive struggles of the side, the frequently terrible performances and results, Robin’s injury problems, his reported unhappiness at the club, and Marouane Fellaini’s debilitating addiction to botanical fertilisers (picture of Fellaini wearing earrings on a night out), Robin’s scored 17 goals from only 25 games this season. He’s the closest thing to a guarantee of goals we’ve had since Ronaldo departed the club. Moreover, his compatibility (or not) with the desired system can only honestly be judged when the system itself is established and functioning well. I think it would be grossly unfair if this season – when everyone has played badly and the whole side has been largely incoherent – is used as the primary argument against any individual player’s place within it. Moreover, the arguments used against him this season have been completely ridiculous. The only way I can see him reasonably being moved on – short of a massive falling out with the manager – would be if he inhibits Danny’s development into a 20+ goal per season striker. Because nothing and nobody should come before our Danny.
It is borderline crazy that United have the best away record in the league*** though the best travelling supporters in English football deserve that, at the very least. Of course, if Moyes is to have any chance of success, United need to start putting this level of performance together in games where the opposition – and United – have something to play for. At the very least, Moyes – or whoever takes over from him – has something to build upon, and even if he goes and a new manager comes in, United can prosper on the platform its creative geniuses provide. Unquestionably, a fit and committed Robin van Persie can contribute to such a side, and don’t believe a soul who would have you think otherwise.
Footnotes (or something)
* – One other positive from Mata’s acquisition and subsequent good performances: hopefully, by now the football experts’ fallacy that “Kagawa can’t play on the left” has been soundly and sweetly put to bed. The main reason Kagawa struggled out wide in 2013 was that he rarely received the ball in positions where he could do most damage, and – under instructions from Mr. Moyes, no doubt – therefore was forced to adopt the “push and cross” tactic so beloved of Mr. Young. Even so, Shinji is quite capable of crossing the ball well, and perhaps he would be more highly regarded if his colleagues could be more reliable in putting away the chances he provides. Anyway, with a reliable #10 – ie. Mata, not Rooney – supplying the ball to him against West Ham and Newcastle, Kagawa showed just how effective he can be when starting from wide positions.
** – Right now, I’d like to leave the #MoyesIn v. #MoyesOut debate to one side – he’s enjoyed a decent week and a half and we have to hope that continues, but things can turn quickly again.
*** – It makes you think two things: 1. What have the other clubs been doing away from home, exactly? (your Ryan Giggs joke is dead lame, btw.) and 2. Jeezescrise, United’s home form must be really, really bad. It is.