Wayne Rooney celebrates with MOTM Angel Di Maria as Manchester United thrash QPR
Author: Karate Jesus
Follow Karate Jesus on Twitter
After a torrid twelve months at Old Trafford, where the trajectory didn’t so much go down but, rather, plummet at an unprecedented speed, United’s 4-0 victory over Queens Park Rogers on Sunday was a cathartic moment for all United supporters.
The opposition may have been extremely limited, but over the last year that has not been a guarantee of a good United performance, let alone a victory. True, in the dying days of David Moyes’ reign, United scored 4 past Villa and Newcastle, and 3 against West Brom, however, even during those performances, 99% of people knew that the game was up and that these results were just moments of respite. The only true light at the end of the tunnel was the next on-rushing train, in the guise of Liverpool, City or Everton.
So, having experienced a year that magnified the fortune of United fans during Ferguson’s reign of terror (on everyone else), it was enjoyable to be at Old Trafford and feel that, as Van Gaal himself suggested, the trajectory may be turning.
The anticipation with regard to seeing the likes of Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao, had ensured the home fans were in good spirits prior to kick off and the glut of goals in the last twenty minutes of the first half provoked a boisterous atmosphere. For the first time in a year, the crowd crowed as referee Phil Dowd slipped on his arse, resulting in a medley of Steven Gerrard numbers. It felt like a weight had been lifted.
I ain’t afraid of no ghosts
Under Sir Alex Ferguson, opposition teams hated coming to Old Trafford (at least domestically). In 21 premier league seasons, United only lost more than 3 league home games in a season on three occasions; 3 in 2003-2004 and 2012-2013 and 6 in 2001-2002 during a season where Fabian Barthez’s tendency to go walkies went into overdrive. Last season, United lost an unprecedented 7 games, 6 of them under Moyes. The fear factor had, undeniably, departed with Ferguson.
Teams would previously come to Old Trafford and, if the game was level with ten minutes to go, both they and United would expect one thing; a United win. Be it Ferguson’s presence on the sideline or quality from world class players, the pressure would ramp up and more often than not, teams would crack. The most disappointing thing last season, in a sea of s***, was that United never looked like turning games round once they fell behind. If David Moyes had been charge at the Battle of Balaclava instead of Lord Cardigan (incidentally, how much clothing does one fight need?), Alfred, Lord Tennyson would have been left recounting a light brigade sauntering to their inevitable death.
Although, as everyone has been quick to point out, ‘it was only QPR’, Sunday suggested that optimism will no longer be the prevailing feeling of visiting teams. Last season, opposition players could look around and quite reasonably look at United as being a ghost of the side they once were. There is clearly still work to be done, and the new United will be a different side to those that Ferguson built, but the thought of facing any combination of Di Maria, Falcao, Rooney, Van Persie, Mata, Januzaj and Herrera, will serve to reduce the expectation of United’s opponents.
Love is Blind
Oh and I used to think that maybe one day, I’d find the love of my life. Oh but it’s so far away, oh I don’t know why. Oh but I, I want it all tonight and love is blind.
All the excitement and expectation prior to the game was directed towards Angel Di Maria and Falcao but, whilst the former was certainly the spark that ignited proceedings, an equally positive aspect of the victory was Daley Blind’s debut performance.
Since Paul Scholes’ initial retirement, Michael Carrick has literally been a one man midfield and if absent, or on occasion when he has been seconded to the centre of defence, United have badly missed him. On the evidence of his first ninety minutes in a red shirt, Blind has thrown down a gauntlet that suggests Carrick will now have a battle to get back into the midfield, let alone have to carry it. Given the likely eventual arrival of Kevin Strootman, it’s encouraging to think of the options that United will have at the base of their midfield diamond.
Blind’s arrival was met in certain quarters by a relatively large antipathy, a strange situation considering his versatility and the fact that he had been voted player of the season in Holland for his performances as a central midfielder last year. It was good to see that, post-match, Blind got the recognition his performance deserved; so much of United’s play went through him and he looked like he had played 100 games for the club. Eric Cantona disparagingly once labelled Didier Deschamps a water-carrier but, when you’ve leaked in the manner that United have recently, having someone who can carry the bucket and not drop it, was excellent to see.
If he can continue at the level he showed in his first match, he will make it difficult for Van Gaal to leave him out and, for the bigger games, it would be reasonable to expect him to play together with Carrick (or Strootman…) to provide a solid base from which the shinier baubles can dazzle.
The Fall Guy
The big question amongst United fans at the moment is ‘Who misses out?’. It was reasonable to expect that Falcao would be on the bench for his debut, given his lack of match fitness in addition to the travelling done during the international break, but long-term, most people expect him to take the most advanced forward option. If this is correct, one of those who started against QPR, will have to miss out.
We can safely assume that Angel Di Maria will not be one of them. His performance was a tonic to United fans who have become so frustrated with the diminishing quality of their attacking midfielders/wingers who have seemed incapable of thinking and running at the same time. Di Maria’s contribution to Ander Herrera’s goal was a throwback to the likes of Ronaldo’s run, and goal, against Fulham in 2006-2007. Following Ronaldo’s departure, with the exception of Nani for a brief time, it has felt like no United player is willing to receive the ball and take it forward immediately, therefore stretching opposition defences. Certainly, at least, no one has been able to do this whilst providing an end product. Di Maria’s ability to do this marks him out from all the other players in United’s expensively assembled side, and it’s clear he will play every week, if fit.
Alongside him, Herrera too, is unlikely to miss out. With either Blind or Carrick playing in front of the defence, the default combination in central midfield will be Di Maria and Herrera as they provide a balance and energy that will allow United to perform at their best. Whilst early days for Herrera, the desire to bring him to the club was understandable. He may never quite get to the highest level of the likes of Roy Keane, Paul Scholes or Bryan Robson, but he has a mixture of their attributes; good energy, courage, the ability to score goals.
As captain, Wayne Rooney would also expect to start more often than not, and his performance at the weekend was encouraging, particularly in the second half when he figured more prominently as Di Maria, in particular, faded. So much has been said about Rooney, but the contribution he makes in terms of goals and assists can’t be questioned. He has clearly desired for United to provide higher quality around him and it’s amazing how quickly things can change in football; had Ferguson stayed on, he would have been gone. Sixteen months later, he is captain of a squad containing genuine world stars. He will feel that he can contribute as either a number 9 or a number 10 and, whilst I think he should primarily be used as a 9, this should see him on the pitch more often than not.
So, this leaves us with two, and it’s the two players that I think the majority of United fans would agree are the main contenders for missing out; Juan Mata and Robin van Persie.
If there was a market for this kind of thing, there’s no doubt that Mata would be the bookies’ favourite to be on the bench; Van Gaal is clearly a big fan of Van Persie and it’s quite feasible that had Van Gaal been manager in January, Mata would not have been signed. However, form would suggest otherwise, with Van Persie the one player on Sunday who still looked out of sorts.
In many respects, this criticism is a little unfair as Van Persie was asked to perform in a wider position than he has tender to play since signing from Arsenal and, finally, winning the Premier League. His performance, in general, wasn’t bad but it was certainly more functional than spectacular and more often than not he was on the edges of the game.
Of great importance, you feel, to Mata, was the fact he scored; even though this shouldn’t necessarily be the determining factor, he will feel that his goal proved that he could make a significant contribution and provide something that would be missing should Van Gaal elect to go with Rooney, Falcao and Van Persie; a player more naturally suited to a deeper position who can arrive, unmarked in the box.
Whoever does miss out, and injuries are bound to play a part, the 4-1-2-1-2 formation that United used certainly provides a great deal of flexibility. Di Maria at times hugged the left touchline but then spent considerable time infield, Van Persie was stationed on both left and right flank and Mata, noticeably, was the furthest forward, flanked by Rooney and Van Persie, when QPR had the ball. Van Gaal will no doubt welcome the challenge of fitting everybody in, and I haven’t even mentioned Adnan Januzaj yet who will also hope to force himself into the side.
Di Maria can re-enliven Rooney
Wayne Rooney divides opinion more than any other player at OT – which tells you everything you need to know in one sense; he is neither as terrible or brilliant as he is portrayed. But one thing is for sure, if Rooney can re-discover the form that led him to be top scorer in 2009/10 (where he played fantastically as the sole striker – and not as a bit-part central midfielder), keeping motivated and solely focused on his football, he is an invaluable asset to the team. His impact was negligible last season, but then so was van Persie’s, and indeed the entire United side (De Gea excluded) under David Moyes; and in the previous season, his form varied considerably – playing with verve and energy in the first half of the season and falling out with Fergie in the latter half (Welbeck rightly chosen ahead of him in the crucial Champions League tie with Madrid at home).
Almost a constant theme in Rooney’s better output however, has been a wing player on the top of his game – rather than say, a forward partner (the link with van Persie is less than spectacular, and he famously combined very little with Berbatov). The Englishman thrives with somebody who can carry the ball at pace, somebody he can move in tandem with on the field, manipulating the space. Think Nani in 2010/11 and early 2011/12; Antonio Valencia in the previous season; Giggs and Park for large parts in between; and and of course Welbeck at times. In the same vein, it is now hoped that di Maria can provide the same spark for United’s captain, re-awakening him from his slumber. The Argentine sparkled on his home debut yesterday, starting in a 3-man centre, but also able to provide width on the left side, allowing him to cut inside at pace when he received the ball.
He combined beautifully with Rooney on at least 4 occasions, both players zipping the ball into each other at speed, and moving into the space to take the return ball. Herrera’s goal was a case in point; after Di Maria had bamboozled Isla and Hoilett, he exchanged passes with the England captain, before playing a sumptuous ball back into Rooney’s path just outside the penalty area, who in turn found Herrera on the edge, who found the net with precision. It is as though Rooney requires a player with the guile, pace and a quick football mind in lieu, in order for him to bring out the best in these qualities within himself – with the ex Real Madrid man in the side, it is arguably the best opportunity for Rooney to finally rekindle the form we know he can find. And who knows, perhaps there can be another goal haul of 2009/10 in the waiting.
Balanced at the back
United looked far better balanced in defence, mainly due to having genuine full-backs rather than converted wingers. Marcos Rojo had an excellent debut and it will be interesting to see if he retains the left back position or whether he will eventually move to centre back with Luke Shaw coming into the team. If he does stay at left back, it’s reasonable to assume that Rojo is more Heinze than Evra but it’s easy to forget that Heinze was the supporters’ player of the season in his first year at the club. Rojo linked up well with Di Maria in particular, and it is not a given that Shaw will walk into the side. Although this may surprise and disappoint some, it can only be a good thing that it is becoming difficult to secure a place in the United first team.
It was wonderful to see Rafael return and to play to the standard he showed in 2012-2013. He has been missed and I hope his performance was more than enough to nail down the right back position for the foreseeable future. He offered far greater variety in attack to Valencia, whose limitations were again exposed in the closing stages of the goalless draw at Burnley, and in addition, despite still having rash moments, is a far, far better defender than the Ecuadorian. The key for Rafael, as with so many of United’s defenders, is to stay fit so that he can stake a real claim for a regular place in the side.
Jonny Evans gave a much improved performance after a stuttering start to the season, although his back again appeared to give him discomfort on occasion. As things stand, he is the senior centre back and, if he can stay fit, he should be able to use that status as an advantage in retaining a regular place in the side. Alongside him, Tyler Blackett again impressed; he is on a steep learning curve but, given his sudden rise to prominence, it’s easy to see why his composure has impressed Van Gaal. It was also encouraging to see him communicate with his fellow defenders so well, at one point calling Rojo into centre back position as he moved over to cover Evans who had carried the ball into QPR’s half. He will make mistakes but he has certainly made the most of the opportunities afforded to him whilst others have been out injured.
If United continue to play four at the back, which I expect them to, they certainly have good options and relative depth. On what we have seen so far, if Van Gaal had everyone fit, I would expect to see a backline of Rafael – Jones – Evans – Rojo; it will be up to Smalling and Shaw to force their way in, although the make-up of the defence more than any other area is likely to be dictated by who is fit.
There was so much to discuss that I didn’t have time to address, so please contribute below with your thoughts on a great United victory. It makes for a nice change to be able to say that.