Falcao is brought down in box, however the wrong player was sent off
If United are to secure a top 4 finish and a return to Champions League football, then it is likely that they are going to have to win their home games. There was obvious anxiety and unrest in the stands during the first half as United took their time to get going and it could be argued they didn’t truly put Sunderland under pressure until John O’Brown was sent off. However, there were encouraging signs by the end and, given the circumstances, results rather than performances are the most important thing over the next few months.
In order to get the results United need, I get the impression that Van Gaal is going to pick the players he trusts the most. There can be arguments as to the merits of those he trusts (such as the continued exile of Rafael, although incidentally, Valencia is not currently a cause for concern at right back and continued his good form against Sunderland), but it is natural for him to do this.
At the moment, it is fair to say that De Gea, Valencia, Rojo, Blind and Rooney are all fixtures in the team, although where Blind plays when Carrick returns will be interesting to see. Mata is clearly out of favour at the moment, since his poor showing at QPR, whereas Herrera has come back into the team. Against Sunderland, I would suggest Smalling and Young played their way into the regular first eleven and the pair were the standouts throughout.
Smalling’s performance was in marked contrast to his partner’s in defence. While Smalling looked dominant and assured, Evans looked like he was playing in a perpetual state of distress. I’ve long been a supporter of Jonny Evans and was in favour of him being made captain at the start of the season. His regression this season has been spectacular; it’s easy to focus on the balls played back to De Gea that angered the crowd in the first half, but more worrying is his positioning and the overall anxiety he has whenever he has the ball. He should be at the peak of his career and a regular in the side. Instead, he is now last in the queue and will only get a game if Rojo or Shaw are out.
Of greater concern is the form of Angel Di Maria on the opposite wing, theoretically, to Ashley Young. Di Maria generally looked uninterested again, with poor touch and decision making and it was no surprise to see him hooked at half time. Januzaj was excellent when he came on and noticeably stayed wide and ran at the defence, in the way that Young did in the first half and Di Maria did not.
Van Gaal’s comments after the game underlined the value that he sees in Di Maria and I expect him to still get games, however, United desperately need him to regain the form he showed prior to his injury against Hull in the autumn. I do expect him to come good and hopefully this will happen sooner rather than later.
A player who is nearer to running out of chances, is Falcao. The Stretford End booed when Falcao got taken off for Fellaini with 25 minutes to go, having just won the penalty that put United 1-0 up. However, had the substitution happened moments before, I doubt the reaction would have been the same given his involvement, or lack of, throughout the rest of the game.
Everyone is in agreement that Falcao appears to be a nice guy and that he works hard, however, the same supporters who would have been critical of Javier Hernandez appear to now rack up excuses for Falcao; namely that he doesn’t get the service he needs. His touch isn’t good enough and his general play outside the area, despite occasional flashes, isn’t good enough either. Given he has scored only four goals all season and has been far from ruthless when opportunities do fall, I don’t buy the argument that United just aren’t utilising Falcao correctly. Van Gaal continues to give him opportunities but United would have a far better balance if Rooney is played as a sole striker, with two players wide and three in the middle. Alternatively, the pace of Wilson would stretch defences in a way that no other United striker can manage; on the evidence seen so far, it’s becoming harder and harder to justify Falcao’s inclusion.
Although greater space was obviously afforded to United once Sunderland were down to ten men, it was still encouraging to see United end the game positively. Of particularly note was how well Valencia, Herrera and Januzaj combined during the latter stages. Van Gaal’s side has been noticeably short on successful partnerships so far, and there was definitely some potential shown in the second half.
United now travel to Newcastle on Wednesday and, given the result at Swansea, a win is crucial given the rat race, as Van Gaal labelled it, for fourth place.