Ander Herrera opens the scoring with a nearly taken first half strike
What a difference a fortnight makes; the journey to Old Trafford for the previous home league match against Spurs had been filled with apprehension and anxiety that the season would end on a downward trajectory following the whimper against Arsenal in the FA Cup earlier that week. The subsequent victories against Spurs and Liverpool not only gave United a cushion in the ‘rat race’ for the top four but felt like Van Gaal’s side had suddenly gone from 2nd gear to 5th.
Gone was the hesitant, nervous football on evidence over the majority of the season to date, replaced by a United side playing with pace, confidence and aggression. For the first time in a long time, the walk to the ground was filled with the expectation, rather than hope, of a home win and good performance. The new found confidence proved well founded as United recorded a fifth straight league win with another encouraging performance.
Ander Herrera goals help sink Villa
Ander Herrera grabbed the headlines with two fine goals and he deserves all the credit that will come his way having taken his opportunities since returning to the side following a prolonged period of being out of the side. He took his goals very well and United are benefiting this season from having the likes of Herrera, Fellaini and Mata contributing good goal returns from midfield.
Of equal encouragement against Villa, as was also the case against Spurs and Liverpool, was the link up play throughout the game on the right hand flank of United’s attack. Herrera and Mata will be credited for much of this, as they should be, however, it would be remiss to understate Valencia’s contribution to this success; I have been critical of Valencia over the last couple of years but he has had a fine season and whilst right back is still a position that United would hope to strengthen, he has consistently delivered 7/10 performances for Van Gaal. Against Villa, Valencia’s work rate combined with Mata’s decision making and Herrera’s dynamism caused constant problems.
Daley Blind continues to impress
In many respects, United’s recent renaissance has been achieved predominantly through the form of players who, at best, have been deemed unfashionable or, at worst, been actively disliked over the last eighteen months, or longer. Whilst Mata, Herrera and Valencia were effective on the right hand side, Blind, Young and Fellaini have created a solid platform on the left. Blind has been a consistent performer all season but many will argue he is slightly underwhelming when used as the main defensive midfielder.
His performances at left back underline why Van Gaal will want to find a place in his side when possible and Shaw has a challenge to get into the side once fully fit. Young’s work rate and desire has been a great example to the rest of the team in recent months and he put in another good performance against his old club which was rewarded with a fantastic reception from the Old Trafford crowd when substituted in the second half. Fellaini was unspectacular but efficient in nearly all he did and if you watched this United side for the first time, you would no longer think that he looks out of his depth.
It’s ironic given United’s apparent desire last summer to bring in star signings that they have finally begun to turn things round due to the good performances of the likes of Valencia, Smalling, Jones, Fellaini and Young in recent weeks. The contributions of others such as Rooney, Carrick, Mata and Herrera shouldn’t be understated, of course, but those aforementioned five have been regularly cast as rejects by United fans and yet all of them have contributed in recent weeks to some fine United performances. Whilst replacements may well be bought in their respective positions (or the eventual restoration to the side of Di Maria in Young’s case), all of them should have secured their positions in the United squad for next season.
Wayne Rooney scores a blinder
On the subject of United players who have often been out of favour with their own supporters, Wayne Rooney once again underlined his importance to the side; as with Young’s winner at Newcastle, Herrera’s second and United’s third was the result of harrying and determination from Rooney that, with Van Persie or Falcao playing as a sole striker, would not have been present. In many respects, Rooney attracts criticism from a playing perspective that no other striker playing as a number nine would get; in that position he tends to be a 30+ goal a season striker and yet people will still find something to criticise him for.
Gaal will face a test of his rationality when Van Persie is available for selection again; either Van Persie is restored with Rooney taking Fellaini or Herrera’s place in midfield (probably the former, all things considered) or he keeps the same side with Van Persie on the bench. Rooney will continue to be a vital player to United regardless of which option Van Gaal takes.
How high will United finish this season?
Given the other results this weekend, the ‘rat race’ for the top four appears to be all but over although you can be sure that United won’t take this approach given the next three games are the Manchester derby at home followed by Chelsea and Everton away. It’s a good indication as to the sudden upturn in performances that United fans are now optimistic of finishing as high as 2nd rather than worrying about finishing 4th.
This new found confidence was reflected in the mood at Old Trafford after Benteke pulled a goal back for Villa to make it 2-1 with ten minutes to go; earlier in the season, when United were 2-1 up at home with ten minutes left (think Everton, West Ham, Stoke etc), a nervous dread descended over both players and supporters.
Against Villa, Benteke’s goal never seriously felt nothing greater than an inconvenience and instead of spending the final minutes holding on to victory, United looked likelier to score again, which they eventually did. This change in mentality is a significant indication that a corner has been turned and that United’s punch drunk hangover of the last eighteen months may be coming to an end.