Author: Karate Jesus
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United v Liverpool – What we learnt (or didn’t learn, or maybe already knew, or maybe still don’t know)
United’s first game of a busy September schedule was, for the most part, a static affair that, had it not been for two fantastic goals by Christian Benteke and Anthony Martial, would have been entirely forgettable. Despite this, any victory over Liverpool is worthy of celebration, even if it came against a side who looked the least imposing to travel down the East Lancs Road in the Premier League era.
What did United fans learn from the game that they didn’t know before? With the exception of confirmation that Marouane Fellaini should only be used as a number 9 as a late throw of the dice, I would venture not a lot. It’s clear that supporters and the media are looking to focus on the negatives of Van Gaal’s United at the moment and the concerns (the play is too slow, there is a lack of risk-taking in attack, there aren’t enough options or depth up front) will have been cemented further for many yesterday, despite the 3-1 scoreline.
I’ve been of the opinion from the start of the season that United would be an organised, functional side that are hard to beat but not great entertainment to watch. Nothing seen so far has really altered that view; if David De Gea had been in goal against Swansea, it is likely that United would currently be unbeaten, however, it’s also arguable that the side hasn’t got out of second gear, at least in an attacking sense.
There was criticism of Van Gaal after the game for suggesting that he felt United were better in the first half than the second. The initial reaction to this is to scoff and put it down to him being obstinate. However, on reflection, it’s curious as to why, or how, anyone could disagree. United battered Liverpool in the first half; De Gea touched the ball maybe twice, whenever the ball was cleared by Liverpool it went straight back to United, Liverpool looked like they didn’t have a game-plan at all. The problem for United was that they battered them up to the edge of Liverpool’s penalty area, where time and again nothing happened. Juan Mata and Ander Herrera were anonymous and not helped by having Fellaini walk around in front of them; I’m loathe to criticise Fellaini too much as he is not going to be able to produce a performance that a natural striker would give, where he works the defenders by pulling them around to provide space for others. Memphis was the only player from the front four who was regularly involved but, unfortunately, he had a stinker and was correctly substituted for Ashley Young at half time.
“When you make a goal like Anthony you cannot wish for more.”
Louis van Gaal on Antony Martial
I understand why everyone’s initial reaction to Van Gaal’s comments was to disagree; United didn’t score in the first half and then got three in the second half, so how can the manager claim the performance in the first half was better? This argument just looks at the black and white of the situation, however, rather than the many shades of grey in between. Had Young been playing in the first half rather than Memphis, or had United scored after two minutes from a set-piece rather than forty-seven, then then game, and people’s perceptions of how it was going, would have been vastly different. If anyone feels that Liverpool were closer to United in the first half or that United had more opportunities to create good chances in the second half, then I’m not sure they are watching the match itself rather than the score-line. There definitely seems to be a tendency for people to get carried away with things to both extremes at the moment; if United are 0-0 at half time then it’s awful and against United traditions, if they score three goals in the second-half (even though they were from three shots on goal, one of which was a penalty and another a goal from a set-piece), then things were much better. I get why Van Gaal thinks the first half was better, as he will be assessing the whole performance and not just what happened in the final third; in all honesty, what happened in the final third all game was pretty uninspiring.
Undoubtedly, people’s concerns regarding United at the moment are that they are uninspiring and don’t carry the chaotic, force-of-nature element to their attack of the greatest United sides of recent times. This is unarguably true and there is work to be done, however, it’s very much a work in progress, with another 4-5 first team players having joined this summer, plus Blind playing in a new position, Shaw breaking through and a new system being used with two deeper midfielders rather than one.
I’m not convinced that United will be particularly wonderful to watch in an attacking sense for the whole season but I do think things will gradually improve and it’s quite staggering that there are many out there who don’t recognise the improvement in the side over the last twelve months. Recently, it has seemed like the Moyes comparisons have begun to be rolled out again; comparing Van Gaal’s record over 50 games with Moyes’, suggestions that there’s been no tangible improvement since Van Gaal took over. It really is bollocks.
Particularly towards the end days of Moyes, you would watch United and wonder what on Earth the players were doing in training as there didn’t seem any plan or cohesion at all. People may disagree with Van Gaal’s ‘philosophy’, and my personal preference is for a team who plays with the ball less and with greater risk, but this United side, even in it’s infancy, have a clear idea of what they are trying to achieve. This is shown by the form of the back four and the security that is brought by the two central midfielders. To suggest that there has been no improvement or that United are on the brink of crisis under Van Gaal is quite clearly wrong. There are a number of hugely positive aspects for United that no one seems to want to give them credit for.
Firstly, as it’s been the big story of the week, De Gea’s new contract meant any speculation for the time being could be put to bed and he could return straight to the team; essential, given the alternative. He may well still leave in a year but his new contract means that United should still get a decent fee for him and they’ve still had him for an extra year which, given he was two minutes away from leaving a fortnight ago, is a great outcome for the club. It would’ve proved impossible to replace De Gea this summer with a keeper anywhere near his standard and to have him back in goal is a huge boost.
On De Gea, I’ve seen a few (albeit a minority) criticise him for wanting to leave. It’s remarkable that some football fans think you must be a **** unless you stay at their team forever. De Gea clearly wanted to go because of the opportunity to live in Madrid where his family and girlfriend are, he didn’t moan to the press either before or after the deal fell through and, once it had fallen through, he signed a new deal that at least gives United a fee if or when he finally does leave. There’s been a few ‘why doesn’t De Gea get the stick that Rooney got?’ sentiments; Rooney questioned the ambition of the club publicly and tried to force through a move to Manchester City. If you can’t tell the difference between the two scenarios then you’re being wilfully obtuse.
If De Gea’s return is an unlikely boon for United, the form of the whole of the back four has been absolutely fantastic so far. Each member has been so good, I’d say it’s unfair to pick out one of them above the others. Matteo Darmian, new to the country, has been solid and looks to be in the same vein as Denis Irwin in the sense that he will be a 7/10 player every week. Chris Smalling seems to have finally realised that he is very good and on current form it would be hard to find a better centre-back than him in the league. Luke Shaw is just unbelievable; 20 years old, his strength and speed don’t really come as a surprise, but his defensive intelligence and competitiveness is incredibly impressive.
Given his performance yesterday, however, I think we need to talk about Daley Blind. So far this season, when Blind’s name is mentioned, all you will hear is people say ‘he’s not strong or quick enough, he’ll get found out eventually’ or, if people are really forced to give him credit, there’s the back-handed compliment that he is a good communicator and he’s intelligent. Especially in the modern game, the requirement to be big and tough as a centre-back is a lot less than it used to be, given defenders cannot use their physicality to dominate forwards in the way they used to.
For any deficiency Blind may have in terms of pace or power, his positional play is exemplary and his distribution has eased the issues that United had over the last couple of seasons where the defence would invite pressure on our goal due to their anxiety when in possession. For me, Blind has been every bit as good as the other three in defence this season and yet there is still the suggestion that Darmian, Smalling and Shaw are all doing well and Blind is just a stop-gap. It’s another example of how every opinion has to be black or white, how someone is either great or terrible.
Given that Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo are yet to feature, and given the former is far more competent than his detractors would have and the latter was decent at both centre-back and left-back in his debut season, United’s much criticised defence appears to be in the best shape since Ferguson’s departure.
Whilst the defenders have stood out so far, it can only be a positive thing that United now have good quality options in the centre of midfield. At the start of last season, the choice was from Darren Fletcher, Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley and Anderson and that has now changed to two from Carrick, Bastian Schweinsteiger or Morgan Schneiderlin with Herrera, Blind or Fellaini as possible alternatives. There’s no need to continue with any analysis as to how or why that particular balance of selection has improved.
Finally, as I’ve already touched upon, there is significant room for improvement in an attacking sense at United. For a start, it’s a big season for Wayne Rooney; given the circumstances of last season, I felt it was correct that he should be our designated number 9 this season and, with that being the case, I can fully understand why Robin van Persie wasn’t retained (I don’t think there’s any need to have a debate about the merit of letting Falcao go or Javier Hernandez, who’s needed to move on for his own sake for at least two years). Yes, in the event of Rooney being injured (like yesterday), it would be preferable to have Van Persie up front instead of Fellaini, however, it’s not like that; which is more likely, Van Persie playing the part of happy substitute or Van Persie re-enacting the final months of Van Nistlerooy by being a petulant distraction? That consideration, combined with the financial element, made his departure one of logic.
Returning to Rooney, having been given the number 9 role, it will be interesting to see what will happen if he doesn’t perform to the required standard over the season. It may be that Van Gaal gives him a reprieve and we see him at number 10 with Martial at 9, or it could be that Van Gaal decides it’s time to move Rooney on; as he has shown frequently before, like Ferguson, Van Gaal is not a man of sentiment.
As there is pressure on Rooney, there will also be pressure on two fans’ favourites, Mata and Herrera. If they are picked in the front four, they will need to perform and, in general, I think it’s fair to say that they generally do, however, more is required if they are to keep their places. They are both interesting cases; both are really well liked by supporters who want to see them in the side yet, on the flip side, the same supporters complain that the attack isn’t good enough. I’m not sure that can be fully laid at Van Gaal’s door, as I presume most fans would be doing. Quite simply, are Herrera and Mata in the class of the forwards at Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich? They aren’t are they? They are nice, good players, but particularly in a system like Van Gaal’s where your team will dominate possession, would United be better with players in the front four who are more dynamic?
I have no answers to this question but it’s a strange juxtaposition that two of the most popular members of the squad are playing in an area where United are underachieving at the moment. As a very brief aside on Mata; why all the fuss for him to be played as a number 10? He’s played there a few times for United and never impressed and I always associated his best performances at Chelsea as him being on the left of a three behind a striker. I’ve always found the game goes by him when he plays at 10. My personal view is that, as with the ‘Blind will get found out’ line, ‘Mata should be played a number 10’ is something that just gets said so often, people start believing it as fact.
The two attackers I haven’t discussed yet are Memphis and Martial. Nobody knows how either will turn out eventually with any certainty, however, what cannot be doubted is that both are highly rated and, in the absence of being able to sign truly A-list players such as Gareth Bale or Thomas Muller, they are exactly the type of players the club should be pursuing. I would hope that supporters will show patience with both as there will undoubtedly be as many downs as there are ups in their first couple of seasons at the club, however, I won’t hold my breath. It’s not happened yet with Martial as even our fans can’t find something to criticise when a 19 year old scores a great goal in a twenty minute debut cameo against Liverpool, but there’s already been people questioning Memphis’ attitude, his desire, whether he is going to be good enough. I find it preposterous. Young players need time (you only need to think back to Ronaldo’s first few seasons) and some will mature quicker than others. I hope that, should United continue to be a little insomniac-friendly up front for the remainder of the season, that Memphis and Martial are not the targets for criticism.
All in all, United have had a decent but unspectacular start to the season and this was continued against a (terrible) Liverpool side. It may not be fantastic to watch all the time but it’s a side very much in it’s infancy and one that looks to dominate the opposition. Given the omni-shambles that Moyes left, it’s churlish to not recognise the improvements since. It isn’t perfect and it will still take time but for the first time in two years, the last few months have felt like the club has started to head in the right direction.