Searching for identity
Facing a team with the worst defence in the league and no win in the top flight all season, it seemed fairly straightforward to expect a Manchester United win in this game against Sunderland.
However, if Louis van Gaal has excelled at doing one thing at Old Trafford, it’s springing something of a surprise, and so it was far from a certainty that he would lead his team to the summit of the top division for the first time since he arrived in Manchester last year.
Nonetheless, United supporters have an expectancy to be challenging, and that, married with Sunderland’s own anxiety, made for a tense opening quarter, with a few mistakes being made in haste on either side.
The breakthrough came just before half time but it could hardly be said that United were as confident as, say, the 2006/7 title winners, who hadn’t won the league since 2003. It cannot be said that this team does not play without Louis van Gaal’s identity, but perhaps it ought to start playing with some of his bullish confidence in order to start convincing even themselves that they can be challengers.
Last year’s Premier League was open enough for United supporters to start picking at individual results and bemoaning the lack of a real challenge. This year’s looks like it will be the same again.
Embarrassment of riches
United have an embarrassment of riches in midfield. I know, I could barely believe it as I wrote that sentence too. But the subsequent problem that comes with that is the right combination. You can have players as good as any in the world (see Keane/Scholes/Veron) but it is clear – particularly in the Premier League – that how the individual quality works in those combinations is crucial.
United started with Schneiderlin and Carrick against Spurs at home and then Schweinsteiger and Schneiderlin against Newcastle. Against Liverpool, it was Carrick and Schweinsteiger, and today, it was back to those who started the first game.
What we know now is we should really have known anyway; two defensive minded midfielders will not be conducive to the high pressing and highly creative display that thrills supporters. However, the manager can rightly say ‘whatever works’ is the right choice, and United took the lead after being frustrated. It’s a work in progress and one can only think that it is only a comprehensive battering in the first half that will provide some sort of real conclusion about the right pairing. Still, that seems just as dependent on the opposition. And as United sit top of the league, can anyone really complain?
Difficult to watch
‘United manager Louis van Gaal has said he wants more speed, more imagination’ said the commentary team on USA’s NBC sports late in the first half.
The Red Devils went on to score two goals in the space of seconds on either side of the half time break. The resistance of their opponents was broken but did United’s performance convince their supporters?
‘Encouraging’ is the generous description given by those with a ‘glass half full’ perspective but the enjoyment of seeing your team win and the enjoyment of seeing your team play good football are two different things.
This football by numbers philosophy may engage those who have enthused about Michael Carrick being the understated midfielder of the last generation but now we have a number of players whose numbers are great, but is the football any more entertaining?
The best period of football came after United had scored two, with Sunderland forced to come out and try and get back into the game. Perhaps we’re being too harsh, as we keep saying there are two teams in every game. It should be said, again, that United were by far the better team in this game. Louis van Gaal may have been mocked for a comment earlier this season where he said similar things, but he wasn’t wrong.
Jack of all trades, master of how many?
Earlier in his United career Wayne Rooney was deployed in a number of positions. The primary reason for this was Cristiano Ronaldo’s emergence as a seriously world class talent whose own short periods of inconsistency had to be accounted and compensated for. It was said, then, that Rooney had learned a greater discipline.
Yet, has this opinion done Rooney favours, and is there any truth to it?
There was a moment in the 57th minute where Rooney anticipated the mistake of a Sunderland player to receive the ball. The Black Cats defender didn’t make a mistake; Rooney didn’t necessarily look bad. But still, it does evoke a certain sadness to see Rooney’s game reduced to this, his goals coming against teams whose defensive performances or contributions are shocking, and him hanging off the shoulder of a defender anticipating errors rather than forcing them and taking the initiative.
For the second time in a week, Daley Blind’s wonderful passing range provided the breakthrough. It was observed by United legend Gordon Hill and one of our social media managers Dave Murphy on our most recent podcast that moving Blind to left back against PSV after the injury to Luke Shaw caused an unnecessary confusion which cost the game. Since being put back into the middle, Blind’s contribution moving forward has been just as impressive as his defensive work. In home games, that kind of influence is crucial.
Let’s hope that the change for Phil Jones was simply a precautionary measure.
Memphis Depay Goal
Wayne Rooney Goal
Juan Mata Goal