Five Conclusions from United’s Win at Goodison Park
Van Gaal is more hit than miss
This point will be covered in further detail in the points below, but after facing such criticism for what seemed to be a pretty basic error in his selection against Arsenal, he got it perfect today, right down to the choice to play the in-form Martial out on the left and the out of form Rooney against the normally reliable Jagielka. It was a comfortable performance, and a victory with ease, as most have been this season.
Smalling the best in England?
Chris Smalling left the Manchester derby around this time last year in some disgrace. His form was patchy (though his performance in that game hadn’t been so bad) and his red card left some wondering if he’d ever get back in.
His post-Christmas form has been outstanding. Amid the uncertainty of his defensive colleagues, he has flourished this season where previously he may have shrunk under the weight of expectation. He is commanding and calm, providing a sense of assurance that is no doubt aided by the return of David De Gea. But – and this may be as much to the quick and sudden regression of his peers as much as his own ascension – he has surely established himself as England’s best centre half, and arguably the best performer in his position in the Premier League this season.
A Rooney return?
Such was the spotlight on Wayne Rooney after a documentary that lauded his career exploits which followed a performance as bad as any he’d ever given, that it is safe to say that expectations were, for once, low.
Rooney never plays well at Everton, he hasn’t scored for ages, let alone at Goodison Park – this game would surely (and, for some, hopefully) provide the required proof to remove him from the starting line up. And yet there he was, popping up with a goal to round off what was (in the second half, at least) a performance something like the player United supporters once knew. Anthony Martial was outstanding again – as was Ander Herrera – so the pressure on Rooney to perform is growing every week. It may just be the catalyst that was needed for a long overdue improvement.
A win by 3 goals at Everton follows a loss by 3 at Arsenal. This season United have scored 3 at Southampton, won Liverpool at home by 2 goals, won Spurs at home by a single goal and were held to a goalless draw at home by Newcastle. You could be reading a run through of this season’s results, or, you could be running through the results of Manchester United in the treble season.
‘Sacrilege!’, ‘Blasphemy!’ I hear you scream at the page, but the comparisons don’t stop there.
After all, it wasn’t until October that season, and a number of failed attempts to get the right combination of strikers that Cole and Yorke were finally tested at Southampton. And it wasn’t until this day in 1998 that Ferguson was given affirmation of that selection being the ‘right one’, with a 5-1 win over Wimbledon.
It still took some time to perfect – Sheffield Wednesday and Middlesbrough defeating United before Christmas to make talk of a treble seem truly ludicrous – but the events of that season tell us that it’s foolish to make sweeping judgements based after one or two games. In the modern age of instant opinion and the incessant need to make a judgement to qualify one’s ability to assess a situation rather than embracing unpredictability and change, the joy is being sucked out of football.
A prediction here – United won’t win the treble this season. And it might be just as foolish to declare them as potential winners as it was to write them off completely after the defeat against Arsenal. But they will be contenders, and considering no team has a god given right to win the title, surely that’s good enough.
Midfield dilemma worsens in the best way
… Which brings us on to this point. Just as in that Southampton game in 1998, it looks as if Louis van Gaal might have hit a winner with Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin as a central midfield pairing; assuming that Ander Herrera is in there too. But that’s the big worry – the manager can, with confidence, justifiably select that combination against Manchester City next week.
With 1 hour to pick the bones of it before kick off, supporters can procrastinate over the potential benefits of it. Nobody could have predicted the first twenty minutes against Arsenal because it is only with the benefit of hindsight that the obvious flaws were, well, obvious. And so it stands to reason that for any combination of reasons, United could line up against City with the team that strolled to victory today or they could line up against them with the team that is preferred by those who choose to demonstrate their vast knowledge of football by retweeting others, and they could still be on the end of a hiding. Such is football.
There are positives and negatives to take from this season so far; it seems evident that United have all of the qualities in midfield capable of competing and winning against any opponent. It’s just whether the players with the various qualities are chosen to play in the correct combination; in many respects, it is very similar to the issue presented by the four forwards United had in 1998/1999. The manager could go all season without determining the best selection (and potentially subjecting himself to the accusations of naivety he faced after the Arsenal game). But that will in turn determine his ability at this level.