By Alan Brennan
1) Magic Mata
Having been left out of the side for much of the new year, Juan Mata has responded in the best possible fashion with his showings over the past couple of games. Mata had been previously criticised for his tendency to go missing and not effecting games enough, however I don’t feel he was helped by the lack of movement up front for much of this season which denied him the space he needs to exert an influence. Rooney’s movement up top has provided Mata more space to make an impact the last two games, and that impact has been significant. The two goals yesterday were possibly the two most important goals of United’s season to date. The quality of both goals was sublime, the second goal displaying the unique natural abilities Mata possesses, which we probably haven’t tapped into enough since his signing.
The goals aside however he has significantly contributed to our control of the last two games. Despite being deployed in a wide midfield position, he has been afforded the freedom to drift centrally to keep possession ticking over. Whereas in previous games Di Maria or Januzaj would have been wasteful a lot of the time in possession, playing in the same position, Mata is precise in his passing and use of the ball and it has had a huge effect on our domination of the past two games.
2) Ander Herrera – Midfield General
Like Mata, Herrera hasn’t been afforded as many opportunities as he’d have liked due to the formations utilised by Van Gaal for much of this season. He now however seems to have found a role that suits his swashbuckling, all action style. His performances of late, particularly during the first half at Anfield, have displayed the type of qualities United fans have been craving in midfield over the past few seasons. His subtle skills and eye for a pass are balanced by a tough core, which we saw on Sunday in some of his tackles and his willingness to get stuck in.
A few factors have helped Herrera of late. Firstly playing beside Carrick has allowed him more freedom to put his energy to use and be more involved. Carrick’s discipline in the holding role over the years has often allowed his midfield partners more freedom to influence things. Another factor that has helped is Mata’s inclusion over the past couple of games. The two link up almost telepathically, as we were reminded with Mata’s opener on Sunday. A further factor is that with Fellaini in the line-up, although operating a forward role, he gets through a lot of work in deeper midfield areas than his role would suggest, which ships some of the work load off Herrera and again allows him more freedom.
3) Settled Centre Back Pairing?
For as long as both Jones and Smalling have been at the club we have been unable to fully assess their abilities as each time they have had a run of games and show potential one or the other, or both, get injured. Of late however both have had a good run of games and it’s now that it looks like that potential will come to fruition and they will really establish themselves. Smalling in particular has been in fine form this season. He has long been regarded as the best ‘defender’ at the club, however his distribution on the ball was an element that held him back. Working with Van Gaal however seems to have had a positive effect in that regard, with Van Gaal placing a big emphasis on ball playing centre halves. A common theme of late has been Smalling’s bursts from defence. He has also displayed a fine array of passes spreading the play and keeping possession ticking over the past couple of games, evident once more at Anfield.
The partnership with Jones has looked very solid. A potential weakness of Smalling’s is his knack of switching off at times, however with Jones beside him the fears can be allayed somewhat as Jones lives and breathes every second of each game and is generally well positioned should he needed to be called on, with last ditch tackles a common feature of his game. The problem for Jones, or potentially for Smalling, is that neither are left footed. Van Gaal likes to have a left footed left centre back and a right footed right centre back so potentially the partnership may break up once Rojo gets back to full fitness. However if they keep producing as a pair as they have been, Rojo will have his work cut out to oust either of them.
4) Formation Found?
It’s been a long season. A lot of the football we’ve played or tried to play has been pretty dire… And up until the last two games it seemed like we may miss out once more on the Champions League. How things have changed however. A question was posed on the forum a couple of weeks ago asking whether Van Persie’s injury would be a blessing in disguise. So it has proved. Nothing against Van Persie but his injury has resulted in the formation change, by default rather than choice. Although Falcao has returned to fitness, it seems that Van Gaal has given up on him returning to his form of old, so in effect playing one up top wasn’t something Van Gaal had much of a choice on with that in mind.
A balance has been found in our passing, where at times this season we were either too direct or not direct enough. The fact that the 4-3-3 incorporates width has offered the players in deeper areas more options in possession but also provides more space in central areas, which is something we’ve struggled to find with two up top this season. Again however, Rooney’s movement has been a key benefactor of the success of the formation. Although his performance on Sunday was actually quite poor up top, the rest of the side has reaped the benefits.
5) Hitting Form At The Right Time
It had been suggested that it takes Van Gaal half a season or so to get a new side playing the way he wants to. For much of this season I’d have said it was a handy excuse for him to point to that when experiencing a slow start. However, should our form from the last two games continue through to the end of the season it would be hard to argue with the belief. The last two showings, particularly the first half showings, have been outstanding. Liverpool have been in a rich vein of form but we completely blew them away in the opening 45 on Sunday. Something I haven’t seen many or any sides do at Anfield for a long time, even when they were in a poor run. This type of form however was needed to be found. With the run of fixtures we had in front of us after the Swansea defeat a few weeks ago it would have been easy to become despondent about our Champions League prospects, but we’ve timed it well. Our place in Europe is far from signed and sealed, but you would think if this form continues it would be City’s spot in 2nd we will be fighting for rather than 4th.
I’d like to add a final word of thanks to Steven Gerrard for his contribution on Sunday. Much appreciated pal.