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The Red Devils went into the game in hopeless form and desperately seeking a return to winning ways. Manchester United haven’t scored in the first half at Old Trafford in the Premier League since September and once again it proved the case as the sides reached the break goalless.
Nevertheless, shortly into the second half the deadlock was broken as Anthony Martial swooped to head home the excellent Ashley Young’s cross. Despite an unconvincing display from the away side it always felt as though United may need a second goal and so it proved as Swansea drew level from a rare break up-field.
Anxiety was tangibly setting in amongst the crowd and the players before Anthony Martial once more provided the spark; gliding past his marker into the box and squaring the ball for Wayne Rooney who provided an exquisite finish. More nervy moments followed but the Reds did just enough to justify the three points; here are five things we learned from a dogged display against a manager-less Swansea City.
1) Martial Magic
Once again it was United’s young Frenchman who gave the side pace, purpose and impetus. The former Monaco man has been criticised for not getting into the box enough, particularly when deployed in wide areas, but he was in the right area at the right time shortly after the break.
Whilst through the middle is arguably his most dangerous position there is no doubt that most of Martial’s eye catching moments have come from the left. The team feels more balanced with the teenager out wide, cutting inside, and Wayne Rooney through the middle. Martial has great pace and great skill and is a great outlet when afforded space out-wide and so, for now at least, Louis van Gaal should keep him there.
2) Woes in the Wide Areas
Despite Martial’s emergence and talent there is no disguising the fact that United are seriously lacking in quality in the wide areas, particularly as they are playing a style of football which necessitates quality on the flanks to break teams down. In truth, Anthony Martial is forced to play there because he is the best current option (and has the seemingly rare quality of pace).
Ashley Young performed admirably providing great width and delivery from full-back but there is very little balance. Martial is often left isolated and expected to try and weave his way through two defenders who have doubled up whilst Juan Mata (as should be expected) drifts inside leaving space for the full-back but very little support.
The injury to Luke Shaw was a cruel blow in this regard; but overlaps are virtually non-existent. Moreover, when the ball is worked into a good position there rarely seems to be any players bursting into the box. There is very little cohesion and even though both goals came from wide areas against Swansea it is certainly an area that needs strengthening.
3) Selection Consistency
Louis van Gaal selected the same front six as he had done against Chelsea and it is good to finally see some consistency in selection and system. Against Swansea it was arguably Manchester United’s best available front six and in the end it proved enough.
Injuries certainly haven’t helped but it would be nice to see some relationships starting to build between what is still very much a transitional squad and hopefully performances will only improve.
4) Penetrating Pace
One thing that was evident from Saturday afternoon was that Manchester United still lack pace throughout the side. Swansea came with a game plan all too familiar and sat back and looked to counter the Reds on the break and but for some wasteful play they may have enjoyed a better afternoon.
Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata, Ander Herrera and the two holding midfielders all want the ball to feet and in central areas which are always congested. With a methodical style of play that lacks tempo it means that Manchester United struggle to break down well-organised outfits with only Anthony Martial able to offer a pacy option.
It is important moving forwards that more players attempt to pose a threat in behind and stretch defences and the Reds will need to increase the tempo of their play or more away sides will find joy at Old Trafford.
It was a welcome three points but it is hard to argue that the performance against Swansea demonstrated any progression. Far too many times this season games seem to hinge on whether Manchester United are clinical with very few chances (and mostly only half chances).
The tempo of play is still too slow and there doesn’t appear to be a balance or cohesion to the squad which manifests itself on the pitch. If, like against Swansea, the system is designed to work the ball wide and deliver into the box then more players need to start gambling and perhaps Marouane Fellaini needs to come into Van Gaal’s thoughts.
Many fans have been calling for the Manager’s head and things certainly need to improve. The victory against Swansea (and to a lesser extent a spirited display against Chelsea) should not mask the obvious flaws. It’s incredibly frustrating that wins against Norwich and Bournemouth would have seen Manchester United just three points off the top of the table; those are the fine margins of this season.
Titles must always be the aim and a fight for fourth should not be welcomed.