Few results give the United Faithful greater pleasure than a victory over Liverpool and on Sunday the Red half of Manchester enjoyed a welcome win against the Reds from Merseyside.
As is becoming worryingly customary United began the game on the back foot through careless errors, but after Sterling was put through and should have scored, the Old Trafford outfit went straight up the other end and opened the scoring. A rejuvenated Antonio Valencia, growing into a wing-back role, did well from the right and cut the ball back for Wayne Rooney to slot home.
Liverpool continued to create goal-scoring opportunities but an inspired David de Gea kept them at bay and just before half time Juan Mata doubled the Reds’ lead with what, in truth, was a slightly fortuitous header with the Spaniard clearly offside following a slight touch from Robin van Persie.
In the second half United grew increasingly controlled in possession despite tangible pressure from Brendan Rodgers’ side and an exquisite pass from Juan Mata gave Van Persie an easy finish for the home side’s third following a quick counter-attack.
Once more Manchester United were not at their best but a sixth win in a row means the momentum continues to build ahead of the busy Christmas period; here are five things we learned from the home victory against Liverpool.
1) Strength in the Spine
There’s no question that in contrast to results, performances have not been of a high standard of late. Not for the first time over the past few weeks United were often careless in possession but clinical up front when it mattered. Sir Alex Ferguson won Premier League titles grinding out results when not playing well and often his sides were built simply on a strong spine.
It is hard to argue that the Reds’ current defensive line is even comparable in the same breath to the likes of Bruce and Pallister, Ferdinand and Vidic etc. but in David de Gea the club have a goalkeeper continuing to excel and winning points for his side.
In the latter years of his tenure, Ferguson never had much world class talent in midfield, and with injuries it’s fair to say the same of Louis van Gaal’s current crop, but United have always boasted truly top talent up front.
Recent results have certainly mirrored many under Sir Alex Ferguson in which resolute defending and industry in midfield have been enough with the world-class forwards able to be clinical with the few chances that come their way.
It is of course hoped that performances will improve moving forwards, but in David De Gea, Michael Carrick, Wayne Rooney (who is playing increasingly in midfield) and an improving Robin van Persie there is a real spine of experience and talent to the setup, and it’s paid dividends in recent weeks.
2) Carrick Class
It’s no coincidence that United’s winning run has materialised following Michael Carrick’s return to the starting lineup. Often underrated by many, the former Tottenham man’s experience, composure and class on the ball have proved invaluable of late.
Not only is Carrick one of the few players able to pick an early forward pass, but his versatility facilitates the use of different systems for Louis van Gaal. In essence, there is not much difference between a 3-5-2 or a 4-4-2 diamond, with both systems reliant on the full backs for width, putting numbers in midfield and utilising two forwards up front. In Michael Carrick, the Reds possess a player capable of ensuring a seamless transition between the two systems.
Carrick is able to slot in as a third centre half and also step into holding midfield when required. Against Liverpool the Wallsend boy put in an assured display at the back and was always comfortable in possession. With so many defensive injuries the Reds will need him in the coming weeks.
3) Wing-back Wonders
United’s manager boldly claimed that he could improve any player and two who certainly appear to have benefitted from his stewardship have been Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia.
The 3-5-2 formation of late has arguably been necessitated by a lack of natural full-backs being available but both Young and Valencia have performed admirably in wing-back roles. Against Liverpool both were instrumental in the creation of crucial goals going forwards and their pace is a real asset defensively.
Ashley Young is growing as a more senior figure whilst Antonio Valencia showed that he does possess more than a smashed low-cross to the front post when he nutmegged Joe Allen and pulled the ball back for Wayne Rooney’s opener.
With Rafael and Luke Shaw hopefully not too far away it will be interesting to see Van Gaal’s preferred direction, but both Young and Valencia have done themselves no harm in recent games.
4) Midfield Movements
Whilst injuries have necessitated changes in defence, Louis van Gaal has been tinkering with United’s midfield largely by choice. The likes of Blind, Herrera, Di Maria, Mata, Fellaini, Carrick, Fletcher and Rooney have all been deployed in the centre of the park and it’s an area which the Reds still don’t know their best formula.
Of course, injuries have proved burdensome in this area of the pitch as well, but with Van Persie, Falcao and Wilson all now available the sight of Wayne Rooney in a midfield role against Liverpool may become a more regular occurrence. There is no doubt that his energy, strength and passing ability leave United’s captain well suited to the role, and his goal, arriving late from midfield against the Merseyside outfit proved that he can still provide goals from deeper on the pitch.
Marouane Fellaini has been much improved in recent weeks but is perhaps best saved for tight pitches away to sides where a physical presence is required. Ander Herrera continues to buzz around and circulate possession quicker than anyone else which is perhaps more suited to Van Gaal’s preferred style of play, particularly at home.
Thus far, United have managed to cope with a lack of fluency in the middle of the park but a settled lineup, able to build some cohesion will surely result in performances improving.
5) Mata Majesty
The diminutive Spaniard has received his fair share of criticism since joining the Reds in January but recent performances have showed signs that he may be returning to his best form.
Mata was instrumental in the victory over Liverpool, popping up in the right place to nod home just before half time and then executing a sublime reverse pass to give Robin van Persie a virtually open goal to aim for.
In Di Maria’s absence, the former Valencia man has been offered a slightly more free role in the centre of the field and he is beginning to influence games in the way he used to week-in, week-out for Chelsea.
Mata’s lack of mobility and fragile frame remain a concern defensively, but United fans will hope that he can continue to effect games high up the pitch as a busy fixture list approaches.