1) Ander Herrera
Just what Louis van Gaal’s plan has been with the Spanish midfielder this season has been puzzling.
He started the season brightly, scoring goals against Queens Park Rangers and Leicester City, before a collection of injuries robbed him of minutes on the pitch. A rib injury ruled him out for the best part of a month and he’s had an ankle/foot injury twice, as well as a slight illness.
Since being injury free he’s bagged five goals in 16 appearances and his overall contribution to the team has been a joy to watch. His two against Villa took him to seven for the season, for someone essentially seen as a deep-lying midfielder. He has five in the Premier League, which equals his best ever haul in a league season, and with seven games still remaining. It’s been brilliant to see him grow into the team and his value is immeasurable. His range of passing is envious, seamlessly able to spray long balls accurately to team-mates and intricately link the play in the final third. My favourite aspect of his game, I would have to say, has been his tenacity. He may have come from the melodrama that is the La Liga soap opera, but he’s got a combative streak to his game. He’s certainly not afraid to get physical, unlike many of his compatriots, and he relishes the unglamorous side of the game such as tracing back and helping his defenders. Wayne Rooney and David de Gea have led the United revival this season under Van Gaal, but among a growing support cast, the former Bilbao player is the leading man.
2) Top four looks a safe bet
Although Arsenal’s win over Liverpool meant our victory against Villa couldn’t catapult us into second place, it’s great to see our chances of a top four finish looking so secure. We now enjoy an eight point lead over fifth placed Liverpool and have even gone above our bitter blue rivals from across the city (albeit they play against Crystal Palace on Monday). Nevertheless it’s certainly been a great weekend for Reds everywhere. Traditionally after Christmas is where we’ve always come into our own and it’s tremendous to finally see the victories we’ve been managing to somehow pull off throughout the season intertwined with impressive displays.
We weren’t exactly flawless on Saturday against Tim Sherwood’s side and allowed them to stay in the game for far too long. Defence is still a long way from the finished article, but we’re finally starting to move through the gears and our dangerous players are beginning to hurt teams. There’s still plenty of work to do to bring Champions League football back to Old Trafford, and a fourth placed finish would still mean us having to negotiate our way through qualifying.
Louis van Gaal said post-match that he still feels title talk cannot be taken off the table. While that’s fanciful, second place is most certainly up for grabs. He’s attracted criticism this season for the system he’s deployed and not playing players in their natural positions, but there’s been far more reason for optimism under the Dutchman than there ever was amid last season’s debacle, and now the players and the team are finally beginning to look formidable.
3) Rooney matter settled once and for all
For all the impressive results of late; the 3-0 destruction of Tottenham (our best performance of the season), the 2-1 victory over Liverpool, we’ve actually been doing alright all season. Ok, it hasn’t been pretty, but we’ve been getting the job done. It’s no coincidence that the form of the likes of Ander Herrera, Juan Mata, Ashley Young, Marouane Fellaini and Daley Blind have contributed to this. Chief, however, in our return to entertaining football has been Wayne Rooney’s own return to a central striking role. I’m a big fan of Rooney in midfield and have advocated him playing there for years, but we certainly lack something up top when he’s not there. Rooney is good enough to play anywhere and, when there’s an injury crisis, by all means deploy him in midfield. But when everyone has a clean bill of health and we’re matching brilliant individual displays with consistent overall performances, there’s no better place for him than being the fulcrum of our attack. He is so many things in one; a leader, a goal scorer, a creator and a workhorse. Most importantly – he makes the team tick.
4) One of Van Persie or Falcao should go
With that in mind and the fact that Van Gaal has found some success with the 4-2-3-1 formation, I believe that, this summer, either Robin van Persie or Radamel Falcao could and probably should be moved on. World class players on their day, the problem of having to satisfy the egos of three Grade A strikers is an issue the Dutchman will neither want, nor can afford to deal with. The idea of Falcao is far better than the reality of Falcao. It’s tough to see a defence shredding striker wilt to what he’s become this season – a player with four goals in 20 appearances. It simply hasn’t worked and while that can easily be put down to struggling to regain form following a bad injury and adapting to a tougher league than he’s used to, United cannot afford to invest the reported sums that it would take to recruit the Columbian long-term for his return and the role he currently occupies at the club.
Don’t think I’m throwing my weight behind Van Persie wholeheartedly. I’m not. Since his emphatic debut season, the Netherlands frontman has been disappointing and his horrible injury past has reared its ugly head. From 26 goals to 12 last season and 10 this season has soured his reputation, and with Rooney clearly the main man, the Dutchman’s future is far from assured. Rooney and Van Persie up front has failed more times than I care to remember and with the likes of Mata, Angel di Maria and Adnan Januzaj in our ranks, it really doesn’t pay to play two up front. We look far more dangerous with a central striker and a talented 10 causing havoc in the hole. With the exciting emergence of young James Wilson, we have one too many luxuries in attack.
5) Pieces beginning to fall into place
A few weeks ago, Manchester United were being flayed for spending £59m on bringing a player Real Madrid no longer wanted to the club. Di Maria’s red card against Arsenal was a red flag for some.
Meanwhile, Falcao’s tenure, however long it ends up becoming, will come at a handsome financial cost, and for all our expenditure, we were still struggling to win games comfortably. Ander Herrera and Daley Blind have impressively gone about their business in the background but it’s been the lack of form and firepower from our two big name arrivals that has made headlines. Falcao, I agree, has been underwhelming, but Di Maria, although prone to bouts of petulance and playacting, has been effective. In 27 games this season he has scored or assisted 14 goals, one every other game. Initial promise did tail off quite drastically, but we can account for his readjustment being understandably difficult, not to mention how unsettled he and his young family must have felt when their home was ransacked. After his sending off in the FA Cup at Arsenal, the Argentine has been an asset to his side. He’s provided three assists in his last three games (one of those being the delightful part he played in Wayne Rooney’s goal against the Gunners before later getting himself sent off) and he will benefit hugely from a season of English football under his belt.
Elsewhere Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are beginning to establish themselves as credible centre-backs, the return to action of Juan Mata has been both welcome and fruitful, while the re-emergence of Ashley Young and Marouane Fellaini has been nothing short of incredible. With the players perhaps finally starting to buy into the philosophy of their manager and the man himself really starting to make his mark on the club, not to mention the certified arrival of more key targets in the summer, next season is shaping up to be the best in quite some time for a team who will not have won a trophy in two years by the time 2015/16 comes around.