After an underwhelming start to the season Manchester United recorded their first competitive victory of the season with a 4-0 win over Queens Park Rangers on Sunday afternoon. In truth, the London side were woeful but the Red Devils delivered an encouraging display littered with positives.
The excellent Angel Di Maria gave the Old Trafford outfit the lead with a well delivered free-kick that managed to evade everyone and nestle in the corner of the net. The lead was doubled after more great work from the Argentine who ran nearly the full length of the pitch before feeding Wayne Rooney who, after having a shot blocked, laid the ball into Ander Herrera’s path for a fine finish from the edge of the box.
Rooney himself then found a way passed Rob Green in the Rangers’ net after Ander Herrera repaid the favour and the scoring was rounded off by Juan Mata after being found fortunately in acres of space inside the penalty area by man-of-the-match Di Maria.
United should probably have had a few more, and but for a rusty performance from Van Persie and a few bed decisions, notably from Januzaj late on, the Reds may well have left even more comfortable victors. Nevertheless, following a slow start to the campaign there were plenty of positives; here are 5 things we learned from a comfortable victory against the Hoops.
1) A Turning Point?
After such a poor start to the campaign married with the international break which followed the closing of the transfer window there was a tangible feeling of the true beginning of a new era around Old Trafford on Sunday. Summer signings Radamel Falcao, Ander Herrera, Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria, Marcos Rojo and Angel Di Maria were all part of the matchday squad.
Sometimes sides can stagnate and there is no question that the squad required an overhaul to some degree not only to add quality but also to reinvigorate those who may have grown too comfortable in their surroundings. To this end, it was refreshing that every new signing who got minutes on the pitch looked comfortable and assured.
It is often said that it takes time for players to adapt to the fast pace and physical nature of the Premier League but United’s new stars all appeared to take things in the stride. There is, of course, the caveat that Queens Park Rangers were incredibly poor throughout but Rojo and, in particular, Di Maria, Herrera and Blind all stood out in what was an accomplished display. Tougher tests will come, but after a torrid 12 months there were signs that Louis Van Gaal has turned the corner.
2) Diamonds Are Forever?
Despite sticking staunchly to a 3-5-2 in the opening few fixtures, Van Gaal deployed the Reds in a 4-4-2 diamond and it paid instant dividends on Sunday. In essence, the formation is very similar to the 3-5-2 that the Dutchman had been experimenting with. It relies on the full-backs for width, packs the midfield and allows two strikers to play in tandem with a no.10 floating behind them.
The transition from a 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2 diamond is a fluid one, with the deepest lying midfielder in the 4-4-2 able to drop back alongside the two centre backs when the full-backs have pushed on higher up the field. In this sense, it will not be surprising to see Blind or Carrick (when fit) anchoring midfield and slotting into defence allowing flexibility and fluidity tactically.
Crucially, the diamond certainly brings out the best in Angel Di Maria, allowing him the freedom to float and drift to the left with the security of those behind him, something which he did to devastating effect against the Hoops.
When all are back and fit Van Gaal may even revert to a 4-3-3 which he has confessed a preference for but on the basis of Sunday’s performance it certainly appears that the diamond formation brings out the best of the talents of Di Maria, Blind, Herrera and others.
3) No Blind Spots
One of the more understated signings of the summer, Daley Blind made his Manchester United debut on Sunday and was just that; understated. But that is often the biggest compliment that you can pay to a defensive midfielder.
The versatile Dutchman was assured in possession, aggressive in the tackle and read the game impressively. His performance may not have stood out as much as the eye catching display from Di Maria but Blind was equally as important.
He was always in control, always knew what was around him, broke up the play and then passed the ball simply but effectively. The former Ajax man may lack blistering pace, but his manager’s proclamations as to his football intelligence were undoubtedly accurate.
Manchester United have needed a defensive midfield addition for some time and, in Blind, they may just have found a very good one.
4) Striking Synergy?
With the likes of Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Radamel Falcao and James Wilson the desire to play a formation that allows two strikers to play together is understandable. However, with that said it is important that the two playing form a cohesive partnership.
Despite their obvious individual quality, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie are yet to truly discover an effective synergy on the pitch. There is always the argument of similar playing styles and colliding egos but there is no doubt that since Van Persie joined the club the Red Devils have invariably looked more potent when the two have not played up front together.
Once more on Sunday the pair failed to link effectively for the most part and with Radamel Falcao now waiting in the wings it is assumed that it wont be long before one of the two has to make way or drop into a no.10 role.
Regarding playing styles, Falcao certainly offers something different and will stretch play with his movement but it will be interesting in the coming weeks to see who gets the nod. Whilst clearly rusty, not quite fit and lacking confidence, on Sunday’s evidence Van Persie’s place is in doubt.
5) New Look, But Same Old United?
With a record transfer spend and academy products finding themselves surplus to requirements much talk has centred around Manchester United’s supposed departure from their values and traditions in recent weeks. However, Sunday was yet more evidence that the criticism is grossly unfounded.
Joining United’s six new signings in the matchday squad were five (arguably six if you include Rafael Da Silva) products of the club’s academy, no other Premier League side had more at the weekend.
Manchester United will always give academy products opportunities if they are of the requisite quality and it is hard to argue that Tyler Blackett has not been the club’s most assured central defender so far this campaign.
The likes of Welbeck and Cleverley may have departed but both were given a more than fair chance and, regrettably, fell short. Danny Welbeck was told that he had fallen behind James Wilson and when the young striker returns from injury he is expected to be given opportunities.
The final few years of Ferguson’s tenure aside, Manchester United have always spent big money and regularly used to break British transfer records but the star names were always supplemented by young and local talent.
Sunday was the 3075th time in a row that United have named a homegrown player in their squad which makes a mockery of much of the widespread criticism. But when you are one of the biggest club’s in the world, praise, comment and criticism will always follow; hated, adored but never ignored.
Time will tell, but if Sunday’s cocktail of superstars and academy talent is any indication there may be a new look, but it’s still the same old United.