The sun was out at Old Trafford and for subscribers to pathetic fallacy the result and the mood matched the weather in the end. In truth, the final score probably flattered what was, for the most part, an indifferent display from the hosts. Nevertheless, in a season where goals at home have been hard to come by, it was encouraging to witness a United side far from their best score four goals in front of their home fans.
After a careless free-kick was dispatched expertly by Ashley Westwood leaving the hosts trailing early on, United’s main man this season, Wayne Rooney, dragged United in front before the break with a deft header and an unstoppable penalty. The improving Juan Mata, clearly more comfortable in his natural position added a third after half time and the scoring was rounded off following good work from Adnan Januzaj to find Chicharito doing what he does best.
Moyes clearly had the mouth-watering clash with Bayern Munich in mid-week in mind which was reflected in the substitutions made. A vastly improved performance will be needed if United are to make an impact in that tie, but there were certainly some positives on show against Aston Villa nonetheless. Here are five things we learned from the clash against Paul Lambert’s men.
1. United’s best line-up?
The best eleven men to represent the club is always a matter of opinion and can invariably differ depending on the opposition. But for United, lamentable indecisiveness has certainly been detrimental. Saturday’s tie against Villa signalled the 47th different cocktail of players this season, and whilst a new manager finding his feet will usually incur some experimentation, the Red Devils have arguably chopped and changed far too often this campaign.
Regrettably, it’s not just been the players, but the system of play which has seemingly had little coherent direction. Moyes’ men have played well at times this season but have played badly far more often. In this regard, an unsettled side and a formation lottery are certainly large contributors to the poor form and, in particular, the inconsistency.
United were able to coast to victory despite being far from their best, but had Benteke had even a half-good game the story could certainly have been very different. The reds have got away with it to an extent against some of the ‘lesser’ sides this season but have been horribly exposed against stronger opposition on a number of occasions.
In the modern era a strong squad is essential, but consistency of selection and clarity of direction are equally as important to a successful side. Big decisions need to be made in this regard, but enough time has now elapsed to make them.
Two of the main concerns have been the balance of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie starting together along with whether to adopt a wide 4-4-2 or a more narrow 4-2-3-1. Whilst in the first instance there is nothing to say that Rooney and Van Persie can’t operate as a partnership if given time, the trend this season has been that performances and goals have improved when one has been absent for whatever reason.
United scored four on the opening day away to Swansea with Rooney only coming on as a late substitute, scored five away at Bayer Leverkusen with Shinji Kagawa playing at no.10 and again yesterday, with Van Persie sidelined, a less than impressive United still managed to put four past Villa.
As much as fans salivated over the prospect of Rooney, Van Persie, Mata and Januzaj operating as a front four, the balance has been somewhat ineffective to date, and for good reason too. All four players’ inclination is to drop deep in search of the ball to feet, there is no threat in behind, and no real pace.
Against Villa both Rooney and Mata noticeably made runs in behind the defence and were found on a few occasions. It afforded space and time for the midfield to work and facilitated an encouraging performance from Shinji Kagawa.
Rooney’s power and pace make him a much more effective runner in behind than Robin van Persie and so the balance of that particular partnership may be better suited in reversal of the norm, with Rooney up top and Van Persie floating behind.
That said, to get the best out of Mata, it may be that one of the two needs to be sacrificed for the benefit and balance of the side. Conversely, should Moyes wish to persist with both Rooney and Van Persie, questions have to be raised as to Mata’s suitability to the manager’s direction moving forwards.
In truth, the lack of a settled unit has been one of the more regrettable aspects of what has been a disappointing season. Nevertheless, Van Persie’s injury may prove a blessing in disguise and Moyes may have stumbled across the way to move forwards with Mata and Rooney’s link-up already obvious.
Sacrificing Van Persie or Rooney would be a huge decision, but in terms of the balance of the side, there were further signs against Villa that it may benefit the club as a whole.
2. It Mata’s where he plays
Following the brief elation of his signing, it’s unquestionably been a slow start for Juan Mata in a red shirt. The diminutive Spaniard has undoubted talent, but David Moyes is yet to see the best of the playmaker thus far. There are arguably a number of factors involved, from a lack of football at Chelsea to new surroundings and new teammates, but Mata is certainly more comfortable and most effective when getting on the ball in little pockets as opposed to shunted out wide.
Van Persie’s ill-timed injury on the back of a match winning performance has facilitated a shift inside to more homely surroundings for the former Chelsea man, resulting in signs of the form that won him two player of the season awards starting to materialise. The Spaniard has certainly been more involved and more effective in the last few games when afforded the freedom of the no.10 role.
Although scrappy, the delight and relief on Mata’s face was obvious as he opened his United account and it is hoped that the player can now kick on and begin to influence games to the extent that he has demonstrated to be capable of in the past.
With a lack of pace, Mata is ill-suited to playing wide, out of the game for long periods and tracking full-backs. This is a special creative talent who needs to be on the ball as much as possible, whether that’s directly behind the striker or as part of a narrow three.
Pertinently, though, the Spaniard also needs further assistance from his teammates. A player of Mata’s technical ability is comfortable in tight areas surrounded by opposition players, and his colleagues need to place more trust in his ability. Far too often, the easy ball into space out wide is played from the midfield as opposed to a sharp incisive ball into someone’s feet through the middle.
It is not necessarily that the pass into the playmaker is not seen, rather that the defenders enclosing Mata may put the passer off, but his ability needs to be trusted. Not only is the Spaniard capable of operating in tight circles, but it will also draw defenders in, creating more space for others.
As discussed, the position in which Mata’s long-term future lies is an interesting question, but for now it’s important to continue to get the Spanish international on the ball as much as possible in areas where he can hurt the opposition. With a goal to his name and having been brought down for the penalty, there were indications against the Villa Park outfit that Mata can play an integral role in his favoured position.
3. Shinji Kagawa
The Japanese man is certainly one who seems to polarise opinion amongst the fans. Parallels with Mata are inescapable for a player who’s preferred role is also centrally behind the striker. But not for the first time, against Aston Villa Kagawa demonstrated that he can affect games drifting inside from the left.
The former Dortmund man’s cross for Wayne Rooney’s opener was full of quality and precision and it was his pass that found Juan Mata before the Spaniard was brought down for United’s penalty just before the break.
Link up between Kagawa, Mata and Rooney has been noticeably encouraging when they have been deployed together and their inclination to play one and two-touch football invariably benefits the tempo of United’s play.
Much like Juan Mata, Shinji’s quality has never really been in question, but the pair’s suitability to United’s traditional style of play can be. Both are unsuited to the customary wide births that demand pace and width.
Nevertheless, as discussed United’s style of play may well shift towards a more narrow system and Kagawa has undoubtedly shown promising signs in recent performances. The Japanese playmaker will have expected to feature more since his move from Germany, but to his credit he has knuckled down and delivered in recent weeks. With Mata ineligible and a good record against Bayern Munich, it is hoped that Shinji may be afforded the opportunity to make his mark in a big tie for United in mid-week.
4. Rooney the talisman
Not for the first time this season, Wayne Rooney put in a man of the match performance to help his team towards three points. The former Everton man’s season started under a cloud of uncertainty but he has gone on to be United’s best performer for much of the campaign.
Negotiation tactics and indiscretions aside, given the striker’s current form most would certainly admit to being happy that Rooney has signed another long-term deal. The two goals against Villa make United’s talisman the fourth all time Premier League goalscorer with 171 to date.
One of Rooney’s frequent attempts at the spectacular finally came off against West Ham United and even beyond the two goals the striker looked a constant threat against Paul Lambert’s side. The striker linked well with both Juan Mata and Shinji Kagawa and his direct running up top gave them both more space to operate allowing them to have a greater effect on the game.
There is a myth that Rooney’s best position is no.10. Admittedly, when deployed in that role the striker’s defensive qualities are unquestionable, but Wayne is invariably far more effective playing right at the top of the pitch, as two goals against both West Ham United and now Aston Villa clearly suggest.
In this regard, as mentioned it may be interesting to see Van Persie deployed behind Rooney to see if the balance of the partnership may improve once the Dutchman returns to fitness. Either way, the last few games have shown enough to suggest that Mata and Rooney can provide a potent partnership moving forwards.
5. Plane Stupid
In light of a more than disappointing season so far, and the sheer commercial and public gravity of the football club, David Moyes’ position was always going to come under scrutiny. When you manage a club like Manchester United, it simply comes with the job.
The manager’s performance so far in his short tenure is in some areas indefensible and others inexcusable, but what can be defended is the Scot’s right to be given a fair amount of time.
As much as Sir Alex Ferguson over-achieved with the current squad, David Moyes has so far under-achieved. Most were realistic and had no expectations of the title, but to the same end, sitting so far adrift of a Champions League spot is unacceptable. In that sense, fans’ disgruntlement is understandable. Nevertheless, the integrity and support of the masses should never be tarnished so publicly by the opinions and frustrations of the few.
Fans have the right to be disappointed with David Moyes thus far, he has under-achieved. But flying a plane with a banner for all the world to see reflects negatively against all associated with the club. It lacks class and is in no way befitting of a club like Manchester United.
The fans have been absolutely outstanding this season in support of the club and for the most part in support of David Moyes. It was refreshing and fitting that the manager walked out early to a standing ovation from the Theatre of Dreams.
Whether Moyes truly is the right man for the job remains to be seen, but as long as he remains Manchester United manager he should be backed. That is not to say that he should be immune from criticism, but that all associated with the club should present a unified front to the outside world. Tarnishing the manager so publicly was a media dream that will likely have had absolutely no effect on Moyes’ position.
Of course, in the modern era it can be frustrating for fans when it is hard for them to feel as though their opinions are being heard, but it is naïve to think that the United hierarchy require a plane over Old Trafford to be aware of the feeling amongst the club’s fans.
That said, for David Moyes improvement needs to start materialising but having taken on the biggest job in football, the man who steadily grew Everton into a strong football club deserves time. Just how much time, however, may be an interesting thought.
Stability is not necessarily a prerequisite of success, many teams have been very prosperous with numerous managerial changes. Indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson was not successful because he was at the club for a long time, he was at the club for a long time because he was successful. One only needs to look over to the stagnation at Arsenal to see that sometimes change may benefit a football club, and there are dangers in placing faith in someone for too long, particularly if they are the wrong man.
Many are anxious about affording Moyes funds, but his record of buying players at Everton was remarkable on such a tight budget. He may have acquired the nickname ‘Dithering Dave’ for his extensive scouting operation but the evidence is that it invariably sources quality talent. The likes of Baines, Coleman, Mirallas and Jagielka were all acquired for relatively minimal fees so there is not much to suggest that given the funds Moyes will not find the right players for his desired approach moving forwards.
Progression needs to be made and if none is seen come next January then Moyes’ position should rightly come into doubt. For now, however, it should be acknowledged that the Scot has taken on the impossible job and he should be supported in his attempts to right the wrongs.
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