5 Things We Learned: Sunderland 1-1 Manchester United

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By Jason Freeman

1. Something has to give

When Louis van Gaal started work in July his first dilemma was how to fit his best 3 players into the same team. Having judged that his wide options were not good enough to play his favoured 4-3-3 system his solution was to play a 3-4-1-2 formation and on paper it all looked very good with Mata playing in behind Rooney and van Persie. However, Mata and Rooney didn’t link well last week and the 3 failed to create much at all on Sunday, as was also the case last season with the 3. The 3 players have all done better when they’ve had more mobile players around them and as a result it was no surprise that when Welbeck and Januzaj were introduced today things improved slightly but it wasn’t enough. Rooney and van Persie are perhaps too similar, they are both players that like to come to the ball rather than run in behind defences.

With better players supplying them from midfield, the 3 of Mata, Rooney and van Persie might work better but I suspect van Gaal might switch to his favoured 4-3-3 if the rumoured signings are made, meaning perhaps one of the 3 would be left out. It will provide good competition for places in attack though. I don’t think van Gaal will be afraid to drop any of them either if he feels they’re not pulling their weight. Defensively the team can improve with players returning from injury but in attack we had our best players available so that is perhaps more of a concern at the minute.

2. Playing in fear of losing

It was visible throughout the 90 minutes but until we opened the scoring it was really painful to watch. A few of the players in particular look devoid of any confidence, looking uncomfortable in possession and making mistakes as a result. The players are also afraid to take risks, instead of playing risky passes and playing at a quicker tempo taking the easy option and passing the ball slowly either sideways or backwards. These are title winning players, players that used to want the ball, now a few of them don’t look like they do want it and when they do get it they don’t know what to do with it.

Perhaps the player that looks most comfortable in possession was Tyler Blackett again who is full of confidence due to van Gaal placing faith in him, Michael Keane also looked pretty comfortable when he came on. These 2 youngsters are full of confidence and don’t have the nightmare of last season haunting them. A confidence boost is needed in the squad; perhaps a signing or 2 will give the team a much needed boost.

3. Midfield mediocrity

It is no secret that United’s midfield is the weakest area of the team, it has been for a few years now and a long injury list for the Sunderland game only highlighted that further. Fletcher and Cleverley started in central midfield while Valencia and Young flanked them and none of them played anywhere near the standard required at this club. Putting the defence under pressure by offering little protection and playing wayward passes back to the defence or as was often the case, to Sunderland players.

After pre-season, the 4 looked to have turned the corner after last season’s poor showings, Fletcher and Young in particular looked to have been reborn but have both been poor thus far. Due to his struggles with illness over the past few years and knowing he was once a very good player for us, we are perhaps more lenient with Fletcher but there’s simply no room for sentiment at this time with the team struggling, with better players around him the team could carry him but that is simply not the case. It would have been fantastic to see him back at anywhere near the level he was once at but the illness that took 3 seasons out of his career has taken its toll on him. Valencia created the goal but apart from that one time did not take on his opposite number once instead he continually played the easy pass in field, he was also at fault for the goal. When he first got in the team a few seasons ago Cleverley used to want the ball and looked confident on the ball, contributing greatly to victories over City, Spurs and Arsenal at the start of the 2011-12 season but then got injured and hasn’t really shown that early promise since. His confidence is at an all time low and it would be best for him to move on I feel. Without injuries, these 4 players might not even make the bench let alone the starting XI.

4. Injury problems costing us points

For years now, injuries have been a huge problem at the club, not a season goes by where we are not thin on numbers at some point. This season the injury problems began without the season even starting. Carrick picked up a serious injury early on in pre-season and since then, the list has grown, when a player has returned from injury, more injuries have occurred. Louis van Gaal recently said of the current injury crisis that he’d never experienced anything like it in his managerial career.

A new medical centre has recently been opened at Carrington, it was believed it would stop United being the most injury prone club in the country but so far it has done the opposite. Injury problems have played a part in us missing out on league titles in the past and have already potentially cost us 6 points from our opening 2 games this season.

Louis van Gaal has offered a few reasons as to why there have been so many injuries but has placed most of the blame at the demanding pre-season tour which he criticised heavily at the time also. Whatever the reason the situation needs to improve otherwise struggles will continue.

5. Phil Jones leads from the back

United’s best performer against Sunderland was Phil Jones, OK there wasn’t much competition but after a solid first half he moved to the centre of the back 3 after Smalling departed with injury and looked a lot more comfortable there than Smalling did, who simply doesn’t have the attributes to play central of a back 3 in van Gaal’s system, to be fair he played with an injury from early on but it was a similar story last week, he was very poor on the ball and when he did bring it out of defence he stuttered with it under no pressure. Defensively he was nervy but mostly fine but it’s not enough at this level. He needs to add more to his game if he wants to make it at this club.

Jones on the other hand, was very good as the central of the 3; looking comfortable on the ball, bringing the ball out of defence and, making crucial interceptions, clearances and tackles. Jones himself is still learning his trade as a defender but seemed to grow in his role as leader of an inexperienced back 3 in the 2nd half. The back 3 did well yesterday, not perfect but it was the least of our problems against Sunderland and is improving with every game. After Jones’ 2nd half performance he must be kept as the central of the 3 unless van Gaal sees Evans, who is comfortable using both feet, as a better fit in the role or a switch to 4-3-3 is on the cards.

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