No, you’re not dreaming, Manchester United really did end up strolling to a rare routine victory. Following a scrappy and rather nervy opening at the Hawthorns, Manchester United grew in confidence as the tie went on and left the midlands comfortable victors.
The Red Devils’ opener from the head of Phil Jones came from a typically dangerous set-piece courtesy of Robin Van Persie. Thereafter, barring a few sustained periods of pressure from the home side, United became increasingly assured. Wayne Rooney’s header (United’s second of the game) courtesy of an impeccable Rafael delivery effectively killed the game and tangibly saw the Old Trafford outfit grow in confidence.
With a two goal cushion the football that followed in the final moments of the second half was some of the best displayed by United this season, calm and assured one and two-touch play. The fine final goal of the game from Danny Welbeck was a pertinent illustration of the fluidity that resulted from a bit of a boost in confidence. West Brom were poor, but there was more encouragement from David Moyes’ men nonetheless, here are five things we learned from United’s Victory at the home of the Baggies.
1. New look United?
When the team-sheet was announced at the Hawthorns it was greeted with widespread approval and optimism. Manager David Moyes had made the point earlier in the week that the soon-to-depart Nemanja Vidic may make way in preference of more opportunities for United’s young prospects at centre half. The absent Jonny Evans aside, it was perhaps United’s strongest possible starting line-up, a refreshing sight after fans have witnessed 42 different starting 11s so far this season and one that it is hoped becomes a regular and settled occurrence in the final parts of the campaign.
The ‘Big 4’ of Rooney, Van Persie, Mata and Januzaj started together for the second time, Fellaini and Carrick resumed an increasingly promising partnership in the centre of the field, natural options in Rafael and Evra were deployed at full-back and the both youthful and encouraging partnership of Jones and Smalling marshalled the defence admirably after a few erratic moments early on.
Talk of huge squad overhaul has been prevalent but perhaps Evra aside, most of those on show against West Brom would be expected to remain with the club despite the expected revolution, and for good reason too. The majority of the side were either young, or in the cases of Mata and Fellaini, new to the side and bringing fresh desire.
To start with, De Gea demonstrates an increasing maturity every time he plays. Further, those who witnessed Jones and Smalling forming a formidable partnership at youth level tournaments with England will be acutely aware of the potential in the two youngsters, and there were signs of this against West Brom.
United were able to play a higher defensive line than usual with Smalling’s pace (as demonstrated by his pursuit of a very fast Anichebe bearing down on United’s goal in the first half) a valuable asset. Smalling has been the subject of much criticism and there is no question of his discomfort at full-back or that his distribution demands improvement. However, when played in his natural position at centre-half the giant defender invariably looks confident and assured and has often proved United’s best performer in that position.
With recent outings all over the pitch it was perhaps unsurprising that Phil Jones appeared disorientated early on, but the former Blackburn man grew as the game went on and centre-back is undoubtedly his best position. It is hoped that Jones will now get a strong run of games in his favoured slot and that he will develop into the commanding player so many believe him to be capable of becoming. West Brom created a few chances, but on the whole United looked solid and the young lads at the back more than held their own. It is hoped that there will be more to come.
Further up the field, Fellaini delivered his best display in a United shirt. A commanding and physical presence in the centre of the park, but more encouraging was the Belgian’s distribution and composure. His passing was decisive and there were even a few sprinkles of skill thrown in at times, all of which contribute to the growing feelings that the big-man may have a lot to offer the Red Devil’s in years to come.
Add this to an assured Carrick and an embarrassment of riches in the forward positions and United certainly have a crop of players capable not just of delivering better performances than have been exhibited this season, but of forming the core and foundations of a new United under David Moyes. A few astute but, albeit, expensive additions in the summer and United may not be as far off as many would have you believe. The complete overhaul touted by many as a necessity may in truth be slightly wide of the mark.
2. Far better ahead than behind?
Falling behind has become a rather unwelcome theme for United this season, but what has become obvious is that the side have struggled against organised and resolute defences with men behind the ball. When the opposition have taken the lead and sat back to protect what they have, the Red Devil’s have tended to struggle to create opportunities and often been exposed on the break.
Conversely, the Old Trafford outfit have gone on to win the majority of games in which they themselves have drawn first blood. The added confidence and the effect of that on United’s play is of course a consideration, but currently Moyes’ men are undoubtedly more effective against sides who are more expansive and open in their style.
With West Brom behind and chasing the game, the improvement in the United side was obvious. The added confidence was unquestionably a factor in the far more fluid football on display towards the end of the tie. But also the added space afforded by the opposition contributed to a much-improved looking United. From the half way line, from Mata to Rooney to Fellaini, back to Rooney who played in Welbeck to score United’s third took the Red Devil’s just 6 touches.
A brilliant team goal, with one-touch play between players confident and close to each other, it was a pertinent illustration that United are capable of far better than they have been showing of late. Whether through extra space or confidence, Moyes’ men are undoubtedly more effective when ahead in a game but it is hoped that some of this improved football can be translated into games where the opposition form a compact and resolute unit. The apparent inability to break down organised defences is an obvious concern.
3. Two goals from crosses, but a change in style?
A shift to the more contemporary 4-2-3-1 following vivid moans as to predictable and uninventive wide play over-reliant on crossing the ball has been a popular demand. Against West Brom, there were further glimpses of this shift materialising.
Although both Mata and Januzaj were deployed in wider areas, both again exhibited a licence to roam and get on the ball whilst United’s third, a move orchestrated directly through the centre of the pitch, was a welcome change in approach.
Ironically, however, the Red Devil’s two opening goals came from crosses, the first from a set-piece and the second through open play. It is important to remember that even in a more narrow system width and quality delivery from wide areas still play a huge role in an effective side.
Variety is imperative, and a reliance on cute passes through the middle may prove just as ineffectual as an insistence on crossing the ball. In this sense the variety of United’s goals against the Baggies were a welcome eventuality.
With players like Mata, Januzaj and Kagawa (who showed glimpses of his quality in a more fluid system throughout his brief cameo at the Hawthorns), a slightly more narrow and organic formation appears the best approach, but the full-backs have a huge role to play in this instance. In this regard it is encouraging that the excellent Rafael Da Silva was directly involved in the Old Trafford outfit’s first two goals, just as Patrice Evra had been away at Crystal Palace.
David Moyes constantly insisted and encouraged both full-backs to get higher up the field and it was a clear indication that United are beginning to attempt to facilitate movements inside to more comfortable and effective areas for the likes of Mata, without sacrificing the balance and the width of the side. Width provided by the full-backs is an integral part of the modern game. Should the system continue to develop throughout the final parts of the campaign, fans may well see a more expansive and exciting United taking shape.
4. Rafael da Silva
The game at the Hawthorns saw the welcome return of Rafael da Silva. United have invariably struggled when devoid of a natural option at right-back, with the likes of Chris Smalling unable to replicate the attacking attributes of the young Brazilian. Rafael has had a mixed season, interrupted by injuries and littered with lapses in concentration at times. Nevertheless the diminutive full-back’s display in the midlands may have dampened the cries for reinforcements in his position come the summer.
It was a mature and assured display both moving forward and defensively from the tenacious twin. His attacking prowess was obvious and having been unlucky not to score from a delightful Januzaj cross, the full-back was fouled for the free kick which led to United’s opener and then provided arguably the best cross of the Red Devil’s season for Rooney to nod home in the second half.
As mentioned previously, accomplished full-backs with attacking intent are essential to the direction and effectiveness of Moyes’ United moving forwards and it is hoped that Rafael can kick-on from a promising display and re-discover the form and maturity that have made the Brazilian one of the best right backs in the Premier League over the last few seasons.
If performances akin to that delivered against West Brom continue, there is no reason why the young Brazilian can’t go on to become a United great. Rafael left the field to the fans standing and chanting his name and hopefully this will become a regular occurrence.
5. Robin reliant?
The issues surrounding Robin Van Persie, whether through media hounding or body language and ill-advised PR indiscretions are seemingly not going away. The Dutchman is certainly a far cry from the man who powered United to their 20th League title just last season.
Against West Brom the striker’s movements and body language were, for the most part, fairly encouraging. The lung-busting run to get on the end of Juan Mata’s diagonal when Ben Foster should probably have seen red was just one example of an apparent increase in effort compared with recent performances. The Dutchman may have been lucky to stay on the field, but at least the rash challenges displayed a bit of fight and hunger for the team. Most telling of all, however, was the unmistakable shake of the head upon being substituted, all is certainly not well, of that there can be no doubt.
Comments as to teammates occupying his desired positions on the field following United’s abysmal display in Greece were puzzling, but the fact remains that Van Persie at his best is still United’s best striker. The question, however, may be for how much longer this is the case.
The striker evidenced against West Brom that with the ball into feet, his hold-up and link-up play is still up there with the very best, but that may be part of the problem in truth. Van Persie is a player who enjoys the ball to feet, enjoys being involved in the build-up and is rarely seen dragging defenders all over the pitch with lung-busting runs down the channels. In reality this may go some way to explaining United’s troubles.
Van Persie, Rooney, Mata and Januzaj all like the ball to feet, they like to drop deep and get on the ball which is very easy to defend against if there is no threat going the other way. However, when Van Persie does stay up top he becomes isolated as long hard runs are not his game. It is why United have invariably looked more threatening with Danny Welbeck on the field.
Much has been made of the partnership (or lack thereof) between Rooney and Robin, but in many instances suggestions have been unfair. In truth, Rooney often moves far too deep and in this sense it is unsurprising that so few passes have been made between the pair because they are often not very close together on the pitch, certainly not in the mould of say Yorke and Cole of old where often there was almost a piece of string tying the two strikers together.
In this regard, David Moyes must decide on a coherent system of play. It may be that Rooney drops deep so as to cover for when Mata and Januzaj drift inside resulting in more of a 4-3-3 than a 4-2-3-1. There are other reasons for Rooney to drop deep too.
Firstly, the lack of quality in midfield necessitates Rooney to drop back and get on the ball in order to orchestrate play. Further, however, no.10s need to work hard to make space high up the pitch in often congested areas and dropping deeper into more space is an easy option, particularly for a player like Rooney always hungry for the ball.
There is no doubt that should Rooney and Van Persie get closer to each other the ability is there to form an effective partnership but the question remains as to whether their styles of play are compatible in truth. It is up to David Moyes to encourage Rooney to play further up the field and to put in the hard yards to make space in tighter areas higher up the pitch in order to facilitate greater link-up between the pair.
Interestingly, however, it was evident as soon as Welbeck entered the game that Rooney played further up the pitch and closer to his new strike partner. A good reason for this is that Welbeck’s pace and movement creates more space for Rooney higher up the field. In this sense, and having seemingly been undermined by Van Persie, David Moyes has some big decisions to make.
In truth, it may be that the balance of Rooney and Van Persie together will not prove effective. Too much football is played in front of the opposition with United’s attackers often roaming deeper and deeper to get on the ball. If this is the case, then Moyes may have to make the big decision to drop either Rooney or Van Persie, or even to grant Van Persie the move away in the summer that many believe him to be angling for.
Robin’s ability is not in question, but sometimes big decisions need to be made for the good of the club. The Dutchman is in his 30s and injury prone and it may be an opportune moment to move on a player who may not fit United’s system and may not have his heart at the club anymore.
For the time being, Paris Saint Germain have not been afraid to drop Edinson Cavani for the balance of the team, and it may be interesting to see if Moyes is brave enough to do something similar in the closing games of the season.
That is not to say that Van Persie, Rooney, Mata and Januzaj can’t all play together, but better movement and a threat in behind is certainly needed if United are to become more effective. Furthermore, it is important to note that added quality in midfield in the summer will provide quicker and more incisive passing which United’s forwards will thrive on.
With the addition of quality behind them, it is hoped that for years to come both Van Persie and Rooney can be relied upon to drive the team forwards. If not, however, David Moyes may have some big decisions to make.
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