By Nathan Lewis
Last weekend’s defeat in the Manchester derby has given renewed impetus to the doubting Thomas’ both inside and outside United’s support. Concern over defensive frailties persist with Louis van Gaal forced to field a central pairing of Michael Carrick and Paddy McNair for a large portion of the second half at Eastlands, and an injury crisis of a gargantuan proportion continuing to decimate the back line.
Still, although the Reds have now gone five games without a win on the road, those who are able to compare the football being played now to that of last season under David Moyes, will tell you of a marked improvement.
It baffled me following Sunday’s game to hear some fans questioning if we were playing any better than at this point last year. The wider media have exacerbated this feeling by pointing to statistics, our worst start since ’86, fewer points on the board at this stage than under Moyes. I feel that I speak for most of those who have watched every game this season when I say that these stats tell us nothing about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal. Save for the first three games of the season the football has been unquestionably better than the dour, toothless and tactically naïve performances under Moyes.
Our past two fixtures, against the best team in the league and the reigning champions, have shown that we are closer to them then some might have you believe. We were utterly annihilated at the Etihad last year and our home match with Mourinho’s Chelsea threw up a tedious 0-0 draw. Compare that with this year’s game at Old Trafford in which we saw that famous never-say-die attitude – coupled with a sweat soaked display – return to United’s game. Similarly at Eastlands, Van Gaal’s men more than matched City until Smalling’s dismissal on 39 minutes and looked by far the more likely to score as the match drew to a close. This being in spite of the fact we were a man down and playing with a back four that would have reduced most Reds to a quivering wreck had we known that we would end the game with such a defence before hand.
It would appear from this that United’s lowly league position of 9th would have more to do with our porous defence than any perceived continuation of the troubles from last season’s nightmarish campaign. Unfortunately, the aforementioned injury crisis cannot be attributed sole proportion of the blame for these lapses, indeed it only serves to gloss over the fact that question marks remain over the quality of all of our current centre-halves. Phil Jones is for me the only man we have whose performances suggest he can play a big part in the future of the club. All-to-frequent injuries remain his only stumbling block, but for Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling and, to a lesser extent, Marcos Rojo, all have yet to show they have the desired quality to live up to the standards set by club stalwarts in their position such as Steve Bruce, Jaap Stam and Nemanja Vidic. This of course is a big concern, and unlikely to be solved until the summer. United will be no doubt looking to buy in January but as we all know, it’s not the easiest time to recruit.
Questions of quality aside, what United need more than ever is stability and a settled back four in order to stand any chance of turning marked improvements into results. Young defenders Paddy McNair and Tyler Blackett have shown great promise in the early stages of the campaign but it is to Michael Carrick who the task of reinforcing the Reds’ rearguard is likely to fall. Once viewed as mere stop gap during times of depleted defensive personnel, Carrick now seems more comfortable than ever in the position and performed admirably in the position against City on Sunday alongside rookie McNair. What he lacks in physical prowess he makes up for in experience and reading of the game, a trait that could see him temporarily switched to the position, until January at least.
Losing the derby is always the worst, thankfully I’m fortunate to work in an office in Stretford which is predominantly Red, but that still didn’t numb the gloom that the morning brought. Nevertheless, the hours that followed Sunday’s defeat brought with them a feeling of encouragement that despite our frailties, things were getting better. As I mentioned early, I can’t fathom how some people can’t see this, sometimes I think people are never satisfied. I have some Red mates who are never happy, even in seasons gone by where we’ve won European Cups and league titles they’ve had something to moan about. I mean, seriously, what do they want, blood?