Manchester United has looked strong at times early this season, especially in wins over Liverpool and Southampton a few weeks ago. They met a grim reality check, however, at the Emirates before the international break, with the brilliance of Alexis Sanchez leading Arsenal to a 3-0 win over the Reds.
Dropping from the top of the table thanks to that loss, United now heads to Goodison Park, a stadium at which they’ve struggled mightily in recent years, to face Roberto Martinez and Everton. Led by the resurgent Romelo Lukaku, mercurial Ross Barkley, and stalwart John Stones, Everton looks even stronger than it did last season, when it beat United 3-0 in the same fixture.
United’s team has looked imbalanced in recent weeks, with the brilliance of Anthony Martial and Juan Mata able to patch over the holes until the Arsenal loss. There was far too little cover in midfield, wingers were not tracking back to great effect, and the team’s offensive strategy lacked ingenuity and pace.
With Wayne Rooney struggling to maintain possession, Juan Mata often dropped deeper from his right wing position to orchestrate play, leaving Ashley Young to bomb forward on the right and leave a chasm for Alexis to run into. The midfield duo of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Michael Carrick was eager to get involved in build-up play, but neither had the pace to recover and shield the back line if the team lost possession.
Two lineup changes that would help resolve those aforementioned problems would be:
1) Drop Michael Carrick in favor of Morgan Schneiderlin
2) Drop Wayne Rooney in favor of Ashley Young, deploy Young on the right and move Juan Mata into the CAM role
It may seem bold and somewhat rash to drop two long-time United starters, two players who have been instrumental to the team’s success in the past and possess immense experience, but Louis van Gaal has shown a willingness to do what is necessary to succeed and these moves are exactly what the Dutchman needs.
First off, Carrick simply cannot be paired with any of United’s three other central midfield options (Schneiderlin, Schweinsteiger, and Ander Herrera). He is not mobile enough to cover the runs of Schweinsteiger or Herrera, while a partnership with Schneiderlin would not offer the requisite energy going forward. Schneiderlin, on the other hand, is excellent defensively, has far more pace, and is a tidy partner for either Herrera or Schweinsteiger.
Dropping Rooney, the club captain, is a bit messier and more complicated. There is no doubt that he is one of the best players in United history, scoring key goals and winning numerous trophies with the team. The style of the current team, however, just does not fit his strengths. Playing Martial up front instead of on the wing and having Memphis cut inside instead of crossing are clear indications that Van Gaal is not putting players in positions where they can provide service to Rooney; rather, he is attempting to fit his captain in to a system built around younger players.
Rooney may be more of a No. 10 than he once was, but he’s still not the team’s best option in that role. Mata has shown his class time and time again at United, providing the sumptuous flick for Chris Smalling’s goal that earned them a victory at home over Wolfsburg in the Champions League. He is the Reds’ most creative player, and should be deployed at the position where his lack of pace is least exposed. Putting Ashley Young across from Memphis gives United the ability to burn teams down the sides and provide service for its central attackers from the wings.
The United lineup under my guidance would look as follows:
David De Gea (GK)
Darmian (RB) – Smalling (CB) – Rojo (CB) – Blind (LB)
Schneiderlin (CDM) – Schweinsteiger (CM)
Young (RW) – Mata (CAM) – Memphis (LW)
This lineup gives United cover at the back, pace along the flanks (and therefore more cover for the fullbacks, a balanced midfield duo, and creativity across the attacking midfield line that can help provide service for Anthony Martial. While Rooney and Carrick should still be integral squad members, their usefulness in the starting lineup has diminished over the course of the past year.