One can be forgiven for struggling to believe what was going on at Old Trafford when Manchester United managed to put two goals past Stoke City inside the first 45 minutes after a dozen games without scoring at home in the Premier League. A dozen halves at Old Trafford without registering a goal – six full games, in theory, whichever way we look at it, Louis Van Gaal’s Manchester United typifies mediocrity and cowardice for most of this campaign.
The stench of uninspiring and pedestrian football looked to have reached its peak when Manchester United succumbed to the pressures of Southampton, without creating a genuine goal-scoring chance – the aftermath was one of despair and an acute sense of disapproval that was voiced around Old Trafford – even emanating from the areas that have a reputation for holding some of the more tolerating and patient bunch of supporters, signalling the end.
But the players and the manager had other ideas. United then, put on a good attacking display against lower-league opposition Derby County, scoring three good goals – sealing their place in the 5th round of the FA Cup suggesting they could hurt opponents when allowed to express themselves.
This claim was validated when United played Stoke City off the park in midweek, against Stoke City, scoring 3 outstanding goals, particularly the second and third – that even offered a sense of nostalgia, a quick counter-attacking move that culminated in a world-class finish from Martial and a neat build up play from the back that resulted in a comfortable tap-in for Wayne Rooney who could become the club’s all-time leading scorer by the end of February, at this rate.
So, where was this group at the start of the season? What made them so bad and boring in December that at one point a shot on target at Old Trafford was applauded with sarcastic cheers? Lingard gives an hint as to what had changed in his post Derby win interview. He was quoted speaking to ManUtd.com,
“It was really positive. We started on the front foot, we played with freedom and I think we excited the fans. We have to press teams in most games now, put them on the back foot and force mistakes, then we can get the second ball and start playing football”
Manchester United have started on the front foot showing the intent and determination to break the deadlock first in their last two games, which has proved successful. They certainly moved with more ‘freedom’ as Lingard mentions, especially in the final third when it has often been functional and static – and more of a ball-to-man approach than the other way around. Although Martial has been absolutely vital in this recent resurgence, two players have took their game to the next level – their ‘old’ level, if I may, that has been equally important to United’s attacking fluidity in conjunction with the style of football that Van Gaal’s famed philosophy is all about.
One is Juan Mata. Mata can a variety of positions to a good level but it is well documented that he is most comfortable and effective when he is behind the lone forward – orchestrating everything that happens in front of him. He showed this against Wolfsburg in the 3-2 defeat setting up Martial’s first goal, against Derby creating the lion’s share of chances from open play and also scoring the third and final goal that wrapped up the game. Against Stoke City on Tuesday, Mata had one of his best games for United – despite the fact he was not directly involved in any of the goals, he played the ‘key’ passes in all three goals that led to the actual assists. His presence in the middle opens up a variety of opportunities for the front three to make use of, making him an important player for United in this recent upturn of form and fortunes.
Daley Blind is Mata’s partner in crime from a deeper position. Blessed with a left foot as good as Juan Mata, Blind could become the ultimate modern center back. When I say ‘could’, I implicitly point to the areas he still needs to develop to be the defender he wants to be. Not the most physical of center backs, nor dominating in the air, Blind makes up for those shortcomings in the way he launches an attack. His passing accuracy of 86% with an average pass length of over 22m is commendable and the ease with which he quickens an attacking transition by spraying it long with precision to the forwards, is one of United’s strengths from an attacking perspective – not many sides can claim to have that option from the back.His goal against Derby was as important as his pinpoint pass from his own half to an unmarked Mata in the final third which led to the third goal.
Daley Blind is as Dutch as it gets and while there have been instances where he can be a liability or even a point of weakness for Manchester United, this can change as he gets used to the physicality over time – and that needs to be given for a player who is at least 3 years short of his prime. The win against a good Stoke City side who, not to forget, comfortably beat United in the reverse fixture in December, has alleviated a few immediate concerns surrounding the club and its board but serious questions will be asked about the sustainability of the club’s enviable income generation after Ed Woodward’s scheduled release of Manchester United’s second quarter earnings and Manchester City’s announcement regarding their future manager. As for the match-going supporters, they can only hope they get their money’s worth like they did on Tuesday, week in week out.