Manchester United picked up their second win of the season with victory at Villa Park, as they extended their unbeaten run to 20 league matches at Aston Villa’s home ground, in what was a relatively comfortable match for Louis van Gaal’s side. They have now amassed five more points than they had at this stage last season, a statistic that might not mean much so early in the campaign, but is indicative of improvement. That said, their performance still didn’t quite look like that of a side capable of winning the league.
When you think of a Manchester United winger, you think of a player capable of quick, direct, skillful play. With Juan Mata on the right, we see very little of that.
The slight Spaniard made his name operating in attacking midfield, playing in the hole behind the striker, but van Gaal has instead elected to play him on the wing. We regularly see him cut infield to make passes and maintain possession of the ball. In the first half against Villa, Mata spent more time hovering around the center of the park than on the right flank, a position that could instead be occupied by a more conventional winger, such as Antonio Valencia, Adnan Januzaj(who started the game in Mata’s preferred position), Ashley Young, or Memphis.
United’s goal came from a Mata-Januzaj combination, with Mata(who’d found himself all the way on the left) sliding the ball through to Januzaj, whose run was timed to perfection, and showed great composure in the box. That is Mata’s greatest strength: he is a clever player capable of playing slick, accurate passes in the attacking third, and though he still manages to perform starting on the right, might add much more to the United side if he is played in his natural position.
On the left, Memphis looked short of confidence to take on his defender, often opting for the safer alternative of passing the ball backwards and keeping possession. Though he has all the traits of the textbook United winger, we rarely saw him use the combination of pace and skill that catapulted him to international fame.
The Dutch youngster was relatively subdued for the second match in a row, and will need to improve if he is to keep his spot in the starting eleven ahead of Ashley Young, who embodied exactly what United needed out wide last season.
Rooney in attack
For the first time since the 2011/12 season, Rooney is set to spend the season leading the line at Manchester United. The versatile Englishman has spent the majority of the last few seasons playing in a midfield role, and he looks to be struggling to get his feet sorted in attack.
Rooney’s first and only touch of the ball in the opposition’s penalty area came in injury time, as the Red Devils skipper delivered a sub-par performance by his standards.
As usual, he worked hard off the ball, helping his side close down the opposition, but made little impact going forward. He helped his side spread the play and keep the ball, but rarely played a threatening pass or made space for himself to get a shot off. A few close offside calls aside, Rooney did’t give his markers much trouble off the ball either.
Though his ability as a finisher is rarely questioned, it seems as though in order for the best to be brought out of him, he either needs a partner up front, or needs to quickly forget all the time he spent as a provider and focus more on reaching the target of 34 goals in all competitions that he set for himself before the start of the season.
United have now scored two goals in as many games, one of them being an own goal in their opening game against Tottenham. If Rooney can look so toothless against a side whose aim for the season is to stay afloat in the Premier League, how will he fair against the best?
Perhaps the most considerable change to the 20-time Premier League champions has been their assurance at the back. Even in Sir Alex’s title-winning swansong season United looked frail in defense, conceding 43 goals. They conceded the same amount in the following season under David Moyes, and finally marked improvement last season, reducing the goals conceded to 37(thanks largely to the heroics of David de Gea, it should be noted). That record looks set for further improvement if their past two performances are anything to go by.
With their error-prone ways seemingly a thing of the past, Chris Smalling and Daley Blind were particularly impressive in what was a strong defensive showing. Blind’s ability to read the game and start up play from the back, and Smalling’s growing confidence and aerial prowess make for a dynamic center-back pairing.
Luke Shaw was lively on the left, regularly surging forward and providing Memphis with support in abundance. Damian was perhaps the more busy defensively of the two, as Jordan Amavi in particular caused problems for the United defense. All in all, United’s defense restricted the Villans to a single shot on target — a header won from a corner kick.
Dictating the tempo of the first half from the center of the park were Michael Carrick and Morgan Schneiderlin. The two saw to it that United bossed proceedings in midfield, and appear to be forming a formidable partnership, with Schneiderlin’s energy and defensive qualities complementing Carrick’s vision and composure on the ball.
The introduction of Bastian Schweinsteiger added an element of class to the United midfield in the 60th minute, as he replaced the tiring Carrick. He demonstrated his exceptional range of passing a few minutes into his coming on, sending Paul Scholes-esque diagonal to Mata, who failed to control the pass.
If Schweinsteiger manages to remain fit for the greater part of the season, United will greatly benefit from his ability and experience. Whenever the ball fell to his feet, you expected something to happen. Whether the ball came to him on the ground or in the air, Schweinsteiger seemed like he could do no wrong as he effortlessly found his teammates time and time again.
Threat on the counter
If there is one department United seem to be sorely lacking in, it is their threat on the counter. When transitioning from defense to attack, United looked much too careful to pose any serious threat to the Villa defense, and as a result failed to create more clear-cut goal scoring opportunities.
United’s go-to game plan under van Gaal has been to dominate possession and circulate the ball crisply and effectively. While they seem to be growing increasingly comfortable with the ball, they regularly sacrifice speed in attack for the comfort of retaining the ball. Their patience in build-up led to their predictability toward the end of last season, and they risk the same fate if they don’t add an element of variety to their attack.
The fact of the matter is, United will not always be the better team in possession. Against European giants like Bayern Munich or Barcelona they will more than likely have to contend with seeing less of the ball than their opponents. They seem to be lacking the desire to move the ball up the pitch quickly, and if they come up against an organized defense, it would be no surprise to see them struggle.
All in all, while United showed glimpses of promise, they are not yet at the level of champions. They have a talented squad, but as it stands, it looks somewhat rigid. Despite coming off as a superior team to last season on paper, Manchester United don’t look like they improved enough for the amount of money they’ve spent. With a Champions League play-off fixture against Club Brugge looming, van Gaal will hope his team click into gear, lest they suffer embarrassment at the hands of the Belgian underdogs.