Manchester United continued their 100% start to the new campaign with a hard fought victory over Aston Villa at Villa Park. After thousands of people were caught in the traffic mayhem of the M6 pre-match, making many question playing any future Premier League games on a Friday night, Adnan Januzaj scored the winner to send the Red Devils temporarily top of the table.
The Belgian’s return to the starting line-up in place of Ashley Young was Louis van Gaal’s only change to the eleven which beat Tottenham Hotspur on the opening weekend. United were not convincing by any means but another solid defensive display, even without David De Gea in goal, was a huge positive. However, we are still waiting for the right formula at the other end as Wayne Rooney and Memphis struggled to have an impact on proceedings.
Here are five key thoughts following United’s second 1-0 success in a week.
1) Two clean sheets in a row shows Van Gaal is building from the back
Despite De Gea’s absence which looks like it will continue until the end of the transfer window amid interest from Real Madrid, United looked extremely solid at the back. Van Gaal is building his side from the back as stand-in goalkeeper Sergio Romero had little to do throughout the 90 minutes. Villa were restricted to minimal openings as United comfortably held on for their first away win of the campaign.
An organised United secured their second clean sheet in a row with an unchanged defensive shape, something which we did not see at all at the beginning of last season. Chris Smalling’s understated leadership at the heart of the backline was complemented by Daley Blind’s composure on the ball and the full-backs balanced runs forward. Morgan Schneiderlin and Michael Carrick provided solid protection when Villa were in possession too.
2) But Rooney’s performance shows United need another striking option
Although United look solid defensively, they are not creating enough chances. Juan Mata was fantastic but Rooney looked lacklustre and still in pre-season mode. The captain did not lead the line well at all as his hold-up play and failure to stretch the Villa defence showed that he may not be best suited to playing up top on his own currently. His first touch in particular was a major worry as was his lack of energy.
Having sold Robin van Persie this season, United need to find a replacement before the end of the transfer window as Rooney, Javier Hernandez and James Wilson will not be enough to guide them through four competitions. United need a striker who has energy and can stretch defences for 90 minutes because if Rooney continues in that sort of form, Van Gaal’s men will not score enough goals this season.
3) Januzaj could be like a new signing this season
Januzaj’s return to the starting line-up yielded the winning goal which maintained United’s winning start this season. It was a fantastic swivel to set up the opportunity following Mata’s cutting pass and although the finish was slightly lucky to go in, the Belgian has started his campaign on the right path. Van Gaal’s criticism of his ball retention post-match was slightly harsh but Januzaj needs to be kept on his toes at such a young age.
After failing to produce last season, Januzaj will be hoping to find the form which saw him breakthrough during his debut year under David Moyes. He is still raw but extremely talented and versatile. Januzaj can play in numerous positions across the frontline and still has the ability to turn into a star. Van Gaal will relish attempting to get the best out of the 20-year-old, who will almost certainly not be leaving the club on loan after his winner.
4) Schneiderlin, Schweinsteiger and Darmian have added quality and solidity to the squad
Van Gaal moaned throughout his first season in charge about a lack of balance in his squad, mainly pointing to having too many attacking midfielders. He was right but only now are we seeing exactly what he meant. Minus Memphis, his signings in the close season have been heavily focussed on improving the defence and midfield. Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Matteo Darmian have added real quality and solidity to this United side.
Darmian was fantastic once again in the right-back slot and he appears to have truly nailed down the position, The presence of Schneiderlin, whose positioning and physicality offers the back four some real protection, has provided United with that balance. Schweinsteiger’s experience and discipline will not only provide more balance to the side but will be crucial in latter stages of matches and in tricky away matches where United struggled to seal wins last season. Furthermore, with all the midfield options at his disposal currently, Van Gaal should be able to deal with any injuries with ease.
5) Mata can be United’s main spark and key player this season
Although United were lacking in the final third, Mata was the main spark and showed that he has the quality to carve open defences. His pass to Januzaj for the goal was sublime and it is match-winning moments like this which separate the elite attacking midfielders from the rest. Many thought Mata would be forced out by Van Gaal when he took over but the Spaniard has become a key player for United in the last six months.
Although his best position may well be in the number 10 role as he does often get exposed defensively on the right, Mata’s ability to pick the right moments to roam across the pitch show his class. He is very smart and is constantly looking to link-up with his fellow attackers in the opposition half. If Mata can produce performances like this on a regular basis this season, he will be United’s main creative spark and key player this season. He is without doubt a world class talent when he is on form.