Manchester United came from behind to defeat Preston North End on Monday night to set-up a mouth-watering clash with Arsenal at Old Trafford in the FA Cup quarter-final. Goals from Ander Herrera, Marouane Fellaini and a Wayne Rooney penalty turned the game on its head after a deflected Scott Laird strike had put the home side ahead.
Louis van Gaal opted for a very strong team selection and decided to put Rooney back into a striking role, alongside the disappointing Radamel Falcao, a position which many believe is his strongest. When the Colombian was substituted on the hour mark, Ashley Young was introduced which saw Fellaini push further forward. It worked to great effect and United eventually ran out comfortable victors.
Here are five key thoughts following United’s win at Deepdale.
1) One defeat in 19 games – the winning mentality has been restored despite poor performances
The first half display was extremely lacklustre and although it did stifle any sort of Preston pressure, United failed to have a single shot on target in the whole half. For a team two divisions above their hosts that is an absolutely dreadful statistic. Despite the second half turnaround, the performance did sum up United in 2015. The slow-build up play and possession game just does not work, particularly against lesser opponents who put the majority of their side behind the ball.
Despite the disappointing displays, it appears the fighting spirit and winning mentality has returned. The turnaround showed that when the players’ backs are against the wall, determination and spirit has been instilled into them by the management. Under David Moyes last season, United folded several times after going behind but Van Gaal’s current record of one defeat in 19 has seen his side pick-up results despite playing poorly. There has certainly been a switch in mentality.
2) United must play with pace and width from the start
Just like against Burnley last week, United struggled to break down a lesser side in the first half when they didn’t play with any sort of pace or width. However, when the switch happened in the second half, we all saw how quickly the game turned. Playing with width and pace is the Manchester United way and it has not happened enough this season. Yes, reinforcements are needed in wide areas but there are options in the current squad to enable the Red Devils to play with wingers.
Angel Di Maria in particular looks cramped in central areas of the pitch. As a third central midfield in Real Madrid’s side last year, he was given much more time and space on the ball to run at defences due to the nature of Spanish football and the presence of stars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale. In England, as a £60million record signing, he is targeted and has only gotten opportunities to use his lightning pace to good effect in wide areas. To get the best out of the Argentine, United must play with width to stretch the pitch.
3) Herrera proves that he must start regularly but a destroyer is needed alongside him
Ander Herrera was given an unusual but deserved start for the first time since the win over Yeovil last month. His energy and willingness to work hard was fantastic and it allowed Rooney to play in his preferred role as a striker. The Spaniard also managed to bag the all-important equalising goal which gave United a platform to go and get the winner.
It was a promising performance from Herrera but there is a hole in United’s midfield for a midfield destroyer. Blind and Michael Carrick are both nice, talented passers of the ball but neither are brutal enough to constantly break up play and win tackles. There are too many play-makers in the midfield and not enough brawn. Herrera needs that presence next to him in order to flourish on a weekly basis.
4) Ashley Young deserves a start after a fine display from the bench
The need for pace and width and the return to form of Ashley Young seem to have gone hand-in-hand. The Englishman has won over many of his critics this season after a number of superb displays. The resurrection of Young is second only to the rise to prominence of Fellaini, who was also scrutinised heavily under the previous regime.
With Di Maria and Adnan Januzaj already pushing for starting berths in wide areas should Van Gaal decide to go that way in the next few games, Young provides another alternative option. He has filled in at left back this year but as a natural winger, he will be expected to play further forward now Luke Shaw is back to full fitness. There is no doubt Young deserves his chance after changing the game off the bench here.
5) At least United are not 7th in the league and out of the FA Cup in the third round this year
This time last year, United were languishing down in seventh place in the league and had been knocked out of the FA Cup by Swansea in the third round. Despite the obvious lacklustre performances, the results have continued to flow for Van Gaal. He has tinkered with the line-up and system regularly but United have found ways of grinding out results, unlike last season.
There are plenty of reasons to be positive and you can see that the Dutchman has a long term plan for the club whereas at times under Moyes, United appeared to be going nowhere. Moyes was out of his depth in every aspect of the club but Van Gaal is in his element. Forget comparing the two as there is no comparison, United are in a much better position than they were a year ago both on and off the pitch.