Manchester United recorded their 11th win in 14 Premier League home games with a 2-0 victory over relegation threatened Sunderland at Old Trafford. Wayne Rooney scored twice as the Red Devils moved up to third position in the table, ahead of top four rivals’ Arsenal and Liverpool’s games on Sunday.
The game was overshadowed by referee Roger East’s decision to send former United defender Wes Brown off for a foul on Radamel Falcao when the culprit appeared to be fellow old boy, John O’Shea. Louis van Gaal opted to play Ashley Young and Angel Di Maria in wide areas with Rooney behind Falcao in Robin van Persie’s absence through injury.
Here are five key thoughts from United’s latest three points.
1) Van Gaal has finally found the right system
After lining up in a 4-2-3-1 variation on Saturday, United have now used seven different formations in the Premier League this season. However, the latest tactical tweak from Van Gaal looks like it could be the answer we have all been looking for. It appears to suit the current options available to the Dutchman, with a lone striker being used for the first time in a number of months.
Although it wasn’t the greatest of performances from United, the system gave them the required width whilst also giving Van Gaal the option to play three central midfielders. It is never nice for a player to get injured but Van Persie’s absence may have added United this weekend. By playing one striker, it means there is more scope to fit in the plethora of midfield options at the managers’ disposal.
2) Di Maria needs a rest – it was the correct decision to take him off
Angel Di Maria was substituted at half time as United went into the interval level with the Black Cats. The Argentine had a particularly poor afternoon as he struggled with his end product all half. He was roaming around far too much and United looked much better when Adnan Januzaj was introduced at the break at the Belgian held the width on the right-hand side, which stretched Sunderland much more than in the first half.
Di Maria has not been at his scintillating best for a long time but this was a remarkably poor display which can only be put down to a lack of confidence and tiredness. The former Real Madrid man has barely had a rest due to last summer’s World Cup and could do with a little rest. He is also much more effective when whipping crosses in from the left wing, rather than being forced to cut inside onto his right foot. Di Maria will be back, he just needs to rebuild his confidence.
3) Young justifies his selection with a man of the match display
In contrast to Di Maria, Ashley Young was in incredible form on his return to the team on the other side of the pitch. The England man has been re-born under Van Gaal after coming under constant criticism during David Moyes’ failed reign last season. Young more than justified his selection on Saturday and he should keep his place in the side in midweek.
What was the most impressive thing about Young’s display was his directness and willingness to take risks when he picked up the ball. United have missed people trying to bat their man and break into the final third with pace but Young continuously asked questions of Sunderland here. He is a changed man this season and long my it continue.
4) Rooney is a proven 20-goal a season striker when he plays up front
Van Gaal stated pre-match that he feels United are lacking a 20-goal striker this season. Although it was blatantly a stunt to spur on his strike-force as we enter the final part of the campaign, he has had a proven Premier League goal-scorer in his midfield all year. Rooney has been forced to do a job in central midfield for the majority of his reign as captain but returned to goal-scoring ways in this one
His match-winning brace means he became the first player in Premier League history to score 10 goals in 11 consecutive seasons. In fact, if you do the maths, he averages more than 20 goals per season since he joined United. Van Gaal was wrong to claim he doesn’t have a 20-goal striker in his squad, as it is very likely that if Rooney had played in that role all year, he would be very close to that mark.
5) United were boring but were by no means poor
There are plenty of negatives flying around the United fan-base about the dull performances but just because it is not pretty to watch, does not mean it was a poor display. The fact is the Red Devils got the job done and the fact is that they restricted their visitors to zero chances after an early flurry of Sunderland shots. It may have been boring at times but it was a solid and controlled performance from Van Gaal’s men. The result was never in doubt. With 74% possession and 30 shots on goal, United undisputedly deserved to win this game.
We have seen Man City held by Hull and lose to Stoke at home this season, whilst Liverpool had goalless draws with Hull and Sunderland at Anfield. Even leaders Chelsea drew their last league game with Burnley. Sometimes substance has to come over style and if these performances get United into the Champions League, we won’t be complaining.