Manchester United salvaged a late draw away at West Bromwich Albion, after finding themselves behind twice in the match, thanks to a powerful strike from Daley Blind. Despite the double comeback, the result will have to go down as two points lost for the Red Devils as they paid for two sloppy defensive errors, having dominated the majority of the game. The Baggies scored from an early counter attack and a simple through ball, both coming due to United’s poor positioning.
The result leaves United in sixth position, languishing 10 points behind leaders Chelsea and five behind neighbours Manchester City. The top two are the next opponents in the Premier League for Louis Van Gaal’s men and they will have to defend much better if they are to get anything from either encounter.
Monday night saw Adnan Januzaj preferred to Radamel Falcao in the starting line-up but the Belgian failed to take his opportunity as he had little impact on proceedings. It was a story of four fantastic strikes as Stephane Sessegnon’s curler and the in-form Saido Berahino’s neat finish were cancelled out by substitute Marouane Fellaini’s stunning strike just after the break and Blind’s powerful, low effort late on.
Here are five things we learnt from the draw at West Brom.
1) Van Gaal is not afraid to surprise us tactically
The Dutchman has tinkered with United’s formation since moving to the club this summer. Having started with a 3-4-1-2 which had worked so well during the pre-season tour of the USA, he swiftly switched to a 4-4-2 diamond, after a difficult opening three games. It worked; as United would go on to win three of their next four games in the league. However, Monday night saw another switch as Van Gaal used wingers in a 4-3-3, with Falcao dropped to the bench and Wayne Rooney suspended.
He obviously sees his traditional 4-3-3 as the way forward in the long term as he has been quoted as saying that he loves using wingers and the narrow diamond that has been deployed recently lacks that wide threat. Van Gaal obviously has the next two games at the back of his mind, especially the Manchester Derby in two weeks’ time, as United will need to give more protection to the dodgy back-line in both matches.
2) United still have a long way to go defensively
It was a decent performance from United, as they dominated the majority of the game, following a very slow start, a period which saw Sessegnon fire the Baggies into the lead, but there are still huge questions defensively. Van Gaal used his fifth central defensive pairing in the first eight league games. He hasn’t been helped by the mounting injuries at the start of the season but this is a statistic that is very worrying, especially with the next few games in mind.
Poor positioning from first Luke Shaw and secondly Phil Jones saw United concede two very sloppy goals despite having much more of the ball and more chances on goal. The solidity will certainly come in time but in the short term, the lack of a real leader and a stable partnership is very worrying. Van Gaal must stick to a pairing, in order to help them forge an understanding, with most fans believing that Jones and Marcos Rojo should continue as the centre backs, even when Jonny Evans returns from injury.
3) Does Fellaini have something to offer after all?
A major positive to come out of the draw was the second half cameo performance from Marouane Fellaini. The much-maligned midfielder completely changed the game, as United’s direct style of football paid off just after the break. Angel Di Maria clipped a ball to the Belgian, who controlled it on his chest, swivelled and fired it past Boaz Myhill into the roof of the West Brom net.
His physical presence was much needed as Ander Herrera, Juan Mata and Januzaj all struggled to have an impact against an extremely solid Baggies side in the first half. United needed someone to ruffle that backlines’ feathers and Fellaini was the perfect man for the job. He may not be a regular at Old Trafford this season but it is good to see that he may have something to offer the club, even if it is a route one, Plan B option off the bench.
4) Van Persie and Mata continue to struggle
It was a night to forget for Robin Van Persie and Juan Mata, who both failed to have an impact on proceedings. Barring a brilliant volley which hit the post in the second half, Van Persie once again lacked decent movement and generally looked laboured. Although he is obviously still capable of a moment of quality, you have to think he will be dropped in order to include the rested Falcao, should Van Gaal persevere with the 4-3-3 next weekend.
As for Mata, he was arguably even worse than Van Persie. The Spaniard looks bereft of confidence and relied heavily on his teammates’ movement due to his own lack of mobility. On his day, Mata is a wizard who can produce a moment of magic out of nothing but at the Hawthorns he looked stuck for ideas in his role behind the Dutchman. The lack of movement in front of him certainly had an issue but he has to do much more if he is going to keep his place in the side when Rooney returns.
5) United are heavily reliant on Di Maria
Before being forced off after feeling a slight twinge in his groin, Di Maria was the best player on the pitch once again on Monday night. It is obvious that United are beginning to rely heavily on his phenomenal flair and invention. Gary Neville pointed out post-match that United are currently relying on great “moments” to get results rather than a consistently dangerous attacking performance and it has been Di Maria that has generally been that spark in recent games.
It is a new side, who are still getting used to the way each other play but the reliance on Di Maria is slightly worrying. The Argentine looks like he will make something happen every time he touches the ball but whilst it is amazing to have that world class midfielder in the side, the other players around him have to start producing too. Looking at the positives, Di Maria has the ability to tear any defence apart from either a central area or a wide position and it is fantastic to have someone like that at Old Trafford.