Sunday’s 4-0 victory over QPR brought about not only a huge sense of excitement about a season which could finally be up and running, but also incredible relief that a stuttering, uninspiring start to the season was finally over.
Injuries have played a huge part at the beginning of the campaign, which has contributed heavily to early shortcomings, but with the likes of Herrera and Shaw returning to fitness as well as the impact of Di Maria, Blind, Rojo and Falcao, we certainly look a much more balanced outfit.
While the performance gave United fans much to be cheerful and optimistic about, given what has been a largely difficult period for supporters, the win was being discredited on social media and pubs and living rooms all throughout the country, all for the same reason: “It’s only QPR.”
The fact is, you can only deal with the team directly in front of you and unfortunately for them on this day, with such expectation and hope in the air from United fans, QPR would be the ones on the receiving end.
In previous weeks after all, it had only been Swansea, it had only been Sunderland, it had only been MK Dons and on Angel Di Maria’s Manchester United debut, it had only been Burnley, none of these matches providing that elusive first win for Van Gaal, or even the encouraging performance enough to suggest that this was just a mere glitch.
But while much sterner opposition will present themselves over the course of the season than Harry Redknapp’s side, this one was about things finally coming together, getting a first win on the board and building some confidence. That has been done and there are plenty of encouraging factors to take away from the victory. Here are five of them:
Casualties in the defence and a returning Luke Shaw unable to start due to a lack of match fitness meant that Louis Van Gaal was forced into changing from the 3-5-2 formation which he has implemented at the club following his arrival.
While the new system seemed to work well initially during pre-season when we were able to easily brush aside the challenges of Real Madrid, Liverpool and Roma amongst others, competitive fixtures have shown that perhaps the players haven’t adapted quite as well as first thought.
Learning a new system and implementing this throughout the club is no easy process, and Van Gaal has repeatedly stated that he would need up to three months before we would start seeing results.
However with his hand forced at the weekend, we reverted back to a more familiar shape of four at the back (albeit three of these being left sided central defenders), with a diamond in midfield behind a more recognised two man attack.
By withdrawing an extra centre-half from, we were able to use Daley Blind in a holding position, shielding the back four and being an extra body in the middle of the park, aiding the retention of possession – 69% in this case – which was undoubtedly key and more in line with the style we have become used to over the years.
The 4-4-2 diamond not only gives us an extra string to our bow in terms of mixing this up, but seems to suit the players in the squad perfectly. The returns of Jones, Smalling and Shaw to the defence will mean they are able to fill roles they are more familiar with, while Blind, Di Maria and Herrera found the freedom to get on the ball and dictate play with Mata able to operate in more of a free role.
It’s still early days for the 3-5-2 system as well and while they’re both good options to have, at first glance it seems that the diamond could be the more expansive and give us more freedom to create chances and build on Sunday’s victory.
2) Daley Blind
Not only does the man look like someone that’s making women everywhere stop for a Diet Coke break, but he’s also pretty handy on the ball too.
Since Roy Keane left back in 2005, we have struggled to find an able defensive midfielder, someone who could sit in and protect the defence, while realising the importance of keeping possession. Owen Hargreaves at one time looked as though he would be the one to fill that void, but after one season – impressive as it was – having one knee finally got the better of him.
With the extravagant sums splashed out at Old Trafford during this summer, £14million on Blind looks like it could be some of the best business we have done for some time. Not only is he able to seamlessly slip into a number of positions for us, but looked on Sunday as comfortable and assured as any player I have seen on debut in a Manchester United shirt in recent years.
While Di Maria and Herrera are the ones who will take the plaudits for goals scored, Blind was able to act as the perfect folly, allowing his midfield partners the freedom to get forward while he could act as more of a pivot and take on the defensive duties.
Being the deeper of the midfielders – like Paul Scholes in his latter years – highlights an importance for ball retention and his 107 passes completed from from his 112 attempted was more than any other on the field that day.
While Blind’s ability to fit into numerous systems in numerous positions is certainly a plus point, his United debut is enough to convince a deeper midfield role is certainly the one where he will remain.
With Michael Carrick’s place in the United starting XI almost unquestioned since his 2006 arrival, Blind’s arrival makes it difficult to see where Carrick would fit back into Van Gaal’s first team plans on return from injury.
3) Angel Di Maria
Di Maria inclusion in a list of positives is likely to be one of the least surprising things you will read all week, and given his standout performances in his opening two fixtures would probably feature every week on that basis. However notching both his first goal and assist in a much needed confidence boosting win could be the perfect catalyst for the Argentine and will hopefully give United fans a perfect glimpse of things to come.
Big money was spent on the former Real Madrid midfielder, with his creativity and vision making him La Liga’s leading assist provider last season, with only Messi and Ozil in Europe laying on more goals since 2011.
Despite both Di Maria’s deadlock breaking goal and his assist for Juan Mata goal both possessing an element of fortune about them, Di Maria’s overall performance was one to savour.
His arrival left me curious as to which position he would operate in given our banishment of wide players and only one season as a central midfielder at Real, but what he gives us in the middle of the park is something we have been crying out for.
While Blind’s addition signals a largely weak area of the squad being adequately addressed, his signing plays right into the hands of players like Di Maria, who can benefit from picking up the ball from deep or in a midfield position and run at defenders.
Ander Herrera’s first United goal highlights this perfectly, with Di Maria surging 60 yard run left QPR defenders in his wake down the left hand side before laying in Wayne Rooney. While an assist may not be by his name for this inparticular strike, there is no doubting the goal of all of his doing.
Di Maria will give us the ability to create chances like this out of nothing – just look at his outrageous ball for Van Persie or his three assists for Argentina vs Germany – and not since Ronaldo left have we had a star of this magnitude who can find create chances for himself at will.
4) Juan Mata
Mata has been the subject of plenty of transfer talk as of late, and with the arrival of Falcao and Di Maria in attacking positions, trying to find places in the team for the Spaniard seemed like an impossible task.
With Falcao left on the bench on Sunday, Mata was again given the chance to play in behind the two front men, and again responded by getting on the scoresheet -his eighth strike in his last 10 Premier League appearances.
While initially bought in by David Moyes as something of a panic buy and being thrown out on the right-hand-side, Mata has responded perfectly to being moved in to his favoured number 10 role.
With Wayne Rooney’s place now a certainty given his captaincy, it seems that two of the remaining attacking positions will have to be battled out between Mata, Van Persie and Falcao, and as it stands it seems like the Dutchman whose position is most likely to be compromised.
While Rooney and Mata can both fill the number 10 role, Mata possesses many more of the attributes needed for that position, and while recent games have outlined his ability to score goals from that position, his agility, quick feet and reading of the game make him the ideal candidate.
5) Radamel Falcao
Given his recent return from a lengthy lay-off it was unrealistic that Falcao would ever start this one and was introduced with the scoreline already at 4-0 with little over 20 minutes to play.
The Colombian was unable to find the debut goal which would have sent home fans into even more Falcao inspired raptures despite having one good opportunity which was saved by Robert Green.
Despite not finding the net what was evident was a striker who wants nothing more than to score goals. Any signs of the ball reaching the final third resulted in a darting run into a good position, and the goal perhaps could have come had Adnan Januzaj – who has a point to prove himself opted to play him in rather than releasing a wayward shot of his own.
The indications enough were there that Falcao will find good positions and with creative entities working hard in behind him such as Mata, Di Maria and Herrera then chances will inevitably come, and when Falcao is involved that more often than not means goals.