The first international break of the season often offers a largely unwelcome interruption to the long awaited return of the domestic football season, but on this occasion, it offered Manchester United plenty in the way of positives.
The Reds last tasted action on 30th August as Louis van Gaal’s men suffered their first defeat of the season to Swansea City at the Liberty Stadium. Since then, plenty has changed at Old Trafford, most notably the collapse of David de Gea’s much anticipated switch to Real Madrid, before, quite incredibly, signing a new four-year deal at the club.
Plenty more have left the club; Chicharito, Jonny Evans and Anders Lindegaard most notably on permanent deals, while Adnan Januzaj and Tyler Blackett will continue their development on loan at both Dortmund and Celtic respectively.
The string of outgoings to an already threadbare first-team squad already appeared bizarre, before Ed Woodward concluded the club’s summer arrivals with the £36m capture of French teenage prodigy, Anthony Martial.
The former Monaco man is certainly an exciting prospect for the future and has been handed the club’s number nine shirt, but the decision not to add a recognised centre-back or centre-forward is extremely baffling. With James Wilson also set to depart on loan, United will be left with just Rooney and Martial as recognised attackers, with resident ‘Plan B’ Marouane Fellaini waiting in the wings.
Since our last action, we’ve also seen our captain replace club legend Sir Bobby Charlton as England’s all-time leading goalscorer, with penalties against both San Marino and Switzerland taking his overall tally to 50. Charlton’s club record is also firmly in sight for Rooney, who currently stands just 17 goals shy of eclipsing the World Cup winner on the domestic front.
Attention turns back to the Premier League and one of the most anticipated matches of the season as North-West rivals Liverpool make the short trip to Old Trafford. United did the double over the Merseysiders last season, with Juan Mata’s acrobatics at Anfield one of the finer memories to take away from last season.
Despite the manager admitting to having Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick voice their concerns to him over the atmosphere in the squad, spirits will be high in the camp following the news of David de Gea’s staggering U-turn.
We expect (hope) our number one to be back for the visit of Brendan Rodgers men, with bragging rights and getting back to winning ways extremely high on the agenda for van Gaal and co.
Here are five keys to a United victory over Liverpool:
Put the De Gea situation behind us and for God’s sake get him back in the team
The situation surrounding the Spaniard’s seemingly inevitable transfer to Real Madrid was one of the longest, most tedious sagas in recent history. We all know how – hilariously – that one ended, but even despite the transfer falling through, few could have predicted that we would, at this stage be jumping for joy following the news of the stoppers four-year contract extension.
With speculation persisting all throughout the summer, the manager has opted to exclude the club’s back-to-back player of the season from first team responsibilities, citing the Spaniard not being in the correct frame of mind to take the field. With Lindegaard deemed surplus to requirements and Victor Valdes seemingly frozen out by the manager, it was newcomer Sergio Romero who would instead fill the void left by De Gea.
Romero has had little to do during the seasons opening fixtures, but has at times looked shaky despite this. The Argentine number one didn’t come with glowing recommendations, and perhaps his lack of appearances at Sampdoria last season before his release perhaps taught us all we needed to know on that front.
While not totally indept, David de Gea he certainly is not. Romero – if happy to – can be an able deputy to the Spaniard and still get significant game time through the club’s increased fixtures this season, provided they can go on a cup run, but with a line drawn under the De Gea situation, he must now come back into the fold immediately.
The Old Trafford crowd will undoubtedly give the Spaniard a rapturous ovation, and while a game of this magnitude may not usually be the kind to bring a player lacking in match practice back into the squad, but such is De Gea’s importance to United that his return will provide a huge boost to the squad ahead of a game that will mean more to the fans than most others.
Should Romero have absolutely saved both of Swansea’s goals before the international break? Maybe not, although he certainly should have saved Gomis’ winner with ease, but would we have come away with at least a point with our first choice goalkeeper between the sticks that day? Absolutely.
Stick with the same outfield
The result aside, it was something of a – pleasant – surprise to see arguably United’s first choice XI (with the exception of Romero for De Gea, of course) line up for the 2-1 defeat at Swansea.
United came unstuck on the day against an extremely well drilled side, with Garry Monk’s tactics spot on to snatch a third successive victory for him over Louis van Gaal and Manchester United.
With Ander Herrera added to the midfield three in the number 10 role, United dominated possession throughout, but once again, failed to deliver the kind of real cutting edge we’re so desperately missing.
A loss on the day, our first of the season at that, shouldn’t see the manager ringing the changes as a result though. Don’t forget the squad has endured a drastic transformation during the summer, with five of the starting line-up that day all summer acquisitions. Herrera has proved time after time that he is worthy of a starting place and can get forward into the pockets of space ahead of both Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger. With Liverpool somewhat weakened in the midfield with doubts over the fitness of Jordan Henderson, controlling the game from the centre of the park will be key to success for United on the day.
After a solid start to the season, the defence will remain the same, with no other real question marks over the rest of the starting XI. Depay has a point to prove after some mediocre performances following his brace against Club Brugge, while Juan Mata will no doubt keep his place, after three goals against the Scousers last season.
The Swansea game is behind us, but let’s put that one down as an off day against excellent opposition on the day, punishing some lapses in concentration and questionable goalkeeping. With the exception of De Gea back where he belongs, that side deserves another chance here.
Reports late on Friday night emerged that Wayne Rooney may be set to miss out due to a hamstring injury, inevitable really given our failure to bring in an established forward, or let so many others go for that matter. Falcao and van Persie failed to deliver last season, while Hernandez cards appeared to have been marked ever since van Gaal arrived at the club, but the failure to bring in a recognised frontman in such circumstances would always prove to be a problem were the skipper to pick up an injury.
That leaves Wilson, Martial and Fellaini all as options to replace the skipper if reports are confirmed. Martial is unlikely to be thrown in for such a high profile encounter from the start, offering James Wilson – who started – in the corresponding fixture last season a huge opportunity. A loan move for him will surely still take place at some point, but van Gaal needs someone to put pressure on his misfiring skipper. Wilson, unlike Rooney has the pace and killer instinct to remain forward and break into those dangerous positions and seems the obvious choice.
A more positive style?
Following rumours of disarray in the camp, the manager openly spoke in the press conference of Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick coming to see him recently to speak of the ‘flat atmosphere’ in the squad. The treatment of the likes of Victor Valdes and Rafael is rumoured to be one of the reasons behind such, as well as disagreements over training methods and the team’s current style of play.
The manager has favoured a possession-based approach this season, which has been effective to a degree, but lacked the cutting edge we have grown accustomed to at Manchester United.
Gone are the breath-taking counter attacks and penetrative play, instead replaced by a slow, methodical build up which may or may not result in any kind of end product. The lack of risks being taken in the manager’s approach has seen United dominate games in possession only, while our chances created have been alarmingly low all too often.
Being so forthright in offering this information to the press indicates a trust in two of his more senior players, insisting he immediately followed up on the concerns with the rest of the squad. United need to exercise a more fluid brand of attacking football to which Old Trafford can relate to, and give the players we have in our ranks, some supremely talented players the opportunity to display a little more creative license.
All too often we see the manager resort to his Plan B, with Fellaini thrown on and balls hoofed in his direction at the first glimpse of something going wrong. That might work from time to time, but call me old fashioned, but I preferred the Fergie way of instilling a belief in the players to maintain their ruthless attitude right until the death. I remember that brought us one or two crucial goals late on.
The big plus point for United will be the absence of Phillipe Coutinho following his dismissal in Liverpool’s 3-0 home defeat to West Ham. The Brazilian has been the Merseysiders’ key man since Suarez departure with his ability to cut inside and chip in with vital goals and assists. Jordan Ibe will likely fill the void instead for the visitors, another tricky winger looking to cause a splash following Raheem Sterling’s exit this summer.
Sturridge remains an absentee, as does Joe Allen, while question marks remain over the fitness of both Adam Lallana and, more importantly, Jordan Henderson. The Liverpool skipper has made huge strides – must be his gait – over recent seasons, with his presence dearly missed by the visitors in the aforementioned defeat to the Hammers.
Absentees in key positions will certainly make Liverpool’s task harder and will rely heavily on the likes of Christian Benteke and Roberto Firmino, both big money arrivals in the summer. The Anfield outfit have netted just twice in the Premier League this season, but will need little motivation to put up a real fight at Old Trafford on Saturday.
Defence to hold firm
It’s been highlighted on many occasions now, that United’s backline have made an excellent start to the campaign, although might struggle against an attack with any real quality.
That was all too evident at the Liberty Stadium to some extent last time out. The Swans first came about due to some defensive lapses which saw Gylfi Sigurdsson given acres of space following his switch to the right to deliver an inch perfect ball onto the head of Andre Ayew – not not know for his heading abilities. Blind was forced wide with Luke Shaw still tracking back, leaving Chris Smalling alone to deal with two Swansea attackers in the middle.
Ayew would turn provider for the second, after his sublime ball found the run of Gomis, who was able to slot past Romero with surprising ease. Liverpool might not be able to match Swansea in terms of being as well drilled and effective just yet, but in Benteke in particular, having another forward well capable of posing problems.
The addition of De Gea adds an extra, rather chunkier layer of protection, which will offer huge relief to Smalling and Blind who are still becoming accustomed to playing together. Matteo Darmian picked up the club’s player of the month award after his fine start to the campaign and will do his already bourgeoning popularity no harm whatsoever if he can keep quiet big money signing Roberto Firmino.