No sooner had Danny Welbeck’s inevitable winner hit the back of the net on his return to Old Trafford, were “#narrative” klaxons sounded off left, right and centre as Manchester United were confined to competing on just one front as another trophyless season beckons.
United turned in another frustrating showing in which they failed to impose their dominance for sustained periods and two defensive errors proved costly in ensuring a top four finish can be as good as it gets for Louis van Gaal in his first season at the helm. The information from GamblingSites.com suggests that they’ve fallen behind Liverpool in the betting odds for 4th place, and the tough games coming up ahead only make United’s task more difficult.
United cling onto fourth place by the skin of the teeth, which could all change by the end of the weekend, with Spurs — looking for a third successive victory at Old Trafford — three points behind United in sixth, while Liverpool, two back in fifth play on Monday evening.
Failing to lock down a Champions League spot not only would heap the pressure on the manager, but would raise concerns over the lack of progress made since the David Moyes era despite vast outlays in the summer – notably £60million on Angel Di Maria.
The Argentine misses the visit of Tottenham after idiotically seeing himself sent off in Monday night’s defeat for two cheap yellow cards in quick succession. Di Maria had shown flashes of him old self prior to his dismissal, but his lapse in concentration forces the manager to once again shuffle his pack in order to find a system capable of securing the all-important three points.
Here are five keys to a United win against Tottenham:
Antonio Valencia’s transition to a full-time full-back has by no means been a complete disaster, but the winger-come-defender was largely to blame for both Arsenal goals on Monday evening as United crashed out of the FA Cup.
The Ecuadorian’s spell it defence initially looked as though it would be a short term fix, while Rafael — the side’s only recognised right-back — was out injured, but having returned to fitness the Brazilian seems to be the latest member of van Gaal’s squad bafflingly frozen out.
Rafael turned in a superb performance for the Under 21 side on Monday evening at Old Trafford against Tottenham, scoring a spectacular left-footed, thirty-yard lob.
Whether he may or may not be the long term solution to the right-back issue at the club remains to be seen, but as the only man recognised in the position, certainly deserves an opportunity to prove his worth. Rafael is by no means without fault, but it’s rare you ever get anything less than 100% effort from the enigmatic Brazilian.
2. Juan Mata
There’s no need to go into too much detail while making this point at risk of sounding like a broken record, but once again against Arsenal, the choice of Fellaini occupying the 10 role behind Rooney seemed completely baffling.
With the manager finally settling on a formation that makes sense to the team’s strengths, that becomes instantly unearthed by throwing Fellaini into an advanced position and hoisting direct balls into him. Make no mistake, I’ve become fond of Fellaini and won’t fault the worth ethic or determination, but his presence over someone like Mata, who can unlock opposition defences is something I cannot quite get my head around.
The Spaniard was an unused substitute against Arsenal, with the Spaniard’s presence on the bench while United struggle to provide meaningful opportunities going forward seeming extremely wasteful.
Mata’s energy levels and creativity from the start would make a great deal more sense, as well as being much easier on the eye, with Fellaini a realistic option later in the game if needed.
On the whole, discipline hasn’t been a major issue this season, but Monday night highlighted some players struggle to keep their heads in the wake of difficult times. With United already 2-1 down in the game, in an attempt to carve out an opportunity by any means, Di Maria allowed himself to go down under the faintest of touches, with Michael Oliver issuing the Argentine a yellow card for simulation.
The debate should really have been over whether the initial incident merited a yellow, before Di Maria, incensed by his caution, grabbed the referee’s shirt to stake his claim, incurring a second yellow and his marching orders in the process and effectively ending any hopes of a comeback.
Another cheap booking followed soon after as Adnan Januzaj — as he has done too often for my liking — went down in the penalty area in a promising position as he bore down on goal, only under no challenge, again receiving a caution.
The Belgian now has more yellow cards for simulation in his short career than he does goals, and worryingly, these come when United are attempting to find their way back into a game, even if he is in a position where he can pull the trigger or find a simple lay-off.
As we enter the business end of the season, van Gaal must ensure that cheap errors such as this are eradicated and no more players have to sit out big matches of their own doing.
4. No room for error
With Tottenham, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City all to play in our next five matches, margin for error is slim to none if a top four spot is to remain a realistic proposition.
With Liverpool taking 29 points from the last 33 on offer, while Tottenham — inspired by Harry Kane — refuse to throw in the towel, the odds would seem stacked against United who have looked anything but convincing for some time.
Failure to defeat Manchester City and/or Chelsea at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge respectively may not quite be the end of the world, provided maximum points are achieved over Liverpool and Tottenham – our main threats for securing the all-important fourth European slot.
Not so long ago, third place looked as though we might make it our own, but with Arsenal showing good form and just a point behind City, our sights now may realistically be on fourth spot at best.
5. LVG needs to swallow his pride
For too long, Ander Herrera was left out of the side without a real explanation, Rooney found himself in midfield and fans looked like they would have to permanently become accustomed to a frustrating 3-5-2 formation.
For whatever reason, van Gaal has often made some strange decisions this season, taking far too long to address issues, which had been obvious for far too long.
The Dutchman’s credentials certainly give him the benefit of the doubt on most occasions, and his impressive C.V has, so far, relieved him of the same pressure heaped upon David Moyes last season. For whatever reason though, the manager seems to make decisions about players, just as he can in his situation, but can become clouded by these judgements.
Herrera, who was unfancied for so long was withdrawn at half-time on Monday to the dismay of the fans, while Mata and Falcao are forced to sit on the bench while the team go in search of late goals.
Falcao’s form has by no means been anywhere close to we may have imagined when he signed, but to leave a frontman of his talent to sit and observe alongside one of our most creative attackers in Mata while the team are left floundering seems like personal opinion may be getting in the way of the team’s best interests at times.
It’s becoming increasingly harder to predict anything from United performances nowadays, other than high levels of frustration. Di Maria’s absence could see Mata return, but given the Spaniard’s freezing out, seems more likely than Januzaj or Valencia will instead occupy a wide role, with Rafael likely to feature in the event of the latter advancing further forward.
Spurs have responded in ideal fashion to their League Cup final defeat to Chelsea, picking up back-to-back Premier League victories, with Harry Kane once again notching twice in their most recent win over QPR. After a shaky start, Spurs seem to be finding their feet under Pochettino and with a third successive victory at Old Trafford at stake, as well as drawing level on points with United, there’s certainly enough incentive for the North Londoners to provide more than stern competition.
United, on the other hand, must improve and quickly, but the uncertainty still remains. 1-1
De Gea, Rafael, Smalling, Rojo, Shaw, Blind, Herrera, Januzaj, Fellaini, Young, Rooney