A midweek victory over Ipswich laid to rest the ghosts of last year’s capitulation at the hands of MK Dons, banishing them firmly to the archives. With United in the pursuit of their first silverware of the Louis van Gaal era, the Reds took a step towards doing so, in a competition which looks extremely winnable.
Wayne Rooney and Andreas Pereira were on the scoresheet for United, before the now, seemingly inevitable Anthony Martial goal to round off proceedings. Despite traditionally a competition, which allows the changes to be rung and fresh talents to be unearthed, LVG fielded what turned out to be an extremely strong line-up as the Reds cruised into round four, where a home tie with Middlesbrough waits in the wings.
Attention now turns back to the Premier League, where United find themselves in second place, a mere two points behind leaders Manchester City, following their shock home defeat at the hands of West Ham.
Sunderland are the visitors, where van Gaal welcomes Dutch compatriot and former rival Dick Advocaat, who can boast an impress record over the United manager from their stints and both PSV and Ajax. With three wins and five draws for Advocaat from nine previous meetings in their native country, the Sunderland manager can only dream he can deliver on his previous fortunes, with his new side sitting rock bottom of the Premier League and winless in their first six.
Here are five keys to a United victory over Sunderland:
Keep them coming Anthony
It would appear that the Reds have found themselves a real player in Anthony Martial. The French teenager arrived at Old Trafford as a relative unknown – to those yet to have a firm grasp on Ligue 1 – for a fee of £36m+ which saw the Reds come in for some hefty criticism.
Not perhaps the big money signing the fans longed for, Martial has taken drastic steps in beginning to repay his transfer fee, with four goals in as many matches already making his indispensible to his new manager.
The last week has seen two measured finishes in a vital, yet nail-biting victory over Southampton, before the World’s most expensive teenager sprung from the bench to notch United’s third midweek, with a clinically taken, placed finished into the far corner, just as he had on his debut a mere 11 days earlier. If you tried to reserve judgement on the Thierry Henry comparisons before seeing him play, by now the likening is unavoidable, particularly given the composed nature of his finishing. The boy can certainly play.
Martial offers an attacking outlet completely alien to anything van Gaal has been able to deal with during his short tenure, with mobility and fearless, direct running a refreshing change of tact from when relying on the likes of Rooney, Fellaini or even van Persie and Falcao.
The Frenchman plays like a man completely un-phased – or even – unaware of the burden he carries following his colossal transfer fee, but if he can maintain performance levels and goalscoring at the same kind of rate, can begin to make that price begin to look increasingly fair. It’s potential we paid for after, which Martial undoubtedly possesses in bags.
With little other options previously, Wayne Rooney’s status as the captain had ensured he would occupy the centre forwards role, but the high standard of Martial’s opening performances instantly would recognise the club’s new number nine with being the primary occupant of the same on-field position.
With Rooney a mere 15 goals behind Sir Bobby Charlton’s club record, even his opening goal against Ipswich on Wednesday was enough to shift focus onto him, with the Frenchman’s late exploits and blistering start to his Old Trafford career somewhat higher on the list of talking points.
Rooney’s record will come, but right now is Martial’s time, as he rides the crest of a wave and aims to become the first United player since 1972 to score in his first three league appearances for the club.
The Depay-Martial partnership
Depay’s inadvertent assist for Martial on Wednesday night mightn’t have come quite the way he had intended it to (if he had intended to at all), but did get the cogs whirring as to whether we might just be starting to witness the beginning of a blossoming, potentially mouth-watering partnership at Old Trafford.
United fans have been spoilt for choice over recent years in terms of successful double acts, see Bruce and Pallister, Keane and Scholes, Yorke and Cole or Ferdinand and Vidic to name but a few.
But it was a piece by Sam Pilger which struck a particular chord with me, asking whether the Depay-Martial dynamic could play a similar role to that of Ronaldo and Rooney, both pivotal to United’s double winning campaign of 2007/08.
By this point, the pair were in their fourth season of playing together – following Rooney’s 2004 arrival – and had each matured well under the tutelage of Sir Alex Ferguson.
It’s easy to draw parallels between then and now, with Depay’s pace, power and agility seeming him likened to the club’s former number seven, while Martial’s brash, bullish, un-knockable attitude resembles that of a Wayne Rooney full of exuberance.
If United are to get back to a position where Premier Leagues and European Cups are realistic target, a huge importance will be placed on the development of both Depay and Martial, both big money transfers for the club, primarily for the long-term but each expected to contribute immediately.
Martial has been able to settle at a frightening pace, while Depay has enjoyed sporadic moments of brilliance in what has otherwise been a slow start to his Old Trafford career. A settling in period is completely understandable, but the prospect of what the pair can produce when both in-sync leaves a lot to look forward to.
A reliable solution at left-back
United lined up against Ipswich with what have been recognised as a fairly strong team for a Capital One Cup encounter, with the only question marks being over how both Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young would cope at full-back.
With Luke Shaw out for the foreseeable future, the left-back position will now likely be assumed in the long-term by either Daley Blind – who has performed admirably alongside Chris Smalling – or Marcos Rojo, who like Shaw and McNair, finds himself a casualty for the visit of Sunderland.
Phil Jones made his comeback midweek and would be an option to come back into the side, although his 20 minute run out following a blood clot in his leg mightn’t be deemed enough to merit a starting place just yet, leaving makeshift full-backs Young and Valencia the primary candidates to take the field alongside Darmian, Smalling & Blind.
Despite some question marks though over his capabilities as a defender, Antonio Valencia does seem to have earned the trust of his manager, brought on to replace Matteo Darmian – much to everyone’s surprise – at half-time vs Southampton. The change seemed to have a positive impact on the side, with the Reds responding well to going behind early on, to fight back and enjoy extended periods of control in the second-half following Valencia’s arrival.
With Darmian more than capable of performing on the left, it would seem more than likely that he would assume this role, with Valencia – and not Young – taking up the right-back role, a position the Ecuadorian has found himself playing on a fairly regular basis under van Gaal.
A confidence boost over the League leakiest defence
United’s early season form hit something of a sticky spell, when unexpected defeats to both Swansea and PSV marred what had been an ultimately positive start to the campaign. Van Gaal’s side saw a test of their mettle in responding to those defeats, which they did over both Liverpool and – more impressively – Southampton having gone behind following a shaky opening 20 minutes.
With Martial firing and Rooney back among the goals (against Championship opposition anyway), coupled with weekend losses for both Manchester City and Arsenal, United have every reason to be positive. Not to mention the fact following impressive back-to-back performances, United host the league’s bottom club, who hold the unwanted record of most goals conceded in the division so far, shipping 13 times in their opening six.
The manager’s possession-based philosophy looks, finally to be bearing some fruit, with the number of chances creating on the rise, with United’s third against the Saints in particular – finished off by Juan Mata – perhaps the epitomy of what the Dutchman has been looking for.
A loss for City against Tottenham could see the Reds top the Premier League table come tea-time, if, as expected, they exert their dominance over the division’s current, worst side.
With dropped points against Newcastle the only blip on United’s record, in all competitions this season, Old Trafford looks as though it may have the makings of becoming something of a fortress once again.
The Reds have netted three times, on three separate occasions at the Theatre of Dreams already, and with the likes of Martial looking ice cool, as though his hot streak could continue forever, don’t look to be letting up any time soon.
United saw three defeats at Old Trafford last season, but will need to ensure those blips are kept to a minimum this season if they’re to ensure they can maintain any form of advantage over Arsenal and Chelsea for longer and keep pressure on Man City at the top of the table.
City will be the next league visitors to Old Trafford following away trips to both Everton and Arsenal, and with a Champions League visit of Wolfsburg now looking increasingly more important given last week’s loss to PSV, United could ask for no better opponent at this stage to build up momentum than a team struggling at the bottom of the table, yet to pick up their first victory of the season.
Prediction: United 4-0 Sunderland