Manchester United’s 15/16 campaign began in a much similar vein to many of last season’s performances; tense, nail-biting, unconvincing, but, ultimately achieving the correct result. Obviously that is of paramount importance to the side, particularly in the Premier League opener which the manager will hope can provide some much needed momentum, a stark contrast to how the manager’s Old Trafford career began last year.
It was – ultimately – a Kyle Walker own goal which secured the three points for the Reds, stepping in to finish the job as even the Spurs full-back grew frustrated with the painful reaction speed of Wayne Rooney, to put him out of his misery and allow everyone to get on with the game.
It wasn’t quite the dynamic, exciting United we’d quite have hoped for given our £75m outlay this summer, but three points are three points and with Chelsea and Arsenal already seeing themselves falling at the first hurdle, the Reds are presented with a perfect opportunity to build some early ground.
Villa Park will be the scene of an unusual – yet soon to be usual – Friday night Premier League fixture, due to an EDL march taking place on the Saturday. Having maintained Villa’s top flight status as well as taking them to an FA Cup Final last season, Tim Sherwood endeared himself to the Villa faithful further still with a 1-0 victory at newly-promoted Bournemouth last week, courtesy of a header from new-signing Rudy Gestede.
One eye will surely be on Tuesday’s Champions League qualifier with Club Brugge, but with City and Chelsea set to meet on Sunday, there will be even further points dropped by some of our main title rivals this weekend, with the prospect of three points at Villa Park all the sweeter.
Here are five keys to a United victory over Villa:
Herrera must play
Poor old Ander. For whatever reason, it seems as though the Spaniard can’t quite do enough to convince van Gaal he is indispensable to the United line-up (or selection for any Dutch readers). Despite being arguably our best outfield player last season, Herrera found himself out of the side for an extended period, much to the frustration of the fans.
Significant reinforcements have been made in the middle of the park in the shape of Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger, while the decision to move Memphis into a central position came to everyone’s surprise. Herrera has been a casualty as a result, with Saturday’s opener with Tottenham, as well as the pre-season tour indicating his role will be that of a plan B.
After such an impressive debut campaign which saw the Spaniard give United a goalscoring option from the middle of the park since Paul Scholes in his pomp, Herrera has every right to be frustrated with his omission, particularly while the manager persists in experimenting with Memphis in unfamiliar territory.
The Dutchman was devastating for the Dutch champions in a wide role last season, clearly able to cut inside and prove a huge attacking threat from there. Herrera’s performances which included a 89% pass completion in the Premier League last season should have meant that any new arrivals would have to come in and take the Spaniard’s starting spot from him, a spot he worked hard to regain having being left out of the side.
The Memphis experiment may well prove fruitful and certainly offers an extra dynamic with the Reds fixtures set to increase significantly this season if they can negotiate past Club Brugge in their European qualifier. However, if the manager is intent on playing Carrick/Schweinsteiger alongside Schneiderlin – which certainly looks to be the case – Herrera has earned the right to be included in that midfield trio, whether that’s in the number 10 position or as a box-to-box midfielder. One who is more likely to track back and make tackles than Memphis.
Play like your place depends on it. That might well be the case
Having showed his preferred line-up and formation in almost all of the pre-season matches, it became apparent rather quickly who would make up Louis van Gaal’s starting XI against Tottenham on Saturday, with Sergio Romero’s inclusion over Sam Johnstone the only real decision the manager would have to make.
It’s hard to see many, if any changes to that line-up as United travel to the Midlands, but as the Ander Herrera situation has shown, it’s easy for even the fans favourite to lose their place under Louis van Gaal. Marouane Fellaini made gigantic strides last season under the Dutchman unbelievably establishing himself as one of our key players. The Belgian will serve the second game of a three-match suspension following his dismissal against Hull on the final day of the previous campaign, but quite how he will fit into the team upon his return is anyone’s guess.
With a deal for Pedro edging ever closer, Juan Mata and Ashley Young might well find their positions in the starting line-up under threat, particularly if van Gaal does opt to move Memphis back into a wide position any time soon.
Centre-back and goalkeeping futures still also lie in the balance, as Chris Smalling – who has emerged as a leader at the back – could find his position under threat if another addition were to arrive, while Blind will be sweating on game time when a natural left-sided defender in the shape of Marcos Rojo returns to full match fitness.
Sergio Romero enjoyed a solid if unspectacular debut between the sticks, yet even another clean sheet might not be enough to convince the Old Trafford faithful that he can fill the void left by De Gea if the Spaniard is to jump ship as expected.
Romero’s inclusion over Johnstone came as a slight shock last weekend given the Argentine’s late addition to the United squad and his lack of game time over the last year. Despite looking extremely nervy in possession in the early stages, United’s new number 20 seemed to settle into the game, making a string of saves to ensure the three points stayed at Old Trafford and clean sheet bonus would firmly find its way into his own back pocket.
Romero will likely start again vs Villa and for the remainder of August until there is a definitive solution to the David de Gea situation. During this time, the former Sampdoria stopper will get the opportunity to stake his claim in the event that another replacement for De Gea is brought in.
The Argentine must build on his debut performance and improve even further if United are to deliver another precious three points on Friday evening. Too often while making saves against Tottenham, balls were palmed back towards the danger zone, where United were fortunate not to be punished.
In Aston Villa, Romero may have to deal with a more physical threat, particularly in the form of Rudy Gestede who rose on his debut against Bournemouth to head home the winner from a corner. De Gea struggled to come to terms with the physicality of the English game upon his arrival, Romero might not be given so much time to grow accustomed.
Smalling to step up again
Smalling’s dominant display in the victory over Spurs earned him the official man of the match award from BT Sport, despite United fans voting for debutant Matteo Darmian – also excellent on the day – to receive the club’s own award. Chris – or “Chrissy” as Danny Murphy would rather annoyingly refers to him as on Match of the Day – has really turned his fortunes around since a thoughtless second bookable offence would cost us the game at the Etihad, almost a year ago.
At that stage the future looked bleak for the former Fulham man, struggling to firmly establish himself at either centre-back or full-back and seemingly in need of an experienced campaigner in the shape of Vidic or Ferdinand to tutor him. He responded in perfect fashion however, making himself indispensable to van Gaal and United in the run in and stepping forward as a leader in a backline in severe need of guidance.
Smalling’s rise was emphasised even further as he was handed the captain’s armband for United’s final home game of the previous campaign against Arsenal. Another dominant display against Spurs highlighted his importance to the Reds as he led the way in terms of both tackles and clearances.
With Blind likely to line up at centre-back once again at Villa Park, Smalling’s calming influence alongside could prove crucial.
Rooney to rediscover his goalscoring touch
With United yet to bolster the striking department, it seems as though we will be heavily dependant on Wayne Rooney to provide the goals this season. Being deployed as a sole striker has worked well for Rooney in the past, with him managing 34 goals in two different seasons in that particular system. That looks as though it will be van Gaal’s preferred system this season, and with only Chicharito and Wilson as backup in that department, goals from the skipper are a must.
Rooney might well have been waiting for the opening day of next season to finish the chance which led to United’s winner last week, but his sharpness and movement must improve quickly if the side are to be a cohesive attacking United.
His goal at the Emirates in a 2-1 win last season marked Rooney’s solitary goal away from home in the Premier League since March 2014. He might have been used as a central midfielder at times throughout the previous campaign, but that stat makes for fairly frightening reading. On the plus side for Rooney though, he does have more goals against the Villa than he does any other Premier League side with 13 in total. Adding to this tally on Friday evening could prove key in United taking the three points and sparking some confidence and life into the season.
As stated earlier, bar any late injury scares, it’s hard to imagine any changes to Louis van Gaal’s line-up for the trip to Villa Park. While many of us would like to see Herrera or Mata occupy a more central role, the manager is unlikely to give up on his plan with Memphis so soon and will likely persevere.
Blind was another who put in a passable display last weekend, and with Rojo perhaps not yet having regained match fitness, the Dutchman will likely retain his place alongside Smalling. Shaw and Darmian – who was superb on his debut – will take the reins at full back once again, while we all cross our fingers that another Antonio Valencia cameo isn’t on the cards this time around.
The only conceivable change I could see to van Gaal’s line up is Schweinsteiger coming in to replace Carrick. The German is a natural leader on the field, displaying such qualities and bringing a calming influence to the team after replacing Carrick against Tottenham. With one eye on Tuesday’s qualifier with Club Brugge, we may see the two veteran midfielders as interchangeable throughout the season, but it seems likely that the former Bayern Munich man will be given one more opportunity off the bench first, before being given the nod on Tuesday.
Having turned around their fortunes under Tim Sherwood, spending £45m this summer and getting three points and a clean sheet of their own from their Premier League opener, Villa fans have reason to be in a buoyant mood. The Midlanders have nothing to lose having failed to beat United at Villa Park since the opening day of the 95/96 season. Hansen can tell us all how that one ended. Having seen United’s unconvincing home display last week, Tim will certainly be sending his team out to attack and stake their claim for the three points.
For United though, it’s time to prove that last week was just a hiccup and now is the time to reason get their season off and running. Memphis will be looking to shine having failed to stand out on his debut, while Rooney must do his utmost to break his recent goalscoring hoodoo away from home. I’ll go for another hard-fought United win. 2-1.
Predicted Line Up