Where oh where did it all go right? After ridicule from all quarters this year at the prospect of Manchester United going a second season in succession with as many managers, missing out on a place at Europe’s top table, things have taken a drastic and fairly unforeseen turn in our favour.
Unforeseen refers more to the nature of the victories over Tottenham and Liverpool, more so than the points themselves, as Louis van Gaal’s side have often ground out results this term despite at times serving up some fairly unsavoury offerings. But starting at Old Trafford for the visit of Tottenham, something appeared to finally click. The team looked focussed, determined and attacked with intent, lining up in a formation the manager has referred to as his favourite as well as making use of players in their more favoured positions.
Let the good form in no small part be down to the return of Juan Mata, cultured not only in terms of his left-foot, but also his extra-curricular museum going. The Spaniard was a key figure in victory over Spurs, before spearheading the Anfield crusade with a match-winning brace, despite the best 38 seconds Steven Gerrard could muster up.
With momentum finally in full-swing for United, the much lambasted international break couldn’t really have come at a worse time. Tim Sherwood brings his rejuvenated Villa side to Old Trafford on Saturday, perhaps a slight relief given the two previous fixtures and the two to follow, but with the visitors desperately fighting for their Premier League lives, certainly won’t be coming travelling to Manchester to roll over.
With Arsenal and Liverpool in action early, United will be in a position come kick-off to either occupy second place if Arsenal fail to take all three points (City play on Monday) or to ensure that only a slip-up of Steven Gerrard proportions will see us slide out of the top four positions.
Sherwood will come with his usual unwarranted confidence, particularly given the last time he brought a side to Old Trafford, his then Tottenham side left with all three points. But that was a very different era.
Here are five keys to cutting Tim Sherwood down to size victory over Villa.
Change only what needs to be changed. That means Di Maria stays on the bench
This might prove a fairly unpopular opinion given the amount of people I have seen called for a recall to the starting line-up for Angel Di Maria. Yes the Argentine came off the bench at Anfield to slightly better effect than recently, even providing the assist for Juan Mata’s spectacular scissor kick, but once again found himself making errors and sacrificing possession.
We’d all like to see Di Maria return to his swashbuckling best that saw him crowned man of the match in Real Madrid’s Champions League final win of 2014, however, at present, he is a long way off that standard. It may very well be the case that Di Maria can come back in against a weaker side like Villa and gain some confidence ahead of huge clashes with Chelsea and Manchester City, but in place of Ashley Young? Not for me.
To imagine we might have been calling for Ashley Young ahead of Di Maria following his arrival would have been completely unthinkable, but Young has responded to van Gaal’s tactics, either as a full-back, wing-back or now, winger in a positive fashion and has been one of the side’s most consistent performers throughout the season.
Which means that the other candidates who Di Maria could replace would be Mata (absolutely not), Fellaini (on recent form is undroppable) or Ander Herrera who along with Mata should be credited a great deal with a reversal in United’s fortunes.
Di Maria, like Mata did for so long, may have to sit and be patient for a little while longer.
Recover the pre-international break momentum
Two games shouldn’t really see us getting too carried away, but given the previous fixtures were the most complete and emphatic since the Sir Alex Ferguson era, I think we can be allowed our moment a little longer. The international break provided an unwelcome distraction to that, but the visit of a struggling Villa side might yet be enough to see us pick up where we left off.
Rooney and Carrick both impressed on England duty, while Marouane Fellaini continued his phenomenal turnaround, bagging three for Belgium during two qualifiers last week and has been labelled as “undroppable” by the manager in his press conference on Friday/
Given the injury crisis Sherwood and Villa are facing, the away side will struggle to keep up with van Gaal’s men if they can turn in a performance anywhere close to the same vein of their following two fixtures. With City the next visitors to Old Trafford, victory over Villa will see us overtake them in league –albeit perhaps only temporarily – but will certainly turn the screw on an already under-pressure Pellegrini and co. To do that as convincingly against Villa as we did Tottenham, would provide the confidence to ensure we get a good result over City, while a substantial gap over Liverpool could afford us a slight hiccup.
Find motivation in more than just fourth place
Given the precarious position the Reds found themselves in a number of weeks ago, as a top four spot remained a fairly unlikely achievement four Louis van Gaal in his first season, many supporters would have snapped your hand off to scrape our way in via a questionable own goal on the final day.
Such is the bizarre nature of the 14/15 season however, that United could very realistically end the weekend in second place if all results go our way, with the manager – fairly optimistically – suggesting that the title is not out of the question.
Mathematically that may be still remain a possibility, but not for a second do I or anybody else believe that a coach as experienced as van Gaal believes league title number 21 to be an option this season, but the fact that at this stage of the season is still possible frankly is miracle in itself.
The Dutchman has instilled a belief and confidence in the team, and significant back-to-back victories over Tottenham and Liverpool now mean that a five point cushion leaves United firm favourites to be back among Europe’s elite – where they should be – come the 15/16 season.
Fourth place would be a significant improvement on last year absolutely, but with City and Arsenal well within our sights, there’s no reason whatsoever why we can’t look to improve on that. Manchester United should never have to settle for mediocrity or an Arsenal-esque fourth-placed celebration after all.
When it’s all said and done, home games with the likes of Aston Villa may not be looked upon as those which swung the final league standings, particularly with Chelsea, City and Arsenal still to play, but for an improved position to remain a possibility, this one is just as big.
How could we see this through without talking about Old Trafford’s very own little genius? Di Maria’s suspension saw Mata return to the fold against Tottenham in what the manager would go on to describe as a “false right-winger” position. Answers on a postcard.
The Spaniard’s overall contribution and effectiveness to the cause that day ensured he not only kept his place for one of the biggest games of the season after an extended period in the wilderness, but kept out our record signing in the process. Once again it paid off.
I could spout all day about Mata’s Anfield magic, but anyone who watched the game knows full well his importance and proved just why the Old Trafford faithful had been crying out for his return for so long.
Having been brought in for such an extravagant sum last year, Mata himself would have found himself perhaps surprised at his lack of game time this season, but ever the professional has kept his head down, done his job and still managed to pitch in with eight goals during the campaign.
Mata embodies the model professional, which has been recognized by the manager who admits our number eight is still a key figure in his plans, despite having to wait for his time in the spotlight. Perhaps the false right-winger role may not be the long term role for Mata going forward, but if he can continue to pull the strings in a free-role from the right-hand-side of the pitch where he links ever so effectively with his Spanish counterpart, Ander Herrera, United seem in pretty safe hands.
Get Falcao involved
Falcao’s Manchester United form doesn’t quite deem the Colombian deserving of a spot in the starting eleven, but three goals in two matches during the international break will do nothing to hurt his confidence.
The calibre of opposition may perhaps not have been of the highest order, but El Tigre now finds himself back among the goals and will be raring to prove a point at club level for the remainder of the campaign.
Rooney MUST start up top alone on Saturday, just as he has in recent dominating United performances, but Falcao deserves another opportunity to come on before it’s too late in an attempt to put Villa to the sword.
He’s already scored against Villa once this season remember, and nobody likes to see him struggle the way he is. The Colombian will leave Old Trafford this summer, and rightly so, but it would be nice to see him go out on a high.
The international break couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Reds, particularly given that Chris Smalling’s illness will break up the impressive partnership he has finally struck up with Phil Jones over recent weeks. Rojo will be the main contender to replace Smalling, despite turning out twice for his country in the week.
Villa have a number of injury problems of their own to contend with no fewer than 11 members of the first-team squad out or doubtful for the trip (as per physioroom.com). Their progress was slightly halted last time out, with Garry Monk’s Swansea putting an end to the Sherwood honeymoon period after three consecutive wins. The visitors do however have Benteke and Agbonlahor both back among the goals though as of late, and the duo will likely provide some threat to a United backline all recovering from international outings.
It’s hard to ever second guess Louis van Gaal’s line-up, but for me it would seem logical to stick as close to team that saw off Liverpool and Tottenham as possible, even if that means Di Maria has to continue to make his impact as a substitute. Any XI called upon should have enough to see off the challenge of Villa, but minimal changes give us no excuses not to turn in a performance of a similar vein. United 3-1.