If United’s Champions League campaign hadn’t got off to a bad enough start with defeat in Eindhoven, then a horrific long-term injury to the blossoming Luke Shaw proved to be icing on a rather unsavoury cake. It was a less than ideal way for the club to reacquaint themselves with Europe’s premier competition, but the Reds have responded domestically in perfect fashion, recording three successive victories, with three goals to show from each of these fixtures, with Southampton, Ipswich and Sunderland respectively.
Louis van Gaal’s men welcome the challenge of last season’s Bundesliga runners-up Wolfsburg at Old Trafford on Wednesday evening, looking to make up for lost ground from gameweek one. With three points already to their name following a 1-0 victory over CSKA in their European opener, Wolfsburg make the journey to Manchester under relatively little pressure. Despite a strong start to their campaign however, things have taken a slight turn for the worst of late after first shipping five times to Robert Lewandowski and Bayern Munich before a draw with the Bundesliga’s bottom side, Hannover at the weekend.
Despite minor blips over Swansea and PSV already this season, the Reds have been able to capitalise and punish errors from their rivals on the domestic front, with Saturday’s 3-0 victory over Sunderland seeing the club go top of the Premier League for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure. Now Louis van Gaal – a coach highly regarded on the continent – will have the chance to rectify the result in Eindhoven and ensure the club are performing in a competition which he was employed to see them playing – and succeeding – in once again.
Here are five keys to a United victory over Wolfsburg:
We’re at home, let’s play more attacking
We all know that Louis van Gaal favours a possession-based style of football, but it did come as some surprise to see United lining up with two defensive midfielders in Carrick and Schneiderlin for the visit of the Premier League’s bottom side. Schweinsteiger may well have been rested ahead of this important European fixture, but once again, Ander Herrera – who will miss out on Wednesday due to injury – found himself surplus to requirements.
It was a fairly dull, albeit controlled first-half against Sunderland, and despite all the patient build up and heavy possession, it turned out to be a long ball forward (pinpoint though it was), from Daley Blind which proved decisive in seeing the Reds forge an opening.
Like Herrera, Carrick will also sit out the visit of the Germans, with his absence significantly less of an issue than last year given the strength in depth now at United’s disposal in the centre of midfield. Bastian Schweinsteiger will come in alongside Schneiderlin, with the German not only having the advantage of knowing the opposition all too well, but the World Cup winner’s presence has been immeasurable to date in his United career. The former Bayern man will drive forward from the midfield, while maintaining a similar level of control and ball retention to Carrick.
Two defensive midfielders is certainly an option worth considering for Louis van Gaal this season, but with an infinitely stronger midfield than the manager had at his disposal than last season, at home – particularly against the likes of Sunderland – United would expect to have the beating of anyone.
PSV exposed some of United’s frailties, particularly on the counter attack, and so a greater attacking presence could be needed come Wednesday.
The greatest striker in history – Anthony Martial
Well, maybe not…yet, but upon arriving as a relative unknown at Old Trafford just a matter of weeks ago, Anthony Martial’s credentials as a goalscorer were called into question. Four goals in his opening four games for the club proved that our new number nine was more than worthy of being relied upon to hit the back of the net, having endured far more time on the wing at Monaco.
On Saturday however, the teenager proved that he is so much more than just a goalscorer too, turning in another phenomenal all round display in the 3-0 win over Sunderland.
Martial looked the complete number nine against the Black Cats, troubling the Sunderland defence with his pace and determination, allowing the likes of Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and Memphis Depay around him to get forward and bring his fellow attackers into play.
If Wayne Rooney will breathe a sigh of relief after ending his Premier League goal drought, he’ll do so due to the efficiency and industriousness of the world’s most expensive teenager. Martial picked up the ball on the right-hand-side of the box, driving to the byline past Younes Kaboul and squeezing the ball into the middle, where it met the skipper who bundled it across the line.
Martial’s surprise emergence has left the manager with no real reason as yet as to why Wayne Rooney would be selected in that number nine ahead of the man who wears the respective shirt number. Martial continues to delight, particularly at Old Trafford, with four goals already to his name for his new club. His performance against Wolfsburg will be pivotal in any United result, while opening his Champions League account for his new club will certainly be high on the teenager’s agenda.
And Wolfsburg thought they had problems with Robert Lewandowski…
Rooney back among the goals?
When it comes to strikers, particularly when suffering from goal droughts, it doesn’t quite matter how it comes, as long as it does in the end. Wayne Rooney ended his barren spell in the Premier League, his longest ever in the competition, by following up his midweek goal against Ipswich to scramble the ball into the Sunderland goal on Saturday. It was by no means pretty, but nevertheless, will be a huge monkey off the skipper’s back.
The emergence of Anthony Martial as the focal point of the United attacks relieves Rooney of large amounts of pressure, heaped upon him at the beginning of the campaign as the only recognised first steam striker among Louis van Gaal’s squad. The captain now finds himself in a slightly deeper role at number 10,playing second fiddle to the all-singing, all-dancing phenomenon that is Martial.
Putting Rooney’s below-par form aside, the strikers goalscoring return this season mightn’t be quite the concern it has been made out. Goals against Ipswich and Sunderland in the last week mean that Rooney – quite surprisingly – now has seven goals in as many games for both club and country. Rooney’s goalscoring form has always been temperamental over the years, but the skipper appears to be enjoying life a little more under van Gaal, with the team getting results and he finding his goalscoring touch once more. He might be playing second fiddle to Martial, but he’ll be quite happy being relieved of some of that burden.
More defensive changes
Luke Shaw’s tragic injury in Eindhoven seems to have been the first of many in a minor plight for Louis van Gaal. After seeing a settled back four for the first portion of the season, the manager’s hand has been forced in recent weeks to explore further options, with Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young and Marcos Rojo all trying their hand in the Dutchman’s experiments.
Matteo Darmian served as an able deputy to Shaw at left-back on Saturday, with his usual right-sided berth going to last season’s first choice, Antonio Valencia. With both he and Marcos Rojo set to miss the visit of Wolfsburg however, changes will once again be forced upon the manager.
Phil Jones is once again available for selection, but a starting place could come too soon for him, after recently recovering from a blood clot. Jones would be a front-runner to come in at right-back, but instead, seems more logical that Darmian would shift back to his preferred position, while van Gaal’s trusted lieutenant, Ashley Young will get the nod at left-back.
By no means a natural in the position, Young seems a reliable option for van Gaal for his efficiency in carrying out the Dutchman’s instructions. With Bastian Schweinsteiger having a natural tendency to drift out towards the left-hand side of the field, Young will have the perfect option to both organise and aid him if selected.
German efficiency (On our part)
Speaking in his pre-match press conference, Louis van Gaal was hailing the impact of Bastian Schweinsteiger, a key figure from his time in charge at Bayern Munich.
“He was my former captain with Philipp Lahm at Bayern Munich so I think that he is also very worthwhile off the pitch.
“You can see it already now because he is already accepted as a leading player, and that is why also we have bought him from Bayern Munich. I believe in the mixture between youth and older players. He is an example for the younger players to follow so I am very happy with him.”
With the likes of Vidic, Ferdinand and Evra all leaving the club in recent years, and a failure to recruit a midfield general in the Roy Keane mould since, well since Roy Keane, United have been crying out for some more influential figures in the dressing room. While, as the manager reiterates, Schweinsteiger is a fine example for some of the club’s younger players, his experience and game generalship offers United a great deal more in their arsenal.
At 31 years of age, talk of the World Cup winner and current Germany captain being “washed up” are far wide of the mark, with the former Bayern man already displaying huge quality on and off the ball and huge presence on the pitch. That he is a Manchester United player is still something I’m coming to terms with.
Although perhaps not in possession of the captain’s armband, Schweinsteiger will be recognised as the general of that United side, while even Rooney will look in awe at a man who won football’s greatest prize. That he only cost the club approximately £6m is an added bonus, but it’s games like this, on the biggest stage for which Schweinsteiger was acquired.
Basti will line up alongside his familiar United midfield partner and fellow summer capture Morgan Schneiderlin on Wednesday evening, with the elder statesman expected to play a pivotal role against a club he will be particularly familiar with. It’s on the big stage he shines brightest, and back on the biggest stage, United can’t afford another slip up.
United 2-0 Wolfsburg