United’s six-game winning run came to a cruel and unfortunate end last week at Stamford Bridge as Chelsea edged a 1-0 victory courtesy of an Eden Hazard counter. Late injuries to Michael Carrick, Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones didn’t look to hamper United’s performance too much besides a shift in the side which saw Wayne Rooney back in a midfield role, with Paddy McNair, Radamel Falcao and Luke Shaw all returning to the starting XI.
Louis van Gaal’s men exerted extreme dominance over the Champions-elect from the offset and looked the more dangerous of the two sides throughout with an overwhelming 72% possession. Despite chances by both Wayne Rooney and Falcao being squandered, United were unable to find the significant breakthrough, and predictably, Mourinho’s men were able to absorb pressure and take advantage on the counter.
The loss needn’t have too much of a negative impact on United, who were able to maintain van Gaal’s possession based philosophy throughout despite a weakened team. A run of victories may well be over, but a replica of the performance – which van Gaal later dubbed our best of the season – would bear much more fruit over different opposition.
The Reds travel to Goodison this weekend where the hosts have overcome some difficult form of their own to record five straight home victories in all competitions. Performances however, may not have been a strong as perhaps scorelines reflect for the hosts and this promises to be a completely different encounter to the one at the same stage last year, marking the end of David Moyes’ bring Old Trafford tenure.
With Arsenal set to meet Chelsea later in the day, victory for United not only keeps United ahead of Manchester City, but puts us into second – if only momentarily – keeping pressure firmly on The Gunners in the race for 2nd place, with Arsenal due a game in hand following this weekend after last week’s FA Cup exploits.
Here are five keys to a United victory over Everton:
Rooney back up top where he belongs
The losses of both Michael Carrick and Daley Blind last week saw a big shift in the United line-up, with Wayne Rooney dropping into central midfield, Ander Herrera sitting in front of the back four, while Radamel Falcao earned a rare start.
United’s performances have improved significantly following Herrera’s return to the side saw Rooney shifted back to a natural centre forwards position, where the skipper has returned to some goalscoring form.
Despite one effort hitting the post, Falcao once again failed to convince the manager and fans alike that his efforts merit a permanent contract and should be replaced up top by Rooney once again. The return of either Carrick or Blind for the trip to Merseyside should make this switch an easy one, but even if they are to miss out once again could look towards the option of Di Maria or even McNair in a midfield role in order to ensure that it’s Rooney and not Falcao or even Robin van Persie – who made his return for the U21 side this week – in the striking position.
McNair has earned a start
Paddy McNair has often been thrown in at the deep end this season, finding himself hurled into the starting line-up without much warning early in the season due to a defensive injury crisis, before replacing Marcos Rojo in the Manchester Derby at the Etihad in November.
The Northern Irishman has always given a good account of himself when called upon and this was no different last week at Stamford Bridge, looking just as confident in halting an ageing Didier Drogba as he did in carrying the ball forward, even displaying the confidence to force Thibaut Courtois into a save from his 30-yard drive.
Rojo and Jones still need to prove their fitness for Sunday, meaning the main contenders to partner Chris Smalling – who signed a new contract this week – would be McNair and Jonny Evans who returns from serving a six match suspension. Fellow Northern Irishman Evans, may have seven years experience over McNair, but lack of match practice and some questionable performances over the season couple with impressive emergence of McNair at this stage but the youngster ahead in the pecking order.
Luke Shaw proved he can be a trusted option
Daley Blind’s performances at left-back in recent weeks would have done enough to persuade the manager that he, and not £28million signing Luke Shaw would be first choice for United in that position, until the end of the season at least.
Shaw however, who hadn’t featured since the defeat to Arsenal found himself back among the starters for the visit to Stamford Bridge after an unexpected surge of injuries. The youngster was criticised by his new manager during pre-season for his perceived lack of fitness and in recent weeks has spoken of his challenge of adapting to a club of Manchester United’s stature.
While always looking a danger bombing forward, the 19-year-old’s defensive performances and questionable positioning has often found him on the receiving end of some criticism this season.
Blind’s performances on the United left have been integral to the club’s recent success, making the task of stepping back into the side all the harder for Shaw, who emerged as one of the side’s better performers at Stamford Bridge. The youngster looked equally adept in his defensive duties as when breaking forward and is clearly benefiting from the manager’s coaching methods.
In the space of his 80 minute performance last week, Shaw began to show glimpses of just why such big money was splashed out on such high potential. Having been perceived as something of a liability in some of his earlier performances, Shaw displayed huge maturity and now looks capable of filling the void left by Blind for the time being and the long-term future of the position in safe hands.
Van Gaal keeping spirits high
As mentioned early, United have no reason to be too downbeat after their defeat at Stamford Bridge last weekend. Frustrated, maybe. Hard done by, certainly, but recent performances and a run of consecutive victories have put us in a position where a slight hiccup could be afforded.
Given the events of last season, coupled with the new manager’s system taking some time to impart on the players, it became apparent at the half-way stage of the season that a top four finish would be the club’s real aim for the season, with anything else representing a bonus. Tremendous form and performances alike now see United in third above Manchester City, and with a very realistic opportunity to finish in second place, something could scarcely have been imagined just a few months ago.
Despite losing at Stamford Bridge, van Gaal described the performances as our best of the season, and for little reason, launched to a staunch defence of his side in a rather uncomfortable interview this week with BBC’s Guy Mowbray.
The kind of performance which fell just short against Mourinho’s bus-parking Chelsea side would cause more significant problems against lesser sides, and the manager will be encouraging a performance of a similar vein at Goodison Park.
A second placed finish is well within reach and therefore it’s important for United to bounce straight back to winning ways and not be hampered too much to defeat at Chelsea. Unite remain on course for a fairly successful season in essence under their new manager and run the risk of falling into dangerous territory if they can’t rediscover winning ways quickly.
A chance for Di Maria to shine
If United’s injury problems do persist, Angel Di Maria may be handed his first start since his dismissal against Arsenal. The club’s record signing has had to make his presence felt from the bench in recent weeks following strong performances from the likes of Ashley Young and Juan Mata in wide positions. Wayne Rooney was moved back into a central midfield role last week, while Radamel Falcao once again found himself back up top.
With Rooney likely to move back into his favoured role, Di Maria remains an option to play in the centre, where he often found himself early in the season. The Argentine reinvented himself at Real Madrid last season in a similar role but has struggled to have the same impact in Manchester, seemingly lacking in confidence and often appearing wasteful in possession.
The performances of others in recent weeks have forced Di Maria to remain on the bench, but potential injury concerns could this week give the manager the perfect excuse to introduce him from the start again. Maybe a starting role will be enough to re-invigorate Di Maria, who is in desperate need of a boost.
While the host’s results have been improving as of late, a performance in the vein of our recent ones should be enough to secure United all three points at Goodison Park on Sunday. With Arsenal and Chelsea squaring off in the later kick off, victory for United keeps hopes of second place in the table alive while we keep fingers crossed for another Chelsea win at the Emirates.
Late fitness tests will go a long way to dictating the line-up which takes the field on Sunday, but last week proved that United are able to cope without some key figures to a far better standard than we might have imagined.
Van Gaal will be keeping the players positive despite last week’s victory and ready to rally the troops with five games left in the campaign. It’s a significantly brighter picture than this same stage of the campaign last year, which saw United in seventh place, eight points worse off than we are now. It was week 34 and defeat to Everton which saw the final nail in David Moyes coffin, and with things looking infinitely brighter this time around, a United victory can prove just what a difference a year makes. 2-0 United.