Last weekend’s 2-1 victory over Arsenal could be described as many things; undeserved, lucky, a robbery, a tactical masterstroke? Whichever way you’d wish to label it, it was undeniably both hilarious and brilliant at the same time. With some firmly set in panic stations – wondering how a fourth placed finish could possibly be attainable after a start worse than under David Moyes – left pondering as three points at the Emirates leave United in fourth place (who would have thought), two points ahead of Arsenal and Everton and five clear of both Liverpool and Tottenham.
Van Gaal’s United are still becoming familiar with each other after drastic changes throughout the summer, hampered by a seemingly never-ending injury list. Nevertheless, despite a points tally short of what would be desired at this stage, positives have shone through with it becoming clear that we have plenty to look forward to. Something we never quite found under his predecessor.
Victory at the Emirates last weekend displayed that United under van Gaal showed another string to their bow. Yet more injury concerns forced Van Gaal to retreat to a 5-3-2 for the first time since the Burnley match back in August with McNair and Blackett joined by the returning Chris Smalling in the centre of United’s defence. Defensive frailties saw United deploy a system similar to what the Dutchman used with his national side during the World Cup as we sat back and absorbed sustained pressure, closing the game off with sharp effective counter-attacking football.
A Kieran Gibbs own goal and Wayne Rooney strike put United two goals to the good after some quick breaks while Angel Di Maria could and should have seen the deficit to three before Olivier Giroud’s late consolation.
Satisfying though the victory was, a particularly alarming factor would be the performance of Robin Van Persie. The Dutchman’s form has been on rapid decline since his title-winning debut season at Old Trafford and a mere 12 touches at the Emirates proved the extent how much much he is struggling to make an impact this season. Van Persie’s excellent relationship with the manager had let to speculation that the striker would play a key role this year and was touted as one of the front runners to take the captain’s armband during the summer. His form and contribution has become a major cause for concern as lack of activity on Saturday saw him replaced for the second time in three matches by the more exciting and industrious James Wilson.
Clear-cut chances may have been in fairly short supply, but a return of three goals from 11 matches this season is far from the kind of return expected from a world-class operator. After firing 26 league goals during the 2012/13 season and being the focal point of the side,, the Dutchman’s recent form would strongly suggest his star may well be fading.
Of the 35 players who have scored three or more goals in the Premier League this season, Van Persie has the worst shot conversion rate of any of them— registering a pitiful 13.6 per cent. By comparison, Diego Costa is firing in at a more super-human rate, close to 45 percent. Van Persie has scored just two of the six clear chances that have come his way so far this season and whether goings on around the Dutchman are just temporary, a start from Wilson against the Tigers would require no real justification.
Wilson notably started when Hull last visited Old Trafford, scoring twice as Ryan Giggs handed the youngster his debut. His energy levels and enthusiasm in recent weeks have displayed that despite the fact that he will only turn 19 on Monday, has more to offer than the veteran Dutchman at present. Rooney is certain to start up top and with patience beginning to run thin with van Persie, it could be time for Wilson to come in and provide that bright spark from the beginning. The manager said in his press conference that Falcao could return to the squad for the visit of Steve Bruce’s side, although after such a long period out it would seem more likely that the striker would make his impact from the bench.
Luke Shaw’s injury picked up at the Emirates could see the full-back out until the new year if rumours are to believed and so Ashley Young should take the left wing-back slot – as he did effectively last Saturday – as the only change in United’s defence. Van Gaal also suggested to the media that Marcos Rojo could feature in the squad despite suffering a dislocated shoulder just less than four weeks ago.
Despite both Ander Herrera and Jonny Evans returning for the Under 21 side this week – with Herrera scoring a fine goal – it is unlikely either will feature from the beginning. Herrera’s positive performance mid-week is excellent news for United fans who are keen to see the Spaniard back in action, though he is unlike to dislodge counter-attacking king Fellaini, who impressed again alongside Carrick and Rooney.
Steve Bruce will be the first of two former Reds to bring his side to Old Trafford within the short space of four days, with Mark Hughes’ Stoke set to follow on Tuesday. The Tigers have yet to snatch a point from United from six times of asking in the Premier League and despite spending hefty sums themselves during the summer, are left floundering in 17th place. On-loan Uruguayan Gaston Ramirez will sit out having seen red against Spurs last weekend as the Tigers look to avoid a fourth straight defeat.
For United, a first away victory will see a significant weight lifted from the side and looking at the forthcoming fixtures see’s a real opportunity to post a sustained run of good results, not only firmly establishing their top four place, but keeping pressure firmly on Southampton and Manchester City in second and third respectively.
Wayne Rooney – who found himself in a more withdrawn midfield role last week to allow for Di Maria’s pace to be used as an added weapon on the counter attack – should find himself back up top and given his recent goalscoring streak for both club and country, will have every reason to be confident of adding to his six goals from four appearances against the Tigers.
The past month has seen the side take positives from games not always going in their favour. Chelsea saw us battle to a hard earned point, City saw a spirited performance chasing a game hampered by a moment of stupidity, whereas last week saw us absorb sustained attack and carry out an effective game plan at the Emirates. This week is a completely different animal. Injury concerns may force us to line up in a similar shape to last week, but no doubt the style will be of complete contrast. Hull’s visit allows us to exploit a struggling by displaying much more creative freedom and and a more expressive style of play as we try to get back among the goals once more.
Three points are obviously a must once more and of huge importance in order to ensure no more soft ground is lost. Despite still missing some key players, no doubt last weeks victory, coupled with the return -even if just to training of Falcao – will see an extra spring in United’s step. Expect Di Maria back in the centre of the park where he can pull all strings and drive us forward with much greater success than recently found out wide.
Without getting overly carried away as a result of not only an away victory, but also two wins on the bounce, the visit of Hull gives United a real chance of throwing down a marker, and with the hopeful addition of Wilson from the start, can add a further injection of penetration when advancing.
Prediction: 3-0 win
Predicted line-up: De Gea, McNair, Smalling, Blackett, Valencia, Young, Carrick, Fellaini, Di Maria, Rooney, Wilson