Well lets make no mistake about it, last Friday’s dismal 0-0 draw with totally unacceptable. United’s shortcomings were seemingly paled into relative insignificance just 24 hours later with the likes of Chelsea, City, Southampton and Spurs all falling to lesser fancied sides, yet it’s hard to take too much solace given our ineptitude to take care of the League Two minnows. Sure, our route to salvaging this season with a trophy come May has taken a drastic enhancement, but the reality is that our ability to create – and therefore take – chances is starting to become extremely worrying.
With Leicester the visitors to Old Trafford this Saturday, all talk will inevitably turn to the surreal 5-3 defeat at the King Power Stadium back in September. United came into that game off the back of a resounding 4-0 victory at home to QPR and found themselves in a comfortable position at 3-1 just before the hour mark. We had started to resemble a real unit, and fans allowed themselves – if only for an instant – to get a little carried away.
Nobody needs reminded of what else took place that afternoon. Open any of today’s newspapers or sports websites and you’re bound to stumble across it within seconds. It’s sure to be a completely different game this time around and the very real threat of falling out of the top four and Champions League contention should be motivation enough to see us across the line this time around. Here are five keys to success against Leicester.
1. Keeping shape
Much to the delight of the fans – and the despair of his twitching ass – Van Gaal reverted to a four man backline for Friday’s trip to Cambridge. Maybe the risk was less potent given the strength of opposition but certainly did no harm to the side from a defensive perspective.
The hosts were compact and impressive in their quest to slow down play and minimise United’s attack. With the likes of Rooney and Mata rested, United were unable to create meaningful attacks and find the breakthrough needed.
The manager has spoken of his reluctance to play with a back four, but admitted that it does offer a greater attacking presence, and with Rooney certainly back in the side, and possibly Mata too, United should have much fewer problems breaking down the Premier League’s bottom side.
With three centre backs and wing-backs introduced to take into account defensive frailties as we suffered an injury crisis of epic proportions earlier in the season, it’s hard to find an argument to go back that “play style” given the returns of the likes of Rafael, Shaw and Rojo.
2. Playing players in their correct position
It sounds so straightforward really doesn’t it? Of course there have been times this season during unforeseen injury troubles, we have been forced to see players filling in elsewhere, but even since casualties have ceased, too many of the side have been deployed in unfamiliar territory.
Let’s take Angel Di Maria for example. The Argentine was recently voted into the FIFA World team of the year after a European Cup winning season with Real Madrid and saw him a World Cup runner-up with his country. He achieved all of this after re-inventing himself as a dynamic, driving central midfielder. In recent weeks, Di Maria has been deployed mainly as a centre-forward, as well as at number 10, and on the left of midfield. Essentially, anywhere but the middle of the park where he began the season, looking every inch the player who led the Spanish behemoths to La Decima.
Wayne Rooney seems to be unfancied up top, instead finding himself as a central midfielder, while Michael Carrick’s presence guarding the back four has seen Daley Blind deputising at both centre-half and wing-back. Carrick’s four week absence should see Blind occupy that anchor-man role once again, just as he did earlier in the season, solving van Gaal’s problem of trying to make room for both in his side.
Fellaini, as impressive as he has been at times this season, was found floundering at Cambridge in more of a right-wing role, while the only natural box-to-box midfielder in the squad in Ander Herrera can’t seem to get a proper look in for love nor money.
With injuries no longer the factor they once were earlier in the campaign, it’s still just as unclear as it was in September as to exactly what the manager’s first choice line-up would be. It stands to reason though that the team would benefit greatly from seeing key players being able to adapt their natural game and positions once more. To look at the 4-0 win over QPR for example, Blind sat behind a midfield trio of Di Maria, Herrera and Mata, with Rooney and Van Persie occupying the centre forward positions. I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty appealing to me.
3. Making use of Ander Herrera
Poor old Ander. We can only speculate as to what the Spaniard has done to find himself seemingly so out of favour at Old Trafford, despite an impressive start to his United career.
As mentioned in the previous section, the former Bilbao man resembles the only true box-to-box midfielder within the United ranks, able to contribute to the side both in attack and defence, captured excellently in this piece last week by Squawka Features Editor and ROM writer, Greg Johnson.
Despite a spectacular opener and well-rounded performance against Yeovil, like most of the campaign, Herrera’s role has been limited mainly to that of a substitute once again.
With United looking a much more balanced outfit with the Spaniard in the side, it seems logical to bring him back into the fold, already proving his goalscoring credentials as well as his ability to unlock opposition defences. Michael Carrick’s absence may just be the excuse needed for Herrera to prove his worth once again.
4. Forgetting about the 5-3
Leave the past in the past. While revenge over the side who embarrassed us that day – becoming the first team to overturn a two-goal deficit to defeat United in their 853 game Premier League history up to that point – would be nice, it’s important not to focus too much on what happened in September and treat this just like any other game.
To look at things logically, United are at home to the Premier League’s bottom side, therefore an extremely winnable fixture, particularly with our top four spot at stake.
For all the talk of the defence being the main area of concern and most likely to be strengthened in the summer, only Chelsea (19) and Southampton (16) have conceded fewer than United’s 21 in the Premier League.
For all the combinations – of which there have been a lot – to have graced van Gaal’s backline this season, the fact is we are rarely shipping goals anymore. Just five have been conceded in our last 10 matches, with the 2-2 draw at the Hawthorns in October the last time De Gea’s goal was breached more than once in a match.
With that in mind, it seems unlikely to see Saturday’s encounter in any way resembling the shambolic second half encountered at the King Power Stadium earlier in the season. Therefore drawing any kind of conclusions based on that day just seem pointless.
5. Providing some meaningful chances for the frontmen
Will we? Won’t we? The debate rolls on as to whether United will bring out the chequebook once again in order to make Radamel Falcao’s loan deal a permanent one. Or whether the Colombian has done enough to justify us doing so.
A mere three goals seems from 14 appearances would seem a rather paltry return for one of the World’s most sought after frontmen, but it seems harsh to lay the blame solely at the feet of El Tigre given the team’s inability to provide adequate service.
While the team seem to have found a solution to defensive issues and are beginning to look more comfortable as a unit, Manchester United are uncharacteristically struggling going forward, despite vast sums of money spent. A Falcao strike against Stoke as well as Wilson’s at Loftus Road remain the only goals scored by United strikers in 2015.
With players out of position all too often, United’s players seem unable to grasp the manager’s new philosophy at times and play their natural game. A four man defence should allow for more creative influence going forward, while it would be good to see Rooney pushed back up top to allow for Blind to support the likes of Di Maria, Herrera and Mata all of whom have a big point to prove on Saturday.
Prediction: It’s becoming increasingly harder to predict the outcome of any United match at the moment, with painful uninspiring performances becoming all too familiar. However, as stated earlier, it’s a home match after all and one against the team lying bottom of the table at that. You’d have to go back to Boxing Day and a 3-1 victory over Newcastle to find anything that even slightly resembled a comfortable or resounding victory, so one is far overdue. The team certainly have a big point to prove and with the risk of losing their top four spot to Arsenal on Sunday, three points are essential. United 2-0.
Predicted (hopeful) line up: De Gea, Rafael, Jones, Rojo, Shaw, Blind, Di Maria, Herrera, Mata, Rooney, Falcao