An excruciating defeat at the Liberty Stadium last weekend now leaves Manchester United in a precarious position in their attempts to regain Champions League football at the first time of asking. Having looked relatively sub-standard for some time whilst still grinding out positive results, ironically it was a more improved showing from Louis van Gaal’s side which saw them succumb to Garry Monk’s Swansea for the second time this season, and just their first defeat in twenty matches.
Comparisons to David Moyes have been persistent throughout van Gaal’s tenure, and though a return to Europe’s elite competition is a realistic aim this season — unlike last — the Dutchman could find himself under similar pressure if United fail to do so.
With Arsenal having already stolen a march over United in the top four standings, with Tottenham and Liverpool’s excellent domestic form playing them into contention alongside Southampton, margin for error is slim from here forward, particularly with big games on the horizon. With Liverpool and Tottenham now competing solely on the domestic front, with Arsenal surely set to follow, it’s imperative United start to discover the confidence and strong showings them have eluded them for much of the campaign.
The visit of Gus Poyet’s struggling Sunderland side — with just a solitary victory from their previous nine Premier League encounters — offers United an ideal opportunity to exercise last week’s demons against a team 12 places worse off in the division.
Here a five keys to a vital three United points against Sunderland:
1. A formation that plays to our strengths
After relentless protest from fans and media alike regarding the introduction of a 3-5-2 formation, the manager recently succumbed to his ‘twitchy ass’, reverting to a four man back line. Despite a step in the right direction, the diamond we have seen implemented instead hasn’t quite has the desired effect or reflected anything close to a conventional style with wingers to which we have become used to over the years.
All too often players have been forced to play out of position, with the likes of Herrera, Fellaini and Rooney all in recent weeks having found themselves in a role on the right of midfield. This begs the question why cannot we not find a formation playing more to the strengths of the players we have? In the striking department, van Persie and Falcao have struggled to develop an understanding, or to find the right space to come across a high number of quality chances.
United hardly lack in the creative department and while Herrera seems to have finally recovered his place in the side, it has come at the expense of the likes of Mata or Januzaj, forced to sit out in order to incorporate a second frontman.
A 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 seems a wiser option in terms of adding a greater balance to the team, allowing creative forces to be more effective in a more natural position. A sole frontman would benefit from the extra space up top, while an additional playmaker or winger in the mix can enhance the number of meaningful chances coming their way.
2. Rooney as a number nine
After addressing the issues of a three man defence, the next gripe needed to be addressed was the thorny issue of Ander Herrera sitting on the bench while Wayne Rooney struggled in midfield to have the desired impact.
The skipper has found himself in a more advance role lately, while still dropping in to accommodate the presence of Van Persie, Falcao or even Fellaini. We’ve learnt this season that Rooney certainly isn’t of the right mould to be the driving force in midfield we have so dearly needed, while his credentials as an advanced playmaker like the skills of either Juan Mata or Ander Herrera.
Rooney’s most successful seasons in a red shirt came in 2009-10 and 2011-12 when deployed as a number nine as the team’s main focal point. 34 goals in each of those seasons marked his most prolific campaigns to date, with pacey wingers and Rooney as the most advanced allowing for the side to spring effective counter attacks.
Switching to either a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 would allow Rooney once again the opportunity to flourish in his finest position, whilst allowing the likes of Di Maria and Young so supply or even support the lone striker and improve their goalscoring output.
With Wilson and van Persie struggling for fitness and Falcao seemingly short on confidence, Rooney in a solo striking role certainly seems the most appealing option.
3. Bring back Juan Mata (Remember him?)
Much like Ander Herrera found himself frozen out for much of the season, Juan Mata now seems to find himself unfancied by the manager and out in the cold, resigned to a place on the United substitute’s bench.
Despite a £37million move last summer, the Spaniard has managed just two Premier League starts in 2015 as he struggles to make any real dents on Louis van Gaal’s first team plans.
When called upon this season, Mata has found himself in his preferred role, however the presence of two forwards in front has limited his time on the ball or have found the former Chelsea man unable to find the desired space and creative high numbers of opportunities.
Much like during his time at Stamford Bridge, Mata found success in a number 10 role with a lone front man and wingers in a 4-2-3-1 formation, being the side’s preferred creative outlet, while ideally placed to support the striker, working to devastating effect during his final full season at Chelsea notching 20 goals and 28 assists.
If Van Gaal can find a system to work around Mata’s strengths playing in behind either Rooney or Falcao it seems like it would be beneficial to all parties. If United can get Mata back to a shadow of his 12-13 self, we could be on to a winner.
4. Address the Di Maria situation
From a Champions League winner and World Cup runner-up last year, United fans could hardly believe their ears when the signing of Angel Di Maria was announced for £59million despite having no Champions League football this season.
The Argentine began the campaign fairly well, displaying some moment of brilliance — take his goal vs Leicester for example — establishing himself as a major force in going forward and heavily relied upon in springing counter attacks and creating something out of nothing. There was a sense of excitement, a noticeable zip everytime the ball came to his feet as he set upon another mazy dribble from the United midfield.
For whatever reason, be it the language or struggling to adapt the lifestyle as constantly rumoured, Di Maria finds himself in a funk of late, one which he seemingly struggles to get out. Without a goal since his first-team return in the FA Cup third round with Yeovil, the Argentine looks a shadow of superstar brought in from Real Madrid.
Constant shifts in tactics and of his own position certainly won’t help his cause as he spent time flitting between central, wide and even forward roles over recent months, often dictated by where the likes of Rooney or Fellaini would fit into the mix.
Perhaps it’s just an arm around the shoulder the 27-year-old needs, or finding his preferred role and sticking to it, but with Di Maria so integral to our top four ambitions, addressing the issue of his poor form must be a priority, whilst alarming that at this late stage things still haven’t fallen into place as hoped.
If another change of formation does take place, Di Maria could be most effective as a dynamic winger on either the right or left, taking on fewer defensive responsibilities and committing fully to attack and springing effective attacking moves.
5. Realise what is at stake
Defeat to Swansea last weekend wasn’t quite enough to see United drop out of the top four, but are now dangerously close as Arsenal move into third, while the vultures are circling as Southampton, Liverpool and Spurs are just one, two and three points adrift respectively.
It seems all to often this season we have waited for things to click into gear as intended or declared that there’s little margin left for error. This remains the case, despite a somewhat improved performance last week.
The situation remains the same for United, but with our top four place on the line, a negative result would realistically see that slip this weekend.
Home form has been a big positive for Louis Van Gaal’s side in the league this season, besides defeats to both Swansea and Southampton and with Sunderland struggling to make an impact of late, must be exploited once again here.
With Spurs and Liverpool matches both approaching within the next month, that distance must be maintained in the meantime while hoping for a City victory over the Scousers on Sunday.
It’s unlikely that the starting XI will differ too much from last week besides an enforced change which forces Robin van Persie out for close to a month. The manager has a big decision to make regarding whether that void gets filled by Radamel Falcao in an attempt to see the on-loan striker rediscover his touch or whether an additional creative spark in the mould of Mata, Januzaj or Young is thrown in with Rooney up front alone, or alongside Marouane Fellaini.
Injury to RVP could come as a slight blessing in disguise, giving the manager an excuse to try out a formation which best suits the needs of the players. Falcao and Van Persie have at times looked to static up top, often getting in each other’s way, so using Rooney up top along could be an ideal opportunity to combat this.
The manager will make perfectly clear to the players what is expected of them on Saturday, with his position coming under increased scrutiny of late, which would increase ten-fold if United find themselves outside of the top four come the end of the weekend.
United’s home form offers plenty of encouragement this season, and with the visitors also struggling to find their feet, another opportunity arises for van Gaal’s side to change their fortunes and maintain the Champions League spot. With Rooney as a sole number nine and Mata in behind could be a huge factor in doing so. United 3-0.
De Gea, Valencia, Jones, Rojo, Shaw, Blind, Herrera, Di Maria, Young, Mata, Rooney