Manchester United extended their unbeaten run to three games last night, snatching a late draw away at West Brom. It was neither what United wanted nor what they deserved, as West Brom’s second goal came totally against the run of play, but United’s shaky back four conspired against them yet again.
Here’s five talking points from last night.
1) United “play in moments”
Last night United had 22 shots, 7 of which on target, and 63% of possession, figures that would have been as welcome as an oasis in the desert last season. However, while the numbers highlight how good United are going forward – for a spell, after Fellaini’s equaliser, one felt like it was watching the United of old – they also highlight how calamitous they’re at the back.
In his post-match analysis, Gary Neville described United as a team that “plays in moments” and that’s arguably the best way to describe Van Gaal’s side at the moment: flashes of utter brilliance overshadowed by atrocious defending. Earlier in the season, defensive lapses could be attributed to a lack of familiarity with Van Gaal’s method but three months on nothing has changed, which means the player are simply not good enough or not concentrated enough.
2) What’s the Mata with RVP?
On paper, Juan Mata and Robin Van Persie have played well so far this season, scoring two apiece with Mata chipping in with one assist. Leave the numbers aside, however, and the picture is infinitely bleaker for neither of them has lived up to their talent, with Mata allowing games to pass him by too easily in the same fashion Shinji Kagawa did before him, while Van Persie looks jaded and uncomfortable up-front, whether on his own or alongside Radamel Falcao.
If the latter’s poor form can be traced to a niggling injury, the former’s underwhelming efforts take more explanation. The Spaniard was given the perfect opportunity to shine against Everton and West Brom as Wayne Rooney’s suspension allowed him to play in his favourite number 10 position but has failed to inspire his team.
It’d make for a perfect narrative to imagine him running the show on Sunday against the manager who unceremoniously ushered him out of the door last season, though, on current form, that’s incredibly hard to imagine.
3) Marouane to the rescue.
He was last season’s pantomime villain, the man we all loved to laugh at for he epitomised David Moyes’ tenure. Last night, however, Marouane Fellaini showed he can be useful in a red shirt, producing the best performance of his United career – hardly a difficult feat, to be honest – and opening his account for the club more than 12 months since joining the club.
Fellaini’s introduction changed the game as West Brom were rattled by the Belgian’s physical impact and simply could not cope with him, as Joleon Lescott showed when he allowed Fellaini to bump him off the ball and score the equaliser.
Fellaini was appalling last season but Moyes’ inexplicable insistence to deploy him in a role he was not suited to further limited his impact, while last night the former Everton player showed he can be a useful alternative when utilised just off the front man. Of course, it’d be preposterous to believe 45 minutes have turned Fellaini’s career around but it’s also obvious that Van Gaal might just be the man capable of getting the best out of what could prove to be United’s plan B.
Unfortunately, contingency plans should not cost £27m.
4) Attack, attack, attack. As we can’t defend
Shaky. Ropey. Unbalanced. Take your pick out of those adjectives to describe United’s back four and you won’t be too far from the truth. Whether it’s comprised of three, four or five men, United’s rearguard is as solid as melted butter.
Last night, the four members of United’s backline showed all the composure and understanding of a four-piece orchestra, whose players are either deaf, blind or both.
Luke Shaw was out of position for the opener, displaying an alarming sense of positional awareness as West Brom midfielders found acres of space in front of them, while Marcos Rojo looked far from comfortable in the middle of the back four, perhaps not surprisingly given that, alongside him, Phil Jones continued to morph into a stupendously awful footballer.
Jones is obviously not the new Duncan Edwards but, at this rate, he might not even become the new Gary Pallister. Some argue Jones’ development has been hampered by the catalogue of injuries he’s suffered, but while that can be seen as a mitigating factor, it also speaks volume of Jones’ lack of ability in reading the game: world class defenders have to make a minimum number of tackles, as they know where their man and the ball will go. The sooner Jones learns his lesson, the better.
5) Tough times ahead
Chelsea at home on Sunday, City away at the Etihad the following week and Arsenal away at the end of November make the next four games look like a daunting task. Apart from when they beat Arsenal at home, last season United never looked even remotely close to trouble any of the top four sides and there’s little to suggest things will be different, let alone easier, this time around.
Defensive frailties are likely to be exploited by the likes of Diego Costa and Sergio Aguero but at least United should have enough firepower to at least go down fighting, though given the utter unpredictability of this side, they might even end up not losing any of the three games. Losing against Chelsea and City would complicate the run for fourth spot, five points or more from the trio of games would do wonder for United’s confidence.
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