United have finally won away from home and, albeit aided by a large slice of luck, Saturday’s 2-1 win at the Emirates could and should be the turning point we’ve been waiting for. Here’s five things we have learnt from yesterday.
1) LVG’s gamble comes off
After the game, Louis Van Gaal admitted that he would have been branded “crazy” for starting with a three-man defence, had United lost against Arsenal.
Ultimately his decision was vindicated, though it was more a case of hanging on for dear life, rather than a tactical masterclass, as United were let off the hook by Arsenal’s profligacy in front of goal, while David De Gea was his usual excellent self between the posts.
After weathering a torrid opening 25 minutes, however, United gradually settled into the game and Chris Smalling, Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair were solid and diligent at the back, in fact showing more solidity than many had expected.
United did not do anything spectacular but covered the basics superbly well, further proof after an encouraging second half at City that Van Gaal’s message is getting through to his players, who have looked infinitely more organised than last season. It wasn’t a vintage performance by any stretch of imagination, but soaking up pressure and hitting on the counter away from home is nothing to be ashamed of, particularly against the likes of Arsenal.
2) Wayne’s world
As United self-imploded against Leicester, Wayne Rooney launched into a tirade against Tyler Blackett, blaming his teammate for being out of position.
Rooney was, some would say rightly, others less so, criticised for his attitude, for berating a teammate – and a younger one at that – on the pitch in such fashion was hardly the sign of a leader, particularly considering he had delivered a far from excellent performance himself.
On Saturday, however, Rooney showed he’s come a long way since pointing fingers at his teammates and played like the leader Van Gaal wanted him to be when he appointed him as captain in the summer. Rooney ran his socks off but remained lucid enough to keep the team ticking over in the final third of the pitch, helped by Angel Di Maria and clinched United’s first away win of the season with a delightful goal.
The finish, almost a carbon copy of goals he scored against Bolton in 2007 and in this very ground, though at the other end, in 2010, was a stark reminder that Rooney’s at his brutal best in a counter-attacking side, rather than when plodding along at a sedate pace.
3) Robin’s woes
While Rooney and Di Maria covered a lot of ground, Robin Van Persie looked jaded and almost uninterested, continuing to show the same indifferent form he’s displayed all season.
The Dutchman had only 12 touches against his former club and was largely anonymous in a fixture that was meant to carry an extra significance for him and one in which he had scored three times since leaving Arsenal.
With Radamel Falcao out for at least another two weeks, Van Persie will probably start against Hull and Stoke, but one gets the increasing feeling that time is ticking for RVP.
4) United’s new signing
Marouane Fellaini’s transformation continued at a steady pace on Saturday. A pantomime villain hopelessly out of his depth last season, the Belgian has, if not flourished, at least started to show he can prove to be a useful option for Louis Van Gaal’s side, as the Dutch manager seems to be succeeding where Moyes had failed by getting Fellaini to play to his strengths.
That Fellaini would win the majority headers against a pint-sized Arsenal midfield was expected, that he would not be exposed by the Gunners’ intricate passing perhaps less so. A midfield comprising Fellaini and Michael Carrick is nobody’s idea of dynamism, but the Belgian, brilliantly aided by diligent efforts from Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, grew into the game after a slow start.
Fellaini’s physique is such that he’ll never be a galloping midfielder, while obvious technical deficiencies mean we’ll never see him dictating the play but, under Van Gaal, the Belgian is starting to resemble a figure that United have missed for years: a midfield brute.
Fellaini won headers, put himself in the line of fire to block shots as United desperately refused to cave in in the second half and mopped up nicely a couple of loose balls. Arsenal’s midfielders still ran past him too often and it would be nice to see him move into space to offer his teammates an option when going forward, but the performances against Chelsea, City and Arsenal have done Fellaini’s confidence a world of good.
He’ll never be a world class player but he could be extremely useful for United. That he cost £27.5m isn’t his fault.
5) United must kick on
Four points from games against Chelsea, City and Arsenal are a decent return, particularly considering Chelsea’s form and the fact that United played with 10 men for an hour against City and that two of those games were away. The confidence to win big games can only generated by winning big games and United have obviously built on the draw against Chelsea and on the positives shown at City but Saturday’s result must be a turning point this season.
Fourth on the table, realistically where United will want to be at the end of the season, with players set to return from injuries and with two winnable games against Hull and Stoke City ahead, before a potentially hard trip to Southampton and the always difficult prospect of Liverpool at home.
Last season, despite the lack of injuries, the win against Arsenal didn’t kickstart United’s season the way we hoped. Here’s hoping things will be different under LVG.
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