Manchester United players might have add Christmas Day off but there was no post-festivity hangover as they brushed Newcastle aside, claiming a seventh win in the last eight games and consolidating their third spot.
Here’s five major talking points from Boxing Day, ahead of United’s trip to North London tomorrow.
1) Wayne’s world
Few players have divided opinions among United fans as Wayne Rooney has done. A misunderstood legend in the making or a player who’s held the club to ransom twice and never quite fulfilled his potential? Whichever side of the fence one might be sitting on, refusing to acknowledge the impact Rooney has had on the team this season is something only the staunchest of detractors would indulge in.
On the other hand, not even the biggest fans of the United number 10 could have quite fathomed the transformation he has undergone over the first five months of the Louis Van Gaal era. Deployed in midfield alongside Michael Carrick and with Juan Mata in the number 10 role, Rooney enjoys a tactical freedom he’s probably never experienced before, for the former is the designated defensive midfielder and the latter is the creative hub of the side.
That Rooney combines superbly with both is testament to his qualities, while his desire to burst into the box from a deep position shows shades of the old Rooney, the one who flourished in the side that won three titles in a row between 2006 and 2009. He might not be the best midfielder United have had since Paul Scholes, but Rooney’s new-found maturity could shape this United side for the foreseeable future.
2) Attack, attack, attack
Since the end of the transfer window, pundits and fans alike have marvelled at United’s offensive potential, while bemoaning their defensive frailties. The attacking weapons at Van Gaal’s disposal are world class but, due to a combination of injuries and ever-changing formation, United struggled to supply their strikers with the ammunition they require to thrive.
Since beating Arsenal away, however, United have scored 14 goals in six games, scoring three in four of their last home games and failing to score more than once only against Aston Villa on Saturday. Radamel Falcao and Robin Van Persie provide constant movement up-front, opening up gaps that Mata and Rooney are eager to exploit and while defensive issues will have to be solved, perhaps starting in the January transfer window, but United’s attacking game is finally coming together.
3) This Juan Mata
It’s bizarre that a player of Juan Mata’s calibre and skills is still regarded by many as a burden rather than as an asset. Having struggled to adapt to his new surroundings since his January move to Old Trafford, Mata’s form has drastically improved this season and he was heavily involved in both goals yesterday, directly assisting the second.
The Spaniard might not quite yet be the player he was at Chelsea but he’s scored five and assisted three in 13 league starts this season, flourishing in the number 10 role. A talented player thriving in his favourite role. Who would have thought that could work?
4) Three at the back could work
Whisper it, but playing with three at the back might just work in some games. United’s rearguard still looks suspiciously weak but the feeling is that the players are getting used to the system, with Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia doing a solid job as full-backs.
With Rafael returning to action and Luke Shaw and Marcos Rojo also nearing return, Van Gaal could soon revert to a four-man defence but a back three isn’t as dangerous a proposition as it seemed a few weeks ago.
5) Keep the momentum going
Christmas is, by definition, one of the most crucial period of the season and this year is no exception. While United might enjoy an easier second half of the season due to the lack of European football, their two fixtures each side of the turn of the year are arguably as tricky as they come.
Spurs have not been as free flowing going forward as they were under Harry Redknapp but Mauricio Pochettino’s side are unbeaten in four league games and have shown remarkable resilience in grinding out late wins over the last couple of weeks, while Stoke are always a tough opponent at the Britannia, where they’ve already beat Arsenal this season.
Four points from the next two games would be a satisfying return, but maximum points would put United in a great position ahead of a relative easy January, when United host Southampton and Leicester with a trip to QPR sandwiched in between.
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