It wasn’t pretty by any stretch of imagination. In fact it was dire for large spells of the game and the last 120 seconds were downright frightening, but Manchester United have a fourth consecutive win under their belt after beating Stoke 2-1 and more reasons to be confident ahead of two testing fixtures.
That it was achieved without Wayne Rooney and Angel Di Maria and while annoying Mark Hughes, made it even better
1) Dave saves
The “where would United be without David De Gea?” question is set to become one the most predictable cliches of the season, but there’s more than one good reason for it.
De Gea’s save late on to deny Mame Diouf was superb for difficulty, timing and significance and it encapsulates everything what separates world class goalkeepers from good shot-stoppers. Those in the former category might be virtually a spectator for 90 minutes and then produce a world class save when called upon, while the latter are some way short of that level.
At the start of his United career, De Gea’s progress was made easier by having a settled back four in front of him, while this season, he’s the man providing a confidence boost to an ever-changing rearguard in front of him and the results have been there for all to see over the past four games.
Ed Woodward should give the Spaniard a blank contract and tell him to write down his own salary on it, for Real Madrid will inevitably come circling at some stage.
2) Fellaini’s twin brother
The pantomime villain who stole a living in a red shirt last season, must have been Marouane Fellaini’s twin brother, who kidnapped the former Everton man and decided to have a go at professional football himself.
There can’t be no other plausible explanation to justify the Belgian’s transformation. Fellaini, of course, will never be a world class midfielder but he’s a completely different player to the one who looked hopelessly out of his depth last season. On Tuesday night, as he had done against Arsenal and Hull, Fellaini was instrumental in breaking up play, completing five out of the six tackles he attempted and winning four out of five aerial duels.
Despite being played in a position that clearly does not suit him – only Ashley Young attempted more cross than Fellaini last night – the Belgian scored and even his pass completion rate, often mocked, was surprisingly solid, as he completed 86% of his 71 passes.
When United signed Daley Blind, Ander Herrera and Angel Di Maria in the summer, many expected Fellaini to be offloaded but his resurgence has given Van Gaal a selection problem, one the Dutchman would be pleased with.
3) Out with the old, in with the Young
Much like Fellaini, Ashley Young had never won United fans over. His ridiculously mono-dimensional game and a tendency to hit the deck a bit too eagerly were hardly characteristics to get supporters off their seats.
With Luke Shaw injured, Van Gaal’s decision to deploy Young as left-back looked like a disaster waiting to happen, but the former Aston Villa man has been a revelation in his temporary role, solid defensively and diligent going forward, even though his crossing remains still too erratic to be a genuine threat.
Young’s goal-line clearance on Tuesday ensured United clinched all the three points and earned him a deserved mention in the newspapers, this time for all the right reasons. Under mediocre managers, squad players tend to be passengers while world class managers make the most of their potential, limited as it might be.
That Young and Fellaini have been among United’s best performers over the last four games highlights how big the gap between David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal really is.
4) Juan to cherish
At times, last night, United resembled their 2013-14 vintage: slow, lacking incisiveness and spraying the ball sideways while tentatively trying to open Stoke’s defence, as the lack of width and of man capable of stretching the Potters back four was evident.
It is in such moments that players like Juan Mata come to the fore. The Spaniard scored a slightly fortuitous winner and grew into the game as the match wore on, proving that he does merit a place in the team.
It was Mata’s fourth goal of the season and the 12th by a United midfielder in 14 league games this season, just four shy of the tally they had amassed over 38 games last season and spreading the goal burden will be crucial to United’s chances of success this season.
5) Four in a row
United have now won four games in a row for the first time in a year and are within two points of second place, although City have a game in hand, ahead of two difficult games against Southampton and Liverpool.
The Saints’ fantastic start to the season was brought to an abrupt end by City on Sunday and a trip to the Emirates on Wednesday could prove just as difficult for Ronald Koeman’s men. Were Southampton to drop points tonight, United will travel to the south coast on Monday with momentum firmly on their side and another three points would be the perfect confidence boost ahead of Liverpool’s visit to Old Trafford.
Having won once in the first five games, scoring nine and conceding eight goals in the process, United have won four of their last five, scoring eight and conceding three as they put together a mini-revival that has dragged them back in the top four. Good as the current run is, however, it will count for nothing if United don’t add some much needed consistency over the next few games and over the festive season.
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