MANCHESTER UNITED V QUEENS PARK RANGERS
Club football resumed after the international break, and United faced a home fixture against newly promoted Queens Park Rangers with a raft of new signings. Three players made their first United appearance and one other made his home debut.
In: Rojo, Evans, Rafael, Blind and Herrera.
Out: Jones, Smalling, Valencia, Fletcher and Young.
- 4 at the back or 3? Most seems to agree it was 4, but with a twist. The overall philosophy was not significantly different, although the strategy was tweaked.
- Di Maria, Rojo and Blind all had excellent debuts. Di Maria grabbed the headlines, obviously he scored but the highlight has to be the searing pace as he ran what felt like the length of the pitch to set up the second goal. Not an assist strictly speaking but he was the protagonist.
- Rojo role on the left in covering Di Maria’s more fluid movement should not be overlooked. He isn’t bad for a panic buy.
- Blind was superb, keeping it simple, covering, probing and recycling at the base of the midfield diamond. He can smell danger at 2 miles. Such good positional awareness.
- Tyler Blackett! It was great to see such an inexperienced youngster marshalling the defence. This is especially so given that United we are told don’t believe in youth anymore. He had the confidence here to order Evans, who didn’t have a great game, around.
- People quite rightly point out that we were only (no disrespect) playing QPR, but the performance should give us all confidence that we are heading in the right direction. Individual performances aside the players are assimilating a new understanding, both of ideas and with new teammates.
For the first time under his stewardship van Gaal chose to change shape opting for a 4-4-2 and a midfield diamond with Blind at the base, Di Maria to the left, Herrera to the right and Mata central behind Rooney and van Persie. In truth this doesn’t even tell half the story of United’s shape. The approach, the philosophy if you will was largely unchanged and such was the general movement of individual players within the shape that at time it often resembled a back three. The match strategy however was different.
Queens Park Rangers started the game in 4-1-4-1 shape but with the wide midfield players initially looking to push forward either side of Austin, the single central striker. Presumably this was an attempt to follow the pattern now established when United play a defensive three. Most opponents have sought to match three against three. Unfortunately for QPR van Gaal had changed his plan. Nevertheless in the first few minutes Phillips succeeded in pushing Rafael back so that United were playing with a back three, albeit a lob-sided three. In midfield Herrera dropped a little deeper to counter this and this left Van Persie a little isolated. He never seemed to get into the game after this disappointing start whilst Rooney on the left faired fair better in the space caused by the chaos generated by the menace of Di Maria.
The back three was lob-sided because over on the left Rojo was playing much higher in the early stages behind Di Maria. Rojo could do this because Di Maria’s pace pushed QPR back on that side. Right from the start United looked infinitely more threatening on the left. Di Maria’s pace was frightening but the thing which really seems to set him apart is his balance. On several occasions he appeared about to fall over after a nudge but he stayed on his feet and seemingly lost no pace. Rojo too is quick and the two dovetailed excellently. It was usually Di Maria racing forward and when he did Rojo covered the space behind, but the left back also shot down the wing on several occasions to appear in the QPR penalty area and between them they created overloads on several occasions. Di Maria also covered Rojo when this happened.
On the right after a shaky start Rafael and Evans seemed to find their feet. Despite this Evans looked slower than Blackett in thought and deed throughout. Blackett could be seen directing Evans movement and passing. How about that from a player so inexperienced? This stabilization allowed Herrera to move forward and in fact he moved to a fairly central position. Di Maria and Herrera also took the opportunity to frequently change sides.
It was pass and move, one and two touches, frequent interchanging of positions with players covering each other and the shape staying roughly the same. Rooney often was dropping deep and Mata pushing high so that at times the shape was almost a front three. QPR looked a bit dizzy, but it was actually the referee who was the first to fall over.
Then came the inevitable. Di Maria, cross or shot? Who cares an angled “delivery” from a free-kick on the right was missed by everybody and ends up in the corner of the net. Boom! The goal came on 24 minutes.
United then continued to play brave purposeful high tempo football. The momentum was maintained for three reasons. It’s worth considering those reasons because they haven’t attracted the headlines since the win. Those reasons are Blind, Herrera and Mata. This translates into the word “midfield”. For a first time in over a year United seemed to be thinking quicker than the opposition in this area.
Mata’s contribution was to press high running between van Persie and Rooney when the opposition have the ball at the back. Van Persie and Rooney concentrate on blocking the channels to prevent a route out. This allows United to keep the pressure on and often to win the ball in devastatingly high positions.
This is followed up by Herrera who whilst neat in possession is a terrier when the opposition has the ball. He chases the ball down with real tenacity in the midfield and picks up any loose ball which results from a high press.
Behind Herrera sits Blind, neat and tidy in front of the back four, (or two once United got on top in the game). Blind does the simple things well, moving to occupy space in front of the defence and covering any area where danger might occur before that danger is manifest in the defensive phase. He also moves forward at the base in the attacking phase, always available as the fulcrum to redirect the focus of United’s forward thrusts. Blind sees the shape of the game so well, reminiscent of a midfield version of Laurent Blanc?
United’s second goal came via Di Maria who burst forward on the left with searing pace. He set up Rooney to shoot, his shot was blocked and the loose ball was channeled simply into the path of Herrera who shot calmly and powerfully first time low into the corner of the net. Boom! 36 minutes 2-0. Di Maria’s pace was frightening and made this goal out of nothing.
QPR now looked a beaten side and were certainly off the pace of the game. Could they make it to halftime without conceding again? No. Good sharp one touch passing move saw the ball reach Rooney on the edge of the box. He dropped his shoulder and shot into the near post. After 44 minutes it was 3-0. Boom!
United were a little bit sluggish at the start of the second half but despite creating one chance QPR couldn’t take advantage, (they only really had two chances in the whole game), and after a few minutes United woke up. The pattern of the game was much the same as in the first half. The crowd however was waiting for Falcao.
Before his entrance United scored again. This appeared slightly fortuitous, but perhaps not. Did Di Maria pick the pass or was it mishit? Again who cares? The pass found Mata in acres of space in the QPR box. He didn’t look like missing. Boom! 67 minutes 4-0.
From this point on United were really in second gear, controlling the game but the edge and drive went out of their play. On 67 minutes van Gaal then chose to introduce his first substitutes. Rafael was removed and replaced by Valencia and Mata was removed and replaced by Radamel Falcao. Falcao was given an astonishing reception, deserved for the way he had warmed the touchline so well!
United’s shape also changed as a consequence of these substitutions. The shape was now a little closer to a 3-4-1-2 with Rooney as the 1. Valencia and Rojo played very high and Blind played so deep he was almost the central of a back three, although he played slightly in front of Blackett and Evans rather than slightly behind them. United controlled the game in this shape although there was really no contest by this point.
On 82 minute Di Maria was removed to be replaced by Januzaj in a straight swap.
What more is there to say? Perhaps a word about Falcao. His movement was superb although he was perhaps not quite on the same wavelength as those around him. That is to be expected as he has only had a few days to train with his new teammates. He seems to run constantly in a flat oval across the front line. He had one good chance which was well saved by Green and another half chance when a pass was directed slightly behind him.
So there is some relief that United have a competitive win under van Gaal, but the true sense of relief should be in seeing that we have players, new recruits but also established United personnel who are capable of executing the van Gaal “philosophy”. United played well, even though QPR were poor.
The overriding sense one got from the game was that United were bolder and more courageous in their play. Some of that courage undoubtedly came from the established personnel having a renewed sense of confidence drawn from the quality of the new recruits. This begs the question would last season have been quite so bad if United had been bolder off the pitch and brought in higher quality last summer? Herrera illustrates this. Not a debutante here so despite his goal his contribution hasn’t grabbed the biggest headlines. But he was excellent, terrier like all over the middle of the park. United looked at Herrera last season of course, but hesitated. A year later United had the courage of their convictions to sign the player. So bolder on and off the pitch, this suits United.
Pass, move, cover, interchange, and tackle. Whatever the team shape that it what we are going to get from the van Gaal philosophy. This can only work if we are brave and have players who have the football intelligence to retain team shape. We haven’t got that exactly right so far, even here after a 4-0 win and there was evidence of that in a few moments when we looked rather shaky at the back. But this is a start.