Going into the QPR game a couple of weeks ago we identified great optimism and anticipation; with a host of new signing it felt like a new beginning, almost like the first game of the season. We have played three games since then so how is it going?
Results have been mixed of course with two home wins and a defeat at Leicester, and so has the nature of the performances. There is a case to be made that United should have won all three games comfortably. In each game they have raced into a commanding position but in two of the three we have contrived to make life difficult for ourselves. Despite this the signs are generally encouraging and we can already identify a number of emerging themes.
In all three games United have started the matches playing bright enterprising football. High tempo early passing has been the defining characteristic along with good movement and assertive attempts to win the ball back early upon losing possession. One of the key differences has been pace; with Di Maria in the side teams have been forced to take a step back. Perhaps the most significant feature however is that United have never looked likely to be outnumbered in the centre of the pitch. The consequence of this has been that United have averaged a possession of 60% across the three games, despite playing almost 45 minutes across two games with only ten men.
New dawn fades
In all three matches United have seemed to run out of steam. Perhaps this is a consequence of having so many young players and players new to the English Premier League but in all three games United’s first half performances have been better than those after the break. The arrivals from overseas have certainly been blowing hard towards the end of matches. This was clearly the case in the QPR game and perhaps can be excused in the West Ham game, (with Rooney’s dismissal over half an hour before the final whistle), but it is something van Gaal has noticed if his programme notes from the West Ham game are anything to go by,
“In that game, Leicester were the team who played and acted like a team for the full 90 minutes”.
United have conceded six goals across the three games. Now we would accept that an average of two goals a game does not tell the full story when five of the six goals came in one game, but United’s defending has not looked secure. This is a comment you could make looking across the whole season so far, but that one result at Leicester does distort things somewhat even across all six fixtures.
There are a number of issues here. Firstly, defending is of course all about organisation and the understanding between players. United have played two defensive systems across the six games, a three man defence with wingbacks in the first three league games and a four man defence with full-backs in the second three fixtures. This is bound to have been a factor preventing stability and the development of understanding. Secondly United have been forced to change personnel repeatedly over those six games as a consequence of both injury and suspension. In the first six games United have played six different players as central defenders and six different players as fullbacks or wingbacks. Those figures do not take account of changes made during the game, but rather relate to the starting eleven. Again this is a factor affecting the development of a clear understanding between the main defending unit.
Perhaps there are also other issues to consider. Of the nine goals conceded by United in the Premier League this season four have come from set plays, (including two penalties at Leicester), but more tellingly five have come from situations where the opposition have delivered the ball from wide areas, whether from a set play or open play. Reviewing all these goals there are two noticeable features. Perhaps most obviously full-backs and wingbacks have failed to stop the delivery from the wide area. Secondly the central defenders have not attacked the incoming ball. Both these factors point to one thing, whilst United are keen to press when they lose the ball high up the pitch when they are in their own defensive third they tend to fall back and concentrate on team shape rather than challenging for the ball. In all cases where goals have been conceded after a delivery from wide areas United have had plenty of men back. They have been far too passive in their defending however.
Discipline and team spirit
Having players sent off in consecutive games is not good. We can complain about refereeing over the three most recent games but in truth our complaints would not be about the two decisions that resulted in the sending-off but rather that in the second two games United have been afforded very little protection in the face of aggressive and seemingly deliberate fouling by opponents seeking to either unnerve United, (Di Maria seems a player who has been marked out for special treatment), or simply stay in the game. Two or three of our opponents could and perhaps should have been sent off.
In the face of these tactics United need to remain disciplined and in the most part they have. A by-product of all these though could be an emerging team spirit. This certainly seemed to be the case on Saturday when United toughed it out at the end to secure the points despite a late areal barrage. Things aren’t going smoothly yet despite encouraging signs, but if United’s current struggles help bind the new group together then this should benefit long term team spirit which should stand the side in good stead for future battles.