Manchester United made it their best start to a premier league season since 2011 with an assured 1-0 away win at Villa Park on Friday night.
Keeping in tune with his consistent inconsistency in player positions, Louis van Gaal dropped Ashley Young and selected Adnan Januzaj behind Wayne Rooney. It meant a shift to the left for Memphis Depay despite briefing us that the Dutchman is onto forging a partnership up front with Wayne Rooney.
Quite simply, it appears there is much uncertainty about the forward areas with the rest of the team pretty much settled in the opening two fixtures. The manager's pragmatism came to the fore once again with the selection of two holding midfielders in Michael Carrick and Morgan Schneiderlin.
United played with similar composure and control to the opener last week except that they were neater with the ball. It appears though that Louis van Gaal is determined to arrest the helter-skelter of premier league games that got his arse twitching last season. Here were an Aston Villa side clearly geared up for a right old breathless 'Cup final' fixture under the lights, but the Dutch coach effectively refused to play into that script.
The Villa game plan seemed hinged on fast paced counter-attacking football and yet United refused to commit into any attacks early on. Passing the ball between midfield and defence repeatedly threw the home side's game plan out of the window because here they were, invited to attack first and expose themselves. Whenever Villa re-organised, the same pattern was repeated.
By selecting two holding midfielders, van Gaal has ensured that games are almost played to the rhythm and control of his midfielders. The two holders hardly made any forward ventures, ensuring that at all times, United's supposedly weak central defence was shielded from virtually every Villa attack.
Indeed if Sergio Romero had opted to stay behind with David De Gea, it wouldn't have mattered that United had an unguarded goal. Such was the control United had over proceedings that Villa had to come up with something extra-ordinary to get close to United. Keep the opposition at arms length appears to be the direction van Gaal is taking his side this season. It is unlikely therefore that United will be anything more than functional this season. They look like an assembly of players with specific instructions to execute and with little room for self-expression. It's brilliant for the coaches to watch. Maybe not so for the fans or at least neutrals.
Thankfully, United retain players up top whose genius overrides most of their functionality. Juan Mata temporarily abandoned his wing-role and dropped inside to pick out Adnan Januzaj with the pass of the game. The Belgian made his selection count by showing dexterous footwork, cutting in to render Micah Richards a nullity and down on his backside before planting a shot far post that deflected off Ciaran Clark. It was, whichever way you look at it, quite a brilliantly crafted goal.
That once again, it turned out to be the winner made for uncomfortable questions to the manager in his post match presser but in truth, Villa never really looked like they would level the game at any one point. Memphis Depay though should have made it 2-0 mid-way through the second half but saw his shot beat Brad Guzan but zip wide.
Matteo Darmian put in another excellent display at right-full back to earn himself a nomination for Man of the Match. There is an aspect of his game that has helped Chris Smalling look even better than last season. The Italian defends 'inside right' allowing him to double up with Chris several times when United are defending. It means the pair are never really isolated, effectively making the right side a no-go area to hurt United. Certainly, it appears Matteo did really mould his game around his hero Paolo Maldini. It makes for an interesting throw-back watch, especially given the great Italian's recent laments about full-backs that don't defend these days.
It really does seem that Luke Shaw has come leaps and bounds since his injury nightmares last season. To get two consecutive 90 minute performances is a hard stat to find last season. Now, it looks like he is determined to hold down his place on the left with excellent fitness levels. Amazing what taking a coach on holiday to Dubai can do for you eh?
On the whole, it also a bit of a surprise how many players United have fit. Last year, every game was punctuated by a new injury and yet so far, it seems the manager is struggling to find a place in the team for each of his 25 man playing staff. It's a welcome headache for him I imagine.
Forget the caveats though! Manchester United have yet again successfully disappointed most of Her Majesty's press. There seems to be a good few holding their breath for Romero to make a blunder or for Daley Blind to be caught out in defence or for United to fire blanks in front of goal to give credence to the early season prejudices about Louis van Gaal's team. We're now told that this United team will be exposed for what it really is when the 'big games' come around and yet it is at venues like Villa Park that the side struggled last season.
Do United owe anyone an apology for starting the season with a maximum 6 points out of 6? Have United offended the spirit of the game by doing so with just two goals, one an own goal and another via a deflection?
If we're supposed to believe that United are not yet accomplished enough to win the league title, then they've not done badly for themselves starting off with a couple of wins. Yes, improvements will be needed but to expect improvements while you're winning is the hallmark of a team heading in the right direction!
Labels: LUKE SHAW, MATTEO DARMIAN, REVIEWS