Sunday, 27 September 2015

THE VIEW FROM THE TOP


If Louis van Gaal's second season was supposed to be about putting up some sort of challenge for the league title, then he has probably already delivered in one minute respect. Manchester United can now out-rightly claim leadership of English football's top division for the first time since May 2013.

Not since after the opening game of the ill-fated David Moyes reign have United fans sang ''Top of the league!'' with as much confidence as they did yesterday. Even then, it was only because our rivals had not yet played that saw us top. This time, United cannot be overtaken at the top until the next round of league fixtures, giving the premier league table a more traditional look for at least a week.


On the Match
In perhaps the most blatant evidence of the impact Luke Shaw's injury has had on Louis van Gaal's selection, the Dutchman picked his third straight different combination of full-backs since Luke was stretchered off. This time, it was Matteo Darmian taking over from Ashley Young and Marcos Rojo before at left-back whilst Antonio Valencia replaced the Italian at right-back.

It was only Sunderland though and so no amount of 'disturbance in the force' at the back was going to be of cataclysmic consequences. Indeed, the game quickly set up into the Attack vs Defence it was always predicted to be. The plan to get to half-time level nearly worked for Sunderland except that there was all of four minutes of stoppage time added on. Juan Mata was picked out by another heavenly pass from quarter-back Daley Blind before squaring for Memphis Depay to tap in his first domestic goal.

It was obviously important for the Dutch winger to finally break his duck in the league but more crucially important that United score before the break. Getting into the second half level would have suited the visitors as that was the foundation of their game plan all along. Indeed, under van Gaal, United have been found wanting when it comes to breaking down sides that set up to defend with two banks of four and five respectively.

The patient or 'positional' approach of the manager means that unlike it was in the past, United no longer seek to overwhelm such teams with wave after wave of attack. No. The strategy is more measured and calculative, informed by sterile possession of the ball with a view to wear down the opposition and eventually create gaps in the opposition. The burden of identifying those gaps falls not just onto the creative players but also onto the quarter-back who in this team is Daley Blind. When the versatile Dutchman identified space into which Mata could run, the penny finally dropped at the very end of a half that yet again tested the patience levels of the Old Trafford faithful.

Because van Gaal's mission every game is to seek to score one more than the opposition, Memphis' opener was pretty much game over because there was not much about Dick Advocaat's side that threatened United's status from that position.


On the Sub-Plots
Barely two minutes of the second half had gone when something that used to be a common occurrence happened. Wayne Rooney scored. The circumstances of his goal do not say much about any football skill required to score that goal but at least he was in the right place to get his knee to divert the ball via Pantillimon into the net. It puts a stop to a clock that had covered exactly 999 minutes since his last premier league goal for the club. On a personal level, it drew the captain level with Dennis Law at 171 league goals for the club--which is no mean feat.

It will help the club that the focus on his scoring record, or lack of it domestically, will abate but for most fans, it was not so much about a lack of goals as it was about his all round performances. His numbers in terms of retaining possession, passing to a red shirt or creating a chance still tell the same old story. He was at least helped by the presence of Antonio Valencia who is willing to fall into space and hence make himself available for the now famous 'hollywood' ball. It served to mask the number of times United's attacks broke down because Wayne didn't control the ball, or give an accurate short pass over a few yards or was not in sync with his fellow front-men.

In mitigation, he has only started developing a partnership with Anthony Martial up front and therefore it cannot be expected to blossom from the off. Hopefully, with time, it shall come.


Because of the amount of money United have splashed around lately in the transfer window, it is quickly forgotten that Juan Mata joined United for what was then a club record signing in January 2014. So how has he fared in justifying it?

Well, his brace at Anfield on the back-end of last season effectively paid back all the 37.1m quid with interest. Yes. That's that about the money!

Intriguingly though, Mata has, despite being played out of position on the right made himself statistically, United's most important player. The numbers are quite impressive. 18 goals for Chelsea in 82 premier league games and yet yesterday he scored his 18th premier league goal for United in just 55 league games. He is United's premier league top goalscorer in 2015 and has quite a healthy load of assists to compliment his goal-return. His man of the match award yesterday was in recognition of his assist and goal but also scored and assisted last week at St Mary's without getting similar attention. It's about that time that the club opens negotiations for a contract renewal.

Anthony Martial finally took a break from scoring duties but managed to impress yet again, this time, with a proper centre-forward's display. His footwork and close control created Wayne Rooney's goal early in the second half to effectively put the tie to bed. The Frenchman could have scored his fifth goal running if Memphis Depay had played him in on another occasion in the second half but at least now we know he doesn't need the goals to prove his quality.

On the Bottom-Line
There will be pessimism from even United fans let alone rivals about how this team does not have the bottle to retain top spot for longer than a week never mind the rest of the season. It is an argument that defeats logic and reason because it's hard to fathom why topping the league at any stage should attract criticism. Take it this way, there is no better position United could be in and so regardless of the challenges ahead, they will be taking them on from the most advantageous position---the higher ground! If you still don't get it, watch Star Wars Episode III and observe how Master Obi One Kenobi illustrates this point to Anakin Skywalker shortly before he became Darth Vader!

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