What a game. We, as United fans, have clamoured for a performance that would see us score 3 goals away from home, including a thunderous return to form for our captain Wayne Rooney. If only it were a 3-0 win, eh?
Rather than give a step by step review of the game (because frankly the whole article would be nearing on a short novel), I thought I would give an opinionated overview of the big talking points from the game instead. And well, where else could I possibly start…
Poorest Man United Player?
People say it’s easy to jump on a bandwagon and blame one particular player for a result. That’s true. But when a performance is that bad from one particular player, they’re making it even easier. For those that criticise the negativity constantly centred on Fellaini, I want to give you a few statistics.
Against Newcastle, Fellaini had: 0 interceptions, 1 yellow card, committed 5 fouls (3 inside 20 minutes), 1 clear goal scoring opportunity missed.
Beyond the Newcastle game, Fellaini has missed his last 6 clear goal scoring opportunities in the box.
Even further beyond that, Fellaini has started 11 games, from which we have 10 points. Fellaini has not started in 10 other games, from which we have 24 points. For someone who relies so heavily upon statistics like Van Gaal, it’s not rocket science is it.
Tuesday’s performance was one of the worst I have seen yet from Marouane Fellaini. His positional sense was most worrying. He was supposed to be a footballing partner for Morgan Schneiderlin in that defensive midfield area, yet very often he was found straying onto the left wing, into attacking midfield and even into centre-back, which is where the first goal comes from. Taking up Smalling’s spot, Fellaini tries to head the ball clear, but instead heads it straight into Wijnaldum’s path, who finishes brilliantly. If Fellaini stays where he should be, then Smalling is able to attack that header, and if it goes wrong, then the partnership of Schneiderlin and Fellaini can either clear the ball, or block off Wijnaldum’s run, something I heavily mentioned needs to be watched out for in my preview of the game.
The guy was wreckless elsewhere on the pitch too. Before 20 minutes he had given away 3 fouls, and was booked soon after for his 4th. He continues to make a further foul after that, for which he was given his final warning. Later on, knowing he’s on that last warning, he has a kick out at Coloccini, which luckily for him was missed by Mike Dean. Fellaini was a walking red-card against Newcastle, and rather than be sent off, if we’re all honest, Van Gaal should have taken him off before that.
However he didn’t, and late in the game, we are 3-2 up, and Memphis whips in a glorious ball, inch perfect, onto the oncoming Fellaini. Pick a corner lad, definite goal if you do… Straight at the keeper. Would have been 4-2, game to bed, and we all go home thinking ‘United are back’.
Why Van Gaal is sticking with him is beyond me. I won’t even attempt to explain it.
Mike Dean had a tough, but good, game tonight. There were many debateable decisions, and there will be no absolute answer to whether they were right or wrong. But for my money he had a decent game, and it’s refreshing to see a referee that doesn’t shy away from making big decisions, as every week in the Premier League we see at least one referee shirking off making a controversial call. I think the handball of Mbemba was a harsh call upon reflection after seeing the TV angles, but the referee only has his own angle to go by, and in that case, it would have looked like an unnatural position for the arm to be raised to whilst blocking the header of Fellaini.
The second big decision was Jesse Lingard’s tackle from behind in the box. Again, from our luxury of the TV replays we may say it could have been a penalty. But once again it’s a case of from the referee’s angle, he cannot give that as a penalty as the ball looks to be won and the players look like they simply go shoulder to shoulder.
The 2nd penalty of the game came from a playground wrestling match involving Smalling pulling Mitrovic’s shirt half off, and Mitrovic ripping Smalling’s shirt down the middle. I cannot decide on this one. Smalling makes the first contact, but Mitrovic makes the worse contact. For me, I think we see every defender holding their opposing attacker from all set pieces in that way, and it’s only because of the escalation from Mitrovic that the incident gets seen. But from Mike Dean’s point of view, Smalling starts it, so Smalling concedes it.
Overall I think Mike Dean had a commendable game by showing authority to make big decisions the way that he did, and it’s more than welcome in many more games to come.
Boring, Boring Manchester United?
Tonight Manchester United played a high pressing team that conceded possession to the home team, intercepted the ball, and broke with width and pace. There was much to be said for us tonight in a negative light, but truth be told, we looked more like the United of old. As I also said in the preview, we needed to pull Newcastle out of position with wide stretching wingers, and Martial/Lingard performed that brilliantly. It was summed up best by our counter-attack for the second goal. A pass out of our half from Herrera, to a strangely pacey Rooney who held it up brilliantly, whilst then sublimely backheeling for the onrushing Lingard to slot through the keeper’s legs. Old skool.
So why is it we can play this well going forward, but as a consequence have to see goals go in at our end? Or, why is it when we stay solid at the back, we can’t buy a goal? We heard many times from LVG in the summer that we need to have a ‘balanced selection’ – one that can attack and defend simultaneously. So why can’t it? For me, it can, but only when a very particular group of players are available. I look to the 3-0 win away at Everton as proof that this so called ‘philosophy’ can work. It doesn’t work so often because Van Gaal has a habit of tinkering too much with partnerships, overtrains players into injury or ‘the red zone’, and left the squad too thin in a mismanaged summer transfer window. On the flip side, Van Gaal’s system created several chances to bury the game against Newcastle, with Rooney missing a couple of one-on-ones, Lingard missing a glorious opportunity, alongside Fellaini’s previously mentioned header (the only reason I’m not slating Rooney and Lingard is because both actually scored elsewhere, and had pretty decent games all-round unlike Fellaini). My point is the system does work, Van Gaal has just left the squad too poorly managed for it to be able to do so on a regular basis. I don’t think our squad is too far away (in terms of players we can buy and current selection) from something that can compete; it’s whether Van Gaal can manage that correctly to make it work.
On a more positive final talking point, Wayne Rooney – wow. What a performance from the captain. It’s the Rooney we all used to pay good money to watch; the Rooney that bullied defences; the Rooney that actually looked interested in putting a shift in. When we won the first penalty of the game, we all thought, ‘he’s lucky to be getting penalties to keep his tally up’, be honest. But the match progressed, and Wayne did with it. He bullied defenders and midfielders off the ball, he ran in behind, he ran more directly at defenders; and it all culminated in a beautifully powerful but cultured strike into the top left corner to bring the game to make it 3-2.
2 goals and an assist – is Rooney ‘back’? Who knows. One thing with Wayne is he always scores in spurts; let’s just hope he’s only at the start of this one.
DDG (7); Young (7), Smalling (6), Blind (6), Darmian (6); Schneiderlin (8), Fellaini (3); Lingard (7), Herrera (8), Martial (6); Rooney (9)
Subs: Memphis (7), Mata (5)
Liverpool (A) are up next. It will be completely down to Liverpool’s updates on squad injuries as to whether we can expect anything out of the game; but if it’s anything like last year’s game at (Ju)Anfield, then quite frankly, I can’t wait…