With one eye on the Champions League qualifier on Tuesday, Manchester United saw past Aston Villa without having to exert themselves. A singular goal by Adnan Januzaj settled the tie as United rarely looked like conceding, while Villa never looked like mounting a challenge
Two games played, two goals scored, none conceded, six points to the good.
The equation might lack the watermark of champions, but Manchester United have proved that functionality and fluidity can function over fanciness and flair. Considering that it took them till the end of September last season to win two games, United’s achievement of the same feat within six days only bodes well for the men in red. While United’s new signings starred, Villa’s new signings lacked cohesion, failing to come together to launch any semblance of attack.
Much of the game was paced like a chess match, with each team spending too much time calculating their next move. The glaring lack of urgency characterised much of the first half, until Adnan Januzaj was able to make the break. Juan Mata matched Januzaj’s run into the box with a inch-perfect pass. From there, the Belgian calmy cut back on his weaker right foot and drove the ball into the far corner of Brad Guzan’s goal. While United were able to muster two more clear goal chances, their ineffectiveness in attack raised more concerns, given their poor goal return in the previous campaign.
Drawing conclusions from the first fortnight of Premiership football might not be of much use, but with a tie against rivals Tottenham and a tenuous away game against Villa successfully negotiated, United are in good stead ahead of a series of tricky fixtures. While the match still left many scratching their heads, there were a few key aspects that stood out.
Tim Sherwood needs to invest in quality and and not quantity.
While Aston VIlla reached the finals of the FA Cup, they did so largely riding on the exploits of frontman Cristian Benteke and captain Fabian Delph. With the former sold to Liverpool for A?32.5 Million and the latter for A?8 Million, Villa have around A?40 Million to spend on bringing in at least two quality players. Having sold eight first team players and bringing in nine (as well as appointing one of them as captain) Villa have gone for quantity over quality. The fallout from such a lopsided process of reconstruction was quite visible as Villa rarely looked like a cohesive unit, unable to string more than five passes together.
Tim Sherwood and the club need to bring in at least two players of Premier League pedigree to add some stability and shape to a Villa team that seems devoid of direction. The likes of Jordan Ayew and Rudy Gestede had little to work with, while Scott Sinclair and former Lille star Idrissa Gueye failed to impose themselves on the game.
Some credit does need to be given to United’s defence, who were quick to intercept and close down a Villa side that did not threaten and looked facile at best. With Jack Grealish returning to full fitness, and Barcelona starlet Adama Traore yet to make his debut, Villa as yet do not have creativity and energy to break down compact sides. If that pace and guile is not tempered with stability and experience, Villa might be in for a very long season.
Despite external issues, van Gaal’s focus on the team remains unperturbed
For all of the uncertainty surrounding David De Gea, Louis van Gaal has kept his team’s performance the prime focus. His tactical tweaks and re-adjustments have kept United fresh and prepared for a tricky run of fixtures within the coming fortnight. While the sight of Januzaj in the hole and Memphis on the wing brightened many eyes, United’s front three looked uncoordinated and unable to threaten from many openings.
Given all of those shortcomings however, van Gaal played his cards right, and the game’s only goal stand as testament. With Januzaj featuring right behind Rooney, the Belgian became a difficult entity to contain and predict. While Villa’s defenders used brute physique to best Januzaj early on, the focus on nullifying Rooney left Januzaj with a small window of opportunity to make his mark. With Juan Mata’s forays in front of the box, the Spaniard found the Belgian with an inch-perfect defence-splitting pass, which the young Belgian dispatched with a finish fitting of the service.
Despite playing Mata out of position, van Gaal knows that the Spaniard offers much in terms of creativity and decisive play. While the Spaniard has not made the right wing his own, having the ability to rely on Matteo Darmian to pick up the slack gives him the freedom to drift inwards and create play.
The logic to put on Herrera and Schweinsteiger as substitutes for the second game in a row began to crystallise. Carrick and Schweinsteiger, though offering little moving forward, made sure that United dictated the pace of the game while shutting out any counter attack. The arrival of Herrera and Schweinsteiger got more mobility and purpose to United’s midfield, with the former linking up with Mata to good effect.
Van Gaal however harbours no illusions about his team’s performance, remarking that there is still work to be done in many areas. When asked about Januzaj in the post match interview, van Gaal was quick to praise him, while also tempering his appraisal with commenting on his all round game.
“He scored a wonderful goal,” said Van Gaal in response to his strike. “But all the other aspects of football, you have to show it, also. There is more than only making a goal”. Van Gaal demands the most from all his players, and is likely to only be content when all are meeting his high expectations.
With two important ties against Club Brugge and an away game against Newcastle, van Gaal is right to conserve his team’s resources and more importantly keeping everyone fit. Playing safe and ‘boring’ football will work now, as a good start seems imperative to van Gaal’s long-term plans for United this season.
Ineffectual Rooney needs to step up his game
Against Tottenham as well as Aston Villa, Wayne Rooney has been a lethargic, indecisive presence at the apex of United’s attack. The Englishman had garnered some unwarranted criticism last season, as many believed his selection in the team, despite poor form, was down to his position as captain. While it might be a strange idea to accept, it is one that might be worth considering.
When van Gaal bought players like Memphis, Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger, he intended to have more creativity, mobility and options for the strikers to play off. While that tactic has not achieved the desired result, Rooney’s performances leave much to be desired.
Though capable of plying many positions to a respectable degree, Rooney has not played in a no.9 position consistently enough to know how to lead an attacking line. In the two seasons where he was deployed as the furthest man forward – in a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 – he always had another striker he could play off. In the last three seasons however, Rooney has turned provider on many occasions, leading him to try and look for a decisive pass rather than run at defenders with the ball.
In the match against Villa, Rooney seemed to take far too much time to come to a decision, losing the ball often in the process. As a number 9, Rooney needs to command the wingers around him as well as the attacking midfielder playing off him. With Chris Smalling marshalling the defence, and Carrick and Schweinsteiger the midfield, Rooney needs to take a more central role in organising the attack to suit his needs.
While he is a model team player, Rooney needs to be a tad more selfish as a number 9. United need him to be the street smart, tough striker that terrorised defences for the past decade. The sad truth is, however, that he is no longer that striker. Age, injury and inconsistencies in position have forced Rooney to adopt a different style, one that relies more on thought out build-up play, as opposed to instinctive passing and timed runs.
Rooney is still the most likely player to get the goals for Manchester United, and for all the talk about a lack of service, he needs to be the one to take charge.
United have a long way to go if they are to convince anyone that they have a shot at winning anything this season. However, given the fact that they play 3 games in 11 days from Tuesday onward, they look like a team building to a crescendo, rather than one stuck in a rut. Tim Sherwood will have to find a system and a formula that gets the best out of all his players. If he manages that, Villa could well push beyond their usual expectations. If not, they will wallow in mediocrity, spending an unwanted amount of time near the drop zone.