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Manchester United: Moving on Up

Manchester United’s last four games show van Gaal’s team is beginning to tick at a particularly crucial time. Tom Chambers documents how United have slowly made their way up before the decisive fixtures at Southampton and Liverpool. 

The perceived gloom surrounding Manchester United is beginning to lift. At the time of writing my previous piece, United sat 10th in the table, four points off 4th placed Arsenal after a narrow defeat to bitter, crosstown rivals Manchester City. However, a month and four consecutive wins later, United have leapt to the front of the queue ahead of rivals Arsenal, Liverpool, Spurs and Everton in the battle for Champions League football.

Van Gaal Rooney

Manchester United 1-0 Crystal Palace – the first brick in the wall

Whilst performing admirably with ten men at the Etihad, United came away with no points and were in need a win to take advantage of three games out of the next four games being at home. Despite yet another new defensive pairing of Blind and McNair following injury to Rojo and Smalling’s suspension, United limited Palace to 6 shots (via and only one clear chance where a long ball from Ward caused indecision in the defence, only for Campbell to lob the ball over the goal. United themselves did not create many clear goal scoring chances despite Fellaini having a header cleared off the line, but their huge domination of the ball, with them completing 587 out of 661 passes whilst having 72% possession (via allowed them to control the game and probe for openings. With 65 minutes gone, Juan Mata eventually broke the deadlock with a drive from the edge of the box before going on to hit the post. van Gaal spoke after the game of his pleasure at United’s ability to “kill the game for the first time”, with Palace only having one shot on target in the whole 90 minutes, thus showing progression from the 5-3 defeat to Leicester, where United’s failure to do so cost them dear.

Arsenal 1-2 Manchester United – a rocky start but psychological boost

After the final international break of the year, United returned to face Arsenal at the Emirates with a whole host of injury problems, particularly in defence with De Gea and Shaw (who later went off injured) doubts and Rafael, Jones and Evans still sidelined. This saw United revert back to 3-4-1-2 with Di Maria playing the “Robben role” up front alongside van Persie with Smalling being joined by Valencia, McNair, Blackett and later Young in defence. After withstanding constant pressure for the opening 37 minutes, with United unable to find any passing rhythm and relying on a world class performance from the majestic De Gea, United finally got a foot hold in the game after De Gea threw the ball out to the right flank and Di Maria burst past two players into the box. This seemed to give United a boost as from this point on, whilst still finishing the game with just 38% possession (via they managed to get a foothold in the game and stemmed the flow of pressure. After a lucky opening goal, with Gibbs sending the ball into his own net, Arsenal predictably showed their naivety in over committing, losing their shape and United could have scored another two or three on the counter attack with Rooney scoring and Di Maria going close. The final result was seen by many as huge for United’s confidence and momentum whilst it also showed a level of resilience and fight had returned despite a makeshift defence, something which was greatly lacking last season.

Manchester United 3-0 Hull City – moving closer to van Gaal’s football utopia

Described by van Gaal as “the best match of our season”, United comprehensively despatched Hull both on the scoreboard and in the way they played. Whilst still relying on Valencia and Young in the fullback positons, a returning Marcos Rojo saw United line up in the 4-4-2 diamond formation until Di Maria’s injury with then saw them switch to a 4-1-3-2 with Carrick in a deep, controlling midfield role and Fellaini, Mata and Herrera pushed high up the pitch. This was perhaps the first time this season United dominated the game from start to finish with Hull failing to threaten the United goal to any substantial extent, with just the two tame shots on target and United having a massive 77% possession whilst their midfield quartet of Carrick, Fellaini, Mata and Herrera completed a huge 327 passes between them (via This was the kind of performance van Gaal wants his team to produce on a weekly basis, with his philosophy centred on dominating possession through constant, swift, ball circulation thus creating goal scoring opportunities. It is this area in which United must still improve, where despite dictating the vast majority of the play, they failed to test the opposition goal keeper as much as they should.

Manchester United 2-1 Stoke – strength in depth

In their most recent win, United had to do without perhaps their two best players in Di Maria and Rooney whilst a recently returning Falcao still not deemed fit enough to start. This meant van Gaal gave a first start of the season to burgeoning young talent James Wilson alongside van Persie. United once again enjoyed the majority of the ball, with 64% possession and showed their strength in depth as they secured the three points with goals from midfield (a chronic problem for many seasons) in the shape of Fellaini and Mata. Stoke scored with their only shot in the first half and were lucky to go in at half time level. After retaking the lead just before the hour mark, United had numerous chances to finish off Stoke with the final cross or pass not finding its target whilst Wilson went close after a brilliant run. United were almost made to pay for their profligacy when Stoke had three clear chances from point blank range in added time, with a combination of De Gea and Young keeping them at bay. Whilst United did not reach the levels they did against Hull, they played well in the absence of key players and any natural fullbacks, moving the ball at speed, working the channels and taking on their opposition to good effect.

In sight of 3rd – a trip to Saint Mary’s

United’s next fixture offers them a chance to move another place up the table as they face Southampton, who currently sit one point above them. With their opponents picking up just one point out of nine from their last three games and United potentially being able to field a fit-again Rooney, Falcao and van Persie together, on the back of four straight wins, they can be confident of a positive result, something you would have been hard pressed to have said a month ago.

Written by Tom Chambers

Tom Chambers

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