United dominant but now comes the real benchmark
Manchester United’s six-game winning streak – in the Premier League at least – is remarkable for many reasons. Not least because this is now a United side high on belief, quick in the pass and effortlessly creative – three qualities that Louis van Gaal’s side has infrequently demonstrated this season. And yet, save for defeat against Arsenal in the FA Cup, United’s winning streak has ushered in a bold new era at United. Sunday’s victory over Manchester City emphasised United’s metamorphosis; next weekend’s trip to Chelsea could well confirm the club’s rebirth.
City’s defeat is a case in point. It is not just that Van Gaal’s side dominated – City’s two Sergio Agüero goals flattered the visitors – but that United secured three points with such effortless grace. With more clinical finishing the home side could have bettered the six goals City infamously scored at Old Trafford in October 2011. Van Gaal’s side not only wanted victory more, but backed up desire with outstanding execution.
The Blues dished out humiliating defeat to United too often in recent seasons. Not least four Premier League victories in a row before Sunday and an aggregated scoreline in that period of 10 goals to two. That’s to say little of the aforementioned six scored against 10-man United four years ago.
This period of domination has followed City’s vast expenditure in the transfer market – one that has also fuelled two Premier League titles over the past three seasons. By contrast United’s decline was slow and then very quick – first starved of funds under the Glazer family’s ownership and then decimated by David Moyes ineptitude. Game after what seemed to be too many games City’s midfield bullied a meek United offering.
There was none of that on Sunday though, with United out-passing, thinking and working City. This was both a tactical masterclass by Van Gaal and an expression of a work-ethic that always has supporters on their feet.
In fact, just as City seemed to put aside recent poor form to start brightly, United once again demonstrated the strength of mental fortitude that Moyes so acutely destroyed and Van Gaal has rebuilt. After nine minutes the Blues were on top, but it says much that City never had it so good again. Save for Agüero’s late goal, Van Gaal’s side remained dominant to the last.
Little wonder Van Gaal was delighted with victory – an emphatic result and a performance that thoroughly vindicates the Dutchman’s methods. Special praise too for the strength of character to come back from Agüero’s early strike.
“We have showed that often,” said Van Gaal on United’s recovery. “I have more than once given compliments to my players about that because, in all the matches, we are going until the end with a great spirit and we have shown that against City.
“We didn’t start so well, Manchester City had the better start, but then we came back into the game because of the assist of David De Gea, more or less, for the first goal for Ashley Young. Then we gained confidence and we performed our game-plan much more. In the second half, we played very well with a lot of pace in our game. I was very pleased with the second half.”
Technically the home side was far superior too. While Juan Mata and Ander Herrera controlled the game with a nuanced range of passing from the right, it was Ashley Young and Marouane Fellaini that earned praise for taking full advantage of City’s weaknesses down United’s left. Michael Carrick was again outstanding as United’s deep-lying creative instigator.
Young’s pace and direct running seemingly compliment the out-ball offered by Fellaini. The Belgian won nine headers on Sunday, with United deploying the long-ball 15 per cent of the time – a ratio that is high in comparison to other Champions League chasing sides. Yet, in contrast to the aimless long-balls that too often creeped into United’s game during the winter, this time the Reds exploited City’s lack of height at full-back and failure to adequately cover the channels.
“Ashley was Man of the Match and I think that was right,” confirmed Van Gaal in the aftermath. “If I had to choose, I would have chosen him. Also Fellaini is very important in our game-plan and I’m very pleased that he plays for Manchester United and no-one else.”
The victory leaves United four points ahead of City with just six games to play and 11 beyond Liverpool. Champions League football next season is almost guaranteed, although United will benefit much from finishing ahead of City, Arsenal or both to avoid an early-season play-off next August. Second or third would also earn United a healthier share of England’s media pool from European games – an incentive for the bean counters as much as the ego.
Momentum also counts for much. United has it, of course, although games against Chelsea, Everton, Crystal Palace and Arsenal offer no guarantee of points. After all, three of those games come away from the safety of Old Trafford, where United has gained 43 of 65 points this season.
The first of that sequence is against Chelsea next weekend. Indeed, United’s trip to Stanford Bridge is perhaps the truest barometer of progression. The Reds’ improvement in the past two months under Van Gaal has been dramatic, but the Londoners are seven points clear for a reason and superbly effective at home. José Mourniho’s side is yet to lose at Stamford Bridge in the league this season and boasts both the best home record and best home defensive record.
Van Gaal’s team is also unlikely to enjoy the bulk of possession next Saturday – a stat recorded at more than 55 per cent against City – nor control midfield so easily. After all, Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic advance a formidable pairing, especially at home. United will, however, benefit from Diego Costa’s absence, while understudy Loïc Remy is also doubtful with injury.
In the big picture Saturday’s game may count for little. Few believe Chelsea will lose the title now, nor that Liverpool will make up the 12 points required on United over the next six games. Yet, there is that momentum thing again. Victory at Stamford Bridge might just be a season-defining statement ahead of what is likely to be another busy transfer window.
Then there is the small matter of supporters’ pride. Reds have enjoyed just two victories at Stamford Bridge in the past decade. With one demon slain last Sunday, United’s bête noire of the Premier League era lies in wait. Van Gaal will have little doubt that United’s fans are owed a result in the capital.
“I am very pleased for the fans of course, because they have supported us when the results were not so good and now they are very good,” concluded Van Gaal on Sunday. “I’m very happy for the fans that they can walk through the streets without being embarrassed! They can go on the streets, hat up, and they can say now ‘we are, this year, the better team’.”
United’s performance next weekend may well add to that feeling.