The debate continues: which midfielder was Manchester United’s Man of the Match against Hull City on Saturday? In United’s most comprehensive victory under Louis van Gaal it was the quartet of Michael Carrick, Juan Mata, Marouanne Fellaini and, especially, Ander Herrera that impressed most at Old Trafford. Indeed, far from the common observation of recent years, strength in midfield depth is now a potential asset for Van Gaal as the campaign wears on.
In yet another formation change, Van Gaal set United up in a midfield diamond, with Robin van Persie the deepest of an attacking trio that included Wayne Rooney and Angel di Maria. Or, as an alternate view, the Dutchman operated at the head of a midfield quartet, with Carrick, Mata and Fellaini ask to provide protection and craft ahead of a dynamic attack.
Di Maria’s withdrawal shortly before Chris Smalling’s opener precipitated a reshuffle in United’s approach although not the overall strategy. Van Persie pushed forward alongside Rooney, while Mata dropped into the role with which he is most comfortable at 10 and substitute Herrera joined Fellaini and Carrick in midfield.
It was enforced by accident perhaps, but the tactical overhaul worked to United’s distinct advantage, creating a balance between attack and defence that Van Gaal has been seeking all season. Often without bearing real fruit.
At the base of midfield Carrick made more than 100 passes on Saturday, anchoring to outstanding effect, and linking defence with midfield in a manner rarely seen in the Geordie’s prolonged absence. The 33-year-old’s ability to effectively recycle possession comes to the fore most strongly in these kinds of matches, of course, where Carrick’s physicality is unchallenged and time on the ball is ample.
Meanwhile, Fellaini offered the kind of a driving presence that David Moyes presumably sought when the giant Belgian signed last summer. Fellaini is far from the type of technically astute midfielder that dominates European football, but performances in recent weeks have certainly picked up from a very low base.
Then there was Herrera’s mix of energy and sound technique. The former Athletic Bilbao player completed more than 90 per cent of 82 passes, while providing the assist for Van Persie to smash home United’s third goal of a productive afternoon. In an all-round performance, Herrera also completed two tackles, two interceptions and made a defensive clearance during one of Hull’s rare breaks forward.
“I have to say Herrera came in and did fantastic, I was very pleased with how he did,” Van Gaal told MUTV. “He is a very fit player which is why I also let him play in the Reserves. I’m very happy for him because he needed a good performance.”
The 25-year-old has been out of Van Gaal’s side in recent weeks, suffering first from a broken rib and then Fellani’s improved form, but he offers a genuine balance in midfield that others do not.
“Of course I want to play as does every player, but I am at Manchester United where there are a lot of good players,” admitted Herrera in the aftermath. “I am a lucky guy to be here and I have to see these moments as a challenge.”
Perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing performance came from Mata, the Spaniard who has not always enjoyed life under Van Gaal. Operating at 10, Mata successfully completed almost 80 per cent of his passes in the final third – 90 per cent overall – offering a creative heartbeat more subtle than Rooney’s bombastic style in a similar role.
Crucially, perhaps, Rooney’s improved form over the past five matches for club and country has coincided with a return to a more forward position that takes advantage of the Scouser’s enduring goalscoring instincts. In this Mata has a crucial role to play, releasing Rooney while offering a balance of touch and creative passing.
It is the aggregate midfield display that will please Van Gaal most though. United’s dominance against Steve Bruce’s meager outfit was built on absolute superiority in the centre of the park. Where lesser sides have taken advantage of a lightweight offering over the past 18 months, Van Gaal’s quartet seemingly outnumbered the five, on paper at least, Bruce strung out across midfield.
“I was very pleased with our dominance in the whole game and also with our positional game,” the Dutchman added. “We scored three goals, created more chances, and we didn’t give any chances away – that’s very good.”
Yet, the performance leaves Van Gaal with decisions to make ahead of United’s fixtures with Stoke City on Tuesday and then Southampton and Liverpool in the coming weeks.
Neither Mata nor Herrera have been guaranteed a starting role this season; both earned praise against Hull. Meanwhile, Van Persie’s superbly taken goal should keep the Dutchman in the side despite Radamel Falcao’s return to fitness. With Rooney an untouchable figure in Van Gaal’s team, it is the Spanish duo that are most at risk should Falcao start any of the upcoming three matches over the next fortnight.
Against the need to find room for Van Persie, Rooney and Falcao in the side, United’s veteran coach will also be mindful of that elusive search for balance. It is one that will become yet more complicated when Di Maria returns from the minor hamstring injury suffered against the Tigers.
Either way Van Gaal now enjoys a range of midfield options not available to Moyes last season nor, perhaps, to Sir Alex Ferguson in the Scotsman’s final campaign as United manager. While Darren Fletcher is unlikely to ever regain his former dynamism, and Anderson is simply running down the clock on a disastrous eight years at Old Trafford, the Reds are at least be competitive in midfield once again. Daley Blind’s return in the new year will add to Van Gaal’s options.
Then there is the future. United remains some way behind England’s very best this season, although the recent improvement in midfield performances is one step towards bridging that gap, of course. In a European context, with the Reds desperate to return to next season’s Champions League, the Dutchman’s squad may still be one world class midfielder short. It is a gap that the club will probably seek to fill next summer.
Until then United’s supporters will enjoy a long overdue improvement in midfield performances.