Rome wasn’t built in one day and neither are great football teams, but let’s make one thing clear – 2-2 against West Brom is not good enough for Manchester United. Monday’s result is just one hiccup in a long line of them, and you can expect the mixed bag of results to continue as United adjusts to life under Louis van Gaal, especially with meatier challenges like Chelsea and Manchester City on the horizon. Here are 5 things to note from Monday’s exhilarating contest at The Hawthorns:
1. Marouane Fellaini’s Revival
Whoever thought Marouane Fellaini would turn his Manchester United career around? Exiled from the first team as a useless relic from the David Moyes era, Fellaini sprang up with a remarkable finish after fending off Joleon Lescott, controlling the ball with a sublime piece of skill, and unleashing a furious shot over Boaz Myhill. Funny that strike would silence the whole stadium only 4 minutes after West Brom’s official Twitter account posted an egregious tweet mocking the Belgian (the club would later release an apology). The goal might have been Fellaini’s most important contribution of the night, but he didn’t put a foot wrong the rest of the way and improved upon the performance of Ander Herrera. Expect to see more of Fellaini in the foreseeable future.
2. Di Maria’s Jekyll and Hyde act
Di Maria tallied an assist on Marouane Fellaini’s first goal, bringing his contributions in Red to 3 goals and 4 assists in 6 games. While he was generally dangerous with the ball throughout until being forced off with a groin injury, this contest might be better remembered for illustrating another less attractive side to his game. Di Maria’s gamble to get forward instead of dropping in to cover Luke Shaw when the left back was challenging for a ball at midfield resulted in a defensive breakdown that ultimately lead to Stephane Sessegnon’s wonder strike. Additionally, the Argentine’s unwillingness to track back caused United’s frail backline to be exposed for West Brom’s 2nd, which was completely against the run of play.
Di Maria’s lackadaisical defensive contributions might have been tolerated at Real Madrid, a club that doesn’t have to play opponents with the quality to punish tactical deficiencies every week, but he will need to adapt to fit in at United. It’s not as pressing of an issue as Kyle Martino’s damning halftime and post-match commentary might have you think (why is it that the most mediocre of former professional footballers always tend to be the harshest critics?), but it is a subject that Louis van Gaal must – and will – address in closed quarters.
3. Daley Blind to the Rescue
Daley Blind was United’s hero on Monday, sparing his new team’s blushes by scoring his first goal since making the move from Amsterdam to Manchester. The goal was a feather in the cap for the Dutchman, who turned in a man of the match performance at the Hawthorns. Blind is a Total Footballer in every sense of the word, combining silk and steel at the base of midfield with an intelligence that is advanced for his age.
As always, he looked composed with the ball at his feet and conducted United’s possession-based attack, which accrued 63% of the possession over the 90 minute interval, with aplomb (however, it should be noted that he has yet to be pressured when on the ball in his own half). Blind easily had his best game defensively in Red and was often instrumental in regaining possession, flying in with important challenges and snuffing out attacking moves all over the field. Blind’s coolly-slotted late finish epitomized his composed quality as he continues to solidify his role in United’s midfield.
4. Finding Adnan
Adnan Januzaj’s display was forgettable, if not nightmarish. Di Maria’s injury probably saved the young Belgian from getting an early hook as he did little to repay the faith shown in him by Van Gaal, who gave him his first EPl start of the season. Perhaps Giggs’s #11 is weighing heavily on him because he looked slow, lacked sharpness in his movements, and made no telling contributions to the match. One trait that Janzuaj commonly displayed last year was his ability to beat players off of the dribble, and while Januzaj was eager to dance in this one, he rarely tried to beat anybody.
Januzaj reminds me of a young Cristiano Ronaldo fresh off of the plane from Lisbon: he’s got bags of potential and loves the stepover, but he lacks purpose. I’m not insisting that Januzaj is the next Ronaldo (he’s not), but he has a similar, albeit less-impressive skill set to the one Ronaldo exhibited early on in his United career. He really could learn a lesson or two from the Portuguese superstar, who transformed himself from a prodigious youngster into the best player in world football.
What Januzaj needs to do if he wants to force himself into Van Gaal’s setup is hit the gym, stay late after training to work on his crossing, and be more direct when taking on his markers. It’s hard to believe that Januzaj is still only 19 years old, but the next 18 months will be vital to his progression as a footballer and may be indicative of whether or not he has what it takes to become a Manchester United regular.
5. Sometimes it Rains in Spain
It wasn’t a good day to be a Spaniard if you play for Manchester United. David de Gea had little to do as most of the action took place on the opposite end but was powerless to stop West Brom’s 2 goals. Ander Herrera had his worst performance as a Red Devil to date after returning from the treatment table earlier than expected, needlessly gifting the ball to West Brom far too many times and appearing sloppy in possession. Herrera’s performance may have been affected by the special corset he was wearing to protect his ribs (corsets are quite restricting I hear), so don’t judge the former Athletic Bilbao man too unkindly.
Juan Mata might be the most disappointed of United’s Spaniards as he squandered another glorious opportunity to impress Louis van Gaal in the absence of world-class troublemaker Wayne Rooney. It’s not that Mata was poor, he just didn’t provide enough creativity or flair to lift United’s attack from the number ten role. His most notable opportunity came in the form of a free kick just outside of the eighteen in the 39th minute that he conspicuously ballooned into the crowd. He might have been aided had Falcao been inserted alongside Robin van Persie after halftime as the Colombian’s incisive running could have opened up West Brom’s defense for Mata’s through balls. Luckily, Mata has one more chance to shine without having to worry about Rooney taking his spot and it just so happens to be against his former employers, Chelsea.