Another game, another 3 points. With United’s 2-1 victory on Tuesday at Old Trafford, the team has now taken 12 out of 12 points from their last 4 matches and is closing the gap on Manchester City and Southampton near the top of the table.
Manchester United’s overall display was a bit disappointing despite the result; they didn’t dominate the game like they did against Hull City and needed De Gea to preserve the 3 points with 2 world-class saves (and Ashley Young to clear the ball off of the line for that matter) in stoppage time.
“In the first half we were not aggressive enough and also we didn’t keep our positions on the pitch so I wasn’t pleased at half-time,” Van Gaal remarked on his team’s performance. “I think the second half was much better. We created more chances – we scored, but we need to score more goals.”
“Against Hull City I liked our performance, but today it could have been better.”
In United’s defense, Stoke City was a far sterner test than Hull, pressing further up the field and posing much more of a threat on the counter. At the end of the day, they should be happy to keep their winning streak alive.
No Rooney? What’s the Mata?
Rooney was omitted from the first team this week after sustaining a knee injury in the dying stages of Saturday’s game.
Considering the 29-year-old’s impeccable form as of late coupled with the loss of Di Maria to a hamstring injury, not having their captain was a bit of a blow for the Red Devils.
It wasn’t immediately clear who the spotlight would fall on in Rooney’s absence, but it turned out to be the man whose starting spot was once threatened by the Englishman’s inclusion.
Once again, the plaudits have to go to Juan Mata. His outing wasn’t quite as impeccable as the one he had on Saturday, but he was effective and helped his squad get the job done. His distribution as midfield general was crisp, incisive, and kept United on the front foot.
Mata has looked like a man on a mission in his last 3 appearances and is probably playing his best football since signing for United from Chelsea last January. He is the dynamic passer that United’s midfield has been crying out for that can pull the strings while laying on scoring chances for his teammates and adding goals of his own in the final 3rd.
His dangerous, in-swinging free-kick found the back of the net (whether it can claimed as his or Marcos Rojo’s goal is still up for debate) and proved to be the winner. His minimal effort and ineffectiveness on defense were often touted as the reasons why Mourinho forced him out of West London, but he continues to show increased vigor to win the ball back (most likely Van Gaal’s doing and probably why he is starting to see more of the field again) even if he is never going to be an exceptional tackler due to his tiny frame.
Whatever the case, his dazzling displays have quieted journalists suggesting his future lies away from Old Trafford.
Juan Mata isn’t the only Spaniard enjoying his recall to the first team.
Ander Herrera was one of United’s best players against Stoke City, providing tenaciousness and urgency going forward.
Herrera’s outstanding cross from the left side picked out Marouane Fellaini in the first half for United’s goal, and it was the former Athletic Bilbao midfielder’s maneuvering that earned his side the free kick that ultimately led to Mata/Rojo’s goal.
Ander Herrera is an interesting figure: keeping the ball isn’t always his strong suit (he lost the ball quite a bit in this one); but he possesses the directness, urgency, and skill to make things happen in the opponents’ final third. He remains a bit of a wildcard in this current setup, entirely capable of being a catalyst who can score goals and create but equally as capable of having a howler as he did against West Brom.
Regardless, Herrera is a player worth keeping an eye on and remains a glittering beacon of hope in a system that can be too sideways and possession-oriented. If he ever figures out how to string 5 or 6 strong performances together, look out world.
As the Reds go marching on…
If you haven’t picked up on the common theme from United’s matchup with Stoke City yet, let me give it to you straight: they didn’t play as well as they did on Saturday, but they played well enough to beat Stoke City.
Now, I would have loved to have seen United pile 4 or 5 goals on a Stoke side whose recent form has been wobbly at best, but maybe this victory tells us more about the way this team is shaping up.
One hallmark of the world-beating Manchester United sides in the Ferguson era was their survival instinct. Many of these teams were able to propel themselves to a league title by stringing results together even when they weren’t necessarily playing well (especially , and late goals became the norm for two decades.
The Red Devils didn’t play great at times; the goal they conceded was a testament to just how disorganized and irresponsible in possession the team was at periods. Still, the Red Devils never stopped turning the wheel and eventually got a goal, even if it was a result of some poor marking from Stoke.
Late goals might not be this side’s forte, but finding a way to cling to victory at the death is as highlighted by David de Gea’s penchant for the incredible and his growing reputation as one of the best shot stoppers in world football.
United will be looking to make it 5 on the trot against a reeling, Morgan Schneiderlin-less Southampton on Monday. Whether they’ll dominate the proceedings or ride their good fortune again remains to be seen.
Man of the Match: Juan Mata
Bravo, Juan, take a bow. He’s looked fantastic since returning to the starting XI on Saturday. Not as sharp in the final third, but he led United’s 2nd half surge and contributed a fine dead ball delivery that turned out to be the match winner.
Honorable Mention: David De Gea
His highlight reel-filled year continued with two spectacular saves to deny Stoke in stoppage time. Stopped ex-United forward Mame Biram Diouf from scoring a late header before teaming up with Ashley Young to make a double stop that secured the 3 points. What makes his late saves even more impressive is that De Gea was essentially a passenger for the first 90 minutes.
Flop of the Match: James Wilson
His first appearance since turning 20, the United youth product was anonymous in the 1st half. Produced 2 electric runs later in the 2nd half that will make fans excited about his potential (one of which should have resulted in his 3rd senior goal), but did little else. Still adjusting to life at this level and that’s not a bad thing.
Dishonorable Mention: Marouane Fellaini
He got his first goal at Old Trafford in a red shirt, but his first half turned into a Jekyll and Hyde act after his giveaway turned into N’Zonzi’s equalizer. He should have had a 2nd goal later in the half but his placed effort was matched with a terrific save by Asmir Begovic. Sloppiest in possession out of all of the United players (although Herrera wasn’t too far behind) and was relatively quiet in the 2nd half.