No, your eyes do not deceive you. Yesterday, Manchester United played at Old Trafford and went head-to-head with the Pep Guardiola castaway player reclamation project aka Barney Ronay’s beautiful dark twisted fantasy aka Stoke City. Manchester United score goals and won.
This surprised many.
Fans rubbed their eyes upon seeing that Manchester United scored not once but twice in the first half. The second goal brought to mind the best of the Sir Alex era: a lighting quick counter attack. Carrick played a lovely first-time scoop pass to the flank from his own 18 yard box, Darmian ran onto it and rifled a 40 yard pass down the sideline to Juan Mata, who two-stepped and slid a pass between defenders for Rooney’s late run, who then found Martial on the edge of the box, who then rifled a beautiful bending shot to the far upright. It reminded me of the Red Devils’ sole goal vs. Barcelona in the 2011 Champions League final. The most astounding beauty comes from nothing.
For about a month, people had called for LVG’s head and questioned the intelligence and decisiveness of Ed Woodward. What’s most odd about the Stoke win is that this used to be the norm, the expectation, not the exception. Under SAF, United would win these games pretty easily and then win about 4-5 games per season due to dubious late penalties or classic smash-and-grabs. Neither of those happened under Moyes and they rarely happen under LVG. Great teams win games despite playing poorly. This current team is good, but draw or lose games when they start poorly or lose their focus.
The only lasting positive from this game is the tactical flexibility of LVG. He finally has played Mata in his best position – as an secondary striker. The little Spaniard lacks a defensive workrate, but always finds the space between the lines and plays a killer last pass. By placing faster players like Martial and Lingard on the wings, this pushes back opposing fullbacks and opens up space and time for the midfield.
Ahhhh, that midfield. Fellaini has looked okay in terms of position as a destroyer and has some bite to his tackle, but the lack of pace will be exposed by better teams. Hughes fielded a somewhat suicidal 4-4-2 with Afellay as one of the two central midfielders. If he thought attack was the best form of defense, he was kinda sorta wrong. But back to United writ large – Herrera has too many mental lapses and Carrick and Schweinsteiger are aging Rolls Royces – the wheels will fall off when we least expect it. Schneiderlin has been the most reliable midfielder, but offers little going forward.
Of course, LVG and Woodward could have addressed these shortcomings in the January window, but decided not to. United may hum back to life, but Spurs don’t look like slowing down anytime soon. If United end up in the Europa League, LVG’s head will surely roll. But should it be Woodward’s?