Firstly, it must be said that last night was an absolute cracker of an evening. I could feel the electricity of Old Trafford all the way in my lounge here in South Africa, over 14 000km’s away. The build-up to the game was like no other, and was reminiscent of our days amongst Europe’s elite in the Champions League.
Fans were waving brilliant banners whilst singing the hymns of the club that bind us all together as a family, the Manchester United family. Yes, the result wasn’t the icing on the cake. I might have even been able to convince myself to forget who scored Arsenal’s second goal – never mind, no chance of that happening.
But as I said in my previous article regarding David Moyes, there really is no point in dwelling over the loss. We simply were not the better team, we pressed but with no killer instinct and lacked some serious composure in the back to see the game through. The biggest disappointment of all though, was the seriously bad performances of certain individuals. Bear in mind, I’m not saying that these players are to be blamed for the loss, but some performances most definitely came as an unpleasant surprise.
Daley Blind, it appears, had way too much birthday cake before the game because he seriously lacked the composure and dynamism that we have seen from him in essentially every single game he has played in. Unnaturally untidy in possession, couldn’t hold the ball, poor positioning and just bad decision making dictated his poor performance on the night. This was only further highlighted by the introduction of Michael Carrick into the game in the second half, who outclassed Daley Blind in every way possible.
Carrick most definitely proved that he has so much more to Van Gaal and the first team, by bringing in some fantastic composure and orchestrating the midfield from between and in front of the center halves. He was definitely one of the stand out performers of the night for United, and was one of the more forward-thinking players towards the end of the game when United were pushing for an equalizer.
The Ander Herrera substitution was a strange one, for me. I thought he was brilliant in the first half. Nicking the ball away, picking out balls over Arsenal’s defense, linking up play, he did exactly what was expected of him and what we know him to do best. Perhaps Van Gaal felt the first half a bit too open for his liking? (We know how he despises that “twitchy ass” feeling.) Nevertheless, I was extremely disappointed to see him taken off, and would have preferred to see him moved further up the pitch in the number 10 role, over Fellaini.
Still not the prettiest footballer around – Fellaini did however do his best to leap over four Arsenal defenders each time the ball was lobbed up-field for him. He really is like a loyal dog when he plays, fighting tooth-and-nail for every loose ball and every lobbed pass. For that I must give him credit, but I do not necessarily believe that his level of physicality was needed against a small-unit Arsenal. A Juan Mata figure would’ve suited the game a lot better, as United struggled to find that final killer almost entirely throughout the game.
Our defense was as shaky as ever last night – it was possibly their most nervy performance yet. Chris Smalling, a player who has grown into his United jersey in recent times, continued to pick the wrong pass to play out with in the first half but improved slightly towards the end of the game (where he finished as Fellaini’s strike-partner).
Marcos Rojo was unfortunately once again shifted to play away from his strongest position of centre-back to full-back due to an arbitrary Luke Shaw substitution. I am afraid I do not know the reason of his substitution – but I did hear he was seen holding his leg throughout the first half and this is extremely unpleasant news.
Shaw seems to be struggling to stay fit for a good run of games, which is disappointing considering we might need his pace down the flank for our coming run of games. Rojo however performed reasonably well at full-back, but seems to fear overlapping Ashley Young most of the time and prefers to take the safe route to the near-standing Michael Carrick or Daley Blind most of the time.
I was actually pleasantly surprised with Phil Jones’ performance, actually. He made some clever interceptions and used his physicality well against the likes of Sanchez and Welbeck (who was hard to handle because of his subtle digs at our defenders every time they nicked the ball off of him). If Luke Shaw is unavailable for the future games, I would prefer however to see Daley Blind play at full-back rather than Rojo due to his more prevalent attacking-prowess.
I am doing my best to say as least as possible regarding Antonio Valencia – because I do genuinely feel sorry for the lad being asked to play out of position (regularly, might I add!) and that this most probably contributed to his lack of composure that lead to the second goal (I refuse to name the scorer). Going forward, he was genuinely quite decent. He overlapped Di Maria most of the time and seemed to always be looking to play a ball into the box and take on his opposition full-back. He shouldn’t be playing at full-back, he may be able to nick the ball off of someone every now and then but in general he lacks the discipline needed to be a Manchester United full-back, which is a pity.
Ashley Young once again delivered a passionate performance and I am extremely glad that he has taken the opportunity presented to him with both hands. He now finally seems to be living up to the expectations we have placed upon him ever since he helped demolish Arsenal in THAT 8-2 win over them (yes – I had to mention it). He was all over the pitch, essentially, doing shifts here and there and doing his best to take on Bellerin at every opportunity.
He has definitely proven himself to be a reliable and experienced resource for Van Gaal in these big games, and I sincerely hope he is rewarded for his consistency with more performances.
Adnan Januzaj was disappointing – to say the least. It was almost disgraceful to watch his desperate attempt at simulation (whilst wearing the iconic number 11 jersey that won us this fixture in ’99) when he was in a clear position to play the ball into the box anyway. The less said about his performance the better – but he needs a serious talking to about his roguish tendencies from Ryan Giggs.
Manchester United has seemed to have found an enigma on its hands in Di Maria, who put on a great performance in the first half (bar his failure to track Monreal for the first goal). His ball in to Rooney for the goal was stellar and was the exact kind of delivery that has been missing from him in recent weeks. At halftime I even felt that he may be the catalyst to go on and win it for United in the second half.
His first yellow card was extremely disappointing – although I do not believe it was an attempt at simulation like Januzaj’s. There was a tug of the hand, and maybe in La Liga the free kick would’ve been given to him. The second yellow was shocking though. That tug on Michael Oliver was completely unnecessary, and like Chris Smalling at Etihad, the sending off was completely avoidable.
If there were any stand-out performances from United though, it had to be David De Gea and Wayne Rooney. David De Gea, what an absolute beast of a goalkeeper. I can honestly say that I have more trust in De Gea than I had in Van Der Sar, and that he truly is ranked alongside Manuel Neuer as the world’s greatest goalkeeper in football. His saves are astonishing, mind-blowing, and I’m still trying to figure out how he managed to get across the goals to stick a hand out and prevent Cazorla’s volley from going in. It was by far one of his best performances in a United jersey, and our major priority this Summer should be keeping him in our books.
Captain Fantastic put in a great performance too, chasing down every back pass to Szczesny and sticking his neck out at every cross played into the box. It was a hard-working performance by our skipper and his goal was thoroughly deserved – and underrated.
I didn’t necessarily see anything bad about the way Van Gaal lined the side up for the tie. I would have most definitely preferred to have seen Mata instead of Fellaini, Blind at full-back rather than Rojo, Herrera staying on rather than Jones coming on, but it was a performance that showed we have a fighting chance against our opposition in the coming weeks.
Van Gaal surely must have noticed that the poor performances from Valencia, Blind, Shaw and Fellaini in this big game have to be taken into account going into the run-in. The performances from the likes of De Gea, Rooney, Di Maria, Carrick and Young surely though are enough to guarantee them a starting position for the coming weeks. I am nearly positive that these specific few have enough to help carry United over the line to a top-4 finish.
And as for Arsenal, we’ll see you in a few weeks.
-By Soham Singh (@vangaalway)