Manchester United's record signing was played in an unfamiliar role up front against Southampton – but his manager would be unwise to do it again, writes Michael Cox...
Manchester United’s clash with Queens Park Rangers this weekend brings to mind the sides’ previous meeting earlier in the season, which felt like the true start of Louis van Gaal’s reign.
In reality, it was United’s fourth game of the season – but with various players making their home debut and the team lining up in an exciting diamond midfield system, it was the start of a new era.
It was also the Red Devils' best performance of the campaign so far. QPR were dreadful – as is generally the case on their travels – but a 4-0 victory at such an early stage was perfect for Van Gaal. He’ll be frustrated, however, that his players haven’t pushed on.
(Too) easy does it
Over the years, Manchester United have generally played with great urgency. They’ve rarely been a pure possession-based side like Arsenal or Barcelona, and only occasionally have been predominantly counter-attackers, around the period when Cristiano Ronaldo peaked. They’ve usually been about dominating matches and working the ball forward quickly, putting constant pressure on the opposition backline.
Recently, they’ve failed to do this. Smash-and-grab victories away at the likes of Southampton and Arsenal covered up the lack of creativity in midfield, and United are only mid-table in terms of shots per game this season. Better movement, and perhaps a change of system, might solve this issue.
Particularly alarming, however, is how one-paced United often feel. Up front, Robin van Perise is no longer particularly mobile, and concentrates on banging in the goals, while Wayne Rooney isn’t as dynamic as throughout his peak years.
Juan Mata, meanwhile, was sold by Chelsea essentially because he didn’t fit with Jose Mourinho’s high-tempo system, and while he’s contributed in terms of goals and assists at United, he doesn’t excel at converting possession play into penetrative play.
Furthermore, United lost Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez last summer, which robbed them of two pacey attacking options. Hernandez played on the shoulder of the last defender, while Welbeck’s versatility means he could play on the flanks and provide pace there, even if he preferred playing centrally.
Nani and Shinji Kagawa – also players with good acceleration – also left, while Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia have been deployed in deeper positions. Radamel Falcao doesn’t look at full sharpness since his summer move, while Adnan Januzaj has rarely featured and could be loaned out this month.
Angel with clipped wings
This means only two players offer United pace. James Wilson looks extremely quick but also extremely raw – he’s a fine finisher but his movement and link play isn’t up to scratch yet, and it could be a while before he has a permanent impact on the side.
The other is Angel Di Maria, who was fielded up front against Southampton, which takes the Argentine away from his best position.
Di Maria excels at using his pace in deeper zones. He naturally takes the ball forward on the run, receiving passes on the half-turn and surging forward quickly, but against Southampton he simply wasn’t in a position to demonstrate this acceleration.
Only in counter-attacking situations is his speed likely to be useful that high up the pitch. Compare his Stats Zone dashboard against Southampton to his performance against QPR earlier in the season, and the contrast is remarkable.
United’s lack of pace was best demonstrated by the lack of take-ons. Only 8 times did a United player successfully dribble past an opponent, with Valencia responsible for 5 of these.
That’s particularly alarming when compared to Chelsea’s recent display at Southampton. Mourinho’s team are so much more dynamic, and while they were unable to defeat the Saints, they put considerable pressure on them throughout the second half of their 1-1 draw; Eden Hazard the most prolific dribbler.
Di Maria should be providing Hazard’s contributions, albeit in slightly more central positions. He simply makes makes things happen: his dribbling isn’t always successful, but his urgency is the type of football that is appreciated at Old Trafford.
He lifts the tempo of the game, which in turn lifts the crowd. Without him in midfield everything is extremely slow, and the opposition have too much time to put men behind the ball and get organised.
An overall change of formation might be in order, but Di Maria’s positioning might be even more crucial. United’s record signing provides that crucial quality no one else offers: speed.