How last season's unholy trinity helped get Manchester United back on track
In football, it’s incredible how quickly things can change. A month ago, Manchester United had just lost the derby 1-0, with Louis van Gaal struggling to get his players accustomed to his methods. Were United in crisis? Fast-forward to this weekend, and following four victories from their subsequent four games, Manchester United look in much better shape. Consecutive wins over Crystal Palace, Arsenal, Hull and Stoke haven’t always been convincing, but 12 points from 12 tells the story.
With a tricky fixture list over December, it’s a perfect time for United to be finally playing with confidence. In the midweek victory over Stoke, it was notable that three misfiring players from last season stepped up. United have seemed somewhat reliant upon individuals in recent years: Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney’s brilliance in 2012/13 brought Sir Alex Ferguson his final title, while expensive recruits dominated the opening to this campaign. But United’s strength has always been about the quality of the understated, reliable squad players, and therefore good performances from unexpected stars has been extremely welcome.
The obvious place to start is Marouane Fellaini. Throughout his debut season, Fellaini was strongly criticised by many Manchester United fans, and he unquestionably struggled to adapt to the expectations of playing for a bigger club. However, the circumstances for the Belgian were extremely difficult – he was making the step up personally, yet found himself being asked to raise the standard of a side enduring their worst run for decades. That’s a tough task for any player, and when Fellaini was considered the teacher’s pet, having followed David Moyes from Everton, it became an even more difficult situation.
In recent weeks, Fellaini’s form has improved considerably. Against Stoke he played a reliable role to the right of midfield, shuttling up and down to offer both defensive strength and attacking firepower. His greatest asset remains his heading, and it was encouraging to see him bombing into the box for the opener, a fierce downwards header from Ander Herrera’s left-wing cross. Few players can compete with Fellaini in the air, especially when he arrives at the far post, and he’d also caused problems in this respect against Arsenal. His all-round game was good. As well as excelling in the air, he tackled back reliably.
His passing was also neat and tidy, complementing his goal threat from right-sided positions.
It was obvious from Fellaini’s time at Everton, however, that he was a quality player. An even bigger surprise has been the form of Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, who had both endured two poor years – even in Ferguson’s final title-winning season, both were extremely underwhelming.
These two have been reinvented as full-backs under Van Gaal, and despite some nervous moments during their first few games in those positions, they seem to have adjusted well.
Valencia always had those qualities – he’s a rare old-school outside-right who eternally goes down the line rather than cutting inside, and became a Ferguson favourite for his defensive discipline too, often tracking dangerous opposition left-backs nicely. However, he always seemed to panic when used at right-back.
Now, he seems more calm and composed with the ball in deep positions, and more intelligent with his ball-winning, staying on his feet rather than diving into tackles. Against Stoke, he intercepted the ball cleanly, and roared past opponents in the final third.
More amazingly, Young did the same on the opposite flank. He’s been forced to adapt to more defensive positions from the outset, playing at left-back during the second half of the opening day defeat against Swansea, where he was arguably responsible for the concession of the winner.
Now, he looks much more competent. Although a rash tackle resulted in a Stoke free-kick in a dangerous position in stoppage-time, which forced David de Gea into a superb save, Young was largely untroubled.
Again, he made a succession of good interceptions, then twisted and turned away from opponents to find space in advanced positions.
There is still more to come from United, and Van Gaal could do with Rooney and Van Persie getting back to their best - not to mention Angel Di Maria showing the form of his first weeks in the Premier League.
Reliable contributions from the support staff are crucial, and the performances of Fellaini, Valencia and Young - three players who many predicted would leave in the summer - have been an unexpected bonus.