Louis van Gaal’s Old Trafford coronation was a rather drab affair that went to plan in terms of the result but not the performance. United probed without making any real headway and van Gaal’s cherished philosophy never seemed to come together, which explains his assertion that this was United’s ‘worst’ performance to date. Perhaps a little harsh from the new man in charge following yet another win but as a team United struggled. There were some fine individual displays and the following looks into the performances of United’s stars last night.
De Gea: Not the quietest of evenings for United’s number one. Having not that much possession in the final third, Valencia still managed to threaten the Spaniard on a number of occasions including their goal that was the result of a poorly defended free kick. A fantastic save from a rebounded shot accompanied De Gea’s usual perfect distribution. This was a solid performance from David in a game were the defence was shaky.
Young: Lack of creativity, drive and focus characterised Ashley Young’s Manchester United career as a left winger but he has reinvented himself as a wing back. Young is constantly in space and his final ball has been brilliant as seen with his cross that won Rooney’s penalty. Several great balls, decent tracking back and ability to stretch the game with his positioning have almost certainly secured Young another season at United.
Jones: A rather surprising choice as Paddy Crerand’s man of the match, Jones still put in an excellent defensive performance on a day that the defence as a hole didn’t tick. He made a great last ditch tackle to deny Valencia on the 60th minute, which encapsulated Jones reckless but effective style. Jones looked much more comfortable at the centre of the back 3 during the last 20 minutes, as from here he could organise the defence. Other than a weak header from a corner there was no real attacking threat from him during the game.
Smalling: An almost anonymous performance is a good sign for a centre back. Smalling was tidy in possession, didn’t try any of his long passes and didn’t make any errors. My main criticism of his performance was that he lacks the leadership to play in the centre of a three man defence. He never seemed to be guiding Blackett in the way Vidic or Rio would have guided him. A more commanding role will be expected of Smalling throughout the season.
Blackett: It is very clear that Tyler Balckett is the academy player that has interested van Gaal the most. The youngster has played nearly every minute of pre-season and is very likely to feature against Swansea this weekend. Performance wise, it was a game of excess for Tyler. He demonstrated that he has all the skills to be a key player in van Gaal’s system. He steps out of defence to tackle, he makes driving runs into the midfield and he constantly looks for forward passes that more often than not, stretched Valencia and put them on the back foot. Unfortunately Balckett attempted these skills too often and it was his foul that conceded the goal scoring free kick. Experience will teach Blackett when to use these key attributes of the modern defender and this will determine whether he will develop into a disciplined Rio Ferdinand or a marauding Younes Kaboul.
James: The least impressive of the wing backs, James had a mixed bag of a game. He managed to get into the right positions for United to stretch the play however he failed to beat his man and reach the by-line on nearly every attempt. His lack of pace is a concern and he may not be a fitting back up to Luke Shaw. He showed one great moment of skill in the second half when he cut in and showing good feet, got his shot off but it was not enough to disguise a poor performance.
Fletcher: The resurgence of Darren Fletcher is as vital as it is sentimental. The Scotsman’s fitness is amazing considering his health record. His energy intensified United’s midfield throughout and he forced several errors from Valencia’s midfield in the first half. Other than a few misplaced passes Fletcher was imperative to United’s play, which was shown when Cleverley replaced him and so followed Valencia’s only display of dominance in the game. The new vice-captain will be a key player this season.
Herrera: ”Everything he does oozes class’’, was Steward Gardner’s view on Ander Herrera’s performance and I couldn’t agree more. The former Bilbao man mixed guile with aggression in a manner that has eluded United’s midfield for over a decade. He made several tenacious tackles in the first half to win back possession and then picked out a number of great balls, namely the pass that set Ashley Young through to win the penalty. Combined with the right central defensive midfielder Herrera could be the star of United’s team next season and he was my man of the match.
Mata: Keeping their former player quiet was the best feature of Valencia’s performance last night. Mata couldn’t get into the game and gave the ball away under pressure a number of times in the first half. Other than a few free kicks and neat touches he was a quiet figure against a very defensive Valencia display.
Rooney: A performance to forget for United’s new captain. Rooney had his first bad game under van Gaal in a performance that United fans are used too. Rooney’s conduct is very dependent on his temperament and once he got frustrated with his poor first touch and misplaced passes, it was endgame for Wayne. A poor outing included a missed penalty, poor control for a one on one at the end of the first half and another bad miss in last twenty minutes to cap off a brilliant pre-season, on a low. Luckily Rooney has got this bad game out of his system and the boost of being named club captain should give him extra incentive for Swansea on Saturday.
Chicharito: A strange game for Hernandez as ironically, his key contribution was his defending. On two occasions in the second half Chicha made goal line clearances which were crucial to United’s victory. In attack he made good runs that Blackett tried to find and this helped stretch Valencia. Despite this, his lack of involvement with the ball is becoming worrying and it is looking ever more likely that Hernandez style of playing won’t fit in at United.
Lingard: Slotting into right wing back, Lingard was barely involved due to the play being predominantly down the left hand side in the second half.
M Keane: Was shaky when he missed a header just after coming on but found his feet once Jones switched into the centre of the back three. He will no doubt be a part of United’s plans due to a lack of centre backs, so will have plenty more opportunity’s to impress.
Kagawa: Managed to get more involved than Mata and had one beautiful turn on the 80th minute when he chested and turned his man following a De Gea goal kick. Kagawa managed to get the ball in the box on a few occasions but Valencia’s large numbers back prevented him from playing the killer pass. No club wants to lose the craft Shinji brings to the table so I fully expect him to provide excellent cover for Mata this season.
Cleverley: Bringing on Cleverley for Fletcher was a mistake, as it ruined the balance of United’s midfield. Valencia scored and dominated after his introduction as United did not have enough intensity in the middle and became very square. This is not entirely Cleverley’s fault as he was just brought on to play a role he isn’t fit to play. Once Felliani was introduced the midfield settled and Cleverley was able to carry out his usual tidy football behind the top three.
Felliani: The match winner in more ways than one. Felliani’s introduction stopped the onslaught that was developing after Fletcher’s departure. He added steel into the midfield which allowed United to regain control of the game. Some key tackles and interceptions brought the play further up the pitch, which led to late chances for Rooney and the goal that was scored by Felliani himself. The Belgian was harshly, and pathetically, booed by some of the United fans, so it was fitting that he shut them up with the winning goal.
Januzaj: Having only 15 minutes to impress, Januzaj showed why he is the world’s most talented young footballer. Everything he did was graceful and drove United forward. He set Rooney up with a wonderful pass minutes after coming on and glided past players from the right so easily to create space in the final third. This ability to beat his man is extremely exciting and reminiscent of how fans felt when Ronaldo used to be in possession. Big things are expected of Januzaj this season, regardless of where he plays in the front 3.
Thus far, we have learned that Louis van Gaal is a perfectionist. Winning is not enough, United must win his way or he will not be pleased. The manager described this as his ‘worst’ game yet which is a testament to his extremely high standards that should eventually seep into the mentality of the players. In the view of the boss, United did not play the way he wanted and it was easy to see why. Despite some fine individual performances United were flat on the night and struggled to cope with Valencia’s very defensive formation.
Van Gaal’s backline is still adapting to the 3 man defence that is alien to Old Trafford. Whilst Blackett looks like a player who is perfect for 3-5-2, he was caught out of position when Valencia applied any pressure and United lacked a leader to marshal them through this. Ball retention has become a key feature of United’s game and this is what keeps the defence from collapsing. There is an impending feeling that if the opposition could manage to hold a sustained period of attacking pressure United’s inexperienced defence would implode. This occurred after Valencia scored and only subsided once United brought Felliani on too sure up the midfield. There is a problem in the back that needs to be addressed in the coming weeks.
Herrera has been a breath of fresh air to a midfield that has been in the decline for years. Any questions about his defensive abilities have been answered with his outstanding energy off the ball which compliments his class on it. Fletcher’s refound fitness and form will be a great asset to United, however more will be needed when they up come against powerful midfields such as City’s. The young defence needs a midfield general in front of them, in order to solidify when the opposition have the ball. On a number of occasions Valencia walked through the midfield too easily, especially when Fletcher exited the affray, so steel needs to be added.
Mata has thrived during preseason, as he has been reinstated in his favourite number ten position. Valencia pin pointed this threat and neutralised it and in turn extinguished United as an attacking threat up until the penalty. When this occurs, getting the ball out to the wing backs is essential to creating chances but United were too slow in doing this. James barely got down the by-line, partly due to a lack of pace and also due to slow passing. Getting the ball wide quickly when the number ten is shut down will be the defining feature of United as an attacking threat this season, so perhaps investment in more accomplished wing backs should be on Ed Woodward’s agenda.