It is a tired cliche that football is a game of two halves, but Manchester United’s game against Leicester on Sunday was a brutal, bizarre reminder that it still rings true. 3-1 up with 20 minutes to go against newly promoted opposition, United looked primed to continue their post-transfer window renaissance. What happened next will be told and retold for years to come, as a shockingly poor refereeing decision sparked an 11-man meltdown the likes of which United fans have literally never been seen before.
Manchester United Need a Leader
Football is unpredictable. No team in history, no matter how great, has ever had it easy. Soft goals are conceded, players get injured, and refereeing decisions go against you. In recent history when things have gone wrong for United, they have had true leaders on the pitch to prevent the kind of meltdown seen at the King Power Stadium on Sunday. Nemanja Vidic and before him Roy Keane were experts in keeping their players focused and – crucially – leading by example. Manchester United’s current captain, Wayne Rooney made a crucial error in the build up to Leicester’s equaliser before screaming, red faced and flappy-armed at whoever was nearest. He was then shown a yellow card for dissent before their second penalty. At a time when the team needed a leader to ensure that they kept their heads, the captain’s was the first head to go. That is not to say that United necessarily need any more major additions to the playing staff. After all, the team which capitulated so spectacularly on Sunday contained no fewer than seven established internationals who should have been able to deal with a refereeing mistake and a two goal lead being halved. The fact remains however, that someone at Old Trafford needs to take control and restore the mental strength which has defined the great United teams of the past.
United’s Attack Is Superb
Despite buying two defenders in Luke Shaw and Marcos Rojo, the general consensus is that the Reds have left themselves a defender short following the departure of so many senior figures at the back. One area in which United are not struggling, however, is the forward line. I wrote about Angel di Maria being worth every penny in the wake of his debut against Burnley, and there was further evidence on Sunday that he is fast becoming the best player at the club – perhaps the best player in the league. His dynamism, creation and drive is everything which has been missing from United’s midfield in recent years. Ander Herrera is also contributing goals from midfield, a sight which must look alien to some younger fans. Robin van Persie continued his return to fitness with a fairly simple but nevertheless well taken goal, and let us not forget who provided the cross for that goal: Radamel Falcao. Whilst nobody would argue we are seeing the best of the Colombian at present, the almost frightening ease with which Falcao took the ball out of the air and cannoned it into the crossbar is enough to get any Red excited about what is to come from the new fan favourite.
Angel Di Maria Needs to Last 90 Minutes
It would seem excessively harsh to point any criticism in the direction of Di Maria given the superb start he has had to his United career. However, it is worth noting that in each of his first three appearances, the Argentinian has been withdrawn with cramp before the end of the game. This has not yet had a significant impact on the results of any of these games, however in tight, evenly matched games, it will be a huge handicap to have to remove the team’s main creative force after 70 minutes. This is given added significance by noting the similarly ingenious Mesut Ozil’s trajectory at Arsenal. Both players, coming from La Liga, are used to having a winter break at the time when the English calendar is at its busiest. This means that Di Maria will need to have the stamina to maintain this level of performance and avoid a slump in the second half of the season – when both Louis Van Gaal and United famously tend kick on. Indeed, we are only now seeing Ozil recover from the drop in form he suffered at Arsenal, and whilst the two have different styles of play, and Di Maria is a much more physical, dynamic player, Ozil’s should act as a cautionary tale at Old Trafford.
Louis Van Gaal Knows
One of the scariest parts of a loss such as the one on Sunday under David Moyes would be what he would say in the post match interview. However, Van Gaal was no-nonsense, refusing to bring the referee or even Leicester into the discussion about how the collapse happened, and instead – correctly – blaming his players. Whilst this may not prove much, a willingness to be so open with the press suggests that he will be similarly hard-nosed with the players. Whether this will impact on performances or prevent similar meltdowns in future remains to be seen, but for now it is refreshing to have a man in charge who gets it. As I have written before, it will soon click, and when it does, it will be in no small part down to the manager.