After a woeful display last Friday against League Two side Cambridge United, the Red Devils now face Leicester City this Saturday in a bid to regain 3rd place in the English Premier League standings. Louis van Gaal will most likely field a strong side, after the utterly embarrassing 5-3 loss the Foxes inflicted on United in the Fall, and will be looking to maintain the team’s winning ways after beating Queens Park Rangers 2-0 during the previous match day. Van Gaal chose to play with a four-man defense against Cambridge last Friday following mass cries to ditch the Dutchman’s preferred three-man defensive formation, and most fans are hoping this decision is here to stay. Regardless, here is how I believe United should line up against Leicester City this Saturday:
Goalie: David De Gea
An absolute no-brainer. The Spaniard has been a stalwart in goal this season, arguably earning the honors of best goalkeeper in the Premier League. He consistently gets the team out of difficult jams, covers for defensive errors, and has significantly improved his foot play with the ball. Oh, and did I mention he’s practically unbeatable in one-on-one situations? Because that’s also true.
Center Defenders: Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones
Rojo showed last weekend that he is United’s most trustworthy center back and can fill the role of an enforcer when needed. The Argentine was quick on the ball, made several runs up the field (even let rip a shot or two), and was able to provide solid defensive cover on the entire left side of the defense. Rojo is good in the air and is comfortable playing the ball into an advanced position, before distributing to one of the midfielders/outside backs. He has shown signs of improvement and adjustments throughout the season, including getting accustomed to the increased physicality that the Premier League demands.
Jones has had a few seasons to get settled into a permanent position in United’s defense, but has shown lapses in positional awareness and decision making along the way. Still, his physical presence, as well as his experience, make him a prime choice to partner Rojo in the middle of the defense. He is comfortable playing the role of a play-making center back, often seen dribbling up into the midfield (was used occasionally as a defensive center midfielder last season). Hopefully his corner kick-taking days are over though – his size and physicality would be better used attacking corner kicks rather than sending them in.
Outside Defenders: Luke Shaw and Rafael
Shaw has returned from injury and was introduced late in the game against Cambridge to get a few minutes under his belt, as well as providing some extra attacking pace from the left side of the defense. Although van Gaal admire’s Daley Blind and would have no hesitation in playing him on the left side of the defense again, Shaw is faster, more attack-minded, and seems to create better crossing opportunities. If back to his healthy standards, I’d prefer Shaw, playing a more attack-minded left back role, including overlapping runs, and sending in touchline crosses.
Rafael presents a tricky situation. The Brazilian sustained a facial injury in United’s F.A. Cup match against Yeovil Town that required minor surgery. But the defender returned to training soon after the op, and might be fit to face Leicester this weekend. Antonio Valencia, who has been filling the void in the meantime, has given less-than-impressive performances in recent games; specifically, his blunt inability or even fear or using his left foot. Whatever the reason is, he is playing below-average and could very well lose his starting spot to Rafael, once the Brazilian is fully healed and match-ready. Rafael, who has been praised for his tenacity, provides a more complete outside back (his natural position, whereas Valencia is a classically trained outside midfielder). He provides width, energy, and the ability to get firmly into the attack, while making it back into his defensive role on time. Overall, a solid choice to start on the right, and is comfortable using both feet.
Defensive Midfielders: Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera
Carrick is a vision on consistency. He is always in the right place at the right time, provides a defensive cushion right in front of United’s back line, and often fills the role of a deep-lying play-maker, while minimizing errors. He is not as much a Pirlo-style player as he is a pure-passer, but nonetheless, he gets the job done consistently and does so at a high caliber. The Englishman has certainly earned his place in the starting XI since returning from injury in October, as well as providing a sense of leadership in a team filled with fresh, new faces – maintaining stability and incorporating aspects of the Ferguson regime with the newly-instilled van Gaal era.
Many were shocked when Herrera was left on the bench against Cambridge United, especially after scoring a wonder-volley against Yeovil Town in the previous round of the F.A. Cup. But the Spaniard has unfortunately seen his opportunities limited with the resurgence of Belgian midfield enforcer Marouanne Fellaini, as well the the plethora of other attacking options in van Gaal’s arsenal. Regardless, Herrera deserves a chance to start this match, especially in a central midfield role partnering Carrick. While Carrick tends to hang back more often, Herrera is a drifting play-maker who can take the ball and dribble, providing United’s attacking players with more scoring opportunities. His energy, though, allows him to get back to the middle and help Carrick and the defense when needed. Overall, a fantastic two-way player who will surely enhance United’s midfield presence.
Attacking Midfielders: Juan Mata (R), Wayne Rooney (C), and Angel di Maria (L)
Mata was recently called “a little magician” by teammate Carrick, indicating just how highly his skills are valued at the club. The Spaniard has proved he can play anywhere in the attacking front, but prefers to play a pure “number 10” role. In my opinion, he is better suited to play as a right-sided attacking mid, which allows him to move forward in a similar position to the “number 10,” but can also drift into the wing and provide runs into the channels. Mata is quick, agile, and can put in solid crosses into the box – something the United team lacked against Cambridge.
Although Rooney has been playing more as a pure center midfielder recently, I would argue that his best position is either as a forward or as a “number 10” play-maker. The captain posses the vision, dribbling ability, pace, and physicality to fill the role, and is better suited to play further into the attack, rather than lying deeper in United’s midfield alongside Carrick. He can often be seen receiving the ball from the back four, turning, and looking for a passing option. In the “10” role, he would be able to do just that, but from a more advanced position that would set him up better for either a shot on goal or a through-pass.
Di Maria is another must-start selection, but it is important to note that his vast talent and skills have been greatly wasted due to van Gaal playing the Argentine out of position. Sure, the naturally- trained winger can play almost anywhere in United’s midfield and attack, but his best comes while playing on the wing, where his speed and foot-skills are utilized to the max. Di Maria can taunt defenders with his ability, if given proper space on the field – something that hasn’t been seen since van Gaal’s insistence on playing the Argentine either as a central midfielder or a striker. For di Maria to truly show his colors, he must be given a wing of the field to operate on. If you’re doubting my thought process, look up “Angle di Maria goals and skills” on YouTube and come back with an argument (I don’t think you’ll be able to)
Some of you might be thinking that I’m mad to suggest playing a striker as out-of-form as Falcao by himself up front (ahead of Robin van Persie too). But rest assured, I have my reasons. I still believe in El Tigre and I think his goals will come with proper midfield service. Having said that, playing Falcao alone up front requires Mata and di Maria (also Rafael and Shaw) to push up and play into the wings, as well as making sure to run channels to provide crosses for the Colombian to pounce on. After the games against QPR and Cambridge, Falcao was criticized for failing to get on the score sheet, but it’s really quite difficult to score when the quality of play-making in the midfield is sub-par. United have way too good of an attacking presence to settle for constant in-the-air crossing and a lack of on-the-ground build-up play. If our attacking five players get in a rhythm, meaning that movement is improved, passing is more direct/accurate, and more chances are being created, I predict Falcao will get back to this vicious form of scoring.
Bench: Valdes, Januzaj, Pereira, Blind, Blackett (if Smalling or Evans are unavailable), Fellaini, and van Persie
***After reports suggesting Pereira is considering leaving Manchester United this summer and signing for Paris Saint-Germain, it is imperative that he is brought on in this match, seeing as it is against a bottom-of-the-table team, as well as the fact that Pereira does actually deserve a shot at first-team football.
Who would be in your starting XI? Comment in the section below.