Last week’s performance against bottom-of-the-table Leicester City showed that Louis van Gaal is finally willing to accept the efficiency and dominance of a four-man defense (yes!). And while I would also prefer that United play five men in the midfield rather than four, it seems that the squad can operate just fine in a four-man, diamond midfield. With that in mind (and considering the Red Devils looked impressive against both Leicester and Cambridge United last Wednesday), my predicted starting XI for this Sunday’s match-up against West Ham United is as follows:
Formation: 4-4-2 – Diamond
Goalkeeper: David De Gea
Again, no argument for taking De Gea out of goal. His clean sheet was ruined against Leicester due to some shabby defending at the back, but the Spaniard has proven week by week that he is United’s most important player. He bounced back against Cambridge by keeping a clean sheet against an impressive League Two side, and will be looking to do the same against a feisty Hammers attack. I can only hope that his contract is extended within the next few weeks.
Center Backs: Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones
Rojo scored his first goal against Cambridge this week by knocking in a powerful header off of a short Robin van Persie cross that further cemented how important of a player he is in the United side. Operating as a left-back, he showed his speed and tenacity to get into the attack, often pushing up further into the wing than we would see Luke Shaw doing. Still, I see his most crucial role as a center back and I’d love to see him return to that position this weekend. He has been consistently solid as the last man back over the last few games and can bring more defensive stability and consistency than the likes of Chris Smalling and Johnny Evans.
Jones didn’t take part in the midweek match against Cambridge, but I would be surprised to see him omitted from the starting lineup yet again. While the Englishman does have the occasional blips in the back, he shows greater defensive ability and certainly more physicality than Evans, while often making better choices than Smalling. He has found a nice defensive partner in Rojo, who seems to complement Jones’ attacking tendencies by hanging further back when needed. Overall, I see Rojo and Jones holding down the starting center back pairing for the majority of the season.
Right Back: Paddy McNair
Perhaps the most surprising selection in van Gaal’s midweek squad, I was amazed at how confidently McNair grasped the role and positional awareness of a right back (particularly, he and Rooney looked as if they had been playing on the same side for years now). I had almost given up on seeing any sort of impressive attacking opportunities coming from the right side of the field, with Antonio Valencia providing quite dull creativity and Rafael being out of the squad with injuries. But out of nowhere came the young Northern Irishman, making constant runs up the field, overlapping players, and most importantly, creating touchline opportunities that lead to several goal scoring chances. I knew that McNair was a utility player that can pay both in defense and in midfield, but I never expected him to be such an attack-minded outside back – not to mention his impressive speed in one on one situations. And although the competition level against a League Two side is inferior to that of a top half Premier League club, McNair gets my vote to start this week.
Left Back: Luke Shaw
Seemingly healthy, Shaw is in desperate need of a place in the starting XI and hopefully a proper performance. The youngster has been plagued by minor injuries and has yet to live up to his £30 million price tag. Don’t get me wrong, he hasn’t been dreadful in any way. He just hasn’t been the same Luke Shaw we saw tantalizing defenses last year at Southampton. The Englishman has all the qualities to one day be the best left back in the world – hes fast, young, attack-minded, can get back defensively in time, and is always looking to work in unison with the given midfielders on his side of the field. And when healthy, Shaw is a deadly threat in one on one situations as well. While Rojo occupied the left back role against Cambridge, Shaw is the natural selection to fill the role on a permanent basis.
Defensive Center Midfielder: Daley Blind
In my opinion, Blind as been nothing short of spectacular this season. The Dutchman seems to have gotten used to the physicality of the Premier League without a problem, and is now operating in identical fashion to Michael Carrick. His defense-minded style often has him dipping into the back four and filling in as a center back, while usually setting himself up right in front of the defense and providing cushion for the midfielders to push up into the attack. I thought he worked particularly well in midfield with Rooney and Angel Di Maria just ahead of him on the outside, and hopefully his form doesn’t dip anytime soon – especially with Carrick being ruled out for at least four weeks with a muscle injury. Personally, aside from De Gea, I would say Blind is up there as one of United’s most crucial squad players at the moment.
Center Midfielders: Wayne Rooney (R) and Angel Di Maria (L)
It seems that no matter where van Gaal plays Rooney, the captain never disappoints. Having seemingly transitioned into a play-making midfielder, Rooney can now be seen roaming the entire midfield, collecting the ball, and doing whatever he wants with it (that’s a good thing!). It’s been a while since United played a style of football that involves an attacking midfield play-maker, rather than playing long balls from deep. And in a somewhat-outside central midfielder role, such as the one Rooney played in against Cambridge, the England national team captain can play both in the middle and on the outside, increasing his attacking presence and his range of distribution. I’d also point out that in a diamond midfield, having Rooney and Di Maria playing the same position on opposite flanks might be one of the deadliest midfield combinations in the world – hopefully we’ll continue to see this pairing playing alongside for the remainder of the season.
As I mentioned in my previous Predicted Starting XI segment, I believe Di Maria is most dangerous while playing on the outside rather than in the middle. His speed and dribbling ability is top five in the Premier League and I really felt he was being wasted playing as a central, second striker. In the left center midfielder role of a diamond midfield, Di Maria, like Rooney, can roam inward occasionally, but is primarily effective in exposing the width and the wing of the field. Especially when paired with Luke Shaw on the left, United can rely heavily on bringing the ball up the field using constant forward runs and overlaps between the pair. Furthermore, Di Maria showed that he is comfortable dropping back deep into the midfield to collect the ball, which further increases United’s creativity options going into the attack. Overall, a definite starter, regardless of where van Gaal chooses to start the Argentine.
Attacking Midfielder: Juan Mata
Aside from tapping in United’s opener from close range in the match against Cambridge, the little Spaniard wasn’t particularly impressive throughout the rest of the F.A. Cup tie. But that doesn’t mean that he loses my vote to start as the Red Devils’ attacking midfielder. Mata’s creativity is by far his best feature and he has plenty to offer in United’s attack. He plays best when deployed in the number 10 role, and with Rooney now playing deeper in midfield, it seems the Spaniard will be able to set up just behind the striking pair in order to feed them proper passes. Furthermore, Mata is not one to drop back too often and play his part in the defense, so it is better to utilize his attack-minded creativity in an advanced midfield role, while having Rooney and Di Maria help out in the back instead.
Forwards: James Wilson and Falcao
Wilson came off the bench and scored less than ten minutes later against Cambridge off of a low, powerful shot that probably should have been saved by Cambridge keeper Chris Dunn. But nonetheless, a goal is a goal, especially when you fire a shot from twenty yards out to ensure your team moves on to the next round of the F.A. Cup. The young Englishman has been in fine form, progressively working his way into the starting XI, and showing just how valuable his blazing speed is to United’s attack. While Falcao and van Persie are clearly top striking options, neither of them posses Wilson’s pace and ability to beat defenders out in one on one situations, making him a dangerous threat using long or through balls. While this decision may surprise many of you, I believe it’s the right time to let Wilson have a go from the start.
Falcao is currently riding a short-but-sweet hot streak that has earned the Colombian a few good reviews from his critics. Having scored against Leicester, yet not playing a part against Cambridge, I can only assume that van Gaal chose to rest the striker for this weekend’s match. Falcao seems to be in a good place currently, rediscovering his scoring form, and hopefully adding to his tally again this weekend. While he is far from the monster we saw playing for Atletico Madrid, I think giving Falcao a few full matches will surely catalyze his return to top form. His follow-up goal against Leicester, while not exactly requiring much skill, showed that Falcao still has the thirst for goals and knows exactly where to be in order to put in a rebound, eventually proving to be the winning goal after Leicester pulled a goal back late in the game. Van Persie and Falcao seem to play similar styles up front, so my suggestion would be to pair one of the two with Wilson’s speed – currently, I’d take Falcao over RvP.
Bench: Valdes, Smalling, Young, Herrera, Fellaini, Januzaj, and van Persie
Surely this weekend’s match will be far more difficult than the previous two. West Ham are a dangerous attacking club that boast some highly sought-after players, including center back Winston Reid and forward Enner Valencia. The Red Devils will be tested at a much higher caliber, but hopefully the transition back to a four-man defense and a diamond midfield will continue to yield high-possession, pass-oriented build-up play from van Gaal’s men. The players seem to genuinely enjoy playing in this setup more than with three center backs, and with only one injury to the squad (Carrick), there really are no excuses for another poor performance.