PREDICTED XI: Manchester United vs. Sunderland

Last week’s defeat to Swansea City was hopefully a small blip after a series of rather satisfying scorelines for Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United squad. The Red Devils gave up a 1-0 lead shortly after Ander Herrera’s first half opener, only to find themselves down 2-1 after a deflected long-range shot from Jonjo Shelvey nicked off of Bafetimbi Gomis and made its way into the back of David de Gea’s net. This weekend, United face a lackluster Sunderland side that has failed to stamp its ground on the Premier League this season, currently sitting in 16th place, just above the relegation zone. With United currently in 4th place behind Chelsea, Manchester City, and Arsenal, van Gaal’s men will be looking to capitalize on their weak opponent and leapfrog the Gunners into 3rd place. Here is the lineup I think van Gaal will send out Saturday afternoon:

Formation: 4-4-2 – Diamond

Goalkeeper: David de Gea

Continuing with his phenomenal season, de Gea has been instrumental in ensuring that United remain in the race for a Champion’s League spot next season. Few would blame last week’s loss on the Spaniard, as Shelvey’s deflected shot changed directions after the United stopper had already made his move in one direction. Otherwise, de Gea turned in another fine performance as has become expected of him recently.

Center Backs: Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones

Rojo continued his fine form in last week’s match, although some would argue that Shelvey’s shot would not had occurred had the Argentine stepped up and applied pressure on the English midfielder a bit earlier. Still, Rojo remains United’s most consistent defender and is in line to start again this weekend. He’s made significant progress in his positional awareness, often stepping up into the midfield and integrating himself with the attack. A clear-cut starter for me.

Jones returned from injury last weekend and put in a solid 90 minutes at the back, completing 40 passes with a passing accuracy rating of 90%. His physical presence will be appreciated, especially in terms of breaking up counter attacks, as he has done so well in recent weeks. The English defender has been a fine partner to Rojo in the middle of United’s defense and will likely continue that role this weekend, especially with the decline in form of Johnny Evans in recent weeks. Chris Smalling seems to have cooled off from his two-goal form two weeks ago, meaning that Jones will likely retain his starting role.

Outside Defenders: Antonio Valencia (R) and Luke Shaw (L)

Replacing Paddy McNair at half-time last weekend, Valencia brought speed and width on the right side as he has done all season, often pushing up into the wing in van Gaal’s preferred wing-back style of play. And with McNair showing hot and cold tendencies, it is likely that the Ecuadorian will retain his starting role on the right side of the defense. Now that United are consistently playing with four at the back and four in the midfield, Valencia will likely benefit from having another playing directly in front of him that can overlap and cover for him when pushing up into the attack.

Shaw came off with thirty minutes to go last weekend, but van Gaal assured the press that he is fit and ready to go against Sunderland. The young Englishman has slowly been working his way back to fitness after an injury-riddled start to the season and is looking for and more likely to cement his claim on the left-back starting role. Shaw brings pace and attack-minded movement into the Red Devil’s setup, linking well with Angel Di Maria, who has been deployed as a left sided center midfielder over the past few weeks. The pair seem to have good chemistry with one another and often play off of one another when moving the ball into the wing. If Shaw is full-match fit, expect him to start.

Defensive Center Midfielder: Daley Blind

The Dutchman is continuing to prove just how much a bargain he was by turning in solid performances every week, although I have to point out that I place the blame for Shelvey’s goal on him not occupying the space right in front of United’s center backs at the time of the goal. Regardless, Blind’s consistent passing and vision are quickly making him an Old Trafford favorite, while his injury time goal against West Ham three weeks ago ensured the van Gaal’s men left Upton Park with a point. And with Michael Carrick not yet fit to play a full ninety minutes, it seems almost certain that Blind will start at the base of United’s midfield.

Central Midfielders: Ander Herrera (R) and Angel Di Maria (L)

After a difficult start to the season and failing to make an impact on van Gaal, Herrera is now finding his place in United’s midfield, with the help of a few crucial goals along the way. The Spaniard has loads of talent and quite frankly, it’s about time he gets the opportunity to show it. He scored a now-meaningless goal last weekend, but hopefully it helps him maintain his confidence and continue the streak of fine form displays he has had recently. As a deeper lying play-maker, Herrera seems to work well on the right side of the midfield, often linking up with Valencia and providing cover when the defender trudges forward into the attack. It would be a waste to take Herrera out of the starting lineup following the solid displays he’s put in over the last two weeks.

Even with his decline in recent weeks, Di Maria is too good of a player not to start when available. The Argentine recently admitted his disappointment in his current form, especially after his hot start to the season. But there is still plenty of time for the midfielder to show that he is a world-class player, especially now that van Gaal has decided to play with width in the midfield. I still think Di Maria would be better suited to play as left sided attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 rather than in a 4-4-2, but I don’t see van Gaal switching tactics for a third time this season. Either way, expect Di Maria to start on the left side of the midfield as he has been since the start of the new year.

Attacking Midfielder: Marouanne Fellaini

Van Gaal seems to have taken a liking to the height advantage that Fellaini brings, especially with Robin van Persie and Falcao failing to get on the scoreboard recently. The towering Belgian has been used as a target man during the last few matches and the results have been in his favor, with the midfielder finding the net in the win against Preston North End in the Red Devils’ F.A. Cup tie two weeks ago. With van Persie injured for up to six weeks, it’s likely that van Gaal will continue to use Fellaini in an attacking midfield role to draw a height advantage in long-ball and crossing plays, just as the team has been doing since the start of the month.

Forwards: Wayne Rooney and Falcao

Has van Gaal finally realized that his captain is best utilized in a pure attacking role? It sure seems like it after starting the Englishman up top the last two games. And although Rooney has yet to score in open play since moving back to his preferred position, it was apparent against Preston North End just how useful his pace and timing off the line are to a side currently lacking in-form forwards. As previously mentioned, van Persie’s injury will most likely mean that van Gaal will pair Rooney up front with one of his remaining forwards, rather than shifting formations again to play with a single.

Falcao continues to struggle in his quest to prove his worth, although one might ask whether his exclusion from last week’s starting XI had anything to do with the disappointing result. While the Colombian might not be scoring, he does provide movement up front for United, which, coupled with Rooney’s pace and vision, could yield some better results both for Falcao and for United as a whole. During the manager’s press conference, van Gaal refused to confirm whether or not Falcao would start against Sunderland, but my prediction is that he will, especially with van Persie’s absence and James Wilson’s minor midweek dead leg sustained during the U21 match. And if he does start, as I’ve said in previous predicted starting XI segments, I can only hope El Tigre finally nets one of his trademark goals that we’ve all been craving for.

Bench: Valdes, Smalling, Carrick, Januzaj, McNair, Pereira, Wilson

As I’ve noted in an earlier piece, I’d love to see Andreas Pereira included in this weekend’s match. When United play a diamond 4-4-2 with Fellaini as the attacking midfielder, the team omits the use of a number 10 play-maker in terms of creating opportunities for the forwards. It would be great to see Pereira come on for the last 25 minutes or so – enough time for the young Brazilian to get accustomed to the role and gain much-needed experience in the first team. I’ve monitored his progress throughout the season and it seems like his style of play would benefit and compliment United’s current lack of attacking opportunities. Plus it would be wise for van Gaal to start incorporating young players or else turning his squad into a City-like spending mecca.

All in all, this weekend’s match should see United take all three points from Sunderland and extend their Champion’s League charge a bit further. Arsenal face an Everton side fresh off of a Europea League victory that has seen the Toffee’s progress to the Round of 16, now facing a difficult match up against Dynamo Kiev. With a bit of luck from Blues (and hopefully a solid outing from van Gaal’s men), United can overtake third place and extend their hopes of re-entering European competition – a tournament that seems so empty without the Red Devils’ participation.