Sunday evening brought another disappointing result against an on-the-rise West Ham, as United barely escaped Upton Park with a single point thanks to Daley Blind’s injury time half volley. The Red Devils lacked creativity, instead opting for long balls that lead to a few unsuccessful opportunities – a far cry from the capability United fans have come to expect over the years. Louis van Gaal fielded a powerful squad that failed to cement its dominance on the field, wasting numerous first half opportunities and eventually going down 1-0 within five minutes of the second half. After conceding, the team looked a bit more committed to pushing forward and began creating more chances, but none found the net until the 93rd minute. It’s safe to say that most critics would consider United lucky to have gotten a point out of the tie, and that this style of play simply won’t cut it for a successful title challenge (or even the top four race). So far this season, van Gaal’s best decision has been scrapping his preferred three-man defensive formation in favor of a more traditional 4-4-2, but it seems the Dutchman still has some tinkering to do regarding where to fit each player. For this Wednesday’s clash with bottom-of-the-table Burnley. its safe to assume United will once again line up in a diamond midfield 4-4-2. So my prediction is as follows:
Formation: 4-4-2 – Diamond
Goalkeeper: David De Gea
The Spaniard showed great patience and anticipation over the weekend, making several diving saves, as well as an instinctual reaction kick with his right foot to deny West Ham in the first half. He was unlucky to concede, as his vision was blocked and the ball deflected off Blind before changing directions and landing in United’s net. De Gea’s composure on the ball has increased over the season, progressively working into a sweeper-keeper style player. Van Gaal would be foolish to even consider taking his prized goalie out for even a single game.
Center Backs: Phil Jones and Chris Smalling
Jones showed composure on the ball against a speedy Hammers attack, often getting into the build-up play himself during the second half. His physical prowess will be essential in a back four that has lacked stability throughout the season, especially against a team that United are fully expected to beat. And with Marcos Rojo likely to be deployed on the left due to Luke Shaw’s suspension, van Gaal shouldn’t take a risk by playing with two different center backs than what his side is currently used to. Jones has his doubters, but his recent form certainly hasn’t been disappointing, so I would imagine he keeps his place in the Dutchman’s starting XI.
As noted, Luke Shaw’s idiotic red card in the final minute of the West Ham game means the young Englishman won’t be available for selection this week. And with Daley Blind almost certain to retain his role as United’s defensive center midfielder, Marcos Rojo will likely move out wide to the left, leaving Chris Smalling as the next choice center back to partner Jones. Smalling is by no means a massive downgrade, and some would even say that his experience with Jones over the past three years is a positive for the pairing. Like Rojo, Smalling is powerful, solid in the air, and was recently revealed to be United’s fastest player, according to the squad’s training heart and pace monitors. A good outing for the England national team defender might be just what Smalling needs to regain his poise in United’s back four.
Outside Defenders: Antonio Valencia (R) and Marcos Rojo (L)
As much s I would love to see Paddy McNair have another go at right back, it seems that van Gaal genuinely prefers to play Valencia in the role instead. The Ecuadorian was recently (and questionably) voted United’s Player of the Month by the fans and backed that claim by turning in a solid performance against West Ham last weekend. He is likely to retain his spot in the starting XI and will be asked to continue pushing forward and overlapping with the given midfielder on his side of the field. Unfortunately for Valencia, most of the defenders he’s faced have realized that his EXTREMELY preferred right foot means that he will almost always try to go to the touchline in one on one situations, leading to a decline in his short cross game. But hopefully this week’s arguably-lesser Burnley defense will let through a few of those through balls – maybe he’ll even get an assist of two.
Rojo has been United’s top defender this season and it isn’t looking like that’s going to change anytime soon. The Argentine was yet again fantastic against West Ham, completing the most successful passes out of any United player, and ensuring defensive stability both on the ground and in the air. He will most likely be deployed on the left this week, as he was against Cambridge a week ago – a game in which he scored his first United goal and turned in a an impressive offensive performance, often linking up and overlapping with fellow countryman Di Maria. Rojo prefers being given the opportunity to get further into the attack and will most likely be playing in an advanced wing-back role, which will surely delight van Gaal. Look for big things to come out of the left side of the field this Wednesday.
Defensive Center Midfielder: Daley Blind
Blind was United’s savior on Sunday, notching his second goal of the season to rescue van Gaal from an embarrassing press conference explanation. Aside from the goal, the Dutchman played phenomenally yet again in his role just in front of the back four, providing an outlet of relief for the defense and a link to the offense. Towards the end of the game, Blind pushed up the field more and found himself increasingly involved in the attack, eventually slotting into the box to bury the tying goal in the final minutes. Although I can’t imagine why, van Gaal might opt to play Blind at left back and instead use either Ander Herrera or Marouanne Fellaini in the defensive center midfield role. But given Blind’s performance over the past two games, it seems such a move would be downright foolish. Regardless of where the he’ll be deployed, its safe to assume Blind will retain his spot in the starting XI.
Center Midfielders: Wayne Rooney (R) and Marouanne Fellaini (L)
Van Gaal recently stated that Rooney will play wherever the team needs him most. And apparently, the Dutchman is determined to play the United skipper in a deep-lying midfield role. As I’ve previously written, I think Rooney plays well in every position he’s deployed at, but frankly I don’t get why he is asked to play so far back, rather than as an attacking midfielder. Rooney has arguably one of the best (if not the best) shots on the team, and having him play just in front of Blind is a waste of talent and attacking options. I would love to see the Englishman play right behind the front two, where he can control the pace of the play, distribute properly, and get himself involved in the attack more. But unfortunately, van Gaal prefers him slotted deeper and towards the right, so that is where I believe he will yet again play this Wednesday.
Fellaini has been relatively efficient this season, making the most of the opportunities he’s given. The Belgian is an on-and-off starter, often swapping roles with his fellow countryman Adnan Januzaj in the midfield. And while Januzaj got the start against West Ham on Sunday, Fellaini proved more effective after replacing him halfway through the second half. The recent long-ball style that United have favored is more of Fellaini’s forte, as the 6’4″ giant is hard to beat out in the air and is a much easier target to hit than Januzaj – Blind’s goal on Sunday actually came from Falcao’s long ball aimed towards Fellaini, only to be knocked down by Carl Jenkinson and into Blind’s path. My prediction is that in van Gaal’s official formation sheet, Fellaini will be listed as a center midfielder, but will eventually end up playing in an advanced role right behind the two strikers, as he’s done over the last two weeks.
Attacking Center Midfielder: Angel Di Maria
Di Maria’s hot start at United has slowly cooled off, with the Argentine going through an unfortunate goal drought recently, partly due to his more defensive re-positioning. When Juan Mata isn’t starting, Di Maria is often deployed as an attacking midfielder that occasionally drifts out to the left, while often finding himself deep in United’s midfield to help out defensively and start up plays. Against Cambridge, he was used more as a left-sided center midfielder, in which I felt he actually played well despite his lack of offensive contribution. However against West Ham, van Gaal set the Argentine just behind Robin van Persie and Falcao – a position he is more accustomed to – but played worse in my opinion. If Fellaini does in fact start, I would expect Di Maria to eventually switch positions with the Belgian and play a more of a pure center midfield role on the left side, opposite of Rooney, with the Belgian playing more advanced. Either way, expect to see Di Maria starting yet again.
Forwards: Falcao and James Wilson
Firstly, I was surprised that Wilson didn’t start the West Ham game. But the fact that van Gaal didn’t even bring him on was downright shocking. Throughout the match, Falcao and van Persie failed to create any sort of break away opportunities and instead wasted chance after chance. And as much as I don’t want to say it, United need a legitimate, in-form striker, since Falcao and van Persie clearly aren’t performing. Enter James Wilson. Unlike his two counterparts, Wilson – still a raw talent – isn’t under intense pressure to get on the board like his fellow forwards. When Falcao and van Persie score, recently most people think to themselves, “finally,” or “about damn time.” But when Wilson scores, there’s a fantastic, supportive feeling that another United youth product is slowly integrating himself into first team football, with the potential to one day emulate the likes of David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, or Paul Scholes. Just as Januzaj did last season, Wilson has the capability to captivate the Old Trafford crowd and restore the pride that United fans had in their youth talent. He just needs more opportunities. And what better time for such an opportunity than when the team’s star forwards are under-performing and failing to score. So just like last week, I am predicting that Wilson will start for van Gaal. He scored against Cambridge less than ten minutes after coming on in the second half. Let’s see what he can do with a start.
My days of predicting a start for Falcao are slowly winding down. But, I still have faith in the Colombian and hopefully he proves me right this time. It’s so difficult to watch Falcao highlights from the past four years and not understand how someone could go from being so good to being so…mediocre, even with the knee injury. Van Gaal clearly still believes that El Tigre has that special something and even noted that the Colombian’s goal will come next game. Last week, I mentioned that I felt Falcao and van Persie play too similarly, without legitimate pace, and that it would be wasteful to play them both alongside one another. Against Premier League defenses, skilled forwards aren’t going to be able to score without proper movement and runs off the ball – something which neither Falcao or van Persie did against West Ham. Hopefully, van Gaal noticed the same thing and will be smart about starting only one of the two alongside a fast player like Wilson. For me, Falcao seems the more determined one, especially after that horrendous one-on-one miss against Adrian from six yards out.
Bench: Valdes, McNair, Evans, Herrera, Mata, Januzaj, and van Persie
Burnley are a challenging side, but certainly one that United are capable of beating. It will be critical for the Red Devils’ back line to properly handle Danny Ings, who is arguably one of the most sought-after and in-form players in the Premier League. Otherwise, United will find themselves behind early in the game and will once again have to play to even the score. In my opinion, van Gaal should introduce Herrera early on or halfway through the second half in order to add creativity to the midfield (maybe shift to a 4-3-3 with Di Maria playing on the wing). The Spaniard posses fantastic vision both on and off the ball, and will likely link up well with Rooney and Di Maria in the middle of the field. I’d also like to see Januzaj contribute, but more in the center of the pitch as he did in the second half of the West Ham game before being subbed off. His speed and pace are above-average and he can be very dangerous in give-and-go play – an aspect of the game that United are currently struggling with.