Last weekend, Anthony Martial – who has been a revelation since his summer switch from AS Monaco – was shifted from his usual position as the number nine to the left-hand side. Martial has received plaudits for the way he has adapted to the Premier League and has been excellent for United this season, scoring four goals in eight games. His pace and ability to hold the ball up has caused defenders problems but against Everton, Louis van Gaal moved the Frenchman to allow Wayne Rooney to play up front. Rooney has struggled to find any consistency in his game this season but Van Gaal has persisted with him, assuming that he will eventually come good. Rooney showed some promising signs against Everton and scored against them for the first time since 2007 – but there is still a feeling that he is being given favourable treatment despite his underwhelming performances. Another player that seems to be suffering as a result of this is Ander Herrera. The Spaniard has a lot of qualities and when he starts, United often play at a quicker tempo with more precision in their game. But with Rooney occupying the number 10 position for the past few games Herrera has struggled to get a start. However, he proved against Everton that when given the opportunity – he can offer a lot to United. Herrera output for United has been very impressive since he signed from Athletic Bilbao, scoring 11 goals in 38 appearances. The way United operate with Herrera and Martial in the team has given Van Gaal a lot to think about – currently Rooney is being accommodated but if he continues to perform poorly he could find himself out of the side.
Luke Shaw’s serious injury against PSV Eindhoven – when he suffered a double fracture of the leg following Hector Moreno’s challenge – has disrupted United defensively. Prior to his injury United were looking structured and defended as a unit keeping four clean sheets in seven games. Since then United have looked more vulnerable at the back and this has been down to Van Gaal tinkering with who plays in defence. Initially Daley Blind and Chris Smalling were his preferred partnership but against Everton Phil Jones came in to try to help Smalling cope with Romelu Lukaku’s physicality. It worked well but because Blind didn’t play United lost a playmaker from a defensive position. Blind has struggled defensively against strong players like Bafetimbi Gomis and Graziano Pelle and there is also a perceived weakness in terms of his lack of pace. But he does offer great anticipation and can pass the ball as well as anyone in the side. The fullback position has also been an issue with Mateo Darmian, Ashley Young and Marcos Rojo all playing left-back since Shaw got injured. If Darmian plays at left-back Antonio Valencia comes in at right-back but the Ecuadorian still has attacking instincts. He can be often found out of position and lacks the tactical nous to excel in this position. Ashley Young has the same issue when he plays at left-back – while he gives everything and offers a secondary attacking threat with his crossing ability – as a fullback your first job is to be able to defend and he comes up short in this area. Then you have Rojo but his career to date has been blighted by injuries and he seemingly cannot be relied upon. There are also rumours among the media that he has fallen out with Van Gaal and might be sold in January. Van Gaal has plenty of options in defence, but if he is to challenge domestically and in Europe he will have to work out what his best defensive unit because continually changing things does not help continuity within the team.
On quite a few occasions this season United have been chasing the game after finding themselves behind. Sir Alex Ferguson used to be a genius when it came to changing the momentum and would always take risks with his substitutions. But with Van Gaal, the shape of the team remains the most important thing and his substitutions tend to be based on that. Against CSKA Moscow United were trailing to a first-half goal from Seydou Doumbia so Van Gaal decided to bring on Marouane Felliani. Fellaini certainly offers an aerial threat but when you have game-changers on the bench such as Memphis Depay and Juan Mata it seems an odd decision. Blind was also brought on when both sides were looking for a winner – again Blind is a solid player but isn’t the most likely one to be able to unlock defences.
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