Manchester United secured their third consecutive win when they took apart Hull City at Old Trafford last weekend, also ensuring in the process that they stayed in the top 4 for the second week in a row. Louis van Gaal’s side have definitely got a long way to go before they reach full potential but the signs are there and United would be eager to keep the momentum as they go into the all important holiday period that will see them play 8 games in 34 days. These are important games too. Games against Stoke and Aston Villa are games where, with all due respect to the opponents, United would look to bag the full complement of 3 points. The away game at Southampton would be a tricky one while the home game against Liverpool has too many angles to be played out, not least of which is United’s inconsistent form at home. United would however want to get as many points from these games as possible as well. With 24 points on offer in this one month period, United have started auspiciously by dominating Hull for the first 3 but it would be accurate to say that the next 21 would not be as easy. THT takes a look at what is working for United and what they need to fix (quickly) if they want to come out at the other end of this month with a firm foothold in the top 4.

What is working for United

Wayne Rooney

Rooney and van Persie will be key to United's success

Rooney and van Persie will be key to United’s success

The captain is one of the most important players on the football pitch not only because he is usually their most consistent player but also because he needs to lead, often by example, and sometimes even drag his team across the finish line when the situation demands. Rooney has proven himself to be every bit a United captain in his hitherto short career as the skipper. Wayne Rooney has always been an industrious worker. Whatever may be his issues off the pitch, it has never stopped him from giving his 100% on the pitch for the Red Devils. He plays the forward’s role, the man in the hole role, the midfielder’s role and, if required, even the defender’s role. Rooney can be found wherever the action is on the football field and the Englishman is ready to run his legs off for his team, match after match. Rooney is also currently in a rich vein of form having scored in his last 3 outings (a brace for England and once each against Arsenal and Hull City). All the goals have been a forward’s finish. His ability from a free kick is unquestionable as well. Given the lean patch Robin van Persie is going through and injury problems to Radamel Falcao, United need their captain to be firing on all cylinders especially in front of goal for the duration of the month if they want to extract a decent haul out of the points on offer.

Fringe players

The increasing injury woes for United (41 on last count) have meant that goalkeeper David de Gea is the only man to have started all 13 league games for United this season. The injuries however have come with a silver lining in the form of the emergence of fringe players. These players have been out in the cold for a while either due to injuries or loss of form or simply because a better player is available in their position. Their return to the team has therefore been with added vigour to make a strong claim for a starting berth. Ashley Young came on for the injured Luke Shaw against Arsenal and impressed with a solid display, even tying up Kieran Gibbs. Antonio Valencia, currently filling in for injured Rafael at right back, similarly impressed while controlling the very dangerous Sanchez against Arsenal. Ander Herrera, who was returning from an injury, was substituted for Angel di Maria after the latter pulled up with a hamstring injury having played less than 15 minutes. The young Spaniard was impressive, keeping the ball well and controlling midfield admirably alongside the experienced Michael Carrick.

Fellaini has put in some strong performances since being brought back

Fellaini has put in some strong performances since being brought back

And the biggest renaissance of all, Marouane Fellaini. Fellaini became the poster child of the failed career of David Moyes at the club. Having spent more than 20 million pounds for the player, United were clearly not reaping any of the rewards. In fact, Fellaini came close to being sold off in the summer transfer window with many believing that it was his ill-timed injury in fact that prevented a deal for the Belgian. Kept out of a majority of games this season, Fellaini got his first true chance when he came on for Ander Herrera in the West Brom game for 45 minutes. A goal and some sparkling midfield play helped him stake a claim for a starting spot and Louis van Gaal duly obliged him with a start against Chelsea, his first of the season. Fellaini did not disappoint and combined with Juan Mata to completely control and stifle Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic in central midfield. Since that game he has started and improved steadily in every game. The loss against City notwithstanding, Fellaini has been a powerhouse in United’s midfield and played a key role in United’s last 3 victories.

The emergence of academy products like Adnan Januzaj, James Wilson, Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair has been arguably accelerated owing to the injuries to the first team players but the youngsters especially McNair and Wilson have acquitted themselves admirably and look like players for the long haul if United can continue their development and lock them down in a long term contract.

Spirit and Philosophy

Louis van Gaal has had a poor start to the season and in spite of the fact that his wards are in fourth position on the Premier League, they have only 22 points from 13 games. United still need to improve but one marked difference in the side under Moyes and under van Gaal has been in body language. The team, even when losing, does not lose its motivation and determination to score. Players seem to have a confidence that had been missing in the Moyes regime. Unarguably van Gaal has brought in a feeling of confidence amongst his players as well as the supporters of the club and this shows in their improved performance when on the field with players trying to work extra hard to get the results.Van Gaal has also brought his philosophy to United and the players seem to have bought into it. Against Arsenal, van Gaal was content to have his side deep and defend and then break and score on the counter. The gameplan worked and Arsenal went down 2-1 with both goals coming via a quick break that was converted into a goal in minimum number of passes possible. Against Hull, United threw off Steve Bruce and his team from the get go by fielding a 4-4-2 formation instead of a 3-5-2 as was apparent from the team sheet. While Hull reeled for the first 10 minutes of the game, United took control and like the United of yore, refused to give up their irongrip on the game, finishing with almost 70% possession.

United were inclined to play a slow tempo passing game under David Moyes. The team was setup up defensively rather than offensively. This did not bode well for a club that had an attacking DNA and United’s game lacked potency. Under van Gaal the passing is still on but the players are more aware of where their team mates are and it usually takes them less than a second to shift up gears and speed up the game when they see an opening. Rooney’s goal on the break against Arsenal and Robin van Persie’s goal against Hull City are testament to this. While Rooney was fed by Angel di Maria leaving the striker in a one on one with the goalkeeper, it was a Michael Carrick long ball and Ander Herrera assist that allowed Robin van Persie to unlock Hull’s defense and bury the ball into the net. The fast, counter attacking game is what United have always been associated with and it seems that LvG has brought back the confidence to do those things again.

What needs to be fixed

Defense

United’s defense has been lackadaisical this season. There are many reasons for this. Injury is one of them but even when United have had a full complement of defenders, the defending has been erratic. The game against Leicester City or against MK Dons saw United’s defense flounder and capitulate against oppositions they should have dispatched without any trouble. Some of it is also due to van Gaal testing his three man defensive formation early in the season but it is largely up to United’s defense not being resolute enough. The departure of the three seniors of United’s defense – Vidic, Rio and Evra – over the summer left the defensive unit at Old Trafford headless. Without a defensive marshall they committed errors and the lack of communication allowed all and sundry to raid the United goal.

Injuries

Di Maria was the latest entrant to United's burgeoning injury list

Di Maria was the latest entrant to United’s burgeoning injury list

United have had an unprecedented injury plagued season so far. With 41 injuries and less than half the season done, United have had every major player sit out games through injury. While some injuries are sustained during a game and often involve an ill timed or rash tackle or just a bad landing from a jump, the number of injuries sustained during training has been stupendous. United’s backroom staff especially their physios and medics must take a careful look at the training program being used with the players and assess if the strain is too much. If so, they might have to dial it down a bit, especially during this busy period or risk having more injuries in a squad that is already spread quite thin. They must also take note of two factors. Firstly, United’s squad has gone through a sea change with many players joining from other leagues over the summer. They may not be used to the physicality and intensity of the league and this may be increasing their chances of injury as well as their return to match fitness. Secondly, this is a World Cup year and players are also playing increasing number of international matches due to the Euro qualifiers. In a team like United’s, most if not all players represent their country at international level and thus the squad has not rested well during the summer break as is customary in a non-World Cup year.

Van Gaal’s first busy Christmas month

Van Gaal is a proven title winner but this is his first time playing the busy English holiday calendar. Not only is his squad thinly spread thanks to the numerous injuries, he himself also needs to adjust to the mindset of playing league football every 3-4 days for a month. The hectic schedule allows very little time to regroup and often teams that slip once keep going down a slippery slope with no time to arrest the fall and rethink their strategy or tactics. Sir Alex had mastered the art of navigating this busy period relatively unscathed and van Gaal will need to emulate his illustrious predecessor if he wants to stay in the top 4 as he has started this period. Title hopes and European football qualification have often been dealt decisive body blows in the Christmas period and United and LvG would be aware of it.

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