Reigning FA Cup holders Arsenal traveled to Old Trafford, a ground where they have failed to win at since 2006, to continue their title defense in the FA Cup quarter finals. At the end of 90 minutes, Arsenal had banished the demons at these grounds, walking away with a well earned 2-1 win that took them to the semi finals and one step closer to retaining their trophy. With Nacho Monreal and Wayne Rooney scoring before half time for their respective sides, the game was decided by the second half goal scored by ex-United player, Danny Welbeck. The 90 minutes however threw up some interesting points worth noting.
United have a diving problem
Two years ago, in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season, Ashley Young carried the taint of being a chronic diver. The manager was vociferous in condemning the actions and disciplined the player reducing his starts and playing time. Last year Adnan Januzaj began gaining a similar reputation and was defended by David Moyes. Yesterday, Michael Oliver handed out two bookings for simulation to United players. Both bookings had a significant impact on the match.
Angel di Maria was booked with about 15 minutes to go when he went down after being barely touched by Aaron Ramsey. The referee correctly booked di Maria for simulation but instead of keeping his cool, the Argentine international grabbed at the referee’s shirt, earning himself a prompt second yellow and the marching orders for an early bath. The incident left Manchester United down to 10 men and without one of their most influential players of the evening so far. In 30 seconds, di Maria went from hero to villain because he couldn’t control his temper.
Adnan Januzaj is growing an unwanted reputation of being a chronic diver. Januzaj was challenged by Nacho Monreal outside the box but proceeded a couple of steps more before going down in the box (untouched) clearly looking for a penalty. Had Januzaj chosen to continue, he had the ball in the box, no defender attacking him and Rooney was in the box waiting for the cross that never came. Given the fact that this happened in the last minute of regulation time with United a goal down, we can only wonder what may have been had he decided to stay up and crossed the ball for Rooney to score.
This is a growing trend in world football in general but at United in particular. It is conjecture to wonder whether players are being encouraged to dive when being tackled. As may be the case, it is not something that behooves the club’s stature and LvG and team management need to move swiftly and decisively to nip the issue in the bud.
Manchester United desperately need new full backs
Antonio Valencia has been a faithful servant for Manchester United but he is not a full back. Period. Valencia can be clearly blamed for both of Arsenal’s goals yesterday. For the first goal, Valencia lost track of Monreal and left him unmarked to receive the ball from Oxdale-Chamberlain and slot it home. And then to add insult to injury, Valencia made a most amateurish back pass that put Welbeck in a one-on-one situation with goalkeeper David de Gea.
On the other flank, once Luke Shaw was substituted at half time, Carrick moved into central defense and Marcos Rojo moved to the left full back position. What followed were a very anxious 45 minutes on this flank as Rojo made one edgy tackle after another. Rojo has been a solid defender for United but his tackles are quite strong and it always looks like a matter of time before he is booked.
Luke Shaw’s continuous absence through injury and Louis van Gaal’s stubborn refusal to play Rafael has meant that United have played a large part of this season with make shift full backs and that has had a telling effect on their performance. With weaker defense down the flanks, United have always looked vulnerable on the counter and more mistakes are leading to goals against them.
Mata and Herrera need to start regularly for United
Louis van Gaal has confounded many by choosing to leave his best players warming the bench. Yesterday it was the turn of Juan Mata and Radamel Falcao to be on the receiving end of this treatment. Louis van Gaal overlooked both players throughout the game choosing to start Fellaini instead. Now there is nothing wrong with Fellaini as such but he doesn’t know what to do with the ball at his feet. Fellaini headed the ball well and controlled the ball off his chest too but once the ball was at his feet, the game came to a grinding halt as the big Belgian had no idea what to do with it. Fellaini can be a good target man but if LvG needs to choose one player who he needs to keep at United and hence should start every game, it has to be Juan Mata. Especially in light of a situation where Rooney was playing upfront as striker leaving Mata’s preferred No.10 role free, it seemed an automatic choice to pick the Spaniard.
The Falcao experiment seems to have failed and it is unlikely United will complete the purchase from Monaco in the summer. That said, there is no reason why United should not use the resources available to him. Yet Falcao was overlooked even when United were down 1-2.
United absolutely need to hold onto David de Gea
David de Gea was the only United player who stood between Arsenal and a scoreline that could have boasted of at least 3 goals more. He came to the fore keeping out efforts from Cazorla, Coquelin and Welbeck and making it look easy. It is possible to criticise David de Gea for not going for the striker when Welbeck was put through on goal but then it was Valencia who sold his keeper short and in such situations even the best of goalkeepers find it difficult to defend the goal.
David de Gea is a world class shot stopper, and arguably the best one in the world bar Manuel Neuer and maybe Thibaut Courtois. Yet he is the youngest of the three and hence the one with the most promise. He is a key player for United undoubtedly but you know you have a problem when your goalkeeper is the one pulling off man of the match performances with such alarming regularity. Over the past few months, rumours of his imminent transfer to Real Madrid have gathered momentum and delays in resigning his contract are not helping matters. No more proof is required that United’s season and their performance hinges on their goalkeeper and if David de Gea were to leave in the summer, United will have a very serious problem. Yes, Victor Valdes is at the club, but with all due respect, he is now on the way downhill while David de Gea is yet to reach his peak.
Louis van Gaal needs to stop playing defensive possession football
When Louis van Gaal was brought to the club, it was common knowledge that he would bring his own philosophy to the club. What we were probably not prepared for was his philosophy being that of playing safe, defensive football more concerned with holding possession rather than scoring goals. United yesterday had 58% of possession yet they had fewer chances and fewer shots on goal. United did play some attractive football in the first half with Angel di Maria leading the charge while Herrera kept the midfield ticking over. Yet, inexplicably, Louis van Gaal decided that the half time score of 1-1 needed to be defended even more and replaced Herrera. Almost immediately, United lost their attacking tempo and sat in their own half passing the ball around aimlessly and waiting for the inevitable Arsenal attacks. Louis van Gaal has a wealth of attacking talent at his disposal, some of which he has himself purchased as part of his 150 million pound shopping at the start of the season. He needs to use as many of them as possible. Let defense lie with the defenders. Get more if need be but don’t choose midfielders and attackers on the basis of their defensive capabilities.