Recovering from the disappointment of the FA Cup defeat to Arsenal last night at Old Trafford has not been easy. Not as much around exiting the competition and our last realistic opportunity of silverware, although it is not pleasant losing any match, but more for the manner in which we went out and the frustration of the performance and the ground hog day feel of the performances at United.
First things first, I thought Arsenal were far more dangerous going forward. The pace of their forward line with Danny Welbeck, Santi Cazorla, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Mezut Ozil not to mention Nacho Monreal bombing on was frightening. Their decision making was better than United, their passing crisper and they made their way up the pitch with deadly accuracy where United huffed and puffed with the odd exception on a counter attack. David De Gea was the busier goalkeeper on the night but maybe the problem lies in that Arsenal played players in their preferred positions where United play wingers as full backs and use Marouane Fellaini as a target man which is predictable to deal with.
There are many issues with the current squad and some are pointing the finger at the manager but I want to cover that in another post, firstly let us exorcise the demons from last night and cover a few key areas where the game was won and lost.
Antonio Valencia is NOT a full back, he will admit that and it is clear that against lower opposition you can get away with playing him as a full back but last night against better quality opposition, you get found out and this is my worry for the remainder of the season with teams in the top 6 of the premier league yet to play. Far too often, Valencia was sucked into the middle and ended up in Chris Smalling`s position at centre half. Whether he felt he need to track the player with the ball or more importantly there was a lack of leadership at the back with no one taking control which meant players did their own thing thinking it was the right thing to do.
Sadly, Valencia was dragged into the middle on the edge of his own penalty box for Arsenal`s first goal which left Monreal in acres`s of space to pick his spot. The lack of tackling leading up to the goal on the edge of the box when Oxlade-Chamberlain was allowed to drift across the edge of the penalty area was criminal. Firstly, Daley Blind`s effort was pathetic, Valencia tried to tackle with his back to the opponent and Smalling completely switched off in the lead up to the goal by giving Monreal all the time in the world. Initially, Smalling held Monreal off as the ball went inside, but then followed the ball and not the man, which meant it was too late when he realised his error.
Herein lies Louis Van Gaal`s first problem, he does not rate right back Rafael.
He is great going forward but suspect defensively which is his primary role, so he plays Valencia who is playing out of position. I suspect Eden Hazard may struggle to play full back at Chelsea too but until Van Gaal gets to the transfer window to sort the problem out, United are stuck with this key area still unresolved.
The other issue for Van Gaal to resolve is his centre half partnership. All season Phil Jones, Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling when fit have been guilty of some shocking errors. They all can put a few decent performances together but then drop a clanger. Smalling last night was spooked like a rabbit in the headlights with players running at him with pace. The second goal for Arsenal highlighted the deficiencies in defence, Van Gaal needs a quality right back and and commanding centre half and they cannot come soon enough.
As I got to the ground and saw the line ups, the first thing that struck me was how strong Arsenal`s midfield and forward line looked, even without Olivier Giroud who was on the bench. I understood why Van Gaal went for Fellaini over Juan Mata purely to have a physical presence in the middle but the problem with playing Fellaini this season is that we ultimately opt for the long diagonal ball to him to chest down and gain yardage up the pitch. This is alien to me watching United and I hate it.
Whilst Fellaini did bring many high balls down brilliantly with his chest almost effortlessly, when it fell to his feet he couldn't match the quality of the chest control. Wayne Rooney then became isolated and fed off scraps. Yet if you put a quality ball into Rooney like Angel Di Maria did for the equaliser, you see the how devastating a striker Rooney is. Mata may have struggled with the pace and pressure from Arsenal who swarmed United whenever they got the ball giving the player no time to settle, but Mata was not Chelsea`s player of the season two years running for nothing and his goalscoring and assist records are superb. I would play him with Ander Herrera now until the end of the season because when Fellaini plays, United are too predictable to play against.
Angel Di Maria is having a nightmare season and I bet he cannot wait for it to end. His performance at Newcastle was better after being hauled off at half time against Sunderland and up to his sending off, I felt his performance last night was good. His cross for the equaliser was class and many times he always looked to cut inside and float a ball over to the far post where Fellaini caused the Arsenal defence a few problems. He was unlucky with his shot in the second half going just passed the post on an excellent United counter attack, but once he was sent off United lost that counter attack threat. He had been on the receiving end of some niggling fouls where he got no support from the linesman or referee which wound him up. There is no excuse for his sending off but the frustration of his season and the night boiled over in that mad 30 seconds. Di Maria is not a shirker and was willing to try things despite his form deserting him, bit I suspect he needs a rest in the summer, settle into life at United and come back next season the player we all know he is.
There are so many talking points from the game last night that I would be writing forever. The press will make lots out of Welbeck scoring the winner yet Radamel Falcao (his replacement) not getting onto the pitch.
Let’s face it, Welbeck is a willing runner but often cannot hit a barn door hence why he was sold. Fate often throws up that a former player scores the winner and last night was one of those nights. I have no axe to grind with Welbeck, he could have gone berserk celebrating his goal for all I cared and the initial boos for him when he was substituted were purely frustration which were turned into applause as he left the pitch.
I thought when Carrick came on, it was so United would get a hold of the ball in midfield and with Herrera being on a booking he was the likely one to be replaced but it was possibly a mistake to play Carrick and Blind together, both defensive midfielder`s at home. Herrera, Mata and Di Maria must play together for the remainder of the season if United are to succeed. If Falcao is not to be trusted with scoring the goals, then James Wilson should be. He is one of a few players that actually makes runs and tries to split defenders. All too often there are no willing runners or anyone wanting to move for the ball which leaves the player on the ball with little option but to go sideways or backwards.
So Arsenal progress with no intention of letting slip their grip on the trophy they won last year. United have to dust themselves down for the visit of Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday and United`s biggest test is how to open the better sides up with matches against Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool and Manchester City to come. This slow style with no movement will not break any of those teams down, the style has to change between now and the end of the season.
Thanks for reading and baring with me, please comment on anything you have read.