Last weekend’s 3-0 home win over Spurs was quite clearly our best performance of the season so far, but many were quick to stress how poor Tottenham were on the day, and there was a definite feeling that we shouldn’t get too carried away.
Today’s fixture saw us heading to Anfield for the game everyone agrees is England’s biggest, with Liverpool having turned their season around and notched up an impressive five league wins on the trot, including a 2-1 win over Manchester’s other club. On paper, Liverpool and Arsenal were the division’s form teams going into gameweek 30, so there was little doubt we’d have to be at our best to beat to the Scousers.
The last team we won at Anfield in the Premier League was in September 2012. It was a game with plenty of drama – Jonjo Shelvey was sent off, and Van Persie won it with a late penalty past Reina. 12 of the players in the matchday squad on that day have either retired, moved to another club, or left United on loan. Could the new-look United, fresh from that confidence-boosting show against Spurs, make this game another one to remember? The answer was a resounding “yes”.
Our 3-0 win at Old Trafford earlier this season went some way to avenging the horrible defeat we suffered by the same scoreline under Moyes in March last year, but today was our chance to fully exorcise those demons and remind our biggest rivals what we’re all about. We weren’t universally convincing, but there was as much drama and entertainment as we could possibly have hoped for this afternoon, and crucially, we walked away with all three points. And Gerrard getting sent off in his last game against us, after less than 60 seconds on the pitch – that was a thing of rare beauty indeed.
This season, we’ve been more accustomed to seeing United salvaging points from precarious positions, rather than dominating from the start and closing tight games out at the end, so it was great to see us securing the win after we lost momentum and conceded a goal in the second half today.
Juan Mata Proves His Worth to Van Gaal
I’ve been a big fan of Juan Mata since long before he joined Man Utd. He’s not the fastest or the strongest player we have by any means, but he has always oozed class and intelligence, both on and off the pitch. Unfortunately, Van Gaal has been reluctant to use Mata for the most part this season, but Di Maria’s suspension last week gave him the chance to start in a big game, and it was absolutely right that he kept Di Maria out of the starting 11 today.
He had two shots today, both of them finding the net. The first was beautifully taken on his weaker foot; the second was a contender for goal of the month, if not one of United’s goals of the season. Even Thierry Henry said it was “ridiculous.”
Amazingly, he’s now scored 13 goals from just 20 shots on target in the Premier League for United. Today, he also completed 93% of his passes, managed 3 successful take-ons, contributed defensively – including a tackle on Moreno in the 28th minute – and made a couple of good interceptions too. Today he proved that he can play in the biggest games, and the line-up we’ve seen in these last two games seems to suit him nicely.
Has Van Gaal Finally Found His Best Formation?
The way we moved the ball in the first half today – the total domination we exerted – was a joy to watch. After Fellaini revealed Rooney’s speech to the players before the Tottenham game, there was a suspicion Wayne may have said something along the lines of “forget this philosophy bollocks – just go out and play!” The fact that we continued where we left off today, playing more good football with an unchanged team, suggests that there’s hopefully some underlying structure to what we’re seeing. Let’s hope the selections stay nice and consistent for the last 8 games so we have a chance to keep this refreshing fluency to our game.
Carrick’s return has clearly been key to United’s improvement, so it’s vital that he stays fit, but we also need to figure out who’s going to replace him pretty soon. Meanwhile, Fellaini’s growing importance to the team cannot be overlooked. He’s a nightmare to play against, and the idea that his presence inherently restricts us to hoofing it up the pitch was just an overreaction to a couple of games where we did that as a last resort.
There are still plenty of concerns that remain, however, following these two impressive wins. One such question is when will Di Maria get his act together? Catching the ball before it went out of play was another example of his tendency to disengage his brain, and despite assisting Mata’s second goal, he always looked in danger of losing the ball this afternoon.
Overall, though, we have to be delighted that we’ve hit this form at this point in the season. April will be a massive month for us, but the team should be raring to go now, and the fans will be right behind them.
I, for one, can’t wait for the home games against City and Arsenal, and other than our visit to Stamford Bridge, the rest of our remaining fixtures look entirely winnable. That vital top four finish is looking like a far more realistic prospect after today, and the possibility of finishing in the top two or three remains very real indeed.
Who knows why it’s taken so long for us to play football like this again, but maybe United are finally back…