The last time United and Newcastle met on Boxing Day, we were treated to some proper festive football fun – the game finished 4-3, with Hernandez scoring in the final minute to clinch a dramatic win. Today’s encounter wasn’t quite as thrilling as that 2012 classic, but there was still plenty to enjoy in a match that we won comfortably.
Perhaps things would have panned out differently if the early penalty had been given against Mata, or if De Gea hadn’t made another stunning save to keep Janmaat’s thunderbolt out when it was still 0-0, but from the moment Rooney opened the scoring for United, the result never looked in doubt.
Rooney at His Best
Rooney took both his goals beautifully, surging into the box from deep in rather Scholes-esque style, and his all-round contribution was immense. He was always available to receive the ball, interchanging well with the other attackers and making important challenges and interceptions deep in our own half. He was exactly the right balance of warrior and artist today, and if he can keep scoring from this deeper role, then the long-running experiment with Rooney-as-midfielder, which stretches back well into the Fergie era, may begin to look more convincing. He is the captain after all, and it’s great to see him exerting such pervasive influence on a game, rather than simply leading from the front.
Mata Pulling the Strings
Mata was really impressive today – he was involved in all our best moves, and played two or three absolutely delightful passes, beginning with a lovely lobbed through ball to Falcao, who slid the ball square to Rooney for goal number one.
Mata’s assist for Rooney’s second was somewhat less memorable, but beautifully timed and weighted nonetheless. He also seemed to play with a bit more grit and muscle than he is sometimes known for, and there was a real sense of purpose and determination in the way he went about his business. I’m a big fan of Juan, and with his recent extended run in the team, he seems to be going from strength to strength. Already a seriously cultured player, it’s nice to remember that he’s still only 26, and I can see him simply getting better and better over the next six years or so. Nice one Moyesey.
Young Staking His Claim
Ashley Young had another solid game at left wing-back, and combined some nice tricks and flicks with a few dangerous deliveries and some convincing tackles to boot. If he can keep up this form, Van Gaal may be forced to leave Luke Shaw on the bench when he’s back to full fitness. On the other flank, Valencia didn’t quite live up to the standard he set against Liverpool, but judging by Rafael’s sloppy cameo in the second half, he may be our best option in that position for the time being.
Still Less Than Polished at the Back
In the central defensive three, McNair continued to play like a far more experienced man, and even had the confidence to pull off a cheeky dummy to create some space for a pass when we were 3-0 up. Jones and Evans were both given license to push forward, and did so frequently, but Phil still too often seems to be charging around like a bull in a china shop when we don’t have the ball, and Evans seems to surrender possession with unnecessary punts up-field when he has the time and space to do something more constructive. Even if they were playing together consistently, this isn’t a defence you’d trust to protect De Gea in the biggest games.
Van Persie and Falcao: The Deadly Duo?
As for our front two, there’s plenty to smile about right now. Van Persie is well and truly back in the scoring groove – as he watched that lofted pass from Rooney drop over his shoulder in the 52nd minute, there was only ever going to be one outcome – even if he did completely miss the ball with an attempted right-foot strike a bit later on.
Falcao put in a great shift too, laying one on for Rooney and generally getting far more involved than we’ve seen so far. He completed 100% of his passes (18/18), as well as contributing a successful tackle, interception and clearance. He didn’t manage a goal, but repeatedly came close – on another day he could have scored three in the first half – and there’s a growing sense that as we enter the business end of the season, the Colombian may just begin hitting something like his top form.
Bring on 2015!
This wasn’t the most entertaining or ruthless display we’ve ever seen from United by any means, but we’re winning games, and we’re increasingly fun to watch. The improvement is steady and clear, but there’s still plenty of scope for more; one or two gears left to find.
Add Di Maria back into he mix and find a way to stop the relentless stream of injuries, and we should be able to at least defend our third place position whilst preparing for a serious title challenge next year. The chances of winning it this season are remote at best, but the fact that it’s even up for discussion as we head into 2015 is a massive relief after having stared into the abyss under Moyes.
Thanks for making this a “fantastic Christmas” Van Gaal. Now let’s dispense with Spurs and Stoke, and make it an even better New Year.