Taking the temperature of Manchester United

Making observations based off one game and presenting them as fact is reactionary pulp, especially when players and teams have anywhere between 37 and 50 games left, including cups, to rectify mistakes, build chemistry and become comfortable with themselves, each other and the system they play within.

Three games in, and little more than guesswork is still the most prevalent manner of forecasting the next nine months of soccer.

 

Manchester City look frightening, destructive and intimidating now – it takes rare brilliance, superhuman effort and the alignment of several planets to score a combined six goals on teams led by Messrs Pulis and Mourinho in consecutive games – but with a side identical, if not weaker, than the squad that kicked off last season, one feels that the blue Mancunians will have three weeks in February where they pick two points from four games, essentially making them a slightly better version of Arsenal.

The Gunners have already flip-flopped from mercurial to mediocre in the span of three games, but at least trends are beginning to develop.

The same can be said of Manchester United, who appear to be gaining some steam as a deeper, more artistic incarnation of the side that conquered so many teams with attrition and work ethic last season, thanks in part to a prosperous, yet-to-be-concluded spending spree over the summer.

In almost every position, Manchester United have either theoretically gotten better, or gotten deeper. An early pattern that has emerged involves the dynamic between Michael Carrick and Bastian Schweinsteiger, with the famously consistent, reliable Carrick playing the first half, to establish a tone and set the stage, with the German coming on in the second half to close the game off without putting the aging Carrick in danger of fatigue.

However, the former Munich folk hero has been so good, with the exception of an unusually errant passing performance in his own half against Club Brugge, that it may not be long until United’s ‘Schmidfield’ is starting the game, rather than finishing it.

Morgan Schneiderlin has been as advertised, a holding midfielder who keeps the ball moving and performs the intangibles; a more complete, less versatile version of Daley Blind (who continues to be so protean that he may start as striker by year’s end) at the start of the 14/15 season.

Sergio Romero has been a decent shot-stopper, but that he has two clean sheets this season is such a universal anomaly that only Stephen Hawking knows the answer to how it has occurred. A simple pass-back is now a source of drama that can, at any moment, end in comedy, tragedy or something in between.

Memphis Depay’s first three games in the Premier League were so erratic in quality that lingering memories of Antonio Valencia’s one-dimensional antics came fondly rushing back, but his off-the-ball play, when highlighted, has been exemplary.

A little too shot-happy, Memphis has appeared to find comfort as an inside forward, with Januzaj, Mata and Shaw giving him plenty of space and support to cut inside and find space.

Two excellent goals against Club Brugge showed his potential, and his incisive off-ball running shows his preternatural combination of wit, intelligence, speed and power.

He is admittedly all-too-willing to take the shot over the pass, and if a team focus on running him down the wing rather than letting him cut inside, as Michael Owen saliently suggested, perhaps by accident, his impact can be limited.

Arjen Robben, one of the most creative and eloquent ball-charmers in the world, has been hindered this way too. However, let’s not forget, Cristiano Ronaldo wasn’t a regular starter for his first two years, with Ferguson alternating between him, Darren Fletcher and David Bellion.

 

If Ashley Young continues to be an energetic spark plug who does just enough to scare right-backs into treating him like he’s Neymar, he can be slotted in to give Memphis time to comfortably adjust.

The real hero of the summer is Matteo Darmian. Not since Gary Neville’s brand of intelligent over-lapping, pinpoint crossing and tenacious defending have United had a right back like this.

Juan Mata has shown a willingness and, surprisingly, the ability to track back and pick pockets, but as long as he drifts inwards, crowding the central area of the final third, Darmian will have to patrol the entire right side of the pitch.

Against Tottenham, Chadli and Davies didn’t sniff the ball until Darmian was substituted in the 80th minute. Aston Villa and Club Brugge found that attacking Darmian was futile, and had to seek other avenues, accepting that the Italian had put his designated section of the pitch under lock-and-key.

He has also shown grace and cunning going forward, and as likable as Rafael was, he played like a meteor; peaks and valleys of stunning brilliance and comical ineptitude. He burned out after van Gaal took over. Darmian took the shreds of the position vacated by Valencia, and has woven a tapestry of cogent awareness and ability.

Some of the heroes of yesterday have found a home in this Manchester United side. Juan Mata has continued where he left off as the uncrowned king and most important player on the team.

Perennially drifting in from the right wing, the fact that he is supported by the rampaging Darmian and has discovered within himself a willingness to help in defence indicates that he has become the player Jose Mourinho didn’t believe he could become, when Willian was favoured over the Spaniard.

He links up well with every player on the team, even Wayne Rooney, who hasn’t linked up well with anyone over three games this season, and seems to particularly enjoy playing with Darmian, Luke Shaw, Adnan Janazaj and Memphis, all of whom constantly provide moving targets for Mata to aim at.

Marouanne Fellaini and Ander Herrera have been relegated to the bench so far this season, which is a sign of the depth of the team and the struggle of picking the right line-up and formation. Armchair managers are having a field day; who knows what the best United line-up is!

When Herrera plays with the ‘Schmidfield’, United look incapable of conceding a goal, and those three with a combination of Young, Memphis, Mata or Hernandez could be a deadly cocktail of speed and passing that is absent when Rooney and Mata play together.

Fellaini showed more in ten minutes against Brugge than Rooney has shown in 260 minutes, as the wingers and full-backs actually have a target to aim for with crosses that isn’t the 5’9 captain.

 

Like Ashley Young, Fellaini redeemed himself last season, and while it is a shame to see them both resigned to bench duty, their potential as impact players is obvious. Credit should also go to Chris ‘Mike’ Smalling. Once seen as the kid partner to Phil Jones, Smalling’s run in the team since March-April can no longer be considered mere good form.

The centre-back appears to actually be this good, over-shadowing Jones by a wide margin, echoing a young Rio Ferdinand with his pace, ball control and a willingness to play out of defence.

The lost and the damned of United’s 14/15 squad have slowly been re-asserting themselves in what could be a season of redemption for two, and simply an affirmation of talent for one. Luke Shaw, for all his potential, appeared to be vilified by van Gaal last season.

No such inaction this term; Shaw and Darmian have been among the best players so far, for very similar reasons. While Shaw is slightly more offensively-inclined than his Italian opposite, he is no defensive slouch, and playing with Blind allows him to spread his wings and push higher up the pitch, and his athleticism, speed and power allows him to compensate for any (rare) mental gaffe.

Javier Hernandez has returned to United, based on ten minutes of action, a better player than the one who left. Chicarito was admittedly one-dimensional, but anyone who saw him play for Real Madrid understands that this is a man more comfortable in possession and more able to pick out a decent pass.

Hernandez won’t set the world on fire; he never has, but his unofficial role as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer II will demand attention, and he is a theoretical better fit as an out-and-out striker than Captain Wayne, given the midfield behind him. Januzaj, almost by mistake, or as the result of a coup, started against Villa and Brugge.

The weight of the no. 11 no longer seems to bother him, and while his goal celebration against Villa gave a sense of ‘Look what I can do when you give me an opportunity’, the young Belgian’s composure and maturity belying his age is a gracious complement to his control and willingness to run, make the pitch bigger and interlink well with Mata.

It has been encouraging to see him on the pitch, and in such an important position too, that of the trequartista. While the summer spending is apparently far from finished for the Red Devils, the early trends outlined here are promising. Now, maybe Shinji Kagawa will be re-signed.

As an addendum to the above, it is worth commenting on one more, hazier trend, that the 0-0 draw with Newcastle United would suggest is developing. Against Club Brugge, United had freedom and space to pass and move, methodically and ponderously, which, due to the almost damning lack of pace in the final third that was mentioned earlier, is the only way that the team can attack, and had success with it, to a degree.

Memphis’ goals weren’t exactly the result of patience and execution, more so the potential superstar’s level of talent and skill. Fellaini’s goal, however, illustrated what United lacked against Newcastle; a target. Good crosses were delivered, and while much was made of Coloccini and Taylor, they were defending high passes against a 5’9 striker.

The space that was available in Europe, where football is generally more strategic, tactical and predicated on ideas and thought-patterns, has not been available to United in England. The football is more frenetic, speed is essential, and chaos is more prevalent. Newcastle’s defending, while stellar, wasn’t a superhuman effort. Manchester City would have scored two goals at least.

United’s current style, structured, seemingly constructed to enable passing and movement, but lacking pace, is tailor-made for European combat, where teams are less inclined to play with eleven men in their own half. So far, however, United have mostly lacked the pace, penetration and ability to cut through the chaotic, tenacious mishmash of humanity they’ve been confronted with in the Premiership. Chicarito shone in his cameo because of his speed, having the best opportunity to win the game. Look for United to shine in Europe, while continuing to struggle in front of goal domestically, at least in their current incarnation.

Plan B is Route 1 to Fellaini’s chest, which genuinely might be preferable to expecting Rooney, Januzaj and Mata to outrun defenders. No one ever said Old Trafford was the Theatre of Sanity. Somewhere in Dortmund, Shinji Kagawa is shaking his head.

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Ryan Collins

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