What a difference a week makes. So much of Manchester United’s recent Old Trafford’s experience has been grounded in negativity – the sum of six home defeats in the Premier League last season, adding to Swansea City’s win on the opening day of the new campaign. Yet, United may just have turned a corner after the Reds’ thumping victory over a listless Queens Park Rangers last weekend. This despite so many column inches devoted to the “crisis” at Old Trafford.
QPR might have hoped for better at Old Trafford having lost five in a row against United in Manchester. As it turned out, the west Londoners were little more than patsies for van Gaal’s expensively revamped United side – one that returned to the attacking intent of old in scoring four against the Hoops. New faces and, perhaps, a fresh start for Van Gaal’s side.
United’s once proud adventure had seemingly been forgotten after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in May 2013. Indeed, QPR’s cheap dismissal might just mean more than just a sound victory and three points; it was, perhaps, the true dawn of the post-Ferguson era after last season’s failed David Moyes experiment.
The weekend’s fixture with Leicester City will provide a sterner test of course. Yet, victory aside, Van Gaal will also be pleased with the speed of passing, creativity and flexibility his side found against QPR. Not least because his new players have largely settled into the team well.
Angel Di Maria’s man-of-the-match performance against the Londoners was a study in pace and subtly; the Argentinian both the team’s main creative force and the player most likely to inject a change of tempo. Meanwhile, Daley Blind revelled in a defensive midfield role in Van Gaal’s new-look 4-1-2-1-2 diamond formation. Marcos Rojo also enjoyed a productive outing at left-back.
Of United’s summer imports, only Radamel Falcao, who was deployed for little over half an hour as a substitute last weekend, and Luke Shaw, are yet to start a Premier League match.
Little wonder confidence is finally on the up as Van Gaal’s “philosophy” begins to pay dividends after a difficult start to the new campaign.
“QPR was great, it’s always great to play in a game where the team are going forward, playing flowing football and scoring goals,” said captain Wayne Rooney.
“It was an exciting day as there were a lot of new players making their debut for us. The performance did look impressive. We’re working hard in training and putting the hours in to make sure that we are playing well together when we go into games. When you look at the world-class players that we are bringing in it makes for exciting times for us all.”
The influx of new players, together with those returning from injury, leaves the Dutchman with greater resources than at any time in his short tenure. The squad may still be short a winger, world-class central midfielder and an experienced defender, but these gaps are likely to be filled in the coming windows.
In attacking positions Van Gaal now boasts a surfeit of talent, with Rooney, Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao seemingly competing for two positions. The trio completed United’s game against QPR, with Van Persie left, Falcao right and Rooney through the middle in an attacking 4-3-3 system, although in the short-term Van Gaal may retain the diamond midfield that started against QPR. Indeed, the Dutchman is certain that Van Persie, Falcao and Rooney can all feature in the same team, whatever the formation.
“Falcao is a very good striker, I already said that when he came here in his first press conference,” said Van Gaal.
“I like van Persie as well – he is also a very good striker. Then we have Wayne Rooney and Adnan Januzaj, and we also have James Wilson. We have five players for the two striker positions and I have to choose.”
Still, it is clear that the Dutchman is far from wedded to any one system this season. His side has also been deployed in 3-4-1-2 and 4-4-2 formations at times during the campaign. Whether uncertainty or tactical genius, the Dutchman appears comfortable asking his players to be flexible – a trend that may well continue on Sunday lunchtime.
“I started with another system because of the quality of the players,” explained Van Gaal. “Now we have bought quality players in and so you have to look at these qualities and then want to perform the philosophy that we have. Then you are coming out in this system, but that can change also. It is not a fixed solution.
“I have played that already in my first match at Ajax, where it was a law that we played 4-3-3. But I played 4-4-2 as trainer-coach of the second team because I saw it was more suitable for the quality of my players.”
In addition to finding a solution in attack, Van Gaal has decisions to make at the back with Chris Smalling and Shaw available after injury. The Dutch manager could hand a Premier League début to Shaw despite Marco Rojo’s positive performance against QPR, while Tyler Blackett and Johnny Evans are also competing for positions in a back four. Angel Di Maria, Ander Herrera and Blind should continue in midfield.
Meanwhile, Leicester City boss Nigel Pearson could include Kasper Schmeichel and former United player Matty James after the pair recovered from injury. Three additional former Reds – Tom Lawrence, Danny Simpson, Ritchie De Laet – could all be involved, although Nick Powell cannot play against his parent club.
Yet another former United player, Danny Drinkwater, will also feature, while Jack Barmby and Louis Rowley now play at Leicester, bringing to eight the number of ex-Reds at the King Power Stadium.
“Louis van Gaal has changed an awful lot there – and for the better it would seem from last weekend. It’s exciting as a fan,” Drinkwater told MUTV.
“I suppose Sunday’s going to be a bit mad for me being a United fan but I’m looking forward to it. Hopefully, my family will be supporting Leicester because of me but they’re United fans as well. I like the Reds to win wherever they go but not this time.”
“There’s a good balance in our squad and we’re all excited about the challenges this season. We’ve had a few tough games so far but we’ve more than put ourselves about. It’s about keeping that going and staying on track.”
For Van Gaal’s side Sunday’s match offers the chance of consolidation after a first victory of the season. Pearson’s side is unlikely to be as passive as the Hoops, but with United already seven points behind the leaders the Reds can afford little but another victory.
That United has emerged victorious in the past nine Premier League meetings with Leicester bodes well; confidence riding high once again is even better.
Leicester (4-4-2): Schmeichel; De Laet, Morgan, Moore, Konchesky; Mahrez, Cambiasso, Hammond, Schlupp; Nugent, Ulloa
United (4-1-2-1-2): de Gea; Rafael, Evans, Rojo, Shaw; Blind; Herrera, Di Maria; Rooney; Van Persie, Falcao
Leicester: Hamer, Wasilewski, King, Taylor-Fletcher, Wood, Albrighton, Knockaert, Vardy, Lawrence, Drinkwater, Simpson
United: Amos, Johnstone, Blackett, Thorpe, Vermiji, Januzaj, James, Anderson, Fletcher, Mata, Wilson
Leicester 32 – Draw 26 – United 59
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Assistants: S Beck, J Collin
Fourth Official: L Mason
Leicester 0-2 United
£1 bet club
0-2 @ 15/2
Running total: £(-)5