If last season taught me anything, it was to savour and appreciate every victory you muster. It was paramount to get back to winning ways against Burnley. Even though the prime objective was eventually achieved, victory was hard to savour, it did not feel like one, even if Southampton’s draw lifted us into third. It was a strange evening in more than one respect:
Phil Jones getting injured? Nah, that’s standard. But his replacement scoring 22 seconds after entering the fray and going on to notch another? Chris Smalling is our joint top scorer in 2015, I don’t think it’s worth a quid that will be the case come May.
What cannot be joked about was the fact we were outplayed and outran in the first-half by a side, albeit industry personified, who are likely to be staring into the relegation abyss in the coming weeks.
The opening period was a virtual role reversal, if you were told the positions of the sides before kick-off without knowing who was where, you’d have been forgiven for thinking it was the visitors who were aiming to claim their spot in the Champions League.
You have to credit Sean Dyche’s troops for giving their all and some in the first half. They were pressing from the front, epitomised by the indefatigable Danny Ings (more on him shortly). United could not beat the press meaning we were hemmed in and struggled to get out of our half. The seemingly endless harrying was resulting in palpable tension, not just on the pitch but in the stands, and led to countless stray passes.The needle from the masses was transferring to the players, it’s hard enough for the likes of Evans and Smalling to give off a mere semblance of composure on the ball at the best of times, let alone with 75,000 disgruntled Mancs.
The undeserved second goal from the Jaeger-bomber went a long way to appeasing the fans but it papered over the cracks of what was a dismal first-half showing. However, the second goal led to an improved atmosphere and thus a better performance. It is a veritable catch-22 for fans in that situation- you know full well that the negativity and vociferous anger at every misplaced pass or mistake is a a major hindrance to the players. Although they may appear to block everything out, they will doubtless feel the tension and the pressure building. Yet, at the same time, fans are well within their right to express their displeasure, they pay their hard-earned money, they are entitled to voice their opinions. Thankfully, Smalling’s second header of the game was timed to near perfection, otherwise there may well have been some small-time booing, it was that sort of atmosphere at the time.
Despite United robbing the spoils at half-time, it was virtual one-way traffic. Although you expect the underdogs, by nature, to raise their game by at least a few notches, and this is not taking the credit from Burnley by the way, we are United. LVG is a broken record when he repeatedly acknowledges that we are well below standards in the first half of matches: Stoke away, Yeovil away, Southampton at home, Cambridge away, QPR away, West Ham away, Burnley at home- and all those are in 2015. That is FAR too many games, for a side aspiring to be back among Europe’s elite next season, where we have started sluggishly.
There is a universal bemoaning that we need a good rollicking at half-time to spark us into life- and even though we are third and on course to achieve Champions League football again, we will not get away with our sleepwalking forever. The chasing pack will not go away, it is up to us to make the top 4 our own. To realise our aims this season, we need to come out of the traps flying and start to blow teams away. We are getting away with it, I think we can all acknowledge that. If Ings had taken the early second-half present gift-wrapped by Smalling, the momentum might have shifted and the tension may have reared its ugly face again. We have had serious let-offs this season- be it nigh-on Sunday league errors like that, or De Gea’s continued brilliance to merely keep us in games- to echo Red Nev, we are getting away with murder sometimes. There is no hiding from it, we NEED to improve, it is not optional.
Believe it or not, it did get better, namely when a talented Spanish midfielder came on. Bet you lot are sick to death of me banging the Herrera drum, but he gives this team the balance it so desperately craves. He moved the ball quicker, he gave us more control in midfield by giving Rooney some added insurance in there and we improved in possession as a result. He allowed di Maria and Januzaj to release the shackles that previously inhibited them by moving to the wing, RvP moved into a withdrawn role and the 4-2-3-1 was so much more mightily effective. The width stretched Burnley, who had to force the game a bit more, meaning there were more spaces to exploit. We will be absolutely A-OK if we play with the second half balance, composure and tempo on a more regular basis.
Our toiling strikers were the very antithesis to Burnley’s incessant livewire up top, the aforementioned Ings. He ran the channels intelligently and willingly, he closed down the centre-backs at will, buzzed around with his pace, he is a livewire and took his header really well. Watching 10 minute match highlights obviously does not paint the full picture but, as a match goer, I am in a privileged position to see players in the flesh. I can tell you now, Danny Ings could go all the way. He must be one of the best free agents, minimal tribunal fee aside, going this summer- that’s if Burnley go down of course. It is hard to believe he is only 22, he is top drawer. It would be a serious coup if Moyes managed to entice him to Sociedad, Brenda will be sniffing around too.
We have someone similar in young James Wilson but having another young Englishman who has pace to burn, a finish and harasses defenders- something Falcao and RvP are not currently doing, would be a major fillip for United. If we elect to pass on Falcao, Ings would definitely be on my shortlist. He has found his feet in an unforgiving league and is more than holding his own. I realise that it is common nature to over-inflate English players because of the passport they hold. A good run of form and they should be automatic starters for England- we have seen that, perhaps justifiably so, with Harry Kane, but that’s also been the case with Saido Berahino and Charlie Austin too. The Ings hype is warranted though. Someone will get a top player in the summer.
It is a huge concern that the Falcao/RvP dynamic looks so disjointed and thus cannot really be called a ‘partnership’. With Wayne Rooney virtually donning the gloves, in this deep going deeper role, common sense would dictate that one of the duo surviving on previous reputation be ditched for Rooney to return to his best position, allowing Herrera to play a more prominent role. Van Gaal maybe sees it differently, Monday’s team selection will be interesting.
Our immediate focus turns now to that FA Cup tie at Preston North End. Van Gaal has already delivered a brutal warning that if we put in a similar performance to last night, our only remaining chance of silverware will be in serious jeopardy. It will not be a foregone conclusion either, Simon Grayson is a savvy manager who has enjoyed previous FA Cup success against us with the old enemy. Preston’s squad, with the likes of Paul Gallagher, Jermaine Beckford (scorer in said triumph for Grayson) and veteran Kevin Davies in it, are arguably a Championship club in waiting, but the onus is on us to ensure we take another step towards Wembley.
Oh, please don’t take my vexation at the first-half as an anti-Van Gaal tirade, I firmly believe that Van Gaal will deliver the goods and bring the good times back. It’s just that we have prided ourselves as a football club on setting incredibly high standards down the years, and you expect better from the plethora of attacking riches we have assembled. I’m sure it will get better, even though there are hints of apprehension about our top 4 chances, we have it in our own hands, and that’s how you’d want it, even if it seems a miracle that we are where we are given how horrendous we have been playing at times.
To spin it positively (someone has to), 1 defeat in 18, 4 places and 6 points better off than last season is not too shabby for a long-ball team who have supposedly not progressed!
See you next week, hopefully reflecting on another win and an improved performance.