Saturday had a bit of everything, truth be told. The full range of emotions- frustration, anger, tension, relief and, dare I say it, eventual satisfaction at the second half not only in terms of performance but style to match. Roger East, who looks like he should have taught us all about cumulonimbus clouds, natural disasters and population density rather than refereeing in the top flight of English football, had an… eventful debut match officiating at OT confusing the hardest man in all of town with our beloved Figo megger, easily done… These emotions will definitely be set in stone for a nerve-shredding, nail-biting climax to the season. The edginess, anxiety, ecstasy, disappointments- they are here to stay right until the end. You know they will. We are United. We never do things simple. United doing it like this is the most horrifically addictive drug. It has become so vividly ingrained into all of us, it’s hard to imagine having it any other way either.
As the saying in the ‘Island of Lost Souls’ goes, ‘the natives are becoming restless’. That much was true in the first half against Sunderland. It was quite sobering and said a lot about the quality of our play to witness the standout moment of the opening period being universal unrest from the terraces. And it was quite some unrest indeed. The booing and jeering at Jonny Evans, conveniently the outstanding candidate to take his place on that island, was not so much a direct cannon of abuse in his direction, as much as a collective frustration at the cautious, laboured, even boring build-up.That one moment encapsulated the unease at the transition of style. Although it may be interpreted as spoilt brat syndrome and uncalled for, it may well have the desired effect for the rest of the season. The desperate plea of ‘attack attack attack’ can often be heard reverberating from the crowd when we have/had our foot on the opponents’ throat and wanted us to go for the kill. But it felt like no ordinary chant. This was belligerent dissent from the masses, so vociferous in nature that the stand was virtually shaking.
Despite his vehement claims he could not hear the chant, LVG hopefully centred his half-time team-talk on the wishes of the crowd. He responded by bringing on Januzaj for the beleaguered di Maria. Little Adnan changed the whole complexion of the game, his introduction sparked some urgency into the play. It was a vital injection too from both team and player perspectives: Januzaj has had prior runs in the side with varying degrees of success this season. A January loan move was shunned by the club as a matter of principle, Van Gaal well aware that losing such a talent at such short notice was not a viable option.
This was the cavalier, fearless Januzaj, perhaps with a point to prove, that turned heads so stunningly under David Moyes. He was constantly fed, committing defenders, gliding past them effortlessly and repeatedly. His fellow wing tormentor in chief also had a top game. For all the conjecture that few have developed under Van Gaal, Ashley Young has spectacularly resuscitated his United career. A rather pleasant surprise too, he was many a man’s choice to be first out of the door when the Dutchman got his feet under the table. Their wing-play resembled that of the archetypal ‘United’ way, the second half was as refreshing as the Spring air. Much like we embrace Spring, hopefully Van Gaal embraces that second half and uses it as a template for the remaining matches.
We are all not oblivious to the fact that Januzaj will have the odd bad day at the office, that is the nature of the beast when a twenty year-old is fast-tracked into the first team and thrown in at the deep end. It is part and parcel of a player’s development that the flashes of brilliance will be mixed with a rawness fitting of his age. He might now be worthy of another run in the team after that cameo, it is important we value him and give him the opportunity to realise his undoubted potential. We can ill afford another precocious youngster fly the nest because they ran out of patience like you know who.
Saturday was a timely reminder to those giving Januzaj little chance of making the grade. Remember, the current Ballon D’Or winner was cut from a similar cloth in front of our very eyes at the start: Stints of pure selfishness, signs of petulance, theatrical tumbles, an occasional naivety in his decision making. They were eventual minuscule shortcomings which were ironed out of his game. We took the rough with the smooth and look at the end product we had on our hands. If we follow suit with Adnan, we have a potential world-beater on our books.
I am not enjoying referring to some of our players in that ‘lost souls’ category, but Angel di Maria is in a wretched place at the moment. He ‘had one’ on Saturday. It is time to give him a break, think of it from a solely human perspective: Britain’s most expensive footballer must come with its pressures- Bale has had his problems at Real Madrid, Sewers likewise at Barcelona, Torres at Chelsea, Ozil at Arsenal, it is a pretty exhaustive list of expensive players feeling the heat. Add into this far from idealistic melting pot that he can barely speak the lingo, being toyed around positionally and suffered the horrors of an attempted burglary with his young family, they are all detrimentally impacting on the game we all want to see from him. He started like a house on fire and everyone was turning round in their seats at the ground in awe asking ‘who have we signed here?’. His nosediving form has plummeted to such depths that people are now asking that very question in its most literal form. He needs an arm round the shoulder and some compassion shown. He needs to be taken out of the firing line and come back revitalised. Even though for the money shelled out for his services you expect returns on the outlay with virtually every kick, he is a human being after all, he has had extenuating circumstances. Januzaj performed in his place, we have the personnel to allow him to take a breather. Overall, you’d say we haven’t seen the best of di Maria on a regular basis, you get the impression he will improve next year as he will have had the benefit of seeing what English life is all about, provided what has gone on has not left him too unsettled that he wants out.
Speaking of a South American not giving us value, brings us onto the polarising case of Radamel Falcao. I have turned pseudo-bipolar with the Colombian. One week he should be doing a hell of a lot more, the next he is starved of the service required to coax the best out of his flickering star. I was caught between two stools with him on Saturday. There was no hiding the fact he had a bad first half. Conversely, when you hurl balls at his chest with a man-mountain in Wes Brown devouring his prey time after time, we are not helping Falcao’s cause. What good can come from him hopelessly acting as this battering ram who we play off? That is not his game.
Obviously the game hinged on the red card, but the control and swivel in a blink of an eye was a perfect illustration of the quality he still possesses. That is what could potentially happen if we play to his strengths more consistently. The second-half style, with Young and Januzaj terrorising their full-backs, is tailor made to reap maximum reward from Falcao. He comes alive in the box, a la Ruud, Cole, Solskjaer and Hernandez. We have played to their poaching qualities before, it is just a shame it has not happened for Falcao one way or another.
But for a piece of horrible man management, we may have seen a transformed hitman. Yes, I know what comes with the territory when you question the manager, even though I am unconditionally behind King Louis I will not be immune to the vitriolic projectile that might come my way, so I’ll don my tin hat accordingly. His confidence, dented by firing blanks and predominantly being the fall guy at the earliest opportunity, would have been given a massive boost by that rekindled moment of magic. He was surrounded with adulation from his team-mates, desperate to give him the lift he so needed. After Rooney’s pen rippled the net with the relief palpable, focus from the supporters shifted to the ailing Colombian with the popular ‘lo lo lo lo’ chant in full cry once more. Van Gaal had Fellaini primed for action in the lead up to the penalty, but once Van Gaal had seen us go one up you would surely tell him to sit down again? Fellaini was unmistakeably the ‘Plan B’ to be on the end of the telling wing-play and get his bonce on the end of pumped crosses from deep, let’s not get away from that.
Falcao had the perfect platform to build on that moment of brilliance. His nemesis Brown, albeit wrongfully, was no longer his big, bad bully. Gaps were opening up on the field for United to exploit and create more chances. With the amount of opportunities produced post-penalty, who knows Falcao might have helped himself to a goal or two, it could have been him scoring that poaching header. To take him off within minutes of his best moment by a distance with no necessity for the Plan B whatsoever was a clear indicator that Van Gaal is not convinced and will almost certainly not take up the option to buy. His confidence was fragile at best before getting the hook, it would not be surprising if he is completely demoralised and crushed after the latest morose chapter of his United story. It showcased two of Van Gaal’s prevailing flaws at United- cautiousness and stubbornness- the subsequent boos told you all you needed to know about that decision. He missed a huge trick in man management there. Even the most ardent of Falcao bashers will surely feel a shred of sympathy today.
Typical, isn’t it? The one time you rely on city to get a result and “want” them to do us a favour and they cock it up. With Southampton’s chase winding down and Spurs playing bridesmaids to Mourinho, even a draw yesterday would have suited us down to a tee, the best of both worlds if you like. The dippers are building momentum and will probably continue to do so against Burnley at home in midweek. A worrying prospect for us, as you know they’ll probably beat us at their place.
Newcastle away is a dodgy fixture right now for us. Even Moyes spanked them away last season, but these fixtures where they are in no danger of going down and no meaningful prospects on the horizon can often bring the best out of teams, a nothing to lose, no pressure mentality. Invariably we do well on Tyneside, there can be little room for a blip right now.
Every game at this stage comes under the ‘must-win’ bracket, but it really applies more than ever this season. With our run-in far from ideal, we need to return home with maximum points.
See you midweek.