The yearly center-back crisis at Manchester United has arrived. A couple of seasons ago, in spite of having five center backs in Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Jonny Evans, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, Sir Alex Ferguson was forced to deploy Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick in central defense. For that reason, Manchester United has grown accustomed to makeshift back lines. However, on the back of their worst start to a premier league campaign (five points from five games), the timing of the crisis is calamitous. The patched-up defense will include Marcos Rojo, Rafael, debutant Luke Shaw and either Fletcher or Daley Blind in a center-back role.
Regardless of which one of the two defensive midfielders drops back into defense, the pace of West Ham United duo Enner Valencia and Diafra Sakho will trouble the ponderous central defenders. Rafael’s idiosyncratic defending as well as Luke Shaw’s purported fitness issues present Sam Allardyce with a myriad of areas to exploit. Undoubtedly, every tactical plan will involve deploying the enigmatic Valencia.
The determination, acceleration and directness of Valencia was a key factor in West Ham’s victory over Liverpool last week. And, these attributes make the Ecuadorian a potential game changer in Saturday’s clash at Old Trafford. Louis van Gaal will ask his defense to be wary of the counter attack and United will not play a high line in this game. As is the case with many of Allardyce’s teams, set pieces will play a part in the match. However, it would be unfair to denigrate this West Ham team as brutish. The Hammers are capable of playing attractive football to complement their reputed route A tactics. Stewart Downing is currently in a rich vein of form that is reminiscent of his pre-Liverpool days. In central midfield, Mark Noble will be charged with keeping the play ticking along. An unfortunate injury to the industrious Cheikhou Kouyate will facilitate a change to a counter-attacking 4-4-1-1.
In the absence of the Senegalese midfielder, Ex-Barcelona holding midfielder, Alex Song, will be tasked with arresting the brilliance of Angel di Maria. The two will have played against each other in the El Clasico, and Alex Song will use his experience to counter the creative Di Mara. The Argentinean has looked a special player in his three games as United’s #7. His excellent goal against Leicester was a reminder to Real Madrid of the talent that escaped their grasp. Van Gaal will be hoping that United are able to create and convert enough chances to carry the leaky defense at the other end. While Di Maria has created many chances, the play of Robin van Persie has been disappointing. Biases aside, van Gaal should drop the dutchman and bring Mata back to play the role of attacking midfielder. The Spaniard will feel unfortunate to having been dropped after a good performance in the win against Queens Park Rangers. Mata’s inclusion will ensure that Falcao will have the service he needs to score his first goal for United, after striking the crossbar last week.
A win for van Gaal’s men will see them enter the top half of the table, whereas a win for West Ham could see them go as high as 3rd on the premier league table. It is an indictment of United’s state of affairs that a home game against West Ham is not considered to be an obvious win. Out a possible 33 points, United have secured 31 points in recent games against West Ham. Even as a United supporter, it is hard to argue that it will be 34 out of 36 after Saturday’s game.
Score prediction: 3-1
West Ham United