Despite a laboured performance in parts, Manchester United will come away from the trip to Huish Park on Sunday buoyed not just by the result but also the return of the club’s superstar, club record signing Angel Di Maria who marked his return to the first-team with a well taken goal in injury time.
Di Maria had been suffering with a groin injury since the fixture against Hull City in late November, making just one substitute appearance since.
In that time United have impressed on a run of nine matches unbeaten in all competitions, despite struggling for form away from home with Louis Van Gaal’s side drawing three consecutive away matches since facing Aston Villa on December 20th.
One of the hallmarks of United’s recent unbeaten run has been the use of the 5-3-2 formation which has seen Wayne Rooney drop into midfield with Radamel Falcao and Robin van Persie leading the line up front. The midfield however has lacked an element of balance with Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney preferring to occupy similar positions.
As the matches have progressed Rooney and Mata have formed a partnership and have impressed with their link up play, however away from Old Trafford United struggle to take matches by the scruff of the neck and without Di Maria cannot execute the famed quick counter-attacks which proved so devastating against Arsenal earlier this season.
It is often a fruitless task attempting to play counter-attacking football without any real speed in a team, particularly in midfield. As gifted as Mata is technically, the physical aspect of his game is one which isn’t best suited to a counter-attacking game plan. As such Manchester United have been heavily reliant on Ashley Young to provide attacking impetus from the left wing-back position in recent weeks.
This has proved moderately successful with the former Aston Villa winger having enjoyed arguably his best run of form in a Manchester United shirt before getting injured against Stoke City on New Year’s Day. That being said, opposing teams, particularly Tottenham Hotspur through the use of Andros Townsend as a defensive winger, managed to stifle Young’s effectiveness leaving United little cutting edge on the break.
A result of having little pace on the counter-attack is that United have often found themselves with a significant amount of possession in midfield and in their own defensive zone but with few creative options from that point.
In turn this creates a scenario within which Jonny Evans has to play a risky pass over a distance of 10 to 15 yards longer than he would normally be comfortable with. The pass would require one of Falcao or Van Persie to drop into a deeper position to receive this pass, the problem then is that the forward has his back to goal and is nowhere near a position where he can have an impact on play after moving the ball on.
Matches away from Old Trafford have become particularly difficult for United because of this with teams preferring to sit back, soak up pressure and then look to score from a set-piece or a break once United’s defence become increasingly tired, something illustrated throughout the busy festive season. With United’s opponents sitting back, the process of slow build-up play starting with Jonny Evans often leads to the ball being stuck in a vacuum like area in the middle of midfield with the match at times grinding to a walking pace.
With Di Maria in the side this situation rarely occurs, Evans can simply pass the ball over a significantly shorter distance to Di Maria who then makes up the ground with a piercing forward run. United’s options are then increased in the final third as Di Maria can either keep running towards goal or find one of Falcao or Van Persie in a much better position near the opponent’s goal.
It is no coincidence that United’s most important player happens to be the most expensive. Di Maria is the genuine world-class addition that United have been crying out for and seemingly the Argentine’s best attribute is his consistency.
Whenever he has started matches this season he has been a key component of United’s attacking play and his performance against Yeovil Town after coming off the bench suggests he is ready to return to the starting XI.
With the matches now coming thick and fast, especially with United progressing in the FA Cup, it may well be time for United to rotate the likes of Mata and Michael Carrick in order to keep the squad fresh, Di Maria’s return allows Van Gaal to do just that as well as giving the Dutch coach an extremely effective weapon in attack.
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