Manchester United fans have hope. After a very rough start to the season, the Red Devils have picked up the pieces despite drawing with West Bromwich Albion and Chelsea, before losing to Manchester City. It’s was a rough start for Louis van Gaal, but there have been some encouraging signs.

Daley Blind

You get the feeling that as impressed as everyone was with the Blind at the World Cup, we hadn’t see the best of the Dutchman. We saw a lot of Blind as someone with good vision and the ability to win the ball back, but him playing as a true left wing back was something relatively new to him. For Ajax, he played as a left back, but also as a defensive midfielder, which is the role he now takes on for United.

In a couple of games for the club, he played as the anchor of a diamond midfielder, though that has changed, as he is now the base of what looks like a 4-1-4-1. It’s important not to label United as a 4-1-4-1 team though, because van Gaal is a manager that puts an emphasis on his team playing in a system with multiple variables, as opposed to a particular shape.

Having played in van Gaal’s three-center back, two-wing back system at the World Cup, Blind is clearly a smart player who understands van Gaal’s ways, and right now he is acting as the coach without the ball on the pitch. He’s responsible for organizing players, which means getting guys to step when they need to step and making sure each of the opposition is accounted for when they roam around the middle of the pitch.

Throughout the game, you can see him pointing things out and making sure guys are where they are supposed to be at each time. This was very important in the game on Sunday, as he had a lot to deal with in the middle. Watch for Blind’s leadership role in midfield when his side plays Crystal Palace at the weekend.

Marouane Fellaini and Game Chasing

The David Moyes signing seems to be establishing himself as a key member of this squad. Him starting might just be a stop-gap solution for now, but if the Belgian continues to impress, he could find himself logging regular minutes for this team.

Whether it was doing a job on Cesc Fabregas last weekend, or acting as the big man against West Brom, Fellaini has done ita all, but this is a guy that has to get forward to be successful. While he can play as a center midfielder, he’s at his best when he has the freedom to get forward and use his body in and around the box. In his last full season with Everton, he featured as an attacking midfielder a lot and that got the best out of him.

Pushing him forward as someone in that attacking midfield four is smart. One of the reasons why Fellaini works in the four ahead of Blind, is because it gets Wayne Rooney into the squad as well. Van Gaal would be foolish to drop Rooney to put Fellaini in behind Robin van Persie (or to drop van Persie for Rooney) in some kind of 4-4-1-1. Playing Fellaini naturally further forward too gets the Belgian in attacking positions more often, though he can drop back to get the ball as well.

There’s a sequence around the 23rd minute of the match against City that perfectly replicates what United want out of Fellaini.

As part of the buildup, Fellaini has dropped out of the attacking midfield four to get the ball.

It’s a simple lay off, but after he gets the ball and gives it back, he turns to advance further up the field. Seconds later, he gets the ball again, lays it off and then bursts forward. 

At this point in the attack, he’s pretty much a forward, as he sits on the shoulders of City’s back line and is side-by-side with Robin van Persie.

In this situation, Fellaini has helped the team advance the ball up the pitch and put himself in the position to disturb the back four. There’s not much else van Gaal can ask for here.

The more Fellaini can get onto the rearguard of the opposition, the more effective he’ll be for United.

A player like Fellaini is also very influential when it comes to chasing the game. He’s physical enough that when he can get forward, he can not only hold the ball up, but also flick the ball onto one of United’s other attacking talents.

United have become pretty adept when chasing games lately, because they have the players to do it. Angel di Maria is frightening when he runs at defenders in space, and Fellaini is obviously a good body to bang the ball up to. This combination not only works in open play, but also on set pieces, as seen when United got the equalizer against Chelsea.

But beyond the basic connection, United don’t seem to be panicking when behind, which is a good sign. Instead, they’re sliding balls into the right places and using their assets to the best of their abilities. There were a few moments late in the second half when United had the ability to get an equalizer.

For example, Di Maria gets the ball below as United probe around the box about 20 minutes from time. City is packed behind the ball, but is nearly unzipped by a smart through ball and a couple of runs behind the back four.

If Fellaini reads this play a little bit earlier, this match could end up 1-1, because that ball was on more than the one the Argentine played was. United are working the channels here, and that’s the sign of a smart and well-disciplined team.

The bottom line is that play isn’t being rushed, as the team looks very calm in possession, if that’s the right way to put it. When looking for an equalizer, the players don’t panic, as they just keep playing their game to the best of their ability. Perhaps that also speaks to a growing confidence within the side.