For a team that struggled so much at the start of the season and then struggled to play decent football for the middle of the season, Manchester United have solved earlier issues and have set themselves up for a strong finish at the end of the season. Strong, confident wins against good teams like Spurs and Liverpool kept United firmly in the conversation for a top-four finish. Their destruction of Manchester City at Old Trafford on Sunday made it clear that United are the real deal. A highly convincing 4-2 win, in which United bossed the game after the opening 10 minutes, has shown that Louis Van Gaal has not only imposed his “philosophy first” style on United, but the players have responded and bought into it. The story I want to get to today is the resurgence of four United players: Marouane Fellaini, Juan Mata, Ander Herrera and Ashley Young.
Each of these players have had their fair share of tough times at United. Brought in as the marquee (and only) summer signing for the start of the David Moyes era, Fellaini was ridiculed during his first season at United for his slow pace and lack of skill on the ball. His greatest accomplishment was running the ball out of play against Bayern in the Champions League quarterfinal. Mata has had plenty of ups and downs since arriving at Old Trafford, with his overall inconsistency overshadowing some spectacular moments on the pitch. Young’s debut season at United was electric; he provided a goal threat from the left wing and terrorized fullbacks with his speed and dribbling skill. His next two seasons, however, were poor; he telegraphed his dribbles, often wasted possession and his crossing was subpar, making Moyes’ “cross at every possible moment” style of play all the more frustrating. Finally, known for his intelligence, pace and passing, Herrera was finding it difficult to get into the team sheet, with starts coming at a premium.
Each of these players have managed a unique turnaround. Van Gaal has a reputation for transforming players and getting the best out of them. While United’s team may not be the best team comparing player to player, the total talent that his squad brings as a unit makes them very, very good. Part of this has to do with what the skipper has done with these four players. Van Gaal’s return to a 4-3-3 system means that Herrera has a much better role in the midfield, playing ahead of Michael Carrick. Here, he can flourish, spraying passes up to Rooney or Fellaini, or out wide to Young or Mata. His link-up play between his partners in midfield is excellent, and he provides the perfect, energetic, quick foil to Carrick’s calm, cool and deliberate style of play. Herrera has found his footing at United, bagging goals in recent weeks and bossing some of the best midfields in the Premier League as part of United’s midfield trio.
Mata, meanwhile, has also found his place. The little Spaniard drifted in and out of Van Gaal’s teamsheet, but Mata seems to have rediscovered the style of play that made him one of the Premier League’s elite players during his time at Stamford Bridge. While Mata is not a natural winger, Van Gaal has placed him down the right flank. Mata’s found a knack for drifting toward the center of the pitch, where he’s often worked his magic by beating his man, playing excellent passes, linking up with Rooney and scoring goals.
In Young’s case, Van Gaal first tried him out as wingback in his 5-3-2 system. Initially, it seemed that Young would actually make a passable wingback. However, the five-at-the-back experiment largely failed, and for a time it seemed that Angel di Maria’s presence would keep Young out of the team sheet. However, after United strung together a few notable performances with Young finding a niche in Van Gaal’s system, he has been simply electric recently, bamboozling defenders, sending in great crosses and linking up well with Daley Blind down the left hand side. Against City, he was fantastic, scoring the first and setting up the second and fourth United goals. His performance earned him a deserved Man of the Match award, and his resurgence has been key to United’s inspiring form in recent weeks.
The real story of resurgence has been Marouane Fellaini. His excellent season for United may have never happened, as he was set to make a loan switch to Napoli until he injured his foot, torpedoing the move. LVG and United fans must now look back on that foot injury and rejoice. Fellaini went from a bumbling idiot on the pitch last season to a veritable bull in a China shop. Last year, Moyes deployed Fellaini as more of a defensive midfielder, contrary to their times at Everton, where Fellaini played a much more advanced midfield role. Van Gaal has redeployed Fellaini in an advanced role, playing in behind Rooney. From this position, Fellaini has the freedom to run rampant on attack. His presence in the hole forces other teams to stick a man on him, allowing other players, including Mata and Herrera, to drift or push into the middle of the pitch. In fact, it’s pretty easy to argue that Fellaini has been the key driver for Mata and Herrera’s recent form. On defense, his tenacity and aggressiveness fit his skipper’s high-press style extremely well. What Fellaini lacks in pace he makes up for in strength, harrowing midfielders and defenders and forcing them to make mistakes. Where Fellaini is perhaps most effective, however, is in the air. Fellaini wins just about every aerial challenge on both offense and defense. This turns something as harmless as a David de Gea clearance into a goal. Van Gaal has found a perfect use for Fellaini’s skill set to devastating effect. The big Belgian has solidified his importance in the team, and has showed what everyone at Everton once praised him for. As United look to solidify a top-four finish and a return to the Champions League, Fellaini will need to continue his fantastic form, as United have two difficult fixtures against Chelsea and Arsenal ahead. Fellaini has shown how influential he can be, and if he continues his form, the Blues and the Gunners will find it hard to stop him.
Photo Credit: Flickr user- Eric Drost