Manchester United’s perfect start to the season ended as Newcastle United produced a battling display to secure their second point of the campaign. United dominated the game but failed to break the deadlock as Javier Hernandez and Chris Smalling came agonisingly close to scoring a late winner.
Three games into the new season, the most encouraging part for the Red Devils is that they have not conceded a single goal even with David de Gea sitting in the stands, but the lack of firepower up front and the listless form of Wayne Rooney is a real worry. These flaws have become a recurring theme on Louis van Gaal’s watch and they could certainly have done with Pedro’s penetrative qualities as they desperately sought to unlock Newcastle’s stubborn defence. Van Gaal’s men played every pass apart from the killer one and despite 20 goal attempts, failed to find back of the net.
The Magpies defended with great togetherness once they had recovered from an opening 20-minute blitz, but Manchester United’s lack of incision was shocking. If Kyle Walker’s own goal on the opening weekend was excluded, Adnan Januzaj’s winning strike against Aston Villa is the only time they have beaten the opposition keeper in the Premier League this season. For a club with their traditions, who are used to fast flowing, attacking football and late moments of drama, it is a dull way to lead life. However, Van Gaal denied that their goals output was a concern.
As for Rooney’s recent struggles, the England captain has not scored for United since the 3-1 win over Aston Villa in April, a dry spell that stretches to 858 minutes, his worst since 2007. However, things could have been different were it not for the controversial offside call that ruled out his fourth-minute strike, but Rooney’s performance overall was anything but encouraging. He did manage two shots on goal, only the second time in 21 Premier League appearances that he has had more than one shot on target, but otherwise he had little joy against Newcastle’s centre-halves, and was eventually moved back into his old No. 10 role so Hernandez could take over as the focal point of the attack, yet they couldn’t find a way past Tim Krul.
It has been three games in the new season, and three is a very small sample size, but it was supposed to be a lot different than this. The departures of Robin van Persie and Falcao in the summer, cleared the way for Rooney to play in his preferred role and lead the line for Manchester United for the first time since his outstanding 27-goal season in 2011/12, but he looks like a shadow of his old self. His lack of mobility, touch and pace prevent him from leading the line successful, and when you compare him to strikers at rival clubs, the likes Sergio Aguero and Diego Costa, the gap in quality between them is quite embarrassing.
So what is going wrong? First of all Rooney should not be held solely responsible for the lacklustre Manchester United performance, so far this season. If you have a look at the team structure, it is set up very nicely. The defence is very solid and the protection in front of it is very good, but the problem is the movement in front of them which is, at times, very slow. If you have a look at Van Gaal’s team during the World Cup, it had a solid base with tremendous penetration at the front from the likes of Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Van Persie.
But if you look at the front three on Saturday, Memphis Depay, Rooney and Juan Mata, are not as good as Sneijder, Robben and Van Persie. Memphis is highly talented, there is no doubt about that, but he looked liked a school boy out there, running into trouble and giving the ball away. He has huge potential and will get better with time, but come on, he is no Robben or Van Persie at his peak. So United do need to be looking at the likes of Neymar, Gareth Bale and other top players to give them that explosiveness in the final third which isn’t there.
The problem with Rooney is that he needs a bit of time to get started, whether it is coming back from a pre-season break or returning from injury, he always struggles to get his sharpness and match rhythm back. At the same time, he is not quick, his technique is not that brilliant, but we are talking about a top player, who is very close to breaking England’s and Manchester United’s top goal scoring record, and for a top player his poor form looks far worse than other top players, and it goes on and off like a tap.
Having played out wide or as a No. 10 by Sir Alex Ferguson and in midfield as a deep-lying playmaker by Van Gaal to accommodate others, there was clear evidence on Saturday to suggest Rooney’s natural striking instincts have suffered as a result. He was trying to do all four jobs and was dropping deep in search of the ball. As you can see in Opta’s tracking data, his average position was far deeper than that of Memphis and about level with that of Januzaj, who was playing as a No. 10. His desperation to make an impact is proving to be harmful to the team and for himself.
United desperately need a focal point for their attack, someone who would play on the shoulder of the centre-halves, make those runs behind them and stretch the defences. Newcastle’s centre-back pairing of Steven Taylor and Fabricio Coloccini are hardly blessed with great pace, but Rooney’s reluctance to play off the last man ensured they were rarely tested. At the same time, he is kind of a player when things aren’t going right, roams around the pitch and doesn’t just wander.
If you look at Van Persie in the last two years, if the ball is not getting to him, he won’t affect the game in any way. If the ball is not getting to Rooney, as it was on Saturday, he tries to get it and influence the game. His touch map provides the perfect evidence for it. He had more touches of the ball in the middle of the pitch than in Newcastle’s box, and the touch map also shows his tendency to roam around from his position in search of the ball and abandon his responsibilities as United’s main man up front.
In his defence, Rooney was not the only United player who failed to impress. Memphis, who scored two stunning goals in the Champions League win over Club Brugge, failed to produce a similar performance and was quite frustrating as he lost the possession on 35 occasions. While Januzaj lacked the final pass and Mata slowed down the tempo of the game. United do have a solid foundation, perhaps one of the best defences in the league so far, but the ball doesn’t come out from the back quickly enough. It is slow, ponderous, and any defence who are well organised, like Newcastle were on Saturday, can see it all coming.
Rooney can play as a No. 9, he has shown that in the past, but not if there are two centre-halves on him and he has no support from his team-mates. He needs quick players around him, who could run beyond him in the channels between the full-backs and the centre-backs, and also stretch the defences. That’s where someone like Pedro could have been very handy for United, as he has shown during his time at Barcelona and also displayed it on his Chelsea debut that he is eager to make those runs in the channels.
Seven points from a possible nine and three clean sheets, despite the fact that De Gea hasn’t played, is a very good start to the new Premier League campaign, but the issues at the other end of the pitch are impossible to ignore and a cause for concern. If United are to win the league or even challenge the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City for the title, then they must act quickly and sign a striker in the next six days, or this could be another season of being content by finishing in the top four.