LONDON — Three thoughts on Manchester United’s 2-0 win at Queens Park Rangers on Saturday.
1. Subs win it for United
Louis van Gaal did not much like being compared to David Moyes last week, but he might be thankful for his predecessor’s sole summer signing of 2013 giving him three vital points towards achieving the goal of Champions League qualification.
Just 11 minutes after arriving as a half-time replacement, Marouane Fellaini crashed home an Antonio Valencia ball to score a goal that looked beyond United. Before it, there had been toil and no little trouble. James Wilson — another successful sub — added another with his injury-time goal.
Losing to Southampton led to questioning the Van Gaal “philosophy” that has so far evaded all but him.
This was still a performance that suggested plenty aside from a well-oiled machine ticking over. Possession was bunk for the first half; QPR had the best chances, while United looked uncomfortable in that 3-4-1-2 shape. It was a strategy that even the stubborn Van Gaal relented in making the alterations that won the game. Moving to a defensive four added solidity and freed up his more creative players with it.
That loss on Sunday might not have happened had Juan Mata made the best of three good chances; that stat of United not having a single shot on target ignored the Spaniard’s profligacy. By the 10th minute here, United had one on target, but that was a long-distance Michael Carrick effort that dribbled straight to QPR keeper Rob Green. Mata meanwhile had an unhappy afternoon and was hooked at half-time for Fellaini after picking up a booking. He and Wayne Rooney in midfield were a combination too similar to work in the tight spaces.
There had been a pre-match riddle when Jonny Evans and not Chris Smalling started, by contrast to what the team sheet suggested. It was explained away as a mistake from their kitman, though again suggested Van Gaal’s message again failing to get across. There was also the odd sight of Phil Jones, a centre-back by breeding, taking a corner. Was this was another sight of Van Gaal’s attempts to reinvent the wheel? Needless to say, Jones’ kick did not beat the first man.
Only when Van Gaal returned his team to something like English football’s orthodoxy did United look in any way effective. Fellaini, nuisance to the opposition as well as goal scorer, grabbed a victory that Wilson cemented.
2. Expensive imports’ struggles continue
Van Gaal’s summation that a 50 million-pound asset yet to show himself worth the fuss is largely correct. Robin van Persie’s absence through injury allowed Falcao a chance to shine that he did not take.
There was nothing like the striking supremacy with which Falcao once duked it out with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in La Liga. His determination to succeed was apparent, and just before kickoff he was to be found imploring Daley Blind to get the ball to him.
The first chance came in the 13th minute, when Mata slid him into the left-hand channel of the QPR box. He shot straight at Green, as was the rebound. Falcao did not shield his disappointment. A similar outcome resulted when the former England keeper made a fine second-half save to deny a Falcao header from an Angel Di Maria cross. Until then, Di Maria had been looking rather less than the reputation that preceded him, though was not helped by playing as second striker. Playing with back to goal does not suit the Argentine. A tactic that worked at Arsenal in November did not fly against Southampton, and nor here. Di Maria is not Arjen Robben. The Bayern Munich man was effective in that role for Netherlands at the World Cup and Van Gaal is trying to replicate that but it isn’t working.
Van Gaal has been accused all season of making alterations that only complicate matters, but the withdrawal of Mata put Di Maria where he felt more comfortable. United soon had the lead.
Falcao, though, did not get his goal. When Wilson found himself in open country and played a square ball, the goal gaped. The Colombian could only swing at fresh air as Steven Caulker’s toe got the slightest touch.
3. Harry’s game at an end?
According to tabloid newspaper reports this week, Harry Redknapp had to win here or face the sack, a story he greeted with a shrug in his Friday news conference. It is form away from Loftus Road — 10 matches, 10 defeats — that has such questions raised against him. Rangers are in a twilight zone; should they drop into the Championship, they may be liable for a 30 million-pound fine for failing to meet Football League financial rules.
This is a fight for life. Without their bijou stadium, Rangers would already be all but down. Redknapp’s men play with a determination at Loftus Road that eludes them as soon as they board their luxury coach.
Having ridden out an early spell of United pressure, Rangers produced their own spate of heavy artillery. David de Gea was called upon to make two fine saves from Charlie Austin shots, as United were hurried and harried by energetic pressing. The second fell to Austin after Rangers had forced a United attack into reverse, and the ball had stolen into the top scorer’s territory. Unfortunately for the striker, De Gea is in as rich form as he.
While United overdeliberated with their passing, Rangers’ approach was simple. Bobby Zamora was the target for the long ball and Austin or the thrusts of Leroy Fer fed off the knockdowns — simple, but nearly effective.
Redknapp, should he survive, wants another striker to come in on loan, though a sincere lack of quality across other departments is what could cost Rangers their Premier League status — and he his employment.