Robin Van Persie this week cleared himself to play in Sunday’s Manchester derby and having his compatriot back in contention for such a crucial fixture will be a welcome boost to United coach Louis Van Gaal.
The Dutch forward has missed the last seven weeks due to an injury sustained in United’s defeat to Swansea but is now nearing a comeback. The Red Devils though, have won every game in his absence.
How can this run, without a player whose goals have been crucial in recent years, be explained?
There are two main reasons why United have won five on the bounce without the marksman.
Firstly, the injury forced Van Gaal’s hand in moving Wayne Rooney back into a striking role. Throughout the season the former Barcelona boss experimented with various methods of including three top strikers in his side. Rooney and Van Persie were joined by Radamel Falcao as the manager searched for the best way to guarantee goals while keeping all of his big guns happy.
With the side faltering, Rooney was pushed deeper and deeper to see if he could impact games. He performed well in the midfield role but his goal threat was naturally diminished.
The injury to Van Persie in February, coupled with Van Gaal finally losing patience with Falcao, saw Rooney return to the forefront of the attack. The 29-year-old responded perfectly, netting four times in the five games since RVP was ruled out. The England captain has brought more than goals to the United cause this spring, with his creativity and energy breathing life into a side that had previously looked lethargic in the final third.
The second reason, which is directly linked to the first, is that Van Gaal had no option but to rearrange his midfield after redeploying Rooney in attack. The result was an almost audible clicking sound as the pieces of the Old Trafford midfield jigsaw finally fell into place.
A new five man midfield arrangement achieved crucial victories against Sunderland and Newcastle before blowing Tottenham away and then obliterating Liverpool’s passing game. Perhaps the most interesting piece of the puzzle was the decision to push Marouane Fellaini further forward behind Rooney.
The big Belgian, a misfit for much of the season, has helped the England man bully defences in the absence of a genuine strike partner, while creating space for the other players around him and forming a solid first line of defence when United loose the ball. The likes of Juan Mata and Ander Herrera have punished the open spaces created by those ahead of them and have chipped in with enough goals to ensure United did not feel Van Persie’s absence.
Elsewhere in the midfield, Ashley Young and Michael Carrick have also enjoyed fine recent runs. Fans at the Theatre of Dreams will head into the weekend’s crucial clash with rivals City in high spirits.
Van Gaal will know that the fixture represents the best chance in recent times to get one over their neighbours.
It will be interesting to see how the Dutchman approaches the game, along with United’s remaining fixtures, with Van Persie and also record signing Angel Di Maria no longer guaranteed starting spots. He will surely welcome selection dilemmas of this nature as his team chase Champions League qualification with seven games to go.