UNITED’S RESURGENCE LED BY FELLAINI
Manchester United are the kings of Manchester this season. The Red Devils won their six-straight Premier League match on Sunday in impressive fashion and secured their first victory in five Manchester derbies against Manchester City.
After an early wobble, Louis van Gaal’s side were worthy of their 4-2 victory as Marouane Fellaini played a leading role in helping United increase their lead to four points over their “noisy neighbors” and seemingly hammered another nail in Manuel Pellegrini’s coffin with his tenure as City boss becoming more delicate by the day.
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Fellaini rose above Gael Clichy at the back post in the 27th minute to send a towering header into the net and put United 2-1 up, after Sergio Aguero gave City an early lead, but it wasn’t just his goal that should be admired. The Belgian was everywhere and his energy and industry playing in behind Wayne Rooney and then drifting out to the left flank caused Yaya Toure and City’s lackluster midfield all kinds of problems, which was evident for Juan Mata’s third goal as Toure failed to track Fellaini and left a huge hole which United exploited expertly.
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Last season Fellaini didn’t replicate the form which persuaded United to pay $43 million for the former Everton midfielder but now he’s flourishing and United’s boss is pleased enough to be keeping the likes of Angel di Maria and Radamel Falcao on the bench behind Fellaini.
“The fans also see that he is very important for the team, he scored goals and gave pressure when we needed it. He plays the ball to the same color, which is also very important. I am very happy for him,” Van Gaal said. “Fellaini, in my opinion, he was a lot of times injured but he is from day one he is the player who is always doing what I ask. Okay, you can say not always very good but never bad. That is also very important for a manager, that a player will always give a certain level of performance.”
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United’s level of performance was sublime as they suffocated City’s backline and midfield with relentless pressure by deploying a 4-1-4-1 formation with Michael Carrick orchestrating the midfield and allowing Fellaini, Ashley Young, Mata and Ander Herrera to push forward. Mata, Young and Fellaini all scored, as the balance is right and confidence is sky-high at Old Trafford. On Sunday, the atmosphere was electric as United’s fans tasted success in the derby for the first time in five and kicked City, who have now lost four of their last six matches, while they were down.
Asked about the key to United’s success which has seen them rise to third in the PL ahead of a trip to champions-elect Chelsea on Saturday, Van Gaal had the following to say.
“What is the key?” Van Gaal said. “That’s the process and I have told you every press conference there’s a process and I have said, if you can remember, that when the players do understand what they are doing on the pitch with confidence, then you can continue much easier than before. I have said that, it is a process. I have explained it a lot of times and now I think maybe a lot of players do understand what we are doing and what we are willing to perform.”
The penny has dropped for United and they are building momentum for a title charge next season. Plus, as Van Gaal made a point of mentioning in his post-game press conference, United’s fans now have bragging rights in their hometown until next season with a 4-3 aggregate win over the two games this season. It seems Manchester has taken to Van Gaal and vice versa.
COQUELIN CRUCIAL FOR BALANCED GUNNERS
On Saturday at Turf Moor Francis Coquelin was praised by manager Arsene Wenger following their 1-0 win against Burnley. After the game I asked the Arsenal boss about the balance the French midfielder provides.
“First of all he has shown his individual qualities in winning the ball and passing it quickly and he is very strong in the challenge. But as you said, he contributes to the balance of the team,” Wenger said. “That’s very difficult to measure. The balance of a team sometimes depends on one player with some characteristics that the others haven’t got. It looks like he has hugely contributed to that.”
High praise from Wenger, indeed. Since bursting onto the scene against Manchester City in an away-day masterclass back in January, Coquelin has displayed a wonderful knack for timing tackles to perfection and then holding back to protect the Gunners’ back four. His restraint and discipline is remarkable, and the 23-year-old midfielder is allowing Arsenal’s talented attackers to flourish. Away at Burnley on Saturday the Gunners were pushed to their physical limits by a bruising Sean Dyche side who could have nicked a point but it was Coquelin’s type of game as he chipped away at Burnley’s midfield and disrupted the Clarets’ tempo.
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The Gunners have now won eight in a row and with six matches left Wenger played down their title chances, but they are building momentum and the pieces are being put in place for next season already. Before their 1-0 win at Turf Moor on Saturday, ProSoccerTalk caught up with Arsenal’s Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis who said he’s “not happy” with their campaign but is getting pretty excited for next season.
“We are not happy but we are going to keep pushing to the end and see how far we can go,” Gazidis said. “We are happy with the way the squad has developed and we are very focused how we can make a positive end to the season. After that it will be a question of how can we progress the team further so that we can have an even better season next year. We have a squad that’s clearly coming together. It’s a relatively young squad so it will continue to improve.
LEICESTER ROLLING, LEGEND OF “PARDIOLA”
The Foxes are on the charge. Leicester won for the second-straight game to breath new life into their battle against relegation. Nigel Pearson’s side now sit on 25 points and are just three points off safety with a game in hand. Yes, that game is against Chelsea but if they can nick a point against the Blues, their other games are suddenly seeming rather winnable compared to a few weeks ago. With Hull City falling fast, Burnley struggling to score and QPR continuing to huff and puff but falter, the Foxes have a real chance.
Then there is Sunderland. After beating Newcastle 1-0 last week, Dick Advocaat’s side were hammered 4-1 at home by Crystal Palace. The new Sunderland boss still has plenty of work to do to keep the Black Cats up, while his rival in the Palace dugout on Saturday is grinning like a Cheshire cat. Alan Pardew has won 25 points since he took charge in January as the Eagles sit in 11th place on 42 points after being in a relegation scrap when he arrived. Pardew has set Palace up perfectly for the players they possess as Wilfried Zaha and Yannick Bolasie rip teams apart on the break with their searing pace. Bolasie scored an 11-minute hat trick at the Stadium of Light on Saturday and his hunger to chase lost causes was greater than the urge Sunderland’s players had to defend. Bright days are ahead for Palace and “Pardiola.”
SHERWOOD HAS THE LAST LAUGH
Tim Sherwood’s Aston Villa provided the most shocking result of the weekend as they beat Tottenham 1-0 away from home. Sherwood was fired by Spurs somewhat acrimoniously at the end of last season after taking over midway through the 2013-14 campaign, and on his first return to White Hart Lane Christian Benteke gave his Villa side a crucial three points in their battle against relegation.
Speaking afterwards, Sherwood was delighted to grab just a third PL win as Villa boss on his return to Spurs.
“It is a sweet victory. You always want to do well when you come back to your old club,” Sherwood said. “Tottenham Hotspur has been excellent and a fantastic club for me. I’ve had a lot of well wishes from people inside this football club. There was a lot of people rooting for me today and rooting for Aston Villa and I appreciate that.”
Often mocked for his smugness and many calling his tactics one-dimensional, Sherwood comes in for plenty of criticism. Whether or not that’s justified remains to be seen but what you can’t accuse him of is failing to galvanize a Villa side which resembled a sitting duck and looked in serious danger of being relegated in February when Paul Lambert was fired. Now, Villa sit six points above the drop zone and Sherwood will be smiling after getting one over the people at Spurs who deemed his managerial ability not good enough to lead Tottenham.
USMNT UPDATE: YEDLIN DEBUTS
Four U.S. national team players were in action across the PL this weekend. Tim Howard made a string of fine saves to help Everton pick up a point on the road at Swansea City on Saturday, while Geoff Cameron played the full 90 minutes at right back for Stoke City in their 1-1 draw away at West Ham United. Brad Guzan helped Villa to their massive 1-0 win at Tottenham as the Illinois native recorded a superb shutout. His heroics came against a fellow USMNT man, as DeAndre Yedlin made his debut for Spurs.
The former Seattle Sounders right back came on with 11 minutes to go at White Hart Lane and the 21-year-old reflected on making his bow in the PL before he heads to San Antonio to play for the U.S. against Mexico on Wednesday.
“It’s unbelievable to make my debut here, something I’ve looked forward to for a while now but the circumstances weren’t the best and it was a disappointing loss,” DeAndre said. “The only thing going through my head now is the loss. The debut was great but the loss overshadows everything. It’s disappointing but we have to keep our heads up. We’ll look to come back and get those points back.”
Premier League Playback comes out every Monday as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here.