It is now almost a year since Manchester United won a game against a top four side, but there were positives to be drawn from the 1-1 draw against Chelsea on Sunday, even though United remain a work in progress.
1) United show the steel of old
Raise your hand if you remembered the last time United had scored a late equaliser before Monday night. Louis Van Gaal’s side might still be a work in progress, which is hardly surprising considering the number of the changes the team has endured since the Dutchman’s arrival, but, psychologically at least, United increasingly look like a side miles away from their 2013-14 vintage.
Last season, with the notable exception of the game against Arsenal at home, United folded like a pack of cards against the top four clubs and, even against lesser opponents, they never looked capable of getting back into the game after going behind. Draws against West Brom and Chelsea show that while there’s plenty to work on, Van Gaal looks to have re-established a familiar resilience into the side.
2) Mind the gap
Once the dust settles over Van Persie’s equaliser and what his goal might or might not mean for United’s long-term future, the numbers still don’t make for a pretty reading as far as Van Gaal is concerned as United remain eight, behind Arsenal and Liverpool, albeit only three points off fourth spot.
Drawing against Chelsea is, of course, far from a cardinal sin, when one considers that the league leaders had only dropped points away at City so far this season, but United need to start winning games and, even more importantly, they need to pick up a big scalp to finally shake off the big game fear that crippled them under David Moyes.
For the first time in a year United held their own against a better side, registering more shots – 19 to Chelsea’s nine – more attempts on target – seven against four – and just edging the possession percentage – 51% to 49%. Converting those numbers into three points is perhaps the biggest challenge facing Louis Van Gaal at the moment.
3) Dave saves
United’s defensive frailties have been thoroughly exposed in the first three months of the season but things could have been a lot worse had it not been for David De Gea.
The Spaniard is arguably among the finest keepers in the world and was superb yet again on Sunday, saving from Didier Drogba in the first half and producing two excellent saves in the second half, as he stopped Eden Hazard and Willian, while there was nothing he could do to prevent Drogba’s opener.
Much had been made of Chelsea’s attacking threat against a shaky United’s back four and while Drogba might not pose the same threat carried by Diego Costa, United’s rearguard did reasonably well, with Rafael and Luke Shaw more concentrated than in their previous displays, while Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo survived the whole 90 mins without major set-backs.
United’s marking in the box remains woeful – only Crystal Palace have considered more goals from set pieces this season – and they were lucky to get away without conceding a penalty in the first half, but there were signs of improvement but United must show the same level of consistency in every game, rather than simply rising to the occasion and rely on De Gea to bail them out every time.
4) Has RVP kickstarted his season?
A last minute equaliser, welcome though as it was, might not be enough to claim that the old Van Persie is back, but the signs are promising.
Against Chelsea, Van Persie looked much more comfortable leading the line on his own that he had done at anytime in the past and worked incredibly hard, combining well with Adnan Januzaj – who could have played himself into contention for a start against City – and Angel Di Maria and the goal was the just reward for the Dutchman.
Much like the rest of the team, Van Persie needs to find consistency and one only has to look at his performances in his debut season at Old Trafford to understand what a difference a fit and hungry Van Persie makes to the team.
5) What has happened to Fellaini?
In six days Marouane Fellaini has gone from pantomime villain to positive surprise, after coming on and scoring on Monday night against West Brom and producing an excellent performance against Chelsea.
Last season, the thought of Fellaini starting a match of such magnitude would have led to horrified reactions but with Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera still not fully fit, the Belgian seized the opportunity with both hands, showing all the qualities that had made him such an influential player at Everton.
Deployed in a deeper role that the one he had played in against West Brom – the same position where Moyes utilised last season with horrendous results – Fellaini was a constant nuisance to Chelsea’s midfield, displaying the sort of dynamism that would have never been associated with him 12 months ago and playing a pivotal role in United’s equaliser.
Whether Fellaini remains in the starting XI for the derby or in the longer term future once Carrick and Herrera return remains to be seen, but the Belgian has forced his way back into the first team fold and, for that alone, him and Van Gaal deserve credit.