This is what Manchester United supporters had been waiting to see: pace, poise, passion and precision. Yes, they were playing a team that in its entire history has only won once at Old Trafford, but against the sorry backdrop of ineptitude shown at Swansea, Sunderland and Burnley, today’s 4-0 shellacking of QPR will be a welcome tonic for the red half of Manchester.
This was a United team that bore only a passing resemblance to the side which laboured to a 0-0 draw at Turf Moor two weeks ago, both in terms of shape and personnel. For the first time this season, Louis van Gaal was able to field 11 players all in their favoured positions, though only at the expense of his vaunted 3-5-2 formation. With Jones injured mid-week and Smalling still recovering from a groin injury, United lined up in a 4-4-2 with Marcos Rojo and Rafael in the fullback slots, while Mata and debutant Daley Blind topped and tailed a fluid midfield diamond that also included Di Maria wide left and Ander Herrera narrower on the right. Deadline day acquisition Radamel Falcao watched from the bench as van Persie partnered Rooney up front.
From the first whistle, United looked like a team finally at ease with themselves, comfortable in possession and eager to test their opponents. Within ten minutes Rojo and Rafael had spent more time in the opposing half than Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia had managed in the whole of the season to date. Herrera and Rafael frequently overlapped effectively down the right, with Rojo and Di Maria doing the same on the left.
And it was the Argentine flier who dominated the match, always looking to run at the opposition or seek out the killer pass. Di Maria instigated most of what was good about United’s play, and on 24 minutes he delivered a perfect set-piece that, while meant for the head of compatriot Rojo, had enough whip and pace on it to leave Rob Green stranded in the QPR goal, waiting for a touch that never came.
It was no more than United deserved, and ten minutes later they had a second. Again, Di Maria was the instigator, winning the ball deep in his own half and driving fully 50 yards into QPR territory before finding Rooney, who in turn moved the ball to Herrera at the top of the D. The Spaniard, under little pressure from the QPR defense, dispatched the ball low to Green’s right. It was a counter-attack reminiscent of so many great United teams of the past; Di Maria convincingly cast in the role of Cristiano Ronaldo in full flight.
The third came just before the stroke of half time, and again Di Maria was involved. Neat interplay between he, Mata and Herrera finally brought the ball to Rooney on the edge of the box, who had time to pivot and lace the ball past the helpless Green. The former England keeper had been beaten three times in less than 20 minutes.
The game was already over as a contest before the two teams emerged for the second half, but that didn’t deter Di Maria from continuing to show his class. Van Persie should have done better with a lofted through-ball delivered from the outside of his left boot, but Mata made no mistake dispatching the Argentine’s shot-come-cross just before the hour. In sixty minutes, United had trebled their goal tally for the season, and Di Maria was heavily involved in each.
While the £60M man stole the show, Daley Blind must take some credit for releasing United’s attacking instincts. On debut, the Dutch midfielder sat at the base of United’s midfield, covering gaps, breaking up play and keeping United ticking. Blind racked up two interceptions and a 96% pass completion rate, and looked as though he’d been playing in a United shirt since he was a schoolboy. While Falcao provided the glamour on deadline day, Blind may prove to be the better piece of business.
The already-mentioned caveat to United’s glee is that QPR offered little to trouble their hosts: 31% of possession and just two shots on goal tells you all you need to know about their lack of ambition. United’s centre back pairing of Evans and Blackett were rarely put under the sort of pressure they faced against Burnley or Swansea, let alone what they’ll have to withstand at Stamford Bridge or the Etihad.
Nevertheless, for all the growing pains witnessed in the opening few weeks of the season, Manchester United stand only 1 point behind Liverpool and Arsenal, and two behind Manchester City: A top-three finish now seems a far likelier prospect than it did just two weeks ago.