It was like watching a different team entirely. Rojo and Blind added a couple of new names to the starting line up, but the way Manchester United beat Queens Park Rangers made it seem like a brand new team was in front of us, or rather, it was the United of old that had taken to the pitch at Old Trafford. It was the first time since the title clincher against Aston Villa two seasons ago that United had earned a 3-0 lead in the first half. Di Maria was electric, Rooney and Mata were lively and in tune with one another, and Blind and Rojo were largely impressive on their debuts. The stands were rocking with the thrill of it all, they were relishing this sensational atmosphere, an old feeling, but one that felt new because of its recent absence.
It was Di Maria who provided the spark for this supreme first half display, and he was revelatory on the left side of a midfield diamond. Van Gaal implied in his pre-match interview that he had been forced to abandon the 3-5-2 formation because of the injury to Jones, among others. They lined up in a 4-4-2 with a flat back four, with Tyler Blackett and Jonny Evans flanked by Rafael and Rojo. Blind began as a holding midfielder, and he was incredibly tidy and well positioned, sweeping up the area in front of the defence and looking quite at home. Herrera was on the right hand side of the diamond, with Mata at the tip, behind Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie. But all the fizzing energy, all of the lightning-edged invention came from Di Maria, who threatened from the outset with his pace and confident dribbling. He opened the scoring with a free kick that was wickedly whipped in from the right, curling all the way over the heaving pack, and into the corner, with Rob Green gazing mournfully. Fortunate, you might say, but those types of free kicks curl in all the time, and Di Maria would definitely have had that in mind.
United were deservedly bristling with a clear sense of authority. Rafael was a thorn for QPR down the right hand side, getting forward with gusto and crossing dangerously. Di Maria also demonstrated another of his gifts, bombing in some threatening crosses from deeper positions that only barely missed the heads of the strikers. Leroy Fer was trying his best for QPR, but his effort was in vain, because most of his team mates were listless at best, some utterly anonymous. A nervous moment exposed United’s lingering weaknesses, when a miscommunication between Rojo and de Gea almost led to a QPR goal, and only a block from Evans saved the day. But that was to be Rangers’ best first half moment, and United’s second goal came after a lung-busting surge from Di Maria, who exploded down the left and fed the ball to Rooney. The England captain’s initial shot was blocked, but he had the presence of mind to prod the rebound out to Herrera who was lurking on the edge of the area. His finish was precise and struck well, spearing in off the post. Again, Old Trafford were in raptures, basking in the glory.
United had 70 per cent of the possession in the first half and they finished the opening period with aplomb, by making 3-0 through Rooney’s fine shot into the bottom corner. QPR were done for, and it was now a matter of how many United wanted. The suspicion was that, with all the dark clouds that had been hanging over the club, a thrashing was the perfect way to lighten the atmosphere.
Having Di Maria in midfield like this, as opposed to having him in a more standard, further forward position as a winger, makes better use of his many talents. He is obviously an exceptional dribbler and can outrun just about any one in the league. He can also swing in a hell of a cross. But his work rate makes him a valuable defensive asset and his excellent passing equips him well enough to ping through longer balls from deeper areas, releasing the full backs. It also means he can surge through the middle more readily, which can only be a good thing. The left-central midfield is the place for him, and van Gaal agrees.
United were 4-0 up when the man, almost forgotten because of Di Maria’s scene-stealing, on the bench for this match, Radamel Falcao, began to warm up. Juan Mata had scored a few moments after the Colombian had jogged out of his seat, after a miscued shot from Di Maria went straight to him, unmarked in front of Rob Green. Falcao came on just after the hour replacing Mata (an eye-catching exchange to say the least), with Rooney presumably dropping into Mata’s vacant position. Rafael, who had been outstanding considering this was his return from injury, also came off and was replaced by Valencia. The stage was set for Falcao to score his debut goal for the club, such was the ease with which United were able to scythe through the QPR defence. It had been a very tough afternoon for the returning Rio Ferdninand and Rangers will be concerned about consecutive league games in which they went into half time trailing by three goals.
United maintained their dominance, hogging the ball and creating chances. Van Persie almost scored a beauty after a sublime chipped ball from Di Maria, struck with no backlift and with the outside of his foot. It seemed the Argentine wasn’t about to let Falcao wrestle control of the limelight. Sandro came off for QPR injured after 73 minutes, not that he had had much of an effect in his defensive midfield role before his substitution. Meanwhile the crowd were Ole-ing every pass and cooing at van Gaal to give them a wave, which he did, to their delight. It was like old times at Old Trafford.
A Blackett brain snap almost let in QPR, but the shot was dragged wide, and in truth it would have been an undeserved goal. Di Maria scared everyone in the stands stiff when he stayed down after a challenge, but he got up and jogged on after some treatment. It was enough for van Gaal to decide to play it safe, however, and Di Maria was subbed off for Adnan Januzaj a few moments later. The game became a passing exercise for the men in red, and they strolled to the finish.
Obviously, there will be much sterner defensive tests for United. QPR were utterly bereft of any semblance of attacking vigour, and their defence was easily punctured. United’s defence were largely untroubled, but still managed to leave some lasting hapless images in the minds of the onlookers. But what this game gave United, apart from the tonic of victory they so desperately required, was a new found confidence in their newly formed attack. They have one of the world’s outstanding players in Angel Di Maria and with him in their holster, happy days may well be here again for United.
Here are the goals.