Ranking Manchester United's Top 5 Players for January 2016
January 2016 was another mixed month for Manchester United, featuring four wins, a draw and a loss.
On first glance that does not look too bad, but two of those wins were against lower-league opposition in the FA Cup—one of which was settled thanks to an injury-time penalty. Additionally, the draw came as a result of some chaotic and poorly organised defending, and the loss was a frustrating mess of a game.
Of course, the month also featured a win at Anfield—always special for United fans—and ended on a high. United's final January opponents may have been a Championship side in a run of dismal form, but nonetheless, the Red Devils' attacking display made the 3-1 win over Derby County a lot of fun to watch.
In truth, picking five standout performers was once again a real challenge, and No. 5 in particular is a definite least worst pick. The top end of the list was considerably easier to pick for reasons that will become clear.
David De Gea is probably the only player in contention who missed out, but he only had one particularly good game—against Liverpool. The rest of the time, he has either been relatively undisturbed or, in the 3-3 draw against Newcastle United in particular, not quite at his brilliant best.
Let's take a look at the players who did make the list.
5. Chris Smalling
Chris Smalling has been excellent for most of the season, but in truth, we cannot say the same about his form in January.
He was particularly shaky during the 3-3 draw with Newcastle, wherein he put in just one tackle and made just one interception. If his side had been completely dominant in terms of possession, then those numbers could be explained away—those kind of interventions would not have been necessary. However, this was a game in which Newcastle had 51.7 per cent of the ball, getting off 14 shots.
That is why Smalling, who has been generally excellent this season, only just scraped into the list in fifth place. His shaky form continued in the loss against Southampton, and Louis van Gaal's switch to a back three clearly did not help him reclaim his form.
Having been consistently excellent in a central-defensive partnership, bringing a third player into the mix just seemed to cause confusion.
However, he has had good games too, hence his inclusion. He made six interceptions against Liverpool, the most of any player on the pitch, as well as seven defensive clearances. He made a crucial last-man tackle against Derby, and there are hints he may be settling down again.
He, and United's fans, will be hoping he can regain his form of earlier this season as the year progresses.
4. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson
Cameron Borwick-Jackson's emergence is becoming one of the more pleasing subplots of United's season. Having received the call-up to the senior squad toward the end of 2015 thanks to a full-blown full-back injury crisis, the youngster has been seriously impressive.
He started half of United's games in January and came on as a pre-half-time substitute in another. He was a contender for man of the match against Derby, attracting plenty of well-deserved praise.
In truth, he did not have a bad game in January. He played against Sheffield United at Old Trafford and acquitted himself well as the Red Devils laboured to a win.
Against Liverpool, Van Gaal selected Matteo Darmian at left-back and Ashley Young at right-back. When Young picked up an injury, he brought on the 18-year old Borthwick-Jackson, played him in his natural left-back role and switched Darmian over to the right.
The whole balance of United's side looked better after that change and they went on to win the game.
But it was the star turn against Derby that really impressed. He looked so comfortable on the ball, and that is reflected in the numbers—his 92.9 per cent pass-completion rate was the most of any player who made more than 20 passes in the game.
He looks a real talent and has been a surprisingly steady presence given his inexperience.
3. Daley Blind
For some reason, in the 64th minute of United's final game of the month—against Derby—Daley Blind found himself in the centre-forward position. He said of the moment, per United's website:
I passed the ball to Juan [Mata] and then it opened up.
I saw nobody there and I started thinking like a striker, so I thought maybe I should go to the first post. I made a choice and then the ball was there. It was a perfect ball from Jesse [Lingard], I didn’t need to take a touch and then it was a goal!
It was a great way to top off what was a good month for Blind. That quote tells us a lot about how the versatile Dutchman thinks about the game. He talks openly about his thought processes, his football intelligence shining through.
He may have thought "like a striker" in that moment, but this season it has been clear he has often thought like a centre-back.
There are still times when his actions bespeak his lack of experience in the role he is now playing—Swansea City and Bournemouth away being prime examples—but often he is in the right place at the right time.
He was defensively excellent against Liverpool, making four tackles, three interceptions and four clearances.
All in all, it was a fine month for one of United's better performers this season.
2. Anthony Martial
The star man of United's side, the most exciting player in United red this season, Anthony Martial has often been the best reason to watch Van Gaal's side.
For January, he has to settle for second place on the charts because of the sterling performances of fellow forward Wayne Rooney.
It is a well-earned second place, though. Martial topped and tailed the month with his best performances—a goal and an assist against Swansea City on January 2 and two assists in a remarkable turn against Derby on January 29.
In between came January 17's trip to Anfield and Martial's superb performance, which featured five completed dribbles as he made life difficult for Liverpool's full-backs.
There is an argument to say even better—or least even more output—will come when he is moved to a centre-forward role, but for now, no one is enjoying facing him on the left. He is proving game after game to be worth the extravagant price United paid for him in the summer, £36 million, and January has been no exception.
1. Wayne Rooney
Or at least, he has finally found some form, and what a joy it has been to see.
Six goals in six games in January for Wayne Rooney, plus an assist. Two of those goals were penalties, but the other four were all brilliant.
There was the backheel flick against Swansea. There was the rasping, instinctive strike from outside the box against Newcastle. There was the close-range first-time finish against Liverpool.
And then, as if to put the icing on the confidence cake, he received the ball on the edge of the area against Derby, realised he had been left in too much space and curled an absolute beauty into the far side of the goal.
He might not be the physical force he once was, but seeing Rooney rediscover his technique and confidence has been a real treat. No one knows how long this purple patch will last, but United's captain was without a doubt their player of the month for January.
All advanced statistics per WhoScored.com.