Spurs 0-0 Manchester United: Observations and analysis
Vidic: n. vi·di·c, vi·da – supernatural being, who is both perfect and omnipotent in every sense.
Nemanja Vidic stood tall and played out of his skin – not literally, but close to doing so. It was, perhaps, one of his most impressive performances for the club; and that’s saying something. Since he was give the armband at the start of the campaign, he’s almost cranked it up an extra notch, if that were at all possible. However, while Manchester United could look to Vidic as the stand-out performer, they could also reflect on, and rue, their own performance.
“It’s about winning games and keeping your nerve and today, defensively, we kept our nerve.” - Sir Alex
Spurs were excellent. It was fair to say that Tottenham were the better of the two sides – they had the better share of possession, were more penetrative, and, simply put, they created more chances. Rafael van der Vaart, at times forlorn, didn’t have the greatest of games but his movement was excellent and in the few good spells he did have, he looked dangerous and so Spurs were too.
Luka Modric was magnificent to watch and while his opposite numbers Carrick and Fletcher didn’t play particularly bad, he was well in control of the midfield. He was Spurs’ best player – although United might disagree, suggesting that Mike Dean was miles better.
Rafael learns a lesson or two. While the Brazilian is enjoying his best season yet in a United shirt, he didn’t have the greatest of games here. He could have been sent off in the first half for what was a rash challenge (awarded a yellow), and made a series of clumsy challenges. However, when he was shown red for a second bookable offence – it was harsh and was ill-received. Rafael had simply bumped into Benoît Assou-Ekotto. It was a vital lesson for the inexperienced full back. Discipline is key in football.
Tottenham 59% – Man Utd 41%
Attempts on target
Tottenham 6 – Man Utd 4
Attempts off target
Tottenham 10 – Man Utd 3
Tottenham 8 – Man Utd 2
Rooney thrives, Berbatov doesn’t. I recently discussed that the reversal of roles between Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney which sees the Bulgarian playing higher up with Rooney as second striker has been somewhat successful this season for United, but the 14-goal Berbatov struggled at the Lane playing behind the striker. Lining up with a 4-4-1-1 system, Rooney was impressive in the more advanced position – forcing three saves out of Heurelho Gomes. Berbatov, on the other hand, was quiet and failed to muster a single shot in the whole game. He is allowed a few bad games, though, in what has been an excellent season so far.
At first glance it was a fairly simple goal. A deep cross by Patrice Evra was aimed towards a crowd of expectant players but as Darren Fletcher flung himself towards it, everybody thought it was going to be his ball. His leap was imperious but the cross agonisingly evaded his contact and fell – like a bouquet of flowers - onto the head of Wayne Rooney who was lurking behind him.
The England striker had just been going through a bad patch of goalscoring form – scoring only two goals this season, both of which had come from the penalty spot – and the nearly moments would have flashed before his eyes. But with an instinctive movement, Rooney stuck out his head out and the ball did the rest. It trickled slowly into the bottom corner to give Manchester United a 1-0 lead over West Bromwich Albion – a game they would go on to win 2-1 – but perhaps just as significantly, gave Wayne Rooney his first goal of the season from open play.
Rooney wheeled away in obvious delight and was instantly mobbed by his team-mates who would have felt his every struggle. This was a player who they would have felt had been unfairly treated and harshly scrutinised over the testing period. England dramatically crashed out of the World Cup and Rooney, who had carried the nation’s hopes, was seen as the scapegoat. Worse was still to follow as revelations about his private life seriously affected his psychology and he is seemingly still recovering from the events.
In March last year, Rooney was on top of the world, scoring over 30 goals and almost single-handedly had shot Manchester United to the top of the Premier League that it’s hard to envisage just how he could have reached his current plight. But putting aside confidence and personal issues for a moment – issues which have evidently affected his performance – changes to his role tactically may have also had an effect on his impact so far this season.
Last season, Wayne Rooney was deployed in a more orthodox striking role as United looked to take advantage of his all-round play in a 4-5-1 formation and it’s safe to say the system was a success as Rooney plundered an impressive 34 goals in all competitions. But still recovering from injuries at the start of the season and Dimitar Berbatov’s improvement from the last, Sir Alex Ferguson has decided to tweak his team’s style. Rooney now plays behind Berbatov – the pair effectively switching roles to the ones they played last season if they were to partner each other in a 4-4-2. In this position, Rooney is forced to fend off the goalscoring instincts he gained last season and balance that off, with the need to drop off. Berbatov is given more license to thrill and if mistakes are made, better higher up than in the middle of the pitch.
Sir Alex, however, may feel Rooney is best to play in this role as opposed to Berbatov because of his energy. The 4-4-2 is difficult to play in the modern game and especially so if the team plays with two wingers as Manchester United do. That means the centre of midfield is prone to being outnumbered and therefore to find the balance, the team must press and one of the strikers drop off to make a 4-4-1-1 in the defensive phase. Berbatov had normally played this role but has been on the receiving end of fans brunt due to his languid style and economy of movement. Carlos Tevez played the role with much zest to ensure United weren’t overrun in midfield and Sir Alex feels Rooney can do the same. It is Tevez, ironically, who describes Rooney’s “new” role best when comparing his position at Manchester City to the one he played at Old Trafford.
“I am playing now as a free striker,” says Tevez. “This is my position. When I first joined Manchester City, I was not 100 per cent fit. Now I go on to the pitch and I am physically fit and mentally strong. I say to myself, “you have to win the game for City”. In my head, before the game, I think, “goals, goals, goals”. It’s 28 of them and still counting. I am now playing in the position I played in Argentina and Brazil and in the last 10 games for West Ham. At Manchester United, I was asked to defend more. It was a different responsibility.”
There is also another reason why Manchester United have played Rooney deeper. They have often been criticised for lacking creativity and the striker’s street-like craft is felt can create chances for others while his link up play is perhaps better than anyone else in the “hole”. Indeed, in October, Sir Alex Ferguson was willing to allow his striker to play a qualifier for England against Montenegro despite returning from injury, because he felt it would allow Rooney to rediscover his form in the second striker role. Slowly, the striker has started to find his feet in the role he first played when he burst on to the scene and the recent match against Blackburn displayed the full extent of his playmaking ability. Rooney was everywhere and made 107 attempted passes; a phenomenal feat for a striker and finally showed his understanding of the zone between midfield and attack. This season Wayne Rooney has made seven assists; two more than the whole of last season and ninth overall in the league’s assists chart. Luis Nani stands at the top with 11 assists.
Berbatov was also in fine form in that same game, scoring five goals and his goal tally of 14 this season is similarly impressive. The adaptation he has had to make should not be sniffed at and with his ability to drop deep and roam around as a “false 9″ it is thought he can bring others into play. It is hoped Rooney can particularly benefit because of his powerful runs and movement in the final third.
Of course we shouldn’t forget the effect Antonio Valencia had on the team with his availability, allowing the team to switch between a 4-5-1 and a 4-4-2 but his absence makes it difficult to play the former with the same dynamism. Ryan Giggs fitness issues meant we probably have seen less of the 4-5-1 this season as we may have because it left Luis Nani as the only true winger that could be used.
Manchester United may not have hit top form yet, just as Rooney is yet to but they are still unbeaten and game by game, are showing they are getting better. For Sir Alex Ferguson, it is not a case of tweaking the formation unnecessarily. Every team has to evolve and find new solutions and for United, it is hoped the reversed roles of Berbatov and Rooney can make them more dynamic than ever, and hopefully fire them to league and cup glory.
Manchester United V Liverpool: Observations and Analysis
It was the much-anticipated return of ‘King Kenny’, yet there was little to smile about in the end for Dalglish. Manchester United were hardly convincing and failed to give the so-called king a royal drubbing – but they were to strong for the beleaguered visitors. While as a team, United only had their occasional sparkling moments, individually, they were excellent. Martin Kelly and Pepe Reina were the stand-outs for Liverpool, but those two only as their more offensive players rarely troubled United’s back four. This game did however highlight United’s problem – killing off teams.
Two decisions: One wrong, the other spot on: Howard Webb, often regarded as the country’s best referee, had a mixed day at the office. The pressure of such a high-profile game got to him, nothing, you would think, that should faze the person who officiated in last summer’s World Cup final. The penalty claim in the first minute was soft – Berbatov fell to ground too easily and so Webb had made a clanger in awarding the spot-kick. He did make amends on the half-hour, dismissing Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard for a rash, two-footed physical challenge that is simply not 21st century football.
All over after half an hour: With the dismissal of Gerrard after thirty minutes, so Liverpool’s hopes of winning this tie went with it. They lost their creative force, and their midfield presence – Torres struggled thereafter and so, despite a couple of decent moves into the final third, Liverpool had effectively lost the game with an hour to go.
Evans shows maturity and comes out on top. The Irishman was excellent. Given responsibility in the absence of Vidic to deal with Fernando Torres, the man Liverpool relied on far too heavily, he came out trumps. Indeed, Torres struggled alone – failing to muster a shot on goal and so Evans was largely comfortable. What was perhaps most impressive was the confidence showed by Evans, making numerous runs forward in a typical Vidic-esque manner. He might have even had himself a goal; hitting the crossbar at the stroke of half time. This may be the start of something…
Reina and Martin Kelly thwart United: Perhaps, United could have finished the tie off earlier had it not been for Martin Kelly, the rookie centre-back who was played on the right and Pepe Reina. Much credit should go to the duo; Kelly was excellent in the absence of Glen Johnson and Reina had denied Berbatov and co. on more than one occasion. Unfortunately, this was probably the only silver-lining for a fruitless Liverpool side.
United’s full-backs show much verve – again: United were hardly breathtaking in an encounter that was hardly enthralling – but they were impressive via the flanks, led by full backs Rafael da Silva and Patrice Evra who assumed an almost advanced position, creating chances and stretching Liverpool. Indeed, this is hardly a surprise – both have been instrumental and will remain so for the rest of United’s season.
Ratings: Kuszczak 7; Rafael 8*, Evans 8, Ferdinand 7, Evra 8; Nani 6, Carrick 7, Fletcher 5, Giggs 7; Berbatov 8, Hernandez 6, Howard Webb 7. Subs: Smalling 5, Owen 6, Anderson 5.
They say first impressions always count. Chris Smalling seems to have heeded those words – his first months at Old Trafford could hardly have gone any better especially for someone who, only a few years ago, had plied his trade for lowly Maidstone United. Playing non-league football at Homelands, a 3,700 capacity ground in Kent, must seem an age ago now.
Since then, he has pretty much hit the dizzying heights – and beyond. Heck, he had a Europa League medal to his name before he had even joined the club and that looks the first of many a success. What has surprised many is just how well the young English centre-half has adjusted to life at the top; wasting little time settling, and, despite making just eight appearances for the club this season, four of those coming in Europe, he seems to have made a good enough impression.
Indeed, with Jonny Evans out of favour (in my opinion, harshly), he seems to have risen above him in the pecking order and so that showed in midweek where he had taken to the field against Stoke City. With Rio Ferdinand rested, Smalling assumed responsibility and flourished. He is often commended for his great aerial presence and being an excellent reader of the game, something that has provoked comparisons to Ferdinand himself. It’s worth noting that in that game Smalling had won five tackles in the air, making a further three clearances with the head, too.
Danny Murphy, his former team-mate at Fulham, summed him up perfectly. “He has great pace is calm on the ball and good in the air. What more do you need from a good centre-half? He’ll be a great asset to his new club, and he won’t look out of place.” And sure, he hasn’t looked ‘out of place’. He’s humble, or at least that’s the way it looks, and looks more than willing to go through the United learning curb; perhaps the Ferdinand comparisons are a tad harsh and unfair on such a young player. It is difficult to jump to too many conclusions on someone who has played so little, but the signs are looking good.
“Hopefully I can make my presence felt and get many more [games]. For the time being, it is all about concentration and consistency,” said Smalling in the aftermath of the Stoke game. “That will improve the more I play. I know Vida and Rio are the first choices, I just have to make sure I do equally well when I come in, so I know I am playing my part.” Like any player, he would love to play more often but he seems to accept that he will play the occasional league game (barring an injury) this season – here he has Vidic and Ferdinand, two players that are far more established to compete with. He’s not frustrated, he’s patient and willing to succeed. From what we’ve seen so far, there is no reason why they wouldn’t happen…
West Brom 1-2 Manchester Utd: Observations
There was hardly much to smile about, if anything really, in 2010 for Wayne Rooney. Playing deeper than he has in past seasons, Rooney hasn’t exactly had any stand-out performances as of yet in this campaign – but this, although not by any means at his explosive best, was a sign of greater things to come.
Ditching the gloves, Rooney was ready for the occasion. Apart from the goal, he tracked back and added stability to a midfield that desperately needed it; inspiring United to a rare win away from home. Gabriel Obertan has set about finding an early goal, causing problems for the full back before laying it off for Patrice Evra to deliver a cross which Rooney delicately eased in.
However, the Red Devils were largely ineffective through the channels – indeed, apart from the first goal, they created little. Obertan did a decent job, but without another orthodox winger to call on, West Bromwich duly dealt with any possible attacking threat. They showed much character. Chris Brunt and James Morrison were both in inspired form; the latter finding the net on 14 minutes with a cracking finish form the edge of the 18-yard box. And no, despite the immense power, the net was not left with ‘Broken Strings’.
Gary Neville, doing his best Laurel and Hardy impression, surely wasn’t there for the football. He was, in truth, disastrous, nearly letting Jerome Thomas in to make it 2-1. On first view, it looked as if Neville lacked any awareness and simply didn’t see Thomas, however, replays suggested that he saw him twice and, it might pain to say it, he did not want to commit himself to the challenge. And the comedy show continued and he soon brought down Graham Dorrans in the box. In true Neville style, he dusted himself and looked every bit as innocent as the cat on the Shrek movies – and so the referee waved away claims. Looking at replays, it was a stonewall penalty and Neville should have been sent off.
The second half was not so impressive. Albion finally got a spot-kick thanks to Rio Ferdinand - but Peter Odemwingie hit it well wide off target. The Nigerian striker has been the in-form player for the home side this season, and so left the majority of fans stunned at his wayward kick. United ramped it up a bit, but seemed to struggle without Rafael. That was increasingly obvious – so Fergie threw on the next best thing in the shape of Fabio da Silva. He was full of attacking verve – having been given a license to go forward and look for the winner.
From a Rooney corner moments later, supersub Javier Hernandez nodded in the winner and United could afford the breathe a huge sigh of relief. The visitors were hardly impressive, and bar the industrious Rooney, looked a tad jaded. Next up is Stoke City in midweek – United know that an improvement is required.