As the old chant goes, Manchester United fans rarely want anything but their team to “Attack, Attack, Attack (and so on)” the opposition but they face perhaps their most difficult test of the season so far. Manchester City are a rather unfathomable side, for they display great attacking intent one game or tremendous defensive tactics the next.
In the somewhat-dour reverse fixture back in November, which ended 0-0, the Red Devils played a 4-3-3 with Dimitar Berbatov up front as a lone striker; this proved ineffective although United are set to opt for the very same system this time around. Yes, United have favoured a traditional 4-4-2 this season, something which Jonathan Wilson described as an “oddity given the tribulations Ferguson went through trying to adapt to a single-striker system in the early part of the decade, and probably another indication of how his resources have been reduced.”
Yet, United’s resources are hardly reduced this time around – those were Wilson’s comments in the build up to the last Derby game when Wayne Rooney’s fitness was a concern and Dimitar Berbatov represented something of an enigma to the press. Javier Hernandez received plaudits at this time, but the general (yet premature) thinking was, and still is, that he’ll only thrive in a system where he is partnered by another forward. Now, all three are in form (Rooney to an extent), and that itself, though very basic, might be a reason to play a 4-4-2.
However, the 4-4-2 itself is a risk. Berbatov, for his twenty goals this campaign, is set to miss out and United should stick with their ‘big game’ formation, which is the 4-3-3. Much has been spoken of Berbatov’s apparent inability to play as a lone striker, yet in a few instances he has thrived in this role. It is true, though, that the 4-4-2 suits him best – playing higher up the pitch he has found considerable success. Another reason why United usually opt for the 4-3-3 in games of perceived importance is the success often found by United’s three central midfielders - and this ties in with why Berbatov is at expense of the system. Recollecting a game against Milan last season, Sir Alex said:
“It’s hard [to include Berbatov] when we decide to play three central midfield players. That’s the difficulty for him. We could have played him in Milan but the threesome of Scholes, Carrick and Fletcher have created a consistency, a level of performance that makes it difficult to change, particularly in those kind of matches. Every time I have spoken to him [Berbatov] he understands what we are doing.”
It is also interesting to point out that Berbatov was indeed the lone man in the reverse fixture. He was ineffective; but it would be unfair on him to make a conclusion out of that game. But the system is not about one man, and the importance of 4-3-3 in this Derby would be that it would best stifle City’s midfield trio. Nigel De Jong, Gareth Barry and Yaya Toure have all been excellent this season – and in order to contain them, United must play a 4-3-3. It could mean another bore 0-0, however.
Manchester City have often been criticised for their defensive system; against Arsenal, their gameplan was to avoid defeat in 90 minutes something which they succeeded in doing. There is nothing wrong with how City are set up; it might make for a dull encounter but Mancini’s tactics are rather clever. The aim is not to lose away from home – it screams out ‘anti-football’ but what it does mean is that their bitterest rivals also drop two points. Long-term, it’s a very good idea.
City do have their weaknesses, though. They often heavily rely on width offered by their full backs, but are a team that are tight and compact in the middle so United could focus on attacking them via the channels. Playing a 4-4-2, it must be included, would particularly be a no-no considering their midfield presence. United can match them in the centre of the park; but as to who United will play there remains to be seen. Fletcher is a certainty, but Carrick and Anderson will face competition from Paul Scholes for the two remaining spots (Personally, I’d leave Scholes on the bench). Nani and Park will occupy the flanks, with Rooney in the centre.
One thing for sure, and as stark as this sounds, it perhaps wouldn’t be an enthralling game as billed and might bear many similarities to the reverse fixture. Goals, if we were to have any, will come from set-pieces, or from the flanks and, naturally, from counter attacks. Prediction? Too hard to call…
United (4-3-3): Van der Sar; O’Shea, Brown, Vidic, Evra; Carrick, Anderson, Fletcher; Nani, Park, Rooney
It’s Progress. Not of the Take That kind but of something better – United have improve considerably from last season. “Really?” I hear you say with your mouse hovering over the ‘close tab’ button. Manchester United’s away form hardly suggests that, nor does yesterday’s events at Molineux where United failed to turn up show this.
Of course, the Red Devils’ travels on the road have been miserable. They’ve conceded nearly as much as they’ve scored (18 for, 16 against) and managed just 17 points from a possible 36. Yet their home form makes up for this, to an extent, acting as a welcome contrast: in thirteen games, United have only dropped points in one, winning the other 12. Is that progress (?), I hear you say, when United sit at the top comfortably (albeit less after losing to Wolves) without playing the kind of vintage stuff consistently. And that because the others haven’t played that great either, that is the only reason why United are at the summit?
It’s a mixture of a lot of things – but United should win the title this season. Get a hold of myself? I did say ‘should’, so it’s not certain of happening. But they should. As a team they have progressed, collectively (debatable) and individually (undisputedly). Going 29 games unbeaten is an achievement that you could hardly have envisaged at the start of the season.
If you want an example of such progression from individuals, look no further than Nani. That’s eight goals, twelve assists and a dozen more defenders having reccurring nightmares. This is easily his finest season at the club; the winger is fed up in playing in Ronaldo’s shadow and has applied consistency to his game that, at one point in his career, we’d have never thought. And then there’s Berbatov, flourishing in a role where he is most comfortable in. Honourable mentions must also go to Rafael da Silva and even Nemanja Vidic – the signing of a new contract in the summer looking an inspired one.
Team progression or regression? It can all be backed up with a bit of Point, Evidence and Explanation. Point – United have improved. Evidence - the following quote from Sir Alex: “The character of this team has been well established,” Fergie says. “Of course, we have young players throughout the club but the main body of players has been here a long time. They know there are some games where you have to find a solution. That has always been important to the club; it is recognised we never give in. It’s a great quality and I think their perseverance has got better as they have got older.”
Explanation – United are well set for the future. As in ‘main body of players’, Ferguson is not just talking of United’s veterans but his senior squad as a whole. Naturally, if and when a player gets better by development, the team gains from it. There has been much talk, too, of how United will replace their so-called veterans when they finally call it a day. But Sir Alex is one step ahead. His rotation policy means that more focus is on the development of his players who currently have a long-term future at the club, and so the loss of United’s old guard will not be as great a loss as first anticipated. This is progress – just have a little patience (extra marks for another Take That reference) and you’ll soon see it come May.
“Leaving Manchester United in football terms is like falling off the end of a cliff.” Gary Neville – 27 Mar 2009.
The first of Manchester United’s Holy Trinity has gone. Despite achieving everything he could as a professional football – team or individual – it is perhaps unfortunate that Gary Neville will be most remembered for sprinting down the touchline and mocking opposition fans. Or that would be the case for any other fan. But not those associated with Manchester United.
There was simply no limits to his success, just choose any from his eight league titles, three FA Cup’s and Two European titles. Neville, described by Sir Alex Ferguson as ‘the best English right back of his generation’, will be remembered by United fans for his, let’s say, over-the-top bursts of excitement as much as he would be for the array of silverware he helped the club earn.
Neville was no ordinary full-back. There was something dissimilar about Neville compared to others; there was something very un-English in his play. He offered solidity at the back, a calm, assured presence, and occasionally, a wild lunge for good measure. He offered something going forward, too. He was a creative force – forever starting attacking moves and spreading play down the channels, and sometimes, create a goal or two himself. To an extent, he was the complete player.
Perhaps the reason why Neville was so great is that he was hardly the ‘bling-bling’ type. He can’t score a goal to save his life, but he did the important things right. As a right back, that’s all that counts. And understandably, many regard him as the greatest right back of this generation. Not far off by any stretch.
Sir Alex led the tributes expressing the importance of such a player: “He is an example to any young professional; hard-working, loyal and intelligent. As a United fan born and bred, his fantastic career at Old Trafford has cemented his place in the affection of the club’s supporters everywhere. His impact on the club in general has been huge; his presence in the dressing room and leadership qualities have been an asset to me as a manager.”
To end, I’ll leave you with something I’d regard as ‘Neville-gold’. Introducing new-boy Michael Owen to Danny Welbeck, Neville said: “This is Danny. He’s 18 and he’s won the league.” Farewell, Gaz.
Manchester United 3-1 Aston Villa: Observations and Analysis
The first was spectacular. It was classic Wayne Rooney, latching on to a long-searching ball by Van der Sar and then ferociously driving home with such power that Brad Friedel could only muster a flap. It was coming, in truth. Wayne Rooney, a man who has been on literally (my very best Jamie Redknapp impression) everybody’s lips since time began has at least silenced those who had written him off altogether – although conclusions that these two goals means Rooney has returned to form are wide off the mark.
In fact, he was in form for a while now. The notion that goals means a player has automatically returned to form is a short-sighted one; and obviously such feelings are concluded by those who have seen very little, if any, of Manchester United this season. Apart from score goals, which is still of course the most important role
of the forward, Rooney has done little else wrong.
His assist count is in double figures, and that’s amazing considering he created just three last term, and even those who think that assists themselves are of hardly of any importance compared to ‘goals’, must agree. And it’s not all about making direct assists or scoring them – stats don’t tell the whole story - Rooney has played deep in most matches this season and is often the protagonist and the man who creates chances. He has four – meaning, in total, he has contributed to 14 goals this season. Not bad, by any stretch.
Rooney, speaking post-match said: “As a striker, you always want to score, but I’ve been happy with the way I’ve been playing, except for the Blackpool game. I just couldn’t get into that one.” That Blackpool game meant many could once again turn of Rooney, and point out that his talent has been stifled by a long summer, his role as a second striker or whatever people feel forced to come up with.
The second Rooney goal was equally-perfect, but it was Nani who quite rightly deserves credit. His cross to set up Rooney just before the interval was one that even he could not have envisaged; but it was struck with such precision and accuracy that Rooney had to score simply out of respect for Nani’s defense-splitting pass that had Villa’s James Collins beaten. It’s not the first time Collins has been on the receiving end on a piece of genius. There was some cause for concern when United conceded after the second half – Downing’s presence so terrifying down the left wing that both Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic felt incline to cover him – oblivious to a free Darren Bent in the box who collected Downing’s pass and stroked it home.
Vidic soon made amends, and lashed home soon after and, as the game petered out in the 15 minutes, United ran away victors again in a home game, having dropped points only one occasion in thirteen games. Aston Villa fought hard, in vain, although an honourable mention must go to Brad Friedel, as he (like his opposite number) continued to defy age between the posts. United were solid and assured at the back, and up front, Rooney was firing on all cylinders. Unsurprisingly.
Opposition Reaction – http://astonvillacentral.com: “Overall, not the absolute brightest of performances, not a patch on the breathless reverse of this fixture, certainly where the final third of the pitch is concerned. But not altogether bad in a game that grabbing a point would have been a super result regardless of our recent resurgence in form.
“United rightly sit unbeaten at the top of the table, it was always going to be an uphill struggle, but just a few weeks ago this side would have collapsed. Tonight they didn’t.”