For centre-halves, set-piece opportunities being an exception, the halfway-line is something of an “Iron Curtain”; the boundary which separates two opposites. It was the Shelbyville to their Springfield. You stay there, we stay here. And so there’s a small thrill in seeing a confident, unshackled centre-back running through his own half into the other, finding a gap and sensing an opportunity. Phil Jones won many admirers by doing precisely this earlier on in the season, bulldozing his way into Shelbyville with ease. And now Jonny Evans has followed his lead; with his own take. His calmness on the ball, a recurring feature of his play which pretty much lays the foundation of his all-round game, sees him glide out of defence with measured pace to set up a charge at the opposition and, once he finds a man, he refuses to run back into his position until the attack has been quelled; adding another option going forward in the process. “Jonny’s one of the best in our defence at coming out with the ball,” says Sir Alex Ferguson. “He’s a terrific user of the ball and he’s quick. I’ve been pleased with him.”
Has this been effective? Has it led to any goals? It doesn’t matter. Because it’s certain to do soon if it hasn’t already; and it’s important to recognise how important even one ultimately unsuccessful attack is — very important. It’s all about momentum, you see. And exerting pressure. This isn’t half the point, though. It doesn’t matter because regardless of which centre-back is doing it, it is almost always liberating, even it is short-lived. Football is about the small moments, too. Anyway, there’s a reason for going slightly off tangent, for the soppy words. It’s Jonny Evans we’re talking about, Jonny Evans!
He’s always been maligned — and, whether unfairly or not, there was a time not long ago where you could easily identify the problem(s). And that problem may still exist — but recent showings hint at a more mature player to the one who consistently faltered last season, who seemed unable to shake off his reputation to get easily ‘bullied’, especially as he was, indeed, ‘bullied’ frequently. Now, if there is a problem, he’s doing a good job hiding it.
Promisingly, his efforts are gradually gaining recognition; the unforgettable 6-1 defeat to Manchester City last Autumn the only blemish in what is the season where Evans is by far Manchester United’s most improved player. Some may still question keeping Evans at Gerard Piqué’s expense; as Alistair Walker argues, Piqué has “a legitimate claim to being the best central defender in the world,” — and he has Evans partly to thank for that. Truth is, had he stayed at Old Trafford, Piqué would always remain below Evans for whatever reason and surely, then, never had emerged as the player he now is.
But Piqué is the past. This is the present: and United’s 5-0 win over Wolves last Sunday could very much be said to be the most important of the Irishman’s career so far.
Evans’ first goal for the club was no doubt a proud moment for him, but there is a greater significance to it than that and the fact that his goal, the opener, set the tone for a thumping. It was also important for the player’s image itself. It was a wonderful way to cap a solid few months – they say (well, some do) that goals for defenders is only a bonus, and while that would be true for someone like Nemanja Vidic, it does at least bring much-needed attention towards someone often less spoken about; indeed, even MoTD2 and Dion Dublin analysed Evans’ game straight after, incidentally, at one point, cooing over his tendency to run from his defensive position.
Evans has not been perfect — but screw perfection. He’s been an able deputy in Vidic’s absence and is even looking as good as experienced partner Rio Ferdinand – heck, he’s performed even better. And despite promising first halves of the season, he appears more competent as a centre-half than Chris Smalling and Jones right now (although injuries have helped neither). Yet, it’d be wrong to go all hyperbolic (too late?).
Evans has always had the talent, and the attributes, but only until now has he really shown that on a weekly basis; not long ago, United fans in their dozens panicked just at the sight of his name on the teamsheet. Some may still do now, but they’re in a minority. And boo to them, anyway. Boo! Still, it’s important to stress that we might not have seen the end of the uncertain Evans. Just as much, though, it’s also important to recognise that this might just be start of something good for Evans, and Manchester United.
When Manchester United lost to Barcelona 3-1 in the Champions League Final last year, Sir Alex Ferguson talked of their dominance as being cyclical. On the other hand, Manchester United are going through a rebuilding period in Europe and he is hoping that defeat to Athletic Bilboa last night, 2-1, can be put down to a transitional year. Asked whether United’s travails in Europe this season should just be put down to “a bad year”, Ferguson replied: “I hope it is [that].” He went on to explain further his side’s shortcomings this season: “I think that there is a root [cause] in terms of some of the goals we have lost in these tournaments, they have been pretty poor, so it’s something we need to analyse. It has been a disappointing year.”
Indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson indicates at the wiser causes for English sides’ struggles in European competition this season. Firstly, the form of Premier League sides has been faltering since 2009, incidentally the year which many of the top teams went on a transitional phase. In Manchester United’s case, they lost both Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tévez in that year while Chelsea sacked Felipe Scolari and hired Carlo Ancelotti leading what was widely felt as a declining squad. Liverpool had a tumultuous year after losing Xabi Alonso in the summer and later on sacking Rafael Benitez and Arsenal have eternally had to rebuild. Certain financial changes made it even harder for some of England’s top clubs to compete for talent while Manchester City, the one exception, only embarked in their début year in the Champions League this season. On the other hand, Real Madrid restarted their Galactico project, Bayern Munich were starting to bear the fruit of the organisational superiority of their league and Barcelona were at the start of something special after winning the European Cup.
But to examine a cause far closer to the present, the top Premier League sides are losing their discipline and ability to compete in Europe, as demonstrated by this season’s high-scoring matches. Sir Alex Ferguson points at this when he blames the type of goals Manchester United have conceded. Indeed, while they corrected their initially susceptibility in the league to concede chances, they haven’t done so in Europe and were punished on more than one occasion. Most damningly perhaps, was the home game against Basel in which their deep back-line always gave the Swiss side a chance to come back. And they did, eventually drawing 3-3.
Over the two legs over against Athletic Bilbao, United have conceded 37 shots (letting in 5 goals) and have only replied with 12 of their own. What this mostly indicates at is a lack of control, something which they failed to achieve for any sustained period either at San Mames or at Old Trafford. The return of Paul Scholes only serves to highlight their weakness in that area. Incidentally, he didn’t feature in any of those games as Sir Alex sought to fight Athletic’s energy with their own. That led to a battle of man-marking in the midfield and an end-to-end games at times, with Park Ji-Sung drafted in alongside Michael Carrick in the second-leg with, curiously, Tom Cleverly, wide right. But Athletic Bilboa once again prevailed, outclassing United with their tempo, the accuracy of their passes and their desire to make sure each area of the pitch, they outnumbered Manchester United – it’s Marcelo Bielsa’s philosophy.
After being defeated by a unique style at Old Trafford, it was expected Sir Alex Ferguson had prepared some plans; indeed, it would be naive if he didn’t. That meant United tried to mark at goal-kicks, trying to stop Athletic finding any rhythm and to supply their front men. For periods it worked but then, Fernando Amorebieta found some space, played a fantastic long-ball to Fernando Llorente (Torres – oh the irony) to finish off superbly. Ferguson called it a “soft goal” due to the nature of it familiar to the English game, but that would be doing disservice to Athletic who have practised diagonals similar to this in training. Nevertheless, Lllorente had a lot to do and his volley was expertly struck – almost guided in, such was the technique and made even harder for David de Gea in goal as he was given no time to settle his feet. When Wayne Rooney did pull one back after Oscar de Marcos put the game beyond doubt, Ferguson had given up the chase and replaced his key players. Regardless, Paul Pogba put in a promising shift while Danny Welbeck showed drive that was previously missing. For Manchester United, though, they have the familiarity of the league now left to concentrate on. With an easy run-in, it might not be typical “squeaky-bum time” for Sir Alex Ferguson but the real one may start in the summer where he will have to sculpt a better Manchester United for Europe.
There’s a general temptation for football observers to pin down players supposedly not in-form. Forwards, for instance, are regularly maligned if they score less than they should (see Fernando Torres) and then others are said to be playing well if they have been scoring at a healthy rate. Even if they’ve been bobbins, it doesn’t really matter, because they have plenty. Logic, you see, doesn’t apply. This is life.
And so, naturally, it is Wayne Rooney, with 9 goals in 5, who will be the one deemed ‘in-form’. Danny Welbeck, useless old Danny, hasn’t managed one in eight games. Thankfully, they haven’t decided that Welbeck is rubbish yet, presumably because they’re football fans and consequently not very bright and prone to oversights. Anyone that saw Manchester United defeat West Brom 2-0 on Sunday will have noted just how bad Rooney was on the ball; off it, with all his movement and natural intelligence (you read correctly), it is worth pondering if there are any better, yet that can only take you so far. Welbeck was more involved and — whodathunkit — performed much better than Rooney, something that the top scorers chart won’t tell you.
The only downside of the afternoon was Welbeck’s failure to put away a chance with an empty goal gaping — as good as he has been this season, he will not lose critics unless he converts regularly, such is the way football and its fans work. Although we’ve established that goalscoring isn’t everything, it is still important — of course it is, and being able to is part of what determines a good forward. Still, for a player in his first full season at the club he’s grown up with, near double figures in mid-March is rather good, you know.
Ashley Young might object, but Welbeck was the best player on the pitch against the Baggies; out of position– on paper, anyway — he admirably led the charge from the right as United’s almost-kamikaze setup (without the suicide bit) downed the away side with beautifully-flowing football. At times, he drifted away into the centre and soon inadvertently set up the first goal; so little happened down the right that when Javier Hernandez found the ball on that side, he was presented with plenty of space which to cross it to Rooney in the box. United essentially overloaded the opposition’s box with their three forwards and moved their defenders more central; tactics surely more familiar with the FIFA video games series.
Welbeck did more than draw full-backs out of position, though. It all seems a lot of nothing to mention things like his ‘boundless energy’ and ‘enthusiasm’ but it’s a trait of his that stands out above any other; and it helps him shape his game and develop other attributes. As strange as it may sound, there are shades of Park and also Berbatov, with his clever link-up play, in his game which might so some way in explaining why he’s also rather competent in a deeper position or on the flanks. It might be why he gets the nod over Hernandez and the Bulgarian; because, not only is Welbeck dangerous in the box, but out of it, too. And his dribbling technique is as bizarre as it is good — ‘Pritt-Stick feet’ seems a fair description for a man who rarely who disappoints, even if he doesn’t make the scoresheet; best thing of all, he can only get better.
It’s already thought that, while not yet terminal, the 3-2 defeat by Athletic Bilbao could be another harrowing moment in Sir Alex Ferguson’s European career. Like the three seasons in which they were essentially knocked out on away goals before and after winning the Champions League in 1999, it’s the concession of home goals which was their bane here. (As Jonathan Wilson notes, those three years came in 1997 where they succumbed to a goal at home by Lars Ricken; in 1998 where they lost out on away goals 1-0 to Monaco; and in 2000 where Real Madrid defeated United by the same result Athletic did at Old Trafford: 3-2). Sir Alex Ferguson seemed to hint similar in his post-match conference. ”I think there’s been that slackness all season [with defending],” he told MUTV. “And, but for David De Gea, we could have lost by four or five goals [to Athletic]. He was absolutely superb.”
“We’ve had a bad season in Europe, it has to be said. We’ve lost three goals against Basel, two against Benfica, two to Ajax and three tonight. That tells the story. Maybe it’s just one of these years when we need to take stock in terms of assessing how we should approach games at home.”
Of course, Ferguson doesn’t have to look too far for the need to reinvent in Europe. After losing to Barcelona in the Champions League final last season, 3-1, he talked about the “challenge catching Barcelona.” And when they beat them in pre-season, Sir Alex thought he had stumbled on the solution with players like Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck displaying great energy to overcome Barcelona’s pretty patterns. “We’ve introduced some young players to the club this season who have tremendous ability and a great energy and spirit about them,” said the manager in October. ”So I think we’re making great strides towards that level Barcelona have reached these past two or three years.
Certainly, Manchester United’s team last night contained a lot of those young players and while it was very much a rotated squad, it was selected on the bounds to stop Athletic; it didn’t work. Park Ji-Sung was forced up and down the pitch by right-back and captain, Andoni Iraola, while Wayne Rooney was unable to stop the majestic Ander Iturraspe from dictating play from deep. By that same token though, the Basque playmaker was unable to stop Rooney influencing as he scored two goals and played some delightful passes (and some bad ones too). Phil Jones was drafted in to add some energy to the midfield but after making a bright start, he faded and Athletic overran him in the centre. You can’t expect Ryan Giggs to dominate the midfield and in that respect, Sir Alex was wrong to play him in a two-man midfield with Jones (although Rooney was expected to provide cover) but the Welshman did make some good passes and generally initiated a lot of United’s attacks.
However, it was not the continental ruthlessness that United were punished by and have in defining European games in the past but the direct nature of Athletic’s attacks is what caused United the most problems. Despite playing a target man, Marcelo Bielsa’s side resisted lumping it to Fernando Llorente and instead, looked to use him as an inverted pivot to base their attacks around. The midfielders were quick to support him and played some fantastic exchanges around the box. Indeed, Athletic’s second to take the score to 2-1, was most Manchester United-like as they exchanged quick give-and-goes before Ander Herrera lifted a pass over the defence for Óscar de Marcos to finish.
It’s not that Manchester United’s defenders were out of their depth - although they showed their naivety when they conceded the third – it’s that they were countlessly exposed. By playing the ball forward quickly — and United contributed to their own downfall by not being able to get tight and press, something which Bielsa’s side did fantastically — they easily bypassed the midfield and forced the backline back into their own box. Iturraspe danced in the puddles Manchester United left in midfield while Iker Munian, Markel Susaeta and Herrara buzzed around the box like bees in the summer.
The most worrying thing for Sir Alex Ferguson, though, is that they have not been able to dominate against all manner of styles and not just against typical European opponents, and Bielsa’s team mixes English speed with Spanish technique. Indeed, United have, on the whole, played so badly in the two European competitions this season that it poses concerning questions; one being, do they even deserve to be in the Europa League(?) and secondly, do they remain a part of Europe’s elite? Both appear harsh, for sure, but the initial question isn’t as much as the second; some still have reservations about allowing — or relegating, more precisely — under-performing Champions League clubs that finish third into the other competition. As one of those clubs, you’re expected to strengthen the competition because you’re perceived to be far superior. So far, United have played three — and haven’t convinced in any. Either way, they’d still be back in the Champions League next season but while a style may work in the Premier League, it requires a greater sense of methodology and security in the European Cup.
Neither Paul Scholes nor Michael Carrick started last night and that indicates the style United tried to impose against Athletic; Sir Alex will have to look at that as a tactical mistake. David de Gea put in another superb performance as he should as a shot-stopper but the other reason he was brought in for – his distribution – was not evident as Athletic dominated. Ashley Young again failed to get in the game while there is a massive over-reliance on Wayne Rooney still. Sir Alex shunted him to the left as he did in the defeat to Basel to try to keep the ball and so that Manchester United would resist the urge to play everything through him. It didn’t work but he still made the two key contributions to the scoreline by scoring two goals. However, and this is credit to Sir Alex Ferguson’s team-building, Athletic Bilbao put on a performance that has seldom been equalled by an away team at Old Trafford for a long time, blowing the hosts apart. It’s up to Sir Alex Ferguson to do the same at San Mamés and in doing so, secure United’s future as a European elite.
Like Lester Freamon from The Wire, Ashley Young seems to have the rare gift of being able to do so much despite appearing to do very little else. In season one, when the Deputy Commissioner, Ervin Burrell, decided that the Barksdale investigation was probably just a waste of time and resources, he recalled the two detectives thought to be the best po-lice, leaving Freamon and the others – including protagonist Jimmy McNulty and leader of the detail, Lieutenant Daniels – to finish the job, thinking he had left only the lousy and incompetent to carry out the rest of the supposedly perilous case. He was wrong – in the end, they somehow managed to pull of a winning case against the ruthless Barksdale organisation. Inevitably, McNulty and Daniels would earn most praise and it seemed that Freamon’s work – which had been crucial – had been ignored, not just by those above him in the hierarchy but even the audience at home. This isn’t the reason why he’s similar to Young, though. It’s something else.
Thankfully, Young’s efforts don’t pass unnoticed. It’s just that performance and influence are two different things – Freamon constantly sat on his arse while others were out there kapow-ing the bad guys; even so, there was no doubting how influential he was particularly when listening to the wiretaps, making his own inferences which would lay the foundations of the case. For that reason, Ashley Young’s debut season in Manchester United colours is very similar to Freamon’s – once you get past some of the obvious differences, of course; he’s been below-average in about half the games he has played in, yet is able to get by and seen to have repaid the manager’s faith – rightly so – because of isolated moments that happen to be able to change a game.
Against Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, he was more out, rather than in, in this game, but scored two well-taken goals to guide United to a slightly flattering 3-1 victory. The week before, against Norwich, he came on as an impact sub with the score at 1-1 and despite being so uninvolved for the best part of 25 minutes, hit a fine cross for Ryan Giggs to win it late. In the first leg of the Europa League tie with Ajax at the Amsterdam ArenA, he opened the scoring well into the second-half. In doing this, he could have been said to be influential to the result – but this, as we know, is not mutually exclusive to performance. He was some way off standard, in all truth. Perhaps it’d be fair not to reflect on the Norwich performance having been thrown in late, but his against Spurs and Ajax were comfortably average. And it’s been that way for a while, now.
Granted, he hasn’t played that much, but enough to know that he has often contributed without really playing well. Luckily, though, there have been instances where Young has performed admirably – the early season games against West Brom, Spurs and Arsenal stick out. He was very good against the Baggies in the season opener and forced the winning goal; and the fixtures that followed were more of the same – there he was superb and condemned the two north London clubs to defeat with his swashbuckling dynamism. But he had been unable to continue that soon after, even before his injury setback around winter time. When United laboured to a 3-3 draw with Basel, he salvaged a point but he did this in a tie where he had struggled to impose himself for much of the game. Weeks earlier, the Reds’ 3-1 victory over Chelsea saw a Young free-kick which found Chris Smalling unattended to head home. It was much of the same; one or two good moments, but otherwise frustrating.
This may all sound Andrei Arshavin-esque; indeed, the game in which the Russian famously pummelled four goals against Liverpool in a 4-4 stalemate in the 08/09 season was hailed as a great performance, however Arshavin did not play as well as some had said. In truth, he just happened to score four and not to do much else. This is not comparing Young with Arshavin; however, there is reason for concern. It’s saying something that many have noted that even Nani, wearisome and delightful in equal measure, seems to be far more involved.
It is important that Young imposes himself and doesn’t fade away into anonymity because, when he does have the ball, he is able to change a game in the manner that only a few of his teammates can; he has managed to score and assist in games of real importance (Chelsea, City, Spurs, Arsenal), after all. Because of his happy knack of doing the important things, he is certain to be rewarded with minutes – but there will be occasions where he’ll struggle and fail to influence at the same time; and for that reason, he must be fearful.
Seeing as we’ve referenced The Wire in a piece about Ashley Young, it would seem wrong not to point you in the direction of Young’s lookalike. Marlo Stanfield, for the purposes of lols, ladies and gentlemen.