United play to their strengths – and win

Manchester United have, at times, looked a team without an identity. They still win games — they win plenty — but it sometimes feels like they’ve forgotten how they used to do things. Nerves have replaced verve, and it has generally been less entertaining to watch as a result. Still; while they no longer dissect teams like they had done in the latter part of the ’00s, United are still home to a talented set of players who can play. When Jackie Chan remarked that “I may have amnesia, but I’m not stupid!” in his good-but-not-his-best, surely-a-metaphor-for-this-United-team film Who Am I?, he recognised his own capabilities, despite essentially being a changed man. Manchester United seemed to have realised that as they beat Manchester City 3-2 on Sunday.

In many ways, this was the opposite of the corresponding fixture last season where City won 1-0. Three of The Guardian‘s five talking points in the aftermath of that game, points 2, 3 and 4, would cover the following: Sir Alex Ferguson’s ultimately futile decision to go against type and play with caution; United’s defeat in midfield; and a significantly quiet game for Wayne Rooney, whose highlights included “nearly being booked by Andre Marriner for giving the referee too much ear-ache.” Lessons learned this time around.

Since Cristiano Ronaldo left, and it’s a bit sad we’re still on that, United have scrabbled around for a system that works — they’ve been fairly successful post-Ronaldo, but less convincing. What made United so good back in 2007/08 was that there never a reason to change. They performed well, they got the results. This season, there are factors; we’ve seen Ferguson bring out his inner-hipster with a diamond most probably to cater for either all of his forwards or lack of wide players. But, above all, the most telling reason for constant change is that is not clear which of width or no width has been better, with the scores tied at 1-1, 40-40.

Width will always prevail in the end, as anyone would suspect. The diamond has always felt like it has an expiry date, while Ferguson wouldn’t seriously think of turning away from something that has brought so much joy to those sides he has assembled. What helped United beat City was that Ferguson had clearly learned from the embarrassment of their previous meeting, where they played three thirty-somethings in midfield and just the one forward. Other sides might be comfortable in lining up in such a way, but United are not. They beat City at the weekend with the two central midfielders, two wingers and two forwards: this time they played to their strengths.

With Antonio Valencia and the majestic Rafael on the right-hand side and Ashley Young, in confusing form, with the renascent Patrice Evra on the left, United played, from minutes 15 to 45, the sort of football that fans had longed for; and though perhaps someone like Valencia didn’t play necessarily well, others around him clearly benefitted from the way United were set up.

The midfield battle was more or less won by the visitors by default, on a moral victory, because they came a long way from the horror show at Eastlands last April. Michael Carrick was impressive and enjoyed Tom Cleverley’s presence, and there was a sense that it was because this was something they felt more comfortable in. The midfield that had lost out to City back then felt contrived, unnecessary and quite simply a pale imitation: a bit like Simon Webbe’s rap verses.

Up field, Wayne Rooney was excellent along with Robin van Persie, and though it seems like one of those things that are only really realised on simulation games, last season’s two top scorers have forged a good partnership. United’s dependence on Rooney is arguably greater than that of the Dutchman, however; the Englishman acts as the spare wheel both on the channels and in midfield — and this season, he might just create as many as he scores.

The United that had beaten City were far from perfect, and probably were only as good as their opposition (who were superb in the first quarter of an hour, and, to their credit, stayed in the game) but they set up with a clear game-plan this time and had done things the right way. They approached the game with a mind to three points, not one. There was not a single problem with selection, either. Even the decision to bring on Danny Welbeck instead of Javier Hernandez was vindicated; it was Welbeck’s quick thinking to win the ball off Gael Clichy with the game into its nineties, and allowed United to have one last attack which would eventually lead to the winning free-kick.

Things people were wrong about: Well, wrong is harsh. Ashley Young might still be the “thespian shithouse” Rob Smyth thinks he is, but he does have his uses, especially in a simple 4-4-2 built to get goals. He is football’s no.1 ‘On His Day’ player.

Things people weren’t wrong about: David de Gea; some great saves, yes, but more importantly, he continues to show that he has indeed grown more assured in the air. Soon you’ll see, people. Soon. Meanwhile, Rafael’s hair, as it turns out, doesn’t give him magical powers. He’s just always been very good.

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5 responses to “United play to their strengths – and win”

  1. Doug says :

    Pretty much on target even on Young who does better when given space. He doesn’t have much in the way of ball control skills. Still waiting to see him dribble through someone but he kicks with accuracy and runs fast. But for the linesman’s error, Young would have had a goal and assist. Not a bad day’s work..

  2. Richard says :

    A very accurate account with 1 or 2 exceptions. Whilst the traditional United 4-4-2 has been Fergies calling card and helped him/United lift many domestic honours, it hasn’t been nearly as effective in Europe. For years United looked second best against the top European teams and yes, the Ince’s and Keane’s of the Red World battled like lions and helped to keep United close, they often looked out of touch against the European elite. With the steady increase of TOP European talent wearing EPL jerseys and managing from the sidelines, Fergies/Uniteds much vaunted 4-4-2 has come up short on a more regular basis. United’s talent should always make Norwich, Aston Villa, WBA, Wigan, Stoke, Everton et al look a distance second, but the 4-4-2 often let’s these teams dream and sometines come away with a W. Now I know that Barca is a stretch , but Barca playing in a 4-3-3 or some version of same, press high, and never let an inferior team stay in matches. United should be doing this against 75% of the teams in the EPL, if not more. Playing Carrick along side, Scholes or Giggs is a recipe for disaster. Playing without the extra mid-field player means giving up way to much possession. Why would any good team allow average teams / players; with average technical ability, time on the ball? United
    must play with the third person in the middle of the park; play with one winger and allow either Evra and or Rafel to get forward, ala, Barcelona. United look their most dangerous when, Valencia is going after a full back and making pin-point passes into the box, or Evra overlapping down the left, same for Rafael,

    • Twenny-Four says :

      Thanks for the comment. I hope I’ve made clear that the 4-4-2 hasn’t always worked — especially recently; that was what the rambling about the lack of identity, incisiveness etc since 2009 was all about. It’s when we have the personnel, though, that I think makes it work — when RvP and Rooney have been on the pitch together, not very often had they had Young and Valencia, two proper wide players, alongside them. And additionally, Cleverley and Carrick, one holds, the other moves, as opposed to two similar players in Scholes/Carrick etc. This one worked.

  3. Rizzo says :

    Great game by United, they knock City out of the world’s top 10. Clearly the best club in England right now.

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