Sir Alex’s eccentric experiment pays off…again
Before kick off, there was panic. The team selection was baffling; for such an intense rivalry, this wasn’t the way to go. Fans wanted to see a side strong enough to avenge Leeds United on their 1-0 FA Cup victory the last time these two sides met – rather than a makeshift one. As it happened, it barely mattered that United had players out of position or lined up in a lopsided formation. This was a stroll; and so easy it was that Dimitar Berbatov filled in as a centre-half in the last ten minutes without any difficulty – looking a man ready to nonchalantly pull out a cigar and taunt the hosts on their lack of chances.
Manchester United have swept aside teams this season with a fearsome front four – Nani on the right, Ashley Young on the left and two forwards in the middle; however, they set up a touch eccentrically in this instance. Fielding no less than four strikers, they looked destined to put the ball past Leeds’ keeper Andrew Lonergan every time they surged forward. Neither Mame Diouf and Kiko Macheda were entirely convincing, but were enthusiastic and still caused Leeds problems when taken on individually. It allowed both Michael Owen and Berbatov to flourish in a duopoly that would pose problems for any Premier League side, their style of play perfectly complimenting the other.
Owen was particularly fantastic. He was clinical and his movement, predictably, ran rings around the home side. He has a knack for being at the right place when required and scored the first goal of the evening to set the tone for the rest of the game. United dominated and kept coming at Leeds; despite a change in personnel, the fringes played the game in identical fashion and didn’t look like backing down.
Sir Alex has never been afraid to experiment with his side. There have been occasions where it doesn’t work but he has a firm belief that the players at his disposal can get the job done. That, he has found, has been more successful than not and again, it was the case here at Elland Road. An inexperience back four which included two midfielders – Carrick and Valencia – looked assured alongside debutant Ezekiel Fryers while Fabio da Silva was hardly forced into doing any defensive work.
Fryers has been tipped to do big things and the signs are good for the immediate future. He appears comfortable on the ball and reads the game well. Carrick, who later took the armband, has the attributes to make a decent makeshift centre-back as his conversion into a holding player has seen his defensive abilities improve considerably – along with having a cool head and a good understanding of a situation, he is particularly good at prizing the ball away from the other team.
The midfield two of Park and Ryan Giggs were magnificent, playing with relative ease and nullifying the opposition’s midfield. Leeds struggled to create chances and perhaps only once tested young Ben Amos in goal. The game was already over in effect when Owen made it 2-0, but that didn’t prevent Giggs from scoring a wonderful solo goal where he poked the ball between a player’s legs, ran and latched onto it and then vigorously thrashed it past the goalkeeper with his laces. Soon, Paul Pogba was brought on and he played in a similar vein; his first touch was an accurate long-range pass and the Frenchman, although a little jittery, had no trouble against a mediocre Leeds side who are better than this; promotion is an achievable target.
Of course, not every game will be this easy for United but it was an encouraging performance by a group of players with something to prove, nonetheless. It says a lot about their strength in-depth that their fifth choice striker is Michael Owen – a player with plenty to offer as shown by his two goals. They had limited resources in defence, but that shouldn’t be a problem when Nemanja Vidic, Rafael and Rio Ferdinand return to action.