The unplayable Nani is back. Probably. Maybe.
It barely makes up for the chaotic week gone by – where Manchester United were knocked out of the Champions League, where Nemanja Vidic was ruled out for the season and where the author of this post dropped the last piece of his birthday cake (Belgian chocolate, thanks for asking) on the kitchen floor – but the 4-1 win over Wolves goes some way in reassuring fans – even those who have had to experience an endless line of shoddy birthdays (naming no names) – that things aren’t totally bad. Well, they are. Sort of. But today isn’t the day to focus on that. Instead, let’s just look at the positives – along with one semi-negative thingy – all in five points.
1. Welbeck’s selflessness could push him ahead of Hernandez
Danny Welbeck did everything but score today according to the trusty Book of Clichés; but, indeed, he did everything but score. His link-up play is often overlooked; and he appears to be in the same mould as Dimitar Berbatov, where his other assets – including being able to read play well and spot a pass – bring those around him into the game and allow the team to maintain some sort of rhythm. It might sound harsh on Javier Hernandez, the man with the second best goal ratio in the history of the Premier League (Opta), but with him and Berbatov still injured, this is a great opportunity for Welbeck to show his worth. And, really, you wouldn’t put it past him. The greatest criticism of Hernandez is his tendency to drift out of games; here, against Wolves, there was no such problem for Welbeck. However, it was when he was off the pitch where his importance was recognised the most – as the energetic Kiko Macheda floundered around like a fish on a-a-a, er, something.
2. United find balance with Phil Jones and Michael Carrick
Phil Jones had a stinker in midweek; but there he was missing his midfield partner, the man with whom he flourished with days earlier in the 1-0 win over Aston Villa. With Michael Carrick, the perfect balance is found; and it’s a partnership very similar to the Tom Cleverley and Anderson one we saw at the start of the campaign. Similarly here, there’s an emphasis on dynamism and neither are in a fixed position – Jones continually caused problems for Wolves’ out-of-sorts defence with his marauding runs downfield; and he could take credit for the fourth goal where, after a bold sprint that covered nearly 80 yards, he released Antonio Valencia with an accurate, drilling pass. Defensively, he was excellent again.
The renascent Carrick also appeared to be nearing his wonderful form that inspired United to a League-Euro double in 07/08. His diving header in the eighth minute suggested he now had a bit of freedom – and was not expected to carry out solely defensive duties. That doesn’t mean he was neglected in helping out at the back, though, making vital interceptions and tackles – a supposed weakness of his. There was the one particular case where he won the ball, looked up and saw Rooney, found him with a delightful through ball … but the forward could not direct his shot past his namesake Wayne Hennessey.
3. Wayne Rooney and Antonio Valencia compliment each other perfectly
For Antonio Valencia, a player woefully out of form, he needed this. Sure, the opposition could be stronger but that shouldn’t matter; here, with three assists to his name, he not only gained some much-needed confidence but perhaps has earned the faith of the manager again and, with Ashley Young in a similar blip, could see more gametime in the coming months.
In his début season, the Ecuadorian was the perfect foil for Wayne Rooney. What sets apart Valencia from other wingers is his crossing technique; the astonishing accuracy he manages to find, the ability to read the situation and the way he battles past dumbfounded defenders. He crosses at the byline – unlike many others – and this is what suits Rooney, or indeed any forward in world football, best (“I think we kept their full-backs completely occupied all through the game – we were getting to the edge of their box all the time,” Sir Alex told MUTV after the game). These crosses are certainly more effective than the chanced ones from a distance, something Valencia rarely attempts. And another point: Valencia’s pace is an underused asset.
4. Vidic-less United may be punished by better opposition
This isn’t meant to act as a criticism to either Jonny Evans or Rio Ferdinand because both were fairly tidy in this game; in particular Evans, who put in a good shift, making one outstanding block as Wolves looked to grab a consolation goal at 4-1 down. But Evans’ biggest problem is his composure and concentration, and tends to back off – as does the Ferdinand of today – which can be punished by better opposition, especially if you’re playing a two-man midfield. There were some jittery moments, and Steven Fletcher’s goal after half time was the result of poor position and perhaps poor marking by Patrice Evra. Still, it is not absolutely essential that United go into market for another central defender – they’ve got the luxury of depth that they certainly don’t have in central midfield.
5. The unplayable Nani is back. Probably. Maybe.
We don’t know how long it’ll last, though. But he did come out of the Basel game as the only player who could really reflect on a decent job done. Nani – as if we were surprised – recognises just how influential he can be when he’s firing: “It’s important for the team I’m on my best form and I’m happy with my performance. I’ve been working hard to try and be at my best as then I can help the team.” Nani’s right, though. Wolves were narrow and that suited him; he found plenty of the space on the flank and found little trouble against Wolves’ full-backs. And if there’s one part of his game that has elevated him as a player, it’s how good he is drifting into other positions, giving United fluidity and allowing them to switch play. Both of Nani’s goals were special in their own way; the first a well-executed low shot from outside the area, the second a moment of quick-thinking and good position which allowed him to get to the end of Valencia’s cross.
United need more of this, and the gap between them and City may just gradually close. But, as good as they were, the bench told another story. There were no out-and-out central midfielders – having just 1 in an 18-man squad is always a cause for concern (EDIT: I’ve just realised that Darron Gibson was on the bench, although some may argue that it was a deliberate mistake). For all the positives, this result may just act as another convenient smokescreen.