Because we just haven’t got time to do everyone. With added, pointless star ratings.
David de Gea
United fans’ staunch defence of the maligned Spaniard mid-season was admirable (well most of them did, anyway), as they felt they had to; partly, because they’d seen flashes of a £20million player and partly because they didn’t want another Roy Carroll, another Raimond van der Gouw. The press were themselves determined to find another Massimo Taibi to laugh at, joking that this mug from another league wasn’t cut out for the physical nature of the Premier League and dismissed him as some sort of competition winner, who was probably given a replica shirt a size too big. It was only the gloves that were XXL as David de Gea found that replacing Edwin van der Sar was never going to be achieved in just a year — but he’s progressing nicely and can look back at an encouraging début season. United will hope he maintains his post-January form going into the first game in August.
He gets three pointless stars; because, yes, while it was certain his bad form in his first few months at the club was just a temporary thing that can easily be put down to naivety and nerves, it cannot be avoided. Nor have we (just me) quite worked out how good three stars is, but, here, take them Daveeeeed.
The form of Phil Jones, who enjoyed temporary — yet bizarre — cult status in his first few months as a United player, wavered a little towards the end of the season. The problem Jones has is this: he may be far too versatile to be taken seriously. It would be genuinely interesting to see how he does next season and how exactly he’ll be utilised; when John O’Shea was a United player, he was respected and reliable, but there was a ceiling — his peak so difficult to distinguish that the mountain was probably a slightly bumpy, square-ish rocky thing. Or something. The danger now for Jones is that he can’t just be a good player, he needs to be more because United require him to be. Is this too harsh? Of course, although it’s overdue given how much he’s been talked up — that includes all kinds; hyperbole and über-hyperbole. (Interestingly, he’s looked his best at right-back this season — not bad for a centre-half that can do a job in midfield …)
The personal stance is this: he can and should be a really good player, perhaps even future captain and whatever else, but the second half of the season exposed some obvious flaws (that fans/observers/pundits were happy to ignore because it was more fun than way) — which we’ll put down to the player’s naivety — that many opposing players were happy to capitalise on. It is important, then, to point out that there is a lot of work to do and we’ll certainly learn more from his second season than the first.
From a piece on Evans, March 2012:
Evans has not been perfect — but screw perfection. He’s been an able deputy in Vidic’s absence and has looked as good as experienced partner Rio Ferdinand – heck, he’s performed even better.
Patrice Evra has always been good with words. He once said of France’s Lilian Thuram: “It is time that Lilian stops playing a role that isn’t his to play. Walking around with books on slavery in glasses and a hat does not turn you into Malcolm X.” Considering all this, I think we can forget that this hasn’t been an entirely great season for United’s left-back and stand-in captain in the absence of Nemanja Vidic, a post-World Cup 2010 decline that’s extended into its second year. Still, he’s not been that bad, but … two stars, in appeasement perhaps, to those that think he has.
Pass, pass, pass, ooh a little slip, get up, dust yourself, pass, pass, shoot, pass, pass, tackle, pass, interception, pass, final whistle, three points. He gets four stars.
Paul Scholes, the scruffy, half-blind, asthmatic messiah brought down to Old Trafford in January to aid an ailing Manchester United side — or already ailed according to some back then — has shown that, despite its negative connotations, it’s never so bad to act desperately. Indeed, many have retracted their initial cynicism for the U-turn; it’s only a desperate masterstroke, now, as we look back on it.
He’s been arguably as influential as any other player post-January and United have looked in most control with him in the side, barely able to drop points; the City defeat perhaps the only game in which he has disappointed. Painfully, United were without Scholes in all three losses to the combined force of Wigan Athletic Bilbao. Even if he were to stay, central midfield is an area where United have to invest in.
Football is, according to Mark Kelleher, a “mental disorder”, where “beauty is often too infrequent” — and that’s, well, true. Rather than your life, it can be a horrid, tragic extension of it and we sometimes wonder why we bother at all. Which is perhaps why we enjoy the good aspects of the game so much that seem increasingly rare as we get older. Valencia, battling and booming down the right-wing, falls into an esteemed category of players that make us feel warm and fuzzy inside — when we watch these types, we remember why we enjoy the game so much.
And Valencia, not without a few difficult, yet thankfully short-lived, periods, has been exceptional in the middle part this season. Valencia’s biggest success was being able to provide a service for those that need it; relieving the workload for the other winger in his team, the full-back behind him; pinging in an endless supply of crosses like a troubled kid on a roof with a new batch of water-balloons. And United sorely missed him in the Manchester derby defeat — heck, they were not even able to attempt a shot on goal, creating little.
Who doesn’t dearly love a stutter? A powerful, beastly and lethal strike? A measured, yet wonderfully-vicious, cross?
Below is an excerpt from this piece posted on the site last week.
Rooney has managed to score 27 goals from 34 in Premier League games. That statistic, in isolation, is good enough for some to go far enough to say the forward has been United’s best player this season. But Rooney has a lot to answer for. He is not just their chief goal-getter; but also their playmaker. It is partly true that United rely on Rooney too much for his own good; indeed, he has only really fulfilled his role as the goalscorer, and yet not much else. This season, it’s been a bit of both and neither, played everywhere and nowhere; given the target of 40 goals and yet, at the same time, (probably) told create goals for others, too.
Too often this season, when Rooney has tried to assume that playmaker role, he has played a bad pass for every good one, being far too negligent and careless and a bit of hindrance as United go forward. That, typically, followed by a strop or a sudden goal from the penalty spot … it’s clear that this is not Rooney’s best season at the club, only a good one, despite what some may say.
It’s amazing to think that Welbeck still has his doubters. But he does, even after a largely-impressive first season as an established senior which saw his goals tally nicely into double figures. Perhaps more importantly, he’s been consistently good — the romantics among us have dearly missed Dimitar Berbatov’s presence but Welbeck has been an able deputy, not too dissimilar at times, either; even nudging Javier Hernandez (not a bad second for the Mexican: ★★★☆☆) to the bench. And what’s not to love in a local lad, eh?
I’ve not enjoyed this at all. The star rating was rubbish. The season was well, good; for a bit. Bye. And have a horrible summer.
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 James Brown and his brand new bag, Manchester United have rediscovered their “groove”. For a team supposedly in crisis, this win – and indeed, the general response post-Basel – serves as an emphatic reminder to the critics that they are very much still a force. Ryan Giggs perfectly summed up what was so good about Manchester United’s performance against Fulham last night: “When you have so many options on the ball – people running in behind, people dropping in the hole – we’re a very difficult team to play,” Giggs eulogised after the impressive 5-0 win. “The performance was really pleasing.”
Granted, the opposition since that fateful night in Switzerland have been teams that United are expected to beat, but you’ve got to start somewhere – and United’s rehabilitation has gone fairly smoothly so far, brushing aside stubborn mid-table teams with much verve and conviction; and the only time they’ve been caught with a narcotic is when Dimitar Berbatov metaphorically puffed on one after scoring that audacious backheel for the fifth at Craven Cottage. That said, away ties against QPR and Fulham should always be regarded as tricky, anyway. Seven goals – with not a single goal conceded – is no mean feat, either.
In the previous campaign, many had cited United’s emphasis on a ‘collective’ ; where, it was difficult to distinguish an outstanding individual, because, as a unit, they were all equally good. Here it appeared as if there were many outstanding individuals. Ryan Giggs, for one. At 38, he continues to amaze and his central midfield partnership with Michael Carrick gives United a surprising dynamic. By design, they shouldn’t work together but it inconceivably does. Unfortunately for Fulham, a team that usually displays great presence in the centre of midfield, Dixen Etuhu and Danny Murphy both crumbled into anonymity from the very start.
Sir Alex may take comfort from another impressive display in the middle of the park given that United still lack incredible depth in that position – and with Phil Jones now out injured and Darron Gibson being Darron Gibson, there remains a lot to be addressed there. Still, there’s a possibility that United may get lucky even with so few numbers if they continue to play like this, and you’d imagine the manager is likely to take this risk and decide not to buy in the January window. It isn’t recommended – at all – but Sir Alex’s stubbornness works in many amazing ways and he’ll probably end up having the last laugh and, come May, cheerfully drinking red wine as expensive as Athletic Bilbao’s Javi Martinez. Anyway, back to the Fulham game.
Manchester United hadn’t played this well in a game since September; and usually, they need both Nani and Wayne Rooney to tick. As frustrating as Nani can be, there can be no disputing that he is United’s most productive player. According to the number nerds, he creates a chance every 29 minutes, the same as David Silva. Pretty good, that. For the first goal, his dazzling run was extraordinary; with so little space, he managed not only to sprint and hold it down the line, but find Danny Welbeck with a beautifully executed and pinpoint cross. His second was an uncharacteristic header, suggesting that Nani is indeed adept to any situation.
Rooney is in fine form, too; always making himself useful when dropping deep and so outnumbering the opposition in the process. Moreover, the fact that he finds himself in such a withdrawn position creates a problem for the defence, and helps Welbeck to prosper, too. While Welbeck isn’t as prolific as Javier Hernandez, he arguably does more for the team. There have been countless occasions where Hernandez has drifted out – even in those in which he scores in – while Welbeck goes in always searching, always wanting. His positioning is an asset, too and his goal was reward for a good, solid past fortnight in a red shirt.
And praise is in order for others too; Anders Lindegaard managed yet another clean sheet. His inclusion is of course debatable; because it arguably ruins David de Gea’s rhythm and that of the defence, but that claim has so far been unfounded. Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling were solid again, while Patrice Evra responded well after a shoddy performance at Loftus Road on Sunday. It was a great shame, however, to see both Jones and Ashley Young leave the field of play with injuries.
The only criticism of United yesterday was the manner in which they approached the start of the second half. Perhaps, they allowed for arrogance and complacency to seep in at 3-0, but United should have learnt from the Chelsea game earlier this season; they led at half time with the same scoreline, and ended up 3-1 victors but only thanks to Fernando Torres’ horror miss which, if scored, would have certainly made for a nervy finish. They did improve as the night went on and bore two more goals out of their efforts towards the end; both gorgeous, but contrasting, takes by Rooney and Berbatov. It ended 5-0; who saw that one coming?
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.
1. Where do you play Jones?
Phil Jones could have never envisaged such a start to his Manchester United career. Despite playing more minutes than anyone else, there is still the same burning question surrounding Jones – where do you play him? Certainly, it would appear that central defence is his strongest position but it is fairly clear that, this season anyway, his chances there will be limited. It is also worth noting that Chris Smalling has looked the more assured defensively of the two and so, for the moment, should be considered ahead of him. And then there’s Jonny Evans.
As for playing at right back, again, Smalling looks reasonably comfortable and is gradually becoming a long-term candidate for the position, and not just to fill in when required. Although Jones is competent in any position, there are arguably better alternatives at the moment (however, there is no doubting Jones’ potential to match and surpass any one of his competitors in the future). And so, because of this, Sir Alex’s decision to play him alongside Michael Carrick in central midfield against Aston Villa was justified. Jones looked relaxed and assured and got the best out of his much-scrutinised partner in the process. Not only did Jones help United win the midfield battle, but he scored his first senior goal – the pivotal goal that would come to decide the game.
Jones isn’t a utility player, though. Simply because it sounds a pale description of what he actually is – indeed, his versatility has seen him rewarded with game time but he’s no John O’Shea. Once he finds his natural position – which still could be as a central midfielder – it’s difficult seeing him being anything other than first choice.
2. Carrick is United’s best central midfielder
The Michael Carrick debate – if you’ve ever had the misfortune to find yourself in one – is tedious. But, like Bruce Forsyth on the television, it seems like it’ll last forever. See, the pro-Carrick wagon is always right as are the dissenters – both have valid points (most of the time). They do have common ground, though; 1) it’s universally accepted that Carrick has the talent and 2) Carrick is a ‘confidence’ player. Seeing as the author of this post is quite vociferously in the ‘pro’ corner, just look at his Twitter avatar, he is inclined to believe that the former Spurs midfielder is crucial to the team. Since making his first League start of the season against Swansea, Carrick looks a man who believes in himself again, strutting around the centre circle as if he had slayed a bear with just a sideways pass. Carrick is pivotal to the team’s success. United have conceded just once – ONCE – in all of Carrick’s 373 league minutes so far this season (this stat comes from @osullivanmufc on Twitter – follow him instead of me for bearable Carrick-drivel). How did they concede that, you ask? Via the contentious penalty in their recent 1-1 draw to Newcastle, of course. Against Villa, he was excellent; he kept winning the ball, laying the foundation for attack.
But there’s a problem. And that’s United central midfield. Or lack of it, if you will. They lack depth, and it’s fairly obvious that they need to invest in a player or two in the next transfer window. Darren Fletcher is still a good player, but he has caught the curse of Ledley King, whereby he can’t play two games in a week. The only issue with Tom Cleverley is his fitness; once he returns from injury, he has the ability to surpass everyone else in United’s thin central midfield. Right now, it’s better if we can refrain from using superlatives for a player who has only made a handful of senior appearances. And then there’s Anderson and Gibson – the perennial bane of the Manchester United fan; both have talent, especially the former, but struggle to find consistency. And so Carrick is United’s best; although, as much we love the man, that probably isn’t saying much when you consider those around him.
3. Lindegaard deserves game time
“Clean sheets are like goals for goalkeepers,” said Anders Lindegaard after the 1-0 win. “In 10 games, nobody will remember how many fantastic saves were made – they will remember how many clean sheets were kept. For my sake, I would rather win 1-0 than 10-1 because I am a goalkeeper and I want a clean sheet.” Lindegaard should be proud, then – so far this season, he has kept four in just five games. Unfortunately for him, David de Gea hasn’t done much wrong either after a shaky start and so Sir Alex Ferguson has been forced into rotating his two stoppers – surely a wise thing to do considering both are good enough to be first choice. “It keeps us both sharp,” says the Dane to MUTV. “I enjoy working with him very much. It’s very enjoyable and it makes us both better.”
4. Ashley Young still has much to prove
Is it too premature to be critical of Ashley Young? Certainly not, when you consider how his form has dropped since a short spell out with injury. He has been largely ineffective recently but perhaps this will be overlooked largely due to his explosive start to life as a United player back in August – the 8-2 win over Arsenal his best game so far – but that’s where the problem lies. There’s no doubt how good Young is on his day, and how much United may benefit from his presence, but it’s worth being wary for the time being. This next month will give us a clearer picture.
5. Wayne Rooney’s productivity hurt by playing in midfield
The thing with Wayne Rooney is that he isn’t playing badly; but his lack of goals after an impressive start does raise questions. For one, has the temporary move to midfield hurt his productivity in front of goal? Or is it just a coincidence? It appears, right now, to be the former – Fergie thinks as much but is confident he’ll get back to scoring ways – as United themselves, with Rooney in the team, have looked a team unable to breach defences since the 2-0 home win over Galati where Rooney played in that unfamiliar position. In their last four League games from then, the team have scored just four, Rooney none. For any team, it is crucial that their main source of goals is firing; but things are sure to look up; this is Wayne Rooney, after all.
Musa Okwonga, author of A Cultured Left Foot, noted that games between Manchester United and Liverpool are “to be endured, not enjoyed” and he could hardly have been more right; for this unsightly affair was not so much in preserving the image of the beautiful game, rather dig deep, fight hard and play if necessary for three points. In the end, neither side achieved their end goal – but the result did prove the team that deserved the shared spoils less still have many issues to be addressed.
Indeed, the greatest shame about this performance was that we know just how good this United side are and can be. 1-1 at Anfield and the end of an undesirable run of defeats at this ground isn’t such a bad result; nor is it when you consider that Manchester United were a goal down at one point with just ten minutes to go. Instead, it was the way that the visitors set up at the very start which was a touch disappointing; they appeared to opt for pragmatism and because of this, failed to really assert themselves, especially when going forward. Their brief flirtation with a fluid style right at the beginning of the season which saw the opposition on the verge of begging for mercy looked a distant memory by the time 90 minutes were up.
Of course, you would argue that the pragmatic approach does allow for better defending and it did so here. At the back, United were resolute and it only took for a contentious set-piece and a rare lapse by Ryan Giggs in the wall to allow Liverpool the initiative. However, it could be seen as a failure in the sense that no balance between defence and attack was found. This is how United had set up last season and it was particularly effective at home and in Europe – but away from Old Trafford, they were dismal, limping to a result and feeding off scraps, and so must avoid going down that road again in this campaign.
The selection was a little curious, too. Phil Jones got the nod in midfield alongside Darren Fletcher and exciting as that did sound before kick off, it barely reached its potential. Jones was playing in front of Fletcher and that itself was questionable; when he had played in midfield for Blackburn Rovers, he was primarily used as a defensive midfielder. That isn’t to say that they shouldn’t play together at all, but it is all about balance and perhaps the two are too similar in a sense.
It sounds almost strange to say, but United didn’t need to opt for the sensible. The difference between this team and the one we saw last season is that they’re better set up to play free, flowing football. That showed when Nani, Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez were brought on. Those three were only together for 15 minutes but United’s performance picked up considerably, and it was from there where Hernandez was ready to pounce from a corner after some much-needed pressure in the Liverpool half. Nani and Rooney are almost the ambassadors of this style; and along with Young, who looked lost without the two, United have the potential to beat most teams in this manner. Almost certainly, a pragmatic Manchester United might not have scored more than three, let alone eight, against that weakened Arsenal team in August. Arguably, however, they might have not conceded twice either – but a ruthless edge is what can set the Red Devils apart from most others, not a cautious method which would only see teams in an ever-improving Premier League fancy a chance of earning a result.
That doesn’t mean that whenever Rooney and Nani play, United pick up the pace and are automatically devastating with the ball. That isn’t true at all. But it is increasingly obvious that they, and the team, prefer being set up to win convincingly rather than cautiously. United are a good enough team to get away with it most of the time.
They are also missing Tom Cleverley. Since he picked up an injury in a 5-0 win over Bolton, United look a team with less authority. Their central midfield also lacks depth. There isn’t anything wrong with the individuals, more so with how they might perform as a duo or even a trio. Yes, these are good times for the club; but we mustn’t look past and ignore things. For a team in a transitional period, that sort of attitude isn’t going to help. Just to put into perspective the difference between United and Liverpool going forward, the hosts only made 16 defensive clearances, the away side 47.
There were many positives from this game and it would be rather unfair to overlook those. David de Gea, in particular, was very busy and a generally safe pair of hands, pulling off a few superb saves in the process. In a sense, it is a little concerning that the Spaniard has had so much to do – much more than van der Sar ever had to last season. And saying that gives off the impression that United hadn’t defended very well, but that’s far from the truth; indeed, both the solid Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra made a return to form with gutsy performances and once again, Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling looked assured and comfortable on the ball.
But, it must be said that Liverpool were the better team. They won the midfield battle and so looked the likeliest to score; but that goal came about, unfortunately, from a Charlie Adam dive. The thing with diving is that it is always wrong – and any sort of history and the attitudes towards it or any other form of cheating that is equally as bad is irrelevant because there is certainly no justification for the action. He wasn’t punished, and instead won a free kick. We know what happened next. Liverpool’s joy from Gerrard’s goal was to be short-lived however as Javier Hernandez converted a Nani – yes Nani – corner. But the game itself was drab.
In fact, let’s never speak of it again.