Bragging Rights?

1, 2, and 3 – the sequence of number of goals scored in our first 3 champions league games.

0, 1, and 2 – the sequence of goals conceded in our first 3 champions league games.

We’ve got 9 points from a possible 9. Happy, top dogs. Certainly not domination  Just a really random observation.

Anyway, once again, we had to recover from a goal down. Then two goals down. I wasn’t too bothered about us scoring – we’ve scored in our last 57 (now 58) home games, a truly outstanding record. My fear was that we’d just keep conceding.

Conceding that goal in the 2nd minute was disappointing yet almost unsurprising. Then we conceded again. The first from a cross from the left which Alexander Buttner (pronounced BOOT-ner; ignore yesterday’s commentary) was beaten to by the impressive Alan.

For the 2nd, Eder – tall, rangy and fast – ‘did’ Carrick in the left corner with a brilliant piece of skill (reminded me of a Kanu special) before playing the ball across for Alan to poke in once again. Carrick, playing out of position, initially struggled with the striker’s movement. De Gea was apoplectic, Old Trafford was stunned silent – the scoreboard read ‘0-2’.
Now I’ve got the rubbish out of the way, I’ll talk about the positives. We battled back, as has been our way this season, and grabbed a goal a couple of minutes after Alan’s second. Van Persie pulled off a lovely bit of Marseilles roulette magic on the left wing only to be scythed down. Ref played advantage, kagawa picked up the ball just inside the box while Hernandez made a move in the shoulder of the last man. Dink + header = 1-2. We’re back in it, it seems. We get called offside, erroneously, when Hernandez puts the ball in the back of the net at the end or a very sweet move.

I’ll break down the rest of the game (the 2nd half into positives and look at what went wrong in the first half).

Javier Hernandez

He was electric. Never thought I’d say that of Hernandez but he was magnificent. I like to think that goals should never characterise a player’s performance except that is all he has to offer. Hernandez was like that before; no link up play, no first touch, no dribbles, no passes…just his lethal movement and finishing in the box.

Last night, we saw a different player. His link up play has improved remarkably since he first arrived. Fergie noted how excellent he is in training; a very hard worker. It’s clearly paying off. He receives the ball under pressure and keeps it, lays it off; in one sequence, he receives the ball and with the defender bearing down on him has the awareness to backheel the ball into space before linking up with Rafael. In the second half, he set Nani up with a beautiful trivela pass after fantastic hustle and dribble play from the left flank. He could have grabbed two more were it not for wrong offside decisions. He played a fantastic game with some variety yesterday. His goals, classic Hernandez goals, were the least he deserved for a very, very good performance. He hasn’t played that much this season (his 4th start incidentally). He’s got Fergie thinking, Sir Alex saying, following his performance last night, that he “really does not know what to do with them (Rooney, RVP and Hernandez)” – the kind of dilemma a manager wants to have.

7 fathoms deep

Our defence is probably as deep as the Mariana trench. The difference is that, unlike that legendary trench, ours has been visited by lots of opposition attackers. Sometimes it’s easy to blame the system and say “oh, with two men in the midfield, we always get swamped” but that would be self defeating.

Our main problems are these – our defensive line plays TOO deep TOO often coupled with our laziness at winning the ball back and pressing the opposition. It has a couple of effects – there ends up being too much space between our lines which allows average opposition to look very dangerous and it also makes constructive build up play difficult as our players are just too far from each other. As I mentioned in the last post, Barcelona didn’t become a great team by standing off opposition and allowing them to play; stop them playing and dictate the game on your own terms.
The 2nd half was particularly marked for the higher defensive line and more diligent closing down. Braga couldn’t get a sniff and one felt the goals were eventually going to come. One from a corner (again!) And a cross (again!). They arrived in what is now familiar fashion.

Diamonds are forever?

Is the midfield diamond the way to go for us? It needs work, certainly and the right personnel but we’ve won all our games with it.
Wayne Rooney, I thought, was superb in his role just behind Hernandez and to a lesser extent, Van Persie. He picked passes, evaded his markers with ease and generally dictated our play. Robin Van Persie, dropping off as well, had a good game and was particularly prominent in the first half as shown by some delightful interplay with Rooney. He should have scored though and I must say, I’ve seen him miss some very good chances for us in his time so far. A class act, he will still bang in the goals though.

However, we saw some defects elsewhere.
Shinji Kagawa sadly had to go off injured, a move which actually proved to be a blessing in disguise. Although he had set up the first goal, one still suspects our style does not quite suit him just yet. At Dortmund, he played in a faster, more vertical team with less of an emphasis on patient possession. Simply put, he’s a brilliant player in transition. One suspects he’d have been excellent in our counter attacking teams of 06-09. Furthermore, playing deeper, he has more defensive responsibilities. He was not diligent enough, as was Cleverly, in protecting the fullbacks in the first-half which allowed Braga to look dangerous down our sides. Bringing Nani on allowed for some width which we had lacked while also giving Rafael the chance to combine and become more of an offensive threat.

Fletcher played at the base of the diamond and while not possessing the range of passing that Carrick would have offered us, kept things tidy and simple. He’s still recovering so can’t be too harsh on him. Cleverley impressed, particularly in the 2nd half as his energetic game seemed more in tune with our increased tempo. His cross to Hernandez? Exquisite.

I’m not sure the midfield diamond should become our default shape but it’s clearly got the manager thinking. We did create enough chances to be good value for our win and our attacking play was delightful at times. The defending, as a team collectively, still needs sorting though. That’s 8 times we’ve gone behind this season. 6 of the 8 times, we’ve won the matches eventually but we should not have to be in a position where we’re struggling out of self-dug holes early on.

Chelsea

Chelsea’s next on the cards. I’ve got a friend who says he wished Chelsea had drawn yesterday so they won’t have a point to prove on Sunday. They have a point to prove anyway. In 90 minutes, football teams nearly always do. Oh, make that three points actually.

Rio was ‘rested’ for the game last night. ‘Rested’, yes; yesterday morning, he tweeted something along the lines of “don’t believe all you read”. Footballers can be cryptic but do so daftly at times. It only serves to add more controversy to the weekend’s fallout. He should return for the weekend along with Evra.

With Chelsea’s attacking trio; Hazard, Mata and Oscar, we have our work cut out. They have been very impressive in the league and combined to demolish Spurs over the weekend. If we don’t stay compact and close down the spaces between the lines, we screw ourselves. Simple as. A doppelganger of our first twenty against Braga will be fatal against a team with Chelsea’s quality up front.

Enjoy the rest of the week!!

Stoke bedeviled but woes persist

Was rushing back from a University game (which we incidentally drew) to catch the 2nd half of the Stoke game.
My Twitter timeline had conveyed the shocking-yet-not-so-shocking news that were being dominated on our patch.

Conceded first? Check. Midfield like a hungry valley waiting for the rain? Check. While everybody ruminated and purred over the benefits the midfield diamond had brought to our play, Fergie decided he’d just stick with what he knows – the 4-4-2 albeit with a hint of sophistication. 

There was nothing sophisticated about welbeck’s finishing and this has to be worked on. His approach play and link up play remain remarkably good, often reminding one of a kid in the park with the cheeky abandon he executes those round the corner flicks and passes. His finishing, however, is costing us, at this rate, ten goals a season. AT LEAST! Ironically, one of his major claims to fame is appearing in a video where the master himself, Ruud, is learning him the ropes of dastardly art of finishing. Boy never learned nothing by the look of it.

In any case, we won the game with 4 goals in the back of the net (top scorers in the league!) and just about hang on to the coat tails of the rent away leaders, Chelsea, who themselves served up a pretty impressive performance at White Hart Lane.

The Devilish

Wayne Rooney got his first goals of the season while Own Goal made a return to the side – for Stoke. Rooney’s form, which comes in bursts is no surprise and has come to be the norm. He also added an assist to his name,  a beautiful cross not unlike that against spurs, to set up welbeck. That’s 5 goals and 5 assists in his last 6 games for club and country. Hot. Red hot.

3 man attack (well, sort of)

It’s not quite Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez where they’re positional looseness bordered on indiscipline but it was controlled enough. At times, they’re movement was a joy to behold. For Rooney’s first goal, Van Persie drifts out to the left flank to whip in a wicked ball which the England striker converts. Rooney crosses to welbeck to convert…from the right wing. Wait, isn’t welbeck the Left winger? Not quite. His attacking instinct leads him to make outside to inside runs thus creating a very unwelcome problem for defenders. 

Corner Frenzy

There was another goal from a set piece. Very satisfying no less because it came against the set-piece merchants themselves.  When Henry took corners for Arsenal, people wondered what a striker was doing all the way there instead of causing chaos in the box (like the penalty box, at Set pieces, could get any more chaotic). The truth is this – if he delivers the best corner kick, put him on them. Van Persie will continue there for us.

The not so Devilish

Defending

Remains shambolic. I really do hope it does not come back to bite us. Oh, it already has. Spurs took advantage, Everton did so as well. Credit is due for the fighting spirit – apart from the Wigan and Newcastle games, are we yet to take the lead in any of our games? It’s quite incredible. And scary. Our next league game is against Chelsea,  a side who is yet to concede first in the league. And when asked to come from behind, they executed it with aplomb. One hopes Juan Mata gets called up to the Spain army in midweek or we might have a problem.

Lack of pressing

I’ll put up my hands and say I did not watch the first half. Did see some highlights though but will speak mainly based on observations across the season and the 2nd 45 of yesterday. Our lack of pressing is embarrassing. Yes, it’s an option teams take but surely it’s better than this ‘come on and test our defence’ approach we take now. Watching teams like Spurs and Stoke have the leisure of strolling around in their half, at Old Trafford, without a care in the world, is genuinely worrying. Win the ball back high up, it creates problems. We did it against Chelsea a couple of seasons ago (when Valencia tore Cole about 7 new ones). If Guardiola said of Barcelona, “without the ball, we are the worst team in the world”, where does that leave us? The worst lacrosse team in the world?

SAF will sort it out. Sort what out?

Someone commented that they’re manager had managed to provide a post-match presser in all not to do with the football. Rather ironic coming from a man who very recently expressed his exasperation at the non-football nature of questions asked at his weekly date with the media hawks/gawks…whatever. As we know, in the face of public insubordination by his players, SAF is no-nonsense. Hours after blasting Jason Roberts’ decision not to wear a Kick-it-out, the second longest serving player on his starting line-up appeared on the pitch in his Red #MUFC warm up top. Shock, insurrection, bedlam! This, accentuated by the fact that the manager had given a personal guaranty that his players would wear the shirts, was a tad embarrassing. Fergie has promised to “sort him out”. That does miss the point though. It is a free world and Rio has a right to make a choice.
Admittedly, kick-it-out, the initiative against Racism and other sorts of prejudice in English football, is not of FA origins and perhaps Rio is a bit misguided in that respect. Ultimately, that movement has no effective power but has been able to make inroads against racism. Perhaps it will blow over. I do. It’s an issue of personal conviction and Rio, although Evra could sympathize, has experienced, along with his family, a lot with court dates and England sqaud fiascos (?).

We play Braga at Old Trafford on Tuesday. They have unofficially become Portugal’s 4th big club and have certainly proved to be a more than capable. They reached the Europa League final in ’11 and have qualified for the CL proper for the second time running. Now, I know football is not mathematics but if they approach the game the way galatasaray did, it will
certainly make for an open game. I suspect Anderson and Cleverley will feature on the day. Rooney and Van Persie is a cert…we have a variety of possibilities. And I have not mentioned Nani Or Kagawa or Young or Valencia.

Till Tuesday/Wednesday, adios!