Free Points at Club City

 

I gave it a few hours to sink in, mindful that writing in the immediate aftermath of such an epic contest, and victory, can have significant drawbacks. We won and we deserved to. The question  of who deserves what is one closely examined in philosophical discourse but for the sake of simplicity, we’ll just keep it on a football level.

On a scale of 1-6, I’d rate my elation a 10. Not simply because of the victory but also because of its manner. A last-minute winner from our star man who was poached from the nostrils of the Wasteland scum. It doesn’t get better, really. Michael Owen, the scorer of one of the most memorable Derby winners in history, spoke on MOTD with a curious air of detached melancholy; like he was being eaten up by the rather uncomfortable mix of nostalgia and self-restraint.  Then again, with customary propriety, neutrality is desired; it’s the BBC after all.

We were written off, counted out from the start. After all, Manchester city haven’t lost a home league fixture for over two years. It was not about to change because newly found whipping boys, Manchester United, were in town.  A friend described our 1-6 loss last season as an ‘evisceration’; painful but tough to argue against. Of course, they forget that last season, our head to head with City read 2 wins, 2 losses. Surely we aren’t that bad, are we? It’s interesting that out last 3 victories against City have had the same scoreline (3-2) and none have come at Old Trafford. Perhaps something to do with the realities of the away fixture balancing our initiative just about right. I will discuss that later.

The starting line-up

De Gea started in goal, if not cementing then certainly lending credence to the assertion that he is certainly ahead in the race with Lindegaard. Rafael started despite the torrid time he received at the hands of Mcanuff against Reading and boy did he perform. Ferdinand, Evans and Evra made up the rest of the backline.  In midfield, Carrick and Cleverley provided a mix of tactical awareness, passing and energy.  Ashley Young, experiencing a recent upturn in form, continued down the left and Antonio Valencia made a welcome return to the side – he only plays one position.  In behind Van Persie, Wayne Rooney continued in the role he has excelled in this season.

Observations

Ceding the initiative…but not quite

When we lost at the Etihad in May, it was probably the most embarrassing, spineless                             display of any Manchester United side I had ever seen. Shoving aside the now hackneyed issues of lack of a midfield enforcer or defensive midfielder, lack of true defensive organisation and structure, what struck me most then was not only the ceding of initiative to Manchester city in our selection of players but more fatally, our approach.

Park started that day – He never played for United again. We were dominated all over the park and while it might not have quite been derided as a travesty if Aguero hadn’t made history v QPR, there certainly would have been a distinct feeling that the 2nd best team had won the league.

Hence, when I saw the starting line-up, I was pleased. Considering our options, Ferguson sent out his strongest XI. No more acceding to the superior talents of Manchester City – give it your best shot and feel vindicated knowing you did not go down without a fight.
The approach was simple and one I believed would give us a good chance – cede possession to City, play a cautious high line so we don’t get sucked into the full back overlap problems that City created at the Etihad in May (through Zabaleta and Clichy) but when in possession, hit them with the pace we have down the flanks. It worked delightfully well in our FA cup victory over them in January and there was no reason that couldn’t be the case here.  So it proved.

Rooney’s first came from brilliant counter-attacking football culminating in a scuffed finish. His second bore stark similarity to Van Persie’s goal against Chelsea in our victory at Stamford bridge. The quick movement of the ball down the wings, taking advantage of a turning defence allied to accurate delivery and very clinical finishing.

We should have been 3 goals up but for a wrong call from the assistant referee.  This came from a quick break down the right once again.

We had 3 shots on target – we scored 3 goals.  Mancini said his team “did not deserve to lose”.  At 3-0, the game would surely have been dead and buried.  The better team, on the day, won the game.

Robin Van Persie – more than his weight in points

In his short time at United, he’s won us 5 games by his goals alone. That’s 15 points I’ll ascribe to him (somewhat generous) but it’s a trend he firmly established last season at Arsenal. He won them 24 points by his goals alone. At 29, he’s gained sufficient experience to become a wily operator at the apex of teams. I remember pining for Van Persie when he was still a young, temperamental winger/second striker capable of frequent bits of outrageous skill. Today, we have a stone cold predator who ‘vaccinates’ opposition when his team needs it most.

That’s not to say he’s not capable of the flair that singles him out from many other strikers. His chest off to Ashley Young made the first goal, a sublime bit of awareness and improvisation. His shot which struck the upright followed a lovely cruyff-turn; made in Holland, ehn? His value to us extends beyond his goals, clearly. He sets others up, he links play, he defends at corners (Alan Hansen provided a lovely expose on his defensive work at corners yesterday – van persie cleared 5 alone)…

The free-kick topped it all off.  Slightly fortunate with the deflection but as they say, you make your own luck.  Make that goals against Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester city so far.
If I had a reservation, it’s that he should really score more. He’s had some bad misses this season but I don’t think there’s a contest – he’s been our man of the season so far.

Wayne Rooney – ‘Robin’ reminds us of his star quality

In Batman cartoons, Robin’s the ever-loyal sidekick, the dude that will demure to the more glamorous, high-profile caped crusader (well, a bigger, blacker and badder cape). He knows his role. As does Wayne Rooney.
When Van Persie signed for United, one wondered what would happen with Rooney. A grossly disappointing performance in our first day loss to Everton cemented Van persie’s spot as first choice striker. Van Persie, as mentioned, has quickly justified this, scoring crucial goals for fun.
Coming from a team in which he was the star man (and striker), one wondered how he and Rooney would gel. After all, Rooney was just coming off his most productive goalscoring season as well (35 goals).

As seen in previous years, Wayne Rooney can and will willingly play the back up role. He moved to the wings for Ronaldo in a hugely successful switch (for the team), he has partnered strikers from Ruud van nistelrooy to Louis saha, displaying an ego-less altruism and selflessness.

Hence, it was doubly delightful to watch Wayne take centre stage. He’s known as a big game player, serving up the goods on huge occasions. His two goals, from what is now his usual deeper position behind Van Persie illustrated his undoubted influence on our team. In scoring his 2nd, he became our highest goalscorer in Derby history, a fine accomplishment at 27 years old.  He still plays Robin though – Robin got the winner and the accolades.

Right wing Torrents

Yet again, our right-wing was the scourge of the opposition. It has become recurrent, an avenue so obviously productive that I’m surprised no team has yet tried to go all Fergie and used a defensive winger to restrict our output. Statistics indicated that we played two times the number of our passes down the right than we did the left.  Also, reminiscent to games v Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea (the biggest), the damage has been wrought down that side. It should perhaps a measure of relief that when our right side has an off day (against Reading, Valencia, the robot, was getting maintenance work done and Rafael had no support before being duly subbed on 30 mins), the left side can serve up some juice.

While Valencia didn’t have his most productive in an attacking sense, he remained dangerous, reminding me a lot of the role Ronaldo played at times with his directness, running and sheer presence if not topped off by output. He pegged Clichy back and apart from his overlap and cross in the first half, Clichy remained subdued in an attacking sense.
Can we credit Rafael with two assists?? Ah, generous yet again, but it was his overlap and cross that set Rooney up and his surge forward in injury time won the free-kick from which Van persie scored. His performance was what we have come to expect from him – dogged, skillful, and very efficient.

Improvements?

While an impressive victory, it should not detract from the fact that we so nearly threw away a two goal lead again. Our concession of goals is a bit alarming and even though it’s Manchester city, we let them back in it with a couple of sloppy goals. For the first, it did come after the disallowing (bad decision) of Ashley Young’s goal but after de Gea makes the double save, you’d expect the ball to be cleared. For the 2nd, a problem from corners once again. City attached our near post a lot but when the ball is cleared, there has to be someone on the D waiting
to mop up. From the replays, it looks like it should have been Ashley young.

While I praised Michael Carrick in my last post, he didn’t have his best game here. Indeed, he completed just 73% of 60 attempted passes, a drop from his stellar average of 88% (courtesy of whoscored.com). However, he did make crucial contributions with his tackling and interceptions (led the team with 4).  Tom Cleverley, next to him, put in an encouraging display of urgency and energy when in possession.

A rather curious observation is how many times over the last couple of years we have beaten City with last-minute goals.  Scholes’ header in 2010 at the death, Owen’s in 2009, Rooney’s in the Carling Cup the same year.  That hunger and desire is back.

Our next game is against Sunderland at Old Trafford.  With 1 win this season, we should be confident of taking three points.  Injuries are clearing up with Vidic and Kagawa not too far from returns to the team.  We have lost Jonny Evans (hamstring) and it is hoped he is not out for too long.  In any case, the deputies are bountiful.

In a rather unsavoury incident, Rio Ferdinand was struck on the eye by a 2p coin, causing a cut from which blood flowed freely.  City have apologised and an investigation is being carried out by the FA.  At least Rio saw the funny side of it all – check out his tweet >>> https://twitter.com/rioferdy5/status/277813337813819392

 

A bit of trivia – Name the last 4 African international players to play for Manchester United

 

Till next time, take it easy! Enjoy

Madness at the Madejski – a rather long post

Gosh, I’ve been away for ages. Guess that’s what uni does to you sometimes. Or maybe having to report on dross all the time disenchants this writer. Perhaps both…you tell me.

West Ham was dispatched of by a lone goal in the 33rd second off the wand of Robin van persie.  If you’re wondering what I mean, the left leg can only ever be a wand in football. If you didn’t know, c’mon! Get with the cliches. The left foot is a wand, Anderson’s fat (he could go on a hunger strike for a month and come out looking like Paris Hilton but he’ll still be ‘fat’ to some) and Reading is not the club, but the activity.  One of the three is right, the other two not so much.

Okay, cutting the crap, it was a psycho first half at the Madejski. 7 goals in the first half, only the 3rd time that has happened in Premier League history, followed by a goalless 2nd half. Clearly both managers had told their players to seek control; indeed the first was bereft of such, goals flooding in, leads accomplished and relinquished with an almost absurd sense of scornful one- upmanship.

From a personal perspective, it’s been a while since I was this excited watching a Manchester United game. Perhaps it was down to Reading’s willingness to attack us at the expense of defensive soundness but cutting through them was like the cliched ‘hot knife through butter’. Robson-Kanu, the very exciting right winger with a wand of a left foot (apologies), gave Reading the lead (apologies; another cliche – that’s 14 times in 22 games this season) with a rocket volley after some shoddy defending from Evans.

We got back in it a few minutes later when Anderson blasted one into the top corner after a flowing one touch move involving evra and young. Anderson, on his game, brings drive and purpose to the midfield and is increasingly showing a deftness in attacking positions I initially thought had been coached out of him.

Swift concession from two Shorey corners followed before Evra set Rooney up (3-3) and Rooney set Van Persie (4-3). It really could, and should, have been 6 for us by the end of the 90.

An interesting aspect of the game was our shape.  We played with what were effectively two sitters, Carrick and Fletcher, in front of the defence while Anderson was given licence to bomb on and combine with Van Persie.  He played very well until his substitution with injury (cliche again?) and it is reported that he will be out for a few weeks.  However, Wayne Rooney seemed to have started from a nominal right wing position and moved inside to combine.  It created for some really good passing exchanges but left Rafael incredibly isolated against the pacy Reading captain, Jobi McAnuff.  It said something of the rather torrid time our young right back had that he was taken off on 30 mins.  Chris Smalling came on and McAnuff went quiet (a result of him tiring + a fresh Smalling + Wayne Rooney deciding to track back more).

The Positives –

Wayne Rooney

In a week that Sir Alex publicly expressed his slight disappointment at Wayne’s goal return, our number 10 promptly responded with two well taken goals allied to a top quality performance.  His move into deeper positions is increasingly looking like a long-term one but his ability in those positions has never been doubted.  His cute flick to Robin Van Persie moved him into double figures for assists this season.  While he might not be banging in the goals, he’s certainly creating them in droves.  Not to mention overtaking Teddy Sherringham on the all-time EPL top scorers list.  That is quite some achievement and he’s not up to 8th on the list.

Effective Labour down the Left Wing

With Antonio Valencia’s dip in form and unfortunate injury, productivity from the right has unsurprisingly dipped.  Valencia + Rafael = Best right wing in the country.  That is when they are on their game.  As seen against Reading, Rafa can still have a bad game once in a while and the Ecuadorian robot can actually miss games through injury.  If anything, our left side stepped up.  Ashley Young has taken a lot of flak this season (and rightly so) but here, he was impressive.  Despite one or two hit-the-post…no, the cornerkick-post crosses and shots, he did provide a telling assist and some good delivery and, in tandem with the impressive Evra (going forward at least), provided thrust and incision down the left.  Although our captain suffered at the hands of Robson-Kanu, he eventually got to grips with the Reading wide man who became a simple decoration to proceedings in the 2nd half.

Michael Carrick is seriously underrated

A man who played a massive part in 4 Premier League winning teams and is a starter in 3 champions League finals, one wonders what Michael Carrick has to do to gain the recognition he deserves.  Perhaps he never will, but for a player like him, that hardly matters.  I thought he was magnificent against Reading.  There’s a reason he’s our most used player in the league this season.  His calmness in possession, his positioning and his decision making when passing are top notch.  Yes, we conceded 3 goals against Reading but they were all from wide areas (in fact, two were from corners) and one cannot pin any blame on him.  He made 3 tackles in midfield, 1 interception and a whopping 96 passes (95% completed).  He steadies the ship, and although it looks like we get swamped at times, often playing with Scholes or Giggs would swamp anybody.  Another underappreciated skill of his has to be the driven forward pass to feet he plays.  Over 20, 30, even 40 yards, he seems unerringly accurate in playing the pass right to feet off either foot.  Van Persie’s goal v West Ham was evidence of this and against Reading, two incidents stand out – his pass to Van Persie from which he backheeled the ball to the overlapping Young and secondly, his pass to Rooney in the build up to Van Persie’s sweet finish.  He’s a lovely midfield player, he controls the tempo and the flow of our game and for that, Manchester United should be grateful – we’re lucky in having an English midfielder that can actually do that.

No case for the defence

That it did not surprise me that we conceded first is a sensation I am surely not alone in feeling – we are that team that lets the other guy take the first punch and then guage what seriousness to approach the fight with.  In some ways, I think it is almost a prompt to our players to start ‘playing’.  I’ve said before that this approach is not sustainable.  Not all teams would let us back into a game, certainly not in the Champions League.  We have conceded 21 goals this season, a horrible return.  In 2004-2005, Chelsea conceded 15 goals all season (excuse me but partisanship aside, that is the paradigm of defensive excellence) and while it would be unreasonable for us to mirror that, a run of clean sheets would be welcome.  Rio Ferdinand does not marshall the defence well enough and as noted by many, he still remains unwilling to put his head where it hurts.  The pain of concession from setpieces could be tempered by the fact that the boy, Morrison, was recently described on whoscored.com as being “more effective in the opposition box than in his”.  That he won 4 headers in our box (including scoring from one) should be a warning sign that we need greater authority at the back, but at the same time, nobody apart from him has dominated us so much in the air this season.  Thank God we don’t face monsters like him every week.

DERBY, DERBY, DERBY!!

The DERBY is next week at the Etihad!  City are undefeated, we don’t do draws…I’m tempted to draw conclusions from that but no, I’ll hope for the best.  The key to beating the turds will be how structured we play as a team.  Our defensive slackness is unforgiveable and City being the outfit they are will inflict ruthless punishment.  Of course, we are three points ahead of them, a cushion which means nothing at this stage of the season.  Furthermore, their goal difference, at 17, is one better than us.  Having lost the title on goal difference last season, Fergie would be loathe to let goal difference become a decisive factor once again.

We beat them in the FA Cup last season by playing tight between the lines and hitting them quickly on the counter.  Unfortunately, Anderson will be unable to provide verticality to our play with his much needed drive and energy.  We still have more than enough strength in depth to worry Manchester City.  Furthermore, reports say that Vidic might just be in with a chance of starting the game having made a quicker than expected recovery from knee injury.  I reckon the game has come too soon for him but still, it is good to know that all our defenders are back fit.

In midweek, we face Cluj at home.  Expect reserves to feature with top spot already secured and City to play at the weekend.  Till later, folks!! Adios!!

Oh yes, a parting quiz – Who set up Daniele De Ross’s fantastic consolation goal against Manchester United in the 2007 Champions League quarter-final?