Photograph courtesy of BBC
It’s now 4 wins and 3 clean sheets on the bounce for David Moyes and Manchester United, it appears, are serving up their own special Christmas treat for the fans. The win over West Ham, barring a small portion of the second half (and the rather sloppy concession of a goal, out of character with the rest of the performance), was an exercise in control, possession and incision. Wayne Rooney picked up yet another 2 assists, Danny Welbeck added another goal to make it 3 in 3, Adnan Januzaj delighted down the left and Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling formed the base for a dominant performance with their authoritative shackling of Modibo Maiga and co. Sat on a high stool in my favourite Irish bar, Malone’s, I took in the game and here are a few observations of mine.
The measure of control exerted in the last 3 games has been something Manchester United supporters, in recent times, have been chronically deprived. Too often this season, teams run roughshod over us, taking advantage of our flimsy midfield two to drag us down to the depths of end-to-end football – contests with very little order or organisation albeit often thrilling for neutrals.
As a lifelong supporter, it pained me to see Everton and West Brom come to Old Trafford and depart with 6 DESERVED points between them. Stoke City, on the balance of play, deserved more from their 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford as well. In those games, we allowed the opposition to swarm over and through us, stripping us (hopefully temporarily) of that aura of invincibility we once possessed in such abundance. It is important to make a distinction between control when setting out to play defensively and control when it’s a key part of your offensive design. In Europe, David Moyes’ side has exhibited control, particularly away from home by sitting deep and limiting opposition opportunities. But that is Europe and the slower, more considered pace of the game allows for that. Domestically, particularly at home, the absence of that control has been embarrassing. For a manager who is reportedly adamant that the midfield is the keystone of a side, it was amazing that it took so long for him to arrive at the current solution…
A Midfield 3 for Good? Manchester United gets with the times
I’m almost tempted to label Wayne Rooney a ‘charlatan’ – what a joker (in both ways, mind you – when he’s on top form, he is our joker). At the end of last season, his agent instructs him to tell the world that he was dissatisfied playing in midfield, despite his comments during the season that were contrary to the instructed position. In the past, he has often spoken of dropping into the middle as he gets older, his natural football intelligence allowing that. Voila! Our most impressive performances of the season have come with Wayne Rooney not just dropping in behind a central striker but actually being part of a central midfield 3. While at Aston Villa, he was less involved in defending (our dominance helped), his 8 accurate long balls (almost all to Antonio Valencia) were testament to how deep he foraged for possession, seeking to seize control of the centre along with his companions, Jones and Cleverley.
Against West Ham today, it was a similar story. Heavily involved in play, both defensively and offensively, he effected 3 clearances and tackled/intercepted 3 times while on the ball, he notched two assists and attempted by far the most passes on the pitch (81 – next highest was Rafael on 64). The roles of Jones and Cleverley are pretty much in keeping with a template 3-man midfield – Jones, the defensive stopper who primarily sits in front of the defence (slightly nuanced, his natural energy and exuberance means he will, once in a while, set off on bulldozing runs from deep to set up a chance or have a shot), and Cleverley, the shuttler who buzzes about just in between the other two, ensuring that the tempo is maintained and possession is recycled effectively. 3 good players in the middle will nearly always dismantle 2. So it proved.
The return of Michael Carrick in the not-too-distant future, and the continued rehabilitation of Darren Fletcher should throw up interesting questions for Moyes as he continues to determine and fine-tune his best side.
Photograph courtesy of Red Flags Flying High
With the Two on the Right, everything’s Alright
There were reports earlier on in the season that David Moyes didn’t quite fancy our little Brazilian right back. Perhaps he got him mixed up with his twin, Fabio, who despite impressing in the 2011 Champions League final, has barely made a sustained claim for a regular place in the side and is presently looking for a way out of the Theatre of Nightmares…sorry, Dreams. Actually, injuries have been the bane of both, and so was the story when Rafael picked up a hamstring injury against Wigan which ruled him out for a month. On his comeback, he struggled for form, a fact reflected in Moyes’ almost trial-and-error like rotation at the back (he tested out Valencia, Jones and Smalling as well). Then he got injured again.
Thankfully, the last 4 games have seen Rafael rise above the rest and start to command the right back position as his own. If last season was his ‘coming out’ season, this year should be that of progression onwards – a World Cup year, it’s the least he personally would expect of himself. This was why it intensely frustrated to not only see him injured, but also see him contest a place tailor-made for his talents. After all, our new manager is a fan of overloads in wide positions and expansive wing play, creating arguably the most productive flank combination in the league at Everton in Pienaar and Baines.
In Antonio Valencia and Rafael, he has the tools to reprise his Everton invention, although in a rather different fashion – unlike Baines and Pienaar, both Valencia and Rafael take it in turns to provide the width and crossing. In the last three games, the right wing duo has been energetic, productive and highly creative with their chance creation and movement. Against West Ham today, it was interesting to see Antonio Valencia attempt a shot from the centre of the box after receiving a deft cut back from Rafael who has bombed down the right. This came from intelligent movement and passing, as Valencia came infield to receive a pass before dishing it off to Chris Smalling who then set free the overlapping Brazilian right back.
At Aston Villa, we saw Valencia continually drift infield and allow Rafael space to burst into. This movement also allowed Valencia to attempt to create from central positions as evidenced by his rather surprising left-footed through pass for Welbeck from which he spurned a highly presentable chance. It’s very promising down the right.
Adnan Januzaj – things going a bit too swimmingly
Mark Hughes recently lamented Adnan Januzaj’s garnering of a lot of fouls and decisions in his favour. While partly true, many of these decisions are not unmerited. A nifty and deceptively quick player, the youngster is proving to be highly adept at drawing fouls (3.4 fouls per game, presently the highest in the league and the only player to average more than 3 fouls suffered per game) which is concurrently a hint at his weakness for holding onto the ball a bit too long.
Today, Mike Jones was slightly less generous. Only awarding 2 fouls on Januzaj, there were some questionable decisions. Mark Noble’s nudge/shove on the young Belgian/Albanian/Serbian/Brit as he burst into the box in the first half was highly debatable, and a few other incidents throughout the game. However, he didn’t aid his cause by a first half dive in an attempt to win a free kick having already deceived Collins with his sleight of foot. Mr Jones, through no sleight of hand, brandished the yellow card in swift response.
Only 18, that perhaps illustrated his immaturity (or sense of self-preservation? Okay, I’m clutching at straws here), all the more exacerbated by the onward streaking Welbeck who would surely have been through on goal with a neat pass. He did illustrate his calmness and poise in scoring a lovely goal, just after the Noble incident, when he deceived Collins with a feint before planting a neat finish in the bottom corner. A truly awesome talent with endless potential, he needs to stay on his feet.
Danny Welbeck Showing Personality
A friend of mine talks about personality, or a lack thereof, as being key to the development of Danny Welbeck and Chris Smalling, particularly the former. In his words, if he continues playing with the ‘small boy mentality’, he runs the risk of becoming one those ‘young but old guys’ – Shaun Wright-Phillips and Joe Cole are prime examples.
While his finishing left much to be desired last season (only scoring 2 goals), he’s already bagged 6 this year. With the opportunity presented by Robin Van Persie’s injury, Danny Welbeck has stepped in in truly quality fashion, scoring 3 goals and assisting another in 3 appearances. His goal today, lashed into the bottom corner on his left foot, was indicative of growing confidence. Welbeck of last season may well have delayed for a pass. Or simply tripped, toppled over and allowed the ball to roll out of play; a favourite pastime of his. Indeed, 3 matches is a small sample size, but we’ll take any improvement. Welbeck is potentially our best number 9 – add tidier finishing, which can be improved through practice, and he has all the qualities you’d desire of an elite striker: pace, technique, awareness, and a bit of altruism which never hurt. Nevertheless, one thing he has needed to show for a while now is a bit of ego – as Thierry Henry said, ‘you have to convince yourself that you are the guy’, the guy to step up when the team needs it. Will Welbeck finally become that ‘guy’? He’s 23, young but in today’s game, old enough. He was taken off 10 minutes into the 2nd half, possibly with a slight niggle. Let’s hope its precautionary – a festive period with only Hernandez & Rooney upfront, partiuclarly in light of the latter’s obvious utility deeper in midfield, would hardly be ideal.
On Boxing Day, we travel to Hull City, a side showing lots of enterprise in their employment of their avant-garde 3-5-2 formation. While they will ask questions of our side that have not been posed this season, our form is up, there’s a newfound emphasis on central midfield security which should leave us feeling fairly confident of not being swamped.
Stats courtesy of whoscored.com