Manchester United 1 West Ham United 0 – Five talking points
With the midfield resources that Sir Alex was left with coming into this fixture, a diamond seems to be the most viable feature of the formation – yet its impact on the game was far from resounding. United, as they have for most of this season, had most of the possession on the field and for a change, created several chances. However, the build-up still doesn’t convince the fans as the setup still has its limitations. Although the Hammers failed to capitalize numerically on the advancing wing-backs of the home side, Sam Allardyce would’ve realized that a more clinical West Ham were bound to end up with at least a point at Old Trafford. Sir Alex, on the other hand, was impressed by the composure of his central defensive pairing of Smalling and Evans that kept the likes of Carroll and Nolan quiet for most of the ninety minutes. In a season where United have been conceding early in every other game, a clean sheet was enough to bring a smile on Sir Alex’s side.
Maturity in the game comes with experiences that inadvertently boosts or hampers your team’s fortunes. When United lost to Bayern Munich in the quarter finals of Champions League in 2010, some of the blame was down to Rafael’s inability to cope with Ribery on the flank which led to a red card and an abrupt ending to one of the biggest nights of his career. When you look back to those days and compare him with the Rafael we see now on the pitch, it just amazes the fans how he’s brought a sense of authority and an enduring run of calmness during his time on the pitch. His deliveries in the box are well measured, the pace he provides on the wings is menacing, but what impresses the fans and the gaffer is his ability to track back and counter his opponents, making his presence felt against any opposite winger – Rafael’s exuding unparallel confidence.
Most United fans and pundits have associated the word passive with the midfield engine we’ve seen at Old Trafford this season and it’s always good to see a pleasant like what we saw on the squad sheet for this fixture. Sir Alex resting his veteran midfielder Paul Scholes who has been lethargic in his past few games finally decided on starting the trio of Carrick, Anderson and Cleverley – as expected, the changes in the style of the game were evident right from the word go. United embodied a narrow diamond in the centre of pitch with Carrick operating with an array of alternate short and long balls at the lower tip of the formations. The shape had its versatility to keep the Londoners guessing for long phases of the game, yet without their usual set of wingers, United lose their most reliant weapon to score goals. In United’s long history, particularly in the Fergie era, the wing-play has been holding the key for the increasing goal-count- which doesn’t make United being the highest goals plundered from headers a talking point. With Valencia and Nani unfit and the inconsistent Ashley Young, all Sir Alex had in is control was to go with another narrow side, which did serve the purpose but eluded the effervescent United dominance in the attacking final third of the pitch.
With 5 goals and 3 assists so far for his side, Kevin Nolan was always going to be a handful for the United defence. He stood out in an otherwise labored efforts from the West London side which failed to drive on the back of some collective efforts. Nolan who was also lauded by both the managers in the post match interactions with the media had a couple of decent opportunities to get the away back into the game, as he kept the game on, all by his own determined display on the field.
United, last season, conjured eight 1-0 wins in their League run – four on either side of December. And that has been a pattern for most United seasons, as they find ways to snatch the three crucial points on a night where they’d hardly play winning football. It came down to feeble defence and lack of goal-scoring that took the league title away from them last season and that’s why Ferguson is trying to address the defensive issues before anything else. The Scot did his best to buy goals in the transfer market before the season that may well prove decisive on the long run, yet the importance of grinding results on the basis of clean sheets on days when things don’t work for you is what United’s road to Premier League glory is built on. Last season it was the injuries to a host of key players, this time around its still about constructing the right formation and these elementary issues will take time to ease out. Yet, it has been the manager’s ability over the years to rack up the points on these crucial 1-0 wins and he’ll expect more of the same in the hectic run ahead.