United play to their strengths – and win
Manchester United have, at times, looked a team without an identity. They still win games — they win plenty — but it sometimes feels like they’ve forgotten how they used to do things. Nerves have replaced verve, and it has generally been less entertaining to watch as a result. While they no longer dissect teams like they had done in the latter part of the ’00s, United are still home to a talented set of players who can play. When Jackie Chan remarked that “I may have amnesia, but I’m not stupid!” in his good-but-not-his-best, surely-a-metaphor-for-this-United-team film Who Am I?, he recognized his own capabilities, despite essentially being a changed man. Manchester United seemed to have realised that as they beat Manchester City 3-2 on Sunday.
In many ways, this was the opposite of the corresponding fixture last season where City won 1-0. Three of The Guardian‘s five talking points in the aftermath of that game, points 2, 3 and 4, would cover the following: Sir Alex Ferguson’s ultimately futile decision to go against type and play with caution; United’s defeat in midfield; and a significantly quiet game for Wayne Rooney, whose highlights included “nearly being booked by Andre Marriner for giving the referee too much ear-ache.” Lessons learned this time around.
Since Cristiano Ronaldo left, and it’s a bit sad we’re still on that, United have scrabbled around for a system that works — they’ve been fairly successful post-Ronaldo, but less convincing. What made United so good back in 2007/08 was that there never a reason to change. They performed well, they got the results. This season, there are factors; we’ve seen Ferguson bring out his inner-hipster with a diamond most probably to cater for either all of his forwards or lack of wide players. But, above all, the most telling reason for constant change is that is not clear which of width or no width has been better, with the scores tied at 1-1, 40-40.
Width will always prevail in the end, as anyone would suspect. The diamond has always felt like it has an expiry date, while Ferguson wouldn’t seriously think of turning away from something that has brought so much joy to those sides he has assembled. What helped United beat City was that Ferguson had clearly learned from the embarrassment of their previous meeting, where they played three thirty-somethings in midfield and just the one forward. Other sides might be comfortable in lining up in such a way, but United are not. They beat City at the weekend with the two central midfielders, two wingers and two forwards: this time they played to their strengths.
With Antonio Valencia and the majestic Rafael on the right-hand side and Ashley Young, in confusing form, with the renascent Patrice Evra on the left, United played, from minutes 15 to 45, the sort of football that fans had longed for; and though perhaps someone like Valencia didn’t play necessarily well, others around him clearly benefited from the way United were set up.
The midfield battle was more or less won by the visitors by default, on a moral victory, because they came a long way from the horror show at Eastlands last April. Michael Carrick was impressive and enjoyed Tom Cleverley’s presence, and there was a sense that it was because this was something they felt more comfortable in. The midfield that had lost out to City back then felt contrived, unnecessary and quite simply a pale imitation: a bit like Simon Webbe’s rap verses.
Up field, Wayne Rooney was excellent along with Robin van Persie, and though it seems like one of those things that are only really realised on simulation games, last season’s two top scorers have forged a good partnership. United’s dependence on Rooney is arguably greater than that of the Dutchman. However, the Englishman acts as the spare wheel both on the channels and in midfield — and this season, he might just create as many as he scores.
The United that had beaten City were far from perfect, and probably were only as good as their opposition (who were superb in the first quarter of an hour, and, to their credit, stayed in the game) but they set up with a clear game-plan this time and had done things the right way. They approached the game with a mind to three points, not one. There was not a single problem with selection, either. Even the decision to bring on Danny Welbeck instead of Javier Hernandez was vindicated; it was Welbeck’s quick thinking to win the ball off Gael Clichy with the game into its nineties, that allowed United to have one last attack which would eventually lead to the winning free-kick.
Things people were wrong about: Well, wrong is harsh. Ashley Young might still be the “thespian s***house” Rob Smyth thinks he is, but he does have his uses, especially in a simple 4-4-2 built to get goals. He is football’s no.1 ‘On His Day’ player.
Things people weren’t wrong about: David de Gea; some great saves, yes, but more importantly, he continues to show that he has indeed grown more assured in the air. Soon you’ll see, people. Soon. Meanwhile, Rafael’s hair, as it turns out, doesn’t give him magical powers. He’s just always been very good.