United retained top spot and won a second successive away game of the season. A potentially tough trip to Bolton was navigated with ease as the Reds ran out 5-0 winners, a scoreline that could have been even more emphatic. Despite losing Tom Cleverley to injury, United continued to perform with flair and it was yet another entertaining showing. Wayne Rooney got his second hat-trick in a row and Javier Hernandez marked his first start of the season with two goals.
With Benfica away midweek and then Chelsea at home next weekend there are a couple of big tests ahead but the start to the season could hardly be going any better. Here we discuss some of the key talking points from the game and welcome discussion from both United and Bolton fans.
Contrasting goalkeepers – (Doron)
It was pointed out in the match preview that Jaaskelainen vs. Rooney might be the key battle. As the game panned out, it was, but not that Jaaskelainen could do much about any of the three goals Rooney scored. The question with Jussi though is a deeper, more long-term one. By appearances, he’s not quite Bolton’s longest-serving goalkeeper, that belongs to Eddie Hopkinson – Bolton’s record appearance maker. Jussi has made more appearances than any other foreign player at Bolton and is, as of yesterday, now 6th on a list on most appearances with 513. His contribution to the club cannot be underestimated.
Yet, there comes a point where the gloves have to be handed over to someone new. Jaaskelainen has often been a source of frustration for United – either saving points for Bolton or restricting leads. His form though at the start of this season has been questionable with basic errors creeping into his game. Not all goalkeepers can be a Brad Friedel and play on to the age of 40 at such a consistent level. In Adam Bogdan, Bolton have a hungry young goalkeeper who maybe should be given a chance sooner rather than later. Bolton sold Ali Al-Habsi to Wigan over the summer following a good loan spell, it’s easy to say so now but that potentially is starting to look like a bit of an error.
Any goalkeeper does of course need a competent defence in front of them. Yesterday, Jussi was not helped as even the much sought after Gary Cahill made basic errors. By contrast, if there’s something that David de Gea can rely on, it’s a consistent defence. Despite the introduction of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling in an unfamiliar right back berth, and the loss of both Vidic and briefly Ferdinand, de Gea has been well protected. He was rarely called upon yesterday but his handling on low shots and authority when punching and catching crosses was sound. Assessing de Gea post-match, it wasn’t his hands that draw attention, instead it’s with his feet that he impressed.
Chalkboard 1. De Gea’s distribution and passing
One of the things United were looking at when seeking out a replacement for Edwin van der Sar was a goalkeeper who, like Edwin was a good footballer too – comfortable in possession and happy to get involved in open play to become an 11th outfield man. De Gea had a 77% pass completion rate yesterday, an exceedingly good percentage for a goalkeeper; made all the more impressive when one considers that he had 57 passes to make in the game – he was more involved than plenty of outfield players on either side were. Looking at the graphic just above, it’s clear to see that with 31 successful passes in open play, de Gea was indeed used as an 11th outfield man and has the trust of his team-mates.
It is such a bonus that de Gea clearly feels comfortable in the team already and his passing is ever so accurate and incisive – he hates to waste time on the ball. So many of his passes were lofted and 35 yards of more to either a high full back or one of the wingers. It’s incredible to think that there were rumours before the match about Lindegaard coming in for de Gea but one theory is that the club or Ferguson leaked those rumours just so he could publicly back his goalkeeper, de Gea by picking him in the game. In terms of possession and using the ball, United have seemingly replaced Edwin, the transition couldn’t be any smoother.
Defensive Ambition – (Nik)
Fergie currently has unequalled defensive resources at his disposal despite even the sales of seasoned pros Brown and O’Shea. Many thought that the signing of Jones (i.e. defensive addition) was slightly surprising given the recent acquisition of Smalling and the fantastic progression of the Da Silva twins, but Ferguson has supplemented the defence with impeccable timing. United now have two fabulous back-lines; the one that started the Champions League Final (Fabio, Rio, Vidic, Evra) not to mention Rafael, Smalling, Jones, and Evans. The interchanging of these players across the back has been crucial thus far this season. Ever since the early injuries to Ferdinand and Vidic, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Jonny Evans have stepped up to the plate with great aplomb; and yesterday was no different. Each of the back four contributed to the win, with Evans and Ferdinand easily able to diminish the influence of Davies and Klasnic, Evra strong down the left, and Jones, who we will come on to later, having the best game of his United career so far at right back.
Chalkboard 2. Ferdinand and Evans distribution (3 misplaced passes)
From a tactical viewpoint, as well as providing Fergie with some great options, each defender bringing something different to team, there also seems to have been a slight shift in emphasis in United’s approach play. We mentioned United’s improved urgency in last week’s column (http://www.stretford-end.com/2011/08/talking-points-united-8-2-arsenal/), not only in taking the ball forward, but in working hard to press and tackle the ball once relieved of possession. Further then, it has been notable how each of the back four has sought to take the ball forward with confidence – Smalling and Evra have picked up the mantle from last year at fullback but Evans and Jones in particular have moved into midfield with the ball at a much higher frequency than did Ferdinand and Vidic last season (Evans seems well and truly out of the mid-season rot he suffered last term with three consecutive assured and authoritative displays thus far). Yesterday, Anderson and Carrick were frequently able to exchange passes with both centre halves and collect the ball further up the pitch than usual. Looking at the chalkboards across the four league games, we see a pattern emerging to this effect. Fergie doesn’t need a coaching lesson from Guardiola, but it is certainly something Barca have brought to the fore in recent seasons -with Pique, Abidal and Mascherano in particular being fantastically adept at bringing the ball forward with attacking intent through the centre of the pitch; and the dual role of the central midfielder (Busquets usually), able to tuck in comfortably to cover for any counter-attacking eventuality. As well as Ferdinand then, United are now seemingly able to call upon Jones, Evans and Smalling at the heart of the defence to perform this role, and the slightly higher line has improved the attacking approach-play by narrowing the lines between defence and midfield.
The ‘Right’ combination – (Nik)
United’s recent history has provided us with some top quality right side ‘partnerships’, from Neville and Beckham to Brown and Ronaldo, and the trend seems certain to continue; last season saw the continuation of good form for Rafael and the emergence of his brother at right back too, both of whom showed great ability in tandem with either Valencia or Nani on the right side. Smalling and Nani have both started excellently this season and yesterday it was Jones who slipped perfectly into this position, with Smalling rested after two outings for England last week (meaning a return of the calming influence of Rio Ferdinand).
Chalkboard 3. Jones and Nani combination
From the chalkboard, we can see how Jones and Nani worked in tandem fantastically well down Bolton’s left side, much to the detriment of Paul Robinson in the main, but also left centre-back, Zat Knight who was being pulled across, with Petrov not too keen to put the defensive work in. Four of the five goals today originated down this right channel, from Nani’s early cross to Hernandez after 5 minutes to a sumptuous cross from Jones for Rooney, followed by a marauding run from the half-way line that Giggs would have been proud of. Jones carries the ball with aplomb having made numerous appearances in the middle of the field for Blackburn Rovers in the last 18 months or so; today he intercepted play early and high (7/8 successful tackles), and sought to run at Robinson, allowing Nani to come inside for the ball, or at times, angling his approach meaning Nani could utilise the width on the overlap. But as with the thriving Evra-Young partnership on the left, it is the dynamic of the combination which allows each to perform with such authority; Nani has been a joy to watch this season, and yesterday he was remarkably involved in all five of the goals, with two direct assists and contributing heavily to the other three, allowing Jones’ performance stand out. As with the centre half position, Fergie can now call upon four right backs, each able to work with their midfield counterparts offering unique approaches.
Kevin Davies (and Tom Cleverley) and Andre Marriner – (Doron)
It may sound like a strange opening but I’ve always quite liked Kevin Davies. His style is not that of a natural ball-player and he is rough and puts himself about but that plays to his strongest abilities. However, there’s putting oneself about to disrupt defenders and then there’s recklessness.
Evans and Evra both got knocks in the game but the one piece of bad news came after half time when Tom Cleverley emerged from the tunnel on crutches and wearing a “Beckham boot” with fears he’d broken his foot. Disappointing for him given his form and coming two weeks after Welbeck had also picked up an injury it’s gutting for these young players to have their season disrupted after breaking into the first XI.
Tom’s injury came in the 4th minute when Kevin Davies tackled him from the a mixture of the side and from behind – it wasn’t horrendous, just a bad tackle and nine times out of ten Cleverley would have probably not had any injury but simply been sore for a few minutes.
Davies tackles Cleverley
As mentioned, it wasn’t an awful tackle by any stretch of the imagination and the reaction to it from both the club and fans has maybe been a bit over the top and more with the injury in mind rather than the tackle itself. It is though hard to argue against it being a yellow card – the fact it was four minutes into the game should have made no difference. It’s disappointing that Andre Marriner didn’t book Davies, especially given his positioning (see below). He had a clear view of Davies coming through Cleverley and taking the man before getting close to the ball – he should have booked him. Cleverley would last until the 24th minute before having to come off.
Andre Marriner’s position for Davies tackle on Cleverley
A mere eight minutes after fouling Cleverley, Davies should have been sent off. This time Andre Marriner did show him a yellow card for a reckless lunge on Evra – it should have been his second booking; that said, he could have easily been shown a straight red card and Evra was lucky not to have gone over on his ankle.
Davies late lunge on Evra
Once again, Andre Marriner had a clear view of the attempted tackle. He’d have seen how late it was and that Davies led with a foot on Evra’s ankle with raised studs.
Andre Marriner’s position for Davies lunge on Cleverley
Both tackles can be seen here at full speed:
Davies on Cleverley -
Davies on Evra -
Marriner had a strong game in general (despite waving play on when Nani had a head injury) as did the linesmen. Although the outcome of the game wasn’t impacted on by the non-sending off of Davies, tackles like his second one on Evra should be correctly penalised. For United and Cleverley, it’s a bitter blow to get so early on in the season when a winning formula had been found in the midfield. Fortunately, Cleverley will only miss four weeks with ligament damage and no break; yet where one door closes, another one opens for someone else…
Chance for Carrick? – (Doron)
Cleverley’s injury provided a first league appearance of the season for Michael Carrick. Renowned for doing the simple things well but also a constant whipping-boy of the team by fans, it’s understandable that there would be concerns about whether Carrick would slow the game down for United. Recently the team have been playing neat one touch football at a high intensity and pace – it is indeed a misconception to think that Carrick cannot do that and to think that he slows United down.
Intriguingly, Carrick was the most accurate midfield passer on the pitch yesterday with a 90% success rate and he won all of his tackles attempted. It’s a testament to his performance that no one seemed to think United were missing Cleverley, in fact he slotted in with ease and picked up where Cleverley had left off in previous matches.
As a way of comparing the two and pointing out the similarities take Cleverley’s masterclass from the Arsenal game. He was up against a fairly soft Arsenal midfield and often had freedom, time and space – something not afforded quite as much to Carrick yesterday. Nevertheless their passing chalkboards are similar; lots of short, quick incisive passes backwards, sideways and forwards as well as accurate longer passes and a few long balls that didn’t find their targets.
Chalkboard 4. Carrick passing against Bolton vs. Cleverley passing against Arsenal
The most interesting comparison comes in where they were positioned when passing the ball. The common perception is that Carrick is not a box to box player and cannot every be one, whilst Cleverley to an extent has been doing that role and therefore Carrick cannot take over from him without the team changing their style.
Chalkboard 5. Carrick passing heatmap against Bolton vs. Cleverley passing heatmap against Arsenal
Both players played most of their passes from just within their own half but it’s interesting to notice that Carrick played more balls in the final third of the pitch than Cleverley, who in fact rarely entered the area just outside the opposition’s box. Unsurprisingly, Cleverley drifts more out towards the wings than Carrick and played fewer balls from a deep screening position in front of the back four but I think many people would be surprised to see that Carrick provided more of an attacking option in the final third than Cleverley – particularly because Cleverley was playing at home against a poor Arsenal team who also had a man sent off.
I believe that if asked to play the same role as Cleverley, Carrick will have no problem in doing so. He’s a clever play who’s calm in possession and his tactical discipline will continue to allow Anderson to have some freedom. Cleverley of course has form on his side but it’s a real bonus if the two can become interchangeable without the team suffering any impact.
Rooney: World-Class status finally arrives – (Nik)
United fans have rightly hailed the talent of Wayne Rooney in recent years, so often the heartbeat of the team. However, even when he was combining so well with Ronaldo in 2008, or scoring 34 league goals two seasons ago, there was still something lacking in the Englishman’s play which discouraged experts to pronounce him the equal to the likes of Messi, Ronaldo, Xavi and Iniesta. Indeed, back in 2009 it was Sir Alex who commented:
“…there are some great players out there. Kaka, Ronaldo and Messi are the best three in the world right now and I think Wayne can get to that level if he keeps making progress.”
Two seasons on, and Wayne Rooney has seemingly turned that final corner, with the progress that Fergie predicted all too evident in the free-flowing play and panache we see on a weekly basis. Since Rooney’s return from a fitness camp in Oregon, his contribution to the team has been phenomenal. Last season, in the creative role in which he thrives he helped United ease past Chelsea both in the Champions League and in the League; he scored a hat-trick at West Ham in arguably the turning point in the title race and his partnership with Hernandez was the revelation of the season. Against Arsenal last week, and at Bolton yesterday, Rooney scored consecutive hat-tricks whilst being heavily involved in many of the 13 goals scored in both games (with 8 goals in total to his name already).
Indeed, it was his short-passing game in the final third which eluded him in seasons gone by, too often unable to pick the easy (and correct) option and seeking to spread play with overly ambitious long-range passes (or shoot from too far a distance). Today, Rooney’s approach play is simple yet sophisticated, working across the final third with great intelligence and playing with a verve and intensity that we have seen only far too sporadically since he burst on to the seen in 2003-04. Add to that his colossal strength on the ball and his vastly improved set-piece application, the 25 year-old is finally the leader of men the Old Trafford faithful hoped he would be. He is not Messi or Ronaldo… he is Wayne Rooney.
It’s getting a bit repetitive to suggest Sir Alex will be wholly satisfied with the win but it’s a nice habit to get into. All round there were excellent performances and the sharpness of the forward players is a huge bonus this early on in the season. In the end Bolton didn’t put up much of a fight but four wins from four is a perfect start to the season. The injuries to Cleverley, Evans and Evra are the only sources of frustration – expect the pack to be shuffled for the trip to Benfica on Wednesday night.