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United came away with 3 points from a tricky trip to Villa Park, but importantly seem to be finding an extra gear at last. Jones scored the all-important goal, and there was another clean-sheet, which will please Ferguson. Here are the talking points to come out of the game; we welcome both Villa and United fans to get involved in some discussion.
Can Vidic get even better?
Since his return from injury Vidic has seemingly switched from left CH to right CH, a position he has rarely played and one that Fergie has described simply as ‘tactical’. This was Vidic’s 5th game back in the league since his return at Everton, and whilst I don’t want to dwell too much on possible theories around the switch – accommodating Evans in his natural left position; allowing Ferdinand to conduct his natural ‘sweeping duties’ in behind the much more advanced Evra this term; providing cover (in the form of aerially attacking the ball for e.g.) for our inexperienced right-backs (Jones, Smalling, Rafael), are all possible – it is clear from the Serbian’s form that the move has suited him.
Arguably his main area of weakness was distribution, and Vidic’s move has seen him more able to pass out from the back with greater fluidity on his stronger right side. This has also had positive effects on his overall defensive game, and yesterday was no different, as Vidic had his best game of the season so far against Villa, dominating in and around United’s penalty area in a performance reminiscent of his thoroughbred display at Manchester City last season. The United stalwart won 7/7 aerial duels and made 7 interceptions – the majority of which occurred just before the halfway line to the right side of the pitch, again assisting the attack minded Chris Smalling, who was doing an excellent job in marshalling Abonglohor. When Vidic is in the ‘zone’ like this there is no-one better in world football, and his headed clearance on the 6 yard area in the dying minutes typified his captain’s performance today, just shading the impressive Carrick for the man of the match award.
Chalkboard 1: Vidic interceptions and tackles
Carrick and Jones: another ‘unlikely couple’
We talked earlier in the season about how surprising it was to see how complimentary the playing styles of Cleverley and Anderson were – as both players are attack minded in theory, neither renowned for their defensive acumen and tackling ability. But they were largely responsible for our flying start to the season in central midfield and it was only Cleverley’s injury that seemed to halt our dazzling run. Yesterday saw something similar, as Jones was asked to play in midfield for the second time this season, accompanying the resurgent Michael Carrick in a central two. Fergie, perhaps learning from Capello’s usage of Jones versus Spain recently, instructed both to sit relatively high up the pitch (they are both ‘defensive minded’ I think it is fair to say), staying close to Rooney who tends to drop deep in between the lines performing somewhat of a playmaking role. Jonathan Wilson elaborates:
“By definition, by being only a short pass away from the creator, the two midfield holders are more involved in the attacking aspect and at least one of them can be encouraged to press forwards at times, as Xabi Alonso did for Spain, and as Seydou Keita does for Barcelona. So immediately the range of attacking options is increased.”
Yesterday then, United (in a broadly 4-2-3-1 shape) were able to match Villa’s compact middle, but also ensure our front 6 were pressing high up the pitch, intercepting the ball in attacking positions. That Jones and Carrick seem like a defensive partnership on paper is not important – more their positional instruction and application; they jointly made 12 interceptions and attempted over 100 passes, most of which were beyond the halfway line, with a substantial number made in the attacking third, as you can see from the chalkboard.
Chalkboard 2: Carrick and Jones passing
For the goal, United forced Villa into a defensive error, and Evra was quick to penetrate coming inside from a wide left position; Nani overlapped (coming outside from the centre), and Jones was able to time his run to perfection as Nani clipped one back for the teenager to latch onto and open his account for the reds.
Nani had a mixed afternoon, despite assisting the goal – but this was largely due to the tinkering that was largely forced on Sir Alex. Very early on, Javier Hernandez had to be replaced by Valencia due to a seemingly innocuous ankle injury that could set him back 4-5 weeks – This meant a shift from a wide right position to a central ‘forward’ one for Nani, with Young staying out on the left. This wasn’t an entirely unexpected move by the manager, given Nani’s varied ‘wide-play’ this season and for a large part of last; the Portuguese is at his best when combining his crossing ability from a wide right position, to forging his way to goal in-field, combining beautifully at times with Rooney, Young and Hernandez. In fact, it was something this blogger asked around 12 months ago, pondering whether Nani could follow in Ronaldo’s footsteps and start to have a greater influence on the game by playing in a front two, or just off the strikers.
Chalkboard 3: Nani shots on goal
For me, Nani has all the right attributes in order to play more in this position: Pace, trickery, awareness and creativity, strength, and most importantly, the ability to finish with both feet and with variety. Yesterday, Nani was a threat once moved centrally, having 5 shots (4 on target) until he was switched a second time midway through the second half, to the left this time to accommodate substitutions. I don’t suspect we will see him often in that position with the likes of Welbeck and Berbatov waiting in the wings, but what is clear is that we can rely on him to fulfil striking duties where necessary – and it is something Ferguson should give more thought to on the training ground given Ronaldo’s explosive response to Fergie’s tactical switch a couple of seasons into his United career.
Rooney doesn’t like Christmas
Roughly this time last season (in the two months prior to the festive period), Rooney had perhaps his worst time in a United shirt; and whilst his current form is in no way comparable to that gloomy period, it is notable that he isn’t quite in the form that he showed in his first 5 or 6 games. Rooney has now gone 7 games without a goal (roughly the time I gave him the captaincy of my fantasy football team!), but more worryingly is his apparent lack of vitality and his intermittent positional indiscipline. Given that Rooney was playing with Nani for the majority of the game at Villa, it seemed illogical that he should come as deep as the former for the ball, often crowding middle zone. At times United were playing with four men in this area of the field, with Jones and Carrick starting high (as depicted above), leaving only Young and Valencia as attacking outlets, but mainly from wide. This meant that Rooney was only ever in the penalty area once, and had two unsuccessful attempts on goal all game – which was largely representative of our last handful of games in which the side as struggled to score more than once.
Chalkboard 4: Rooney passing and shooting
Granted, Fergie’s tinkering in the game didn’t help (and his rotation policy at large), and we know the team and him come ‘alive’ in the New Year, but Rooney (as per the criticism of him in the Champions League final) must use his fantastic football brain with greater effect at times; knowing when to lead the line, when to drop deep and when to apply defensive acumen (sitting on the opposition’s deep midfielder for example). His performance yesterday was typified by his run from deep in the closing minutes; having pulled defenders out of position, slipping Welbeck in through on goal was the simplest of passes to make yet he delayed the pass by almost two seconds. I still believe this is a season where Rooney will come of age, but he needs to re-gain his creative enthusiasm quickly, become more focused and importantly, forget about Christmas.
United will be happy with the result and although Fergie will be concerned about the lack of goals in the side at present, there have been positives to take from the last two league outings. Versus Newcastle, it was only some kamikaze defending and excellent keeping that prevented United from taking all three points; and at Villa Park United never looked like conceding, whilst having 14 shots on goal. With the return of Carrick and Vidic to the side (amongst various tweakings to the 4-4-2 formation) the team seem to have rectified the problem of conceding goal scoring opportunities (conceding just one goal in the last 5 league games).
United pressed high throughout the game (holding a high line was important), intercepted the ball in attacking positions in much the same way the side did at the outset of the season. This had the effect of restricting Villa to few opportunities on goal, and concentrated our game in and around the opposition penalty area. In fact, the problem yesterday was more to do with too much movement in the final third, and plenty of poor decision making if truth be told. Positives include Nani’s variation, Valencia’s improvement in form, Evra’s concentration, the Jones and Carrick partnership and of course, Vidic’s majestic defensive display.