Manchester United put their 2-1 defeat to FC Basle behind them with a 4-1 victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers to close the gap on Manchester City at the top of the Premier League table. Ryan Giggs, Ashley Young and Ji-Sung Park all dropped to the bench and were replaced by Michael Carrick, Danny Welbeck and Antonio Valencia. Wayne Rooney and Luis Nani scored two goals a piece as United scored more than three goals since the 5-0 thrashing of Bolton Wanderers earlier in the season.
Below, we discuss the talking points from Manchester United 4-1 Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Carrick and Jones Partnership
Michael Carrick was suspended for the 2-1 defeat in Switzerland midweek, however if he had of been available he would most certainly have started alongside Jones to bring a sense of calm and patience in United’s play. Jones may have received the plaudits by many of the pundits for his driving runs, accurate passing and overall workrate – but Carrick’s performance was excellent as United bounced back from their Champions League exit.
Phil Jones is described by many as a ‘defensive midfielder’, which indicates that he is a destroyer of play rather than a creator. There is no doubt that Jones is strong in the tackle, can track runs and intercepts a vast amount of balls – however alongside Carrick, Ferguson has asked the versatile youngster to push on and join up with the attacking play, whilst Carrick sits. This is highlighted in their passing stats from the game yesterday:
Chalkboard 1: Jones and Carrick passing
Jones was on the ball less than Carrick but was involved in play higher up the pitch. The Phil Jones and Michael Carrick combination could well be the duo that lines up in the next couple of weeks following the impressive performance against Wolves. Generally in a two man centre midfielder pairing, one players sits and the other bombs forward – something that was evident, especially in the second half yesterday. Last week against Aston Villa, Jones got on the ball more – but in deeper areas. This more defensive approach didn’t stop him making forward runs and netting the only goal, but merely demonstrates his vast array of attributes that makes him such a complete player. Carrick has his critics (and probably always will) but his is a fine footballer, capable of controlling play and starting passing moves.
Are Jones and Carrick our first choice centre midfield pairing?
Free scoring United netted four goals against Wolves, the first time United had scored more than one goal in a league match since the home game against Norwich City on October 1st . United. Apparently, the last time United went on such a lean spell was at the end of the 1988/89 season – lasting just over a month from a 2-0 defeat away to Nottingham Forest to a 3-2 defeat at Loftus Road.
In that spell, United obtained five points from twenty seven whereas the recent run of low scoring games, United notched up fourteen points from twenty four. Following the 6-1 defeat to Manchester City, perhaps Ferguson wanted to get back to basics and tighten up the backline. Since the six goals, United have only conceded two goals (both at home) compared to five in the previous six games before the heavy defeat to City.
Have United found their scoring touch again?
Coping without Vidic
Losing your captain and best defender for the season is the stuff of nightmares. However, when that player seems to also bring out the best in those around him, it gets even worse. Fortunately, United are blessed with talent in the centre back area. Ferdinand, for all his critics after a shaky start, has been superb recently; Evans also has his doubters but he too is a talent who the boss has faith in; whilst Smalling and Jones have the potential to be stars.
Evans and Ferdinand were paired up for Wolves with Smalling at right back and Jones used again in midfield. Ferdinand kept to the left hand side of defence once again and assumed a more responsible role. As Vidic normally would, Rio attacked the balls, showing a side to his game we don’t often see – how strong he is aerially. Rio made 20 clearances, majority with his head, during the game – nearly half of United’s total (48) and nearly as many as the entire Wolves team (29). To put it into perspective – Vidic was lauded for his epic 19 clearances the week before against Villa!
Chalkboard 2: Rio clearances and Evans tackles
With Rio acting in the ‘Vidic role’, it left Evans without the need to feel like he had to be the dominator in the pairing and he had a fine game playing a solid high line with Rio and winning an impressive 7 out of 8 tackles made. Evans has been good this season but his red card against Man City tends to skew opinion on him. Whilst many would rather see Jones or Smalling there, Fergie clearly has had faith in Jonny all season. Hopefully he can continue his form into the busy Christmas period.
As a side note – I thought Evra had a much improved game. He’s played more minutes than any United player this season so it was sensible of Fergie to give him a rest with the side 4-1 up and allow Zeki to have some Premier League minutes.
Resurgent wing-play and a complimenting forward
In a game where Nani and Rooney’s return to goalscoring form was welcomed; it was Welbeck’s comeback that seemed more intriguing. The crucial thing with Welbeck; is that as a striker he offers so much more than goals.
Chalkboard 3: Welbeck passing heatmap and tackles
It was little coincidence that Rooney scored two and seemed to play better with Welbeck next to him. Danny, unlike Hernandez, drops deep and likes to get involved in the passing the ball around. It gives Rooney a chance to drift higher up the pitch, and into goalscoring areas as well as creating space for Rooney to operate in. As can be seen, Welbeck played 44% of his passes in the middle third of the pitch. Danny won all four of the tackles he attempted, again another indicator of how hard he works for the team. What isn’t shown there is the quality of his passing – he played some very clever balls through and nearly set up some goals.
Rooney ended an 8 match goal drought with two well-taken goals. The second in particular showcased superb technique to hit a ball that was behind him. Nani also notched two goals, which considering the number of shots he has was somewhat overdue. However two things stood out. Firstly, Rooney had no shots off target for the first game in a while; and secondly, Antonio Valencia’s contribution was excellent.
Chalkboard 4: Valencia assists and Rooney shots
Of Rooney’s 10 efforts on goal, two were scored, three were blocked and five were saved (although most of those were probably his infuriating attempts at chips). One real highlight of the game was wing-play. Not just Nani scoring but Valencia remembered how to play like Antonio Valencia. He looked direct, he was quick, he was beating men and his crossing was consistently accurate. So much so that he ended up with three assists. A huge bonus for United considering Ashley Young appears to be rusty still post-injury.
The one advantage to being slow in writing these post-match thoughts is that City have now played. Their loss at Chelsea is somewhat significant. United play away to QPR before City host Arsenal next. A United win will see them return to the top of the table, even if only for a few hours before City play. Psychologically it’s a chance for United to remind City that they’re there and it’ll be interesting to see how City respond to the kind of pressures United are so used to.
After two months, United finally notched up more than one goal in a league game and provided a convincing display of attacking football with it. With key players missing, Carrick and Jones again stepped up with solid performances and importantly a good understanding of each other. Goals from Rooney and Nani suggest that confidence is starting to pick up again after the Basel disaster. A midday kick off in London on Sunday at QPR can see top stop regained for the first time in a while; the Reds are on the march!