United played Wigan in their penultimate game of 2011. A 100% record against The Latics was likely to be extended – Wigan had only ever scored one goal at Old Trafford previously and United have entered into some good form. Jones and Smalling were surprise absentees through illness whilst Lindegaard kept his place in goal. Rooney was rested giving Hernandez and Berbatov the chance to shine. What followed was a routine dismantling of Martinez’s side.
Below, we discuss the talking points and invite Wigan fans as well as United fans to join in the discussion.
Berbatov (by Nik)
Dimitar Berbatov scored a hat-trick and seemed to exude the kind of poetic nonchalance that has become a symbol of his style of play in a United shirt. It wasn’t a thoroughbred performance, and nor was it his finest, yet this kind of display is the very reason the Bulgarian remains at the club, four seasons on. Whether it was the dropping deep into his own half to start the move that led to the first goal or his Cantona-esque cushioned chest to Park in the closing stages, Berbatov’s creativity and eye for a pass is surely now only under-appreciated by the small minority at Old Trafford. As well as bringing others into the game of course, he can finish; he showed great body strength to control a bouncing ball on the edge of the six-yard box (albeit holding off the ageing Caldwell!) and had the determination to swivel and finish neatly to score United’s second.
Berbatov’s second goal came later in the game when he received a pass from the barnstorming Valencia, let it run across his body with the faintest of touches, and finished superbly with the outside of his foot from just inside the penalty area. A word on his penalty too: The feint and neat placement was reminiscent of Cristiano’s technique and works a treat if indeed the goalkeeper is fooled, and was rightly lauded. I cant help but remember the absurd abuse he received for attempting a very similar style against Everton’s Tim Howard at Wembley – a penalty which was ‘lazy’ and ‘indicative of his performance levels’.
What is pleasing for Ferguson is that he now has four fully fit strikers at his disposal, each providing a different option as we enter the second half of the season; and although Berbatov may have to bide his time on the bench due to the prolific scoring Hernandez and the ever improving Welbeck, it is clear that manager will choose the appropriate games for the big man to start (yesterday he commented that he required Berbatov’s height for example). It is not a matter of manager ‘distrust’, simply that the other three offer a style of play more suited to United’s fluid forward-play at the moment, and Fergie continues to play the man in form, a tactic that has served him more than well over the years.
The squad is healthy (by Nik)
Ferguson was his fiery self in the programme notes yesterday, stating:
“…let me make this clear that as far as I am concerned I am the one marching perfectly in step, true to my beliefs and principles. All things being equal, I am perfectly satisfied with the strength of our squad in terms of depth, quality and age range….it is a judgement based on years of experience and the input of our extremely knowledgeable and shrewd coaching staff….”
It may seem odd quoting from Ferguson’s notes, but it is very pertinent given the subsequent 5-0 drumming that a United second team delivered here; a second team that had fans up in arms, and worried about the result.
Firstly, I’d like to start by saying that each of us here at Stretford-End.com would be in favour of a central midfield recruit, indeed given Anderson’s demise and Fletcher’s continued absence, possibly two. However, there does seem to be some false logic being applied amongst some fans; it doesn’t necessarily follow that the current squad is ‘poor’ just because the team failed to progress in the Champions League (Poor displays yes! Poor selection yes!) and City were ‘running away with it’ in the league (as this tabloid response tried to implore just over two weeks ago).
Nobody denies that there are genuine concerns about the debts that are being run up by the Glazer regime, nor that it isn’t an emotive and sincere issue; what is frustrating is rather the repeated (and opportunistic) claims by fans and media alike, that Fergie has his hands tied and that the squad is in perpetual decline just because our ‘Net Spend’ (a term now to be found in the football dictionary) is lower than any of the ‘top four’ teams.
It seems an unnecessary point to make that of course United’s would be considerably less than the (essentially flawed) quick fix approach of Abramovich’s Chelsea; than that of City and the squad overhaul that has been entirely necessary (Toure for Ball anyone?); than that of the vast rejuvenation required at Anfield (£35m for Carroll please sir). That Fergie has also been criticised in the past for buying £30m plus signings in the form of Veron, Ferdinand, Berbatov et al that struggled to settle, and has subsequently altered his approach to the market. Hernandez, Lindegaard, Smalling and Valencia have been impossibly fantastic cheaper additions to the squad, and were brought in, in a timely manner. (not to mention that Fergie’s investment in Nani now seems to be paying dividends too.)
Squad planning and preparation is undoubtedly a manager’s hardest job, and Ferguson has always matched his eye for talent with a frugal approach. In fact, add an extra £30m to that net spend figure, because it is highly likely – given the knowledge that Nasri was indeed due to sign, and Sneijder did turn us down – that United will sign an extra midfielder in the near future, giving us a squad which is at the very least, on a par with City’s. Just give the boss (and his trusted scouts) time to do so …
Evra & Carrick defensive roles (by Nik)
In somewhat of a similar role that Mascherano assumes for Barcelona, Carrick was thrown in at the back yesterday given the injuries/ illness to the likes of Smalling, Jones, Ferdinand and Vidic. Of course, this wasn’t an attempt by Ferguson to replicate the success of Guardiola’s 3-3-1-3 formation, but it was notable how Carrick was asked to play slightly ahead of Evans (just as Ferdinand has been in the last month or so, depicted by Doron here), and his application and positioning in this role was outstanding all game. As you can see from the chalkboard his passing range was a mix of calm authority (seeing the whole game ahead of you helps in this regard) and ambition. Carrick worked hard to track his man (more often Sammon) and sought to nick the ball just before the forward got to it – often close to the half-way line. But the central midfielder was often true to his roots as he ventured forward at times, joining the attack and putting one or two dangerous crosses into the box. In the second half, Carrick neatly laid the ball into Valencia’s path on the half-volley to score with a cracking first time effort.
Chalkboard 1: Carrick passing and Evra tackles
Evra had another good game following on from his exploits at Fulham; he was his lively self in the first half, assisting the opener for Park with a jinxing run that beat two defenders – but he was also disciplined at the back, across the 90 minutes. In the first half, before his move to centre-back, you can see from the chalkboard that three of his tackles came in central and right, deep positions. With a recent onus on the centre-half getting forward, Evra has often been the player to cover, tucking in ever so slightly and trying to intercept the ball before it reaches the striker on the counter-attack. It is perhaps for this reason, the criticism of his positional play has been unduly heavy this term, but his performances (aside from the odd half) have been far from ‘poor’ – Fergie once again praised the Frenchman after the game, commenting on his ‘superb leadership as captain’. In the second half yesterday, Evra was asked to play centre-back with Fryers playing to the left, and he was his usual combative self, attacking every ball, tackling well and initiating attacks.
Valencia’s smiling (by Doron)
Few sights are as endearing as Antonio Valencia’s big beaming smile. It’s probably not seen enough by United fans, not because he doesn’t play well but because he tends to be quite straight faced regardless of what he does on the pitch. However, he has reason to smile and finally, after smashing home an arrowed angled effort for his first league goal of the season.
Having taken a while to get going, disrupted by injury and Fergie’s preference of Nani and Young early in the season, Valencia got his chance after the side lost to Basel and he hasn’t looked back. His confidence and pace have returned and suddenly he’s keen to take men on again and get a cross in. He was deployed at right back against Wigan and spent much of the Fulham game there too. The two fixtures showed exactly why Valencia’s making that right hand side his own.
Chalkboard 2: Valencia tackles vs Fulham and passes vs Wigan
Valencia’s tackling accuracy this season has only just been above 50% but in recent weeks as his confidence has returned, he’s becoming more of a force in challenges. Against Fulham he won 4 out of his 6 tackles and as he has shown time again, he’s a very able covering right back. Against Wigan, with United dominating, he played almost as a right winger making 59% of his passes in the final third of the pitch. It was a welcome site to see him attempting to play so many balls into the box, something he got another assist for when Berbatov made it 3-0. It was Valencia’s sixth assist in just four games. Having praised Nani as the league’s best winger, it’s possible that Valencia with one goal and six assists in four games is the league’s most in-form winger (despite playing as a fullback).
Park and Gibson come good as injuries mount (by Doron)
Illness struck both Jones and Smalling down pre-match meaning Carrick and Valencia had to drop into defence. At half time Jonny Evans went off with a calf injury to leave just Evra as the only fully fit first team defender (Rafael isn’t match fit yet and Zeki Fryers is still on the fringes of the first team). It meant that the midfield required two players to slot in – Young’s injured so Park played on the left and with Carrick at the back, Gibson’s the only other fit first team central midfielder and so he started next to Giggs.
Chalkboard 3: Park passing heatmap and tackles
Despite starting on the left, Park spent his game drifting all over as shown by his passing heatmap. When Evra was at left back, Park moved inside to drag players away, creating space for Evra. In the second half, with United keen to protect Zeki Fryers, the focus of their attacks shifted even more centrally and to the right hand side so Park naturally moved further infield. However, much like his performance against Chelsea last season at home, some of Park’s best work was done off the ball. He was constantly fighting to win it back and made five successful tackles all over the pitch. Just as Carrick and Valencia have come to the fore, Park’s form will be a welcome boost for United as the squad players enter into form as good as the regularly starting players.
The other squad player to play well yesterday (albeit against poor and depleted opposition) was the much-maligned Darron Gibson. He took the Carrick-role to allow Giggs to play with creative license.
Chalkboard 4: Gibson passing
As shown by Gibson’s passing chalkboard, he saw a lot of the ball and was accurate in his passing (to the tune of 95%). There was no sign of panicking or trying anything over-elaborate, Gibson just kept finding the spare United man over and over, becoming the central outlet for United players. Almost every move went through him at some point and he added an assist to his impressive display. Gibson’s benefited from little pressure on him during the game but having missed all the season through injury so far and with the side needing more midfield bodies, it was a performance that United needed.
United went joint top with Man City after recording a second successive 5-0 win in the league. For the third game in a row United took the lead inside the opening ten minutes and then the game was effectively killed off with the harsh sending off of Conor Sammon for a hand in Carrick’s face. Berbatov notched a hat-trick upon his recall to the side (he’d only played 36 minutes at home in the league previously this season) and there were welcome goals for Park and Valencia.
Wigan must hate facing United – in 14 games they’re yet to do anything other than lose, scoring just four goals and conceding a whopping 46. Fergie must be delighted with United’s response to losing to Basel – his call for goals has been met with 16 in four games and since losing to City they’ve kept seven clean sheets in nine league games.
United can end 2011 top of the table with a draw or a win at home to Blackburn on New Years Eve; a perfect way to end yet another successful year. For a ‘rubbish’ United side, they’re not all that bad!