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United ended 2011 with a home game against Blackburn, the league’s bottom side before kick-off. It marked the halfway point in the league season and enabled United to end the year at the top of the table should they get at least a point. Blackburn however had other ideas and despite conceding more away goals than any other side, they recorded their first away win of the season to move off the foot of the table.
Below, we discuss the talking points and invite Blackburn fans as well as United fans to join in the discussion.
Team selection and missing men
United made four changes from the team that beat Wigan with De Gea, Jones, Welbeck and for his first league appearance of the season, Rafael coming in. Most telling though was that the centre back pairing of Carrick and Jones was the successful centre midfield pairing at QPR less than two weeks earlier.
United’s lack of fit central midfielders and in general squad was evident as Valencia and Carrick continued at the back; Park and Rafael played in central midfield and Welbeck was asked to play on the left. Only Diouf and an unfit Anderson represented senior players on the bench.
Whilst no explanation was offered for Giggs’ absence, Rooney and Gibson were dropped following an evening out a few days prior. Evans was also fined for the alcohol-fuelled adventure but was injured anyway. Personally I think Fergie got this wrong – he was right to fine the players but given how low on numbers United were, Rooney and Gibson should have at least been on the bench. It meant that excluding Macheda who was finalising a loan to QPR and Giggs who was unaccounted for, United had 11 players missing and were forced into involving unfit players.
Various poor performances and goalkeeper rotation
Despite Jones and Carrick winning 9 of their 11 tackles in the game, the pair got bullied by Yakubu. Carrick of course isn’t a centre back but lost out in the physical battle with Yakubu and was drawn out by him too easily. Jones at centre back is more of a concern. He’s yet to look convincing playing in that position; he’s turned way too easily and a combination of lack of awareness leading to poor positioning let him down too often.
As expected, Rafael’s enthusiasm was endearing and his energy despite missing so much football was good. He isn’t a central midfielder though and seemed way too static in possession:
Chalkboard 1: Rafael passing heatmap
As shown above, Rafael seemed concerned with ensuring he stuck to his side of the pitch, often covering for Nani’s runs forward or doubling up with Valencia. A key characteristic of United’s central midfielder though is there ability to drift all over the pitch – even Carrick when instructed to sit deep doesn’t stick to one side of the pitch.
What Rafael and Park did bring though was work-rate and bite. With Blackburn playing 55% of their passes in the middle third of the pitch, Rafael and Park were kept busy and did reasonably well at winning the ball back.
Chalkboard 2: Rafael and Park tackles
The biggest disappointment of the afternoon came from De Gea. He’s only just turned 21 and it’ll take plenty of time for him to grow, bulk out and get used to English football but his flap for Blackburn’s third goal was one flap too many. He needs to learn and has to do so fast. It was suggested to me on Twitter by David Evans that De Gea may have actually been fouled:
De Gea fouled?
Even if he was fouled, he never really looked like getting close to the ball and had flapped at a cross a few minutes earlier in the game. Even the second goal was a bit dodgy, he seems to like to go down with his feet in front of him and whilst this has seen him make some extraordinary saves, he also has a tendency to get beaten through his legs as a result.
The important thing now is to pick a number one. I’d pick De Gea – he’s been bought as the long-term goalkeeper and he will come good, I don’t doubt that. The only way he’ll learn now is to play games and gain experience of the Premier League even if there are more mistakes to come. He’ll of course be helped by a settled and experienced back four consisting of defenders – it’s hardly been the easiest start for him in that respect.
The problem of course is Lindegaard – when he’s played he’s done well but he has been picked in ‘easier’ games and whilst I don’t have the stats to hand, De Gea’s been considerably the busier of the two goalkeepers. Ferguson quite emphatically said on Friday that De Gea would start against Blackburn and Newcastle and said that the reason for the rotation was to protect David and allow him time to observe and learn. The way forward now is with De Gea, even if it takes him another year to learn, he will do so – the lack of a consistently settled back four cannot be underestimated too.
Worth pointing out by the way that once again, De Gea’s distribution was exceptional – he only gave the ball away twice and some of his long-ball passing, as a sweeper-keeper was scarily accurate.
Valencia continues good form and Evra too does well
If one had to pick out some positives from the game, aside from two more goals from Berbatov, it would have been the fullbacks. After performances below the standard we’ve been used to, Evra’s recent form (with the exception of the first half at QPR) has been superb. Once again, against Blackburn he was excellent and at his best as an attacking force.
Chalkboard 3: Evra and Valencia heatmap
Amazingly, Evra and Valencia played 74% and 78% (respectively) of the their passes inside the Blackburn half. Valencia in particular was always looking to get crosses in and as a result Blackburn were forced into making an amazing 81 clearances and 8 blocks. Valencia was though rewarded with his 7th assist in 5 games and is now United’s leading joint assister.
Two teams with Academy products
Our preview highlighted some of the youngsters who are currently getting games in the Blackburn side. Hanley, Henley and Lowe in particular were excellent. Despite his failings, Kean’s persistence and faith in youth hasn’t been praised enough and maybe that’s one reason why Fergie seems to like him so much.
It wasn’t just Blackburn who were showing off some of their new generation though; United finally gave a debut to William Keane who played the last 9 minutes. The young striker was singled out for praise by Ferguson on Friday in his press conference and has been excellent in the Reserves this season. His appearance off the bench ahead of Diouf just shows how far he’s come. Larnell Cole, Paul Pogba and Zeki Fryers were also on the bench. United’s youngsters are making progress into the first team much sooner than anyone expected yet caution must still be preached. Fergie’s use of them so far has been perfect and no doubt he’ll continue to give them minutes where possible.
A big week ahead
United travel to Newcastle on Wednesday – a tough fixture at a side who’ve been good this season. Yet the defeat to Blackburn will only spur them on and actually, Newcastle’s home record isn’t nearly as good as one might think. They’ve taken 15 points from 27 and thirteen clubs have scored as many or more goals at home than them.
Following the trip to the north-east, United are at City in the FA Cup on Sunday – a huge chance to try and disrupt the form of their rivals. City though have a big task up against Liverpool in the league beforehand and like United, the lost in the last round of fixtures.
United suffered a shock home defeat to Blackburn despite dominating the game and having nearly 30 efforts on goal. It was Blackburn’s first away league win of the season, lead by Yakubu who now has 12 league goals for them. His first came from the penalty spot after Berbatov hauled down Samba. His second was a goal of his own making as he broke through all too easily before beating De Gea at his near post. United did get back level as Berbatov twice turned in crosses from Rafael and Valencia. Despite pressure on their goal, Blackburn went ahead as Grant Hanley beat De Gea in the air from a corner before heading home unchallenged.
Luckily, United remain joint top after City slipped up at Sunderland but with Spurs chasing hard, only a win will do at Newcastle.