Despite being a website with content about Man United written by Man United fans – we all happen to not only enjoy football in general, but watch a lot of it. Therefore, we’re trying something new – a weekly column looking at a few learnings and observations from the weekend’s football and not necessarily just in England. A new scribe shall be joining us on this column, Trinidad & Tobago’s finest, Rob. We’ll make no attempt to be neutral and we’ll attempt to link back to United where possible but otherwise enjoy our thoughts and ramblings.
Michael Oliver’s star is rising fast
Newly promoted to the Fifa list of referees this year, Michael Oliver is making exuberant progress in only his second full season on the Premier League. Given plenty of time on the sidelines (at the highest level) as fourth official last season and at the start of this, Oliver has been learning his trade vicariously, much in the same way as Ole Solskjaer did as a United legend from the bench. Referee bosses have been cautious in handling what looks like the hottest British talent in many years, gradually easing him in to pressure cooker of top-flight football. In a turbulent period for referees in this country, Oliver has stood out as the jewel in the proverbial crown. His fitness is exemplary, his positioning improving by the game and his calm demeanour and management of hot-headed ‘superstars’ unimaginably superlative given his age. In recent weeks his appointments have been more high profile too; Swansea v Arsenal last week, a West Midlands derby this (drafted in as Atkinson’s replacement on his ‘week off’). Nothing typified Oliver’s confident and no-nonsense approach than his dismissal of Karl Henry on Saturday for a stamp on Albrighton. In the right position as always, the 26 year old calmly surveyed the scene whilst approaching Henry, turned in behind the midfielder allowing a greater control of the situation and showed him the red card. You know you’re doing a good job when Mick McCarthy doesn’t even complain about your decision. Oliver is no longer one ‘for the future’, his star is rising fast, but he has already arrived.
Patrice Evra is still the best left-back in the Premier League
United captain Patrice Evra now seems well and truly out of the rut that saw him lose his swashbuckling form in and around the disastrous French World Cup campaign. In the months following the summer of 2010, Evra’s usual defensive domineering displays turned into placid, error-prone offerings; Last season there was a distinct change in emphasis, Evra instructed not to be so cavalier, and when he did venture into the final third his delivery was often very poor. Yet he remained in a successful side, and importantly, Fergie’s most trusted asset. This season has seen him gradually re-find his mojo and attacking acumen, with Smalling’s and Jones’ presence at right fullback crucial – their natural tendency as a centre half to form a three-man centre when the fullback is high gives Evra the confidence to attack with verve. Whilst it is true that Evra’s forays forward have often left United short down the left side, Ferdinand’s switch to left centre-half has aided the defensive shape. As has Young’s defensive work on that side, often in tandem with Carrick’s ubiquitous presence in the midfield sweeper role that he has made his own.
In fact, it has been the inverted wing play of both Young and Nani down United’s left side that has accidentally on purpose re-enlivened Evra’s spirit. Their movement inside as part of a fluid front four approach, has allowed the Frenchman the opportunity exploit the space, and he is a constant threat when in the mood he displayed at the Emirates – whether it was assisting Park’s opener versus Wigan or doing the same for Hernandez in the crucial game at Everton, or simply starting the moves with an interception that led to both the openers versus Arsenal and City away, Patrice is once again proving why the modern-day fullback is of vital importance to the team’s potency. He has also improved his general defensive outlay, particularly evident in the bigger games; notably more considered in his positioning in these games, he has worked hard to track his opponent as we saw with Walcott’s anonymity yesterday, and he has also helped out in central areas. Man of the match performances against Chelsea and Arsenal were the reward for his diligence, and his output versus City in the Cup, Totenham at home and Liverpool away should not go unnoticed.
With Cole struggling, many will point towards Jose Enrique’s progression at Liverpool or Baines’ work ethic and crossing ability as proof that there are better left sided fullbacks in the league. But both are far from the finished article and lack the ‘completeness’ of the Evra package. Not 31 until May this year, the left back is at his peak for a defender, and worryingly for United’s closest rivals, he seems to be finding consistency just at the right time.
Boo sucks to Arsenal “fans”
I’ll put this simply: Arsenal fans do not deserve a manager as good as Arsene Wenger. Before a season starts, “In Arsene We Trust” is the motto, but when the footy gets going, they mumble songs, murmur and whinge despite the excellent home form of their players and the surroundings of their brilliant new stadium. Booing when Wenger, one of the great youth developers of the Premier League, subbed a tiring 18-year old off? It was a truly cringe-worthy moment.
Their reaction could’ve been to give a standing ovation for a coruscating performance by a great young talent. But they decided to negate all that, by booing both a substitute and the manager, shattering the confidence of an already demoralised player, and killing the very significant tide of momentum their team had at that point in the game. They couldn’t do anything about the substitution being made or not, but they certainly did something to the morale of the team. Credit them, not Arshavin, with the assist for United’s winner.
Things that Arsenal fans should’ve been more concerned about:
2. The most overrated player in the Premier League playing at left back for them.
3. Ramsey getting tired after playing a hell of a lot of games this season… hmm, young player fitness issues? NAH.
4. Ignasi Miquel. He didn’t play, but I just find he has a weird face.
I’d love to see Arshavin come to United on a free, and smash a hat trick past them next season. Also, Arsene, could you resign from AFC and come manage the Trinidad and Tobago national team? We’ve got some good young players! Anyway, Arsenal “fans” are rubbish.
On the road… to a great away record
Few things in life can beat an away win over Arsenal. But one thing that’s been quietly overlooked is the amazing turnaround in our team’s away form. This campaign, United have the best away record in the league – albeit with some extremely taxing trips to come. What exactly has changed?
For one, aggression in midfield has been key. The mauling at Newcastle aside, United haven’t been overrun as often or as severely as they were last season, where Villa, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, and Wolves can each claim to have dominated United in central areas.
The side has been pressing and controlling the middle third with more authority, showing renewed vigour away from home
*insert Giggsy pun*. Last season, United were 17th in the league at tackles per game (with 18.3), and 16th in terms of interceptions (14.6) away from home. This season’s away record sees the side jump to 6th in tackling (20.8) and 7th in interceptions (16.9). When the energy of Cleverley and Anderson was used earlier in the season, the attacking tailspin it created was too much for opposition defences to handle. The Jones-Carrick combo against Villa and QPR showed a pleasing mix of steel and silk, and could feature again when The Greatest Man in the Universe returns from injury in a few weeks.
When Giggs and Carrick have played together, they’ve relied on the finer arts of passing and dribbling to tire the opposition, and that’s helped to put teams like Fulham to bed by halftime. The Arsenal game demonstrated this very well, and if the first-half finishing from Danny and Nani had been better, it could’ve been a very comfy win. Even with Carrick carrying Giggs on a feathered palanquin (until Scholesy came on), and nursing a hamstring injury for 45 minutes, United dominated possession and dictated the tempo in the first half, while retaining the shape and fortitude in the second to repel a stirring Arsenal comeback, snatch a fine winner, and see out the game.
P.S. I could’ve named this bit “Best away record in the league? Blame Michael Carrick.” Since coming back from injury, he’s been sensational. According to WhoScored’s average player ratings, the Geordie Guardiola has been the 6th best player in the Premier League this season. Caveat: WhoScored also has Nasri in 10th place, so take this ranking with a pinch or an industrial silo full of salt, as appropriate.
Darron Gibson’s role at Everton
Since moving to Everton, Gibson has started in both league games away to Villa and home to Blackburn but what’s his role been and how’s he done?
Given plenty of responsibility, Gibson’s been used centrally as a link-man between Cahill and Fellaini. Whilst often found as the deepest of the three, he’s by no means played far back for Everton, he has license to push on. He’s certainly benefited from playing as part of a three and having players who move a lot around him – it’s given him freedom to play some nice attacking passes.
Maybe the biggest asset Gibson’s brought so far is his reading of the game, something he maybe wasn’t appreciated for at United or never got the chance to show. He’s made numerous interceptions in his first two games and has been key to ball retention. Whether Gibson is a bit too one-dimensional remains to be seen but he certainly provides a nice foil for those around him. If though Moyes does at some point decide to play two in the middle it’ll be interesting to see if he keeps his place – for now the early signs are solid and encouraging.
Fulham’s (mini) revival
Impressive wins over Arsenal and Newcastle in recent league games have seen something of the Fulham that Martin Jol envisaged when he took over. Make no mistake about it, two men in particular have been central to it.
Zamora’s recall to the side has served to prove just how important a player he is both for club and potentially for country with Euro 2012 looming. His link-up with Dempsey has been intriguing to say the least. The Newcastle game in particular, where Dempsey scored a hat-trick was fascinating. Despite playing as a striker, Zamora regularly dropped deep and was on the ball over twice as much as Dempsey, who, as soon as Zamora was in possession, set off on a forward run. One might have expected it to be the other way round but with Dempsey being direct and all-rounded, and Johnson fast, Zamora’s physical presence deeper is unnerving for opposition players and he ends up winning the ball on numerous occasions.
Murphy’s contribution also can’t be overlooked. As a deep playmaker he’s still one of the best passers in the league and is regularly spotting opportunities to float delightfully weighted forward passes.
Whilst Fulham are starting to tick at home they are just one of four sides who’ve only won once away from home – their seven goals scored in eleven away games is the worst record in the league and maybe Jol needs to have faith in the attacking football that’s recently been so successful at Craven Cottage.
The weekend’s unsung hero: David Luiz
Having been the subject of a lot of criticism this season, David Luiz turned in a really excellent performance away to Norwich. Up against physical and bullying strikers Morison and Holt this game had trouble written all over it.
However, it was Luiz’s partner, Terry, who appeared to be the one who struggled. Luiz was assured, confident and strong, Refusing to allow Holt or Morison get the better of him, Luiz for once used his physical presence to win battles and the signs that he appears to be learning are starting to show. Whilst in the past he’s committed to tackles too early and has been turned, this time he perfectly judged when to get tight and when to allow space between himself and the strikers.
Chelsea’s defending has been questionable at times this season but Luiz was crucial to a really impressive clean sheet.