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Game two of this season’s Champions League adventure saw United go to Romania for the second season running. Last year it was Otelul Galati, this year it’s CFR Cluj. United left some experience back in Manchester though to rest or recover – Giggs, Scholes and Carrick opened up spots for some home-grown youngsters instead – Lingard, Tunnicliffe and Michael Keane. Cluj were something of an unknown quantity but nevertheless, a win was expected.
Starting line up – no width
Despite the fact Rooney and Cleverley were shown as wingers on the teamsheet, United lined up without any natural width. Valencia and Young remained injured and as such, when Nani’s started, United have looked lopsided with clear focus being put on the wing he’s playing on. With three central midfielders, two strikers and a link-man in between, it was arguably the most balanced United side for some time.
For a club that has placed so much emphasis on width throughout its history, it was an odd to watch them try and play through the middle for most of the time. Rafael and Evra, particularly in the second half, did their best to stretch Cluj and get forward, but for most of the time, the focus was on getting one of Cleverley, Anderson or Rooney on the ball centrally so they could try and squeeze a ball through to Hernandez or van Persie.
Did the system work? It’s hard to know whether to dub it a success or not. When Cluj attacked, often on the counter and with a fair few players committed, they found quite a bit of space behind our midfield, even with Fletcher sitting deep. At times Cleverley and Anderson were a tad slow to get back but the work-rate of the players in general was good. The biggest benefit was to have strength in numbers in the middle with players who were good at keeping the ball. United’s dominance in possession and patience was refreshing to see and there were some really watchable passages of play.
Three wins away from home our of four is a solid start to the season – even more so when you consider that United have gone behind in all three. In fact, United have fallen a goal down in six of their nine games so far this season. Thankfully the powers of recovery that are immersed into the club mean that United have done pretty well to get something out of nothing but it’s a worrying trend.
Last night, with almost their first attack, Cluj went ahead. It was something of a routine goal too – long ball, cross and a pretty average finish. Evra will get the bulk of the criticism and rightly so – he was slow to turn, slow to try and get close to his man, beaten too easily and therefore allowed the Cluj winger to get a cross in. Maybe Evans could have cut it out, maybe de Gea could have saved it but Evra’s defending was amateur. At half time Fergie described the goal as a “shocker”.
Evra’s form the start of this season has been worrying. His decline has been well documented although some of the criticism had been over the top. He’s played more than anyone else without a break and often has minimal protection from his winger – last night he didn’t even have a winger to help cover for him. Fans generally like him because of how he speaks about the club – with passion, he ‘gets’ United. However, at 31, he not only needs to be rested more but his position in the team and squad needs addressing. If need be, plans for his and United’s future need making. Ideally, he’ll rediscover a level of performance that is good enough but right now there are simply too many errors being made that he’s responsible for.
Rooney to van Persie
Our first chance to see Rooney and van Persie from the start of a game and they didn’t disappoint – or so you’d think. Rooney set up both of Robin’s goals – the first a somewhat fortunate shoulder (yes, shoulder) over the keeper; the second, a goal of serious quality. Rooney’s ball over the top was excellent, Robin’s flicked first time finish was excellent but it was the faith in each other than is most heartwarming. Robin made the run knowing Wayne had the vision and ability to find him – Wayne played the pass knowing Robin had the cleverness to make that run and the technical skill to put the ball in the net. The trust in one another and understanding is hugely encouraging.
That goal aside, there was little to suggest that their partnership had taken off. That’s no criticism of either of them but the nature of how the game was played didn’t really allow for any striking partnerships to take off. There was minimal chance for link-up with Cluj so deep and with so many men behind the ball. Still, that second goal was magical and hopefully a taste of things to come.
Fergie made six changes from the weekend’s defeat against Spurs and three of them can be absolutely delighted with how they played.
David de Gea is inexplicably not our firm first choice and although maybe he could have done better on Cluj’s goal, he was otherwise close to flawless. Untested for much of the game he showed that his concentration is excellent when he was called to make important late saves (one of which really was excellent) and take some dangerous cross (all caught). On a bobbly pitch, his ball control was as good as any outfield player and although his distribution wasn’t as good as usual, he was often closed down fast and put under pressure. Surely he can’t be dropped again?
In the middle, Anderson and Cleverley did well. Tom was busy, always wanting the ball and used it well with a couple of delightful through-balls in tight situations. His energy and quick, close control showed potentially some of what United could have done with in the first half against Spurs. Although I’m not too sure who he’d replace (from the second half XI against Spurs), he has be a serious contender to start at the weekend. Anderson not only lasted a full game (just), but he was also energetic in the middle. He’s arguably the best midfielder at the club when it comes to picking the ball up deep and driving forward with it – again, it’s something that has been missed recently and his solid performance can only be good for Fergie’s selection problems (tombola).
Notable mentions must go to Fletcher, Wootton and Rafael. Another 90 minutes for Darren and although it is odd to see him just sit in a position rather than go box-to-box, he did fine. Scott Wootton has little to do as he came on as a late sub but a Champions League debut a week after his first team debut caps a very good week for him. For Rafael – it was arguably his best defensive performance of the season. Everything from positioning to marking was spot on – a job well done.
Two wins from two and top of the group is a perfect start to the Champions League. Both performances, against Galatasaray and Cluj could be and should be better but ensuring progression from the group is key.
United lined up with plenty of central players in a 4-3-1-2 formation that lacked width. The game was generally played in the Cluj half with United dominating possession but that didn’t stop Cluj taking the lead. The goal, met with laughter from me (conceding first is now expected rather than a surprise) was soft and poor to give away. Evra in particular should be singled out for providing a lesson in how not to defend.
Robin van Persie ensured United would win the game though – a looping shoulder before half time pulled one back and then a sublime flick from an accurate Rooney pass was enough to win the game early in the second half. Few chances were created and it seems a shame United could get a few more goals, especially because de Gea had to play his part in making sure three points were won rather than one with some excellent late saves.
The one fitness concern will be Jonny Evans who again got a dead leg and had to be substituted off late on. He has five days to recover for Newcastle away on Sunday.