United’s struggle at Newcastle last season was fresh in the minds of fans and probably players ahead of the annual trip to St James’ Park. United’s form has been patchy and following the defeat against Spurs last weekend, a response was needed. Newcastle had defensive injuries and were missing their first choice goalkeeper as well as both centre backs. Still, their front six meant that this was a game that couldn’t be taken lightly. We welcome comments from both sets of supporters.
Fergie finds the right formula
Like any good scientific experiment, patience and a period of testing, often reaps rewards. Fergie’s love of width and ‘4-4-2’ is well known, and though the manager has tried variations of 4-4-1-1 and 4-2-3-1 at times in the last couple of seasons, it is clear that a reliance on two players hugging the touchline will leave the side vulnerable against teams who are stronger in the centre. A more thorough execution of ‘plan B’ has been the requirement for some time, with United’s European escapade of last season, and indeed against the likes of City, Liverpool and Chelsea, a stark reminder of our imperfections.
This week has seen a noticeable change in approach, with the games against Newcastle in the Capital One Cup and CFR Cluj in the Champions League, allowing the trial of a ‘diamond’ formation (with less onus on traditional wing-play) with a greater focus on possession of the ball, and a more fluid approach in the final third. The key tenets to the set-up today were as follows:
1. Kagawa starts deeper: With Welbeck partnering van Persie in attack and Carrick able to perform in the role he loves best, just in front of the back four and creating from the centre, it allowed Fergie to experiment with Kagawa in a slightly more withdrawn role than he has done so far. In a right of centre position, he was free to work across the pitch with the ball, and to drop deep and work with Rafael at times to combat Ben Arfa. Fergie has apparently been worried about the player looking slightly isolated in games and too far away from the action (through no fault of the Japanese star of course), and wanted him to play with the ball at his feet facing goal.
Today was far from perfect but it was a start. Shinji linked well with Rooney and Welbeck in particular, and worked hard throughout, especially as Ben Arfa was starting to get on the ball just before half-time, and with Rafael looking more exposed as the game went on. He was replaced by Valencia mid-way through the second half, but this was merely a defensive move rather than a reflection of the performance. Kagawa also has the benefit of being able to play to the left, and to the tip of the diamond, and surely by starting just that 10 yards or so deeper, the little magician can start to influence the play in much the same way he did for Dortmund last season.
2. Rooney flourishes in front of two central players and/or behind two strikers: We have continually debated Rooney’s best position at Stretford-End.com, but what seems to be clear is that the striker relishes a role which isn’t restricted, and in which he can be sure there is defensive cover behind him, and numbers in attack going forwards. Today, Rooney was played at the tip of the diamond and given less restriction than normal (though this could have been due to the fact United were 2-0 up pretty quickly, giving him more confidence and freedom). The corner for Evra’s headed goal (was this a training ploy?) was Rooney’s 5th assist in 3 games, but he offered much more in terms of the team’s overall output.
‘Wazza’ worked backwards, and across the middle, tracking back, winning defensive headers and spraying the ball around the pitch with aplomb. Crucially, he seems to have lost those extra pounds, and his link-play with van Persie is reaping the benefits. This was only the second time the pair have started together, and only the first in which the duo started with Kagawa, and the fluid approach was superb at times. Vitally, each of the front six performed their defensive duties well, creating a five-man midfield when without the ball and pressing the Newcastle defensive and midfield lines astutely, with Rooney setting the example – channelling his natural energy in doing so. Ferguson commented afterwards however, that he did think, ‘Rooney was slightly deeper than I intended’, but it wasn’t a complaint, merely a recognition that there is more finessing of the formation to come.
3. Cleverley given a multiple function and high energy role: Tom has arguably been United’s most consistent central midfielder this term, and has often been dropped in favour of the Carrick-Scholes combination – the mutual understanding being so important with a two-man centre. But significantly, Fergie went with the youngster over the United legend today, and the pay-off was fantastic. Cleverley worked the left of centre channel (and later, the centre of the pitch with Valencia’s introduction and Welbeck’s re-allocation to the left of midfield) superbly, coming inside when on the ball and working back and staying wide when United were without the ball. His natural energy and fitness meant that the effect was three-fold: Cleverley was able to provide a goal threat (he scored, and it was a fluke, but he was in that position), link with Rooney and Kagawa in the centre, but also work in tandem with Evra to nullify the threat of Jonas, Perch and Ba down the Newcastle right.
The United captain, so used to having Nani or Young in front of him, and so often reluctant to assist with defensive duties, would have been thrilled with Cleverley’s intensity and willingness to track his man – the two were superb. This was only the second time the youngster has played this position, and he came off to take the manager’s (and fans’) plaudits. A personal view is that this type of box-to-box role is ideal for the lad, especially if Carrick can share ‘sitting duties’ with a rejuvenated Fletcher. A bold, but natural move from the manager then, and one we need more of.
Certainly, more work will be done on the training ground to refine the shape for tougher opponents, but today United can take heart with the way the formation was executed after (presumably) very little practice at Carrington. We talked mid-week about the need to press with greater intensity and focus if we were to stop conceding first in games, and today was hopefully the start of a more cohesive approach.
300 up for Evra
It is testament to Evra’s consistency and physique that he’s been able to reach 300 games for United in what’s a relatively short period of time. Having seen off competition from Silvestre and Heinze, the left back spot has been his own for the best part of six years – aided by the fact he’s seldom injured. For most of that time he’s been unquestionably one of the club’s top performers, offering a genuine attacking threat down the left but also being able to defend superbly.
Evra’s troubles of late have been well documented – loss of concentration, odd positioning and in general his defensive qualities seem to have waned. The arrival of Buttner seems to be as someone who can be a back-up rather than a replacement but errors have still been rife from Evra. However, as Gary Neville tore him apart in his analysis last week, it didn’t show that Evra actually gets minimal help from his teammates. So often he’s left exposed and made to look the fool when actually with some support, errors can be quite easily prevented.
It seems quite fitting then that on his 300th appearance he produced arguably his best performance for 18 months. Not only was he full of energy going forward and bagged a rare headed goal (for someone who’s so good in the air it’s odd we don’t use him more at set pieces) but defensively he was near perfect. He was quick to get close to Newcastle players, rarely allowing them the chance to run at him. Aided by Cleverley who worked hard to double up with Evra, he was able to put in a performance that was akin to his first five years at the club.
De Gea – the best and the worst
The catch against Cluj, the one late on where he came through players to assertively collect the ball, hinted that maybe de Gea had turned a corner. Or not. Picked for the first time in the league since Fulham at home (maybe because Lindegaard has a knock – he’s been withdrawn from the Danish squad) he was as uncomfortable as ever on high balls. It’s not ‘better’ to catch a ball rather than punch it providing you can do both well but David seems uncertain when he has to go through a bunch of players to do one or the other.
Having opted to punch balls yesterday, he rarely made a clean contact with any. Fergie defended him post game saying there were so many bodies and pointing out that Newcastle’s forwards are very physical. United got away with it yesterday but only just. One flap gave Cisse the chance to head the ball at goal only for de Gea to claw it off the line with a remarkable save. The majority of the ball seemed over the line but not all of it – Fergie to his credit admitted if it was us we’d have felt hard done by but rules are rules and the linesman made a brilliant call on it.
Saves that seem impossible are made possible by de Gea, it’s one very good reason as to why many fans would rather he plays to Anders as those moments can win games. On the other hand, he showed exactly why Anders has been playing as the flapping continued. The answer to me is persistence with de Gea so he can learn and improve but any improvements need to occur consistently rather than in the odd game.
The work rate of the team was superb and the tone was set early on by the forward players. To win the corner for the first goal, van Persie not only chased a bit of a lost cause but managed to get a shot away to force a save from Harper. His partner, Welbeck, was the star in this respect though. Danny’s finishing needs work but his tireless running and hassling of the Newcastle defenders was excellent. Rarely did they have time on the ball and he ensured they either had to go backwards or play a long ball.
Few clean sheets would have felt quite as satisfying as that. Like Evra, Rafael was near perfect – the right back spot is most certainly his now and having won the manutd.com player of the month for September, he’s taken his form into October. He seems to have the balance between attack and defence perfect and is doing both to a very high standard.
Evans’ second goal for United may have been the reason that Garth Crooks decided to put him in the BBC team of the week but actually Rio was probably the better of the pair on the day. Both were outstanding – Evans was quick to attack high balls and often brought the ball out of defence as any good ball-playing centre back does.
Rio though was imperious, again. Having had so much bizarre criticism he’s playing some of his best football right now. His ability to read play meant that his tackling was spot on and against powerful forwards he matched them – uncharacteristically jumping early to win headers and being as aggressive as Evans in the air. Like last year, Rio and Jonny are proving to be a super pairing and with the imminent return of Smalling, things are starting to look up at the back.
Goals from corners and another one for Tom Cleverley – who’d have thought it?!
More than anything, it’s a shame that there is now a two week break for international football given that United just put in a performance like that. Newcastle is a hard place to go as shown last season but Fergie got his tactics, selection and substitutes spot on allowing a suitably attacking team to take advantage of Newcastle’s own defensive issues. Next up are Stoke who come to Old Trafford in a couple of weeks.