Author: Sleepy Nik
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United faced a potential banana skin at home to high climbing West Bromwich Albion on Saturday, with the latter having a tremendous season so far, and putting a slight wobble of late behind them in recent games. The reds were hoping to finish the year as strongly as possible and hoping to keep the gap between themselves and City at 7 points. For United, back came Cleverley, Young, Vidic, Welbeck and Kagawa, whilst Clarke unsurprisingly sought to pack the midfield and use Long as his lone target man.
Squad rotation – Combination play paying off
An important factor in squad rotation is ensuring that form-players (not necessarily top form) are kept in the side as regularly as possible. Fergie has mastered this technique over the years, and uses the criterion of player form as a major influence in his overall match squad decision-making. Where he excels more than most however, is taking the strategy a step further, and picking the right combinations (or partnerships) in the right areas of the field (and is often where justifiable criticism is aimed his way, when for instance he has played Giggs and Scholes in central midfield this season, or Welbeck and Hernandez up top, last). This does not always equate to ‘the’ partnership, but rather the appropriate combination according to the opposition. Though the strategy does have its flaws – the team can’t settle/tactics change by the game – the table suggests that Fergie has been getting it right more often than not, with the busy festive period being no different.
Cleverley and Carrick
Fergie’s use of Cleverley this season has been illuminating. Though his presence has been consistent throughout, he is rarely played in four consecutive league games, and has been substituted 11 times – mostly before the 80-minute mark too. This makes sense given his recent bad luck with injuries, and we shouldn’t forget he is trying to embed himself into an adapted box to box type midfielder alongside the consistent Carrick; a role that needs to be learnt, and one that is less forgiving than say, a wide position. After a gruelling game for Cleverley against Swansea (he was caught far too high up the field for the equaliser), the youngster was rightly given a rest versus Newcastle, and was fresh to start against Steve Clarke’s side. His one touch passing, particularly with Kagawa, Carrick and Welbeck was a joy to watch, especially in and around the penalty area. He also seemed to give Valencia a bit of a spring in his footstep, constantly trying to release the Ecuadorian down the right. His pairing with Carrick is certainly United’s most fruitful, especially considering the fatigue shown by Scholes this term and Fletcher still on the mend. He plays slightly ahead of Carrick, but was all over the field yesterday, and showing similar form to his display at the Etihad.
Evra and Young
With Nani still missing, Young has stepped up to the plate superbly and made the left wing his own. Having come in for a lot of unfair criticism since his arrival at United, Young, who does have a football brain – but needs to engage it more often – has buckled down and added more concentration and end product to his game. Thrown in against Reading from the start, he has now made 5 of the last 6 starting line-ups, and has lasted the 90 in each of them. He has forged a partnership with Evra that has rejuvenated this side of our attack, especially given the travails of Valencia on the opposite flank. Yesterday, both goals were initiated by combination play between these two players (many of United’s attacks are initiated by the Frenchman as he seeks to get involved just beyond half-way), the first one more obvious, with the own goal emanating from Young’s low ball across the 6-yard box. Both players were heavily involved in a well-worked goal at Reading, the opener at City, all 3 versus Sunderland, and of course it was Evra’s header at Swansea. A bit like the Neville-Beckham and Brown-Ronaldo partnerships of old, both players seem to know exactly when and where they would like the ball to be played – and Young is very astute with his defensive responsibilities, often sitting in for Evra. The United vice-captain has defended like the Evra of old this season and has looked more dangerous going forwards. In fact, he remains one of the league’s best, and appears to have put 2010, and the start of last season well and truly behind him.
Evra: 51/54 passes
Valencia and Smalling
It has been well covered that Valencia is struggling for a bit of form of late – indeed you could say since his outing at Wigan near the end of last season – but yesterday his performance showed signs of the old Valencia. And though Smalling didn’t have a great game defensively (and is clearly a centre half out of position at right back, rather than a more flexible defender by nature), he continued to play the ball simple, often into Valencia’s feet early on in the attacking phase. If the ball didn’t come directly to the right-winger, Smalling would perhaps find Cleverley or Kagawa, who would in turn release the Ecuadorian. There was more verve to his game, more attacking intent, and often a final ball; something we haven’t been able to say since his Chelsea display at the Bridge. He laid the ball on for van Persie’s goal, who finished the game off with panache with only a few minutes of the 90 remaining.
Vidic and Evans
Arguably the most pleasing aspect from the encounter, in addition to Kagawa’s splendid return, was the performance of Nemanja Vidic. Looking awfully rusty and off the pace versus Swansea, Vidic clearly needed time on the pitch. The United captain shone alongside Evans winning all of his aerial duels, looking composed on the ball and reassuringly, was positionally fantastic. Nothing optimised his performance more than his clearance in the 6-yard box from a threatening WBA in swinging freekick just before half time (see it here on ‘Beautifully Red’). It was fantastic anticipation, and Vidic will be pleased to finally put in a performance that matches his reputation. With Evans the form centre half in the team for going on 18 months (and now a goal threat to boot), Smalling vying for a place in his favoured position, and Ferdinand able to manage his back complaint much better of late, it leaves Ferguson with a wealth of options in this crucial position. As it stands, Ferdinand and Evans are the form-pairing and may well be re-united against Wigan on New Year’s Day, but don’t count against Vidic having his say once he has that much craved match fitness behind him in the near future.
Welbeck and Kagawa
Kagawa’s long awaited return was great to see, and his hour on the pitch delighted both Fergie and the fans in terms of energy and creativity. In terms of the formation depicted on the team sheet, the Japanese star was asked to play just in behind Danny Welbeck, though essentially this was a free role in something of a 4-2-3-1, and as usual with Kagawa, the closer he remained to Cleverley and Carrick (facing goal as opposed to working backwards), the more impact the little playmaker had. He was often found in the centre of the field, interchanging with Cleverley, releasing both wingers with aplomb, and working his way out wide to assist the fullback on occasion. It was Kagawa’s cheeky first-time flick into Young’s path that opened up the opportunity in the first instance. And mid-way through the first half, it was his inch perfect chipped pass into Valencia’s feet that could have seen Young finish off the move, and more likely than not, the game. There was lots of energy too, and his ability to be in close vicinity to Welbeck throughout was testament to both his willing and the tactical system. Fergie is fond of the left-side attacking triumvirate, often involving 3 from Welbeck, Nani, Kagawa, Young and van Persie, and yesterday’s approach play was great to watch at times.
Kagawa: 30/31 passes in 60 minutes
WBA worked hard and Clarke’s game-plan nearly paid off, but United dominated the game for the majority, and much like versus Swansea, were unable to capitalise from the openings created earlier on in the game. Fergie’s selection was spot on, giving game time to Vidic, a productive hour for Kagawa, and the big bonus being the well-deserved rest for this season’s star man, Robin van Persie. As always, in rotating the squad, Fergie would have factored in his players’ fitness and periodisation, the next few games ahead and the opposition in question, WBA. But importantly, he was able to get the partnerships across the park correct – assessing form, and player understanding with aplomb.
United go to Wigan on Tuesday, and will be hoping to continue their excellent record there (won 6 from 7, scoring 18), and of course seek to banish last season’s lacklustre and stagnant display at such a pivotal juncture. With Nani and Rooney set to return soon and injuries settling down, Fergie is understandably happy with the squad going into 2013, which means we may have to wait until the summer for any further squad rejuvenation.