The busy festive spell kicked off with arguably the hardest fixture of the lot – a trip to south Wales to take on one of the league’s leakiest home defences. Swansea are in the gabble of teams who are nicely above the relegation spots and just a few points off Europe despite being in the bottom half of the table. United were guaranteed to be top before kick off but with City’s late winner yesterday, only a win would do. We welcome comments from both sets of supporters.
Captain returns but it’s as you were ahead of him
Arguably, one of the key factors in being successful is using a full squad throughout a season and managing players through patches of good and bad form. Rotating is one of Fergie’s favourite things to do (and he’s quite good at it) but there’s also a skill in consistency when things are clicking. It was therefore a welcomed sight to see the same front six for the third successive game – the players that have played some exciting football against Man City and Sunderland. With changes certain to be made over the next couple of games, picking a strong and winning group of players for this, possibly the hardest of the games, was a good decision.
The fitness statuses of Smalling and Ferdinand are unclear with both not included in the 18 but Vidic made his first start since September alongside Evans. Unsurprisingly, Vidic was solid when the ball was played in the air but otherwise he looked sluggish. His return from the start was never going to be perfect after missing so much football but one has to wonder if he’d have been better on the bench, unless of course his selection was forced by injury to others. He was one of a couple of players at fault for the Swansea equaliser as he played a bad offside line and in the first half in particular, he was given the run around by Michu (who was generally on the periphery of the game). Still, good to have Vidic back. (Equally pleasing to see de Gea keep his place in goal too).
The equaliser and how Wilkins and Yorke might have reflected
The equalising goal is a complex one to analyse because everything Swansea tried to achieve, was achieved; and everything United could have done to prevent it, simply didn’t occur. Firstly you had de Guzman picking up the ball in the centre without too much pressure; he then finds the clever Routledge who had come into a central position, dragging Evans with him in doing so. This is the main contribution to the lapses that ensue.
By this time Rooney should really have anticipated the one-two between Routledge and Agustien, as he casually jogs back, without pressing space in front of Agustien. With Carrick now out of the game, Cleverley – who had showed naivety in defensive positions all game – should really have retreated into a deep position to aid Evans and Vidic, but instead he is keeping an eye out for ‘his man’ in the game (the stagnant Britton). Michu holds his position well in front of Vidic, whilst Jonny is tracking Routledge after he has released the initial ball. Carrick allows de Guzman to drift by him at precisely the same time that Dyer makes a diagonal towards Evra, who then immediately spins off the Frenchman, vacating the space in a dart towards the touchline – ensuring that Evra initially attempts to follow him back out. Evans seems to see everything in slow-motion as he signals to Vidic to get over to the late runner (de Guzman), and in trying to press Michu, allows Routledge to be completely free – who proceeds to play the exquisite first time pass into the Dtuchman’s path. The United captain is slow to react, and in an instant Michu converts the rebound to make it 1-1.
A superbly worked goal then, which no doubt could have been prevented on another occasion (and sadly typical of the season to date), but in these scenarios the credit must go to the attacking team.
That’s not intended to disrespect the performance that Swansea put in but this was a game they shouldn’t have won. Up until their equaliser they had been predominantly on the back foot. The goal itself, a nice move, was rightly angered United fans, players and staff. Van Persie is clearly hauled down just 20 seconds before Swansea end up scoring – a frustrating decision given that fouls were indeed later given for almost identical incidents. Still, having scored, Swansea were then excellent for the remainder of the first half and looked to be the more dangerous of the two sides.
Fortune continued to go against United in the second half. Fine margins kept the scoreline at 1-1 as twice United hit the bar, once via the fingertips of Vorm. A strong penalty appeal was turned down for a handball but replays suggest that whilst it hit an arm, the player hadn’t moved it into an unnatural position. The decision that’ll have people talking (thanks to Fergie’s post-match comments) was Williams on van Persie. Williams attempts to clear the ball and manages to hit it straight into van Persie’s head (he was lying on the floor less than a yard away). Whether Williams means it or not is up for debate but he’s looking down and certainly slices the ball (purposely?) rather than clear it directly up the pitch. If he means it, and there’s a good chance it’ll be interpreted that way, one wonders if Williams may face additional punishment as it was certainly dangerous play and had the potential to seriously injure van Persie’s neck.
It’s almost become boring to wax lyrical about Carrick these days as his performances are so consistent that it could be done every week. Whilst he made key defensive tackles and interceptions, today was all about his ability to pass and more specifically, forwards. In what’s a side that’s probably lacking a real top quality central midfielder, United are lucky to have Carrick. Alongside Cleverley, who looked a tad jaded and in need of a rest, he was outstanding. Whether long or short, he was picking passes out for fun. It’s only when you watch Carrick closely that you notice that he’ll only ever pass backwards or sideways if he can’t go forwards – at times he’ll even hold on to the ball and try to make space for himself so he can play the ball in a positive direction.
It’s worrying that there are still groups of United’s support who fail to see what it is that Carrick does and that he’s most certainly not the problem. It’s been suggest that his importance even draws parallels with Roy Keane in that respect. The returns of Kagawa and Anderson are very much needed with Cleverley needing to be used sensibly and Fletcher and Scholes not offering the same amount of enduring energy throughout a game.
(Further reading on Carrick’s performance here.)
In a team that often boasts so many good performers, it’s often easier to pick out those who haven’t played as well. When United fail to win, this is most certainly the case. In this instance two players were, by popular consensus, more culpable than others.
Antonio Valencia’s form is a mystery. It’s very tricky to identify a game he’s actually played well in this season and this has been matched by spells out of the side with a mystery injury that doesn’t seem to go away. It may even be as simple as a confidence issue but for whatever reason he’s playing as if he’s even more limited than he already is. An unwillingness to take a man on or got a good cross in early is thwarting United who so often look to the right hand side for inspiration. Nani’s absence through injury and the club’s decision to go into a season with just three wingers hasn’t helped – it means Valencia is being forced to play when with more options he’d probably be benched for his and the team’s own good.
The other player to get his fair share of stick from the United fans was Rooney. As one of the best and most important players at the club – he gets criticism seemingly more than any other player because expectation levels are so high (and the infamous contract incident). He was well below what one would hope to see from him – a combination of touch, passing and general carelessness in decision making let him down. Still, he was working hard and trying to get in the right places at either end of the pitch but it was one of those games for him where nothing game off and ultimately it was hard to argue with his substitution. Rooney’s been good recently but don’t let that get in the way of some good anger aimed in his direction!
Meanwhile, Rooney’s replacement, Giggs, provided a wonderfully entertaining cameo of skill and passing. Maybe this had something to do with his deployment on the wing rather than in the middle but it was impressive for any player, let alone a 39 year old.
A first draw since the infamous 4-4 against Everton back in April won’t be greeted with much joy. Whilst United have gone on to win games they probably should have drawn this season, this was one they most certainly should have won. Surprisingly, Fergie wasn’t critical of United and instead, whilst clearly disappointed, struggled to come to terms with how United hadn’t won after “battering” Swansea (true for all but a twenty minute period).
United were given the lead by an unlikely but ever more likely source – an Evra header from a corner. Van Persie’s delivery was excellent and indeed Carrick could have scored in the second half when his header from a corner hit the bar. Swansea were level less than 15 minutes later as Michu scored to become the league’s outright top scorer. Despite bombarding Swansea’s goal in the second half United couldn’t find a way past Vorm and at times had only themselves to blame for some odd decision making.
Still, with two home games up next, United could and should finish up the year on top with at least a four point lead. It’s Newcastle on Wednesday and with just two wins in their last twelve games, United must fancy their chances…