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United travelled to Wigan aiming to finish the busy festive fixture schedule unbeaten and with a win. The DW Stadium, so often a three points banker for United, held unpleasant memories from last season and United would be keen to ensure the same errors weren’t repeated. Wigan have been flirting dangerously with the relegation places once again after just one win in their previous seven games. Fergie recalled Rafael, Ferdinand, Giggs, van Persie and Hernandez to the starting line up. As ever, we welcome comments from both sets of fans.
In a game that had many good individual performances it might seem odd to pick Rafael out when others aren’t getting their own section on this piece. His injury had kept him out of the side since the Man City game, and over the three and a half weeks that had passed he’d missed four games. When games are played so frequently and the team rarely get more than a few days off, there is a real rhythm to performances and partnerships, particularly in a side that’s winning. As such, returning and picking up the pace of the United side without being a hindrance would be a challenge for him. A challenge he’d pass with flying colours.
Wigan’s set up may have played its part in easing Rafael back into the game – lots of space ahead of him and on the whole few attacks came down his side of the pitch – but it was as if he hadn’t been away. Like Evra, his enthusiasm to attack means he’s either starting moves or one of our best attacking outlets. The freedom to run with the ball, often unchallenged for 30 yards only encouraged him to get deep into the Wigan half like only a Brazilian fullback can. He was only too happy to take shots on goal and it was he who won the freekick that lead to the third goal.
There was something else all the more important about his return. Whilst Jones and Smalling are both very capable at filling in at right back, neither would choose to play there and at times you can tell they aren’t natural fullbacks. Rafael, whose understanding of his role – particularly the defensive side – has improved lately, simply suits United better there. It seems an obvious thing to suggest but he provides good balance to the defence and makes better and more incisive forward runs than either Jones or Smalling. His performance was yet another indication as to why he, along with Zabaleta, has been in the top two right backs in the league this season.
Jonny Evans and more bite-size player appraisals
It’s started to become a case of ‘who’ll partner Jonny’ when looking at our centre back pairings. He played every game over the Christmas spell and has played more games since the start of the 2011/12 season than anything other centre back at the club. The once fan-splitting player has become a mountain of a defender and, against Wigan, he showed off a rarely seen asset of his, pace – on a few occasions, he out-paced Kone, who is no slouch. At times lately, it’s felt as though the side have looked to Jonny for leadership, maturity and reliability at the back – and he’s letting no one down.
Maybe Evans’ most important contribution in this game though took place deep in the Wigan half. Off balance and in an unfamiliar left wing role, he was somehow able to see Evra and under pressure, prod the ball to him, eventually leading to United’s opener.
Evra – he won’t get the credit he should from the wider fanbase because many have had a go at him over the past year, but his form of late has been as good as any left back’s in the league. Once again he was involved in United’s attacking play and has certainly been helped by a more balanced United side overall – no longer does he have to take on two or three players on his own.
Carrick – subbed off midway through the second half and wrapped in cotton wool. It was another very solid performance from him with some key interceptions and tackles early in the first half that’ll no doubt have gone forgotten.
Cleverley – quietly went about his job alongside Carrick as usual. He seems to be growing in confidence with every start he gets. There’s little doubt that with him pushing high up the pitch, it’s creating the space to help Carrick flourish too.
Giggs – a revelation! Having been uncomfortable to watch as a central midfielder, his recent use as a winger seems to have rejuvenated him. Once again he was a constant threat to Wigan, with one first time low cross in particular reminding us of younger days.
Welbeck – he may have only been on the pitch just over ten minutes but his assist for the final goal will have done him the world of good and van Persie was quick to thank him for it. Having not played much lately it’ll reassure Danny that he’s contributing positively ahead of a probable start at West Ham at the weekend.
The strikers are contributing
We all know that Robin’s been a revelation and Hernandez, unlike Torres, appears to be ‘back’ but here are some numbers to truly emphasises just how well our strikers are doing this season:
If you can’t read the above table properly, click to enlarge it. You’ll find it’ll reflect the willingness of our strikers to not just score, but lay on goals for one another too. Welbeck of course is the anomaly having been used predominantly in a wide role.
It was a similar story against Wigan with Hernandez at his predatory best and van Persie showing that none of us should have ever doubted his signing. Robin’s finish for his first goal oozed composure and class whilst the rest of his play away from goal continued to prove that he’s a far superior player than I ever could have imagined.
December – results and hints of consistency
From the start of December until the end of the Wigan game, United played 7 league games. They were all won with the exception of a respectable draw at Swansea – 19 points out of a possible 21 is a very strong return and United are the league’s most in form team. Goalscoring has played a big part in the good run and the 21 goals scored in those seven games have played a huge part in the lead United have managed to build and increase over Man City during that time.
Assuringly, players who’ve played regularly are now showing consistency. Fergie’s still rotating the side but crucially he’s not making too many midfield changes and form players are being kept in the team. Oh, and de Gea seems to finally be our definite number one… (until he’s next dropped).
Under Martinez, Wigan have become a team that’s so often hard to beat and yet, United managed to maintain their impressive record against them after last season’s blip. The final scoreline didn’t in the least bit flatter United in what was a dominant and controlling performance. First half goals from Hernandez and van Persie reflected a good if not always exhilarating away performance at the break. Fergie was quick to point out that having gone one up, United went straight after the second.
The second half followed a similar pattern – Hernandez and van Persie again scoring to boost United’s goal difference. After contentious decisions of late, credit to the linesmen for correctly ruling out three offside goals. Kone’s offside effort was the closest Wigan came to having a shot on target in the match as de Gea spent most of the game trying to keep warm and literally didn’t have a single save to make. Smalling was maybe lucky not to see red late on after an arguably last man foul but by that point it would have made little difference anyway.
With West Ham to come in the FA Cup next weekend and rests almost certain for Carrick, Evra and other key players, United can look forward to two big upcoming league games later this month, at home to Liverpool and away to Spurs.
(As ever, go and check out Beautifully Red’s post from this game, as there were some exquisite moments of play between our players.)