Phil Jones sticks tight to Marouane Fellaini as Manchester United beat Everton 2-0
It felt like there was a lot to think about going into this game – City had lost at Southampton; United were off to Madrid a few days after; and United had dropped points in this fixture last year, leading to the title slipping away. This had the feelings of being a game that was that bit more crucial than some of the others lately. Everton too would want to win after Arsenal, Spurs and Chelsea all did but they suffered a huge blow in the warm-up as Distin, who’s having a superb season, pulled out with an injury. As ever, we welcome comments from both sets of fans.
City result forces changes
At his pre-match press conference, Alex Ferguson noted the dilemma facing him – he’d need to pick two very different sides in four days with Madrid being the tougher game but Everton possibly the one United can less afford to lose. However, as Man City surprisingly lost at Southampton on Saturday afternoon this could go one of two ways for United. A chance for Fergie to maybe make up to 11 changes between the Everton and Madrid games knowing that at worst, the 9 point lead over City remains; or name a stronger team than he’d planned against Everton and go for the jugular to try and open up a 12 point lead over City.
Fortunately, Fergie opted for the latter option and confirmed after the game that he ended up making four fewer changes to his side than he’d originally planned to. As has been said from the very minute the league was lost last year, the same mistakes will not be made again and therefore the opportunity to extend the lead over City was not to be missed. It was a welcomed decision by Fergie – the way the league was lost and the humiliation of losing to ‘that mob’ means that the league this season is by some distance our most important competition. The rest is merely the icing on a hopefully large cake.
Jones follows Fellaini and breaks Everton’s rhythm
Ferguson pre-game when asked about Fellaini and Baines: “We will be ready, don’t worry. We have our plans”.
It was Phil Jones who was yet again asked to step into the eleven in order to perform a tactical instruction – in much the same way he was at White Hart Lane recently, where he sat in a deep right position (from the centre) in order to help nullify the threat of Bale and the Spurs left side. Yesterday, he was asked to track Fellaini, who was a particular threat in this fixture last season, and of course with his man of the match performance at Goodison Park at the start of this season. Jones partnered Cleverley in midfield, but ensured that Fellaini wasn’t given any time on the ball – either in the air or on the floor, constantly haranguing the Belgian international and forcing errors.
In the first quarter of the game alone, Fellaini did not win an aerial challenge, as Jones, Evans and Vidic (who was superb) combined well to nullify his threat. In fact, Jones’ pressure ensured that Fellaini was seeking the ball in much deeper positions, having started high, and had United not been so dominant from the start, this may have caused problems in behind – both in the centre of the field where Cleverley was often isolated, but out wide, where Mirallas and Pienaar had ambition and pace on the break at times. A threat that Fergie was particularly quick to respond to, as he asked Rooney to take the left flank when United were relieved of possession; with Giggs coming inside, and van Persie working across the final third alone. Jones was also neat in possession for the most part, and worked up the field when required. It seems Jones will play in Madrid if fit, but there are other complex considerations for Ferguson to ponder too in the next couple of days.
It was Rafael who won the man of the match award with one of the finest right back performances at Old Trafford in recent history. Yet Vidic could have quite easily nabbed that award ahead of him.
Everton are not a long-ball side at all but with Fellaini, Anichebe and Jelavic there is often a temptation to play a long ball knowing that one of those players will have a very good chance of winning the header. With that in mind, Vidic was always going to play in this game – apart from the defeat earlier this season, he seems to enjoy playing against Everton with a memorable MOTM performance at Goodison a couple of years ago.
Everything Everton tried played into Vidic’s hands. He relished the physical battle against Anichebe, and won it. There was minimal pace through the middle from Everton and therefore Vidic was untroubled. He dominated in the air but importantly he played like a true captain and warrior. Every single corner was attacked and when the ball was on the ground he made sure his body got to it’s path before anything else could.
Maybe most welcoming of all was the relationship with de Gea. It has come under scrutiny due to some clear misunderstandings and Vidic bargings – borne out of the fact the pair haven’t played together that much. Yet, yesterday, de Gea was much more assertive, coming to claim balls in the air and on the ground with no sign of any kind of mix ups.
Whether Vidic starts in Madrid is open to debate. Real certainly won’t play like Everton did and with more pace and the ball on the ground more often, it seems that Evans, if fit, along with Ferdinand will be the obvious pairing. Vidic has certainly given Fergie something to think about though.
Rooney’s very specific role
Since Wayne Rooney’s return to the first team about a month ago, we have seen something like the dynamo of years gone by. Notwithstanding his struggles from the penalty spot, we have seen Wayne contribute to the team in every possible way. His goalscoring record has been superb – including an excellent and crucial winner at Fulham last week. His link-up play with Robin van Persie has been excellent at times. While they don’t have the telekinesis of Yorke and Cole, their natural brilliance on the ball has been enough for them to show some delightful interplay during their limited time together – van Persie’s long searching ball to Rooney in the second half yesterday, and Wayne’s exquisite control of that ball, were demonstrative of the combinations they are capable of. As if to hammer home that point, both players are on 10 assists for the season. However, what came to the fore yesterday was something we all know is part of Rooney’s repertoire, namely his selfless determination to perform defensive duties for the good of the team. Everton sought to threaten down their right hand side, as Rafael, Jones and Valencia effectively shut down their usually dangerous left-sided attack of Baines and Pienaar.
With Giggs moving inside, Rooney took up excellent positions to close down Phil Neville, making superb tackles and crucial blocks and interceptions on at least four occasions. We haven’t seen this side of Wayne for some time, but it is highly encouraging to have seen him take up those duties in such an enthusiastic manner. With the tie against Real Madrid looming large, we at the Stretty Rant have speculated whether we will see him in a left-sided berth on Wednesday, in order to solidify the centre of midfield and to allow him a roaming brief in both attacking and defensive senses – finding joy up against Arbeloa while providing cover for Evra against the quietly dangerous Angel di Maria.
Has Giggs reinvented himself, again?
Giggs The Brilliant. It was inevitable he’d score in the league this year, the record-breaker simply couldn’t not do so. That it was a goal, very well taken, from open play, and on his weaker foot, makes it all the sweeter. Whilst crucial, the goal might just overshadow what was yet another remarkable performance by the 39 year old. As fit as anyone on the pitch he was up and down the wing as much as anyone and although the unnecessary flicks in the wrong parts of the pitch remain, his contribution was huge.
Having been very critical of Giggs as a central midfielder, and having seen his performances in that role not improve this season, it’s brilliant to see him playing so well again, but notably and predominantly out wide. It begs the question, has he reinvented himself yet again?
As United’s central options became depleted and our wide options plentiful he moved into the middle of the pitch and for a while was very useful there – notably alongside Carrick at the back end of the 2010/11 season. However, with injuries out wide this season he’s been used almost exclusively there for the last 3-4 months and has been a revelation. The pace, fitness, trickery and everything else he once had remains. He can still twist and turn a defender inside out before delivering a chance-producing cross.
One still can’t forget that when used centrally at the start of this season he was not good enough but if he is to play on for another season, which is looking as likely as ever, then maybe his future is once again where he started, out wide. And if so, then it’s heavily advocated.
United opened up a 12 point gap over neighbours and challengers, Man City, with just a dozen games left to play. With just a few changes to the side United started strongly and van Persie missed a sitter on his ‘chocolate leg’ early on. Even with the fewer changes, Ferdinand and Carrick both were rested (with the latter to come on midway through the second half) – Everton didn’t have such a luxury though and Distin’s injury in the warm-up was a cruel late twist. Heitinga’s form hasn’t been good and United exploited his inclusion.
Having missed his early chance, van Persie turned provider for Giggs and the Welshman finished neatly. It was a reward for a very quick start to the game but that soon changed. Everton stepped it up, looking for an equaliser – and although United got deeper, de Gea was only tested once from distance as the defence held firm. Following one such attack, Rafael broke with the ball out of defence and following a series of one-twos, he slipped in van Persie with a clever pass and this time having gone round Howard he did score, even if the defender on the line nearly kept it out.
The second half was far more controlling by United. They kept the ball for long spells and a couple of chances could have even been taken to extend the two goal lead – notably Evans somehow failed to add to his tally for the season. A thoroughly deserved win and a very solid performance, particularly from the back five and Jones has put United in an incredibly strong position in the league now. All eyes now on Madrid…