Revenge wasn’t necessarily the right word to be using going into this game; after all, United did win there last year. Playing before City, this was a chance to open a temporary 18 point lead and continue the run of wins. Sunderland are devoid of form and goalscorers – fighting a battle at the bottom of the league, few saw Martin O’Neill’s position as hanging on the result of this game, least of all the Sunderland blogger we spoke to pre-match, but by the end of Saturday, Sunderland were manager-less and United a game closer to the title. As ever, we welcome comments from both sets of fans.
In his short time at the club, Shinji Kagawa has divided opinion. Capable of producing the type of artistry that triggers the purist’s adoration for the game, it is however true that we are yet to see what he’s fully capable of. Hampered by injury early in the season, he has since his return showed flashes of brilliance that should become more apparent next season. The biggest concern with Kagawa is how often he will play and where. Often players have the right ability but are not the right fit – which is down to the manager and team in question. Sebastian Veron, who was one of the most supremely talented individuals of his generation, should have alighted English football. As it happened, a combination of many factors – most of which were out of his own hands – ensured he did so only infrequently. The same cannot happen with Kagawa, whose visionary excellence can benefit United greatly in years ahead.
Against Sunderland, Kagawa showed early on why his signing set pulses racing. The harbourer of an eye-pleasing craft of silk and subtlety, the former Dortmund man was one of the key reasons why United retained the ball so well in the first half. Tasked with the job of feeding Van Persie ahead of him, Kagawa also acted as a retriever – collecting, composing and filling the pockets of space where damage can be wreaked against the opposition if end product is evident. However, as has been the norm with Kagawa, he dropped out of the game in its later stages and was unable to influence the team when United began to regress. This could be down to a number of reasons. Firstly, his fading can partly be attributed to stamina issues. This can be righted with ease through an extensive and uninterrupted pre-season programme. Secondly, United need to know where to fit him and how to utilise him. There is little point in possessing a player whose outstanding traits you cannot regularly accommodate. But perhaps United just need to surround him, and others, with a midfield that consistently convinces. If these things can be changed, we may just see the best of Kagawa.
Clean sheet number six
Just eleven clean sheets in the thirty league games gone this season. It doesn’t read that well for United – it’s the same number that Liverpool have kept and a few less than Man City. However, the recent relentless form has come hand in hand with no goals conceded. The shut-out at Sunderland was the sixth league game in a row that de Gea and his defence haven’t conceded – it’s 672* minutes since Rodriguez scored early in the game at Old Trafford for Southampton now.
United’s form for much of the first half of the season was celebrated for the epic comebacks and attacking football. Too many goals were conceded but the tonic was that we would inevitably score more than our opponents. As if the players knew that it was all a bit too much for our nerves and hearts, they’ve gone the opposite way now. As the squad gets utilised to its maximum, games have started to become dull and disjointed – settled by the odd goal. Still, if we were only too happy to lavishly praise the forwards for the opening few months – those at the back deserve their fair share of credit for how we’re seemingly ending the season.
Clean sheets are valuable and will only add confidence to those who play at the back. De Gea, truth be told, has had very little to do in this run but for someone who’s had as much criticism as he has, this is only proving what most of us already knew – he’s perfectly capable. Vidic’s return to form has been a massive boost and generally whoever has played at centre back has done very well – as have those who’ve flanked them in the fullback areas. Carrick, as ever, has protected the defence and even if the wingers haven’t been productive in the final third, they’ve all still played a part in getting back to help defend. It’s not pretty but we moaned when we conceded too many goals and maybe we’ll moan now when we don’t score lots but at least our defensive players can finally get some of the praise they deserve.
25 out of 30 ain’t bad
It’s a bit of an odd record to be celebrating but United’s 25 wins from the first 30 league games is a new league best. Why clubs are being measured to 30 games and not 29 or 31 is strange but only dropping points in five games to the end of March/start of April is remarkably good.
Sure, this side has its well-documented deficiencies but this is a very good squad with plenty of depth and quality. Hopefully come the end of the season it’ll be 33 wins from 38 league games but either way, this side is worthy of praise, reaffirmed by these kinds of records.
With two important games in the short space of three days, United supporters predicting the line-up for this league encounter were faced with a conundrum. While some argued that the vast chasm separating United from City afforded Fergie the opportunity to tinker, others rightly trembled at the prospect of a severely weakened team stumbling and offering City encouragement. As the team was announced, few from either camp would have bemoaned the selection. Save for the notable exclusions of Ferdinand and Rooney, and the inclusions of the largely untested Buttner and the large unreliable Anderson, United’s eleven was pleasing.
With the diminutive Kagawa given license to float and support van Persie up front, United dictated proceedings early on. Michael Carrick, whose mastery this season is perhaps the most important ingredient to United’s sustained ruthlessness, once more acted as puppet-master. His composure in possession and consistent excellence in protecting those around and behind him ensured Sunderland’s chances were limited to few. He deservedly snared the Man of the Match award for the umpteenth time this season. Alongside him Anderson began brightly, but once more regressed as the game wore on. On the wings, Young and Valencia were dishearteningly unconvincing again, a combination of confidence issues and poor technical ability ensuring United’s end-product never quite did their opening half justice.
With Rafael substituted early as a result of a groin injury, forcing Jonny Evan’s introduction and Smalling’s repositioning to right back, supporters would have been forgiven for being fearful. However, the backline performed competently, limiting Sunderland’s attackers to half-chances and long range strikes. At left back, Alexander Buttner played with the exuberance and heart of a player whose life was dependent on the securing of three points. While some have rightly cast doubt over his defensive abilities, this performance was one of confidence and battle, his mazy runs and attraction to attack offering many pleasing signs. Chris Smalling, whose chances have been restricted this season for a number of reasons, played with the aggressiveness and measured play that defines his exciting potential.
Ultimately, with Monday’s cup tie in mind, Fergie’s selection was a wise one. With a solid spine, United’s eleven were always likely to have just enough to see past a Sunderland side whose prolonged mediocrity this season could see them confined to the Championship next year. After a solid opening half, United ‘s second half performance was far less assured. Unable to retain the ball as sufficiently as before and – through the lethargy of Anderson – affording too much space for Sunderland to play into, what should have been comfortable turned out to be edgy. But cagey performances are to be expected as the season edges towards its end. With so much at stake, and the hurt of last May still nauseatingly fresh, little will come easy now. With six clean sheets in a row, and a historical 25 wins out of their opening 30 league games achieved, it is a testament to Fergie’s command and the consistency of his players that United are in such an encouraging position at this late stage in the season.
*Plenty of people might question that 672 minutes figure, particularly because according to Twitter a very similar looking 627 minutes is doing the rounds about how long it is since de Gea last conceded. The 672 minutes is a self-calculated figure that includes all injury time – at the end of both the first and second halves of games.