By Thomas Doyle.
1. Rafael stated his credentials for a run at right-back
While he may have picked up his customary yellow card in the tie against Liverpool, Rafael performed admirably throughout, capping off a fine performance with a great assist for Park Ji Sung. The young Brazilian has (like his twin Fabio) struggled with injuries for a while now, yet at Anfield he was full of pace, skill, and made a number of timely interceptions and blocks. The full-back’s partnership with Antonio Valencia down the right-hand side was one of the few positives to take away from the defeat, and it’ll be interesting to see whether their combination of industry and flair can form a potent combination in the run-in.
2. Antonio Valencia keeps getting better
Many feared that after his horrific leg break against Rangers, it would be a struggle for Valencia to recapture his form and fitness. After all, his is a game based upon his tenacity, strength and pace, yet if anything, the Ecuadorian is getting better with each passing game. His crossing is a constant threat, and while he may still be chronically one-footed, he is beating full-backs inside and well as outside with more regularity. The tricky winger is also offering a real goal threat now, and was desperately unlucky that his first-half effort only found Pepe Reina’s far post. If he can keep up this form, then it will be Ashley Young and Nani who are competing with one another for a place on the left-hand side in future.
3. How do you solve a problem like David de Gea?
So much has been said of the young Spaniard already that it is difficult to know where to start. After another shaky performance this weekend, Sir Alex Ferguson must have real doubts as to whether his record goalkeeping signing is sufficiently able to cope with the tactics that opposition players now employ against him. He is a wonderful shot-stopper and his distribution is normally top-notch, but he struggled in the air again on Saturday. While he could have arguably come for the corner from which Daniel Agger scored from, perhaps more alarming was the lofted cross which he dropped behind for a corner in the second half. De Gea looks short of confidence, and a loan to another Premier League side has been suggested as a way of getting him up to speed with the English game. Whatever the solution, the keeper will need to bulk up fast, and become far more aggressive in the air. He is still extremely young and has a bright future, but whether United can allow him the learning curve while chasing Manchester City is open to debate.
4. Injuries have taken their toll
It is in some ways astonishing that Manchester United are even in contention for the league title this season; against Liverpool, they were without the likes of Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Darren Fletcher, Wayne Rooney, Nani and Young, not to mention the young talents of Anderson, Tom Cleverley and Phil Jones, so it is not surprising that United fell to a narrow defeat to their bitter rivals. Whether it is bad luck or poor conditioning is another matter, but while sides often point to injuries as an excuse for their failings, the fact is that United have rarely, if ever, been at full strength this season. Despite David de Gea’s mistakes, he has had 14 different defences in front of him this season, so continuity has been a key issue for the side (losing to Blackburn and Newcastle followed by beating Arsenal away). Ferguson must long for the day when he can give his top players a consistent run in the side together, but that does not look like happening any time soon.
5. The mixed emotions of Patrice Evra
Patrice Evra had a mixed day at the back yet again. To say that there was pressure on him is a gross understatement following the Suarez ordeal, but Ferguson will still have been exasperated that he allowed Dirk Kuyt the time and space to find an 87th minute winner – even more galling due to it being only the Dutchman’s second strike of the whole season. Evra started his career as a striker/left-winger, and his attacking prowess is one of his main strengths, but yet again, he was tempted inside and drawn towards the ball like a moth to a flame. Andy Carroll may not have specifically been aiming for Kuyt with his flick-on, but as with de Gea’s aerial frailties, there is always the suspicion that the French left-back can be found out if wingers hang on the periphery before bursting through. He needs to be more disciplined if he is to remain as first-choice for Man United.