By Nathan Thomas.
1. Man United were awful, weren’t they?
At the game on Saturday I had the misfortune of sitting next to some of United’s doom-brigade and although someone of little football knowledge would be able to tell you that United were far from spectacular the way these guys were going on you’d think the Reds were locked in a relegation scrap, in fact if one of them had bawled ‘Fergie Out’ I wouldn’t have been overly-surprised. The thing is United were not great however there are some important factors to take into account, one is Norwich gave a very good account of themselves. It’s so easy to just say United were poor and ignore the efforts of the visiting team, so often teams come to Old Trafford and simply park the bus but the plucky Canaries showed a refreshing new alternative to the tactics adopted by clubs even of the notoriety of Rangers last season. Norwich defended in numbers and made things tough for United but they also attacked on the counter with vigour and could so easily have gone ahead in the first half and the second. Of course this cannot entirely excuse the short comings of the United team though and there were very few players who could attest to showering themselves in glory but it is important to take into account that United have just come off the back of a midweek Champions League game and were forced to work hard to snatch a draw and although it was against a much inferior team (in theory at least!) and at Old Trafford it was still an extra game that United had to play and the team that played against Norwich wasn’t entirely different to the one that player against Basel, or to the one that played at Stoke for that matter, United were hardly what you would call fresh. A counter argument to this would be that the sluggish performance at Norwich from the defence in particular was not a one off and has been a feature in recent weeks ever since the Chelsea game and that would be a valid argument. However you can’t expect United to churn out performances of the calibre of Arsenal and Bolton each and every week and the fans that I sat with on Saturday should spend more time getting behind the team rather than calling them to the high heavens as at times the atmosphere at Old Trafford was abysmally quiet, it’s worth remembering we are still top, and unbeaten.
2. Unsettled defence suffering
In recent weeks it has been clear that the United defence hasn’t been at its resilient best and once again against Norwich the visitors proceeded to break through the United back line with consummate ease. Norwich came to play on the counter and did that very well however the Reds looked unusually susceptible to it and when they committed men forward in their own attacks counter attacks seemed inevitable and United almost paid the price on a number of occasions with the Canaries spurning two clear cut opportunities. First and foremost United are missing their captain and defensive leader Nemanja Vidic, there were some fifty-fifties yesterday where United came out second best and I found myself thinking ‘If that was Vidic’ on a good number of occasions. Secondly United have not been helped by the constant upheaval in the defence because United have only looked particularly shaky at the back since Chelsea and we lost Vidic in the first game of the season. He has not been the only defender to fall foul of injury though, Evans has had time out as has Ferdinand, and Smalling is out at the moment after a good start to the season and Rafael has missed the entire campaign to date. I firmly believe that if United had managed to maintain a consistent back four in the absence of Vidic they would have fared better, in fact when United maintained a defensive line of Smalling, Jones, Evans and Evra for the first couple of games the cohesion certainly showed in performances throughout the team and the back. Since then pretty much each game has seen a new back-four in the United XI, subsequently having an international break at this time has come as a blessing for United as Ferguson has forecast a return for both Vidic and Smalling once domestic football returns. Providing United’s international contingent stay free from injury whilst playing for their country then United should be much better equipped for the crunch match with Liverpool on the 15th October.
3. Jones must curb his attacking desire of he is to be a United centre-half
Phil Jones has been one of the standout players in Manchester United’s season so far which is no easy task given the amount of great performances United have pulled out in what is still the early stages of the season. The way he charges out of the back four has already endeared himself to the United faithful and these trademark boisterous runs have already reaped dividends in the attacking quarter as he set up two goals against Bolton and had a large hand in the third against Chelsea. It is surely a matter of time before he notches his first goal in the Red of United, something you wouldn’t normally say about a new defender. As good as he has been though he has at time showed a little bit of inexperience and understandably so given he is only nineteen. He was one of United’s stand out players against Norwich and made two goal saving interventions in the first and second half with the latter being a stunning tackle. However at times his willingness to go forward and help the United attacking contingent left United short at the back leaving space for Norwich to exploit, in fairness to him he wasn’t the only one with Evra, Evans and Valencia all getting caught out with Evra in particular one who should know better. It is not a worry for me as his immense talent at such a young age bodes hugely well and in time he will learn when to go and when to stay when he is operating as a central defender, however, would this be taking part of his game away and would United subsequently lose something. This poses the question would Jones be better as a right-back or even a centre-midfielder, I am not the only one who has expressed desire to see the big Lancastrian operate in a low lying role in the United engine room as this would surely lend itself to those charging runs but also utilise his defensive and great tackling ability. Without doubt Jones has a big future ahead of him, but in what position remains to be seen.
4. United missing Cleverley
Although this may appear an easy kop-out or obvious scapegoat to turn to because United are stuttering at the minute but I genuinely believe that United have been worse off since the enforced absence of United’s young centre-midfielder Tom Cleverley. In the early stages of the season Cleverley provided a real attacking vigour to the United engine room and wasn’t afraid to shoot on site. I was impressed with Cleverley’s contribution and he definitely took it upon himself to control the game despite his young years, he even appeared to bring the best out of Anderson whose early season form has waned of late and although he notched his second goal of the season against Norwich this was not enough to gloss over what was another indifferent performance from the Brazilian who is showing similar form to that of Nani before he found his feet last season. Anderson still has the tendency to pull out a 40 yard defence splitting pass and then follow it up with a two yard give away, consistency is something Anderson desperately needs and he did appear to be heading the right way whilst playing alongside Cleverley in the first few games. So maybe Cleverley’s return will be a positive note on a number of accounts.
5. Welbeck showing positive signs as his goal scoring continues
One major positive from the win against Norwich was the contribution that Danny Welbeck made when coming off the bench for Javier Hernandez. Welbeck notched the second goal to finally kill the Canaries off and his telling contribution takes his tally to the season to five an impressive statistic when you consider he missed the games against Bolton, Chelsea and Benfica through injury. Written off by many before his loan move to Sunderland the young Mancunian is proving his doubters wrong after coming back fitter, stronger, better and with a solid season of Premier League football behind after impressing at Sunderland. Welbeck’s physical presence posed a different proposition to that of Hernandez who had an unusually sloppy day after being caught in Norwich’s offside trap on at least four different occasions. Many fickle supporters may start to think that the Mexican’s slow start to the season is down to the much talked about ‘second season syndrome’ but it must be remembered that Hernandez missed pre-season due to injury and was unavailable for selection against West Brom. Plus he also received another injury ten minutes in to the game against Stoke causing him to miss that game and the following Champions League fixture against Basel. For Hernandez I am not worried and I thoroughly expect him to contribute as well if not better than last year as he is the type of personality not to sulk but to work harder in training both on the pitch and in the gym and simply needs to find his rhythm once again. As for the moment there is no doubt though that Welbeck should start ahead of him, his physical prowess and ability to score scrappy poachers goals to impressive long range finishes makes him a candidate to be the first consistent ‘number nine’ style player to break through the United ranks since Mark Hughes.