by Tom Pattison
Last weekend I made the trek up to Manchester to watch the home game against Wigan. In many ways the performance and result encapsulated our season so far. We won comfortably but it felt somehow hollow. It was a game that once upon a time would have potential for a cricket score yet the players on the pitch seemed uneasy at the prospect of facing nine men and were it not for the excellent Rafael and introduction of Scholes a one goal victory would have been all we had to show. The dominant feeling through much of this season has been that too many of our players have been playing within themselves and taking the easy option. The number of times we declined crossing opportunities to cut back inside and play in front of Wigan was alarming and in the absence of Scholes we laboured in possession – Nani in particular being guilty of slowing down opportunities to counter attack and Michael Carrick seemingly relapsing to the form that led me to question his future just a couple of weeks ago. It would be grossly unfair to overly criticise a team shorn of the craft of Berbatov, Scholes and Rooney (for the most part) but it had become a worryingly familiar pattern.
Then came yesterday – if I were Dannii Minogue I would do that annoying standing up and waving my hands at the audience thing about now. Manchester United showed up and for the first time in a long while our swagger was back. As the chant joyously celebrates we were Manchester United and we were doing what we want. Gone was the fretting over formation shapes, and even personnel, instead it was a relentless red tide of exhilarating football which completely blew Blackburn away. In light of the score line comparisons were understandably made to the destruction of Roma and the style with which players interchanged, sharing the ball like it was a precious gift and seeking out space to unleash yet more damage was certainly reminiscent of that famous night.
So what have we learned?
1 It was only Blackburn – The Guardian match report chose to focus on the inadequacies of Rovers much to my chagrin yesterday, yet it is important to bear in mind that they were poor and in the case of Chimbonda remarkably generous. An eerie sense of de ja vu took over as Michel Salgado produced a superb impression of Gary Neville at Stoke. No attacking threat of any sort was offered and the ease with which players were lured out of position brought back memories of Silvestre at his worst. However you can only beat the team in front of you. Could we have played that way against Chelsea, Arsenal or City? Perhaps not, but after listening to endless odes to Chelsea’s ruthlessness against weaker opposition it was glorious to see us hand out a beating ourselves. I actually feel comfortable in our ability to hold a firm shape and retain possession against the bigger sides but what has been missing was the feeling that we can move up a gear and play pure attacking football. Each of Ferguson’s great teams, whether featuring Kanchelskis, Yorke or Ronaldo have shown this quality and yesterday was a timely indication that the current incarnation can do the same.
2 We need Wayne Rooney – He will never win back my affection and will forever be sullied as just like all the other money obsessed modern mercenaries but bloody hell can he play football. The signs he showed midweek blossomed here and his contribution to the performance yesterday should not be overlooked. A hugely underrated quality of Rooney – and the main reason I have often called for his deployment in the traditional Scholes role – is his awareness of when to hold possession and slow the tempo and when to pop off passes quickly or drive at the opposition. As we contemplate a future without the Ginger Prince I feel happier knowing that in his absence we can rely on at least one other player to recognise the importance of moving the ball quickly to exploit space. The best outcome of this is it influences other players – witness Park and even Nani keenly looking to move the ball into good areas at the first opportunity.
3 Berbatov is a luxury we can afford – We may have to wait another six weeks to witness anything significant from the deft Bulgarian but can any Red really want to see a player of such mercurial talent sold in favour of a more functional alternative? I am not suggesting he be awarded the keys to Old Trafford and picked for every game – like many I have found it hard to defend him at times – yet in two games this season he has brought untold pleasure and quite simply plays the game in a way which epitomises what Manchester United should be about. He is the polar opposite to that tw*t from Argentina and I hope he stays at the club for years to come.
4 Rafael is the real deal – Call off the search for the right back, what we all hoped has come to pass. Many of us have called for Rafael to be given a run of games and it is amazing the rapid progress he has made when given just that. Like all young players he has and will continue to make mistakes but what has impressed has been how he learns from them. The temptation to fly in on the contemptible El Hadji Diouf is something few could resist. Diouf always wears the expression of the Stay Puft Marshmallow man when under attack from the Ghostbusters and goes out of his way to bait players. Yet Rafael maintained his composure, continued to build the growing understanding with Nani and put the imbecile back in his box whenever the situation called for it. I feel the decision to sustain Neville’s inclusion in the playing squad can be justified by his role in the development of the young Brazilian.
5 The curse of South Africa has lifted – As poor as Rooney had been upon his return from the World Cup a far less high profile but equally damaging slump was afflicting Patrice Evra. It is no coincidence that in the early games of the season with Evra subdued and O’Shea or Neville on the other flank we looked weak both going forward and defensively. Over the last few games Evra has emphatically reminded us of just how vital he is to our style of play – the value of having such a talented natural footballer in the full back position was underlined by his contribution to the sublime Berbatov third which was the finest at Old Trafford for some time.
6 Its not all good news – I was delighted to see Ferguson make the decision to grant our imperious leader a well earned rest and offer a chance for Evans to feature in a great team performance in front of a crowd amongst whom several have doubted his appointment as the heir to Rio and Vida. This should have been a great opportunity yet the ease with which the admittedly monstrous Chris Samba handed off the Irishman before planting a consolation header was more fuel for the view that he lacks the presence to dominate the penalty box. I personally still feel Evans deserves time and hope to see this obvious flaw to his game eradicated over the next couple of seasons but the nagging fear remains that this is a quality that can’t be coached into him.
7 What the hell happened in three days? – The chubby, man boobed substitute that looked to be blowing out of his arse merely from the jog onto Ibrox morphed into a totally different animal by Saturday afternoon. Anderson put in the performance we have been craving since his early promise and it was a tantalising glimpse of what he could become. 94 out of 99 passes completed and a leading role in no less than three of the goals – the stats don’t lie. Had this been the statistical report of a Paul Scholes performance you can bet your life Greedy Alan and the Preston Irishman would have eulogised the display on the Match of the Day sofa. As it was he garnered not a word of recognition but those who saw the game genuinely wondered whether he might be a more deserving recipient of man of the match than Dimitar ‘Five Goals’ Berbatov. That tells you everything you need to know about this display. Doron Solomon posted an excellent and timely blog yesterday morning on the issue of the frustrating Brazilian (Anderson – The Update) and let’s hope this was the first step on the road to becoming the player we want him to be.
Well a magnificent seven seems an apt place to finish. Please comment and criticise to your heart’s content.
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