By Tony Mogan
After Manchester United managed the seemingly unthinkable and dropped points at home two games on the bounce, a perplexing end to November culminated in defeat at the hands of a plucky Crystal Palace side, a miserable end to Sir Alex Ferguson’s League Cup ambitions. With a crucial visit to Basel lying in wait midweek, a positive result at Villa park was vital, not only in order to keep hot on the heels of Manchester City, who themselves kept their exhilarating goal scoring form going, but to give the fans some much needed positivity after what has been a frustrating month.
1) 1-0 to the United
It is swiftly becoming a score line we are becoming accustomed to. Cautious pragmatism on the pitch took precedence over flair and exuberance once again as United picked up their fourth 1-0 victory of the season. Although the importance of picking up points when the United team is evidently struggling for consistency and vigour, United fans will be forgiven for casting the odd envious glance in the direction of the free-scoring noisy neighbours. But the surest sign of quality team is the ability to pick up victories when things are not all going your way. Dogged by a string of injuries which has the starting eleven ever-changing and individuals having to play in different roles, that is certainly the case for United at this point in time. But as ever, there are two sides to the story. Victories away to Everton and Aston Villa are solid results, regardless of Villa’s excruciating lack of desire this season or Everton’s patchy form, and would be welcomed and recognized as respectable results by any other team in the top four. Victory at the Liberty Stadium three weeks ago was Swansea’s first loss at home this season, Javier Hernandez’s winner only the second goal they had conceded on their own turf. But United’s worrying lack of a cutting edge in front of goal remains a concern; they have not scored more than one goal in a Premier League game since the 1st October, a 2-0 victory over Norwich. Javier Hernandez suffering ankle ligament damage may exacerbate the situation; of United’s mere seven goals scored in the past seven Premier League games, the Mexican has claimed four of them. Keeping in hot pursuit of Manchester City is the first order of business without question, but doing so with the vibrancy and verve you associate with Man United will be a welcomed return.
2) Phil Jones: Footballing Extraordinaire
The youngster’s versatility that has been subject to much discussion since his arrival at Old Trafford. The buccaneering 19-year-old, having slotted in at right back and centre back so far this season, was paired with Michael Carrick in the centre of midfield, where his polished performance was topped off with a goal, a Paul Scholes-esque run into the box complete with a tidy finish. His versatility was highlighted later in the game, when he effortlessly slipped back into a centre back position alongside Nemaja Vidic, following Rio Ferdinand’s withdrawal. His dazzling start to life at Old Trafford has created an interesting problem, has Phil Jones rendered himself undroppable from United’s starting XI thanks to his diligent start to the season, despite it not being clear as to what his best position is yet? Whether the case or not, it is certainly one of the more compelling problems for a manager to be faced with. With Tom Cleverley still ruled out until Christmas, coupled with the unfortunate news that Anderson will be out of action until February, requiring surgery on a persistent knee problem, there is a strong chance that we will see more of Phil Jones in United’s engine room. The combination of Michael Carrick and Jones showed promise against Villa, let’s hope to see more of it.
3) Classy Carrick on form again
While Master Jones was the man who grabbed the headlines thanks to his first United goal, Michael Carrick put on another classy performance, suggesting that the 30-year-old is continuing to re-find his form. Aided by the industry and drive of Jones, Carrick anchored the midfield with an assured performance, being the first to almost every loose ball in the midfield and having the composure and awareness to pick out an intelligent pass immediately after. While some midfielders earn their plaudits from unremittingly tearing around the pitch for 90 minutes, sliding into every challenge, Carrick earned his without breaking a sweat; using his terrific positional sense and expert reading of the game to constantly find himself in the right place at the right time to intercept the opposition. A pass completion rate of 89% (which only 8% of were backwards, for critics) along with making the most interceptions (7 in all, tied with Vidic) depicts Carrick’s influence on the game. Thanks to a dreadful decision from the referee in United’s 2-2 draw with Benfica two weeks ago, Carrick will be suspended for the decisive game against Basel after picking up a booking. With the number of available midfielders already seriously depleted, Carrick’s return will come with eager anticipation.
4) Vidic’s influence
Another colossal performance from the Serbian, not really news is it? Vidic’s sheer dominance in defence was a joy to watch; particularly as United’s uncharacteristic defensive misdemeanours of the last month have raised questions over the team’s once staunch defensive record. Aston Villa’s penchant for physically imposing forwards in the form of Darren Bent and Emile Heskey was no problem for the United captain, as he effortlessly batted any challengers to the ball away in aerial duels. When you notice Nemanja galloping to get on the end of a mid-air ball, it’s a foregone conclusion as to what the result is going to be. Vidic attempted 19 clearances, 14 of them in the air, and won 7 aerial battles for the ball, more than anyone else. A defensive master class from the Serbian.
5) Lindegaard is a lad.
Rotation amongst Manchester United’s goalkeepers has been utilised to the maximum this season, and things are looking rosy. After Ben Amos was given a shift against Palace (a good performance too, at fault for neither goals) it was Anders Lindegaard’s turn this weekend Making his fifth appearance of the season, Lindegaard largely remained untroubled by an unambitious Villa side, but never let his concentration levels slip, and made a fantastic finger-tip save from a James Collins header with a quarter of an hour remaining, on his way to securing his third consecutive clean sheet. There’s something remarkably likeable about the 27-year-old Dane, whether it be the images of him relentlessly berating his defence in true Peter Schmeichel fashion, whether it’s justified or not, or the grin reminiscent of one belonging to a loveable mentalist he sports on claiming the ball from a cross, it’s hard not to crack a smile at his antics. Combine those with impressive displays when called upon, Anders is not doing a lot wrong at Old Trafford. Suggesting United’s goalkeeping department is among the healthiest areas of the team might not have been the most popular shout at the start of the season, but it is very much looking that way at the minute. The mentality of David De Gea speaks volumes, after a couple of high profile errors and seemingly having the entire British press labelling him a flop, he has turned things around magnificently. And in Lindegaard, United have a solid understudy who is yet to put a foot wrong.