By Thomas Doyle
1. Keep calm and pass it on
As Manchester United searched for that all-important goal at Ewood Park on Monday night, an electronic billboard flashed the message ‘Keep calm and pass it on’, which is exactly what United did. Sir Alex Ferguson’s men could not find a way through in the first half against Blackburn, yet while there was more urgency in the second 45 minutes, there was no sense of panic that resulted in long-balls or desperate build-up play. Time and time again this season, United have ground opponents into submission with a patient, sustained dedication to playing their own way, on their own terms, and it looks to be playing off. Even at 3-0 at Stamford Bridge, United refused to be rushed in their play, and were rewarded with a well-earned point, which some would argue set United on their latest confident run. Blackburn are fighting relegation, and United would expect to outpass them, but with an overall pass completion rate of 92% (the best by an away team in the league this season) and 751 passes made, it shows how mature and seasoned the players are when it comes to crunch matches like these at the tail-end of the season. There is always the sense that if they carry on in the same way until the end, somebody will eventually show a flash of brilliance, such as Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young did, to grab the points.
2. David de Gea is growing stronger
In some ways, David de Gea is perhaps only in the team at the moment due to an unfortunate training injury for Anders Lindegaard. However, since being reinstated to the team after blunders against Blackburn and Liverpool, de Gea has done fabulously, and has almost certainly regained his status as first-choice keeper. He was not troubled by the aerial threat of Blackburn, and two of his three top stops came from stinging shots from Rovers’ men. The Spaniard made a comfortable (if aesthetic) save from Junior Hoilett, and followed it up with a superb stop to deny Marcus Olsson on the edge of the area after making a difficult punch away from a corner. He athletically tipped Grant Hanley’s header over the bar immediately afterwards, and was treated to a deafening chorus from the grateful United fans behind his goal. With the pressure firmly on in the final seven games, Ferguson will be immensely happy that just days after he complimented de Gea on his improved performances, he repaid the favour with a match-winning performance. Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville said after the game that the mark of a great keeper is his ability to make the saves, but rarely be talked about – David de Gea is quietly and confidently going about his business, and is now winning United points, rather than losing them.
3. Antonio Valencia cannot be stopped on this form
Each and every time I write a corresponding article, I seem to praise Antonio Valencia, but it is impossible not to on this form. I shall keep this one brief to avoid repetition, but once again he was the catalyst for a hugely important win for United. Time and again he drove at Blackburn’s defence, delivering teasing crosses and wearing down Olsson until he could no longer track him, and then struck the decisive blow with a fizzing effort past Paul Robinson. The Ecuadorian then assisted Ashley Young with another teasing infield run, and the points were safe. Valencia is fast becoming United’s most important attacking threat, and while he may not get the plaudits in the press, Ferguson knows his true worth. Another outstanding performance from a hardworking, talented individual.
4. Rooney must remain in the middle
Ferguson has favoured playing Wayne Rooney out on the left in tricky away games where possession is key, yet while he performs an admirable job anywhere he plays, Rooney is very obviously a devastating central forward. Steve Kean and his defenders must have breathed a sigh of relief to see the England forward stationed out there with Javier Hernandez left to lead the line on his own, and with the Mexican suffering from a lack of touch and confidence in the game, United were in danger of squandering points. The main reason most assume that Rooney is played out left in tough games is that, for all the qualities of United’s various midfielders, none have the all-round talent needed to dominate in a two-man midfield. Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick can dictate tempo, but as shown when Hoilett scampered away from a lunging Carrick to test de Gea, neither have the legs to dominate physically; thus, Phil Jones was provided as the ‘legs’ of the midfield, so to speak. Until another truly top class central midfielder comes in to take on this role, there is always the danger of Rooney being asked to perform his duties from the left, which is a shame given his game-changing ability. Only when Ryan Giggs came on to add width did United truly look like themselves again, and as has been so often this season, the breakthrough came from the wide men. If Paul Pogba can make the step up, or whether the likes of Darren Fletcher and Anderson return to form and fitness, then the problem may be alleviated, but an energetic star in the middle would allow the rest of the team to play far more naturally than on Monday night – at least until the last 20 minutes.
5. Evans and Ferdinand – a bedrock for success
Few would have guessed that with Nemanja Vidic’s prowess, and the addition of Phil Jones, that it would be Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans who would be ending the season as the league’s in-form centre back pairing. Evans has improved on last season’s slump immeasurably, and is now back to the form of 2009/2010 that saw him dominating games in Europe. He has become stronger and is not turned so easily, while his ability to carry the ball out and offer an attacking threat of late is a welcome surprise. Ferdinand has also surprisingly gotten over the worst of his injury problems, and is now turning in game-changing performances week-in week-out. The last-ditch sliding tackle to deny Yakubu a simple tap-in in the second half at 0-0 was a defining moment in the match, and perhaps the season, and highlighted the fact that, while he has lost the pace of yesteryear, Ferdinand retains the talent and ability to read opponents like no other. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when Chris Smalling fully returns to fitness, and when the Serbian club captain Vidic gets fighting fits, but Ferguson will realise that the run of 31 points in 33 could, and would not have been achieved without the partnership of Evans and Ferdinand.