A largely uneventful affair in South East London finished with Manchester United returning to the North West with a rare but valuable three points. The champions’ form has left a lot to be desired since the turn of the year but after a resolute display from the Eagles (not dissimilar tactically or in execution to that of Fulham at Old Trafford), United ended comfortable if uninspiring victors.
Form is temporary, class is permanent, or so they say. For fans desperate for drastic and rapid improvement expectations should be tempered. The type of tactical adjustments required will need time and patience but the Red devils’ routine victory at Selhurst Park may have illustrated that change may well be forthcoming. United weren’t at their best, but they got the job done. Following Van Persie’s penalty and Rooney’s sublime effort the reds rarely looked troubled, here are five things we learned from the game against Tony Pulis’ side.
1. Signs of progression?
4-4-2? Mata’s wasted on the wing! Cross after cross! The clamour for a change of style and system has been loud and enduring. For the first time against Palace, United fans got to witness the potent attacking talents of Van Persie, Rooney, Mata and Januzaj lining up alongside one another from the outset. The comfortable but, ultimately, uninspiring win that resulted was a pertinent demonstration that patience is required, but there were at least a few signs of progression.
To begin with, United’s purpose and tempo appeared to bear a drastic improvement upon recent games. Short, one, two-touch passing with players getting closer to each other were prevalent and in particular early signs of understanding between Mata and Rooney were encouraging.
The 4-2-3-1 system that so many have implored will prove a harder transition than most anticipate. Players need to be closer together, the narrow nature necessitates crisp passing and fluid movement through the often congested centre of the field. Yes, these are professional footballers and they should and will adapt accordingly, but deft passes between the lines as opposed to searching balls out wide will require adjustment, and adjustment always requires patience.
Nevertheless, Against the Eagles there were signs of this transformation taking shape. 32% of United’s attacks came through the middle of the park, short passes in much heralded triangles were visibly more common and the three deployed behind Van Persie interchanged occasionally. Nothing was perfect or absolute, but there were certainly indications of a shift in philosophy.
Mata in particular was given tangible licence to roam and delivered his best performance in a red shirt to date. The fluidity of his movement was often facilitated by a mature and astute performance from Wayne Rooney who demonstrated awareness and discipline throughout. It may become a common theme that the much demanded 4-2-3-1 more closely resembles a 4-3-3 or even a 4-2-1-2-1 when United’s number 10 drops back to provide cover and solidity.
Deployed on the left, Januzaj ensued to keep his width for the most part, but on the whole the performance and style of play was an improvement on the much maligned recent attempts to simply spread the ball wide at every available opportunity. With Champions League qualification a very faint hope, for most signs of progression in the remaining games of the season is a bare minimum. It was by no means a masterclass, but at Selhurst Park the Old Trafford faithful may just have witnessed the first murmurs of Moyes’ United taking shape.
2. Felling the midfield role?
Marouane Fellaini’s career as a United player has certainly got off to a less than convincing start. A big step up in class, new surroundings and injuries have all played their part in humble beginnings for the Belgian in red. For many, the imposing midfielder is simply not good enough, and never will be. A few sloppy passes and touches against Palace, not to mention a glaring missed opportunity certainly add fuel to that fire, but for the most part the Belgian was combative and assured.
Interestingly, particularly in the first half the big-haired midfielder took up a number of advanced positions, leaving Carrick to hold. Fellaini is certainly not going to occupy the number 10 role in which he excelled at Everton at a club like United, but the Belgian has always proclaimed that defensive midfield is his best and preferred position. The truth is that for United his value may prove somewhere in between.
Ok, he should’ve scored, but when was the last time a United midfielder was in that position in the opposition’s box in the first place? There is also no doubt that in the box the fuzzy-haired giant is an aerial threat, something that has been lacking in recent weeks. With Carrick holding superbly, Fellaini appeared to have freedom to play more of a box-to-box role, and for the most part he did it admirably.
It is hoped that there is much more improvement to come, but with injuries behind him and now a valuable chance to train properly with his new colleagues, the Belgian’s performance in South East London provides mild cause for optimism. His passing was simple but effective, his moves forward purposeful and in general United’s midfield appeared solid. No doubt additions will arrive in the summer for what is a desperately lacking midfield at present, but Fellaini may just have something to offer.
3. Attack is the best form of defence
For all of United’s creative woes this season, their defensive frailty has been equally troublesome. But real danger was rare at Selhurst Park, and whilst this may simply be the product of a poor Crystal Palace side, United’s positivity and controlled possession at times certainly afforded better protection for the back four than has been offered up in recent times.
Patrice Evra’s performance against Arsenal was at times lacklustre and at others unforgivable. The Frenchman’s defensive qualities have been in question for some time now, but once again the diminutive left-back demonstrated his value as an attacking force. Involved directly in both goals, and linking up typically well with Adnan Januzaj, Evra helped unlock a well drilled and resolute Palace defence. To his credit, the full-back also defended adequately when required and despite the obvious need for reinforcements in that area of the pitch, his value to United at present remains dear.
The fact is that with Buttner a less than convincing understudy, it is hoped that Evra continues to concentrate on the things that he does well. It is common knowledge that the Frenchman began his career as a winger, but from the Red Devils’ perspective it may be vital that he spends more time attacking them than defending them at present.
4. Time for an Adnap?
The young midfielder’s career has taken off with a bang at United this season. The quality is obvious, the maturity beyond his years and the potential frightening. In a dismal season for the reds Adnan has often provided the beacon of light. Despite calls for his inclusion, appearances have been more restricted in recent weeks and it is important to remember that the lad has only just turned 19.
The loss of form suffered by the earlier magnificent Raheem Sterling towards the end of the last campaign is a pertinent reminder of the dangers for young footballers. Dazzling displays will always demand more, but barring a lively and promising first twenty minutes, and a good pass to set Van Persie away on the break in the second half, the youngster’s display at Selhurst Park was an indication that fans should not expect too much too soon.
Moyes has been right to treat the talented midfielder with caution, and it may prove that United fans see less of Januzaj than they would like for the remainder of the season, but there are good reasons. Having shouldered United’s creative hopes for much of the season, burnout is an obvious concern. Furthermore, with Mata unavailable in Europe, Adnan may be best reserved for Champions League duty.
The teenager may go on to be a United great, but for this to happen his development should be treated with the utmost care. With the injury crisis relenting, and an undoubted impact as a substitute evidenced on a number of occasions, it may be a good time to use Januzaj a little more sparingly.
5. Quality and maturity, it’s good to have you Wayne?
Wayne Rooney capped off a good couple of days with a sublime finish that effectively put the game to bed. The signing of a highly lucrative contract extension on Friday has polarised opinion amongst many fans, but as the striker expressed himself, he has once more let his football do the talking on the pitch.
Rooney showed signs of returning to his early season form with an accomplished display. There is no doubt that his performances since returning from an ill-timed injury lay off have not met the high standards set before Christmas, but the striker showed at Selhurst Park that his best form may not be too far away.
His goal was an obvious highlight, but his link-up with Juan Mata and his discipline were also highly encouraging. Whilst in truth both Rooney and Mata were at times far too deep, the striker’s control and awareness demonstrated that he may just be the key to the more fluid and expansive system that so many desire. It was by no means a vintage display, but murmurs were evident as to why Rooney is regarded by Moyes as an integral part of his future plans.
Nevertheless, despite a promising display, the big question on everybody’s lips remains whether Rooney deserved the biggest contract in the club’s history and, as ever, the answer is not simple.
First of all the obvious formalities; Rooney has allegedly requested a move away from Old Trafford on more than one occasion. The first time is set in stone whilst the second is clouded in controversy. The did he or didn’t he game of cat and mouse played out between the striker and his former manager Sir Alex Ferguson is unlikely to ever reach a definitive conclusion. What is certain though is that Rooney was clearly unsettled towards the end of last season and for the duration of the summer.
For many, that kind of disloyalty is inexcusable. It has long been said that no player is bigger than the club, but twice now you could be forgiven for asserting that Rooney has bucked that trend. Twice now Rooney and his entourage have played United at their weakest and most vulnerable. But despite this, the player has remained in the Old Trafford ranks and will do for years to come.
Many of those criticising Rooney still idolise Cristiano Ronaldo, a superstar who brought so much joy to the red half of Manchester but who ultimately forced a move away from the club. Rooney could quite easily have engineered a move away in difficult times, but to his credit (and granted sweetened by unimaginable riches) the striker has stayed with the club. For all the accusations of disloyalty, Rooney remains a United player and this season has unquestionably fought for the club on the pitch.
From a financial point of view the deal is undoubtedly more profitable for the club than having to directly replace their number 10. Moreover, the deal may prove invaluable in attracting others in the summer and in making a statement for all to see that United are not going away.
On a different note, it is important to ponder that maximising Rooney’s commercial prowess is his agent’s job. As fans it may grate, but in truth Wayne’s management have simply done their job very well, and more to the point, a lot of the perceived disloyalty may lie at their doorstep as opposed to with the player himself.
Ferguson was a master of moving players on at the right time and it is fairly obvious that Rooney would have left Old Trafford had the Scot remained in charge. There was good reason too, Rooney was in poor form, struggling with his weight, and sometimes, big decisions simply need to be made. Sir Alex would often scout a player’s parents to decipher whether fitness may become an issue with age and with the player approaching 30 that was certainly a concern.
But having signed the deal, United are in a much stronger bargaining position should they wish to move the striker on in the next couple of years. However, if Rooney remains as dedicated and hungry as he has shown under Moyes thus far, it is hoped that the goals will continue to flow and success for the team will soon follow.
A player as divisive as Rooney will always have his detractors, but more of the quality and maturity evidenced at Selhurst Park will move a long way to dampening the criticism. With Vidic, Ferdinand and Evra on the way out and a re-building expected to take place, the experience of Rooney may prove invaluable to what will hopefully materialise as a new, young and exciting squad. In the long term, holding onto Rooney as opposed to burgeoning for a new direction may prove a mistake, but right now, it’s good to have you Wayne.
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