1. Phil Jones: The only positive
If there’s something we’ve learned about Phil Jones since he arrived from Blackburn in 2011, it’s how versatile he is. Whatever position he’s asked to play, he nearly always excels; whether that’s at right full-back, centre-half, or putting out fires in central midfield. Still just 20, he has plenty of time on his side too. Predicting what position he’ll finally settle into once he fully matures is something a lot of United fans discuss regularly. For me, it’s simple: central defence.
A few eyebrows were raised when it was announced that Jones would partner Ferdinand in central defence against City — not because people feel he’s not good enough, but because he’s only played a handful of Premier League games in that position. In truth, he looked in his element there. He was head and shoulders above every other United player on Monday night — which says a lot about our performance in all fairness. The only positive we can take from the game if you ask me.
2. It’s either Kagawa or Rooney
When the news broke that we’d signed Shinji Kagawa from Borussia Dortmund last summer, I was genuinely thrilled. Finally, we’d signed one of those No. 10s every other top European side seem to have in abundance (OK, maybe not in abundance, but still, you get the idea). The Japan international is yet to nail down a place in the starting XI; understandable given the fact he’s still adapting to the English way of playing/living. It’d be unfair to say he’s been hit and miss, as some suggest, as he’s only played a handful of games in his natural position.
What’s become increasingly notable is how difficult Sir Alex has found it fitting both Kagawa and Rooney into a starting XI, without playing one out of position. Yes, you could play Rooney up top with Kagawa in behind, but then you’re potentially leaving out Van Persie. It’s proving to be a problem. A nice problem, but a problem nonetheless. Kagawa was introduced against City in the 92nd minute on Monday night. Ninety-two minutes too late for me. Rooney dropped in on Barry and Toure when required but failed to really influence the game going forward. I can’t help but feel we’re missing a trick not playing Kagawa more frequently. When chosen to play in behind a lone striker this season he’s looked more than promising.
Next season is where we should start to see the former Dortmund man flourish, though; whether that’s in his favoured No. 10 role or on the left side of midfield remains to be seen, however. I, for one, hope it’s the former.
3. Giggs really cannot play in a central midfield two
There are actual people — mainly United fans — out there who think it’s a crime to claim that Sir Alex got something wrong. It’s rare, but like any other human being: he can, and does, make mistakes. Monday night was one of those occasions in my opinion. While I was surprised to see us line-up with a central midfield two, I was shocked at the inclusion of Ryan Giggs. That’s no disrespect to Giggs, either; but when you’re facing a side that predominantly attacks through the middle, I can’t see the logic in partnering Carrick with a 39-year-old. Surely Sir Alex should’ve opted for Cleverley instead of Giggs; after all, the England international has started the majority of ‘big’ games alongside Carrick this season. There’s no doubt in my mind that Giggs can still influence games, just not in the heart of midfield — especially against the bigger teams alongside just one other central midfielder.
4. Sir Alex got it wrong
The form of our wingers has been well documented this season. Sir Alex went with Young and Welbeck on Monday night; Young, as usual, from the left and Welbeck, a natural centre forward, from the right. The problem with starting Welbeck wide right is that he’ll nearly always be drawn into the middle when attacking. And that’s what we saw on Monday night. I don’t blame him for that, but the team does suffer as a result. When playing with wingers it’s paramount they provide width and a decent delivery. We only managed to complete 9 of the 36 crosses attempted against City, which goes a long way in explaining as to why we never really looked like scoring from open play.
City rely heavily on their full-backs for width which gave us the perfect opportunity to create 2 v 1s against their full-backs. Unfortunately, our counter-attacks often came to nothing and chances to get in behind Clichy and Zabaleta were few and far between.
5. Put the champagne on hold, we can’t celebrate just yet
“We’re having a party on derby day” was the claim by many United fans going into Monday night’s game. In hindsight maybe it was a tad premature. There was a fairly low-key build up to the game; what with City 15 points behind us and an FA Cup semi-final at the back of their minds. They, however, were in a win win situation if you ask me: out of the title race and with nothing to lose, they were able to play under no pressure whatsoever. Had we beaten them, they’d have claimed they expected it. Because they won, a lot of their fans are echoing Mancini’s claims of how there’s no way we should be so far clear at the top of the Premier League — completely ignoring the fact that we’ve won 26 of the 31 games played.
We now need 10 points from the last seven games, and while we still face difficult trips to Stoke, West Ham and Arsenal, our two home games against Aston Villa, Swansea and the final day outing to West Bromwich Albion should, barring a disaster, see us over the line.
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